8 January 2017

Colombian Motorcycle Diaries

The motorcycle gang with Brayden and Sam - the young, cool ones at the end
Prior to our hike to the lost city, we had walked into the burbs of Santa Marta - an adventure in itself - to check out a motorcycle tour Dave of Livin’ Life had discovered.  We arrived at a rambling, bopping hostel full of young backpackers sitting around the bar and pool.  Much more equipped and nicer than the hostels in Europe of 35! years ago which I had frequented.

The owner/leader of the tour company was temporarily operating out of the Aussie-run hostel.  This 26 year old, American had set up his seven bike company six months ago with a friend.  While motorcycling through South America, he had seen an opportunity in northern Colombia where tourism was growing and motorcycle touring was not.  (We saw several of these North American entrepreneurial 20-something year olds who were setting up businesses - mainly hip hostels - along the way.  Colombia seems to be the new land of opportunity.)  We signed up for the three day tour.  The name of Sam’s company, Adrenalin Addicts, should have given us a clue of what was coming!

We had one full day to recover from our hike - copious laundry; we had left all our clothes on the dock including backpacks for fear of Colombian bugs boarding our boat, and nursing bruised toenails and sore muscles - before we set off for our adrenalin rush.  

Our group consisted of eight cruising couples.  Three of the women, including myself, had only been passengers on motorcycles and so, thankfully, didn’t rate our own bikes.  One woman, Janice of Livin’ Life had grown up on dirt bikes - she looked like a natural.  Three of the men were bikers from way back.  Peter had not driven a motorcycle in more than thirty years and then only a couple of times.  His adrenalin rush was going to be on overload.  And so was mine!
Packing up, psyching up

Peter getting a tiny bit of wobbly practice.

Ready, set...

Sam was taking along two volunteers, which is illegal in Colombia as it takes away jobs from locals.  Asa was a twenty-something woman, trained as a photographer and taking pictures from the back of the motorcycle.  We were, apparently, a website-worthy group, a tad older than Sam’s usual clients.  And Brayden was an Aussie physiotherapist who had worked professionally in Ecuador and was looking to set up shop in Colombia.  Both were great, kind and patient with clients who could be their parents.

There was a bit of practicing up and down the street in front of the hostel.  Peter was a bit rickety, getting used to the clutch and gear shifts, but gamely took me on as passenger. Then we were off, holding tight.  First stop was the ATM - cash only, up front, for our tour.

Getting out of the city was our first challenge.  Lots of buses, scooters, taxis, motorcycles and plenty of horns blasting mainly to say “I’m here, look out.”  We were last in the cycle line.  I kept an eye on those ahead to watch for turns while Peter concentrated on potholes and traffic.  Just as we were getting out of the city, the cops pulled us over, fully equipped with guns.  They were looking for papers - licences, ownerships, some of which were missing.  And they looked through Brayden’s pack for pot, none of which was found.

Off again on a beautiful - paved - two lane highway that took us back past the trailhead to the Lost City and then hugged the coast through banana plantations and along steep hillsides to Palomino, a beach town on dirt roads - mud puddles/lakes - and backpackers haven.  The mud puddles prove particularly difficult to negotiate.  It’s impossible to see the contours of the bottom, of course, and the deepest spot is also a secret.  Janice picked the wrong route and was the first of our crew who went for a tumble into the muck.  Our gallant leader, rushing to her aid, was the second.  Peter and I had stowed a few items including our books in Janice’s back panier which also went for a mud bath. 
First muddy fall.  Janice is still smiling!

Our lunch stop - a hostel with pool, great pizza and just a few minute walk from a very long beach.  At least $100 a night in Caribbean, here about $15.
After lunch, back on the same highway to our own hostel  which had a muddie lane and stream to ford to access.  Success by all.  

The hostel was owned by a bunch of young Canadians.  The one we met was from Kingston!  It was a series of open buildings - bar, kitchen, dining hall and several dorms.  Our dorm slept eight, a series of bunks and swinging beds.  I swung all night.

(Columbia is developing it’s tourism, now that it is safe, at least, parts of it.  Still cheap, it is a backpacking haven with many more hostels than hotels.  Our hostel fees were included in our package but we were told that a dorm bed is $10 US and a hammock is $5.  Some had private quarters in small cabanas at additional cost.  Our package included great breakfasts and dinners.  The hostels we stayed in had pools/swimming holes, lounges, bars - really a mini all-inclusive, apart from the toilet paper.  Cleanliness varied, toilets and showers shared and very basic.  Pretty amazing, all-in-all.  Great for us to experience once or twice, although not for the faint of heart.  We would opt for the private rooms if we made a habit of travelling in South America.)

Our day was not finished, not nearly.  We had a tube ride down a river to attend.  This required a lift from several locally driven, Spanish speaking motorcyclers to another hostel down the highway and a couple of miles up a treacherous mud road with huge, deep puddles meant to sink a motorcycle.  I chose a large, older driver who seemed capable and undaunted by the challenge.  Others stopped and got their passenger to walk.  Mine plunged forward, laughing the entire way while others watched admiringly.  I giggled nervously with a couple of OMGs, clung to the bike and was grateful to get to the next hostel.

We were given a tube and told to follow the guide who forded a wide river - three times - and walked a good mile or two through forest and banana plantations up river in barefeet and bathing suits.  Wild!  One of the guides carried an enormous cooler of beer and rum and maybe a water bottle or two.  We finally got to the starting point in the river, jumped in the tube and coasted down the river while one of the guides swam beside us to guide the tubes away from rocks while another guide dealt out the beer.  The river was alternately calm and serene or rapids.
Peter in the tube.

Take off place, up river

Rafted.  The guy in the red t-shirt was the herder and gatherer, guiding us down the river, often underwater or swimming madly but always smiling.

And the beer man.  Beers were thrown from person to person, tube to tube.
We ended back at the hostel to await our drivers.  Only three were left so we went back - it was now dark - in small groups.  I immediately chose my formidable driver who got me back in the dark without mishap.  A delicious dinner was served and we fell into bed to all be entertained by each others snores.
Canadian owned hostel.  Landscaped, pretty lovely.

The Canadian part-owner had been given this little goat for his birthday.  He was definitely at home.

The dining room with $5/night hammocks

The bar,


our open dorm with palm leaf roof, mosquito nets, swinging beds and bunks,

swimming hole

waterfall in the backyard.  Not bad at all.

We rose early and headed to yet another hostel being renovated and enlarged by yet another young entrepreneur, this time from Colombia.  Hiked from there, fording a river, through more banana plantations to the beach for a swim in the surf.

A couple of the bikes had, during our first 24 hours had some problems.  One had no effective front brakes.  Sam traded it for his.  After leaving the beach, Dave got a flat tire.  Luckily, within 200 meters was a tire patching man who probably had a lot of business, even on a Sunday.  We had noticed that services in Colombia were geared toward fixing appliances, TV’s, cars, bikes, etc rather than throwing away and replacing as we are so used to.  And this tire patching guy was a great example.   We were on our way after about 20 minutes.
Tire repair man was pretty amazing

His equipment was basic including household iron.  He stuck a match within the sandwich press and when it spontaneously lit, he knew the patch was hot enough.  Nothing fancy but effective except...

minutes later, back on the road, the valve broke and Sam had to nurse it back to a good enough state to get to the next village.

Within another 15 minutes, the same tire was flat.  The patch had held but the valve was a goner.  Lunch plans changed.  Instead of Sam’s chosen spot, we all drove a few miles, Sam with the flat tire, to a local street food place specializing in chicken.
New lunch stop - street food at it's best

The chicken, yucca and potato was served with one plastic glove to keep our fingers on one hand clean.  No utensils.  The potato was eaten like an apple.
Most Columbians, at least in this area, ride by "motos".  We stopped at this village early in the day so members of the gang could replace flip-flops, and lost sunglasses - sunk during the tube ride.

Street food.  Where in the world is chicken not a staple?

You could buy a bit of everything in this highway village including pork or is that beef.

veggies, fruit...

and armed guards.
Sam’s partner came with a new bike and off we went again, uphill toward a mountain top.  The first many miles were along a paved road with hairpin turns - exciting but tame compared to what was to come.  We reached the topmost village, Minca, but our hostel was several miles higher still up a dirt road.  There had been a great deal of rain in the past month, including the last several days.  A road that was supposed to be dirt was mud.  Deep mud.  In a few spots there were cement  sidewalk type lanes wide enough for car tires but disconcertingly narrow for a slow going motorcycle.  The lanes dropped on both sides into deep gutters, or muddy mires.  On one of these Peter and I took our first spill - painless but intimidating.  

The mud continued for long stretches.  At first, I would remain on the back trying not to look at the steep drop off on one side and the huge potholes on the other.  Peter gamely continued on.  We fell seven times, hauling up the heavy bike after each fall.  Finally, we reached the hostel where, we thought, we were staying for the night only to be informed that we were less than half way there with the added news that the top was in worse condition.  I decided to hike!  

It was much easier for Peter to negotiate the treachery without me on the back.  I scurried along on my own, enjoying the walk through mud that at times was up to my calves.  Luckily my shoes were done up tight and didn’t get sucked off.  Eventually, Peter caught up, I got back on and we travelled together for the next part.  Not for long though, more mud, a couple more falls and I was done, preferring to walk.  Peter did not have that option but he was much better off without my weight on the back.  

We all met at the top - a glorious view for a basic but cool hostel with enormous outdoor hammocks hanging over steep drop offs and a spectacular view.  After a great dinner, eight of us shared a room with homemade multi level bunks and our own bathroom to share.
An extra large hammock overlooking the view at sunset. There was also a pool, large outdoor area, bar, kitchen where we lined up for our grub, a huge plate of chicken, mashed potatoes, carrots etc.  And then to bed.

We were up before the young who were still sleeping in their hammocks, to hike down the road.

Hiking down meant I had time to take photos of the early morning view,


and Peter who made his way down the muddy path without one fall.  No dead weight on his rear made all the difference.

Coca plant/shrub/tree.  They are rather spindly.  We drank the tea which was supposed to give us a zip for the day.  Didn't notice a thing.

Peter on his way.  No room for a wobble on these narrow tracks.  The tracks, though, were a luxury compared to the mud pits.
The next day we left before breakfast.  Five of us hiked down to the half way hostel where we were served breakfast and coca tea promised to give us a energy boost.  The day saw more muddy off roading, a tour of a coffee processing plant, a steep downhill ride, another broken down bike, lunch at a barbeque joint where the elderly meat carver smoked the biggest joint we had ever seen and a safe ride back to Sam’s headquarters.  Taxi back to Milly.
Huge spiders made their home in the coffee processing plant.  And the tour guide was not afraid of putting them on the tour.

Ribs were popular on the menu of this canteen, carve by the characterful owner, who in this picture is missing his joint.

Our second Columbian adventure was done and so were we for a few days!  Peter and Dave both had second degree burns on their calves where the exhaust pipe of the bike had touched on repeated falls.  We were all filthy but, wow, the memories would last a life time.  And I would highly recommend it and Sam to anyone so inclined.
Last lunch on the road with the gang