Sunday, March 11, 2007


Before leaving Coveñas, we enjoyed a quick dip in the rather warm ocean and then it was a fairly wet and soggy 3hrs to Cartagena where we had a hotel booked. Enroute, I had both my panniers thoroughly checked by a rather severe looking soldier which was actually a first. Furthermore, we´ve somehow made it all the way through Colombia without having to buy one of those motorcyclists waistcoat things they all wear here so I believe tourists don´t really need them.

We´re here waiting on a boat to hopefuly take us to Panama, and we´re also waiting on a new rear shock being delivered for Michelle`s bike so I reckon we´ll be here a week or so. After 3 days in our small hotel room, we finally found a good alternative, an air-conditioned appartment with a kitchen and balcony with secure parking (that doesn´t involve taking the bikes up stairs!) and a swimming pool on the roof- sweet!

The Longest Day

Leaving Rio Claro at a very sprightly 7.30am (which trust me, is very good for us- the benchmark for leaving a place being 4.30pm at Rio Gallegos) our aim was to do a long day and get up to the Carribean coast in time for a rum and coke on the beach. This meant 3 hours backtracking via Medellin again and heading north all the way. We were told that it would get cold on one mountain pass then start to heat up as we got lower on the other side so I was a little jealous of Michelles new ventilated and armoured mesh jacket. The road was increadibly twisty and there were loads of gun-toting soldiers all over the place so we stopped for a couple of photo shoots with some looking cheerier than others.

Some cheery soldiers

Some not so cheery soldiers- I`ll just get me coat

At one point I lost Michelle when she´d stopped behind me to take her jacket´s outer layer as it was stinking hot and the road was chock-full of slow trucks. I stopped a little futher down the road past a bridge and checkpoint to wait for her so I removed my jacket and helmet. While I was taking a drink of water and chatting to a local who kept offering me her cheesy wotsits, I could just see michelle´s right pannier sticking out from behind a line of trucks coming my direction, but she hadn´t seen me and started overtaking the line of trucks as they were going past me. Fantastic thinks I, so its back on with my gear, locking the panniers and cheerio to the local. Trying to catch up with someone who thinks that you are in front of them isn´t easy and i had to put aside any thoughts of riding with fuel economy in mind and ride like a loonatic, which is a little tricky as all these little towns have speed bumps everywhere.

Just when I think I must be getting close, I get pulled in to a check-point where I´m asked the usual ´where are you from/going/thats a big bike isn´t it?´questions. This really isn´t helping my cause and I try asking the soldiers if they had happened to notice another large motorcycle heading in the same direction. They mention something which sounds like ´antiquo´(old- ha ha) and ´roha´ (red) so I make my excuses and leave them in a cloud of dust. Further down the road I get caught in yet another set of roadworks (they´re everywhere) but luckily the signal is green so at the other side I ask the sign-holding woman the same question to which she mumbles ´si´. Finally, after about 20mins of manic riding and bouncing over speed bumps at not-very-town-friendly speeds, I catch sight of Michelle in the distance weaving to the front of yet another peaje queue so a few minutes later I manage to get her to stop by the roadside and she told me she was just beginning to wonder why I hadn´t stopped to wait for her. Strewth! It turned out though, that Michelle had also asked the same roadworks woman if she´d seen a big bike in front and she´d said ´si´too.

I knew it was going to be around 6.30pm at the earliest before we´d hit Coveñas, our target on the coast which would mean riding in darkness for a bit in Colombia, something we´d been warned not to do. Fortunatelly, once off the hills and on to the hot plains, the roads straightened out a bit allowing us to make up some time. The scenery at this end of the country is really pretty nice with lots of open farmland and even some leafless trees giving a somewhat autumnal feel to the route. The roads were quite busy in places though, which was a bit of a mixed blessing as although it slowed us down a little, at least it gave us some peace of mind as the sun quickly started to set. Finally and completely knackered, we hit Coveñas (actually we´d already driven straight through it as there´s helpfully no sign) by about 7pm in the pitch dark, and after taking the first cabañas we found, it was straight to the beach (the first time we´d seen the ocean since northern Peru) and to get that drink.


Saturday, March 10, 2007

100% Colombian- Last stop for South America

Let´s hear it for Colombia!

Despite expecting a long and tedious border crossing, we got there about 8.45am and had somehow crossed into Colombia just 50 mins later. They did have an incredibly camp looking border guard checking the contents of car boots etc so maybe that had something to do with it. No matter, we are in!

So hands up then class, what do we know about Colombia? Well, by all accounts, the 80s/90s, were quite an interesting time to be in Medellin when the drug gang warfare had escalated to the point that ´Sicarios´, basically teenagers, could be hired for as little as $30 to settle old scores resulting in the city being given the dubious honour of being the murder capital of the world. However since some of the major drug gang leaders have been bumped off, the city has transformed itself though not a lot of tourists know that yet.

Also there are still issues with the FARC and the ELN although they are mostly kept at bay by the Colombian army around the border with Venezuela and the Darien Gap although we were also told the bit between the border with Ecuador and Cali were also a bit dodgy. Furthermore we have been told only to ride during the day and never at night and not to stray off the main roads too much. Oh and motorcyclists are supposed to were some sort of waistcoat thing with the bikes numberplate on the back. I also new that we would have to ride through Colombia fairly quickly as we had a date with a sailboat leaving from Cartagena to Panama around mid March. Today was the 2nd of March so best get our skates on.

With this in mind, we took our first tentative steps into our last country in South America. My first thoughts were that the condiditon of the roads were bloody good and there always seems to be a team of fluorescent boilersuit-clad folk clearing out the roadside gutters and trimming the verges. And there were an awful lot of blokes standing around by the roadside with machine guns but these thankfully turned out to be the Colombian army and police checkpoints. We have been stopped quite a few times but mostly just to check our papers are in order (thankfully they were) and to ask where we are going/from etc.

After a couple of nights stopping off in Popayan and Pereira, we made it to Medellin and quickly found Casa Kiwi but only thanks to the GPS waypoint on their website. They have secure bike parking and give a 20% discount to bikers. The hostal is located in the El Poblado district of Medellin which is really quite nice, full of good bars, restaurants, loads of designer furniture shops and most importantly, lots of bike shops. Oh and before I forget, the Thai place (sorry can´t remember the name) nearby does 2-for-1 for food and even better, 3-for-1 cocktails before 7pm.
Casa Kiwi, Medellin

So after plundering the nearby bike shops for a new jacket for michelle (and oggling a new black and shiny Ninja 1400 at the Kwaker shop for me!), I had to get to Ruta 40, the BMW dealer ( which is located more centrally in town for some new tires as yet again, I need some new rubber. I had emailed Juan David Agudelo at Ruta 40 previously so they were expecting me and had the tires ready, a spanking new pair of Conti TKC 80s, sweet! What I wasn´t expecting was their incredible hospitality and generosity. David speaks very good english so spared no time in showing us around their shop and workshop and providing the best Colombian coffee we´ve tasted. The shop´s Manager, Mauricio has been from Argentina to Alaska on his BMW R1150GS and the walls of the shop are decorated with fantastic photos of his adventure and he is only too keen to help fellow bike travellers.

I only needed the front tire changed and would be carrying the new rear until my current MT60 wears out however the guys didn´t charge me to change the tire. I also needed a replacement rear tail light lens (as mine fell off in Ecuador and shattered). They first mentioned they could get me one for about $50 however shortly after, it transpired that Mauricio had a spare one lying around at home and would bring it in the following day and give it to me for nothing. Unbelievable! Leaving the shop later that day with handfuls of stickers for the bikes, free t-shirts, a rear tire round my neck and a new one on the front, posing for photos with David and Mauricio and being offered more assistance and information I could possibly ever need, I left Ruta 40 with a huge grin- thanks a million guys! Compared to any other BMW bike shop I´ve ever been to, this one has to be the best (though the one in Glasgow is actually pretty good too). I´d heard about the Colombians being really friendly and at Ruta 40 and at the Suzuki shop (where we got Michelle`s jacket), we were repeatedly offered tours of the local area and given a tonne of good information by fellow bikers.

David and Mauricio at Ruta 40, Medellin

During our brief stay in Medellin we also took a ride on their new cable car and on the metro system. Their must be a lot of money being pumped in to Colombia as there are just so many new developments around. Obviously a country on the up by the looks of things. We just didn´t have the time to see all that had been suggested however taking the advice of the Suzuki dealer, we took a trip to Rio Claro, about 3hours to the east of Medellin along a great road with amazing scenery. There, you can go rafting and kyaking etc in the beautiful canyon river but we just opted to wander and swim. Our accommodation was a little bit better than our previous jungle trip and the first floor room was open on two sides, so that night we got to watch the incredible lightening storm, all from our bed.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Not Quite the Equator in Ecuador
Do we get a refund?

The ´real´middle of the world

This must be the place

After a few days in Quito running around sorting out various bike related headaches like valve clearances and throttle body synchro etc, we continued north to the border with Colombia at Tulcan. En route, we would be crossing the equator so had to pull in for a photo stop. It turns out that the large monument marking the ´middle of the world´built around 70 years ago was actually built about 250m off the actual equator. Duh! The real ´middle of the world´was actually marked out on top of a nearby hill around 1200 years ago and was only found about 5 years ago. Its also spot on when checked with a GPS but it involved climbing a hill and we didn´t have time anyway. After getting ripped off at the official equator (they don´t refund you either) we went over to the small museum outside the centre where the small team of researchers there give a fantastic presentation on the real equator. As you need mountains (fixed points) to check the suns position, Ecuador and the Andes are the only place on the planet to do this as the rest of the equator cuts through forrest etc. The point marking the middle of the world is slap bang in the middle of the Andes.

After visiting the equator, we ended up taking a dirt road towards Tulcan which took forever to eventually hit tarmac and conveniently, my rear brakes decided to fail because of the heat. They eventually came back but don´t feel quite as good as they did before, hmmm, brake bleeding required maybe? After a long day, we eventually hit Tulcan by nightfall, a bit of a dump of a place before the Colombian border but will make tomorrows crossing a bit easier if we can get there early as we´ve been told it can take about 4-5 hours. Oh joy!

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Jungle time
After arranging the trip to the jungle from Tena, we rode on to Coca, a town based around the oil industry so pretty it ain´t. We get set up in a hotel with secure parking for the bikes for a few days while we´re away in the jungle. The hotel has a big garden area which is occupied by a variety of parrots, monkeys, a toucan and some things that look like overgrown rats without tails.
At 4.00am the next morning, we´re up and eventually get a taxi (no thanks to the hotel) to the bus station where we are to meet Orlando, our guide for the next few days, on the overnight bus from Tena. The bus station is a bit like a muggers paridise but thankfully the bus arrives on time and thankfully he´s on it and we´re on our way to Limoncocha, about 3 hours away. From there, its a 20 min boat ride to where our jungle accommodationis situated. And its basic. For our $120 each, we get a mattress on the floor of a timber hut with a mosquito net. All meals will be provided by Orlando for the next 3 days so no cooking for us.

River taxi
All the mod cons

Yes, that is an ant. A large one

Day one- We go for a walk into secondary jungle for a few hours and get introduced to a variety of plants and animals. Its actually quite interesting and Michelle even gets a face paint and jungle princess head-dress made out of leaves. After a bit of lunch, we´re off fishing for pirhana in the river. Now I´m a little apprehensive about this and my fears are increased when we see the boat, a very narrow timber affair with a rather large hole and an impressive amount of woodrot. We´re given timber paddles and a wooden fishing rod and we´re off up the river. After rowing for a while, we stop at a likely spot and cast our lines. Orlando is a bit of a natural at this and starts landing some of the sharp-toothed buggers fairly quickly. Unbelieveably, I manage to catch a big red pirhana, a real bastard by all accounts. It drops off the line and falls into the boat, snapping away, narrowly missing Michelles behind. After a few hours of this, we head back to the ´accommodation´ and Orlando starts preparing our dinner of, you guessed it, pirhana.

My catch!

Day two- More walking, this time into some primary rainforest. This looks much like the secondary stuff but there´s more stuff growing all over the place. Its not a very easy walk though as a lot of its in boggy ground and our guide doesn´t seem to arsed about explaining about the plants and animals today. We get back to the camp and get some lunch. It in the afternoon, we had been told we´d be going to meet some indiginous tribe or something. It turned out we got to wander about the camp area where Orlando explained a few things about plants, how they are used for medicinal purposes and which are the best ones to get you off your tits. He also made some real string from a long leaf which was actually pretty cool to watch. The meeting the indiginous peoples consisted of wandering up to where the man and wife who live at the camp were harvesting corn, and I had to help carry it back to the house, fantastic.

The evenings entertainment was again giving some cause for concern. We were going looking for caimen, a slightly smaller aligator, in the river. In the dark. And in a leaking boat. We set off about 7.30pm in the dark but we were accompanied by Mr Caimen himself, the owner of the place. He apparently has the uncanny skill to spot caimen and to imitate their mating call or something. It turns out to spot a caimen, you shine a torch about the water and the light reflects off their eyes, just like cats eyes, so not that hard really. And the mating call sounds a bit like Mr Caimen clearing his throat. My head torch was picking up shedloads of the things but they all seem to disapear whenever we rowed close. Eventually, one caimen about 2m long, was kind enough to hang about to get his photo taken. It was a very unusual experience as the jungle makes a very different noise at night. During the day, its mostly birds doing nifty impersonations of car alarms going off with some monkeys thrown in for good measure however at night, the air comes alive with the sound of frogs on the riverside. And even better, there are tiny little insect things that sit on leaves and glow in the dark, fantastic. What I didn´t really like was rowing through what initially looked like a light river mist but was in fact mosquito larvae hatching. Certainly makes you paddle a bit faster.

Mosquito larvae, nice

Who´s a pretty boy then

Day three- The took another leaky timber boat with marginaly less wet rot of to another part of the reserve where we took another walk. This one was spiced up slightly by seeing a 3m long black and yellow snake. It certainly spooked our guide who hadn´t noticed it and nearly stood on it. Again, more stuff on plants and their uses to the people who live here then back to camp via the river again.

You REALLY don´t want to be in this water

Our taxiboat (with a motor!) was coming at 5.30pm to take us back to catch the bus so the afternoon was spent in the hammocks doing bugger all as the humidity is so high, you just sweat all the time. I was actually pretty thankfull to be out of there though, it´s a nice place to visit but I wouldn´t want to live there. When we got back to our hotel in Coca later that night, the beer has never tasted better!

Good entertainment back at the hotel