Thursday, November 1 – Zacapa, Guatemala to La Entrada, Honduras – 197 km
Traffic issue leaving Zacapa due to accident…were not certain what happened but suspect a motorcyclist was seriously injured ….or worse.
The road to El Florido border crossing was rough. We spent more than three hours at the border – a confusing process interrupted by lunch closure of the Honduran immigration offices which lengthened our wait.
As well, a surprising amount of construction was taking place on the Nicaraguan side of the border. It seems the entire highway is in various stages of being rebuilt, repaired, built for miles.
We didn’t get as many miles on today as we had hoped so we decided to stop in La Entrada for the night. We stopped there for gas about 3:30 and decided to call it a day. Sky was dark with cloud and we didn’t relish driving in rain on the torn-up roads. The rain started in La Estrada as we tried to get Claro service sorted out. We ended up at a grocery store with Claro service on offer, but couldn’t figure out the lack of coverage. So we didn’t get technology working but we did buy groceries a for dinner in our as-yet-to- be-found hotel room. We waited for the heavy rain to pass before venturing into town to find a hotel with secure parking.
Friday, November 2 – La Entrada to Tegucigalpa – 370 km
Today had some great riding once we got through a huge stretch of highway construction. This 40+ km stretch outside of La Entrada runs through the mountains so the road is very twisty, but the surface is very rough in places and the traffic doesn’t really slow down at all. Many signs are posted stating speed limits of 15 or 30 km, but no one drives that slowly. Speed is the way to travel so construction be damned, keep the pedal to the metal and go. Oh except for stretches where traffic is stopped due to single lane sections in several spots. At these areas, motorbikes scoot to the front of the pack on the left or right side of all the stopped cars and trucks. As soon as the lane opens, everyone shoots ahead trying to overtake each other. Don’t be slow getting started, or you’ll be behind a huge herd of small motorbikes – 125 or 250 cc bikes, often loaded with at least two adults, but more often, entire families. Men drive, women sit side-saddle, with two or three kids sandwiched in. But nice light and maneuverable bikes compared to our comparatively big and heavy bikes.
It takes some getting used to. No one seems to pay attention to lanes, traffic signs, speed limits, passing is expected, often in very short parts where it sometimes seems there just isn’t space for a truck or car to succeed, but somehow they do. Buses are the worst- they travel at high speeds, they often come around curves half over the middle line, and often passengers are standing in the open doors, hanging on or hanging out.
We’ve adapted our driving styles, but I’m not always comfortable doing this. This morning I got into a bit of trouble …. Rick had taken off ahead of us and Tony and I came upon a lineup of traffic stopped in a construction zone. We sat for a bit, then decided (okay, it was my suggestion) to creep down the right side of some brand new concrete. This concrete pad is about 6” higher than the narrow gravel shoulder, and then the ditch falls steeply for about 15 feet of shrub covered slope. All this description is to just set the stage …
Imagine being dressed in riding gear on a sunny Honduran day when the temperature is above 25C and it’s humid. It’s been like this since we left the hotel an hour ago, and we’ve only traveled about 25 km. Coming upon a line up of traffic stopped on the road with no oncoming traffic, we stopped, sat in the sun for a bit, looked at the lineup that stretched a long way in front, watched half a dozen small bikes scoot past us on the right side and decided to follow suit. So we rode slowly for what seemed like miles – and may have been. I was ahead of Tony and was a bit concerned about one semi that was a smidge closer to the edge of the road than most other vehicles, and it had huge lug-nut covers sticking out from the tires. I nudged one with my side bag as I was almost passing the cab … that caused me to wipe out – I fell over to the right where there was nowhere to put my foot down for balance. Over I went, but managed to roll out from under the bike and slide down the slope on the right side of the road. No harm done, other than to pride and confidence.
Since there were dozens of people in that area waiting for traffic to move, there was thankfully a huge number of people there to help pick up my poor bike and lift it back onto the concrete. Tony and I certainly couldn’t have done that ourselves! It was a relief to see I hadn’t done any damage, other than breaking a bit off the end of the front brake lever. The brake is still functioning as it should, and nothing else, other than a few scratches on the windscreen are evidence of my fall. I’m very thankful about this – with rebar sticking out the concrete pad I was concerned I could have punctured or bent any number of important bike parts! I was thankful too that I only slid a few feet into the ditch because it was very steep – I’d have needed a rope to hang onto if I’d gone down much further. But I got myself up, Tony got my bike up with help, and then pulled it ahead out of the way of all the bikes behind us (how embarrassing!), and we waited again for another 10 minutes before deciding to pull ahead on the left side of the road – by this time we’d learned another semi was stopped ahead of us with brake problems. It was in the process of being towed out of the way, so we snuck ahead just as the road cleared and traffic started to move again. But in both directions there were miles of vehicles waiting to go … we were glad to not be stuck in the middle of a pack of anxious drivers trying to make up time. And as for riding, well, I guess it is like riding a horse. Fall off or get bucked off, and just get back on. I did feel a bit shaken up for a while, but I blame that on the adrenaline!
We reconnected with Rick in Santa Rosa del Petén. He’d been there long enough to find a Claro store as both he and Tony are having troubles with their phones and the SIM cards that are supposed to work here but don’t. Only problem is this store isn’t open on Fridays! So we carried on towards Gracias and La Esperanza (I’m very thankful and hopeful that I don’t do this kind of thing again!). This part of the highway 11A is in much better shape with some beautiful curves, but amazing elevation changes. Gorgeous views of valleys, mountains and clouds as we climbed and descended several mountains. The stretch of highway from La Esperanza to Tegucigalpa is almost all 4 lane, high speed, beautiful pavement. I’m not sure what the highest point on this road is, but wow, we climbed. Will have to check a topographical map to see how high we were today.
Arrived in Tegucigalpa as we always seem to – in time for rush hour – or perhaps traffic is always heavily congested. We managed to find our hotel (Dolphin Executive Hotel) where the parking is secure and the room (suite) is huge. Not the nicest area though – we walked across a busy street to go under an overpass so we could stop for a very non-traditional meal. Burger King, I’m embarrassed to say. I haven’t eaten in a Burger King in Canada for decades … I guess travel brings one new experiences .
We did drive through la Canada today, but as always, didn’t stop to photograph the sign….
Saturday, November 3 – Tegucigalpa Honduras to Esteli, Nicaragua – 335 km
A long day, although we only put on about 335 km. But mix in a border crossing and time slows to a crawl. We left Tegucigalpa in good time in the morning following a stay at the Dolphin Executive Hotel. We’d managed to book a suite that was a bit swankier than some of the spots we’ve stayed. A lot more space than usual!
Anyway navigated our way out of Tegucigalpa without any problems. As usual, the day was quite hot quite early, but once we were moving towards Los Manos where the border crossing is, we were fine. About 130 km got us to the border about 10:45. The scenery wasn’t as dramatic as it had been driving into Tegucigalpa but it was a nice enough ride.
The border was an experience. I guess we’re new enough at this sort of thing that we had high expectations of being done in a relatively painless amount of time. Nope. We spent over three hours there in the blazing sun. No air conditioned buildings here to make anyone feel better …..
As we approached the border there were hundreds of trucks stoped on the Honduran side of the border pointing both directions. I’m not sure what was up with them, but we happily rode past them to the border itself. Before even stopping we had several young men offering to take our passports and registrations to help us through the process of leaving Honduras. One fellow did keep us on track, but the process took much more time than we anticipated.
Filling out a form by hand – and filling the same form again in Nicaragua – was the first step. Then presenting passports, confirming where we’d been, and after much waiting in line, we got our exit stamp. Then on to Nicaragua where Rick patiently looked after most of the paperwork from immigration and vehicle import office/customs and was a great help. I was not feeling great and Tony was watching the bikes in an area with no shade at all, so it was great that Rick was able to work through the bureaucratic process on all of our behalfs. Finally as it was getting close to 2 pm we got our paperwork completed, although there was no passport stamp – apparently Nicaragua doesn’t stamp passports, but gives a little 2” x 3” piece of paper that we will have to present when leaving the country. And 30 meters passed where we got the paperwork, there was a checkpoint. Why?!? The guys at this checkpoint could see our bikes parked down the road for hours, but they had to take a look at the documents just to be sure we were allowed in!
Once into Nicaragua we rode for a few very toasty hours to the city of Esteli where we had a reservation at the Don Vido Hotel. This info was important to have while crossing the border – the border folks were all very interested in knowing where we would be staying while in Nicaragua. We were glad to find the city and the hotel when we did. As usual, we were very hot and the hotel seemed hard to find in a town filled with cobbled streets. But happily we found our way and felt much better after cooling off and cleaning up. Out for a bite of dinner and an early night.
November 4, 5, 6 at Gigante, Nicaragua
Arrived at Giant’s Foot Surf Camp on November 4 in the afternoon. The place is owned by friends of friends of Rick and this stop will be our longest break yet – we will be here for three nights. It was a bit of a meander to find Gigante, Nicaragua and then a bit of a trek down some side streets, back roads, through a few big puddles and potholes. I was starting to wonder where we were headed, but Google Maps kept us on track. It was good to park the bikes and peel off a few layers as it has been a hot day.
Trevor and Tara seem like they will be great hosts, even if we’re not surfing enthusiasts. They moved here about 7 months ago and are hoping to make a success of this venture. The political unrest here in the summer hasn’t helped, but there seems an active surfing community here. I guess like skiers, surfers will travel to wherever the good waves are and this stretch of coast is an area known for its surf.
We settled in, met the other guests and enjoyed a feast at dinner. The cooks are obviously used to feeding hungry surfers who have been working very hard all afternoon. If we stayed here for any length of time I think we’d all gain a ton of weight.
Nov 5 Tara showed us some of the area and we watched a few surfers doing their thing. It looks like a lot of work and then a lot of waiting for a short time upright and riding a wave. I’m not sure I’d have the patience, even if I ever mastered the getting upright part which looks pretty tough all on its own.
An enjoyable afternoon that included a bit of a siesta, a walk on the beach, a few shared beers, and culminating in Big Foot’s Monday burger night with members of the community stopping by for excellent burgers on homemade buns.
Nov 6 we each did our own things. Rick went fishing in the morning with Trevor and his boat captain, Armando. Tony went to give surfing a try for a few hours, and I went for a walk on the beach and then climbed up the rock formation called the Giants Foot. The views of the coast were fabulous but as I write this, I know I really should have warmed up better …. pulled muscles as I was coming down, so am feeling a bit uncomfortable about that.
All in all it has been a lovely stay and Tara and Trevor have been wonderful hosts. We’re wishing them every success as they work to build their business!
Wednesday, November 7 – Gigante to La Fortuna
Left surf camp, headed to La Fortuna, checked into Hotel Colores del Arenal . Comfy space but only available for one night. had a great sleep but had to relocate to a different property for our second day in La Fortuna.
Thursday, November 8 – a day in La Fortuna
In the morning we visited the LaFortuna Waterfall about 20 minutes outside of town. The area is certainly developed to attract tourists with well developed infrastructure such as restaurants and gift shops at the front end, and well built hiking trails and stairs to take visitors to the base of the fall. The almost 500 stairs are a good workout! And the jungle was beautiful- it is the tail end of rainy season here so everything is very lush and green. The only thing not in full bloom was the orchid garden. Rick went in for a dip in the pool at the base of the fall, along with lots of other hikers. We were glad to visit in the morning to have avoided heavy crowds.
Cabbed back to Hotel Calores and finished packing up, then cruised over to Hotel Las Orquideas, a place a bit off the beaten path, but with stunningly beautiful grounds.
Amazing plants, shrubs, flowers and birds. After settling in we went for a ride to explore the area around Fortuna. We had dressed for the weather – meaning we left heavy boots and riding pants behind. So after we’d ridden about 5 km on a gravel road Rick picked I decided to turn around and headed instead for the road that circles Lake Arenal. The road is beautiful and very twisty, but also had lots of traffic on it. Mid afternoon we stopped at Toad Hall for a snack. There were great views of hummingbirds at many of the feeders on he restaurant deck as well as lots of birds in the trees surrounding the restaurant and stretching to the valley below. A lovely turn-around spot.
On our way back to town Tony and I stopped and looked through a gallery at some amazing wood sculptures. If only we were s bit closer to home we might consider acquiring something …. but not on this trip.
Walked to a nearby restaurant, Tiquicia for an excellent meal. The walk there and back in the pitch dark was a bit of an adventure, but we made it without any issues.
Friday, November 9 – La Fortuna to San Jose – 165 km
Rode through some beautiful country along the ridge of mountains. Amazing views of farm land, fields, orchards, on both sides of the ridge. Wonderful curves and twisties to enjoy, although the number of trucks spewing think diesel smoke along the way detracts from the enjoyment. Of course we passed as many as we could, but it isn’t always easy given the number of tight corners, single lane bridges (lots!), school zones and towns along the route. We did spend a bit longer than expected getting to San a José as a bridge was washed out on the route we wanted to take, so we had to backtrack and find a new route to get us here. The city traffic seemed a bit crazy, but thankfully Google got us to the Columbus Hostel where Rick had booked us a room. There is parking outside, and when the restaurant in the bottom floor of the building closes, we will roll the bikes inside the lobby and restaurant for the night! Common practice here, not so common to us. It just means we have to be up at 10 pm to bring the bikes in, and then we have to be up at 6 am to move them out …
We found a fabulous restaurant close to the hostel.
Saturday, November 10 – San Jose to Rio Claro – 287 km
Today was just put on some miles as Rick and Tony have decided we will ship the bikes across the Darien Gap in the middle of next week. So we want to be sure we will be in Panama City in good time to arrange shipping for the bikes and us. I’m disappointed we are racing through this beautiful country, but hope to return at some point when I’m not feeling pressure to get to the next spot on the map.
The day was very varied in terms of weather. From high heat to heavy fog on mountain ridges, then some sunshine followed by very heavy rain, then back to warm temperatures. When it rains here it doesn’t seem to cool things down at all, just makes everything feel more muggy.
Leaving San Jose we certainly climbed a lot. And for much of the morning we rode along a mountain ridge. Narrow road (CA2) with non-existent shoulders, amazing curves and switchbacks, great views of jungle and forests lining the roadsides. Then many fields of cattle, some at very high elevations. I hope they find enough to eat! Many single lane bridges which slow traffic a bit as you have to yield to on coming vehicles but lots better than the topes and tumulos from earlier in our travels.
We had planned on spending the night somewhere north of Rio Claro, but google maps didn’t do its thing so we missed a few turns in a downpour and ended up in Rio Claro as it was getting dark. It didn’t seem to be a town with much to recommend itself…our hotel was certainly bare basics – not even a pretense of hot water, and a muddy parking lot that seemed pretty smelly and bog-like. We went to bed that night hoping our bikes would still be there in the morning! Thankfully they were. But I wouldn’t recommend Hotel El Gran Impala in Rio Claro if you have other options!
Sunday, November 11 Rio Claro, Costa Rica to Santiago, Panama –
We were up very early this morning, not willingly, but because other hotel guests were very noisy as they got up, so there was no chance of ‘sleeping in’ until our alarm went off at 6:30! So we were loaded and ready to go before our 7 AM breakfast, and were on the road earlier than ever by about 7:45 or so, headed to the border crossing at Paso Canoas. It was encouraging to see a couple of riders heading north from Panama a few minutes before we got to the border. I’m hoping that means the process won’t take hours.
There weren’t as many trucks heading to this crossing. Lots of busses though. We pulled up, were accosted by a fellow who was a huge help in the paperwork process … he took us to pay our $8 entrance fee, took us with the receipts and butted into the front of the line for passport stamps, took us to another office for the start of vehicle import permits, took us to pay for fumigation ($1.00 per bike!), then got us to the right spot to get the bikes sprayed so we could head into Panama. We continue to wonder why no border provides a list of what one needs, in what order, and how many copies of what are needed along the way. This fellow was well worth what we paid him and the process seemed much less convoluted here than in other spots along the way.
The ride along CA2 towards Santiago (we have seen many signs for towns and villages with names that are familiar ….. Florida, Portugal, even Canada. ) was kind of dull … split highway, good pavement for the most part, and very few places along the highway that looked interesting. Even trying to find a place for lunch was impossible. There are almost no gas stations or other businesses along the road. Even when we pulled off into the small town of Tole, hoping to find a restaurant we were disappointed. Nothing looked open, and there weren’t many options at all.
It rained in buckets for a little while this afternoon. The pavement had heaps of puddles which make it hard to see the potholes, but we carried on – there’s no where to pull off, even if you wanted to! So we put our flashers on and drove along, a bit slower than usual, but blame that on poor visibility.
We got to Santiago about 4 PM and found our hotel with no problems. A dip in the pool and a cold beer were about as energetic as we were. We walked a little ways down the street for dinner – picked a restaurant that looked like it had more promise, but the food was pretty mediocre. I guess we will look more closely at reviews next time around.
Monday, November 12 – Santiago to Panama City. 250 km
Today was a kind of short but very hot ride….
We met a couple at the hotel in Santiago – we’d noticed their DR650s in the parking lot when we pulled in yesterday, and met them this morning at breakfast. They too are heading to Panama City today as they’ve arranged to ship their bikes on the Stahlratte later this week. Steve and Eva recommended the Best Western in Panama City so we will likely hook up with them there later today.
Took a bit of time to get organized this morning. Sending documents to arrange for shipping the bikes when wifi is iffy was a bit of a challenge. But we were on the road by 9:30 or so, knowing it will be a short day.
We had been warned that the police in Panama set up a lot of speed traps, which we certainly saw lots of today. Thankfully we just rode by them with no issues- but that meant sticking to the mostly 60 km or 80 km posted speeds for the ride. The occasional 100 km zone really made me feel like we were racing along when compared with the other slower spots.
The highway wasn’t particularly interesting, the scenery was nice enough, but the concrete pavement made for a lot of vibration in the handle bars. That takes away from the fun, that’s for sure. Arriving in Panama City introduced us to very busy traffic through some very slummy areas. Our hotel is in downtown, and there are tons of deserted high-rise buildings right beside the highway in areas. We crossed a huge bridge – now I know it was the Bridge of the America’s – as we pulled into the crazed traffic of Panama City. Happily we found the hotel without having to backtrack, and it was great to get into an air conditioned space!
Rick went out for a drink with Steve and Eva who arrived a bit before us, Tony and I puttered a bit getting laundry arranged and getting cleaned up. We headed out for a walk to a nearby brew pub, El Rano Dorado. Great beer and excellent food too. A good place for a late lunch or mid day snack. Will meet up with Steve and Eva later this evening for dinner at another nearby restaurant.
Tuesday, November 13, Panama City
We enjoyed a fabulous meal with Steve and Eva last night at a restaurant near the hotel. We had great food, great drinks, excellent service and lots of laughs.
This morning we organized our gear so we could drop the bikes off at the airport and be ready to fly ourselves to Bogota tomorrow. Getting to the airport cargo area was interesting – no one seems to post signs anywhere about what business is where. We found Air Cargo and dropped off the bikes, walked over to a customs building to get paperwork stamped (was hard to find as this one doesn’t have clear signage) then walked back to finish the paperwork and pay (cash only!) the fee of $1000 for each bike. A receipt? No, that’s not offered! But we have a stack of paperwork that hopefully means our bikes will arrive in Bogata tomorrow about the same time we will.
While at the customs building we briefly met friends of Steve and Eva, Glenn and Deanna from Arizona who are on a BMW GS, riding two up. They fly out tomorrow, but on an earlier flight than we do. We invited them to join us (and Steve and Eva) for dinner, but they didn’t make it.
We grabbed a cab from the airport and headed to the waterfront for the afternoon. Stopped at the Mariscos Mercado for some ceviche – not surprisingly the whole place smelled strong Nguyen of fish, and fishermen walked by, carrying their catch into the market, so you know the fish is fresh.
Following this stop we walked a few blocks to tour the Panama Canal Museum. Lots of interesting information about the centuries of planning and several attempts to complete the canal prior to it actually being finished in the early 1900’s. The museum was interesting, but lacked some directional signage to keep guests on track. Rick tried to take photos and was reprimanded by the multitude of security people in the museum. There seemed more security than visitors there today.
Strolled around the area for a bit, stopped for ice cream, then found a rooftop patio from which we could see the canal while having a beer. Panama is a city of huge high rises, many of them bearing the names of international banks. Interesting architecture, particularly the F&F tower, combined with views of areas where buildings seem to be ruins without windows and roofs. Strange disparity in relatively small areas.
Cabbed back to the hotel and then met Steve and Eva again to go for Caribbean food at El Caribe, a place with good reviews but almost no other guests. The street it is on is undergoing major construction (work still being done at 7 PM) which I assume has impacted business. Anyway the food was good, and again, it was an enjoyable evening.
Wednesday, November 14 – Panama City to Bogota via Copa Air
Today we caught our flight to Bogota, while hoping our bikes are all en route as well. It did look odd yesterday to see them in the warehouse with ‘this way up’ stickers on the side cases. Just in case someone doesn’t recognize how the bikes are supposed to be loaded?
We grabbed breakfast with Steve and Eva, cabbed out to the airport and caught our flight. Rick was ticked as he went through security and the staff broke the tiny nail file off of his nail clippers, and they also took away a corkscrew he had in his bag.
Flight was fine and we arrived on time, headed over to Air Cargo Pack which involved a lot of inquiries as to where we could actually find them. Obviously a huge number of companies are shipping through Panama, and the cargo area is huge and highly secured. After catching a bus to the main cargo entrance and being denied entry, we were led by a security person to another huge warehouse where we had to provide passports to get visitors passes. Then hiked to Air Cargo Pack office where we waited for news of our bikes which were supposed to arrive a bit before we did … and learned the flight has been delayed so there is no chance of picking them up today. Even if they arrived by 5 pm we wouldn’t have time to get through customs. Not good news, but not much we can do.
So we walked back to the main terminal, and caught a cab to our hotel. We checked in, were told we can park our bikes in the lobby area, and were given a restaurant recommendation for dinner. Andres Carne de Res is a five story restaurant filled with entertainers, servers, a huge menu of fabulous food. Although it was almost an hour by Uber to get there, it was worth it! The whole evening was an experience. From a toast of Aquardiente to celebrate our arrival in South America to several shared appetizers as well as an entree of a small but remarkable steak that we shared as well, ending with some shared desserts, this was a remarkable feast and fun evening. Although the bill seemed large – 345,000 Columbia pesos, that translates to less than $150 Cdn for a multi course wonderful meal with several drinks included. Great fun to mark our arrival in South America.
Uber back to hotel, and a good night’s sleep.
Thursday,November 15 – Bogota
Today wasn’t nearly the day we’d hoped for, although we did get our bikes which is the good news. The process took much longer than expected. We arrived at the airport before 9AM, went through the process of clearing security to get our visitors pass. Headed to Air Cargo Pack, then waited while they got paperwork together … weighbills, copies of passports, vehicle registrations, customs forms from when we dropped the bikes off in Panama. When this was all done we were taken by Manuel, one of the ACP staff to customs, about a km walk back to the first office we tried to get to yesterday. There we sat and waited while Manuel got our paperwork into process … then he waited too. Whatever had to be done took hours, which involved us sitting in what looked like an airport departure lounge filled with people all waiting to hear their number called. Finally about 1:00 it seemed process was being made. Each of us was called up separately to sign more documents (all in Spanish, I have no idea what they were!) in six places. Yes, six. With copies made of these, we were taken by the patient Manual back to ACP where we were finally able to see our bikes and start getting ready to leave the airport.
However, given the traffic in Bogota (absolutely crazy, hundreds of motorcycles lane splitting everywhere, vehicles making turns into heavy traffic flows by just edging in until others have to yield a bit) we decided not to ride to Zipaquirá where we’d hoped to see the Salt Cathedral. We just didn’t have time to get there and back, so we just headed back to our hotel. Riding in Bogota traffic is even more of an all-senses required happening than I imagined. But we arrived safe and sound back at the Golden Hotel where we rolled the bikes into the lobby for safe parking. I think they are much bigger than the hotel staff expected, but they moved some furniture around to make room for us!
We then roamed the area doing a bit of shopping – Tony picked up new driving lights and Rick got a spare chain for his bike. I looked at a helmet that Tony thought might work (been having trouble with the intercom which hasn’t worked in my helmet since we left home … kind of an isolating way to ride for thousands of kilometres!). Anyway, I decided not to get it, but we had a good time just walking around the neighbourhood. We were also on a quest for beer which seems very hard to find. It seems most restaurants don’t have licenses, and grocery stores don’t carry much. One huge grocery store only had Corona (yuck!) rather than any selection. We finally found a Colombia-made beer and picked up a few to enjoy back at the hotel.
Tony spent some time that evening putting his new driving lights on his bike. I’m not sure what the hotel staff thought of bike maintenance going on in their lobby, but no one complained to him. Then we headed out for a bite and stopped at a couple of different places selling different types of street food. Maybe not as good as what we had last night, but it certainly filled our bellies.
Friday, November 16 – Visit to Monserrate, Bogota, drive to Zipaquirá
This morning we packed up most of our stuff, left the bikes in the lobby and headed by Uber to visit Monserrate, the cathedral at the top of a huge hill/mountain in Bogota. We thought it would take about 20 minutes to get to Monserrate but it took more than twice that long. Major roads are under construction, 5 or 6 lanes of traffic narrow down to two or three, and this backs things up for miles. A slow ride, but finally arrived around 10 am. Enjoyed the funicular ride to the top and the amazing views of the city from the top. The cathedral was nice enough, but didn’t amaze or inspire us … perhaps because we’re not Catholic!
I realized again at this location how difficult it would be to get around this city if one was disabled. The sidewalks and pavements are uneven in many places, but at Monserrate the cobbled and sloped walking areas would be almost impossible on anything less than two sturdy feet.
After strolling around for a little bit we caught the funicular back down as the 10,000-foot elevation would be more steps down than we wanted to make. We would have liked take the cable car, but it doesn’t start running until noon, so we went down the same way we came up. Ubered back to the hotel to get ready for this afternoon’s ride out of Bogota.
We only rode 55 km this afternoon and it was the hardest I think I’ve ever ridden. We were headed to Zipaquirá for the night, a destination chosen to get us out of Bogota and also close to the Salt Cathedral, a spot that we were interested in seeing. We had hoped to arrive in Zipaquirá in time to tour the salt cathedral this afternoon, but that didn’t happen.
For almost 40 km we crawled along in crazy traffic – many lanes of traffic narrowing down to a few in several places, huge volumes of traffic with all drivers (especially those of large trucks and buses) assuming all motorcycles will lane split and that’s the only space they might want/need. If we didn’t have big panniers on, weighing the bikes down, we might have considered it, but we aren’t too interested in squeezing between huge vehicles, just to save a few seconds. But with the very slow moving traffic, it took more than 2 hours to cover the 55 km. Both clutch and brake hands were sore by the times we got to our hostel. Tony hadn’t realized it was a hostel when he booked it so Rick decided to find his own place, and we had a semi comfortable night in our room.
We met for dinner and were surprised how hard it is to find a restaurant that has anything other than fast food. Finally opted for a place with asado chicken and we were glad we chose it when we did – before we ordered our dinner the rain started and the streets looked like rivers. It was good to be inside a dry place eating good food.
Agreed to visit salt cathedral tomorrow morning together, then Rick will head off on his own way as we figure out where we are heading as well.
Saturday, November 17 – Salt Cathedral, Zipaquirá to Topia. 120 km
Tony and I got up fairly early (that’s what happens in a hostel when others get up early …) and went out for breakfast. Discovered that in Columbia a cafe negra is served already heavily sweetened. Not much good for me, and the true black coffee that I asked for as a replacement was thick with grounds. Not a great way to start the day, but the steak and eggs were good.
We’ve been having trouble with Tony’s phone and although we got a new SIM card yesterday, we didn’t have any internet this morning so had to get back to our hostel so I could email Rick via wifi to ask him to arrange Uber and to pick us up to visit the Salt Cathedral together. Happily this worked out, but this afternoon’s key project is getting the phone issue sorted out. Not being able to access Google Maps makes navigation a challenge! How did people manage in the pre-internet days?
We arrived at the Salt Cathedral a few minutes before it opened, got set up with headsets and were in with the early visitors. The place was a bit of a surprise to me. Very rough floors combined with less-than-bright lighting in many areas must make it a challenge for many. The caverns were interesting, and the work to create stations of the cross in many of the caverns is remarkable. We appreciated the artwork and creativity that this would have required, but probably missed much of the inspiration as we are not Catholic. I would have enjoyed a tour that would have covered more of the history of the mine that pre-dated the creation of the Salt Cathedral but this wasn’t available. Perhaps it is offered in the Museum that adjoins the site, but Tony and Rick were ready to go by the time we got out of the caverns. Maybe when I have better wifi I will just have to do a bit of my own reading on the subject!
Tony and I managed to get his phone sorted out with help from a Claro rep and we made a stop at a Moviestar vendor to add time to his plan. Hopefully this will provide us with the service we are hoping for! Left Zipaquirá around 1:30 heading for Tobia, a place a bit west of Zipaquirá.
The ride was a good one. The first part was on a twisty mountain road that climbed fairly high elevations while twisting through gorgeous country side. Then onto a busier highway that climbed then lost elevation on a great series of banked curves. A good part of this road took us up into a cloud, then down again.
We had to stop in La Vega for a few minutes as a police officer had stopped all traffic on the Main Street to let hundreds of horse back riders cross the highway …. there was a huge number of riders and horses, many prancing, doing fancy footwork as they crossed the road. I’m not sure where they were headed though.
Shortly after La Vega we got close to Tobia, a place that seems in the middle of nowhere. Tony booked us into a hotel about 10 km out of town down a twisty paved, then gravel, then mud road, and it felt a lot further away!
When we got to the lodge we rode down a steep slope with two cobbled lines for tires (hard on a bike to keep it on one 8” wide bit of cobbles) to find a lovely lodge right on the banks of the Rio Negra. The place is set up for hikers, mountain bikers, adventure travelers interested in rafting, zip lining, etc. Tobia seems to be working hard to build a reputation for this kind of thing and there are a lot of hotels and lodges along this goat-trail road.
Room was lovely, hot water was lacking, and when we went for dinner, somehow we were served a hamburger and fries which neither of us thought we had ordered … but that’s our fault for not speaking the language. I just can’t get over the fact the fries were served with chopped up pieces of fried hotdog. Not something I would ever eat. And again I have to wonder why in a country where the grocery stores are filled with beautiful fruits and vegetables are none served in restaurants? A mystery until my Spanish improves!
A good sleep but perhaps we were worn out lugging stuff up to the fourth floor! Incredibly loud thunderstorm around midnight woke us up for a bit and the rain came down in buckets. I’m wondering what kind of shape the road will be in tomorrow when we leave!
Sunday, November 18 Tobia to La Dorada 125 KM
We decided to try a bit of adventure riding this morning as Google Maps showed a road from Tobia that looked like it would take us through some interesting country and mountain ridges. However we had not really accounted for the rain that poured down last night in our plans…. the road was very muddy in spots and our tires are not designed for slick, slippery muck. We gave it our best shot for about 4 km. In several spots Tony took my bike through as I’m not fond of mud. I talked to a few people asking for information about road conditions – responses ranged from ‘muy malo’ to indications that it got better in just a few km. One couple who were walking to La Pena tried to tell me that the road past La Pena was bad, but the road to Nimaima was better. However Nimaima wasn’t really the direction we wanted to go. Tony rode ahead for a bit to check it out and when he got back to where I was we decided to turn around. It had taken more than 40 minutes to cover 4 km, and we wanted to get to La Dorado tonight. So we crawled back along the slick and muddy road.
For the road conditions there was a surprising amount of traffic – trucks, buses, cars, many motorbikes (all much smaller than ours!). Heading in both directions, I was very glad not to have met and buses in the middle of the really rutted, slick stuff. The buses here don’t give an inch, and in many spots the road was only wide enough for a single bus. I was very glad to get back to Tobia without dropping my bike!
This little town was a happening place on a Sunday morning. Many men were sitting drinking beer on patios of restaurants and cafes, many families were out walking, shopping, heading to church. There was a lot of traffic in this little town. We stopped for a cold water and snack and watched some people on zip lines far above the town on very long lines. This is one of many tours/trips offered in the area.
We took the better road for about 6 km back to highway 50, a multi lane highway on which we felt we were zipping along. Then we reached a junction and had to take a two lane highway (45) to reach La Dorado. On the paper map this one looks the same as highway 50 but is very different! Very heavy traffic, trucks and cars, heading both directions, tight passes, sharp corners as road climbed and then descended a mountain. I’m not sure what the elevation is here, but the views are amazing. We stopped in Guaduas for a break from the traffic and the rain – showers started a while ago and changed to full-on rain about the time we shared a bowl of chowder and a beer at little restaurant in Guaduas where we watched the rain come down and the traffic crawl by. Buses honking, semis spewing diesel smoke, cars and motorbikes and bicycles all travelling on a narrow road through a fairly large town on a road that seems too narrow for all the traffic on it.
A short while after getting back on the bikes we reached a junction and as we swung north towards La Dorado, suddenly the road improved – 2 lanes each direction, separated lanes, great pavement, beautiful views of valley surrounded by mountains. And as a toll road (bikes don’t pay tolls) it was great to ride along making good time.
The rain stopped and temperatures started to rise before we reached La Dorado. We found our hotel (bit of trouble checking in as under-trained staff didn’t know about reservation but finally sorted it out) so we strolled around this busy town for a bit -parks full of families out for the evening, many very busy shops, ice cream shops in particular, a busy happening place. We stopped for dinner at a nearby asado restaurant and called it a day.
Monday, November 19 – la Dorado to Medellin 245 KM
It felt like we had a busy morning in la Dorado. We did a bit of shopping (lithium batteries for Spot) and a few other odds and ends. Then we stopped by a Suzuki dealer to see if we could get a recommendation for a shop in Medellin to do the work on my bikes and to confirm they have the parts needed in stock. Google translate was a huge help in explaining what we needed need (clutch? Clutch plates? Entire clutch assembly? Housing?) and confirming that the Suzuki shop that was recommended had the parts in stock. We were told they have most of them, may need to order a couple, but won’t know until mechanic looks at condition of the clutch. Many thanks to Dora at La Dorado Suzuki for her patience and assistance! So we headed out of La Dorado about 9:30 for Medellín, for what should have been a 4- hour ride.
We crawled for awhile through very settled area with high traffic, then got onto toll highway (60?) where we made good time for awhile. Then at a junction where happily many of the big trucks headed somewhere else, we were back on single lane road with lots of pot holes, no shoulders, but beautiful country, riding through the bottom of a valley, surrounded by mountains. The mountain sides are covered in all sorts of plants, from banana trees to ferns, from huge broad leafed trees to grasses, and everything in between. Photos never capture the scale or colours of such vibrant scenes.
We stopped along the way and watched four para-gliders soaring above a mountain valley. It was tempting to give it a try, but we wanted to get to the Suzuki shop before it closed. This was a challenge as the traffic volumes increased steadily as we got closer to Medellin. On multi lane roads bikes lane split and weave between traffic, cars and trucks seem to drive at the same speed, regardless of what speed limits are posted – no one slows down for 30 km zones, they just cruise on through. I’m not sure how anyone navigated here before the days of Google Maps. The overpasses, clover leafs, underpasses, construction zones, one way streets seem to make no sense, and very few traffic signs with street names or directions are posted. This makes getting around a challenge, even with help from Google.
We finally got through the city and found the Suzuki shop in an area filled with bike shops. Every brand imaginable has several shops here along with all sorts of service and accessory shops. A motorcycle enthusiast’s haven, I’m sure.
We were happy to find the shop a bit before closing time, just as traffic was building for rush hour. It took a while to get details sorted out for my bike’s maintenance which will be done tomorrow. I’m happy we won’t have to wait for days to get the work done, and again, I’m grateful for assistance with translation.
We headed out to find our hotel in busy, busy traffic, thankfully found I without too much trouble, checked in and unloaded all the gear off my bike. We will drop it off in the morning to get the work done on it.
Tuesday, November 20 – Medellin to El Peñol and Guatapé
After taking my bike to the Suzuki shop we headed to the town of El Peñol, the Rock of Peñol and the town of Guatape. We were riding two-up on Tony’s bike which took some getting used to by both of us! It isn’t a great distance – about 80 km – but takes almost 2 hours to get to the Rock. Once you turn off of Highway 60, the last 31 km becomes very twisty, narrow, poorly maintained in spots, and filled with tope after tope. Mix in heaps of large trucks, and things all move quite slowly along the stretch of road.
The views of the Rock of Peñol were surprising – it is quite remarkable once we could see it towering over the landscape. Even without the stairs, the rock itself seems out of place and truly huge. Oddly, we had a hard time finding the parking lot for the Rock. Signage is something that is mostly absent here in Colombia… very few towns have any signs at all so without Google Maps I’m not sure how anyone knows where they are! When we finally found the road up to the parking area we found it very rough and quite steep with several hairpin turns. I’m not sure how the buses manage it, but they do! Along with horses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles, pedestrians, and tuk-tuks, it was a busy place. I can’t imagine what it would be like in the busy season!
The views from the parking lot of the surrounding dam-created lake district are lovely. After labouring up the 650 steps to the lookout at the top of the rock, we were struck by the incredible site of the lakes, homes, towns, boats, farms stretching for miles. We were lucky to have a relatively clear day for this trip and the views were certainly worth the efforts to make the climb.
We were a bit disappointed the added height of the observation tower wasn’t available to us as it is being renovated. But we managed to contain our disappointment by contemplating our enthusiasm (or lack of) for an additional 75 or so stairs. We enjoyed a cold beer at the top, all in the interest of keeping hydrated, then felt slightly guilty about it as we encountered a fellow carrying six 24-packs of beer up the stairs on his back. That would be one tough climb given the narrow steps on the inside of the spiral. Not a job I would want!
We continued our quest at the base of the Rock looking for a sticker of a Colombian flag – we can’t find one anywhere, despite the loads of kitschy souvenir shops that are filled with fridge magnets. Somehow vinyl vehicle stickers aren’t big sellers I guess.
We headed into Guatapé for lunch. It is an interesting little town built around a very interesting central square. We enjoyed strolling around this brightly coloured square and adjoining streets. Every building has mini-murals on the walls. These are often 3D done in concrete and are fascinating. Businesses have indications of their products or services, homes have everything from flowers to sailboats to scenes of harvest time, all brightly painted and about 2’ square. These line up in a row across the entire street front of each building. Add to this the bright colours, flowers everywhere, and even the tuk-tuks painted in very bright colours and the town seems very vibrant.
We grabbed lunch and re-hydrated then snooped through a few shops. I got a quick hair cut and then we headed back to the bike for the ride back to Medellin. While we were getting our gear out, Glenn drove by as he and Deanna are spending a few days in Guatapé. We chatted for a bit, compared notes on how and when they got their bikes through customs, and then carried on our separate ways.
The trip back to Medellin was fine, although I wondered if we would beat the rain. Tony stopped briefly to look at a Willy’s Jeep that he had spotted in the morning. This one is a custom built extended cab – not something that was ever manufactured, but was an auto worker’s creative work, welding two cabs together to create a four-seat version. Tony admired it, but thankfully didn’t start trying to figure out how to ship it home!
The ride back into the city was interesting. Traffic was horrific and at one point there was a 20 or 25 minute delay due to an accident miles ahead. Tony followed the lead of local bikers and pulled onto the narrow shoulder (thankfully paved at this point) and motored along past hundreds of stopped cars and trucks. I was a bit of a nervous passenger though. We did get back to our hotel much earlier than Google Maps thought we would.
Grabbed an excellent dinner at a nearby restaurant and started organizing our packing. How can two bikes carry all this stuff? We often wonder this!
Wednesday, November 21 – Medellin
Not a particularly news worthy day today. We dropped off some laundry near our hotel and then went to pick up my bike. The new clutch will take a bit of getting used to but it is good to have it done. We went back to the hotel to drop it off in the parking garage then we wondered over to a nearby mall to do a bit of shopping. There were a few things we wanted to pick up so it was good to have a bit of time to spare.
We reconnected with Steve and Eva as they had arrived in Medellin yesterday and we had agreed to meet for dinner this evening. We met at the Hacienda La Strada, a restaurant known for its excellent Colombian food. The food and service were good, and it was good to see Steve and Eva and compare notes about their travels on the Stahlratte and ours with Air Cargo Pack. Although their time at Colombian customs was much shorter than ours, I’m not sure how much we would have enjoyed the sailing trip. Despite the delays with shipping the bikes by air, I’m glad this was the option we choose as their trip didn’t sound very comfortable. We may see them again in Salento as they are heading there on Saturday
Thursday, November 22 – Medellín
We spent part of the morning getting the bikes ready for tomorrow’s departure. Then we walked into downtown Medellín as we had booked a walking tour of the city for the afternoon. The walk to city centre was about 30 minutes and we got a few things done along the way – found lunch and bought an umbrella as the skies look quite dark to the north.
We were interested to see three kids on bicycles go zooming up the hill we were walking down – they were holding onto the bumper of a big truck. It didn’t seem the safest way to go, but they were having great fun!
We met our group and guide, Edgar with Real City Tours. Edgar did excellent job sharing stories of heartbreak and joy while giving history and current status of this growing metropolis. We started at a metro station (Medellin is only city in Colombia with a subway/rail transit and is very proud of this) and walked to see several different sites including some amazing statues near the courthouse, the square of lights, Palacio Nacional, and Botero Square. Then we wound through some shopping arcades that were true labyrinths. We have no idea how people know where they are! Saw some graffiti murals, and really enjoyed seeing so many of Botero’s sculptures in the square. The tour wrapped up with the story of The Bird, a statue that someone set a bomb under during a concert in the park in the 1990s. Botero insisted the damaged sculpture stay as a reminder to people, and he created a duplicate that is beside the damaged one. A sad reminder of recent violence, but a positive story too of people working to make change.
The tour lasted about 4 hours and as it wrapped up it started to shower a bit. Looking at the traffic which really wasn’t moving at all, we decided to walk as taking a cab or Uber would have meant sitting still for longer than it took us to walk up the long hill to the hotel. We were glad to have the umbrella and Google Maps to get us onto Avenida Las Palmas and heading in the right direction. We stopped for dinner along the way and had an excellent meal at a nearby restaurant.
For a city with a less than stellar reputation from the 80’s and 90’s it really seems a vibrant and positive place. There is a lot of infrastructure work being done, a lot of energy, it has been a really enjoyable place to visit. Aside from absolute crazy traffic, it has been great!
Friday, November 23 – Medellin to Salento – 273 km
We left Medellin this morning about 8:15. Traffic was heavy as we followed Siri’s instructions through several round abouts, overpasses (and underpasses!) and managed to find our way south onto Highway 25. Although things moved along fairly quickly early in the day we ran into a lot construction along the way. There were several places where the road was a single lane so traffic would be stopped for 10 or 15 minutes while waiting for oncoming traffic to travel through the single lane. It is great to see road work being done but frustrating watching the clock while parked at a ‘pare’ sign waiting for it to switch to ‘siga ’. Sitting in full gear in the hot sun isn’t the most enjoyable thing to do.
Motorbikes congregate at the front of the line of vehicles, but trucks have no hesitation about accelerating ahead when the signal changes – actually everyone is moving before the signal changes. As soon as the flag person makes a move towards the sign (everyone having watched the oncoming traffic, ending in a long line of trucks, then seeing the flag person on the radio. Then he or she makes a step towards the sign, and everyone is in gear and moving ahead before the sign is actually changed. Several times other bikes ‘beat’ us at the start and then we’d pass them a few minutes later. Then we’d all stop again at the next construction area and they’d race to beat us off the line again, we would pass them again … the small bikes here, often loaded with 2 adults and several children don’t have the speed our bikes have, but that doesn’t stop the riders from squeezing past us in a mad mob, ready to race away at the first opportunity.
We enjoyed many very twisty sections of road today with lots of elevation changes; a good ride, except for the construction delays along the way. Google said it would be a 6 1/2 hour trip, but was closer to 8 by the time we waited in so many spots.
Anyway, after a long ride we arrived in the very steeply built town of Salento. Our hotel is Hotel Mirador del Cocora. A mirador is a look-out. Oh, that means there were very steep streets to access the hotel that overlooks the town. A bit of a challenge for me riding up long hills that seem to rise at more than 45 degrees, but we arrived safe and sound. Very glad to arrive when we did as the skies were getting very cloudy. We had seen lots of clouds this afternoon but thankfully we hadn’t been rained on. We rode on wet pavement in some areas, but didn’t get rained on ourselves. We are very grateful for the luck we’ve had with the weather!
Walked to a nearby restaurant, La Camina Real for an excellent dinner, and headed ‘home’ (steep uphill walk) for the night.
Saturday, November 24 – 0 km today
We had a fabulous breakfast at the Hotel Mirador del Cocora and enjoyed amazing mountain views from the deck. A lovely way to start the day, especially since the coffee was good too!
Walked into downtown and found the central square where we caught a Jeep to ride up to the Valle de Cocora where the hugely tall palms grow. There is a hike up to various viewpoints, but unfortunately by the time we got there about 9:30 AM and spent an hour hiking up the mountain the clouds had rolled in so we didn’t get a clear view of the valley. The hike was a fair bit of work as we followed the same trail that the horses take as well as vehicles. This doesn’t mean it is in good shape! It is a rough track with the added complication of dodging horse dung, eroded bits where water has washed away the dirt and created deep ruts, other ruts created by a few trucks that are allowed to drive up the hills. The track is a switchback and meant as we walked we had to pay attention to the surface. The valley and palms were interesting to see, but the fog impeded our picture-taking abilities.
We caught a ride back to town and grabbed lunch at a restaurant on the square. The shared patacone (shredded and thinly pressed unripe plantain that is fried into something similar to potato chips) with beef and cheese and a few sauces to add some flavour was great. An excellent refresher after our hike!
We enjoyed a stroll around the square and nearby streets. Lots and lots of shops and restaurants are located here, many stores selling hand crafted work, interesting clothing and much more. Refreshing to not see a single brand name, other than pop and beer brands marketed by restaurants. The vibe was really positive around the square on pedestrian-only streets filled with people having fun and doing their shopping.
Walked back to the hotel and spent some time catching up on communications. We were very glad to be here, warm and dry because about 4:30 pm the rain came down in torrents. It wouldn’t be much fun hiking from the Valle de Cocora or riding in a Jeep in this!
We noticed Steve and Eva’s bikes parked here when we got back from our walk however they were out doing their own exploring and got caught in the rain. By the time they got back to the hotel they were soaked and cold so we didn’t meet for dinner.
However we had good company for an excellent meal at El Camino Real. On our hike today we talked with Jim and Joanne from Ottawa several times. They are avid hikers and much more fit than Tony and I so they did a longer hike than we did this morning. As we were heading down the hill to find a bite about 7:30 (after the rain stopped!) we ran into them on a similar quest and agreed to go for dinner together. They were good company and introduced us to a young couple they had met earlier on their trip through Colombia. So the six of us shared some good conversation and good food for a very enjoyable evening.
Sunday, November 25 – Salento to Cali – 220 km
We met Steve and Eva at breakfast this morning and heard about their experiences yesterday of the ride from Medellin (positive) and the rain that caught them as they were exploring Salento (very wet!). As Tony and I are going to take our time traveling through Ecuador they will likely pass us shortly as they have flights booked from Cusco to go back to Tucson for Christmas before they resume their ride to Ushuaia.
The ride today was an easy one, mostly on toll roads (motorbikes don’t pay tolls here) which were of good quality. We got to Cali in the early afternoon, found a place to get the bikes washed close to our hotel so got that organized, and checked in for a quiet afternoon.
Picked up our super-clean bikes and then went for a walk to find dinner. Not much in this area of the city, but found our way to a huge mall that was jam packed with people. Black Friday for the whole weekend is a huge deal here. We thought it looked like 2 days before Christmas by the number of people in the mall and the line up of cars trying to get in – and out – of the parkades. There was also a huge line up of people waiting to pay for parking and the mall has airport-style moving walkways. This city is serious about shopping!
Found dinner at a so-so Mexican restaurant and walked around the mall for a bit, people watching rather than shopping. The Christmas decorations are up in over-the-top fashion. It is hard to get used to seeing fake snowmen and reindeer in a country where it doesn’t snow and the whole Santa idea seems so odd. But everyone seems very on board and excited!
Monday, November 26 – Cali to Pasto – 415 km
It was a long ride today. We left Cali about 8, heading south. The traffic in the city was very heavy. At one point the two lane highway narrowed down to a single lane for a few blocks where fruit and vegetable vendors line the streets. This wouldn’t be so bad, except the delivery trucks stop in the middle of the road to unload, blocking traffic in the process. Hard to get used to!
Once out of Cali we rode some pretty good but very twisty roads through mountains and valleys. The views were lovely, but given the clouds and rain that we experienced for most of the day, we didn’t really get to enjoy them much. In the sunshine Highway 25 must be breath taking in places.
There were a few rough spots, a few areas of potholes, but for the most part things were fine. We made a few brief stops along the way before getting to Pasto for the night about 5:00 PM. We are still getting used to the idea it takes 8 hours to do 400 km and were very glad to get off the bikes at our hotel.
We had planned on spending an extra day here, but since checking in we have changed our minds. The hotel has no heat and no hot water. When we arrived, the windows in our 4th-floor room were all open so it was about 16 degrees inside. After a long damp day on the bikes that’s definitely not ideal. And the tiny drizzle from the shower that never gets warm isn’t great either. We won’t rush back to Hotel Star. I think they are trying hard, but haven’t quite got things figured out yet.
Walked a block for a chicken dinner in the downpour and came back for what we hope is a quiet night … but there seems lots of traffic noise and barking dogs. We will see how we sleep before heading to Ipiales tomorrow. It will hopefully be a short ride and we will be able to see the cathedral there before crossing into Ecuador.
Tuesday, November 27 – Pasto to Ipeales 81 KM
Not a long ride today, but one that took a long time to complete. The amount of construction on Highway 25 is remarkable. There are stretches of roadwork going on for several kilometers, then a few km of regular road, then another stretch of roadwork, usually meaning one lane is closed and some of the traffic backups fill miles of roadway. Good thing motorbikes scoot to the front of the line, although you still have to wait for on coming traffic to be cleared to carry on. It seems we spent as much time riding as waiting at construction sites.
Got in to Ipeales on a very rainy afternoon. We were glad to get the bikes parked in a secure lot across from the hotel and get settled in to our space. Hanging things up to dry was a priority! We had thought of going to see Lajas Sanctuary this afternoon but decided to wait until tomorrow morning in hopes of clearer skies and better weather.
Wednesday, November 28 – Ipeales to San Gabriel – 51 KM
Today started out as a lovely one. We headed out to Lejas Sanctuary after breakfast and enjoyed walking around the area. The church is beautiful, although somewhat Tolkien-esque when looking at the entire valley where it is located. It was an interesting site, we enjoyed walking some of the paths and seeing the cathedral. A service was in session and the music was fabulous too. Great acoustics! An enjoyable stop this morning.
Then the day took a turn for the worse. As we headed towards the border crossing just outside of Ipeales we discovered a large bunch of people were protesting something. They had blocked access to the Rumichaca International Bridge over the River Chiquito that is the border between Columbia and Ecuador. Police were preventing anyone from trying to cross the border too. One of the officers told me he expects the protest to wrap up in an hour so we waited. And waited. About 12;30 a huge group of university students started walking towards the bridge and we couldn’t tell if they were protesting or counter protesting. Given our position at the very front of the line of traffic we decided to exit for lunch in hopes everything would have cleared by the time we grabbed a bite.
No such luck. After lunch we again cruised to the front of the growing line ups of cars, buses (off loading passengers who walked across the bridge without being harassed), trucks, and heaps of locals out just observing the activities. Again we waited for awhile, then finally asked if we could ride to the bridge and start the paperwork process to exit Columbia. We were grudgingly told we could go by police who were concerned that if we got stamped out of Columbia and didn’t get into Ecuador we’d be stuck in the middle. We thought we’d risk it.
So down the hill we went in what is now heavy rain. Found a place to park the bikes, got our Columbia exit stamp with no problems, got our bikes checked out of the country, so the next step would be to cross the bridge to Ecuador to start the entry process. Except by now several hundreds of students were blocking the bridge, chanting, dancing, playing ball games and greatly inconveniencing a lot of their fellow citizens – and foreigners too.
Four guys on rental bikes with whom we had chatted in various line ups decided to scope things out, they decided to ride across the bridge on the pedestrian track, and we kicked ourselves for not being ready to go when they were as they got across with no trouble. However as soon as they had gone, the students included the pedestrian lane in their blockade to prevent other bikes from following suit. So we waited in the pouring rain for awhile, walked across the bridge without our bikes to start the process of entering Ecuador which went well until they wanted photos of the bikes, which were technically still in Columbia. Back we went, waited a bit longer, and finally the damn students stopped their blockade and traffic flowed across the bridge in a rush. Although we were among the first to cross, it still took several hours to get the paperwork done.
All of this meant we didn’t get cleared to enter Ecuador until 5:30 pm. It was a cold and rainy afternoon and evening, and we were both feeling a bit stressed about trying to get to Otavola tonight. Although it is only about 130 km, Google told us it would be a three hour drive.
Off we went in heavy overcast, heavy rain at times, struggling to see clearly in heavy traffic. Not a lot of fun, but we thought we could tough it out for a few hours. However after getting colder, being able to see even less as dark fell, Tony pulled off the road at a motel he saw just outside of San Gabriel. This is one of those places where I’m pretty sure guests are not usually with their regular partners … but it has secure parking, it is warm, and we were assured that the water is hot. So, cold and tired, we booked their last room, rode back into town to find dinner, finally settled into our room with riding clothes hanging everywhere to hopefully dry out for tomorrow’s ride.
We probably won’t stay at Otavalo as we had originally planned, but may scope it some of their markets before heading to Mindo for a couple of days.
Thursday, November 29 San Gabriel to Mindo Valley via Mitad del Mundo 273 KM
Started the day with mediocre breakfast in San Gabriel before turning towards Mindo Valley, with a route through Otavalo where we had hoped to spend last night. The road between San Gabriel and Otavalo goes through beautiful country with lots of twists and tight turns, great fun to ride. However I was very glad we weren’t doing this in the dark.
The day is overcast with bands of heavy cloud part way up the surrounding mountainsides. We’re hoping to get to Mindo without getting soaked again. Our gear hadn’t completely dried last night, so getting dressed this morning was a bit uncomfortable! Thankfully it warmed up in the morning so we only felt damp, not damp and chilled.
We stopped in Ibarra to get a new SIM card for Tony’s phone. We still can’t send texts internationally for some reason, but google maps works as does email so we’re not completely cut off. Nor lost!
We skirted through the northern part of Quito but didn’t go into the city despite great reviews for culture, points of interest etc. I’ve had my fill of big city traffic so today we avoided the city and headed for a more rustic locale in the Mindo Valley. We stopped for lunch in Mitad del Mundo at a restaurant famous for its grilled guinea pigs. There are several cages of them outside in the parking lot but we didn’t try to make their acquaintance. We just grabbed an excellent couple of bowls of soup and then headed to the big monument that incorrectly marks the position of the equator.
Mitad del Mundo is located on a big traffic circle and access certainly isn’t clearly marked. Eventually we found our way to the site and enjoyed roaming around and climbing the stairs inside of the museum to see the view. Given the cloud and drizzle, the view wasn’t great, but we chatted with a couple of Finns who are riding DRs through the Americas. They’ve been on the road for 4 months from Seattle and Vancouver, heading to Ushuaia before heading home. We compared notes on a few border crossings and may cross paths with them again.
Our last 75 km took about an hour and a half given the twisty road to Mindo Valley. It was a beautiful ride although it took longer than I had expected. The road isn’t in as good a shape as this morning’s stretch of highway and there are some amazing areas where work is being done to carve out what appears to be the sides of mountains. The valley we rode through was quite narrow and the road climbed and fell as it wrapped its way around the edges of the valley.
We arrived about 5:30, as usual, glad to be off the road before dark. Our lodge is interesting, very small, but seems comfortable. The town is a short walk away and we were pleased to find so many restaurants open in the evening. Enjoyed a good meal at El Cheffe before walking back to our home for the next few nights.
Friday, November 30 Mindo Valley 6 KM walking
A very lazy morning. I think the two months of continuous travel has made us both more tired than we realized. This morning we got up in time for a lovely breakfast at La Bicok Ecolodge then went back to our unit to get ready to go into town and see what activities we could get booked into for today. I lay down for a minute and was out like a light until almost 11:00! When I work up, Tony was beside me sawing logs, so it hasn’t been a very active morning at all. But the nap was great to have!
We walked into town, picked up some water and snacks and started a hike up to a waterfall about 5 km outside of town. It was a pretty uphill walk and every sign we passed said ‘5 Km’, the distance never got shorter. About 3 km up the hill we stopped by a zip line place. Instead of going for a ride we looked at the darkening sky and decided to head back to town. We weren’t really prepared for a walk in the rain and things looked pretty dark. So we didn’t see the waterfall, but we had a good walk and got to Mindo without getting rained on. Stopped to celebrate with a banana split!
Quiet rest of the day. Tony did some work on the bikes and went for a swim, I did some research on Ecuador’s history which led me to learn a bit about Simón Bolívar. There’s so much we don’t know!
Dinner at the Dragonfly Cafe this evening.