Monday, 10 August 2015

Colombia - First Impressions


You can't deny the murky past of Colombia. It once supplied 80% of the world's cocaine habit and it is still a major supplier of not only cocaine, but cannabis and heroin as well. At one point the government effectively lost control of the country to rebels due to the lucrative return from kidnapping and drugs. The fight went on for decades with names like Pablo Escobar becoming worldwide household names. Colombia was home to some of the most violent and sophisticated drug traffickers in the world. There is no wonder people are still nervous of visiting Colombia.


However, the Cartel empire began to self destruct in the 1990's. Most of the main guys were killed in shoot outs with the police, and since 2002 the government have made a lot of headway in fighting the left wing extremists that still exist. They are cleaning up the country - fast.

Colombia is not what it used to be. There are still many problems, but in much smaller areas, and the fight for peace and justice continues to make it a safe and welcoming place for visitors. Tourism is very much on the increase and it is fast becoming one of my personal favourite destinations.


 I have travelled 700 miles since crossing the border and I have now arrived at Villa de Leyva, a
small Spanish colonial village in the Boyaca department of Colombia. Declared a national monument in 1954 and frozen in time ever since, it seems. The white buildings and Terracotta tiled rooftops are beautiful. The farmers market on Saturday is full of interesting faces and offers an array of wonderful fruits, fresh meats and crafts. Saturday morning breakfast here is a must. I went for eggs, sausage, black pudding (of sorts) and hot chocolate. It tasted all the better for the atmosphere, sat amongst the hanging sausages and panama hats!

Back in Cali, I had taken in some of the sights while I waited for my leaking fork seal to be repaired.
It was a welcome break and made all the more interesting by the company of a local biker named Juan. A city is just a city to me without some local knowledge and good company. Juan offered both, and soon enough I was hanging out in back-street salsa club's, touring the cities monuments and trying all the local foods. Colombia has an overwhelming abundance of fruit, some of which can only be found here. I had never heard of Lulo before.  It's a citrus fruit and has a particularly strong flavour, but crushed up with ice on a sweltering hot day in the city, it made a refreshing drink!

There are two things so far that I will never forget about Colombia. One is the fact that they serve hot
chocolate with a chunk of cheese that you put IN your hot chocolate (although it's pretty tasteless cheese. We're not talking Cathedral Mature Cheddar here!), and the second is riding a real-life, made-of-muscle, can't-walk-got-to-run, beautiful Colombian horse named Ronda!

Yes, you read it correctly! It was a horse by the same name as my trusty steed(well its abbreviated name anyway). I'd seen these horses on television in the past. The way they move is incredible. The leg movement is double the speed of any normal horse and just want to go at full speed! I love a horse with spirit and this one had it by the bucket-load. I was extremely tempted to swap Rhonda for Ronda and hope no one noticed! Has anyone ever been around the world on a horse?

From Cali I rode to Filandia in the Quidio department. It wasn't a long ride distance-wise, but the roads were twisty and busy with trucks. So far the riding between destinations has not  been anything to write home about but the destinations themselves have been quite special. Fikandia is another colourful colonial town that smiles at you when you arrive and serves you great coffee! I went there to check out the viewing tower - an enormous wooden construction that overlooks the Cuaca river valley. Unfortunately it was all locked up so I didn't get to climb it, but I was not disappointed with the town itself.

The buildings are all exquisitely decorated with bright colours and the structures themselves are clearly very old. It felt so warm and friendly. I spent my day there pottering around town drinking coffee, taking photographs and soaking up the relaxed atmosphere amongst the locals. That night I set up camp on a smallholding just outside town and made friends with 5 little dogs who seemed to enjoy my company while I was there. However, just as soon as the morning came and I got on my bike, riding off down the driveway, all such forged relationships were forgotten. I was fair game and they chased after me, biting at my legs as I negotiated the cobbles. The South American dog sport of motorcycle chasing is alive and well in Colombia!

Traitor
I made a hasty retreat from the terrifying (see picture) traitorous dogs and took the obvious route to Bogota. A ride I had expected would take around 4 hours. It took 7 and they weren't pleasant. The first 60 miles took me 3 hours due to several factors: steep mountain roads full of slow-moving trucks, spluttering their way up the switchbacks; and extreme winds that hit hard on every corner at the highest points. The next 100 miles were easy riding but very dull dual-carriage way leading into your usual city scenario. Nothing too complicated but not much fun either. The Police presence on the roads has long dissipated since Cali.  I missed their thumbs up every time I rode past. Although police are generally friendly in my experience, I did wonder what that was all about. When I asked someone later, I was told it had become a national symbol meaning 'We are with you'. What a lovely gesture and very reassuring.

I had been told not to bother with Bogota by some, and warned away by others. I went anyway to find out for myself and I'm glad I did. A vibrant city full of life and interesting characters,  Bogota has a lot to offer - from the architecture, the night life, the people and particularly street art. The graffiti here is amazing. Clearly so much talent.  Once again I met up with some locals and was soon enjoying the night life with people who knew the best places to go. I only stayed two nights and then I was ready for  the countryside again. My aim was to work my way up North via the colonial towns in the hills and to camp as often as possible to save on costs. I wanted to avoid the busy cities for a while and get to know the quieter parts of Colombia.

Camping has been easy here so far. There are plenty of safe areas and great local facilities. The weather is ideal although it seems to be getting hotter now as I head further North.

Next stop Barichara and then a big push of about 300 miles up to Mompos before I hit the coast. From there I will work my way down to the coffee triangle and Medellin region before shipping the bike over the Darian gap to Panama.
Visiting an underground salt cathedral 





























1 comment:

  1. I love the colourful buildings. I'm really pleased to hear that you feel safe there and it sounds like it might be a wonderful country to visit now.

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