Day 58 – Quito, Ecuador

Last night we slept at an altitude of 4,700 metres near the top of Volcan Cayambe.  We nearly froze, which is ironic considering that the equator, running through the valley below, was in visual range.  We were well above the snow line, and even the new Alpaca wool sweaters we had recently bought in Otalavo just didn´t cut it.  The wind whipped right through our tents and sleeping bags.  It was by far the most spectacular campsite of the trip though.

The road up the side of Cayambe was also the most difficult of the trip.  Twice we were ready to turn around, our bikes mirred in loose rocks.  We couldn´t get any traction because the slopes were so steep, and the road was covered with rocks the size of soccer balls that would roll down in an avalanche behind our rear wheels when we tried to gun it.  However, both times we were ready to give up, people driving 4x4s stopped to help, telling us it was beautiful on top and that the road would soon get easier.

The first guy to help us was a self-described lover of motorcycles.  He had Ted and I push him while he rode my bike.  Even with both of us pushing, he nearly fell several times.  Finally he got going fast enough to outrun us, and a few metres up the rode, dropped my bike on its side.  I was thinking that I could have done that just as easily.

Next was Ted´s bike.  Again, our helper rode and Ted and I pushed.  There were no mishaps.  After he had stopped the bike in a safe spot, he said that Ted´s bike was much easier to ride.  I´m sure this is because Ted´s bike is lighter.  Hmmmm, do I have an excuse?

The sun was just dropping over a ridge when we hit a second extremely challenging section.  We were now so high that there was snow beside the road, and we were both feeling the effects of the alititude.  I had a mild headache, but Ted was feeling dizzy.  I was following Ted, who lost traction and ended up stuck in a rock-filled rut.  He dropped his bike trying to get out.  On this section of road, as soon as you stop, you´re finished.  I came to a stop when Ted fell over, and then foolishly tried to gun my bike up a bit further to help him out.  I made it fine for a few meters, but then I lost traction and started sliding backwards in a mini avalanche.  It was probably a good thing that my bike tipped over, because she had been starting to build speed. 

So there we were, both of our bikes down, the sun setting, the temperature dropping, and we couldn´t camp anywhere near where we were because the road was cut into a steep slope and there was nowhere to pitch the tents.  But then a couple of guys driving a 4×4 truck came up behind us.  They couldn´t get past our bikes lying on the narrow road.  Ted and I righted first his, and then my bike and moved them off to the side clearing a path for the truck.  Instead of driving by, however, the driver got out with a tow rope in his hand.  Ted and I looked at each other.  What kind of hairbrained scheme did he have in mind?  He wrapped the rope around Ted´s steering column and attached it to the back of his bumber, and motioned for Ted to get on the bike.  It looked like a gong show waiting to happen.  Ted´s bike might get dragged up the slope, but it might not be rubber side down as it went.

Luckily, the rope broke almost instantly.  We reverted to plan B.  Ted rode the bike, and two guys from the truck and myself pushed him as he rode.  After getting his bike past the treacherous section, I went back for mine.  After getting a push off, I was able to gun it the rest of the way.  It was hairy.  Several times I thought I was going to lose it, but I didn´t dare slow down.  Slowing down would almost surely end with my bike on her side.

I drove past Ted’s bike and rode up a few more switch backs.  I didn´t want to stop for fear that I wouldn´t get her moving again.  Finally I hit a flat area covered in snow.  With the back end fish-tailing, I blasted my way through the slush covering the track.  I finally found a sandy spot where I could stop and wait for Ted.

By now the altitude sickness was really affecting Ted.  He had dropped his bike again further down the slope.  The guys driving the 4×4 had helped him get it up.  Now he rode by me and attempted a steep slush covered hair-pin turn.  The bike went over (I was taking an action shot as it happened too).  Ted staggered after he picked himself up.  He didn´t want to go any farther.  There was a flat area where we could pitch the tents.

Just then the guys in the 4×4 caught up to us.  They said that there was a refuge just a little further up the road.  I was all for trying to make it the rest of the way up.  I had a feeling tenting in the snow would be damn cold.  I mean, we thought Amarillo, Texas was cold.  This was a whole other league.  However, Ted was in no shape to ride anymore.  I proposed to first ride my bike up, and then walk back down and ride his up.

Unfortunately, my engine died every time I put her into gear.  This had happened a few times earlier in the day, but eventually I had always been able to get her moving.  Not this time.  I suspected that the kickstand engine kill switch was starting to fail.  I remember Mike (the fellow KLR rider we met way back at the Grand Canyon) telling us that he had disconnected his.  The trouble was I didn´t know where to disconnect it.  We decided to camp where we were, and try to fix my bike in the morning.

The moon came up, bathing the snowcovered cone of Cayambe in white light.  We cooked instant noodles and crawled into our icy tents.  I was wearing a shirt, two big wool sweaters, and my gore-tex jacket inside my sleeping bag.  I had a sleeping bag liner as well.  I still felt like an icicle.  I wondered what hypothermia felt like.  Maybe I would find out.  At some point in the early morning hours, the wind picked up.  I thought my tent was going to blow right off the mountain.  I don´t think I slept more than an hour all night.

Packing up in the morning was a painful process with frozen fingers and fighting the wind as we took down our tents.  Worse, my bike´s engine cut out every time I put her into gear.  Why did the kick-stand kill switch have to fail at the coldest, windiest place of our entire trip?

Luckily Ted MacGyver Macher came to the rescue.  He used the needle nose pliers to cut the cable.  Then he unscrewed the plastic housing, and then by trial and error got the switch fixed in a position where the engine wouldn´t cut.  Nice work.

Getting down involved both of us dropping our bikes in the tricky section.  We walked Ted´s all the way down.  Stubbornly, I wanted to try riding it.  I was doing well.  Like Homer when he jumped Springfield gorge on a skateboard, I started to think “I´m going to make it”.  Then I hit some rock filled holes.  By bike started bouncing.  There was nothing I could do to control her.  She crashed hard onto the left side.  I hit my knee on a boulder.  The left peli (which had been attached with zip-ties) came off.  The left tank pannier fell off as well because one of the straps had ripped right off.

After getting the luggage sorted, I am pleased to say that I managed to ride the rest of the way down without any further mishaps.  It was an exhausting 24 hours.  But Volcan Cayambe is without a doubt a major highlight of the trip
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Day 55 – Otavalo, Ecuador

Today we rode from Pasto, Columbia to Otavalo, Ecuador.  It was a fantastic ride over smooth Andean highways with incredible vistas.  The border crossing at Ipiales was time consuming because of a long line-up to get our passports stamped, but otherwise it was a painless procedure compared to what we went through in Central America.  The total cost was 80 cents for photocopies, and no helpers were required.

The town of Otavalo is nestled in the pines at the foot of a towering dormant volcano.  It has a pleasant atmosphere with a good choice of cafes and restaurants.  There is a central square full of hand-made crafts for sale.  I noticed a lot of hostels while looknig for a motorcycle-friendly hotel (success for $20 a night).  Otavalo seems to be a backpacker hotspot.

I am looking forward to exploring Ecuador and beyond, but I am going to miss Columbia.  I had some amazing experiences interacting with the Colombian people.  One night in particular stands out.  We had stopped for the night in Oiba, a small town between Tunja and Bucamaranga.  It was July 20th, which was fiesta in all of Columbia.  I had written a blog entry at an internet cafe.  Ted had already gone to sleep.  Instead of going back up the hill to the hotel, I went down to the town square to check out the fiesta.

It was quite the scene.  The town square was packed full of people.  There was a temporary stage set up with giant speakers.  Music was blasting, and a mass of people were dancing.  Caballeros rode horses through the crowd.  Food and drink stands were set up all around the square.  There was a bar under a canopy in the middle of the square, and it was obvious that a lot of people had been taking full advantage.  I could see one guy hanging onto one of the poles holding up the canopy.  I thought he would bring the whole thing down.  I saw a girl who was maybe 10 years old walking around sipping a beer.

I was standing there taking in the whole spectacle when a group of people dancing nearby came up to me and invited me to join them.  It would have been rude to refuse.  A beer was thrust into my hand (Aguila), as was a shot of homemade happy juice (rum and rice milk?).  I was surrounded by people, all asking me questions in Spanish.  Where was I from?  How did I like Colombia?  Why was l in Oiba?  I answered as best I could with my limited Spanish.  People were fascinated that I had come all the way from Canada on a motorcycle.

One of the men in the circle wanted to introduce me to his family.  He called his wife and two daughters over.  He kept insisting that I dance with his eldest daughter, who was certainly beautiful.  But I guessed her age at about 16.  However, I didn´t want to offend me new friends, so I danced. 

Soon I was being introduced to a whole group of women closer to my age.  I was surrounded.  One beautiful woman led me to the bar and bought me a beer, giving the other ladies the evil eye.  We were engrossed in conversation when one of my newly made friends came over and pulled us back.  Right behind where we had been standing, a space had formed in the crowd.  My new friend made a stabbing gesture to indicate that a knife fight had broken out.

Parents moved their kids back a few paces, but then continued to dance.  It was their fiesta, and they weren´t about to let a a drunken fight ruin it for themselves and their families.  I couldn´t see what happened with the knife fight because of the crowd, but I shortly afterwards I noticed another couple of guys engaged in a drunken fist fight.  The dancers ignored them.

I continued to chat with my new friends.  They kept giving me more beer.  It was midnight when I finally called it a night.  The fiesta looked like it was just getting going.

Day 54 – Pasto, Colombia

Today we traveled from Popayan to Pasto.  The road started in a desert valley, following a river, and then went up through a spectacular canyon to Pasto, which is way up in the mountains.  The elevation change was so dramatic that the temperature changed from uncomfortably hot to uncomfortably cold in just a couple of hours.

The Colombian people continue to amaze us with their friendliness and hospitality.  Yesterday when we arrived in Popayan, we had made friends with a fellow motorcyclist before we had even stopped.  Camilo saw us looking lost in a traffic circle and we started chatting as we rode.  He led us a cheap safe hotel and a place to park our bikes.  After we had booked our room, he led us on a tour of Popayan, called the “White City” due to its colonial archetecture.  Apparently the region produces the most (and highest quality) cocaine in all of Columbia.

Camilo introduced us to his girlfriend, Maria Antionette, who spoke excellent English.  Maria is studying electrical engineering in Cali.  We parked the bikes, (Camilo made sure we took abosuletely everything into the hotel room) and the 4 of us went on a tour of Popayan in Maria’s car.  We ran out of gas, and Camilo had to go fill a bottle at a gas station.  Maria called him “terco” because she had told him that the tank was almost empty and he still didn’t fill up.  We try to learn at least one new Spanish word every day.  After a fantastic supper of a local favourite – plata de montanero – we hiked up a huge hill that had been built by the Indians.  We ended the night with a stop at a bar.

This morning we let Camilo ride our bikes.  He was excited like a kid before Christmas.  He has loved motorcycles his entire life, and likes to race.  He showed us that it’s possible to pop a wheelie on our bikes, luggage and all.  Ted and I have some practicing to do.  

Today, when we arrived in Pasto, we immediately made another friend.  A friendly guy riding a Honda 650 saw our motorcycles outside of a restaurant and came in to chat.  His brother is on a motorcycle trip from Argentina to Pasto, Colombia.  Who knows, maybe we’ll pass him somewhere in the Andes.  Our new friend wanted to know if we needed anything.  I said I needed new gloves.  In addition, we decided to spend the night in Pasto and wanted a cheap hotel.  While we ate, our friend went shopping for gloves, and found me a pair of leather guantlet style gloves for 33,000 pesos (about $16.50).

A girl, Angela, who works for a TV show that airs every Sunday saw us as well, and wanted to do a story about our trip.  She filmed our bikes, and even had the Honda rider take her as a passenger so she could film us riding.  Later, she came by our hotel room to interview us.  If you’re interested, we are going to be the feature this Sunday on a show called Sobre Ruesdas airing in Pasto, Columbia.

Tomorrow we plan to cross the border into Ecuador at Ipiales.  It will be hard to leave, because I have fallen in love with Columbia.  It is a stunningly beautiful country.  I would have loved it for it’s natural beauty alone.  But the warmth of its people is truly astounding.  I don’t understand how a country full of such hospitible and friendly people could have such a history of violence.  When Angela asked me to make a statement about our trip, I said that what has impacted me the most was how pleasantly surprised I was to find the people of Columbia so eager to help us.  Everywhere we stopped, people made us feel welcome.  It was so easy to make friends.  It is amazing that people are willing to give so much when they often have so little.

Day 52 – La Pintada Antioquia, Colombia

The warmth, generosity, and sense of humour of the Colombian people has blown me away.  Over and over again, people have gone out of their way to help us.  Every place we stop, we make instant friends.  Last night, I was parked at the side of the road waiting for Ted to catch up about 25 km outside of Medellin.  I was looking through my Lonely Planet trying to find a cheap place to spend the night in the city.  A friendly young guy named Pastor came up to me and asked if he could help.  Soon he was on the phone with his friend (a taxi driver) getting us directions to a cheap/safe hotel.  He explained where we had to go and we set off.  It wasn´t the best situation because the centre of Medellin was still about an hour away, and it was already dark. 

However, a few minutes after we left, Pastor came up beside me on his motorcyle and signalled me to slow down.  He asked if we wanted to go to Medellin, or if another hotel would be alright.  I said that any hotel would be fine.  Pastor offered to lead us to a good hotel in the town of Girorhota.  We followed him into a quiet friendly town where he found us a nice clean hotel with a locked parking lot for our motorcycles.  It was only 50,000 pesos (about $25) for a room with two beds and even agua caliente.  Pastor showed is a place where we could have a few drinks and then went to join his fiance, Claudia, for Sunday mass.

Pastor and Claudia joined us for a beer after mass.  Pastor said it was his first international experience, and he was happy to help us in any way he could.  We practiced our limited spanish and Claudia and Pator practiced their English (which was better than our Spanish).  Claudia has just completed a degree in microbiology and Pastor works by day and studies by night to become a computer engineer.  This is but one example of the amazing friendliness of the Colombian people.

The day before yesterday when we stopped at a gas station in Bucaramanga to ask directions to the highway leading to Barranca, we drew a crowd of about a dozen people, all eager to help us.  We got our directions, but we were told that it was a 2 hour drive.  Since it was already 4:15 PM, we´d be arriving just as it was getting dark.  This normally would not have been a concern, but earlier that day another friend that we had made in the parking of spectacular chicomocha national park had told us that Barranca was peligro.  I asked the guys at the gas station whether Barranca was seguro.  They smiled and shook their heads, and made gestures with their hands meaning “mas o menas”.  Another guy told us it was dangerous at night.

Looking at the map again, I saw a town about halfway between Bucaramanga and Barranca called San Rafael.  I asked the guys whether San Rafael would be a safe place to spend the night.  Immediately about half a dozen guys made throat slitting gestures.  I guess that meant no.  Another guy said something about “gringos” and “motos” as he made the throat slitting gesture, and everybody laughed heartily.  Since Barranca was dangerous at night, and apparently they´d slit our throats and steal our bikes in San Rafael, we pretty much had to spend the night in Bucaramanga, a modern city of about 600,000.

We asked the guys where we could find a cheap/safe hotel (borrato y seguro) and after some discussion, one guy drew us a map and gave us the name of a hotel.  As usual, it didn´t take us long to get lost in a Latin American city.  I stopped and asked some policemen how to get to the hotel.  They immediately warned us that the street we were on was dangerous.  The tried to explain where to go (in Spanish of course), but it soon became clear to them that we were going to get lost again.  One of the policemen asked if I had an extra casco.  When I said I did not, he told us to wait.  5 minutes later he returned with a helmet, hopped on the back of my bike, and directed us through the chaotic traffic-choked streets to an oasis of a hotel, with a secure underground parking lot for the bikes.  It was 45,000 pesos (about $23).

Once we were settled, we decided to go grab a bite to eat.  We asked in the lobby where we could find a good restaurant.  The girls working at the front desk did not want us to go wandering alone at night.  They told us it was dangerous.  Before I realized what was going on, one of the girls had decided to give us an “escort”.  Cool, we had a bodyguard.  Maybe she was worried that we´d wander down the wrong street.  Maybe she just wanted to walk with us.

She led us to a restaurant serving fried chicken.  It seems that fried chicken is a local favourite.  While eating, we realized that at the back of the restaurant there was a bar and what looked like a bowling alley.  Except it wasn´t bowling.  The lanes were gravel and in the open air.  The pins were 3 wooden stakes lined up so that you could only see one from the front.  You didn´t roll the balls down the lane.  You did a kind of softball pitch and launched them the length of the lane in the air.  Pin jockeys stood at the end of the lanes, righting the pins and throwing the balls back to you, bounching them off pieces of wood in the middle of the lanes. 

The balls were lead shells filled with various amounts of sand so they were different weights.  Ted and I decided to give it a go.  A lane was cleared for us, and after watching a couple of our horrendous throws, lighter balls were quickly found for us (mujere balls?).  The object of the game is to be the first to score 15 points.  Each pin is worth a point.  You get two balls per turn.  Ted and I must have gone 10 rounds without either one of us scoring a single point.  We changed the game to first to 5.  I was the first to score, with a “strike” for 3 points.  After another 10 rounds, Ted got a strike.  Then he edged ahead with a single point, for 4.  I managed to tie before he won with another strike.

Although no one in the bar spoke a word of English, soon Ted and I found ourselves split up and partnered with a local from the bar.  They thrust a beer into my hand, and a group of 4 of us played a game.  I didn´t score a single point, but my partner might have been the champion of Colombia.  He won the game by scoring 5 strikes in a row.  Amazing.  One of the guys who was watching started giving me pointers on my technique.  In slow motion, he showed how to throw the ball.  There was definite twisting of the wrist on release.  I decided to try adding the twist.  You start the throw with your hand underneath the ball, and end with your hand over top the ball.  Seems easy enough.

I had a mental image of the ball flying off to the right and landing in the next lane.  I compensated for this perceived flight path by releasing late.  Too late.  The ball went way to the left.  To my horror, I saw that one of the pin jockeys was standing with his back to me facing the side wall.  My heavy lead ball was on a collision course with the back of his head.  I yelled “look out”, but he must not have understood English.  The ball crashed into the gravel, making a good-sized impact crater, about an inch from the back of his right shoe.  He had been relieving himself.  I wonder if the sound of a ball whizzing by his ear startled him enough to dribble on his pants.

Luckily he was good natured about it, and was happy when I bought him a beer.  Every time he walked by after that, he smiled and wanted to knock fists.  Interestingly enough, we weren´t allowed to play anymore after that.

Day 49 – Oiba, Colombia

We don´t like backtracking.  So today we decided that instead of going back to Bogota from Tunja, we would head northwest to Bacamaranga.  Tomorrow, we could head west to Medellin.  Before setting out from Tunja, we had a fantastic breakfast consisting of scrambled eggs, bread, coffee, orange juice, and arepas (yummy!).  An elderly gentleman invited us to eat at his table.  He was excited when he found out we were from Canada.  It turned out he had a daughter living in Oakville, Ontario.  He pulled out his cell phone and called his daughter, and I had a conversation with her about our motorcycle trip and where we should go in Columbia.  She gave me her cell phone and said to call if he we needed help with anything.

About an hour after leaving Tunja, we stopped for gas.  I asked the attendant if we were on the road to Bacamaranga.  We were not.  Three are two roads leading north out of Tunja, and of course we had ended up on the wrong ne.  We would have to backtrack all the way to Tunja.  Once back in Tunja, we set out on another road (the right one?).  We stopped for lunch in a beautiful 16th century town called Villa de Leyva, which was not on our map.  However, by asking people in the restaurant, I was able to ascertain that yet again, we were on the wrong road.  We decided to go back to a tourist information centre that we had seen on the way into town.  However, due to confusion involving a maze of one way streets, I led us out of Villa de Leyva on a different road.  We did not pass a tourist information centre.  Instead we came upon a mini dinosaur museum.  They had a complete skeleton of an enourmous marine creature that lived 120 million years ago.

Outside the museum, I asked directions to Bacamaranga.  Soon a crowd of about a dozen adults and a half dozen kids had gathered.  They discussed the problem of how to get to Bucamaranga amongst themselves.  One woman and a few of the kids spoke English, and they acted as translators.   I was told that I would have to go to Tunja and take the main road to Bucamaranga from there.  I explained that I did not want to backtrack to Tunja.  On the map, it looked like there was some sort of thin red line leading from near where I guessed we were to the main road connecting Tunja and Bucamaranga.  There was more discussion.  One little boy said there was a way to get from the village of Santa Mafia to Barbosa, which was on the main road.  The adults looked doubtful.  It wasn´t until I explained that our bikes could handle bad roads that an old man spoke up in Spanish.  He explained that if we went down the hill and took a right, we would get to the Village of Santa Mafia.  From Santa Mafia, there was a track leading to Mona Kira.  Neither of these villages was on our map.  From Mona Kira it was possible to get to Barbosa.  The kid had been right.  Since backtracking was out of the question, it was settled: we would head into a blank space on the map and hopefully find the main road before dark.

It didn´t take long for the asphalt run out.  The road to Santa Mafia was gravel, but in relatively good shape.  In Santa Mafia, I asked how to get to Mona Kira.  The road  to Mona Kira was  a bit rougher, but  the drive was spectacular.  At one point we had to pass a truck that was stuck in the mud through a pool of murky water.  At Mona Kira, we found a road leading into the mountains.  It seemed to be the only road leading out the other side of the village.  Soon I started doubting that we were on the right road.  The road was really a narrow track covered with loose rocks.  There was grass growing on the road in places, leading me to think that it was not often used.  Would we really get to the main road this way?  I asked some farmers leading horses if we were on the road to Barbosa.  Si, si.  We continued.  However, we had learned in Central America that if you want reliable directions, ask someone with a vehicle.  Machete-wielding farmers will always tell you that you are on the right road.

The road went higher and higher up the side of a mountain.  It was steep and we had not passed any other travelers except for some farmers on horseback.  We stopped and conferred about what to do.  It was getting late – after 4:00PM.  We didn´t want to be lost in the boonies when night fell.  I noticed a woman and a girl working in a nearby field.  I´m not sure what the crop was, but it wasn´t corn, rice, or bananas.  Again I asked if we were on the road to Barbosa.  Si, si.  Well, if two people at different points on the road said it was the road to Barbosa, then I guess it was possible that it really was the road to Barbosa.  Still, we didn´t put a lot of weight on directions given by people working in fields.  However, there was nothing to do except press on.

The road deteriorated even further.  Ted´s bike started to fall over on a pile of loose rocks on a steep downslope.  He tried to catch it, but it was too late.  He had to jump clear and went rolling into the ditch as his bike crashed onto its´ side.  I went to the bottom of the hill so that I could stop my bike and help.  By the time I got back, Ted had already righted his bike.  I went back to my bike, and was standing a feet away from her, zipping up my jacket, when she tipped over.  Bollox.  She was had fallen into a rut, which made getting her back up extremely difficult.  I struggled for a long time without success trying to get her up (stubbornly refusing Ted´s help).  In the end, I had to spin her around 90 degrees so that she was perpendicular to the rut before I got her up.

There we were: our 3rd day in Colombia and we were in the middle of nowhere, not sure if we were on the right track, and we had each dropped our bikes within sight of unknown crops, and it was getting dark.

Day 48 – Tunja, Colombia

It wasn´t my day for the flight from Panama City to Bogota.  First, I was a few kilograms over the weight limit, so Copa Airlines charged me a flat rate of $50 extra.  It was a mistake to take the pelis off the bike.  I don´t think leaving them on would have changed the cargo price at all.

The extra $50 pushed the ticket price over $300 as I had paid $254 online already.  By the time we got to security we were already running late – it was 20 minutes to the scheduled departure time.  Unfortunately I had forgotten to move my Swiss Army knife from my Camelbak to one of my checked bags and security found it.  When I went back to the Copa counter to check it, they told me it would cost another $50 for me to send an extra piece of “luggage”.  I had paid $45 for the knife in Toronto, so it may have been worth it, but I was starting to think I may miss my flight.  I tried to give the knife to a random kid in the airport, but he didn´t understand what I was saying.  Instead, I ended up giving it to one of the security guards.  To make everything worse, I had a caffeine-withdrawal headache coming on because we had been so rushed getting to the airport that I hadn´t even had time for a morning coffee.

The flight was a pleasant 1 hour 27 minutes with a snack and drinks provided.  Mmmmm caffeine.  Things were looking up.  But when we landed in Bogota, I discovered that they had lost my duffel bag.  I was told that hopefully it would arrive on one of the remaining 4 flights scheduled to arrive from Panama that day.  The next flight was supposed to arrive in about an hour and a half.  We decided to eat lunch in the airport and wait for the flight to come in.

Later when I went back to the Copa desk to check on my bag (without much success because no one spoke English) I ran into a husband and wife who were fellow motorcycle adventurists.  They were from Brazil and were traveling from Ushuaia, Argentina to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska two-up on a Yamaha.  They were waiting for a flight to Panama.  After discussing our respective adventures for awhile, they informed me that the Dian (where we needed to get our temporary vehicle import permits) would close at 5, and that we couldn´t leave the airport on our motorcycles until we had the required paperwork.

It ended up taking several hours to get the paperwork finished and the bikes unpacked.  They brought the bikes into the warehouse on a forklift.  When they lowered the pallet, they managed to knock our bikes over.  The crew was incredibly friendly, and before long they were joking around with us, despite the language barriers.  I think they were offering some of their female coworkers as guides to show us around Bogato from the back of our bikes.

The helped me change a bolt on my luggage rack that would no longer tighten, even offering to put some welds on the rack if it was needed.  Luckily it was not.  One of the workers, Edouard, who had been helping us spoke excellent English.  His shift was over just as we were ready to leave, and he offered to take us to a nearby gas station where we could refuel.  We pushed our bikes the equivalent of a couple of blocks.  After gassing up, I asked Edouard how to get to a hotel that had been recommended by the Brazilian couple I had met in the airport.  Just as he was explaining us, his coworker, Levys, came over to say hello. 

Before long, we had been invited to Levys´ house for the night.  It started when he asked us how much the hotel was.  I said $60 (according to the Brazilian couple Bogota is expensive – most are around $100).  He laughed and said that for $40 we could stay at his house.  After Edouard helped me get my bag at the airport (my bag might still be there without a translator), we all went to Levys house (except Levys who had to work until 10 PM) and were greeted by his wife, Rosio.  Rosio prepared supper for us, and despite her limited English and our muy pocito espanol, we managed to have a good conversation.

In the morning, Levys cooked us breakfast (eggs, bread, and cocao) before we went shopping for a new spark plug for Rosa.  We found a couple of blocks from Levys´s house.  Once the new plug was installed, Levys took our bikes for a spin.  Initially he had been the most impressed with my KLR because big Kawasakis are a rarity in Colombia whereas Suzukis are everywhere.  However, although it pains me to admit it, after riding both our bikes he switched his allegiance.  Bah.  Just try sitting on that seat for more than 20 minutes.

Our plan had been to go to Medellin.  Obviously that didn´t happen because we´re in Tunja, which is to the northeast of Bogota, whereas Medellin is to the northwest.  We tried for hours to get out of Bogota and find the road to Medellin.  I must have stopped to ask for directions a half a dozen times.  The traffic patterns were bizarre.  Broad avenues 8 lanes wide would suddenly end and you had to choose left or right, and there was no way to avoid being thrust into a maze of narrow traffic-choked streets.  After sitting in a traffic jam for about half an hour, we finally saw a sign for Medellin.  We followed the arrow, and soon were lost in another maze.

I stopped to ask directions yet again, and the gas attendant said we should go to Tunja instead.  Apparently we were already on the road.  Since it was getting late (after 3:00 PM) and Tunja was only about 110 kms away, we decided to change our plans and go to Tunja because by then we would not have made it to Medellin in the daylight anyway (it gets dark around 6:00 PM and Medellin is about 7 hours from Bogota).  I still had to ask directions twice more because, yet again, the major road we were on ended suddenly and we were on a dirt road.  After sitting through one more jam, we had one more hurdle.  We were stopped by the police for not wearing a reflectiva.  This is a reflective vest that all motorcyclists are required to wear in Colombia.  In Bogota, all riders must have their license plate number tattooed on their vest.  Of course we didn´t have reflectivas, but I explained that reflectivas were not necessary for tourists (which may actually be true).  Eventually, they agreed with me and, after giving us more directions to Tunja, they sent us on our way.  We got to Tunja just as it was getting dark.

Day 46 – Bogota Bound

Today we left our bikes at the Cargo Terminal of Tecumen Airport in Panama City.  They will fly to Bogota tonight.  We will follow tomorrow and continue our trip in a new continent.  We ended up chosing Copa Airlines to fly the bikes.  They were very helpful on the phone, and there was even someone in the office who spoke English.  In contrast, no one even answered the phone at Girag, the airline that seems to the popular choice among people who have posted in the forum at www.horizonsunlimited.com.  The going rate at Girag (according to the forum) is $551 per bike.   Copa charged us $875 for both bikes ($437.50 per bike) which is quite a bit cheaper.  All we had to do was drain the gas in our tanks, disconnect our batteries, and remove the mirrors.  Copa handled the rest.  Other than getting lost repeatedly trying to find the airport, it was a relatively painless and hassle-free experience; certainly easier than the average Central American border crossing. 

The only drawback to Copa is that they only fly to Bogota once a week (Wednesdays).  This gave us several more days in Panama.  We took advantage of our extra time by going on an overnight trip to Isla Grande, an island just off the Caribbean side of Panama.  It was fun to ride from the Pacific to the Atlantic in just over an hour.  The only way to get to Isla Grande was on a small boat (there is no bridge or ferry).  We left our bikes parked in a fenced off area for a fee of $4.  We had to take it on faith that they would be safe there.  

We made the 5 minute crossing to the island ($1.50 each) in a small boat with an outboard motor.  When we got there, the only hotel we could see was also the local bar.  The bar was packed full of wife-beater clad teenagers drinking beer and shouting.  They were crowded around the TV showing the final of the Copa Las Americas between Argentina and Brazil.  I guess one of the guys had been cheering for Argentina.  Although we couldn´t understand the exact jeers, it was clear that the rest of the guys were mercilessly making fun of the poor Argentina fan.  They were all cheering wildy for Brazil, which was winning 3-0 in the dying minutes of the second half.  It looked like the Argentina fan was near tears.  I figured there was going to be a fight for sure the way the guys were pounding their chests and slapping their hands together to imitate the beating that Brazil was laying on Argentina.

However, it wasn´t the guys who ended up fighting.  With seconds to go in the game, someone burst into the bar and shouted something in Spanish.  Immediately the whole bar emptied out into the street.  Two women were going at each other.  By the time Ted and I arrived on the scene it was already over.  The guys thought it was pretty funny.  The women did not.  They were screaming at each other.  Of course I couldn´t understand what they were yelling, but I could hear the odd English swear word mixed in, so I knew they weren´t complementing each other.  One of the woman had blood on the side of her face.  She had a broken bottle clutched in her hand.  She obviously had not emerged the winner, which is not surprising given the size advantage of her opponent (who was one big woman).  I was thinking that this quaint looking Caribbean village nestled in the palms along the beach was a bit more rough around the edges than it looked.

We decided to leave the crowded bar behind and go for a swim.  Our impression of Isla Grande was further shaped by the garbage littering the beach.  It looked like people just threw their trash out on the sand.  Still, the water was nice and from a distance the island looked beautiful. 

When it came time to look for cena, we found that almost every restaurant was closed because it was the off season and a Sunday night.  There were three restaurants open in the entire village, and they all had the exact same menu.  I guess we were eating fish or chicken with rice.  We both ordered the fish because we thought it would be freshly caught.  Instead we got a heavily salted (due to a lack of refrigeration) deep fried red snapper.  It came with skin and head still attached.  It was a hard meal to choke down, but we hungry and we didn´t leave much behind.

That evening we watched what seemed like every man and boy in the village get drunk in the common area in front of the bar (and our hotel room).  They drank clear white rum right out of the bottle as if it were water.  And why not when it cost about the same.  A cold beer cost 50 cents at the bar and you could buy a litre of rum for $3.  By 9 o´clock, there were people stumbling down the street.  Across from a us, an old man sat passed out at a picnic table.  He did not even respond when someone slapped him.

We watched the carnival from the patio in front of our room, which overlooked the street (really a path – there were no cars on the island).  We had an interesting conversation with a couple of drunks who were passing by.  They didn´t speak any English, and we thought it would be a good chance to practice our Spanish.  I had bought a half litre of the most expensive rum in the bar ($3.50) and was sharing.  I was popular.  Unfortunately, even if we had been able to understand Spanish, I don´t think we could have made any sense out of what they drunks were trying to say.  They were too far gone.  Although we did learn that they were father and son and were originally from Puerto Rico.  It was amusing to watch them try to communicate by miming, especially when the topic of conversation turned to women.

At one point a young guy came by and told us his friend could take us out in his boat in the morning for a tour around the island and to go snorkeling on a reef near another island.  He seemed sober enough, so we agreed.  We met the captain and a couple of his buddies at 8 the next morning and set out in his boad to find snorkel gear.  Unfortunately, after trying 3 places on the island, we were still empty handed.  The captan even tried a place on the mainland.  A perfect example of how humour transcends language occurred when he had to beat off an angry barking dog with a rake.  All of us watching from the safety of the boat shared a good laugh.

We ended up not finding any snorkel equipment.  The earliest we could get equipment was noon.  This was too late for us to start because we wanted to make it back to Panama city in the daylight.  So we decided to just go for a tour around the island.  There was a solid wind blowing, and as we left the lee side of the island the swells starting throwing the little boat around.  It got to a point where the swells were over 10 feet high.  The entire boat could fit on the side of the wave.  Nearby, the waves were crashing onto the rocks.  We were all soaked from the spray as the boat bounched arond like a cork.  It did not bode well for my confidence when one of the guys went to the front and starting taking life jackets out from under the bow.  If the crazy guys were worried, it must be serious.  How much would it take to flip one of these little row boats over? 

We passed through a channel between a group of rocks and back into calm water.  On the other side of the island was a fancy resort with cabanas and a pristine beach.  When we got back to the village, we found a path that led us through the rainforest over a hill to the other side of the island and had a nice brunch on the patio overlooking the ocean.  We were the only patrons in the restaurant.  After brunch, we ran into a dutch
family who were disappointed we weren´t staying at the resort.  They were the only guests there.  We borrowed their snorkel equipment and spent a couple of hours on the reef just off the shore from the resort.  It wasn´t quite Hanauma Bay in Hawaii, but there were still fish everywhere (even some big ones).  Plus we were the only ones in the water.

By the time we left, Isla Grande had grown on me.  They even cleaned up all the garbage on Monday morning.  I liked the fact that there were no cars and people got around by walking or taking a boat.  It was a nice contrast from the horrendous non-motorcycle-respecting traffic of Panama City.

We´re back in Panama City for one more night.  Panama city is experiencing an economic boom, partly because the money from the canal is not being robbed by a dirty politicians as it so often was in the past.  There are fancy condos and office towers being built all along the bay.  The entertainment options in Panama city are limitless.  I can see why Sailors look forward to Panama city for months so they can blow their entire pay cheque in one night.  Quite a few blow their money in one of Panama´s Vegas-style casinos.  Hopefully the poker Gods will cooperate and I can win the cost of the flight to Bogota…