I`ve been following a couple blogs from bikers ahead of us that have already passed through Colombia and have been particularly interested at how they all seem to rave about this country, particularly the incredible scenery and hospitable people. Honestly, I was a bit skeptical. I suspected that they were just being good travelers and attempting to spread good will back in the States in an attempt to assuage all the stereotypical American fears of Colombia. Now that we are here however, I couldn´t agree more!
This country has been absolutely fantastic! Aside from losing my passport (which I´m gonna go ahead and attribute to my own absent mindedness), Cartegena was amazing, Taganga a relaxing beach getaway, and now we are traveling in the mountainous regions of the country´s center and it couldn´t be more impressive.
As for the people, they really are genuinely thoughtful. Now, I have no intention of dropping my guard just because we´ve met a handful of nice people, but I have to say that we´ve certainly warmed to the culture. In the last few days we´ve had a guy stop on the side of the road and help tension the chain, we stopped to ask directions and another guy kissed his girlfriend goodbye and proceeded to lead us across town on his motorcycle around traffic to our destination, we´ve been invited to lunch by a wonderful family we met at the US Embassy who also invited us to stay at their cabin, and just last night another family invited us to a political rally where we were given free dinner and drinks while we socialized and danced into the night. Nevermind that there were pictures of Fidel Castro and Che Guevera lining the walls and a big anti-bush poster up by the stage, everyone we met was incredibly nice and had high hopes for the new administration :-)
From Cartegena we headed Northward to the town of Taganga. Initially we had considered staying a night in Santa Marta, but quickly realized that it was not for us. The beach wasn`t particularly impressive and the walking areas less than inviting. After about an hour of searching for the road we finally made it over the hill and around the bend to the little beach town of Taganga. This turned out to be a really nice two-day getaway where we lounged about and drank probably 15 fruit smoothies a piece. We stayed at the Pelikan Hostel and ran into the French couple we had met at the Boca Lara community in Darien, Panama. We had been told that Taganga was a hot destination for Israelis and in reality I think Hebrew was more widely spoken in town than Spanish.
Southward from Taganga we had a long day of riding down to Sincelejo. This wasn`t exactly a planned destination, but rather a convenient stop on our way to Medellin. And then Tragedy Struck!
Upon arrival at our hotel in Sencilejo I reached into my pocket for my passport and found only empty air and shattered dreams! I keep my passport in a plastic bag w/ my credit cards and spare cash, in a zippered and velcroed pocket of my shorts, underneath my riding pants. I feel that it has been well protected for the entire trip and have had no problems with this arrangement. Generally I only need access to this bag when we are crossing a border or being harassed by the local police, and so it happened that about an hour North of town we were stopped at a military checkpoint to have our paperwork looked over. The soldiers were really nice and all of our paperwork checked out but I was having some electrical trouble with the bike and was engaged in sorting that out at the time that they gave my paperwork back to me. I can´t remember the exact details about what transpired, all I know is that when we arrived in Sencilejo I still had all the bike permit paperwork but my passport, credit cards and cash were MIA :-( A high speed 60km drive in the pounding rain back to the checkpoint to ask about the missing items and, surprisingly, the officers had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe I dropped it on the road, or maybe they stole it, in any case I was SOL. I limped back to Sencilejo with my tail between my legs where Grace was patiently awaiting my return. Grace, could you please fill us in on what you were up to while I was gone?
Adam rode out into the evening, and I took a shower and prepared for an hour or so on the bed relaxing and watching television. Not fifteen minutes passed before I received a phone call from the front desk, which ended in my heading downstairs to answer some very detailed questions about where we were coming from, and when, and all in Spanish which made me a bit uneasy so I asked why. The clerk answered that the hotel had received a memo from the government requiring them to ask more questions of tourists and travelers. Odd, but okay. So, that line of questioning finished, I headed back upstairs and once again laid back on the bed for some rest. Ten minutes later I received another phone call, and she requested I return to the front desk. Frustrated and a more than a little confused, I headed back down. Whereupon I came face to face with not one, but five Colombian Health Officials with intense faces and rapid-fire questions (again, all in Spanish) that had me shaking and sweating within 30 seconds. It didn´t help that it was hot and nearing 100% humidity. They wanted to know where and when we had been in Mexico, and if Adam or I had shown any symptoms of, yep, you guessed it: Piggie Flu. The intense line of questioning lasted 45 minutes, with me repeating everything multiple times, taking out my passport to prove the dates of my departure from Mexico (it had been exactly two months). As the conversation progressed, and I asserted that we had shown no symptoms, nor had anyone we had come across, they began to simmer down a bit. By the end of it, they were practicing their English skills on me. -end Grace´s story.
We weren´t sure how long it would take to get a new passport and the only embassy is in Bogota, so from Sencilejo we headed straight for the capital. About 200km North of Medellín the road begins to climb into the mountains, the hillsides turn a brilliant green and every hilltop community necessitates a quick stop to photograph. These fantastic colors are due of course to the generous quantity of rain they receive of which we have had the pleasure of driving through on more than one occasion. We passed through the grand mountain city of Medellín where we wanted to spend a couple days exploring but decided to skip as we would now be visiting Bogotá.
We spent a short night in La Dorada after an 11 hour ride where we enjoyed a great corner stand dinner and woke up early on Thursday morning to finish our ride to the city. We arrived in Bogotá amid a torrential downpour and made a B-line for the US Embassy which was scheduled to close for the weekend at Noon on Thursday. It was 10:30am.
We found it fairly quickly, got the paperwork filled out and were told to return at 3pm to pick up my new temporary passport. Total cost, $100 USD. Fantastic! Meanwhile, we had struck up a conversation with a father-daughter duo in the waiting area and they invited us back to his office for lunch. We had to wait till 3pm anyway so we decided to join them. The dad, Javier, owns an engineering firm that works exclusively for the US Army Corps of Engineers building roads and barracks. We got to meet the whole family and had a fantastic lunch. They own multiple pieces of property around Colombia as well as in the US and even invited us to use their mountain cabin 1 hour outside the city. Incredible.
So far Bogota has exceeded our expectations. A far cry from other capital cities that we´ve visited thus far, Bogota is cold, wet, and delightful. Granted, the city is enormous and we have spent our time almost exclusively in the ¨Old Town¨ area where the majority of museums, churches and walking streets are located, but we´ve been enjoying it immensely. We´re staying at a great little hotel named El Dorado which is right across the street from a delicious bakery that we´ve had breakfast for the last two days.
Yesterday we took a gondola ride up to Monserrate, a monastery perched on the hillside on the edge of town that provides spectacular views of the city. It was here that the chaos of May 1st, 2009 began! We had a great view down into the large Plaza Bolivar and saw that it was packed full of people in some sort of demonstration. While gazing down and pondering what excitement we might be missing we heard 3 loud BOOMS and saw smoke in the square followed by the frantic disbursement of the crowd. Hmmm... this can´t be good. By the time we made our way back down into the city, the streets were filled with police in riot gear and all of the banks had had their windows broken out and walls graffitied. We were very careful about where we walked and who we talked to but in reality nothing about the environment felt particularly unsafe. Aside from the enormous police presence, there were families all around, kids eating ice cream and chasing birds, and people just casually going about their business. After asking around, we learned that May 1st every year is a holiday to recognize Colombian workers and invariably a time for the Political Left to come out against the corruption and poor performance of the government on social matters. For this reason, some people in the crowd decided it would be a good idea to throw rocks and paint balls at all the banks in town as well as graffiti some of the churches, government buildings, and random store fronts. It seemed stupid to us and a bit of a waste, but the chaos was short lived and by the time we arrived everything was once again tranquilo.
The good news is that we were invited to a killer left-wing political fiesta where Grace and I enjoyed free food and drinks and danced our socks off to the blaring beats of a local rock band. Good times.
Today we are spending one last day relaxing and walking around town before we once again hit the road. From here we head South towards Cali, Popayan, and on to Ecuador. But first we may have to take up our new friends' offer and pay a visit to their farm house in the mountains. Apparently they even have a chef there who will be taking care of us.
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