The warnings from those who have never been to Colombia were stern to say the least. Based on the looks and words sent my way, I’d either be abducted by drug cartels, sent to prison for trafficking, or beheaded by some sort of guerrilla group. Luckily, this isn’t the 90’s and Pablo Escobar is long gone, although the international fear mongering still persists.
A week ago I left my family and friends in the United States to embark on a motorcycle journey through South America. 18 months of ideation, planning, budgeting, logistics, ruthless seasonal work and blinded drive got me to this moment. Now I just had to do it. That and not get myself killed in the process.
To be honest, the nerves and anxiety to this point have been higher than almost any previous time. And I’ve done a number of crazy things. But this one might be the biggest one yet and I’ve spent the last month telling myself that it’s not worth it if I don’t come home. My genuine biggest fear was killing myself on the roads in the first week. In my head I told myself, If you can get through the first week unscathed, you’ll probably make it.
Getting the Bike
I’m beginning in Colombia because the motorcycle I’m buying, a 2005 KTM 950 Adventure, just finished up its previous journey with an enthralling American couple named Chris and Erin. Today, I get to go pick up my beast of burden.
Leaving my basic but fun and conveniently located hostel, The Cranky Croc, I strolled a short distance through the old town, La Candelaria, to the nearby modern hotel of Chris and Erin.
Meeting them outside, the American couple were kind and warm from the get-go. Approaching middle age, it was an unexpectedly pleasant surprise to see Chris with multi-colored highlights in his hair and both sporting zooty jewelry from their worldly travels. Neither fit into any traditional box, especially by American standards, and to me, Chris and Erin were immediately and undeniably cooler than most.
Equally as kind as they are confident in navigating the world, Chris and Erin, with a little prompting, immediately began to download onto me a plethora of advice and anecdotes about their experiences that were forged by traveling the world for four years by motorcycle and several other journeys through Africa and South America by motorcycle and 4×4.
Sheepishly candid in the face of such travel veterans, I revealed right away that I had hardly any experience riding a motorcycle, had never ridden a motorcycle this big, and overall, was quite in over my head with regard to the entire adventure that lay before me.
I added, “In fact, my only experience riding a motorcycle was riding a 50cc scooter in university, riding my brothers Kawasaki sport bike around a parking lot once, and the most recent experience being 10 months before during my motorcycle safety course. Otherwise, the only thing I feel confident about is my ability to get myself killed on these roads.”
Chuckling, Chris responded, “You’re going to be great! We all had to start somewhere!”
Over the next few hours, both Chris and Erin took the time to help build some some semblance of confidence in what I was doing through stories and anecdotes. Chris forced a practical and memorable experience when he had me wheel the giant 950 motorcycle on the sidewalk and push it over next to a busy intersection. Gawking Colombians from every direction looked on as Chris showed me the various techniques for lifting a heavy, gear-laden motorcycle after it has toppled over. It was to be a valuable lesson, as the motorcycle would topple over countless times in the weeks to come.
Stalked by Criminals
The next morning, I met up with Chris again to get my paperwork sorted out so that I could legally possess the bike and pass freely over borders. Despite our efforts to get the title changed, we ended up heading to a notary to at least ensure that I had official permission to use the motorcycle. Arriving in the late morning, the achingly slow line inched on until it was finally our turn. Passports, signatures, smiling, broken Spanish, hand gestures, and lots of reassuring nods finally led us the all-important notary stamp that would allow me to continue unabated.
With spirits high, Chris and I strolled toward the exit of the notary when a stern security guard blocked us from leaving. Stating, “there are bad guys outside that have been watching you. You must wait here until the police arrive.” Hard to argue with that! So, we waited for 10 minutes or so until we got the all-clear from the security guard. We snuck out where we had come in but this time noticed that a handful of police officers had a group of men surrounded and were questioning them intensely. Potential issues averted but it was not going to my first run-in with crime in Colombia.
Learning to Ride in Bogotá
As mentioned previously, my knowledge of motorcycle riding is slim, at best. Riding in a crazy, developing city? No idea. Fixing mechanical issues? Even less of a clue. Confidence that I’m not going to get myself killed? None.
Objectively, you could say I’m an idiot.
After Chris and Erin left Colombia, the daunting reality of having to ride this beast of a motorcycle through a continent really set in. It was almost a panic inducing. But I told myself, “Many people have done this before you. There are thousands of Colombians who learn to ride motorcycles in Bogotá. There are at least dozens of gringos who have learned to ride down here as well. You can do this.”
Filling myself with a near false sense of confidence, I walked over to the parking garage where the KTM was being stored. With an elevated heart rate, I started the 950cc engine and it purred with vibration, stoking an intrinsic love and fear of what this bike was capable of.
Cautiously swinging my leg over the tall seat, I settled in to blaze out of the garage on a glorious wheelie. I kicked the shifter into first gear and the engine died. Started it up again, kicked it into first, and it died. This repeated another three times before I realized that the kick-stand had to be retracted, otherwise the engine was auto-killed as a safety mechanism. My ignorance highlighted once again, all under the stares of the local security guards.
I sheepishly crawled out of the garage in first gear with my tail between my legs, wondering if I had made a huge mistake in coming down here. That fear and doubt quickly dissipated as I was swept up in the swirling traffic of Bogotá before being spat out back onto the cobbled roads of La Candelaria.
Over the next few hours, I rode through the poorer neighborhoods surrounding the city and up and around the surrounding hills and onto the remote roads leading from the jungle. My confidence crept up slowly as I improved my stationary starts on inclines, my cornering became smoother, and my braking less white-knuckled.
As the day came to a close, the idea that I might actually be able to pull this crazy adventure off began to creep back into my consciousness. Slinking into my white sheets, I settled in for much needed night of rest; I still wanted to be a tourist in the city!
Bogotá the City
The massive sprawl of 7.5 million inhabitants hits newcomers hard. Sitting at 2,600 m (8,600 ft), the city stretches from the base of jungled mountains to as far as the eye can see. The urban sprawl is an interesting blend of modernity, colonialism, and graffiti with a bustling population that is finding its footing on the modern stage.
The historic district of Bogotá, La Candelaria, is where most travelers stay and spend their time. The concentrated amount of hostels, hotels, bars, and restaurants combined with various museums or points of interest in and around the district make it an easy choice for visitors and it is where I chose to base myself during my stay in Bogotá.
Colombia carries several reputations. Partying being one of them. The last two nights I spent in La Candelaria, enjoying low-key drinking holes with some fellow travelers from my hostel. Tonight however, Zona Rosa in the north of the city, is calling our name. Loaded to the gills on rum and cokes, a group of us blurrily made our way via taxi to the burgeoning economic and entertainment zone.
Cars buzzed around and hundreds of people were coming in and out of clubs and restaurants. Somehow we ended up at a small club; I’m sure it had a name but details at this point are murky. Bottles of Aguardiente, Colombia’s national liquor, were ordered and downed alongside rum and cokes. Dancing, swirled memories, and excited conversations ruled the night.
Outside smoking cigarettes, I met an American named Josh. A self-proclaimed ski-bum from the northeast, Josh explained that he was just ending an 18 month journey in South America that was meant to be only a couple of months at most. “I got to Ushuaia in Argentina, was offered a bartending job and more than a year later I was still there!” Josh explained in between puffs of his cigarette.
I looked at Josh in admiration; a no nonsense dirtbag, snowboarding traveler with unending confidence and poise that could walk the walk of traveling off the beaten path.
At that moment, a traveler from the Netherlands interrupted our conversation to say that we’ve all been invited by some local Colombians to come over to a house party. The group seemed eager to go but Josh quickly popped our excitement balloon with a reality pin, saying “That sounds very sketchy. I would strongly advise against this.”
With far more experience in South America and a better grasp on Spanish, Josh’s assessment was likely the most accurate and nobody argued. No party was worth our safety and while it may have been fine, it was better to err on the side of caution.
With the night pushing into the early hours of the morning, we hopped in a handful of taxis and our dispersed group headed back to The Cranky Croc Hostel in La Candelaria. While most straggled to bed, I drunkenly decided, with drunken encouragement from my roommates, that I may as well do the sunset hike of Cerro de Monserrate since it was 4AM and the sun would be up soon. I needed little convincing…
At 3,200 m (10,500 ft), Monserrate is just about impossible to miss. The base of the mountain is within walking distance of La Candelaria and it provides three options to summit: the funicular (open the first half of the day), the cable car (takes over from the funicular), or you can walk up 1,500 steps (60-90 minute).
I chose the last option because it’s free, I hoped the walk would sober me up, the funicular isn’t open yet, and I like a good challenge. And a challenge it was. The starting altitude was already getting the best of me but when stacked with a 2000ft ascent and 1,500 steps, it didn’t take long before my sweat oozed the aguardiente I had been so diligently downing.
Up and up I went until I finally reached the summit, the freshly risen sun blasting across the land, casting immense fingered shadows that stretched for miles. Stupidly forgetting money for fear of being robbed on the way up, I longingly looked on as juice carts served fresh drinks to thirsty climbers.
With my fill of expansive city views and warm sun, my shaky legs began the long descent to my hostel. Much less ominous in the morning light, Bogotá joggers smiled as they zipped past me; the aftermath of partying all night and climbing a mountain began to catch up as well. My quads and knees ached as I drearily plodded my way down, the hope of cold liquid and bed keeping me going.
Making it back to The Cranky Croc around 8AM, I chugged a bottle of water, collapsed in a pile on my bed and slept hard until the early afternoon.
Around 12PM, I managed to put myself upright. A mild headache, atrocious morning breath, and overused, under-fueled muscles immediately reminded me that I made fun but tiresome decisions last night. Ugh I should’ve drank more water before bed. This is going to be a hard day.
Recounting the broken timeline of events between my international roommates, we grimaced and laughed at the rum-laden decisions we made.
“It was a wild night yeah!” said Matt in his thick London accent.
“From what I can remember it was a great time, although I doubt a repeatable one. At least not anytime soon” muttered Smith, the eldest of the group.
Struggle-busing our way to the closest coffee shop, the four of us ingested as much coffee, water, and snacks that our stomachs would allow. With enough charge in the batteries to get us moving again, we meandered to the nearby Museo del Oro or the Gold Museum; a much recommended visit for both locals and visitors.
The Gold Museum contains more than 34,000 pieces of gold from pre-Hispanic cultures in Colombia. I chose to take the free English tour which was extremely informative, maybe too informative, as I spent two hours touring just one of the numerous fascinating floors. The gold working ability of pre-colonial peoples was truly incredible but unfortunately, it further entranced Spanish greed for gold, which ultimately contributed to the demise of the indigenous empires of Latin America.
With enough anthropology and history to satiate almost any cultural desires, we found our way to a hole in the wall restaurant in La Candelaria. Serving up fried empanadas of various flavors, we wolfed down a promise of a brighter tomorrow. A tomorrow where we would be less haggard and hungover.
Cracking my eyes open around 8:30AM, I waited to see if I was going to be greeted by another demoralizing day of hangover related ailments. Nothing came. I sat up and waited for the headache to pulsate my temples again. But again, nothing. A joyless victory but appreciated nonetheless. I guess sometimes you just need to poison yourself to appreciate not feeling like shit.
With this being my last full day in Bogotá before leaving for Medellín, I’m off to see the artwork of Fernando Botero, Colombia’s most famous artist.
Grabbing a small breakfast at the local cafe, my hostel roommates and I walked the short distance to beautifully constructed, Museo Botero.
In 2000, Fernando Botero donated over 200 works of art with more than half of work being his own and roughly 80 pieces from other famous artists. Botero’s distinct style of chubby forms is played out through sculptures, paintings, and drawings that are displayed throughout the beautifully curated museum.
Further staggering pieces by Picasso, Matisse, Renoir, Dali, and Monet added to an already mesmerizing display. Without being cliche, there is something to be said about walking through the walks of masters and geniuses, in whatever form that may take on, but particularly art. It’s humbling. It’s captivating. It’s inspiring. Especially when it is given a voice of analysis, history, and context into how societal triumphs and ills are displayed through the art.
With an artful rejuvenation, the international crew of roommates cantered back to The Cranky Croc so that we could prep ourselves for departure the next day. Packing of bags, refueling the bike, organizing of chaos.
Time to Move On
That final night, the four of us hostel roommates enjoyed a few quiet beers and reflected on the magic of the last week together.
Any long-term hostel-traveler can attest to the fact that it is rare to connect so quickly and strongly with a handful of roommates that were strangers just days before. You meet great people while traveling; people that you connect to instantly and forever. However, you rarely get to do that with a handful of roommates that you were randomly placed with. The situation in itself is highly unlikely; the odds staggeringly low. We recognized that and spoke of our appreciation for it, for tomorrow we were all going our separate ways, possibly never to see each other again.
With my eyes heavy, I reflected on the wild expanse of Bogotá. It was quite the introduction to Colombia and South America. Sprawling, organized chaos meets culture, vibrancy, and a duality of old and new world architecture. I was both excited for what the rest of the continent had to offer but I was also under no illusion of the danger of my inexperience on a motorcycle and the arduous ride I had to begin. For tomorrow, the real adventure begins. You’ll be fine. Just get some rest first.
Up next, I try get out of a bribe and explore a new city in Chapter 2: Medellín – City of Eternal Spring
Start this journey from the beginning: Introduction