My initial plan to spend just a couple of days in Medellín before moving on quickly stretched to a week. Motorcycle repairs and maintenance were in order after hard riding, dusty roads and small crashes. My left pannier was in all sorts of bother and didn’t want to latch close never mind stay sealed to keep out moisture. The damage showed I clearly favored laying the bike down on its left side.
In more motivating news, Martin, the fellow adventure rider who I had met in my second week, was about a day behind me. We had been in contact upon our departures from our first stint in Medellín and had actually been at Carnival in Barranquilla at the same time but were unable to link up. Martin was was having his own motorcycle issues; namely his overstretched chain flying off at high speeds. No minor problem. Cartagena somehow did not have an adequate replacement and so he was making the exhausting 12 hour ride to Medellín with plenty to worry about.
Martin’s arrival was exciting, especially after we had both experienced so much in the few weeks since we had last seen each other; myself a little worse for wear but Martin, the veteran, still having some trying times. We recounted our stories over beers and rum & cokes and both agreed that traveling together for the next few weeks would be a great idea. And safer.
While trying to relax a bit in our last few days in Medellín, catching up on emails, reading, and writing, I also made time to go workout with the hostel manager and now official friend, John. Some might scoff at taking time to exercise but the reality of long term travel requires taking care of yourself. Not to mention I wanted to see what a gym in Colombia was like. I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a half indoor/outdoor affair, a new experience for me, the washed-up athlete.
With deeper connections made in Medellín, Martin and I said some heartfelt goodbyes to our hosts and friends, John and Esteban. It’s one of the most painful aspects of traveling; making deep connections with great people and having to say goodbye so quickly. With hugs going round and promises to see each other again, Martin and I swung our legs over our saddles and waved from our heavily weighted motorcycles as we meandered up the road to join the busy thoroughfare that would take us south and officially back on the Pan-American Highway.
Our goal for the day was to reach the touristy but charmingly picturesque and colorful colonial town of Salento. We scooted down Route 25 for 6 hours before turning east on Route 29 for another hour, arriving in the waning light of the day; enough time to be greeted by the lush earth, tapestried by low-hanging clouds and ethereal grace. Our excitement for new land urged us forward until the cobbled roads of Salento finally chattered to life in front of us.
Martin and I stayed at the much recommended La Serrana Eco Farm & Hostel, just outside of Salento. Like the town, the hostel is surrounded by fruitful green mountains, coffee plantations, and farms. A sublime place to unwind, get away, and experience a region of the world that is as magical as it looks. With the dorms full-up, Martin and I splurged slightly and got the last available option; a private chalet with 180 degrees of windowed views over the valley. Acceptably expensive, we toasted our comeuppance with dark Colombian beers and enjoyed our private space before exhaustion finally pulled us to bed.
Salento attracts Colombians and foreigners for many reasons, with one of the main draws being the Valle de Cocora. After a breakfast of coffee and fresh fruit, Martin and I found the winding country road from Salento to the Valle de Cocora. Our motorbikes, unencumbered with the burden of luggage, stretched their legs on the tight corners and through the vibrant green valley, gleefully eating up the narrow tarmac.
Much of the environment made me feel like I was back in the Pacific Northwest of the United States, with all of the rivers, streams, moss, and plant life bursting out of every corner. The most striking difference reminding me of where I actually am are the famous wax palms of the region – a stark contrast from the fir and pine trees of the Pacific Northwest – my adopted homeland.
The wax palms are also the tallest palms in the world and the national tree of Colombia. They erupt out of the forest canopy and on the velvety green carpeted mountains, the fog and clouds playfully mixing with the landscape to create an otherworldly experience.
How to Almost Kill Yourself
At the end of the road, Martin and I dismounted our bikes and went for a short hike, enjoying the views, cool air, and each others company.
With our fill of nature and time winding down on the day, we hopped on our bikes for what should have been an uneventful ride back.
Ripping down the country road, I followed Martin’s lead, screaming in my helmet out of exhilaration, the surroundings blurring from the speed. My limited motorcycle training had taught me to keep my eyes up and scanning far ahead, I on the other hand was watching Martin’s bike too closely and failed to remember that his brake light was not functioning. Minor detail. Just then I looked past him to see a vicious right curve coming far too quickly. Martin made the turn with ease. I evidently had other plans.
For me, time seemed to stop momentarily as I thought well, this trip is over and I’m definitely going to get hurt.
Somehow though, I still remembered to quickly down shift and jam on my brakes, locking up the back wheel and causing it to squeal out in pain as its rubber skin was left imprinted in the road. But I managed to stop! And just a few feet from the 10 foot high earth-wall that would have at the least broken me, if not completely killed me. Martin had heard the squealing tires and stopped to see my astonished face. Elation, laughter, and humility struck me all at once. You almost just killed yourself you fucking idiot! Pay attention!
A visit to a coffee plantation on our third day was disappointingly rained out but an impromptu offer and decision led Martin and I to leave Salento half a day earlier than planned.
The reason? The offer of an ayahuasca ceremony with the local people.
Where? An hour south on a farm near the town of Armenia.
When? Nighttime; the time when you are not supposed to be out riding/driving on the roads.
Following in a small convoy from Salento to the farm, Martin and I were temporarily stopped on the main road by one of the countless police checkpoints. Thankfully with a little pleading by the lead driver, we were allowed to pass through and eventually made it to the farm entrance just off of the dark, main highway. From the road, it seemed like a regular house with a bunch of junk and cars in the front. And I suppose it was that. However, as we walked around to the back, it opened up into multiple huts, sprawling land, trees, and crops in the distance. Lit fires, hammocks, and blankets welcomed us and any trepidation vanished instantly.
Ayahuasca is a psychedelic brew that has been prepared by indigenous peoples of South America for thousands of years. It is used for physical and emotional healing. Users have been reported to have spiritual awakenings of their purpose as well as the true nature of the universe. Others report cleansing of “skeletons in the closet” while others may not have as profound of an effect but experience a “light” for a couple of weeks after each session.
Before the ceremony began, each person met with the shaman to see if any specific healing was needed. Caught off guard by the question, I regretfully did not have anything that came to mind other than looking for a safe passage. Martin on the other hand complained of a wart on his thumb that wouldn’t go away, despite the freezing, burning, and lasering the German doctors had applied to it.
At midnight the ceremony began under the largest hut. Men and women were divided into their respective lines to start receiving the ayahuasca brew. The shaman made a clicking noise with his mouth and then blew on the cup before giving it to each recipient. The taste of the brew was unlike anything I have had before. Not bad, not good, but definitely strong.
After the first drink, everyone went to lie down on their mattresses as the music consisting of guitar, wind flute, light drumming, maraca, and singing filled the air. It was a harmonious concoction that helped send me on my journey. As the hours progressed I went in and out of semi-asleep dreamscape, awakening to the sound of the shaman making his click and blow sound, the music, and people purging the contents of their stomach (this is part of the process that the ayahuasca induces to cleanse you) – It wasn’t until after the second cup of ayahuasca around 5 AM that I joined the purge club.
With the farm land jutted up against the silhouetted forest canopy and the transcendent brew coursing through us, time and space seemed unknowable, the interconnectedness of all, undeniable. A wall of sound created by the animals in the trees formed an melodic symphony which perfectly harmonized with the band, as if they had been practicing together forever.
The ceremony concluded around 10 AM after receiving Rapé, a traditional tobacco snuff, blown up my nose through a pipe called a Tepi. They assistants explained have to do it one, three, or five times. You were not allowed to do it two or four times. The tobacco mixture is to cleanse and bring you back down to this plane; through an immediate, deep rush of heat shooting from the front of my cranium over the top and to the base of my skull. Tears and snot came pouring out of me and almost immediately I was mentally clear again, as if I had just woken up from a nap.
While perhaps not as intense as I was hoping for, my first ayahuasca ceremony was beautiful nonetheless and I took from it a vivid calmness and the message that “everything was going to be fine”. Thank you. I needed to hear that so early on this crazy journey.
That same morning we had our worlds slightly rocked by ayahuasca and I had received my message that it was all going to be okay, Martin and I, oddly alert and awake following the preceding nights events and not sleeping at all, left for the town of Darien on Lake Calima–the largest man made lake in Colombia and a world renowned kite surfing spot. After winding our way around the massive body of water, we spent an hour looking for accommodation. Eventually a kind local man led us up the hill to a rather odd hotel-resort, a relic from a more prosperous time, where we found a vacancy and a place to rest our weary cosmic feet.
As we learned later that day, Lake Calima is referred to as the Switzerland of Colombia for it’s rolling green hills and chalets overlooking the lake. It’s a stretch of a description but it’s still pretty and relaxing. Martin and I skipped the wind surfing due to less than ideal winds and a condensed area of kite surfers–not a recipe for success for a first-timer such as myself.
Broken Bike and Cali
Today wasn’t great and perhaps we should have just stayed in bed. After saying goodbye to our new dog friend, a friendly pup evidently sleeping on the hotel grounds, we attempted to head to Cali with the intention of
being there for a couple of days. Before we even left the hotel grounds, Martin succumbed to a puncture and our departure pushed back an hour out of necessity. With the minor incident in our rear-view, we putted on to Cali. However, about 30 minutes into the ride, I realized something was not right with my beloved KTM. 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th gear all shifted in and out with ease but the 5th gear kept slipping out, violently throwing the bike out of gear. Eventually the 5th gear became inaccessible and I was forced to ride in 4th for the remaining two hours to Cali, undoubtedly straining the engine with higher than desirable RPM’s.
We made it to Cali safely but once again, frustratingly rode around for over an hour trying to find the hostel. The exhaustion of the day seemed to be magnified with the looming thought of a potentially ruined motorcycle. After finally finding the hostel and checking in, we headed to the KTM dealership; likely the last one for a very long time. Over a period of three days, multiple parts shops, and most of it through a translator, I was told my bike needed over $1,500 in parts and labor and a month to ship the respective parts down. I was dismayed to say the least. My dream of a South American motorcycle adventure quickly came to hang in the balance. You can’t afford to stay any longer in Colombia, you’re going to spend all of your money before you even get to Ecuador.
The next option was to change to a smaller sprocket and continue without the last gear. Cheaper and doable but the fifth gear would probably fail later and likely I’d be in a worse predicament in a more remote place with an even lesser chance of getting the needed parts. So, not really an option.
But before I drowned in a puddle of my own pity and despair, a savior came in the form of a Danish motorcycle tour operator that lived in Cali with his Colombian wife. His company, Motodreamer offered an impressive array of motorcycles and tour options that has since expanded to multiple continents. The big Dane agreed to take on my bike, get it repaired, and sell it for a small fee, while he found me another motorcycle that luckily had just finished another journey of its own.
The replacement motorcycle they had on offer was a 2008 Kawasaki KLR 650. Unquestionably less pretty and powerful as the KTM but more importantly, it works and it’s easier to fix. I jumped on the opportunity to get back on the road and after a short inspection, I agreed to buy it.
Despite spending half my time in Cali in motorcycle shops and with mechanics, I still managed to see a bit of the city known as the salsa capital. In addition to a couple salsa classes (it’s pretty difficult and I’m admittedly poor), I managed to ascend Cristo Rey (think big Jesus in Rio) and Cerro de las Tres Cruces for panoramic views of the city, visit Church La Merced, and I got to explore the historical district of San Antonio where I stayed. My initial impression of Cali was not overly optimistic; it didn’t strike me in the same ways that Bogotá or Medellín did, but over the days I warmed up to the city and its friendly inhabitants. It was another unforgettable stop during another week that tested my resolve.
Once I got the newest bike, I set off to catch up with Martin and our new riding buddy, an Israeli named Nir.
The plan was to meet them in Pasto; I sent them on as I had been the cause of our delay in Cali and with confirmation of my new bike, the two of them departed – a day ahead me. A seven hour ride through winding mountain roads with a quick stop for lunch in the historical town of Popayán lead me to the picturesque town of Pasto. Often overlooked by most travelers, Pasto immediately rubbed off on me as a quiet but busy, gringo-free, European-esque town surrounded by lush green hills and a looming volcano. Arriving in the early evening darkness, I linked up with the guys at our hotel and was pleasantly suprised to see they had found us some friendly locals, rum, and a place to party. We struck up quick friendships with the locals and were subsequently invited to a small music festival happening this weekend. What luck.
In general, Martin, Nir, and myself were quite the draw in Pasto; locals stared and pointed at us more than usual. This was especially true when we had our motorcycles nearby. Nearly a dozen people surrounded us at one point to ask questions, take pictures, and inspect the motorcycles. We obviously were not a common sight.
Laguna La Cocha and More Kindness of Strangers
A couple of days in Pasto was followed by a ride to Laguna La Cocha–a large lake about
an hour away. Our plan was to camp by the lake but while asking for directions in the village nearby, a warm and friendly 70-year-old man driving a 90s-era Jeep offered us his cabin for the night, for free. He went on to explain that his son had traveled through the USA and had been offered refuge time and time again. He wanted to do the same for weary travelers in his land. We were blown away by the generous offer and eagerly followed him along the dusty roads to our humble abode for the night.
As travel seems to open us up to the serendipitous fractal nature of the universe, the free cabin we had just been offered also happened to be the closest residence to the very music festival we were looking for. A 5 minute walk along the quiet dirt road took us right to the entrance of what would be a hazy but very fun night of drinking, smoking, dancing, flirting, and almost getting my jacket stolen by a sticky-fingered local.
Ipiales and Las Lajas Sanctuary
Before crossing into Ecuador, our final stop in Colombia was the border town of Ipiales.
The only real sight is Las Lajas Sanctuary–a breathtaking cathedral built in a canyon with a serene river below. It looks as if it is something built in the Middle Ages but it is actually less than a century old. Regardless, the intricate work and color schemes are extremely well done and the overall execution is hard not to admire, even for a lowly pagan such as myself.
Goodbye Colombia. I Miss You Already…
I initially planned on spending just three weeks in Colombia but I ended up staying for over two months. Despite the burglary, theft, attempted theft, motorcycle problems, bouts of mild sickness, and the odd sketchy situation, the Colombian people, culture, weather, and topography enthralled my senses and exceeded every expectation I had. Without question the developing country is confronting some growing pains but there is much promise.
As we inched closer to the border crossing, a buffet of feelings swirled through me. Excitement for a new country. A tinge of sadness for having to say goodbye to Colombia. Dread for the border crossing. A sprinkle of doubt that the border agents would accept my motorcycle papers. An irrational anxiety that drug dogs would find cocaine in some unbeknownst, hidden compartment on my motorcycle. None of these feelings were particularly useful in the moment, so in my typically brutish fashion, I did my best to shove them aside to focus on figuring out how the hell to get into Ecuador.
Start this journey from the beginning: Introduction