Adam writes on 2014-02-28:

I am writing from Aguachica, Colombia, a via point to northern Colombia.  Over the last couple of days, having left Bogotá, we have stayed in Villa de Leyva (a small non-quite-UNESCO-but-should colonial town), and San Gil (a tourist hub to adventure sports enthusiasts).

We arrived in Aquachica yesterday evening following a long, hard day riding through the winding Colombian Andes, which for the most part, involved crawling behind trucks at 25km/hr while repeatedly attempting to pass, only to end up behind another parade of trucks.  Much of the scenery was very beautiful, but it is often hard to get a good view of the landscape, especially on hairpin turns, and winding switchbacks.  Over the last couple of days, we have had more than our fair share of homicidal drivers, and at least a few were tractor trailer drivers.  Yes, Jenn was actually forced onto the shoulder deliberately by a truck driver who felt that she was holding up his progress.  Yes.  I did get a photo of his license plate and “how is my driving” phone number.

Aquachica seems to be a nice enough place.  While originally a simple overnight stop for us, we ended up staying the day to perform our much needed oil changes, and some other general clean up, including brake work and giving some attention to my front bearing.  We took a room at “La Nueva Hosteria Del Viajero” – with their super friendly staff – we were encouraged to bring our bikes into the lobby, which we did.  Noticing a parking lot next door that was affiliated with the hotel, we obtained permission to perform prior mentioned work.

The parking lot also housed a small hand-wash for cars and motorcycles and is operated by a bunch of nice “kids” (early 20’s?) – mainly young women – who, in some way, reminded me of the “Junk Yard Gang” from Fat Albert.  They sort of just hung around and lazed about until a client showed up, at which time they scurried together and and got washing.  Upon completion of our work, Jenn and I ended up “splurging” on a couple of COP5.0000 (CAD$2.50) bikes washes.  While not absolutely spotless, they did a pretty good job including degreasing and waxing so our bikes look pretty sweet and renewed (and spared Jenn, for at least a little while, from having to clean her chain.  We ended up hanging out with them for a bit , showing them Canadian money at their repeated request, and basically having them make fun of us for our poor Spanish.

Evenings have involved somewhat of an ‘eating tour’ of the city.  We wandered around sampling the offerings at street carts – pizza, chorizo on chopped tamales, BBQ beef with yucca, etc.  Its not a particularly big city, but bustling with motorcycles.  While I have never been to places like Bangkok, I would imagine a similarity here.  We counted for a bit, and it could be a minute or two before a car passed on the street, while it is teaming with motorcycles – probably 20 motorcycles per car or truck.   You can imagine that we looked pretty cool on our “super tall” motorcycles when were were cruising around today looking for oil.  More than a few heads turned.  Jenn commented that she felt like Charlie (Boorman) and Ewan (MacGregor) with such a large caravan of motorcycle riders behind us.

We agreed that our experience in Aquachica was similar to that of other towns and cities where we were – or so it seemed – the only tourists around.  It is not that we don’t enjoy more touristy areas at times, but it is nice to just find ourselves somewhere, without English, forcing us to communicate in Spanish, mingling and eating locally, and not partaking in a service-to-tourists culture.  Surely it is nice to have these options from time-to-time – for example, the other day we could have had sushi in the Colombia Highlands.  We didn’t but it would have be a curious familiarity.  Not that we don’t want to change it up from time to time, but we didn’t come to Colombia to eat Japanese cuisine.  That said, eating “Chifa” – or Chinese food as it is prepared in Peru – in Colombia is intriguing.  We did stop at the place serving this, but we reconsidered.

Prior to Aguachica, we stayed in San Gil.  We didn’t really know what to make of it.  It was supposed to be the adventure sport hub of the region offering rafting, climbing, and other activities like this for your average adrenaline junkie.  For the most part, we are riding motorcycles which is adventure enough and we don’t really have the money for frequent day excursions.  The town seemed charming enough, but was a little touristy for us from what we saw of it.  We stayed at “Sam’s VIP Boutique Mansion”, seemingly a new addition to “Sam’s VIP Hostel” and being an old hotel which really needed a refresh, including proper locks on doors, and working hinges.  We landed here specifically because it offered secure parking, and since we arrived at dark, it became treacherous going up and down the steep side streets.  I would go as far as to say some where at a 40 degree grade.  In the end, our “private room” with private bathroom (which we wouldn’t have paid for if there was another option) was a six bed dorm (only us) which didn’t exactly scream “boutique” as is “Sam’s” self-described image.  We have, however, noticed a trend when checking in – if we say that we are only staying for one night we are put in the rooms that are less attractive.

Prior to San Gil, we spent three nights in a lovely spot just outside of Villa de Leyva at the Hostel Renacer (and Colombian Highlands tour operator) sleeping in our tent.  On the way, we stopped in Sutamarchan at a BBQ spot where Jorge took me three years ago.  Hostel Renacer is super affordable (if you camp) and the hostel grounds are very nice, nestled in the foothills above Villa de Leyva.  Here we met some new friends including several couples from Europe driving in massive over-landing trucks (MAN and Uni-Mog), as well as a couple and their daughter who were originally from Brazil, living in Toronto, and driving an RV down to Brazil, before heading back to Toronto to save up for their next adventure.

In Villa de Leyva, we spent a day on a self-guided foot tour of the village, and another day trying to obtain insurance for our bikes.  Having retrieved our bikes from the airport a few days prior, we asked the customs agent if insurance was mandatory for motorcycles in Colombia.  She told us that it wasn’t, but her response didn’t sit well with me.  A little research showed that it was indeed mandatory, and while some successfully travel without it, it can be risky and not without a hassle if you are asked for an insurance slip at a police or military check-point.

By the time we had retrieved our bikes, on the Friday, and with short business hours on Saturdays, we realized that obtaining insurance wasn’t going to happen immediately.  We did some more research and attempted to find a place on the way to Villa de Leyva but we were not successful.  In Villa de Leyva, we found a place that sold SOAT, or the type of insurance we required, and while the agents were very helpful and spent a little time with us, the process wasn’t going to be straight forward to buy a short term policy.  Colombians are generally required to buy a years worth – they said that they could sell us three months worth but somewhere within the transaction, it was explained to us a that a nearby town had an office of insurance specialists that could sell us a short term policy.

Leaving Villa de Leyva, we headed to Tunja, on the way to San Gil.  A series of delays took place due to road repair on the way to Tunja which resulted in our arrival at the Previsora Seguro office at 11:30am.  Most official offices in Colombia seem to take a full lunch from noon until 2pm, as is apparently custom in much of Latin America.  Arriving in their office, it was clear that we were not in Bogotá.  Apart from language frustrations, I was probably one of the only non-Colombians to ever step foot inside of their office.  While I believe that my basic request was understood, it seemed that instead of one person speaking more slowly and…being…better…understood, they preferred to add another person and then another to the mix in an effort to bring clarity.  At the height of the conversation, there were four staff trying to speak to me at once, including the security guard.

I am sure that they were having a good go at me with my poor Spanish and directly laughing at me.  Without the ability to retort, I could only mention to them in my head that they should be on their best behaviour as they would soon be the subject of a blog post.  Laughing and making fun of “the Gringo” is not good practice – and becomes worse when your are in a relatively nice office, dressed in business clothes.  I guess the joke is now on them.

With our 650cc motorcycles being such massive beasts in Colombia, we weren’t even listed on the price chart, and with the closest vehicle being a “motocarro” – or a part motorcycle/part car sort of vehicle.  Being so close to lunch, staff – including the cashier – started to take their leave.  Several people sat with me (actually I was standing) presumably well into their lunches.  Originally it was “impossible” for me to get a one month term with terms being mentioned such as “equality amongst all Colombians”, etc.  In addition, the young lady at the desk was not able to answer my questions with regards to price until she had basically completed the entire form in the computer.  This included stumbling around with my first names, and ‘strange’ single last names.  In Colombia, it is common to have two given names and two last names.  Perhaps she was too proud to ask questions, although I had inquired whether she had any.

As time went on, the young lady seemed less in the mood for humour at the expense of me, and was appreciating my attempt at a bit of cultural exchange, and my explanation that two last names is not common in North America.  She turned out to be fairly pleasant once the “circus left town”.  Speaking of circuses, it seems strange to me that it is acceptable for the security guard – who is wearing the mark of an outside security firm and not this company – to cross on the inside of the desk, start looking at passports for his own interest, and generally getting involved in areas of specific process which would seem to be outside of the job of providing security.  This is not the first time that we have seen this recently.  It seems like they must be bored, listen to enough of the day-to-day business, and act as auxiliary staff – strange – at least for me.

So back to this “equality amongst Colombians” statement.  I found this strange as one of the women who had left for lunch was very insistent that two months was the shortest term I could get.  I had stated that “many tourists have received one months” (as per the internet).  She seemed a little shocked that I had access to this knowledge.  That being said, her statement didn’t make a lot of sense but I may have been missing something.  If we were working with price equality amongst all in Colombia, surely I would either be stuck paying for a year like the average Jose, or perhaps only three months being “pro-rated” to the maximum stay as per our visas and temporary import permits.   Where two months comes from is beyond me.  So with most people on lunch, I was quoted for two months for two bikes.  I explained that this was a little expensive for one month.  A gentleman chimed in that it was a good price for two months and I retorted that I only needed one month.  He volleyed back “but for two months” and I retorted “but not for one”.   Like some magic had taken place, all of the sudden, I was offered insurance until the end of March, magically changed to one month a little later.

I was satisfied with US$15/month/bike.  That said, being lunch, we were required to return in 1.5 hours when the cashier was back.  With Jenn waiting patiently watching our bikes outside (“You wait here, I’ll be back in a few minutes” – or not!), we took turns finding a bathroom, and then fetching a simple lunch – a big soup, juice, and chicken, rice, pasta, potatoes and salad for about US$2.50 each.  I guess you have to look around, and it’s all about location, but we spent about ten times this amount on lunch in downtown Bogotá for three people early this week with less food.

At five to two, I was at their door and  found the security guard doing security.  After exactly 300 seconds of waiting, I was let through the door and I paid for our insurance in cash.  Strangely it was slightly cheaper than quoted to earlier since they slips were magically changed from “the end of March” to 30 days.  My name also wasn’t listed on the policy, but Jenn’s was on both with one of them prefixed as “CANJENN” – presumably she confused our country of original for one of Jenn’s names.  While I inquired about the the issue (lack of my name) she said it would not be a problem, but there was an issue with the entry in the system and since the rest of my info matched (it did) there would be no issue.

So having left San Gil the following day, we were stopped by police at a random check point on the way to Aquachica.  I was definitely asked for my insurance slip which the simple presence of met the office approval.  Let’s just say that I am glad that we got insurance and didn’t just ignore it.  Maybe they would have let it go, but it is within their right to impound our bikes – i.e. super big hassle.  In the end the cops were friendly, had questions, got

involved in photos and were insistent that we took photos of the vista behind their booth looking down into deep valley.  Perhaps some of it was Jenn playing her “female card”. Having removed her helmet, there was some surprise that she was female .  Us noting their police issue Suzuki DR650 sitting across the road at their post, it was probably more of a surprise to them to find a female piloting the same model of bike as they ride – and probably one of the two rides on the back.  I wasn’t about to get into smart remarks about riding “quatro cajones”, but let’s just say that it was tempting.

Villa de Leyva, Colombia photos can be found here.

Aguachica, Colombia photos can be found here.