Jenn writes on 2014-03-25:

Woah! We have some catch-up to do!  It’s been an eventful twenty-odd days since we last checked in!

We are currently back in the Andes in a city called Pasto, approximately 100 kilometres from the Ecuadorian border.  Although not a very pretty city, it does have some pretty nice colonial buildings (all in various states) and some pretty amazing churches.  We are here trying to intercept a package that contains a replacement screen for Chromebook which cracked badly some time ago.  It’s been a little tricky having only one computer, so it would nice to have two again.  Receiving the package, however, has so far turned out to be a bit of a hassle. At this point there is a chance we are going to have to just “return to sender” and try something else – while it has been in Colombia for more than a week – it doesn’t appear to be clearing customs and arriving in Pasto in a timely fashion.

Anyway, what have we been up to, you ask?

We stayed for two days in Cartagena (wow, it seems so long ago!).  There was a bit of excitement on day one when we returned from our day wandering to find a construction crew in the process of ripping up the street in front of our hostel.  Not too much of an issue for your average backpacker, but for those of us who had rolled our bikes up a plank, through the front doors, and into the courtyard, it was somewhat of a big deal.  As previously mentioned, there were a handful of other motorcycle travellers staying at the Amber Hostel, so the next morning we had somewhat of a motorcycle moving party, where we all pitched in to help each other wheel, carry, and push the bikes through the door, down the plank, and over the broken road.  While we stayed an extra night, we bid farewell to our new friends – Johnny (Alabama), Jeffrey (Indonesia), and Sheldon (Australian) and Ewa (Poland) – who were pushing forward on their adventures.

There is not too much else to add about our Cartagena experience, except that if you ever have the chance to see it – you should take it.  The walled city is beautiful and filled with colourful colonial buildings, boutiques, restaurants, and cafes.  The walls themselves are well-preserved, and afford nice views of the ocean from the top.  Saying good-bye to Cartagena, we began our return trip down south through the Cordillera Occidental (the western section of Andes).  The temperatures continued to be consistent in the mid-thirties which made for some hot, sweaty riding, and peaked at an overnight stop in Caucasia.

The city itself turned out to be nothing special to look at so we ended up taking a room at a hotel alongside the highway (Hotel Chambacu).  Behind its red and white exterior, it had a swimming pool, a restaurant, lots of parking, and rooms with private bathrooms.  It also was connected to a love motel, in case one should need that extra bit of privacy.  Although it was late afternoon when we checked in, we hurriedly unpacked the bikes and changed into our swimsuits in order to take advantage of the swimming pool, which was warm, refreshing, and just what we needed after a long, stinky hot day in the saddle.  Upon returning from our swim we discovered that the lock was broken (not as in ‘broken into’ but as in ‘the lock is broken and now we can’t get into our room to get our stuff’- i.e. change out of our bathing suits).  After the hotel custodian tried in vain to get the lock to work, he ended up removing the bars and screen from the window and breaking in so that we could get our things and move into a fully functioning room.

After our mini break in the jungle (although technically not in the jungle, this place felt just as jungle-y as some of the places that we had recently camped with cicadas, lizards in the room, and mosquitos abound), it was time for another long ride day as we headed to Medellin.

From day one in Colombia, I had been looking forward to visiting Medellin.  In its former days (1980s), Medellin was known as the most violent city in the world as a result of an urban war started by drug cartels.  Since then, and since the death of Pablo Escobar, things have chilled out and Medellin is now one of the top tourist destinations in Colombia.  When we arrived at rush hour on a Thursday afternoon, however, it was far from on the top places that I wanted to be.  I had read that Medellin had the worst traffic in Colombia, and it certainly held up its end of this rumour.  We were later to discover that since it had been raining for a number of days prior to our arrival, part of the metro tracks had been flooded out, which also contributed to the clogged arterial roads.  Luckily we had done our homework and had pin-pointed a hostel to stay at upon our arrival.  It’s no fun searching for accommodations in the dark, especially in a big city, so this was a bonus, and we set our GPS in the direction of Casa Kiwi.

Arriving there at six p.m., we were surprised to hear that although they boasted being biker friendly and had on-site parking, they were totally unprepared for when bikers (us) actually showed up (to which it was explained that we are travelling rather late in the season and most bikers had already passed through).  The garage, into where we managed to cram our bikes, was full of bicycles, renovation materials, the hostel garbage receptacle, and the cat’s litter box.  The hostel was located downtown in the Zona Rosa (i.e. expensive bars and clubs), and was pretty nice, in terms of appearance; lots of bamboo, a bar that stocked craft beers [edit: including an excellent American Pale Ale] , a theatre for television viewing, a very clean kitchen, rooftop swimming pool, fountains, etc.  We, however, were once again checked into the ghetto room on the ghetto side of the hostel.  The closest bathroom looked like a bomb had gone off in it.  Our bed was broken.  And, as we were to find out later, our room was also above the bar area and faced the street, which is apparently where people went to drink, smoke, and be loud until the wee hours of the morning.  They also had the gall to charge the same amount of money (and in some cases, more) for our  crap room as the renovated rooms on the zen side.  In any case, it turned out to be a party hostel with revellers going strong until 6:20 a.m. Saturday morning, and not really our thing.  Very disappointing, Casa Kiwi.

That evening we met up with Jorge, whom Adam had met in 2010 in Bogota through a series of unusual events.  Jorge brought along his colleague, and we all went out for dinner.  This evening we would be dining at Chez Subway, and then hit a bar for a few beers.  I was somewhat confused when the waiter brought me a straw through which to drink my beer, but looking around it was apparent that this is what Colombian girls did.  I’m not sure whether the purpose is to save their lipstick, but since I wasn’t wearing any, I forwent the straw and drank it as a good ole’ Canadian girl would drink it, straight from the neck.  Adam had a good catchup with Jorge, a long awaited meeting.

As we had arrived late on Thursday, and we were eager to see some of what Medellin offered, we stayed the next day and headed off to Parque Arvi, which was located a short metro ride away, and up a series telefericos (cable cars) to the mountain park.  Once there, we soon discovered that we should have left a whole day for discovering, as the park was quite sizable, and it was a little unclear as to where the attractions actually were.  An English speaking park representative informed us that there were tours available (in Spanish only), and that there were very limited walking trails open at the time.  After a short walk down the road, we decided to have lunch, and then take the cable car back to the hotel.  Another miss for Medellin.  But the cable car ride was very enjoyable, very scenic, and quite an amazing thing in the middle of a city.  As neighbourhoods were built on the side of the mountain, the cable cars were integrated into part of the public transit system, and people were taking the cable car home as one might take the subway or bus.

After a second sleepless night at Casa Kiwi, we decided that we had had enough of Medellin, and headed off to coffee country.  Our journey took us along the Ruta de Café – a beautiful, scenic part of the Pan-American highway that winds its way through valleys, and clings to the sides of the mountains, all while showing off its lush greenness.  Great riding.  A little chilly.  And a short burst of heavy rain.

We arrived at Hacienda Venecia, a coffee farm and hostel outside of Manizales.  It was time for a bit of R & R, and a break from the cities.  The hostel offered camping, and we pitched our tent on a hillside overlooking a river.  It was a quaint finca set amongst coffee plants, and complete with a swimming pool, and a red and white house that served as the hostel.  We joined the other guests that night for dinner, served family style, where we met Rich and Mikel, two travellers who were volunteering at the hostel (one doing web design, and the other, an architect, designing a new hostel for the owners).

We would spend two full days here, enjoying the swimming pool, catching up on some reading, and taking a very informative coffee tour.  It was a paradise.  And somewhat difficult to leave when it was time to move on, although not very close to town, we were looking forward to reaching Salento, another town in the coffee region with a campsite a mere ten minutes (walking) outside of town.

The road into Hacienda Venecia, a single lane, dirt and gravel road that snaked its way down a mountainside, while fun to ride and not a problem on the way in, proved to be a whole other monster on the way out.  As it had been raining off and on for the three days we were there, the dirt road was now quite wet with some slick mud spots, new ruts, and some gravel run-off.  I have never boasted to be a good off-road rider.  And we had not been on the road for five minutes before we encountered one of those mean elbow turns on an up-slope, that has always been a challenge for me.  While I clearly can see the mechanics of how to tame the beast, it just doesn’t seem to be within my skill-set to make the mechanics happen.  This particular morning, I decided to try for the constant speed tactic coupled with the wide tire track.  It all went well until I hit the apex of the turn, and realized that the shoulder was coming just too close.  Confidently, after a mild panic, I knew that I had to turn the bike sharply to the left and back onto the road, but when I leaned on the bars, the bike did not go the way I intended, and realized that the soft should had already had me in its grips.  The bike slid sideways into the ditch, as the front wheel buried itself into the mud, and my bashplate hit a concrete support.  I launched off the bike and lay in the middle of the road, unsure whether I was hurt, but clearly shaken.  Not a great way to start off a day’s ride.

Adam came back to rescue me, and collect me off the road.  I now knew what it was like to be thrown from a bike.  I can’t say that I would recommend it, but now know that it is possible to survive minor throwings.  Although a woman had rushed out of her house to see about all the commotion, it was apparently too much for her to put down her beverage and help, as Adam and I struggled to pull Millie from her muddy resting place.  Caked in mud and grass, she didn’t appear to have any damage, and shortly enough I was back in the saddle and back on our way, climbing the road back to the highway.  Thankfully the rest of the road wasn’t much of a challenge, and we were back on paved ground again before long.

Salento was only a few hours ride but a super amazing place when we got there (and after my spill, I was grateful for a shorter day on the bike).  Although small, Salento turned out to be one of my most favourite places in Colombia.  It is quaint, and full of artisans, restaurants, and hotels.  We headed down another dirt road that lead out of town (a much less challenging road), to La Serrana, a beautiful ranch-style home perched atop a mountain, surrounded by rolling fields for grazing cattle.  The grounds were covered in tropical flowers, and were frequented by many types of birds.  Again, we opted to camp, and set our tent up amongst a small community of other tenters.

If Hacienda Venecia was a paradise, La Serrana was the paradise of all paradises.  Hours could be spent (and were) simply lying in a hammock watching the world go by, admiring how the shifting clouds changed the landscape within seconds.  Not much to do, and just the way I liked it.  As it turned out, the food there was also amazing, and we eagerly signed up for BBQ night that night, and burger night on our last night (finally, a good burger!).  On our second day in Salento, we ran into our friends Sheldon and Ewa (whom we met in Cartagena), and met them for dinner at one of the local eateries.  It’s been nice meeting so many travellers since arriving in Colombia, and especially since Cartagena.  It makes me feel more like part of a community and less like we are out here on our own.  While many people are interested in the bikes, and very interested in me as a female rider, it can feel a bit isolating.

Originally we were supposed to head back to Bogota to meet up again with Jorge, but Adam and I were starting to feel a bit pressured about our schedule.  Jorge seemed to be a busy man, what with starting a new job, and we had already been in Colombia for over one month.  With insurance about to expire, we decided to forgo a return trip to Bogota and continue south on our way to Ecuador.  As a result we stayed in Salento for an extra day (doing not much of anything – perfect!) before heading to Cali.

Cali is known as the salsa capital of Colombia, but for us, it was somewhat of a quick stopover.  We ended up at Casa Blanca, a well-known haunt for motorcycle travellers, that boasted having parking.  When we arrived, however, the parking turned out to be a lot down the street, even though the photo showed a garage clearly out front.  Said garage had been walled over and now housed the room that we would be staying in for one night.  The owner, an experienced motorcycle traveller himself, also owned Motolombia – a tour company – and a shop across the street from the hostel.  And he was also in the process of selling the hostel, which would explain the slightly uncared for characteristic of the place (clean, but no hot water in some of the showers, handles falling off the toilets).  We did spend some time at a local bike shop, getting acquainted with some of the locals, while we inspected my rear brake and o-rings in the carburetor.  There is a pretty big culture of big bikes in Cali, with many big bore BMWs, and V-Stroms, as well as cruisers (especially Harley Davidson’s).  In the end, Cali turned out to be just another expensive city, and we headed to Popayan.

Known as the Cuided Blanco (the white city), due to the large number of whitewashed buildings in the historical district, Popayan was a real treat, and somewhere I wish we could have stayed longer.  In fact, had I known what Pasto was like, I would have pushed for it a bit harder.  Not to say that Pasto is a bad place, but Popayan is just prettier and more my speed.  After hours of searching for somewhere to stay (it’s hard to find places with on-site parking), we finally landed at La Caracol, a hostel with one room left and a parking lot nearby, on the edge of the historical district.  Hot water in the showers and close to the main attractions, it was all that we needed for the night.  The city turned out to be my speed, and we were able to walk to the main square, peek into some of the churches, and grab a bite of pizza before heading to bed.

If I might interrupt my blog post for a second, I have to say that Colombians really know what they are doing with pizza.  In Guatemala we avoided it like the plague, but here, we have had pizza that rivals or bests pizza we have had in North America.  In the fast food places where you can order by the slice, they bake the crust first, then put the toppings and cheese on and leave it unbaked until the customer orders it.  You have to wait a little bit longer, but it makes such a difference to have freshly melted cheese rather than cheese that has been sitting out, cooled down, and is then re-melted.  So, pizza in Colombia has been good. Not all of it. But a lot of it.  But when it good, it is   very good.  Hint: we usually pass on the Hawaiian style pizzas as the candied pineapple topping is a little too sweet.

Which brings us to Pasto.  I had heard that Pasto was sort of ugly, with not much going for it.  Driving around for hours (again) during a mostly dead Sunday late afternoon, looking for a place to stay within our budget (and with most places running at around $100 per night, and not many hostels in sight), we took a place that cost $60 (Nogal Suite Inn).  Still way out of our budget, but it included breakfast, and had very secure underground parking.  It unfortunately didn’t have any hot water (as promised) which is somewhat of a necessity here in the Andes, and somewhat unacceptable for a hotel charging $60 for one night.

On our way way to the post office, which turned out to be closed on Mondays which is in contradiction to official hours on their website, we scoped out some new hotels in anticipation of dealing with this package we are waiting for.  Again, there was nothing for under $100.  We even humbly asked one hotel receptionist who said that it would be “impossible” to find something in the USD$40 range.  Not quite believing this as a fellow we had just me the other night told us that he stayed at a decent place for about USD$20 near the main square.   So our hunt for this $20/night hotels started to look less promising and we finally decided that we would have to see if we couldn’t find a public parking place for our bikes and stay at the Koala Inn – the only hostel in the city.  Not the best option, but workable.  During our hunt, Jenn realized that one of the signs for a hotel she had seen earlier was on Pasto’s second town squares.  Yes – confusing, they have two town squares.  There is presumably a main one, and a second one called “Plaza Carnaval”.  The latter being somewhat Soviet in characteristic with its cheerful Andean backdrop, and not so cheerful “working girls”.  While said hotel didn’t have parking, the price dropped considerable.  A moment later, Adam spotted a sign indicating that a hotel had parking.

Alas, we found Premier Hotel – almost an oasis for us.  For well under half the price of the previous night, we have a nice, bright room which is much larger, lots of hot water, a roof “terrace” where we could wash our clothes, and a decent, multi-story fairly secure parking with an entrance not far from our room.  While the previous place boasts a fancy website, and the chic look of a trying to be a fancy hotel, the Premier is much more approachable, seems to be family owned, and the operators bend over backwards to make you feel at home.   We are going to make sure this place ends up in Open Street Maps for other motorcycles travellers.

Admittedly, Pasto started to grow on us – specifically with all of its interesting shops – many being a little gritty and offering things that we don’t need.  That said, it is amusing to walk down the street and talk about what we could buy if we really wanted to:  baked goods, shoes, sausages, motorcycles, chainsaws, pressure cookers, art supplies, agricultural supplies, clothing, and you name it.  While we have seen this vast array of goods on the main strip in much smaller towns, Pasto seems to have a lot of everything with walking distance of each other.  And perhaps one of our favourites was a store called roughly in English “The Palace of Jackets” with the head of a Photoshopped smokey nostril fire breathing pussy cat as its logo. Meowwww.

Checking with the post office on Tuesday, we found nothing.  This was a bit disappointing but not really a surprise. Having finally got some more information from DHL after having pressed the vendor (a second time), DHL has informed us that the package could be held for up to two weeks in customs.  Not ideal and probably not workable.  In the meantime, we spent some time buying some cheap new underwear and getting my battery tested (something is either not right with my battery and/or charging system).  Luckily, the correct size battery is available locally for a reasonable price.

Associated photo galleries: Cartagena, Caucasia, Medellín, Manizales, Salento, Cali, Popayan, Pasto