Medellin & PPY Cartagena
Photos. Left: Medellin & Papayan. Right: Cartagena.

I was looking forward to my second visit to Colombia for two reasons. Partly as entering South America marked my fourth and final stage of the trip, but mostly as I would rendezvous with two buddies from Europe: Rob and Chris.

Both of whom used a weeks leave to catch up with yours truly. Great of them to do so and all the more appreciated as I’ve been on the road for 10 months and Skype calls can only go so far. I’d suggested Cartagena as a place to meet up as it was on my route. In addition, I’d been there in January 2009 and had a magic time.

I arrived a day in advance and met them at the penthouse apartment Rob booked. A class place and worthy of such a reunion. We each had our own bedroom with en-suite, large balcony, TV etc etc. The cost was only USD55 each per night.

The first night was spent mostly in the pad reminiscing over old war stories while consuming copious amounts of alcohol. On the second day I took them both around the Old Town – for me Cartagena’s star attraction. It’s the best Spanish colonial town I’ve come across. All the buildings are superbly maintained in former glory and painted in vibrant colours. The area itself is full of bars and restaurants where it’s a great place to walk through day and night. We visited two of my favourite bars in the area: Café del Mar and The Hard Rock Café.

The former is famous in the House music scene as one of the original clubs and production labels. Rob and I visited the original Café del Mar in Ibiza a few years back. Sadly the original venue no longer exists as a club but is now purely café in name and nature. A result of permit changes in the island’s north region. However Colombia’s Café del Mar is still cool: great music, cocktails and views of the ocean from the embattlement walls.

Apart from that we didn’t hit the town much. As it was low season there was an absence of numbers in the bars. We checked out a few bars on the strip on a Friday (or Saturday) and most were dead. There was only one bar which was heaving however it played reggaton, Latino music with some chart stuff thrown in occasionally. Lacking the will to sink five or six shots needed to get into the groove to shine amongst the locals we decided to split. The best sessions were had back at the pad. The lads both have great play lists and I really hope the council have a bottle bank for recycling.

Many of the days were spent at the beach. Nice enough place with good table service, sunny weather and fairly warm water to boot. The only downside was the number of beach vendors. Annoying for their number, persistence and manner. I wouldn’t deny anyone the right to make a living but there was no balance with the right of tourists to have some quiet beach time. Every five minutes I could have bought junk jewellery, shades, trinkets and other such rubbish.

On top of this there were numerous women offering massages, manicures or pedicures but they were the type you wouldn’t even let cut your toenails. And of course various drugs and prostitutes were offered too. We confined ourselves to an area reserved by a hotel that had a security guard. However as it was a public beach he could only move them on not keep them out. Although jokingly said, it would have been nice to have a shotgun nearby.

In the end, I was a disappointed for the lads that the off peak season lacked anywhere near the same energy as I remembered in high season. But we did enjoy the week all the same and their visit was much appreciated. In fact, it made me think further about where I will end up after this trip.
From the outset I always said, that post trip I will follow a good job anywhere in the world. This was for a long time, and is still partly, an exciting thought. Now – having been away from a close family and a large group of close friends for so long it’s making me reconsider how far I might be willingly to travel. Something I will have to decide upon over the next two to three months as I finish up. Prior to that that I still have to cover another 3,600km before arriving in Santiago.

Next stop Medellin. The ride there was something special. Even if the first two of the seven hours were tough. I’d chosen to drive through the Andes rather than along the coast. The first problem was hitting a massive tailback. When driving through the mountains encounters with decrepit trucks are to be expected. Generally cars can also overtake slow moving vehicles on the single lane roads. The problem arises when other trucks catch up with the slowest moving beast.

Even with the fastest of car and bravest of driver overtaking more than one truck can be a death wish. The result – a convoy of five or six kilometres. Since my bike has ample poke overtaking is no issue even on the tight spaces. With such a long tailback I could only leapfrog two or three cars at a time. When it was time for the trucks it was full on acceleration prior to the curve and then tuck in-between two trucks. I ended up getting annoyed by the slow progress and the constant breathing of putrid exhaust fumes as I practically rode tailgate.

Even worse than the diesel and gas was the smell of cooped up chickens. A pick-up truck fully laden down with thousands of live birds stood between two trucks and me. I had to ride for what seemed like ages before I could hit warp speed. Breathing in raw chicken was foul.

It all ends up in taking a few more risks than normal. For example, when driving on a mountain ledge I looked across the other ridge checking for oncoming cars before overtaking on a bend. Quite a rush. The only other obstacle encountered was numerous road repairs.

The result of heavy rains in the previous weeks. On the ride to Medellin and ultimately Cali I came across no less that 20 reconstruction works. Where a full lane was closed as either the mountain fell onto the road or the road fell down the mountainside. I wasn’t worried about further landslides, as they’d run their course and their presence were well sign posted. I was more concerned about turning a random corner only to find few melon-sized rocks on the road. More than enough to cause a serious wobble or fall.

The combination of knowing this in advance and the curvaciouness of the roads result in a natural speed limit and caution alert. On passing the tailback I was then clear to enjoy the rest of the ride. What a complete pleasure fest. Dramatic mountains covered with greenage, which just continued toward the horizon and rose above the clouds. I had to stop myself saying “wow” 15 times every two minutes. I could have pulled over every five minutes to take photos which I did sparingly as I was behind time. Besides there will be enough photo opportunities as the Andes runs the entire length of South America. About 30km out from Medellin the bike cut out a number of times when not in motion.

Thankfully I was on the main route into the city and not in the mountains. It always restarted immediately but a worrisome sign all the same. A trip to the garage was a certainty. Before that though, I checked into an Irish owned hostel called PitStop. A nice place with small pool, bar, pool table and a private room. Sadly the owner wasn’t around but I did play pool at the bar which sold fantastic IPA beers. I hadn’t tasted such good microbrewery beers since I was in the west coast of Canada and Seattle.

The barmaid was almost offended when I questioned if they really were locally brewed. Heh, milk is milk but it still tastes different all over the world. Just surprised that local Colombian brews could be as good as their northern counterpart. Maybe a bit arrogant but also a compliment.

I only stayed one night as my room faced a busy road, which came alive at 5.00pm, and it was a bit cold too. Although I did make a couple of visits back to their bar. My next abode was a small apartment in the El Pableo area. The nice part of town.

My original plan was only to spend a few days in the city. The thing that struck me most is how the city is expansively laid out across miles of mountains. I’ve been to Zurich and Geneva before but Medellin is much larger in population (2.4m) and area. It’s the first time I’ve seen concrete towers planted so high on a mountain.

I misjudged this topography as I headed to the Suzuki dealership. I decided to walk the 1.5km rather than navigate through the one way, no right/left turn streets and it allowed me to get a sense of bearing. It shouldn’t have taken long. In the end the trip took ages as it was all skyward bound at a steep gradient and in 28-degree heat. I arrived at the garage both dripping and parching. A Gatorade and 10 minutes to cool down were required before entering. Anyway, the garage agreed to look at my bike the next day. Once the bike was admitted I was free to check out the city.

Fortunately the apartment was centrally located next to shopping centres, parks and social areas. Most fortunate of all was the proximity to the Hard Rock Café (HRC). Only 500m. I can now confirm this is my favourite global chain. I must have been to well over a dozen locations around the world by now. Initially the musical theme was the draw but now mostly because I like the package. The bars are great, staff are always extremely friendly and can be relied upon for tips for the night scene. Naturally the bill of fare is delicious even if on the unhealthy side; love the fajitas, mac & cheese and the long island ice tea.

Of the couple of visits to HRC Medellin one afternoon excursion was particularly memorable. Two Australian men sitting on the terrace booth next to mine invited me to join their table. I declined partly as I reading and equally as they were loud and sounded well on the way to a happy place. When the fourth customer entered the terrace and took up their invitation my company was insisted upon. Over the next couple of hours two Australian mining company owners, a Texan, a Paddy and a Fin (the fifth customer) easily consumed a bottle of JD.

Think the lads were celebrating some deal as their lawyer later came to pick them up (which wasn’t a bad idea). Good old random session. Poor Fin though. Nice guy but completely out of his depth. Although fun I was glad the session came to an end. I could tell one of the Aussies could well be a mean drunk. And he not too subtly mentioned he’d spent five years in a Peruvian jail. An assertion I believed when his levelheaded mate didn’t deny the claim. We all got on well but I suspected it would not take much to provoke him. Without the booze I´d say he was a good guy as he too drove motorbikes and it was decent of him to pick up the entire tab.

The Texan was a good guy and had an interesting story. A regular visitor to Colombia for over eight years he’d only recently moved to Medellin. A result of his recent marriage. After a two month romance he married a local bombshell and was already in contact with lawyers seeking an annulment. Immediately after the marriage she began looking for increasingly larger gifts (including a nose job) and access to bank accounts. Lucky for him, Colombia has a three-month get out of jail free card (no alimony) rule. A card he fully intended to call trump. As one of my buddy’s says – marry in haste, repent at leisure.

Apart from HRC the other social area includes Parc Lleras. A nicely manicured square surrounded by bars, restaurants and cafes. One evening was spent in a local sports bar on the night the local team Nacional took on La Equidad from Bogotá. It was the first leg of the national football championship final. Great atmosphere in the entire city. Sadly, the local side’s early goal was eclipsed by two from Bogotá. However, a week later I watched round two in Cali, where Nacional forced extra time after two late goals and eventually won on penalties.

During daylight hours I visited a number of recommended sights including the Medellin Art Museum. As always I took an audio tour. Great for a deeper appreciation of the artefacts. A good chuck of the museum was dedicated to the local son Fernando Botero. Interesting to see he paints characters in a larger than life form. Other excursions include a trip to the Botanical Gardens, University area and the Oviedo and Santa Fe malls. The latter was striking as its open top oval shape gives the impression of a sports area.

Two good purchases were made. A long overdue haircut in a proper saloon. Fortunately they had a large book of sample haircuts as the lady who cut my hair had no English. Notwithstanding her English and my Spanish handicap we communicated well. I didn’t even have to ask for an eyebrow and ear hair trim. It’s always the final 10% that distinguishes very good from excellent. All this for only USD10, ex tip. My next purchase was a lot less value for money.

I bought two books: The Silent Man (Alex Brenenson) and White Noise (Don Delillo) for USD22 and USD30 respectively. A premium price for English language books is to be expected in this region and since I had nothing else to read I paid the exorbitant prices. The first of the books is a superb holiday read. A CIA agent in pursuit of a would-be nuclear bomber. I must have read 300 hundred pages on my balcony in one day. A nice way to kill time until my bike was ready.

On Thursday I went to the garage to collect the bike. Before doing so I dropped into the church which was next to the workshop. It was more like cathedral in size. As I took a couple of photos from the back of the church, a man in his mid 50’s who looked like a slimmer version of John Goodman nodded in my direction. Immediately I knew I was being tapped for a donation and not to the church box.

I was surprised and glad to hear a soft New Jersey accent. From his appearance it was obvious he wasn’t homeless but sadly another American deportee down on his luck at the moment. On the way to the garage I had actually been thinking how I was going to communicate with the mechanic. Prior to dropping the bike off I used Google Translator to send a Spanish email describing the bikes symptoms. Live time I wouldn’t understand any technical description of the real cause. I told my new friend, I’d be pleased to help him out if he could help me. Divine intervention for sure.

With that we crossed the street to the Suzuki garage where I learned that the tank and fuel injection was clogged with grit. A result of dirty gas. I gave my translator buddy USD7 and I could tell he like me was glad to have been able to help. Not long after leaving I had to return as I could tell the bike still wasn’t 100%. Then came a major annoyance.

Having heard nothing from the garage I decided to drop by on Saturday around 2:00’ish. The store was closed at 1:00 and staff absent. Most garages call the owner when their vehicle is ready to be collected. Worse still – Monday was a national holiday. What idiots – never thought that I might need the bike for the weekend. They had both my email address and cell number. The fact that my bike was on the showroom floor only served to further annoy rather than flatter.

I had planned to go to Cali the following day. Generally a two day set back wouldn’t be such a big deal but I’d already spent enough time in Medellin. Moreover I prefer to drive on Sundays as with significantly less traffic it’s safer.

Anyway, I killed an afternoon with a trip to the Park Solada. As an inland city Medellin has no beach. However the mountain terrain provides many streams where families and friends hangout during the weekends and holidays. The Solada national reserve is only 15 minutes (in a taxi) from the city centre. From the bottom to midway up the mountainous stream was lined with families, couples and friends. The mound was alive with wafting smells of cooking meats, music and fun.

I finished my book and spent the remainder of the afternoon with an ice cream while watching the children play. Not a bad way to pass an afternoon. First thing Tuesday I collected the bike and got a USD50 discount for their poor show in not calling. Of course the effect of my delay was much exaggerated. Shortly after I was on the road to Cali.

My original plan didn’t include a visit to Colombia’s third city. It would be the equivalent of an American or Asian visiting Birmingham while on a European tour. I changed that plan as I wanted to break bread with Sigi before he headed back to the U.S. In addition it was my birthday so a double reason to open a few cold ones.

I arrived a day earlier at Casa Blanc, a biker friendly hostel and took one of their rooms in the apartment they maintain. A Dane opened the business two years earlier and expanded it with a bar, car park and a small garage all of which are on the street. He also runs a motor touring business. Taking mostly Americans on two to seven day dirt bike tours in the Andes.

I met a number of other bikers on similar trips too. A Texan named Keller, a retired lawyer driving from Buenos Aires back home, an Australian couple Linden and Jane on his and her hybrids and Jason an American on a 25 year old Honda 400cc. I actually met Jason while in the overlander hostel in Panama. Good to hear his travels were also going well.

Sigi arrived early evening having done some real off-roading in the previous week or so. Next evening Sigi, Keller and myself headed to a nearby fish restaurant for my birthday dinner. A great evening of sharing travel stories and generous of the guys to pick up the tab. Afterwards we returned to the hostel bar and had a couple of Cuba Libras. Also, replacing a birthday cake I bought a bottle of tequila which was shared with all.

As a birthday gift to myself, I bought a one day dirt biking tour of the mountains. This was to be my first time on a proper dirt bike and going off road. The Dane and I headed off at 9.00am, he on his 900cc BMW GS and me on a 600cc Kawasaki. What a great day, and possibly a new hobby.

A little unnerving at first until I got used to wheels sliding on the gravel, not over revving in the mud and going down the mountain without using the front breaks. The only bad part of the day was loosing my camera. It fell out of my duffel bag along the way. Shame as I had some great photos of both the day and the previous night in the hostel bar.

The next day Sigi parked up his bike and returned to the US. Always a mixed feeling about the end of such a trip. Glad to be going back on the one hand but wondering what it would be like to stay on the road. Shame to see him go but he’s heading to Germany at the end of the year so who knows maybe some more touring on the cards. I headed south a couple of days later.

As I left I felt somewhat despondent. A combination of a number of factors: ten months on the road, missing my family and friends, knowing the trip was within single digit weeks of completion and thinking the remainder of the trip would just be more of the same. The latter a consequence of my not having had time to plan the route and sights south of Colombia.

I remember thinking that if there was a good reason for the trip to end in Colombia I wouldn’t be too disappointed. Thank God that thought wasn’t answered, as Ecuador has been one of the unexpected highlights of the entire trip. Continued fun in the Andes, waterfalls, running with and from bulls, a bungee jump, a parade, the Galapagos Islands, great people and more.

Cracking stuff.

Al Dempsey
21 July 2011

PS. Cartagena photos posted. Will upload more over the next few days.