I didn’t get very far from Cali before I stopped for another party. I wasn’t going to ride north without saying goodbye to my friends in Popayàn and I went out to Terra Unum bar where Pedro was dj-ing with all the friends I’d met earlier (although Sebastian was still lost in Montañita in Ecuador). It was a good party and I was completely written-off the next day but I got to chill with Pedro and chat to Don Diego about the road ahead. I wanted to ride the dirt road through the hills to San Agustin but I had been warned by friends in Cali not to ride through that way but to head east by ‘la linea’ that I had had so much fun crossing to go to Sebastian’s uncle’s wedding. I usually take warnings with a pinch of salt these days unless the person giving the warning is talking from their own personal experience. People have good intentions but if I’d listened to every warning, I wouldn’t have even started this trip! The areas around Popayàn, departments Cauca and Huila, are known for Guerrilla activity and one of my friends who warned me had been kidnapped by the FARC before so knew of the dangers, but Gal had recently passed through this way with no problems and Cali is quite far away so I thought it best to ask someone more local. Diego told me it would be fine so I rode off after the weekend and after a days ride through the hills I was in San Agustin.
San Agustin is a small colonial town popular with tourists for its scenery and archeological sites. I had intended to stick around for a few days and enjoy it all but I was still tired from my excesses in Cali and Popayán and I was quite content to just chill out in my guesthouse and chat to the owners. It rained a few days and I got some repairs done but after a day or too I was itching to ride again. The next place on my list to visit was the Desierto de Tatacoa, a small desert to the north east. Although its called a desert, its still pretty green, certainly nothing like the Sahara or the deserts of Namibia or Chile and Argentina. I had planned to ride into the desert and camp for the night (it had been a while since I’d used my tent), but arriving in the village of Villavieja in the afternoon heat I found a cheap guesthouse with a pool so I relaxed there for the evening. I was woken up in the middle of the night by a downpour, something else I hadn’t expected to encounter in a desert and there was still quite a lot of water around in the village when I rode off into the desert in the morning. The desert is pretty small, only about 350 square kilometers and I had intended to find somewhere to camp in the middle, but riding along the fun dirt tracks I found that I had crossed the desert in almost no time at all. I stopped in Baraya for lunch then chose some other tracks to cross back, getting lost once or twice before arriving back in Villavieja.
There are loads of campsites and guesthouses in the desert, but in the end I opted to just stay in Villavieja again. I rode back into the desert at night to do some stargazing but the rains of the previous night had left the sky overcast and there wasn’t anything to see. Riding north out of Villavieja was another fast dirt road to Victoria and then a rickety bridge and boat to get back to the main road to Bogotá.
The ride to Bogota was kinda boring with straight roads and more trucks to avoid but there were some nice views as I gained altitude in the mountains. The traffic was awful at Soacha, a pretty dodgy-looking satellite town on the western side of Bogotá and it took me ages to pass through but after that it was okay and I found the apartment of my couchsurfing contact with no trouble. I was early and she was still at work so I fell asleep on the pavement next to my bike. Anna had invited to me to stay with her for a few days while she was in the process of moving house. She works in media and had been offered a job in México. Anna loves music and dancing and we went out to practice my salsa skills in a little club downtown. The club was mostly a salsateca but also played other styles including Cumbia. Cumbia originates from the Caribbean coast of Colombia and has spread to all over Latin America. I had grown to hate Cumbia when I was in Argentina and Chile as the stuff that is listened to in most clubs is garbage (disculpe amigos Argentinos, pero ustedes saben que hablo la verdad!) and I was expecting to be irritated by it once again, but what I didn’t know was that the traditional Colombian Cumbia is completely different and sounds very African and is very easy to dance to. Check this link out.
Being the capital, Bogotá is choked by heavy traffic most of the time. Its a long and thin city and Ana´s place was near the northern outskirts of the city where new high-rise condominiums are framed by poorer neighborhoods that sprawl up the side of the valley. The surrounding towns are much nicer and I was invited by another couchsurfer, Carolina, to meet her and her family in the nearby town of Chia and we went to Zipaquirá, a pretty colonial town popular with tourists for its salt mine that has been converted into an underground cathedral. Back in Bogotá, I met up with a friend of an Ecuadorian family who had me over for dinner in Quito. I’d been in contact with German since leaving Ecuador and he´d kindly let me use his address to get a replacement camping mat sent from USA (thanks Exped). German loves all things off-road and we went to visit his friend Rafael at his workshop where he helped me tighten up wobbly head bearings and fix the blowing exhaust. Since leaving Cali I had started to think about going to Venezuela. I’d stayed in Cali way longer than I had planned and I had now resigned myself to racing through Central America quickly to arrive in the US in time for summer. It would be a shame to only scratch the surface of those countries but I had decided that I had to make the most of my time in the South as I had already spent a lot of money to get the bike there and I could always ride around in central in the future with a bike bought in the US that I could sell on leaving. I knew that I was going to visit the El Cocuy national park, which would put me very close to the border. German had been to Venezuela and he warned me off going, telling me that all the police and army are corrupt thieves and that the crime is out of control. He told me of two backpackers who had been robbed of everything, including their clothes by some soldiers and in another story, a friend had to pay a bribe to the police because he had 10,000 dollars in his car, although to be fair, I thought that guy got off lucky as dollars are prohibited in Venezuela and they could have easily ‘confiscated’ the lot. Like in Argentina, the prohibition of the dollar is intended to boost the county’s economy but had created a black market where dollars could be exchanged for many times the official rate. I heeded German’s warnings, but ultimately disregarded them as I had also been chatting to Alejandro, a Venezuelan friend I had met in Quito and despite all of Venezuela’s problems he thought it was a great idea for me to come and visit and was looking forward to seeing me.
I left Bogotá after an oil change and a fun day shopping around Bogotá’s streets of army surplus shops. It was one of the few days of the year when cars were not allowed on the roads and I took the opportunity to ride around the city one more time before heading back to Zipiquirá to take the B-roads north. I stayed the night in Chinquinquirá then rode the next day through to Raquirá and then through a mountain dirt road recommended by German to get to Villa de Lleyva, one of Colombia´s most famous and best preserved colonial towns. North of Villa de Lleyva, I rode to Arcabuco and then through the dirt roads of the Iguaque national park to Gambita and Paipa where I turned north again riding to Soata, where the higher-altitude scenery had me thinking of Peru and Argentina.
After a very quiet night in Soata, I set out to ride the super-twisty mountain roads that lead up through beautiful little villages towards El Cocuy National Park. Some people in Soata had told me that the roads may have been covered in snow but there wasn’t any and I arrived in El Cocuy handy for lunch. The village of El Cocuy is a typical Colombian mountain village with cobbled streets and some pretty colonial looking buildings. I went to the national park office to pay the entrance fee and was told that only 4 of the trails were open as the land belongs to the indigenous inhabitants and they have forbidden hiking in certain sacred areas but there was still easily enough for 3-4 days hiking and I went back to the centre to load up on supplies. Being lunchtime, everywhere was closed and the one shop I walked into turned out to be a bar. I started chatting to the friendly owner and it wasn’t long before people started to offer me beers. Two hours and three beers later and it was becoming apparent that I wasn’t going anywhere fast. The campesinos (country folk) of El Cocuy where all very friendly and very interested to hear all about my journey. We were joined by more people including the local teacher and a man whose daughter lives in London who bought the last of my Euros to give to her as a gift. A bottle of whiskey arrived on the table and out came the guitar. Loads of tourists pass through El Cocuy but I got the impression that none really stick around long enough to meet the people. I felt like a celebrity when there was a group of 20 or so people watching my videos of the adventurous roads of South America and was I was pretty well drunk when a bus load of photography students from Bogotá arrived and went crazy photographing me and the bike. Unsurprisingly, I never made it anywhere on my first day and I stashed the bike in the bar for safe keeping and stayed the night in a cheap hotel by the square. I was still drunk in the morning but I was determined to make a start on the hiking. The clean air and physical exercise would sort me out. El Cocuy village is kinda at the centre of the National Park and all the trials start much higher in the hills. There is a truck called ‘el lechero’ (the milk truck) that drives around all the farms and walkers usually use this to get them to the trails or one of the many Haciendas where you can find a bed for the night. I rode up to the Hacienda ‘La Esperanza’ which is at the start of the trail that goes up to the Laguna Grande de la Sierra. It was a little later than I had wanted to start hiking but I was determined not to waste the day so I packed my things away in the hacienda and started the hike. It rained early on and I sought shelter in a cabaña for half an hour until it stopped. The trail was quite steep, going up to about 4500m and I hadn’t been at altitude for quite some time making the ascent slow going (hangover didn’t help) and it was getting dark when I arrived at the Laguna. There were two places to camp, one by the Laguna and another in a nearby cave. I tried to find the one by the Laguna but gave up due to the fading light and I bivvied in the cave for the night instead. I was comfy and warm but the blowing winds kept me awake all night and I was up at first light to wander around the glacier before heading back down. I met a load of Colombian hikers on the way down. I seemed like I had been given a little bit of misinformation about where I could and couldn’t hike as they were off on a big 5 day hike taking routes that I hadn’t known were possible. They also told me that the reasons for some of the routes being closed were not due to the indigenous people but were due to the park being developed for tourism by a foreign interest. All very political stuff, still, the group had loads more experience of the area than I had and I was content with calling it a day. I was tired and hungry and I walked back with excellent weather all the way to the hacienda where I stayed the night with fantastic local food and great hospitality.
I was so content with my two day hike (content = knackered) that I went to see the rest of the park on my bike following the loop made by the lechero truck to El Espino. The sealed roads up to El Cocuy had been amazing but I had seen loads of dirt roads too and I opted to take another route back to the main road that took me through some beautiful valleys and gave me great views of the park.
While I had time to think up the mountain I decided that I would definitely go to Venezuela. I only had a week of visa left and there was still so much of Colombia that I wanted to see. El Cocuy is not too far from the Venezuelan border and I would at the very least go there to get my visa and bike documents extended. I was heading for Pamplona, a town only about 80 km from the border and described as a nice place by the guide books. The ride was great, passing through loads of mountains and little towns before the sealed road turned into a dirt road mountain pass between Cerrito and Chitaga. Pamplona wasn’t quite the wonderful stop-off it had been made out to be and I was very unimpressed as I walked around for what seemed like ages trying to find somewhere to eat before going to bed early so I could hit the border the next day.
Riding out of Pamplona, the landscape changed from misty green hills, to forest, to arid hills near Cucutá, the nearest big city to the border. The weather had changed too and I was being battered by strong cross winds and sweating to death in the heat every time I stopped. It took me a while to actually find the border, which was pretty chaotic and one of the busiest borders I’d ever seen. The side of the bridge heading towards Venezuela was full with vehicles and it looked like very few people were passing to Colombia. I saw the Colombian immigration and customs on the other side of the road but had to drive over the bridge and come back to get to it. All the formalities were sorted out quickly and I was told that I would have to stay in Venezuela for one night if I wanted to re-enter with a new visa. There were money changers lining the road to the bridge and I changed 200,000 Colombian pesos (about £60) to be given a massive wad of bolivar notes before crossing the bridge for good into Venezuela. On the other side, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing and the army guards stood at the entrance looked very bewildered by my presence. Things weren’t going to be straight forward. The immigration office had moved away from the border to somewhere in town and the customs were closed for lunch. I rode into town still without permission to be in the country and found somewhere to eat. Two women started talking to me and recommended a cheap hotel right next door and after I had finally got my passport stamped, I checked in to drop my stuff off and lighten my load for the rest of the afternoon’s bureaucratic tasks. I’d found the correct customs office but I needed to buy insurance and get loads of photocopies sorted. I’d only been in the country an hour or so but I was definitely liking it. San Antonio de Tachira is what I’d consider to be a proper border town, full of hustle and bustle and loads of shops selling cheap goods for people coming over the border, and everything was very cheap. I bought a years insurance for my bike for $1.50 and my lunch and room had cost me next to nothing. Everyone was really friendly and I was liking the adventure of being the the only foreigner. Back at the customs office I met two Colombian brothers who were waiting to clear their car. The customs guy had told me to buy some fiscal stamps to pay for making the documents, which I didn’t but he let me off with anyway. I was so impressed by this laid-back friendly service that I has completely taken by surprise when I had to sit around for the next three hours to wait for the Jefe’s signature and my amazement quickly turned to frustration. It was getting late when the signed documents finally arrived but there was still more to do before I could ride on into the sunset (or go to bed). The final hurdle was an inspection of the vehicle’s road worthiness and luckily for me the brothers had done it before and knew exactly where to go. The inspection was like a typical shakedown with the inspector making up all sorts of problems to possibly coax a bribe out of me. He had a problem that only one of my headlights worked. This was because I had bought a HID light kit in Cali, which although it made the other standard light bulb kind of obsolete cos it was so much brighter, the two would not work together without affecting the horn and some other electrical functions. The brothers were having problems too as the inspector had ruled that their HID kits weren’t standard and one of them drove off to try to find some standard bulbs to appease him. In the end I got a pass by doing some guerrilla rewiring and carefully demonstrating the horn and lights in an order that worked although explaining my journey also had him impressed and much more lenient too.
At night time, San Antonio was completely different and no longer felt welcoming. The streets were mostly empty and the people at my hotel reception had told me to not go out at all but I sneaked out for a burger, constantly watching my back until I was safely back inside. It was cheerful again by the morning and after breakfast I got the bike ready to ride on. After all the ball-ache of trying to get the bike through customs, I had decided that it would be a waste to cross back over and not to see some of the country. More bureaucracy awaited me on the ride out as I couldn’t buy any fuel. Fuel prices in Venezuela are so low, that it is practically free and there are restrictions in the departments close to the border to stop people crossing over only to fill up (although the customs procedures should be enough to dissuade anyone from doing this!). I still had plenty of fuel as I had filled up before the border as is my practice and I rode off towards San Cristobal. I didn’t know it at the time but San Cristobal was the major hot-bed of the on-going political protests and there had been violent clashes between students and the police. Either way, I was only going to ride around it as I really wanted to go to Mérida, a popular town in the mountains with loads of things to do. I managed to get some fuel in San Cristobal. At the 3rd or 4th petrol station I tried, a motorbiker sweet-talked the pump guys into filling my tank for free. This happened again in La Grita and I was starting to think that I wouldn’t have to pay for any fuel at all. Petrol costs less than 1c a litre in Venezuela. Later in Caracas I would see people on small bikes fill up and ride away without even bothering to pay anything. Nobody seemed to care which is understandable when it is that cheap.
I had my route to Mérida planned out in my head from what I had seen on Google maps, but one of the roads was blocked and I ended up riding through some villages and neighbourhoods until I was back on track. So far so good, everyone was friendly and it looked pretty much the same as Colombia. The road took me high into the mountains and I rode along with a local couple for 20 km or so until we separated and I rode higher through another mountain pass to the town of Bailadores where I found a really nice cheap hotel ($6 dollars) and stayed for the night drinking and chatting with the locals. There were even more local riders on the road to Mérida the next day and the police had the best bikes I´d seen in South America. Some had brand new Kawasaki Versys 650s or Suzuki V-stroms and I have never seen so many KLR650s in all my life. We are talking thousands of them, both in use by the military and police and also privately owned. I went to a guesthouse in Mérida that had been recommended to me in Bailadores. It turned out to be considerable more expensive than I had been told but ultimately it was still cheap ($15) because of the parallel dollar and it felt great to be staying in luxury, especially when you consider that I had slept in a cave less than a week ago. I had arrived in Mérida at midday and the town centre was full of people. I went out shopping for an hour or two but then returned to my room to try to find someone on the Couchsurfing website who could show me around. One contact, Michelle picked me up at the guesthouse and took me out for what was one of the best nights out I’d had in South America. We went to one bar, then another, then another and in each place she seemed to know absolutely everyone. At the last place there was such a mix of people. We were dancing Salsa, then jumping around to drum and bass then people were moshing to Rage Against the Machine. Everyone was friendly and I chatted to all sorts of people, the majority of which had English names, which is strange for a Latin country, albeit they pronounce them the Spanish way.
I was hammered by the end of the night and spent all of Sunday in bed enjoying the luxury and recuperating. Michelle called around on Monday and we went hiking in the hills with a couple of her friends. We had made plans to meet up again for the evening but everything had to be cancelled as the protests started to shift up a gear in Mérida. At first there wasn’t much to see but soon I was getting messages from other couchsurfers saying they couldn’t come and meet me because their neighbourhoods had been blocked by protestors and they couldn’t get out. I wandered down to one bar but it had closed. The streets were empty and I didn’t feel safe walking anymore so I grabbed a cab to another bar that I had made arrangements to meet people in. It was closed too and the cab driver had to take a round about route to get me back to my guesthouse as protesters had started to block the streets in the centre too, which they do by laying a line of rubbish across it and then setting it on fire. It looked crazy but I had yet to see any violence only protestors in the street banging pots and pans together while shouting ‘Fuera Maduro’, calling for the president to leave. It continued like this for four days and although you could do stuff in the daytime, things weren’t completely open and at nighttime it was total lockdown. Everywhere was shut and I had to get anything I wanted for the evening before it went dark as the atmosphere completely changed at night. The streets were empty and there was a lot of talk about ‘motorizados’, which depending on who you’re talking to, I gathered to be either gangs of robbers on motorbikes or government-sponsored paramilitaries trying to break up the protests. After four nights of inactivity hanging out with the other tourists who were also stuck in the hotel, I decided to leave. I rode over the páramo to Barinas where I stayed to contemplate my next move. Nobody in Venezuela seemed to know what was going on and I had many people in Barinas asking me about the situation in Mérida. The opposition claim that the press is censored, but pretty much everyone I spoke to, those for, and those against the government were all using social networking sites such as facebook to get their news, which really doesn’t really afford them any balanced commentary. I used to believe in the free press, but whereas before you needed a TV station to circulate propaganda, these days all that is needed is a smartphone and a popular facebook account. Who knows what to believe anymore?
The most direct way out of Venezuela was to ride back to San Cristobal and leave by the same border where I had entered, but the receptionist at the hotel in Barinas told me that the disorder in San Cristobal was so bad that the army had been sent in and I wouldn’t be able to pass. I had chatted to soldiers as I entered Barinas city limits and none of them had mentioned this to me when I said I wanted to go to San Cristobal. They were all more concerned with what the situation was in Mérida, although they did reassure me that Barinas was quiet and safe. To add to the surrealness of the situation, anti-government campaigners had posted some propaganda on facebook that had caused a lot of my friends at home to worry and I was getting messages telling me to take care or telling me to get out of the country. I was very confused by it all as I hadn’t seen anything that serious. Some of the people in my hotel in Mérida were from Caracas and had gone to Mérida to escape from the trouble but at the same time I had been in contact with Alejandro constantly and he was still whole-heartedly inviting me to visit him in Caracas. We had only hung out together for a week in Quito but I was pretty sure that he wouldn’t ask me to ride into a war zone so I bit the bullet and set off super early towards Caracas.
The roads in Venezuela are generally in very good condition and there wasn’t much traffic as I rode along. I was making excellent progress and I stopped to eat outside Maracay and some people where kind enough to let me use their phone to try to contact Alejandro. A couple had just come from Caracas and told me that I’d chosen a good day to visit as there had been a big march in the morning and that the streets would be calm. I was quite worried about riding into Caracas anyway. The political situation aside, Caracas is one of the cities with the highest murder rates in the world and I had been told that its usually the kind of place people avoid. Still, Alejandro was very enthusiastic about my visit and I had memorised a route into the city to get to a place where he could come and meet me. The streets were practically empty when I arrived and in what seemed like less than ten minutes I had navigated my way from the city limits to the church where Alejandro would meet me making my ride into Caracas the easiest ride into any city I had ever done without using GPS. I borrowed another phone and Alejandro came speeding around the corner on his scooter in no time. I followed him to his apartment, had a few whiskeys and rested from the journey. Alejandro is a Venezuelan actor that I met in Quito. Here is a collection of some of his work to give you an idea to what a character he is.
A scooter is the ultimate form of transport to see Caracas and Alejandro took me into town to see the sights. I usually hate being a passenger on two-wheels but I was completely confident sitting on the back, especially as Alejandro never stops at traffic lights and generally makes himself a very difficult moving target. Downtown, I could see the huge police presence with most of the major intersections having 30-50 policemen with their police bikes parked everywhere (mostly KLRs). Unlike Mérida, there were lots of places open in the evening and we found ourselves in two bars where some friendly locals made me a present of a bottle of expensive rum. The next day we took Alejandro’s car and went to the beach to see one of his actor friends. Enrique has a beach front apartment in Vargas, a city not far from Caracas that was the scene of a tragedy in 1999 when a landslide descended on the town killing many people. I had a political conversation with one of Enrique’s neighbours who was very anti-government and brought up events as far back as Chavez’ attempted coup of 1992 for which he was arrested and went to prison. Chavez himself survived a coup attempt in 2002. The documentary ‘The Revolution Will not be Televised‘ was produced by two Irish journalists who where embedded in the government at the time of 2002 coup. I attach it here not to show my own personal support for either side but simply because I thought it was one of the best documentaries I’ve ever seen and it goes some way to showing how divided the Venezuelan people are. Even amongst families there are many opposing views on the government and there is no political middle ground. To be a Chavista (supporter of the Chavez-Maduro government) is to be seen as a communist with little concern for the middle classes, and to be with the opposition is to be seen as a ‘borges’ (bourgeois) with little concern for the poor, although there are many people who are neither but are unhappy with the way the country is being run and are desperate for change in these tough times. For me, democracy is the only way to proceed and the protestors should take their grievances to the ballot box at the next referendum. There is much support for both sides in Venezuela and I fear that any change in government brought about by non-democratic means will only worsen the divisions between the people.
Driving back from Vargas it became apparent that Alejandro’s car needed a lot of work doing on it and for the next couple of days we fit sight-seeing around visits to various workshops to get his car seen to which really didn’t bother me as its what I usually do in foreign cities anyway. The parallel dollar was making everything so cheap for me and we ate out for dinner most evenings in very good seafood restaurants. The official rate was about 10 bolivares to the dollar but I was getting more like 80 on the black market. Alejandro invited me to spend carnival at a beach side village where his family lives. It was a very tempting offer but I started to think about leaving again. I was enjoying Venezuela and had seen many things that made me want to come back but it just wasn’t the best time to be there. I had hoped to find a boat to Panama from Venezuela but Alejandro’s inquiries had come up with nothing meaning I had to go back to Colombia to look for one there. He escorted me out of the city on his scooter and I found myself outside Caracas even quicker than I had arrived. The ease of travel didn’t last long however as I encountered lots of protests and road blocks in Valencia. Previously I passed through Valencia with no problems but I had opted to ride back by the coast so I had to ride through the city where all the principle routes had been blocked off by protestors. At first it wasn’t too bad and I just went around or over the obstructions as I would normally do, but the last few where much bigger and on fire and I was stuck scratching my head trying to figure a way around when the protestors themselves came over and showed me how to get through it, kind of defeating the point of blocking the road in the first place but I was grateful nonetheless.
As with most coastal roads I’ve ridden through, there wasn’t actually much to see and I was more interested in the various oil refineries I saw along the way, all working hard to provide the Venezuelans with free fuel and international bargaining tools for the government. I had passed through Puerto Cabello and Moron (really) and I was on my way to Coro when I saw a tourist sign for a beach at a Puerto Cumarebo. I was tired so I pulled off the road to find somewhere to stay. Riding around, it didn’t look like the kind of place anyone would want to spend their holidays, just a very modest town and the people were obviously not used to seeing foreigners on bikes. The back wheel swung out unexpectedly as I took a corner and I stopped to see the tyre was flat. Perhaps I’d punctured it riding over one of the barricades, we’ll never know. I pulled over immediately and set about unloading the bike to repair the wheel. It was as good a place as any to do it and within minutes I had a crowd of curious people around me. I had parked right in front of a house who’s owner only had one hand but he had a compressor and was eager to help me out. I had the wheel off and had removed the tube and was trying to fit the new one. If you’ve been following the blog then you’ll know that its a job that I’ve managed to make a balls-up of on many occasions and unfortunately I screwed it up this time too. Having the crowd around me made me feel rushed but ultimately its my fault for not being careful enough and pinching the tube. Still, having the crowd around me meant that I wasn’t completely stuffed and one young fella took me and the wheel up the road to a repair shop while the old guy with one hand guarded my stuff. They patched the original tube and in my relieved stupidity I chose to give the new tube that I had just pinched away to the lad who had helped me out. The wheel was back on the bike and my new friends led me up the hill away from town where there was a cheap motel. I was really grateful for all their help and I wanted to share some beers with them to say thanks. I told them I’d come down to the centre square but I fell asleep and arrived late and they were nowhere to be seen. I had beers and a burger with other friendly people and went back to sleep. I still had a long way to go to the border but it looked possible to do it in one day. I rode out early but stopped just outside Puerto Cumarebo to refuel on more free petrol and get some breakfast. As I was having my coffee a friendly guy came up to me speaking English. Jorge is a motor biker and was working away from home for the day but he invited me for a BBQ at his house in the city of Maracaibo. I took his number and we went our separate ways. After a much longer day than I had expected I arrived at Maracaibo. As I crossed the long bridge over lake Maracaibo I was feeling tired and was thinking that the BBQ at Jorge’s place could actually be a very good idea. However the decision was made for me when I had a blow-out at 60 mph on the motorway just outside of the city. The back tyre had gone again and I was very lucky to not come off as the bike slided from side to side. I quickly assessed the situation. I hadn’t a spare tube, I was in an area that didn’t look all that secure and I hadn’t the ability to make a phone call but first I needed to get off the road. The motorway had crash barriers going down both sides but there was an open bit where it looked like someone had crashed through. I had started to wheel the bike backward towards the gap when two sports bikes past me and then came back the wrong way down the motorway. The riders where from a moto club and Efran, the clubs manager helped me get the bike down to a shaded area were I wasn’t so obvious from the road. He called a mechanic friend who said he would come past with a new tube for me. I was saved and I lay down next to the bike to relax until the mechanic arrived which unfortunately he never did and after two hours I went to ask around my new neighbours for a phone. The old guy nearest to me was happy to help and I called Jorge and explained the problem. He was still working but he would be back in town in 2 or 3 hours, but he would phone around his motorbiking friends to see if they could help (later it turned out that he and Efran knew each other). While everyone was helping me in the background I decided to try to help myself. The area was dodgy but my neighbour was keeping an eye on my bags and I crossed over to the other side of the motorway where there was a Chinese motorbike dealership and two motorbike cops. The shop had no spares whatsoever and I explained my situation to the two policemen. The problem with finding a new tube was that the protests had been pretty fierce in Maracaibo too and there just wasn’t anywhere open. The police were on Kawasaki Versys but I thought with all the KLR mounted police about one of them must have an 18 inch rear tube somewhere. They said that the workshops were closed but they took my tube and went to see if they could get it repaired. I was very doubtful as the valve had come off completely and by the time they had returned unsuccessful, I had already decided to stick the 21 inch front tube in instead. I’d heard that this could be done in emergencies but never spoken to anyone who had actually done it. The police stuck around to guard me while I worked and Jorge arrived just as I had finished fitting the wheel again. We all set off together with the police giving me an escort of a few kilometres which felt pretty cool.
From a distance Maracaibo looked like an interesting city. Its the largest city after Caracas with a huge coastline and tall buildings but up-close in the evening it wasn’t looking at its best. There was rubbish all over the place due to the protests, blockades and possibly a strike by the rubbish collectors, but once I was inside Jorge’s barrio it completely different with smiling neighbours and I welcomed into his house by his family. Jorge didn’t have room for me to stay but we went to a local hotel, dropped my stuff off and then went for beers for the BBQ. Jorge’s wife, Alicia was complaining that there wasn’t actually anything to cook. The protests had all kicked off because people are fed up with shortages of basic goods in the shops, the high costs of living and out of control crime. The opposition claim that the shortages are due to mismanagement of the state-run companies whereas those standing with the government claim that since the devaluation of the bolivar, companies get a better price by exporting their products to Colombia. Either way the shortages are very real and I saw huge queues outside supermarkets on many occasions. Still we found something to BBQ and I had a great night drinking and chatting to Jorge and his family. The subject of the political situation is inevitable in any conversation with Venezuelans these days but I never felt that it was something that couldn’t be discussed freely and everyone was happy to share their point of view with me. Jorge and his family are all opposed to government but were not put off by my socialist views. Jorge even made me a present of a pro-Chavez hat to take away with me! The next day I felt rough as anything and couldn’t move too far from the bathroom (nothing to do with the BBQ!) Jorge’s moto contacts had failed to come up with an 18 inch tube for my bike and we went out to look for one eventually finding some that were a bit on the thin side but 18 inch and better than nothing. I was going to change the 21 inch tube but I was feeling so ill that I opted to stay one more day in my plushest hotel yet (still only $27). Jorge and Alicia came to see me in the evening and I went to their house again for food before they brought me back to the hotel and wished me the best for the rest my trip.
The hotel was right on the outskirts of Maracaibo and I was racing towards the border in no time the next day. The area between the city and the border was very dry and flat and populated by indigenous people who live in very poor looking villages. I’d filled up the tank in Maraciabo, which was a good call as I didn’t see another petrol station until the border and they wouldn’t let me fill up there. Unlike entering the country, the customs formalities to leave were quick and painless but immigration was a pain in the arse and I had to double back to buy a fiscal stamp to pay to be stamped out and then stood in a queue in the heat for ages to finally get the stamp. I was happy to be back on the Colombian side were so far all my border experiences had been positive. I got my passport stamped and then waited around for ages while the customs woman, who acted like she owned the place had all the security guards do her work for her, but eventually I was free to ride on again. Now that I was back in Colombia, I had planned to go to Tayrona national park, a beach I had heard was really nice and I could camp. I was about 200km away but I would make it in good time if I pressed on. The road from the border at Maicao looked exactly like the Venezuelan side, with more impoverished indigenous villages albeit with finer looking civic buildings in the towns. I mused that the road signs were written in the same indigenous language on both sides and thought about the time when there wasn’t a border there. When I was only about 50 km from Tayrona I had another blowout. I was much calmer bringing it to a stop this time but the coastal road was twisty with hills and blind corners and I really had to get off the road to avoid being hit by a bus. A security guard came past and offered me help but watched with interest as I changed it myself, telling me that he’d never seen it done by hand. The 21 inch tube had a huge split in it. So for anyone out there wondering how far you can get on a wrong size tube in an emergency, I did about 250 km before it blew, but I recommend you change it as soon as you can!
Arriving at Tayrona a little later than planned, I was disheartened to be told by the national park guards that it was closed and I couldn’t go in. I went to look for another campsite, but everywhere I found looked like it would do my head in with huge groups all listening to ‘El Serrucho‘, a song that had been assaulting my ears since the border and would go on doing so until I left Colombia. Fortunately I chanced upon Juan Carlos’ cabañas and camping, where Juan Carlos, sensing my day’s adventure invited me straight in for a beer and I was in relax mode as soon as my tent went up. I went back to national park the next day but only for the day as I wanted to spend another night with my new friends at the campsite. The popular beaches of Tayrona are an hours hike away, but I had no particular agenda and ended up falling asleep under a tree on a deserted beach where the water was too rough for safe swimming. I would have liked to go back and spend a few days there with my tent but it was carnival weekend and I really needed to see some of the festivities. Juan Carlos had been to the nearby city of Santa Marta and said it was one big street party, but it is Barranquilla that has the biggest reputation in Colombia for carnival fun and I rode off to join in. The bike wasn’t in a good state at this point. Other than the dodgy inner tube in the wheel, the rear sprocket had hardly any teeth left and was slipping under acceleration, there was movement in the rear axle suggesting knackered wheel bearings and one of the rear brake pads had fallen out meaning I had no rear brake. I was surprised to see a motorbike part shop open in Cienaga and I stopped and bought new tubes, completely wrong brake pads that I hoped to modify and unsuitable wheel bearings on a ‘its better than nothing at carnival time’ type thinking. I arrived in Barraquilla after another hour of riding through poor looking coastal villages and narrowly hitting a car who cut me up on the sand bar. I’d been given a recommendation by on of Juan Carlos’ friends to stay in a place in Barranquilla’s downtown where you could rent a whole apartment for very little. Veronica, who I’d met up with loads of times since Salta had gone on ahead and got us a two bed apartment. The place was cool, but had no parking for my bike, and the area is reportedly dangerous at night and was absolutely nowhere near the carnival. I rode around looking for some secure parking but gave up after getting in trouble with the police for riding the wrong way up a one way street. I got away with it by telling him that I knew it was one way and that I had only ridden up it to talk to him! Bikes aren’t allowed in some areas in Barranquilla so you have to keep your eyes open for the signs. I’m not sure if its a crime issue or not and I have trouble keeping up with all the local laws of the road. In Cali it is forbidden to ride a bike with a male passenger. Female passengers are okay though. Apparently they’re much less of a risk for drive-by shootings!
Carnival was cool, but I have no photos to show of any of it. During the Feria de Cali things had gotten a little bit dodgy. I had a great time but Josè had his wallet nicked and I had decided that it was better to be partying with nothing more than my beer money in my pocket (the same goes for going out in Venezuela at night). The processions where cool, but to be honest got I bored watching them cos all I really wanted to do was find a sound system and do some dancing of my own. We had met up with Hector, a friend of Veronica and his Chilean friend who were staying in a house that they found through Couchsurfing. Usually CS is completely free but around Carnival time loads of people were saying that their places were full or unavailable but they knew someone else, who isn’t on CS but had a place for a small fee. Whether they paid or not was not important as the family was very friendly and we hung out with them for most of the evening as we waited for the street parties to commence. The evening was a bit of an anti climax and never really went mental like I expected it to. Perhaps I had arrived too late. I had heard that people had already been partying for days at that point but we did find one place where the local families had arranged a sound system between on their street and there was a makeshift bar, food available and lots of people dancing to Salsa, Cumbia, Meringue and other Colombian rhythms. I danced and drank till late and then went home alone so that I could work on the bike the next day before watching the processions again.
The first proper day after Carnival I went to out to try and find parts for my bike. I had parts in UK waiting to be brought out with my parents to Costa Rica but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to make it that far without breaking down. In a huge stroke of luck I managed to find a new rear sprocket within minutes of leaving the apartment and I spent the next hour on the side of the road changing it, the bearings and the inner tube while a crowd of people watched me work. My parents, having heard of my plight had decided to come and meet me in Cartagena to bring me the parts I needed. Everyone said that Cartagena was really nice so perhaps it wasn’t a such bad thing to change our plans and I went off to check the city out. Cartagena is perhaps Colombia’s number one tourist destination and is a huge port where it is possible to get tourist sailing boats to Panama. Although Panama and Colombia share a border, there isn’t actually a land route between them, only a dense jungle known as the Darién Gap. The gap has been crossed by adventurers in four wheel drives, on motor bikes and on foot but its a journey that is generally to be avoided due to the very difficult conditions and the presence of the Colombian guerrillas giving a high risk of being kidnapped, so most overlanders opt to go around the gap by air or sea. Pretty much all of the riders I had met in South America had passed the gap on tourist boats that sail between Cartagena and various ports in Panama while making a tour of the beautiful San Blas Islands.
Arriving in Cartagena I rode straight into tho city’s old town where I immediately got in trouble with the police for being on a motorbike in a no moto area. After they checked all my paperwork they let me go and I was instructed to go to calle Media Luna where I could find loads of hostels to stay in. I found a one and set about investigating boats. I had long decided that the San Blas Cruise, although expensive was what I wanted to do. Other rider friends had crossed through a collection of boats that pass along the Caribbean coast to the Colombian port of Turbo but it sounded to me like it was worth the extra money to have a relaxing cruise and hassle-free crossing. The thing is though, all the prices I had heard over the last year and a half had now shot up greatly and the economist in me just wouldn’t let me hand over the cash without some sort of bargaining, especially since I had seen very few bikers heading north . The standard price to be a passenger on these sail boats was $550 per person and I had no problem with paying this at all, but to pay an additional $550 for the bike was to me taking the piss. After all, with the exception of winching it on and off the boat what else do you really have to do? you certainly don’t need to feed it or be responsible for it in an emergency. I managed to get $200 dollars knocked off my crossing by speaking to the captain direct and my advice to anyone else would be to do the same, although if you are prepared to pay the full price, those who have crossed on the Stalleratte have reported an excellent service with bikes being taken care of very well and all customs formalities being handled by the crew. There may be a roll on roll off ferry starting up soon and I chatted to the owner of ‘Crazy Horse’ who takes bikes for $600 without the San Blas cruise, but other than that you can google to get the emails and phone numbers for; Luka, Independence, Wild Card, Stalleratte, Santana, Jaqueline. If you speak to any of the agents in Cartagena or Panama the price will be higher as you will have to cover their commission too.
The timing of the sailings made it impractical for my parents to come to Cartagena and they had to cancel all their flights, but it was for the best. Cartagena is a very pretty place, especially the old town but it really wasn’t for me and I doubt they would have wanted to be there longer for than 3 days. It was hot and humid, expensive and very very touristy. Colombians are usually very friendly genuine people but in Cartagena I was constantly being approached by people trying to sell me cocaine or sex and it was beginning to piss me off. Calle Media Luna is a full on party every night and it was impossible to get any sleep in my hostel with the heat and noise and I moved down the road to get a private room in a hotel that doubles up as a brothel for unbelievably ropey prostitutes. It wasn’t all bad though, Hector and Veronica had arrived in town and we had a couple of nights out at some of the quieter plazas where a mixture of tourists and locals meet to drink in the street.
Once I had arranged my boat I just had to wait around to sail. I met a group of bikers who had just arrived off the Stalleratte and we shared stories and advice of our rides through the South and Central America. The was an election taking place, and to ensure that the Colombians wouldn’t get drunk and forget to vote, the election was accompanied by a ‘Ley Seca’ (dry law) forbidding the sale of alcohol for 72 hrs, which resulted in one of the only times when calle Media Luna was quiet. I opened my Venezuelan rum that I’d been saving for a special occasion, but I ended up consuming all of it on the boat anyway. On the day of sailing I had to clear the bike with customs and arrange for it to be brought out the boat in a lancha (launch). Customs was quite a pain, and I got the impression that everyone was way more used to dealing with riders traveling the opposite direction. There was a lot of talk of doing a quayside inspection, but it became unnecessary once they knew I was leaving the country. Still, it took me all day to get everything sorted and I had only just got the bike on board and had time to shower before I had to go back to the dock and get ready to sail. Everyone was concerned about the lack of booze and I went with three Aussies to get beer from a lady who was happy to sell under the counter. Thanks to Laura at Blue Sailing for helping me with my paperwork. The cruise was good fun and although I was very seasick at the start, I soon got my sea legs. The San Blas islands are postcard-perfect and my usual indifference to beaches was also nowhere to be seen. Jumping off the boat to have a deserted island all to yourself is awesome no matter what you’re into.
So that’s it. I bet you all thought I’d never leave South America. I’ll be honest, it was difficult, and the 1 year, 8 months and 23 days since I arrived at Buenos Aries was way longer than I expected to be in the South but I’ve loved every minute if it. Its so easy to see why South America is the most popular place in the world to have a motorbike adventure, and long before I had ever thought of riding around the world, South America was were I was always going to travel. Riding through the Andes has been a dream come true and I can’t count the number of jaw-dropping scenes I’ve seen and adventures I’ve had. I’m totally content that I’ve made the most of my time here. My Spanish has improved immensely and I feel like I’ve got a better understanding of the people and cultures as a result. Riding a bike puts you in contact with many normal people that so many would pass by when traveling on the bus and I cannot thank my South American friends enough for all the help they have given me along the way. My trip through Central America will have to be much faster and I wont have quite so much time to get to know the places I’ll pass through, but so be it. My South American adventure has been incredible and I wouldn’t change a thing.
My best wishes go out to all my Venezuelan friends. I hope that things will calm down, democratically, and people can get on with their normal lives.
On to Central America! Ciao for now.