The Ecuadorian border consisted of one police man handling immigration and a single customs guy who didn’t know how to use his printer. To be fair, even I couldn’t get it to print properly and in the end we had to get the Peruvian customs to print it off which was particularly annoying as I had been back across the border once already to photocopy my documents for the Ecuadorian customs guy. He was nice about it though, friendly and gave me lots of cold drinks, which I really needed messing around in the tropical heat.
The road from the border continued up a dirt road through green hills passing through loads of little villages, which looked pretty much like their counterparts on the Peruvian side except there were many more African descended inhabitants, kinda like Yungas in Bolivia. I arrived at Zumba and got a nice surprise when I filled up my tank. The fuel is super cheap at $1.50 for a gallon (4 litres). The road to the border is under construction on both sides but was in pretty bad condition on the Ecuadorian side and it was an hour or two till I hit the paved part, afterwards it was a fun ride through the hills and little villages until I decided to stay in Vilcabamba.
I knew nothing about Vilcabamba. I’d only heard it mentioned by Jayne Lizzybus so I was surprised to see that it was quite a tourist destination. What I didn’t know was that its a Mecca for new age thinkers, spiritualists, conspiracy theorists, artists, hippies in general and quite a few people who just don’t seem to fit into the normal world. At first this was quite amusing and it was nice to chat to some different people but by the end of the night I had had quite enough of listening to what I can only describe as the utter bollocks some of these people believe in, and believe its their job to share it with you, whether you’re interested or not. I was in desperate need for a normal conversation when I bumped into another Brit, Mike and his Ecuadorian lady Alva. They live in the capitol, Quito and through way too many mojitos (it was Mike’s birthday) they invited me to come and stay at a hostel owned by Alva’s family.
The night was a heavy one. I had ripped my tent trying to get in to it or perhaps getting out of it without opening the door and I also freaked out a mentally unstable guest when I wandered into his room while trying to locate the bathroom. I didn’t want to go anywhere the next day and had I noticed that I had somehow buckled both the wheels on the bike. The front one was so bad that it was touch and go to ride on but Vilcabamba is only a small village and the rims really needs to be seen to by a specialist.
I rode on the nearest big town Loja where I luckily found a wheel workshop in no time and I spent the rest of the day in the road opposite, taking the wheels off, unmounting the tyres and then guarding my stuff until they were fixed. The workshop owner is a true craftsman and did a great job but since it was a workshop for car wheels, he didn’t true the wheel up afterwards and the bike was wobbling all over the place as I went to find a hotel. I spent the rest of the night tightening spokes trying to sort it out. Most had seized and I broke quite a few trying. I replaced the broken ones the next day, stopping back by the workshop to save time in remounting the tyres. The people of Loja are all very friendly and one old guy invited me into his house for soup and gave me fruit for the journey. I was headed to Cuenca, a big city that is famous for its architecture and for having loads of American expats. I rode around for ages trying to find a place to stay that wasn’t super-expensive before ending up in a hostel. The next day I went to get the bike cleaned and to find a place to further fix the wheels. I found a lavadero, which had a shiny Suzuki V-Strom that had just been cleaned. The owner came back and said he could show me the way to a good workshop. Unbeknown to be, the guy who cleaned my bike had for some reason decided that its a good idea to spray diesel all over the place, including the brakes and as we set off I narrowly avoided crashing into a car when squeezing my brake levers resulted in no braking at all. Unfortunately, I could not tell my guide about my brakes and he was smashing up the streets with his 1000cc bike, so I still had to keep up, but couldn’t brake. Its a bloody miracle that I didn’t crash. Later at the workshop I was told that they spray diesel on cars to make them shine. We took the wheels off and dropped them off with another maestro who would keep them for a few days.
Back at the hostel I met a Swede, Thomas and a German couple who had been traveling South from USA in a car. Their stories of central America made me wish I would have more time to be exploring than I had planned. The wheels were repaired and I treated the bike to new, higher handlebars, something I should had done before leaving UK and had been waiting to do in the states but couldn’t wait any longer. What a difference it makes. Now I am way more comfortable riding seated or standing.
I left to spend a day or two hiking in the Las Cajas national park. Cuenca is nice and warm even at night time but at way over 4000m, Cajas is cold. I parked up at the visitors centre intent on camping the night so that I could make an early start in the morning. The rangers suggested a walk that would take me about 8 hours, covering a loop that would bring me back to my bike. The maps that they give on paying the park entrance fee are really detailed and I was looking forward to the hike. The ranger invited me to stay in a little cabin, where I chatted to two students who were mapping the flora and fauna of the area. They told me that although the maps are good, the trails are impossible to follow and they had to use GPS always. I though it best to take mine with me along with a compass for good measure. Its a shame that I still didn’t really know how to use either as I lost the trail within 30 minutes of walking and then spent the next 4 hours having no idea where I was until I gave up looking and turned west to bring me back to the main road. I went back to Cuenca, a little disappointed with the shambles of a hike, but happy to be in a city for the weekend and as I waited at a traffic lights, the owner of a hotel pulled up in his car and offered me a discount at his hotel. I gave Thomas a shout and we went out to see what the town had to offer, which was mostly shit music, but fun crowds and lots of hot ladies to chat to.
The discounted hotel room was pretty luxurious and it took me another couple of days to motivate myself to leave Cuenca, but eventually I left. I didn’t really know where I was going, but the road that passed through Las Cajas looked promising so I headed back the same way for a fun mountain pass that had me riding above the clouds. On the other side I had planned to stay the night somewhere on the coast but after one hour of dead straight roads, featureless flat vistas, humidity and lots of trucks I turned back to the mountains at the first junction and was rewarded by more mountain views twisty roads and a cooler climate. The road rose up through another high +4000m pass before descending down into the city of Riobamba. On the way down I caught views of Chimborazu, the highest point in Ecuador and due to the earth not being completely spherical, the furthest point from the centre of the earth. There are roads that ride around the volcano, both dirt and sealed and I settled into a cheap hotel so that I could ride them the next day. Unfortunately it rained for the next two days and I decided that it was time to just ride straight to Quito.
I went straight to Alva’s hostel and met up with her and Mike. The hostel is in the La Mariscal district which is also known as ‘Gringolandia’ as it is full of foreigners. Its full of locals too and is pretty much one big party that only stops for Sundays. The hostel used to be Alva’s family home when the area was purely residential but over the years the area has filled up with bars and clubs and hostels. Ecuador is really popular for tourism and has even more young travelers than Bolivia or Peru. Some volunteering, others learning Spanish, all getting drunk. Besides the gringos and backpackers, I met Alejandro, a Venezuelan actor who was visiting his son in Quito. We hung out a lot with Mike and Alva and I got invited to come visit in Caracas should I ever head that way.
The bike needed an oil change and I found a workshop. The mechanic, Diego was happy for me to use his facilities and he even took me on his scooter to look for oil when I couldn’t find the brand I wanted. While we were out, the throttle cable snapped and we had an adventure trying to ride back with him operating the brakes and the steering and me the throttle. At one point the cable got stuck under the seat, forcing us into the middle of a junction, with Diego’s skilful swerving only just saving us from collision. Diego is a very experienced mechanic and although he never did anything on my bike I saw enough happy customers in his shop (most from USA and Canada). I later sent other riders to his workshop and they were all happy with his work too. You can find him opposite the Freedom Bike rental on Juan León Mera.
After a week of rum, wine, salsa and all the fun that La Mariscal has to offer, the time had come to start the Colombian page of my adventure. I said goodbye to Mike and Alva and headed north out of the city. I was expecting to see some sort of sign marking the equator but I saw nothing. Its not likely that I rode past without seeing it, much more likely that I took a wrong turn and went along a less celebrated route. I arrived in the border town of Tulcán late and in the rain and took a place to stay near the bus station. The weather had cleared up by the morning and I rode over to the border after taking by last opportunity to fill the tank with cheap fuel. The border looked ordered and relatively efficient but it still took me hours to get out of Ecuador because immigration had none of my records on their system as it takes them three weeks to get the details from the little border that I had crossed to enter the country. Of course it was nothing that a shit load of photocopies couldn’t fix. The Colombian side was straight forward, friendly and helpful. The customs clearance was more thorough than anywhere else, with people taking impressions of the chassis and engine numbers off the bike but the charming (and pretty) customs lady let me use her internet to kill the time. I rode into Ipiales to buy insurance, get money and a sim card and then rode on to Pasto. My delays at the border meant that I arrived much later than I would have liked so I chose the first hotel I could find. The owner told me that I was in a pretty shit area, dangerous at night but it would be fine as long as I took a taxi and at 6 quid for a comfy room with bathroom and double bed I wasn’t going to complain. My hosts called me a cab and I ventured out at night to find some food and some beers. After all it was a Friday night, and my first night in Colombia so I needed to do something to celebrate. Pasto was not what I expected Colombia to be like. Its cold and instead of latin vibes playing out in the street, I found loads of rock bars. Still, I like rock too and being British there was a large chance that I’d be welcomed into any group of rockers. The first group I approached were huge fans of Liverpool death metal band Carcass. A band I’d actually seen in concert in my youth and it wasn’t long before I had a group of new friends. Everyone was super friendly, offered me to come and stay with them to see more of the local sights. We drank loads of a local drink that I cant remember its name but was basically like hot orange cordial mixed with some spirit, possibly aguardiente, although it could have been vodka. Combined with the shots of brandy that were being passed around clandestinely under the table I had one hell of a thick head the next day and really didn’t want to ride anywhere but I had to leave because I’d made an arrangement to stay with a contact in the next city.
I met Sebastian on Couchsurfing and he had invited me to come to Popayan for a party on the Saturday. The ride up from Pasto was awesome with really amazing scenery, but it rained a couple of times making progress slow, but I had left Pasto too late anyway and it was dark when I arrived in Popayan but Sebastian came and found me. Sebastian, his step-brother Pedro and all their friends are into electronic music in a big way (as am I) and it was a great contrast to the previous evenings rock fest. It was another heavy night lasting way until morning but I was happy to chill in Popayan for a while. Sebastian’s house is right next to the historical centre which has loads of colonial buildings and is very pretty when lit up at night time. We went to a hot springs in nearby Coconuco. As we drove up, Sebastian’s dad, Diego was pointing out the hills telling me that some of them had guerrillas operating in them. The south of Colombia is know as a ‘zona roja’ (red zone) for activity by the FARC and it had initially been my plan to only travel on major roads. Later I’d relaxed into it a bit more, but always consulted the locals before embarking on a journey, although while I was in Cali, the FARC did bomb a police station not too far away from Cali and Popayan.
I ended up staying in Popayan a whole week. I had become good friends with Sebastian, Pedro and all their mates and I was enjoying the good music and hospitality, although the rain every day was also putting me off moving. Eventually I got myself together to ride the short journey to Cali. All the parceros (colombian slang for ‘the guys’) had told me what a nice place Cali is and I knew I was going to stick around for a while (but I didn’t think I’d be there for 2 months!).
Riding in, I was trying to navigate to San Antonio, a district recommended to me by Sebastian where there are loads of good cheap places to stay. The road system takes a bit of getting used to and as I had left Popayan too late again, it was dark and I ended up riding in circles until some friendly people took me to a cheap hotel owned by a friend. It took me a while to learn my way around Cali but in reality all streets in Colombia (and Venezuela) are named systematically and are in a grid orientation so its really easy to find your way once you know which calle and carrera you want. The hotel was nice and well within my price range (Colombia is good value for money) but the owner wanted to lock the doors at ten so it wasn’t going to be an option for longer than one night and I set off again to find San Antonio in the morning. I hadn’t been that far away and I quickly found a cheap hotel that was a bit of a dump really but was central to everything, had a private room and bathroom and secure parking for the bike for £7 a night. Most of the other guests were chilled latino backpackers but there was a couple of riders too. José from Australia was traveling south on a BMWF650 he had bought in México and Gal from Israel had recently bought a Suzuki Freewind 650 in Cali and was waiting for his ownership papers to arrive so he could start his trip. We all hit it off immediately. José and Gal had already been in Cali for a few weeks and knew loads of locals and it wasn’t long before I too couldn’t walk the streets of San Antonio without bumping into someone I knew. Sebastian also lives in Cali from time to time and we got to hang out together loads and I got my first taste for Caleña salsa when we went out drinking with his lady friends. It was becoming obvious that I wasn’t going to be leaving Cali quickly and I decided to make the most of my stay in one place with a week of Spanish lessons to master the complicated subjunctive tense (that all students of Spanish have problems with) and some dance lessons. Salsa is everywhere in Cali and you can feel pretty inept if you cant dance any of it. I genuinely like the music too and salsatecas like El Rincón de Don Herbet are nice relaxed places to practice your moves (and get hammered) with loads of friendly people of all ages sat outside drinking brandy or rum bought for one of the booze shops that are everywhere (called estancos). I particularly liked the friendliness of the place. There are always plenty foreigners about but its definitely locals that make up the majority of the crowd. You can ask any girl to dance and they generally will for at least a song, no matter how shit you are, or drunk. One guy even invited me to his wedding.
I also got invited to go to Sebastian’s uncle’s wedding in Ibagué, or rather I invited myself, but Jorge, the groom was more than happy to have me there. The wedding was great fun and we were all a compete mess by the end of ‘the show’. Me and Sebastian stuck around for the rest of the weekend to see what else Ibagué had to offer, namely, another kicking for my liver. Riding back from Ibagué was one of the worst trips I’d ever had. The mountain road between Ibagué and Armenia is known as ‘La Linea’ and everyone says its the worst road in Colombia. At first it looked okay to me, sealed, two lanes, twisties, what are they moaning about? until I hit the endless lines of trucks (known locally as mulas ) that weren’t moving at all on either side of the road. Apparently this is the norm for la linea and its one of the reasons that convinced me to to start to take the roads less traveled (I didn’t need much convincing to be honest). The road network in Colombia is great, but there is a always lot of heavy traffic, still at least the tolls are free to bikes. Riding back the situation was awful. My hangover from two days on the lash aside, it was raining and about 30 km from Armenia I came across a huge queue of traffic on one side. Riding up on the other side I passed many kilometers of stationary vehicles until I found the problem. A Landslide had blocked the road (a common occurrence in the Andes) and it was obvious to me that no one would be getting through any time soon. Other people were waiting around but I decided to ride back to the last town and find somewhere to stay. Doubling back wasn’t easy as everyone wanted to know what the problem was. After shouting ‘Derrumbes!'(landslides) back at a few people I just kept my eyes on the road carried on, but I came to a stop again when other motorists who had gotten fed up of waiting had started to come up the other side of the road blocking both lanes. It took my ages to get to off the road and it wasn’t until the next day that I passed through and got back to Cali. Still, it least I hadn’t been stuck in a bus with no food like poor Sebastian had.
Back in Cali, I was expecting José and Gal to have gone. Gal had gotten his papers and they were ready to ride south, but problems with their bikes meant they were still in town when I got back and were going to be around until the new year. Christmas is a really big thing in Cali with the Fería de Cali, a big street party that starts on the 25th and I’d been having salsa lessons twice a day to get myself ready to join in the fun. We’d been hanging out with some girls from our street and for Christmas night we were all the street with all the neighborhood. The fería itself was bonkers. The first day was the salsadromo, a big carnival procession of salsa dancers but most of the revelers were just getting drunk and spraying each other with foam. Nobody was spared. I saw police on motorbikes getting their visors covered in foam and someone sprayed foam through the open sunroof of a passing car! For the evenings there was always some live music with the most memorable being the music from the Pacific coast with its African influences.
All in all Christmas in Cali was one of the best I’ve ever had and I’d certainly consider going back to spend Christmas there again. I’d had so much fun that I wasn’t even that phased when I crashed into the side of a taxi on New Years Day. It was completely my fault. I was looking the wrong direction at a junction and then didn’t have time to stop when I finally did see him. New Years Day is the one day of the year were there are hardly any taxis about and its really unlucky that I managed to find one to crash into. The police turned up to mediate between me and the driver. They were more concerned with if I had any injuries or not and offered to take me to hospital (on the back of their bike). The owner of the taxi turned up and looked at the damage. Dents and scratches to both side doors, a cracked bumper and a smashed light consol. He asked for 1000,000 pesos (about £360) to repair everything. I didn’t argue and just paid him. The adrenaline was still pumping and I just wanted out of the situation. I later found out that I had paid over the odds, but not enough to lose any sleep. I was more relieved than anything. My first accident in the trip and I had walked away from it unscathed, with only minor damage to the bike. I got the bike repaired over the next week and got to meet more San Antonio locals in doing so. I now knew everyone from the owners of corner shops, shoe repairers, welders, mechanics….. The list was endless.
Gal left shortly after new year. José had more bike problems and Gal just couldn’t wait any longer. Eventually José left too and it was at this point that I started to think about moving on myself. I’d been in Cali for almost 2 months, way longer than I’d planned on staying in the whole of Colombia and I had to get a move on. My parents wanted to come and see me and I needed to start to think about my journey through Central America, but Colombia is a very diverse country and there was still loads of places left to see. I admit that I didn’t want to leave Cali. I was having too much fun with all my new friends, but I really had to go and after a final heavy night out with the girls from our street, I packed up the bike and hit the road again.