When we wrote the last post we were just crossing the border into Colombia from Ecuador. We decided to leave Ecuador a little earlier than we would perhaps have liked as we are still clawing back time from being so long in Chile so when the swell died and the chart looked flat for a while we decided it was time to strike out and head for Central America. We would have happily stayed on the tropical paradise beaches of Ecuador for at least another couple of weeks if there had been more swell to keep us there. When you travel you make a real connection with the places you spend time in; you make friends, feel like you get to know a culture better and in a small way you leave a bit of yourself in the places you love when you move on. So when the Earthquake happened in Ecuador, even though we were safe in Colombia, the news hit hard. The list of places that were affected read like our itinerary traveling through the country. It was a real wake-up call to the way these uncontrollable events affect thousands of lives, destroying so much of a country in just minutes. We have heard since from a few friends and read reports that most of the places we spent time in are fine but a few other towns and communities we passed through have been devastated and no longer exist.
We entered Colombia with a little bit of apprehension, the years of violence, drugs and corruption at the forefront of our minds. Every time we have crossed a border we have felt a huge change in culture immediately, it's strange but it just hits you within the first few miles. Colombia didn't feel sketchy, it felt different from Ecuador but not in a bad way. We rolled into the first town after the border to get cash and bike insurance. We usually expect border towns to be run down but this place was buzzing with activity; Mr. Motivator style public exercise classes, teenagers playing chess in the park, music coming from every direction, people stopping to ask us about the bikes, street vendors and busy bakeries, it definitely helped make us feel positive about the country we were about to explore.
We had planned to travel to Popayan that day but with the constant rain and time spent at border crossing we were running behind schedule and decided to pull in at a pretty standard motel on the side of the road. We unpacked the bikes in torrential rain, after we settled into the room the rain stopped so we went to outside to have a look around and weren’t expecting to be met with the most stunning sight either of us have ever seen; a vast canyon, every inch overspilling with lush tropical green. We stood on the edge of the canyon, in the back garden of an unassuming motel at the same height as the few whisps of cloud left floating from the rain. We watched a pair of Andean Condors circling above us in the now blue sky, feeling pretty humbled by the beauty of Colombia. This set a theme for the central regions we passed through, green, lush, tropical, vast, dramatic and all the seasons happening in one day.
The next morning we left early headed for the historical small city of Popayan. We found a hostel and walked around the cool old city which was busy with motorbikes everywhere, street food, people and amazing old white buildings. It rained really hard but our big yellow ponchos kept us dry as we walked around. We thought we would fit in with the locals but apparently they are strictly motorcycle attire. For some reason we felt safer walking around in this city at night than we have felt anywhere all trip. We were even lucky enough to find a cheap vegetarian cafe serving awesome Colombian food, three courses for a mere £1.25 each!
We wanted to check out Cali, home of Salsa in Colombia so we made our way there at the crack of dawn the next day. We haven't visited many cities on the trip so we thought that Colombia, void of surf destinations, would be the place to do this. The scenery riding there was yet again unbelievable, literally the most beautiful countryside we have ever seen. Epic green rolling hills, roads carved into mountain sides with waterfalls and lush tropical plants spilling over the cliffs at the side of the road. We are not city people. We know this but it is hard not to feel the pressure of experiencing the 'wonderful culture' we read about online etc. As we were sucking in fumes from trucks and cars in a traffic jam in what could have been Manchester we already started to regret our choice of destination. The hostel was nice, but very yuppie and overpriced. To experience a city you need two things; time and money. We booked two nights but as we unloaded our bags into a tiny dorm room, we doubted this decision. As we walked up to the 'cool' part of town with its trendy Burger Bars, Pizzerias, Subways and cocktail bars, we pined for our plastic chaired eateries and their cheap, honest food. Everything costs money. From speaking to a few people in the hostel, we know they were having a great time; Salsa classes and dancing the night away in the clubs and bars. We would have loved to experience that but paying for taxis, entry fees and enough booze to get Tom on the dance floor all adds up to more than we can afford to spend. We sat in a park with a can of beer and planned our escape to the coffee region a day early. We can't do everything and we needed to make choices, Cities just aren't our vibe.
Luckily for us, Salento; our next destination, was. Again, breathtakingly beautiful countryside, a beautiful colonial square, coffee shops, bakeries, cowboys. It was amazing. It felt touristy but a lot of the tourism was Colombian. We hung out for a couple of days, wandering around the town, cooking good food and enjoying the relaxed mountain vibe. We wanted to do a 'coffee tour' but after speaking to a local guy we were told that the coffee tours in this area aren't so great if you appreciate your coffee so we skipped this hoping to find a better one in Central America. We decided on a hike to the Corcora Valley which was great but pretty eventful. We're not sure if it is because we have ridden 12,000km on a motorbike or because we are getting old but after about 12 miles walking through the jungle (including a wrong turn), our knees started to give up. Tom's knee basically seized and he could barely walk, with another 5 miles or so of rough downhill jungle to trek before getting back to civilisation. To cut a long story short, he got rescued by a horse and rode off into the sunset leaving me to limp the rest of the way (not really, he sent the horse back for me too).
We had heard great things about a town called Jardin so we decided to go there after a few days in Salento. When we rolled into town after a few hours of off-road riding through the Cloud Forest, it seemed a bit fake and touristy (again mostly Colombians) to start off with but it was set in a stunning valley and the town was pristine and beautiful so we gave it a shot. It turns out it was a really great little town; cowboys everywhere, music spilling out of bars, 15p coffees, colourful buildings, horses and riders and views of the coffee valleys at the end of each street. We spent one night sat in the rowdy corner of the colonial square and drank a couple of beers and watched the locals turn up on their horses, drink a load of local liquor and dance to amazing Colombian music dressed up in cowboy hats, smart shirts, jeans and boots. They paid local kids to hold their horses while they got smashed and then they would get back on the saddle and do the weirdest trot up the street to the next bar, we think its called Paso Fino, Google it, its hilarious.
We got word from a guy back in Popayan that he knew of a girl who wanted to ship her car to Panama so we had been in contact with her and set a date that we needed to be in Cartagena to sort out the container. After Jardin the next three days were spent riding North, the landscape got a little less dramatic so although we felt awful about rushing through Colombia, it wasn't as hard as it would have been if it carried on being as pretty as the South. We spend the night in one town that wasn't so great- put it this way, we went to bed wondering if the bikes would still there in the morning, they were so it was all good, just another experience. It was in this town that the heat and humidity hit us; it is uncomfortably hot in the Caribbean.
We are now in Cartagena which is another big city, one we knew we would need to spend some time in as it is the port town to Panama. Our hostel is the cheapest we could find but it is a bit out of town which is fine for us as we have been doing lots of work and catching up on stuff we needed to do but it has given us an insight into the city. The charming 'Old Town' and upmarket edificios represent only a small part of the city we have seen so far. Where we are staying it is poor and run down but it has a charm that we like. Walking home from the city, we pass the same two old ladies that sit in rocking chairs outside a wood house that sits slanted amongst its neighbours, they smile and wave, it's nice. Most nights we walk over to the shop and hang through the metal bars with the locals to buy a drink or some chocolate.
We are about to put the bikes into the container and tomorrow we set sail on a sailing boat to Panama, via the San Blas Islands. After much research and consideration of every option, this is the most sensible, safe and legit way of crossing the gap that gives you the most bang for your buck. If anyone reading this cares about the details, email us and we will tell you the deal we got.
Here are loads of photos, we hope you like them. As always, prints are available.
See you in Panama, Central America. We can't wait to surf...