...And so we landed. Terra firma. Colombia! South America! Stuff of legends, countries of mythic proportions. For me (Heather again!), this was my first new country of the trip, so I had high expectations, different hopes and as yet unaffirmed preconceptions about what we might find on this giant continent. Mostly, however, I was happy that we had arrived a few days shy of my 28th birthday. Matty had been hard at work for several days making my present, and the suspense was almost too much to handle. I didn't even care what it was, he had me at 'surprise,' and 'I'm making something'.
After a breezy THREE DAYS of unloading the bikes, customs, and immigration(!?!?), we found ourselves wandering the streets of Cartagena, stumbling upon vibrant plazas filled with vendors, street soccer, group exercise classes, and Matty's favourite, the mind-bendingly fast Mapale dancers.
To a live band in the background playing all sorts of Caribbean rhythms, they twirled and shook their booties and everything else, stopping briefly to change costumes and starting back up almost as quickly as they could move across the square.
We were mesmerized, hearts full with anticipation, quickly falling in love with an entire continent after watching an hour or two of dancing.
My birthday passed as birthdays should, bathing in a mud volcano and consuming delicious food and drink with your people (person). After sizing my present a few days before the actual day, we realized that the polished coconut bikini Matty had worked so lovingly to make me from scratch was made from coconuts that were too small. How unfortunate..? Or maybe a win-loss situation?
On we rode, out of Cartagena, feeling like new people on a brand new adventure now that we were entering into the deepest depths of a new continent. On our way to the eastern range of the Colombian Andes, we stopped in a mysterious town on the Magdalena River called Mompox.
Grandly colonial, it was once the biggest port in South America.
We wandered down a few quiet streets to the steamy river, whose meandering pace seems more suited to the town's current mood...
Riding into the mountains from the tropical lowlands was a joyous, high moment in the journey so far. After crowded Central America, the change was drastically and instantaneously awesome and radical and oh, so free, just seeing all that space, and grandness and so much room for tents and wilderness. It was beautiful. It left us in awe.
That night we pulled off the highway just before dark on a tiny road leading through potato fields and various cow pastures. Pitched the tent in one of the fields and hoped we wouldn't be detected - only a few close calls...
Waking up beside blooming potatoes shrouded in mist just about shrouded my own eyes in mist at the sudden jolt of nostalgia for crisp farm mornings of days gone by. I miss my farm.
Matty made friends with a cow with the help of fresh strawberries we bought at a nearby local farm stand, and the second half of his oatmeal...
Turns out our fears of being discovered were unfounded anyway. A local farmer passed us (vagabonding on his potato farm without permission) on his way to have breakfast with his neighbours, and in typical Colombian style took the time to sit with us for a coffee and a description of how to find the local waterfall nearby.
We found it.
Then three dogs found us, a mama and her two pups. They galloped at our heels for an hour or so, the entire way to the waterfall, and napped with the animal whisperer atop the roaring falls (although decided to skip our skinny dip in the frigid pools) until we felt we should probably ride on..
Matty also found a horse hanging out in a glade, so he jumped on its back without a saddle or reigns, and the horse (assumingly conditioned to riding) promptly decided it was time for a walk, and they trotted off, quite funny to watch…
Around this time we were beginning to feel how big the continent really is. Loooong curvy days on the bike...
Mountains passed in a blur, and lacking our usual ocean time (not many roads to the Pacific in Colombia), we had to find a new way to bathe.
We started hunting down more and more waterfalls, and managed to find these two nestled in a canyon after hiking a couple hours through the lush jungle...
Eyes primed for waterfalls, whilst riding one day, we were drawn into a little fairyland valley, where two cascades were visible from the highway, plunging over a cliff and trickling past a tiny farming hamlet.
Upon stopping to take it all in, we were approached by two smiling, rosy-cheeked men coming down the road on horseback…
After the usual small-talk, and at the mention of possibly camping in the valley for the night, they urged us to join them down the road for a beer. Not ones to pass up a friendly offer, we made our way to a house where about 30 people were standing around, inside and out, chatting and laughing amongst each other. We got right into it, learning that this was most of the town's inhabitants, just hanging out and drinking a couple of beers at the end of the day. It's hard to imagine a more jolly crew, coming and going on horseback and motorbikes, enjoying each other's company.
Upon dispersal, one man, Emil, invited us to camp at his family's tiny farm. We set up the tent and immediately were ushered into their home and treated to that distinct Colombian hospitality. Coffee with fresh milk thrust into our chilly hands, we were plonked down in the kitchen in front of the cooking fire, where they too crowded around to share fried liver and soul-warming chicken and potato soup, same as their ancestral family had been doing in that very kitchen 200 years ago.
A tiny stone room, heated from the mountain altitudes by the flicker of the good-feeling, open fire stove. The photo below is in the extended version of their home, their living room, such beautiful people.
Cannot highlight enough how beautiful the majority of Colombians are, they’ve been through so much, and have such a great country to be proud of. Their hospitality has been second to none – pure and uncontrived friendship.
The next morning after a similarly generous breakfast (all harvested from the plot out front), they showed us how they harvest and clean their potatoes, but not before lending us a couple heavy ruanas (ponchos) that they make themselves by hand, from shearing their sheep to the final weave.
Feeling very stoked about the world and invigorated with new inspiration to keep exploring, we hugged and said goodbye to these wonderful people in this tiny hidden gem of a valley, and rode on.
Everything, from the spectacular mountains, lush jungle, to lovely colonial towns, Colombia charmed us. At one point we hiked through cloud forest to a hummingbird reserve..
Then stayed the night guarded by some majestic visitors...
The landscape seemed to get more and more breathtaking as we rode on through the endless mountain curves...
..but somehow the people we met were even more astonishing. I have never come across so many open, genuine, and happy people anywhere.
They've had a scary past; up until a few years ago Colombians were mostly confined to their cities, because of the likelihood of being kidnapped by one of three warring groups (including the government) involved in the struggle for control over the drug trade. Many of these cities were riddled with murder and struggles for power, but in the last several years things have drastically improved, and the people are proud and touched that outsiders want to experience their beloved homeland.
One such scary city makeover is Medellin. It's now considered to be quite progressive, especially in the urban planning world. We noticed this right away, zooming over and through various poor neighbourhoods with million dollar views, on a gondola, up outdoor escalators, and up and down colourful staircases, all aimed at making the poor communities accessible and beautiful.
There are murals and street art everywhere you look. A very cool place. I heard that at one point, residents had been given buckets of paint to encourage the brightening and beautification of the city, from centre to slum. Even most tin rooftops were painted...
We happened to time our visit with the famous Feria de Las Flores (flower festival), that takes place every year in August. I couldn't contain my excitement when I realized we could make it for this, so we rode an entire day from Bogota. It was not a short day, but totally worth it!
Colombia is the world's second largest exporter of flowers, most of which come from the region around Medellin. The festival started in the late 1950s to commemorate the end of slavery, during which slaves used to carry rich folks around in chairs on their backs. Now, farmers from the surrounding towns make elaborate floral arrangements, cart the heavy displays downtown on their backs, and parade through the streets to the howling encouragement of all the city slickers.
The pained yet proud expressions on their faces, as they carted ridiculously heavy arrangements (sometimes almost collapsing in exhaustion), made the crowd rally behind them, shouting ‘SI se puede! Si se puede!’ or ‘Yes, you can!’ in unison. Thousands of people chanting it together until the exhausted flower-bearer would pick up their agonizing arrangement and carry it onwards - proudly.
It was enough to make me tear up several times.
But as nice as the crowd and hip Medellin was, the wilds were calling our names…
Settled down for the night under a big tree beside a river, just below and out of sight of the highway, Matty had just annihilated me in a game of bastard, and I had just called him a lying cheat, when a tiny glowing speck floated between us.
Mesmerized, we followed its flight through the tall grasses to a gathering of hundreds of softly floating green orbs. Fireflies!
I'd never seen so many in one place, the shot below shows some of them next to our tent, but when our eyes adjusted and we looked across the river to the wall of forest opposite, we realized there was an entire GALAXY of them. They were too far away to show up in a photograph, but there must have literally been millions and millions… so magical.
The next morning, we pulled up to the highway just in time to see another guy on a bike pulling up towards us, Go-pro fastened to the top of his helmet, and a huge grin. He pulled up fast and dismounted, and although we were trying to make a start to the day and get on the road, he stopped us and demanded that we take off our helmets in order to get our faces in the movie (his chinese branded Gopro copy atop his helmet was actually off, perhaps out of batteries, but we played along anyway) and proceeded to charm us until we were all on the road-side laughing and happy - and so we decided to continue riding together until we found coffee.
Turns out his name is Bobby, a 74 year old southern Arizonan, who's traveling solo down the America's from the states. Bobby is an enigma.
He was riding all the way down to the tip of South America in honour of his best mate who had just passed away, leaving Bobby his entire life savings of $12k.
He’s got over 500 skydives under his belt, most of them from when he was over 60.
He camps alone every night beside his bike with no tent, playing his harmonica until he dozes off. He used to have a tarp, but he gave it away to a homeless guy in Colombia.
We ended up camping with him for 3 or 4 nights, and can attest to the validity of this.
He told us so many amazing stories (it was a little hard to get a word in edgeways sometimes, but we didn’t care). He told us about how he was once was hit by a car on his bike that broke both his arms. After having casts placed in the hospital, he was recommended to spend 6 weeks in rehabilitation and physiotherapy, but what does Bobby do? He walks off into the Arizona desert, alone, not stopping until he hit Utah, with a pebble under his tongue to ward off thirst.
Very inspiring guy...
We said goodbye to Bobby after a few days.
Again we found ourselves needing a bath, and from a crappy photo we’d found on the internet, we mapped out the next waterfall. We pulled off the Panamerican, stopped in villages to ask directions, and many hours later on rough dirt roads, and despite the internet as well as locals along the way telling us that this was a dangerous region of Colombia and that we shouldn’t camp in the region, we found this:
…and then directly below the waterfall, via a thousand stairs carved into the cliff-side, we found a small community-owned natural hot spring.
We set up the tent and then made our way down to soak our tired and dirty bods, and spent the rest of the evening chatting with the endless stream of curious villagers who took it in turn to wonder at the foreigners who had come to spend the night.
Oh, and yes, the rainbow happens every day. The storm clouds form on the hills behind the waterfall, and the sun sets opposite it. Pretty magical.
At one stage Matty was racking through his panniers looking for his toothbrush, and after pulling half his stuff out before finding it, he decided it was time for a spring clean. Everything here somehow fits onto his motorcycle…
After two nights of politely declining offers to stay in people's homes (“yes we are happy camping, no we don't find it too cold, yes we can make coffee and soup with our stove”), we gave in to the friendliness, packed up and headed to new friend Olger's family home in town.
We set up camp in his backyard (although they were slightly baffled as to why we wouldn’t stay inside).
It turned out to be a great decision, although we had to be a little wary of the cows chewing on our things (the calf below chewed off the plastic floral arrangement I had on my bike – then seemingly disappointed with their lack of deliciousness, spat them out on the ground)…
Olger, in typical Colombian fashion, was a real gentleman, and he, along with his family, showed us around his farm and region with great enthusiasm and pride.
Anywhere we went took longer than expected, as we were always stopped and invited for a hot drink (hot unrefined sugar cane juice) and cake at someone's house, or to stay the night, or sometimes it was just 20 questions about what the hell we were doing there. Often whilst they prepared bunches of fresh vegetables for the next day's market, or spun wool into yarn for various weaving projects.
It was always a positive encounter, with none of that gringo / local antagonism or distance that many regions in Latin America have developed.
It seemed wherever we turned, a sea of smiles would greet us in this little town, the friendliest town we’d ever been to.
This village, along with growing the usual vegetable staples, various flowers, and quinoa for income (they get 15 cents a kilo!?!), is patched with colourful fields of opium poppies. Also rainbows, all the time.
We were shown how to extract the milky sap from the seed heads and collect it in a cup...
the cups of sap are then picked up at some point, by someone from outside the village, and taken away to be processed into heroin. The heroin is then distributed far and wide, and it sounds like North America is one of the more lucrative markets. But having said that, the villagers we spoke with seemed so detached from the drug trade, they seemed to know less about it than us. It seemed that all they knew, was that if they grew it, and harvested the sap, they could sell it alongside their quinoa, one of two “cash crops” they could sell to the outside world. It was just another crop in their subsistence lifestyle. However, they did know that if the authorities came, they might cut down all their fields, which would spell disaster financially for that amazing little village in the hills.
At one point, Olger handed us a cup of the opium sap to smell – but Matty didn’t know the spanish word for “smell” and interpreted Olger’s enthusiastic gesture to actually mean “taste”. And before Olger had a chance to stop him, he had dipped his finger right in, scooped up a big dollop and stuck the contents in his mouth. But then with his face all screwed up, it was quite clear that the cup of fermented sap must’ve tasted disgusting, and Olger’s slightly horrified expression made Matty a little concerned as to what he’d potentially just ingested. But by now Olger was in hysterics, and assured the wincing and spitting gringo that he'd be fine. I was fairly confident enough in my plant knowledge to know that a little bit of unprocessed morphine taken orally couldn’t be that bad…
We all had a good laugh though…
We got to share several farm-fresh meals with everyone in the family, who were so kind to take us into their homes and teach us about their way of life, and generously share everything they could with us…
..and play with their 3 year old, who was very proud of his family's beauitful chooks, just about ready to be, ahem, 'processed'... Seriously, this chicken weighed about 8 kilograms...
The strange thing was how disconnected this place felt from anything, let alone a modern international drug trade. We'd heard about the poor coca leaf farmers in various South American nations, their crops periodically sprayed and crop-dusted by US authorities for their distant connection to drug networks. So to stumble upon a tranquil village far away from anything, whose inhabitants even spoke differently, more poetically, than anyone we had met, really made us feel disconnected from this entire global system we're all a part of. And this strange war on drugs. It's hard to imagine there being anything in common between the illegality of a drug in the states and oxen pulling a plow through beautiful, colorful fields to be planted with Papaver somniferum, the opium poppy.
It all just seems so far removed…
Until, perhaps, we receive a smile and some well-wishes from a villager walking the same dirt road that we are, and we realize that maybe we are all living the same life after all.
Note on surfing in Colombia: we didn't. There are only two roads leading to the Pacific coast, both in the south, and at the time we wanted to go, there had recently (within the last few days) been several violent attacks in both of those coastal cities.
One of the roads had been blockaded and the connecting town had been bombed by the FARC 4 times in the week prior.
The other led to a dangerous port town (which was sheltered from swell anyway), where 'chophouses' are commonplace, in which regular discoveries of body parts are being found. Hundreds of people killed, they had been dis-membered alive, then murdered amongst a macabre and twisted system of cartels, guerillas, and government. Some of the people dis-membered in the chophouses were (apparently) completely unrelated to any gang or militant group - innocent women and children that walked down the wrong street at the wrong time.
Were weren't interested in testing our luck in either of the regions...
So it turned out it was the wrong time for us to surf Colombia, a shame really, because the place has so much going for it in every other respect.
And so we set our sights on Ecuador - just a few hours south...