Cartagena to Medellin
We stayed in Cartagena for so long that it felt like we were living there. For the last few days of our encampment we stayed at Claudio’s friends’ restored colonial home in the old walled city. Because of the owners’ fear of kidnapping and extortion, we can’t publish any pictures of the place nor even say their famous names, but it was an amazing place replete with servants, balconies, zebra skin rugs and a parrot truly worthy of a decorating magazine spread. While there, Paul Jackson, the very talented British editor of the Long Way Down, (the second BBC TV series of the adventures of Ewan McGregor, Charley Boorman and Claudio von Planta to Africa on two BMW GS1200) joined us for the rest of the journey to Ushuaia, Argentina. Paul will be editing the footage that Claudio shoots daily for the web episodes and rough cutting them for the upcoming documentary series, broadcasting from BBC World News on January 1st. The group is back to 9 people again, with me and Claudio on the GS850, two guys in the SRzero electric car and the rest in the van heading down the Pan American Highway.
We passed through the tropics of Colombian countryside and with temperatures soaring to the high 90’s, we sweated and cursed at the bad roads. Pothole after pothole started to take their toll on the suspension of the bike, and the awful Pirelli MT66 tires made the experience worse with yet another flat tire. This time the RGE guys stopped to wait for us, and the police escort led us to a tire shop on the side of the road to get the tire fixed. It wasn’t much of a shop, but the shirtless guy was very skilful as he changed, patched and installed the tire in a record time of 15 minutes with the sheen of sweat covering his body. I guess he saw the pretty race car and felt like he was doing a pit stop. The cost: $4.20.
From Monteria the scenery started to change dramatically. The high temperatures slowly cooled off, and the road started to head uphill for as long as I remember. From sea level we climbed to over 7000ft; in that distance, the look of people changed as well. The scenery was the most spectacular thing I’ve ever seen in my life; it looked like the jungles of Pandora out of the movie Avatar. Claudio and I kept looking at each other in amazement; we couldn’t believe our eyes. This is the place that cocaine is made. Men on horseback traversed the treacherous mountain paths, and every overlook was a scene from the heavens. If I ever settle down anywhere, that’s where it would be.
The weather cooled off to the point that we put on ski gloves to keep us from shivering, and we stopped frequently for the amazing Colombian coffee to warm us up. Colombia, unlike all the other Latin American countries is very motorcycle friendly. Motorcyclists don’t have to pay tolls to enter toll roads (everywhere else we had to pay tolls), and they always have the right of way. We never got stopped by the police or military while most trucks and cars did. And the police are mostly on motorcycle and are as cool as they come.
As we entered Medellin we had a motorcycle police escort and they didn’t leave us alone until we left for Bogota. The shocks had finally given way, and it was time to get the suspension back in shape, so Cynthia and I stayed behind in Medellin while the rest of the group went to Bogota for press events and sponsor duties. Our police escort had nothing else to do but to hang out with us, so we went out on the town to fix the shocks. Stay tuned.
Shock repair and going to Bogotá
Medellin is a peculiar city, but in a good way. It’s built in a valley and extends up into the surrounding mountainsides (literally) so it goes up and down indefinitely. The streets are mostly at 45 degrees angles, and it makes an interesting exercise on a loaded motorcycle when wet, which is all the time. Medellin was a notoriously dangerous place in the late 80’s and the early 90’s, and it was even home to Pablo Escobar, the infamous (or the Robin Hood figure to poor of Medellin) Colombian drug lord. However, in recent years, the city has transformed into a bustling cosmopolitan place which is just as safe as any other major city. It soon became my favorite city in Colombia, as the hospitality of its people was overwhelming.
At 9 am, our police escort was ready for us to go shock hunting and off we went. From the very first shop we went to, we were told that no one has these shocks in Colombia, and we were out of luck. So we settled for plan B, which was finding similar shock absorbers to make them work with this bike.
We dismantled the old shocks and kept the progressive springs to install them on two heavy-duty shocks. These shocks were from a Taiwanese 250cc motorcycle with mono rear suspension system (one shock in middle), and they were unbelievably stiff. We mounted the springs on the new shocks and modified the bushings and heads to fit the GS and installed them on the bike. It’s a pain installing shocks on this bike since I have to remove the boxes in order to get to the shocks and we did this 7 times. The shop that did the shock work was a specialized machine shop that only dealt with motorcycle suspension, so there was no shortage of tools or talents there, but we kept getting stiff shocks. In fact, they were so hard that 3 people couldn’t push the bike down to compress the darn thing. At 6 p.m we stopped after 7 hours of work and left the rest for the next day.
The cure to the stiff shocks came from enlarging the oil valves inside the shock bodies and diluting the oil viscosity by half. To make them even more adjustable, we cut 3 grooves on the outside of the cylinders to able to position the ring pin for the adjuster in 3 different positions 0.75 inches apart.
After many trials and errors we finally settled down on an adjustment that worked. We configured the shocks for two people, the load and the biggest pothole we could imagine. The rear is very stiff now for just one person as I only weigh 150 lbs, and I can barely push it down but fully loaded with Cynthia on it, it’s just right.
The bill for 14 hours of machine shop wages including the shocks came out to $460,000 Colombian Pesos ($250 USD). I can’t imagine how much an American shop would charge for the same job if they even would accept it. I usually ask for a discount, but this time I happily handed the cash over since these guys went above and beyond to help us.
When the shocks were done, we lucked out again and met Diego José Aristizabal who owns a brake shop. Freno Motos is a well stocked brake shop which is one of the best I’ve seen. All they do is brakes, and they are good at it. I needed a set of rear brake pads and from México to Colombia, I searched for a replacement and had no luck but here I found them. Diego donated another set of metallic brake pads to us and after taking some pictures and drinks on the house, we bid them farewell.
We met a MIT graduate named Jorge at the university where the SRzero was being charged and he put us up at his parents’ house for the night. We were amazed at their gracious hospitality towards complete strangers. To thank our friendly police escort, we invited them to dinner and told them that they can eat anywhere they liked. Their eyes opened up and excitedly they said McDonald’s!!!! McDonald’s is apparently a luxury and hip food joint as it is expensive for the locals. A typical dinner for 4 people would normally come out to 12-15 dollars, but McDonald’s prices were the same as United States if not more. So we had Big Macs and chicken sandwiches for the first time since we left US, and I honestly don’t miss it at all. Passing under the golden arches did feel like home though.
Thanks to all the beautiful Colombians who made our experience an unforgettable one. After traveling in many countries, I think I can say that Colombia is officially my favorite country in the world. It’s one of the most beautiful places on earth, and it’s so diverse in scenery and climate that it never disappoints. I will come back here one day.
Heading for Ecuador
Ever since we left Medellin, the weather stayed glorious: sunny blue skies with temperatures ranging from the 60 to the 70’s. I checked the oil before we left and added some, but somehow I forgot to screw the oil cap back on. 30 miles of curvy mountain roads later we stopped for fuel, and when I looked down, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. Cynthia and I were covered in oil up to our knees. No one else was around so I blamed it on Cynthia not reminding me to put the cap back on 🙂
The roads turned out to be great and with one twist after another, it was a joy to ride in the beautiful Colombia. We still had over 600 miles to Ecuador but I secretly wished it would be longer. I guess my prayers were answered as Ecuador closed its borders to Colombia and Peru after its president was kidnapped and held hostage by Ecuadorian police force. Apparently the president took it upon himself to boycott the benefits of the police substantially while offering them different benefits, and that didn’t settle well with them. The president attended the police protest and after a while, he got hot-tempered and opened his shirt and yelled “Why don’t you shoot me?”, and so the police obliged. One thing led to another and they kept the president hostage for their claims. In the middle of all this, we were waiting patiently for the news as when things would calm down and if they ever would.
We set up a couple of visits for malnutrition programs while in Bogota but since the shock ordeal delayed us in Medellin until the weekend we weren’t able to make it to the appointments, so for the first time we went out with Paul and had a day of sightseeing. We visited the world famous Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and the surrounding plazas. While jumping into the air for a picture, I landed wrong and hurt my leg. The pain stayed with me for the remainder of the stay in Bogota. I rode through 2 continents on the bike with no injury, and the only injury came out of my own stupidity of trying to act like a 10 year old kid in a 30 year old body. We finally headed for Pasto, a small town close to the border of Ecuador. This section as we found out later was a major FARC territory but since we didn’t know, we stopped at every scenic place and walked around like we were on holiday. I even saw a sign for zip lining after one of our stops and I had to do it. Cynthia, Clemens, Alex and I rushed for the line as it was only $5 USD and better yet, it ran from one side of the 3km long valley to the other side. It was by far the longest zip line I’ve ever seen. The one minute run between earth and sky was mesmerizing although we seriously shouldn’t have been there.
Claudio and I stayed back to film a bit more, and that’s when we did all the wrong moves (good thing we didn’t know it at the time). We stopped at a bridge to film a river, and the very same bridge was the scene of a bloody attack on a bus a few days before. We stopped at a non-functioning gas station and chatted with an old man while taking our time putting more layers of clothing and before we knew it, it was dark and the heavy fog settled in. The good roads turned into almost trenches and with detour after detour, we felt like we were on the moon. The look of modern and comfortable Colombia turned into a scene from a war torn country, and it didn’t get better until we caught up with the rest of the guys a few miles before Pasto.
At dinner in Pasto we were told all the horror stories that go on that very same road we took so leisurely, and we shuddered as we heard more. All in all, no one was hurt, and we all made it to safety. It’s just sad because this area had the second most amazing scenery in all Colombia after the road leading to Medellin. The FARC still fights the government and still kidnaps civilians to gain leverage and continue the chaos.