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Posts Tagged ‘ Colombia ’

Entering Venezuela was an exhausting and time consuming task. Even with the help of our Colombian friends Alex and Carolina the whole process took over 5 hours. It was an absolutely ridiculous procedure that was lengthened even more by the poor and extremely slow work ethics of the Venezuelans. It’s a fact that things take longer in Latin America but the Venezuelans took it to a whole new level of slow. We were sent on a wild goose chase all over the city to get insurance, photo copies and to collect numerous stamps and signatures. Every document needed approval and each one had to be in a different building. At one point we were even taken into an office where one of the officials made a really poor attempt at asking for a bribe. Needless to say we played dumb and paid him nothing. Finally in the late afternoon as the office was closing a young lady slides our permits across the counter. “Yay! We’re finished!” Nope. As one final act of insanity we had to take the permits down to the police station and have them stamped.

We were so happy to be finished with the border formalities and so thankful for Alex and Carolina’s help that we treated them to dinner. I could only imagine how long that process would have taken if they hadn’t been there. Trying to figure out where to go, asking for directions and then figuring out what to do when you got there, all would have been extremely difficult without fluent Spanish. After dinner Alex and Carolina escorted us to a hotel on the outskirts of town and went over our route through Venezuela before saying good bye.

For months we had been receiving warnings about Venezuela and how it’s not safe due to its current political status and increasing gorilla activity. This was nothing new for us, we receive warnings about every country we visit but something felt different about Venezuela. My gut feeling was telling me to pass through Venezuela as quick as possible and when travelling the best thing you can do is to follow your gut feelings. Our Colombian friends had invested a lot of time researching a safe route through Venezuela for us and we intended to follow it and hammer out as many kilometers a day as possible. Luckily for us the price of gas made riding longer days extremely affordable.

On our first day riding in Venezuela we were finding it difficult to purchase gas. We had been to a couple gas stations that had no gas and when I asked where I could get gas they would just point down the road. Eventually we came to a gas station packed with cars and I knew they had gas. We were waved from one pump to the next as the attendant would shake his head. Finally one attendant took the time to explain that we needed an electronic chip in our vehicle to activate the pump and without one we couldn’t buy gas. This was a vain effort by the government to try and stop Colombians from buying cheap gas in Venezuela or to try and stop Venezuelans from selling their gas to Colombians for a nice profit. Just as we were about to leave the attendant waved us over and said that a man has offered to use the chip on his van to pump us some gas. We pulled our bikes close to the van and when the van was full the attendant topped up our motorcycle. The man in the van paid for everything and wouldn’t accept any money from us. We thanked him and were overwhelmed by what we thought at the time was generosity.

Only Venezuela’s neighboring state to Colombia requires vehicles to have an electronic chip to purchase gas so after half a days ride on the pristine pavement of the Autopista we pulled into a gas station to fill the bikes. It all happened so fast and before I knew it the bikes were full, I had paid and we were rolling away very confused. “Was that right?” I said. We stopped and started working the conversion in our heads which soon lead to laughter…  we had just purchased 22.7 Liters (6 Gal) of gas for $0.22USD. That’s right it’s not a typo, we purchased gas for 1 cent per Liter! I ran the calculations and conversions over and over… I couldn’t believe it! How is that even possible? Venezuela is a country rich with oil but it doesn’t come out of the ground as gasoline! There is a lot of processing and transport involved in making gasoline and then on top of all that someone has to pay the attendant standing at the pump all day filling vehicles. The only answer I got was “It’s subsidized by the government” and however much that hurt my brain to try and comprehend the truth was I really didn’t care because I was getting gas for 1 cent a Liter!!! We later figured out that the man with the van that had “generously” purchased gas for us had paid $0.60USD to fill his van and both our bikes…

Since gas is basically free the people of Venezuela drive around in the biggest and shittiest cars and trucks possible. We’d see them racing down the road spewing out retched smoke, most likely getting an amazing fuel economy of 1 inch per gallon. The taxis were the best and I wish I could have captured some better photos of them. They seemed to be in competition with each other to see who could have the biggest and crappiest car loaded with the most stickers. The doors and panels would be all miss matched and the bumper, if it had one, would be a solid chunk of rust. In an attempt to “pimp” out their ride and give their taxi the upper hand they would jack up the back end and install super wide drag racing tires. Most of the taxis didn’t even have the word taxi anywhere on the car but they were easy enough to spot, just wave down the biggest piece of junk on the road sporting a huge “NOS” sticker.

The riding was long, flat, hot and dry with nothing to see so we didn’t feel bad about more or less skipping Venezuela. On our last day riding in Venezuela the terrain changed and we found ourselves on a magnificent highway rolling over lush green hills surrounded by mountains. The area was stunning with camping opportunities everywhere and it reminded me of Northern Canada but my strange gut feeling still lingered inside me. I had no desire to camp or explore any of the beautiful gravel roads that stretched off into the mountains and I found this extremely unsettling. We had been treated with kindness and respect throughout Venezuela and had never felt in any kind of danger but I still couldn’t shake my awkward feelings towards this country. The feeling followed me all the way to the border and it wasn’t until we entered Brazil that the knots and butterflies in my stomach went away. We rode a total of 5 days in Venezuela covering 2111 km’s… total money spent on gas for BOTH motorcycles including filling up before heading into Brazil… $2.08USD.   That has to be the cheapest gas in the world…

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May 16th, 2012 - Colombia Video

Colombia was great and we felt it deserved a video. I wish the video could have been 10 times longer… cramming 45 days of footage into 4 minutes isn’t that easy. The video is short and fun. Hope you enjoy it.

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May 1st, 2012 - Colombia II

Despite our lack of direction without our friends Karin and Dave, I felt as if I had regained a certain amount freedom. All the decisions were back in our hands and we could now decide whether or not to ride 500 km’s or 500 ft. A peaceful night in our tent left me feeling extremely relaxed and I found myself simply enjoying the beauty of the days ride.  We stopped constantly, first to (finally!) have our front tires changed, second for a freshly made juice at one of the many fruit stands and then to take photo’s and enjoy the views throughout the day. I hadn’t felt that carefree in a long time and it was at one incredible view point that I spotted a beautifully paved road winding its way along the edge of the mountain in the valley below us. “I don’t know where that road goes but that’s where I want to go.”

We soon spotted the turn off and the road immediately began descending down the mountain with a series of switch backs. The road continued to impress me as we crossed a river at the bottom of one mountain and started up another on the other side. I really didn’t know where the road led to but as long as I was enjoying it, it didn’t matter. We entered the town of Manzanares with the idea of passing right through it but the beauty of the area and its welcoming people convinced us to stay. We ended up making friends and spending an entire weekend having fun and enjoying life in the mountains. With more and more friends, Colombia was shaping up to be a country that will forever be a part of my life.

For the next several days we rode, covering a lot of ground and exploring as much of Colombia as we could. Back in San Gil we had been invited by our friend Omar to come visit him in Villavicencio, a city 2 hours south of Bogota city. We made it a part of our plan to eventually visit Omar and with a few days left to kill before our Brazilian Visa’s were ready it worked out perfect to be in a city so close to Bogota. We spent a great weekend with Omar being introduced to more friends and taking in the sights of Villavicencio. We felt the warm hospitality of Colombia once again as we were treated to food, drinks, live music and even a trip to the zoo. Unfortunately our time with Omar was cut short when we discovered the permits for our motorcycles were going to expire sooner that we had thought, forcing us to race to Bogota and try to extend our permits. When we entered Colombia we were asked how long we needed permits for and I had said 30 days thinking that would be lots of time… lesson learned. When getting permits for your motorcycle always request the maximum amount of time allowed just in case you want or need to stay longer than you thought. With heavy rains and flooding in the streets of Bogota we managed to make it to the permit office 9 minutes before closing which for most of Latin America means “You aren’t getting anything done.” I managed to get the paperwork handed in and was told to return the next day at 2 pm to pick up my extended permits. I returned the next day on time expecting to receive my permits but that would have been too easy. “The man who needs to sign your documents didn’t come into work today so you’ll have to come back tomorrow.” Thankfully the man showed up for work the next day and I was able to pick up the new permits. Then it was over to the Brazilian Embassy where I was amazed to find our passports waiting for us, both containing Brazilian Visa’s.

Free from Bogota once again we headed for Venezuela taking the scenic route on Highway 55 from Tunja to Pamplona which has now become one of my favourite rides. The road has it all, beautifully paved sweeping curves, magnificent views and an adventurous 100 km section of gravel and dirt in the high mountain plains. There were a few challenging sections due to past heavy rains and landslides but thanks to our new tires even Erin plowed through them with confidence. As we neared Venezuela I actually felt kind of sad. Usually I get excited to enter a new country but I had fallen head over heels for Colombia and felt it still had so much to offer me. Luckily our time in Colombia wasn’t over yet; we still had to pay our friends Yuri and Patricia a visit in Cucuta, a city located next to the border of Venezuela.

We arrived in Cucuta later than expected and as it got dark we searched to streets for an internet café so I could retrieve Yuri’s phone number from my email. After a shockingly expensive 3 minutes on the internet and the use of a local man’s cell phone Yuri was on his way. We could hear him coming from blocks away on his 1000cc custom motorcycle, arriving loud and proud with a smile on his face ready to escort us to his home. We were taken in by his whole family, given a room of our own and offered all the food we could handle. Excited to have a whole kitchen to work with Erin and I gladly treated our hosts to a few of our favourite meals many of which turned into quite the party as more and more friends showed up to feast. In fact every day is a party in Cucuta. We spent the evenings visiting with friends, enjoying live music and frequenting our favourite bar in town Sofi Sport Cocktails which serves up awesome frozen cocktails that are perfect for Cucuta’s hot weather. Somewhere between all the fiestas we even managed to get some maintenance done on the motorcycles, changing the oil and rear brake pads.

From one great excuse to another our stay in Cucuta continued to extend itself from our original plan of 3 days to what seemed like a short 9 days. We managed to hang around long enough to enjoy our friend Alex’s birthday and my own birthday the day after. For whatever reason I’m really not much of a birthday person but getting to spend my birthday in Colombia with good friends was pretty cool.

Sadly it was time for Erin and I to leave Colombia so we said good bye to our friends and assured them we would meet again soon. With our bikes ready to rock another country and our friends Alex and Carolina as escorts, we headed off to Venezuela for what turned out to be our longest border crossing yet…

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April 22nd, 2012 - Colombia

I had no idea what to expect from Colombia but I certainly didn’t expect to instantly fall in love with a country that has been unable to shake its infamous reputation for cocaine and kidnapping. Whether or not Colombia was ever completely overrun by gringo kidnapping drug lords I don’t know but in its current state Colombia welcomed us in with loving open arms. The simple gesture of a smile and a “Good afternoon” greeting will guarantee an even greater response. The food here is a fresh, delicious change from Central America and if you shop around a cheap meal is easy find, generally costing around 80 cents per person. If delicious food and great people aren’t reason enough to love this country, the riding here is spectacular. The mountains of Colombia provide beautiful backdrops with stunning views for both on and off road riders. Also, Colombia now holds one of my favourite rides to date. Some of you may be thinking it’s just my positive perception that could make me say such wonderful things about a country that has permanently been given a bad reputation but Colombia truly is a fantastic place to be. To put it in perspective I thought we would only be in Colombia for 10 days, however we are now on day 40 and find ourselves only 15 minutes from the border of Venezuela but not wanting  to leave.(Since writing this we stayed even longer… HaHa 45 days in Colombia!)

It all started in Cartagena, a well preserved colonial city situated on the oceanfront in Northern Colombia. We arrived early on a Saturday morning but with customs closed we had to wait until Monday before we could get our motorcycles. This worked out great giving us time to explore the city and hang out with some fellow travellers from our recent boat crossing. In my experience port cities can be a little rough and sleazy but Cartagena holds its composure very well. The historic district is clean and well maintained while the rest of city appears well developed with a respectable level of modern professionalism. We found plenty of motorcycle shops in Cartagena making it a great place to pick up parts and tires at reasonable prices. We managed to find a battery and rear tire for Erin’s bike while our new friends Karin and Dave picked up some tires for their bikes, all of which were cheaper or comparable to prices in the United States. Karin and Dave had shipped their motorcycles from their home country of Holland to Canada where they started their 9 month long journey to Peru. Sharing our passion for motorcycle travel, our sense of humour and our love for beer, it only seemed right that we team up and explore Colombia together.

After a few days of riding in the hot, dry and relatively flat countryside of Northern Colombia we all agreed that it was time to head into the mountains. Heading South past the city of Bucaramanga the road began to snake and the temperature began to cool as we wound our way into a perfect day’s ride. About midday we pulled over at a roadside restaurant to ask another group of bikers for directions and to our surprise we discover that the route we had planned was much longer than anticipated which would force us to ride well into the night. Our new roadside friends suggested we reroute to San Gil, a town approximately 2 hours away where they were heading to a motorcycle rally. It didn’t take much to convince us and we were quick to jump back in the saddle raced off down the road together. We quickly got a lesson in Colombian riding as we pushed hard to try and keep up with our new friends. In Colombia motorcycles basically do whatever they want. What North American’s consider to be incredibly dangerous and/or reckless driving is just common practise to Colombians. After flying through the sharp mountain curves and passing every car and truck in sight, it turned out to be one of the most enjoyable yet exhausting days I’ve ever had on a motorcycle.

We spent the weekend enjoying the festivities of the motorcycle rally and getting to know our new friends who had taken us in like family. It’s amazing for people to be able to spend so much time together conversing and having fun without fully being able to speak the same first language. Using only our limited amount of basic Spanish we managed to share our lives with people and learn about life in Colombia. Throughout the rally we were treated like celebrities constantly sharing our stories with curiously excited people and partaking in a ridiculous amount of photo shoots. I guess 4 tall gringos with 4 big dirty bikes in a sea of Colombians just appear to scream “Come take photos!”  There’s nothing about that weekend that I would change, it was perfect and the friends we made are more than just travelling acquaintances. As we left San Gil we were overwhelmed by numerous genuine invitations from our new friends to come and stay with them in their homes. I knew we would be seeing them again soon.

We spent a few days exploring the beautiful Sierra Nevada del Cocuy Mountains and riding through just about every type of weather including some painfully large hail. Unfortunately for the first time on our travels I was sick and spent our down time curled up in bed while Erin, Karen and Dave got to hike the picturesque countryside. As we made our way towards Bogota, Colombia’s capital city, I continued to recover despite some cold days riding in the rain. Bogota is a huge city with a population of approximately 8 million people and if you were to include the surrounding metropolitan areas of the ever expanding city that number quickly jumps to 15 million people. I think it goes without saying that getting around the city sucks… luckily 9 times out of 10 when asking  for directions anywhere in Colombia you will receive an escort to your destination. We set up base at a Hostel in the Candelaria district, the historic area of the city, and explored some of the museums, markets and architecture of the area. I’m not a city boy so it takes a pretty special city to impress me and I can easily say that Bogota did not impress me. Something about waking up in the morning and walking out into streets reeking of urine just doesn’t do it for me. Also if you add in constant, erratic traffic and honking Bogota city is a place I could do without. Sadly, with our plans to travel through Brazil, Erin and I had to stick around Bogota for a few more days to visit the Brazilian Embassy and fill out paperwork. It was then that the time came to part ways and say goodbye to Karin and Dave as they continued their own journey to Peru. We wish them fun and safe travels and are glad to have been part of their lives and look forward to seeing them again one day.

After a few days battling the Embassy’s ridiculous business hours and gathering up all the paperwork required we handed in our passports with hopes that they would be returned to us with Brazilian Visa’s. After an hour and a half of traffic we were finally free of Bogota but found ourselves feeling somewhat lost without our riding companions. For weeks we had been riding as a collective and now on our own again we had to figure out where to go…

More to come from Colombia

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March 22nd, 2012 - The Boat

We arrived early morning in Cartagena, Colombia and as we emerged from the rusty belly of our sailboat we were all surprised by Cartagena’s modern appearance. Skyscrapers surrounded the bay reflecting the light of the sun which was beginning to rise over the container docks with an ambient orange glow. It was a beautiful morning spent drinking coffee, eating breakfast and discussing with our shipmates plans for Cartagena. The ten bikers on board, Erin and I included, seemed to radiate with excitement. We had all been through our own adventures to get here and where the road will take us no one knows but one thing is for sure… We’re in South America!

Back in Panama, Erin and I were the first motorcyclists to arrive at the dock in Carti and quickly spotted our ship, the Stahlratte, anchored next to a nearby island. It wasn’t long before the rest of the motorcycles showed up and the ship took position next to the dock. One by one the bikes were ridden to the end of the dock and loaded by winch onto the boat. We all seemed to have complete faith in the crew and their methods of loading the bikes but as you watch your motorcycle being lifted out over the ocean you can’t help but shiver. The loading process was surprisingly fast and soon we were onboard and anchored next to the small island where we had originally spotted the Stahlratte. We spent the afternoon swimming, eating and enjoying the culture of the local Kuna Indians while the crew was hard at work wrapping up and securing our bikes for voyage ahead.

The next morning we loaded the rest of the passengers and headed out to explore the beautiful San Blas Islands. With a total of 24 people and 8 motorcycles on board I was pleasantly surprised at the level of comfort and space the ship maintained. The personal areas below deck were spacious with comfortable beds, reading lights and plugs. The upper levels of the ship had plenty of comfortable seating options and even with 24 people sharing one toilet there was never a problem. The food served on board was truly amazing and the crew even tried to cater to vegetarian needs. If you plan on sailing with the Stahlratte I guarantee you will not go hungry.

We stopped at a picturesque Caribbean island where we snorkelled in the incredibly clear blue water and walked the white sand beach of our tiny deserted island. In the evening a BBQ was set up on the beach and we ate another great meal followed by cold drinks and a bonfire. I quickly fell in love with that tiny island and knew that I had to make the effort to sleep on the island rather than the ship. The captain had no problem with the idea and many of the adventurous bikers were interested as well so we made a quick trip to the ship and grabbed supplies. Seven of us returned to the island and spent the evening telling stories of our travels around the bonfire before passing out on the beach. It was a perfect night and a great accomplishment for an avid camper like me to spend a night on a tiny deserted tropical island.

The voyage to Cartagena was not an easy one for many of us on board. As we cleared the reefs surrounding our tropical paradise and sailed out into open waters things got rough. We were told to expect 3 to 5 meter waves and I thought that was going to be an exaggeration but it wasn’t… As the waves started to toss the ship around Erin grabbed hold of my arm scared the ship was going to flip. My eyes turned to the captain who was whistling, smiling and making jokes with people. I assured Erin that if we were in any real danger he would probably have a more serious look on his face. For us land lubbers the 15 ft waves were relentless and within the first hour, half the people on board were extremely sea sink and puking over board while holding on for dear life, Erin and myself included. With an empty stomach I soon figured out that I could avoid most of the sea sickness by sleeping so I spent the rest of the sailing time comatose in bed. However I still managed to eat three meals a day, when I would hear or smell the food I would awake and emerge from my berth, eat a quick meal and return to bed before getting nauseous.

Overall Erin and I had a great experience of which the best part was the people. Everyone on board got along really well and we have made some great new friends. Would I recommend the Stahlratte as passage between Panama and Colombia? Yes. Would I do it again? No. They took very good care of the motorcycles as well as the customs paperwork. I would not hesitate to put my bike on board the Stahlratte again but for myself I would fly. Even back on land my body continued to feel the motions of the boat, causing nausea and headaches.  It took 3 full days back on land before I felt normal again… So with new friends to ride with and the beauty of Colombia to explore we start our journey through South America.

PS. Keep your eyes peeled for our upcoming Central America video…almost done… I know it’s always “almost done” (we’re on Colombian time now)

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November 15th, 2010 - Avoiding the Darien Gap

If entering Panama was hard, leaving the country proved to be much harder. Panama was the last Central American country, and only 90 miles from the coast was our new destination: the infamous Columbia. What separates the two countries is one of the most dense and impassable jungles and swamps on earth, called the Darien Gap. Walking the Darien is almost suicide let alone taking a vehicle through it. A group of British guys tried to cross the Darien gap in the 70’s and their average progress was 300 feet a day! In the end they had to be airlifted out.

Needless to say, we had to ship the bike to other side either on an airplane or cargo ship. Since we were sending the SRzero electric car and the support van to the other side as well, we decided to load everything on one container and load it on an ocean freighter. The paperwork for the shipping process started before we even arrived in Panama and lasted five days into our stay. Office to office, we chased our tail with the Panamanian bureaucracy, corruption and laziness on every level. At one office, there was a 10×10 room filled by eight female workers shoulder to shoulder with no air conditioning. Inside of that room was another door and this was the door to the director’s office, and as we entered it, we were shocked. His room was four times bigger than everyone else’s and two air-conditioning units were on full blasts aiming at his desk. Gold chains hanging from his neck and iphone in his hand, he was a fat cat and a rude one at that too.

We also had to get the vehicles inspected at the police station. The police station was in a very dodgy part of town and the police warned us several times not to go across the parking lot to the little store as we might get caught in the middle of a shoot-out. One of the local guys packing some heat, came over from an apartment across the street and cheerily reassured us, “Don’t worry. I have a gun. You’ll be safe!”

After all the paperwork was done, we had to take the vehicles to Colon, a major port on the Caribbean side about 100 miles away, and load everything up into the container. The paperwork went on until the last minute and it took from 6 am to 6 pm to load one container. The three vehicles barely fit into the 40 foot container with bike going in last and sitting sideways. About 8 port-workers strapped everything down and finally sealed the container. Photography and recording videos were strictly prohibited, but we managed to smuggle my small camcorder in to get some shots. All said and done, the only thing left to do was to take a short flight from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia and wait for the container to arrive.

Panama City is a very diverse city with almost every ethnic background from all over the world. From Chinese to Arabs to Germans and Africans, every part of the town is occupied with a distinctive race. It owes its diversity to the famous canal built by the United States army corp of engineers at the instigation and behest of Teddy Roosevelt in early 1900. Roosevelt, despite all protests and oppositions from Latin America, (Panama was part of Colombia at that time) pushed on through with the construction of the canal, and 10 years after its initial start, almost every ship that crossed between the Pacific and Atlantic went through this narrow canal. It changed the map of Central America and created a new country: Panama. Sailors and workers from literally everywhere settled in Panama City and made a one giant international community. Colorful and beautiful, Panama is the most important port in the western hemisphere and a significantly large portion of the country’s income comes from the canal and the shipping industry.

We had the privilege of getting a private tour of the impressive Panama Canal and even walking across the locks. The ships are guided in, strapped on both sides to small trains to keep them from side-to-side movement due to the narrow water way, and in three steps, they cross the canal. In the first lock, they raise the water to float the ship higher, then they open the second lock and so on until the ship floats on the other side. The width of the canal is still the same as what it was when built in 1914 but there are plans to widen the canal in 2012 to ease the passage for more vessels at a time.

We were warned and warned again about Colombia, on the drug cartels, the FARC, and the kidnappings and almost everyone was apprehensive to some extent about Colombia. Let see if it lives up to its myths.

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