Surviving Bogotá

2009 February 12
tags: ,
by Levi

When doing the little bit of planning that went into this trip, we settled on the disappointing conclusion that we should avoid Colombia. A land of mixed reviews, nearly everyone who’d been there had nothing but positive things to say about the place, while just about everyone else had bought into the reputation of the place, and urged us to avoid it. Even the proponents of going there had to admit that our reservations weren’t unfounded, and that we’d have to be careful. In my mind, there was enough going on on this trip that I was willing to give up on a country that was potentially highly dangerous if avoiding it wasn’t horribly inconvenient – it’s not like we had a lack of risk to keep things interesting!

So in Panama, we’d ask the logistics companies for quotes on shipping to Ecuador or Peru, figuring we’d have plenty to keep ourselves busy while our bikes arrived… but freight shipping is tricky business, and for small quantities – say, two motorcycles – expensive. Even the process of getting prices, timetables, and answers to our questions was long and arduous. The company we eventually settled on, Girag, was an air freight company, and every part of the way they did business was fast and easy. They’d take our bikes on a(ny) Tuesday or Thursday morning, put them on a plane, and have them for us the very next day. For this convenience, we’d have to pay handsomly, but amazingly, it ended up being just about on par with sea freight, and much much quicker and less frightening.

The catch was that all Girag’s flights to South America went through Bogotá. To fly the bikes farther would be more expensive, and would delay their pickup until the weekend. To further complicate matters, personal flights from Panama to Ecuador or Peru were ludicrously expensive. When we finally looked into flights to Bogotá, which were $200 less than those to Ecuador or Peru, the decision was made for us: we’d fly our bikes to Colombia on Thursday and meet them the next morning at the same airport.

We flew Copa Airlines, and the flight was only an hour and a half on a small, extremely comfortable plane… and they found time to serve us food (cheese sandwich and fruit cup)! You certainly don’t see that on flights in the US anymore. The airport was spotless and signs were in Spanish and English. Customs took less than 10 minutes and they barely asked any quesitons. Outside the terminal, I asked a guard where the Cargo Terminal was, to pick up our bikes, and found it to be within walking distance. In no time, we’d found Girag’s office, they’d given us the paperwork for our bikes, and they sent us a five minute walk away to the customs office to get the proper paperwork for our bikes.

As far as this part of the process is concerned, I can’t possibly explain how glad we were to not be in Central America anymore. The customs building was clean and well lit. The woman who helped us, incredibly friendly. She smiled, joked, and made our photocopies for us! Yeah, that’s right, we didn’t have to slog over a bridge covered in mud, or into the nearest town in search of a photocopier we had to pay to use… this girl did it for us and didn’t charge us a penny! Even better, when it came time for her to fill in a huge form, she handed my Dad’s to another agent and they worked in parallel! We hadn’t found a single Central American country that had figured that trick out.

Paperwork in hand (no charge!), we went back to Girag and in no time were looking at our bikes sitting in their warehouse. It was raining a bit outside, and they let us re-pack (we were setup to live out of our backpacks as necessary) our bikes in their warehouse. That’s when my Dad noticed that his bike had been damaged in transit, and part of his windscreen was broken. We pointed it out to the Girag people watching us (as usual, our bikes were quite the conversation piece), and they told us the guy who could help us with a claim was out to lunch, so we decided to do the same, at the restaurant in the parking lot of the Cargo Terminal.

What followed was a curious episode that occured several times, but has luckily been limited to Colombia. The restaurant was Cafeteria style, where you picked up a tray, walked a line, and picked up your food… at least if you’re not obviously an American. When we tried to get our food like everyone else, the guy at the cash register insisted we sit down, and that they’d bring us our food, and wouldn’t take no for an answer. Though everyone sitting down has a practically identical meal, we get served something completely different, with 3 times the meat, no beans, and when we ask for a coke, which is located in a fridge off to the side, the “waitress” (who normally cleared tables) went to the fridge, took out a coke, brought it to the back, then brought out a glass with the coke in it. We also paid what had to be double the price as anyone else in the place, and left frustrated for being treated differently, even if their intentions were good. Oh well, the food was fantastic anyways.

When we went back to Girag, the guy was back from lunch, and took a look at the bike. There was no arguing, he only asked us how much the wind screen cost (too damn much) and made us a pretty reasonable offer. A half hour later, my Dad had signed a waver saying everything was honkey dorey, gotten some cash, and we were on our way out of the warehouse (which involved driving the overloaded bikes down a dangerously thin wooden plank laid over the stairs leading down from the warehouse *shudder*).

In the time since we’d left the passenger terminal to when we finally got on the road, the once tranquil highway leading from the airport had become an 8 lane circus. Traffic backed up bumper to bumper, hundreds of motorcycles weaved between traffic, and cars, trucks, and buses – the latter two spewing abhorrent amounts of black sulferous cancerous smoke all across the highway – showed no concern at pulling into our lane, leaving us hardly inches to maneuver on the pothole-stricken lanes, and on numerous occasions nearly running us from the roads. Throughout our trip, we’d born witness to all manner of aggressive, impatient,  insane, and disrespectful driving, but Bogotá set a new record; drivers had absolutely no respect for motorcyclists.

We followed the airport highway into the downtown area, and the city – and the crazy traffic – seemed to stretch on forever. We ended up overshooting the turnoff for the north/south freeway we wanted to take, turned around as it started to downpour, took an exit, and ended up losing each other when my Dad made an illegal U-turn on a massive street with 2 lanes of traffic in each direction, seperated by another 2 in each direction in the middle reserved for bus rapid transit. So there I was going the wrong direction on an 8-lane behemoth of a road, cars jockeying for position and honking their horns, giant puddles and rivers forming across the road, and each block I traveled down looking for a turnaround put another block between me and where I presumed my Dad had stopped. I tried a few sidestreets in an attempt to get back on the main road going the opposite direction, only to meet more major roads with no turnarounds, numerous one-way streets, and dead ends. It took me 20 minutes to get back to where we’d lost each other, and by then, I was totally soaked and frustrated. I found a place where a ton of motorcycles were parked with their riders huddling under a skyscraper to keep out of the rain, and talked to my Dad on the radio. A good 20 minutes later, he’d found me, and we were able to get back on our way.

Doing our best to avoid crazy drivers in crazier traffic on the soaked and lumpy streets, we eventually ended up on a street through a university district, and happened upon a hotel – called ABC and ran by an incredibly weezily Colombian – which we took immediately. We decided to try for dinner at the restaurant in the hotel, and again got the run around. They had no menu, and when I asked how much the chicken was, the woman ran off to bring us two orders of chicken, which neither of us had actually ordered. The chicken was alright, and since the woman at the restaurant had disappeared, we went to the front desk to settle up, and were pleasantly surprised that the food wasn’t highly overpriced… but later when we tried to leave the hotel, the weezly owner flagged us around and insisted he hadn’t known that we’d ordered the “special” (mind you, we hadn’t actually ordered anything!) and insisted we pay more. Blah.

Ruins across the street from our hotel in Bogotá

Ruins across the street from our hotel in Bogotá

From our ride to our hotel, we knew we were surrounded by bars and discoteques packed with college kids from a nearby university. There was even a bar directly outside of our hotel enterance, and given everyone in Bogotá seemed to smoke, and smoking was banned from public establishments, the stairs of our hotel were crammed with students in their club finest smoking American cigarettes and trying to look as aloof as possible. So we decided to try the bar right next door, which proved more difficult than we thought.

Before the bouncers would let us in, they patted us down, and asked for our Cellulars. Assuming we were talking about phones, something we don’t have, I tried to explain that to them, but they insisted. After a couple minutes of confusion, I finally figured out they were asking for our ID, which they inexplicably call a “celular,” and we managed to get in. It was blaringly loud, and just about everyone was drinking a local beer called Aguila, so when a guy walking around serving drinks to tables asked what we wanted, I asked for two of them. Loosely translated from memory and Spanish:

“We’re out of Aguila”

I stared blankly back at him for a minute as I surveyed the crammed bar, tables covered in empty Aguila bottles, people standing around drinking fresh ones, condensation still beading on the bottles, before responding “Umm, ok. What beer do you have?”


“Really?? Budweiser? We hate Budweiser, what else do you have.”

“Just Budweiser”

By that point, I started to get the picture. The unflinching stares and weird looks weren’t enough, they even refused to serve us the local brew, so we cleared out and tried a different bar down the street.

Now pros at being ID-ed and searched, we got in and were again assaulted by music, and found the bar completely crowded. There were tons of tables, all of which were crammed with young people, and a small open area that served as a walkway for servers to the bar when unpopular music played, and an instant dance floor when something popular came on. We managed to squeeze into uncomfortable seats up at the bar and actually get served a beer, from Colombia no less! From our vantage at the bar, we could properly assess the number of strange looks we got, with some of the males really scoweling at us. At least some of the women looked and smiled.

We didn’t stick around too long, and after bar number two, my Dad decided to call it quits. Being around 10pm, I wasn’t giving up so easily. I hit the streets by myself and spent a good hour walking around the neighborhood, getting a feel for the place. Being a Friday night, the place was absolutely packed with people, eating bad street food, smoking Marlboro’s like it was going out of style, and lining up to enter packed bars and clubs. Every one seemed filled to capacity, and I was mostly ignored on the streets. Being a huge attention whore and all though, I decided to pick a bar and see if I could change that.

Mostly, I didn’t, but I had a pretty decent time nonetheless. I ended up at a club that served their beer in giant plastic mugs and played the strangest collection of mostly American music I’d heard in awhile. I still can’t remember the last time I’d heard Love Shack before that night, and certainly not the last time I’d seen people so excited to dance to it! Anyhow, the place was two levels, the second level being mostly a balcony overlooking the main dance floor below. I found a nice spot along the balcony and wallflowered with my megabeer, content to be mostly ignored, as it beat the weird looks we’d gotten earlier. One girl seemingly tried to flirt with me, but I’m definitely no Don Juan in Spanish, which is alright.

The next day we set out to escape Bogotá. I’d gotten directions from Google on how to get back onto the main highway South, and luckily, it wasn’t pouring rain. On the first block away from our hotel, a man in typical homeless garb was walking along by the corner, swung around and spotted us, and proceeded to freak out! He stood bolt upright, stared directly at me, reached into a plastic bag he was carrying, and pulled out an empty plastic 2-liter bottle. He proceeded to spike it like a football, then produced another and did the same thing. He was shouting unintelligably and looking very… excited. As we proceeded around the corner, he actually started walking towards me, into the street, but didn’t make any directly violent moves, at least not before we’d gotten away. After that, even the simple route I had planned was still hard as hell to realize, and we ended up making several ridiculous turns, the most representative being when a seemingly major road ended right before an intersection with a huge curb mere feet from the road it would have met. We managed to use a driveway to get onto the sidewalk and get through anyways, and eventually found our way onto the motorcyclist’s deathtrap that passes for a freeway.

Bogotá seemed to go on forever. The scenery was at least partly worth the effort, with the city nestled between enormous lush mountains, and full of everything from modern steel and glass skyskrapers to barrios that extend for miles. Besides dodging the usual suspects, the “freeway” threw ox-drawn carts, tons of pedestrians, garbage, potholes, and inexplicable lane closures at us at random intervals, all through the clouds and clouds of black toxic diesel exhaust. When we finally made it out of the city, we stopped at a Dunkin’ Donuts, sighed a deep breath and embraced the feeling of luck we had for making out of there alive.

One Response leave one →
  1. 2009 February 14
    Gabe permalink

    Wow, random. I never got the gringo treatment anywhere in Colombia…The hotels pull all kinds of scams – convert pesos to USD back and forth a couple times and pocket transaction fees – but people in restaurants and bars were uniformly nice to me…Plus you see all the girls eating chicken wings with plastic gloves up to their armpits…