So long Colombia, and thanks for the fish

2009 February 13
tags: ,
by Levi
Armenia by day: Nothing says welcome like a naked woman being tortured

Armenia by day: Nothing says welcome like a naked woman being tortured

When I got up our morning in Armenia, my Dad had already been out and about, and had a few things to show me. First, he lead me the block from our hotel to the roundabout where the highway met our road, where the town proudly displayed the above art picturing a mostly naked woman, face obliterated in black, being seemingly tortured by grappling hooks. Lovely! Next he showed me a gas station just up the road with a huge area we could potentially use to replace the brake pads (which we had spares of) on my bike.

We ate breakfast, pleased to have real hot sauce (read: out of Panama, where every restaurant in the country had the same terriblevinegary excuse for hot sauce), and went to do the brakes. When we attempted to move our bikes, the guy who’d helped us park it (where the Hotel had told us to) insisted we needed to pay him to get it out. Unwilling to argue, we forked over $2 (Note to Joe: it was 4,000 pesos, 2 USD) and grumbled as he laughed with his friend as we drove to the gas station. We decided to fill our tanks at the gas station to make the prospect of working on our bikes in their parking lot less awkward, and having filled up in the town before, took less than a gallon each. We parked and started taking our luggage apart, getting out tools, and getting down to business. The attendant came over to look at what we were doing (mostly interested in what we had in the bikes I suspect), but assured us we were fine. Finished the brake job up and adjusted our headlights so hopefully next time around my Dad’s won’t horribly blind me on dangerous mountain roads.

Armenia is located at the northern end of a giant flat valley, and going was notably easier as we headed south. We still had much of the grandeur of the mountains, being surrounded on both sides by them, but none of the hassle. Since a long straight road would have been far too easy for us, Colombia had thought to add roundabouts about every mile, many poorly labeled. I stopped counting at 20 for the day, and suspect the actual number to top 30 by the time we stopped for the night in Popayán. Though we managed to navigate the roundabouts despite their frequency and confusion, when we tried to follow a road that bypassed one of the larger Colombian cities, Calí, we ended up miserably lost in the town of Palmira, and ended up taking a road that went right back to the highway that went to Calí. Then just to rub our noses in it, the highway we’d tried so hard to avoid had a bypass that kept us completely out of the city. Go figure.

We ended up at a relatively fancy hotel that had an internet connection and craptastic computer my Dad tried and mostly failed to get anything done on. We tried hard to find a decent place to have dinner, but unable to find a part of the town with decent restaurants that were actually open (damn Sundays in religious countries!), we settled on a pizza place not far from our Hotel. More people who saw us came off the street and asked us for money including a goofy kid who spoke a little bit of English. To cap things off, the waiter, who’d done a good job up to then, tried to overcharge us for our pizza: we’d ordered the special (18,000 pesos), and I’d watched him write down the order and the correct price on the bill. When he brought us the bill, the 18,000 had been crossed out and replaced with 22,000. I pointed this out and he changed it… gringo tax avoided, this time. I ended the night having a nice conversation with the receptionist at the hotel about Colombia, culture, and language.

We got our “free” hotel breakfast in the morning and tried to get out of town. As is our tradition, this was made very difficult by some random event out of our hands. Today’s act of human: some crazy parade/political protest where all the participants wore matching white shirts and the police shut down our direction of the panamerican. The police had been nice enough to put up one detour sign with an arrow, but after that, it was up to you to figure out where the closure ended, and how to get there. To make matters more interesting, the detour threw us right into an extremely crowded downtown area with tons of traffic and road work. To give you an idea, I was cut off at a concrete road work barrier while driving on dirt by a mule-drawn cart. Eventually, we managed to snake our way through town and end up back on the way out of town.

We finally reached the end of the massive valley we’d driven in the entire day before, and our exit was marked by a descent into a massive gorge carved by a river which showed us just how high up the valley had been. It was another stunning day of scenery, winding through mountains, following deep green canyons covered in spanish moss, and peering into gorges unlike any I’d ever seen. The road was also interesting, by which I mean full of washouts. While high in the mountains, we came across a long line of cars. Being in Colombia, we moved to the middle and skipped to the front of the line of 75 or so vehicles, which weren’t moving at all. At the front we found out why:



A tanker truck obviously full of some sort of flammable liquid had fallen into the ditch at a particularly nasty gravel washout, and no less than three wreckers were trying, rather unsuccessfully to pull it out.  We waited at the side of the road for about 45 minutes while we watched them pull the truck back and forth, at one point wrangling hundreds of people watching up to the scene of the accident like they were going to have them help, then the cops ordering them to disperse again, and at one point actually putting one of the wreckers in the ditch with the tanker, where it appeared to be stuck as well. Meanwhile, we met a bunch of extremely friendly Colombians and talked to them about our trip. We also met the woman who’s car was at the very front of the line, who’d been waiting there for 3 hours! Seemingly disheartened by sticking one of their wreckers into the ditch, they finally decided to let traffic by, and we began a mad dash to the front which was completely devoid of traffic thanks to a day’s worth of being blocked.

Already giving up on making it particularly far that day, we decided to stop and have lunch. We picked a small restaurant in a small town, and a nice old woman waited on us. Like pretty much every restaurant in Colombia, this one lacked a menu, but when the woman rattled off what she had, we stopped her at fish and ordered a couple cokes to go with them. While waiting, she brought us some strange and sweet fruit tea (seemingly not understanding our request for Coke, which we’d seen in her cooler), then delicious vegetable soup, then rice, salad, and plantains, and finally 2 of the most beautiful whole deep fried fish I’ve ever seen. Completely golden brown, the skin was crunchy and wonderful, the inside hot and moist, and both massive; I couldn’t even manage to finish mine. The whole meal came to about $8.

More crazy mountains and we made it to the town of Pasto for the night. We ran all over the city looking for a decent hotel with parking and internet, and ended up settling on the first we’d tried, right on the Panamerican, which lacked internet, but the guy at the desk actually opened up a door in their parking lot to a room being used for storage and let us park our bikes inside for the night. After we settled in, we left to explore the city. We found a bar directly next door to our hotel, and we decided to start off with a beer. Well, we went in and ordered a couple beers, and it was pretty obvious we’d found a little more than a bar. Two women at a table next to the door insisted we sit with them, and looking around the place, there were only a handful of women, all clearly of “ill repute,” further evidenced by a little room in the back that could really only be good for one thing. Glad they couldn’t understand us, we laughed about it uncomfortably to each other and drank our beers quickly, but not before one of the girls at our table tried to get us to buy them a drink.

We wandered through the city, stopping at a pharmacy for some pain meds for my Dad and finding the woman there had seen us driving around on our motorcycles earlier. We found the city’s center, and thoroughly enjoyed walking past the numerous decorated plazas and old government buildings. We stopped and had some cheap street food (the guy next to us even offered us his fries!), and saw numerous street walkers and another bar full of hookers, this one at least slightly less hideous than the last, but still not enough to get us to go in.

In the morning, we headed to the Ecuadorian border. We got horribly lost in the border town, and while confusedly deciding where to try next, a car stopped and the woman driving asked us what we were looking for. When I told her, she said to wait, and she flagged down a passing scooter and told the kid driving it to lead us to the border, which he did. Before we knew it, we were in Ecuador, only to find out from another adventure rider (one of four we met at the border!) that we had to go back and go through the completely unlabled exit process of Colombia before we could enter Ecuador.

Perhaps it was just the way we traveled and the places we decided to go, but Colombia was never close to the scariest place we’ve been on this trip. Beginning in Bogotá, we met more than our fair share of suspicion, but it seemed like the farther south we traveled, the friendlier people became. Gas hovered right around $3 a gallon throughout Colombia, and clearly the country’s answer to this was motorcycles. They were everywhere! Every other vehicle on the road was a motorcycle, and considering all the buses, trucks, taxis, and cars clogging the roadways, that’s no small feat. In the cities, intersections with stoplights would end up filled with bikes waiting for the green. People who obviously didn’t own cars used bikes to transport the kinds of things one from the US isn’t used to seeing on a bike: 27″ TVs, their entire family, propane canisters, 6 foot long metal rods, etc. Also, though Colombia has numerous toll roads, every one of them has a tiny bypass lane reserved for motorcyclists, which saved us untold amounts in tolls. Finally, as in Central America, we passed dozens and dozens of police and military checkpoints, and were never stopped once, instead watching numerous vehicles both in front of and behind us get stopped instead. Ahhh, welcome to South America indeed!

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