One must adopt the imperturbable attitude of the stoic when traveling by two wheels, the better to face such climatic vicissitudes undaunted.
It seems everywhere life is more easy. This is not so good a thing as it may seem. Comfort is oppressive to man’s spirit. Struggle is preventative–it strengthens one’s mind and body for life’s inevitable hardships. Living too far away from real danger and it’s possible consequences dims the contrast between death and life and dulls the sweetness of the latter.
It’s easier than ever to insulate one’s self from life’s harsher realities and unpleasant sensations. Like a tool that goes too long without use man grows dull and stupid. He must consciously resist comfort’s seductive call and intentionally put himself in potentially uncomfortable, if not dangerous situations in order to remember what it is to be alive.
It was with these ideas in mind that I forsook the routine, safe method of travel to El Eje Cafetero, Colombia’s coffee country, and instead opted for the freedom and adventure provided by travel by motorcycle.
On a motorcycle one experiences sensations both good and bad more acutely. The crisp, clean mountain air is as much a balm as the exhaust of the lumbering bus is a curse.
Oh, the fluctuations in temperature one experiences on the steel horse! From fetid, sweat-inducing jungle heat to bitter, high mountain cold. One must adopt the imperturbable attitude of the stoic when traveling by two wheels, the better to face such climatic vicissitudes undaunted.
Day 1. Medellin – Manizales. Cold, construction, Caldas.
Is there anything so detestable as impediment to one’s movement? With the possible exception of mosquitoes, I submit there is not.
I began my journey in Medellin, Colombia’s second most populous city, after the capital of Bogota. I rose early to get a good start on the day’s six hour drive to Manizales, one of the three major cities that compose the region’s ‘coffee growing axis.’ I had sketched out a rough itinerary, but the particulars of the journey would of course be left to fate. I did know that Colombian drivers are the worst I’ve ever seen, and that rain was in the forecast.
Before leaving the house I made a last minute decision to downsize my already minimal luggage from a large backpack to a smaller roll top day pack. I’ve learned through years of traveling to ignore that little voice which urges over-packing disguised as preparation. It’s a delicate balance between lacking something you need and having too many things you don’t, and I’ve learned it’s best to err on the side of going without. The prudence of traveling light is rewarded by the ease with which one can move unburdened by excess belongings.
I picked up my transportation for the trip in the posh, prostitute ridden nightlife district of El Poblado. The Royal Enfield Himalayan 411 adventure touring bike is a popular option in India. Mine had been slightly modified with crash bars, brighter lights, and re-dubbed the “Andina”. It’s upright riding position made it acceptable for putting in long days on the Colombian autopistas, while it’s up-swept exhaust and substantive front and rear wheel travel meant I could take it off-road if the need arose (spoiler: the need indeed arose).
I rented the bike from Odyssey Colombia, a small motorcycle rental outfit addressing the needs of the more adventurous gringo. If this story inspires your own motorcycle adventure in Colombia I highly recommend Odyssey. Not only do they offer a fair price for the use of their bikes, but they’re extremely knowledgeable about Colombia and are happy to help you hammer out the details of your itinerary. (Disclaimer: I received a small discount on the price of the motorcycle in exchange for this trip report and an honest review of Odyssey’s services.) I strapped my backpack down to the bike’s passenger seat and entered ‘Manizales, Caldas’ on my phone’s GPS. By 10 AM I was on the road and headed out of town.
The first thirty minutes out of the gate was full of the typical Medellin city traffic. Is there anything so detestable as impediment to one’s movement? With the possible exception of mosquitoes, I submit there is not.
Fortunately, after I cleared the city limits the traffic thinned to only those of us motorists in it for the long haul. I climbed highway 25 into the cloudy foothills of the pueblos south of the city, darting from tailgate to tailgate of the buses and semis or ‘mules’ struggling to make it up the steep grade. In Colombia, the roads are as curvy as the females. Whenever a brief straightaway made the prospect of overtaking these lumbering vehicles feasible, I overtook them with a quick twist on the throttle of the Himalayan’s adequate 510cc motor.
As I climbed higher and higher into the mountains the temperature dropped. Soon I found myself enveloped in a thick fog. I was now in the neblina, and while the mountain chill was at first a welcome change from the city’s fetid heat I wished I had brought an extra warm layer. Cold but undaunted I made my way ever southward.
As drastically as the temperature went from hot to cold on the way up the mountains, it reversed when I dropped out on the other side. I enjoyed a bit of open road before I came on what would be the first of many construction stops. The majority of the highway between Medellin and Manizales is under construction. The work was started years ago and shows no sign of being finished soon.
There exists, after a sustained period on a motorcycle, a kind of symbiosis between man and machine. This phenomena is similar to what one experiences in deep meditation or long distance running, a sort of ‘zone’ where one’s brain is occupied with the mechanical operation of the motorcycle, as well as scanning for potential traffic/road hazards, allowing one’s consciousness to drift. No sooner had I attained this ‘zone’ than one of the many construction stops brought me plummeting back down to earth. Still, despite the road work, I made decent time to the city.
In Manizales I checked in to my hotel near the Torre Del Cable area and did a little walking around. It was noticeably cooler than Medellin, and without that city’s air pollution. To my surprise the traffic slowed down and in some cases even waved me across the crosswalks. This kind of courtesy is unheard of in Medellin, where cada carajo in a coche is in a frenzied race to reach the next red light.
I did some more exploring and treated myself to an emapanada and a tea. Overall, Manizales gave the impression of a tidy and tranquilo mountain city. I retired to my hotel room early to get ample rest for the next day on the road.
Day 2. Manizales – Salento. Torrential rains, absent rear brake.
After a quick hotel breakfast and a jog around the stadium I packed up the bike. Thick storm clouds loomed overhead. No sooner had I packed up then a drizzle began, giving me cause to make first use of my rain gear. I donned the waterproof black pants and bright orange jacket Odyssey had generously provided me, a process I would repeat often in the coming days. The finishing touch was a pair of waterproof rubber booties stretched over my sneakers.
Soon I was once again out of the city and on the highway. The rain remained at a steady drizzle. I reached the town of Santa Rosa de Cabal and was twenty five minutes out from its hot springs when the drizzle became a downpour. It was at this opportune juncture I discovered I had no pressure in my rear brake pedal.
I pulled over and took a look. Something didn’t look quite right, but having only been recently acquainted with the Andina and it having been a few years since I’d last worked on a bike I wasn’t sure what. I called the guys at Odyssey to inform them of the problem. They thought maybe I had overheated the brake system, a common problem with the Himalayan. I thought this prognosis unlikely considering the problem had occurred after a flat and slightly uphill section.
I continued along the road that climbed up the hills past the town to the hot springs. The rain poured down unabated. The rubber booties became water balloons around my feet. The road continued to increase in grade. I was dismayed at the thought of descending it without the use of my rear brake.
What a sinking feeling a break down on the road will cause, and what a soaring feeling of freedom when it is remedied!
I pulled over and re-thought my plan. After consulting with Odyssey, we agreed I should visit a mechanic in town. They did some pit crewing from Medellin and sent me the coordinates of a Yamaha mechanic in Santa Rosa who should be able to work on the bike.
Fifteen minutes later I pulled into the shop. The lanky, honest faced owner/proprietor greeted me. I described what had happened and he immediately recognized the problem: the push-rod that leads into the master cylinder was absent, as was the screw that normally holds it in place. It must have vibrated out at some point, allowing the push rod to go with it. While the delay caused by the malfunction was not ideal, it was far from catostrophic. Fortunately, it had cert happened on relatively flat ground and at low speed.
I consulted with the mechanic and assessed my options. I could either buy a new brake assembly and cannibalize it’s push-rod, or have the mechanic jerry-rig one out of spare screws. Sourcing the brake assembly would take hours whereas the latter option could be done in one. I went with the faster option. While the mechanic started the job I headed to his cuñado’s restaurant for the menu del dia.
I have learned that in Colombia, one must constantly perform basic temporal arithmetic by adding one to two hours to the stated hour of any engagement to arrive at a more accurate picture of when something will actually occur. I had no reason to expect the bike’s repair to be any different, and was surprised to find it nearly completed when I returned to the shop an hour after I’d left. The mechanic had installed a new push-rod, as well as the screw that controls it’s descent, both sealed with loctite. With the bike again in fighting form I once again made for the open road.
What a sinking feeling a break down on the road will cause, and what a soaring feeling of freedom when it is remedied! Elated by my re-discovered freedom I made for my accommodation on the outskirts of Salento.
Day 3. Cocora Valley, Filandia. Steel Horse Hostel
I woke up early to try to get a look at the scenic Cocora valley before the clouds set in. My efforts proved futile, as clouds had already formed by the time I rose. I drove through the town of Salento and dropped onto the one lane road that winds up the scenic valley behind it. Everywhere I was surrounded by lush, green grass. Cattle and horses milled about the verdant, paradisaical landscape. The valley reminded me of the northern part of the Hawaiian island of Maui and invoked in me a powerful longing for that place.
I left the bike at the end of the paved road and continued on foot to the bosque de palmas. The valley’s beauty is no secret. It’s become quite the tourist destination in the last decade, the migration of tourist hordes fueled by photos posted to social media. There was a winged sculpture on a hillside for people to take selfies in front of. Even on this rainy Wednesday morning the tourists were present in droves. After having had my fill of the sights I headed back to town for a lunch of fried trucha, a local specialty.
After lunch I set off for the town of Filandia. I arrived that afternoon to the Steel Horse finca. I was greeted at the gate by Dan the horse guide and several dogs who, after having deemed me no threat, resumed their afternoon sun bathing. I took my cue from them and laid my gear and myself out to dry in the first sun I’d seen two days. I soon met Paul, an Englishman who owns the place with his wife Yvette. They had discovered Filandia on an eighteen month motorcycle trip through South America and liked it enough to buy a piece of it for themselves.
I was the sole guest at Steel Horse for the night. The boys and I passed the afternoon on the patio drinking beer. It felt like I was stopping over at an old friend’s house rather than a hostel. I sincerely enjoyed the experience.
With nightfall came heavy rains. Dan made a trip into town to fetch his friend and horse guiding partner, along with some burgers for dinner.
Day 4. Filandia – Jardin. Colombian breakfast, big highway, unintended off-road adventure
In the morning Paul lent me Yvette’s hair dryer to dry out my still wet shoes. I then joined him and the boys for a traditional Colombian breakfast in town, which consisted of rib soup, steak, eggs, arepa, and cafe con leche. This stick-to-your-ribs meal was the perfect fuel to begin the day’s journey. I bid the boys farewell and hit the highway once again.
Past Pereira the road turned into the biggest and fasted highway I’d seen in Colombia so far. This followed a valley north until it entered the mountains and bottled down into a smaller road. In the mountains it once again turned misty and cold.
My shoes and socks were soon wet yet again. Visibility on the windy cloud forest road was less than thirty feet. I took my time, squinting through goggles covered in condensation.
After the town of Rio Sucio the pavement stopped. The rest of the drive to Jardin was muddy dirt road, the bulk of which I enjoyed to myself. I reveled in the solitude and scenery while hoping I didn’t pinch a tire on one of the many sharp rocks that littered the way.
After hours of driving through the Andean cloud forest the view opened up as I entered the valley of Jardin. Here I was privy to another lush and picturesque valley. I slowly made my way down to the quaint and tidy town itself. I made a late lunch of some costillas at Las Brazzas restaurant and checked into a hotel before exploring the town a bit.
Once settled, I bought a pair of socks to stave off my impending case of trench foot. I drank some aguardiente at the town square while I updated my trip journal, taking in the scene of the pueblo’s social epicenter. Children laughed and played with toy trucks, observed by their parents from the comfort of one of the square’s wooden benches.
Day 5. Detour off-road to Jericó, hot chocolate.
The original plan for the day was to make it to Jericó for lunch, then head to Medellin in the afternoon. It didn’t quite pan out that way.
The highway to Jericó had more construction, and I missed the exit to the new bridge to Jericó. After going off road for ten kilometers I reached an impasse. The dirt road I had been following got drastically steeper. It was also covered in loose, softball sized rocks. I made an initial attempt at ascent and stalled the bike. I made a quick assessment of the road and determined it was too much trouble to attempt again. I was forced to turn around and backtrack to the bridge I had missed. Fortunately, the drive up the valley to Jericó was a beautiful switch-backing ascent, and I was blessed with the sunniest weather of the whole trip.
I arrived in Jericó to find another nice little pueblo with not one but two churches in town. I had lunch, booked a posada for the night, and strolled the town square.
I popped into a Colombian general store and made the acquaintance of its owner, Alonzo, a colorful character who looked like a deposed general and presided over a haberdashery full of home remedies and horse tack. He sold me a pouch of pungent-smelling cardamom which he claimed would cure any respiratory ailment.
Day 6. Jericó – Medellin.
The journey back to Medellin passed without note. The closer I got to the city the more traffic appeared. I made a quick snack of chorizo and cafe con leche an hour out of town. I had reached the end of my little Odyssey. Already I missed the freedom of the open road and the fresh air of the campo!