The best part of being high up in the crow’s nest was the cool breeze. The worst part of Cartagena is the disgusting heat. It’s very humid and very hot. But if you can ignore that feature, the city is gorgeous. It’s old Spanish colonial style, and the historic center is still full of cobblestones, narrow streets, and colorful 18th century houses, including the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, which we walked by and stared at and took a picture of. His family still lives there so it’s not yet a museum or anything exciting other than a bright orange facade and a big door.
What is exciting is the ceviche restaurant down the street, La Cevicheria. Some of the best seafood we have had, excluding lobster boat fiesta. They also have very good hot sauce for sale. If you like hot sauce, a purchase is recommended because Colombians, much like Panamanians, don’t really have hot sauce. They have neon red vinegar that has a tiny bit of spice in it. It is creepily red like cough syrup.
We stayed in the Getsemani district, just south of the historic center, a little rougher around the edges, and clearly where all the young backpackers stay. Every other doorway was a hostel, and they were all full. We couldn’t find a private room anywhere, but luckily the dorm rooms were super cheap, at $6 a head. Most hostels have room for motorbikes, including Amber, Casa Colonial Tortuga, Media Luna, Mamallena, and Villa Colonial. Wednesday night is party night and it’s insane till 4am on the street where Mamallena and Media Luna are. Gato Negro is also a great breakfast spot and cafe. And the big fluffy arepas sold on the street and stuffed with butter and cheese are amazing.
So we just hung out, walking around, eating and drinking, waiting for the email from Captain Ludvig to tell us when we could get our bikes. We arrived on a Wednesday and were originally supposed to be signing paperwork Thursday morning, but it wasn’t ready until Friday morning. So all the bikers showed up at the Customs building first thing Friday morning and waited our turn to go into a room with an official and sign on the line he was pointing to. This was literally all we had to do, and aside from waiting two days to do it, was beyond easier than any border crossing we had gone through.
Now we were finally free to actually take the bikes off the boat. But we had to do it at a doc a little bit out of town, so we all piled back onto the boat and started to motor the 10km down the coast to the dock we were using. Shortly after we got underway a Coast Guard boat pulled up along side us and told us to stop. We complied, as you do. And then three officers boarded our boat. They were all very official and wanted to see all of our passports (which we had just received back moments before), and check our bikes weren’t secretly full of cocaine instead of motors, and randomly search through a few pieces of luggage. They spent a long time talking to the captain, but everything was in order, so eventually they got back on their boat and let us drive away.
This was all very amusing to us because we had all been in Cartagena for three days already, so it seemed they were a bit late to the punch. It was also annoying because we spent an extra hour standing around in the sun, and as I mentioned, Cartagena is hot. But then we got to the unloading dock and laboriously committed the same procedure we had to get the bikes into the boat: strapping ropes to the bikes, attaching ropes to the giant pulley, hanging bikes ten feet over the water, lowering them to the dock. Nothing broke this time, and it all went smoothly. And after a fairly long panic where I couldn’t find my bike key and thought I had left it in the hotel room, I found it again in my pants, which I wasn’t wearing because it was hot, and we drove away.
This is where Cartagena gets crazy. There are so many motorcycles in Colombia in general, and particularly in Cartagena. There is a lot of traffic and the main transportation are moto taxis. The drivers are carrying around an extra helmet, and you can just jump on the back, throw on the helmet and zip away to your death. They all drive around like a swarm of bees, filtering into every little crevice available around all the other vehicles, including us. Bikes come up from your left, your right, practically on top of you. You’re minding your own business, waiting at a traffic light, one foot away from the curb, and a tiny bike squeezes somehow in between your giant side bags and the curb. It’s quite unnerving and I’m not really a fan.
If you ride a bike in the US, you know this, if you drive a convertible, you might have a glimpse into this world, and if you’re just in a regular car, here’s some news: Motorcycle riders in the US are all in a secret club. They wave to each other, tell each other if cops are up ahead, and generally are courteous beyond normal driving behavior. Cars are the enemy, and bikes are on the same team. Outside of the US bikes are so popular as a regular mode of transport and not just an extra-curricular activity that there doesn’t seem to be the same kind of secret club. But in Colombia not only is there no club, it’s like you’re at war with everyone else on the road. I feel like all these bikers are driving like total assholes, and being purposefully rude to me, even though I know they’re not; they’re just driving how everyone drives. Unfortunately, that means: look out for number one, don’t bother with anyone else. The roads here are the most dangerous, most crazy roads we have driven on. No one follows any rules and everyone seems to be out for him/herself without consideration for the consequences of their actions. This seems somehow a bit of a betrayal among motorcyclists. I like the special club. I like that bikes are always courteous to each other. And I can’t help feeling slighted when a bike passes me on the right. It’s getting easier to ignore, but I don’t like it.
The bikes who aren’t passing me up the inside are stopping to check out our bikes, and that is fun. Every traffic light we stop at guys are gawking and asking where we are from. It is fun to be in a place where cool bikes are appreciated, and where the average person recognizes that our bikes are in fact cool bikes.
But now that we have them back, it is time to get the heck out of the city. We decide to forego the tourist route up north through the popular beach town of Santa Marta, and instead head straight east. Our destination is the Sierra Nevada Andean range, and the National Park El Cocuy (ko-koo-ee). I had the hardest time figuring out how to say that one. But to get there we have a few days ahead of us and we end up truly in the middle of nowhere. Our first night we stay in a small town not too far outside Cartagena, called Plato. Instantly upon parking we meet a super friendly guy named Felix who has a twenty minute conversation with me most likely because he wants to practice his English. But he is very friendly and tells us where to stay and where to eat dinner. We get a sweet hotel for about $16 and I pass out. Chris brings me dinner a couple hours later and it is amazing. It’s french fries with a cheesey sauce all over them, and corn and chorizo and a bunch of other bits thrown in and it’s called “salchipapa”. But as we will come to find out, this is the only good version of salchipapa that exists. All this dish implies elsewhere is french fries with hot dog chunks on top. Not exciting. But if you happen to be in Plato, across the street from the good hotel, there’s bangin’ salchipapa and you should eat it.
Here is a box of puppies we saw while having lunch in one of these tiny towns.
Next day, 12k out of town, we promptly turn right onto a dirt road that looks more direct on the map, but will end up taking us ages, in a fun way. We drive on windy dirt roads for that day and the next, staying in an even tinier town, possibly called Mompox, and spending even less on an air conditioned double room. The landscape we have been driving through has been desert like, dry, super dusty, with big white brahma-like cows, with the saggy neck bit, the big humps on the shoulders, and big horns. They all look super skinny even though they eat all day. But at some point after leaving Mompox we hit a wall of humidity that is palpable, and the landscape transforms into a jungle. I see so many herons and egrets I can’t even contain my joy. There are fields of them. They surround the cattle, they’re in every lake, on every road side, and I love them. And then I see my first ibis. They have long, curved, red beaks, and belong in Alice in Wonderland. AND I saw a cocoi heron, which is similar to a great blue heron, but with more white on it, and more importantly, not in North America, so I’ve never seen one before.
Before we know it, the dirt road ends and there is a freshly paved road heading towards the city of Bucaramanga. If you’re driving this way on bike, beware that google maps, and the GPS map we have on the Garmin are completely inaccurate. There are new roads built here and the old ones lead into rivers. Follow your gut and head over the brand new bridge.
Now we are on the best highway ever. It is paved beautifully, which is a nice break after days of dirt biking, and the road signs are absolutely amazing. I didn’t stop to take pictures of them all, but they included the following, in alphabetical order: Beware of anteaters, armadillos, capybaras, foxes, giant rats, monkeys, sloths and tractors.
When we got to Bucaramanga we spent the night a little bit out of town at a hostel called Nest, that was part of a paragliding school. We contemplated doing a tandem paraglide in the morning, but satisfied ourselves by watching others jump off the cliff side, as we wanted to keep going towards the mountains. The hostel was very nice though, with lovely private rooms, a cold swimming pool, hot hot showers, and a beautiful view.
The next day we hit the mountains and were back to the dirt roads, though these ones were super rocky, and wound around a mountain side, with trucks and buses coming around blind corners at surprising speed. It was intense, but super fun. Every so often we would round a corner, and see in the distance, the high steeple of a church. They were all yellow and white, and gorgeous against the mountain peaks. We stayed the night in Soata, right on the square next to one of these cute churches. We didn’t know it at the time, but this was a big mistake. It was December 22nd, just a few days before Christmas, and the celebrations were already underway. Colombians started the Christmas holiday around the first or sixth or twelfth of December, and they were serious about it. We discovered our mistake at 4:30 the next morning when insanely loud Christmas music was blasted from the square right in front of our balcony. It stopped promptly half an hour later at 5 am, and we realized it was a call to mass for the entire village. We just happened to be the suckers in the hotel right in front of the church.
After a few more fitful hours of sleep we continued on our way, hitting more windy, rocky, mountain roads. Not until this point had I really considered the awesomeness of my Super Plush Suspension, but the way it handled the rocks on this overgrown goat trail of a road was truly impressive. Thank you James and the Shrug for making my bike so compliant! Instead of wrestling all day with the terrain, I got to have a ton of fun and actually go dirt biking.
We passed a few more towns, and saw dozens of little yellow and white churches on mountain tops, and then finally we saw the snow topped mountains that were our destination. We entered Parque Nacional El Cocuy and instead of staying in the bigger town of El Cocuy, we went on to the small town of Güícan, We rolled up to this tiny mountain village and found a nice hostel that was down the street a safe distance from the main square. Now it’s Christmas Eve Eve and the town is hopping. We are assuming things are a little more expensive because of the holiday, and the remoteness of this town, but still our double room is only $16.
As we walk around Güícan and fall in love with this tiny town, we notice one terrible flaw. The church in Güícan is the ugliest church we’ve ever seen. Instead of the classy yellow and white of all the neighboring towns, this church is painted in blocks of green, brown and rusty orange red, with little swirly lines in each rectangle, trying to maybe make it look old, but only succeeding in making it look like a kindergartener trying to draw water, or wind, or a fart. Who approved of this? It’s hideous.
Because the only feature of a church that I care about is its aesthetic appeal, this is particularly disappointing, but we still managed to enjoy ourselves and the town. And thankfully we were at the back of the hotel and only barely heard the church bells and Christmas music the following morning. The next day we went to the National Park office to purchase our entry passes, and buy insurance, which is required to enter the park. We also had to watch a movie in Spanish the gist of which, I believe, was “don’t be an idiot.”
We spent the rest of our time in Güícan eating local food and drinking local drinks. Common breakfast consists of hot chocolate, a hunk of cheese and bread. You’re supposed to throw the cheese in the hot chocolate and dip the bread in and then fish some melty cheese out with a fork, or just wait till the hot chocolate is gone. It sounds very weird, but is very good. They also have another hot beverage that is made with mint leaves and some fruits that only exists in Colombia. The one I drank had uchuva and papayuela (pronounced papa-jew-el-la). They are both very tasty as is almost all the fruit here, except for papaya which tastes like a rotting carcass in my mouth. I don’t understand how most people don’t mind the taste of it, or even like it. My body thinks it is poison. I try it periodically to make sure I haven’t just gotten a couple bad ones, but it always tastes foul. So if you like papaya, I think you are weird. Chris likes papaya, we all know Chris is weird, therefore my theory is sound.
The other great thing about this town is the weird Christmas Eve tradition of dressing up like a scary monster and giving candy to children. It’s kind of a mash-up of Christmas, Halloween and the German Christmas time counterpart to Saint Nick who would beat children if they weren’t good. Adults wear the costumes, and they don’t actually buy candy to give to the children, they make random bystanders buy candy for them, which they then distribute to the children. Chris and I were both forcibly dragged by good-natured monsters into shops to buy candy until we finally had to get off the square because we had run out of money, and the monsters weren’t having that excuse. My monster spoke French to me and then saved me from a drunk guy trying to hit on me.
On Christmas morning we left the lovely little town and drove up another windy dirt road for about 45 minutes until we got to the amazing Cabañas Kanwara, where we were staying for the next few days. And that is a story for another time.
And just in case you haven’t heard, here are some boobies!