Still in Colombia…

We are now on our way to Bogota to get fresh tires and the replacement headlight that Britannia Composites had shipped to us the day after Christmas, following one small email, only hours earlier, telling them that my bulb failed. Now that’s some customer service. The headlight has been amazing until this point, as has the whole front fairing, which has an adjustable windscreen with highway and dirt settings, a super bright regular beam as well as a daylight-maker high beam, built in USB ports and extra hook ups for my heated grips and powerlet port. Add on the amazing customer service and the fact that you buy their products in Canadian Dollars so it’s like getting a discount, and I can’t recommend them enough. Chris is even a bit jealous.

We stopped along the way to Bogota in Villa de Leyva, a small town still bearing the cobbled streets and adorable buildings installed by its colonial overseers hundreds of years ago. It’s a very cute town, especially between Christmas and New Years, when lights hang from every corner and the streets bustle with well dressed, beautiful Colombian city folk on vacation. We stayed at Hostal Renacer, which was a nice one km walk out of town and up a hill, giving it a pretty view of the valley. In town there was also a really nice coffee shop, which has been hard to find. They actually served french press, or pour over, or whatever kind of coffee you’d like, and they didn’t add half a pound of sugar to it beforehand, like the average place does. It was a very welcome relief.

After enjoying our last few days of country living, we moved on to Bogota, Colombia’s massive capital city. It was New Year’s Eve and we didn’t have any special plans. We were focused on the following days when we hoped to restock on some necessities, buy our Heidenau Scout K60 tires and receive my headlight bulb.

You may recall super helpful Gustavo from Ride, the husky shop in Panama City. He gave us the cell of Juan, the proprietor of Xtreme Motors, the Bogota Husqvarna dealer. We texted with Juan ahead of time to make sure he could get our tires (no problem) and to have the headlight shipped to his shop. The only thing we didn’t plan for was the Colombian vacation schedule.

In early December there are some pre-Christmas celebrations, but life, work and school pretty much continue until a few days before Christmas. From Christmas to New Years every one is on vacation. All of this is understandable. We noticed walking around Bogota on New Year’s Eve that the city was pretty quiet. Very few restaurants were open, even in the popular and touristy spots. Not a lot of people were walking around. But it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s a holiday. So after making a delicious roast for New Year’s Day dinner, we headed out on Saturday, January 2nd, to do some shopping and check in at Xtreme Motors to see if our parts had arrived.IMG_0059

Nothing was open.  Most of the shops were closed, including many major retailers and sellers of important things like camping fuel (for our coffee maker!). No one was on the streets and the whole city still had its odd NYE zombie apocalypse feel.  Xtreme Motors was also closed, along with the six other bike shops on the same street. The Beta dealer, California Xtreme, across the street was actually open so we popped in there to see if they knew what was up. They made some phone calls and told us Xtreme wouldn’t be open til January 12th!

“A week from Tuesday?! Shut the front door!” we exclaimed. The guys at California Xtreme explained to us that the 6th of January, Three Kings Day, is a big holiday in Colombia and is recognized on the Monday following the 6th of January. Because the 6th was on a Wednesday this year, the holiday season didn’t end until the following Tuesday, the 12th. Crazy Colombians! While normally I would be happy for extra holidays, we needed to get shit done. Not only were all the shops closed, so was the Colombian postal service, which is terrible on a normal day, let alone during their month long winter celebrations.

The guys at California Xtreme were so cool and helpful though, we were sad we hadn’t sent our package to them (also they were open). But to support them a little bit I bought a sweet tee from them, that I later realized is made in California. Doh. They’re also the Troy Lee Designs distributors for the area, and have totally cool Leatt gear that we don’t get in the states. Plus baby trials bikes. IMG_0057

We decided to make the best of it and visit the town of Salento, which was our next planned stop anyway. The road to Salento is a two lane highway that goes over a couple of mountains and takes ages. Unfortunately, the only people not on vacation were the truck drivers. There are very few passing zones on this mountain road, and to make it more difficult, there are semi trucks coming in every direction. They take up the whole road when turning, regardless of whether a motorcycle is in the opposite lane, so sometimes you have to come to a complete stop to let a truck heading the opposite direction complete his grand sweeping turn so he doesn’t lose his momentum. Jerks. To make matters sketchier, it was starting to get dark and we were in the middle of nowhere on top of a mountain, far from a place to spend the night. And remember how my new headlight bulb was in the post? We had shoved a bulb from the hardware store in there but I would have been better off taping my iPhone to the front of the bike with its flashlight on. This business was sketchy. And of course I wanted to go in front of Chris because he is a bit pokey in the corners, so I resorted to having my brights on continuously. Screw everyone else. You all are trying to kill me anyway.

Thankfully we made it down the mountain and stopped at the first hotel we came to, which happened to be a super swanky place with a pool, a hot tub, some vintage cars, covered moto parking next to the chapel, and, as we would find out in the morning, a beautiful view of the valley. Yes, it was four times as much as our hostel in Bogota, but it was totally worth it. Hot tub, pool, view. And four times nothing is still nothing (or $65).

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Morning fog covering the pool at expensive hotel

The following day, after enjoying the facilities, we made our way to Salento, a small mountain town, very popular with Colombian tourists. We went to a hostal just outside of town called La Serrena, and unfortunately, they didn’t have any rooms left because it’s the week between New Years and Three Kings and there’s a festival in Salento every year and all of Bogota is here and every place is booked. So we payed them $6/night to set up our tent on their lawn. They supposedly had hot showers, but the area was also in a drought and under water restrictions so I never got to experience the hot water. I don’t know how this place can be concerned with a drought. They need to come to California and learn what dead plants look like. Of course if California had started rationing water before everything died, maybe it wouldn’t have been so bad in the end. But thank you baby Jesus, El Niño is here. Did you know El Niño is named after baby Jesus cause it comes around Christmas? Does anyone else find it disturbing that someone made a weather pattern religious? There’s no separation between church and weather these days!

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view from La Serrena Hostal

Anyway, Salento is green and wet. In fact it rained every day we were there. After setting up our tent right before it started raining, we headed into town to get some food and check it out. The square was packed! Literally all of Bogota was in Salento this week. It looked like a music festival, bright colors and happy people jammed in next to each other as far as the eye could see. We grabbed a table at a restaurant on the square because we saw someone else’s dish and wanted it. It’s the local speciality, Garlic Trout. They take a whole local trout from the river down the way, deep fry it (no batter or anything), and then smother it in a creamy, cheesy, garlic sauce, and then pop it in the oven to get GBD (golden brown delicious). It comes with an extremely large, super thin patacone, which is a green plantain (not the sweet ones), smashed and fried and acting like a giant potato chip, or a papadum. It’s amazing.

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One of the activities we wanted to enjoy in this area was visiting a coffee plantation. After some quick online research we decided to go with Sacha Mama, a local, fully sustainable, non-commercial coffee farm with tour given by the family who live on site in a house they built themselves with no electricity, and therefore no fridge, and therefore no meat. Pedro picked us up in the morning and drove us through the hills and into the jungle that is his farm. Sacha Mama means Jungle Mama, and that is what their place is. It’s a stark juxtaposition to the surrounding hillsides which are covered in trimmed grass, kept short by cows, or rows of neatly planted coffee plants from some of the bigger producers. Since purchasing their land over a decade ago, they have just let it return to its natural state and become a jungle again. Within this jungle are coffee plants, guava trees, banana trees, wax palms, and a hundred other trees and plants, all growing naturally together with a tiny path winding through them, that sometimes requires a machete to walk on. Because their property has reverted back to its natural state, it’s a haven for wildlife in the area, including tons of amazing jungle birds. We saw a bunch of acorn woodpeckers, an Andean Motmot, and a pair of toucanets (that’s the real name for the smaller birds in the toucan family). Pedro put some fruit out on their bird feeder and a toucanet flew down and grabbed a hunk of papaya, then flew back up into a tree and fed it to his lady friend. It was pretty adorable. Can you find the birds in these terrible pictures?

After a walk around the land, an amazing vegetarian lunch, of course some delicious coffee, and some bird watching, Pedro got to explaining the coffee production process. None of the beans on the trees were ripe at this point, but luckily he had picked some earlier. So he showed us the machine that takes off the initial shell, and then we grabbed a bucket full of beans and headed inside to his tiny coffee-making room. There we used a machine that removes the skins from the beans before they’re roasted. Pedro pointed to all the machines in the room: the french press, made in France; the percolator, made in Italy; the fancy espresso machine, made in Italy; and finally, the coffee bean skin remover, made in Colombia. We laughed about the irony of Colombia having such great coffee beans, but Colombians not knowing how to make good coffee with it. Pedro made the important point that for hundreds of years the coffee was almost exclusively exported, and the only thing the Colombians did with it was get it ready to be sent to France and Italy and the rest of the world. It’s sad, but thankfully, guys like Pedro are changing things in Colombia, and these days it’s possible to find some tasty coffee if you go looking for it.

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Pedro explaining stuff to Chris in his tiny coffee making room

The following day we rode our bikes to the Valle de Cocora and hiked into the cloud forest to see the national tree of Colombia, the giant wax palm. They’re like 50m tall! But before we got to see them, we hiked into the jungle to a hummingbird reserve called Acaime. They have so many hummingbirds that hang out there, they buzz around like beautiful giant flies, right in front of your face. The Collared Inca was Chris’ favorite, and the Long-tailed Sylph was mine. On our way out we also saw a masked trogon family and another bird that I’m not positive about but I think was some kind of mountain tanager.

As we got through the wax palm fields it started to drizzle on us, but it wasn’t bad. We finished the beautiful hike, strolling through cow pastures on our way back to where we parked. Although you’re allowed to park right on the dirt road just up from the official car parks, we were there so early that no one else was parked there, so we opted for a lot because it wasn’t obvious where on the road was acceptable and where was not. If you’re heading there, cars park where the road turns to dirt, and up from there.

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park to the left of this sign on that dirt road

We paid our 3,000 pesos and got on our bikes, and as soon as we pulled out it started to pour on us. Torrential downpour ensued. Because we left that morning with the intention of going on a hike, we were both wearing thin hiking pants and sneakers. We got soaking wet as a result. It was quite unpleasant, but thankfully it was only fifteen minutes or so back to Salento. When we arrived in town the rain hadn’t hit there yet, so we sped back to our hostel, grabbed dry clothes and ran into the bathroom building just in time. The heavy rain continued for most of the evening, but at least we were dry now, even if all our stuff wasn’t.

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Weird crop circles

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We had been planning to leave the next morning, but with the continuing rain we were not very motivated to do so. After breakfast we rallied though, and shoved all our wet stuff into dry bags, including the tent, and left La Sarrena and Salento. We were hoping to avoid the traffic that we had met on our way in, so we looped around to the north towards a town called Honda, our destination for that evening.

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Sunset at La Serrena

 There wasn’t much traffic, as it was the Sunday before a holiday, and that’s really lucky because it was so foggy at points we couldn’t see each other, let alone the car in front of us. It got quite cold, so we must have gone quite high, but we couldn’t see shit. After a few hours we started downhill and broke through out of the clouds. As we reached the valley the heat increased ten fold. Where we had been chilly moments before, now we were sweltering in the thick humid air.
The landscape turned very flat, dry and brown in this valley floor, and continued so as we approached the town of Honda. Luckily we found a delightful hotel with air conditioning. It was on a steep cobbled hillside, and parking was a concern, as was trying to stop on the middle of a steep cobbled hillside. But the hotel owners informed us of a parking lot in a preschool down the street from the church on the square. Um, ok. So we looped around to the square we had just ridden through and took the street to the left and putted down it slowly, looking for something that resembled a parking garage. After a few minutes of looking dumbly around at nothing, I noticed a man come out of his house to take his small white dog for a walk, and I asked him if he knew where a parking lot was, and that it was possibly next to a school. He seemed very confused but after a minute or two of trying to understand my terrible Spanish, he responded to me in perfect English and bid me to follow him down the street. A block further down he pointed out what was clearly a preschool. It had no signs of a parking garage, but we knocked on the big metal driveway door, and a man popped out and confirmed we had found the right place. He opened the doors and led us not just into the driveway, which had quite a few cars parked on the far side of the playground, but into a room in a building on the left, where motos were parked. He pushed some small colorful chairs out of the way and made room for our bikes in this classroom. It was quite funny, but hey, covered parking? I’m not complaining.
We had a terrible dinner on the square and a swim in the pool before retiring to our air conditioned room. We couldn’t use the hot tub because an older couple was in there and had just ordered a whole bottle of wine which they proceeded to get drunk on, knock over and break. They not only broke the bottle, but the wine glasses as well. The poor lovely proprietor spent the morning draining the glass out of the hot tub so we still couldn’t use it. Kind of tragic.
But we had to get going anyway because it’s now Monday, January 11th, last day of the Christmas/ New Year’s/ Three Kings extended holiday. So we are heading back to bloody Bogota to handle business now that the shops will be open.
It’s night and day the difference between the city before and after the 12th of January. There’s so many people just walking around everywhere. Taxis are less plentiful, traffic is terrible. Basically it’s a normal city now, instead of a post zombie-apocalypse city, like it was before.
To our extreme excitement and relief, Xtreme Motors is open! We meet our new buddy Juan, who is very nice. We get our fresh tires, and the place next door (Xtreme doesn’t have a service department) will mount them for 20,000 pesos each, on bike, which is about $6. So for a total of $24 we came back a couple of hours later to brand new tires on our bikes. Plus the tires were the same price as we pay in the states, unlike Ecuador where they are literally more than twice as expensive. So buy your tires from Xtreme Motors in Bogota!
The downside with paying six bucks to have your tires changed is that somehow the chain tension on both our bikes is way off, and when going to adjust it we realize that the axle nuts are so over torqued that they need a giant karate kick to be removed. But I think it’s still kind of worth it. Chris disagrees.
Don’t get too excited though, our package still isn’t here. As you will remember, this is the headlight that Britannia Composites sent us super last minute during Christmas and I desperately want it because I like being able to see. All of the tracking info we have, and numerous calls by Susana of Xtreme Motors, just tell us that it arrived to Bogota on December 28th. Apparently the Colombian postal system gets contracted out to a bunch of private couriers, so you only receive mail delivered to your door by a person from one of many companies. This makes tracking a package virtually impossible. Unless of course you use UPS or Fed Ex.
Lucky for us, Juan is amazing and offers to mail the package to us wherever we are whenever it arrives. This is slightly scary because we have no faith in the postal system, but he assures us that it is much quicker and easier within South America, which is believable. So we decide to leave Bogota the following day.
I’m not going to get into what prevented us from leaving for another day because it’s too annoying to discuss, but don’t try to have laundry done at Nueva Hotel Rincon de Santa Barbara, which was otherwise a nice hotel for the price. Also don’t buy beers from them as they cost six times as much as the corner store and aren’t cold.
One of our biggest complaints about Colombia is the prevalence of room temp beers in colder areas. Just because it’s not swelteringly hot outside doesn’t mean I want a warm beer. Especially because the only beer around is Colombia’s version of Budweiser: Club Colombia or Poker, and they are only potable at extremely low temperatures.
Enough of that, we are leaving! Even though we love Colombia and want to come back desperately, we have to keep moving south. And thanks to all of you loyal fans, our Booby Fund is high enough to get us to the Galapagos. So we booked flights and have to get to Quito, Ecuador in time to make them. Woo hoo! So excited! Thank you all for making it possible! More coming soon, including tons of pictures of boobies!
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