The Colombians

Our group of riders (18 in total) stands at the top of a hill in 'Tatacoita' as our new friends called it. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our group of riders stands at the top of a hill in ‘Tatacoita’ as our new friends called it. Photo: Alex Washburn

Our motorcycles tend to have a cult following in the United States and I quickly learned many months ago that KLR love stretches across borders, languages and hemispheres.

I was never afraid of what would happen to Nathaniel and I once we rode off into the sunrise from Oakley California towards I-5 and turned south. But, I did spend a lot of time worrying about how to properly prepare for the trip e-mailing people like Wes Siler (of Ride Apart), Brian Frank (fellow photojournalist and motorcycle enthusiast) and Alex Chacon (of Expedition South).

Wes, Brian and Alex were all awesome (none of them told me we were idiots!) but in my preparation obsessed craze I found several KLR owner groups on Facebook. The most lively seemed to be TEAM KLR COLOMBIA so I sent them a join request which they quickly accepted.

Nathaniel stands amongst the Colombian riders as they chat in Spanish. He can't hold a conversation in Spanish or form full sentences but he is understanding a surprising amount at this point in the trip. Photo: Alex Washburn

Nathaniel stands amongst the Colombian riders as they chat in Spanish. He can’t hold a conversation in Spanish or form full sentences but he is understanding a surprising amount at this point in the trip. Photo: Alex Washburn

TEAM KLR COLOMBIA was really helpful in answering a few questions for us along our route south and I announced on their wall when we had arrived to Bogota and asked if anyone wanted to ride with us to the Tatacoa desert last Saturday. People responded saying there was already a ride planned for Tatacoita on Sunday so Nathaniel and I quickly decided we should hang out in Bogota an extra day so that we could ride with them.

I should at this point mention that adding ‘ita’ or ‘ito’ to many spanish words miniaturizes whatever you are talking about or can be used to create a pet name. So, when the riders called the desert Tatacoita I just assumed they were speaking about it with love, it never crossed my mind they would be going to a different desert than the one we wanted to ride too…

The night before the ride we tried to go to bed early because we wanted to have our panniers packed and be ready to roll out the hostel door by 6:30am. It said on the motorcycle invite to meet at 7:30am so after getting direction clarification from the girl at our hostel we decided we should leave an hour early. Our hostel was on Calle 9 and the group was meeting at Calle 193!

With almost a two-hundred blocks to ride in a foreign capital we of course left 30 minutes late on two empty tanks of gas. Once we got on the main road heading north out of town we started driving aggressively (speeding) and were pulled over by the cops with just 10 minutes to spare. Luckily for us they weren’t interested in how fast we were going but instead wanted to give us a sobriety test. They were testing all the motorcyclists coming out of town and had already loaded one bike onto their tow truck.

Thankfully we got gas and arrived to MAKRO supermarket on Calle 193 only 5 minutes late. As we pulled up, I saw a line of bikes parked waiting and smile spread across my face so big I’m surprised it could fit under my helmet! I had been waiting months for this!

Everyone re-positioned their bikes for a photo opportunity and the organizer of the group gave directions about how they planned on keeping us together and safe during the ride. Photo: Alex Washburn

Everyone re-positioned their bikes for a photo opportunity and the organizer of the group gave directions about how they planned on keeping us together and safe during the ride. Photo: Alex Washburn

As soon as we pulled up a local named Hernando came up to us smiling and introduced himself. He was really excited when we told him how we heard about the group and that we had ridden our KLRs all the way from the US. He took a lot of photos of us while we were there and he introduced us to some of the other guys.

One thing about the group was that although it had been organized through the KLR page, it was the most diverse group of bikes I have ever seen riding together. Usually in the United States Harley guys ride with Harley guys, the BMW guys ride with other BMW guys and so on. This group had KTMs, Kawasakis, BMWs, Suzukis, Yamahas, Hondas, at least one Triumph and we were later joined by a quad. I was just so impressed that this group meets up and welcomes everyone from the GS 1200 riders to 125 cc dirt bikes. They are just guys with motorcycles that want to ride and they show equal acceptance to everyone on two wheels.

One of the small dirt bikes got a flat so this photo is of waiting on the side of the road for them to put enough air in the tire to get it to the next town.  Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the small dirt bikes got a flat so we waited for them to put enough air in the tire to get it to the next town. Photo: Alex Washburn

I keep using the word guys because I was the only female out of 19 riders.

We lined the bikes up against an orange wall for a photo opportunity, took a group photo and got directions from the ride organizer about staying safe and how they were going to keep us together. At that point we all got on our bikes, rolled up to the exit of the parking lot, waited for some people to make a few tire pressure adjustments and headed north.

We had realized at this point we were going to a DIFFERENT desert than the one we had wanted to visit, nevertheless we had waited too long to meet them to not do the ride to ‘Tatacoita’. We were only disappointed that we had all of our gear packed on the bikes. It’s easily an extra 80 lbs. and we were going to be doing off road riding with them, something Nathaniel and I hadn’t truly tackled yet.

Our KLRs are considered dual sports, which means they aren’t the best at off-roading or the best at long distance cruising, but they are good enough at both to be perfect for our trip, they are a jack of all trades. Obviously we couldn’t keep up with the the 1200cc bikes on the open highway, but the organizers were really excellent at keeping everyone together. We waited at the highway exit for the little dirt bikes to catch up and for the quad rider to join us before winding through a small town and hitting our first dirt road.

The Colombians (all great riders) were going 40 and 50 mph over the gravel and I tried my best to keep up, however riding that fast on loose material just freaks me out.

One of the smaller dirt bikes got a flat and everyone wanted to help... since that's impossible most of us stood around talking while they worked. Photo: Alex Washburn

One of the smaller dirt bikes got a flat and everyone wanted to help… since that’s impossible most of us stood around talking while they worked. Photo: Alex Washburn

Just before we exited the gravel for pavement again one of the little dirt bikes got a flat tire so the rest of us waited on the side of the road for them to pump his tire full of enough air to get to our breakfast spot where they could properly fix it. Every time we stopped people were whipping out their phones to take pictures of each other so my camera wasn’t out of place.

We got to the little breakfast place in a tiny town I do not know the name of and the Colombian posse went to work. Some people immediately began searching for bricks to use as a center stand while other people began unpacking the tools they thought might be useful to fix the tire. Through the whole ordeal people were teasing the young kid who had the flat, though it was all good-natured, like big brothers teasing a younger one taking up a new hobby.

As Nathaniel and I talked with people (at least half of them spoke English to some degree) I told myself that everything would be okay if the road stayed like it had been. I hate gravel, but it’s not hard to ride on and I was sure if I just gritted my teeth and said a prayer or two I could try and keep up more than I had been.

On the road with the Colombians. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

On the road with the Colombians. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

What. A. Joke.

As they were about half done fixing the tire on the little dirt bike someone noticed one of the other KLRs had a flat front tire. A mechanic nearby was open so Nathaniel dug the extra front tube he carries out of his pannier and gave it to Miguel so that he could replace it to get the group on the road quicker. We lost a lot of riding time hanging out waiting for the tires to be fixed (the grease we carry also came in handy), still it was a lot of fun to soak up the atmosphere and bond with people.

Once we were mounted up and moving again, they took us (VERY QUICKLY) down another gravel road and then we all pulled over as a few of the bikes and a quad scouted ahead of us up a somewhat steep hill. One bike came back and told us the route had been approved so up we went one by one to where we re-grouped at the top.

Next up for us was a decent dirt path and some nice hills that we both really enjoyed. Puttering along on those I could keep up much better than on the gravel, however the texture of the road started to get a little insane in places. There were big loose rocks in the road, but worst of all people had filled in places that get muddy in the rainy season with what looked like bricks (just big loose bricks) and sharp looking shards of roof tile.

(Keep in mind through all of this Nathaniel and I haven’t done true off roading and our panniers and top boxes are loaded with all of our gear.)

I felt fairly confidant over most of the places with brick and tile because I could weave around the worse bits, still there was this one spot about 10 ft. long in the pathway that I couldn’t see a way around. I didn’t want to ride straight over a pile of loose bricks! I panicked and killed the bike in the middle of the bricks. I was stuck with my tire wedged against one of them and I couldn’t get enough momentum to climb over it. One of the other riders helped me move some of the debris out of the way, which I was really embarrassed about. He didn’t seem frustrated and told me to just relax and it would be okay.

Here is an example of some of the material we went over during the 'easy' part of our ride with the Colombians. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Here is an example of some of the material we went over during the ‘easy’ part of our ride with the Colombians. Photo: Nathaniel Chaney

Meanwhile the group of motorcyclists was waiting up ahead out of sight and they started teasing Nathaniel about having abandoned me. One of the guys that wasn’t comfortable in english made a joke and as everyone else cracked up someone translated the joke for him in a very serious voice: Well, now that we’ve got you out here we need to have a talk…

Colombians are very aware of their country’s reputation in the United States and many of the Colombians we met were comfortable with openly talking about it or even yes- making jokes about it.

By the time we caught up to the rest of the group the scouts decided we should turn around because the path had disappeared. In my mind I was like “SWEET, now everyone gets to watch we ride down that same part again like a dork!”

One of the riders leaned over and asked me if I had fallen. I told him No – that I had just gotten a little afraid because I wasn’t used to that kind of riding. He nodded in acknowledgement and sat back up on his bike.

*Sighing* I turned my bike around and filed into the middle of the line weaving its way back down the hill. Some of the better riders on true dirt bikes went off the path completely, however some of the men rolled their bikes into a little ditch next to where I had gotten stuck and walked their bikes past it.

I was relieved to see them do that and followed their example.

We went over some more pleasant rolling hills till we came to a gate that marked the start of some sort of park. We all parked and pulled out our wallets to pay the $1,000 peso (50 cents) entry fee. As they all pulled out their phones to take more pictures of their bikes I turned to one of the group leaders and told him:

“¡Ustedes toman mas fotos de sus motos que sus novias!”

He couldn’t hear me so I repeated myself loud enough for more people to hear me and they cracked up in agreement telling me yes it was true – they do take more pictures of their bikes than their girlfriends.

It was time to get back on the bikes and then the road started to get really intense.

At the top of the BIG hill one of the group leaders called out "Okay - who has an iPhone to do a pano?!" Photo: Alex Washburn

At the top of the BIG hill one of the group leaders called out “Okay – who has an iPhone to do a pano?!” Photo: Alex Washburn

It started easy enough with a slow climb up a small hill that had some ruts in it, yet few rocks.

On one of the hills one of the guys went over so the rest of us paused while they helped him get upright again. I was ashamed to secretly admit to myself that I was both glad he was okay and glad that I wasn’t the first to fall. Nathaniel soon went over as well and I took another deep breath knowing the inevitable would soon come.

Eventually we came to a steep gravel decline that turned immediately left at the bottom becoming a gravel climb with a hairpin turn to the right half way up to the top. I got almost to the hairpin turn, however the rider in front of me had slowed down so much… I lost my momentum and over I went into the gravel. I turned my bike off and thanked the guys that helped me pick the bike up. They held it stable on the incline as I got back on and put it into first – I pulled away from them trying to gain enough speed before I reached the turn, but couldn’t quite get going enough… I fell over again not 10 feet further up the hill and the same guys helped me pick the bike back up again.

I apologized profusely, though they were the epitome of caballeros. They told me not to worry, breathe and it would be okay. Calm down they said – don’t worry!

The three of us made it up to flat grass field at the top without further incident and I announced to everyone after Nathaniel asked what happened that I had fallen DOS VECES. One of them asked me if the bike was okay and I responded in Spanish: “Oh of course, the KLRs are mules!” They seemed really surprised that I was still stoked about EVERYTHING.

And why wouldn’t I be? I wasn’t doing very well on the terrain, nevertheless I was riding around the Colombian countryside with a whole group of locals and my boyfriend. We were exactly where we wanted to be at that moment and it was glorious.

The weather was perfect and we were enjoying the freedom of it all.

At the top of our biggest hill everyone took photos and relaxed. Photo: Alex Washburn

At the top of our biggest hill everyone took photos and relaxed. Photo: Alex Washburn

It was a really friendly joking group in general. The organizer of the ride came over to me and patted me on the shoulder saying loud enough for everyone to hear his joke “It’s okay, today is your baptism!”

They laughed.

“¡Si – de acuerdo! Después de Colombia estoy preparada por todo!”

More Laughter.

After everyone took their photos at the top it was time to head back down and Nathaniel decided to follow behind me in case I needed help again. I gave the rider in front of me a lot of room as I started back down the hill of doom, but I slowed myself too quickly on the gravel.

I felt my back tire start to slide out from under me as I fell again in almost exactly the same spot I had fallen the second time I was going UP the hill. I turned my bike off and stood up quickly as Nathaniel tried to park his bike on the steep decline. He and another guy once again helped me pick the bike up and I got back on (probably cursing).

I started down the hill again and not a minute later hit a rock or something that forced my steering column violently to the left and threw me to the ground. I felt my leg get smashed between my bike and the rocks as I fell onto my elbow with most of my body weight.

I shot an iPhone photo of Nathaniel over my shoulder as we waited to move onto the next section of trail. Photo: Alex Washburn

I shot an iPhone photo of Nathaniel over my shoulder as we waited to move onto the next section of trail. Photo: Alex Washburn

The first three times I fell hadn’t hurt at all… but this one took my breath away. I yanked my leg out from under the bike and turned the ignition off as I laid my head back on the ground.

I’m not sure what I was thinking about as I indulged in a few seconds of self pity laying there like a child but I’m sure they were all adult words. It hurt – but I was mostly worried about looking like a loser in front of all our cool new friends.

I sat up and started tossing the shards of broken mirror off the path as I heard Nathaniel coming up behind me. With the boxes on it I can’t pick the bike up by myself so I had to wait till he got there anyway – that part was not self indulgent.

We caught back up to the group (they weren’t that far) and I announced as cheerily as possible that I had fallen DOS VECES again. A few guys came and looked at my bike and I showed them how I had broken my mirror. One of them took some phone photos of me as I gave him a thumbs up.

I knew that they could forgive me for slowing them down (especially since I was such an anomaly), but they wouldn’t be able to forgive a bad attitude.

We left the park (spoiler alert – I didn’t fall again) and stopped one more time at a small store a few miles away. We all grabbed cokes and cookies and had our last conversations of the day as people started to slip off into the afternoon. A lot of people came to say goodbye to us and a few hugged us as we put our helmets on to ride back to Bogota.

People exited the highway in small groups and finally one last rider honked and waved and it was just Nathaniel and I navigating our way through the streets back to the hostel all alone.

My ankle and shins are now some really awesome swollen shades of blue and I have a few inches of skin missing from my forearm, still the day we got to go off roading with the Colombians is going to be one of my favorite memories of the trip.

Perfecto.

Our group photo with the posse of Colombian Motorcyclists. Photo: Hernando Herrera R.

Hernando indulged me and took a photo of the group with my camera too. Photo: Hernando Herrera R.

2 Comments on “The Colombians

  1. What a great experience and happy your OK. When you get back I’ll have to tell you about some funny stories of your dad and I in off road situations that I know you will enjoy. Sounds like an amazing group or riders and typical of most motorcyclists, everyone sticks together and helps each other. Your expressed enjoyment makes me very happy for you both and I wish you continued a safe and adventurous journey.

    • Thanks Uncle Nicky! I had been looking forward to riding with them for a long time and it was better than I had imagined! We don’t have very many friends at home that have motorcycles but it’s going to be great to get home and ride with the ones that we do have! ❤

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