Chasing Asphalt to Ecuador

Between La Plata and Popayan we found the Staleticia waterfall. We pulled over without discussing it and just stopped to appreciate it for a minute. Photo: Alex Washburn

Between La Plata and Popayan Colombia we found the Staleticia waterfall. We pulled over without discussing it and just stopped to appreciate it for a minute. Photo: Alex Washburn

After Bogota it was like Willie Nelson said “on the road again”, the miles just keep coming and we are going with them. From Bogota we were headed for Tatacoa (the desert we thought we were going to with the KLR riders), but ended up passing on through (a longer story of how we got lost and would have had to cross a river on a dingy is involved, but we wont go there) and kept on the road. It went Bogota, Espinal, La Plata, Popayan, Pasto, 500+ miles of riding to get to the border and into Ecuador.

mapcolombia

The only glitch was in looking at Google maps and not realizing that even if a road is listed as a highway it might just in fact be a dirt, rock, pothole road that stretches on for 75 miles. That was the day of riding when we went from La Plata to Popayan, at the beginning of which Alex famously said:

“I think it will be all paved today.”

The scenery of Colombia has been just amazing, but it is hard to focus on when your going ten miles an hour and getting bounced all over the place. Imagine riding on a road that is going through middle earth (J.R.R. Token’s Middle Earth), the scenery is amazing, but I don’t think those hobbits put a lot of effort into smooth roads for their wagons. The next day was an exhilarating ride through the Andes to Pasto, at some points literally riding on the side of mountains and dodging trucks trying to get to a warm bed and a hot meal (because a warm shower is a little to much to hope for).

The next morning it was up early and off to the border, with a stop on the way at Las Lajas, where there is a cathedral built into the side of a mountain over a river. I had seen pictures before we got there, however the site impresses regardless the way few sites really do compared to photos.

The Santuaria de Las Lajas is an incredible place to visit... When we arrived I couldn't help thinking 'Colombia just HAD to wow us one more time.' Photo: Alex Washburn

The Santuaria de Las Lajas is an incredible place to visit… When we arrived I couldn’t help thinking ‘Colombia just HAD to wow us one more time.’ Photo: Alex Washburn

As we pulled up to the parking lot, I saw another KLR with a trailer and the driver approached me before I even made it into a slot. The pilot is a Norwegian named Jørgen who is planning to ride to the tip of South America by the end of the year. He bought the KLR in Colombia, it had been in the country way beyond the allowed time and so he was heading to the border as well, with a plan to just drive across and then walk back and get a stamp before heading to Ecuador (the plan worked by the way).

Jørgen poses with his KLR650 and custom made trailer (less than $100) before we leave the Sanctuario de Las Lajas and go have guinea pig for lunch. Photo: Alex Washburn

Jørgen poses with his KLR650 and the trailer he had custom made (for less than $100) before we leave the Sanctuario de Las Lajas to go have guinea pig for lunch. Photo: Alex Washburn

After this is was time for lunch (cuy, which is a large guinea pig) and then off to another border crossing and our 11th country of the trip!

We made it to a little town called Otavalo, which was rumored to have a massive market on Saturdays. As we cruised into town it was apparent the rumors were true, as almost every street in the centro had stalls selling everything from bracelets and textiles, to food and spices. We high-tailed it to a hostel and then headed out to the markets to see what we could find.

The market covers most of the downtown, with the main square having many stalls that are stationary and then tons of tarps thrown up to create many nomad stalls. We spent the majority of the day watching all the gringos shopping and haggling with the vendors. While the market does cover a tremendous amount of space, most of the wears start to blur together without a tremendous amount of variety if you aren’t interested in textiles of some sort.

In the evening we met up with Jørgen who had made it to Otavalo and ended up having a meal of delicious street food: tamales, empanads, meat kebabs, and a hot strawberry drink to help fight off the chill at such a high altitude. A couple hours of good conversation with a fellow traveler before it was time to hit the sack for another riding day.

We pose on each side of the equator line at the La Mitad Del Mundo monument just outside of Quito. Photo: Alex Washburn

We pose on each side of the equator line at the La Mitad Del Mundo monument just outside of Quito. Photo: Alex Washburn

The morning came and we rode at of Otavalo, headed to the middle of the earth (literally). There is a monument just north of Quito (elevation 9,350 ft) that marks Latitude 0, the exact center of the world, where you can stand in the northern and southern hemispheres simultaneously. The monument itself isn’t really impressive, and they have tried to do a good job of adding other attractions to keep peoples interests, but I wasn’t too worried about recouping the stiff $3.00 entrance fee.

What really struck Alex and I was that we had ridden from California to the center of the world. It marked a milestone in the trip and we were happy that we had done it together (without killing each other…yet). There are still miles to go and adventures to be had, but for the rest of the day we basked in accomplishment, now officially in the southern hemisphere.

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.

Bogota

A man looks out over Bogota Colombia from the Transferico cable car that gives tourists and locals a view of the city from the top of a nearby mountain. Photo: Alex Washburn

A man looks out over Bogota Colombia from the Transferico cable car that gives tourists and locals a view of the city from the top of a nearby mountain. Photo: Alex Washburn

Riding into Bogota, the capital of Columbia, was nothing like I expected. A few days earlier we had cruised into Bucaramanga, which you enter via mountain roads that give a view of the entire city as you crest them. This is what I expected when coming into Bogota, a city of 6.73 million people, but as Alex and I entered the city the limits, the city only slowly grew up around us.

In what reminded us of LA, and to a lesser extent Sacramento, Bogota is expansive, a main city built years ago that was expanded in the following decades. LA is 503 square miles, and Bogota is 613, which should give you an idea of how far it stretches. In a normal city the streets from north to south and east to west will be labeled Calle and Carrera, think street and avenue, and wont normally go past twenty or thirty. At the beginning of where Alex and I started we were at Calle 222, and we needed to get to Calle 9.

A group of tourists checks out a display at the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in downtown Bogota. Photo: Alex Washburn

A group of tourists checks out a display at the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) in downtown Bogota. Photo: Alex Washburn

Bogota brings together quaint neighborhoods, dirty trash heaps, museums, universities, street vendors, and churches in a way few other capital cities we have visited do. In La Candelaria, where our hostel was located (side-note: Musicology Hostel is one of the best hostels we have stayed at on this trip. The staff are friendly, the vibe is chill, and you can park a motorcycle in the entrance!) is the historic old town, full of churches and museums. It has a smaller town feel, until you ascend the church on Monserrate and get a full view of the city and how far it reaches.

While there could be many associations with Bogota, the City of Museums should be one. Within a six block radius of our hostel, there were at least five museums, and probably more that I am not aware of. There is the Military Museum, the Botero Museum, but the most prominent would be the Gold museum, which show cases gold workings from all over Colombia and easily has over 6,000 pieces on display. It can get a little overwhelming by the end and there are three sold floors of exhibits to peruse, though I was told Pablo Escobar’s gold Harley Davidson would be there and was slightly disappointed when I didn’t see it.

Alex being a photojournalist wanted to go to Club Gallistico and take photos. Club Gallistico is one of the oldest cockfighting establishments in the city and she'll be doing a full post for that on her personal photoblog. Here a rooster waits to have fighting spurs attached to his feet. Photo: Alex Washburn

Alex being a photojournalist wanted to go to Club Gallistico and take photos. Club Gallistico is one of the oldest cockfighting establishments in the city and she’ll be doing a full post for that on her personal photoblog. Here a rooster waits to have fighting spurs attached to his feet. Photo: Alex Washburn

Bogota is located in a high plateau situated in the Andes mountain range, which means that it was a bit on the cold side even though it is middle of summer in South America. What helped to take the chill off was a local dish to the region, hot chocolate with cheese and bread with butter. We were a bit confused on how to eat the dish and ended up just dipping the cheese in the hot chocolate and nibbling on it only to find out later that you’re supposed to mix the cheese in and let it melt a little while you eat the bread and then drink the chocolate with the melted cheese inside of it.

As Alex mentioned in her previous post, there is a plethora of street food in Bogota, and many restaurants serving up traditional favorites such as Ajiaco (Colombian chicken soup) and tamals (think Mexican Tamales, but cooked in plantain leaves and considerably bigger with a softer form of masa). We weren’t left wanting once again for restaurants, but it is still hard to find good places among all the mediocrity, however asking locals and police officers never fails to produce results.

Bogota is so expansive you couldn’t ever explore all of it, from the historic downtown, to the more modern financial district (that has a building that at night would put Las Vegas to shame), to the outskirts with its apartments and neighborhoods. Alex and I enjoyed our time in Bogota, and thought it was the city that most surprised us thus far on the trip. Sure it is big and loud, like most capital cities, but there are treasures to be had if you put in the time to find them — and have a really great hostel to stay at!

We met up with a group of Colombian motorcyclists and went off-roading just outside of Colombia (details next post). Photo: Alex Washburn

Our last full day in Bogota we met up with a group of Colombian motorcyclists and went off-roading just outside of Bogota. Alex has a ton of bruises from the adventure (full post on the ride tomorrow). Photo: Alex Washburn