One of many squares where people gather to chat and enjoy ¨refrescos.¨ The church on the mountain in the background is called Monserrate. Bogota, Colombia.
It was a little difficult leaving the bike in the hands of a bunch of strangers in Panama City. Having flown freight for years, I wondered if the whole karma factor would come back to haunt me.
It was exciting to land in Colombia. Another continent was realized. I knew little about Colombia- only rumors from the media and a few Colombian's I had met in the US. In less than 20 mintues after de-planing I was climbing into a taxi and on my way to the La Candelaria area of Bogata. It took about 30 minutes to reach my hotel. During the drive I decided I was going to like this city. I had planned to spend only 2 or 3 days here. It's been a week now. The city has an awesome vibe. There is a grittiness to the place. The politeness and warmth of the people here is disarming. In less than an hour after my arrival the place had won me over. Each day I wonder further from my hotel, ¨discovering¨ more plazas, cafes, restaurants and pubs. Last night I spent over 2 hours in a dimly lit pub studying the history of South America. There were electric lights in the bar area only- the rest of the place was illuminated only by candle light- I went through 2. Just fantastic. Today I enjoyed a soup called ajiaco- I do every day! It is a thick chicken stew made with vegetables, 3 types of potato, cream, capers, avocado and corn...delicious!
Today I toured the home of Simon Bolivar. Bolivar was a Venezuelan born patriot who liberated many countries from Spanish rule. The Spanish, French and Portuguese(other European countries were in on the fun as well) raped and plundered North, Central and South America for roughly 400 years. Their ¨activity¨ in some 15 countries in this hemisphere make the American ¨wild west¨ look like a beach party. Did you know: From the seventeenth to the nineteenth century around ten million Africans were transported to Brazil as slaves- more than ten times as many as were shipped to the US?
Palacio de Justicia. The sign reads, "Arms will make you free, but laws will give you liberty.¨
Speaking of violence...In the Palacio de Justicia above (rebuilt now) members of a rebel group known as M-19 seized control of the building to further their anti-government cause. The Colombian government decided to send in the army- and the boys didn´t hold back. In the blood-bath that ensued over 100 people were killed- including 12 supreme court justices. Many more were wounded. The good news is: M-19 turned in their weapons in 1990 and now operate only through free elections...as for the other rebel groups- not yet. Those are the groups I have to consider as I push further south.
I was a little nervous departing Bogota. Fear of the unknown is always the worst. Despite my best efforts in Bogota, I was unable to obtain a map. I had to rely on my memory and info from locals, the roads were also fairly well marked. The road descended into steamy valleys and up into the cool mountains over and over again. After several hours I entered a spectacular valley. I soon spotted a Huey gunship in the distance, then another. One of the ships passed overhead and pealed off to come back for a look. He obviously radioed the other gunships as one after another flew past me low and slow- first on my left, then on my right. I could only guess they were letting both door gunners take a look for themselves. Some of the gunners waved and I waved back. It was good to have them along, they were like guardian angels protecting me from FARC roadblocks.
After an hour or so we parted company and the valley began to narrow. Soon the road was winding its way steeply up into the mountains. The mountains above were covered in clouds and it was obvious I was going to get wet. Soon it began to rain- and I entered the clouds. The road was giving off a thick mist and the clouds soon reduced visibility to less than 50 feet. The possibility of a collision was impossible to put out of my mind. Then, out of the mist, a sign appeared marking a mountain pass. I turned on my GPS, it read 11,400 cold, rainy feet. The road began to descend steeply and I soon rode out of the bottom of the clouds. The rain began to dissipate. I had made it. I wanted a picture and pulled over to photogragh the mountains and clouds. Off to my left stood two heavily armed soldiers staring at me, one of them chewing on a piece of bread. I took a picture of the hills, careful not to point the camera in their direction. I stored the camera and stood up in the saddle to stretch. I looked around and standing some 100 feet above me was a lone man. He was wearing a green cap and green poncho and brandishing an automatic rifle and a chest full of grenades. Neither of us acknowledged each other. With the bike still running, I set out again.
Soldiers above and below me...
The soldiers near the pass must have called the soldiers further down. As I rounded one corner there were over 50 heavily armed soldiers lining the road. There, in a light rain, some of them had their weapons raised high- all of them were cheering. I would gladly pay $100 to know what they had been told! Another hour or so brought me into coffee country. I stayed at a beautiful coffee plantation near Armenia that night.
The ride from Armenia to Popayan was probably the most spectacular ride of the trip thus far. Mile after mile of coffee plants and banana plantations- the smells were delicious. I have to say, Colombia is the most beautiful country I have visited on this trip. The people are also the friendliest.
23 February, 2006. Tonight I sit in the colonial town of Popayan. Roughly 200 miles of known FARC territory separate me from the Ecuadoran border (reminds me of a certain movie!). If all goes well I will cross into Ecuador tomorrow afternoon. Fear of the unknown is always the worst...
I departed Popayan early on the 24th in an effort to reach Ecuador before 3pm. The road was in fine shape and I enjoyed another beautiful ride through towering mountainous terrain. The bridges along the way were swarming with soldiers and defended by heavy pill-boxes. FARC blew up a bridge in this area recently and the government obviously doesn´t want it to happen again. The only time I felt nervous on the ride was the last 75 miles or so- there was so little traffic on that section. I spent the night in Pasto and crossed into Equador easily the next day.