The top of South America

26 Mar


The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas Ipiales Colombia
The Sanctuary of the Virgin of Las Lajas Ipiales Colombia Some details available at

Yesterday, 24th March was another milestone for us; three milestones in one day to be exact. Although this was just a happy coincidence it was exactly 5 months to the day since we departed our home; Jim celebrated his 58th birthday; and we rode into our final destination on the continent of South America, Cartegena. Sitting on the roof terrace of our hotel, enjoying the cooling breeze of the late evening gave us the chance to reflect on our final country in South America, Colombia.

As always on this journey, we operate on a ‘one bite at a time, one page ahead’ principle and had long ago decided to just take each day as it comes. Not always easy for 2 people who like to be organised. Overplanning would just add to expectations, create unfounded concerns and the feeling of being overawed by the magnitude of the journey ahead. Our previous knowledge of Colombia was historical and media led (should that read hysterical media led)? In reality, from the moment we crossed the border we have experienced welcoming people who have been very curious about us and the bike and now even more photos of us are out there in the big wide world (fame has not gone to our heads though) and we’ve seen fantastic scenery that has changed as we headed north. Everywhere we’ve been has felt safe although it has to be said, there is a heavy police presence and there are an awful lot of police and military checkpoints out on the roads. The country is far more westernised than we expected and in contrast to Ecuador, national dress appears to be jeans and t shirts. The roads have for the most part been good although there have been occasions where a bit of a rough diversion has been made to avoid where the road has collapsed; usually accompanied by a steep drop. Video here: 1:09 P1000034And steep drops have been quite a feature again as the main road north through the country, the Pan Am, climbs and descends the steep sides of high mountains which are lush and green. We have taken our time stopping off at Ipiales, Popayan, Cali, Salento, Medellin, Planeta Rica and Cartagena.

In Popayan, we negotiated the narrow one way streets of the small and beautiful historical centre, where it is a case of ‘who dares, wins’ at the junctions and foot soldiers just have to take their chances. We did see a car clip the back of a small moto and bring it down, thankfully the poor lass seemed unharmed.

In Cali and Medellin, Jim learnt to ride Colombian city style, which consists of ‘pick a lane, any lane and if no spare lane exists, create your own’. P1000255Overtake or undertake, the choice is yours. The main danger seemed to come from the swarms of small moto’s (100 cc to 250 cc) who whizz by very close without warning and then all surround you at the lights. Usually they just want a closer look and sometimes a chat. Sometimes they want to race you away from the lights (we always win that one).


Salento is a small town with either a dirt track or one tarmac road in/out. The day we arrived the main road was blocked by a fallen tree so it was a 10k+ detour on the dirt track with the added negotiation of a road bridge having collapsed so it was deep breath and descend the steep sides and hope with enough welly we would get up the other side. Bertie was a star. Video here: 1:39 The town is in the midst of the coffee growing area and a walk to a small organic coffee farm provided a pleasant diversion together with a good cup of coffee. (Don’t ask for milk in it though, not the done thing).

Between Salento and Medellin we decided to get off onto a road we had heard was very scenic between Manizales and La Pintada. It showed as a minor road on the map so we took our chances withDSC02089 road conditions. It was a great ride with some tarmac and some ripio just to keep it interesting and with the vertigo being tested to its limits we spent the day rising up to small towns perched high in the hills, where their steep roads and one way systems were akin to riding a maze puzzle and descending steeply into the valleys. A treat, and there are always treats, came at the side of a mountain road, in a shack advertising fish for lunch. Turned out the fish came from their little fish farm in makeshift ponds 50 meters away down the hill. Delicious.

hitching a lift any which way they can

We rejoined the Pan Am for what we thought would be a blast down the last 70 km to Medellin. Not to be. The road is steep and winding and is clogged with lorries and buses where we were treated to some of the craziest overtaking in both directions we have seen in 5 months. ‘I can’t believe he just did that’ seemed to be all we could utter. Travelling at snails pace was causing Bertie to run on maximum temperature and it was with relief that we spotted a garage and just as well, as some sweet local driver decided at that point to overtake from a couple of vehicles back and running out of room thought he would sacrifice us. We celebrated temporary deliverance from the mayhem with a ‘just in time’ turn into the garage for petrol, water and an ice cream. In my head are the thoughts of ‘never again’ and ‘why am I doing this’ even as Jim is saying it’s time to get back on the bike. It was a pair of weary bikers who finally located a hostel in the large city of Medellin on the third attempt as the light faded on that particular day.

In Medellin we managed to catch up with Julia, who Jim has worked with on UK hill events. She was there working so it was great to see a familiar UK face. 20150321_124215Our favourite spot had to be the Plaza Botero (Fernando Botero is Colombia’s leading contemporary artist). In this square are exhibited 23 larger than life sculptures, which sit happily amongst, the tourists, local enebriated persons and professional ladies of a dubious nature. And there in the fountain are 3 little girls washing their dollies clothes; quite bizarre.

And finally to Cartagena and our last hostel in South America. A historic city where on our first evening in a square we were treated to a free concert in church, the opportunity to join in with a dance class (we declined and drank beer instead) and a street show by 3 circus performers who performed while dodging the police moto’s who keep an overt presence. Here we will sort out our ferry crossing to Panama. Video here: 1:50

Safely parked up in our last hotel of South America
Safely parked up in our last hotel of South America

But for now, we will enjoy a week off the bike. Five months into our adventure and 23,219 kilometers completed.




Strange trees in Medellin
Strange trees in Medellin


7 Replies to “The top of South America

  1. Welcome from Alaska.

    Just caught with your blog via the Facebook page

    I’m offering a place for you both to stay when you get to Alaska

    • Hi Bob that’s very hospitable of you indeed! We shall certainly come and see you if we get to you near Anchorage. We ‘think’ our route will lie more northerly going up to Deadhorse but of course you know what they say about route plans and thinking. Mucho Gracias for the offer 🙂

  2. I love your Track to Salento. It did make me laugh.

    It reminded me of my six month European tour in 84 when, in Yougoslavia, a rather overweight german tried to take the front wheel of the Bonny off with his big Merc as he rather foolishly pulled in too soon after overtaking us. I was not happy. However my mood soon changed when, fifteen minutes later, we arrived at a very tall but very narrow suspension bridge. Single lane with a pavement on the left hand side. Long queue of traffic. Some kind of hold up. Made my way to the front of the queue where I was rather oddly delighted to see that very same fat German gentleman had somehow managed to park his now badly damaged big Merc in the wall on the right of the bridge. Transpires that a local was walking his horse along the pavement when the horse was startled by the oncoming speeding Merc causing the horse to rear up and on to the road and the Merc to take avoiding action. The horse was unharmed. I had no idea my Yugoslav was that good! Anyway it continued because the nice old man who gave me that info also indicated to me that there was a diversion if I turned sharp right as I went back off the bridge. Apparently there was a track that would take me down and up the other side. Excellent. Fine chap. Before I left I got a nice photo of the German and his ex car. That car was going nowhere. I turned the bike and drove off the bridge. There at the end was the track the man had indicated. As you rightly say, it’s the folk you meet that ‘make’ the journey.
    Before I turned down the track I indicated to the queuing cars that I was going down this track and up the other side. This was a big mistake. Although the track was wide enough for a car when we arrived at the bottom of the valley the road abruptly stopped and there was only a very small track, just big enough for a bike to get through and up the other side! I must admit I didn’t glance back at the cars that had followed. That was going to be a very long reverse. That was the last time I told anyone to follow me!!

    At a tangent . . . . .

    Isn’t the complete lack of health and safety strangely refreshing?

    • Loved your story and somehow felt little sympathy for the Merc driver! As for health and safety, yes it is refreshing, really refreshing. In South and Central America, you are expected to stand on your own feet and just get on with it; no fat lawyers chasing locals councils for trips and slips here 🙂

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