#11 — The Perfect Day in Colombia
Stuck in Medellin…
Not 3 days after successfully entering this beautiful country, someone in a small customs office in Cartagena, Colombia decided to prematurely terminate my temporary vehicle permit for my motorcycle.
I imagine the terrible act being done with a slight hesitation before an absurdly unrealisticly large stamp was slammed down with a weak “meh” and shrugged shoulders puncuating the moment.
At the time, I was riding hard every day after such a long stint without the bike. I rode about 1,000km in just a few days.
I therefore went several days without checking my email …
When I finally arrived in Medellin, established some consistency, found a cafe I liked and opened my email… I realized my error.
I had about 14 emails from DIAN (Colombian customs) stating that my vehicle permit had expired and therefore I must leave the country (or, rather, my motorcycle needs to be gone!).
Thankfully, I was able to reach out to the woman who had helped me as well as a few other overland travelers navigate the process of getting from Panama to Colombia legally.
She quickly resolved the issue with the Colombian officials holding the unrealistically large stamp but with the caveat of now holding in her hands (in Cartagena, Colombia, several days ride to the north of my finally stagnant buttocks in a cafe in Medellin) the papers I would need in order to legally have my motorcycle in Colombia…
After much confusion and misaddressed parcels and more delays, it became clear to me that I would be in Medellin for a bit longer than originally planned.
I was stuck in Medellin waiting for the papers to arrive in the mail.
An escape plan…
Having just traveled all of Central America without stopping for longer than a few days here and there… the idea of staying in one place in Medellin for potentially 1–2 weeks struck me as crazy.
So, I contrived to take advantage of Medellin’s surrounding mountains and beautiful landscapes as a means of escaping for a short rejuvenating trip while waiting for the papers for my motorcycle to arrive in Medellin.
And so it is that I found myself half-naked in my bed one night in my unusually comfortable apartment in Medellin with my laptop on my still-bruised thighs from my (mis)adventures in the mountains East of Medellin (I crashed in the mountains due to my own error of relaxing too much while still riding sketchy roads), and Google Maps open before me.
A very common sight on this journey; naked thighs, the world before me on Google Maps, bruises from various adventures healing just fast enough to make room for the next set that inevitably comes after a Google Maps session.
Yellow = primary, well-traveled, most likely paved, and trafficked.
White = anything from paved and beautiful to practically nonexistent.
Can you see the perfect route staring you right in the face?
From Medellin to Urrao via the north, the town in the far center-right side of the map, is about 5-hours; most of it on a white road winding and skedaddling its way through the mountains.
From Urrao to Medellin via the south is another 5-hour, mostly white route thereby creating a wonderful little escape route into the mountains to a small little-traveled (by gringos) town with two routes allowing the creation of a circle full of possibilities.
A good adventure is scary.
A good adventure pushes you past your established levels of comfort and teaches you something new, whether about the world around you or the chaos inside you.
Not more than 30-minutes after setting out on the bike on this little escape plan of an adventure, the typical Medellin-torrential-rain-out-of-nowhere came crashing down causing all bikers to pull over and don their various plastic apparatuses of warding off the often strong but hopefully short bursts of rain…
I thought about turning around right then and there and canceling the adventure.
I didn’t come out here to get soaked and ride wet for 5-hours.
I was already nervous about repeating my previous mountain accident in yet more mountains in Colombia where the rain often turns an otherwise fun road into an obstacle course of rider-challenging moments for hour upon hour…
I took a deep breath and told myself that if I were afraid, as I most certainly was, afraid of discomfort, long roads of unknown challenges, crashing, and throwing the bike in a bad way again, then I must be doing something right.
The rain stopped after a few cold, wet minutes and I broke out of the initial set of mountains surrounding Medellin.
One deep breath and I lifted her into 5th to start the slow, curving descent out of the mountains protecting Medellin (or maybe protecting the surrounding countryside from the people in Medellin?).
Green, green, and more green
The mountains around Medellin are incredible. The feeling of an open road curving deliciously down, up, and all around majestic mountains where every other curve offers up a jaw-dropping vista is hard to convey.
Before long, the GPS led me off the main path and onto a tiny dirt road winding up and into a new set of mountains set apart from the rest.
I was heading to Urrao!
The anxiety set in anew. I took the first 10–20km of rising mountain dirt road in almost exclusively 1st gear. I was not eager to feel the bike slip out from underneath me again.
Again, I found myself questioning why I must push myself into situations where real harm, danger, and hurt can come of both myself and my possessions.
And again, I had to remind myself that this is an exercise in pushing myself. Pushing myself out of comfort zones of complacency, pushing myself into areas that will force me to learn or continue repeating mistakes, pushing myself into a world full of unknowns for the sake of what happens when you let life teach you a thing or two about what lies just outside our often small known worlds.
It turns out this white road into the mountains alternated between typical country dirt road, some random 50-foot stretches of paved wonderous beauty, to basically 6-foot wide avenues where water, people, cows, other cars, and BUSES all needed to pass.
That’s right. Buses. Full-length, full-size buses…
The contrast between me, the tentative, first-gear-abusing adventure rider on his little KLR650, and these massive commercial buses which careen up and down these roads at absurd speeds as if the road were not barely wide enough for a chicken, a gringo on his motorcycle, and some space to breathe still makes me chuckle.
One basically needs to embrace death like Richard Gere in First Knight to enjoy the experience of a bussload of Colombians speeding by without slowing while you veer into a muddy ditch and hope to stay upright.
If anything holds true for Colombian mountain roads, it is that nothing will hold true for long.
Eventually, the roads become slightly less like semi-dry streambeds and more like regular country roads again.
I settled into the rhythm of curvy, ever-ascending dirt roads with occasional streams crossing the road and many a curious double-take by the Colombians I passed along the way.
Eventually, I broke through one mountain range and descended into another major valley where the sun reigned dominant and the vista begged me to stop and breathe it in for a moment.
Into the clouds
Rising and falling, the road continued pulling me deeper and deeper into these beautiful Colombian mountains.
Finally, the world rose to a point where the clouds were thick and undefeated by the sun, which now sat out of sight behind the thick curtain of white.
The temperature dropped to a point where I became sharply aware and shiveringly grateful for the heat coming off my hard-working single-cylinder work-horse of a motorcycle, La Gordita (not elegant, but she’ll get the job done).
This road continued, lonely and forsaken until finally emptying out into a magical valley full of well-developed tracts of farmland that seemed to defy the last hour of pure empty mountain countryside I had just come to know.
I found myself merging onto a bumpy, rocky, dusty road collecting every wagon full of farmhands and 3-up motorcyclists and bringing us all to the same vibrant destination: Urrao.
Cowboys and Colombianas
I arrived in town just before sunset.
Tired and still flexing my fingers from that last stretch of cold air and light rain (welcome to Colombia), I barely noticed the double-takes and pointed fingers of half the town square as the gringo rode into town on his fully loaded motorcycle and circled the plaza looking for his hotel.
A hotel which I did not find before I went down at least one “street” that was not a street and had me doing a 6-point turn in front of a pack of children wooping and yelling at the loud motorcycle where it should not be).
After making the 3-trips up and down the many stairs of the hotel, all of my belongings were safely placed along the wall in my room, my notebook and pen were in my now slightly less cold hands, and I had my heart set on a coffee, pastry, and quiet place to observe the life of Urrao.
One of the things that struck me as I sat there reading, sipping my coffee, and consuming two delicious, warm chocolate pastries was the sharp contrast between the men and women walking around the square.
It was not an uncommon sight to see a man straight from the campo (countryside) with his cowboy hat, plaid, sun-worn button-up, and worn leather boots walking side-by-side with his daughter (or young wife?) who could have been plucked straight out of a Discoteca in Medellin and plopped down in the mountains of Urrao.
A man of the country and a woman of the world.
Even hours-deep into the cold, tall mountains, the fingers of culture still hold firmly to the young woman standing next to her father in her beautiful hair, makeup, and out-of-place alluring outfit.
Smiles were warm, coffee was delicious, and the next morning held much of the same.
Before I knew it, I was packing the bike back up and starting the descent out of the mountains via the southern route and back to Medellin.
The perfect day…
How to describe a day that left me with a smile I haven't worn in some time.
A smile of contentedness with a day shared only with myself.
A smile of pride at having pushed thru doubt to reap the rewards of venturing into the unknowns of the world around me.
A smile of humbled awe at the beauty, both in people and places, that sits all around me every day.
The day started out wonderfully.
The police blew their whistles as I tried parking my bike illegally in front of my hotel in order to load my things onto the bike.
They blew them again as I tried moving my bike according to their shouted demands 3-feet to the left but without my helmet on my head.
They blew them one final time but I think for someone else… by then I was whistle-fatigued.
As I huffed and puffed the last load of items down to my now legally-parked motorcycle, already thinking of how to leave the town without hearing more whistles, find gasoline, and start the long day’s ride, I heard…
And, somehow, in some way unbeknownst to me, I knew that that “CHICO” was meant for me.
A young couple sat at a nearby table having just watched my ordeal with the police and my many trips back and forth to load the bike. They wanted to know what and who this whistle-receiving gringo was.
Two hours, one delicious coffee (can you tell I love the coffee here?), and one generously shared culturally rich meal called a Bandeja Paisa later and I had two new Colombian friends, a full stomach, an even more full smile, and much less time in the day to complete the 5-some-hours of riding awaiting me!
Finally, the road opened up before me, a full tank of gas sat between my legs, and that very full smile still would not leave my lips.
Mountain vistas for days
The rain came to greet me for a few brief moments.
But only the rain of a stubborn set of clouds not yet quite willing to be chased off by the calm, patient work of the sun of a day meant to be ruled by warmth and bright colors.
A rain not unlike the final fleeting kiss of a lover as their taxi is pulling up and they really must go but refuse to not have the last kiss before being swept away.
Well-paved roads with only the occasional sinkhole consuming half the road awaited me as the road wound, curved, rose, and fell to the beat of a content but excited heart inside the chest of a young triumphant man with anxiety.
Ok, enough with the poems. Here’s another photo.
This valley into which I descended slowly, without hurry, and with head on a swivel, blew my mind.
Not only were the vistas beautiful without compare, but waterfalls also began to pop up here and there without any fanfare…
As someone from the United States where absolutely any trickle of water or pile of rocks larger than 3-feet in heigth have 126 reviews on AllTrails and garner a weekend crowd of cold-brew toting Subaru adventurers (too harsh?), to see not fewer than 4 giagantic, movie-like waterfalls of well over 100-feet, which had no parking lots, no signs, no roads leading to their majestic bases in just a few hours of riding blew my mind.
I am normally not one for stopping to take photos… but this ride had me stopping every 15-minutes to snap another photo that will never do justice to the sound of hundreds of birds filling the air with their sharp but beautiful song overlooking a valley painted with orderly and often absurdly steep lines of cultivated land beneath a sky so vast both clouds and sun have ample room to bask.
As it has been said, the only thing that holds true is that nothing ever holds true when it comes to Colombian mountain roads.
Soon, the sun began to lose its battle and the clouds brought their cold, wet, kiss of rain to my still smiling face.
I followed a ridge dividing two large valleys, one hosting clear blue sky above its scattered farmland in the distance, the other obscured in clouds battling to spill up and over the ridge bringing me steadily down into the main valley which would lead me back to Medellin.
The rain was not anything serious nor seriously hindering.
Traction remained fine with only the occasional mud slides covering the road and changing the riding from smooth and controlled to slipping and sliding and duck-walking across a quick 30-foot stretch of land attempting to reclaim its mountain slopes.
Passing the occasional semi making long, slow curves around bends not meant for anything larger than a small delivery truck and riding thru tiny clusters of houses clinging to the sides of cliffs with bright letters warning of a school zone painted over the road, I rode on without hurry through the cloudy, rainy, beautiful mountains to the south of Urrao.
Soon enough, the small houses clinging to sides of cliffs turned to tentatively sprawling villages and then full-on towns as the road drew closer and closer to the main artery of highways leading straight north to Medellin.
One final breathtaking view greeted me as I exited a small, beautiful cluster of houses offering up an unusually beautiful cafe and another coffee (maybe one too many at this point) with a view and started the descent into the valley leading me back north to Medellin.
Stick to your guns
I have learned a lot on this trip from the United States to Colombia (and beyond) on my Gordita.
I have learned so much that there are some things that I have undoubtedly learned but am still yet to even become aware of! Ha…
One thing I have learned and implemented a thousand times already is to ignore that often loud and convincing voice telling me to turn around, stop now, don’t go, don’t venture out, don’t risk anything.
Stick to your guns, Jeremiah and you can continue to take one step further into an unknown that used to terrify you even in day dreams and now greets you around each bend and curve of whatever road you set that front tire down next.