So here we are in Colombia, once considered the most dangerous country in the world. Although the country has implemented security improvements that are allowing it to slowly emerge from the extreme violence of past decades, my guard is up. Although conditions have improved dramatically, Colombia can still be an unpredictable place, with flare-ups between guerilla and paramilitary factions. But the locals certainly don’t appear to be living in a state of fear. Most of the population has never before experienced such an era of peace. Homicide rates in many Colombian cities where they were once among the highest in the world are now similar to some U.S. cities.
I’ve been reading that the poorest Colombians can barely afford the necessities of life, but here in Cartagena, we are seeing a contradiction to this. Though I suspect that this is the case in some of the country’s smaller pueblos where there is a lack of jobs, in the area of Cartagena where we are staying, citizens seem to be enjoying a life style of modern amenities, luxury homes, shiny cars, and posh restaurants.
Cartagena is said to have the most impressive old town in the Western Hemisphere so we spend the better part of a day walking through this area, surrounded by 13km of impressive centuries-old colonial stone walls built to protect the city against enemies. I feel like we are stepping back in time as we are surrounded by colonial-era mansions and churches that are almost perfectly preserved. Under our feet are streets of cobblestones and above us are tile roofs and rows of ornate balconies dripping with flowers.
One morning, in search of a road map of the country (something that we had been lacking thus far on our trip), we head off with fellow motorbike travelers, Sarah and Malcolm from Australia, for a walk to the shopping mall. Along the way, we see Convento de la Popa, sitting on Cartegena’s highest point and we also pass Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the castle built by the Spanish during the colonial era which once dominated approaches to the city by both land and sea. We are pleased that we had some decent sightseeing on our walk because our search for a roadmap has proven fruitless. Once again, we will be exploring with no map.
On our last evening in the city, our guest house is visited non-stop, both by Halloween trick-or-treaters and by many of our companions from the Stahlratte stopping by to wish us a continuing safe journey. It was tough to say goodbye to everyone, not knowing if our paths would cross again. Fortunately, we didn’t need to bid farewell to Stefan from Germany who will be riding with us for the next leg of our journey.
Stefan, Miles and I head off from Cartagena, but not without some challenges. It is All Saints’ Day, and the streets are lined with children and ladies singing, making music with pots and pans, and collecting food for the traditional feast. Driving through the outer town, we see a very different city from what we had experienced in the historic district. We were suddenly thrown into heavy traffic and chaos.
As we head south out of the city, it becomes even more obvious why traffic accidents are so common in Colombia. Drivers are both aggressive and careless behind the wheel. They aren’t following street signs or road markings, are passing each other left and right (literally), are towing cyclists who cling to their back bumpers, and are providing rides to pedestrians who jump onto their back bumpers and then hold on for their lives. On the winding rural roads and high mountain passes, we witness many near-accidents and it feels like my heart is stopping with each one.
Near the end of our first day of driving we see heavy black smoke rising from the road ahead. I imagine that my fears of a horrific motor accident have become reality. As we get closer, we see close to a thousand protestors who have built a blockade across the road and set it on fire. Although we never do understand what they were protesting, they certainly aren’t messing around. In the end, it proves to be a positive experience as it forces us to do some off-road driving and takes us to a fabulous little village where the locals jump to their feet and cheer on our daring efforts to get around the blockade.
On the sides of the road, we begin to see men who remind me of Juan Valdez. I now feel that I have finally arrived in Colombia. Admittedly, I am a victim of marketing when it comes to Juan. He’s merely a fictional character used in advertisements to represent the Colombian coffee farmer, but he’s been in the media since before I was born and in my mind he is an icon of Colombia. I couldn’t help thinking of Juan each time I spotted a farmer meandering down the road on his mule laden with heavy burlap sacks.
The next morning finds us once again driving into the clouds with lovely views of the valleys through filtered sunshine. Unfortunately we are also facing a flat tire at the highest, coldest part of the road. We pull off the road next to a house where a young boy is sitting on the veranda. He quietly watches our entire tire-change process without uttering a word. As we pack up and prepare to leave, he is joined by some friends and now suddenly has the bravery to come and speak to us and take some photos. We are so glad that he did.