Over the last couple of months, the Smiles & Miles website has received a bit of a facelift in preparation for an upcoming surge of stories. We’ve created a format that will allow us to continue to share our stories and lessons in a way that we hope will make them more accessible for our readers. Most notably, we’ve added separate pages for each of the countries where we’ve shared our journey and for the resources we’ve made available. There is still lots of construction going on behind the scenes and we welcome your feedback as we continue to make adjustments and additions.
Along with the new appearance, we’ve also added the final stories from our time in Bolivia:
The Colombian road builders have a great sense of adventure. I can picture the discussion, “Don’t build the road through the valley, let’s see if we can actually make it follow the ridgeline all the way. Twenty pesos says you can’t”.
I’m glad someone took the bet.
The roads are spectacular: 1000 foot drops on each side of the road, pavement twisting along the ridges, fog sweeping up the hillsides increasing the drama of the region. We follow a local semi-truck. He is pulling a full-size trailer. The road is two lanes with no shoulder. After an hour of trying, we can’t pass him. It isn’t that he is blocking the road. We can’t pass him because he is flying!
I try my best to keep up by sticking close and following his passes. “If he is going it must be safe, right?” It’s a good thing that the game only lasts an hour.
The tires are squealing,
the brakes are squealing,
the wife is squealing.
Then we reach the valley floor. A quick fuel fill up and we’re off to repeat this game several times over the course of the day. Any of the passes would see me arrested in our home country but here in Colombia it is how you get it done.
It’s another national holiday.
Sancocho, one of Colombia’s favourite dishes is on the menu for the special occasion. So we gotta try it. But what is it? Pollo. Chicken – sounds good. Order up three.
Course one arrives – chicken soup. Looks good. Tastes great. What’s next? Sausage – sort of. The next course arrives. Ummmm. Why is my lunch looking at me? It is about 6 inches high, a chicken neck with the head still attached, all the inside removed except the eyes and it is stuffed and standing up on the plate, staring me down.
It is tasty, but I have to eat all three.
Stefan and Tracey decide that it is not for them.
We stop in a village just south of Popayan to find accommodation. A kind gentleman on a motorbike offers to assist and leads us to a place south of town where we are greeted by a friendly family who shows Tracey a room that is available for the night. As she checks out the room, she can’t help noticing that it is clearly being occupied. There are personal items everywhere in the room. As she looks around, members of the family are hustling around clearing up all evidence of inhabitation. We accept the accommodation and within minutes the room is readied with fresh bedding and towels. Shortly afterward, the family piles into two taxis and are gone.
We never see them again. Thankfully there is a caretaker on site who locks up for the night and makes a lovely breakfast the next morning, but I can’t help feeling as if our arrival has left the family without a place to stay themselves and picture them bunking with unsuspecting friends in order to make room for us. Based on the hospitality we have seen so far in Colombia, this wouldn’t surprise me.
The next day we have a surprise – the best burger I have ever had. We arrive in town in the dark, in the rain, in the cold.
Our hotel room is so small the door catches on the bed. No danger of falling out of bed – there’s not enough room! We are hungry. The restaurant is closed. The desk clerk hands us a take out menu from a local restaurant. Wow, some great local dishes on the menu.
But when we order we hear
“Nope, out of that.
Nope out of that too.
We finally get down to “What do you have?”
“Hamburgers” is the reply. Well, I guess we will have burgers. The burgers arrive. They are unbelievable. Fresh chopped beef, a great bun, a slice of ham, cheese, fried onion, avocado, and tomato topped with a mysterious crunchy shred of something. In case that was not enough they put on a chicken breast too.
Chicken is like salt down here, it comes on everything. The burger is amazing, a complex collection of great flavours. I just about stay another day, just to have another one.
Our last stop in Colombia is at Santuario de Las Lajas, a strange but spectacular sight. The neo-Gothic Santuario is built on a stone bridge spanning a deep gorge. It’s also a hugely popular destination for pilgrims in need of a miracle. Pilgrims’ plaques of thanksgiving line the walls of the canyon. They have placed their faith in the Virgin Mary, whose image is believed to have emerged from an enormous vertical rock 45m above the river sometime in the mid-18th century. The church is directly against the rocky wall of the gorge where the image appeared. The church is a spectacular sight.
Eventually, we make it to Medellin, a city that no traveler would have considered passing through fifteen years ago. The city was once known as the murder and violence capital of the world. Thanks to a massive effort by the government and a tremendous amount of local pride, Medellin is now considered a safe city and a great place to visit. The streets are clean and lined with scupltures and local artwork.
Later in the day we head into El Eje Cafetero (the coffee region), home of Colombia’s number-one drink and its biggest (legal) export. The area is blessed with magnificent mountain scenery and coffee plants covering nearly every slope. In a country where we have seen many spectacular landscapes, this region provides the most beautiful mountain scenery yet. To add to the pleasure, the smell of coffee is strong in the air. I may not be a coffee fan, but there is no denying that the smell is fabulous.
Our destination for the day is Pereira, the coffee region’s largest city. A chance encounter on our second day in the city leads us to the perfect home-away-from-home. As I stand on the side of the road fielding endless questions from the locals, a beautiful pale yellow Lambretta motor scooter pulls up behind the Ural, and off hops its driver sporting a helmet emblazoned with the Union Jack. I immediately recognize that this is not a typical Colombian. I am about to meet one of the most enthusiastic two and three-wheel motoring enthusiasts we have ever encountered, British expat Alan Gardiner. Our meeting was meant to be. We learn that Alan has a farm near Pereira which commonly serves as a hostel for motorbikers passing through the area. We take Alan up on his offer of accommodation at Villa Toscana. Alan’s home, with its lovely garden and pool, proves to be the perfect place to take a few days’ break from riding. We also thoroughly enjoy Alan’s company as we share passions for music and motoring. Alan is undoubtedly a wealth of knowledge when it comes to British Northern Soul music and Lambretta scooters. He has several Lambrettas in his collection, including one to which he has added a sidecar.
On one of our afternoons, Alan and his friend Luz organize us a visit to Villa Martha, an active coffee finca (farm). As we are in the midst of the main harvest time, we have an opportunity to go into the rows of small evergreen coffee bushes, seeing the coffee berries in various stages of ripeness. Berries are traditionally selectively picked by hand and we learn how to select berries at their peak of ripeness. We pick several berries, peel them open to extract the seeds (commonly known as coffee beans) and then follow the beans through the stages of processing. First, the slimy layer of mucilage is removed from the bean, then it is washed to remove any residue. We watch some previously-picked beans finishing the roasting process and being ground and packaged. When we are offered a cup of sweet coffee at the end of our tour, I can’t refuse. Having just been involved in the entire process, I have to sample the final product.
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.