The Pan American Highway through Colombia was all paved and in very good condition, but driving at night on it was unsafe, from two legged and four legged animals.
Gun guys. In Colombia gun guys are the ones with the gun who ride pillion on a motorcycle and shoot passengers in cars as the motorcycle pilot drives by, the assassins, the guy pulling the trigger.
Some countries, like Myanmar, have solved their motorcycle gun guy problem by simply outlawing motorcycles being driven in the city, like in Rangoon, the former capital. In Colombia they have taken a different approach, simply saying no male pillions. The local government officials in Bogota went a step further and require motorcyclists to purchase and wear, for around $8, a bright orange or yellow vest with their license plate number in reflective numbers on the back, and the number on the back of their motorcycle helmets. Exempted are tourists, but many foreign motorcyclists passing through Colombia decide to purchase the vests and numbers in lieu of being stopped by authorities for not having them. For less than $10 they also get a chance to meet local motorcycle people doing the same thing and have a cheap souvenir when they exit to Ecuador or Venezuela.
After my first motorcycle ride through South America, and writing the book RIDING SOUTH: MEXICO, CENTRAL AMERICA AND SOUTH AMERICA BY MOTORCYCLE, one of the most common questions readers and attendees at multi-media shows asked was what country was my favorite. Many expressed surprise when I said Colombia or Brazil. The reasons were similar: fun people, many motorcycle enthusiasts, good and bad roads, easy to travel through, safe sleeping and eating and interesting scenery. On my second ride in South America I passed on returning to Colombia due to time and money constraints, but did manage Brazil. When the third chance to roam South America by motorcycle was in the planning phase, Colombia topped the list of places I targeted as a destination.
Colombia has gotten a bad reputation for motorcycle adventuring for several reasons. The first reason put forth by some observers is the mainstream American media pushing positive US government spin to paint Colombia as bad to support the millions of US taxpayer dollars sent to Colombia. Others say stories of death, drugs, shootings and kidnappings sell books and stories.
At one of my book signings an autograph seeker told me he knew that Colombia had been where the aliens portrayed in the movie Independence Day were moved after the movie exposed them as being in Area 51 of Nevada, and why our government was trying to scare American tourists away, especially wandering motorcyclists. As his spittle was flying onto the page I was trying to sign he added, “And our government’s got Jimmy Hoffa down there too, in those jungles where the guerrillas have control.”
A nice compromise between the urban sprawl of Bogota and small country towns is Cali, a very motorcycle friendly and cosmopolitan city.
My motorcycle adventures in Colombia have all been good except for the mechanical shortcomings of my BMW. I needed a new clutch plate and spring. While there was a BMW motorcycle dealer in Bogota, they carried neither part, telling me parts would have to be ordered from Germany, a possible two-week delay. A local motorcycle collector I met in Bogota got my fried clutch plate to a brake and clutch repair shop where Japanese auto plates were fitted to my BMW clutch. After installing it and riding to the Colombian city of Cali, I realized the real culprit to my burned out clutch was not the 100,000 miles on it but a tired pressure plate. Bogota gave me the same answer as before, they could order it from Germany. Instead, I called BOB’s BMW in Jessup, Maryland, and they sent one via special courier out of Miami to Cali.
Waiting for the spring in Cali gave me a chance to meet with a large number of the local motorcycling community. I found almost every kind of motorcycle represented and an avid group of owners. I was the first American many of them had ever met riding a motorcycle through their country and they went to great extremes to introduce me to their side of the Colombian story. While my BMW was apart in a local motorcycle repair shop a BMW owner lent me his pride and joy, a BMW R100 GSPD. With it I went on rides with the local clubs, visited several motorcycle hangouts and did day loops into the surrounding area.
Several times I was warned where not to go, and once when I was riding with some locals they stopped at a drug cartel leader’s party and introduced me to the party goers. While mildly intimidating to see the high thick walls surrounding his castle and the armed guards that shadowed our tour, everyone was very friendly. I was later told the owner was high on the US wanted list, a target for kidnapping and transfer back to the USA for trial. Not once while I was with him did he say anything negative about the United States of America or Americans. He shared with me several photo albums with pictures of him at the motorcycle races at Daytona during Bike Week. I was treated to almost hero status after I identified myself in a picture he had taken of me standing next to my 1936 Indian Sport Scout in the pits. I was again reminded what a small world our motorcycling community makes.
Quite common were memorials along the road, most well attended, a reminder that driving is risky, likely more risky than getting robbed or shot.
One afternoon I needed the attentions of a barber. Instead my hosts guided me to a hair salon where I met a nice lady who spoke no English and understood little of my Spanish. We laughed through my haircut and afterwards she joked about closing her shop, leaving her husband and two children and going south with me on my motorcycle. I was greatly saddened to learn on my return visit to Cali that she had been killed during a contract killing. A male customer who was in her salon, getting his hair cut like I did, was gunned down by two hired gunmen who walked into her one chair salon. They then shot her, to leave no witnesses.
When I shared my sadness with my motorcycle friends, and their seemingly brutal Colombian culture, they reminded me that at the time Los Angeles, California was enjoying the status as being the “Killingist City” in the world. They expressed their fear of riding through Los Angeles on a motorcycle, or driving through in a car. I had to agree with their point that Colombia was likely more safe than many other countries in the world.
One wild tale to come out of Colombia was that from a fellow moto-journalist and author who was shot while riding his motorcycle in Colombia. The bullet hit his motorcycle helmet while he was riding his Triumph, the helmet deflecting it. When I am confronted with this story of danger I remind whoever is bringing it up that I too have been shot at while riding a motorcycle, not once, but several times. The first time was in downtown Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the late 1960’s. A bullet hole suddenly appeared in the windscreen on my 1969 BMW R69US, from where I never determined. More recently I heard a buzz, then a pop, while riding a Kawasaki KLR 650 off-road along the Arizona and Mexico border, on the American side. And then there was the day I found a flattened bullet wedged between my car rear bumper and the license plate below a hole in the plate. That was in Seattle, and not motorcycle related, or maybe it was because I did have some motorcycle stickers on the rear of the car. On two rides through Colombia I have not been shot at once, that I knew about.
One of America’s most famous motorcycle adventurers, Danny Liska, fell in love while riding his BMW motorcycle through Colombia. Known for their beauty and lustful dispositions, many say the women of Colombia are the loveliest in the world. Liska obviously thought so, leaving an ex-wife and a farm in Nebraska after riding through South America in the 1960s and returning to Colombia to re-marry and eventually quietly pass away there.
I still have fond memories of my last Christmas with motorcycle friends in Cali. Their Christmas dinner started after midnight mass and included a wide circle of family and friends. Music and dancing in the family living room found me being dragged into the group by a pretty single lady who spoke no English but tolerated my poor dancing skills. Later she skillfully slipped a small piece of paper to me with her name, address and telephone number on it. Not if, but when I return to Colombia, I hope the information and invitation is still good.
Colombia Motorcycle Tips
While I carried camping equipment I usually found inexpensive and safe hotels for sleeping, not wanting to be alone on the side of the road at night.
Many motorcycle travelers ride south to Panama, and then opt to fly over Colombia to Ecuador, some worried about safety and riding in Colombia. Other adventurers choose to savor the Colombia culture and motorcycling by landing in Bogota and continuing the ride south along the Pan American Highway. Some adventure travel tips are:
– From Panama to Colombia, the wisest way to get there is to fly both yourself and your motorcycle across the Darien Gap from Panama City to Bogota. There are numerous stories of good, but mostly bad, adventures using boats from Colon, Panama to Colombia. I like to think that any motorcyclist riding into Colon does so wearing a bright blinking light on his helmet that says, “I have money and am not too travel wise.”
– Plan on at least one long day to get your motorcycle cleared through Colombian customs in Bogota. Generally it takes two days of running around to get papers stamped and copied and there is much down time waiting. You can do it yourself but hiring one of the numerous touts around the air cargo and customs area to help you makes sense because you will not know where to go to get in the next line or get the next stamped piece of paper.
If you are in a motorcycle accident in Colombia you will find yourself having to prove your innocence, the legal system being based on Napoleonic Law: guilty until you prove yourself innocent.
– If the owner at your hotel tells you not to ride the road to Medellin because of guerrilla activity, and the university students you talk to in the bar tell you not to ride the road to Medellin, and the motorcyclist you meet tells you not to ride the road to Medellin, don’t ride the road to Medellin, or wherever they repeatedly tell you not to go.
– If you do ride up on a group of bad guys with guns, I recommend you make yourself as small as you can, speed up and ride around or through them. A moving target is hard to hit and the option of being made a gringo puta for them, robbed, and psychologically screwed with as an American may be far worse than being shot, if they even bother to shoot. While life is cheap in many places, most kidnappings in Colombia are done for ransom. The solo budget motorcycle traveler may or may not have the financial resources that meet their criteria.
– Consider a less expensive adventure motorcycle and dressing down. A tricked out and shinny $20,000 adventure motorcycle and $3,000 worth of riding gear makes a far louder money statement than does a road weary looking traveler on a $6,000 motorcycle.
This old BMW came into Colombia as parts over a 20 year period, many under the radar screen of customs because they were used parts or smuggled in by checked airline baggage.
– While many motorcycles are in Colombia, ranging from Harley-Davidsons to Honda Gold Wings, spare parts, tires and apt motorcycle mechanics are often hard to find. Have a good lifeline back to your parts depot in the States, making sure they are familiar with shipping parts to foreign countries. Be prepared for a healthy import tax hit if expensive parts are shipped in and go through customs.
– Before you go do some research at www.horizonsunlimited.com, the motorcycle traveler’s website. Things like import requirements and shipping options are fluid. This site is the best for what is current and who may be in Colombia to help you if needed.
– If you want to see more about my ride through Colombia, got to: http://tinyurl.com/9lzejf
(RIDING SOUTH: MEXICO, CENTRAL AMERICA AND SOUTH AMERICA BY MOTORCYCLE, ISBN # 0-935151-04-4. The book is $24.95 plus $5.00 S/H, available from the Whole Earth Motorcycle Center with a MasterCard of VISA at 1-800-532-5557, (303)733-8625 outside the USA)