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Dr. Frazier Rides Colombia

Friday, January 9, 2009
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.
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.
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.
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.
Often I found the roads empty  as was much of the countryside around me.
Often I found the roads empty, as was much of the countryside around me.

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.
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 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.
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)
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Roy -Shipping a bike to Colombia  February 27, 2010 04:23 PM
Dr. Frazier, I'm an American married to a Colombian, and we visit family in Medellin twice a year. We live on the East Coast of the U.S. I have a Sportster I'd like to ship to Colombia, and leave it there for my use whenever we visit. So far, the shipping rates I've found have ranged from two to over three thousand dollars. Can you recommend a company that would ship it for a reasonable rate? Also, I'd like to respond to the people who have written opinions contrary to yours about the risk factors of traveling in Colombia. I hope anyone thinking of traveling down there, and not only in Colombia, will heed your warnings and also pay attention to the response by Emmanuel - Ridiculous April 8, 2009. If Mr. Thomsen, the hostel manager, ridicules the idea of the risk of violent confrontation, it's either because he has his head buried in the sand, or he doesn't want to lose the tourist business. What Emmanuel says, is very true. There is a huge Colombian immigrant population here, and the feeling I hear expressed most among them is how safe and secure they feel here. I've had many friends and family tell me what a relief is, living here, to be able to let their kids go to school, or walk to the grocery store,without fear of kidnapping or violence. Just two weeks ago, in my wife's family's town, on the outskirts of Medellin, her cousin, along with two other Colombian civil servants, were surrounded by armed men mounted on six motorcycles and a van. Her cousin was stripped and beaten nearly to death. He's still in the hospital. The other two engineers were kidnapped and taken away in the van. We still no nothing of what happened to them. Almost every month, some acquaintance of the family having some sort of dangerous encounter. Believe me Mr. Thomsen, they are neither rumors or urban legends. While it is true that the majority of Colombians are wonderful and friendly people, anyone would be very naive, if not stupid, to accept any new acquaintance at face value. If you happen to break down on the highway, and someone stops, they may or may not be stopping to help you. They may just as likely be stopping to take advantage of your unlucky situation. By all means be friendly and open to new meetings, but for safety's sake,keep your wits about you. Unfortunately, there are many poor and hungry people in Colombia, and they need to do whatever it takes to survive.
Robert H. Bruce -How was your ride through Costa Rica?  January 23, 2010 06:11 PM
How was your ride through my country? Any or one pothole damaged your wheels? What kind of bike do you recommend for a native Costarican, I am a Vespa rider in Costa Rica? My favorite is a used Ducati Multistrada 620, however, the KLX 250S is better represented here or even the Honda's, Suzuki's and Yamahas! Take care and look forward for your comments!
Mike Thomsen -What date is this?  August 30, 2009 06:17 AM
Really!? is there something wrong with the date on this article. This can´t possibly have be written in 2009!!? I´m a Dane running a hostel and a motorcycle tour and rental company in Cali. We opened August 2008. In this last year I have had some 115 foreign overland bikers pass through here - non with any problems to report that has anything to do with armed groups, bullets flying, corrupt police or being American (I think atleast 50 out of 115 motorcycle visitors have been American). So there is nothing unique about being an American riding a motorcycle in Colombia anymore. Might have been true 5 years ago. But evrything is changed here! This article seem to play around with the same scary hear say stories that the rest of the media do, eventhough Dr. Gregory Frazier try to tell us don´t listen to them, they have the same effect when repeated over and over again. I most say Colombia is the country in Latin America where I have felt the safest and where the people are the friendliest most helpful. Also motorcycling is BIG in Colombia, compared to any other Latin American country (I have visited 15 on my bikes) and you can easily get more or less any part, tire, chain, sprocket or whatever you need in the bigger cities - including Cali for pretty much any bike. I have helped service and fix, KTM's, KLR´s, DR´s, XT´s GS's and Suzuki´s are even easier to find part for as they have a plant here, same goes for Kawasaki now. Finally, I don´t think its a good advice to just ramm a group for armed people and get your self killed, rather than being kidnapped - should you ever, by any chance any where in the world, encounter such incredible bad luck. So just get your asses down here to the most motorcycle perfect country in the world and see for your self!
justin cohen -riding in colombia  August 29, 2009 06:25 AM
I disagree with the last past and dont let it keep u out of Colombia. Im an American that lives in Colombia and has a KLR I bought here. The first two months I was here I criss crosses Colombia for 2 months. NEVER had one problem. In fact people are amazed at the bike and help in EVERY way possible. From military and police on the side of the roads, when I broke down, strangers helping pick up my bike when I dumped it, to other countless angel acts. Nobody messed with my bike. Of course like any latin american country there are problems. Most is drug related and dont effect the average travelor. The other is location and your security awarenesss, u need to be aware of your surroundings at all time.....anyway Ive ridden al over central american, and have to say Colombia is amazing and when I ride I dont have a second of fear!!!!
Emmanuel -Ridiculous  April 8, 2009 09:44 PM
Having grown up in Los Angeles, California--even during the Rodney King riots, and having parents from Colombia, I can tell you that Colombia is dangerous. To say that people in Colombia were afraid to ride through Los Angeles because of the violence is absolutely ridiculous. The difference between Los Angeles and 90% of Colombia is that there is no risk of being kidnapped and held for ransom in Los Angeles--even if you walk through the toughest neighborhoods in Compton, Watts, Inglewood, etc. Colombia is dangerous. I've met a lot of naive white kids during my college years at Berkeley that went to central and south American countries without a care in the world, oblivious to the fact that there is a reason why there are so many Hondurans, Guatemalans, Salvadorans, Colombians, Nicaraguans in the U.S.--numbers that rival the populations in their home countries. It's because they're trying to get AWAY from the every day violence of their home countries.
Flavio Aristone -e-mail  February 27, 2009 05:49 AM
I've forgot to write down my e-mail: flavio@dfi.ufms.br Cheers, Flavio
Flavio Aristone -trip on bike  February 27, 2009 05:47 AM
Hello Dr. Frazier, My name is Flavio and my idea is to go to the US, buy a custom bike and ride it back to Brazil. I'm quite sure I'd do it nice in North America, meaning Mexico, as well as in South America. However, my concern is about crossing the Central America, more specifically Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. I'd guess that crossing Panama would be possible too. Do you have any special hint about that? Do you think this is a complete insane and no-doable plan? Which bike would you recommend for such a trip? Cheers, Flavio
tedder -the vest myth  February 4, 2009 02:43 PM
It's unfortunate to see the myth of the retroreflective license vests perpetuated. There are many myths for *why* the vests are required, but the two that persist are (a) it prevents drive-by shootings, and (b) it allows police to identify bodies of motorcycle wrecks. It'd be nice to know the truth- I suspect it isn't either of those.
Ambrose Santiago -Travel Adventures In Colombia  January 9, 2009 07:41 AM
Gregory, Great article! It amazes me how you could just get on your bike and travel throughout South America despite of all the travel warnings. I am envious of you wish one day I could ride a bike across Colombia. And most importantly I want to thank you for taking the time to write about your positive experiences while traveling in COlombia. Like so many other places in this world there is good and bad and Colombia is no exception. The good news is that change has come to Colombia after many years of confict and violence, yes problems continue but not at the scale they once did in the past. Your ability to ride through Colombia is one example that things are changing. I have made 8 trips to Colombia over the last to years and have explored many parts of Medellin, once the "murder capital of the world," no longer does the title apply. To learn more about Medellin, Colombia visit http://www.medellintraveler.com and discover the transformation of Colombia. Great photos!