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Wild Motorbike Adventures in Colombia 🇨🇴
This is how it's done...
I have been living in Colombia on and off since January of 2005, and I'm proud to say this country has changed me in many ways.
One of the biggest changes I made in my life since moving here was to buy a motorcycle and learn how to ride it, which happened in 2012.
At first, I was just happy to be able to make some headway through Bogotá's famous traffic jams and cheaply zoom around the city, but, as time went on, I started getting more and more adventurous and venturing out further and further on Colombia's highways.
This last trip I went on was something I had been fantasizing about for years now, going all the way to Quito and back.
I decided to be mega-ambitious about it, and would go all the way to Mocoa, Putumayo on a secondary road before backtracking to Cali (where I met up with my girlfriend) and going all the way to Quito on the Panamerican Highway.
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About the Bike
I ride just about the most ghetto motorbike you can buy around here. It's a domestic product made by AKT in Medellín. It's a 2009 AK 125, to be precise.
The advantage of riding such a bike is that there are dirt-cheap parts available all over Colombia (although not in Ecuador), and every bush mechanic knows how to work on them because they are so common. Also, these bikes sip gasoline, keeping costs way down.
The big disadvantage, on the other hand, is that the bike is a stock 125cc only, which is definitely less than ideal for highway riding, especially uphill.
To partially mitigate this, I had a trusted mechanic bore the engine out to 190, which made the trip that much more viable. Even so, some of these hills were steep; I will further elaborate on this later on in the article.
Getting to Tatacoa 🇨🇴
I set out on this massive adventure from Bogotá at 4:30am on a cold misty morning, wanting to beat rush-hour traffic.
For some reason, I had set Waze to avoid all toll roads, and didn't realize it. This ended up taking me to the town of Sibaté (just south and west of Bogotá) and then sending me up in the hills above the town.
In short, I wanted adventure and I got it. The road got progressively worse and worse to the point where the locals had even put up signs warning people that the road was impassable beyond that point. I had to turn around and crawl back to Sibaté. It was now 8:30am and I had barely gone anywhere! At least I had managed to avoid traffic, I guess!
Since I had given myself the whole day just to get to Tatacoa (normally a 5-6 hour trip), I decided to still stay off the main autopista and I took the old road between Sibaté and Fusagasugá, or Fusa for short. I was rewarded with moderate curves, a still fairly decent road, and spectacular views.
After Fusa, I had to take the autopista, where I encountered the predictable traffic and construction. I finally arrived in the resort town of Melgar at around 1pm. Melgar is tierra caliente, and has a permanently hot and steamy climate. At this point, I changed into some cooler clothes, and continued on to Espinal, which is even hotter.
I planned to take a ferry to get to the desert from the Huila highway, which runs from the town of Aipé. I found the ferry easily enough, however I can't honestly recommend this route. It does save you from having to go all the way to Neiva to get to Tatacoa, but the roads leading to the ferry, and from the ferry to the town of Villavieja on the other side, are so rough it's not worth it.
The ferry cost 3000 pesos for the bike - it's 20000 pesos for a car to cross. The actual trip across the Magdalena River only takes about five minutes or so, but the ferry went back twice to pick up more vehicles, which was annoying, to say the least.
Staying in Tatacoa 🇨🇴
Once you're in Villavieja, you're at the entrance to the Tatacoa desert, one of the most spectacular and picturesque places you can go in Colombia.
For those of you who haven't heard about it, the Tatacoa desert is man-made; it used to be a semi-arid tropical forest but the Spanish cut down all the trees in the area to build the first settlements in Colombia, including, of course, what is now La Candelaria in Bogota. This eroded the soil to the point where you have the multi-colored sand that's there today.
I had been to Tatacoa three times before, but had never stayed in the desert, so I was determined to do so this time.
I grabbed a drink in Villavieja and immediately started out for the desert. As destiny would have it, my chain snapped going up a hill, and a guy from one of the local hotels pulled up minutes later and offered to tow the bike into the hotel, where they could fix it the next day (the sun was just setting). The room was 35000 pesos per night; I accepted.
I ended up having dinner at the hotel (highly recommended are the goat dishes in this region; they tell me that it's wild goat that gets hunted or trapped right in the desert, so the freshness is out of this world,) taking a much-needed shower and going to bed early, as I was exhausted.
The hotel was nice, and there is plenty of fresh water in Tatacoa, as the water tables are excellent. The whole place was solar-powered though, so they only allowed fans in the rooms to run from 8pm until 6am, and charging my phone proved to be a bit of a challenge. Reception is very hit-and-miss in Tatacoa as well.
Getting around Tatacoa 🇨🇴
The next day, I woke up late and grabbed a couple of cups of coffee while they were still finishing up working on my bike. The total cost was 50000 pesos.
I had also promised myself I was going to check out the whole area this time - this hotel was just about as far as I had ever gone into the desert. This time, I would ride the whole 42-kilometer "touristic" ring road. I'm proud to say I did it, but it was one of the biggest challenges I have ever had on the bike.
You can see the locals breezing along at around 40 km per hour on this road, but sometimes I didn't even feel comfortable doing 20!
The road is rocky, gravelly, and sometimes sandy, and it's far from flat - there are some short but steep uphills and downhills throughout.
The scenery, however, is absolutely unique in this world…
You will never see anything like it. The Tatacoa desert is full of constantly changing land features, topography and vegetation.
As you loop back and take the northern section of the ring road going west, it becomes more and more desolate. However, there are a number of weird and interesting attractions. I stopped at another restaurant in the absolute middle of nowhere, and there was this tiny museum run by a local archeologist with some really interesting fossils.
Coming back to the Villavieja area, there is a place called Piscilodo, which supposedly has natural pools and also sulfur springs. For some reason, it was already closed at 5:00pm, so I continued on to Villavieja. Another rest stop and I was off to Neiva and points south.
The rest of Huila and down to Mocoa
Tatacoa is located in the department of Huila, which is a hidden gem of Colombia. Personally I don't like the department's two cities (Neiva and Pitalito) but I love the rest of the department. Huila doesn't do cities well, but it does towns incredibly!
For this reason, I breezed through Neiva and went on to the next down on the Huila highway, Campoalegre. Campoalegre is cooler than Neiva or the desert, but it still can get hot there, so I found a room with AC and parking for the bike for 50000 pesos and chilled out for the night.
The next day, I saw that the weight of my 80L backpack had managed to completely shear both bolts on the grille supporting it. Fortunately, I found a good welder on the main strip of town, and went off to eat an amazing lunch of fresh-caught local fish while they fixed the grille.
By the time I got my bike back, it was almost 5pm. I went on to Gigante, the next town, and watched the sun set there. I grabbed an iced coffee and went on to Garzon, which I had to check out at night, then continuing on to Pitalito, where I found another hotel for 35000 pesos. Pitalito is a much more moderate climate, so I didn't bother looking for a room with AC.
I woke up the next morning, had the brakes and chains on the bike looked at, grabbed a bite to eat and set off for Mocoa, which I made late that afternoon. At this point, crossing into Putumayo, sections of the road are still unpaved, especially during the last 60 km or so, which made for some slow going. It was incredibly worth it, however, to see the vegetation change to lush jungle as I pressed on.
I got a room with AC for 60000 pesos (it's hot and very humid in Mocoa). I had originally planned to stay a couple of days here, but I was behind schedule now, so I only stayed the night and the next day. Leaving at sunset, I went back to the Pitalito area, where I got a room at a gas station hotel (a common thing in Colombia) for 30000 pesos.
Working it back to Cali 🇨🇴
I had the option of going from Mocoa to Pasto and then back to Cali, but rejected it in favor of going back to Pitalito and then San Agustín going to Popayan and Cali. The Mocoa-Pasto road is known as "the devil's trampoline" in Colombia, and has claimed thousands of lives over the years. I decided to give it a miss because of all the rain this year, combined with the fact that the road was famous for being prone to landslides.
Also, I wanted to visit San Agustín, where I had never been before. So I drove the 20 minutes or so to the town of San Agustín, which in itself is a bit of a dump and nothing special (Pro tip: if you go to that area, stay in Isnos, 10 minutes away, nicer and cheaper).
However, the draw of the area isn't really the town, but the archeological sites surrounding it. I spent a few hours wandering around the main national park and looking at all the pre-columbian statues and the like.
I cut my sojourn in the park off at 1:30pm, because I was told I would pass an unpaved road in bad condition on the way, and that the area (known as Puracé) was cold and dangerous at night. I wound up passing the unpaved part by 4:30pm or so, but the final 33km remaining to reach Popayán took me more than another hour, as it was raining pretty hard by that time, and, once again, there was construction and traffic to deal with.
I got something to eat in Popayán and took a break, preparing for the final stretch that night to Cali. I had to get to the AirBnB I had reserved that night, and then pick my girlfriend up at the Cali airport at 6:30 the following morning. Fortunately, the rain stopped and the road to Cali was much better quality.
Cali and the Feria
We mostly left the bike parked during our four-day stay in Cali, mainly because I badly needed a break from riding! We also had a real easy time getting Ubers and it was cheap, since we were staying in Miraflores, a very central location with lots of great stuff within walking distance.
Both my girlfriend and I had friends in Cali we really wanted to see, so we spent our time doing just that, and enjoying Cali's amazing restaurant scene, including a couple of trips to the excellent Alameda farmers' market. We also took in some of the feria stuff, including the classic car parade, although that was honestly a bit of a disappointment.
Cali is a city I know pretty well, and I even lived there briefly a decade ago. I have to admit that, unfortunately, the city seems to be in deep decline these days. There are crazy drug addicts all over the place, even in the nicest areas, and the roads are plagued with potholes, also no matter where you go in the city.
We left for Popayán, this time making sure to pass through most of the towns en route to get to know them. Our favorite town on this part of the trip was Santander de Quilichao, just across into the department of Cauca.
Getting into Popayán once again just around sunset, we found another hotel for 35000 pesos, and went to get dinner in the historic city center. It should be noted that we drank tap water this whole trip without any issues whatsoever, and all of these cheap hotel rooms we had were perfectly clean, every single time!
The next day, we started out bright and early for Pasto and points beyond.
Pushing on to Ecuador 🇪🇨
The highway between Popayán and Pasto was another stretch where we were warned to traverse it by day only, as it is supposedly dangerous at night. Indeed, the whole energy changed the moment we crossed from Cauca into Nariño.
We passed several towns, Rosas, El Bordo, Tapia, Mojarras and El Remolino. The latter two towns are lower in elevation and get very hot during the early afternoon hours, as we found out quickly.
By the time we got to Pasto, it was already dark out, and we were exhausted, so we found another room for the night for 30000. This room was as clean as the others but it was located in a red-light district.
We had gotten something to eat and were settling in when we heard a massive commotion on the street outside. It turns out one of the groups participating in the upcoming carnival were practicing half a block away from us, so we got treated to a sneak preview of their part of the parade.
The next day we climbed some very steep hills to get to Ipiales, where we ate lunch, ran a couple errands, and then crossed the border to Ecuador. The border crossing went smoothly, but slowly.
The way this border crossing works is that it's a porous border, assuming you are only going to the border towns for cross-border shopping etc. If you are going further in, you have to get your passport stamped on the Colombian side, then the Ecuadorian side, and, since we were bringing a vehicle in, import the vehicle with a formal declaration.
Fortunately, Colombian vehicle insurance is valid in Ecuador, and there is no cost to any of this; it's just slow and time-consuming.
Finally getting to Quito 🇪🇨
I had reserved a luxury AirBnB in Quito, so our goal was to get there ASAP. I have to admit, however, that I had miscalculated how easy it would be to reach Quito from the border, although it was still well over 300km away at this point.
I had heard that roads in Ecuador were way better than their Colombian equivalents, which is absolutely not true. Both countries have made massive improvements to their road networks over the past ten years or so. However, both countries are still very mountainous.
From Pasto on, this is where the roads start to get very steep, and this is where the small bike really got stuck on some of these long steep climbs. There were parts where it was impossible to go any faster than 25 kph, and this slowed us down a lot, which we were not expecting. Ecuador was also a lot more expensive than we thought it would be; even gasoline was more expensive than in Colombia.
We stopped for a coffee in Ibarra, which is honestly the town we should have stayed in. It has a hot spring and a lagoon built-in, and seems to be a much better tourist destination, with all of the good parts of Quito thrown in.
Quito is also quite far from the Panamerican highway; you get to a traffic circle in the town of Las Cajas and wind up on a secondary road for the last 80km. Plagued by heavy rains and more steep hills, we finally made it to Quito, having a bit of difficulty figuring out the address. We got in just in time to take a hot shower and ring in the new year together.
We were pleasantly surprised by the food in Quito, and in Ecuador in general, although we were definitely missing that Colombian coffee! Our apartment had a beautiful terrace and a rooftop with a jacuzzi and sauna, which was nice to get some of the aches and pains of the road out of us.
Quito's historic downtown is absolutely gorgeous, but it shuts down early and gets very rough, even before sunset. We couldn't get an Uber or taxi out, so we ended up taking public transportation back.
Running back to Ipiales/Las Lajas
The next morning, we did the Ecuador thing in reverse. We decided to stop in a steakhouse for lunch, and service was slow (in general service is much slower in Ecuador than in Colombia), so we lost a couple of hours just to that. We got to the border and it was already past 8:00 pm.
This time, crossing the border, after doing all the Ecuadorian paperwork for a couple hours, we were met with a massive line to cross into Colombia. We found a roadside hotel right outside of Ipiales and collapsed, absolutely worn out from the long day.
The next day, we went to the famous Sanctuary of Las Lajas, where we dined on roast cuy and enjoyed the sights of the basilica and its incredible natural surroundings. There is a museum here which I found to be so-so, but the chapel and the church sanctuary itself were gorgeous.
We wound up trying to wait out the rain which came down hard as we were leaving. This was probably a mistake, as the rain started up again with a vengeance a little while later. It was at its worst right as we hit the highest elevation of the day, just before getting into Pasto. Once again, we arrived at our destination behind schedule, rain-soaked and exhausted.
Pasto and the Black and White Carnival
Once again, we had four days in the same place, finally. We parked the motorcycle and didn't move it the whole time, as Pasto is a very walkable place and the festivities made taking a vehicle around very impractical.
Our time in Pasto was so absolutely amazing, it quickly made us forget about all the hardships of the road. This carnival is highly underrated, and is by a large margin the best carnival I have ever personally experienced in all my time on this earth!
Over the next few days, we would see amazing parades, with groups dancing, singing, playing music and shouting. There was a themed parade, and then another parade featuring the most amazing floats, along with non-stop live music in the city's two main parks, Plaza de Carnaval and Plaza de Nariño.
Every day, we got absolutely blasted with powder and spray foam until we were almost unrecognizable.
The absolute best part of carnival for me, ironically enough, was when a group of people tried to rob us by throwing powder in our faces and then trying to pick our pockets. The crowd immediately saw what was happening and put a stop to it, capturing one guy.
The police quickly came and cuffed the criminal. Everybody was super concerned about us and made sure we weren't missing anything. Needless to say, I was touched by the incredible solidarity of the people there. In general, people in Pasto are incredibly kind and honorable. It's almost like you're not on Planet Earth anymore!
The Dash back to Cali 🇨🇴
We had decided that 1) we wanted another day in Popayán, as we felt we really hadn't gotten to know the place 2) I would drop my girlfriend off in Cali the day after that at the transport terminal, as she had to get back to work quickly.
So, once again, we went all through Nariño and Cauca on the way to Popayán.
As it turns out, the bike was very low on oil due to all the steep climbing, and the engine was beginning to knock as a result. I took the bike in for emergency repairs in the town of Timbío, just 11 km from Popayán. We ate dinner, stayed the night there, went into Popayán by bus the next day, and came back to pick up the vehicle.
After the repair the bike was backfiring badly, so I had to run back to the mechanic and have them make further adjustments to fix things. Once again, we had heavy rain, which had abated by the time the bike was finally ready, although now the sun had set.
We had a fairly uneventful ride back to Cali, except for the sky opening up once again just as we were getting into town. The streets quickly filled with water, perfectly disguising the many potholes, making our ride to the transport terminal a living hell.
We got into a hotel right across from the transport terminal and, the next morning, I kissed my girlfriend goodbye and got ready for the final stretch to get back home.
Armenia, Ibague, rain and traffic
The ride to Armenia was extremely pleasant, and I had lots of time to take my time, as I had a 2:30pm lunch date there. I stopped in the town of Tuluá, as I had never done so before. I got into Armenia with plenty of time to find the address of the restaurant and meet an old friend there.
We talked and laughed until 5:30pm, and then I was off again. I went through the town of Calarcá, and grabbed a coffee there.
I have memories of driving on "La Linea" back when it was a crowded, rainy narrow road with traffic in both directions and tons of hairpin bends. Since just recently, it's now a divided highway all through the mountain pass, and they have built an impressive array of viaducts and tunnels in both directions, easily saving drivers 2 hours or more each way.
Unfortunately, past the town of Cajamarca, the main road to Ibagué was under construction, and so I was forced onto a secondary road full of tight curves and potholes. I got into Ibagué and ate dinner there, exploring the town a bit afterwards.
From there I made the fateful decision to press on to Bogotá; I was really craving my bed at that point. Unfortunately, we were visited by the worst rain yet; it was so bad I had to pull over at a ratty little roadside stand and wait almost three hours for it to subside.
This put me so far behind schedule that I wound up getting into Bogotá just in time for the Monday morning traffic jam, which easily added another hour to my time.
Some 3300 km or so later, I was finally home.