Riding south #4: Por fin (Finally)
I know the travel blog’s regularity lacks a kind of je ne sais quoi, but I blame the customs office at the port, money exchange rates, security guards, civil uprisings, weather, and long-haul trucks. I am blameless. That having been agreed, let me try to catch up.
Our welcoming dinner was supposed to be last Monday in Cartagena, but because it took those of us who hadn’t sprung our bikes from customs at the port so long to do so, we got to the restaurant two and one-half hours late. I thought it would take four hours to complete the process; it took closer to seven. But the V-Strom survived the journey intact. Even the battery was in good shape. I’d abandoned the poor thing in Seattle more than four months ago.
Tuesday I spent packing the bike a variety of ways, attaching a tank bag locking ring, and trying to get my head into riding mode. I was in the locked parking lot so long and so often that the hotel’s security guard and I became friends. As I walked out through the lot to dinner — the welcoming one having been postponed to Wednesday night — I tipped my new friend 10,000 Colombian pesos for his conscientious work. That might buy him a beer at the hotel bar.
The next morning as we were ready to do an en masse departure, my buddy the guard wouldn’t let anyone out of the lot without an exit paper from the hotel’s front desk. No one had told us about that rule. I asked my former friend for my pesos back; he’d already drunk them. Thus were we unleashed into morning rush-hour traffic in Cartagena. How is it, you ask? Imagine any large city on the hottest day of the year. Now add 150,000 scooters, mo-peds, and 50cc two-stroke engines. That’s every city in Colombia on a work-day morning or evening. It took us over one hour to reach the far outskirts of town.
It was planned as a short day, just 175 km, but what made it long was the local route. It seemed that every five kilometers a village of six or seven families would appear to slow traffic down for the ubiquitous speed bumps. Speed limits varied wildly and seemingly randomly from 30 to 70. The highest speed my SPOT tracker put down all day was 39 mph. Although I was doing my best not to stand out from two million other motorcycles on the road, I soon noticed that no one was paying the slightest attention to either speed limits or double yellow lines. When I saw a couple of scooters overtake a patrol car on a double yellow at better than 25 over the posted limit, I gave up the law-abiding life.
Even worse was the heat. It was boiling. As I came into the fried hell of Montería in mid-afternoon, the air temperature on the bike’s dash was at 41C (106F). No one trusts these gauges, but another rider reported her GPS conking out. Phones exposed to the sun in tank bags were overheating. I parked the bike outside the hotel and staggered inside. Incredibly, our reservations were at a different hotel a couple of miles away. The word quickly circulated about the confusion; only one other rider had arrived before I did – and we quickly regrouped. We would have our welcome dinner at 1900 in the (amended) hotel’s restaurant.
Oops. Hold that thought. Our two youngest riders – Spike and Paul – are in their early 50s. They room together. We call them “the boys.” They’d decided to go swimming since the day’s route took us along the sea coast for a while. Then at sundown while still a good distance from the hotel they were stopped cold in a civil uprising with the road in front of them aflame with burning tires. I’d been caught in one of those things in Mexico once. At some point order would be restored, but they and the chase van would be hours late arriving. So we postponed the welcome dinner once again. Someone suggested we combine it in Ushuaia, our final destination, with the farewell dinner.
I trundled off to my room at about 2030. A few minutes later I received a text bringing further information about the riots: Apparently private vehicular traffic in the entire city was to be suspended at 0600 the next morning. If we weren’t out of Montería by then, we’d be effectively jailed. Our plans changed to having breakfast at 0400 and leaving the hotel as a group for the road south at 0500. It never occurred to me until I was writing this sentence what such martial law was going to do to a population of 400,000 people the next morning.
We left the heat and climbed as high as 2,800m on the way to Medellín. You might never have heard of this huge city but for the cocaine king Pablo Escobar. He’s buried not far from here. I’m not sure if a visit to the grave is on the itinerary tomorrow. Today trucks trying to climb 12% grades in first gear were definitely the order of business. I passed 2,000 of them on double yellows before I quit counting. There are some kinds of riding I hate more than that, but right now I can’t think of many.
Another early start tomorrow because of recent road closures. Gotta run.