Well, Dave did it again. He tried to kill me. I’m starting to think I should take it personally. Dave organized and booked a motorcycle tour and insisted I ride my own bike, so he would be more comfortable. On normal roads, this would not be a problem, but the road to Minca was NOT a normal road. I wasn’t the only one with problems, though. Everyone in our group fell multiple times. I mean it was U.G.L.Y.!
Day one of a three day motorcycle tour was fantastic. We cruised on nicely paved roads from Santa Marta to Palomino, following the coast. However, the first day was not without its mishaps. Our tour group was stopped by the police before we even left the city limits. They wanted to check the papers on the motorcycles. They wanted to be paid to go away. Bribe not forthcoming, they next wanted to check the licenses on all the drivers…and I forgot mine! Hey, I don’t drive much anymore and I didn’t even think about grabbing my license since I wasn’t bringing my wallet. Oh crap! What now? I casually stepped away from the motorcycle and blended into part of our group by other bikes as best I could. I tried to be small. I tried to be invisible. Our awesome guide, Sam, had it all under control. “Don’t panic and don’t mention it,” he said to me. Of course, my heart was racing and I am honest to a fault. I was so afraid the words would come spewing out that I didn’t even look at the officers and certainly didn’t speak to them. While my heart was racing, Sam asked Asiá (the photographer for the day) for her license to cover the bike. Unhappy that all the paperwork was in order and all the bikes had licensed drivers matched to them, the officers proceeded to search baggage. But Sam’s business is on the up and up and we did nothing wrong. We didn’t even speed through the city. So after two or three bags were searched, Sam finally told the officers that he needed to call his lawyer. Suddenly the officers decided they’d seen enough and we were free to go, sans bribe. We were off to quite a start!
Once out of the city, traffic got lighter, but there were a lot of slow moving big trucks and road work going on. It was a little tricky getting around, but not necessarily challenging. Then it all cleared up and we followed a single good road along the coast to Palomino. Sam set us free to go. I opened it up and tested my Yamaha 150cc bike. It felt good, responsive, and fun. Then I noticed the scenery had totally changed. Lush greenery dominated with the occasional shack tienda (shop) or comida (food) hut. They may have called them restaurants, but for me to say restaurant would mislead you.
Following the coast was lovely. The ride was fun and the views amazing.
We had to stop for a group photo!
To arrive at Prima Luna Beach Hostel we turned off the main road onto a muddy dirt road. The road was bad but not too bad, but I had to learn an important riding lesson that I shared with everyone else so they wouldn’t repeat my mistake. When the mud puddle is huge, go through the middle. I tried to go around as much of it as possible and rode through on the side, too close to the side. You can’t see the ground under the muddy water, so I didn’t realize the side was a steep rise. My front tire hit the side and rode up while my back tire tried to follow, but the result was throwing me sideways. Over I went with a big splash right into the middle of the mud puddle. At least it was a soft landing. I didn’t get hurt and I really wasn’t even shaken up or discouraged. I knew what I did wrong. It was my fault entirely. I was also following too closely to Sam. He was just about to leave the mud puddle when I entered it and I hit my head on his back tire when I fell. But that’s why we wear helmets. Again, I wasn’t hurt just covered head to toe in mud. Sam lifted the bike out of the mud and the rest of the group followed a slightly different path to avoid my fall spot. The only problem was that I brought two pairs of pants and only one long sleeved shirt for three days of riding and now these were soaked!
Prima Luna was our lunch stop. I asked for some paper towels to wipe off my clothes a bit before sitting down and the friendly staff happily complied.
Sam preordered five pizzas and each one was delicious and very different in flavor. We had a couple beers each with lunch.
Most of us had Aguila Light, a light Colombian beer, but Carl had a Happy Jaguar and a Happy Toucan. I love the names of those beers! We demolished those pizzas, so Sam ordered two or three more. It was all we could eat and none of us were shy in our helpings. Biking must work up a good appetite!
Our next stop was Rancho Relaxo Hostel, about 20-30 km back the way we came, but this time I went around my spill spot. We turned off the pavement again going to Rancho Relaxo, but the road was just bumpy uneven dirt and rock. No problem. Here were our sleeping quarters for the night, but first Sam planned a tubing trip down Rio Palomino. What we didn’t expect was the hike to the start location. Usually when tubing, we pick up the tubes at the start spot then get driven back from the end. Not this time. Moto taxis picked us up at Rancho Relaxo because Sam thought the road to Hostel del Rio was too bad to ride on our own. And it was! It was scary as heck just being on the back of a bike. It was so muddy and water logged that some of our moto taxi drivers asked us to get off and walk around or through the worst of it! If those guys were struggling, there was no way I could do it! We all arrived safely, if a little more muddy. However, Hoof Rot struck again and Dave blew out his flip flops in the mud. It sucked in his foot and tried to keep his shoe. When he pulled his foot free, the shoe didn’t survive. Dave threw them away when he arrived at the hostel.
Once we were all present and accounted for, we grabbed a tube and followed our guide. And followed him…and followed him. We crossed a river with frigid water. Was this the river we were tubing? Brrr! Couldn’t we have just started on the side the hostel was on? Oh no! We kept on going. Now keep in mind, Dave was barefoot and his feet were a mess to start with from the hike to the Lost City. His big toe was losing the toenail and lifting every time something bumped it. I knew he was in pain and I offered to stay behind with him at the hostel while everyone else went tubing, but he followed the advice he always gives me: Suck it up, Buttercup! What a trooper. We hiked a long way over sand, pebbles, sharp rocks, roots, leaf cutter ants, and crossed the river again. He made it and the frigid water felt good on his toe once he was able to relax in his tube. They really made us work for it. No one was prepared for a hike like that. Dave wasn’t the only one who went barefoot. There were other people waiting for us to arrive before starting and some of them opted to leave their shoes behind, a bad decision they definitely regretted making. The coolest part of the hike was hearing the howler monkeys in the distance. There’s no mistaking their sound, even though we couldn’t see them. The picture below is borrowed of someone else making the tubing hike through the jungle, since I didn’t have my camera.
Tubing, however, was a blast! We got used to the water and Sam thought ahead to buy a cooler full of beer to keep us well stocked during the ride. The cooler carrier, Gordo, was the most popular guy on the river! The forest surrounding us was gorgeous. I spotted caracaras, black vultures, an osprey, and several other birds I didn’t recognize. I was in heaven, but didn’t have my camera to capture them. I expected to see snakes and big spiders, but didn’t see any. That’s not a complaint, since I usually end up with a spider joining me in my tube or kayak or whatever I am traversing a river in. I was afraid the tube ride would be over too soon after the long hike to the start, but before it ended the cold was seeping back in on me. My hands started turning blue and I was shivering. We arrived on the beach of Hostel del Rio and deposited our tubes. in the courtyard was a wood burning oven with a fire blazing. Our group and a couple people from the other group that tubed with us crowded around the fire to warm up.
We had made it back to Hostel del Rio just before dark. We had to leave quickly on the moto taxis back or we’d have to make that crazy ride in the dark. As it turned out, we couldn’t leave fast enough and we all had to go through that in the dark. Gordo, the beer guy, was my driver. He was really good and this time I didn’t have to get off and walk through any of it. As soon as I arrived back at Rancho Relaxo, I just walked straight into the shower and showered in my clothes. I should have done that with my clothes I wore riding the bike. Instead, I retrieved those clothes from our sleeping hut and laundered them by hand in the sink. I couldn’t get them clean or dry, of course, but I felt there was a very good chance I’d have to wear them again. The hostel served dinner, which is well worth mentioning. We enjoyed chicken skewers, quinoa salad, potatoes, and homemade bread. The meal was delicious, cooked to perfection. Sam really knows how to choose food spots!
Our sleep hut was cool. There were seven beds, two sets of bunks and three hanging beds. The hut only had half walls and a thatched roof and was otherwise open to the elements and bugs. Our beds had mosquito nets and someone on the staff considerately lowered the nets while we were out tubing. Being so open, we could hear every bug and animal in the forest. Cicadas, crickets, frogs, and ???? filled our ears as we fell asleep. Birds of all kinds woke us at first light. I love that! This was my first time sleeping in a hostel, so the part I wasn’t used to was hearing all the human sounds during the night. I slept in fits and starts and I think that is why. We may all be good friends, but it was just plain weird to sleep in the same room with so many people!
Day two started with a great oatmeal and fruit breakfast, then a ride all the way back to the roundabout just outside Santa Marta Proper where we would take the turn off for Minca.
We made a brief stop at another hostel where we could walk to the beach for a swim. Living on a boat, I get my fill of beaches so I opted to hang out at the hostel. We were warned not to make eye contact with the pit bulls. Not sure what they thought would happen, but it wasn’t this…
Somehow I became the official ball thrower. The owner and hostel workers were surprised. Time to go again, we pulled off the hostel’s dirt road onto the paved highway and…
Well… Just like we experienced when we drove a motorized rickshaw 3500 km across India, tire shops are recognized by a stack of old tires by the roadside. These shops don’t sell new tires or inner-tubes, but patch and repair them. How do I know this? Because Hoof Rot struck again. After everyone enjoyed a swim on a beach (except me as I hung out at the hostel), we headed back out onto the road and Dave immediately noticed he had a flat tire. Yes, his bad case of hoof rot spreads to the shoes of his vehicles, too. Luckily, one these tire shops was very close and we pulled in. Watching the guy at work was interesting.
When performing a job, whether it’s on a boat or on land, you work with what you’ve got and he had some great homemade tools. He had a very professional press and repair kit, but then he used pieces of wood, a cut out and flattened piece of a beer can, an ancient-looking electric iron, matches, a tree stump, and various other items most people would throw away. But we could tell that every item laying around had a purpose. I videoed part of the process, including his inventive timer.
As skilled as the repairman seemed, the fix either didn’t hold or he missed another problem. It didn’t take long before Dave had another flat on the same tire. This time we were in the middle of nowhere.
Sam pulled out his tools and repair kit and set to work. However, he thought there was a problem right at the valve stem and, therefore, not repairable. Sam traded bikes with Dave and limped to the nearest town, which wasn’t near at all, but he had to find a place he could buy a new tube. Time was ticking away as we dealt with the two flats, so it was a good thing that day two was a shorter ride than day one.
It was already 2:00 pm by the time Sam took the bike in for a new tube, so we missed our planned lunch stop and made an emergency food stop close by. No menu, only two choices of meat, but it was tasty and filled the void.
The second half of the ride on day two, however, was the road to Minca. Being in Santa Marta and Palomino previously, we had no idea that Minca was experiencing big rains in the mountains. No idea, that is, until we left the pavement. The roads above Minca are always bad: uneven, rutted, and a mix of dirt and granite. The last of the pavement was fun for me. Since we lived on a mountain in California, I was used to twisty-windy roads with tight turns. As long as you are careful and don’t go too fast, those roads are a blast to ride on a bike. But when the pavement ended, so did my fun. Again, being from California (a VERY drought-prone state), I never learned to ride in slippery mud. The mud was bad, very bad and I fell…again and again. The pictures aren’t of the bad spots since I coudn’t ride or even walk while taking pictures.
This time I lost my confidence. I felt I could not control the bike. I would tell it to go one way and it would go another. The tires felt squirrelly and once they packed with mud in a really bad spot, it stayed squirrelly until the mud came off. Unfortunately, there were a LOT of bad spots. I was frustrated, stressed out, and feeling terrible for being such a pain to our guides. Don’t think I’m being too tough on myself, I’m not. I WAS a MAJOR pain for them. I tripled the work they had to do. In my defense, I wanted to ride double with Dave for this tour, since my motorcycle skills were so rusty, especially off-roading. I told Dave every day for the preceding days that I was very nervous about it and he thought I was just psyching myself out. Defense number two: Sam said he had NEVER seen the road THIS bad. I mean, it was BAD!!!! As it turned out, everyone but Sam fell. Peter and Sally fell seven times! I give them credit for keeping on going. I did what I could, then Sam would run back and help me through the bad spots. He got a lot of exercise that day! Sam and Braden (our other guide) were great. I can’t stress that enough. These roads were hard on the bikes and they had to do so much maintenance as we went, but they kept us going.
We barely made it to Casa Elemento before dark, and I didn’t do it by motorcycle. We stopped at a Bed and Breakfast with a bar named The Green Dragon.
And the map of The Shire on the walls. Awesome geek moment! We were supposed to have lunch there, but we ended up eating at a roadside shack after Dave’s flat tires delayed us.
Sam, Braden, and I had a nerve-calming beer each. I was totally frazzled by this time. Dave and I left our bikes and helmets at The Green Dragon and hiked the rest of the way up the mountain.
It took a full hour and a half and it was all uphill, but it was still better (and quicker) than trying to ride it. The road didn’t get any better, if anything it got worse in places. It was on the last stretch that everyone else fell so much. Sally ended up hiking quite a bit of it, too.
Just after sundown, Dave and I arrived, the last ones but we were in one piece for the most part. We were achy and had sore feet (Dave’s mostly from the Lost City and the river tubing hike) and mine from forgetting to trim my toenails and a couple blisters. Cold beers awaited us, as well as very cold showers. We still had an hour and a half until dinner was served and I didn’t think I’d be able to stay up as late as 7:30 pm, not after the last couple days I’ve had. We were all beat and not very energetic, but we managed to chit chat until dinner time.
It was well worth waiting for. We had roasted chicken (or roasted stuffed bell peppers), heaps of mashed potatoes and gravy, vegetables, and homemade bread. It was like Thanksgiving dinner and the servings were huge. Fortunately, I had Dave to help me finish mine. These hostels have seriously good food. Sam told us that all the hostels across South America are like this. So, piece of advice for traveling in SA, stay at hostels! The beds are okay but not like the Hilton for sure, lockers are provided if you want to lock up your stuff (BYO lock), the grounds are beautiful, the food is delicious, and they all have something unique to offer.
Rancho Relaxo had a natural pool fed by a waterfall you could swim in.
Case Elemento had huge hammocks (more like trampolines on a sailboat) that hung out over the cliff and looked out into the distance with a breathtaking view. Amazing. This hammock view is what Casa Elemento is famous for and I know I’ve seen it in magazines before– but all the patches would make me cautious. The hostels all seemed to be owned/run by young people for young people. They are backpackers’ paradise. But don’t let that shy you away from them!
The worst thing that could happen happened. It rained, no it poured, for a good part of the night. I couldn’t imagine what the roads were going to be like. Everyone was worried. All of the passengers decided to hike down to The Green Dragon where Dave and I left our bikes.
It was a nice hike down with beautiful scenery and easier going downhill. We could see some of the damage from Hurricane Matthew and were reminded how lucky we were that Matthew took a slight jog north as he passed us in the ABCs! Colombia really got hit with wind and rain. Evidence of landslides and flash floods were all around. There were downed trees and washed out areas exposing root systems that will eventually collapse as well. Dave said the Lost City also had so many downed trees that it changed the aesthetics and views. The hike was easier going down, but now my feet were officially trashed and every step hurt.
I rode my bike as much as I could and I did do better in the mud on day three of our tour, but I still fell twice and my nerves were completely shot. Sam knew I wasn’t having fun, so he and Braden worked out motorcycle shuffling back and forth and I spent half the day riding on the back of Sam’s bike. He thought the roads would be better to Victoria where we visited a coffee plantation, but they weren’t. Ugh! Dave and Peter missed the turn off to Victoria and, unbelievably, the road was even worse that way. Peter and Sally fell and Peter burned his leg on the exhaust. Dave fell and burned his leg, too. I hopped off Sam’s bike and he chased after them. On this awful road Sam fell, too! Now the falling was complete. And I just wanted to go home, take a warm shower, and crawl into my own bed. I think Sally shared my sentiments. But first we had to look at coffee.
The Victoria Coffee Plantation was great, though, and I thought our tour guide was picture perfect to represent a Colombian coffee grower.
You can see by my pictures in the slideshow above that I was highly distracted during the coffee tour. First, I don’t drink coffee. Second, I’ve already done a coffee tour in Puerto Rico. And third, once Steve pointed out the humungous orb spider, I couldn’t stop seeing them everywhere. Sally and Peter were wise enough to pack tons of bandaids and Sally and I wrapped our sore feet again as best we could as our guide brewed coffee. Tours like these Colombian ones will keep the bandage companies in business! During the coffee tasting, Sam and Braden rode my bike down to the paved road and left it there, riding back together. Back on the pavement, we rode down the fun twisty mountain road to return to Santa Marta. Along the way, I lost sight of Braden, who was in the back acting as the sweeper. I informed Sam when we arrived. We waited for a bit, but still no Braden. Eventually, Sam and Steve rode back to look for him. They were gone a long time. Something had to be seriously wrong. Braden was an experienced rider, so I wasn’t necessarily worried about injury, but we had been so hard on the bikes and that one was having some battery issues before. Sure enough, once they finally showed back up, Braden had lost a bolt from where the wheel attaches to the axle, making the chain go loose, and ultimately come off. With three motorcycles there, Steve figured out a way to borrow a bolt from one of the other bikes to put it back on and make it rideable the rest of the way. I think Sam will be considering some new parts to take along as spares after this tour.
The rest of the ride back was enjoyable for me. I don’t mind the traffic with constantly stopping buses and crazy drivers. We drove through India, after all. Carl, however, preferred the mud over the traffic. He and Steve were having a blast in the mud. We were all glad to be back safely at the Drop Bear Hostel where we started from. We squared up our tabs and took taxis back to the marina. Warm shower! Dry clothes! Air conditioning to dry me out! And my own bed! All things that should never be underestimated. It was quite an adventure and I do think it is a great way to see a country – by motorcycle. But I think we will be more careful matching our destinations to the mode of transportation and skill set in the future. Granted this caught Sam by surprise and he had never had such bad conditions before, but he was very glad to have a group of cruisers on this tour. We go with the flow and find a way. The tour was not short on great food and cold beer. That’s for sure! Sam and Braden really took great care of us. Colombia is a beautiful country and I want to see more of it! Maybe by car? Nope, next up we take a bus to Cartagena.