Riding a motorcycle around the world is the ultimate learning experience. Take Colombia. Whenever Uwe and I had thought about the northwestern-most country in South America, we immediately imagined drug cartels, chaos, and danger. We could only visualize the dark side of a country whose people have lived through many years of terror. But traveling there, we came to discover another facet rarely brought to light: Colombia was the place we had most misunderstood. Its warmhearted people turned out to be the most hospitable we've ever met, and they welcomed us with open arms wherever we went.
Statistics tell us 3,000 people are kidnapped in Colombia every year. So riding a motorcycle there seems like we're asking for trouble. But Ted Simon, the icon of motorcycle travelers, dared to do it - twice - and moreover, on that second occasion he was over 70 years old. According to him, a most reliable source, Colombia is the most beautiful country on earth.
But when we were in Ecuador, we still had to weigh the pros and cons, and resolve whether we would go there or not. The simplest solution (but a rather boring alternative for the adventurous spirit) would have been to skip Colombia altogether and fly ourselves and our bikes from Quito to Panama, avoiding all the imagined, and possibly real, trouble. But a look at a topographic map promised us too many scenic apogees to pass up. South America's "spine," the Andes, divides Colombia into three different mountain ranges; and, to the north, the Caribbean coastline lures one with sandy white beaches, colonial architecture, and pirate fortresses that no postcard can do justice to.
A good thing about statistics is that the analyst can interpret them any way he chooses. In our case, it came down to this: after determining that we would always heed the locals' advice and never ever ride at night and take every possible precaution, we decided to go for it.
Hummingbirds and Coffee
After crossing the border from Ecuador, we're riding as if we expect to find a roadblock around each corner and, of course, that kind of anxiety spoils everything. If we don't want to feel that way for the next two months, but, rather, fully appreciate the beauty of the lush green mountains in the south, we have to change our attitudes. Paranoia makes no sense at all. Nor do the imaginary dialogues with armed terrorists. Taking a deep breath, we pause, look around, and begin to revel in the gift we've been given. Waterfalls drum against mossy slopes overgrown with ferns. Hummingbirds flit and hover, drawing the sweet juice of orchid blossoms down their long, dry beaks.
The terraced landscape around Pasto descends into tropical gardens where bananas and passion fruit grow. It's incredible, the difference a few feet in altitude can make. A narrow ribbon of pavement winds along the green, treeless foothills to Popayan, with a raging river at the bottom of the gorge. Strategically important places, like bridges and entrances to villages, are often barricaded with sandbags and guarded by soldiers with machine-guns. A road lined by mango trees takes us further down, to the tropics, where African music plays in the cabanas.
The way Colombians approach foreigners differs greatly from the people residing in the Andes of Bolivia, Peru, and Ecuador. They are more open-minded, candid, and cheerful. Perhaps the contrasting viewpoints are best captured in the way they regarded our KTMs. Most frequently, the Ecuadorians asked, "Cuanto cuestan?" (How much?) Colombians want to know: "Cuanto corren?" (How fast?)
The area around Manizales has a surprise in store. This is where Colombia's second-most important crop is grown. Long rows of coffee plants line the hillsides the way vines do in a vineyard. White blossoms, red, ripe beans, and unripe green beans all grow together on one plant at the same time: a biological miracle. Stopping to chew up some raw beans - they don't taste like coffee at all - we strike up a conversation with one of the pickers. We ask why all the workers are wearing long sleeves and pantyhose over their heads in the humidity and heat. Without them, he explains, thousands of sand flies will attack every exposed piece of skin. "Picking beans is for people with no education," he says. "Almost all year long, we move from farm to farm like gypsies. The work is hard, the money is little."
The aromatic scent of roasted beans floats through the air in the nearby villages. At the next gas station, the attendant asks us if we would like a tinto. We nod, si, assuming that he's talking about wine - the meaning of tinto in Argentina. Much to our surprise, we get two small plastic cups of sweet coffee.