Motorcycle in Colombia? “You must be crazy,” my friends say. “We’ve already established that,” I retort. “You’ll have to come up with a more compelling reason to keep me from going.”
“Oh … bandits, kidnappers, drug cartels, armed rebels … you’ll never be seen again,” they warn. But when pushed further, none of them have ever been to Colombia, and most have never even set foot in South America. At one time, Medellín was known as the world’s most violent city. In the late 1980s, it was caught in an urban war between gangs and the Medellín Cartel thugs led by drug lord Pablo Escobar. However, following Escobar’s death, crime began to decrease.
And so with slight trepidation—but an open mind—I set out to discover the truth about this oft-maligned country known for its coffee (and cocaine). Our tour starts and finishes in Medellín, which is called the “City of Eternal Spring” thanks to its mild temperatures and an altitude of about 5,000 feet. I take a short three-hour flight from Miami, and tour organizer Mike Thomsen meets several of us motorcyclists at the airport. He takes us to town where we settle into the plush four-star Hotel Diez for the night.
Piedra del Peñol
Once our bikes and the chase truck are loaded, we leave for our first day of riding into the mountains with a steady climb out of Medellín that allows us stunning views of the vast city. Spread over the Aburrá Valley and mountain sides formed by the Andes, it has a host of skyscrapers and red tile roofs as far as the eye can see. Heavily laden trucks and buses crawl up the steep grades, and our group has to scramble to pass wherever possible.
We skirt around a few landslides due to heavy rain and climb a very curvy mountain road to Guatape in the Lake District. Soon we reach Piedra del Peñol, a huge 700-foot tall granite dome which juts incongruously out of the landscape. The riders who choose to do so can climb up the 697 sketchy steps that cling precariously to the rock for a commanding 360-degree panorama from the viewing areas and café at the top. At its highest point, it has an elevation of 7,005 feet above sea level, and I was huffing and puffing during the climb. After a refreshing cold drink, those of us on the tour clamber down and have lunch.
After traveling over the middle Andes mountain range to the lovely Magdalena Valley, we stay at Campo Verde in Doradal. Besides the motel, there’s an open-air restaurant and bar accompanied by a refreshing swimming pool. After check-in, we’re back on the motorcycles and cruising a few miles to the former ranch of the infamous and brutal gangster Pablo Escobar, which ironically is now an amusement park, museum, and exotic zoo called Hacienda Napoles. This is the highlight of the day—checking out the huge site, which includes the partially destroyed remains of his mansion.
Nuestra Señora de la Villa Santa María de Leyva … whew!
This morning, our group saddles up and heads for Puerto Araújo in the oil country to refuel. Here the land is flatter and the roads are straighter, but ascending the eastern mountain range to Barbosa, we get plenty of curves. The road, which is mostly in the forest, is under construction and contains rough dirt and slippery mud much of the way. Near the summit at a military checkpoint, the young soldiers joke and pose with us.
A late afternoon arrival at our day’s final destination, the quaint colonial town of Villa de Leyva, affords us a picturesque sunset from the vast Plaza Mayor. Dominated by a large church, Plaza Mayor has cafés and quaint shops with vendors selling handicrafts. It is said to be the largest square in South America. The historic town was founded in 1572 by Hernán Suárez de Villalobos and named Nuestra Señora de la Villa Santa María de Leyva. Quite a mouthful. The well-preserved old town became a national monument in 1954. The streets are still cobblestone and the stucco walls remain whitewashed. Our hotel, Santa Maria de Leyva, is a small establishment several blocks from the main square. We enjoy dinner nearby, and afterwards an inexpensive massage back at the hotel loosens up my muscles after the long ride here.