We have been wanting to ride motorcycles in South America for many years now. Finally the time has come! Colombia will be the first country to visit.
A number of fellow motorcyclists that have ridden in South America reported a fantastic experience in Colombia. In fact, the majority cited it as their favorite place to ride in South America due to the natural beauty, friendliness of the people, culture, and food. Apparently they have a very strong motorcycle culture as well with clubs and groups welcoming foreign visitors.
In a country with about 50 million people, there are 9 million registered motorcycles. About 1 in 5 people has a bike!
So, why are we going on an extended visit to Colombia now during the COVID pandemic?
Well, fundamentally two reasons; first, because as of Jan 2021, we are no longer working daily and life is just too short to wait anymore, and second, relative to COVID, it is safer in Colombia. Actually, it is safer nearly everywhere outside the USA.
Some information to provide an example.
All during the COVID experience, I've been using death rates as my primary comparative measure rather than case rates. COVID positive rates are driven by testing (availability and willingness to get tested). Deaths are relatively binary. Clearly death rates are also driven by the availability of quality medical care so there is variability driven by that as well.
Even with what some would argue is poorer qualify of care, fewer people as a percent of population are dying of COVID in both Mexico and Colombia than in the USA.
As of 9 Jan 2021:
Colombia has a lower COVID death rate than the USA. So, with that subject out of the way, on with the fun stuff—the motorcycle tour!
The good folks at Motolombia will be hosting us for 3 days in Cali, 12 days on the road, and 3 days in Cartagena. They are also providing the bike.
This tour will start in Cali then travel to Cartagena via 1,240 road miles over 12 days. We will be using a rental BMW F750GS motorcycle outfitted with luggage systems.
More updates as we have connectivity and time. All the pictures on our return in February.
1 population data from Worldometer and Macotrends websites.
2 deaths are cumulative thus the total over time from COVID-19 as provided by The Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.
We flew into Cali, a city in southern Colombia where Motolombia has their headquarters, on Thursday 14 Jan, for a few day stay. Our plan was to tour the city as we adjust to the weather and time changes before starting the moto tour. Cali is about 200 miles north of the equator. Quite tropical. January might be a bit cooler, but more importantly, it's the dry season.
It's been comfortably warm and humid, which is harsh on us dry-air westerners. The city is interesting to walk around. There's a river through the middle with a park on each side. Many pedestrian only bridges enable crossing the river as you walk along the banks.
We've seen COVID testing stations setup around the downtown. Each has long lines. The central mall requires hand sanitizer and use of an outdoor hand wash station before entry--enforced by a pleasant but armed guard. Everyone always wears masks everywhere—even while walking along the sidewalk. Distancing and masks are universal.
Unfortunately, this weekend the city is in partial "lock down" to control COVID spread. Museums that we'd like to visit are not open and restaurants are open only for takeaway.
Our hotel is quite nice with a number of outside lounge spaces, a restaurant, and a comfortable air-conditioned room, so we are not suffering.
Monday, 18 Jan is "pickup the moto" day. Then, we'll pack our stuff on-board ready to start the ride first thing Tuesday morning. More after we ride.
I will mostly leave it to our pictures to tell the story of the trip. I've added titles and notes to many. It's better to see than to read—at least with my poor writing skills. Some comments below about a few notable points along the way.
Salento was possibly the most memorable overnight. This is a small (7,247 population) mountainous town at 6,217 feet (1,895 meters) in the coffee region. It clearly is becoming more touristy but still has much charm. We toured a coffee plantation near the town before leaving. We enjoyed wandering the shops along the many narrow streets in the pleasant evening. The high altitude keeps the climate pleasant even with the high humidity.
We visited four big cities—Cali, Bogotá (the capital city), Medellín, and Cartagena. They are distinctly different. Bogotá and Medellín are at higher elevations and Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast. The style, people and weather in each is different and worth a visit.
Riding in the country is fantastic. It is a motorcycle country. Both because so many citizens use motorcycles every day and due to the perfect motorcycle terrain. With three mountain ranges (all part of the Andies) as you travel through the country there are regular changes in elevation requiring many twisty mountain roads. Ideal riding!
A few general thoughts about the trip.
Guided versus do-it-yourself. In the past, I've always chosen to travel without a guide—motorcycle or otherwise. But, in this case, I think we made the right choice to go with a tour company. First, this would have been a difficult country to find all the best routes and places on your own in the limited time we had available. Second, the guides were able to add significant background to each area and social situation, which increased our understanding and enjoyment. Third, they were able to detect and smoothly deal with a few issues on the trip. A prime example was that COVID was causing lock-downs in various places and they adjusted the route to be sure we did not get trapped in these areas. Also the travel rules changed while we were in Colombia requiring a negative COVID test prior to re-entering the USA, which they were able to arrange right at our hotel.
Driving/riding. I can't say it enough, Colombia is a fantastic motorcycle country. They have great roads for motos. So many turns! In Colombia there are official driving rules that are very recognizable to US drivers. But, after a day, you learn the common motorcycle riding practice, which violates many of the driving rules. The riders are practical. Given the mountains, twists, and nearly all two lane roads, truck traffic is a challenge. Motorcycles just pass them in all places ignoring road double yellow striping and "no pass" signage.
Language. The limited Spanish vocabulary I had was much increased by two weeks of hearing and speaking. Relatively few folks speak English but we were always able to communicate. Of course, for the important or complex stuff, our guides handled it in fluent Spanish. I really appreciate growing my still limited Spanish ability. A long way to go to fluent. Back to Mexico to work on it so more!
Motolombia. What can I say but they were great in every possible way. Efficient, competent, friendly, knowledgeable. They dealt with route and hotel changes in the background to get us around COVID lock-downs and were always quick to respond to our wishes and comments. No question, I would go with them again on any tour that would be best with a guide.
BMW 750. Motolombia provided me with a BMW F750GS including Pelican case panniers, metal top box, and waterproof tank bag. More than enough luggage space for us both. The bike was big enough for crisp two-up riding. Particularly during the first three days of mostly mountains, I used fourth (or greater) gears maybe three times. A bigger bike would be just more weight to drag around. I could have easily used a smaller bike. The BMW has weak low end torque so I used lower gears and high revs frequently. Definitely a workable bike for this trip but I would not choose to own one. There are better choices including my Triumph Tiger 800XC.
In total, we covered 1,362 miles (2,192 kilometers) and reached a highest point of 11,948 feet (3,642 meters) as recorded by my gps. The total distance was much less than I have covered in previous two week rides (usually closer to 3,000 miles). That is a testament to Colombia's tight twisty roads. Very fun but not conducive to covering large distances per day when you are averaging 20-30 mph.