An overlander's account of South and Central America by motorbike - the trusty Suzuki DR650. Within are great travel tips and hints (2011).

Friday, July 29, 2011

Coastal Colombia - Medellin to Cartagena (10-14 May 2011)

10 May 2011 (424 km) – Cartagena (Hostel Familiar)
After a big, late push the day before, Calvin and I only had to ride 400 clicks up to Cartagena through gentle hills covered in lush green pasture, beefy tasty cattle and large rivers and roadside swamps. We awoke and asked to check out the farmers dairy milking area, as Calvin has a dairy farm back in the States. It was fantastic! One cow produces 11L milk per day and they milk them once per day. The bloke ties a stool to his ass and jumps from one cow to the next, hand-coaxing their teats into squirting out the precious milk. It was great to watch for a while. We said cheers and eventually got on the road to ride north to Cartagena.

A couple hundred k’s down the road I grabbed some mangoes and a bit further, some sour milk curd stuff (can’t remember the name) that wasn’t very palatable on its own! Finally, we arrived in the hot, coastal city of Cartagena in Colombia’s north!! Semaforos (stoplight) celebrations were had when we finally hit the city – the end of the trip for Calvin, where he was to sell his motorbike and return home; and for me, a stepping stone and safety net that I’d reached the boat in time! After some trouble with one way streets and missing turns we finally found Casa Vienna where I wanted to check out the boat schedules (already had one one in mind though) and asked about accommodation for bikes. The next block down on the same street was a nice place called Hostel Familiar with beds and indoor parking for about $10 bucks a night. We settled in and showered, had a wander and then I met up with Roly, the Captain of Fritz the Cat ( and met some of the last southbound travellers from Panama (I was heading north to Panama). Calvin and I later joined the old group at dinner with Rolly and Elke (the owner of Gato Negro in Cartagena) and shared some yarns. Great tales were told and we planned to meet up with several of the other bikers at dinner another night to share more crucial travel details!

The stool attached to the ass and the dairy milking where we camped one stormy Colombian evening.

 Celebrations!  Finally reaching Cartagena...and the lovely smeltering city traffic!

 Cartagena's old town's defensive walls and new city

 Nice buildings here!



11 May 2011 (274 km) – Minca (Camp)
Fritz the Cat was to cost $876 USD for the bike and I to cross the Darien Gap, spending 5 days on the ocean and 3 of those in the San Blas Islands. I paid Roly $700 USD this morning and was to get more from the bank later (there is a reason I’m mentioning this fine detail). Calvin managed to finally sell his 2005 KLR650 for $2800 USD and finally had some more money to go and relax in style at Playa Blanca. I decided to take my last couple of days up to the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta to the East. On the way I passed beautiful beaches and small villages, as well as one bloke pointing a toy (?) gun at me gangster-style as I rode by. This wasn’t the first time I’d see this either...

After picking up some grub to make sangas, and a bloke trying to call me over to his truck, I rode slowly up the landslide swept hills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I was going to camp a long way up bit due to the monsoonal afternoon rains and numerous landslides I decided to head back down a bit lower and find camp. And find camp I did! There was a beautiful place just above Minca (apparently its in the lonely planet) with hammocks, a pool, a great view and numerous mangoes trees bombarding your every move and scaring the sweat out of you at night when they thunder down on the tin roof above your hammock. Great place though with free mangoes all day long and a great guy that runs it...all for $5 a night! A nice escape from the coastal heat of Cartagena and a beautiful ride at that! A beer and an Egyptian board game were a perfect end to the day.

The road heading up the mountains got slipperier and more mudslide like...

 A sensational hammock bed with built-in 'Chipmunk & Mango Alarm Clock 2.0'

 Colombia has a safe driving campaign due to the high number of stars painted on the roads for deaths.  This says "No more stars on the road"

12 May 2011 (251 km) – Cartagena (Hostel Familiar)
My alarm clock started going off at about 0630h as the sun rose. I rolled around in my hammock wondering why it wouldn’t just go to the sleep function. But the squirrels were hungry, and they needed fresh mangoes NOW! The ones they didn’t approve of were thrown to the roof above the travellers head. Friendly buggers. I wonder what they taste like? I’ll get to try them in the States I reckon. On the way back I passed the bloke that bought Calvin’s bike and gave him his first biker to biker wave. Off he goes...good luck buddy! I stopped in at the infamous mud volcano on the way back to Cartagena. Just park your bike in the shade, strip down to ya jocks and a guy will take your camera and take photos for you for a few bucks while you’re in there (trust me you don’t wanna touch your own camera, even if it is waterproof!).

You climb up the stairs to the mud bath at the top of the 30m lakeside volcano, jump and float around in the soothing soft mud, and watch the tourists losing their dacks as they climb the stairs out to catch the bus back. And then bikers...its all yours! After a quick play/swim/float I slithered down the slippery stairs to the lake for a wash off. Here a lady yells to me “come here” and points to the ground, I say “nah its OK im going out there to wash off”. She demands me there so I assume its the normal process. She washes the mud off me, while Mr Kodak snaps away. “Off with the jocks” she reckons and she washes em. I leave the water not looking like a werewolf anymore and return to clothe up with Mr Kodak and Mrs Spring Clean right behind me. Uhoh. Looks like I gotta pay em both! I was fine with paying the camera guy, as he did a fair job! But Mrs Spring Clean just kinda splashed around for a minute...and I HATE paying for things when people don’t mention anything about having to pay...its a type of poor dishonesty I detest. I paid her less than she asked for as I ran out of coins...and then made the mistake of going to eat at her food shack. Will she appreciate it or will it be the movie-style cooking you see, I wondered as I waited for my food to arrive. Never mess with the chef of your food! A delicious fried fish and some vegetable sides came out looking just fine!

Finally, I returned to Cartagena and went for a dockside walk to check out Fritz the Cat but she was moored way off shore.

What should we do with all these old it, burn em?!

 Protest on the highways outside Cartagena

 Slippery, slimey, warm...


 The mud volcano...

13 May 2011 (41 km) – Cartagena (Hostel Familiar)
I had some time to spare so I took a ride around the city and checked out a few sites. I managed to pick up some grease for the bike (to prep before the boat trip) and got some cling wrap as well. I asked in a supermarket if they had any for normal use but they didn’t. And I asked where I could buy some but they didn’t know. Then they showed me their roll they had for packaging. It was used and I asked to buy it but they wouldn’t let me. And then after a couple minutes of talking they said to come around to the back exit and they would sneak and give it to me! Awesome fellas! Cheers! The rest of the day I visited one of the higher hills and rode some of the backstreets. I had a yarn with a few fellas selling drinks and paintings to tourists at a touristy spot, and they mentioned how rude tourists are, never wanting to talk to them or give them the time of day. These fellas were genuine and loved a chat. They also thought a lot of foreigners were racist. Interesting A lovely day anyway! I returned to the hostel only to have someone say...”did you realise no one was riding motorbikes today?” I hadn’t noticed at all...but i thought about and CERTAINLY there were no bikes all day! UNREAL! Woops! The day ended with dinner with the south bound bikers and another cigar celebration on the patio of Hostel Familiar...

 Sweet old town of Cartagena

 Pelicans divebombing for fish!

 Got attacked by a sloth wielding human.  Couldn't resist then despite the repercussions for the little fella.

 It can be bad promoting this type of photo-tourism.  This guy gets a couple of bucks by let people photograph his sloth.  This one looked healthy but apparently they need the bush to maintain the parasites within their fur and other necessities!

14 May 2011 (? km) – Cartagena (Hostel Familiar)
I spent the mornin greasing and lubing the bike; protecting bolts, wire connections and everything else that could be damaged by the salt in the air at sea, and the water spray as well. After a nice meal of mash potatoes and scrambled eggs I took off to get the lost of the money to pay for the boat...

 Lost $160 bucks...still have to have a celebratory cigar!  Alive in Cartagena and last days in South America!!

Lubing Nessie up for the sea crossing.

*Street Money Exchange Trick, Scam, Colombia Scam*
So, I mentioned earlier that there was a reason I mentioned the $700 USD payment for the boat trip and that I had $176 left to pay. The reason is...I lost 160 bucks in a street money exchange. Here is how, so you know, and if you want to be game, try to beat the guy at his own game now that you know how to.

I had to pay 876 bucks for the Colombia to Panama boat trip on Fritz the Cat and it turned out paying in Colombian pesos was more expensive than paying in dollars because of the owners exchange rate. After I’d done everything else in the afternoon I went to the ATM to withdraw some cash, about 350,000 pesos. I wanted to get this changed to 176 USD to pay the remainder of the boat cost. So I went looking for a bank, but they were all closing as it was after 1700. A guy sees me bank searching and yells out if I want money exchange and I say yes. Immediately my guard is up because it is a street exchange. I ask the guy what his exchange is and he says 1800 pesos to the dollar. I say how about 1750 and he says yep. So I ask how much 176 USD is in pesos. And he gives me the calculator to do it myself! It came out at 308,000, but he says 300,000 pesos is fine. This is when I KNOW something is up, but I decide to ride along for the experience and try and outplay him. He takes me down a side street (nothing too slummy or anything) who tells me to wait on the corner with his friend while he goes off to get exactly 176 USD.

His friend talks to me in the mean time asking things like...where I’m staying, when I’m leaving, what I’m doing here and whether I like the place. I throw him a bunch of false answers as always. But this guy is doing this for a reason. I guess that these blokes work in pairs and they need to work near a ‘cambio’ (money exchange) shop. So they work one area until they get the money and then change areas for a few days until its safe to return to that area again...hence the question asking. So old mate comes back with 176 USD and I say I want to check it in the bank nearby (which happens to be open!) to make sure its not false. He gives me 160 of it to check and lets me wander off 50-100 metres away from him the whole time. I had a blinking thought that I should just run, but said to myself that I’m a good honest bloke and wouldn’t do that. The money checks out and old mate is cockily waving to me from outside to follow him back. He dresses well, as does his mate. Not suits, but clean clothes; pants or shorts and a polo shirt, nice watch etc.

I return to him and say the money is fine and I give him the 300,000 pesos and he gives me the remaining $16 USD. The thing is...the 16 is all in 1 dollar bills! So it’s quite a wad! I count the money carefully and take the pesos back off him to make sure I didn’t give him too much (I still knew something wasn’t right, as he would be losing $25 USD in the exchange rate he gave me). I give him the pesos back and fold the $176 over in my hand but the 1 dollar bills were to the outside (which I normally fold from biggest on outside to smallest inside, which is why I let him do what happened next without thinking about it). He grabs the 176 USD in my hand and says “no the other way” and flops the money over in my OWN hand while I’m watching. Then both of them start saying “quickly put it away. Have you got a wallet? Put it away. There are bad people around. Marijuana dealers”. So I pop it into my wallet and my wallet in my waist in my pants. All is good and I think I’ve just got a great exchange. I walk away and they follow me for a while (I guess to enhance my paranoia, making ME want to get away from THEM!). When I return to my room I think to hide the money somewhere and I pull it out to hide it...and count 16 one dollar bills. $16 USD total. It turns out when he flipped the money in front of my eyes...he removed 160 farkin dollars! I was FUMIN! I couldn’t sleep for yonks this night, constantly plotting ways to get my money back. I returned a few times the next day, but obviously they weren’t around. And I had my guard up the whole time and was watching EVERY step, not going into any spot where I would feel physically in danger.

So, what I wonder now is...what would have happened if he had failed to strip that money out. I would have got my 176, but he would have lost about $25 USD in the exchange. Either he never loses or accepts that 1 out of every 10 times he tries it, he will lose and accepts that. Or does it go to another extreme if you pocket the total amount? So...if you have the balls and confidence to pull it off. I believe you could beat them at their own game. Just watch everything and get ALL the money. The guys weren’t big at all and were in their 50s with small pot bellies. Unfit. You could run, you could hide or check the money in a bank and then report that they are stalking you...or you could win the exchange and pocket the total amount. And then try it somewhere else in the city to someone else. There will be signs that will tell you they are trying to scam you! Normal money changers will NOT bargain on an exchange rate...nor will they let you calculate the exchange without them doing it once. Be careful and good luck! In saying that...this was the worst thing that happened to me in 5 months of riding through south and central America and Mexico. Not too bad I reckon and it’s a great tale to tell!

Crossing the Darien Gap with Fritz the Cat next....

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