Monday, February 15, 2016

Ride Week Pt. 1

Twenty three days. Twenty three days since I had last ridden a motorcycle (at least an intact one). I'd ridden from Santiago to Panama City, and then had an aborted ride to Colon on January 6th. It was now January 29th.

So now, it was time to ride.
Once I finally got done running around town to get insurance and be legal, I said one last goodbye to Cartagena (good riddance, at that point) and aimed for the mountains. While I could have gone straight for Medellin and made it in two days, I decided to take a more scenic route. I'd seen a few roads on the map over to the east that looked on the map to be pretty fun, so I took off in that direction.

The first day, however, was across the hot plains in North Central Colombia, with nothing that I wanted to see in one-day range of Cartagena. No scenery on the ride, and nothing interesting about the roads, but that didn't matter: I was back on the bike. Out of all the rides I've done on the trip, this one would rank near the bottom of the list under normal circumstances, but after three weeks away it felt absolutely amazing to be able to move again. I set a rather modest goal, thinking that I wouldn't be up for riding all day, but I arrived there at 3:30 and still had plenty of desire to ride, so I grabbed some more water and picked another city two hours ahead.

I chose Curumani as my destination because it seemed to have a number of hotels in the city which might indicate tourist things to do, but when I arrived that seemed to almost no tourists there. In fact, many of the hotel residents I did see were wearing construction outfits or some sort of uniform, and seemed to be workers who had a job nearby and stayed in the town - maybe just on weekends, maybe every night, I'm not really sure. As it turned out there was almost nothing to do in the city, and I was pretty exhausted from riding all day, so after getting some food and wandering around the market (which was half closed by the time I got there), I headed to bed in my air conditioned room.

I did, however, do one thing while I was out that I hadn't done in a while: I made conversation with the people around me, on a whim. For the past couple days, maybe even weeks, I hadn't really been striking up a conversation with people around me unless prompted. Whether at the hostel being around other travelers, or at a restaurant or market wit locals, I had been keeping to myself. Suddenly I felt the urge, for the first time in weeks, to talk. I noted the change, but didn't think too much about it as I drifted of to sleep that night.

The next morning I woke up ready to go again - the first time I had two days of consecutive riding since December. I had a few places marked in the mountains that I was thinking about checking out, so I picked a road going in that direction and took off again.

This time, I was rewarded. After a little bit more riding on the hot plains, the road started climbing up into the mountains, cooling off, and getting a little curvier. And then... well, and then I got this amazing stretch of road.

Switchbacks for days, and a gorgeous view.
Looking down from the other side.
This was what I'd been missing for three weeks. I was a little hesitant on the bike for the first few curves - both for not having been on it much lately, and because it had just gotten back from an accident - but on each curve I pushed a little more until pretty soon I was leaning it over and working on cleaning the "chicken strips" off my new tires. I didn't get them all the way off (and honestly, probably won't when I'm riding in places I don't know with a loaded down bike), but I made progress.

That evening I pulled into Zapatoca, a small town up in the mountains, and found a hotel on one of the corners of the square. One reason I was glad to finally be free of the Colombian coast: cooler weather up at the altitude, so it wasn't blazing hot and I didn't have to find a hotel with air conditioning. Another reason: while I'd been paying 35,000 pesos (~$12) for a cheap hostel in Cartagena (or 64,000 for the expensive one), in Zapatoca I got a hotel room with hot water and a balcony overlooking the main square for 20,000 pesos - less than $7.

Colombian flag included free of charge.
 I got into Zapatoca early enough to just wander around the small little town, something I hadn't done quite like that since perhaps Mexico, save for a day or two in El Salvador when I was separated from my travel buddies. I got some coffee in the main square, and then just weaved around the streets rather aimlessly to get an idea what kind of place it was. While it was Saturday night, I had no plans on going out - not that there was much nightlife in the town anyway - but I did enjoy seeing the town light up at night as all the people came out to enjoy the weekend.

$1.50 for a fancy cappuccino.

Flowerboxes around all the doors gave the town a nice feel.

There were a couple of small parks that I wandered through too.

Some interesting construction.

At night I picked up a slice of fresh-made "Mexican Pizza" from a street stand: carne asada, onions, and spices.
In the morning I woke up and picked a route out of Zapatoca. I wasn't sure exactly where I wanted to end up that night, but I knew that I was in an area with a lot of curvy-looking roads on the map, so I picked one and headed south out of town. As it turns out, the road south out of town is dirt, for quite some time.

A lot of this.
That's not necessarily good or bad - it was no Semuc Champey, that's for sure, but I'm still a little hesitant on roads like this due to a couple bad experiences in similar conditions. This one was a relatively good road though, and due to it being this type of road it had almost no traffic, which makes it a little better to ride. As I continued onward, I passed through a few small towns, and (as expected for a road that looks curvy on the map) got some good mountain views.

One of the cities down in the valley.

A pretty central square.

There were quite a few sections like this where I had to ride through a few inches of water that was flowing over the road.
Unfortunately, I somehow managed to miss a turn - or actually, make one I didn't intend. I was planning on staying on what looked like the "main" road, which was still dirt but led over towards Barichara, a small town I'd heard good things about. At some point in the day, though, I pulled out my phone to see how much farther it was, and realized I'd managed to turn off the main road to a tiny side road and had gone quite a few miles before noticing. Barichara would have been pretty far out of the way at that point, especially because the dirt was keeping me to a pretty low speed, so I decided to nix it and just head for San Gil.

After a little bit more on the dirt, I got back to some pavement and cruised into San Gil, where I found a place called "Gringo Mike's" to get some food. Despite the name, I skipped the American food and went for the Mexican-style quesadilla, because I'd been missing Mexican food. But one thing was certainly American style: the portion. It was a huge quesadilla and I finished the whole thing, but not before ordering a pan-baked chocolate chip cookie with ice cream on top. By the time I left, I'd eaten so much I wasn't feeling good - like a real American.

I spent a bunch of time at lunch trying to decide what I wanted to do - I was pretty indecisive, for some reason. It was still early in the day, so I could really make some good distance if I continued riding until dark, but San Gil is an interesting destination. Lonely Planet ranks it as one of the places you should go if you only have a week in Colombia, mostly due to the huge amount of outdoor adventure sports activities that are in the area. Rafting, climbing, rappelling down waterfalls - it's a lot of cool stuff.

But as usual when I really started thinking about it, my indecision came down to a conflict between what I felt like doing at that moment, and what I thought I would look back and wish I'd done. While I really wanted to just keep riding, a part of me worried that I'd be bummed if I later talked to someone who'd been to San Gil and did some awesome stuff and I hadn't done it.

After a lot of internal conflict while stuffing my face full of cookie, I decided to do what I've mostly been doing on this trip and just go with my gut. So, completely and utterly full after an hour long meal, I hopped back on the bike and headed out with no clear goal other than to hit some curvy roads and end in a small town at the end of the night.

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