Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Ride Week Pt. 2

A few days of riding already behind me, I had decided to keep riding instead of stopping in San Gil and taking part in the local activities. I'd made my decision: this week was for riding, and anything else was secondary. But riding has it's fair share of excitement too, and the week still had a few interesting things around the corner.

Since I'd come in to San Gil on a side road, I decided to head north on the main highway back towards Bucamaranga, which I'd side-stepped on my way to San Gil. But Bucamaranga wasn't the goal - the goal was two-fold, one part being the main road between San Gil and Bucamaranga, which according to Mitch was "insane." The road was truly amazing, but was severely tempered by the traffic.

I was at one point stuck behind a line of eight, yes eight, concrete mixers in a row, all of whom were stuck behind a truck that was taking the curves even slower than they wanted to. Due to the curves there was almost no safe passing spaces, even with my 650cc engine that can accelerate well enough to pass a truck in a few seconds. But with the trucks going slower than they wanted (meaning they weren't leaving much room between them), and them trying to pass the truck too, it was all a mess, and I spent the better part of half an hour trying to get past that line and finally have some freedom to take the curves faster than 5mph.

But I did eventually get by them and turned off onto the second part of my goal for the day, the curvy road to Malagá. The beginning of the road was amazing - curvy, two lanes, well-paved, hugging a mountain-side. Even though I ended up inside some clouds for a while, limiting the view, the ride was otherwise pretty dreamy for an hour. I don't mind dirt, but I do tend to enjoy pavement better, so it was a bit of a disappointment when the road went back to dirt after how nice the pavement had been. Still, the views were nice and the road wasn't horrible, so I continued onward.

Pictures really don't do these views justice.

Hard to not enjoy something like this.
At some point, I pulled out google maps and checked how long it would be until I arrived - I was vaguely considering stopping in one of the small towns before Malagá if it was going to be too long, since dark was approaching. But Google told me 54 minutes for 51 kilometers, which put my arrival around 6:00. Kind of late, but manageable - there'd still be enough light then to ride safely. Plus, if, according to Google, I could average 60 km/hr for that stretch, that meant that the road had to go back to pavement at some point. I'd been going closer to 25 km/hr for most of the dirt sections in the day, which would make 50 km not do-able in an hour.

As it turns out, Google was wrong. While I don't always count on Google to find things like restaurants or hotels, the roads are usually pretty accurate. I'd gotten directed the wrong way down a few one-way streets in Cartagena, but other than that it's been extremely useful both for which roads I should take and how long it will take. But my hope that the road would turn back to pavement proved incorrect, so as night fell I was still averaging 25 km/hr - maybe slower, now that I was navigating the bumps and rocks by headlights.

I also had the misfortune of discovering right at this point that my headlight had an issue. Apparently at the shop in Cartagena they hadn't put something in right, because the headlight was lighting up the trees above me and casting almost zero light on the ground. If I turned on the brights I was able to see, but the other drivers on the road certainly didn't appreciate that, not to mention the difficulty it created by lighting up all the dust kicked up by nearby vehicles, obstructing my vision.

I eventually arrived in Malagá around 7:30, after two and a half times the travel time predicted by Google. Apparently I looked pretty tired, because the woman behind the counter gave me the keys and said "you look like you need to go rest." I'm sure I was quite a sight, because I'd been riding with the shield up for the last part of the ride to help me see a bit better, meaning that all the dirt kicked up by other cars was stuck to my face. After a shower and a very brief walk around town, revealing that there really wasn't much going on in the town, I headed to sleep.

Pretty central square and church, but almost no people around and everything was closed on a Sunday night.
I woke up rested and mentally prepared myself for what could end up being another long day of dirt riding. But immediately upon heading out of town, I realized that the road I was continuing on was actually paved relatively recently.

What followed was one of the best rides of my life. From Malagá to Belén, I was in absolute heaven. There are four requirements for a ride to be this good, and it had them in spades.

  1. Curves. This is, of course, a requirement for an interesting ride for me, and this one had it in spades. I think there were maybe three times out four hours of riding where the road was straight for more than 200 meters. Twisties, switchbacks up the mountain, sweepers through the hills, it's got it all.
  2. Pavement. While I love a good dirt road, for me, there's nothing quite like some smooth pavement to take curves on. The road is in great shape, and other than a few short sections of dirt near the beginning, it was otherwise practically flawless. Not many potholes, just smooth even pavement for miles and miles.
  3. Traffic. Almost non-existent. Because of the main highway to the west out of Bucamaranga taking all the truck traffic, this road has almost none. There were a few cars and small trucks here and there, but was mostly empty of traffic, leaving me free to cruise at my pace without having to worry about passing people.
  4. Views. You just can't imagine the views out here, and how much they vary. It went from desert mountains, to forest, to rolling farmland hills, to arid plains covered in brush.... just so different, in a very short period of time. Absolutely gorgeous, and interesting, practically the entire ride.

Towards the beginning of the ride.
Look at those beautiful curves.
Just before a section of forest.
A little change of scenery later.
It isn't required for a good ride, but it certainly helps if the weather is nice. Since I was up at elevation - I went from 5000 feet in Malaga up to almost 11,000 on the ride - the temperature was great and the sun felt amazing up in the clear blue sky.

I made one quick stop to take pictures of a shrine on the side of the road - I'm really not sure why it's right there or what it means, but it was absolutely covered in old headlights.

It's quite large - for all know someone might live inside there.

Lights everywhere.
I stopped in Belén for a quick bite to eat - I hadn't eaten breakfast - and ended up doing a pastry sampler of a whole bunch of tasty things they made at a bakery there, along with some fresh coffee. They had a few other interesting things in the shop too...

Chocolate Jesus!
The goal for the day was to make it to Villa de Leyva, and I got there in the afternoon. While the road didn't stay quite as good as it had been in the morning - it wasn't top 5 rides of my life anymore - it was still a pleasant ride and not too long. I did a quick search on Booking.com to find a place to stay, and ended up finding a place which turned out to be a little villa. It was an old, big, house that had been converted, and while I had to share a bathroom, my room was its own little thing outside - perhaps it used to be the gardener's quarters or something, but it was really cool.

Plus they made coffee for me when I arrived.
Part of the reason I'd headed for Villa de Leyva that night was because Nadja was there - she's one of the ones who was on the same Ciudad Perdida hike with me, and she was moving around Colombia still. The timing worked out, so when I got in I sent her a message and asked where she was staying. Turns out she had ended up at the same place! But she was out and about, so we agreed to meet up at the house later. In the meantime, I went out to go see what claims to be the largest cobblestone square in South America. I caught it just as the sun was setting.

As I was walking around the square, guess who I should see sitting at one of the tables. Yup, Nadja.

We sat down and talked for a bit, and then ended up getting a bottle of wine, having a few drinks, and then after a brief trip back to the hotel, getting dinner as well. We then went in search of some dancing, which turned out to be difficult on a Monday night. Eventually we ended up inside a tiny little bar with about 8 people crammed in it, all of us dancing and having a good time. We don't need to find a party, we just show up and make one!

After a slightly later morning than usual, Nadja and I got breakfast at the hotel and then went out separate ways. I was headed for Guatapé, though I wouldn't make it in one day with the late start. Plus, I was so busy looking at the scenery around Villa de Leyva that I actually missed a turn and had to go back a little bit. Definitely doesn't help get there on time.

Looking back on the outlying parts of town.
I continued onward through the afternoon without stopping much, though I did catch a picture of the road, as well as a picture of an old abandoned suspension bridge. The road was pretty nice for most of the afternoon, with good views and nice pavement, hugging the side of the hills. I climbed up over a pretty high ridge on switchbacks, and then started going down the other side.

Love seeing this.

It was really hard to capture this suspension bridge in one picture. Apparently I did a bad job.
But good pavement always seems to end, and after crossing through a small town, the road turned to dirt once again. Unfortunately, things can always get worse.

A few miles down the road from the town, there were construction signs, and then a gate closed. No cars waiting in line like there usually are at something like this, which I thought was strange. A woman came over to talk to me and told me that the road was closed.

Uh, closed? When will it be open?


Wait, what? Seriously? I looked at my watch - it was 3:05. It's closed for the next three hours?

"It's closed every day from 7am to 1pm, and 3pm to 6pm."

Yes, I really did arrive five minutes after they had just closed it down again after the only two hours that it's open pretty much all day. Had I gotten moving a bit faster in the morning, or not stopped to take a few of those pictures, I would have made it through. And by 6pm, it would be getting dark, so I wouldn't be taking the dirt road in the dark to the next town. The only option was to go back and find a hotel in the town I'd just passed through. Even though it was only 3pm and I could have done three more hours of riding, the day was now over.

So back I went. On the plus side, I was once again able to get a balcony on the corner overlooking the main square for $6, though no hot water this time.

Nice, but I'd rather still be riding.
I didn't do much in the evening except get some street food and watch the soccer in the main square for a bit. In the morning I woke up nice and early - up at 5:30, on the bike by 6am, because I was not getting stuck at that gate until 1pm. I cruised right on through for about a mile before I reached the other side, but maybe half an hour down the road there was another area where there was a gate that they probably also closed off for the same times. In other words, I probably would have had to be there quite a bit before 3pm the day before to actually make it all the way through... I think. I'm not really sure how that would work since there was only one tiny town between the two areas, with no hotels that I saw.

In any case, I made it through and did what ended up being about three hours of riding on dirt before reaching pavement. At that point, the road became the "Medellin - Bogotá highway" which meant that it was very well maintained, if a bit busier. I'm really not sure how I'm supposed to predict what the road is going to be like from the map when the same highway 60 is dirt and closed down 90% of the day in one section, and a major four-lane highway for another section. They look exactly the same on the map.

These are the views I got throughout the day. Gorgeous.

A pretty cool waterfall in the distance.
After I stopped to take the picture of the waterfall, I went to get back on the bike and suddenly found myself falling over with the bike. Luckily I was able to get my foot out from underneath before I sprained another ankle, and after lifting it back up I realized that the "fix" that the shop in Cartagena had done on my kickstand was no longer fixed.

Looks like I've got some homework for Medellin. Luckily I have a center stand I can use, but it's a pain to put it up on that, especially with all my stuff on the bike.

I could have made it to Medellin in two days, maybe even one if I rode hard. But instead, I'd spent the last six days putting in 40 hours on the bike, doing all kinds of terrain from good to bad roads, curvy to straight, dry to lush scenery, hot to cool temperatures, and everything in between. I had sated the desire to ride that had been building up for the three weeks since I'd gotten to Panama City (at least temporarily), and was finally ready to take on a city and see what it had to offer.

Which in itself, I found interesting. One thing I discovered in this week of riding is that while I was in Panama without the bike for two days, and then in Colombia for two weeks, I really wasn't myself. A constant feeling of lethargy and not wanting to do anything, the startling amount of effort it took just to have even the smallest sort of social interaction... all of that seemed to fade away as soon as I had the motorcycle back. It was like for those three weeks, I was a shell of myself, and then finally became fully myself only once I got back on the motorcycle.

I don't feel like I define myself solely by my motorcycle, at least not when I'm back home. Many people wouldn't even know that I rode one if didn't occasionally meet people on it on the way home from work, or sometimes take it on a weekend when everyone else is driving. But apparently, my brain has decided that my travel is defined by it - that without it, my travels really aren't the same. I'd wondered at one point - what would happen if my accident was bad enough that the bike wasn't worth repairing? Would I continue one without a bike and just travel by bus and plane, like many of the friends I've made on this trip?

I learned in this week, that the answer to that question is no. At least on this trip - maybe it will be different in other travels - if I'm not on the motorcycle, I'm not really traveling as myself.

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