Assurances that Colombia “isn’t dodgy – as long as you stay out of the rough bits and don’t walk around on your own at night” (well, that was the gist of what the Colombian girl was saying – I think) didn’t do much to dispel a slight (but rapidly growing) niggle of apprehension as we checked into Tocumen Airport at 9am on Friday morning – thanks for the taxi ride in the Love Wagon, Nic! Apprension mixed with excitement, really…we’d not felt this excited about a destination since we’d left for LA all those weeks ago…Central America is great, but it feels sooo good to be leaving for the REAL adventure motorcycling part of the trip. Central America has spoilt (spoiled?) us with the good roads (doesn’t include you, Costa Rica!), readily available shops and (for the most part) lovely weather – it sounds like it’s going to get a lot tougher from now on – hooray!
The first thing that struck us about Bogota was the temperature – it’s colder than the UK – NOT GOOD! Thankfully it’s because the capital is at about 2,700m (~8100ft for those clinging to the Imperial days) – don’t worry, the rest of the country is much lower and much sunnier, so the tans won’t fade that quickly. Secondly – people seem REALLY friendly, genuinely interested in where you’re from, what you think of the country and are really helpful with advice about what to see and do. Of course, this may just be delaying tactics so that their mate can steal our bags… Thirdly – for such an apparently dodgy city, it feels genuinely safe, although that’s probably something to do with the masses of troops on the street corners modelling the complete range of accessories from the military version of the Debenhams catalogue.
As the bikes weren’t due to arrive for another day, we piled into a taxi (all run and controlled by the local authority – no fare negotiation – great) that conveniently dropped us about two hundred yards from the hostel – very nice. What was slightly less impressive was our complete navigational failure when confronted with Bogota’s address system – what should have been a simple five-minute walk to the hostel turned into a two-hour hike round some of the less savoury parts of Bogota centre. Before you start ripping into us, though – let me explain… “Carretera” run north-south, whilst “calle” run east-west – sounds fine, right? HOWEVER – addresses are specified by the carretera or calle that they’re on PLUS a number indicating how far they are from the nearest carretera or calle that crosses them…in paces. So – the hostel on Cra 7, 6-10 means it’s ten paces from where calle 6 crosses carretera 7. Rubbish. Even asking directions from locals and policemen elicited a response along the lines of “Ummmm….” – and it wasn’t our spanish that was causing the problem. It’s fine now we’ve got our heads round it though…!
Eventually we found the hostel – devoid of any atmosphere – avoid IYHA hostels in future! We did run into a great chap, Alvaro – a Colombian guy from Medellin (where the prettiest women are, apparently) who kindly showed us the Bogota nightlife and filled us in on some fascinating aspects of Colombian culture whilst embarrasing us with his disgustingly good english – we struggle to order breakfast in Spanish and Alvaro was using words like “neurolinguistic” – outclassed – us? – never. Several bars, beers and an impromtu salsa lesson later we crashed into bed – Bogota is brilliant!
Shifting hostels the next day, we got to the cargo terminal to fetch the bikes two hours after the omnipotent secretary had left, meaning we couldn’t get a CRUCIAL slip of pink paper, despite our best efforts to persuade the manager to find it – “Can’t YOU have a look for it?” – “She has gone home” – “Yeah, but can you find the shipping docs?” – “She went at 2pm and it’s 4pm now” – “But we need our bikes!” – “We open at 8am Monday” – we’ll get the bikes on Monday instead then. Thanks. Worth it for the taxi ride there though – the driver misinterpreted Will’s “aeropuerto, por favor” as “I bet you can’t get us to the airport in three minutes whilst overtaking between cars on the dual carriageway bit and tripling the speed limit wherever possible” – excellent!
A fellow bike traveller – Kyle, who’s riding a BMW F650 down from Colorado (very nice to be able to swap bike-related stories with someone who’s having the same kind of experience as us) joined us for a few drinks that evening in a very dead Bogota (no pun), courtesy of a Moby concert for which we couldn’t get tickets (grrr) – bit of a relief to get an early night for a change…!
Sunday was offically “Do Touristy Things” day – so we wandered around looking at old buildings (presidential palace, law courts, old universites and the spectacular Place de Bolivar), nearly got arrested for taking pictures of the military barracks (well, they shouldn’t have put such a cool statue in front of it), paid a pittance for fresh yoghurt smoothies and finally climbed Monserrate, the smallest of two mountains that still towers above Bogota. Actually – I say “climbed” – being in peak physical condition, we took a taxi to the bottom and the funicular up to the top (that’s a railway that goes straight up the side of the mountain, in case you were wondering) – it was still a very strenuous walk from the taxi to the station though. Views were predictably stunning and drilled home how colossal Bogota actually is…5 million people makes for a sprawling metropolis – it’s weird how everything happens in a tiny central section yet the city goes on for miles.
Nursing a debilitating hangover, thanks to a ‘quiet’ night on Sunday, we grabbed another taxi to the airport the following day – we’re getting good at taxis – and plunged into the bottomless mire of Colombian customs. The process was actually pretty smooth – to be fair – but took HOURS, thanks to the endless photocopying of this form and that form – and the passport – and the other form – and the bike reg doc…etc. And where I come from, saying “finished” means “finished”, not “finished apart from some more photocopies AND another trek across to the other side of the airport AND some more rubber stamping”. Grr. FOUR GODDAMN HOURS later we had an emotional reunion with the bikes, which survived the flight completely intact, and rode them through the shipping office (I’m not joking), out the front door, down the front stairs and back to the hostel in the hectic lottery of Colombian traffic. We’re most relieved to have them back in one piece, complete with luggage and ready to head south!
Next stop – Medellin – spectacular scenery apparently – and Cali, both of which have (apparently) rid themselves of the drug cartels that ran the area until recently and are now nice places…hmmm….