Guatapé and Medellín
Updated: Dec 8, 2020
From Puerto Berrio I was heading to Guatapé, the small town near La Piedra de Peñol, a massive stone monolith with a 749 step staircase to the top.
Christine and Jules had been there and our paths would cross as I would arrive and they were leaving the next day. The bike had been unmolested during the night and I loaded up and grabbed a donut and coffee from a vendor on the corner as I hit the road.
Garmin, Google, Maps.me and Sygic all showed the routes and indicated heading through San Rogue and down to Guatapé, the only other option being a 5-1/2 hour loop around to Medellin and back up. The GPS said 2.5 hours for the San Roque route. Famous last words.
The highway was good and relatively fast, but there was a lot of water on the road and each river showed to be near flood stage, roaring with brown water. There were many mudslides along the way but the road crews had taken care of the larger ones. When I reached the turn off road for San Roque, which was a one lane blacktop with a stripe in the middle, it headed uphill quickly. I paused for a moment, the bad rain damage knocking on my mind's door and wondering how a side road into the mountains would turn out. I definitely preferred not to spend 5 hours on the optional route so I continued.
The scenery was great, going high and observing green mountainsides and valleys below, spotted through glances along the tight road. San Roque arrived quickly, a bustling small town, and I followed the GPS through the streets until reaching a dead end, or so it seemed, only a narrow rocky and muddy little alley into a field ahead. It wasn't promising and I looked at the maps again, seeing a different route out of the town. That led to another tiny alley of rocks, so I asked two locals "camino de Guatape?" and they pointed and indicated yes.
Up the steep rutted road I headed, eventually getting a bit smoother and wider for a short section through a crumbling few houses on the outskirts. The road continued to climb, with sections of deep ruts from the rains and a lot of loose rock. About 20 minutes in, a nice section appeared and I hoped it would be this way all the way, and was able to stop and get a picture of the terrain.
From there it continued to degrade until it became a 4x4 only road, with deep rain ruts, mud holes, lots of large stones and drops. I continued on, working up a sweat and beginning to wonder.
When you're traveling alone, working your way off into unknown terrain and bad roads, the reality that you may be heading into places you may get stuck in is an uncomfortable thought at best and heightens the emotions. What if the next downhill leads into a mud pit and I can't get out or get the bike turned around? What if I fall badly? Many thoughts.
The road degraded to the point it would be a challenge on a dirt bike, twice as much on an overloaded GSA with a full tank of gas. The road was covered in sharp rocks and a real concern was getting a puncture. The road began a general descent and got worse as the rain had taken its toll. Trying to ride the ridges between ruts and some long mud stretches from overnight rains was a workout. GPS said another 34 miles to go. It took two hours to make only 20 km on the road, and it reminded me of the difficulty of some of the Colorado passes with mud and dirt mixed in. Not the elevation, but the workout on a fully loaded GS.
I finally spotted some of the lakes I'd seen on the map and got a bit more excited as I figured the road would improve as it wound down, but it didn't. I passed a couple of locals dog paddling their way through the mud and asked me if the road was passable and I said "difficile" but at least they could carry the little bikes if necessary. I felt like I was up sh*t creek with nothing but dog paddles until the road seemed to have a bit more gravel, and then got better.
Reaching a valley and one of the lakes, the road smoothed out, crossing a large dam and then another. I was elated and energized to have beaten the road and knew the rest of the way had to be easier. I rounded a bend with a fork in the road, one entirely blocked by a mudslide. No way past. Crap. I headed down the other fork and stopped at an intersection of two other roads where a group of guys sat. I shouted "Guatape?" and pointed down each road. "No, No! Derrumbes!" One of them stood and waved each direction, shouting "Derrumbes!" My heart sank. Guatemala flashbacks.
He pointed back up the road I'd just conquered and said "San Roque!" and with his arms indicated a big loop and said "Medellin." I couldn't believe it and asked again. The entire group stood up, smiled and laughed and pointed back up the road from hell. Damn. I sat for a moment, the guys watching me. I shook my head and then leaned on the tank bag for a moment. It was like getting punched in the stomach. I was exhausted, having just cleaned the worst road I've done in a long time, my hands stiff and near cramping.
Accepting the facts, I lifted my head to the big smiles of the guys watching. Man it sucked. Anyways, nothing to do but head back the way I came. With a pit in my stomach, I headed back up the mountain and the crap ahead. It's not that I'm afraid of dropping the bike, it's the fact of being alone to deal with it on a steep hillside in mud. The return was just as difficult but I made it with several butt clenching moments, besting my 2 hour run by a good 15 minutes since I knew the route now.
I'd left Puerto Berrio at 8 am, it was now 2 pm and I still had a 4-1/2 hour ride to Guatapé by way of Medellin. I was already tired from the tense 4 hours of hard riding. The hours left ahead kept me from stopping for a drink or food and luckily, from San Roque back onto the main highway was a good road, only the twists and turns and trucks as usual. Let me say that if you embark on a trip south, and aren't comfortable riding very aggressively, you'll either never get where you're going or you'll learn aggressiveness fast. Passing multiple trucks on blind curves and barely making it is common. It's the only way.
Eventually the road became a wide and smooth tollway and I really pegged it for Bello and the turn back east onto Hwy 60. The GPS sent me off into a small town north of Medellin, my phone apps agreeing that it was a shortcut to the other highway and after a bit I found myself on the edge of town, a muddy, rocky road ahead. "Eff this" I said, as several muddy mountain bikes came racing down it and passed me. I found my way back to the highway and headed south for Medellin until I finally saw a main interchange and the GPS hooked up correctly.
On the way out of Bello and into the mountains, there were hundreds of motorcycles coming south in the other lane, as well as many passing me going north, weaving through traffic like hooligans. The cars and motorcycles continued streaming south for Medellin and I realized it was Sunday, with people returning to the city after a weekend. It continued steadily until the turnoff for Guatapé and the small road was clogged both ways with traffic.
The massive stone monolith of La Piedra de Peñol appeared and it was an impressive sight. I looked forward to climbing it for the view the next day. By now I was very tired and hungry, slowly working my way through masses of people and vehicles in Guatapé, which is picturesque and sits on a lake. I crossed the final bridge and followed the GPS to the door of my hostel, arriving at 4:50.
Jules and Christine weren't around but the owner got me settled in the nicest hostel I've seen. I was starving but didn't have the energy to walk the 1.5 km back to town. Two hard days of bad roads had caught up to me and I sank into a comfy chair and closed my eyes. Other than being hungry, I was in paradise.
Just as I nodded off, I heard the Canadians coming up the stairs and opened my eyes to a couple of smiling faces and big hugs. They had come from town and Christine had brought a small lasagna and some killer pastries for me. Wow!
We caught up as I downed the lasagna and a beer bought from the host. They decided to stay an extra day with me before heading for Villa De Leyva. I was glad to tell them that the road out north was a disaster and blocked anyway, and if they went round through Medellin it was a disaster past Puerto Berrio. They were happy to change direction and take another route. Christine checked the iOverlander app and said "The road you were on says '4WD only'..." I laughed and said "I know".
It wasn't too long before we all were nodding off on sofas and chairs trying to stay focused on our laptops and tablets.
I spent the next morning posting the blog and taking it easy, then explored the town. It was lively, lovely and colorful. Despite its tourism it was a colorful, fun place with steep streets. The three of us splurged for some fantastic Indian food and I then continued exploring alone.
As the afternoon clouds rolled in, I sat on the square feeling random sprinkles and watching people. Across the street, a family eyed me as they walked, coming closer and staring. The mother said something to me and her daughter smiled shyly. They were definitely talking to me and approaching but the woman spoke so quickly I couldn't make out what she was saying. They came up to me a bit apprehensive but smiling. The youngest girl stared and smiled and the mother said "Villa de Leyva". I said "Si!" and they indicated that they'd seen me there. I laughed and the tension broke. The girls giggled and I asked all their names, introducing ourselves. The husband spoke a tiny bit of English and they'd seen me in Villa de Leyva and said that his wife said she couldn't believe out of all Colombia they'd seen me again. They were incredibly sweet and the youngest girl seemed fascinated by the big gringo. I asked if I could take their picture and we had a fun time, exchanging WhatsApp info so I could send them the photo. They hugged me and said goodbye, the girls turning to watch and smile as they walked away.
It was a nice surprise and little things like that amaze me sometimes.
I stayed out until the cool night air sent me packing for the hostel. When I got back I felt winded and weak, and sat with C & J, not feeling well. When I laid down I decided I felt bad enough to stay another day and rest.
The next morning I awoke very early, and though I felt sick and weak, I also felt strongly it was time to go. I've learned to follow the instinct so I packed up and got ready, messing with the bike as Jules and Christine came down to prep for their leaving. Initially they had planned to go to Leyva, but had decided to go south to Honda instead. I only needed to make Medellin and Ruta 40 BMW, which was 1.5 hrs away.
We rode together back to the main highway and said our goodbyes through our Sena headsets we'd paired back in Central America, then parted ways. Medellin came up pretty easily and the traffic was heavy but I'm so used to it now it seems normal. Ruta 40 was a nice BMW dealership, but excessively busy the day I arrived. I'd planned to get a few things done, but it would take them 3 days to do it, so I dropped it to simply an oil change and asked them to replace the rubber boot between the swingarm and final drive which was popping open and I couldn't tell if mud and water had been going in since I'd been through so much. Last thing I needed was the new driveshaft and bearings getting eaten up with grit infusion.
The dealership guys were very helpful and took the bike in, loaded me up with stickers and paid for an Uber to get me to the hotel. I was feeling pretty bad in the car but surprised to see what must have been a hundred motorcycle shops on the hotel street. Everything from big dealers to tiny helmet shops.
Once in the hotel, I fell asleep for the afternoon and much of the evening.
The next day I still felt bad but got up and walked outside to find breakfast, my legs feeling weak and my head a bit dizzy. After breakfast I went back to bed and dozed, doing some online work in spells. I was very disappointed to be in Medellin and unable to see anything but hotel walls.
The next morning I called an Uber to take me to the dealer, and felt a bit better. The driver, Aida, practiced her English with me and tried to get me to stay so she could teach me salsa dancing. I pointed down to my dried mud covered boots and said "no salsa!" She laughed and wished me safe travels as I clambered out of her little Chevy Spark and went in the dealership.
My bike was ready and had been washed. I hardly recognized it and its muddy badge of honor was long gone. The head of the shop came out and the sales guy who spoke English were both highly interested in the replacement drive shaft on the bike. He wanted to know all about it and said it looked much better than the original. They wanted to contact the manufacturer about supplying them some since they could use them on bikes out of warranty. I obliged.
As I was loading the gear in the showroom, Paul and Maryna from Australia walked in, picking up their bikes after service as well. It was a surprise and good to see them again. They were staying another day or two and we said our goodbyes. I was disappointed to leave Medellin without seeing anything, and decided to take a short tour before doing so...