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  • Writer's pictureJoseph Savant

The Cartagena Experience

Updated: Dec 7, 2020


Though a major shipping port and large city, the old section of Cartagena is one of the prettier places I've been. The architecture and people were a real pleasure, marred only by the intense heat. After 2 solid months in riding gear with 90's and 100% humidity, we'd all reached the end of our tolerance.

The final night, Carnaval was ramping up and the excitement and energy was a fun experience. The streets in the old section were packed with costumed dancers and having a blast.

Is it a sin to pose in front of the pope?

From Cartagena, we all parted ways for our own destinations, myself having chosen to go north on the coast just because I never hear much about it. The day we all left, I just rode a few miles and got a hotel, falling asleep about 2 in the afternoon. The next morning I headed for Santa Marta, a coastal city a few hours north of Cartagena. Along the way it was a nice surprise to find that motorcycles didn't have to pay tolls, squeezing through a narrow lane in which my bike barely fit.

The highway north was hosting a bicycle event, cyclists stretching for hours and accompanied by police vehicles. Santa Marta came up, as hot as Cartagena and I took a break along the waterfront of the dirty, dusty town for a late lunch. As I ordered, Charlie texted me that he was in Riohacha, about 3 hours north of Santa Marta and had an extra bed in the room if I was coming that way. I'd planned on staying in Marta, but still had energy and the town had no appeal.

I continued on through sporadic rains, the bike having an odd episode where the instrument cluster went completely dead and my lights were doing weird things. I hoped simply a restart would cure the ailment, but I was afraid to turn the bike off before making the hotel, just in case there was a major issue and it wouldn't restart.

It was dark when I got to Riohacha, an even dirtier and more run down town. The hotel was in a terrible neighborhood that took a while to find, the streets nothing more than dirt paths with mudholes and rubble. In the midst of all this, someone had built a nice hotel and event center. Seeing Charlie's bike was a relief as I wasn't sure I was even in the right place.

Went to sleep with no dinner and the next morning had to seriously assess my travel plans. As I said, the fatigue and funk had hit us all and we went searching for places unknown. My ride up the coast had reminded me that once again I was in a large country, and the distances covered were far greater than in Central America. For the last couple of months, I'd been in countries that could be crossed in 2 or 3 days of riding and now it was different. In addition, with the Stahlratte delay for a week, and then another week lost in Cartagena, I'd now lost two weeks of the four I wanted to spend exploring Colombia. I was now in the Guajira desert region, where I'd planned to ride to the farthest point north on the peninsula originally. To do so would be close to 2 days up due to sand and another 2 back, effectively losing another week just along the hot coast. Looking at the map and seeing how far I had yet to go, I really didn't feel that I should spend the time up in the region, but decided since I'd come so far I'd go ahead and try.

Charlie headed south the next morning, and I headed downtown to get some cash and gasoline for the trek northward up the coast. As it happens, I went to a series of ATM's but none worked with my card. At the last one, I parked my bike on a side street in front of a Cajera under the eyes of several people sitting in a nearby park. I'm always leary around ATM's and knew my circus show was easy to spot. I decided to duck into a little store and try to find a snack for breakfast since I was starving and to fool any bad guys that I wasn't looking for an ATM.

Outside I sat on the street and ate something and drank water copiously. I was aware that at least an hour had slipped away, I had no cash yet and no gasoline. One or two guys gathered around the bike, asking questions, the first always how much it cost. I'm now down to telling them 3,000 US to which they still shake their heads. As this occurred, two policemen walked up and poked around as well. I ended up getting them to smile and one to sit on the bike to which his excitement bubbled out around the seams of his seriousness.

We all sort of sat around, then I indicated I needed to go and started to walk to the nearby ATM. I figured having a couple of cops by the bike would help, when one of the men started yelling no to me. I turned around and a man waved for me to follow him, indicating the cajera didn't work. An old man standing near asked for my helmet and I was torn, but handed it to him. He smiled, happy to be guardian and part of the tiny event. The other guy led me to an ATM and stood outside waiting, then walked back with me. I gathered the helmet and shook hands with the group, leaving to "Buen Viaje!" from several. I'd spent two hours and still had no gas, and by the time I found some it was so late I simply said "forget it" and punched in Bogota on my GPS.

So much for the plan but it just didn't seem worth it.

Hours later, after rains, being stopped at several police checkpoints, dodging potholes and horrible drivers, I finally rolled into Aguachica at dark, the biggest town on the way south. There seemed to be a police checkpoint every 5 miles and I got pulled aside at 4, then again at 2 military checkpoints, really just to look at my bike, but I was damn glad I'd gotten insurance or I'd have been sweating bullets. I was not asked for it, but it would have really sucked if they had and I didn't. The military checkpoints were easy and the soldiers always gave big thumbs up and smiles.

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