Best Covid Ever

Exploring Colombia's Backcountry Roads on a Motorcycle

Motorcycle parked on a dirt road with fluffy clouds behind

Cloud-base riding, so common in Colombia.

Covid winter shut down most borders and put many countries into the lockdown. Less than 10 countries were accepting foreigners without much fuss. Colombia was one of them and it was a clear choice for spending the Covid winter. I had been wanting to ride in Colombia ever since I rode through it on my KLR many years ago. But somehow, it was just "too far." Thanks to the Covid, distance was the least of problems this time.

An old friend generously hosted me for over a month while another friend arranged for a motorcycle rental. We went on a few local rides and explored restaurants, coffee shops and roads of Eje Cafetero. This area is full of colonial towns with beautifully restored buildings, coffee and banana plantations, bamboo groves (I was warned that they are not bamboos but Guaduas) and endless vistas. While this area is not internationally recognized for it's beauty, it is quite popular among Colombianos.

Motorcycles and riders on a barge crossing a river

Crossing Cauca river on a barge.

people in a coffee shop

Coffee shops are everywhere in Colombia, especially in the heart of the Eje Cafetero.

people at a table in a garden

Grilled meat for four people with drinks - $15.

red jeep in front of a church

Filandia's main plaza.

sitting on a red jeep with coffee bags next to it

Being a full-on tourist.

balconies overflowing with flowers

Spanish colonial buildings feature balconies and in Colombia, they are filled with flowers.

motorcycle parked in front of a bamboo grove

Guaduas, not Bamboo!

people riding a jeep on the roof

Jeeps (called ) are ubiquitous form of transportation, overloaded with platanos (kind of bananas), coffee beans and other produce, often only standing spaces for passengers.

After the warm-up to the Colombian traffic rules, I took off on a 9,000 km journey around the country.

map fo colombia with route on it

The route.

I did not remember much from my previous ride, other than being cold. Even though I had spent about three weeks riding through Colombia, it was still a small piece of the big Latin American pie I had to finish in ten months. This time around, I had plenty of time and no destination, only this beautiful country waiting to be explored.

I first headed towards Nevados del Ruiz and surrounding mountains. Colombia is a country of mesmerizing altitude variations. Many valleys are at less than 1000 ft, while the glacier-covered peaks reach over 17,000 ft. In a single day, one can traverse several valleys and high passes, accumulating altitude gain of 20-30 thousand feet. As one climbs, low altitude sugar cane plantations are replaced by banana, orange and coffee plantations and eventually by high altitude desert cacti.

Cup on coffee on a balcony overlooking a deep valley

Morning coffee in my hotel in Salamina.

motorcycle and a town in the distance

View of Salamina from the road to San Felix. Salamina is another old colonial town perched on a high mountain ridge with charming central plaza and nicely restored, colorful, buildings.

Motorcycle parked on the side of a road with green hills behind

Incredibly green hills and crystal clear sky at 9,000 ft on the road between Salamina and San Felix.

tall palm trees on steep mountain slopes

Wax palms, tallest in the world, grow only in this part of Colombia.

motorcycle parked with a deep valley and fluffy clouds behind

At high altitude, there is no pollution, only crystal clear skies and fluffy clouds.

Green hills, blue sky and fluffy clouds

The road from San Felix to Manzanares goes through some of the most beautiful and tranquil scenery - a must do item on any rider's bucket list.

Colombia is blessed with two oceans. While the Carribean coast is well-connected to the rest of the country, only one road reaches the Pacific coast. Most of the western Colombia is considered unsafe even today. I wanted to visit Quibdo, a city not quite at the coast, but in Pacific jungle lowlands. The construction crews were working on the road and riding through muddy construction sites was challenging, but the scenery and the jungle feeling was well-worth it. Even though it goes through unsafe areas, there is a heavy police and military presence, which made me feel better.

road going into the cloud forest

Descending into the clouds of the Pacific lowland rainforest on the way to Quibdo.

motorcycle parked next to thick vegetation

I enjoyed the jungle ride tremendously. Even getting wet did not bother me. The road goes through Indian communities and one can see the traditional houses of the indigenous inhabitants.

military motorcycles parked next to each other

Colombian Army uses KLR motorcycles.

selfie with a motorcycle on a road going through a jungle

Happy to be in the jungle.

riding through mud

Muddy construction sites on the way to Quibdo. Colombian roads have improved a great deal since my last ride. Major roads are wider, in many places got four lanes, many minor roads are newly re-built, in great condition.

motorcycle parked high up in the mountains

High pass between Quibdo and Ciudad Bolivar.

Next few days, I spent riding at high altitude around Medellin - Sonson to Guatape, via remote towns of Granada, San Carlos and San Rafael. Road was mostly paved, but there were some rough sections and many construction sites, as usual. I spent one night in super touristy Guatape and continued north, dropping down into a deep valley and fighting trucks and buses up the main highway from Medellin to Cartagena and then dropping into Medellin suburb of Bello for some urban fix before heading over the mountains to Santa Fe de Antioquia to meet my friend. We continued north towards Turbo and Cartagena to meet some other riders. High mountains slowly become plains half way between Medellin and Turbo. Carribean coast is significantly drier and very flat, apart from Santa Marta mountains in the north.

motorcycle parked with green hills behind

High altitude road from Sonson to Rionegro, in perfect condition, with light traffic.

Tuktuk

Elaborately decorated tuktuk in Guatape.

Cathedral and stormy clouds behind at dusk

Guatape's main plaza.

umbrellas suspended above a street

Umbrella street in Guatape.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road with green hills behind

High altitude rolling hills north of Medellin.

fountain in the middle of a street with colorful houses

Guatape houses adorned with "zocalos" , a colorful relief paintings in the lower part of the facade.

We spent two days riding along the Caribbean coast to Cartagena where we met up with another rider and continued further NE to Santa Marta. Caribbean coast is hot and muggy, but the hills of Santa Marta mountains provide cool breeze and cooler temperatures.

selfie with cloud covered mountain top behind

Enjoying early morning in jungle-covered Santa Marta mountains.

swimming in a pool surrounded by jungle

We spent one day relaxing in the jungle of Santa Marta mountains.

laying in a hammock

Hammocks are very popular in Colombia.

two motorcyclists parked next to a sea

Caribbean coast of Colombia is surprisingly dry. Actually, further north, there is a real desert, with sand dunes.

four people posing on a balcony

Our friends hosted us at their amazing place in Cartagena.

narros street with colorful houses

Super-touristy Cartagena was empty this time. I could barely recognize the city. Many shops, restaurants and hotels were closed.

a lady in red dress riding a bike on an empty street in cartagena

These streets are usually full of cars and people.

cartagena cathedral at the end of a narrow street

Cartagena cathedral.

people sitting at a bar in Cartagena

At a Cartagena bar with friends.

four riders posing in front of a sign

Four of us rode from Cartagena to Mompox, an old historic town along the river Magdalena.

motorcycle and rider in front of a church

Mompox landmark church.

We split in Mompox and I was riding alone again. I headed east to explore Eastern Cordillera and Nevado del Cocuy national park. After several hundred kilometers of Magdalena river plains, I was back in the mountains. Things got cold and wet at times, but I managed to avoid major rains. Even though valleys are hot and sunny, surrounding mountains are usually shrouded in clouds. Riding over high mountain passes is sometimes wet, sometimes dry, but always chilly.

motorcycle parked with steep hills behind

Climbing high mountains on the way to Cucuta.

motorcycle parked mountains behind obscured by lifting clouds

High up in the mountains, moisture lifting from the valleys and forming clouds that obscure surrounding mountain peaks.

selfie with jungle behind

Road going through a thick jungle.

view of treetops under a cloud layer

There is a reason why it's called "rain-forest".

motorcycle parked in front of a ruined church

Ruins of Gramalote church. The whole town moved a thousand feet up the mountain because of frequent landslides.

motorcycle parked in front of a tree covered in moss

Many trees throughout Colombia are covered with moss.

motorcycle parked on the side of a road going through green pastures

Road from Cucuta to Arauca goes through tranquil country side.

motorcycle parked with rolling hills and clouds behind

The national highway between Pamplona and Bucaramanga goes at a high plateau (at about 3500 m) for 100 km. The deep blue sky with clouds in the distance at about the same level as the road or lower, was a sight to behold. It was a cold but memorable ride. In Colombia, roads often go higher than low level clouds and one looks at clouds from the above.

motorcycle parked with fluffy clouds above

Nearing the edge of the plateau before descending down to Bucaramanga.

motorcycle parked with clouds behind and below it

One has the feeling of riding in heaven when fluffy clouds are below him.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road high up in mountains

The road from Bucaramanga to Malaga, through San Andres is one of the most scenic in this part of Colombia. It goes up and down, from deep valleys up to 4000m knife-edge passes and down again, through verdant fincas or lush jungle.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road with steep mountain slopes behind

It may seem close in the photo, but it takes about an hour to ride down to the bottom of the valley and go up to the pass on the other side.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road with clouds overing the top of the mountain behind

Typically clear morning skies get engulfed by clouds by noon. Riding up and down the steep mountains, one goes in and out of the clods.

motorcycle parked on a dirt with heavily forested steep  mountain sides behind

Mid sections of high mountains are where jungle is at its densest.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains

The mountain behind was in sunshine an hour earlier when I rode on the road going down into the valley below.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road with jungle behind

Moisture from earlier rains lifting up from the jungle creating clouds that will dump the rain onto the same ground in the afternoon.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains

Wider valleys produce enough hot air to keep the clouds away and valleys in the sun.

motorcycle parked on a bridge

A new bridge on the road between San Andres and Malaga. Currently, this road is more dirt than paved, but it will be all paved before too long.

motorcycle parked on a road with high mountains and deep valley behind

The last view of the valley leading to Chicamocha Canyon and San Andres.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains and a town below

After four high passes, one gets a glimps of Malaga from high above.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road in a dry canyon with cacti behind

After 5 hours of riding through jungles, green pastures and orchards ending up in a dry, Arizona-like, desert was the last thing I expected.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains and a town below

The dry desert did not last long. As soon as I started gaining altitude, it got cooler and greener.

Nevados del Cocuy are one of few mountains of Colombia covered with glaciers. Guican and El Cocuy are the jump off point for expeditions into the Nevados. I spend one night in each and rode back country roads hugging the glaciated peaks. I was lucky with the weather that day and I could see the glaciers very clearly. The next day, they were obscured by clouds and the rain was chasing me all the way to the other side of the mountain range. That's where mountains end and mighty Llanos begins.

motorcycle parked on a dirt road leading towards snow-capped mountains

The only road going as high as 4300m in Cocuy. I've ridden on much higher roads, both in S America and India, but this was the record for Colombia.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains

Looking back down to the valley where Guican and El Cocuy are. When I was sleepin in Guican the night before, it felt so high up, I was short of breath. But from this point, the town was way down below me.

motorcycle parked on a road high up in mountains

This road passes a few alpine lodges and another pass on the way to a high lake.

motorcycle parked on a path  high up in mountains

The road turned to a rough track.

motorcycle parked on  high up in mountains

And eventually it disappeared completely.

selfie with motorcycle parked on  high up in mountains

Time to head back down.

motorcycle parked  high up in mountains

Nevados del Cocuy.

motorcycle parked on  high up in mountains

I shared the mountain and vistas with only sheep, no other traffic.

motorcycle parked   high up in mountains

There are some deep ravines and hanging valleys along the way.

view of a town from above

Descending down a steep road into El Cocuy.

motorcycle parked   high up in mountains above clouds

Taking back road from El Couy to Chita the following day with rain showers close behind me.

motorcycle parked  in front of cactus

Frailejon, the ubiquitous plant of Colombian high desert (Paramo).

motorcycle on a dirt road with green valley behind

Shortcut road from Sacama to Colombia's LLanos.

motorcycle parked on a road going through a jungle

After a night in Llanos city of Yopal, I headed back up the jungle covered mountains.

Descending down to hot Llanos after many days at high altitude was a pleasant change. Mountains are a lot more scenic, but lowlands are more comfortable at night. So, after a good night sleep in Yopal, I headed up the Andes towards Duitama. The weather wasn't the best, but at least there was no rain. I passed by the beautiful lake Tota.

motorcycle with lake  behind

Lake Tota.

The weather improved and after some fog near the high pass, I enjoyed beautiful day riding from Duitama to Guadalupe and Contratacion where I spent the night in a wonderful hotel. Once again, I was the only guest there. I rode very scenic road from Contratacion to Guacamayo and then headed NE to Socorro and Barichara from the back side.

motorcycle on a dirt road with high mountains behind

The sunny side of the mountain crest between Duitama and Socorro.

motorcycle in front of a waterfall

One of many waterfalls along the route to Socorro.

motorcycle on a dirt road with  mountains behind

A dirt track to Guadalupe and mountains where Contratacion is on the other side of the deep valley.

motorcycle on a dirt road through a coffee plantation

My GPS routed me on this dirt track through someone's coffee plantation.

posing next to motorcycle on a dirt road with a village in the valley below

Road from Contratacion to Guacamayo climbs steeply out of Contratacion and offers great views of the town from above.

motorcycle on a dirt road with the road snaking up the mountain behind

The road from Contratacion to Guacamayo snaking up the mountain.

motorcycle on a dirt road with a mountain range behind

Contratacion is nested behind the first ridge. These roads see very little traffic. One has the whole place to himself.

 motorcycle at the edge of a canyon

Near the top of the pass approaching Barichara from the west.

From Barichara, I took the national highway up to old colonial town of Giron, only 20 km east of Bucaramanga. Many of the national highways, with quite a bit of truck and bus traffic, are well-worth riding because they go through some amazing scenery. Some should be appreciated for the engineering effort required to build them. The road from Pereira to Manizales and Bucaramanga to Pamplona are some of them. But almost any highway going over high mountains is going to be full of countless turns. Any of these roads can easily put Europe's Stelvio pass to shame in terms of twisties.

 motorcycle in front of a church

The main plaza in Giron.

 motorcycle and a big city in a valley below

There are several great vista points with sweeping views of Bucaramanga as the road to Pamplona climbs up.

 motorcycle with mountains and clouds behind

The road keeps on climbig up through a thick junge and above the clouds .

 motorcycle and a dirt muddy road

Eventually I entered clouds and it started raining at around 4200m, the high pass between Berlin and San Andres.

 motorcycle and a valley behind

Luckily, as soon as I dropped below 4000m, rain stopped and it got warmer. San Andres is further down this valley and Chicamocha Canyon is further down the valley (some 10,000 ft below the pass).

 view of a valley and bridge on the other side

This is the new bridge on the way from San Andres to Malaga that I rode a few days earlier. This photo is taken from the road from San Andres to Cepita. This road was recommended on rtwpaul.com .

 motorcycle on a dirt road clibing out of a canyon

Road descending into Chicamocha Canyon

 motorcycle on a dirt road descending into a canyon

Almost at the bottom of the canyon. Many roads are built along the mountains ridges because of frequent landslides.

 motorcycle in front of a suspension bridge

Welcome to Chicamocha Canyon

 motorcycle on a dirt road clibing out of a canyon

Climbing out of Chicamocha Canyon towards the main highway.

 a road zig-zagging up a mountain

Switchbacks on the main highway Bucaramanga - San Gil.

I spent one day relaxing at the Cascada Juan Curi and exploring nearby valleys. The following day, I took a back road over the mountains to Duitama and ended up in Tunja. I remember Tunja from the earlier ride through Colombia, high and cold. I often wonder, why people choose to live in such cold places when perfect temperatures are only 20-30 km away. Villa de Leyva is another place of great historic importance for Colombia and consequently, very touristy. From there, a beautiful, newly paved, but with virtually no traffic, road took me to Barbosa. After riding another high pass through clouds, I ended up in Landazuri and eventually descended the Andes and spent the night by the mighty Magdalena river.

 swimming in a pond at the base of a waterfal

Chilling at the Juan Curi waterfal.

 motorcycle with a green valley and mountains behind

Valley outside San Gil.

 motorcycle in a dirt road high up in the mountains with clouds behind

Climbing mountains on the way from San Gil to San Joaquin.

 motorcycle on a dirt road high up in the mountains

Sweeping vistas from the road to San Joaquin.

 motorcycle on a dirt road

Beautiful desolate valley out of San Joaquin.

 big plaza and blue sky with fluffy clouds above

The main plaza in Villa de Leyva.

 motorcycle on a road engulfed by fog

Riding in the clouds of the high pass between Barbosa and Landazuri.

 motorcycle on road descending into a heavily forested valley

Final descent from Landazuri to Magdalena river basin.

 restaurant table overlooking valley and hills below

One of many restaurants perched high up on a mountain ridge with sweeping vistas.

As a short two day trip, my friend and I rode a rough dirt road across the mountains straight east from Tulua to Ibague and back home next day. As usual, the mountains were shrouded in clouds and on the way back, we got caught in the rain and I managed to fall going down a slippery steep road.

 two motorcycles and a rider on a dirt road going through jungle

Thick jungle on the way up the mountains.

 rider going up a dirt road with raising clouds behind him

Emerging out of the rising clouds.

 rider and two motorcycles in front of a waterfall

One of many waterfalls along the route.

 rider and two motorcycles in front of a waterfall

Another waterfall gushing out of the thick jungle.

 a rider and two motorcycles on a dirt road in front of a tunnel

Route de los tuneles outside Ibague.

Colombia's Amazing Biodiversity

Colombia is world's second (or first, depending on what you count) most biodiverse country. In terms of birds, it's number one and in terms of plants close second behind Brasil and the rest of the countries being way behind. I almost never take photos of flowers, but Colombia is an exception. I simply had to stop and shoot flowers (most photos taken by one single rural house). Colombians love taking care of their houses and plants play an important role.

 pictures of flowers of various colors

Small sample of Colombia's bewildering flower collection.

 motorcycle parked in front of trees with bright yellow flowers

Guacamayo - amazingly bright yellow flower tree. Flowers do not last long though. A few days after full bloom, flowers fall off.

 selfie in front of a giant leaf

Just one of many plants with giant leaves.

Practical Info on Colombia

Food and especially accommodation are amazing values in Colombia. In terms of bang-for-the-buck, probably one of the best countries I've seen anywhere. Even the cheapest of hotels are immaculate, restaurants very clean and hygienic standards high. Most hotels will take your motorcycle into their inner courtyard for the night if they don't have a regular parking lot. I got so spoiled with the selection of hotels that I was looking not just for spotless and cheap hotels but the ones that have something special to offer (view, decor, ambiance, etc). I was paying about $13 on average.

 plants filled coutryard

Inner courtyard of my boutique hotel in Giron. Colombians love flowers and most houses and yards are filled with various ornamental plants and flowers.

 plants filled coutryard

Another traditional hotel in San Gil.

 hammock and rocking chair

Colombians love hammocks. My private balcony in San Gil.

 selfie in a hammock

Another comfortable stay in El Cocuy.

 motorcycle parked in an innoer courtyard

My bike parked inside a hotel in Ciudad Bolivar.

 balcony overlooking a plaza

My hotel room had a huge balcony overlooking the main plaza, for less than $10.

While the food is mostly meat-based, there is an amazing variety of tropical fruits, most of which foreigners never heard of. Fruit juice shops "Jugos Naturales" are everywhere and they whip up rich juices from fresh fruits for customers (all available with water or milk).

a glass overflowing with yellow drink

Colombianos are very fond of natural juices, in water or milk, blended right in front of you. Maracuya in milk, rich, frothy, is my favorite.

 sitting in a restaurant next to wall painting

Many restaurants have tasteful interior.

 a plate of grilled meats and potatoes

Picado - grilled meats and potatoes.

 grilled platanos

Grilled platanos, often served with cheese inside. I prefer ripe platanos, caramelized with no cheese, for the dessert.

shrimp cocktail

My friend got me hooked on cerviches in Cartagena.

 split papaya and maracuya on the grass

Papaya and maracuya are available throughout Colombia and very cheap.

papaya half carved and filled with passion fruit pulp

Papacuya - my combination of papaya and maracuya (passion fruit).

 green fruit with big spikes

Guanabana (sour sop) is another very popular and tasty fruit.

Colombia's coffee is famous world-wide. Only Italians' love for the coffee rivals that of the Colombians. Coffee shops can be found even in the most remote corners of the country.

 red coffee beans on the plant

Coffee beans growing by the side of a road.

 coffee brewing machine

Old style espresso machine.

red jeep converted into a mobile coffee shop

Red Willys converted into mobile coffee shops can be seen throughout Colombia.

Riding in Colombia

While motorcyclists still have a lot of freedom and many traffic rules are simply suggestions, I do notice many rules that used to be disregarded by all riders being enforced now.

Police is courteous and 99% very friendly. On two occasions I broke traffic rules and in both cases they just warned me. Drivers are generally very considerate and will notice motorcycles and let them pass. When I wave them "thanks" they honk back "welcome."

motorcycles to the right sign at the toll station

Motorcycles are not considered "two-axle" vehicles for toll purposes like in "developed" countries. They are exempted from paying toll, just like bicycles.

motorcycle-only gas station

Colombia is the land of motorcycles. Some gas stations feature separate sections for motorcycles only.

motorcycle and a chain on the floor

Just as I was pulling off from a red light, my chain broke. Quick look around and a motorcycle store was across the street. Motorcycle shops can be found in smallest of villages in Colombia. Labor cost to fix a bike is minimal.

selfie with a mechanic

Friendly and knowledgeable mechanic in Bello who helped me with the new chain. Unfortunately, not all mechanics are as good as this one. When I had front tire changed, the mechanic kept on banging on the axle while putting the wheel back on, he damaged the bearing seal and I had to get a new one in next town.

tube on a vulcanizing machine

Tire repair shops are even more prevalent. Punctured tubes are never thrown away, but repaired. Here my tube is getting vulcanized by an old electric iron to serve as a spare.

 people riding overloaded jeep

Riding on the roof of an overloaded Willys is a common sight on rural roads.

 selfie with a group of riders and cars waiting at a road block

Construction road block - one of quintessential experiences of riding in Colombia. After a long wait, people start losing patience, honk, rev engines and motorcycles pile up at the barricade. Then one guy busts through and the rest of bikers follow. The gate-keeper just gets out of the way and radios to the construction crew that the mad gang is coming their way.

 black and white photo from speeding camera

Souvenir from Colombian police - caught by speeding camera.

Favorite Roads

While almost any mountain road in Colombia is simply amazing, from desolate dirt roads to national highways with perfectly smooth pavement, these are the roads that I personally found the most thrilling.

map with roads highlighted

My favorite roads to ride in Colombia.