Ride to Eat – A REGIONAL ROADMAP TO COLOMBIAN CUISINE

I love discovering a new country by motorcycle for many reasons. Among them, the fact that the flexible nature of bike touring allows you to duck into that dicey looking highway diner that caught your eye 200 metres back. You know, the one the tour bus just sped right past. A motorcycle provides the ideal vehicle for undertaking a cross-country culinary expedition.

Get hungry on the approach to a random town in rural Colombia, and wherever you pull in, it won’t be an air-conditioned coffee chain, or anywhere with English speaking staff or Israeli salad on the menu.

Whenever we’ve been riding in the heat, dirt and mud for hours, I get a little buzz when the first sign of civilization appearing on the horizon is a hand drawn sign for a rambling, roadside eat shack, where crew-line cooked meals are efficiently dished out to truck drivers, seasonal labourers, lost tourists and day tripping school kids.

WHAT MAKES COLOMBIAN FOOD COLOMBIAN?

Colombian food is difficult to generalise or judge as a whole, thanks to its wildly varying geography. Within its borders almost every ecosystem on earth can be found. From the Caribbean reefs to the Amazon jungle, the Andean cloud forests and the tropical plains, the sheer variety of produce grown in Colombia is mind-boggling.

Add to the mix at least 10,000 years of indigenous inhabitation, the legacy of the Spanish, the Africans and Colombia’s influential Latin American neighbours, and you have a cuisine that’s deeply connected to land, history, culture, access and ancestry.

It’s no surprise then that Colombian food varies massively from region to region. As you ride through Colombia, every time the landscape changes dramatically, you can reasonably assume the food situation has too.

This guide is by no means exhaustive, but it might give you an idea of what to expect as you travel and taste your way through different parts of Colombia.

No idea what to order? Trust in the menu del dia – the road warrior’s bargain-priced mystery meal of choice. No one place makes it the same.colombian fruit

THE CARIBBEAN 

Colombia’s Caribbean coast is blessed with a colourful bounty of tasty things from down in the sea and up in the trees. A visit to a Caribbean produce market is a must – you’re guaranteed to not recognise half of everything in the fruit section, while finding almost all of it delicious.

Cartagena was the most important Spanish trading port for both goods and slaves, so here, indigenous ingredients eventually began to merge with Spanish and African influence. These days, Cartagena has swapped the slave trade for the tourist one, and as a result, it’s home to some of Colombia’s best, and most expensive high-end international restaurants.

Coconut and seafood are common pairing. A simple grilled snapper on coconut rice is hard to beat, but a worthy challenger is cazuela de mariscos, a Creole-style seafood soup, with hearty bits of fish and shellfish swimming in a creamy coconut milk broth. Along buzzing beach strips, palanqueras (fruit sellers, usually older women) balance baskets on their heads, heavy with mango, guava, pineapple and more exotic offerings like pitaya (yellow dragon fruit) and nispero (like a small apricot in appearance, with sweet, tart flesh).

BOYACA

Boyacá Department is in Colombia’s east central Andean region. Many of Colombia’s major rivers originate in the lowlands of Boyacá, which support wide expanses of fertile farmland.

Much of Boyacá’s produce is sold directly to the eight million residents of its capital, Bogota, which is also home to Colombia’s most celebrated chefs and awarded eateries. Chefs who purport to honour Boyacá’s culinary traditions have the task of prettying up rather simple farmhouse fare. Their secret? Using ultra-fresh, high quality local produce, making inventive meals out of hearty, carb-filled, cool climate stodge. Beef, chicken, corn and potato are staples.

The region’s best-known dish, ajiaco is a soup made of three kinds of potatoes with varying textures. Corn and herbs are added, and you’ll usually find a leg or other bits of chicken thrown in. Other fixings are optional, but could include capers, cream, avocado or rice.

Corn is considered acceptable in desserts in Boyacá, particularly when it’s mixed with milk (hot or cold) and panela (whole cane sugar) or honey.

ZONA CAFETERA AND MEDELLIN

Colombia’s verdant central Andean region is where some of the world’s finest coffee is grown, harvested and almost entirely shipped overseas to be enjoyed by millions of non-Colombian cafe aficionados.

I joke. But not really. Colombian coffee culture is surprisingly niche, and one of the few places you can get a guaranteed decent pintado (roughly equivalent to a flat white) is at a coffee finca in the Zona Cafetera. A more popular warm drink is agua de panela, literally brown cane sugar in hot water (sometimes with coffee added). Other crops include avocados, bananas, citrus, pineapple and cocoa.

The region’s lush valleys are criss-crossed with creeks and streams, which is why you’ll see river trout (truta) on almost every menu, prepared in an endless variety of ways – wood-grilled, whole-smoked, topped with herbs, breadcrumbs and cheese or slathered in creamy mushroom sauce.

Antioquia department proudly claims to have invented the bandeja paisa. This overdose on a plate is almost entirely bloat-inducing carbs and glisteningly visible trans fats in the form of chicharron, chorizo, ground beef, fried eggs, plantains, avocado and arepa. Finish a whole one at your peril.bandeja paisa

PACIFIC COAST AND CALI

Here’s a hot foodie tip for you: the place where they make the best food in Colombia is not the one with all the swanky interior architecture and the fancy foreign-trained chefs.

There are no Michelin-starred restaurants on the country’s surf-battered western coast, and there are none in the major city of Cali, just 30 minutes inland.

If there’s one thing most Colombian food lacks, it’s chilli and spice. Not hot enough? Come to this steamy slice of the country and eat your words with a side of sizzling habanero salsa. The Pacifico has Colombia’s largest African-descendent population, and their culinary traditions, mixed with the maritime bounty of the Pacific Ocean, have created a foodscape unlike anywhere else in Colombia.

The people here love rich, spicy flavours, using liberal amounts of garlic, onion, and cilantro. Turmeric gives many local dishes their signature yellow hue. Pacifico fresh chilli salsas are often properly hot, and pair deliciously with ceviche. Some of the coconut milk fish soups (like sanchoco de pescado) and meat stews are almost curry-like in their complexity. Paella Pacificos is the ultimate seafood feast, heaped with fish, prawns, calamari, clams and langostinos.

LLANOS REGION

Los Llanos, “the plains” are the massive swathes of grassland and wetlands in Colombia’s east, bordering Venezuela. This is cowboy country, where the best beef in Colombia is bred, butchered and barbecued, often on long metal skewers over a wood fire pit. Llaneros don’t just eat beef however. Sometimes they eat pork.

Boiled yuca (cassava) and potato are your typical sides, and to spice things up, add generous splashings of aji (a salsa of fresh tomatoes, lime, garlic and chilli) on everything.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

RENT A MOTORCYCLE IN COLOMBIA

Rent Motorcycle Colombia

A Brief History of Colombia

Simon-bolivar

Colombia’s history is as rich, surprising, startling and complex as its geography. It’s this history that has led to a blending of people and cultures unique in all of Latin America. 

When you look at the country’s tumultuous, often brutal history, it’s almost miraculous that Colombia has survived at all – let alone functioning successfully enough to now be attracting record foreign investment and a growing number of tourists year-on-year. 

Sure, the country has a long way to go in many aspects. But for the international traveller, the Colombian experience will hopefully leave you full of positivity and hope. 

If you want to try and “understand” Colombia, the best place to start is learning about its history.

Interested in seeing some of Colombia’s most important historical sites for yourself? Check out our Motolombia tour recommendations at the bottom of this post.

COLOMBIA’S FIRST PEOPLE

Colombia has been inhabited for at least 12,000 years. Unlike the empire-building Inca and Maya, Colombia’s first people, such as the Musica and the Tairona, developed small hunter-gatherer societies. 

We still know relatively little about the lives of Colombia’s original people. What we do know about pre-Colombian society comes from three main archaeological sites in particular – San Agustin, Tierradentro and Ciudad Perdida (“The Lost City”).

THE SPANISH INVASION

While Colombia took its name from Christopher Columbus, the Spanish explorer never set foot on Colombian soil. It was a companion of Columbus’, Alonso de Ojeda who became the first European to land on Colombia’s Atlantic coast in 1499.

During his exploration of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta region, Ojeda was astounded by the wealth of the natives. The local Tairona were skilled metal workers, fashioning exquisite ornaments from the rich gold deposits at the foothills of the mountains. What they saw gave birth to the legend of El Dorado – a mysterious city of gold, deep in the jungle and overflowing with untold treasures.

On an obsessive quest to discover this mythical city, the Spanish built their first permanent settlement in Santa Marta, with Cartagena following shortly thereafter. Indigenous tribes who resisted were easily overcome by the superior weaponry of the conquistadors.

By 1549, the region was declared a Spanish Colony, with Bogota as its capital. Back then, Colombia included modern-day Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. 

The Spanish never did find their El Dorado, but they struck serious gold nonetheless. An estimated $639,000,000 worth of gold was mined from Colombia from the conquest until 1886.

The Spanish went about spending their newfound wealth on gilded cathedrals and lavish mansions, relying on their indigenous “subjects” for labour. However, outbreaks of European diseases swept through indigenous communities, significantly reducing the labour force. 

The Spanish sorted out the worker shortage by sending for ships full of slaves from Africa, setting up Cartagena as the Caribbean’s most important slave-trading port. 

The Caribbean and Pacific regions, where the Spanish originally docked their slave ships, remain home to Colombia’s largest Afro-Caribbean populations. 

Over time, the three racial groups –  Europeans, Africans and indigenous Colombians began to mix. Today, many Colombians are mestizos (of European-African ancestry) and mulatos (of European-African ancestry). However, class divisions cut deep, and the Spaniards kept a tight fist around their political power and wealth.

Colombian tribe

INDEPENDENCE UNLOCKED

After almost 300 years of Spanish subjugation, the native populace decided to make an organised stand. 

Enter “The Liberator”, Simon Bolivar, hero of the independence movement. Bolivar had already spent a decade fighting the Spanish in his native Venezuela when his ragtag army of 2,500 men trudged across the flood-swept plains of Los Llanos and the frozen mountain pass of the Paramo de Pisba on their way to stop Spanish reinforcements from reaching Bogota. 

On 7 August 1819, Bolivar’s men successfully intercepted the Spanish troops. The legendary Battle of Boyacá ended with the royalists surrendering after two hours, and Bolivar marched into Bogota without resistance. Although the fighting continued for several more years, the day is recognised as the definitive moment Colombia gained independence.

1819 marked the formation of a new, independent republic, known as “Gran Colombia”, made up of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. Bolivar was elected President, and Francisco de Paula Santander became Vice President. 

Gran Colombia was to be a short-lived dream. Bitter rivalry between the two leaders and simmering regional tensions soon saw Bolivar’s dream of a united Latin America swiftly disintegrating. In 1828, in attempt to hold on to power, the “Liberator” appointed himself dictator, but resigned in 1830, by which time Venezuela and Ecuador had seceded from Gran Colombia. 

The debacle left Colombia in a deeply unstable state. No less than seven civil wars broke out between 1851 and 1891, with much of the conflict due to antagonism between the country’s two political parties – the Conservatives (supported by the landowners and the Catholic Church) and the workers’ party, the Liberals.

A HISTORY OF VIOLENCE

These warring factions sowed the seeds for another century of political violence. 

Although the early 20th century saw a brief period of peace as the coffee industry brought newfound prosperity to the nation, Colombia remained staunchly divided into two opposing camps. 

In 1899, a full-blown civil war, the War of a Thousand Days killed, tens of thousands on both sides. In 1903, a seriously freaked out Panama bowed out of its union with Colombia and became independent. 

The struggle between the Conservatives and the Liberals erupted again in1948, with one of the bloodiest civil conflicts in modern history. 

La Violencia, took place between the paramilitary forces of the Liberal Party and the Colombian Conservative Party, consisting mainly of armed self-defence groups and military units. The war cost up to 300,000 lives and neither side was victorious. A military coup toppled the Conservative government in power. Military rule remained in place until 1957, when both parties agreed to overthrow the junta.

That year, the leaders of the two parties signed a power-sharing pact known as the National Front. This would mean that, for the next 16 years, the two parties would alternate in the presidency every four years. Sound reasons able? Well, they also banned all other parties from participating in national politics.

THE RISE OF FARC

Resentment soon began to brew, as the Conservative-Liberal cooperation did little to address the vast inequalities that plagued Colombia, thanks to a Colonial legacy of unjust land distribution and an impoverished mestizo and indigenous underclass.  

Colombia was ripe for an armed communist insurgency. Among the outlawed political groups that formed during the 1960s were the Russian-backed Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known to the world as FARC.

A guerrilla movement who claimed to be fighting for Colombia’s poor, FARC waged a terrorist-style war against the government for 55 years, until the 2016 peace treaty signalled the end of the world’s longest continuous civil conflict. 

As communism began to crumble, FARC lost the support of Moscow and turned to kidnapping, extortion and the drug trade to finance its struggles. As FARC territory encompassed vast swathes of prime coca-growing countryside, they became entangled with the drug cartels who were growing in power thanks to the rise of the cocaine trade, creating both allies, enemies and yet more violence.

La Farc

THE ‘NARCOS’ PART

The cocaine boom of the 80s saw cartel leaders like Pablo Escobar begin amassing incredible wealth, and even political aspirations.

Backed by the US, the Colombian government launched an offensive against the cartels. The cartels asserted their dominance by bombing banks, government buildings, newspaper offices and even a passenger plane. 

After a decade long manhunt, Escobar was finally tracked down and killed in Medellin in 1993. 

Escobar’s death had little effect on the drug supply. However, his death, along with several other high-profile arrests, lead to the eventual dismantling of highly organised crime syndicates. Numerous smaller enterprises and gangs took their place, often cooperating with the increasingly influential Mexican cartels. 

From the late 80s until the mid-2000s, Colombia was as dangerous for the average civilian as ever, with gang warfare on the streets and FARC continuing their campaign of bombings and kidnappings in the countryside.

Colombia elected Alvaro Uribe as president in 2002, pinning their hopes on his anti-gang, anti-drugs and anti-guerrilla campaign. 

Uribe immediately stepped up military action against the guerrillas, successfully liberating many regions from FARC control and restoring a stability Colombians hadn’t experienced in years. 

Still, Uribe’s aggressively pro-military stance was criticised as failing to address abuses committed by the armed forces themselves (a primary reason ordinary people took up arms with FARC in the first place).

Pablo Escobar

PEACE… AT LAST?

In 2010, Juan Manuel Santos was elected president. Although his campaign was supported by Uribe, Santos surprised the world by instigating peace talks with FARC. A treaty was conceived, to be ratified by referendum, but narrowly missed majority support. 

A revised Peace Accord was approved in November 2016. The historic deal finally put an end to Colombia’s two-party system, allowing former FARC members to create their own political party, the Common Alternative Revolutionary Force. The accord also decreed that perpetrators of human rights abuses on both sides on the conflict must be held accountable and restricted from political participation. 

Most FARC members have disarmed willingly, but whether the negotiations will end the violence entirely remains to be seen. So far, progress has been met with numerous hurdles. Still, the vast majority of ex-FARC remain in support of peace. Like the rest of Colombia’s 49 million inhabitants, they are tired of conflict. 

Their hope is that the next generation of Colombians only knowledge of war and violence will be relegated to the history books.

peace treaty colombia

MOTORCYCLING IN COLOMBIA NOT EXCITING ENOUGH? HOW ABOUT A BIT OF HISTORY ON THE SIDE?

There’s much more to Motolombia’s tours than riding around dominating the roads like a modern day, motor-powered conquistador. 

We want you to fall in love with the country. That means getting to know the people and culture and how history has influenced their identity.   

Ancient history buffs should look into tours with visits to important historical landmarks.  

If you’re fascinated by American pre-history, the aptly-named Tomb Raider visits the mystical stone sculptures of San Agustin and the underground burial chambers of Tierradentro. 

Our Desert Guajira Challenge takes us to the least developed corner of Colombia. The local Kogi and Wiwa people are direct descendants of the Tairona, and still hold on to some of their millennia-old traditions. This tour starts in Cartagena, the most beautiful of all Colombia’s colonial cities.

No matter which tour you choose, you’ll be stopping off in picturesque Spanish-era villages from the gold rush days and interacting with the many diverse cultures of Colombia – a country striving for success against the odds and smiling all the while.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

Colombia moto tours

Meet Diana Puerto – CFO, HRM, location scout at Motolombia

There’s a fair chance that if Mike Thomsen and Diana Puerto had not both been smitten during a completely random encounter at a shopping mall in Cali over a decade ago, the Motolombia we know and love today, may have never existed. 

At that time, Mike was completely swept up in his motorcycle-the-world mission, but after meeting Diana, the lone road warrior had soon found a partner, a new home in a new country, and a whole new line of work. 

Mike would settle with his new wife in Cali and open a motorcycle touring company, the first of its kind in Colombia. 

With him from the start (when Mike would’ve struggled to pass a 3rd grade Spanish test, let alone run a business in a Spanish speaking country), was Diana.    

Diana has a university degree in business and economy. She is the backbone of Motolombia, making sure every tour runs smoothly and that guests come back inspired and invigorated by an experience beyond their wildest expectations. 

F.D: Thanks for speaking to us Diana. Where were you born? 

D.P: I was born in Colombia, in the state of Boyacá. I grew up in a city called Duitama, a beautiful town high up in the mountains (about 200km north of Bogota).

F.D: Have motorcycles and motorcycle culture always been a part of your life? 

D.P: Motorcycles… not really.  The love of speed and motors, yes! But not exactly motorcycles. 

F.D: Tell us a little about how you met Mike? (Mike was on a sabbatical moto-touring through South America at the time)

D.P:  I was in Chipichape Mall here in Cali and a Canadian guy came up and started asking me about my Bluetooth [earphones]. He was speaking, but I noticed the other guy next to him, a friend of the Canadian. I noticed he was white, and very tall and he was yes… a very handsome guy! 

F.D: So, what did you you two connect over at the beginning? 

D.P: To be honest… I don’t know if there was much of a connection at first! We didn’t even speak the same language! It was mostly a physical attraction. Mike is a very quiet person, while I like to talk a lot, but I wasn’t able to talk with him as I didn’t speak English and he could speak Spanish. 

F.D: Were you concerned at all about falling in love with a world-travelling adventure addict? Did you do much travelling together back in the day? 

D.P: As I got to know Mikkel, I learned he was travelling on his bike. That was a huge surprise! It was the first time I’d seen such a big bike and I thought it was amazing, travelling the world by bike like him. 

So, at the beginning, the first thing we really did together was travelling. He invited me to go with him to Panama… and then to see the whole world together.

F.D: What were your thoughts when Mike first brought up opening a motorcycle tour company in Colombia? Colombia wasn’t exactly a big tourist destination back then… 

D.P: Yes, at the time there were still serious problems with security in the country. 

I think at the beginning Motolombia was Michael’s hobby since he didn’t have any friends in Colombia. It was Mikkel’s passion

F.D:  Did you join Mike in building up the business from the very beginning? What were you doing as a career before Motolombia came along? 

D.P.: I’ve been helping Mikkel from the beginning, because of my education is in business and of course, I was the local one, so I know the rules, I know about the licences and the regulations and could do all those important things.

Before I was the commercial manager of a very big company exporting coal to China and other countries. Then when I met Mike, I started managing our hostel, Casablanca, our first project as a family.

[For a while we had two businesses] Casablanca Hostel and Motolombia. When we realised there was much more potential in Motolombia [we sold Casablanca] and I focused on managing Motolombia.  

F.D: What do you enjoy most about your work? 

D.P:  What I love most is meeting so many people who come with this desire to see my country. In this job I feel like I can be a sort of ambassador for Colombia. 

Motolombia is a ‘happiness machine’. People come in full of ideas and dreams about travelling through Colombia. I feel super happy that we’re helping them to see the best of my beautiful country. Being able to talk to people from around the world, I can help to change some of the negative thinking about Colombia. 

F.D: How often do you get to join in on the tours and what does your role involve a guide/support on tour? 

D.P: I only go on the tours when we have a new destination. Then I’m the one making the deals and arrangements and checking out the route.

Now of course we have international destinations, so I do visit new destinations to make arrangements, so our guests have an enjoyable experience and I know how everything works in a different country.  

But mainly, my job is to make sure all our tours go as planned. If something extraordinary happens, I am in charge of [organising] Plan B. I try to keep the tours moving so even if plans do change it doesn’t stop the client from having the best experience ever. 

F.D: Is there a particular tour or an experience on tour that stands out most in your memory?  

D.P: It was a corporate tour from Italy, and they had a big group. I got the chance to drive the support truck. It was very interesting and yes, very difficult and challenging too, just because there were so many people to control. 

So, I really got to understand what it means to be on tour when you are in charge. It’s not so easy! So that’s the one I most remember.

F.D: Motorcycle touring is still very much a male-dominated pursuit. Do you get many women renting bikes and joining tours as a rider? Have you seen a growth in the number of female clients at all? 

D.P: Motorcycle tours, from what I’ve seen, it’s still not a typical thing for women. I do think it’s growing among women and becoming more in fashion. Here (at Motolombia) I meet a lot of women who ride with their husbands, or they have families who have something to do with motorcycles and that’s how they get inspired. 

Women are still a very small percentage of our customers. I hope we’ll see more women take part. I really hope it’s growing. 

F.D:  How do we get more women involved in moto touring? What advice do you have for women who are thinking about motorcycle travel for the first time? It can be difficult when they don’t know any other women with the same interests 

D.P: My advice is if it’s something you’re interested in you should absolutely make the decision to try. 

I believe women who ride motorcycles are special and unique and deserve to be noticed! You can see that now at motorcycle shops, with all the colours of the gear – there’s much more for women now. It’s becoming a fashion. There are motorcycle events for women as well where you can meet other women. 

Apart from riding being a great adventure, more women riding means greater equality in society! 

F.D: Finally, according to your bio on the Motolombia website you are “in the process of learning to ride motorcycles again”. How’s that coming along? What bike(s) are you riding and do you have a favourite? 

D.P:  Riding a motorcycle is still a challenge for me.

When I was young, I had a Yamaha Chappy. I had an accident and my father decided to sell the motorcycle. After that, I made a personal goal to buy my own motorcycle. I just thought, I’ll work hard and I’ll be back! But time just kept passing, and it didn’t happen.

And now I’m working for Motolombia! I’ve always kept in my mind that I would ride a motorcycle again. And then here I have such an amazing chance. At the same time, I have three children, the company growing and so many other responsibilities. 

But I have finally found a bike for myself! I got the chance to test ride the Honda NC750S and I believe this bike the best option for me. It’s practical, it’s automatic, it’s strong and it looks beautiful. 

Right now, riding… it’s still challenging. I’m pushing myself to overcome my fears and learning to balance and manage the bike’s weight. I want to do everything right because my dream is to become a good rider, and of course I have the best reference of what a good rider is right here, with Mike! 

I’m working on it. I’m dreaming about it, and I hope I’ll have more time to practice. I don’t know if I’ll be as good as Mikkel, but at least I’m going to do it! 

We hope you enjoyed getting to know Diana, co-founder of Motolombia and (soon to be) bad-ass rider!

Interviewed by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

RENT A MOTORCYCLE IN COLOMBIA:

Rent Motorcycle Colombia

Our Guide to Buying and Selling a Used Motorbike in Colombia

If you’re planning a long-haul motorcycle journey through South America, you’re inevitably going to want a set of wheels of your own. Provided you’re not hell bent on bringing your own wheels from home, buying a used motorcycle on arrival is generally the most cost- effective way to country-hopping through the continent.

If your first question was; “can I, as a foreign tourist, legally purchase a motorcycle in South America” we’ve already given you the answer: 

YES YOU CAN!

However, buying a vehicle in a South American country is a little more complicated than just answering a Craigslist ad and handing over a stack of cash.

Furthermore, legalities around non-citizens buying, registering and selling vehicles vary greatly from country to country.

So, for the purposes of this blog, we’re going to focus mainly on what we know best – buying and selling pre-owned bikes in Colombia. Fortunately, Colombia is a great place to kick off a South American adventure from a geographical standpoint, it’s also one of the easiest places to buy your own bike as a foreigner.

Things to Consider Beforehand

Whether you decide to buy a new or a used bike in Colombia or another South American country, you’ll need to do some research up-front.

Some of the most important questions to ask yourself are:

  • Can I register a bike in my own name as a foreigner, without a permanent local address?
  • Do I need any kind of special insurance?
  • What additional paperwork will I need to allow me to legally cross international borders?
  • Will I be able to sell the motorcycle relatively easily afterwards?

And, if you’re buying a used motorcycle:

  • How do I make sure I’m buying a bike that’s not a complete hunk of caca?

Often it’s that last point is that turns out to be the most frustrating. As a general rule, finding pre-owned bikes in good condition can be difficult and time-consuming without the right connections. And even if you buy direct from a dealership, service standards aren’t always as stringent as what you might be used to.

Seriously. Make sure your bike is up to the task. If there’s anything troubling you, get a second opinion from a reputable mechanic even after you’ve made your purchase. A remote mountain pass in the Andes or a muddy trail in the Amazon is just about the last place on earth you want your “new” set of wheels to give out on you.

Can I Bring My Foreign Registered Bike to Colombia? Can I Sell It There Too?

Since opening Motolombia, we’ve received countless questions on importing, buying and selling motorcycles in Colombia.
Being at that halfway point between the US and the rest of South America, Colombia is sort of a chokepoint for travellers. Some are at the end of their journey and desperate to sell their US and EU registered bikes before returning home.

There’s just one problem with that:

Selling a foreign registered bike in Colombia is illegal!

Now, plenty of people do bring foreign-registered bikes to Colombia, but this is only legal if the purpose of your visit is “tourism”. If you are indeed a tourist, Customs will issue you with a TTIP (Temporary Tourism Import Permit).

As a tourist, you are allowed to operate a foreign-registered vehicle in Colombia for three months. The TTIP also lets you leave Colombia with your bike and get a renewed three month stay upon returning.

Occasionally, we do hear of the odd tourist in Colombia selling their foreign-registered bike to another foreigner. The problem with this is the original vehicle title cannot be legally transferred to a new owner.

This makes it;

  • Impossible to obtain mandatory drivers’ insurance
  • Extremely awkward when the new owner tries to take the bike out of Colombia (or gets checked out by police or customs at any random control point). The owner will be asked to hand over the vehicle registration card, which will of course be invalid and will usually result in the offending vehicle being immediately confiscated.
  • Extremely risky and costly should you be involved in an accident with injuries occurring as you will have no 3rd party coverage, nor be covered yourself and will likely result in you taking the full blame no matter the fault and in severe cases end with jail time.

Purchasing a Pre-Owned Motorcycle in Colombia

Before You Buy 

As a foreigner, you can legally purchase a Colombian registered bike, and have the vehicle title transferred into your name and acquire mandatory insurance without requiring a permanent address in Colombia.

Before you start negotiations, make sure the seller has all the motorcycle’s papers in order.

The documents required to sell a vehicle in Colombia are:

  • Registration Card

     

  • Technico Mechanica – a document from an authorised test center (valid for 12 months) verifying that the vehicle is currently roadworthy
  • SOAT – Basic, third-party insurance. Compulsory for all vehicles while in Colombian territory. While the insurance is about $150 USD/year for smaller vehicles the “SOAT” is valid only in Colombia. You will have to purchase a new SOAT each time you enter a new country in South America. They can usually be purchased for one month at a time.

Then, there’s one more vital step:

RUNT (Registro Único Nacional de Tránsito) is a national database for all drivers and owners of vehicles in Colombia. Registering with RUNT is free, and essential. Valid passport and a finger for fingerprint registration required.

Transferring the Registration
Finally, it’s time for you and the seller to head to the Transport Office where the vehicle is currently registered. Bring your driver’s license and passport.
There’s quite a lot of paperwork to be filled out during this process, and it’s important you understand everything you sign.

If you purchase your bike from a dealership rather than a private party, the dealer should ensure that all procedures are followed correctly. Remember though, there aren’t too many second-hand moto dealers in Colombia used to dealing with tourists.

With Motolombia, helping tourists get on the road is all we do, so buy a bike with us and we’ll help take care of everything.

Buying a Pre-Owned Motorcycle with Motolombia

If you want to ride independently through South America, our rentals are fine should you only plan to spend a couple of weeks, up to maybe about a month or two on the road.

However, if your South American adventure is a long-term kinda thing, that per-day rental fee eventually becomes cost prohibitive and a pre-owned purchase ends up as the most sensible/affordable option.

Also, motorcycles rented in Colombia are prohibited from traversing any border, other than the Ipiales/Tulcan crossing into Ecuador.
At Motolombia, we have a small but highly maintained fleet of pre-owned motos available for sale here.

If you’re looking for something dirt cheap (and hey, there’s nothing wrong with that – provided your ‘bush mechanic’ skills are rock solid), you’ll need to search elsewhere, as we only deal in relatively late model, mid-to-high end machines.

We know you just want to start riding as fast as possible, instead of getting bogged down in paperwork. Part of our service is making sure you and your new bike are 100% road legal. Once the bike is under your name, you have the freedom to cross international borders and explore South America as you please.

Altogether, from choosing your bike, having us set it up to your liking, sorting the paperwork and wheeling the bike out of the shop and into the world, the entire process takes between two and five days.

And, at the end of it all, we can even buy your bike back! Yes, we can make the massively annoying headache of selling a used bike in a foreign country completely disappear, instead of hanging around to ruin the end of your holiday of a lifetime!

How Does Motolombia’s Buy-Back Scheme Work?

Riding from the Caribbean to Tierra del Fuego and back is awesome. What’s not awesome is your trip ending and you realising the motorcycle that brought you so much joy now needs getting rid of, and pronto.

After hearing from so many riders who ended up with issues selling their bikes before going home, we introduced the Motolombia Buy-Back Guarantee, the only motorcycle buy-back scheme of its kind in South America. We guarantee to buy the bike back from you up to six months after the initial purchase, for a pre-arranged value. There’s no obligation to return it to us in the end, however, should your bike find another buyer, or perhaps even another purpose.

Of course, there are terms and conditions:

  • The buyer must return the vehicle to Motolombia in the same condition it was received in, accepting normal wear and tear
  • A full before and after workshop report is issued to bring to light any damage or unauthorised modifications
  • If we do discover any issues, they will be itemised and deducted from the return payment. Alternatively, the buyer has the option to fix the issues elsewhere before returning the vehicle
  • The buyer is responsible for maintaining the bike in roadworthy condition and following the maintenance plan issued by the manufacturer
    Sounds Pretty Solid!

What if Want to Buy a Bike Elsewhere in South America?

Anything outside of Colombia is beyond our expertise. The rules in Colombia change often enough – we simply can’t keep up with them and all the other countries!

Motorcycle travellers – Colombia is an excellent place to buy a motorcycle in South America, not just because of its strategic position, but because tourists can legally register vehicles in their own name.

In several other South American countries, the process is far more complicated, with all kinds of additional hoops to jump through, such as requiring sponsorship or acquiring a special permit.

In the case of Argentina (considered the worst country to buy a vehicle in as a foreigner in South America), any vehicle that has Argentinian papers but is registered to a foreign driver is prohibited from leaving the country at all!

If you’ve dreamt of exploring South America by motorcycle, we urge you to get out there and do it.

There are a million ways to make it happen, and the services offered at Motolombia are just a few of them. We just try to give people a bit of inspiration and a practical head start.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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Safety in Colombia: The Motorcycle Touring Edition

Is Colombia safe? This is the single most frequently asked question about travel to Colombia. Bring up your plans to travel to Colombian in conversation and the response may well be “are you crazy?”

Mention planning to travel Colombia on a motorcycle? You’re now considered certifiably insane.

Here’s where a dose of reality comes in handy.

Colombia of course has an incredibly bleak history of violence. But with the collapse of the major crime syndicates over a decade ago, and now, the ongoing peace process between FARC and the Colombian government, the country has been undergoing a massive transformation, resulting in an incomparably safer environment for all.  

Beginning in the early 2000s, Colombia’s government substantially boosted law enforcement. Military agencies succeeded in drastically improving the overall security situation, clearing out thousands of armed rebels occupying swathes of rural Colombia. Dozens of incredible tourist sites once sealed off in remote parts of the country have been reclaimed.  

The cities are also faring better. A case in point – at the time of Pablo Escobar’s death in 1993, Medellin had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the world. By the mid-2000s, this ugly statistic had fallen by 86%.

As a visitor, it’s probably best to look at it this way. More tourists than ever are visiting Colombia. The vast majority of them come back alive. Lonely Planet ranked Colombia 2nd in their 2017 “Best in Travel” list. Hardly the kind of accolade you would bestow on a war zone.

Certainly, poverty and violence are still issues for many people living in Colombia. However, there’s nothing uniquely or worryingly dangerous about today’s Colombia from a tourist’s perspective. Visitors can travel around the country freely, by any means they wish. Motorcycles included.

GENERAL SAFETY IN COLOMBIA

 

Only a handful of the millions of tourists who visit Colombia every year fall victim to crime, and most are non-violent street crimes. On rare occasions, tourists have been targeted by armed robbers, but being pickpocketed is a far more likely scenario, particularly in crowded public places.
We won’t go into how to be street wise and avoid crime in Colombia, as there’s plenty of advice out there already – mostly basic, common-sense rules that should apply when exploring any unfamiliar city.
The best advice is to heed the popular Colombian saying, ‘no dar papaya’ (literally, don’t give papaya). In a nutshell, it means don’t make yourself an easy target, and it’s the best advice on being street wise anyone can give.

 
 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL SAFETY IN COLOMBIA

 

Twenty years ago, touring Colombia by motorcycle was definitely not recommended.
These days, with the massively improved security situation, riding Colombia’s highways and backroads is nothing like the risky game of ‘try not to get kidnapped’ it once was. While it’s wrong to say roadside incidents have been eliminated altogether, they are extremely rare, and tourists are not the targets of these organised plots.
Despite the threat to tourists being vastly downgraded, some governments still have travel warnings in place for parts of rural Colombia. In our view, the official travel advice issued by many governments doesn’t always apply the latest data and often exaggerates the dangers, if only to cover their own backsides in the event that you do run into trouble. Take note of their advice, but do your own research.
You should however check with your insurer to make sure you are covered in places with travel warnings against them.

PLANNING A SAFE ROUTE

 

Road conditions, and your experience level are the main limiting factors when it comes to planning routes and ride destinations in Colombia. If you don’t have much off-road experience, stick to the many beautiful sealed roads the country has to offer. The challenge of learning to handle a bike on dirt, combined with oblivious drivers, crazy truckers and all sorts of hazards you might not be used to at home can result in an unpleasant, if not downright dangerous experience.

Many rural parts of the country have poorly developed infrastructure. Even a place with some semblance of a ‘road’ can be difficult or impossible to reach by bike at certain times of the year. Heavy rain, combined with damage from trucks can turn dirt roads into impassable muddy tracks. Help can be hard to find if you end up stuck on a particularly remote stretch of road.

If you’re not sure about a particular route, ask around for advice before setting off, The knowledgeable folk at Motolombia, as well as adventure riding forums like advrider are excellent sources of first-hand information pre-trip.

 
 

RIDER SAFETY TIPS ON COLOMBIAN ROADS

 
  • Many Colombian drivers consider following road rules optional, so be ready for anything, anywhere, anytime. Trucks and buses careening around blind corners, animals wandering freely on highways and sections of road that drop away suddenly by 20cm or more. Your hazard perception skills will be tested.
  • The state of secondary roads can vary from one kilometre to the next, so using distance alone (or Google Maps) isn’t an accurate way of calculating travel times. 50km on a windy, gravelly stretch of mountain road could take 3 hours. More if you have to wait for roadworks or a landslip to be cleared. Always factor in extra time to reach your intended destination.
 
ride safety
  • Colombian roads are notorious for excessive speed bumps. They’re especially prevalent at the entrance and exists of towns along the highways. The whereabouts of these evil harbingers of discomfort is not always signposted, and if hit at speed, can cause damage to bike and rider. The same holds true for potholes, so on poorly maintained roads, slow down, and if it’s safe to do so, manoeuvre around them to avoid potentially destroying a rim.
  • Signage varies from excellent to non-existent. Beware of painted road markings that become slippery when wet
  • Watch for smaller bikes while waiting to pass vehicles. You might be trailing a truck waiting for a clear view before overtaking, when a 125cc appears on your tail, ready to pass on a blind corner. Colombian riders in general are not particularly risk averse and so not great examples to follow!
  • Don’t leave without basic equipment including a tool kit, puncture repair kit, first aid supplies and wet weather gear. Particularly in the mountains, the weather can change in an instant. A satellite GPS messenger like the Spot personal tracker is an excellent idea in case of emergency.
  • There are speed cameras, particularly at major intersections in town, and in tunnels. If do get done, expect to receive a bill of around $150US in the post about a month later.
  • Between 6PM and 6AM, riders are required to wear a fluorescent vest with reflectors and your license plate number displayed. If you rent a bike from Motolombia, this vest will be supplied. It’s not a bad idea to wear it at all times for a bit of added safety.
  • There are three types of police who can stop passers-by – military, National Police and el Transito, although big bikes are rarely stopped. If you do get waved over, you’ll usually experience nothing more than a brief, polite exchange. Nearly everyone is friendly and considerate of foreign guests, all part of why motorcycle travel in Colombia is so rewarding.

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The 10 Most Beautiful Villages in Colombia

Planning a motorcycle tour in Colombia?

There really is no better way to escape the chaos of the cities than saddling up and hitting the highway, forging onward as the traffic dwindles and then finally disappears, and empty roads open up before you, inviting a world of endless possible adventures. Of course, not all of us can afford to ride without plan or purpose. You’ll most likely want to map out the majority of your route, including picking out your stopovers, many of which will end up being small towns. In truth, many of Colombia’s small towns have little to offer besides a cheap feed and a bed for the night. On the other hand, there are some truly delightful rural pueblos and small towns which make worthy destinations in their own right.

The 10 villages on this list were picked for their aesthetic appeal and inviting, small town atmosphere. So, start planning your dream ride and be sure to visit at least a few of Colombia’s 10 Most Beautiful Small Towns.

1. BARICHARA, SANTANDER

Barichara (population 7,063) was an obvious choice for the top spot. Immensely atmospheric and visually stunning, the laidback charms of Barichara are apparent the second you set foot on its cobblestone streets. A compact colonial hillside town, Barichara sits atop a plateau overlooking the Suarez River canyon. The steep, narrow streets are lined with whitewashed, terracotta-roofed homes, and the further up you climb, the more the views of the surrounding valley intensify. Although Barichara has its share of fancy boutique hotels, it doesn’t feel like a tourist trap. Life moves at a leisurely pace, the locals are genuinely welcoming, and once the day-trippers are gone, evenings in the plaza are serene and romantic.

Barichara is 20km from the adventure tourist mecca of San Gil and 118km from the state capital, Bucaramanga.

 

2. JARDÍN, ANTIOQUIA

 

A lovely, unassuming gem couched in the emerald green hills of Antioquia, Jardin (population 14,777) is among the most visually alluring townships in the Zona Cafetera, or Coffee Triangle. With brightly painted buildings, a lively plaza perfect for people watching and plenty to see and do in the surrounding countryside, Jardin is slowly attracting a trickle of visitors straying from the gringo trail. The cable car ride to the Alto de las Flores mountain peak culminates in fantastic views Jardin’s verdant countryside.

133km south of Medellin, Jardin has enough to tempt you into several days’ stay, with excursions to nearby coffee farms, waterfalls and prime birdwatching habitats.

 

 
 

3. JERICÓ, ANTIOQUIA

 

Another overlooked town in the Zona Cafetera, Jericó (population 12,100) is mainly visited by domestic pilgrims journeying to the hometown of Colombia’s first saint, Mother Laura Montoya. Religious significance aside, Jerico is quite possibly the most picture-perfect pueblo in Antioquia (and maybe even all of Colombia), its storybook-like appearance materialising out of the misty mountains, a village-scape of elaborate old churches and immaculate streets lined with Crayola-coloured houses and flower-draped balconies.

Don’t leave without hiking up Cerro Las Nubes for a soul-stirring view of the southern Antioquian mountain ranges.

4. GUATAPÉ, ANTIOQUIA

 

Guatapé (population 5,600) is hardly a hidden secret, but as a contender for the most colourful town in Colombia, this curious little village on the shores of a massive man-made lake was bound for backpacker fame.

It’s almost impossible to pinpoint Guatape’s architecture to any particular time period. There’s a fantasy-like, Legoland quality to the block-shaped houses in meticulous, symmetrical rows, all hand-painted in bold colours and embellished with ornate frescoes (called ‘zocalos) depicting everything from family professions to forest creatures to favourite pop culture icons. Guatape’s primary attraction is the hike to the top of the nearby La Piedra Peñol, a 2,135m high monolith. 650 stairs criss-cross the bizarre-looking rock like a gigantic zipper. Reach the top and you’ll be rewarded with a rather stupendous view of the Guatape Reservoir’s meandering waterways and islands.

Guatapé is an easy two hour, 83km day trip from Medellin.

 

 
 

5. PIJAO, QUINDIO

 

Coffee tourism has swept through to the Colombian countryside in a big way, but has so far passed right over Pijao (population 10,250), an impossibly pretty little town where life feels simpler, and visitors are sure to share a few cups of arabica brew with the irrepressibly welcoming locals.

Despite being relatively unknown to the outside world, Pijao was the first South American town to join the ‘Cittaslow’ or ‘slow city’ movement, a community-based movement focusing on sustainability and preserving cultural heritage. Pijao is well worth a detour for serious coffee enthusiasts, with some of the best plantation tours and finca homestays found in nearby countryside.

 

6. VILLA DE LEYVA, BOYACÁ

 

Largely intact colonial towns are somewhat of a rarity in Colombia, which makes Villa de Leyva (population 16,984) all the more enchanting. Founded in 1572, the entire town was declared a national monument in 1954 and has remained perfectly preserved ever since, with no modern architecture detracting from its beautifully whitewashed Spanish buildings.

The focal point of the town is the Plaza Mayor. 14,000 square metres wide and completely covered in cobblestone, the largest square in Colombia is a stunning sight, framed by immaculate 16th century mansions.

Curiously, one of Villa de Leyva’s most visited attractions is not from the colonial period at all. The vaguely Gaudi-inspired Casa Terracotta just outside town is a whimsical, wonky construction made entirely from clay.

160km from Bogota, Villa de Leyva is a popular weekend escape from the city.

7. SALAMINA, CALDAS

 

Salamina (population 18,740) is a quaint coffee country town. For now, it remains unconcerned with catering to the whims of tourists and is just happy to be itself – a sleepy, deeply traditional town which just happens to boast some of the most beautiful heritage architecture of any Colombian pueblo. Coffee growers who struck wealth in the early days decorated their homes with elaborate woodwork, embellishing the doorways, balconies and window frames that give Salamina its distinctive aesthetic.

The main landmark is the all-white church, an ivory tower looming large over Salamina’s pastel-hued homes and colourful plaza.

Hot travel tip – the giant wax palms of the Valle del Cocora, Salento’s most famous tourist attraction, also grow prolifically in a valley near the village of San Felix. About 30km outside of Salamina, here you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.  

 

 
 

8. MOMPOX, BOLÍVAR

 

Once a thriving port town, plonked on an island in the middle of the mighty Rio Magdalena, when the trading boom came to an end in the 19th century, Mompox seemed to simply become trapped in time, forgotten by the outside world for generations. Much of Mompox has changed little since the colonial days. It was granted World Heritage protection in 1995.

Today, Mompox is experiencing a second wave of prosperity, as tourists from Cartagena (136km to the south east) flock to stroll the nostalgia-laden stone streets of a town that resembles a Hollywood period film set, or Gabriel García Márquez’ magical, make-believe settlement of Macondo. A few of the riverside merchant mansions have been converted into bars and boutique hotels, while the silversmith workshops along Calle Real del Medio are an atmospheric highlight.

 
 

10. MONGUÍ, BOYACÁ

 

Sitting at a breathtaking 2,900m above sea level, Monguí (population 5,000) is an idyllic highland pueblo. Built on the side of a mountain, practically every corner of the town has panoramic views of the valley below. A 17th century Franciscan monastery dominates the plaza, where local farmers in their ruanas (traditional woollen ponchos) congregate to sell fresh produce. The 17th century Calicanto Bridge is watercolour-painting-picturesque, constructed from a concoction of clay, lime and bull’s blood.

The 20km road from Sogamoso is a ascends steeply through truly beautiful mountain scenery. Mongui is also a great base for exploring the surrounding paramo (Andean tundra landscape).

 

9. LA PLAYA DE BELEN, NORTE DE SANTANDER

 

La Playa de Belen (population 8,546) is a squeaky clean village with just a few streets leading to a miniature plaza dominated by the two white towers and golden domes of the San Jose church. Everything in the village – the houses, streets, sidewalks and even the potted wall plants decorating the sides of buildings – have been perfectly planned and pristinely maintained. What makes Playa truly remarkable is its otherworldly setting in a valley surrounded by undulating, weathered rock formations.

Just a few minutes outside of town is the incredible Los Estoraques Unique Natural Area, a geological wonder made up of rugged rows of erosion-worn brownstone pedestals and columns.

The 269km route from Mompox to La Playa through dry canyons and lush river valleys is one of the most spectacular rides in northern Colombia.

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A Motorcycle Mecca of Seven Million Motorbikes

WHY MOTO-TOURISTS SHOULD EMBRACE COLOMBIA’S TWO WHEELED PASSION

 

My first port of call in Colombia was Medellin. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of motorcycles plying the city’s busy streets.
Before Colombia, the last place I’d embarked on a long-distance motorcycle journey was another Latin American country, Mexico. But unlike Mexico, where cars are definitely king, in Colombia, road-goers harbour a unique passion for travelling on two wheels. We all know Colombians are renowned as some of the world’s keenest cyclists, but motorcycles too, are an integral part of life on Colombia’s highways.
Exploring Medellin on foot, I constantly found myself dodging scooters and 200c Chinese-made bikes whilst trying to navigate the city’s chaotic traffic. I also strolled past gleaming dealerships showcasing the latest Ducatis and Aprilias, and even a Royal Enfield specialist. Medellin is a city with a thriving motorcycle culture, and that’s true of Colombia in general. In many urban areas, motorbikes outnumber cars by a significant margin.

Later in Cali, we rode past an impressive of cavalcade of hundreds of sports bikes, tourers and cruisers on one of their regular Sunday rides to the nearby countryside.
Several locals explained to me how ingrained the motorcycle is in Colombian culture. Rich or poor, male or female, so many Colombians ride. And why not?
The popularity of motorcycles in Colombia goes beyond the fact that they’re an affordable mode of transport in both cities and rural areas. Ninety-five per cent of Colombians live in mountainous regions, where steep, narrow, rough and winding roads are a fact of life. Riding a moto here isn’t just practical, it’s fun.
Crazy, crazy fun.

It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise then to know over 7 million motorcycles (out of 13 million vehicles in total) were registered in Colombia in 2017.
For Colombians, the motorcycle represents not just freedom and discovery, but kinship with your fellow riders.
For visitors, la moto is a ticket to unlocking the Colombia beyond the major highways and well-trodden tourist trails. Travelling by bike, you’re a participant, not just a passive observer. With no barriers between you and the outside world, motorcycle travel fosters an intimate connection with the landscape, the environment and the people.
This is true of motorcycle travel everywhere of course, but for experienced riders, Colombia has something extra special.
The majestic Andean ranges dominate the western half of Colombia, carving up the land into a series of mountains and valleys that make the country a rider’s paradise, blessed with endless twisties and astonishing scenery at every turn.
Fabulous roads aside, two-wheeled touring in Colombia has other advantages thanks to the country’s strong motorcycle culture.

 
 
  • Exploring the country by motorcycle, you’re sure to meet other bikers riding for leisure or adventure – not just foreigners but locals too. Meeting fellow riders always makes for interesting conversations, and the opportunity to share advice, travel tips and recommendations
  • Since so many Colombians haven an interest in motos, the presence of a bike often captures people’s attentions and encourages them to strike up a conversation. Travelling by motorbike makes it easy to meet friendly locals from all around the country
  • Tyre and basic motorcycle repair shops are literally everywhere. Even on some of the more remote stretches of highway, you’re rarely too far from a side-of-the road shack ready to patch up that pesky puncture.
  • Dealerships for many of the major brands and quality bike mechanics carrying spare parts are present in almost all large Colombian cities
  • Foreigners have several options available for either renting or buying a motorcycle for a self-guided expedition. Don’t want to go it alone? The same rental companies also offer organised, fully guided group tours. Thanks in part to Colombia’s moto-friendly attitude, motorcycle tour operators in Colombia tend to be professionally run organisations with a wide selection of new, well-maintained machines on offer
  • Some main roads in major cities have dedicated motorcycle lanes so riders are able to breeze through traffic much faster
  • Toll roads are free for motorcycles. Hooray! When you approach a toll gate, just slip in to the designated bike lane on the far right and off you go, leaving a trail of grumbling car drivers in your wake

Whether you have four days or four months to go riding, there’s a special part of Colombia that only a passion for two wheels and a spirit of adventure can reveal.

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A Motorcyclist’s Travel Guide to the Zona Cafetera (Colombia’s Coffee Region)

The vast, fertile tract of countryside at the foothills of the Cordillera de los Andes is known as Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone). Also referred to as the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis), and the Coffee Triangle, the area is Colombia’s most important coffee growing region.
Covering the departments of Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda, this once remote backwater has earned a reputation for producing the finest coffee arabica beans in the world.
Mecca for worshippers of the coffee religion, the Eje Cafetero has plenty to offer the unconverted too – lush, mountain landscapes, tiny townships with cute Colonial architecture and some of Colombia’s most magnificent national parks.
For motorcyclists, the Eje Cafetero promises world-class road riding. Take on countless twisties on traffic-free backroads, explore rarely-visited rural villages and visit waterfalls and hot springs, all without leaving the comfort of the tarmac.

GETTING TO COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 

With your own set of wheels, getting almost anywhere within the Coffee Triangle is a breeze. Coffee exports have made the Eje Cafetero the most developed region in rural Colombia, and the vast majority of roads here are sealed – no off-road experience necessary!
The regional capital, Armenia is 280km from Bogota, and is an easy, straightforward 2 hours, or roughly 180km from Cali.
Manizales is the closest major city from Medellin. While it’s only 200km south, roadworks, landslides and heavy vehicle traffic mean the journey can sometimes be slow-going. 

WHEN TO VISIT AND WEATHER CONDITIONS

 

Mild temperatures and decent rainfall define the climate year-round, so there’s really no good or bad time to tour the Zona Cafetera.
A typical day will flip flop between warm sunshine and showery patches, plus the occasional heavy downpour. Early in the morning and after rain, beware of low-hanging mist obstructing visibility.
Yes, it does get a little wet here, but the scenery wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and the coffee not nearly as tasty otherwise.

WHERE TO STAY

MANIZALES

 
 

The capital of Caldas Department, Manizales is one of the three main cities in the Coffee Region, alongside Pereira and Armenia. Overlooked by most tourists who head straight to the villages closest to the plantations, for a taste of ‘big city’ life in coffee country, Manizales is easily the most pleasant of the coffee capitals. Home to around 400,000 residents, Manizales nevertheless enjoys a relaxed and friendly small city vibe and has a handful of handsome Spanish-style Colonial buildings. A university town, Manizales lays claim to the best nightlife in the region.

SALENTO

 
salento-colombia
 

Firmly entrenched on the ‘Gringo Trail’, once sleepy Salento absorbs the majority of tourists visiting the Coffee Triangle, due, in part to its location, 30 minutes from one of the biggest drawcards in the region, the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.
Still, Salento has more than enough charm to hold its own. With looming mountains in the near-distance and coffee plantations stretching all the way to the edge of town, Salento’s streets are lined with white-walled colonial houses, their doors, window frames and balconies painted in whimsical combinations of rainbow-bright colour.
While tourists can sometimes seem to outnumber locals, Salento is hardly Disneyfied. The businesses are locally owned, the natives friendly and the vendors undemanding.
Meeting other travellers and arranging tours is no problem in Salento. Accommodation is plentiful, with many guesthouses able to accommodate gated parking for your moto.

 

FILANDIA

 
 

20km from Salento. Filandia has almost twice the (permanent) population of the aforesaid town yet feels far quieter, slower, and more like itself – unconcerned by the trappings of the backpacker economy. The cheerily painted facades of Filandia’s residences are vivid and varied as the most colourful Salento street. The tourist crowds of Salento can sometimes feel a world away, and visitors will find quickly find themselves easing into Filandia’s languorous pace of life.
Once you’ve done a coffee plantation tour or two, there’s not much to do in Filandia itself other than wander lazily from café to café, and exchange banter with the friendly locals, which is exactly what gives Filandia its irresistible charm.

 

SALAMINA

 
 

While Filandia has its fair share of fans, Salamina’s status as a ‘secret gem’ remains safe for now. An isolated pueblo of some 19,000 souls, Salamina is almost 4 hours from Salento and a 70km journey along a scenic secondary road south from Manizales. Salamina shares the same distinctive heritage architecture as other coffee towns – white walls and rainbow-hued timberwork. Its leafy plaza sits overlooked by an all-white church with a looming ivory tower.
Why go out of your way to see yet another Colonial coffee town?
Salamina may well be the single most beautiful village in the entire region, and is recognised as one of the 17 pueblo patrimonios (heritage towns) by Colombia’s official tourism department.
Secret Tip: 25km east of town, giant wax palms (the very same type that make the Valle de Cocora Salento’s most famous attraction) grow prolifically in an undulating valley near the village of San Felix. While it’s not quite as dramatic as Cocora, you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.

FINCA AND HACIENDA STAYS

 
 

Coffee fincas (farms) are blanketed across huge swathes of the Eje Cafetero, and for those who want to get a bit closer to the source of their morning espresso, many fincas provide lodging in hacienda style accommodation. Some haciendas are incredibly luxurious, befitting the tastes of the wealthiest of plantation owners, while others are more humble, homestay-like affairs. Some fincas offer free food and lodging in return for volunteer work.

 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 
coffee-stay

Conveniently located, extraordinarily scenic and packed with things to do (from leisurely coffee tastings to intense multi-day hiking excursions) the Zona Cafetera is a great addition to any two-wheeled touring itinerary. the mountain scenery is spectacularly lush and evergreen and no matter where you point your tires, the Andean roads deliver curves till the cows come home.
If you’re inexperienced or not a fan of riding off-road, the Zona Cafetera is perfect. You can easily plan a route sticking exclusively to sealed roads without missing any of the major sights and attractions.
A great introduction to motorcycle touring in Colombia, Motolombia run a 3 Day, all-tarmac Coffee Taster Ride from Cali, stopping in at Salento, Filandia Valle de Cocora, a working coffee finca, hot springs, waterfalls and more.

STILL READING? CHECK OUT THIS TOP SECRET BONUS ROAD WARRIOR’S COFFEE COUNTRY DAY TRIP

 
coffee-road-colombia

While nearly every road in coffee country is as curvaceous as it is scenic, we highly recommend putting a half day aside to take the road less travelled and experience one of the absolute best rides in the region. Between La Virginia (60km north of Salento) and Supía is a smooth and winding blast north along a quiet stretch of Highway 25.
Featured in our Top 10 Paved Roads of Colombia list, this 100km one way trip is tonnes of fun without being overly demanding, with lots of swooping curves and some truly stellar scenery.

 

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Introducing Cali, Colombia – Vibrant Salsa Capital of the World and Adventure Motorcycle Riding Heaven

Santiago de Cali (‘Cali’ for short), is the largest city in southwest Colombia, nestled against forested mountains in an eternally warm valley between the Pacific coast and Colombia’s western Andean region.

Not exactly on the ‘Gringo Trail’, the foreign visitors who do make it to Cali are usually doing so for one of three reasons:

➤ They’re stopping over while travelling overland through South America via Ecuador
➤ They’re taking advantage of the city’s reputation as a medical tourism hub (a curious subject, but one best saved for another kind of blog), or most likely;
➤ They’ve come to Cali to DANCE

Cali is known throughout Colombia and by lovers of Latin dance the universe over as the world’s unofficial salsa capital. The passion for salsa is completely ingrained in the city’s identity, culminating in the Feria de Cali, a marathon six-day festival of dance held every December. But come to Cali at any time of year, and the sounds of salsa are inescapable. Its tropical rhythms run in every Caleño’s blood.

A Medellin native once told me, “in Medellin, they dance salsa to try and impress partners. In Cali, they dance salsa for the love of salsa.”

Lured by world-renowned dance schools, and an endless array of salsa dedicated nightclubs and bars, salsa fans flock to Cali to immerse themselves in the distinctively athletic Cali style.

But I suck at dancing! Why else should I visit Cali?

 

If you’re not so sure salsa’s your thing, a visit to Cali might just change your mind, given the infectious exuberance and overwhelmingly welcoming attitude of the Cali scene.

But, if you prefer your hips straddling the saddle of a motorcycle rather than grinding against a dance partner, Cali should definitely be on your travel radar.

 

Cali is the best city in Colombia for adventure motorcycle riding

 

It’s no coincidence that Colombia’s best-known motorcycle touring company have based themselves in Cali. Cali’s location is precisely what makes it the perfect springboard to adventure riding heaven.

Consider this.
Cali is one of the few places in the world where you can hit the Pacific Coast within two
hours and then, circling back a little, make your way through the Andes, touch the edge of
the Amazon rainforest and ride right back to your starting point – all in a single week*.

 

This part of Colombia is literally one of the most diverse motorcycling destinations in
Latin America.

 

But it’s not just the rough and tumble rural roads that make southwestern Colombia ideal for two-wheeled escapades. Cali is the closest major city to the Zona Cafetera, the country’s most famous coffee producing region. Three hours north of Cali, this evergreen dominion promises spectacular paved mountain roads, coffee plantation tours and the chance to stay in luxurious haciendas.

Head straight south from Cali and in two hours you’ll reach Popayan, considered one of the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. From Popayan, a 136km ride to the World Heritage listed San Agustin Archaeological Park takes you through a scenic stretch of winding gravel through the volcanic landscapes of Purace National Park.

If you’re drawn to remote, off-road adventure riding, departing from Cali, smooth, bitumen highways can quickly become a distant memory. In a few days you can cross the mighty Magdalena River and traverse the majestic Tatacoa Desert. You can even join Motolombia’s guided, all-terrain expedition to the legendary Caño Cristales (the ‘River of the Gods’), the only overland tour of its kind.

From volcanoes and canyons to jungles, deserts, coffee farms and colonial cities, the regions surrounding Cali have it all.

And, being a fairly compact city, it rarely takes long to get out of the traffic and straight to the good bits. Compare this to Bogota, where congestion regularly stretches for hours outside the city. Or Cartagena, whose numblingly straight highways are a far cry from those famously twisty Andean dream roads.

So, if you’re planning on motorcycle touring in Colombia and are keen to ride the best roads the country has to offer, consider beginning your adventure in Cali. Bring your dancing shoes along with your riding boots and you might even end up a hip swivelling salsa convert on the side!

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Colombia – One of the Most Biodiverse Countries on Earth

There’s no doubt about it, Colombia has arrived on the global tourism stage in a big way. It’s not just an improved international perspective on safety that’s led to Colombia’s rise as one of the world’s fastest growing tourism destinations. Back in 2008, the Colombian tourism board ran a series of ads touting the country’s cultural, historical and natural wonders.

While many travellers are familiar with Colombia’s cities – the charmingly colonial Cartagena, the stately metropolis of Bogota and the buzzing urban playground of Medellin, it’s Colombia’s still largely undiscovered natural wonders that are perhaps its most valuable tourism assets.

One Nation – Dozens of Unique Ecosystems

 

Biodiversity refers to the variety of and variability of plants, animals and other lifeforms in a given region.

If you were to guess which country claims the title of ‘Most Biodiverse’, and immediately thought of Brazil (the country whose borders contain the majority of the Amazon Rainforest), well, you’d be right.

What far fewer people realise is the country coming in a close second for biodiversity lies right across the Brazilian border. Neighbouring Colombia is home to a confirmed 1,845 species of bird – more than anywhere else on the planet. Colombia is second in variety of plant species, amphibians, butterflies and freshwater fish, third in reptiles and fourth globally in biodiversity of mammals. One in every 10 species of living flora and fauna on record can be found in Colombia.

So how is a country around seven times smaller than Brazil almost comparable in terms of biodiversity? A quick glance at a map yields a compelling explanation.

 

Fringed by the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, with an inland border cutting through the Amazon Rainforest, Colombia is carved into several distinct regions by the Andean mountain ranges. Within the country are 53 million hectares of forest and 22 million hectares of savannas, arid zones, wetlands and snow-capped mountain peaks. Its coasts are home to tropical coral reefs, lagoons, mangroves and jungle-flanked beaches. Fourteen per cent of the country is comprised of protected national parks, natural parks and sanctuaries.

 

Why Biodiversity is the Key to Colombia’s Tourism Future

 

Many of Colombia’s least developed areas – the Amazon regions, the Pacific Choco region, and the eastern plains – are also among its most biodiverse. Unfortunately, the biodiversity of these regions is under pressure from industry (particularly mining and deforestation), causing the destruction of wild habitats and disrupting the natural balance of sensitive ecosystems.

There’s little doubt the most remote communities in Colombia are in need of infrastructure, funding and employment opportunities. Now, environmental groups in Colombia are pushing for these regions to embrace their biodiversity and support ecotourism initiatives that help protect diversity rather than industries which contribute to its destruction. With ecotourism among the fastest growing tourism sectors in the world, Colombia is perfectly positioned to take advantage of the boom and conserve its precious environmental resources at the same time.

 

Four of Colombia’s Best Ecotourism Adventures

 

Caño Cristales, Serranía de la Macarena National Park

Possibly the most iconic natural wonder in Colombia, Caño Cristales (known as ‘the River of Five Colours’) is the name given to the Guayabero River tributary, which due to a unique phenomenon caused by the brightly coloured blooms of an aquatic plant called macarenia clavigera, becomes a shimmering rainbow of vibrant colours between June and December each year. While bright pink is the most common colour, the river’s shallow, crystalline waters run with a variety of hues including blue, green, yellow and orange. Outside the season, the park is closed to visitors to allow the surrounding environment to recuperate, and eco protection rules are strictly enforced including mandatory guides, a cap of 200 visitors per day, a ban on sun screen and insect repellent when visiting the water and limited areas where swimming is permitted.

Motolombia visits Caño Cristales once a year on the epic River of the Gods guided off-road expedition, giving you an entirely unique perspective of the park’s ruggedness and isolation beyond the standard tourist trail.

Chingaza National Park

Less than half a day’s ride from Bogota, this enormous National Park makes for both an accessible and challenging expedition through a range of unique Andean ecosystems. Ranging in altitude from 800m to 4,000m, the park encompasses vast swathes of silent paramo wetlands, alpine woodlands and snow-capped mountain ranges. Guided multi-day hikes provide you with the chance to observe rare wildlife such as the jaguar, puma, woolly monkey, mountain tapir and spectacled bear.  

El Cocuy National Park

300km north of Bogota, El Cocuy is perhaps the most visually striking national park in the Colombian Andes. Home to Colombia’s largest glacial land mass, Cocuy’s dramatic landscape is alternately lush and desolate, consisting of wind-swept valleys, glacier-gouged lakes, frozen tundra and mist-shrouded forest. The park offers several trails ranging from day-hikes to endurance-testing weeklong expeditions. Experienced climbers can tackle the permanently icy summits of El Concavo (5,200m) and Pan de Azúcar (5,120 m).

Wildlife Expeditions in Los Llanos

Well off the beaten path, Los Llanos is an area of vast tropical grassland spanning north western Colombia and southern Venezuela. For wildlife enthusiasts, Llanos is perhaps the most productive region in the country for up-close encounters with animal inhabitants including anteaters, anacondas, jaguars, capybaras, caiman, armadillos, capuchins, howler monkeys and ocelots. It’s a veritable birder’s paradise, supporting thriving populations of waterfowl, macaws and birds of prey. The immense size and relative inaccessibility of Los Llanos mean guided excursions are the best way to explore this environmentally and cultural unique Colombian region. Just a few eco-conscious operators organise wildlife and birdwatching focused trips out of the regional capital of Yopal, a 40-minute flight from Bogota.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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