Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Over the Andes to Cali, Colombia

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Awoke at 7:00, but it was hard to get up. To leave the comfort of a bed and face the unknown, was not a decision "the animal" was going to make. Something else has to take charge. Declined the offer of breakfast and coffee, and got back out onto the highway at 8:00. The Andes Cordillera Occidente, the taller, western spine of this range, loomed dark and ominous ahead, only the lower slopes visible below a blanket of clouds. Crossing these mountains would just be a warm-up for what's ahead farther south.

Yesterday, as I started to climb into the mountains, I was concerned upon reaching a several-mile-long corridor of small roadside truck washes, for trucks that had made the passage east. Did that mean there was mud (and/or snow) ahead? My map shows no elevations for the mountains and passes in Colombia. The ride was filled with anxiety and excitement, as I had no idea how high this pass would be, nor of road conditions up there.

But as long as traffic is coming from the opposite direction, I am convinced conditions can't be too terrible. In tight looping curves, the highway begins crawling up incredibly steep slopes. The speed limit 18 to 24 mph (30 to 40 Kph) most of the time, and frankly it would be difficult to go any faster. Many small landslides and downed trees partially block lanes. In some cases, local residents have come out to direct traffic around the obstacles. With axes, shovels and wheelbarrows, others work to clear the road.

Despite the precipitous slopes, nearly all the mountainsides in view have been turned to agriculture. Bananas are prominent in lower elevations, but higher up, I start to see vast coffee plantations. These are monocrop plantations; no multi-tier shade-grown coffee. The environmental impact of my caffeine habit is staring me in the face. The land is completely cleared prior to planting the coffee bushes. Passing through Fresno, a city practically defying gravity, light trucks are delivering bales of dried beans to small warehouses.

Deforestation is extensive and alarming (at least from the perspective of this highway.) Trees are being felled all along this corridor, the timber being milled at roadside and planks left amidst the debris, awaiting later collection.

At higher elevations, the terrain becomes even more steep. Yet the road is still lined with small houses that appear to barely cling to the mountain. I get dizzy just looking down. Small children play nonchalantly around the houses, accustomed to the dangers of the busy highway out their front door and the cliff out back.

On a ridgetop west of Fresno, I come to a small town with a police checkpoint. Stopping for gas and a bite to eat, the young policia, clearly bored, gather around the bike. The predictable series of questions: where do you live? Where are you going? How much for the motorcycle? In answering the last question, my BMW is quickly depreciating. I no longer admit that such a bike costs $17,000. With all the miles on it, I can honestly answer it's value is half that (but still a fortune to these people.) One of the men, "Milton" speaks some English, so he calls himself my "friend".

At a small open-air restaurant, that reflects an uncommon refinement and cleanliness, I tell the owner I would like desayuno (breakfast) and let him do the rest. He brings out a plate with chorizo (sausage), arepa, a corn patty, fried platano and "coffee" (which was mostly milk - surprising in the middle of coffee country!)(I later learned that cafe con leche means "milk coffee" in Colombia, something different from other Latin American countries.)

As I prepare to leave, the police again gather round. Milton now has the nerve to ask for money. "For what?" But I give in and hand him a few dollars to share, to buy them all coffee, I tell him. But I have probably just helped promote a very bad habit.

The road keeps climbing, and the temperature dropping. I think I read it drops 6 degrees (Fahrenheit) per 1,000 feet. I'm not sure that my riding suit will provide adequate insulation, but I'm very reluctant to unpack any of the winter gear I had used in Alaska and Canada. I keep monitoring my pocket altimeter: 8,000 feet, 9,000 feet... The engine seems to be "lugging" much more easily in Colombia. I'm not sure if it is fuel quality, elevation, or what. (I have used regular gasoline almost exclusively.) How bad would it get?

The summits are hidden in cloud. I can only see the dark slopes sweeping high up, then fading into white. Incredibly, farms and homes just continue into the clouds. Above, I can see hillsides terraced by long-term grazing. The highway plateaus and I come to a large complex of warehouse-like buildings, their purpose unclear. According to my altimeter, the elevation is 11,519 feet. All the anxiety now subsides. Not the highest I've been on a motorcycle (that was Pike's Peak at 14,110 feet), but it is high enough "for starters". There will be many more higher passes down the road.

Another police checkpoint just east of Manizales. (There are countless checkpoints and it seems arbitrary if you’re asked to stop. They primarily pull over small trucks and buses.)

This time the officers wave me aside. It was clearly curiosity rather than the conduct of official business that prompted the stop. (Though one hard-nosed policeman asks for passport and license, then wants to look at anything else I might have in the way of papers.) They want to talk about the bike (how much?), my riding suit (how much?) as they feel the material. The hard-nosed policeman says he wants to buy the suit. I laugh and tell him I need it more than he does.

He then says "foto!" But I'm not about to pull out my fancy camera in front of these guys. That would only lead to a whole new set of questions (and possible extortion like the last checkpoint!)

From Honda-Tolima to Manizales is about 100 miles. The crossing has taken five hours.

I quickly descend into a valley, welcoming the warmer temperature, a bit of sun and highways where I can get out of second gear. Cali was my goal for the day, but it is another 150 miles. I will have to do a lot better on average speed in order to reach there before nightfall!

In the valleys south of Manizales, sugar cane appears to be the chief crop. Semis are hauling loads of the cane to market.

At length, I connect with Highway 25, a primary north-south corridor, which in places is a luxurious four-lane highway! (In others, mainly in small towns, it can be a rough two-lane street.) Billowing rain clouds to the east and west, yet the highway threads a path between the storms. (I wonder if through the centuries this path was identified as the driest between the mountain ranges?)

It takes only 2-1/2 hours to cover the last 150 miles, and I am entering Cali about 3:30. I am clueless about the city; have no idea whatsoever about the street plan, where hotels are, areas to avoid, etc. But this is nothing new!

I jump in and stumble through the horrendous congestion. Small motorcycles are hugely popular here, and the riders are daredevil. No one sits still for signals or stopped traffic. They're constantly on the move and it seems other drivers expect it. They treat motorcyclists as if they're simply not there. (They know that within moments the motorcycle will move, so they might as well just take the space.) So, my tendency to wait patiently in line at a signal puts me in jeopardy. Drivers just can't understand why I'm still there when they move into my lane.

Unable to escape the traffic flow, I am channeled into a very congested, and very rough part of the city (I later learn it's the area known as "Alameda".) A huge, bustling low-income market area, where pedestrians far outnumber the vehicles. "I shouldn't be here," I keep thinking. With a trace of guilt, but a sense of relief, I finally escape to a more affluent district. I pull into the portico of the "Hotel Intercontinental". I have no intention of staying there, but figure they might steer me to a more modest accommodation. Out of curiosity, I ask the rates: $150 per night, but they're booked into November.

Outside, a "crowd" of hotel staff and taxi drivers has gathered around the motorcycle. One of the taxi drivers recommends the "Pensión Stein" a few blocks away. He says it is very nice and the price is "60". The owner is Swiss. He tells me to look for "the castle".

I easily find the Pensión. It looks great: a towering edifice of Spanish architecture with its back to a steep, wooded slope, high walls with beautiful stone work, a diverse and meticulously-maintained landscape. It's that Swiss "gold-standard" influence.

I am happy to hear that space is available. They offer a variety of room styles, with or without air conditioning. I opt for the most basic habitación económica, without air conditioning. 60,000 pesos, with a 5% discount for cash payment. This amounts to roughly $27.00! I keep running the calculation in my head, because it just doesn't seem right. (A room confortable, with air conditioning runs 100,000 pesos, less than $45.)

An ample room with spotless bath and a teddy bear shower curtain (shampoo included!), breakfast, ethernet wired to each room, a bottled water machine, (good) coffee available 24 hours a day, pool, a small gym, honor bar offering beer and soft drinks, a library and a number of comfortable sofas to settle into. And all in the center of Cali. This place is too good to be true!

The hotel is owned and managed by Enrique Frei, a Peruvian-born Swiss national. He clearly takes a very active role in setting the standards of excellence here. After I arrive, he returns from the marketplace, where twice a week he does the shopping, negotiating with merchants.

The original building was a home built in about 1935. It was converted to a hotel in 1957. The façade is of Colombian "sand marble"; the interior features Colombian black cedar beams and ceilings, and a parquet floor. (See their website: www.hotelstein.com.co)

After 7:00, I sit down to dinner in the comedor (dining room), it's back walls open to shallow tropical gardens, backed by a stone wall and the hillside.

There is no menu. Once you are seated the dishes start arriving: watermelon to begin. A delicious roast beef in caper sauce, French fries and cauliflower follow. Dessert is a wonderful custard.

There are three families dining as well, all with small children. I guess this pension provides a fairly safe and comfortable setting for families.

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