Panini Tour: A circuit in Colombia, then on to Ecuador
The dashboards on our two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs display a total of 71,500 kilometers as we resume our Panini World Tour in the Colombian capital Bogotá. This followed a short flight across the Darién Gap, the only remaining gap in the Pan-American Highway, the road linking Alaska with Tierra del Fuego.
The thing that strikes you immediately in Colombia – especially when you arrive from Panama – is people’s enthusiasm for motorcycles. A huge number of people get around on two wheels here, and many of them ride as if there were no tomorrow: large numbers of motorcyclists in the megacity that is Bogotá devote themselves to racing flat-out between each set of traffic lights. Wherever we stop we are soon surrounded by a throng of inquisitive motorcycle fans who are keen to talk shop with us and often ride along with us for a while too.
Because a big city is not a great deal of fun for motorcycling, we fairly soon head north out of Bogotá. Along the edge of the Cordillera Oriental, the mountains that form the border with Venezuela, we ride a route towards the Caribbean coast that offers fantastic landscapes. At regular intervals we spot enormous gorges, and there is always an exciting offroad track leading down into them if you know where to find it. Along the scarp edge is a string of colonial villages offering all kinds of fascinating things to see, every one of which is worth a stop: here a subterranean salt cathedral, there a dwelling made from pot clay or a kite-flying competition …
This region allows us to build up our strength with meat, meat and more meat: grilled over an open fire on long spits, “momona” – veal – is delicious. Even from a long way off, the smell wafts over to advertise the delicious flavor …
With every kilometer we ride northwards it gets hotter. We have arrived on the Caribbean coast of Colombia and the sweat is running down in rivers below our back protectors. Tucked away in the Sierra Santa Marta, just 45 kilometers away from the coast, is the highest mountain in Colombia – the Pico Cristóbal Colón (5775 meters). It rears up defiantly through the haze and sends countless refreshing waterfalls tumbling down its slopes towards us.
In the daytime here everyone finds it difficult to stay awake. We have to think carefully each time before making a stop, since it means depriving ourselves of the airflow – even if it’s as hot a hairdryer. It doesn’t really matter how hot it is, just as long as it’s moving! But we don’t want to miss out on a single curiosity. At the end of a concealed trail lies the modest little volcano that goes by the name of El Totumo. You can climb inside it and have yourself a real mud bath. How about that then
Because of the temperatures up here in the north of Colombia, no one really feels like eating meat on a spit; instead we enjoy an enormous range of fresh fruit that can be bought on any street corner, sometimes from incredibly photogenic fruit sellers.
In the sultry heat of the large city Cartagena de India, whose old town is surrounded by an 11-kilometer long city wall that you can walk along, people understandably live their lifes mainly by night. The city wall is the place for eating, dancing, making music and making merry under the stars … until the next huge downpour washes everyone and everything away again!
Apropos the downpour and its consequences: from Colombia’s Atlantic coast we head once more in a southerly direction. Our ultimate destination, after all, is the southernmost tip of the continent. Suddenly, around 150 kilometers before Medellin, the road is blocked. This serpentine road usually carries a lot of traffic as it is the only one, but now nothing can move anywhere. Truck drivers tell us that they have been waiting for two days already: landslide. This is a common enough occurrence in these mountains. We weave our way onward up to the place where the landslide has occurred and our luck is in: we can see heaps of earth ahead of us, but just enough has been cleared to enable us to get past on our motorcycles.
The area surrounding Medellin is reminiscent of the foothills of the Austrian Alps: a chain of green hills with cow pastures and a hive of dairy-farming activity. In the middle of all this an enormous rock rears up suddenly out of the landscape. This granite monolith goes by the name of El Peñol, and if you have the strength to climb the 679 steps you can get right to its summit. This is a very popular destination for a day out in this part of the world. As you admire the vista of little islands from the summit 200 meters above them, it is hard to believe that just 15 years ago it simply wasn’t possible to see this wonder of nature because the route to get there from Medellin was far too dangerous. The war on drugs. There is a reminder of the war on drugs to be seen if you take a boat trip on the Guatapé reservoir: the burnt-out villa of the drugs baron Pablo Escobar.
We found Medellin to be the most interesting city in Colombia, modern and full of interesting things to see. We were especially impressed by the Plaza Botero with its “fat” statues by the artist Botero (who was born in this city), the cable car that allows you to float over parts of the city that used to be impossible to visit, and the new “Museo Casa de la Memoria”, which looks back at the war on drugs that has been waged over a period of 50 years. This is not for the faint-hearted.
Whilst we are looking around the tourist attractions in the city, our KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs are receiving a well-earned service from the KTM importer AUTECO, along with a new set of tires and a new turn signal. Presumably a bit of water had found its way into the turn signal, causing it to emit a horn-like sound instead of flashing for the latest part of the ride.
To the south of Medellin stretches Colombia’s coffee triangle, with its pleasant spring climate, relaxed villages, enormous palms and wonderful thermal springs. A cup of coffee here tastes out of this world!
To the south of the temperate coffee region, the landscape is characterized by extensive sugarcane plantations. And in the middle of this area lies Calí, which we bypass because we are not in the mood for another hot, humid city. As we continue to head south we begin to see high, barren mountains with magnificent zigzag trails weaving up and down their slopes – an early sign that we are approaching Ecuador.
There is a pass whose summit lies way up in the clouds, and you have to cross this pass to reach the crystal-clear lake named Laguna de la Cocha. The average temperature by this mountain lake is 13°C, and the collection of brightly-colored houses on stilts at its shore is a little reminiscent of Venice in winter. As in Venice, “aqua alta” or high water is an occurrence with which the locals are familiar.
Just a stone’s throw before the Ecuadorian border we make a brief stop at Las Lajas, the popular, black-and-white pilgrimage church. This church is of particular interest due to its unusual location and construction: it lies wedged in a canyon and its substructure is in fact a bridge. In the small village beside the church we have an opportunity to try a different type of delicacy: Cuj – large guinea pigs roasted on a spit. We did of course try them, but are not so likely to repeat the experience.
There are various signs that tell us we are close to the border: gas stations, strategic viaducts … everything around here is closely guarded, and there is certainly no shortage of men carrying machine guns.
This is how we “safely” reach Ecuador, the country named after the equator, which we cross to the north of its capital city Quito. Not inappropriately there is a monument there named “Mitad del Mundo” (middle of the world): from here on our journey continues in the southern hemisphere.
Quito is the highest capital city in the world and is spread out over numerous hills at a height of around 2,800 meters above sea level. The city is surrounded by a large number of volcanoes, some of them active, and the old town is a UNESCO World Heritage Site packed with baroque churches and colonial treasures. The city’s local hill is called Volcano Pichincha, and we get to its summit by riding up a challenging offroad trail. This trip up to where the air gets thinner is worth the effort: we are rewarded with a magnificent view over Quito and sight of a shrub whose flowers are KTM-orange and only open at altitudes of over 3,500 meters above sea level.
Needless to say, you can’t get to the summits of all the volcanoes on a motorcycle. But that’s no problem – if you can’t ride up it you can always ride around it. This is what we do with the highest volcano in Ecuador, Chimborazo, which rises to 6,310 meters above sea level. An awesome sight. The summit appears virtually free of cloud, and there are herds of vicuña running ahead of our ADVENTUREs.
Further highlights are the view over the crater lake Lago de Quilotoa, and visiting the isolated hamlet of Salina, whose inhabitants are proud to show visitors its numerous craft workshops: working with wool, spinning, chocolate manufacturing and growing boletus mushrooms (which are exported to Europe).
Traveling through the uplands of Ecuador we encounter many colorful street processions; they can’t get enough of celebrating around here.
The cattle market in the small city of Guamote is also interesting and extremely colorful. Not only do scraggy horses, shaggy donkeys and countless guinea pigs of all shapes and sizes change hands here, we also encounter the most unusual form of street food: a whole pig, spreadeagled. If you wish, the market women will hack small pieces off it for you to sample.
The city of Cuenca in the south of Ecuador is the place where the Panama hat originated. We visit the craft workshop Homero Ortega, which has been weaving, dyeing, pressing and selling these famous straw hats for five generations. What a shame that this elegant headwear is so unsuitable for carrying on the back of a motorcycle.
Ecuador is a diverse country that offers plenty more besides Andean upland. It also includes provinces on the Pacific coastal plain (known as “Costa”). These form the tropical part of Ecuador, the land of cocoa and chocolate (Ecuador produces extremely tasty chocolate) as well as banana plantations and the palm oil factories that smell less pleasant.
All along Ecuador’s Pacific coast are small tourist towns, mostly with undeveloped beaches, which are inviting to tired motorcyclists as places to stop and rest: plant your feet in the sand, feed some banana fritters into your mouth and enjoy!
Guayaquil, Ecuador’s largest city and economic capital, lies on the wide, muddy-brown and sluggish Rio Guaya. The oldest part of the city is spread over a number of hills that can only be climbed on foot via hundreds of flights of steps. People here live cheek by jowl, one brightly-painted house comes right up to the next one, and the same can be said of the bars. We fittingly quench our thirst with a beer branded “Latitud Cero” (latitude zero), which claims to be brewed with hops from Bavaria.
And here is a quirky thing: in the center of a park in this city of 3 million people, in front of the cathedral and at the feet of the statue of the horseman Simon Bolivar, there is an anarchic mass of green land iguanas – in the grass, up trees and in the water. They form a popular subject for tourists’ photos.
From Guayaquil it is not much further to Chocolatera, a little peninsula in the Pacific and the westernmost point in South America – we decided to make the detour. Ahead of us are just more wild breakers and endless water, behind us the “whole” continent of South America, and sealions at our feet. We think back to the point on our Panini Tour, admittedly quite a while ago, when we stood by the coast of New Zealand with our ADVENTUREs and looked across the ocean towards South America.
But now it’s a matter of clocking up some miles again. There is a well-made road along the Pacific coast, but we want to ride to Peru via an interior route: there is said to be an interesting trail through the jungle leading directly south from Vilcabamba. And indeed: on a dirt road turned to sludge by mist and rain, just a couple of days later, and voluntarily squandering our powers, we slither our way towards Peru.
Once you’re here in Ecuador you need to keep it simple. We embellish our Panini Tour with a little detour to the Galápagos Islands. Unfortunately we can’t take our ADVENTUREs along with us, but have to leave them back on the mainland. The Galápagos Islands are an archipelago located right on the equator 1000 kilometers off the coast of Ecuador. They are nothing short of sensational. We are able to follow in Charles Darwin’s footsteps, observing the unique animal and plant species on three of the islands. We are entranced by strange ferns and magnificent flowers, by enormous and stoical tortoises, pompous frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, Darwin’s tiny yet fearless finches, penguins, sea iguanas and sharks. Breathtaking!
We end up wondering why on earth people feel the need to fly to the moon when there is such unbelievable beauty right here on earth!
Photos: Barbara Kenedi
Info: Around the world – Panini Moto Tour
Barbara Kenedi, a KTM employee in Mattighofen, and her partner Peter are on a round-the-world adventure tour. Why the mysterious name Panini? Because that’s the name of the couple’s cat, which is naturally placed in good hands while they’re away.
The keen travellers, who have been on tour with two KTM 1190 ADVENTURE Rs since March 2013, are completing the round-the-world trip in stages, rather than all at once. The first major stage led from Austria to Ulan Bator, the capital of Mongolia. Then they continued the trip on the Australian continent, starting in Darwin. This was followed by New Zealand and, as the first port of call in North America, the crossing of Alaska to the south of California, before they finally step onto South American soil.
The marathon pleasure trip, entitled “Around the world – Panini Moto Tour” can be followed on Facebook, although only after prior registration.