Cartagena - Medellín - Cartagena - Medellín

Medellín, Colombia

After New Year’s in Cartagena, it was not long at all before Noah (my brother) arrived to visit for a week. We spent a couple days in Cartagena, and pretty as it is, there really isn’t a whole lot to do or see in that town.

A typical block in Cartagena's old town Cartagena's very white skyline

After a beach day across the bay, we opted to hop a flight to Medellín. It was unfortunately impractical to have Noah on the back of the motorcycle, mostly for luggage reasons, and a 14-hour bus ride wasn’t appealing given Noah’s short time here, so flying it was. I left the bike in the parking lot of the hotel in Cartagena and one 45-minute flight later we were there.

Medellín is a pretty fascinating city. It’s the second biggest in Colombia, population ~2.5 million, and has made a pretty incredible comeback from being the epicenter of the Colombian conflict in the 90s and 00s. It is situated in a valley, with barrios creeping up the surrounding mountainsides, serviced by cable car lines that are directly integrated with the rest of the public transit system. At around 5,000 feet elevation and 6 degrees north latitude, its weather is consistently perfect.

A view of a Medellin mountainside Medellin Metrocable

We poked around the city, and did a walking tour of Comuna 13, one of the most dangerous (and poorest) neighborhoods of the city during the conflict. Our tour guide grew up in Comuna 13, and described life in the neighborhood as the territory was fought over by drug cartels and guerrillas and eventually stormed by the Colombian army after many bloody failed attempts. It’s now a major tourist spot.

Comuna 13

The next day we headed out of the city for a coffee tour. Medellín constitutes one corner of the Zona Cafetera, the main coffee-growing region of Colombia. It was a 2-hour ride southwest with our guide Andrés, to a coffee farm where we first picked some beans and then shepherded them through the whole process.

A coffee farm with a view Coffee ready to be picked Noah with a lot of green coffee

By night we worked our way through the craft beer bars in town, of which Medellín has an adequate amount. Lots of great food, as well. And of course, coffee.

Noah went onwards to Ireland by way of Puerto Rico, and I flew back to Cartagena, and wasted no time in turning around and heading right back south. Two days later and I was right back in Medellín, though this time not so much too see the city (check), but to get some things taken care of with the motorcycle.

For one thing, there were actual salt crystals still attached to the bike from its journey across the Caribbean, and generally speaking salt and motorcycles don’t mix well. It really just needed a good rinse, but it ended up going to a “moto spa” where two guys spent a solid hour detailing the motorcycle, for a grand total of $6. I swear one of them sprayed it down with Axe body spray at one point.

Then there was the whole issue of my panniers being dented to hell from dumping my motorcycle on them dozens of times, which also did a number on the pannier racks, such that the panniers were primarily being held onto the bike by a couple straps I tied around them.

The pannier dents were taken care of my none other than Bret Tkacs, a minor internet celebrity in the ADV motorcycle niche, also the man who taught me how to ride off-road up in Oregon, and who happens to be spending a month in Medellín. I reached out to him a while back, and we met up to discuss innovative techniques for skinny-asses to pick up motorcycles, but after seeing the sorry state of my panniers, he insisted on repairing them in the parking lot of a local hardware store.

Pannier repair with Bret Tkacs

With the panniers much less sad, the racks themselves were barely functioning and threatening to fail even more catastrophically at any moment, so Bret insisted that I find someone to weld them up before I skipped town. And that I did today, with the help of the very friendly Juan over in the motorcycle shop district.

Juan at work at Honda World Welding the rack Fitting the repaired luggage to the repaired racks

So, with a spanking clean bike with newly rectangular panniers on actually functional racks, I’m ready to get back out to some more adventurous travel and back in the groove with the motorcycle. Adelante!

The Steel Rat

Cartagena, Colombia

The day after Christmas, I crawled out of the Panama City traffic with Hanna and Jasper and headed a few hours west. We stayed at a hostel just a short drive from the small port of Carti, where the Stahlratte would pick us up the next morning. Carti is in Guna Yala, an autonomous region home to the Guna people, and encompasses a thin strip along Panama’s Caribbean coast, and the San Blas islands. Along with Joris, Hanna and Jasper who I stayed with over Christmas, we met up with Sparta and Sébastian, a French Canadian couple making their way to Argentina.

After a very wet night we made our way to the port, just a few small docks mostly used to shuttle tourists around the San Blas islands. We left our bikes and boarded a skip to meet the Stahlratte for the first time.

Die Stahlratte

She’s a bit rough around the edges, but not doing too bad for a 116 year old. We had lunch and were shown our bunks in the singular cabin below deck. It was a full ship with 20-odd travelers, 3 crew and 12 motorcycles. For the first night, though, we were shuttled to the island El Porvenir while the motorcycles were loaded and customs work completed. It was a cute little island that you can circumambulate in 15 minutes, and containing just a hotel, an airstrip, and a customs facility.

El Porvenir

The Stahlratte picked us up the next morning, the sails went up, the circa 1955 engine spooled up with a very quaint CHUG-a-chug-a-CHUG-a-chug-a, and a course was set for Cartagena, with dolphins escorting us on the way out.

Setting sail

We did make one more stop in the San Blas islands, where we could swim between a few nearby islands while the captain bought fish and lobster from local fisherman in wooden canoes.

A tiny San Blas island

After a very fresh seafood lunch, we weighed anchor and continued onwards. After getting a bit further into open seas, the true test of seasickness began. With the help of dramamine, I did reasonably well, although any time I went below deck it was a mad dash to do whatever I had to do and get back on deck as fast as possible. As night fell the seas got considerably worse, with 10 or 12 foot swells making walking a pretty good challenge. There were, however, really cool bioluminescent plankton that looked like stars flying past the ship and made the bow wave light the way in front of us.

Despite the substantial seas and my bunk being towards the bow, alternating between feeling like I was going to fly off the bed and then being smooshed into it, I managed to get some sleep, albeit very weird. The morning was pretty rough as well, but things smoothed out as we approached the Colombian shore. All the while, Kapitän Ludwig, a very large, jolly German man, was most often seen ambling around the boat wearing nothing but his well-worn briefs. He’s taken well to the Caribbean sailor life. I wouldn’t have minded a few more days, myself.

Me on the bow of the Stahlratte

That evening we sailed into the Cartagena harbor, where we stayed on the boat for the night while our immigration and customs paperwork was processed. We did some work on the rum which we were too afraid to drink the previous night.

The sun sets over Cartagena

One much more restful night later, we sailed to a small port facility nearby and the motorcycles came off. Hello, South America!

Unloading the motorcycle

The next day, I rang in the new year and new continent with a group of new friends from the journey. Cartagena’s large old town turns in to a massive party, so we just strolled around with beers in hand, before renting some cheap lawn chairs in the middle of a busy thoroughfare to take in the madness.

New Years in Cartagena

Not a bad way to start the year!

Christmas in Panama

Panama City, Panama

Slog complete! The Costa Rica - Panama border was relatively painless, cleared it in under 2 hours (with some luck – some fellow travelers told me that the power went out while they were there, making for a 5+ hour crossing)

I spent a couple nights in Boquete, a town up in the mountains well-populated by American and European ex-pats. One such ex-pat was the American proprietor of the hotel I stayed at who would go around to every table at breakfast and pitch folks on his pyramid scheme. If you’re interested in an exciting opportunity to use Click Funneling (?) to make money from home, please contact me.

Boquete is surrounded by cloud forest, and I spent my day there going on a hike up a volcano on the Quetzal Trail. It’s a pretty neat biome. Doesn’t feel too far off from Pacific Northwest rainforest, but a touch more tropical (considerably more monkeys).

Air plants asserting their dominance The trail up the volcano Cloud forest being cloud forest

After a night en route in Santiago, I arrived to Panama City yesterday, Christmas Eve, right on schedule.

There is no land crossing from Central to South America. This empty space on the Pan-American Highway from Yaviza, Panama to Turbo, Colombia is called the Darién Gap. It is dense, mountainous rainforest and for a number of political and environmental reasons, has never had so much as a dirt road traversing it. This doesn’t leave a lot of options for a motorcycle, but among them is the Stahlratte. The Stahlratte is a 116-year-old schooner under the command of Kapitän Ludwig, sailing around the Caribbean. It has earned a reputation among motorcyclists traveling between the Americas as the method of passage par excellence.

I booked my spot on the Stahlratte a few months before leaving on this trip, for its last trip from Panama to Colombia for several months to come. It departs from the port of Carti, a few hours south of Panama City, on the morning of the 27th.

A few months back, I got a message from Hannalore, a fellow traveler on the Stahlratte, pointing out that we were going to be a bunch of wayward travelers in Panama City on Christmas and wondering if folks might want to go in on an AirBnB in Panama City and spend Christmas together. And that is where I find myself now, with Hanna and Jasper from Belgium and Joris from the Netherlands. We went out for dinner last night with Dec and Lauri-beth from Ireland, as well. They’re all on similar but more extreme trips, having all started out from Alaska.

After Christmas dinner

It’s already been excellent kicking it with these folks. It turns out it’s not just me, everyone is feeling pretty over Central America and ready to get on to Colombia. It’s been a bit of a drag the past few weeks, not only The Slog and borders and what-not, but a more general restlessness that’s set in (and rice and beans, so much rice and beans, breakfast lunch and dinner rice and beans). We’re all looking to a change in continent for a shot in the arm, which I think we’ll find.

We embark in two days, I’ll catch you on the other side!