The police escort through Cartagena to my hotel was an unexpected touch after two long, beautiful, and exhausting days of riding through the Colombian countryside. At this point, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.
I had left Bogota the previous day. After spending about a week in urban noise and crushing traffic in Panama City and Bogota, getting back to the road was an imperative. I wanted to reach Cartagena, which lay 750 miles away to the north on the Caribbean Sea, by Friday night. It was a great distance to cover in two days, especially through mountainous roads, but I just wanted to ride. I made great time, despite the huge number of trucks on the twisting mountain passes. I rolled through the cool green forests of the high altitudes, eventually stopping for lunch at a restaurant in a beautiful setting adjacent to a ranch for a lunch of churrasco and fried plantains. The only delay there was a surly goose in the parking lot who was determined to keep me from getting to my motorcycle; first honking angrily, then lowering his head and rushing at me, then raising his neck and opening wide to show the jagged edges of his bill. The proprietor thought this was highly amusing.
After evading the goose, I was on the road again. I passed the stripped airframe of a DC-3 cargo plane, impossibly situated in the middle of the mountains behind a tiny farmhouse, a reminder that maize is not the only crop grown in the region. It began to get dark, so I kept my eyes open for a hotel.
Hotels were few and far between in the rural Colombian mountains, so it was well past dark by the time I found a gas station that advertised rooms. I pulled over and was led to a windowless cinderblock room with a padlocked corrugated metal door, but for 20,000 pesos (about $7), I wasn’t expecting much more than a place to sleep. I only watched a few minutes of Scooby Doo en Español on the black and white TV hanging in the corner before I was fast asleep.
I rose to a rooster crowing at 5:00 in the morning. I slid the bolt back on the creaky metal door and peered outside, only to discover that this rooster was sunrise-challenged, as it was still well before dawn. I decided to get on the road anyways, since I was already awake.
After descending from the mountains, I found myself on flat, straight roads between ranches, farms and palm plantations. The posted road signs and solid no-passing lines are treated more like largely ignored safety tips rather than enforced traffic laws. Motorcycles are apparently given carte blanche when it comes to following these “rules,” using shoulders and centerlines to circumvent traffic whenever possible.
I was reminded of the potential dangers of this free-form style of driving by a colossal wreck. As I passed a line of cars and trucks along the shoulder, I came upon a semi-truck, its mangled cab nearly unrecognizable and trailer on its side in the ditch, with its full cargo of what appeared to be rice spilling into a field. Groups of locals surrounded the trailer, scooping the spillage into sacks and metal dairy cans. By the looks of the trailer, the driver was in no shape to protest, except possibly from the great beyond. The rice, or whatever it was, covered the highway for about a hundred yards until it reached another grisly site. A car-carrying semi truck lay on its side, its payload of used cars still on the trailer with the front end of a pickup truck sticking out from underneath. I made a mental note to increase my vigilance on the road.
At 3:00 pm, ten hours after my dysfunctional rooster alarm clock roused me in the morning, I arrived at the old walled city of Cartagena. I had planned to arrange a hotel the previous evening, but my cinderblock accommodations had neither a window nor a door handle, wi-fi or a business center was right out of the question. I opted to ride around the old city until I came across something suitable.
During this search in stop-and-go city traffic, a young woman ran out between cars, forcing me to hit the brakes suddenly, stalling the engine. I tried to get it started, but to no avail. The starter labored, acting like the engine was flooded. I’m not mechanically minded enough to know why this happened or if this is even a correct assessment, but it has happened before and I know enough to know that the only way to fix it is to wait 15 minutes or so and it starts right up. This time, however, the problem occurred on a narrow, one lane, one-way road directly in front of a brothel. I spent the next fifteen minutes standing on the sidewalk, nervously checking my watch, surrounded by prostitutes and listening to cars honk as they tried to pass the temporarily disabled bike. It fired up again, as expected, fifteen minutes later and the search for a hotel was on once again.
The search continued, that is, until I was flagged down by a duo of motorcycle cops on the side of the road. They asked to see my paperwork, which I was sure was in perfect order. After all, the air cargo company in Bogota had arranged everything. I turns out that this was not exactly the case. Pedro, the young-faced smiling cop who spoke very good English, informed me that I did not have proper Colombian liability insurance. In previous countries, I needed this insurance before customs would issue my import permits, so I naively assumed this task had been handled in Bogota.
“No, problem,” Pedro said. “Leave the moto with my partner, I’ll go with you for insurance. You can buy it at the bank.” We walked through the old city of Cartagena while Pedro gave me a brief history lesson of the city. Unfortunately, every bank was either closed or didn’t provide the type of insurance I needed. After we stopped to help an elderly woman figure out how to use the ATM, Pedro radioed ahead to his partner who was waiting with both of our motorcycles.
“Okay, I will find a safe place for your moto. You can walk to the insurance when they are open,” he said. “I know a good hotel. It is nice and not expensive.”
They climbed two-up aboard their yellow Yamaha police bike and directed me to follow through the thick traffic, with their cop lights flashing and the occasional squawk of the siren to get cars to let us pass. We arrived at a private parking structure where I left the Triumph and loaded my luggage into a cab. I rode with the partner in the back of the cab while Pedro rode ahead on the police bike, providing a continued escort. His partner wrote down the addresses of insurance offices while we drove and soon arrived at a pleasant and clean hotel. They helped me out of the cab with my bags.
“There is still a problem for the violation,” Pedro said. “And we have been very helpful.”
I knew where he was going with this and said that I appreciated them taking the time to help and that I’d like to give them something for their trouble. I offered them about $50, which they seemed more than satisfied with.
“Let us know if there is anything else you need while you are here,” Pedro said as we shook hands.
I climbed up the stairs to my bed, too tired to even watch Spanish Scooby Doo episodes.