Week 3 - San Gil and Barichara
Updated: Feb 23, 2020
Let me start by saying Colombia has some great dirt roads! We left pretty Villa de Leyva on Monday 24th April to go to San Gil. The start of our trip began by having to negotiate our way through diggers and a large roller-vehicle, where they were building a new road (no health and safety nonsense in Colombia), and then it was followed almost immediately by 15km of dirt track with no cars in sight, just an old man carrying a sack down the hill who gave us a beaming semi-toothless smile and a huge thumbs up as we passed him; I'm not sure it was because he was happy to see us or because he thought we were mad. There was one or two bikes parked up on route but that was it. I wouldn't have driven a car along it, but for our DR's it was awesome. There was no huge obstacles but lots of rocks, gravel, ups, downs, corners and some breathtaking scenery. Also, it was really refreshing to be able to do a whole 15km on dry dirt road without people moaning or grimacing at you, or without having to check it was legal to be there, because it was just a normal Colombian road. Bliss! Another best buy/upgrade: wide foot pegs.
The road after that was a 'red-route', aka a main road - the biggest kind on the map, however it was all single carriageway with long sweeping bends and again some of the most amazing scenery I have ever seen in my life. Another bonus was the lack of traffic and this time, minimal roadworks. Yippee! We passed several military check-points and they gave us the thumbs up, so we gave them the thumbs up back. I couldn't believe they were so friendly. However, after we passed a couple more where there was a few more vehicles we realised they were doing it to everyone, presumably to indicate you could continue. Silly us! I'm not sure what happened if you got a thumbs down?!
It had been a great ride to San Gil and we definitely felt the climate getting significantly warmer. I was so glad that I had packed my offroad top in my bag, despite it being bulky, as I could envisage some very hot journeys coming up in the near future.
All was well, until we got into San Gil; now we come to lesson number two of our travels...no matter how hot, tired, hungry or thirsty you are, use common sense and do not just follow the GPS into precarious situations!!! This is what happened. We thought the hostal was at the top of this hill. The hill was VERY steep, not just a little bit but super steep. We had a quick conversation about whether or not it was the right place and decided it was. Wrong! So, Kelvin sets off up the hill followed by myself. In the future, just one of us will go to check first (namely Kelvin). About half way up it starts to dawn on us that not only is it the wrong street but there's a complete dead end at the top with no flat area. Hmm. So Kelvin gets almost to the top, turns to his left so the bike is sideways accross the street and stops. Sound. Me...well, I get there and stop using the front brake, facing up the hill. BAD PLAN!!! Due to the weight on the back of the bike the front wheel had little traction, so my bike starts sliding backwards. It wasn't a normal tarmac street, it was flat, smooth slabs with a fine coating of powder because a load of workmen were working on a house just next to where all this happened (always my luck). I couldn't get my foot on the back brake either. So, after a moment of "Oh shit!" I not so gracefully lay my bike down to the right, just avoiding the nice newly (wet) concreted step that one of the workmen had just finished. At least I missed it, I think that was my only saving grace. Thankfuly, I was unharmed, the bike appeared unharmed and all of the workmen ran out and helped lift my bike back up with me still on it! If I hadn't have laughed I would have cried but I was fine, so what was there to worry about?! Maybe just the small fact that I was now at the top of a very steep slippy hill, on a fully laden bike, with an increasing audience of intrigued onlookers, AND...my bike was dead. Absoloutely nothing happened when I turned the key in the ignition. Sulk! Some suggestions from the onlookers were something to do with 'gasolina' and make sure it's in neutral, but we both knew it was more than that. It was an electrical problem. Kelvin's favourite...not.
(Picture below right: Horrible hill I fell on....it is honestly much steeper in real life).
Kelvin managed to get his bike down to the bottom of the hill and cautiously abandoned it at the side of a small adjoining road to come and save me from my predicament. Even getting off the bike was a challenge. Fortunately, despite admittedly being very anxious about it as he can barely fit on my bike, Kelvin did manage to get my bike down to the bottom of the hill. I said 'muchos gracias' to the workmen and as I walked away I heard several of the women pi**ing themselves with laughter. Fair play, it was a stupid mistake, so I don't blame them.
I met Kelvin at the bottom of the hill and fortunately, guided by instructions from a nice colombian chap, I managed to find the hostal (Hostal Isla Senorial) which was only one block across. I ditched my jacket and helmet there and went back to Kelvin. My gosh was it hot. We pushed my bike up and over the brow of the hill and then Kelvin took it the rest of the way to the hostal while I ran back to his bike further along the road. Silly idea as I was already overheating and I was starting to see stars. I sat next to Kelvin's bike and awaited his return. After sitting a little I walked to the hostal and Kelvin took his bike around the wierd one-way system of San Gil (streets are mostly not wide enough for two vehicles). The hostel manager took pitty on me as I must have looked like a beetroot...she gave me several glasses of water and I just plonked myself down on the side. What a crappy end to such a great day. Oh well. There and then I increased our stay from two days to six days and managed to get a super good deal of 53000 Colombian Pesos a night (about £15.50) plus they upgraded our room from a budget double (a shoebox as I saw later) to a deulux double with fan, balcony and space for all our gear. Happy days!
After a short-lived downer about my bike being dead, I had a cold shower and we went for a wander around San Gil. The main plaza was lovely, with fountains and statues, plus there was music, lots of people chilling out and just a great vibe. So far on this trip, not once have I felt unsafe or threatened, and San Gil is the most relaxed place so far I think.
We found a place called Sam's Grill at Sam's Mansion (a hostel) for some food and a few much needed cold lagers after our eventful end to the day. We were recommended a place called 'Gringo Mike's' for dinner, but just the fact that it had Gringo in the name put us off. It was lucky we went to Sam's, and then lucky we decided to play around with their information station about what to do in San Gil, because Kelvin found a 4-day (10 hour) Spanish crash-course that started every tuesday! Perfect, it was monday so it fitted in perfectly, plus it was only £70 (early birthday prezzie from Kelvin). After a bit to eat we headed to the 'Connect 4' language school and I enrolled for the following day. There was only three of us going to be in the class so that was good; me and two Frenchies (they were lovely). San Gil is famous in Colombia for it's outdoor sports like paragliding, kayaking, rafting, climbing, canyoneering etc. We decided however, not to partake in these activities, primarily due to the fact that we had some work to do on the bikes, secondly because although relatively cheap we still needed to be mindful of budget and we're only two to three weeks in and also, we've both done a lot before and personally I'd like to save it to do things like Machu Picchu or some of the national parks (Tyrona for instance), or go on a boat trip in Patagonia where there's Penguins and glaciers etc. Kelvin is in agreement.
On the tuesday morning we were woken at 7.30am by the hostal 'maid' who presented us with a tray of fresh juice, hot black coffee and buttered crackers. How nice is that (despite waking us from our slumber)! Kelvin was not amused until he discovered there was food and coffee involved!! I think the lady realised she had woken us and she said she would come at 9am the next day...that suited us a lot better. The room didn't include breakfast so it was a really nice touch. Later on, after we slowly emerged from the room, I tried out my Spanish in a few repair shops and a Suzuki dealer so that should we fail to get my bike going, we had a fall back. It actually went quite well despite my broken spanish and a couple of intermissions to look at google translate!
Fortunately for us, the hostal loaned itself well to our need to work on the bikes. The parking was inside, flat, secure and big enough to be able to get all the way around each bike easily. Kelvin took my seat off, checked the battery which was full (quite a relief actually), and checked all of the connections. He checked a fuse (30Amp) and it had blown. Hmm, why did that happen? We changed the fuse, but it just blew straight away. One back-up 30A fuse left. He then went through the bike as best he could from the battery to the front, removing the headlight etc. Then, we found the problem, which had likely been a slight issue but became a huge problem when I dropped the bike on the slope. All of the wires bundles together below the ignition had got jammed between two bits of metal when it was suddenly forced into full lock and squashed all of the wires, exposing the conducting part of the wire where the plastic had been torn, thus causing a huge electrical fault. Kelvin wrapped each wire in electrical tape, replaced the fuse with our last remaining spare and turned the key...green light! Whoop whoop! We backed it out of the garage and turned it on (so as not to deafen or irritate the hostal manager) and it started. I think it's the first time Kelvin and I have high-fived each other but there's a first time for everything and this was one hell of a high-five moment! We both felt such relief and the stress of the bike not starting melted away.
Wednesday's mission: Find more 30amp fuses and D-ring's to repair my right pannier, which had a big rip in one side and three of the four D-ring's ripped out. I didn't mention it before as it wasn't really a concern as our Motofreight straps left over from freighting the bikes would have done the job to hold it on, but now I may as well try to sort it. Getting D-rings and fuses was more difficult than I imagined. We couldn't find anywhere that sold either item, however after walking around for an hour or two in the scorching heat, some people pointed us in the direction of where we could get some. Fortunately my spanish lesson that morning had focused a lot on directions which helped immensely. Finally we found some 30 amp fuses in a speaker/sound shop and bought four, then we got some 1 inch D-rings in a random little material shop that would be easily missed if you blinked. Apparently it was the only place in San Gil to sell them so we bought six, even though the originals were 1.5 inches.
The maximum fuse we could find in any bike shops was 15-20 amp, including the Yamaha main dealer, which was surprising. The other intriguing thing was that nowhere seemed to understand what a tyre pressure gague was. I'm not sure what happened to ours but it's not in our bags, and despite my best effort at Spanish, google translate and some interesting charades, no one knew what I was on about. Finally, one guy cottened on and said 'only at gas stations'. To be honest I think people just ride with whatever pressure is already in the tyre and there's very few off-road tyres about either. Kelvin had done a lot of little bits on the bikes over the last week and he's now finally completed fitting his Tutoro chain oiler (mine was on from the start fortunately) although he did forget to turn it on today! These were definitely a good idea. He also fitted an AE Motosports dash pictured left, which he likes a lot (that's what was in the parcel mentioned in previous blogs). They had also sent us two free tops: a shirt for me (pictured above) and a t-shirt for Kelvin, which was really nice of them. Unfortunately we couldn't fit my dash as everything is a little cramped on my bike as I'm shorter and smaller than the average DR rider, so we had adjusted it all back in the UK.
After our failure to obtain the tyre pressure gague earlier, we stopped off at a traditional Colombian restaurant for their 'menu del dia'. For the equivalent of about £3.50 each we had a starter of chicken soup, accompanied by a dunking banana. Kelvin gave it a try but after I saw the look on his face I decided to give it a miss. We then had a main course of marinaded chicken, rice, coleslaw and beans in a yummy sauce. I was stuffed, however in Colombia (or at least in this area), lunch is the main meal of the day. This was the only day we had our main meal at lunch because the heat made us lose our appetite a bit.
On thursday, we walked for eighteen blocks in the scorching heat along Carrera 8 turning left out from the hostal, as a chap had said there was a place that did bag repairs along that street. After we almost gave up our search, we came across a shop on the street below who wrote down the address of a bag repair shop...also an address on Carrera 8, so we walked back along Carrera 8 all the way to the hostal, crossed the road and there it was about three doors up! Damn it, if only we had turned right out of the hostal. Oh well, we've now seen a lot of San Gil! It cost us about £5 to get the pannier fixed so it didn't exactly break the bank. He also included two larger D-rings than the ones I managed to find, so that was good. There was a slight stench of wee about the place and when we picked up my bag at 9.30am in the morning, the chap was already swigging beer! Regardless, my bag was fixed and it didn't smell of the surroundings it had been in for the last couple of days. Bonus!
On the friday night, after my last Spanish lesson (they were excellent), there was a movie night held by Connect 4 at the local cinema. We watched Guardians of the Galaxy, in english, and there was a spin-the-wheel prize raffle. We didn't win anything but it was a lovely evening and it only cost 7000pesos (about £1.84!!). If anyone is in the San Gil area and wants a good value, fun and friendly crash course in Spanish I highly recommend it. The staff are great.
On Saturday, after we collected my bag and had another small meaty breakfast (yes, minced beef for breakfast in a potato coating), we headed off on the bikes to a small colonial town called Barichara. It was another beautiful day and I was sooooo glad I packed my armoured top...definitely one of the best things I brought with me that I almost left behind. We went on the tarmaced roads there, found an amazing lookout point over the valley at the edge of the town, had a lovely lunch and then spent about two hours coming back on a maze of dirt-tracks, some of which looked more like a footpath than a road (thank goodness for Kelvin's GPS), but it was great fun! My sat nav obviously doesn't like the heat as it kept having a funny five minutes and then switching off. Oh well. It was so refreshing not to have all the bags on the bikes for once and it made a huge difference. When we returned we were soaked but happy with our bimble around the countryside. It was then I discovered that after all this time, my liner was still in my trousers! Doh! I obviously removed it immediately whilst Kelvin laughed his head off...ok so maybe the sun is affecting my brain!
So tomorrow we start our journey to Santa Marta, with two stops on the way; Floridablance tomorrow (Sunday) and Aguachicha on Monday, followed by a long, hot ride to Santa Marta on Tuesday, just in time for my birthday on Wednesday, although I may spend it recouperating. The route is a 'safe route' according to the foreign office but apparently Notre de Santander slightly (approx 20-25km) to the east of our route is ELN Gurreilla territory so we will be sticking to the main route. If you read our next blog in a week or so you know it went ok!