Colombia Then Venezuela
Leaving Mompox is hard but easy when there’s nothing to do but head to Cartagena, only one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The passenger ferry takes care of business out of the savannah and two days later I roll through afternoon downpours and into that stunning Caribbean fort city that everyone has been wanting a piece of since Sir Francis Drake and the pirates were busy sacking the New World. We can all see why. Wow.
I find the coolest hostel ever with a pool and rooftop bar with city views and a local salsa bar nextdoor called Cafe Havanna, enough said. I go check out some old forts on the nearby islands and just lap up the vibe. I make new friends drinking a beer at Cafe del Mar atop the city ramparts watching the sunset which leads into an all out salsa throw-down at the one spot just heaving on a Monday night. It hurts thinking about leaving this place as much as my head the next morning, but as soon as the chain and sprockets are changed on the bike, hopefully tomorrow, I’m bailing for Venezuela quickly. I’ve got an itch, and not the one you’re thinking of, it’s the itch to start making some MILES. Time’s come to get moving round the contours of this map.
A few days later I discover the small village Taganga tucked into a gem of a Caribbean bay and wouldn’t you know it on the hostel patio’s that kiwi-couple Kim and Liz I met on the side of the road way back in Popayan. Hey guys! It’s like reuniting with your groovy Aunt and Uncle. Again things are sweet here in this town aswell and it’s definitely a debate to leave, you could spend months here diving the whole coast, but goddamit there’s only one way to do that which has been slowly building where now the whisper has become a shout; Get going! Do you have any idea how much continent there is yet to ride! Two days later I’m crossing into Venezuela.
Venezuela: The Welcome
It’s no Colombia I'll say that much. The border-crossing goes well enough but then it feels like I’ve had the absolute rug pulled out from under me, from friendly goodtimes and hostels to cushion your solitude, now I’m surrounded by bleak isolation. Few travellers, little tourist infrastructure (you can count the number of traveller’s hostels in-country on your digits) it feels very much like you are going it all alone. And I struggle to adjust. After entering the country on the first day I ride through a horrible metropolis on dusk past the petroleum refineries and pull into the only accomodation I can find on dark – a suspicious highway motel where the kid on the desk jokes about stealing my bike while I sleep. I don’t much. Welcome to the next chapter.
And I'll just have to suck it up. So I boost towards Coro, reputed to be a beautiful colonial town that’ll cheer me up and things are all going to be sweet. On the way I almost run out of gas, then don’t, then find a little highway breakfast spot where it’s Creole food and it’s all just deliciously fine by me. And then the Senorita shows up with my unexpected espresso and suddenly the sun’s come right out again. Funny… smiling again after breakfast I’m back on the bike when the Speedo stops working and then I realise the new chain from Cartagena is rubbish and a liability and it’ll need replacing again soon after it was only just installed…. but you do your best to keep on smiling anyway.
An Innocuous Enough Beginning
Turns out Coro has nothing on Cartagena (don’t compare, just enjoy) but I do get some good tips from one of the rare travellers at the hostel there. Next day I stay in a Carribean townlet on the coast in the Henri Pittier National Park, an-up-and-over type road to get there through the cloud forest and down to the beach below which is as authentic a 1700s pirate rum-running outpost as I can imagine complete with old cannons by the seaside. Arrive perfectly in time to catch the afternoon tropical downpour and get fucking soaked.
Pulling through the district capital city next morning for gas I notice another KLR parked up at some place, so I go inside and find the owner and ask about parts and he happily drops everything to lead me from parts store to parts store and we end up at a moto-dealer workshop waiting for the mechanic to show up for work all before 9am.
Mechanic Alexander and his brother Luis arrive and I lay out my list of issues and Luis gets delegated to go burning round town with me on the back of his 150cc hog looking for parts and I’m genuinely amazed and almost giving him a standing ovation at the impossible traffic gaps we manage to weave through. We tour absolutely the whole city looking for bits and pieces after a lunch the boys wouldn’t let me pay for and we almost come away with everything sorted inside a day’s graft but with the workshop impatiently closing up for the night we leave things for tomorrow.
Luis picks me up later from the crash-pad hotel for those beers we talked about and we’re pounding a few served through an iron-grill corner store standing on the street chatting in my woefully inadequate Spanish about Chavez, Venezuelan petrol and the state of institutions in the country. Hideously well past the point where my Spanish can cope with Luis relentlessly setting the pace we’re off racing round the city bars which is hilarious, but eventually I get him to drop me home with a hearty I’ll see you 8am salutation before I hit that mattress hard.
Not alot of success next day and I’m rolling late afternoon trying not to be frustrated with no resolution to that pesky chain issue but having made two good mates and sorted a bunch of other stuff – which all started by asking some dude a question yesterday morning – I’m nevertheless stoked and rolling east straight through Caracas not-stopping and onwards to my last Caribbean destination.
I'm not stopping in Caracas because everyone I've spoken to on this trip says the same thing - don't go. It's rumoured to be the most violent and dangerous place for tourists on the whole continent. And as I'm traversing the Caracas motorway thoroughfare I almost have this demonstrated to me first hand. As I pull up next to a police car on the side of the highway to ask for directions the first thing the officers do when they see me rolling to a stop next to them is both reach directly for their pistols - I'm like fuck fuck fuck no! As I throw my hands up and try to explain in broken Spanish that I just want directions! And like it were nothing they go sweet as and radio for a motorcycle cop who shows up a few minutes later and I have my very own police escort to follow as the very nice man rides me personally via expressway on-ramps and off-ramps to where I need to go. Not sure if it was worth almost getting shot for, but there you go.
Right before reaching the beach towns next day I spy a bike-shop and pull in to check it out. Chit chat chains and the guy working the counter calls a mechanic and once again before you know it I’m on the back of some guy’s bike I’ve never met who’s just interrupted his day to help this random bearded shit-Spanish talking gringo. Amazing these Venezuelans. No chain solution but I do get some welding done that I needed and I’m off rolling my merry way the last few clicks to the seaside.
Which is idyllic. That is, the beach part of town that isn’t the horribly edgy fishing village is lovely but the vibe a block away from the sand is pretty heavy. So I should have known. I dismount and walk around a few of the hotels haggling for a good rate, then ride a few more places to be sure. Some kid keeps following me and I take a picture of him on the bike, which is all very cute. It’s not til much later that night I sit bolt-upright in bed shouting Fuck Where Is My Motorcycle Jacket!? Realising all too late that I’ve been robbed of that crucial bit of kit that probably saved my life back when I crashed in Peru. Gutted doesn’t even come close.
So what can you do? The hotel owner’s friend Jose (call me Pepe!!) comes to my aid and we go trawling for the kid in the photo cause that punk must know something. Find him by the markets but he’s stony and his Mum assures us he’s clean. So it’s off to the Cops then, from whom I have very little hope of getting any assistance let alone a theft-report to be included with the stack of insurance claims I'll make when I’m done with this trip. After an hour wait for the Lieutenant to finish up with that girl in his office with the door closed Pepe and I get in there and sweet-talk the shit out of him and we’re leaving 15 minutes later with the quickest theft report ever produced by the Santa Fe Policia.
Run for Miles
What to do now. Well I’m gonna need a replacement jacket first up and good luck ever finding one here. I back-track straight to that moto-store I stopped at on the way here yesterday and explain the story to my mate who works the counter and well, wouldn’t you know it, he just happens to be selling a used-only-once jacket on behalf of someone who had their WHOLE freaken bike nicked. Bike but no jacket, jacket but no bike. With a fair price settled I ride off knowing how much worse off things could be and resolve to not feed any more opportunists. The Arabs have a saying; Trust in God, but tie your camel. No shit.
So I know there are places here in this part of the world still worth checking out and islands to explore but the urge to outride my misfortune is intense so I just load and go, bail and bomb straight south 1200 kms in two days. Across the mighty Orinoco River, through the Grand Savannah rolling grasslands of southern Venezuela and arrive, rain-soaked weary and justified in Santa Elena De Ularien just 10kms from the Brazilian border.
On my last afternoon in Venezuela I go to check out a waterfall next to the border and feel like I make some peace with the country that I kind of got off on the wrong foot with.
Look Venezuela, I know you had a hard job following-on from Colombia and you never promised to be anything but what you are. I love you and your people, just not your thieves, and I hope we can part warmly. I won’t hold a grudge that you sucked in places if you won’t hold a grudge that I didn’t do you justice. Deal? Deal.
Waterfall redemption - cjG