Jeremy Kroeker and Elle West are riding down to the tip of South America from their home in Alberta, and they’re telling us about it as they go. The last time they checked in, they’d made it through Central America to Colombia; now, they’re continuing south through Ecuador to Peru.
VILCABAMBA, ECUADOR—“Oh, for FIVE-six,” I exasperate into the intercom. If you emphasize this phrase just so, it’s like a stunt double for an unprintable expression. Elle knows what I mean.
“What?” she says.
“Police. He’s pulling me over.”
The young cop, with his yellow traffic vest and “Policia” baseball cap, stood on the shoulder and waved me in to join him.
Yes, he had seen me overtake a procession of trucks on a double line going 70 in a school zone but – come on! – this is standard etiquette in Colombia. I’m not mad about the stop. It’s just that I had spent the last 20 minutes worming my way by all these trucks. Now I’m watching them lumber past in a fog of diesel smoke.
“Murmur, murmur,” I hear from the cop as I kill the engine. Elle pulls in behind me.
“Momentito!” I say, holding up one finger as if to indicate how many languages I understand.
I drop the kickstand, remove my helmet and make a really big show of removing my earplugs. I smile.
The police officer starts over, but I already know how this will go.
He’s talking as I remove my jacket and shed a warming layer. He talks as I unstrap my water bottle from the back of the pannier and take a big drink. He’s still talking as I give him my attention for the first time.
It’s a non sequitur, but he’s going to inquire about this at some point so I just blurt it out: “I’m from Canada.”
I say this in Spanish with a clean accent, and it breaks the ice. We shake hands. We’re friends now.
Getting going again
I’m not counting, exactly, but I guess this is about the sixth time I’ve been stopped by police in Colombia. Elle likes to poke fun at me for that. When she does, I wonder aloud if my Instagram followers would like to see a collage of photos showing her motorcycle on its side. Then we quietly squint at each other until one of us clears our throat and changes the subject.
Anyway, the traffic stops in Colombia have become routine. But since we landed in South America and unloaded from the Stahlratte, the vessel that carried us around the Darien Gap from Panama, that’s about the only routine we have.
We had a few nights in Cartagena relishing the fact that we had reached South America with our motorcycles. I spent my days writing, and pacing the rooftop patio of the hotel in fear of my tyrannical editor who had demanded an immediate update. (Damn right I did – Ed.) Flocks of green parrots squawked overhead disrupting my concentration, to my delight. Short walks through the lively old city broke up the workday.
From there, we rode to Santa Marta on the coast. The road took us past modern structures and expensive hotels, then alongside weathered shacks with corrugated roofs, some on stilts rising from dirty water choked with floating plastic debris.
Twisting and winding
The next day, Elle and I took a short hop to Taganga, a place where budget divers don’t care what a regulator looks like or how to do a safety stop – they just want to see fish. And we did. We saw a lot of fish, alright. We even went for a night dive where I just managed to inflate my BCD and seat my mask before getting tossed overboard like some stowaway on a pirate ship. But we saw fish, dammit.
It was in Taganga where Elle and I both took ill. It was a sneezy, stuffy affair, and Elle got hit the hardest. For me, the sickness would be a low level thing, lingering. But enough of that for now.
From Taganga we lit out for Mompox on the recommendation of friends. Our phones, which we use for navigation, took us off the main highway, around “Road Closed” barriers, and under a bridge to the site of the ferry. The ferry was not there, however, and so, in the shade of the bridge overhead, we asked.
“Ferry?” said one man. “There’s no ferry here.”
I looked up. The bridge. Yes, the bridge will do nicely to get us across the river. This was just one more reminder to use our brains in concert with other navigational tools.
The next day took us up over a mountain pass where, for the first time in several weeks, we encountered comfortably cool riding weather. The secondary road twisted back on itself like a snake chasing its tail, the smooth asphalt carving through a carpet of green. Some sections of tarmac had been washed out by recent rain, but the road carried on with deep ruts and potholes that could swallow a motorcycle, then back to an impeccably smooth surface.
The riding was engaging, exhilarating even. In one rough section, a transport truck had sunk in to its axles. Workers were trying to dig it out, and there was just enough room to squeeze by if we paddled through a deep rut, our panniers scraping the mud. In these conditions we averaged a mere 40 kilometres per hour over a hundred-kilometre stretch, arriving in Barbosa for night.
Being so near the equator, the climate in Colombia is mainly determined by elevation. The sweltering heat we had known in Taganga gave way in the mountains, and on this day we encountered bone chilling rain. A little higher up and we might have had sleet. Cradling cups of coffee at a roadside stop helped. Then we wound our way back to warmer climes.
A fine time
This is where the police pulled us in. Normally there’s no concern. We often chat with the officers about motorcycles.
“My bike is heavier. But,” I say, pointing to Elle’s bike, “her bike is stronger.” This gets a laugh.
On this occasion, though, the officer wants money. I’m surprised. The police all throughout our journey, in every country, have been professional. Still, I’m not worried. He smiles when he taps his ticket book.
“Big problem,” he says. “It’s not expensive, really. Just $20, but you have to go into town and it will take all day to pay the fine.” He taps his book again and tries to frown. He is not buying his own story, and it shows.
I have a chat with Elle to get her thoughts.
“He wants $20,” I say. “But I might just ask him to write a ticket. It could cost us a day, though.”
“I’m with you,” Elle says.
I tell him, yes, I deserve a ticket. Yes, I broke the law. I am so sorry, and I will slow down from now on. Now, please give me the ticket and I will pay at the office. Sorry.
With that, the officer hands me back my license, gives me a warning, and sets me free.
“What size is your bike?” he asks as I strap up my helmet.
“It’s a 650,” I say. “But it only has one horsepower.” He laughs.
Riding the Trampoline
From there, we spent a few nights at Steel Horse, a ranch in Filandia that caters to overland travellers. Elle left me there to join the Women Riders World Relay, and I caught up with her the next day in Cali.
It was in Cali that I had my bike serviced and valves checked with the folks at Motolombia, a motorcycle tour company. Mike, the owner, treated us to dinner that night.
“We heard good things about the ‘Trampoline of Death,’ ” I said. “But we might skip it to save time.”
“No. You should ride it,” Mike said. “It’s fun.”
And so we found ourselves in Mocoa, gateway to the infamous road.
The Trampoline of Death, or Devil’s Trampoline, as it’s sometimes called – besides having a really funny name – writhes through a mountainous region between Mocoa and Pasto near the border with Ecuador. Many people have lost their lives on this stretch in bygone days, but with the addition of guardrails and regular maintenance, the road is not so dangerous as it once was.
For riders with motorcycles like ours, it’s just a scenic ride. Of course there are still mudslides that slough down the mountains, but you’d have to be unlucky to have one sweep you off a ledge. Then again, we had seen evidence of mudslides earlier on a few roads. And the night before our proposed adventure, there was heavy rain.
In fact, it rained on us all the next day as we picked our way along the Trampoline. The precipitation did not cause any damage to the passageway, but it did intensify the water crossings. The waterfalls were engorged, visibility was limited, and it was cold. Even so, this path, with its switchbacks, precipitous drops, blind corners, and creek crossings, provided one of the best motorcycle rides of my life. The 180-kilometre span – less than half of that distance truly tight and narrow – took us nearly six hours.
Maybe the chill and the rain retarded my recovery from the sniffles I had caught in Taganga. At any rate, I was still plugged up crossing into Ecuador. I awoke in Ibara, Ecuador, with an earache and plugged sinuses.
We pushed on to Quito in spite of my discomfort. This was a mistake. With the change in elevation and my sinus cold, that night my eardrum burst. It burst in a theatre while watching the latest “Terminator” movie. I think it popped when Linda Hamilton said, “I’ll be back,” but that’s not the point.
At first the rupture provided great pain relief, but now, nearly two weeks later, it still sounds like there’s a little man inside my ear canal playing Moon Patrol. (Actually, it’s more irritating than that – no music, just jumping and shooting.)
I saw a doctor in Quito and she prescribed antibiotics. When the antibiotics ran out, I saw another doctor in Cuenca who confirmed that there was still a hole in my eardrum, thus the hearing loss. When he looked in my ear, though, he did not mention a little guy playing Moon Patrol. He prescribed more drugs.
And, speaking of drugs, Elle and I have landed in the mescaline and conspiracy theory capital of Ecuador. If you want to chat with a Vietnam-war-dodging hippie about flat earth theory and the Grateful Dead, then Vilcabamba is the place for you. I don’t generally do drugs, but last night after a bottle of wine with a local friend, the last things I heard before popping a dessert brownie in my mouth were words like: “ayahuasca,” “San Pedro,” “marijuana,” and “chemtrails.”
On the downside, I think I unwittingly took a serving of unknown drugs. On the upside, last night the fireflies sounded like GOD. Anyway, I slept in and I’m feeling much better now.
Tomorrow Elle and I plan to cross into Peru. We’ve been moving slow through Ecuador because of my ear, and we might pay for that when we find ourselves rushing through Argentina to beat the weather. We’ll see.
Until then, I only hope the little guy in my ear soon runs out of quarters.
CMG is publishing regular, exclusive updates from Jeremy during his South American journey.
He is the author of Motorcycle Therapy: A Canadian Adventure in Central America, and Through Dust and Darkness: A Motorcycle Journey of Fear and Faith in the Middle East. With his motorcycle, he has traveled to 30 countries while managing to do at least one outrageously stupid thing in every one.