As I wind my way up a gloriously twisty road astride a growling BMW F800 GS, with the city of Medellín glittering in the valley below, I can’t help but think what a pity it is that Che Guevara’s motorcycle crapped out before he made it to Colombia. El Che would have really loved riding here.
My wife, Jess, is on the back, leaning into each hairpin curve with me. We’re here for a week of riding through Colombia’s Cordillera Central, the volcano-studded tropical highlands that splay out from the Andes in the country’s interior. The trip was spur-of–the-moment in the extreme: On a Friday afternoon we decided to go, and by Monday night we were getting our passports stamped in Medellín. It’s the ideal time to visit: much of the country is open and safe for solo exploration, but the Lonely Planet hordes have yet to arrive. It was not always thus: During the 1980s, Medellín was home to the drug cartel led by Pablo Escobar, whose ruthless campaign of violence made it one of the most dangerous cities in the world. But crime began to drop after Escobar was killed in 1993, and by 2006, the last remnants of violent paramilitaries had been disarmed. The city has since been transformed: Its modern skyscrapers are monuments to its humming economy, while its dance clubs and art museums testify to a revived culture. On our first night, we stayed in the hip Poblado neighborhood and ate at Carmen, run by Rob Pevitts and his wife, both Cordon Bleu–trained chefs who moved from San Francisco. “There’s a real renaissance going on here now,” he told us.
The next morning, we pick up our bike and meet another expat — and the reason motorcycle tours like this one are so easy. Mike Thomsen is a 37-year-old Danish adventurer who spent years motorcycling around the globe. When he got to Colombia, in 2007, he fell in love — not only with “the most beautiful motorcycling country in the world” but with a Colombian girl as well. They’ve got two children, and Thomsen has a fleet of BMWs that he rents out and leads tours with.
The bike zigs nimbly through Medellín’s bustling traffic as we make our way to the countryside. GS stands for Gelände/Strasse, (“off-road/road”), and it’s hard to imagine that German engineers could have built a bike more perfect for the wild topography of Colombia: It’s a torquey, caffeinated mountain goat with burly shocks. Just outside Medellín, we pull up to a gas pump near the colonial town of Rionegro. The attendant asks in Spanish where my GPS is. No GPS, I tell him. Maps are more adventurous. Within 10 minutes, we are hopelessly lost. I stop and ask for directions, and a man on a mountain bike motions me to follow him. We wind through the narrow alleys and crowded plazas, as he leads us out the other side of town. He sends us on our way with a thumbs-up.
By nightfall, we’ve left the city far behind. We reach the nature preserve of Rio Claro and sleep in an open-air cabana down a jungle path. In the morning, sunlight filters through the high canopy, and a jungle river slips through a narrow limestone canyon hung with cascades of flowers. A swim washes off the road dust, as iridescent blue morpho butterflies the size of paperbacks drift overhead.
The following afternoon, we pull up to one of the oddest theme parks anywhere. Hacienda Nápoles was the vast estate Escobar built at the height of his power, when Forbes magazine ranked him the seventh-richest man in the world. He built a mansion, an airstrip, a 1,000-seat bullring, and one of the world’s largest private zoos. He commissioned giant sculptures of dinosaurs and dug artificial lakes to run his hovercraft. Over the front gate hangs the single-engine plane with which he started his smuggling career. After his death, it all fell to ruin, and his pet hippos went feral, populating a nearby river and establishing the largest herd outside Africa. Hacienda Nápoles has since been turned into an attraction, part Jurassic Park–themed water park, part monument to the crimes of its owner.
The road from Hacienda Nápoles is dotted with tiny mountain towns connected by narrow ribbons of smooth winding blacktop. It leads us into the coffee country of the Andean foothills, over 13,000-foot passes, and through deep green valleys. In the market town of Fresno, flowers grow over whitewashed walls of mud brick, and locals travel by horseback or drive 1950s-vintage Willys jeeps, loaded down with bananas or sacks of coffee beans. In a cafe on Fresno’s central plaza, we drink fresh guanabana juice and a shoeshine man convinces me that my dusty motorcycle boots need a once-over.
In a country filled with two-wheelers, the BMW is a show-stopper, and friendly Colombians strike up conversations everywhere we go. Even the soldiers at checkpoints flash thumbs-up and wave us by. It’s clear that a motorcycle is the key that unlocks Colombia for the traveler; the ideal conveyance to connect with the landscape and the culture.
On our third night, we pull into the tiny town of Salento and book a cabana overlooking the Valle de Cocora. We feast on pan-fried trout and Aguila beer. The next morning, we wake at sunrise for the best view of the trip: The Cocora Valley spreads broad and green below us, hillsides dotted with tiny farms rising sharply into a cloud forest. Above it all, the 17,000-foot volcanic cones of Los Nevados National Park loom in a golden haze.
We mount up and ride down into the valley, where the road ends, and we trade the bike for a pair of horses. Our 28-year-old guide, Ferney, leads us up a steep trail, whistling encouragement as we enter a narrow jungle canyon, cross creeks, and scramble past crashing waterfalls. After several hours, we stop at a small finca in the misty forest and drink coffee on the porch as a half-dozen species of hummingbirds flit around hanging feeders. Ferney says that he’s glad to have people coming to Cocora again and that he’s proud to be able to show such a lovely place to extranjeros. He offers to lead our horses all the way up to the snow line of the volcanoes, a three-day round-trip.
It’s profoundly tempting to abandon the responsibilities of home and keep exploring, but it’s time to jump back on the bike and wind our way over the mountains toward Medellín. This last stretch of highway is part of the fabled Panamericana, the 16,000-mile route that connects Alaska to Argentina. I want to keep following it all the way home.