Ride to Eat – A REGIONAL ROADMAP TO COLOMBIAN CUISINE

I love discovering a new country by motorcycle for many reasons. Among them, the fact that the flexible nature of bike touring allows you to duck into that dicey looking highway diner that caught your eye 200 metres back. You know, the one the tour bus just sped right past. A motorcycle provides the ideal vehicle for undertaking a cross-country culinary expedition.

Get hungry on the approach to a random town in rural Colombia, and wherever you pull in, it won’t be an air-conditioned coffee chain, or anywhere with English speaking staff or Israeli salad on the menu.

Whenever we’ve been riding in the heat, dirt and mud for hours, I get a little buzz when the first sign of civilization appearing on the horizon is a hand drawn sign for a rambling, roadside eat shack, where crew-line cooked meals are efficiently dished out to truck drivers, seasonal labourers, lost tourists and day tripping school kids.

WHAT MAKES COLOMBIAN FOOD COLOMBIAN?

Colombian food is difficult to generalise or judge as a whole, thanks to its wildly varying geography. Within its borders almost every ecosystem on earth can be found. From the Caribbean reefs to the Amazon jungle, the Andean cloud forests and the tropical plains, the sheer variety of produce grown in Colombia is mind-boggling.

Add to the mix at least 10,000 years of indigenous inhabitation, the legacy of the Spanish, the Africans and Colombia’s influential Latin American neighbours, and you have a cuisine that’s deeply connected to land, history, culture, access and ancestry.

It’s no surprise then that Colombian food varies massively from region to region. As you ride through Colombia, every time the landscape changes dramatically, you can reasonably assume the food situation has too.

This guide is by no means exhaustive, but it might give you an idea of what to expect as you travel and taste your way through different parts of Colombia.

No idea what to order? Trust in the menu del dia – the road warrior’s bargain-priced mystery meal of choice. No one place makes it the same.colombian fruit

THE CARIBBEAN 

Colombia’s Caribbean coast is blessed with a colourful bounty of tasty things from down in the sea and up in the trees. A visit to a Caribbean produce market is a must – you’re guaranteed to not recognise half of everything in the fruit section, while finding almost all of it delicious.

Cartagena was the most important Spanish trading port for both goods and slaves, so here, indigenous ingredients eventually began to merge with Spanish and African influence. These days, Cartagena has swapped the slave trade for the tourist one, and as a result, it’s home to some of Colombia’s best, and most expensive high-end international restaurants.

Coconut and seafood are common pairing. A simple grilled snapper on coconut rice is hard to beat, but a worthy challenger is cazuela de mariscos, a Creole-style seafood soup, with hearty bits of fish and shellfish swimming in a creamy coconut milk broth. Along buzzing beach strips, palanqueras (fruit sellers, usually older women) balance baskets on their heads, heavy with mango, guava, pineapple and more exotic offerings like pitaya (yellow dragon fruit) and nispero (like a small apricot in appearance, with sweet, tart flesh).

BOYACA

Boyacá Department is in Colombia’s east central Andean region. Many of Colombia’s major rivers originate in the lowlands of Boyacá, which support wide expanses of fertile farmland.

Much of Boyacá’s produce is sold directly to the eight million residents of its capital, Bogota, which is also home to Colombia’s most celebrated chefs and awarded eateries. Chefs who purport to honour Boyacá’s culinary traditions have the task of prettying up rather simple farmhouse fare. Their secret? Using ultra-fresh, high quality local produce, making inventive meals out of hearty, carb-filled, cool climate stodge. Beef, chicken, corn and potato are staples.

The region’s best-known dish, ajiaco is a soup made of three kinds of potatoes with varying textures. Corn and herbs are added, and you’ll usually find a leg or other bits of chicken thrown in. Other fixings are optional, but could include capers, cream, avocado or rice.

Corn is considered acceptable in desserts in Boyacá, particularly when it’s mixed with milk (hot or cold) and panela (whole cane sugar) or honey.

ZONA CAFETERA AND MEDELLIN

Colombia’s verdant central Andean region is where some of the world’s finest coffee is grown, harvested and almost entirely shipped overseas to be enjoyed by millions of non-Colombian cafe aficionados.

I joke. But not really. Colombian coffee culture is surprisingly niche, and one of the few places you can get a guaranteed decent pintado (roughly equivalent to a flat white) is at a coffee finca in the Zona Cafetera. A more popular warm drink is agua de panela, literally brown cane sugar in hot water (sometimes with coffee added). Other crops include avocados, bananas, citrus, pineapple and cocoa.

The region’s lush valleys are criss-crossed with creeks and streams, which is why you’ll see river trout (truta) on almost every menu, prepared in an endless variety of ways – wood-grilled, whole-smoked, topped with herbs, breadcrumbs and cheese or slathered in creamy mushroom sauce.

Antioquia department proudly claims to have invented the bandeja paisa. This overdose on a plate is almost entirely bloat-inducing carbs and glisteningly visible trans fats in the form of chicharron, chorizo, ground beef, fried eggs, plantains, avocado and arepa. Finish a whole one at your peril.bandeja paisa

PACIFIC COAST AND CALI

Here’s a hot foodie tip for you: the place where they make the best food in Colombia is not the one with all the swanky interior architecture and the fancy foreign-trained chefs.

There are no Michelin-starred restaurants on the country’s surf-battered western coast, and there are none in the major city of Cali, just 30 minutes inland.

If there’s one thing most Colombian food lacks, it’s chilli and spice. Not hot enough? Come to this steamy slice of the country and eat your words with a side of sizzling habanero salsa. The Pacifico has Colombia’s largest African-descendent population, and their culinary traditions, mixed with the maritime bounty of the Pacific Ocean, have created a foodscape unlike anywhere else in Colombia.

The people here love rich, spicy flavours, using liberal amounts of garlic, onion, and cilantro. Turmeric gives many local dishes their signature yellow hue. Pacifico fresh chilli salsas are often properly hot, and pair deliciously with ceviche. Some of the coconut milk fish soups (like sanchoco de pescado) and meat stews are almost curry-like in their complexity. Paella Pacificos is the ultimate seafood feast, heaped with fish, prawns, calamari, clams and langostinos.

LLANOS REGION

Los Llanos, “the plains” are the massive swathes of grassland and wetlands in Colombia’s east, bordering Venezuela. This is cowboy country, where the best beef in Colombia is bred, butchered and barbecued, often on long metal skewers over a wood fire pit. Llaneros don’t just eat beef however. Sometimes they eat pork.

Boiled yuca (cassava) and potato are your typical sides, and to spice things up, add generous splashings of aji (a salsa of fresh tomatoes, lime, garlic and chilli) on everything.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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Meet Mike Thomsen An Interview with World Motorcycle Adventure Rider and Owner of Motolombia

Mike Thomsen’s not always the easiest guy to get hold of.

While you might run in to him in the Motolombia office in Cali, busily preparing for the next tour, or proudly inspecting his shiny fleet of two-wheeled tourers, he’s just as likely to be off grinding some gnarly goat track in a remote corner of the Andes.

At the beginning of April 2019, Mike was gracious enough to lend me some time to answer a few questions about some of his epic rides, and his experience leading tourists on two wheels through wildest South America.

So, if you’ve ever wanted to know how a gringo from Denmark ended up running Colombia’s longest running motorcycle tour and rental company, read on!

F.D: Hi Mike! About a month ago you came back from the Dakar Rally. How was it?

M.T: Actually, I’ve just come back from the 14 day International Rally, which follows the route used by the original Dakar Rally. The official Dakar Rally has moved to South America – it’s still on my to do list!

This was my second go at racing in the Sahara Desert. In 2015, I finished in 11th position. This year I had a hard crash on Stage 1. I was struggling with a few injuries, but I pressed on. Later, I found out I had damaged the posterior crossed ligaments in my left knee and had two fractures on my thumb.

When the bike broke down, it took 12 hours to get rescued by the race organisation. I got the clutch fixed the same night and did up making it to Dakar, although outside the ranking system. The rules are you have to finish every stage on your own power, with no outside help.

The whole Dakar experience – the Sahara Desert, the racing history – it’s incredible. Since I didn’t quite make it this time, my only option is to go back!

F.D: You’d travelled halfway around the world by aged 6, touring overland in a 4×4 for a year and half with your parents. What sort of impression did this non-conventional childhood have on you at that age?  

M.T: I cannot imagine a better way to spend childhood.

I learned very early on that people are just people, everywhere. We are all humans just trying to improve our lives and care for our families and friends. Most people don’t care about politics and power. I learnt so much about languages, cultures, food and just life in general. I never feel quite like I fit in back home in Denmark.  

I truly believe the world would be a better place if everyone would leave their little hideouts and see the world. You’ll see there are so many ways to obtain happiness in this life, and that no one knows it all or has the perfect solution. Humanity is a project in development!  

F.D:  Witnessing your first Dakar Rally was the life-changing moment that got you into adventure riding. What was it about Dakar that you were so drawn to?

M.T:  The battle against the elements, the speed, the machine, the danger and the untouched, secluded nature, but most of all the struggle with yourself. This type of race is more about mental strength, endurance and economising your energy, rather than riding skill and having the latest equipment.

You compete with yourself. The other racers are just companions on the same mission.     

F.D:  How did you support yourself through all those years travelling the globe on a bike?

M.T:  I always had to work to be able to support my passions. I did all kinds of odd jobs – I was a kitchen hand, kindergarten assistant, delivery driver, warehouse caretaker and a barbecue chef!

My other passion is music.  I worked 15 years in the industry, touring and recording as well as managing and organising events. I had very little spare time, but whenever I could, I’d go off to travel the world by bike.

F.D: When did you realise you could make a living out of motorcycle tours?  

M.T:  When I first decided to settle in Colombia, I had a daughter on the way. Tourism seemed like the most feasible way to make a living.

So, my wife and I started a backpacker hostel, which we had for six years. A lot of our guests were really interested in the motorcycle I had parked outside. Eventually I had the idea to spend the last of our money on a second bike and offer guided motorcycle tours in Colombia.

Eleven years on, motorcycle tours and rentals are our main business. It was a long and hard transition and I still consider it a lifestyle business. We do it because of our passion for riding, not because we crave financial stability!

F.D: What were your first impressions of Colombia? Did you know pretty quickly this was where you wanted to live, work and ride?

M.T:  The music industry had basically crashed in Denmark, so I took the chance to going travelling to South America. I was in Colombia for five days when I met Diana and we fell deeply in love. We got married, had our daughter and opened our business that same year, and the rest is history!

Colombia wasn’t really on my travel plans because of the bad reputation it had back then, but in the end, I decided to chance it. I ended up amazed by the country’s incredible natural beauty. The mountains, the jungle, the ocean. Every shade of green.

If you’re willing to work for it, Colombia has everything you could ask for. There are plenty of opportunities to invest and start businesses. There’s a general sentiment of “up and onwards” among Colombians determined to leave the painful past behind. You can see the improvements growing day by day. I like the type of entrepreneurial energy that exists in Colombia.

F.D. What other places stand out as some of the most challenging and rewarding for adventure riders?

M.T:  Almost the entire African continent is full of adventure, for all types of travel.

I absolutely love riding in Norway for the scenery and roads. It’s expensive and has a very short summer season, but it’s worth it.

The Brazilian Amazon, and the three old Dutch, French and English colonies on the east coast of South America are super unique travel experiences. We hope to visit there with a group of adventurers in 2020.

F.D. OK, tell me! The SINGLE best ride of your life? I know it’s a tough one but give me an answer!

M.T:  My first real off-road solo experience on a Honda NX650, riding from Cairns to Cape York along the Telegraph Line in Northern Australia is still imprinted in my mind – those deep river crossings and nights spent sleeping in the bush.

F.D. You opened Motolombia in 2008. Colombia wasn’t exactly stable back then and it certainly wasn’t the cool country in every “Top 10 Places” travel listicle today. What the hell were you thinking opening a motorcycle tour company there?

M.T: I wasn’t thinking. I just wanted to ride the incredible roads and explore the unknown.

I have done more than 500,000 km in Colombia the past 11 years. And I did trips to destinations where the Colombians themselves didn’t dare travel 10 years ago. In some way, I think the fact that I was not a local opened many doors for me.  I was not a target, and though I did see some stuff in the early years, I have always felt safe and welcome.

The authorities and the Colombian government have been a great help. We were pioneers, among the first to start taking tourists around the country. We’ve been recognised as the most innovative travel agency in Colombia several years in a row.

I’m just happy we stuck, to it even though it seemed hopeless at times. We’d have customers cancel tours because they’d just seen another film featuring a Colombian drug lord and they’d freak out. There were times we’d wonder if it was all worth it.

We realised we had to go out ourselves and change people’s perceptions. We’ve made countless trips to North America, Europe, Asia and Australia, to motorcycle and travel shows and events promoting Colombia. We’re finally seeing the results achieved by people like us, who’ve believed for so long in Colombia as an amazing destination.

F.D. Why do you think more riders are embracing Colombia now? From a moto touring perspective, how different now are things like security, infrastructure, and reactions from locals compared to when you first started riding here?

M.T:  Colombia was already well on the way to change when I arrived in 2008. But the transformation over the past decade is like no other country on the planet, I think. The infrastructure is improving at a rapid speed. Of, course the peace treaty is a major step for security, but even before that, tourism had started booming.

As a rider, there is so much to experience here. It’s like all the different terrains of the world compressed into one intense area of incredible riding!

F.D:  What’s the most memorable tour you’ve been on with Motolombia?

M.T: Our first 50 day Trans Amazonian Challenge took us through eight countries, with participants. It was a logistical nightmare to begin with, and then Venezuela decided to close their borders, while we were there, cutting us off from returning to Colombia.

We ended up having to fly everyone out from Georgetown in Guyana. Then I spent another 10 days there to organise getting the bikes and support truck being shipped back to Colombia by container.

If that wasn’t enough, Colombian customs unrightfully confiscated the container and held all vehicles in Cartagena for one month. This caused absolute havoc as all our high season books were coming in and half our fleet was stuck in Cartagena.

Now I can look back at how much we learned from that tour, Despite the problems, it was a great journey and I cannot wait to make that tour again.

F.D:  When you finally realise you’re too old for the dirt, will you buy a Harley and just cruise the highways, Wild Hogs style?

M.T:  I might! Basically, I love anything with two wheels – the feeling of freedom and being alive in the moment. Two wheels require full attention just the act of riding clears your mind and makes you forget all your troubles. Heck, I might just ride my scooter!

VISIT MIKE’S OFFICIAL BLOG  ? WWW.DAKARRACER.COM

Interviewed by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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Crossing Borders with Motolombia Part 2: A Brief Guide to Motorcycle Touring in Peru

Welcome to Part 2 of our blog series on motorcycle touring in the South America just beyond Colombia’s borders. This time, we’ll be giving you an introduction to riding in Colombia’s other southern neighbour, Peru.

Motolombia run several guided tours throughout South America, including the 14 Day South American Express, which starts in Cali and takes you overland through Ecuador and on to Peru, ending on a high in the beautiful and fascinating Andean town of Cusco, one of the oldest cities in the Americas.  

Peru has of course been a bucket list travel destination for decades, thanks to world-class natural and historical wonders like Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines. But what does Peru have in store for adventurers setting out to explore the country on two wheels?

 

WHAT IS MOTORCYCLE TOURING IN PERU LIKE?

The high Peruvian Andes are home to the densest concentration of snow-capped summits and glaciers in the entire mountain range. With roads that wind their way along the ridges of towering cliffs, descend steeply into valleys and climbing breathtakingly high passes, Peru is criss-crossed with some of the most exciting mountain routes on earth.

Many of the major highways in the Peruvian Andes are paved and surprisingly well maintained, including some of the remote high altitude passes. Ticlio Pass (4,818m), between Lima and Oroya, and Abra Oquepuño (4,873m) in Peru’s southern Puno region, are among the world’s highest paved roads.

Sweeping bend after bend, the visual backdrop of the Andes is as wild and majestic as it gets, with endless chains of snow-covered peaks, distant glacial mountains and sheer cliffs tumbling into valleys carpeted by lush forest and ancient farmlands.

And yet, there’s more to riding in Peru than mountains. This is a country of intricate geography and astoundingly varied terrain. Peru’s patchwork of high peaks and plateaus, tropical rainforest, dry forest and coastal desert contain 28 of the world’s 32 individual climates. Witnessing the landscape change before your eyes every few hundred kilometres is one of the greatest rewards of riding in Peru.

Peru’s close proximity to the equator, as well as its diverse climatic zones, make it a year-round riding destination. However, be prepared for temperatures on ranging anywhere between 40 and 12 degrees Celsius, dropping colder still on the high mountains passes.

WHY EVERY ADVENTURE MOTORCYCLE RIDER SHOULD VISIT PERU

1. Peru’s paved roads make most famous attractions easily accessible

Smooth, sealed roads climbing to 4,000 metres altitude and beyond are a rarity almost anywhere in the world, but in Peru, you can conquer some of the country’s highest mountain passes while barely ever leaving the asphalt.  

Even with only a couple of weeks up your sleeve, it’s possible to hit up just about all of Peru’s best-known sights and destinations. Ancient Andean towns like Cusco and Puno and breathtaking natural wonders like Colca Canyon and Lake Titicaca are all totally doable on a leisurely-paced, week-and-a-half jaunt through to country, while sticking to almost 100% paved roads.

 

2. You can ride the 500 year old remnants of the ancient Inca Road System

Beginning in the mid-15th century, the Incas began the construction of the most extensive and advanced transportation system in pre-Colombian South America. The Incas built networks of roads, bridges and tunnels stretching for almost 40,000km over six modern-day countries – Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Chile and Argentina. This extraordinary feat of engineering helped transform a tiny kingdom into the most powerful empire in the western hemisphere.

These roads, all built by hand, were so well constructed that substantial parts of them still exist – and are in use – today, with some of the most spectacular stretches of the Incan road system snaking their way through the highlands of Peru.

Riding Peru’s Inca Roads combines extraordinary history with some of the most fun and challenging off-road riding in the Andean region.

Taking the old roads out of Cusco through the Sacred Valley of the Incas means tackling days’ worth of steep, narrowing and winding dirt tracks, with the breathtaking backdrop of the Andes ranges as your constant companion.

You’ll truly appreciate the legacy of the mighty Incan civilization, as you travel across expansive landscapes, dotted with atmospheric ruins, colourful villages and open air markets, where Peru’s indigenous communities have plied their trades for countless generations.

 

3. The desert landscapes of Peru’s Andean plateau are out of this world

The 250km odd route between Chivay and Arequipa (the second deepest canyon in the world) is one of the most thrilling and dramatic rides on the vast Andean Plateau.

The ride through the Colca region is pure Peru – a breathtaking journey through the beautiful Colca Valley, dotted with farming terraces that pre-date even the Incas and which are still used by the local farmers today.

Be on the lookout for the wheeling shadows of Andean condors as they soar above the towering red cliffs that mark the steep uphill climb to the top of Colca Canyon.

The last stretch of the day-long journey takes you over the 4,850m high Patapampa Pass, which commands panoramic views over a magnificent chain of extinct volcanoes, the largest of them, Nevado Hualca Hualca, rising to 6,025m.

4. You can add on a side-trip to Macchu Pichu

The remarkable monuments and ruined citadels of Peru’s ancient civilizations are undoubtedly the country’s biggest tourist drawcards.

Travelling on two wheels, you can make your way to legendary destinations like the mysterious mud city of Chan Chan in the northern highlands, and the enigmatic geoglyphs of the Nazca Lines in Peru’s southern coastal plain.

The most famous historical site of all, the mist-shrouded icon of the Inca civilization,  Macchu Pichu, while inaccessible by road, is an easy side trip from Cusco. From Cusco, it can be reached in a single day via a scenic train ride, or for the full experience, a tough but rewarding multi-day hike.  

A guided tour of Macchu Pichu is offered as an optional extra on Motolombia’s South American Express Tour.

 

5. Peruvian culture is both modern and ancient, diverse and endlessly fascinating

Peru’s warm, friendly, multi-ethnic people are themselves one of the country’s real cultural treasures. Peruvians in general are polite, hospitable and warmly welcoming towards visitors to their country.

The capital, Lima, is a truly diverse city. With an impressive historic centre defined by grand Spanish colonial architecture, Lima showcases a vibrant mix of native Peruvian, European and Asian culture in the make-up of its people, its music, celebrations, festivals and food.

Peruvian cuisine is a unique and increasingly sophisticated melange of indigenous, Mediterranean, Japanese, Chinese and West African influences, with Lima being widely recognised as one of the great food cities of the world.

Outside of the cities, many Peruvians still live remarkably traditional lives. Many Peruvians connect strongly with their Incan and pre-Incan roots and have held on to age-old customs and ceremonial practices.

Riding through the countryside, you’ll pass through patchwork farms where many people still dress in traditional clothing, speak the old languages and make handicrafts in the same way their ancestors have for countless generations.

 

REACHING PERU FROM COLOMBIA BY BIKE

Although Colombia shares a 1,494km border with Peru, the dividing line where the two countries meet straddles a wild and remote expanse of the Amazon rainforest. Because of this, there’s no official overland crossing between Colombia and Peru.

The only way to cross directly between Colombia and Peru is to cross by boat from Leticia, a Colombian port town. This is easy enough if you’re crossing on foot, but with a motorcycle in tow, this option is a serious logistical feat and not something we would recommend.   

Most riders first cross from Colombia into Ecuador, and then cross into Peru. There are two official crossings from Ecuador. The Macará-Sullana crossing is located in Peru’s northern western plains, while the more popular Huaquillas-Tumbes crossing enters north western Peru closer to the Pacific Coast.       

Rental bikes from Colombia can generally only obtain permits to cross into Ecuador – not Peru. So, you’ll need to own your own bike or be part of a guided tour who can arrange the necessary paperwork for you.

 

TIPS AND ADVICE FOR RIDING IN PERU

Check out our tips and advice for riding in Ecuador, as well as our original guide to Motorcycle Safety in Colombia, as much of the advice regarding urban and rural roads in these countries is also applicable to riding in Peru.

  • Dealing with Altitude Sickness: Altitude sickness can be quite a serious issue in Peru, since quite a few popular touring routes can take you to well above 4,000m altitude. The infamous Ticloo Pass (4,818m), between Lima and Oroya, and Abra Oquepuño (4,873m) in Peru’s southern Puno region, are among the highest paved roads in the world.

A number of villages in Peru are also situated between 3,000m and 5,000m, which is the elevation range where most people start to feel symptoms of Acute Mountain Sickness (AMS).

Without proper acclimatisation, exposure to these low-oxygen environments can trigger mild to severe symptoms of AMS including headaches, nausea, shortness of breath, dizziness and fatigue.

If you feel the symptoms of AMS coming on, get yourself to the nearest town or village and rest up. Don’t go any higher until you’ve fully recovered – this often takes a day or two.

To help with acclimatising on a road trip, plan overnight stops in towns at around 2,500m altitude for the first few days, before moving up to another stop at around the 3,000m mark. Ideally, you’ll want to acclimatise at altitudes between 2,500m and 3,500m for at least five days before attempting to go any higher. 

Altitudes of Peruvian Cities and Attractions

Arequipa 2,335m / 2,661 ft
Ollantaytambo (Sacred Valley) 2,792m / 9,160 ft
Machu Pichu 2,430 m / 7,972 ft
Cusco 3,339m / 11,150 ft
Chivay (Colca Valley) 3,658m / 12,000 ft
Puno 3,827m / 12,556 ft

If your route has a quite a rapid elevation gain, take frequent rest stops and most importantly stay hydrated! Dehydration will compound the effects of mountain sickness and can lead to more severe symptoms.

 

How high altitudes affect your motorcycle: Modern fuel injected bikes don’t suffer like older carburetted bikes from lack of oxygen at altitude causing an overly rich fuel mix due. However, you can still expect the thin air to be a slight drain on performance – a loss of about 10% power for every 1000m gained.

So – keen to get high on a wild mountain adventure through Peru?

Check out Motolombia’s guided, multi-country South America motorcycle tours here: 

 

Colombia moto tours

 
 
 

Crossing Borders with Motolombia Part 1: A Brief Guide to Motorcycle Touring in Ecuador

Yes, this is a blog about motorcycling in Colombia, and while we’re not about to skip the border for good any time soon, we’re happy to say we have plenty of love for Colombia’s neighbours too. Just like Colombia, Ecuador’s road map is one of zig-zagging mountain highways and scenic country backroutes. Split in half by the Andes Ranges, with the mighty Amazon Rainforest flanking its foothills, Ecuador’s sweeping high altitude highways and rarely-ridden jungle tracks are adventure motorcycle touring heaven.

Sound like your idea of good, fun life-changing travel?  

When they’re not criss-crossing all over Colombia, Motolombia regularly head out on guided multi-country expeditions. Several times a year, kicking off from Cali, the crew lead their leather-clad convoy into wildest South America, in search of some of the awe-inspiring riding routes on earth.

Of course, you’d need months, probably years, to truly say you “rode” this colossal continent, but if you’re short on time, Motolombia runs a 14 day South American Express, focusing on the lands directly beyond Colombia’s southern border.

Despite probably having more EPIC RIDES than any country of a comparable size   Ecuador is still a little under the radar when it comes to touring. So, with this blog’s first foray into foreign territory, we hope to give you a bit of an idea about where to go and what to expect riding in Ecuador.

Colombia-Ecuador makes a great combo trip, sine Ecuador is the only country with an overland crossing on Colombia’s southern border – making it a relatively easy place to access by bike, whether you’re riding independently or joining one of our guided tours.

 

WHAT IS MOTORCYCLE TOURING IN ECUADOR LIKE?

Ecuador is one of the smallest South American countries, but in terms of its geography and ecology, Ecuador’s diversity is almost unrivalled. Ride 20 minutes in any direction and the landscape shifts dramatically, from rugged canyons and snow-capped peaks to mist-shrouded cloud forest, steamy lowland jungle and dry, desert-like coastline.

Despite its extraordinary natural beauty, mass tourism is yet to make major inroads in Ecuador. Once you’re out of the main cities, you’re already very much off the beaten track – wild, remote and relatively traffic-free.

Imagine starting your day blasting up the 4,776m summit of an active volcano, and by sundown, eating barbecued prawns by the sea in a rustic Pacific fishing village. That’s all in a day’s ride in Ecuador.

WHY ECUADOR IS ADVENTURE RIDING PARADISE

1. It’s full of insane mountain roads with “is this real” scenery

Cutting through the country from north to south is the Andean Cordillera, a chain of snow-capped volcanoes and glaciated peaks that form the backbone of Ecuador.  Numerous highways (many of them paved) traverse the slopes and passes of this formidable mountain range, offering continuous days of exhilarating high elevation riding.

One of the loftiest is the highway snaking through Las Cajas National Park, which crests the Mirador Tres Cruces mountain pass at a breathtaking 4,100m altitude.

 

2. You you’ll beneath the shadows of giants at the Avenue of Volcanoes

Ecuador is a land of fire-breathing giants. Over 30 volcanoes, many of them highly active, tower above a valley forming the 200km long Avenue of Volcanoes. One of the most jaw-droppingly dramatic routes on the continent, it winds its way past seven volcanoes over 5,000m high. On a clear day you can see the perfectly conical summit of Cotopaxi, one of the tallest volcanoes in the world at 5,896m.

3. You can get down and dirty on miles of endless backroads

Off-road warriors will find themselves in dust-kicking heaven, with a vast network of unsealed roads winding their way through rural, remote and extremely rugged parts of the country.

It’s possible to hit the dirt within a couple of hours outside the capital of Quito. Just a hundred kilometres north of the city toward the Colonial town of Otavalo, you can find yourself navigating twisty mountain trails, climbing steeply above the clouds, before a dizzying descent into lush green forest and farmland.

A typical day of dirt riding will present plenty of technical and physical challenges – but the extraordinary views and the chance to see a side of Ecuador few tourists witness is well worth enduring the long days.  

4. You can ride from the remotest Andean reaches to the beach in a day

From one of the highest points of the longest mountain range in the world to the edge of the ocean – that’s the sort of mind-blowing variety this compact country can offer in a single day’s ride. Start your morning descending through the freeze and the fog of the western Andes and arrive in a balmy, tropical seaside town just in time to watch the sunset over the Pacific. Ecuador has 2,200km of coastline to explore, from tranquil tropical bays to worthy surf beaches and stretches of empty sand for days.

 

5. It has unique culture, cuisine, heritage and history

Ecuador has a mixed cultural make-up, drawing from various ethnicities and traditions both ancient and modern. The country has 10 spoken languages, with Spanish and the native Quechua tongue being the most common. Ecuador has the highest representations of indigenous cultures in South America, as well as a large Afro-Ecuadorian population with their own traditions, food and music.

Ecuadorian cuisine varies from region to region, from the seafood-heavy dishes of the Pacific (think fresh ceviche and tropical fruit) to warming, filling highland dishes made of pork or cuy (guinea pig) and staples like rice, potatoes and quinoa.  

Ecuador is also littered with incredible archaeological sites and Incan ruins. While none are as impressive as Peru’s Machu Picchu, they’re also almost devoid of crowds and commercialism. Ecuador’s ancient cities remain ghostly, mysterious and almost entirely swallowed by the jungle.

 

6. It’s the gateway to the Galapagos

If there’s one good reason mainland Ecuador doesn’t get enough glory, it’s probably because of that bunch of rock islands around 1,200km off its west coast.

Ecuador, is of course, the administrator of the incomparable Galapagos National Park, an isolated volcanic archipelago renowned as one of greatest wildlife-watching destinations on earth.

You won’t be taking your motorbike to Galapagos, (you’d run out of road pretty quickly anyway), but from mainland Ecuador, there are daily flights from Quito and Guayaquil.

CROSSING THE COLOMBIA-ECUADOR BORDER BY BIKE

 

If you’re entering Ecuador from southern Colombia, you’ll be using the Ipiales-Tulcan crossing on the Pan American Highway. If you’re crossing with an organised tour, all your paperwork will be sorted out at the start of your trip.

If you’re travelling independently, be ready at migracion (immigration) in Ipiales with your passport, vehicle registration and driver’s license. The name on your passport should match the name of the person your bike is registered to.

If you’ve rented a bike from Motolombia, with advanced notice, a special permit can be arranged allowing you to cross into Ecuador (but no other country).   

At Ipiales, you’ll go through the standard paperwork at migracion and then head to aduana (customs) to process the temporary vehicle import permit. Once you’re done, you’ll ride over the Rumichaca Bridge into Tulcan, where your papers will be checked and you’ll be stamped into Ecuador.

 

TIPS AND ADVICE FOR RIDING IN ECUADOR

If you haven’t read our guide to Motorcycle Safety in Colombia, much of the advice regarding urban and rural roads is also applicable to riding in Ecuador.

  • Hazards and Road Conditions: Unpredictable and occasionally reckless drivers, vehicles overtaking on blind corners, unfenced farm animals and extremely variable road surface conditions are major issues when riding in Ecuador, as are long delays caused by landslips, roadworks and broken down trucks and buses.    

 

  • Route Planning: When planning your route, be sure to take into account the shape and curvature of the roads, and the fact that road conditions can change from silky smooth to a pothole-dodging nightmare, even on major highways. Don’t plan your days based on distance alone – plan for strenuous riding and unexpected delays. A 400km ride may be a breeze where you’re from, but in much of Ecuador, it may well be a dawn to dusk endeavour.

 

  • Dealing with Altitude: Motorcycle touring in Ecuador almost invariably involves riding at high altitudes, sometimes well above 3,000m. These elevations can have pronounced effects on both you and your bike. The best way to prevent altitude sickness is to acclimatise at a slightly lower altitude first.

 

Plan your stops in towns below 2,500m in altitude before you embark on those high mountain roads. Quito sits at 2,850m – and so is actually a good base for acclimatising (despite being high enough itself to induce altitude sickness in sensitive folk for a day or two). If your route has a quite a rapid elevation gain, take frequent rest stops and most importantly stay hydrated! Dehydration will compound the effects of altitude sickness and can lead to things becoming more serious.

Unless you’re planning on mountain-climbing any 5000m peaks, the altitudes you hit while riding Ecuador generally shouldn’t cause any serious health problems. If you feel the symptoms of altitude sickness coming on (such as headache, shortness of breath, dizziness, lethargy and loss of appetite), get yourself to the nearest town or village and rest up. Don’t go any higher until you’ve fully recovered – this often takes a day or two.

 

Modern fuel injected bikes don’t suffer like older carburetted bikes from lack of oxygen at altitude causing an overly rich fuel mix due. However, you can still expect the thin air to be a slight drain on performance – a loss of about 10% power for every 1000m gained.

 

With majestic scenery from jagged mountain chains to deep blue volcanic lakes, lush valleys, arid plains, dense tropical rainforest and miles of deserted coastline, Ecuador is a hidden paradise for adventurous two-wheeled touring – well-off the beaten track and well-worth taking extra time to explore its most remote, dramatic reaches.  

Itching to get that Ecuadorian adventure underway? Check out Motolombia’s South American tours:  

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Why You Should Visit Popayán – Colombia’s 480 Year Old Colonial ‘White City’

Most people have heard of Cartagena, the colourful Spanish colonial city on the Carribean coast. Regarded as Colombia’s number one tourist destination, the name Cartagena conjures up images of a romantic, sun-kissed city of cobblestone streets, brightly painted mansions and mango coloured churches. And yet, being crowned “the Most Beautiful Colonial City in Latin America” has its drawbacks. With the crowds come the tacky souvenir stores, pointless attractions, scammers, tricksters and “tourist tax” prices. Don’t even get us started on the cruise ship passenger herds, so seem to be cramming into the city in greater numbers every year! Despite all this, Cartagena remains a truly stunning place, completely worthy of its reputation. But while Cartagena hogs the limelight, many travellers remain in the dark about Colombia’s other World Heritage listed colonial city. Nestled in the lush Valle de Pubenza is a far more laidback colonial gem. Popayán is nicknamed la Ciudad Blanca (the White City) for the whitewashed buildings that give its historic centre a stately, distinctive appearance. Still largely undiscovered by foreign visitors, Popayan is an authentic, unsanitised, tourist trap-free colonial city. It’s also nowhere near the ocean, making it safe from the cruise ship invasion for all eternity.

COLOMBIA’S SECOND COLONIAL CITY

 

The Spanish founded Popayan in 1537, one year after Cartagena, establishing it as the capital of southern Colombia before Cali eventually took its place.
Popayan’s historic downtown is a collection of beautifully preserved colonial era buildings. Dozens of striking historic landmarks, some dating back to the 16th century, are clustered around a massive central plaza, the lovely, lively Parque de Caldas.

WHAT TO SEE IN POPAYÁN

As you wander the old streets of Popayan, look out for some of the city’s most famous landmarks, including;

Iglesia de San Francisco: a lavish 18th century cathedral and one of the finest examples of Baroque style architecture in Colombia. Ask to see the ossuary, which was cracked open by an earthquake in 1983, revealing six unidentified mummies

Iglesia Santo Domingo: built in the mid-1700s, this is the city’s most spiritually important church. It’s flooded with pilgrims during Popayan’s famous Holy Week celebrations, held between Good Tuesday and Easter Saturday

Natural History Museum: within the magnificent grounds of the University of Cauca, this excellent museum is dedicated to Colombia’s amazing biodiversity

Puente del Humilladero: – this 240m long, 11-arch stone bridge was built in 1873 to connect the city centre to the northern neighbourhoods

 

POPAYÁN – WORLD HERITAGE CITY OF… GASTRONOMY?

 
 

Earlier, we described Popayan as a World Heritage Listed city. Which is true.
But while Cartagena’s fine colonial buildings brought it UNESCO recognition, Popayan’s architecture, although undeniably pretty, isn’t quite World Heritage league a la Cartagena.

In fact, Popayan received its World Heritage honours for a something else entirely. In 2009, UNESCO’s Creative Cities initiative declared Popayan the first World City of Gastronomy in Latin America.

Popayan is known for its distinctive take on the national cuisine, drawing on pre-Colombian, Spanish, African and European influences. It utilises a vast array of native ingredients, some found only in the mountains, forests and coastal areas of southern Colombia.

Must-try dishes local dishes include:

Empanadas de Pipián: Snack-sized pasties, filled with a mixture of meat, potatoes, garlic, onion and achiote

Helado de Paila: A traditional ice cream of fruit juice and ice, hand-stirred and set in a copper pot

Breva Calada: Commonly enjoyed at Christmas, this dessert is made from figs soaked in panela (brown cane sugar), served on top of white cheese

Champus: This sweet, aromatically spiced dessert drink is a blend of pineapple, sour orange, lulo, cloves and cinnamon
Salpicon Payanes: This delicious fruit cocktail is a blend of the Colombian fruits lulo, papaya, guanabana and mora

WHERE TO EAT IN POPAYÁN

 
 

Hotel Camino Real: This hotel’s owners are key players in the Congreso Nacional Gastronómico. Set in an elegant Colonial mansion, the restaurant showcases skilful cooking across an innovative menu combining French and Colombian elements

La Coescha Parillada: With smartly dressed, bowtie-wearing waiters, this restaurant has a friendly, old-fashioned vibe and specialises in giant cuts of beef cooked on an open grill

La Fresa: It might not be more than a few plastic tables and chairs, but this cheap-eatery is famous for its scrumptious empanadas de Pipián

Aplanchados Doña Chepa: This pastry shop is run by Doña Chepa, a veteran baker who’s been making her legendary aplanchados (shortbread-style flat pastries) for some 70 years

La Semilla Escondida: This French-owned bistro is a cosy spot for delicious sweet and savoury crepes

 

NIGHTLIFE IN POPAYÁN

 
 

On the surface, Popayan may look like an old, relatively unchanging place, but dig a little deeper and you’ll discover a city buzzing with youthful energy and a creative, independent spirit.
Home to the prestigious educational institutions including the University of Cauca, Popayan attracts thousands of students from across Colombia every year, ensuring a lively, authentically local after-dark scene most nights of the week.
Salsa fans should check out Bar Iguana and New York. For something a little more old-school, El Sotareno is an old-time locals’ favourite, playing classic tango, bolero and ranchera. For a more chilled-out bar experience, check if there’s live music playing at Wipala, a cafe, bar, gallery and performance space in one, or cosy up at Bendito, a labyrinthine student hang-out with a pop and rock soundtrack, craft beers and tea-infused cocktails.

 

DAY TRIPS FROM POPAYÁN

 
 

Popayan is a compact city and the major sites can be seen in a day. However, it’s worth extending your stay to explore the magnificent natural landscapes of the surrounding region.

Some of the best day trips from Popayan include:

Purace National Park: A vast, rugged park protecting a swathe of Andean paramo (high altitude alpine grassland), dotted with waterfalls and thermal springs and home to a small population of endangered Andean condors. Within the park is Volcan Purace, one of the most active volcanoes in Colombia. Tour companies from Popayan offer gruelling full-day trekking trips to the top of the volcano at 4,750m.

For motorcycle riders, the two highways that cut through Purace offer hours of fun dirt and gravel mountain roads through the prehistoric-looking paramo. Silvia Tuesday Market: Silvia is a tranquil little mountain town, 60km northeast of Popayan. Every Tuesday, Silvia comes alive thanks to the weekly market, when Guambiano villagers in colourful traditional dress come to town to trade local wares.

While this authentic trading post is mainly dedicated to fresh produce and wool, the Guambiano set up stalls selling handicrafts, bead necklaces and ponchos to the few tourists who visit. Remember, this is a real market and not a tourist attraction, so please respect the local people, who are generally shy of cameras.
We highly recommend a few days absorbing the charms and natural beauty of Popayan. Two and half hours from Cali down a fast, straight highway, it’s a worthy stop for those planning to ride southern Colombia and its roads less travelled.

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8 Must-See Places in Colombia with Amazing Natural Scenery

As one of the most bio-diverse countries on earth, Colombia is made up of an incredible patchwork of wildly differing landscapes and extraordinary natural beauty. From awe-inspiring mountain ranges to mysterious cloud forest, scorching desert and rugged, surf-spattered coast, here are eight of Colombia’s most awe-inspiring natural wonders.

1. Caño Cristales

Cano cristales

Deep in the dense forests of the Sierra de la Macarena National Park lies a river with a beauty so strange and unearthly it has been called “the river that ran away from paradise”. More co mmonly, it’s referred to as “el rio de los cinco colores” (the river of five colours), since for several months each year (usually between mid-May and early December), the pools and cascades of the Caño Cristales become liquid rainbows. Bursting with vibrant reds, pinks, yellows, oranges and greens, the phenomenon is caused by the blooms of the aquatic flower, macarenia clavigera.
In an isolated range, the Sierra de la Macarena is a vast, wild tract of mixed forest, tropical jungle, shrubland and savannah. Until the mid-2000s, it was a known guerrilla hideout and completely closed to tourists.
These days, tourists can hop on a direct flight from Bogota to the small town of La Macarena, and from there enjoy a half-day hike, boat and truck trip to Caño Cristales and the surrounding swimming holes and waterfalls. Guides are mandatory inside the park and are easily hired in town.
Hardcore dirt riders can visit Caño Cristales on a guided 9 day tour with Motolombia, but heed the warning: this one’s for expert off-roaders only!

2. The Cocora Valley

Cocora valley

Beautiful scenery is everywhere in Colombia’s coffee region. Jade green mountain ranges, forested hills and verdant meadows abound. But one place in the Coffee Triangle stands out, not because it’s unlike anywhere else in the region, but because it’s unlike anywhere else on the planet.
Just east of Salento, the Cocora Valley sits in the lower reaches of the Los Nevados National Park, a broad, perennially lush valley framed by sharp peaks. What makes this valley, also known as el Bosque de Palmas (Forest of the Palms) is that sprouting out of the ground in every direction are the gigantic palma de cera (giant wax palms), the largest palms in the world and Colombia’s national tree.
Some of these strange, spindly giants (their smooth, cylindrical trunks are naked, bearing just a crown of leafy fronds at the top) tower an incredible 60m high. Seeing hundreds of these majestic trees scattered across this resplendent valley is a sight to behold. Measuring yourself up at the base of one of these behemoths and you’ll appreciate how truly tiny you appear in their presence. This is a rain-soaked region, and some days a thick, swirling mist descends on the valley. Some say the foggy weather makes Cocora even more beautiful, shrouding the valley with a mysterious, almost prehistoric air.

3. Chicamocha National Park and Chicamocha Canyon

Chicamocha canyon

54 km south of Bucaramanga, Chicamocha is a bit of a sidestep from the typical Gringo Trail, but it’s a region experienced Colombian adventure riders know and love. The park is bounded by the spines of the mountainous chain surrounding the Chicamocha Canyon.
227 km long and around 2 km deep, Chicamocha is a lush and fertile canyon, with undulating slopes carpeted in emerald green vegetation. The Chicamocha River races along the bottom in a series of rapids, which have recently gained the attention of whitewater rafters. Being not so far from San Gil, Colombia’s ‘adventure capital’ a small adventure sports industry around paragliding, climbing and camping started offering activities within the park.
There are some great day hikes and multi-day treks within the park, but for motorcyclists, it’s the 50km, 45A Route from Piedecustra to Aratoca that makes this natural wonder well worth a detour. The road winds its way along the high ridges before descending almost to the canyon floor. For a remote rural Colombia road, its surface is almost unbelievably perfect. The curves seem to go on forever, and the views are something else altogether.

4. Tayrona National Park

Tayrona national park

At its southern edges, the forests of Tayrona creep up the foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountain range. At its northern boundaries, it meets the wide bays and picturesque coves of a rugged, undeveloped slice of the Caribbean coast. To many, Tayrona is the very definition of paradise. For a beach destination with sparkling clear water and idyllic, palm-fringed stretches of white sand, Tayrona has no equals in mainland Colombia.
If you’re an avid wildlife spotter or birdwatcher, a few days exploring Tayrona’s hiking trails is a must. It’s home to a tiny primate called the cotton-topped tamarin, as well as howler monkeys, sloths, iguanas and poison dart frogs.
However, beauty has a downside. Tayrona can suffer from overcrowding, especially in the peak December-January tourist season. A sacred site to the indigenous Kogi people, Tayrona needs protection. To help the local environment recover, the park often closes for weeks directly after the peak season.

5. Tatacoa Desert

Tatacoa desert

Between Bogota and San Agustin is one of Colombia’s most surreal natural wonders. Desierto de la Tatacoa is a rugged, scorching badland. Its dry, rocky canyons form a labyrinth of eroded red cliffs and gullies. Bizarre, towering rock formations punctuate the arid landscape, which appears hauntingly void of life apart from the occasional giant cactus.
Once the hot desert sun has set, Tatacoa becomes an amazing stargazing destination. In this part of the country, there is little to no light pollution, so on clear nights, an astonishing number of stars are made dazzlingly visible. Home to an astronomical observatory, at 6:30 pm each night, you’ll have the opportunity to see the stars through a high powered telescope, with the local astronomer on hand to point out the constellations.

6. Colombia’s Pacific Coast

Pacific Colombia

Beach vacations in Colombia are synonymous with the Carribean, but Colombia (the only South American country with both Atlantic and Pacific Ocean coastline) has an entire, separate and largely-forgotten coast lapping at its western shores. The Pacific Coast of Colombia extends for 1,392 km, with the Chocó department claiming the longest stretch of seafront.
This is one of the least developed regions in Colombia, the complete opposite of the manicured attractiveness and tame beaches of the Carribean resorts. In Chocó, where the sand ends, the jungle begins. Deep inside the rainforest, waterfalls stream over mossy ledges to crash into wild rivers below. Thermal pools, hidden sanctuaries in the jungle, wait to be discovered by only the most intrepid and foot-sure adventurers. Most settlements on the Chocó coast, tiny fishing villages are isolated and poor. A lack of infrastructure makes travel here a fairly challenging prospect.
Still, modest steps are being made towards lifting-up the region’s economy through eco-tourism. The wild waves of the rugged Chocó coast harbour epic secret surf breaks. The region too, is rich in wildlife – most notably dolphins, turtles and the humpback whales who hug the Colombian coastline on their yearly migration. Whales can often be spotted from shore, but for an up close encounter, head out on a boat tour during the June to October whale watching season.

7. The Sand Dunes of La Guajira

Guajira desert

There is no place remotely like La Guajira, a tiny coastal region on the northernmost tip of Colombia, where the desert touches the Caribbean Sea. The arid landscapes of La Guajira have a desolate, almost alien beauty – cracked yellow earth, straggly clumps of cactus and tiny settlements of tin and thatched roof houses.
And then, the parched, hard earth of the plains gives way to a vast expanse of windswept sand, whose edges plummet precipitously into the crashing waves of the Atlantic below. Standing atop one of these towering dunes, you’ll find yourself gazing in wonder over the blue waters of the Caribbean and the red cliffs of the Guajira desert. This the land of the nomadic Wayuu people. The Spanish never succeeded in conquering this harsh environment and to this day, the Wayuu have managed to maintain a large part of their traditional lifestyle and culture.

8. Chicaque Natural Park

Chicaque Natural Park

The cloud forests of Chicaque remains an untouched wilderness, despite being just 30 minutes south of the crowded capital of Bogota. Well and truly in the clouds, at around 2,700m above sea level, the protected private reserve boasts some of the most magical forest scenery anywhere in Colombia. Some 300 bird species call Chicaque home, as do a dozen different mammals, including the two-toed sloth and spectacled bear.
An amazing ecotourism destination, Chicaque features miles of magnificent hiking trails, varied accommodation and numerous activities. Inside the park are nine well-marked ecological trails. It also offers a canopy walk at the top of a 200 year old oak tree, ziplines, horseback riding and guided birdwatching tours.

Written by: Fiona Davies (extreme pillion rider and adventure travel writer)

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A Motorcyclist’s Travel Guide to the Zona Cafetera (Colombia’s Coffee Region)

The vast, fertile tract of countryside at the foothills of the Cordillera de los Andes is known as Colombia’s Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone). Also referred to as the Eje Cafetero (Coffee Axis), and the Coffee Triangle, the area is Colombia’s most important coffee growing region.
Covering the departments of Quindío, Caldas and Risaralda, this once remote backwater has earned a reputation for producing the finest coffee arabica beans in the world.
Mecca for worshippers of the coffee religion, the Eje Cafetero has plenty to offer the unconverted too – lush, mountain landscapes, tiny townships with cute Colonial architecture and some of Colombia’s most magnificent national parks.
For motorcyclists, the Eje Cafetero promises world-class road riding. Take on countless twisties on traffic-free backroads, explore rarely-visited rural villages and visit waterfalls and hot springs, all without leaving the comfort of the tarmac.

GETTING TO COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 

With your own set of wheels, getting almost anywhere within the Coffee Triangle is a breeze. Coffee exports have made the Eje Cafetero the most developed region in rural Colombia, and the vast majority of roads here are sealed – no off-road experience necessary!
The regional capital, Armenia is 280km from Bogota, and is an easy, straightforward 2 hours, or roughly 180km from Cali.
Manizales is the closest major city from Medellin. While it’s only 200km south, roadworks, landslides and heavy vehicle traffic mean the journey can sometimes be slow-going. 

WHEN TO VISIT AND WEATHER CONDITIONS

 

Mild temperatures and decent rainfall define the climate year-round, so there’s really no good or bad time to tour the Zona Cafetera.
A typical day will flip flop between warm sunshine and showery patches, plus the occasional heavy downpour. Early in the morning and after rain, beware of low-hanging mist obstructing visibility.
Yes, it does get a little wet here, but the scenery wouldn’t be nearly as vibrant and the coffee not nearly as tasty otherwise.

WHERE TO STAY

MANIZALES

 
 

The capital of Caldas Department, Manizales is one of the three main cities in the Coffee Region, alongside Pereira and Armenia. Overlooked by most tourists who head straight to the villages closest to the plantations, for a taste of ‘big city’ life in coffee country, Manizales is easily the most pleasant of the coffee capitals. Home to around 400,000 residents, Manizales nevertheless enjoys a relaxed and friendly small city vibe and has a handful of handsome Spanish-style Colonial buildings. A university town, Manizales lays claim to the best nightlife in the region.

SALENTO

 
salento-colombia
 

Firmly entrenched on the ‘Gringo Trail’, once sleepy Salento absorbs the majority of tourists visiting the Coffee Triangle, due, in part to its location, 30 minutes from one of the biggest drawcards in the region, the giant wax palms of the Valle de Cocora.
Still, Salento has more than enough charm to hold its own. With looming mountains in the near-distance and coffee plantations stretching all the way to the edge of town, Salento’s streets are lined with white-walled colonial houses, their doors, window frames and balconies painted in whimsical combinations of rainbow-bright colour.
While tourists can sometimes seem to outnumber locals, Salento is hardly Disneyfied. The businesses are locally owned, the natives friendly and the vendors undemanding.
Meeting other travellers and arranging tours is no problem in Salento. Accommodation is plentiful, with many guesthouses able to accommodate gated parking for your moto.

 

FILANDIA

 
 

20km from Salento. Filandia has almost twice the (permanent) population of the aforesaid town yet feels far quieter, slower, and more like itself – unconcerned by the trappings of the backpacker economy. The cheerily painted facades of Filandia’s residences are vivid and varied as the most colourful Salento street. The tourist crowds of Salento can sometimes feel a world away, and visitors will find quickly find themselves easing into Filandia’s languorous pace of life.
Once you’ve done a coffee plantation tour or two, there’s not much to do in Filandia itself other than wander lazily from café to café, and exchange banter with the friendly locals, which is exactly what gives Filandia its irresistible charm.

 

SALAMINA

 
 

While Filandia has its fair share of fans, Salamina’s status as a ‘secret gem’ remains safe for now. An isolated pueblo of some 19,000 souls, Salamina is almost 4 hours from Salento and a 70km journey along a scenic secondary road south from Manizales. Salamina shares the same distinctive heritage architecture as other coffee towns – white walls and rainbow-hued timberwork. Its leafy plaza sits overlooked by an all-white church with a looming ivory tower.
Why go out of your way to see yet another Colonial coffee town?
Salamina may well be the single most beautiful village in the entire region, and is recognised as one of the 17 pueblo patrimonios (heritage towns) by Colombia’s official tourism department.
Secret Tip: 25km east of town, giant wax palms (the very same type that make the Valle de Cocora Salento’s most famous attraction) grow prolifically in an undulating valley near the village of San Felix. While it’s not quite as dramatic as Cocora, you have a good chance of having the company of the trees entirely to yourself.

FINCA AND HACIENDA STAYS

 
 

Coffee fincas (farms) are blanketed across huge swathes of the Eje Cafetero, and for those who want to get a bit closer to the source of their morning espresso, many fincas provide lodging in hacienda style accommodation. Some haciendas are incredibly luxurious, befitting the tastes of the wealthiest of plantation owners, while others are more humble, homestay-like affairs. Some fincas offer free food and lodging in return for volunteer work.

 

MOTORCYCLE TRAVEL IN COLOMBIA’S COFFEE TRIANGLE

 
coffee-stay

Conveniently located, extraordinarily scenic and packed with things to do (from leisurely coffee tastings to intense multi-day hiking excursions) the Zona Cafetera is a great addition to any two-wheeled touring itinerary. the mountain scenery is spectacularly lush and evergreen and no matter where you point your tires, the Andean roads deliver curves till the cows come home.
If you’re inexperienced or not a fan of riding off-road, the Zona Cafetera is perfect. You can easily plan a route sticking exclusively to sealed roads without missing any of the major sights and attractions.
A great introduction to motorcycle touring in Colombia, Motolombia run a 3 Day, all-tarmac Coffee Taster Ride from Cali, stopping in at Salento, Filandia Valle de Cocora, a working coffee finca, hot springs, waterfalls and more.

STILL READING? CHECK OUT THIS TOP SECRET BONUS ROAD WARRIOR’S COFFEE COUNTRY DAY TRIP

 
coffee-road-colombia

While nearly every road in coffee country is as curvaceous as it is scenic, we highly recommend putting a half day aside to take the road less travelled and experience one of the absolute best rides in the region. Between La Virginia (60km north of Salento) and Supía is a smooth and winding blast north along a quiet stretch of Highway 25.
Featured in our Top 10 Paved Roads of Colombia list, this 100km one way trip is tonnes of fun without being overly demanding, with lots of swooping curves and some truly stellar scenery.

 

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