Riding a motorbike in Colombia can be one of the most exciting, awe-inspiring, challenging and potentially confusing experiences of your life. The 2-wheeled form of transport is incredibly popular among the people who live here, with almost 7 million motorcycles registered with the Department of Tránsito, meaning around 1 in 7 of the population own one, and that’s not even counting the unregistered ones.
Like many countries in South America, the congestion of the big cities such as Cartagena, Bogotá, Medellin and Cali, as well as a somewhat relaxed approach to the rules of the road, makes a motorbike the ideal option for ducking in and out of traffic and turning a 1-hour ordeal by car into a 15-minute zip down the road. The traffic can be daunting at first for people with minimal experience on a motorcycle or driving in developing countries, which is a reason why many tour companies have sprung up over South America offering guided trips, lessons and rental options to visitors (and locals) to their particular country.
At this moment in time, Colombia is primed for the more adventurous motorcycle tourist, with the turbulence and instability of the 80’s and 90’s well and truly gone, foreigners are only just now starting to recognize the potential this country has for exploration on 2-wheels. A well-maintained road network links together most of the major cities and points of interest, with lots of winding, mountain roads through the Andes, as well as the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in the north making for some awesome scenic cruises.
For those that like to get off the asphalt and get down and dirty though, you can’t go past the northern coast. The city of Santa Marta is the perfect jump-off point for getting on a motorbike and exploring the tallest coastal mountain range in the world, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. The sleepy, mountain town of Minca is only 45 minutes away, Paso del Mango/Bonda a mere 20-minutes away, and a whole network of adrenaline-pumping, dirt tracks are reachable within an hour via the road to the Ciudad Perdida/Lost City, aka Colombia’s Machu Pichu. Not to mention the rugged, desert beauty of Cabo de la Vela, reachable within a day from the city of Riohacha.
Way up in the mountains when you are slipping and sliding through the mud and bouncing around over rocks, you are going to want a smaller bike. In all likelihood you’re going to be pulling it out of the mud, or lifting it over a rock at some point or another, therefore we very strongly recommend Enduro bikes up to 250cc. Enduro, because you will need to do at least a little highway riding to access the trails, and a smaller displacement keeps the weight down, which you’ll thank me for after pulling it out of the mud for the 3rd, 4th… 5th time.
You can purchase a brand new, entry level Honda 150cc enduro for around 7.500.000 COP ($2,500 USD) after registration and compulsory insurance, but you will need to wait at least a week for your motorbike, and the process of selling it after you are finished is seldom worth the trouble. Unless of course, you will be sticking around Colombia for a long time, which once you’ve visited, you’ll see is a very appealing idea.
The Lost City (La Ciudad Perdida) is one of the big-ticket tourist attractions on the north coast of Colombia. It is estimated to have been constructed around 800AD (approximately 650 years before Machu Pichu), but was only discovered in 1972 when a group of treasure looters stumbled upon the site and archaeological remains started appearing for sale on Colombia’s black market. The first archaeological group reached the site in 1976, it was restored by 1982, and soon thereafter began the transition to one of the must-see destinations in Colombia. Armed conflict in the area in the 90’s and the kidnapping of a group of tourists in 2002 closed the area to foreigners for several years, but since 2005 there has been a military presence along the trail and no problems since.
Reaching the Ciudad Perdida requires a minimum 4-day hike through the jungle, crossing rivers, ascending/descending some very steep sections, and 1,200 stone steps up to the city at the end of the trail. The overwhelming majority of visitors to the city will be part of an organized tour group (approx $300 USD), with professional guides ensuring safety along the way, pre-organising food and drink for the trip, and making the required changes to the journey when the weather in the area demands it.
If you don’t feel like paying the price tag or hiking for 4-5 days through the jungle and the rain to reach the city, the surrounding area will deliver nature and breathtaking views just as beautiful as those you will encounter during the hike. The village of Machete (where the Ciudad Perdida treks begin) is reachable in around an hour by 4wd or motorcycle from the main coastal highway between Santa Marta and Palomino, and simply requires a 2.000 peso donation per person to be granted entry via one of the 2 access roads either side of the town of Buritaca. In addition to the town of Machete, the indigenous village, Quebrada del Sol is perched around 1000m up in the mountains, about halfway between the 2 entrance points, and requires approximately 3 hours on a motorbike to reach, or most of the day by foot. There is however, 1 small hostal available in the village for hikers wishing to stay the night.
The area out behind Buritaca is still relatively unknown and untouched by tourists and locals alike, but if you are looking for adventure and to see some untouched parts of the country, the Quebrada del Sol loop is the perfect place to visit. With areas completely shaded by tree canopies, fresh-water streams perfect for swimming, and sweeping views of the Sierra Nevada mountains, you won’t be disappointed. Almost all of the locals that use the route will be on a motorcycle, and of course we strongly recommend you do the same, however, you will need to have some experience riding through reasonably technical, off-road terrain. If you don’t have the experience to explore the area on a motorbike, mountain-biking and hiking are also beginning to make their way into the area.