‘We are a tough people’ riding motorcycles in Colombia

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American motorcyclists often fancy themselves the most capable, fastest, toughest and most daring on the planet (humble lot are we). Our rocketship sportbikes, huge displacement cruisers and tank-like adventure tourers boast customized performance and an array of after-market farkels that are the envy of motorcyclists in much of the rest of the world. From desert enduros to transcontinental Iron Butts we do indeed hold our own. Well, I have news for you, my brothers and sisters – the motorcyclists in Colombia have none of that and can still eat us for breakfast.

Colombia has a population of nearly 40 million people. It is almost twice the size of Texas, with more than a third of its territory covered in mountains. It only snows on a handful of its Andean peaks. The majority of Colombians cannot afford cars. What does this mean? The climate, terrain and economy make the motorcycle an ideal form of transportation. Millions of Colombians ride motorcycles on roads that are as twisty and beautiful as they are unpredictable and chaotic.

A very quiet afternoon on Bogotá’s Avenida Caracas, one of the city’s most congested avenues. Officially a two-lane road, cars and motorcycles routinely improvise three or four ‘streams’ of traffic.

Much to the chagrin of drivers, Colombia’s cities literally buzz with bikes — like angry mechanical bees they bob in and out of traffic with a tenacity and dexterity that put Californian lane-splitters to shame. And while you can certainly find plenty of Harleys, BMWs and Japanese sport bikes in the country’s wealthiest neighborhoods, most Colombians ride small displacement motorcycles made in China, India and Japan. And they ride the snot out of them. They ride practical, fuel efficient and easy to maneuver motorcycles — Bajajs, Lifans and AKTs — brands you’ve likely never heard of. But, once you’ve seen them in action, you gain a new respect for such machines. You feel the moto-Jones — you know that if you lived here you’d would want a bike like this too. Like motorcyclists everywhere, their owners customize and decorate their bikes with stunning creativity and creole improvisation: big bore jobs, custom tuning, wild paint, suspension tweaks and improvised cargo racks abound. I remember seeing Colombian motocross bikes sporting hybrid tires and street wheels long before supermoto became a discipline and market segment in the U.S. and Europe.

One of many wash-and-detail-while-you-wait businesses in La Favorita (full service 12,000 pesos or about $6 USD).

During the darkest years of the ‘80s and ‘90s, the Colombian motorcycle also became an unfortunate tool for assassination and violent crime. In their ongoing war with the state, the heads of the Medellín and Cali cartels infamously used motorized sicarios or hitmen to liquidate competition, policemen and troublesome politicians. To this day, many Colombian drivers pay special attention when two-up motorcyclists appear alongside them. While most American motorcyclists have had to put up with rude gestures from drivers and the occasional ‘you’re going to get yourself killed on that thing’ from friends and family, our peers in Colombia endure a stigma that we cannot imagine, one that makes our ‘badass rebel’ Harley pirates and squid kids seem like some kind of sick joke.

A typical Sunday afternoon on one block of Bogotá’s bustling La Favorita motorcycle district.

Instead of having dealerships scattered about town, Colombia’s larger cities host entire districts dedicated to motorcycles (there are similar districts for all kinds of other products as well, from pet shops to appliances). Bogotá has la favorita, Cali has la quince con quince and Medellín has la bayadera. These are always located in sketchy parts of town, not the kind of place that middle-class Colombians or foreigners tend to frequent (but boy are they fascinating — you just have to be careful). Bogotá’s motorcycle district occupies twelve square blocks, where hundreds of motorcycle-related businesses stand shoulder to shoulder, from repair shops and dealers to motorcycle washes, accessory stalls and moto-themed lunch counters. These districts are a hive of activity that echo with exhaust notes, loud music and the sounds of tools on metal. Just as we do, Colombian motorcyclists congregate in these places to wrench, kick tires and share stories of their moto exploits. Colombians are terribly friendly, and without exception the people I’ve spoken to in these neighborhoods are always thrilled to see an American interested in their world. They love talking motorcycles and offer fanciful explanations about what makes the Colombian motorcycle scene so special. Juan David Franco, the owner of a small repair shop in Bogotá called Geo Motos La 16, explained it best: “Colombia is a resilient country, we are a tough people. We have to be, and we ride our motorcycles the same way.”

Juan David Franco, owner Geo Motos la 16, of one of hundreds of small motorcycle repair shops in Bogotá.

Dr. Corey Shouse Tourino is a professor of Latin American Studies at St. John’s University in Minnesota. He is a former Fulbright scholar to Colombia and specializes in contemporary Colombian literature and film. He also rides a beautiful red Ducati with enormous chicken strips.

  • jeremy

    Spent a couple months in coloma a couple of years ago. Cheap as hell, relatively gringo free, super friendly people, and one of the safer south American countries to be a gringo tourist. I remember sitting on about 1000 buses, bored as hell, watching motorcycles fly by us on incredibly narrow mountain roads with 1000+ ft drop offs and no guard rails. I wanted to be on a bike on those roads SO BAD, unfortunately didn’t have the coin.

  • Roman

    Met a really nice couple from Columbia at a Triumph demo day in North Jersey. The guy was riding the new Tiger 800XC. He said that the riding in the mountains was unreal and there are plenty of places renting to “Westerners” (I think he was too nice to say gringos). Great story, love reading about moto-culture all over the world. Keep it up!

  • HammSammich

    Fantastic article. Would be neat if this were the beginning of a series, giving readers insight into motorcycling in various parts of the world. Thanks!

    • goodcat8

      +1

    • Gregory

      I wrote this in 2007, concerning Korea.

      -gceaves

      ——————

      I commuted by motorbike in Seoul from 2001 to 2005. I went from near Seoul Station to COEX, there in the mornings and back in the afternoons. At first, for a few months, I scooted about on a Daelim VS 125. Very mushy. It was an old delivery guy’s bike. It wasn’t cutting it. So I upgraded to a Hyosung GV 250, new. Very nice.

      I parked next to the delivery guys; I was the only “salary man” who commuted by motorcycle. As a non-Korean, I was expected, if I were to ride a bike, to at least get a BMW or Harley. But no. I rode the Hyosung. I loved it.

      It had floor boards, both fore and aft, a big back rest for the girlfriend and a rear rack for luggage. I installed a batwing fairing to keep the wind off and cardboard soft luggage to carry the tool kit. (Always carry your own tool kit.) I had canvas sewn into the inside of the front crash bars to protect my boots from detritus. I had foam gauntlets for the winter. I did have heated grips, but the wiring was always funny. I commuted in monsoon summer rains, bitter winter winds and, of course, the beauty of spring and fall.

      Seoul delivery men taught me how to ride. I had never ridden in North America. I learned the motorcycle rules of the road from the delivery guys of Seoul streets. It was awesome. Nipping between lanes, or between a curb and stuck traffic, watch out for taxi doors opening into your pathway. The girl screamed and fled back into the taxi, clutching her handbag. I grabbed the front break, hard to the grip. The nose dived. The rear locked. She slammed the door shut, panicking that a foreigner on a bike almost mushed her into a taxi door. I made it. I rolled by, only slightly clipping the taxi’s mirror with my own.

      Use the sidewalks: good way around jammed traffic. Also, sidewalks are our unlimited parking spaces. Always park as close to the front door of your office building as you can get. The other suckers can take the subway or park way underground.

      Use the bus lanes, especially heading along Chongno or anywhere south of the Han. They’re the best way around traffic.

      Also, use buses to run cover for you as you speed through intersections. If a bus is on your left, no one’s going to be hitting you from the left, and anyone from the right is going to be watching out for the huge bus. Think small fish next to whale. But never, ever, get between a bus and the curb. The bus drivers will pull over instantly to pick up a passenger. Very dangerous for you to be stuck between.

      Cruising around the Namsan ring road is always nice. You can ride your bike right up to the bottom of Seoul Tower.

      The lower-level of the Yongsan-Kangnam bridge (which goes to the express bus terminal) is nice: it floods in the spring.

      Motorcycles, and foreigners, are not immune to the alcohol road checks. I was always stopped, and breathylyzed, just like anyone else. A few times, I was able to cruise through the roadblock unchecked, but that’s generally frowned upon.

      You don’t need to stop if a cop waves you down, also.

      I toured the East Sea road. You can get out of Seoul and head up toward Kangweon Province. Try the ddakgalbi in ChunCheon. Delicious. You can also put your bike on a ferry that cruises the ChunCheon lake/ dammed river. The mountains are stunning. Stop at the mountain pass overlooking Samchok. Beautiful view of the East Sea. It takes about 10 or 11 hours from the North Korean view point down to Pohang and Pusan. You can do it in a day; I’d normally stop for the night somewhere.

      Along the west coast, try to get down to North CheonLa Province. The Yellow Sea is very shallow and there are some good beaches there, crammed in the summer.

      I’ve done ferries to Cheju from Pusan, Wando and Incheon, all with my Hyosung strapped down in the hull next to the trucks. Any of the ferries are nice. The center road that bisects Cheju east-west is the nicest. Avoid the ring road: too many tourists.

      The southern islands between Mokpo and Pusan are nice, too.

      Anyway, good article.

  • Brian

    Your article reminded me of my working trips to India. 1.3 Billion people, more M/C’s than cars. Bad roads, unbelivable traffic. That truly is a country of motorcyclists.

    • d3fun

      +1

  • Natasha

    “Officially a two-lane road, cars and motorcycles routinely improvise three or four ‘streams’ of traffic.”

    I know exactly what you’re talking about. While visiting my family and driving from Barranquilla to Cartagena, we came to dozens of intersections that were no longer 4-way stops. There were at least 4 ‘streams’ of traffic per stop, and people seemed to be fight for whatever piece of asphalt they could occupy. Needless to say, the stoplights were viewed as a suggestion rather than a rule. Just from that experience, I will always have respect for a Colombian-city driver.

  • goodcat8

    Love this type of piece.
    That icon video POS on the other hand……

  • Gregory

    Sounds like/ looks like Seoul’s motorcycle scene.

    Personal modifications are _awesome_.

    -g

  • dux

    Nice article. I hope to see another installment.

  • John

    My cousin’s fiancee is from Colombia and relates the same stories. Really friendly, outgoing and helpful people for the most part…Great article!

    The only thing I find worrysome is the recent influx of the of all the new chinese brands coming into all the south american and caribbean countries. Being from a nearby caribbean country, we’ve had our pick of the usual japanese low-end moto imports. Hondas, yamahas, suzukis, etc…was it. Awesome quality, with maybe some suzukis as an exception.

    Now, for the price of a modest honda, you can get a much higher displacement chinese model. the government even subsidizes scooters en masse during political elections. This flooding of the markets with such obvious low quality models, making them available to practically everyone seems like a great thing on the surface, but won’t end well in my opinion.

    On a kind of upside, Honda and yamahas are still top dogs since they make practically everything down there, the xr tornado is superpopular for some reason, maybe because all the cops and armed forces ride them. A new motocross park opened up not too long ago and a few more seemed to be in the works, I just hope once all these low quality chinese brands start breaking apart it won’t sour the populous to riding in general…

    • Toby

      I was surprised to see that here in Thailand, even though brands like Lifan and Tiger (a Thai company) sell bikes for a lot less than the Japanese models, they don’t sell very well. Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki dominate, and I’m guessing it’s thanks to the importance of reputation here. To be seen on anything less than a Honda is shameful ;)

  • isambard

    I was just in Bogota…he’s telling the truth!

    The only thing he didn’t mention is the widespread and weird trend of folks fitting seat covers printed with giant photos of naked women. Every other biker is sitting on a naked Shakira-lookalike. Seems to be the first mod they make on a new bike.