By TRACY CHARLES Having set out on her round-the-world motorcycle journey last year aboard her BMW F750GS, Tracy Charles got stuck in Colombia when COVID hit. This is her Colombia ride report about what happened next, and why she chose to return.
In a few weeks, it will be one year since the entire world shut down. One year since I was locked down in Filandia, Colombia. When I say “locked down”, it was exactly that.
I knew very little about what was going on in the world, only that there was a virus that started in China and was spreading. But that’s what it is like when you are traveling. You just don’t pay much attention to the news – if I did, then I would probably never travel! Steel Horse of Colombia had kindly posted that they had reopened their hostel for stranded travelers, so I knew something was going on and sent a message saying I would be there that night.
I made it to the outskirts of Filandia, late in the day, only to be stopped at a roadblock with the military, police, nurses, and one doctor. They refused me entry into the town and even called the mayor, who also refused. I wasn’t actually going into the town but was planning to take a road into the mountains that was only 200 feet away, and kept trying to convince them. Realizing that I was going nowhere that night, I parked my bike beside the roadblock and laid out my sleeping bag. I would have enough time in the morning to figure out what I was going to do. Just as I was falling asleep, a nurse and a policeman woke me up and told me to follow them. “To Steel Horse?” I asked. They replied by nodding.
Thankfully, I hadn’t set up my tent and was on the bike in a few minutes and following them into town in the dark (with 2 warm beers in me, I might add). Imagine my confusion when they pulled over at the side of the road and pointed me in the wrong direction then took off. I slowly realized that they had escorted me to the other end of town and wanted me to leave! Punching the hostel into my GPS, I made a quick U-turn and headed back the way I had just come. If it wasn’t for Yvette, the owner of the hostel, I never would’ve found the tiny road that cut into the mountains in the dark. She happened to call me just as I was getting close. She stayed on the phone and encouraged me as I rode, duck walked, and continuously played with my brakes, while I headed down this pitch-black, steep, curvy, rocky, crazy, 2 km road to her place.
I can’t begin to describe my feeling of relief when I saw the lights of the hostel, but when I had to hide the bike, I realized the seriousness of the situation. Another traveler from the UK showed up the next day ( he had no problems getting through the roadblock). A few more travelers were trying to get to the hostel but were turned away, and that is when the Minister of Tourism got wind of us staying just outside her town. She called the owner, yelled and screamed, and threatened her with fines. She told Yvette she was sending a doctor out the next day along with the tourism police. I walked on eggshells and was pretty scared for several days, but no one showed up.
Now back to the ‘lockdown’. As a foreigner, I was not allowed to leave the Steel Horse grounds. I was initially ok with that, as I had 5 acres of gorgeous property to roam, nestled in the Andes. I went from complete independence to dependence in a matter of hours. Yvette was allowed to go into town once a week. So once a week, I would hand over my credit card with the PIN number, along with my food, booze, and personal list. For 6 weeks, this was my life and although I was extremely fortunate to be where I was, when Canada announced the last repatriation flight, I was on it. I cried after I booked that flight…..I felt like I had failed somehow on my journey.
Back in Canada, I did my 2 weeks quarantine and was able to catch up with family and friends. It was so different, I was able to shop in stores, travel, go for walks and visit people, everything that I couldn’t do in Colombia. I bought myself a Honda CB500X for the summer and found myself wandering all over Ontario and Quebec.
I wandered on my bike for 6 months, but when the cold weather started and the bike had to be put away for the Canadian winter, my thoughts started wandering to my BMW F700GS back in Colombia. The air borders had reopened at the beginning of October and I had to make a decision.
This is where things got tough…..everyone has an opinion about travel right now. I am one that believes it can be done safely. I thought of all the front-line workers that have worked safely throughout Covid, and I adopted their methods of staying safe. There were a lot of people that didn’t agree with my return to Colombia, but just as many, if not more, that wished me well. (I even received a death threat on social media.)
Despite all this, and with no end in sight for the virus, I returned to Colombia at the beginning of December. Unsure of what to expect from the locals, I was pleasantly surprised to find them just as wonderful as pre-Covid. They still come over to talk to me and hear about my journey. They are amazed that despite their country’s reputation, I have chosen to ride through it, solo, and they love to hear how much I love Colombia and its people. They want to take care of me and are always offering bits of food, water, or just travel advice. They take great pride in their country. So many people still smiling beneath their masks as I pass by and they wish me a good day. I am also able to move freely throughout this beautiful country and experience all they have to offer.
There is a lot that has changed though. Fist and elbow bumps are common now instead of the usual handshake or hug. Temperatures are taken everywhere, there is the mandatory hand sanitizer at every entrance and almost every place has a mat full of antibacterial liquid that you must step into, then wipe off, before entering a building. Many places spray your bags and even you, before allowing you indoors. The once filled town squares are now empty. I used to love sitting there and watching the children, men and women perform in costume, or just people watching, taking in the culture. Many museums and tourist attractions are still closed and not mentioned on their website, so I find myself riding for hours just to go see something, only to find it locked up.
Like the rest of the world, many local businesses have shut down and the amount of homeless(many Venezuelans) that are begging for food or wandering with all their worldly possessions, is staggering and heartbreaking. I no longer come across other overlanders or travelers, and that was always nice to be able to swap stories and routes, a few laughs, and sometimes a meal or a few beers. If I do, they are locals out for a ride on their motorbikes. Many towns here have not had a single case of Covid, and make fun of me and my masks. It is easy to become complacent in these towns.
As always, the riding here is absolutely incredible. Colombia has it all, twisting, tight curvy roads, amazing off roads, mountains, beaches, deserts, the Amazon, and I am taking advantage of all of this. In hindsight, I made the right decisions. The first to go back to Canada, and the second to come back to Colombia.
Words and images: TLC Travels