Now that we are safely across the Darien Gap and into Central America, we are now comfortable explaining of our delays in Colombia.
To get to the point: not only did we enter Colombia improperly, but also we did not register our motorcycles as is required by all countries that you enter by vehicle. In essence, we were illegal aliens, driving motorcycles that were smuggled into Colombia illegally. Understand; there was no intentional effort on our part to evade the law. Rather, what got us into this mess was quite accidental and innocent.
Here’s what happened to get us into this mess. As we approached the bridge that separates Ecuador from Colombia, we began slowing down, looking for the usual checkpoints where you stop and do the immigration and customs paperwork. At every previous border, all traffic was brought to a halt and directed to special lanes and parking areas at the borders. If you were trying to enter or leave a country illegally, at most borders you’d literally have to drive through several roadblocks. Not so at the Ecuador-Colombia border!
What we didn’t know was that the two countries have set up a free trade zone for the communities on both sides of the border. Residents of these communities can freely pass over the border without stopping. If you are not a resident, then you are required to exit the highway and report to the immigration and customs offices to process your passport and temporary vehicle registration. No signs at the border, and nothing we had read previously made known to us.
I was leading as we approached the border. I quickly scanned the area, and noted that most cars were driving straight through without stopping. We stopped at the checkpoint, and I waived my passport at the police officer, which promptly waived our team on through. I thought to myself that this was too easy. But hey, it’s Columbia; the country we have been most concerned about crossing. Maybe it’s easier than we thought.
Our first thought was that we had just come through the Ecuador exit point, and that they had no requirements to get an exit stamp for your passport. At many borders the exit checkpoint and entry checkpoints can be several kilometers apart. When we didn’t immediately see a Colombian checkpoint, and with what I announced to the Gerald and David, was great certainty, that since the officer had waived us through, the immigration and customs office for Colombian must be somewhere ahead. I suggested we continue onward to look for it. Besides, I said, if all else failed, surely we could take care of our problem in the capital city of Bogota!. And that was the fateful decision.
After traveling many more miles, we realized that we had somehow missed the Colombian immigration and customs offices. But I was certain we could find an office in Bogota to “fix” any problem, so we continued on towards Cali, our planned stop for the night.
Even though we’d blown across the border without any delay, we were still running late and realized we couldn’t make it to Cali in daylight. Gerald looked at the GPS and decided we’d stop in Popayan, a beautiful colonial town, just a few hours from Cali. As usual, we stopped and began asking people about hotels. Gerald found a lady who wanted to help us find a hotel. She had us follow her and her husband to the Dann Monastery Hotel. It is literally a 500 year old monastery that has been converted into a beautiful historic hotel. This is where we stayed the first night in Colombia.
At breakfast the next morning, there was only one other person eating breakfast, a Colombian woman (which we mentioned in a previous blog). I greeted her in English, and she answered back in flawless English. Since we were always trying to learn about road conditions and get directions from the local Colombians, we were interested in talking to her, and she joined us at our table.
We learned that she worked for the President of Colombia, who had been visiting Popayan the day we arrived. He and many of the officials had flown back to Bogota, while our friend stayed behind to tie up some loose ends. We told her about our dilemma, and asked her what she thought we should do. She said she would make some calls, and call me with recommendations. Her first impression was that we could go to the immigration and customs offices in Bogota to get our paperwork done. She found out, though, that the only way to correct our problem was to backtrack to the border and get the required paperwork completed. We told her that this was impossible; that we didn’t have the time to make the 600-mile round trip over the same treacherous mountain roads we’d just traversed. Surely, we thought, we can convince the customs authorities in Bogota that this was all a mistake, and they’ll give us proper documentation.
This assumption was wrong!!