Getting around in Colombia

Mon 13 Jan 2014 16:40

As we explored Santa Marta, and then took a colectivo up to Minca, and then took a bus to Cartagena, the various means of transport all around started to fascinate me...

First of all, as a motorcyclist, I was delighted to find motorbikes are probably the primary means of getting around the place. You can even buy them in the supermarkets! Almost all the bikes are small engined by our standards, 125 or 150cc typically, but they manfully scream up into the mountains, with crates on the back, or sacks slung over the tank, or three family members squeezed on. Everyone rides it seems, from age 16, though a lot look younger, babies simply held against chests, toddlers sat between their parents.

A well looked after bike up in the mountains and supermarket bikes for sale - notice the price!!

All around the place you see groups of young men pulled into the side of the road, chatting, still sitting on their bikes. Strangely, they all seemed to have a second helmet over their arm. Perhaps they were planning to pick up their girlfriends later? But no, it turns out that they're taxis. For about £1.20 they'll give you a lift anywhere in town, you just jump on the back, put on the one-size-fits-all giant helmet and off you go. Shopping isn't a problem, just hold on to as much as you can and the driver will take the rest. Alternatively, for serious loads, like bricks, fridges and the like, there are trikes that can take anything anywhere.

Moto-taxi, complete with shopping! Notice rather large passenger helmet.

 It was some time before I spotted a petrol station. Instead there are lots of little motorbike mechanic's shops, from which you can have your bike tank topped up with a gallon jug. Here's a super basic one we spotted on the way to Cartagena. It rather put me in mind of Dawn to Dusk pits...

Pit stop and the most common way of avoiding burnt bums from the tropical sun on black seats!

There are huge brightly coloured trucks on the roads. The drivers are quite impatient and pull out to overtake when there's absolutely no hope of being able to get by. The tactic seems to be simply to out cool the driver coming the other way, so everyone slams on their brakes and lets you pass. Terrifying when you see one coming straight towards you on the wrong side of the road.

On the right of the picture of all the lorries above there is a pedal rickshaw. We saw loads of these as we went along the causeway at Cienaga, acting as taxis, but we've seen none in Santa Marta or Cartagena. I wondered if it was because it was a poorer area - and because it was dead flat!

Around every town there are loads and loads of yellow taxis, all that we came across had been retro converted to be gas powered, including the colectivo's we used. The drivers must be so good at spotting body language because they stop for you before you've hardly even started to think of getting one. A journey anywhere in town is $5,000, which luckily is about £3. There can be some pretty big traffic jams, both in and outside of town, which, combined with motorbikes threading in and out and taxis suddenly stopping because they think they've seen a fare, leads to some hair raising driving. In a 10 minute taxi ride in Cartagena there were so many near misses that I stopped looking and just waited for the ride to end, turning my body sideways and sliding down in the seat in the hope the front seats would save me in the event of what felt like an inevitable crash. Needless to say there are no rear seat belts. In addition to the colectivos and regular 'maxi taxi' type minibuses there are a wide variety of bigger buses, some looking like coaches in the UK, though blinged up, other's looking more like converted lorries.


In the old walled part of Cartagena doesn't allow motorbikes in. In fact, there seem to be very few private cars there too, it's mostly taxis and what they call horse drawn chariots, which makes me think of Romans in battle, but aren't like that at all. They're really for visitors to take a tour around the city.


Horses and donkeys (burros) play their part too, trains of them taking sacks up the trails in the mountains or pulling carts, though horses are mostly used for carts. These behave as if they are pedestrians, they just go down the sides of the road, causing wild swerving from the rest of the traffic.


To get around the no motorbikes rule in the old city you can hire push bikes, including tandems, segways and electric bikes. You get family groups of 6 or more on bicycles bearing down on you in the narrow streets and out of control segways clearing the pavements. 

But this motorbike seemed to have snuck in below the radar:

Our Brompton push bikes have stayed folded up below deck. There's no way I'd want to be on a push bike trying to negotiate the traffic chaos of beeping horns that is the town centre here in Santa Marta. However, I'd take my chances on a motorbike, avoiding the busy streets, getting out to those twisty mountain roads, dodging the pot holes along the trails, exploring Colombia.