We were riding around Medellin and Cali, two cities in Colombia that developed an international reputation for drug trafficking and violence, when I got to thinking about all the negative comments I had heard about this region of Columbia and Latin America in general. I heard that it was very dangerous, the food would make you ill, the roads were bad, police were corrupt, I would have to pay bribes to cross the borders and I shouldn’t drink the water. Now that we have been on the road for almost two months traveling through seven different countries, I wanted to share with you what has been my actual experience.
Myth: Latin America is very dangerous.
I am sure Latin America has more than its share of crime and violence, but we have not seen it nor felt threatened by it. Although we were apprehensive about our safety at first, we have come to feel just as safe here in Latin America as we did in the States. We have found that the cities we have passed through were filled with average people just going about their daily lives.
In particular, we had heard that Mexico, Honduras and Columbia were extremely dangerous with a lot of drugs, gangs and insurgent violence. This may be true in some parts of these countries, but we did not experience any threating situations. I attribute this in part to the fact that we have not done anything that would put ourselves in danger. We did not attempt to buy drugs, we drank very little and we followed the laws (except for my traffic violations).
The people in Columbia say that some remnants of the drug gangs still exist, but it is nothing like it was. Today Colombia is mostly living with the reputation they got years ago when things were very unstable, but it no longer applies. According to an article I read about Columbia, crime has dropped dramatically and the country is rapidly becoming the next international tourist destination.
As far as we are concerned, Latin America is safe to travel on a motorcycle as long as you use common sense.
Myth: The food will make you ill.
During our journey we have eaten at just about every type of establishment you can imagine from upscale restaurants to street vendors selling food out of a cart. It has all been good and I have not gotten sick yet. Omar’s only issue has been seasickness, which he tried unsuccessfully to blame on the food served on the Stahlratte.
Shortly after crossing the Mexican border Omar taught me that some of the best food can be had at roadside cafes. Most of these eateries would never ever pass a health inspection in the States, but somehow they prepare delicious meals that don’t send you running to the bathroom.
Myth: The police are corrupt.
We have had only one bad experience with the police, which Omar described in a post. In Costa Rica a policeman stopped us for not wearing reflective vests at night. This should have been nothing more than a warning, but he wanted a bribe to let us go. When we told the manager at the hotel where we stayed that night, she was genuinely appalled and suggested we report the situation to the Federal Police Internal Affairs, which we did.
Other than that experience, we have had nothing but positive interactions with the police. When they stopped me for passing on a double yellow line, they just gave me a warning to drive safe and let me go. All other times the police have given us a thumbs-up, a friendly wave as we passed by, or asked about our motorcycles if we were parked. BMW Motorcycles are rare in Latin America and draw admiring attention from the police. They often ask about our trip and we joke with them to quit their jobs and head with us to Tierra del Fuego. We even had dinner with two policemen in Antigua.
Myth: The roads are in horrible condition.
We have certainly travelled on roads that have been in extremely poor condition with giant potholes, uneven surfaces and little or no lane markers. Add to this, lots of trucks and motorcycles zigzagging in and out of traffic, and you have the makings for an accident. Fortunately, these types of road conditions have not been that common; otherwise, I would be a nervous wreck and unable to ride.
Riding in the cities has been the most stressful part of our adventure. Many of the roads in the cities and towns don’t have the lines painted on the surface to denote the lanes. In Cali we were traveling on a major street wide enough for four vehicles in each direction, but there were no lane markers. Riding down that street, it seemed like controlled chaos with cars and motorcycles moving left and right without signaling. On those streets, you must stay very focused to avoid an accident. I am starting to get the hang of it, but it still freaks me out every time I am on one of those roads.
Overall, the roads have been a bit better than I expected, but they are not like the States where the rules of the road are well defined and drivers are expected to follow them.
Myth: You have to pay bribes or need handlers to cross the borders.
We have not been asked to pay bribes or needed handlers to cross any of the borders, which I attribute in large part to Omar’s expertise. The only thing that is consistent is that the crossings take a long time. The processes are very antiquated and paper driven requiring numerous forms and several copies of our documents. Although we have been well prepared for each crossing, they have always taken us between two and three hours to pass through to the next country.
If you lose a document or have an error (like the wrong VIN recorded for your motorcycle), you are in for a very long delay.
Most of the people who work at the borders have been friendly, but some are typical bureaucrats that act like they have better things to do and you are interrupting them.
If Omar had not been with me, I am sure the crossings would be far more difficult than they have been and I probably would have needed handlers to help me navigate the process.
Myth: The water is unsafe, do not drink it.
Several years ago, I got very sick while in Mexico from just brushing my teeth with tap water. Because that experience left such a lasting and negative impression on me, I have avoided tap water as much as possible. Instead I have mostly relied on bottled water. Omar, however, has consumed tap water all along without any ill affects. Maybe tap water is safe for us gringos, but I still don’t want to take any chances.