Giving Papaya in the Colombian Andes

After almost 6 years on the road, maybe I let my guard down just a little bit too much. Maybe I’d grown too comfortable mapping out routes in any direction my heart desired and hitting the road without much concern for my safety beyond steering clear of roads with lots of traffic. I’d take notes from locals on places to avoid, wouldn’t ride at night, and I always considered myself careful, but 6 years is a long time, so there’s no doubt that I slipped just a little.

When I left the US for my first solo trip to Peru back in late 2015, I was close to a 10-out-of-10 almost all of the time. I’d never been out of the States beyond the random trip over the border from Michigan to Canada, and I knew zero Spanish at the time, so every experience felt heightened. The lengths I went to be sure that I camped well out of sight from roads or houses bordered on absurd. At night I’d find myself waking up with every little noise within earshot of my tent.

Every time I heard a motorcycle ride up behind me while pedaling down a remote dirt road I tensed up a little bit. I was a lone gringo in the middle of nowhere on my fancy bike, with camera gear worth nearly the average local yearly salary. That reality was not lost on me. As time went on, I often struggled to understand how I could be in such a lucky position to be doing what I’m doing while many people I would meet along the way were working back-breaking jobs all day just to scrape by.

Flash forward 6 years and now it’s pretty rare that anything wakes me up during a night out in the tent. I’ve grown comfortable with the sounds coming from the darkness. Comfortable with that feeling of being alone and vulnerable to the elements, the wildlife, and the people. Comfortable with the lone motorcycle driving up from behind. I knew I was vulnerable out there if someone wanted to do something, but I was comfortable in it.

I’d been in these situations so many times that I felt confident in what I was doing and at home with any of these feelings of uncertainty. So, when an older man pulled a cart across the small dirt road that I was descending on my first ride in Colombia, I didn’t think twice about it. Nothing triggered my brain to tell me something was wrong when he stopped the cart, blocked the road with a big toothy smile, and asked where I was from. It was midday and I was merely a couple of blocks from the touristy zone of Bogotá known as La Candelaria. This scenario had happened a million times before in a million places around the world and I stopped to answer every single one. Because I love it. Talking to people on the road has always been a highlight for me.

So, I did what I always did. Before I could even get the first couple of syllables of “Los Estados Unidos” out in reply to the man’s question, I heard a sudden rush of steps behind me and got hit with a punch to the back of my head.

Before I knew it 6 guys were grabbing me from all sides, punching me in the stomach, and grabbing at anything they could find on me. One held a knife a few inches from my face while screaming for money. My phone, my camera, a couple of bags, the jacket off my back, and more were all gone in about 30 seconds as the men scattered in all different directions.  

I was in shock. Losing my camera that I depend on to live while on the road, and the idea of these guys flipping it for pennies in some shady shop had me gutted. But most of all, this trust in the general goodness of people and the confidence that I had in what I was doing which I’d built up over the last 6 years were shattered. 

I wasn’t sure if I even wanted to continue with my plans in Colombia. I’d only been here for 2 days and I was already thinking about leaving.  

I decided to wait for a little bit in Bogotá before deciding what to do. Many people from all over the world reached out asking how they could help, including a ton of Colombians from every corner of the country. After a handful of days had passed, I started to feel those hints of excitement toward the idea of doing some riding in Colombia again, even if I had some hesitation in the back of my mind.  

Huge thanks to everyone who bought a print of mine or helped spread the word, which helped me to replace my camera. Thanks to Rapha for helping to replace other gear that I lost. Also huge thanks to Roy Liu, who reached out to help bring some replacement gear down on his well-timed flight from the US. Thanks to Ana for showing me so many good sides of Colombia after my not-so-good first impression. Without all of you, these galleries would not have been possible! 

Back On The Road

Almost a month after arriving, I finally had my gear all replaced and was ready to hit the road, heading west. I pedaled out of Bogotá, this time stopping for nothing and no one. It was raining constantly and the road out of the city was pretty miserable, but I soon found myself on the small dirt roads that climb steeply through Andean hillsides that Colombia is famous for.

Small villages are a constant throughout the countryside here. It seems every valley and every ridge has a quiet town to check out or at least a scattering of farms with folks waving hello. Every day the morning fog slowly gave way to early afternoon rains that would oscillate between a light mist and a full-blown downpour. I was still technically in the dry season but locals were saying that the rain came early this year.

The road was caked with mud from the previous days as I descended toward the Río Magdalena. Every meter down the mountain I went, I felt the sauna of the lowland heat cranking up more and more.

A small boat took me across the river and dropped me in the town of Ambalema. This felt like a totally different world from Bogotá and anywhere I’d previously been in the Andes. Town squares were filled with pool halls blasting Mexican ranchera music and people on bikes.

The bike culture in Colombia is something that struck me immediately. Sure, it isn’t uncommon to see people riding in and around most major cities in the world, but never had I seen so many huge groups of spandex-clad locals jumping out for rides from every town, no matter how big or small. Having the constant stream of locals riding by and waving or stopping to chat while on day rides was something I hadn’t come across before in the parts of the world that I typically tour. Never had I entered a run-of-the-mill bakery to find locals captivated by a bike race on TV that I’d never even heard of. I even spontaneously came across a road race right on my route that I didn’t know was happening until the peloton came swarming by. Needless to say, people are really into it here!

After a stop in the city of Ibague, I began my first real long climb of the trip. I passed through a couple of tunnels on the old dirt track that used to be a main road to the Quindío region but has been all but forgotten since a big new highway was built a couple of valleys over. All that was left was a lone Chiva bus going up and down the road to transport villagers and the standard handful of motos. 

I can’t lie, that tensed-up feeling when someone would buzz past me on a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere was back from my early days of touring, and I have no idea how long that will take to subside. Thankfully, the dreamy scenery of the Andes was offering up a nice distraction from my lingering doubts in the meantime.  

There is a famous saying in Colombia… “Don’t Give Papaya”. I learned the meaning behind this phrase much earlier in my time here than I would have preferred, but it simply means don’t make yourself an easy target. The reality is that sometimes you feel like a rolling papaya while traveling long distances by bike. There is an inherent vulnerability. Every now and then that might bring out the worst in a tiny fraction of people, but that vulnerability is also what brings out the very best in the vast majority of people I meet on the road every day. It’ll take a lot more than a few bad apples to keep me from those experiences.


If you’re still interested in a print, you can find them here.

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