Interviewing Mauricio Escobar on Overlanding in Colombia
Show Notes for Podcast Episode #42
Interviewing Mauricio Escobar on Overlanding in Colombia
For this field interview, Scott Brady interviews Micho Escobar of Elephant Expeditions about overland travel in Colombia, riding BMW GS through the jungles, and the journey we all take towards adventure.
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Scott is the publisher and co-founder of Expedition Portal and Overland Journal and is often credited with popularizing overlanding in North America. His travels by 4WD and adventure motorcycle span all seven continents and includes three circumnavigations of the globe. His polar expeditions include two vehicle crossings of Antarctica and the first long-axis crossing of Greenland. @scott.a.brady
Matthew is a leading expert in automotive adventure. He has extensively explored the world's most remote places by 4WD and is considered an industry authority on overland travel. He is the only American to ever become an editor of a major Australian 4WD publication and has over 15 years of competitive auto racing experience. @mattexplore
[00:00:00] Scott Brady: Hello. I'm Scott Brady with Overland journal and Expedition Portal and I am in beautiful Colombia with my good friend, Maricio Escobar from Elephant Moto, and we're going to talk a little bit today about traveling in South America, but mostly about traveling in Colombia, because this is something that many Americans and other people around the world. they're a little bit concerned about traveling to a place like Colombia, because of what they've heard about in the past. Now, the one thing I don't want you to do is take Mauricio's last name into account when we talk about safety and traveling in Colombia being Escobar, but he has no relation to the Escobar of the past, and he's a great ambassador for his country and we're going to learn a lot about what it means to travel in Colombia. So, yeah. Mauricio, give me a little bit of a background on your travels, your experience not only as a motorcyclist, but a motorcycle trainer. And [00:01:00] then briefly what Elephant Motorcycle does.
Maricio Escobar: All right. Well, I've been riding motorcycles since I was a little kid, you know, 11 years old. I went through the paces like the little Hondas and the Forunner XR80s and XR200s. Then doing the trips. Then I went to live in San Francisco and that's where I bought my first motorcycle, which is like that first big step for any motorcyclist, and my first street bike. And I started to get into the whole motorcycle thing. You know, first it was like I was younger so it was more of the street bikes, super bikes, type of sport bikes type of things. And then my brother, he was doing a trip from San Francisco to Washington and Washington to San Francisco. And he had an R1100 GS. And my dad, he was like, well I think you should do part of this trip with him, and it was like, it didn't cross my mind he was doing it. It wasn't something that I was into at the moment. And I had a Honda super Hawk at the time, and I was like, well sure let's do it. So I went with my [00:02:00] brother on the, on the super Hawk, obviously the bad choice of bike for the trip, but it was my first long distance trip. It was maybe like 10 days. I did the section from Washington to San Francisco. And I could see him on his big R1100. He was comfortable. He was okay with doing something, you know, 40 miles an hour, just chilling. And I was hunched back on the super Hawk. And that got me into it. That was the thing...
Scott Brady: That inspired you for travel.
Maricio Escobar: That was the thing that got me into adventure travel, long distance travel on motorcycles. And I started doing trips every time I could, I would do trips. You know, I did the continental divide. We went from Canada to Mexico. The dirt roads. I went to China for a month with a buddy. We rented a motorcycle with a sidecar and we were just riding around for like a month.
Scott Brady: And you've also ridden in Morocco.
Maricio Escobar: Yeah, you know, with the times those were like the first initial trips. And then and then I went to Michigan and that was like another click in the life. I was like, I couldn't ride a motorcycle [00:03:00] days. The winter was tough. And I got a little bit antsy. So I said, you know, I got to get out of here. So I decided to quit my job that I had there. I came back to Colombia and I started to consider motorcycle touring as a business or as a career path for me as a choice. And my first step was to go and do some work with other companies that were doing it at the time. And I did, and I went and worked as a motorcycle guide for a company that was doing tours in South America. And I went to Argentina, Peru, Bolivia, Chile, Brazil, doing tours during eight months. Learning how it's done, what needs to happen, and then I came back to Colombia and I started a company in Colombia and that's how Elephant got its start, you know? I'm a certified BMW instructor. I'm a certified BMW tour guide and what we do, what we like to do Elephant is more than just. Motorcycle tours or rentals, it's an experience for [00:04:00] life. Stories to tell for a lifetime and we provide our customers the opportunity to one, get to know our country, which is awesome, and two, Through the motorcycles you have these experiences that bring you closer to new people being closer to a country provide you an experience that you're going to remember for the rest of your life.
Scott Brady: And, and I think for me, that's one of the reasons why I really wanted to do this fireside chat with you is because my experience in Colombia has been amazing. The first trip that we did together that included Sinuhe Xavier, Overland Journal's creative director, we went all the way out through Los Yanos to a place called Porto Cranio. And we had a proper adventure. I mean, this was an area of the country that you hadn't even traveled and we got extremely remote. It was very difficult terrain. It didn't feel like a traditional tour at all. And that was one of the things that impressed me most about Elephant and the way that you conducted the trip was that I felt like we were all on an adventure together [00:05:00] and it wasn't this highly scripted experience. And that allowed for a lot of that opportunity for adventure. And for me, I think that that really captured a lot about what people can see and experience in Colombia. And you've shared with me a couple of the other trips. That you do one up into the peninsula in the North, which is a very remote area. And also you do trips into the coffee region. If people are looking for maybe a little bit more of an on-road and, and mild off-road experience. But I think one of the things that's most important initially is to kind of dispel this myth that Colombia as a whole is a dangerous place to travel. My experience now having been here three times is that the big cities are like any big city in the world. There's places that are very safe and there's places that are less safe, but Colombia doesn't feel any less safe than the other places that I've developed or that I've traveled in, in Latin America. In fact, I feel for the most [00:06:00] part that Bogota, for example, is very safe to even walk around in at night. And one of the ways that I always determined that is if you see women and children out and about. So even at 11 o'clock at night, you'll see women walking with their children and families walking through the park. And when you start to see that in an area, you know, that generally where you're at is pretty safe. Once you start to see the people go away and the families go away and you just see the guys in dark shadows, that's when you need to get a little more concerned, but I haven't even felt that at all here in Bogota and then you and I have also had the opportunity of traveling to these extreme corners of the country as well. When we were in Los Yanos again, I never felt even one time. That I was in an area that wasn't safe. And then you and I just traveled over the Colombian death road on the day of a rather historic vote here in Colombia. And again, there were people were smiling and they, they [00:07:00] embraced us with open arms and other than the dangers of the road itself, I didn't feel like I was in a place that was dangerous. I felt like I was in a place that was. Coming out of a period of time in the history of the country that maybe things were a little bit more dangerous, but it feels very safe. And it feels like there's a lot of optimism in the spirit of the Colombians.
Maricio Escobar: Yeah. I think Colombia is going through an important time right now. We've been at war for a long time. And we are also at a moment where people are discovering Colombia. So for me, what I tell my customers is this is the time to come, right now, because if you come five years from now you're going to probably find a very different Colombia in terms of tourism, because right now, It's genuine. You're getting the real Colombia, but the good Colombia. It is not the Colombia you see, or maybe you've experienced in the news that you've heard about. We went through some rough times, but those times are... they're looking promising, it's changing. [00:08:00] So it is the time when, if you go to a small town like the ones that we've been to, that people they're genuine about their interaction with you, because they want you to know that it's safe. They want you to know that it's okay, that you should come out here, that they're proud of their country. So they come out and they show it to you and they're going to go out of their way to make sure you have a good experience. So we're going through a change, you know, where it's opening up. Not too many people that have come yet. A lot of more people are coming. So it's changing, you know, so. I think in terms of tourism, unfortunately it tends to corrupt or... The word is rough, but it can prostitute the country because people start to see advantage in foreigners, so they know they can take money. So they maybe start charging more, or they swindle you out of something. They know that the tourist is an opportunity, but right now we're not at that place. We're at the place where "please come, you know, check it out. This is my country, it is [00:09:00] beautiful. We're not all war. We're not all violence. We're good people". So it's a very good moment to come and see it. And I think it's, it's important to, to come and check it out.
Scott Brady: I can see that for the most part Colombians, they really have this pride in their country. And there's some great examples I think I can give. One of the things that stands out almost immediately is there's much less trash on the road in Colombia then you'll see oftentimes in other countries, in central America and South America. There's also this pride of ownership. If you look, even though their home may be simple, they take good care of it. It has flowers out front. It's recently been painted the there's not trash and weeds and everything in the yard. And even though their vehicle may be older, they take pride in that and you can see it's been painted and that they tried to fix the dents and, and For me. I think that, that says a lot about the future of Colombia. And it says a lot about the spirit of the Colombian people. And then I've also found that riding here is a lot more safe [00:10:00] than, other developing countries. In fact, I find that the Colombian drivers are some of the better drivers that I've encountered in in South America. And, you know, I always use a way to gauge drivers. I'll rate them as either competent, neutral, or incompetent. And I'll either rate them as calm, neutral or aggressive. And like, for example, when you go to Peru, you encounter aggressive and incompetent. Whereas I find that that in, in Colombia, They're pretty neutral. They're not overly competent, but they're also not incompetent. They're not overly aggressive, but they're not also calm. I find that the truck drivers are very professional. They give you some space, , for the most part, they try not to kill you. And, and I think that that's a great example of another reason to come and ride in Colombia because you have relatively new roads, in many cases, and you have pretty considerate drivers and that makes for some fun riding, and there's also this little tinge of [00:11:00] lawlessness in the sense that the police infrastructure isn't that well-developed, and they're not everywhere. So if you're back on some road in Colombia, you can actually let it hang out there a little bit and have some fun on the bike, which are things that I've really enjoyed traveling in Colombia.
Maricio Escobar: I think it's a country that has it all. You know, from a geographical standpoint, from a cultural standpoint, from, for motorcyclists in this case, you know, the mountains they provide twisties, endless twisties, and you get a super cool combination of if you really want dirt and adventure, you can do it, you know, off-roading but if you want paved and you like, you know, the paved roads and good paved roads and twisty roads, you can do it. And if you want a combination, you've got it. Oh, and also it's geographically Colombia is, read it as the second, most diverse country in the world. You know, I think I was telling you that the other day and it's the most... one second, the cell phone went off... Second most [00:12:00] biodiverse country in the world after Brazil. Brazil is number one and Brazil is seven times larger than Colombia. So it says a lot, you know, in a very small piece of land, you've got a ridiculous amount of biodiversity. And you also have in the North we have deserts, you know, with sand dunes, Africa, like, you know, we've got the jungles, we got Amazon, you know, we got the Andes that when they come here, they give us a gift because they come from Peru, Ecuador, the Chille. Just one single mountain range. And as soon as they hit Colombia, They decided to split into three, you know, so you got these three mountain ranges that cover most of the country and you got a 4,000 meter passes. You've got zero meters. You've got rivers, you've got jungles, everything in a relatively small but big place. So it's...
Scott Brady: I was also really impressed with the tatacoa desert that we went to after the death road. I mean, it reminded me of my home in Arizona, there was cactus and, and red earth like in Sedona and it was really [00:13:00] beautiful and there's also pretty good infrastructure. There's clean places to stay that aren't very expensive, but they're nice. They're well maintained. The food's good. I've never gotten sick, eating the food here in Colombia so I eat everything from the salads to the meat on the plate, and I've never gotten sick here either. So I think that says a lot about traveling in Colombia and the diversity of it. You can be in Carta haina. On the beach in an old beautiful colonial walled city. And then you can also be in the middle of the, of the desert and sleeping in a tent if you want to. So there's camping available as well. So kind of to conclude my experience has been very good in Colombia. Overall I've never felt unsafe. I've never gotten sick. I find that the roads are really enjoyable to ride. And there's plenty of technical terrain if you want in the dirt, there's a lot of diversity, which means you can kind of do whatever interests [00:14:00] you as far as a rider. But to give the viewer a little bit of a summary about how they can travel in Colombia, they can basically do a tour with you or some of the other providers in the country. And you seem to offer some of the more remote and adventure minded tours, but then you also do the traditional on-road and light off-road stuff. And then they can also rent bikes, which I think in many countries is difficult, so they can actually call you up and rent a 1200GS. So talk to me a little bit about how that process works. What does this person need to do in order to be able to ride a 1200 in Colombia?
Maricio Escobar: Well, it's fairly simple, you know, I think if it's on a tour, if it's a rental or all that. All you need is, you know, your driver's license, it's valid from the country that you come from. They give you up to three months by law, you can drive with your foreign driver's license. You can book it with us and, you know, depending on availability, you can go. If you want to rent a motorcycle for a month, you can do it. If you want to do it [00:15:00] for five days, you can do it. Eh, we do mostly the GSs because it's the right kind of bike for Colombia for the roads in Colombia. If it's a 700, the 800 to 1200, we can offer that. And then, so you book it with us, you got to leave a credit card on file. In case of damages, the bikes are fully insured, but you're responsible for the deductible in case of a total loss.
Scott Brady: Or if you dropped the bike and damaged the plastic. About how much does it cost a day to rent a 1200GS?
Maricio Escobar: The 1200 is $160 per day. And then the rates start to lower if you rented more and more days, you know? So we got a rate from one to five from six to 10 and from 11 onwards. In terms of days and it starts to lower a little bit.
Scott Brady: So a person that's a little bit more confident traveler, they can call you up and take a 1200 and go off and explore the country on their own or with friends, or if they want to get a little more remote and be a little more supported, then they can also go on with tours,
Maricio Escobar: Absolutely. We do everything from fully [00:16:00] supported tour with everything included. We pick you up at the airport and you come and you don't have to mind yourself with the time that it takes to plan a trip. We pick you up. We take you on a 12 day tour, 15 day tour, 8 day tour, or if you want to like you said, there's those travelers that that's not what they want. It's not what they're looking for. They're more on their own, they can rent the bike and go off on an nice adventure. We're happy to provide them with a routes, hotel recommendations, you know, like tell them, listen, if you like this kind of thing, you should go here. If you'd like that, you shouldn't go there. And we also provide those. So if you're going on the rental and you don't know so much about the country, we'll give you as much information as you want too, so that you have a very rich experience. So
Scott Brady: Well that's great, thank you so much for the time. So as you can see, Colombia is,a beautiful place. It's a safe place to travel. A little bit of research and infrastructure really helps ensure that. We've [00:17:00] got brand new 1200 GSs available to rent it looks like at several different sources throughout the country. So I would recommend that maybe you consider Colombia as your next adventure destination, and then also in the spirit of full disclosure. I started off traveling with Maricio as a journalist. But Maricio and I have become good friends. So I consider him to be a great friend and I'm sharing this information, obviously, because I believe in his business, but I do have that personal friendship with him. Which I'm sure it does reflect some bias. So make sure that you also research other providers in the country of Colombia. There are other people that rent motorcycles, I just don't have personal experience with them. Get out there and enjoy it!