There’s only one word that can describe the last few weeks. Warm.
Yes, as it happens we have discovered whole new levels of sweltering as Colombia’s dry season roasts everything in its path, but – much as we love to obsess about the weather – we’re talking about a different kind of warmth. We’d heard about it from many a traveller, but the collective hug of the Colombian people is really starting to reveal itself to us. In recent weeks we have received more good wishes and invitations to the homes of strangers than we have in a lifetime of travelling.
It started with christmas. We were returning to our old favourite, the beach, to see out the festivities in as low key a way as possible. We don’t do xmas in a big way, but there are certain traditions that are just non-negotiable, such as eating and drinking to excess.
We stocked up accordingly a few days before at a supermarket and on the way out popped into the pharmacy to see about an infection on my leg. The pharmacist gave me some ‘very strong’ antibiotics. Alarm bells rang. I examined the package and ask whether I could drink alcohol with them. “No!” she said, “it’s only five days though..”.
“Ah, that’s a shame”, I replied, tucking the pills away til Boxing Day.
We drove to Palomino, a beach on the Caribbean coast we had visited before, and parked up on the sand. Although technically a campsite, we were effectively camped right on the public beach, close to the access path from the village. This being peak season for domestic tourism there was a steady stream of Colombians, mainly from the chillier southern cities, coming on and off the beach and passing by our door.
The van usually attracts quite a bit of interest, but suddenly we felt like the number one attraction. Over the next few days we were inundated with visitors asking about the van and wanting a look around. It’s not the world’s longest tour, but we are always happy to oblige. One woman even offered to buy it. We conducted umpteen tours and at one stage were videoed cooking and being interviewed by a huge family who were holidaying together.
We explained, as always, that there was a bed in the pop-top, but that it was a bit small for us and was better for children. “But we don’t have children,” I said, pre-empting the inevitable question that seems to fascinate every Latin American (what, no children?!).
“Here, you can have this one!”, laughed the mother, selecting a random child from the bunch. We politely declined.
But what was most astonishing to us was the number of strangers who came by and asked whether we would be visiting their part of the country, then invited us to visit them when we arrived.
It seemed only right to give a Caribbean twist to christmas, and on the day itself we feasted on barbequed jerk chicken, fried plantains, carrots sauteed in Jamaican ginger honey, and potatoes. We even pushed the boat out with one of my (not very Caribbean) banoffee pies.
The festivities over, we faced the inevitable and, after a stop in Santa Marta, set off for the industrial city of Barranquilla to try to sort out a major lingering van-related issue – filling the propane tank, which we’d heard might be impossible in Colombia because of the particular fitting that foreign campers like ours have. We weren’t prepared to give up without a fight, and headed for the main propane plant in the city, our only hope.
We knocked on the gate and the guy came out. We explained our predicament, while he shook his head a lot, saying they didn’t have the right adaptor. We pleaded a little for any solution he could suggest. The next moment he disappeared and came back holding an adaptor. He screwed it onto our tank. Perfect fit, hurray! “Thank god, it fits”, he said, “but we still can’t fill your tank here” (they usually fill lorries, and the position of our tank was impossibly low). He told us to drive to the other side of the highway, pointing to a collection of dusty rudimentary buildings, and wait for him to meet us in his lunch hour. He would borrow the adaptor and see if his brother, who worked at a propane gas bottle shop, could help us.
It all sounded a bit dodgy but we were desperate enough to give it a go. He turned up as promised, and he and several other guys set about trying to fill our tank from a bottle. We spent a hour lurching between hope and dejection, as they struggled to get it to work. The adaptor appeared to fit but was missing a vital element. As with so many occasions on this trip, we were bowled over by their refusal to just give in and send us packing. Eventually a piece of metal was sawn off something else, wedged (rather unsafely, we observed) into the adaptor and shoved in. Gas appeared to be trickling in, and after 20 minutes or so the tank was declared full. To be honest, none of us were totally sure if it had worked as the gauge doesn’t work, but we took their word for it and drove off in a celebratory mood.
By the time we’d sorted out the problem it was late and we decided to just drive out of the city and get as far as possible before dark. We were heading south towards the Unesco world heritage site city of Mompóx for new year, about a 10 hour journey.
As dusk fell, we scanned the roadside for a farm or something that might be happy to allow camping, and pulled in at one to ask. The guy suggested that we instead follow him down the road to a motel that he thought would have space for the van. As we arrived he had already asked the woman working there, and she enthusiastically invited us to pull in. It was a grim looking place, but by this stage we were keen to just stop and were too polite to make our excuses and run.
I asked about toilets and she showed me to one of their rooms. She patted the damp, heavily-stained bed as we walked in, then proceeded to rub two raw cables together to try to get the light bulb to work. There was a toilet for our use, but no running water, and cockroaches were scuttling about in a panic, as if shocked that someone had actually turned up. Hopefully my face did not reveal my thoughts.
“Rancid hellspawn” is one of Jeremy’s favourite phrases for describing the worst places we come across on our travels, but it’s a phrase he uses very sparingly. The words did pass his lips that night.
In contrast, the woman working there could not have been nicer. She twice fed us food she had brought from home including the most delicious, anise-infused, arepas we have tasted to date, and quizzed us enthusiastically about our trip.
However we were pleased to pull out early the next morning, and set off through cattle country in bright sunshine.
Mompóx is a gorgeous well-preserved colonial town which can only be reached by river ferry. We pulled in at the ‘dock’ – just a disturbingly steep dusty slope that plunged towards the river – which was packed with trucks and cars, this being the Saturday before new year. After a stiflingly hot 2 hour delay, tempers were starting to fray, especially when those who had been waiting for hours realised there may not be space on the ferry for everyone and some last-minute arrivals had been pushing into the queue.
As we approached they put us to one side so we would be one of the last to board. This provided the biggest audience possible for Jeremy, who had to reverse/slip down onto the ferry and into an impossibly small space between the barrier and another car. At one point two officials were shouting completely contrasting directions at him and several other passengers were chipping in. I nearly throttled the obligatory drunk guy who was leaning in the window and telling us to remain calm. Our tyre screeched off the barrier as we wedged ourselves in, but we were still hanging over the hinge for the pull-up door.
“What will happen to the front of the van when the door is closed?”, I asked a fellow passenger. “Oh they don’t close it, they’ll put 7 or 8 motorbikes on there before we leave!” he replied. Silly of me to worry.
After arriving in the dark we free-camped in a riverside park in the centre of Mompóx that night, which was already in pretty festive mood, complete with banging speakers on every corner. We awoke at sunrise the next day to the sounds of the adjacent football pitch being set up for the big Sunday game! As we were parked directly behind the goal, it seemed like a good time to move on, and for a couple of nights we retreated to an edge-of-town camping spot.
It was good to be somewhere with a bit of culture again. Mompóx, formerly a trading post dripping with wealth, now has that isolated old-world feel. We wandered the baking streets by daytime but could only take the temperature for short bursts. Mercifully, there was a pool where we were camping but even this was warm. “Is nothing cold?” asked Jeremy.
It seemed not – there was even a town-wide ice shortage on new year’s eve. Ice is just as commonly sold from people’s houses as from shops here, and I was sent from door to door to door, searching for the cold stuff. ‘None left here! Try the red house on the corner….’ and so it went on til we found the last bolsa in town.
Preliminary cold beers dealt with, we headed into town to wander some more and take in the atmosphere. Most families held their house parties out in the street, with their pavement speakers competing in both the size and volume stakes. The town’s many churches were packed, and families spilled out into squares filled with fairy lights. We ate a delicious plate of mixed meats from a street stall and even managed to find a cocktail for midnight.
With the temperatures sizzling, our little 12-volt fan chose this time to stop working. To be honest we were amazed this $12 supermarket fan had lasted 15 months. But would we be able to find a new 12v car fan in Colombia? This episode highlighted one of the big beefs we have with most of the Western world – that when things break we can rarely get them repaired, even if we want to. Here, it is the opposite. Men sit at roadside stalls repairing mobile phones. There are shops for fixing cameras, cookers, food processors, you name it. We took the fan to a little shop and had it repaired in 3 minutes. I told the guy this would be difficult at home. “I heard about that! You just throw things away and buy a new one!” he said, shaking his head.
After a calmer return ferry journey we headed north-west to a coastal area south of Cartagena, mostly visited by Colombians. We’re not sure why the gringos haven’t found this lovely stretch of coast. During two stops near Coveñas and San Bernardo del Viento, we were again on the receiving end of numerous good wishes for the trip and left with our notebook bursting with more addresses, including from one family who have a coffee roasting place near Medellín. Yum!
At the latter spot we wild-camped on a beach that was blissfully quiet following the music fests of Mompóx and Tolú. We flopped on the beach, buying fruit and fish from passing locals, including our first ‘bagre de mar’ (a type of catfish), a new favourite.
We are waiting for our friend Caroline to fly into Cartagena soon and join us for a holiday, after which we will turn south towards Bogotá. It’s about time we hit some mountains and cities, else we are in serious danger of becoming full-time beach bums.
As the altitude increases we’ll get some fresher weather too, but we feel sure of the warm welcome awaiting us further south.
Things we now
know to be wish were true: A quote from Jeremy this week: ‘Why hasn’t someone invented sand that doesn’t stick’?