As we came over the mountain pass we just couldn’t believe the eye-popping views over the Chicamocha Canyon. After several months on the Colombian coast, it was like being in a different country.
I was equally incredulous when, after a long descent down the other side of the mountain, our over-heated brakes failed as we headed for a sharp corner. It was a like a classic slow-motion dream sequence – a huge truck in front of us had come to a halt to take a sharp turn and I was pushing the brake pedal to the floor, but nevertheless we continued to sail towards it. I stated the obvious with something along the lines of “fuck, I can’t stop”, as Jeremy and our friend Caroline stared silently ahead, open-mouthed.
As it turned out we did come to a stop, with the help of the back of the truck. Crunch.
Mission accomplished! We had given Caroline – who was visiting us from the UK for 3 weeks – a birthday to remember.
We’d picked her up in Cartagena 10 days before, where we began our endeavour to give her a great holiday, a taste of our life on the road, and a good varied dose of the incredible country that is Colombia.
We strolled the city, dodging cruise ship trippers, and panted in the shade every few metres. The heat gave us plenty of excuses to stop for a raspado (shaved ice with fruit syrup and condensed milk), a cup of ceviche or a cold beer.
South of Cartagena, we rolled onto a tiny ‘ferry’ to Isla de Barú and the impossibly luminous Playa Blanca for a day of sun and swimming, which seemed like the right thing to do to let Caroline acclimatise to the Caribbean weather. We’re all heart.
On the way north up the coast from Cartagena we stopped off at the rather strange but irresistible Volcan de Lodo El Totumo – a teeny little volcano which now operates as a natural mud bath and is usually filled with giggling Colombians and tourists. We’d been before, and were looking forward to seeing Caroline’s reaction to sinking into the creamy mud which, for some reason, does something strange to gravity and leaves you flailing around and grasping at half-naked strangers to try to stay upright. She didn’t disappoint.
We returned to the beach at Palomino for a few days of shameless laziness that involved little more than reading, swimming, strolling and eating. One day the local fisherman provided us with the biggest and best prawns of our entire trip – I’m still drooling from the memory of that night’s barbeque.
In most places Caroline got a room while we camped, but in an unplanned turn of events she had the great fortune to share the van with us one night at Tayrona National Park, at the foot of the Sierra Nevada mountains. Two snoring Dears and a light-sleeping Caroline seemed like a recipe for disaster, but lo and behold she climbed into the pop top and slept like a baby. Turns out the floor of the pop top has very effective sound-proofing!
We explored some of Tayrona’s spectacular beaches, with their incongruous rock formations, and decided to do a longer, 7-hour return, hike to the pre-Hispanic ruins at Pueblito the next day. We woke to a troop of tamarin monkeys – tiny little fellows with comic fluffy white hair-dos – springing across the trees above the van. We did our best to beat the worst of the heat by setting off early, and had a spectacular hike on beaches and jungle trails, before the final steep upwards push over enormous rocks, to Pueblito. With burning calves, we wandered the site before setting off for the blistering return journey, which we ended with a celebratory swim in the sea near our campsite at Cañaveral.
After a brief overnight stop in Taganga, we turned southwards for part two of the trip which would take us up into the mountains of the Cordillera Oriental and, ultimately, to the capital Bogotá.
We had a couple of long days of driving ahead, with the aim being to get to the colonial town of Barichara on Caroline’s birthday, in plenty of time for a wander and some drinks and dinner.
On day one we battled the trucks and the heat but made good progress with the plan, eventually pulling in at the little town of San Martin, where we found a cheap hotel, some decent street food and cold beer to wash it down.
We set off at a leisurely pace the next day, expecting a 5-hour journey or so to Barichara. This turned out to be rather an optimistic estimation. Immediately south of the city of Bucaramanga, we began to climb into the mountains and the going was slow, partly due to the volume of trucks on the route. On top of this though, we started having serious concerns about the van, which was behaving badly, including cylinder misfires and some horribly erratic gear changes that made our blood run cold (let me refer you to our earlier experience with a transmission failure ).
It was a day of fluctuating emotions because aside from our fears about the van we were driving through some of the most dramatic and beautiful scenery we’d seen in a long time. It was exciting to be exploring a new and different territory – from the cowboy towns of the altiplano to steep mountain passes that seemed to go up forever. We accepted we were looking at a full day on the road, and took things easy on the van.
That is, except for the crashing into a truck part, which left it with a bit of a sad face and a smashed headlight.
We were all delighted and relieved to pull into Barichara in the early evening sunshine, and to see that Caroline’s hotel room was a gorgeous colonial house with wooden beams, sky-high ceilings and a great view. Saving our pennies for splurging on meals and drinks, we opted to camp on the street outside the hotel, much to Caroline’s amusement!
We grabbed a bottle of red from a hole-in-the-wall bar and drank it on the steps of the cathedral, before having amazing luck in finding a lovely atmospheric meat-free tapas restaurant (Caroline is veggie) – no mean feat in Colombia – for dinner. Potentially disastrous birthday pulled back from the brink – phew.
Beautiful pristine streets with white-washed buildings, a gorgeous hike to the nearby village of Guane, chic shops and some decent cafes made Barichara a big hit on the trip. I even got the chance to try the local speciality of tasty fried ants – cooked up into a delicious sauce and poured over a rare steak. Once I got over the shock of the size of them (they are not called fat-bottomed ants for nothing) I crunched through them quite happily without freaking out about the whole insect-in-mouth concept.
Keeping up with the gorgeous colonial town theme, we moved on to Villa de Leyva and a sublime hostel with great rooms and camping space. With one of the largest plazas in the Americas, it was a perfect spot for people watching with a coffee by day and a beer or hot canelazo at night. At more than 2000m, we were feeling the chill in the evenings for the first time in months, and quite enjoyed the novelty of woolly socks and blankets on the bed again.
Our worries about the van were never far from our minds, and the owner of the hostel recommended a mechanic in Bogotá, from which he’d had good reports.
As we set off from Villa de Leyva, bound for Sogamoso, we were employing the crossing-fingers tactic. But about 15 minutes into the journey we realised it was just going to be too stressful to head out there and risk being stranded, especially with the added element of Caroline needing to get to Bogotá for her flight home. So we ditched the plan and headed directly towards the city, deciding to stop for a couple of nights in Guatavita, about 50km north of the capital.
We made it there without incident, albeit with a severe lack of power coming from the engine, and camped at a fabulous spot next to a family house, which had a great cosy two-storey cabin for Caroline. We all piled in there for dinner in the evenings, played cards, and lit the huge wood fire to keep toasty.
It was another steep 7km uphill to the main attraction of the area, a volcanic crater lake held sacred by the indigenous Muisca people. Even that seemed like pushing our luck with the van, so we hiked the 7km to the start of the trail and then up to the beautiful lake, from which there was a spectacular view over the alpine scenery that seemed yet again like a whole other Colombia.
We were all happy to see Bogotá spreading out before us as we began the steep descent into the ‘bowl’ in which the city sits. The van had limped there, but had arrived in one piece. After a night out sampling the Bogota Beer Company’s finest brews, we said sad goodbyes to Caroline at first light.
We grabbed a coffee and steeled ourselves for a few tricky days in the city of dealing with the nightmarish bureaucracy of trying to renew our car permit, finding our way around the streets while avoiding the most insane drivers we’d encountered to date, and – most importantly – getting a diagnosis on the van.
Things we now know to be true: The best laid plans are subject to change.