We’d been in Colombia so long we were in danger of starting to look suspicious to the authorities. The last customs official to renew our car permit told us one more month would be plenty to get us to the border. So we took the hint… and after five months there it seemed like a good time to start heading south again, which is, after all, kind of the aim of this journey.
We were sad to leave. But our grief rapidly lifted when we crossed the border and filled the tank with petrol at less than a third of the price of Colombia. US$1.48 per gallon. Let me say again, hello Ecuador!
Our last couple of weeks in Colombia had fulfilled our now expected quota of serenity, drama, beauty, wilderness, city stress, desert, mountains, mechanics, blistering heat, cold nights, rain, drought, and ups and downs of both the geographical and emotional variety.
The bad day, of which we blogged recently, was joined by some others vying to be contenders in the Really Bad Days stakes, but they were – happily – outnumbered by some last minute entries in the Best Bits of Colombia contest.
The morning after that hideous day we started up the van without a hitch and were chaperoned by the owner’s son, Jose, to Hacienda Venecia – a coffee finca that served as a perfect haven for a few days. The fabulous view, fresh mountain air, bracing swimming pool and a rare, indescribably brilliant, hot shower were only enhanced by the constant smell of fresh roasting coffee.
I may be a tea addict, but even I could appreciate that what we were drinking there was some of the best around. We took a coffee tour one sunny morning, and learned a lot about the process, the politics and the economics of growing coffee – which at the moment is a pretty disastrous situation for most small growers in Colombia and beyond.
Our journey through coffee country took us onwards to the less idyllic location of Pereira, a fairly unremarkable industrial city that contained something crucial for our future progress – a VW specialist mechanic. There followed a few days of back and forth, with the owners Martin and his wife Liliana gradually adopting us as their latest cause. As suspected, our recently-bought ignition wires were shot to pieces and needed to be replaced. A few days of searching for compatible parts in Colombia led to the conclusion we expected – nada.
We had no option but to order some from the US and hand over obscene amounts of money to FedEx to get them down to Pereira quick smart. To make sure there was extra pressure added, we were scrambling to get everything done ahead of the interminable shutdown that happens in Latin America at Easter.
As we headed off to the nearby mountain retreat of Salento to wait out the delivery, we asked Liliana when they would close for the holidays, at which point she generously offered up their home phone number. “Whenever the parts arrive, call us at home and we’ll open up the workshop for you”, she said. Result.
From Salento we got re-aquainted with our hiking boots and tackled the steep trail up through the Valle de Cocora, with its impossibly tall and incongruous-looking wax palm trees. At Finca La Montaña, hummingbirds with luminous long tails darted around among the flowers, announcing their presence with a whirr that seemed disproportionate to their size.
As we returned to the town we rewarded ourselves with two regional specialities in a local restaurant – trout with a giant patacone (bashed, fried plantain) and the heart-condition-inducing bandeja paisa; a platter of chorizo, blood sausage, ground pork, fried pork rind, rice, beans, avocado, fried plantains, fried egg and arepas. “I wonder if you’ll get through all of that!” I mused, about 180 seconds before Jeremy washed down the last bite with a swig of Aguila, then accepted some of my spare patacone.
We were outside the FedEx office at 8am, the day before the Easter holidays, gazing at the as-yet-unopened office door like a pair of creepy stalkers. By this time the car was really in a bad way, with steep uphills proving to be the ultimate nightmare. The parts were there. Yay! We just had to hand over yet more cash (a disappointingly high import tax) before we could pick them up. Boo. All we had to do was drive them across the city to the mechanic.
Unfortunately Pereira is like a mini Latin American version of San Francisco. As we tried to navigate the one-way systems we kept coming upon the most vertiginous streets imaginable. It was like a weird dream – we just had to get 6 blocks over that way, whilst avoiding all one-way streets and up-hill manoeuvres. At one point we had to roll back down a hill that the van simply refused to drive up. A passer-by, on hearing our predicament, suggested we reverse about one kilometre down a one-way street to get there. Helpful.
Thanks to Jeremy’s photographic memory of the city’s grid system, finally we made it! After a long day the new wires – and a new coil pack, if you are remotely interested – were fitted. We drove off, heading back to Salento, with the van feeling all powerful and macho again.
About 20 minutes later, as we ascended the mountains, we started to lose power, again. It was nowhere near as bad as before but was undoubtedly still playing up.
Much as we’d wanted to avoided it, the next day we dragged Martin and Liliana away from their holiday to investigate. He spent hours sorting out a problem with the electrical wires governing the throttle, or something, and then would not ask for any money (we soon rectified that).
The van was driving really well, powering up hills like it actually enjoyed it, and we headed off south with renewed gusto. During a quite punishingly mountainous drive we stopped to drink a coffee and let the brakes cool. As we pulled out again the shop owner shouted for us to stop, pointing to brake fluid spilling all over the back tyre and saying ‘dangerous’. Before we knew it we were surrounded by a group of guys, some of whom were roving highway mechanics (aka highway robbers). It all seemed rather convenient, and we were suspicious at first, but when he pulled the wheel off there was an obviously deteriorated rubber seal on the caliper.
“We’d been so furious we’d thrown every penny we had at them. One km later we came upon a road toll. No money.”
He went off for 2 hours to source some replacements and after the wheels were back on, the bill they presented us with was laughable. At nearly 3 times what we’d paid for a highly technical mechanic to work on the van for a day and a half in Pereira, this bill was no joke. We had a furious argument. The truth was we didn’t have the cash to pay it, but even if we had we would never have accepted it. I told them they could have the money we had on us (less than half of the bill) or we could go together to the next city and “take advice” about it, perhaps from the police. They took the money we offered and we sped off.
Trouble was, we’d been so furious we’d thrown every penny we had at them. One km later we came upon a road toll. No money. The officials refused Jeremy’s pleas about what had happened, refused to change our US dollars or take a card and, for the sake of $4, they told him to hitch 12km to the city to find a cash machine. After walking 3km a motorcyclist stopped and picked him up, ‘kindly’ offering to pay the toll and then drive with us the ATM so we could pay them back. When we arrived we offered a tip to say thanks, but they demanded a ridiculous $25 for their petrol. We were so sick of arguing by this stage we threw the money at him and drove off. In 5 months we can safely say we had not met any nasty or unwelcoming people in Colombia, and yet in the space of a morning we’d had them in spades. When added to recent frustrations, we temporarily lost faith and felt down for a little while.
But here I am rattling on about the van again – it was still going, and the next 10 days saw our spirits life as as we put in a lot of miles, by our standards, and visited some of the highlights of the country.
We left the mountains for a while and descended to the hot valley that leads to Colombia’s tiny southern desert, Desierto de la Tatacoa. The desert, ah how we love it!
At the end of day one of driving there we were looking for a place to camp and asked at a country club outside the town of Espinal. The owner wasn’t keen, but a guy who was there giving a tennis lesson offered us a space to camp at his house. Okay, we said, if you are sure you have space. He got in the van and directed us straight into the busy town square. ‘Here we are!’ he said. Erm, we explained again that we wanted to camp, in case he hadn’t understood. ‘Yes, my house is very big’, he said. Two street stalls were moved aside to make room for us to drive through large gates sandwiched between a packed restaurant and a shop. We drove in to find a house arranged part outdoors, part indoors, with a living and dining area outside and bedrooms arranged around the courtyard. We would be camping right next to the the sofa in his living room! Definitely a first.
We took advantage of the location and went straight into the adjoining restaurant, which specialised in a local dish, lechona – a slow roasted whole pig stuffed with rice, pulses and spices and served with a sweet stuffing. Oh yes.
A bumpy final stretch took us to the desert the next day, and one of the best camping spots we’d encountered in Colombia. We enjoyed sunset beers and early morning coffee from our position on the edge of a spectacular canyon, filled with jutting cacti and a labyrinth of protruding rock formations that changed colour with each stage of the day.
Heading south and west, towards the Andes and the Ecuadorian border, we spent a glorious few days in San Agustín, the site of hundreds of pre-Columbian statues in the surrounding hills and forests. On a horseback trip through the area, the scenery was spectacular, taking in lush fertile farms of fruits, coffee, yuca and bright red peppers. On a coffee stop at a little house we were talking with the owner about the animals he had. He pointed into a little hut and asked if we knew what ‘cuy’ were. “Yes!” I exclaimed, looking a three cute little furries, “a guinea pig was my first pet.”
“We roast them over there,” he said, pointing to a large clay oven beside us. Oh. A taste of things to come in Ecuador, where guinea pig is a popular dish.
Moving on from San Agustín was never going to be easy. We had three options for getting back over the Andes to Popayán. 1. The very rough, albeit shortest and most common route, otherwise known as the ‘Kangaroo Express’. 2. A similarly rough, and more dangerous, route known as the ‘Trampoline of Death’, or 3. A really really long way round that involved backtracking and taking a, reportedly, less terrible gravel road. We asked the police about the state of the road in option 1, which we had heard was, on top of just being generally bad, churned up with road works and deep muddy ruts. “Well, there are guerillas in that area, but if you are lucky you won’t encounter any,” he said. Right. Actually we were just asking about the road surface, but now you’re really spooking us.
After much deliberation we decided on option 1, before changing our minds at the last minute and taking 3 – the long way round.
What a day. After about 6 hours on normal roads and 5 hours of grinding along the washboard gravel road – all through spectacular scenery – we were rewarded with a final awesome stretch through the páramo near the 4750m Volcán Puracè. Wow.
We arrived in Popayán at twilight and managed, almost, to stay awake through dinner before collapsing. We felt like we were on the home straight, we were going to make it to Ecuador.
Two more days of driving got us to the border, via a beautiful stop overlooking Volcán Galeras, plus the unreal Sanctuario de Las Lajas, an enormous cathedral built on a bridge over a gorge near the border town of Ipiales.
As is often the way, we spent our final night in the country in rather grimy circumstances – at a gas station truck stop convenient for an early start to the border. We reflected on our 5 months in Colombia, all the things we had seen and done, the amazing people we had met, and the fact that – despite the luxurious amount of time we’d had in the country – that there was still plenty we hadn’t seen.
As night came we couldn’t believe it when another overlander pulled into the truck stop, a guy from Switzerland. We chatted a while and he explained that he had only crossed into Colombia from Panama one week earlier.
“A week!” we said. “And you are already leaving for Ecuador?”
“Yeah”, he sighed. “There’s just nothing to see here.”
For once, we were truly speechless.
Things we now know to be true: Everyone sees the world through different eyes.