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“Your daughter will suffer”: Colombia’s dark side

29 Apr

Baños, Ecuador
[by Jeremy]

Like so many other travellers, we have, over the past few months, often waxed lyrical about Colombia’s natural beauty – its stunning landscapes, its warm people, its incredible coastline, its deserts, mountains, not forgetting its delicious arepas con queso.

paramilitaries

Colombia’s paramilitaries target trade union activists and community leaders

Unlike most other travellers we are fortunate enough – if that can ever be the right word – to have been able to lift the veil of normality, to scratch below the surface of the glossy tourist brochures and to experience a small part of the reality of the Colombia in which many millions of poor, displaced and victimised Colombians are forced to live.

Maybe partly through our own fear, or for the sake of some of those we met, we decided to wait until we had left the country before writing this blog. That in itself speaks volumes about the situation.

For 10 years before this trip I travelled to Colombia helping to expose the human stories behind the grim statistics. I have been present when mass graves of alleged ‘false positives’ – young men from among the urban poor who had been kidnapped by the army, murdered, dressed in guerilla uniforms and buried in rural areas far from prying eyes – were uncovered. I have met these young men’s mothers and heard first hand of the persecution they face simply for seeking the truth about their sons’ murders.

I have helped document testimonies from peasant farmers in Meta province about the human rights abuses suffered by whole communities at the hands of the army and the right-wing paramilitaries – and forced back a tear when two weeks later their spokesperson was assassinated in front of his family. I have been in to the women’s prison in Bogota to meet with young women living in insanitary conditions, with eight to a room designed for four, who are denied visits from friends and family, sometimes even their own children. These women and many more – among them teachers and community workers – are arrested and detained often for years at a time, without trial in flagrant breach of international human rights laws.

Colombia is a country not only rich in natural beauty, it is a rich country, full stop. Boasting reserves of the majority of the world’s most valuable natural resources, Colombia exports petroleum, coal nickel, gold, copper, iron ore, bananas, cut flowers, sugarcane, natural gas and over half of the world’s emeralds. Colombia also boasts the most uneven income distribution in the whole of Latin America.

Extra-judicial killings aim to silence those who speak out

Extra-judicial killings aim to silence those who speak out

Many millions of Colombians live in poverty. Millions are denied healthcare, millions live without clean water, millions live below the poverty line – and for those journalists, peace campaigners, trade unionists and indigenous rights activists, who expose such realities or stand up to the onward march of the multinationals, against privatisation of basic services, or who defend land and speak out for the peasants and the urban poor, the full force of a vicious, neo-liberal regime and a brutal paramilitary movement – aided and abetted by sections of the state, army and police – is brought down upon them.

These aren’t mere fantasies. 60% of all the trade unionists killed in the world are killed in Colombia. Around 200 trade unionists are currently classified as ‘disappeared’. Colombia now has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world – around 5,000,000 – mostly the result of land seizures. 230,000 people were forced to flee their homes last year alone. There are more than 5,600 political prisoners, many languishing in appalling conditions in overcrowded jails – mainly opposition politicians, trade union leaders and community activists. In recent years (2002-2010) an average of 4,368 people have been killed or disappeared in combat and conflict-related violence each year – around 12 people per day. And at the heart of Colombia’s human rights crisis is the issue of impunity. According to the UN, in 98.5% of cases of extra-judicial executions carried out by the army, no-one has been brought to justice. In 98% of the cases of killings of journalists and trade unionists the perpetrators have never been charged.

Colombia has among the highest number of forced disappearances in the world – with approximately 30,000 people currently believed to be disappeared. The state security forces are responsible for the vast majority of disappearances. The Colombian Commission of Jurists (CCJ) state that “public functionaries are compromised in one way or another in around 97% of these cases.

“Few stories of bravery and resilience in the face of abuse, torture and intimidation can surpass that of my old friend Claudia Julieta Duque.”

Even the space for democratic participation in Colombia is severely limited. In most elections, even today, large numbers of votes are simply bought. In recent years the paramilitaries – in what is now known as the para-political scandal – have played an increasingly pivotal role in delivering elections for their favoured candidates by, for example, ensuring the other candidates on the ballot are threatened into pulling out. The paramilitaries also poured millions of dollars in to funding electoral campaigns, leaving the successful candidates indebted to them rather than to their electorate. More than 50 members of the 2006-10 Congress are currently facing trial as a result of accepting bribes from paramilitary organisations.

In my years of travelling to Colombia I have met some of the most inspirational people I will ever meet. People who in the face of such injustices and terror continue to expose the truth, stand up for economic and social justice and represent their fellow workers, their communities or simply their beliefs.

Protesting against human rights abuses in Colombia

Protesting against human rights abuses in Colombia

In Bogota, just a few weeks ago, we interviewed the lawyer and sister of a jailed teacher – Omar Combita – for a video to be shown in the UK. Their dignity in the face of the injustice he has faced was incredible. Omar is yet another trade union activist and community leader accused of the catch-all ‘crime’ of ‘rebellion’. He has been imprisoned for over 18 months – without trial. He has been denied medical assistance despite suffering from the early symptoms of Parkinson’s. The evidence against him has been changed twice and he has been denied due legal process.
He and his family continue to fight, with dignity, for justice.

But few stories of bravery and resilience in the face of abuse, torture and intimidation can surpass that of my old friend Claudia Julieta Duque. Whilst her bravery as an independent journalist exposing human rights abuses has won her numerous international awards, it is only up close you can understand the true horror of what she and her amazing daughter have been through.

We stayed with them in Bogota. Claudia couldn’t come out and meet us or go for a drink or even walk to the shop with us. She lives under a constant death threat from paramilitary groups. She lives in a gated apartment complex, hidden away behind an armoured front door with locks like Fort Knox. There is a TV in her living room but it doesn’t show films or comedies or sport. It relays images from the security cameras which survey the inside and outside or her home. When she does go out she cannot walk, instead she has to drive her armour-plated car with bullet proof glass.

For Claudia though, life is better than it was. In Claudia’s case such improvements are relative.

Grave

The ‘false positives’ scandal saw poor young men kidnapped by the army, murdered, dressed in guerilla uniforms and buried in rural areas. This grave is one of dozens in the cemetery next to the army base in La Macarena.

Between 2001 and 2008 Claudia was subjected to systematic intimidation at the hands of Colombia’s security services (DAS) – years of illegal monitoring, surveillance, interception of emails, physical threats and harassment. She received abusive phone calls threatening the life of her then 11-year old daughter – one caller told her “your daughter is going to suffer, we will burn her alive, we will spread her fingers throughout the house.”. In 2004 Claudia Julieta was kidnapped. She later uncovered an instruction manual published by the DAS, setting out in detail how to intimidate and frighten her and to rape her daughter. The manual outlined exactly how to make the threat (from a public phone box with no CCTV cameras nearby), how long to stay on the line (less than 60 seconds to avoid a trace) and the exact wording to use to threaten her and her daughter. She has been forced to flee Colombia three times already, leaving behind family, friends and colleagues.

Claudia’s crime? She consistently documented and exposed irregularities in the investigation into the murder of journalist Jaime Garzon, including the involvement of the security services in his killing. The threats were designed to silence her. They failed.

Today, while things improve from time to time, Claudia still faces threats, still lives in fear of assassination, and finds it almost impossible to earn a living because of the intimidation. Editors are often too scared to even commission her for fear of the reprisals against them.

I have known Claudia for many years. It is no surprise to me she refuses to be cowed. While we are there her phone rings constantly, talking to journalists in exile, campaigning for recompense for the victims of the conflict, hearing testimony of further human rights abuses, organising to defend a threatened journalist and much more. One call tells her a community leader she interviewed just a few days before has been assassinated, paying the ultimate price for speaking truth to power

The day after we say our goodbyes to Claudia arrest warrants are finally issued against 7 former senior security agents – men at the very top of Colombia’s state apparatus – for the campaign of intimidation against her.

It is a breakthrough after more than a decade of denouncing threats and presenting evidence – but Claudia like so many others knows a long battle lies ahead to actually get a court case, prosecution and some semblance of justice.

Colombians show their support for peace - Tatacoa desert 2013

Colombians show their support for peace – Tatacoa desert 2013

Such dreams seem a long way off. Just days later her daughter is photographed up close by an unknown man. Then again when out with her boyfriend. Unknown cars have begun to follow Claudia and her daughter. Claudia’s brother has been receiving intimidating phone calls. The cycle of threat and intimidation has begun again.

All Claudia wants, not just for her but for all victims of Colombia’s conflict, is peace – the chance to live her life, work as a journalist. Just the ability to go to the shop, free from fear, for her daughter to enjoy a normal life as a student.

Colombia needs peace. The current peace talks are long overdue. A few days after we left Colombia, civil society took to the streets to demand their voice be heard in those talks.

As Martin Luther King made clear you cannot have justice without peace. And you cannot have peace without justice.

For a fuller briefing on the economic, political and social issues facing Colombia click here.
To find out how you can help click here.

Days: 536
Miles: 17,551
Things we now know to be true: Even bullets cannot silence the voice of the people

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Hasta luego Colombia

12 Apr
Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Campspot with a view, Tatacoa Desert, Colombia

Otavalo, Ecuador
[by Paula]

Hello Ecuador!

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!

Otavalo, Ecuador

Good morning Ecuador. Otavalo is our first stop.

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.

Wax palms, Valle de Cocora, Colombia

These wax palms are really tall. Valle de Cocora, Colombia

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.

Bandeja Paisa, Salento, Colombia

Post-hike snack for one. Bandeja Paisa, Salento, Colombia.

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! 

'Camping' at a house in Espinal

Camping in Walter’s living room, Espinal, Colombia.

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. 

Horseriding around San Agustin

Horseriding around San Agustin, Colombia

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.

Sanctuario de las Lajas, nr Ipiales, Colombia

The spectacular Sanctuario de las Lajas was our final sight-seeing stop in Colombia

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.

Days: 519
Miles: 17,484
Things we now know to be true: Everyone sees the world through different eyes.

500 days!

24 Mar

Today we celebrate 500 days on the road!

People often ask, ‘what have been the best bits?’ Impossible to answer. They range from huge awe-inspiring sights – like hiking an active volcano, gazing at Mayan ruins, or looking a snake in the eye – to little moments that would be lost in translation.

It’s been 500 days of exploring, learning, making friends, being rescued by strangers, having more time to be silly, to read, to think, to look around, to travel without a plan. It’s involved spectacular beaches, mountains, jungle, wildlife, and indigenous culture. There have been ill-advised ferry journeys, crazy cities, sanity-stretching bureaucracy, a lot of food, even more beer, unhinged drivers, a few scary moments and more mechanics than we could shake a catalytic converter at.

Here’s a slideshow, not selected for its artistic merit, but because it might go some way to summing up some of the sillier moments of life on the road.

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Portrait of a bad day

20 Mar

Pereira, Colombia
[by Paula]

Life on the road has so many advantages it’s hard to know how to begin to quantify it. I don’t think we need to explain, any more than we have, how it feels to be free – at least for this chapter of our lives.

But despite all the obvious privileges, when you are travelling there is no reason to presume you can escape having a bad day sometimes. You know, those days that come along specifically to be utterly, unambiguously, shit. There’s just no getting away from it, and any traveller that tells you otherwise might just be fibbing a little.

We had one of those recently, and it went something like this. (*all times are approximate)

Camping spot, near Honda

Nice spot. There’s just one flaw….

4pm: We are en route to the town of Honda, between Bogotá and Manizales. We’re pleased to have left Bogotá behind and, after a brief stop at the mechanic as we left the city, are reassured(ish) that we have no major mechanical issues to worry about. Before Honda we come upon a road block – unbeknown to us this section of the main route across country is currently closed every day from 11am til 6pm. Not wanting to drive after dark we turned back and find a good camp spot a few miles back. The owner asks us to camp in a spot with a great view over the mountains, but it’s down in a bit of a dip.

10pm: The rain comes on with gusto. It rains and rains, all night. Jeremy has half-awake concerns about whether we will wake up in a quagmire.

7am: We wake up in a quagmire.

8am: As we try to exit the campspot the van creates a nice deep sticky trench for itself and sinks into the mud. The owner and his wife try to help push us out, and we make several attempt to get some grip under the tyres with rocks and our levelling blocks. It’s still raining – everything and everyone is caked in mud. The main thing is, we have to get out of there soon so we can drive the section of road that will close at 11am for seven hours.

9am: The owner calls a neighbour with a truck to haul us out.

Stuck in the mud

Bugger.

10am: After 5 rope-snapping attempts, we are still well and truly stuck.

10.20am: New rope found. Finally freed! I’m sliding the van all over the place as the truck drags us out of the dip, with Jeremy et al pushing from behind. “That looked like fun!” said Jeremy. No, it wasn’t. No time to wash the mud off, we make for the road so we can get out of the area before 11am. As we try to ascend the very steep driveway, the car loses all power and stops in the middle of the hill. I roll back, put it in first and take a run at it. It works, but we are worried about the severe loss of power, which is something that’s been happening on hills recently.

12pm: After grinding through queues of trucks we’ve made it to Honda, and quickly check emails for news we are hoping to get from various editors we have pitched story ideas to. Nothing. Grr. We head for the steep mountain road to Manizales, where there is a coffee finca we really want to camp at for a few days.

2pm: The van has been behaving terribly since we left Honda, bunny-hopping up the hills, losing power one minute and leaping ahead the next. It smells of burning plastic. We pull over at a hilltop cafe and see there is something like hot wax pouring from under the van, and solidifying on the ground. We ask the owner to call a mechanic, and two arrive from the next town. Our car scanner shows that two more of the (new) ignition wires are misfiring, along with some other long-running issues we’ve had with the catalytic converter and fuel/air mix – possibly all related, or not…

3pm: The mechanics insist that the hot grease is nothing to panic about (really?). We follow them into the town and they look under the bonnet. We explain about the ignition wires, and they say we really have to drive on to Manizales to find a specialist. That means climbing up to about 4,000m (more than 13,000ft) before descending again. We decide to go for it.

3-5pm: Hellish 2 hours of more of the same. Feels like the van is going to keel over any moment, and there’s hardly anywhere safe to pull over. Jeremy keeps telling me to move back in my seat, he can’t see in his wing mirror because I am a hunched-over ball of tension, leaning forward with my head in my hands. We are willing the van to just get to Manizales. We think we will make it although it will probably be dark when we do.

Road closed

Sorry, on account of you officially having a Bad Day, we have had to close this road.

5pm: (one hour before dark). Another road block. The route is closed ‘for about an hour’ for urgent road works up ahead. No choice but to sit it out.

6.15pm: The road opens and we sputter ahead. We are going so slowly we are a hazard to ourselves and others. We come over one of the highest passes at twilight and can see the belching, snow-capped volcanic peak of El Ruiz ahead of us. The clouds are below the road. Spectacular.

7.15pm: Feels like we are never going to get there. Big delay when the road goes to one-track and two lines of traffic have a face-off. The truck ahead of us, and one coming the other way, have half their wheels up on the bank and are so tipped as they nudge past each other that the tops of their trucks are touching. I’m picturing being there all night if they topple over.

8pm: We finally arrive at the outskirts of Manizales. We’ve been so preoccupied we didn’t notice that none of the leaflets or guidebook actually have a proper address or directions to the finca we want to go to, but we know it’s about 20 minutes out of town. We stop and ask the police if they know it. The officer calls the finca – they say that it’s too complicated to find it in the dark, and suggest we get a hotel and call them in the morning for a chaperone. Tiredness, altitude and sheer bloody-mindedness affects our decision-making. We really, really, don’t want to go to a hotel, so we decide to screw that advice and try to find it anyway.

9pm: We are still asking around random taxi drivers and petrol stations for directions, and getting closer to finding out roughly where it is, although no one seems sure. We head out on what we think is the right highway.

Nevado El Ruiz

The always-active El Ruiz volcano. An eruption in 1985 killed some 25,000 people.

9.30pm: We follow a sign to the area where we know the finca is. It immediately becomes a narrow downhill track with towering grass and bushes at either side, so we can’t see a thing ahead or around us. We are very tired, starving, and getting quite scared. All I can think of is that squeezing through this path reminds me of the Stephen King film Children of the Corn. We don’t really want to go on but there is nowhere to turn round either.

10pm: We finally see some light ahead and have a glimmer of hope it might be the finca. But as we turn the corner we see it is a luxury mansion. We pull up and the owner leans over his balcony to see what the hell is going on! Jeremy calls up to them for directions to the finca. Him and his grandson come down to the gate and explain that the owners of the finca are relatives of theirs. They know where it is, but it’s a bit complicated to get there – the most direct route requires crossing a river and the road has been washed away. As they explain the way we need to go, I finally crack. I just want to drink a barrel of wine and go to bed. I ask if we can safely sleep on the track near their house, as it is too late now to try to find the finca.

They insist we come into their property and park next to the house. When we pull up it looks like a scene from Father of the Bride – huge luxury home, swimming pool, and a manicured garden set out with gazebos and tables adorned with cloths and flowers, as if they are hosting a wedding. The whole family comes out to greet us – turns out the owner’s daughter is turning 50 the next day and they have gathered there to have a party for her.
They are so kind, asking if we need food or drink, and chatting to us about our trip. They say they will escort us to the finca in the morning. They show us to a bathroom we can use, and I am mortified to even step in there as my feet and legs are still caked with mud. Everything is so shiny and smart. We must (we do) look like tramps.

With Simon and Santiago

Getting ready to leave the morning after – pictured with two members of the family, Simon and Santiago.

11pm: We cook our dinner in the van, and every time we look outside we chuckle a little and cannot believe that this is how the day has ended. A horrid, stressful, day that ends with an act of kindness and some semblance of a sense of humour from us – not entirely atypical of this trip.
We pray that the van starts up in the morning and that this family does not have to have its posh party with our muddy van stranded next to the gazebo.

Days: 496
Miles: 16,371
Things we now know to be true: Tomorrow is, always, another day.

Is it a bird, is it a plain?

17 Mar

nr Manizales, Colombia
[by Paula]

Cattle at finca, Los Llanos

Cowboy country, Los Llanos

We’d spent the morning watching a vet shoving his arm up the backside of several cows, then shovelling out the excess manure with a cupped hand before feeling their ovaries for signs of damage. Not for the first time did we pause and comment on how weird our life sometimes seems these days.

We had travelled to Los Llanos – the plains of Colombia, a rough wilderness of tropical grasslands, sprawling cattle fincas, and undisturbed wildlife that stretches hundreds miles across to Venezuela. We were going a little bit on instinct. Not a lot of tourists go there yet, and the area we visited remains sandwiched between parts of the Llanos that are as known as much for their guerillas and paramilitary groups as they are for their birdlife and cattle.

We’d been invited to stay at a finca by someone we had met briefly at the mechanic’s in Bogota. He was a really nice guy, he drew us a detailed map of where his finca was, told us to go there, and said he’d call the farm manager and ask him to look after us during our stay. We were aware that if something had gone wrong, this could all sound a bit sketchy.

Sometimes, when making decisions like this, I try to imagine how I might explain it to my mum.

[Mum: What do you mean you’ve been kidnapped? How did it happen?
Me: Well, we met this guy at the mechanic’s and he said it would be okay…
Mum: Did you know anything about these people, or the farm, or the roads, or who you might encounter on the way?
Me: Um…. kind of, well, not much really…]

But instinct is about the most valuable asset you can bring with you when you are travelling. We really wanted to go to Los Llanos, we knew this was a unique opportunity, and we had a good feeling that we wouldn’t regret it.

Jeremy horse-riding, Los Llanos

The cattle farm also grew African palms for oil.

We were right.

Before leaving Bogotá we’d had the new ignition wire installed in the van, and all seemed to be well with it. We had, yet again, a deadline for renewing the permit for our vehicle (which allows it to legally be in Colombia for a set period) but could not face a re-run of the bureaucratic hell involved in doing this in Bogotá. So we headed for the provincial city of Yopal in Los Llanos, to get it done before driving the final leg out to the finca.

The whole process was like night and day compared with the capital – a nice small customs office and helpful staff who didn’t over-complicate things. We completed the forms and headed back the next day to collect the permit. It was ready later than we’d have liked, and we were getting a bit tense about getting away and finding the farm before dark.

Just as the final stamp was hovering over the form, the official in charge was suddenly in the mood to chat to us about our trip. Her eyes got wider and wider as we explained we were driving the Americas and living in the van. “Aren’t you scared?” she asked.

We politely conversed. I was trying not to make it obvious that I was sneaking glances at my watch. 4pm! The farm was in the middle of nowhere and Los Llanos was not really the place where we wanted to be wandering about in the pitch black.

She patted our arms as we finally left, giving us god’s blessing and repeated wishes of good luck. It wasn’t very effective because as we tried to find the right road out of the city, we missed the turning. With little time to lose we decided to take a cheeky u-turn and head back to the junction.

We swooped left. But, unbeknown to us, a moped had just scooted up our inside and was attempting to drive straight on. I heard a thud and a scrape and saw a flash of a helmet out of Jeremy’s window.

There was a lot of shouting from passers-by as we pulled across the road and stopped (we later learned that we should have stopped exactly where we were – it seems people might have thought we were trying to leave the scene of the accident). Jeremy rushed straight over to the woman we had hit, and thankfully she was okay, if a bit bruised and shaky.

“Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.”

She called various friends and relatives, and lots of men started turning up, as well as the police. We felt terrible, and Jeremy’s attempts to apologise and ask how she was were quite brusquely brushed aside. As we waited for a second policer officer to turn up, it’s fair to say we were starting to feel a bit intimidated, and were pretty sure that at the very least we were going to get it in the neck from the police.

When the second officer turned up, his colleague said to him, “is she (the victim) a family member of yours?’. He said yes and went over and hugged her.

“Bollocks” I thought, we are really going to get stiffed here. Not only have we managed to knock over the relative of a police officer, but we’ve done so while carrying out an illegal u-turn. Not good.

After a bit of discussion, though, the police said: “Look, no one wants to bother with a load of unnecessary paperwork. How about you just fix her moped and that will be that?” They said they understood that we didn’t know the town and probably didn’t realise we weren’t supposed to do a u-turn there!

Jeremy went with them to the bike workshop while I stayed with the van. After a bit of a debate – during which the moped driver’s friend tried to get Jeremy to cough up for some un-related repairs – he paid 50,000 pesos (£20/$30) and left them to it.

“I bet you couldn’t get out of there quick enough!”, I said to Jeremy later.

“Well, I was trying to, but they were playing the Tottenham v Inter Milan game on the TV in there, and it was 3-0 with 5 minutes to go, so I watched a bit of it.” he said.

I don’t think that boy’s priorities will ever change.

The van parked up at the finca, Los Llanos

A great place to roam around.

Running even later than before, we got the f*** out of Yopal and headed down the pot-holed road to the finca. Thanks to a great map and the directions of various drunk people along the route, we pulled in to the farm well after dark but without getting lost. Only a couple of rooms on the property had electricity, so it was pitch black. The farm manager, Luis Carlos, and various other workers were there to meet us as we emerged from the van, blinking in their torchlights.

We spent a magical four days there, being shown around and looked after by Luis Carlos, the head horseman Miller and his family, and many others.

By day we walked, rode on the horses, and spent hours marvelling at the birdlife. One morning the guys took us out to another finca in the area, which was like going on a mini safari – lagoons full of dozens of caiman and turtles; capybaras (also known as chiguiros – the largest rodent in the world) roaming around or taking mud-baths, and hundreds of exotic birds darting around, including flamingoes and stork-like gabanes with their smart red collars.

We spent a morning watching the cattle being rounded up and selected for the backside treatment referred to earlier. At one point a young farm worker played ‘bullfights’ with a particularly stubborn calf, while others were lassoed into position. It was all in a day’s work for them, but hugely exciting for us to see real cowboys in action.

On the Saturday night Luis Carlos innocently suggested we drive them all to the nearby town of San Luis de Palenque, so we could ‘see the riverside malecon’. After a walk he suggested a beer in a local tienda. “If you fancy one, I’ll drive back,” I said to Jeremy. Thirty two beers later (between four of them) I rolled them out of there and into the van.

The next day they took us back to town to enjoy a traditional carne asada – a hunk of cow roasted for 6 hours on an open fire – for lunch. Divine. And this time it was my turn to quaff the beers.

Carne asada

Carne asada. Yum.

There is a romance to Los Llanos that is hard to put your finger on. It’s a tough life for those who live there, but there is a lot of love for it.

At dawn and dusk there is a cacophony of birdlife like we have never heard. The flat plains stretch as far as the eye can see, before the view pixelates into the steaming haze. The darkness at night is like someone throwing a blanket over your head at 6.30pm – in more ways than one because even at 9pm the thermometer was showing over 80 degrees.

We will always be grateful to Jaime for the invitation, and to everyone at the farm for their warm welcome and their patience with our Spanish speaking. It certainly helped our vocabulary to try to give a coherent explanation of our lifestyle, our atheism and our lack of desire for children. And we had no trouble understanding their reaction – on all three counts, and in the nicest possible way, they thought were were absolutely nuts.

Perhaps the photo slideshow below will speak a few more thousand words about the magic of the Llanos.

[If you are a subscriber and you are reading this on an email, we think you get a better version of the slideshow if you open our website, rather than just clicking on photos from the email]

Days: 493
Miles: 16,347
Things we now know to be true: Cows don’t seem to mind a rectal examination.

Parts and flowers

4 Mar

Bogotá, Colombia
[by Jeremy]

Paramo de Oseta

Forests of freilejons at the Paramo de Oseta gave it an other-worldly feel.

A typical day at the beach in Britain is characterised by ruddy-faced hardy people huddling together behind ineffectual windbreakers, dressed in thick jumpers, raincoats, thermals and wellies.

It can sometimes feel similar at the stunning white-sand beach of Playa Blanca. At least it has a decent excuse. It’s at 3015m (9900ft). No, really – a white sand beach at over 3000m! It’s the breeding ground of Oxyura jamaicensis andina – the Colombian Ruddy Duck – and we know how he feels.

Despite the cold, Playa Blanca – on Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake and an important centre of the Muisca culture – is just one of a number of stunning highlights in the region around Sogamoso, our base for a couple of weeks. Soaring volcanic peaks, treks amongst the incredible and other-worldly landscapes of the páramo, beautiful colonial villages – one, Iza, whose streets are even lined with locals selling homemade desserts. Try them? Well, it would be rude not to. Heaven.

Playa Blanca, Lago de Tota

Quick photo-call at Playa Blanca with Kristen and Jonathan before retreating to the warmth of the van.

Dessert capped off a fun-filled day exploring the lake and the surrounding villages and chowing down on some local empanadas with our two new Canadian friends – Kristen and Jonathan.

We’d met them two days earlier as we huffed and puffed our way in the early morning sun from the picture-postcard village of Monguí, founded in 1601, up to the to Páramo de Oseta. Over the years we’ve done many amazing treks in a number of continents but this 8-hour hike up to almost 4000m (13100ft) ranks up there with the best. At every turn the scenery is amazing – giving us relative oldies the perfect excuse to rest while taking pictures, simply trying to find new superlatives to describe yet another amazing view – or in my case applying more duct tape to my rapidly disintegrating boots. At the summit, looking down over Laguna Negra is awe-inspiring. What was also awe-inspiring was the huge ice-cream we gobbled down several hours later when we staggered back in to Monguí.

But it’s the flora of the páramo – the unique ecosystem above the continuous forest line, yet below the permanent snowline – that sets it apart. The changing skies and the intensity of the sun provides an ever-changing palette of colours as the plants that grow only at such altitudes – in particular the lupins and forests of flowering freilejons – begin to dominate. In thinning air you can still find enough breath to gasp at the beauty of it all. We let out another gasp as our 12-year old guide froze at the sound of gunshots nearby. Hunters? There are none round here, he told us. Army practice? No, he said definitely. Guerillas, paramilitaries? He shrugged. Gulp.

But before we get all tourist board on you let us take you back. It’s a while since we last blogged and expressed aloud for the first time that with the van jerking and juddering its way in to Bogotá we feared the transmission was on its way out – again. Here we are a month later in Bogotá. But fear ye not… the transmission is fine. Cue HUGE sigh of relief.

It’s only the spark plug wires playing up – I say only, but those wires are the very same ones we just replaced. The ones we spent weeks getting sent from the US to a friend in the UK to be brought to us in Cartagena, to be fitted by the specialist VW concession. Yes, those ones. Turns out, VW didn’t have a clue and for some unknown reason yanked on the new wires, ripping one of them in two. Instead of telling us they just taped it together, closed the bonnet, charged us $100 and waved us off. Needless to say, pretty quickly – albeit 1,000kms away – the problem resurfaced. Back to square one.

Colombia sticker on the van

Our unique Colombia sticker, courtesy of Klaus the mechanic.

Luckily in Bogotá we found an excellent mechanic. They repaired the wires as best they could, gave the transmission the once-over and a clean bill of health, mended the broken door lock (it’s only been a year!), did a better repair job on the bumper we’d pranged a few weeks ago, fixed up the radiator and – unable to find an exact match for a new headlight and us being unwilling to pay $300 to get one from VW – they took us to a backstreet workshop where a genius fashioned an exact replica in a few hours and fitted it for the princely sum of $45. Oh, and they even heard us complain that we couldn’t find a Colombia sticker for our van, and had one custom-made at a local print shop. That’s service.

With the car on its way back to full health there was the little matter of having to sort out extending our temporary import licence. A quick trip to the customs office, fill out a form and bingo. Yes? Er, no.

We did visit the office. They sent us up to the 4th floor. They sent us to the second floor. They told us we needed to go to another office, miles away by the airport. We did. They sent us up to the third floor. They said we first needed to go to the second floor. On the second floor they made us fill out a form and go back to the third floor. They sent us to see an inspector. She told us she needed to inspect the van. We said we didn’t have it because (as she surely knew) it was the one day of the year when all private cars are banned from driving in Bogotá. What are the chances?! She told us to bring it back tomorrow. We did – after a tear-inducing two-hour drive through Bogotá’s rush hour. There was someone different who asked us why we had brought the van – it wasn’t needed after all! We managed to resist punching a wall, or someone’s face. They told us to go to another desk. They stamped our original form and told us the licence would be posted to us on Monday. We said we didn’t have a postal address and could we pick it up. No, it has to be posted. So we gave a hostal address we weren’t staying at and called the owner to explain. Fine. Let’s just wait. We waited and waited.

Paula at Laguna Negra, Paramo de Oseta

Don’t step back! Overlooking Laguna Negra, Paramo de Oseta.

Four days later we couldn’t wait any longer. So we went back to the customs office. They sent us to the second floor. A bored, unsatisfied cog in the capitalist machine said he had no idea what we wanted, it wasn’t his job, mustered enough energy to ring someone and then point us to the 4th floor. As various people shrugged when we asked about the licence we began to lose hope until… a miracle. A woman picked up our form, called someone over, instructed them what to do, was polite and said she’d have it sorted in a few minutes. She then sent us back to the second floor. Bollocks. A secretary led us back to the desk of the aforementioned cog. Slumped almost vertically he barely looked up, stamped a sheaf of papers 4 times, handed them to us and said we could go. We literally skipped out..and ran a bit to ensure they didn’t change their minds. Hurrah, legal again. For 4 weeks, when we would have to go through it all again.

It’s all in a day’s work these days.

Such irritations are nothing but that, and they paled into complete insignificance when our thoughts turned daily to home. As some people know, Paula’s aunt Janette – her mum’s twin – had been seriously ill in recent months, and sadly died on 19 February. Paula headed back to Scotland within a couple of days to be with her family. It’s hard to know what to say in a forum such as this. Anyone who knows Paula’s extended family knows how close they are and how much Janette is missed by everyone – her sons David, Alan and Gavin, husband Andrew, her sisters Christine and Marjory and the many many others in her family and wide circle of friends.

While she spent those sad few days in the UK I adjusted to life in the van alone. Luckily I had the perfect location.

Finca San Pedro in Sogamoso is one of the best places we’ve stayed in the whole trip. Chilled – without being full of unwashed hippies lying around all day – it has amazing common spaces and an enthusiastic and friendly owner who loves travelling himself. Its gardens are lovely and a fascinating band of travellers and a professional cyclist doing altitude training while I was there made the time go quicker than expected.

Playa Blanca at sunrise

There was a sublime sunrise the day I returned to Playa Blanca.

But refusing to just sit and wait I also got out and about. With a new love for the páramo I drove up 9 km of dirt mountain roads to the Páramo de Siscuni, stopping for a delicious trout empanada on the way, and trekked in eerie solitude around Laguna de Siscuni, visited the picturesque colonial town of Tibasosa, camped on the beach at Lago de Tota. I also took the opportunity to satisfy my football withdrawal symptoms by heading to the regional capital Tunja to watch local premier league team Boyacá Chico take on Tolima. In a spookily empty stadium, with just 19 away fans – one dressed in full knight’s outfit – the home side won 3-0 while the visitors had five players booked and two sent off and a band played Rivers of Babylon non-stop for 90 minutes. Weird.

So now we’re back in Bogotá and in a kind of groundhog day scenario are heading back to visit the mechanic armed with yet another new spark plug cable, bought in Scotland. Surely nothing can go wrong this time…

Days: 480
Miles: 15,502
Things we now know to be true: It’s people that matter.

——-

Some more photos from the last few weeks for your perusal. [If you are an email subscriber, to see the slideshow properly it is best to open the blog, rather than click on the photos from the email]

Ups and downs

18 Feb

Sogamoso, Colombia
[by Paula]

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.

Caroline in the van

Caroline comes to stay

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.

Paula after a mudbath, near Cartagena

Post-mudbath, pre-shower. Volcan de Lodo El Totumo, near Cartagena.

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!

Arrecifes, Tayrona National Park

Passing through Arrecifes on a hike through Tayrona National Park.

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.

Crossing a stream, Tayrona National Park

Why get your shoes wet when you can get a lift across? Tayrona National Park.

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.

Filet mignon with fried ants, Barichara

Getting ready to pop a crunchy fried ant into my mouth, Barichara

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.

Paula in Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva

Plaza Mayor, Villa de Leyva

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.

A last night drink with Caroline, Bogota

A last night drink with Caroline, Bogota

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.

Days: 466
Miles: 15,075
Things we now know to be true: The best laid plans are subject to change.