Archive | Colombia RSS feed for this section

“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

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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.

Head for the hills

7 Feb

The blog has been resting while we’ve been enjoying a visit from our friend Caroline. We think she had a great trip that was also a pretty accurate representation of our varied life on the road and of the many contrasts of Colombia. We finally turned south away from the scorching coast and headed into the cooler mountains, towards Bogota, where we are now. We’ve eaten delicious food along the way, hiked beaches and mountain trails, wandered colonial towns and driven through some spectacular mountain scenes. We even gave Caroline a birthday to remember by crashing into a truck on a mountain pass.
More of that soon. For now, here’s a photo gallery of some of the things we’ve been up to in the last few weeks. Click on any image to open the slideshow.

Warm front from the south

9 Jan

Tolú, Colombia
[by Paula]

There’s only one word that can describe the last few weeks. Warm.

Christmas dinner 2012

Caribbean christmas feast. Cheers!

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.

Sunset near San Bernardo del Viento

We appear to be spending a lot of time at the beach.

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.

Strike protest in Mompox

We came across this strike protest in Mompox – these health workers had been out for 14 months.

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.

Mompox, Colombia

Mompox is tricky to get to but worth the pain.

“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.

Ferry to Mompox

A fellow passenger helpfully demonstrates he can barely get two fingers between our two cars on the ferry.

“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.

Asado stall, Mompox, Colombia

Waiting for our new year’s eve dinner to come off the grill, Mompox.

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.

Chopping a 'bagre de mar' for dinner

Chopping a ‘bagre de mar’ for dinner on the beach.

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.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

Jeremy cooks up the bagre on the barbie.

As the altitude increases we’ll get some fresher weather too, but we feel sure of the warm welcome awaiting us further south.

Days: 426
Miles: 13,544
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’?

Two sides to every story

21 Dec

Santa Marta, Colombia
[By Paula & Jeremy]

When you live in a house with wheels it can feel a bit counter-intuitive to stay still for long, but there are times when you just have to sit tight and get stuff done.

So the mileage count for the last few weeks hasn’t even reached triple figures, as we continue to potter about on the north coast of Colombia.

For ten days of the last three weeks we were in separate parts of the Caribbean – Jeremy was working in Jamaica as guest speaker and all-round troublemaker at their National Journalism Week, and I stayed in Colombia and filled my time with Spanish school and catching up on some jobs we never get around to.

So we’ve split the blog into two parts again. His ‘n hers.

—-

HERS: LA CHICA SOLA

The way our work schedules used to be when we lived in London, we both got pretty used to spending chunks of time alone. But after more than 16 months of being together 24/7 I felt like I had forgotten how to do it.

Taganga sunset

Still, Taganga wasn’t a bad little place stop a while.

So when Jeremy was heading off to work in Jamaica for 10 days, I admit I was feeling a bit nervy. I was adamant I wanted to stay at home in the van so we found a good hostel in Taganga, with a garden for camping and all the facilities I needed. I booked into Spanish school for a week and made a to-do list that could have kept me busy for a lifetime.

With spectacular – but not unsurprising – timing, two things went wrong the very night before Jeremy left. Firstly, we realised our second battery (which operates lights and other appliances like the fan) was failing to charge properly. This is bad enough when you are camped for a few days, and a prize pain in the backside when you are stopped for a long time. Secondly, and without warning, our pop-top roof came crashing down in the night. The hydraulic struts holding it up had picked this moment to start failing. I was worried enough about coping with the roof on my own, and this only added to my problems.

As Jeremy left the woman who helped run our hostel said: “La chica sola. You are leaving her alone. Bad husband!”. I couldn’t have agreed more.

But within a day I had found ways to live with both issues and felt pleased that I was staying relatively sane.

Fish with coconut sauce

[I notice, below, that Jeremy doesn’t mention missing my campervan cooking – ed]. Steamed fish in coconut sauce.

It was a long week and a half. But being alone reminded me of several things about one’s partner being away.

There is more space in the bed. Food doesn’t disappear so quickly. You can watch 3 episodes of Downton Abbey back-to-back, and no one says a thing.

But I remembered another thing too. When Jeremy is away, there is no Jeremy. And that is in no way fun.

He flew back to Cartagena on a Saturday night, and I decided to take a bus there to meet him and spend a couple of nights enjoying the city, before we both returned to Taganga and another week of Spanish school. He’d gone so crazy shopping for Jamaican seasonings, chutneys and sauces – not to mention rum – that he could barely carry his bags into the hostel. Our campervan cooking repertoire has had a very welcome injection of Caribbean spice!

Back in Taganga, we returned to a familiar routine of going to Spanish school in the morning, then spending the afternoons avoiding homework and bitching about verb conjugations and “ridiculous” tenses. The stifling temperatures gave us a further excuse to loaf around in a stupor. I know, life can be very tough on the road.

Sleeping dogs, Taganga

See. Not even the dogs could be bothered with homework in the Taganga heat.

But by the end of the week we had, of course, learned something and restored some of the Spanish we felt we’d let slip in recent months.

Being stopped enabled us to get around to a few things that can be tricky when you’re always on the move. Replacing our infuriatingly annoying ‘wardrobe’ shelves – the source of about 50% of the swearing heard coming from the van – had been on the to-do list for, um, 16 months. We also really wanted to paint the boring grey doors inside the van, but could never be bothered to work out what to use on their formica surface.

Luckily for us, there was a lovely handyman called Jorge working at our hostel. When we mentioned it to him, before we knew it we were all at the shops buying wood and paint, and 24 hours later, job done! We’re very excited about the new look. There are some pictures here.

During our stop we’d also ordered some of the specialist parts we needed from the US, and were pleased that for once we had an address to which we could have the things sent. That plan soon imploded when we learned that the US shipping companies wanted to charge us more than $850 to send parts to Colombia that were worth a tenth of that. Our response to that quote both started and ended with the letter ‘f’. Bizarrely, we are now sending these parts over the Atlantic to the UK, so a friend can bring them over here in January, for an eighth of the price of sending them within the same continent.

Jeremy in his office

Jeremy gets on with writing a feature on Jamaica, in our new-look van.

We don’t always blog about the humdrum stuff because, well, if we find it dull then why would we make you suffer it too? But it’s all part of life on the road – so as a Christmas treat here is a summary of the other issues we are currently dealing with…. solving the mystery of the second battery; finding out whether we also need a new engine battery; looking everywhere for power steering fluid for our vehicle and so far failing; hoping the new pop-top roof struts don’t get lost in the post; finding someone to fix our awning.

Lastly, we really need to find a way to refill our propane gas tank, after discovering that in Colombia and other parts of South America – unlike all the countries we’ve been in to date – the usual filling places do not have an adaptor for our vehicle. This is potentially disastrous as we cannot contemplate not being able to cook in the van, or being unable heat it in cold weather further south. So yesterday we spent the entire day driving round filling stations and industrial estates in Santa Marta, asking for advice. The answers ranged from ‘you can have an adaptor made for $600’ to ‘you’re screwed’ to ‘I think you can fill it up at a gas plant in the next city’. We’ll go there after Christmas and see what we can find.

We promised you an adventure, but we never said it would be round-the-clock glamour.

—–

HIS: MEANWHILE IN JAMAICA

Take an injustice. Add a touch of militancy, a dash of inspiration, stir well, agitate… then bring to the boil.

Trouble? Me? Perish the thought!

Having spent a decade leading the 37,000-strong National Union of Journalists in the UK and Ireland, it’s in the blood. And so, after hearing me addressing Latin American union leaders in Costa Rica last year, the organisers of the Press Association of Jamaica (PAJ) extended an invitation to speak at a range of events during their National Journalism Week. It’s work… but not as we know it!

And that feeling was reinforced when my first meeting took place on the deck of a restaurant on a white sand beach at Montego Bay. Rather than schlepping home on the night bus to a rainy London suburb after my meeting, I had a quick dip in the Caribbean.

Waterfall near Minca

Once reunited we loved hiking around the cooler mountain town of Minca.

Jamaica can appear a paradise from outside – and Jamaicans are rightly proud of the beauty of their country and their sprinters – but scratch below the tourist surface and it is a country bedevilled by corruption and too many people who, away from the oh-so-chic tourist enclaves, live in poverty.

Jamaica’s journalists document the country’s highs and lows, its crime, its social issues, its sporting triumphs and its struggle to build for the next 50 years of independence. But many of them do so in conditions of poverty themselves, and as a result too many are susceptible to payola and other forms of corruption.

To help the PAJ draw attention to that battle to tackle corruption, and to the fight for improved pay and conditions for media workers, was the aim of my visit. Mission accomplished!

Over a few days we constantly hit the headlines, had media owners scrambling to respond and justify their shameful treatment and helped inspire lots of younger journalists to get active, get organised and act.

And all achieved while having some great meals and good times with new found friends. The true spirit of solidarity in action.

And crucially, I was earning some money writing a couple of features to top up the trip fund…

The view from our campspot, Minca

We couldn’t tear ourselves away from the view from our campspot in Minca.


Back on the road – after a week of school in Taganga – it was a steep, potholed and winding one to the stunning mountain town of Minca. Perched on the edge of the mountain and surrounded by dozens of varieties of colourful birds, our camping spot at a wonderful little hospedaje had incredible views out over the valley and across to the hazy heat of Santa Marta and the sea and islands beyond.
We revelled in the cooler fresh air after several baking hot and humid weeks on the coast.

We sat and stared at the view for hours… not just because it was so amazing but also because, having trekked for 8 hours to a nearby waterfall and pine-clad peak with even more incredible views, we were unable to walk. Owww. Four days later the legs are still aching. Note to selves – need more exercise.

Unable to put off our chores any longer we have now headed back down to the city. Time for some christmas shopping – petrol, power steering fluid and an adaptor. That just leaves one thing before we head to the beach for the festivities. I wonder where you can find brussels sprouts in Colombia?

'Feliz Navidad' on a wall in Minca

Happy Christmas everyone.

Days: 407
Miles: 12,803
Things we now know to be true: The world didn’t end. 21/12/12.

—-

MORE PICS MORE PICS MORE PICSCartagena carnival
If you haven’t seen them already, we’ve been busy loading more photos from Panama and Colombia onto Flickr. There’s also a batch from our trip to the UK in Sept/Oct.

1. UK trip
2. From Panama to Colombia
3. Colombia part 1 – carnival time in Cartagena

—-

Just a couple of old stick-in-the-muds

1 Dec

dunes at Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

Excuse me, where’s the ice cream shop? Sand dunes, Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

Taganga, Colombia
[By Paula]

When we were in California buying the van last year, a story hit the news which has haunted us ever since. A couple of tourists, who were healthy and in their 30s, died in Joshua Tree National Park after their car got stuck in the sand during a heatwave. They walked off to find help but were later found dead, a mile apart from each other, having succumbed to heat exhaustion.

A nice cheerful start to this blog entry then?

And yet despite our fear of being stranded in deep sand, with not a drop of water in sight, we are strangely drawn to desert landscapes, like moths to the flame.

We love the beach and ocean too, so when we read that at Colombia’s most northerly point the desert met the sea in dramatic fashion, it was a no-brainer.

Filling up on Venezuelan petrol

At this price I don’t care if it’s real petrol or not. Filling up on cheap Venezuelan gas.

The La Guajira peninsula – which borders Venezuela – is not only the tip of Colombia but is the most northerly point of all of South America, and home to the fiercely independent indigenous Wayuu people. It sounded like a potential headache to get very far without a 4×4 vehicle, but we had plenty of reasons to give it a go.

After a few days on the beach further south, at Palomino, we decided to head north and see what happened. We were a bit short on information but it looked like we could make it as far as a town called Uribia and then would have to ditch the car and continue by a combination of 4×4 trucks and boats.

A couple of hitches on the way delayed our arrival, and as we pulled into the town at dusk it became clear quite quickly that there was nowhere obviously suitable to camp in the car. We pulled into the police station, where a group of officers were hanging around outside, and asked about a hotel. Two of them jumped on their motorbikes and escorted us there, but it was full due to a regional event and there didn’t seem to be another one.

‘You could park here?’ said the police chief, waving towards the town square opposite the police station. It contained a football pitch, playground and was basically the middle of a roundabout. We thought about it for a minute and said ‘what the hell’. We rarely camp on the street but reckoned we’d be safe enough with the police station opposite.

De-scaling a fish for dinner, Cabo de la Vela

De-scaling a pargo fish for dinner, Cabo de la Vela. Bear Grylls eat your heart out.

As we drank a beer outside the van they came over the chat. We told them we were trying to get to Cabo de la Vela, a beach town in the north of the peninsula, but didn’t know if it would be possible in our non-4×4 van.

‘Yes, no problem!’ they said. ‘The road is fine’. We hadn’t really contemplated this as our guidebook says that going to Cabo without a 4×4 is a ‘definite no-go’.

Hmm. It was a dilemma. On the one hand, the guidebooks are often wrong about road conditions because they are almost never researched by people who drive. On the other, we sometimes find that local advice can be a bit cavalier because so many people drive 4x4s and don’t consider how it might be with a 2-tonne front-wheel-drive campervan. As for the maps, well…

What the hell. Next morning we set off for Cabo in the van, and resolved to turn back if it got too hairy.

The main part of the route was remarkably driveable. A bit muddy and bumpy in parts, with a large flooded dip to deal with at one point. We filled up on cheap contraband Venezuelan petrol on the way and became more and more confident we’d make it. We revelled in the desert landscape, with its unfeasibly straight road cutting through acres of scrub and cacti. We saw the sign for Cabo, turned off the ‘main’ road and passed through a little village before heading down to the 17km track to the coast.

The wrong road to Cabo de la Vela

Oops.

Within metres we paused and looked ahead with sinking hearts. The track was made of deep sandy ruts which is parts changed to sticky mud. Not a good combination. We inched forwards and kept telling ourselves, ‘well we’re still moving so it’ll probably be okay’. The further we went the more difficult it was going to be to go back, as there was no way to get out of the deep tracks and turn around. After about a mile and a half we were really quite scared.

We came to a point where the track went several ways, each one looking muddier than the rest. We tried to change course onto what looked like harder packed mud. But as the van rolled over it, the topping crumbled and gave way to soft sand. The wheels spun and spun, Jeremy revved – we were stuck. Remarkably I managed to push us out, and Jeremy tried to turn us around and get the hell out of there. But just a couple of metres later we were well and truly wedged in the sand again, this time even deeper.

So here we were were in the desert. It was roasting hot and shadeless, but we did have water and supplies. The Joshua Tree story wasn’t expressly mentioned but hung loudly in the stillness. “What should we do?” I said. “Maybe walk back to the village, it’s only a couple of miles… or no, maybe we’re not supposed to do that…” I tailed off.

I was trying to remember why people said the Joshua Tree tourists should have stayed with their car. Was it to make it easier to find their bodies, I thought?

Wayuu woman and baby in our van

The woman from the house opposite our camp spot brought her baby, Valerie, over to be photographed in the van.

We hadn’t seen any other vehicles on the track yet but felt fairly confident the route was used by 4×4 trucks ferrying people to Cabo, so waited for something to come along. It might have felt like 20 hours at the time, but a mere 20 minutes later we saw a truck driving on a different track, and shouted and honked the horn to attract attention.

They pulled around and drove back towards us. The driver leapt out, yelled at us a lot, and then his passengers set about pushing us out. We told him the police had advised us that the road was okay. Surely they can’t have meant this one!?

Once free – phew! – we made our way (carefully!) back to the main road and continued north, looking for a better route out to the coast. We found another turn-off and checked with someone that it was driveable. Nice of the police to let us know there were two completely contrasting routes!

Jeremy on the cattle truck to Punta Gallinas

We enjoyed the views and let someone else do the driving on the trip to Punta Gallinas.

It was a very rough road but nothing like the sand hell of the other one. We pulled into Cabo and let out a big sigh of relief. It was a dusty, boiling desert town, with a long white sand beach and calm waters. The beach was lined with large palapas, perfect for camping. There was no mains electricity or running water, but we had the van and we had the sea for bathing. Perfect.

We camped on the beach opposite one of the village shops and for the next few days had a steady flow of visitors to the van, from the shop owner and her family, to passers-by, to other tourists. The van can become quite a focal point, especially in rural places. One night we were cooking dinner when a bloke just appeared from the darkness and flopped into one of our chairs, saying he was waiting to be served petrol at the shop across the road. ‘Like a beer while you wait?’, we said. ‘Si, por favor’, he replied. It’s a great way to meet people.

From Cabo we explored the nearby stunning beaches of Play Pilon and Ojo del Agua (more sandy tracks!). We asked about driving further north, and were told we’d need an amphibious vehicle at this time of year because, despite everything seeming to be as dry as a bone, there was flooding further north. It’s good to know when to quit. We left the car behind and continued to the most northern point of the peninsula by 4×4 truck and boat.

Jeremy dune-running, Taroa, La Guajira, Colombia

I can’t seem to stop! Sand dunes, Taroa, La Guajira.

It was well worth the effort. After travelling through impossibly luminous turquoise waters which lined the burnt orange terrain of the peninsula, we arrived at the family home-cum-hostel where we’d be staying. We spent the rest of the day travelling on in the back of a cattle truck to the Punta Gallinas, the tip of South America, and then on to Taroa where gigantic untouched sand dunes rise and then fall sharply towards the ocean. We half-ran-half-staggered down the dunes to the beach – truly one of the most scenic we have seen on all our travels – before watching the sunset at Punto Aguja, and returning to our hammocks for the night.

We’d heard Colombia would be choc-full of pleasant surprises, and so far we’re finding this to be no exaggeration.

Once back in the Santa Marta area, we decided to spend a few days at a surf camp. With beautiful open areas for camping among the palm trees, it looked ideal. We pulled in during a rainstorm and headed straight for a good spot right on the beach. But just before we reached it we heard the dreaded sound – spin, spin, rev. We were going nowhere.

You wait a whole year to get stuck in the sand, and then two come along at once.

Days: 387
Miles: 12,728
Things we now know to be true: Quitting while you’re ahead is generally preferable.

Colombia ahoy!

23 Nov

[We’ve fallen a bit behind with the blog. Tsk. And so much has happened recently. So for that reason we took half each and turned this next post into a two-parter. Fellow travellers who want more details about shipping and boat journeys from Panama to Colombia can email us or wait until we get round to posting a separate page of tips]

Taganga, Colombia
By Paula

Transporting a vehicle from Panama to Colombia is rarely trouble-free. Take two countries, two separate ports, two customs authorities, four shipping agent workers and two sets of independence celebrations, then sprinkle liberally with a bucket load of inexplicable bureaucracy and questionable language skills… and you’ve got a headache before you even begin.

Van enters the shipping container in Colon, Panama

Bye bye van. See you in Colombia!

However, even by the usual standards I think we did well to turn it into the epic it became. But my, what a journey. And here we are, finally, in South America.

Following a seven-day delay due to riots paralysing the port in Panama, we were relieved to get the go-ahead to load the cars onto the container ship the following week. In all, twelve overlanders were shipping on the same day with the same company – us with Zach and Jill, plus eight others, from Mexico, Argentina, Costa Rica, Korea and Germany. For many reasons it was comforting to all be in the same boat, so to speak.

We met each other and our agent in Colon and set off in convoy across the city, which had been the scene of riots, gunfights and looting just days before. Even at the best of times Colon, a desperately deprived and run down place, is not a safe place to hang around. It’s fair to say we were all keen to get the day done and get out of there.

Jeremy with some local Kuna kids, San Blas

Jeremy shows off his colouring-in skills, San Blas, Panama

After a long sweaty day at the port and customs offices, two cars were driven into each 40ft container. The containers were locked up and we waved them goodbye, hoping we’d be reunited successfully in Colombia asap.

In the meantime, we were backpackers once more. All we had to do now was get ourselves to Colombia in time to meet the cars in one week.

Now, we could have flown in a few short hours, but that just sounded far too easy. We could have taken a sailboat direct to Cartagena, but it was pricey and we were worried about its route over open water and the risk of severe seasickness. Option three was a more basic motorboat to the Colombian border, with stops on the San Blas islands for some beach camping and a chance to meet the indigenous Kuna people who live there. After that we’d have to make our own way over the border and east to Cartagena, by means of various boats and buses.

Our boat to Colombia at its final stop, La Miel

Our transport to Colombia stopped off at several islands in the San Blas, and dropped us here at La Miel.

It sounded like a mixture of both adventure and unnecessary hassle. Perfect, we said, let’s book it!

Along with Zach and Jill – with whom we shared every step of the process – we took a bus to the scrappy Caribbean town of Portobelo, which was the departure point for the trip we had provisionally booked, but was not due to leave until three days later. It was a fairly miserable place to kill three days, and we had some doubts about whether our boat was definitely going to leave on Saturday. Arriving late to Cartagena was not an option for us, as this would incur storage charges at customs. We spent a day deciding whether to switch to a direct sailboat, but in the end plumped for our original plan and sat it out til Saturday.

On day one of the trip, we all wondered if we had done the right thing. It was clear from the start that our captain and his mate were nice enough blokes, but worryingly hapless. Shortly after setting off we broke down and stopped for over an hour in the water. As we bobbed about in the waves, inhaling engine fumes and trying to ignore the smell of burning, people started to go green and at least one vomited. I stared at the horizon for an hour, unable to talk, willing the contents of my stomach to stay put.

Finally it was established that they had forgotten to put any oil in the engine. In what was to become a recurring theme, they appeared to be blaming each other for the cock-up. Were we really going to put our safe passage across the sea to Colombia in the hands of this pair?

We’d had to change the island we’d be sleeping on that night, because it was a major holiday in Panama and the boat guys hadn’t realised that all the sleeping huts were booked out at their usual destination. Fine by us, we said, we are flexible and easygoing.

Roasting marshmallows

Roasting marshmallows for dessert on one of our overnight stops. Yum.

We felt less easygoing when we realised they couldn’t find the island. We drove from island to island, asking various Kuna people for directions. It didn’t inspire confidence. But things gradually began to look up. We pushed our anxieties to the back of our minds, and made light of little incidents like seeing the captain drinking at lunchtime and falling off his hammock, before taking to the helm again.

Over the four-day trip we stopped at truly deserted palm-fringed Caribbean islands, camped on the beach, snorkelled, made new friends, drank rum and roasted marshmallows on the bonfire. We slept in hammocks in a Kuna island community, and ate fresh lobster, crab and octopus. We slapped through the waves, got continually soaked, and (mostly) managed to avoid going green again.

On the final day we stamped out of Panama at a bizarre little border crossing town and arrived, tired and not a little hungover from the previous night’s rum festivities, at our final destination of La Miel. The inviting turquoise water cleared away the cobwebs and the four of us set about getting ready for stage two.

Despite having officially left Panama we were still in a Panamanian no-man’s land, and had to get to Colombia under our own steam. Although going by boat to the next door Colombian village was possible, we opted to go on foot, just a short hike over the hill and into South America.

Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill

Yay! Crossing the Panama-Colombia border with Zach and Jill.

It seemed to us like a pretty cool way to arrive. It was unfeasibly hot as we climbed up to the top of the peak, to be greeted by two immigration officials. They looked at our passports and then kindly agreed to take a group photo, with both the Panamanian and Colombian flags fluttering above us.

The downward path into Sapzurro, Colombia, became increasing muddy and slippery. So our entrance into South America was not so much cool as downright undignified. The locals must surely enjoy watching foreigners sliding into their country, smeared with mud and sweat and trying to look nonchalant with it.

With one more boat ride we were in Capurganá, where we found a hostel with the only four things we wanted in life at that moment – a comfy bed, a shower, a seat that didn’t move, and a TV on which we could monitor US election night. Zach and Jill in particular were becoming increasingly nervous about a Romney win, which they and their compatriots were mercifully spared.

Early the next day we set off on the long journey to Cartagena. We’d thought long and hard about the trip, and how to make it work and get back to the port in time to collect the cars. We were on the home stretch and it felt good.

First, a final boat trip, to the town of Turbo. At times we almost flew through the waves and landed with such a thump I thought my bones would shatter. But the stunning scenery more than made up for it. At Turbo we jumped straight onto a bus, the first of two 5 or 6 hour journeys to Cartagena.

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands

Lobster for dinner, San Blas islands, Panama.

After a long and stinking hot day we finally arrived in the beautiful colonial city late on the Wednesday night. We’d done it! We knew we’d have to hit the ground running the next morning to make sure we got the vans back before the weekend, so there was just one more thing to do – check our emails to see whether everything was on schedule…

—–

Colombia ahoy! Part two
By Jeremy

Kafka would not have dared make it up. It would have been too far-fetched even for those giants of Russian literature intent on exposing and ridiculing the dehumanising morass of a maze-like bureaucracy. But, I was there. It’s true.

After our gruelling 15-hour journey to Cartagena we arrived to be greeted with the wonderful news that the van had arrived safe and sound in Colombia. We also arrived to the devastating, and surprising news – news which our shipping agent had failed to mention – that a five-day public holiday was starting in the morning and all the ports, customs and government agencies would be closed or closing early. And so, after all that, it was unlikely we would be able to get the vans for another 6 days.

Carnaval time in Cartagena

Carnaval time in Cartagena provided a welcome distraction from the boring car stuff.

Oh, and all the hostels were filling up fast, in time for the fiesta.

Undeterred by such trifles we swore a bit [a loted] then set about finding a bed – surely I am too old now for sleeping with a dozen other fragrant backpackers in a dorm. Apparently not. With no choice we settled down in our bunks to a night of noisy sleeplessness and arose what seemed like just a few short hours later to begin the process of trying to beat the holiday half-day closing and get the van back.

We had just 25 steps to achieve – after 4 hours of form-filling, waiting, waiting a bit more and pacing up and down we were still on step 2. This was never gonna happen. But at least we learned how to conjugate the Spanish verb – esperar. (to wait, to hope).

There are great blogs (eg Life Remotely) which explain in detail (and without the ranting) the process, costs and address details of where to go to retrieve your imported vehicle so I’m not going to bother. Suffice it to say that in a 3-day epic, said steps required us to go – armed with forms, innumerable photocopies and endless patience (not one of my strong points) from the shipping agent’s office, to the port authorities, to the cashier’s office, to the customs office, to the port – where not one but two inspectors had to fill out separate reports – to the customs office again (where we were dealt with by a man with the slowest writing in the world), to the shipping agent again and back to the port authorities – which on day 2, with noon closing fast approaching, we arrived at with 7 minutes to spare. We’d already decided that if we hadn’t been seen before they tried to close, we’d have to occupy.

Carnaval in Cartagena

Everyone tried to out-wig and out-outlandish eachother during carnaval.

From there it was another trip to the cashier, to the container port, to the car park to be reunited with the van and another inspector who checked to see if we had an ashtray, fire extinguisher, windscreen wipers and various other vital parts of the van and duly noted them all down – in triplicate. I’ve no idea why he felt the need to check since no-one had noted any of this down at the Panama end.

From the car park we drove (after Zach had to jump-start their van from ours) 100 metres to the port office to get another stamp, then drove (after I had to jump-start our van from Thomas’s car) 100 metres further to the gate to hand in the stamped bits of paper, and then back to the port office to put a fingerprint on the stamped bit of paper and give it back to the man at the gate – in triplicate.

And then….freedom!
Except we couldn’t get insurance until we had actually left the port with all the necessary paperwork, and by this time it was Saturday afternoon of a holiday weekend. All we could do was drive to a car park, head back to our new and much-improved hotel and wait until the insurance office re-opened at 8am on Tuesday morning. It meant it had taken us 14 days to travel 80 miles or so. At this rate we’ll be in Argentina in 33 years time.

Celebrating getting the cars out of the port

When we finally got the cars back, beer was drunk.

As if all that were not surreal enough, Cartagena was in the midst of the biggest fiesta of the year – its independence celebrations. It’s a culture shock to emerge from the bowels of the bureaucracy onto the sun-drenched streets filled with beauty queens, exquisite carnaval costumes and grown men in diapers. Everywhere people painted themselves – and anyone else they could lay their hands – sprayed unsuspecting passers-by with foam, dressed to thrill and frankly just had a ball. What choice did we have but to join in?

Cartagena is beautiful. And the steaks at El Bistro are amazing. The ice-cream is heavenly. A cold Aguilar beer atop the city walls is a fantastic way to cool off and spend the evening.

Finally Tuesday arrived and we all marched down to the insurance office, paperwork in hand. Had we learned nothing from the past few days? How could we have been so naïve as to arrive without multiple photocopies of every document? So back out again we went, to the photocopy shop and eventually the scared piece of paper was handed over, meaning we were free to go.

It was a moment of joy tinged with the sadness of saying goodbye to new found friends who’d shared the tortuous process with us. But in particular to Zach and Jill, whom we had by then spent several weeks with, in a number of countries. We all meet interesting people on our travels, but it is rare to find friends who you can be truly at ease with; where you can be silly, grumpy, blunt, excited, drunk, serious, hysterical or smelly – and occasionally all at once.

Jill gets foamed at the carnaval

Jill got well and truly foamed during the parade, Cartagena.

It was only our livers that were glad to say goodbye. Hasta pronto comrades.

Ours is a journey from north to south. Not for the first time on this trip, though, we found ourselves heading in the wrong direction. This time deliberately. If we were going to make it to the southernmost tip of the continent it would seem rude not to have arrived there from the northernmost. So we headed for Punta Gallinas – a remote and rugged desert on the northern tip of Colombia.

On the way we stopped off at Palomino for a few days of fantastic tranquil beachside camping – and the chance to catch up on some reading. I think I might try Kafka next.

Days: 378
Miles: 12,667
Things we now know to be true: There’s nothing that can be done with a drunken sailor.