Tag Archives: Palomino

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.

Advertisements

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.