Cartegna on the Gulf of Mexico is a very beautiful city but was stupefyingly hot. Just a short walk had us dripping. Two weeks full time at Toucan Spanish School in the Centro Historico was great, and fried our old brains!
We were ready to load up Wiggy and take our leave.
Marathon runners in Colombia? You bet. 4 years ago I went with our friend Jane to Brazil to ride motor cycles from Foz de Iguazu to Rio de Janeiro. We were part a of 12 rider group. A Belgian couple Liesbeth and Wiki Balemans were our tour leaders. They and another couple set them selves a challenge (for charity see their website on VIAPANAM) to run daily marathons from Homer Alaska down the entire length on the Panamerican Highway to Tierra del Fuego. We knew we would eventually cross paths and we did in Cartegena. We met up, had a great meal before our paths separated again. They are truly amazing.
We headed north out of Cartegna towards Barranquilla, where the Gulf and Caribbean meet following lowland wet country. Then south towards some higher Sierra Madre Mountains and cooler temperatures. We made it, late afternoon, to the little town of Aractaca, still at sea level (almost) and hot.
Found a disused basketball stadium next to the police station (very happy for us to stay). Conventional camp grounds few and far between in Colombia and we rely very heavily on the website iOverlander. Fellow travelers list places where they have stayed, petrol stations, parking in front of Police Stations or Fire Stations (Bomberos), with reviews, and you can add your opinion about the site for future users.
Next day we followed the road south to Bucamaranga, still ghosting the Sierra Madres to our left.
We find our way to the City Centre where a “lovely little park with security” according to our internet beckoned. There was absolutely no place to overnight here, at all! Do more research, us!
Frazzled, somewhat (understatement) we made our way out of this really congested large city at “going home time”. We passed a 6 story once white , now grey and filthy gaol right near the centre of the city. Prisoners clothing hanging out of hundreds of small windows of at least four stories. Quite a sobering and scary presence.
We found a 24 hour service station right on a busy highway in the suburbs, thanks to iOverlander, and we threw our selves at the mercy of the manager who had helped other travellers. He happily gave us a service bay for the night and we settled in. Great people.
This petrol station is the central point for all the serious amateur and professional bicycle riders to start their hill climbs. It’s known as The Cyclists Rendezvous on the maps. The guys at the petrol station air up the cyclists tyres gratis, and off they go. They are very impressive indeed, these riders of all ages. Lots of older men in very fine condition! (From Pen who is a leg and buns girl!)
Spent the next day climbing into the Sierra Madre Mountains to a camp site overlooking the Chicamocha Canyon with fabulous views. Fro here on its all mountain work for Wiggy, steep slow climbs and equally slow descents hugging magnificent switchback mountain roads, using engine (jake) brakes instead of foot brakes and trying to keep revs constant.
Next stop the lovely town of Villa de Leyva, which boasts the biggest town square in Colombia. Cobbled streets played merry hell with our feet! A real tourist town for the people of Bogota. An easy drive for them at only 80 klm’s following the ridge road of the Sierras. We camped at a nice little spot overlooking the town, with warnings posted “If your looking for Cocaine, go elsewhere. We are not prepared to assist if you get into trouble”. One look at that horrific gaol in Bucarramanga is warning enough!
A couple we were fortunate enough to meet are an example of how corruption at government level can shatter lives. They have owned a piece of land for over 25 years, and they lived overseas in Spain for many years to earn enough money to return to Colombia and build a small home, and live quietly in the countryside on their small allotment.
They started building their casa, and when they had half completed it, government officials appeared and told them to stop building, tear down the house, and leave, or face a huge fine, and probably gaol. The land was bought by the government for a pittance under huge pressure, and resold at a dramatically higher price to developers. They had to live under plastic on the land, after destroying their home, in the wet season until they got a little money and were able find somewhere to rent. They have nothing except their stoic, gentle, funny and absolutely wonderful personalities, and the desire to continue. Oh, and of course their precious dog and cat.
Zipaquira, We arrived pretty late in the day and too late to visit the famous salt mine but the security let us stay overnight in the floodlit carpark overlooking the City. The salt mine here has been in operation for 1000 years. It is still operating although by more technical operations ie fracking. We didn’t merely come here to see a working salt mine but the mine excavations are now a Cathedral, “Sal Catedral”. 180 mtrs below ground. It is beautiful and visually stunning, the lighting is fabulous. The walk underground took us past way of the cross stations to the cavernous Cathedral A choir in full song would be sublime as the acoustics are perfect. They have regular concerts and masses here, for the local community and others.
Onwards to Bogota, a huge sprawling city and home to 10 million people. Once again no designated camp spots so we stayed 4 nights in a shopping mall car park 20 klm’s from the city with 24hr security. We left Wiggy safe and sound, took overnight bags and stayed in a hostel so we could explore the old city and take the cable carup to Montserrat, an old Monastry perched high on a mountain overlooking Bogota City. In the Centro Historico the street art is pretty awesome. The city square is home also to more pigeons we have ever seen anyplace else.
From Bogota in the Sierra Madres we descended into a valley and then climbed some 7000ft to Medellin in the Colombian Andes. A very modern city. Once more parked in a secure carpark, gates locked at 9pm and opened at 6am. Time for some brake maintenance on Wiggy, constant heavy braking (even with jake brakes) had finally taken its toll We had to have front drums machined for them to become effective again. We took a “Hop on Hop Off” bus tour of the city. We had an English speaking guide, which we thought was a good idea, but we managed to lose that bus on the 2nd stop, so Spanish the rest of the way. The main city square is home to some 20 stunning Botero Statues.
Guatape some 85 klm’s East of Medellin, is a beautiful high altitude Lake Area and a favourite for Colombians. Quaint, very colourful painted houses and the superb Lake makes this little town a gem. Once more we parked in a car park right on the Lakes edge. No security as such but a police station 50 mtrs away. Pleasure craft line the banks. It was only 2 weeks after we left that a tour boat sank and many people drowned. Apparently this was the third time that this particular craft had sunk, been refloated and put back into “service”. Hells bells!
Heading south to coffee country, but first Manizales. Famous for many things including the Highest Altitude Cathedral in Colombia, its cable cars to take you up into the the old town, a walk along the Main Street which follows the mountain ridge , and now for Ian, for energy replacement only you understand, chocolate cake. And, Manizales especially memorable for us as having the worst camp site/parking lot in the 2+ years we have been travelling. Once again we had little choice. In fact we had no choice!
The place was a mix of bus/car/truck parking and a scrap yard for motorcycles! Situated on a hellishly steep road coming up (carpark was somewhat terraced) we were subjected to Screaming motorcycles, labouring buses and trucks coming up and motorcycles piloted by Kamikaze riders with girlfriends riding pillion going down full bore. Scary to watch! This went on until well into the early hours. Then the traffic got going again 6am!
Into coffee plantation country on the well maintained Panamerican Highway and back to the switchback mountains roads, steep drop offs and road works! While waiting in the queues for the “go”, traders walk the line selling snacks, fruit, drinks and gorgeous coffee they serve from Thermos flasks into little plastic cups, “Ooh Ha, Ha ooh! As Al Pacino says.
We stayed three nights at a coffee plantation Hacienda Guyabal. 2 klm’s off the Panamerican Highway, (Trip Advisor winner for the last 3 years). Had a great guided tour through the rolling hill plantation some 4650ft above sea level. Ideal altitude for growing coffee. A coffee plant lives for 21 years, every five years it is pruned to knee high then 3 years later bears fruit again.
This episode happened so quickly…. Was writing an email away from Wiggy for better WIFI reception at 9.30 pm, when this guy Luis, who I thought worked at the Plantation appeared, started to talk to me in my very bad Spanish, and I worked out he wanted money. 20 minutes later we were surrounded by motorcycle police. They took him away!
Not to that hell hole of a prison we saw in Buccamaranga I hope. The owners of the Hacienda who live above Wiggy camp ground saw what was happening and called the police. Interesting to note (or maybe not) how they didn’t come down and intervene. A security guy was stationed near Wiggy for the rest of that night. Another one to tell my Grandies, (or maybe not).
Off to Salento and the Parque Nacional los Nevadas, Quindios. Home to the Valley of wax palms, Palma de Cera Colombias National Tree. These Magificent palms trees grow to 50mtrs at 8000ft altitude. A very busy tourist Mecca, many hiking trails or take a horse, or hang off the back of a brightly painted Willy Jeep.
Down the Panamerican to Cali. Home of the Salsa Dance. A couple of nights at the Pelican Larry Hostel squeezed into their driveway. We slept in Wiggy but used the hostel facilities. The hostel crowd poured into Taxis at 11.30pm for a Salsa Club tour. They returned at 3.30am rattled the gate chain a swaggered through a very squeaky gate. WD40 next morning fixed the gate.
Took a very interesting street food and market tour next day. Ever tried freshly squeezed fruit juice with raw Quail egg?
Cali to San Agustin San Home to the most ancient of Colombian heritage a World UNESCO site. No one can say who the people were that sculptured the artefacts here but carbon dating ages them at between 5000 and 10000 BC. Theory is that civilisations died and maybe 2 other completely different civilisations followed.
No one will ever know!!!
South to Macoa, we needed fuel so pulled into to service station 10 klm’s from the city. They didn’t accept credit cards, we didn’t have enough cash. Had to leave Pen. She calls it held hostage, while I went into Macoa looking for cash machine. Went up a one way street (the wrong way) and stopped outside a tyre shop to ask about ATM. None around here that said but one guy jumped on his motor cycle, gestured me to follow and led me into the City Centre to a bank. Waved ciao and went back to the tyre shop, so generous of him. One and half hours later I get back to the service station. “I thought you were going to leave me here” Pen said. “You havn’t got your passport, thought you might need it” said I.
Driving back into the City we passed boulder strewn areas with heavy machinery operating. On April 1st. WTF (some joke!), 2 months back heavy rain triggered flash flooding and landslides that killed 324. 70 people still missing.
Tramplena de Muerte, “trampoline of death” road also known locally as “Bye Bye my Life” (I kid you not). Links Macoa to Pasto which would see us join the Transamerican Highway once more for our final southerly route into Ecuador. We put a post on one of our many websites we consult regarding this infamous road. Mixed messages came back, so we read more and looked at YouTube videos. Ye gods!!!
“This 70-odd km of narrow gravel road with steep precipices is a real challenging road and a true test of your vehicle and your stamina because the road abounds in twists and turns with wheels sometimes hanging above the precipice. The road includes cliffs, precipices and more than 100 hairpins. The road was built in 1930 and zigzags the Andean mountain range”.
500 people have died on this road in the last 2 years. Recently a German motorcyclist overlander pulled over to let a truck pass coming the other way. He was off his MC but whether the truck clipped it or whatever his bike tumbled over the edge and was hurtled into oblivion!
So no brave souls in Wiggy are going to do this suicide road. Instead we decided to have a quiet tootle down the Andes to a little border crossing into Ecuador, and into the Ecuador Amazon.
Don’t go there you will die…………. well we did go and didn’t die!
Take you back for a minute. Colombia may be the (now) meth lab of the world if you watch and believe stuff on TV.
Or maybe it is!
We just saw an amazing landscaped country full of wonderful people who endure lives and situations you could not imagine.
Colombia is not third world. These folks are no different to anyone on this planet. Living on top of a seismic fault line (Paciffic ring of fire) and weather pattern that’s drops torrential rain causing rocks and boulders and mud to snuff out life is not of these people’s design. These beautiful people are no different to any country on the planet.
You can find really bad shit in the town/city that you live. Come to Colombia, see this astounding country. Its safe!
Clothes of the world so far.
Rain jacket ……USA
Necklace…….Guatemala and Colombia
T shirt…..charity shop Mexico
Sunglasses (can’t be shown)… Australia, USA 3, Canada 2 , Mexico 4, CUBA 2, England, Ireland, Holland, Guatemala, Honduras. Colombia.
Shoulder bag…..Mexico (carrying for Pen)
T shirt…….charity shop Mexico
Thongs (flip flops) can’t be shown……..CANADA (stolen by dog in Honduras).
Shopping trolley…..borrowed from Mapi González in Colombia.
Now in Equador