Around the world by bike
10 March - San Rafael del Mojan, Venezuela - Macao, Colombia - 90 km
It was a surprisingly nice ride to the border. We cycled along a salt lake and, although it was quite windy, it was a scenic ride. Interestingly enough, we also passed the spot where, on 26 February 1998, people came from far and wide to watch a total eclipse of the sun.
It was Saturday and market day, so there was plenty of fresh fruit and veggies along the road.
We soon reached the border and it was an easy crossing into Colombia. We were hardly across the border when we were offered watermelon at one of the stalls along the road. We cycled into the chaotic town of Maicao. We weaved through the hectic traffic until we found a room for the night. Pavement restaurants were aplenty and there was therefore no need to cook for ourselves.
Powered by the wind, we flew across the windswept Peninsula de Guajira. With its thorn trees and goats, it is a unique part of Colombia - few travellers ever come to this part of Colombia. Along the way we had the opportunity to eat grilled goat meat with the local Wayuu tribe - what an experience!
In Riohacha we found a room and also stayed the following day. I sorted out my new internet connection and we did some much-needed shopping at the local Carrefour. It was quite a novelty just walking around such a fancy store.
13-14 March - Riohacha – Palomino - 96 km
It was one of those stunning, happy days on the road. The weather was good (mid 30’s), there was a slight tailwind and beautiful scenery. The thorn trees abruptly disappeared and we were back in the tropical, coastal area of Colombia. Around 4.30 we arrived at a tiny village along the road and I was quite surprised to find a hostel and other travellers; the reason being the nearby Serra Nevada National Park and the idyllic beaches of the Caribbean coast. The park is interesting in that it has the highest coastal mountains in the world. They rise to a height of 5775 metres above sea level, at a distance of only 42 km from the Caribbean coast.
Both the hostel and the other travellers were rather interesting. Most of the travellers seemed to be of the hippie type, dreadlocks and all. It was fascinating speaking to them and listening to all their beliefs and ideas.
A short walk through the forest brought me to an indigenous village where people still wear traditional clothes and go about their daily life in their own traditional way. They were quite camera-shy and quickly disappeared when they saw me. But then again, they have resisted contact with outsiders for centuries! I later learned that there are some 30 000 indigenous peoples, particularly the Arhuaco, Kogui and Wiwa living in the area.
15 March - Palomino – Casa Grande - 40 km
The local store sold the most interesting colourful sheaths. They appeared to be quite popular as just about every man I saw had one. I must mention that the store also sold plastic chairs and Coca-Cola! Even the wall art was rather interesting - in fact, I found just about everything in this area strangely interesting.
After packing up we cycled along a beautiful stretch of coastal road. The yearly average rainfall in the park is 4000mm at elevations of 500m to 1500m above sea level. It is therefore very much a tropical rainforest with interesting trees growing 30m to 40m high. Once we spotted a nice beach where we could camp we pulled in and pitched our tents. It was still early so we took a walk along the beach to a nearby store for provisions for breakfast. Back at our tents we swung in hammocks watching the surf while drinking a beer.
16-17 March - Casa Grande – Taronga - 47 km
It was a rather hilly road to Santa Marta and up and over a steep hill to the tiny fishing village of Taronga. Maybe I should say “used to be a tiny fishing village” as by now backpackers have discovered this tiny village and we found more hostels than local houses. Down on the beach, however, fishermen were still bringing in the catch of the day at sunset. Although it is now a popular traveller’s destination, it still has a village feel to it where goats wander down the main road and pavement stalls sell cheap snacks.
18-20 March - Taganga – Santa Marta - 19 km
We cycled up and over the hill again to Santa Marta where Ernest found a bike shop to do some maintenance. After that was done it was too late in the day to set off again so we found a hostel close to the beach for the night. We even met a South African girl looking for a teaching job in town. It is very seldom that we bump into fellow South Africans so we chatted away the afternoon.
Santa Marta was more interesting than we had expected. A walk into town revealed a large statue of Simón Bolivar. Simón Bolívar was a Venezuelan military leader who was instrumental, along with José de San Martín, in freeing Latin America from the Spanish Empire. Today he is revered as South America's greatest hero, and is known as The Liberator. He is still considered one of the most influential politicians in Latin American history, and no self-respecting town is without a Simón Bolivar plaza.
Santa Marta is the oldest (remaining) city in South America and therefore has a great architectural heritage with beautifully renovated colonial buildings, lively squares and a very pleasant waterfront.
The region was also home to the Tairona people until the Spanish arrived. The Spanish attempted to take the women and children as slaves and the Tairona population fled into the forest and moved higher up the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. This allowed them to escape the worst of the Spanish colonial system during that time. There are therefore quite a few monuments in town depicting the Taironas.
That all said and done, we stayed another day and Ernest went into the market to have his tent zip fixed. I wandered around town exploring the narrow lanes and alleys in the old part. Sometimes you just stumble across a really comfortable hostel, like the one we were in, and can just laze around.
I had decided to do the six day trek to Ciudad Perdida, so I spent most of the day getting my stuff ready for the following morning.
Ciudad Perdida is an ancient city in the Sierra Nevada, Colombia. It is believed to have been founded about 800 AD, some 650 years earlier than Machu Picchu. Ciudad Perdida housed app. 2 000 to 8 000 people and was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest.
21 March - Day 1
We were picked up from the hostel and, after a 2-3 hour drive, we reached the start of the trek. We had a light lunch and then headed up the misty mountains, together with members of the local tribe and their mules carting their shopping, including a flat-screen TV and a satellite dish! No sooner had we started and we reached our first swim spot. The water was crystal clear and no time was wasted diving in. Then it was up, up, up, on a muddy and slippery path, past indigenous villages and to the top of the first climb. On the other side we slipped and slided along the muddy path until we reached our first camp for the night.
Accommodation was in comfortable mosquito-netted hammocks, and after settling in, it was time for a beer while our guides cooked up a rather tasty meal on an open fire.
22 March - Day 2
We woke early due to the noises from the forest and after breakfast we set off again. A muddy path led us through a dense and picturesque forest. The river crossings were easy as it’s not the rainy season (although it still rained every evening) and these made good swimming spots which were welcomed in the heat and humidity of the forest.
After a 4-hour trek, we reached our second camp which consisted of mosquito-netted beds this time – a luxury! We reached the camp early and sat playing cards while our guides cooked supper. After sunset the mosquitoes were out in full force and I was happy that I had brought two bottles of mosquito repellent. It was not only the bugs that were out, but also the fire-flies which seemed larger and brighter than any fire-fly I have ever seen.
23 March - Day 3
We woke early in anticipation of a long day’s trek. Indigenous villages just seem to pop out of the dense forest. This area is home to the the Kogi (a Native American ethnic group) that lives in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta in Colombia. Their civilization, I understand, extends from the pre-Columbian era.
Again we had plenty of swimming spots along the way where we were given fresh fruit to nibble on. We reached our camp at around midday, had lunch and then set off to the ruins of Ciudad Perdida. Ciudad Perdida consists of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside. The entrance can only be accessed by a climb up some 1 200 stone steps through dense jungle. I was quite impressed with the ruins as they were larger and more impressive than I had expected.
24 March - Day 4
It was time to start heading down hill. Although it was hot and humid, there were several river crossings and numerous places to go for a refreshing swim.
25 March - Day 5
The final day arrived and after breakfast we first visited a waterfall before heading down the final stretch and then back to Santa Marta. The trail was often muddy, uphill and slick - busloads of fun!
26-27 March - Santa Marta
I seriously had to do some laundry and reorganise my panniers. It was time to get on the road again. It was also exactly five years since I left Cape Town so I invested in a bottle of wine and a bag of crisps.
28 March - Santa Marta – Barranquilla - 110 km
The day went much as expected, except for a steep 5 km uphill out of Santa Marta – didn’t see that one coming! The road between Santa Marta and Barranquilla runs along a narrow strip of land wedged between the Caribbean Ocean and Lake Santa Marta. Needless to say, it is a very ‘fishy’ area: the lake was chock-a-block with small wooden boats, all casting their nets looking for something for the pot. The road was lined with stalls selling cooked shrimps and fresh fish (uncooked). Wooden shacks lined the shores of both the lake and the ocean; it was a completely different world to the mountains I’d just returned from.
On reaching Barranquilla, we found another hectic city with crazy traffic, and what appeared to be dilapidated buildings. We found a room for 18 000 pesos. You can’t expect much for that price, so we ignored the broken windows and settled in for the night.
29 March - Barranquilla – Porte Veronica - 46 km
We left at around 10 and already it was boiling hot. The sky was cloudless and the sun beat down relentlessly. The road was fairly up and down so when we spotted a tiny coastal village, we pulled in. We found accommodation right on the beach and had lunch and a beer on the beach in the shade of a gazebo. Just the thing for a boiling hot day!
30 March - Porte Veronica – Cartagena - 87 km
About 50 km from Cartagena we spotted the Volcán del Totumo, a 15m high mud volcano. We turned off and what a good thing: it was quite an experience! El Totumo is an active mud volcano, but instead of spewing out lava, it spits out mud. You first have to climb up a wooden staircase to the rim of the crater and then lower yourself into the bottomless pit of smooth lukewarm mud! I wallowed in (what I believed to be) mineral-rich mud, like a contented hippo. The nearby lake then served as a natural bath for washing off the mud. Then it was back on the bike and onto Cartagena.
31 March - Cartagena
Cartagena is a pretty and interesting city with a long history. Various cultures and indigenous people have occupied the area around Cartagena since as far back as 4000 B.C. Spanish Cartagena was founded on June 1, 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. The increasing wealth of this prosperous city turned it into an attractive plunder site for pirates. The city set about strengthening its defenses and surrounded itself with walled compounds and castles. Cartagena's colonial walled city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Inside the elaborate town walls lies the old city with cobblestoned streets, leafy plazas and old buildings with beautiful bougainvillea-covered balconies.
1 April - Cartagena
We pondered which route to take: whether to take a boat or fly to Panama. Most people take the boat or fly from here, so we took to the streets looking for a boat. We did not find any leaving within the next day or two, and could not make up our minds about what to do. So instead we wondered the streets of the old city, had a few beers and ate some snacks from roadside stalls.
It was another stinking hot day and I couldn’t wait for sunset, which brings some relief from the relentless heat.
2 April - Cartagena – Cruz de Viso - 51 km
We packed up and cycled out of the busy Cartagena. The traffic was bumper to bumper and it was after 11 a.m by the time we cleared the city limits. It was incredibly hot and sweat ran out of my body like a tap left open.
Even after we left the city limits, the traffic was backed up for kilometres on end. An overturned truck was blocking the entire oncoming lane. The outgoing lane was blocked due to an oversized vehicle that could not get past the backed-up traffic, which instead of waiting in line, tried to jump the queue – what a mess! We, fortunately, had a free run.
After about 50 km the heavens opened up. Heavy rain, thunder and lightning forced us to take shelter at a service station. We waited the storm out which was great, but by that time the traffic jam had freed up and the blocked-up traffic came thundering past. We decided to take a room in the next village and continue on in the morning when the road was free again. It was a great room and it came with cable TV and air-con! I sooo needed the air-con as I was starting to come out in a heat rash again.
3 April - Cruz de Viso – Toluviejo - 81 km
It was a slow day on the road. It was hot and the road was in really bad condition, so the going was rather slow. It was however a scenic ride as we cycled past cattle ranches. On reaching Toluviejo, it was already too late to continue on to Tolu, so we found a room.
4 April - Toluviejo - Tolu - 20 km
We cycled a mere 20 km before arriving in Tolu – another idyllic coastal village. Little did we know that it was the beginning of the Easter weekend. Easter weekend here runs from Thursday to Sunday. The tiny fishing village of Tolu was chock-a-block with holiday makers. The beachfront was a hectic and festive place, jam-packed with traders, food stalls and music. We decided to stay put and enjoy the festive mood.
5 April - Tolu – Cerete - 94 km
From Tolu we headed along the coast for about 20 km. The coastal road was lined with beachfront accommodation which looked like an idyllic place to stay. We continued past and soon headed inland along the river. The road was again in poor condition and the going slow. Along the way we met other cyclists on their way south. We chatted for a while and then set off again.
On reaching Cerete, we found a roadside hotel and it suited us just fine for the night. Pavement stalls provided cheap and tasty food for supper.
6-7 April - Cerete – Arboletes - 86 km
The road was much hillier than we had expected. Not only was it hot, but we were cycling into a headwind - up and down, up and down we went! I was more than happy to reach the end of the day. Once again Arboletes came as a pleasant surprise. It is a tiny seaside village with a lovey beach, tiny offshore islands, plenty of food and fruit stalls and a generally pleasant atmosphere. Arboletes means "land of trees", though this is purely historical. Almost all the forests in the area were cleared to make way for the thriving cattle industry.
In fact, it was so nice that we even stayed the following day. Early morning I was out on the beach and just about the only person there. This section of the coast appears to be way off the beaten track, and is seldom visited by tourists.
8 April - Arboletes – Mellito - 61 km
On Ernest’s birthday we set off down the road again. The nice paved road we were on gradually disappeared, becoming a dusty potholed road. As the day wore on, the road deteriorated even more and became a muddy, stony and bumpy road. At a snail’s pace, we moved along, creeping up the hills, past tiny villages where people stared at us in amazement. Busses and trucks moved no faster than us as they tried to avoid the worst of the potholes.
On reaching a small settlement, we called it a day and decided to tackle the rest of the road the following morning. So Ernest did not have much of a birthday. We did however buy a few beers to wash down the bread and cheese we found in the small shop.
9 April - Mellito – Turbo - 69 km
There was nothing to do but get back on the muddy and potholed road. Fortunately, the bad road only lasted for about another 20 km. From Necocli onwards, it was a good paved road, except for the 5 km that was not paved. At Necocli we asked around for a boat to Panama but had no luck.
50 km down the road we reached the hectic, dusty and crazy town of Turbo. We found a room across the road from the port and sat on the balcony watching life go by. The horse and cart is still put to good use and seems to be the preferred means of transport to and from the harbour.
10 April - Turbo
We enquired about a cargo boat to Panama but it appears that it is not legal for cargo boats to take passengers. Apparently there is a check point close by so no one was prepared to give us a ride. There were, however, boats running to and from Capurgana (still in Colombia) but across the Gulf of Uraba on a daily basis.
11 April - Turbo
We were up early, packed the bikes and moved across the road to the port. The ticket office is a busy place as many boats leave from Turbo for various destinations. Fortunately we met Simon (an Austrian guy now living in Colombia) who spoke to the ticket lady on our behalf. The problem appeared to be the bikes. They were too big and the boat was already full. Various people came to look at the bikes shaking their heads and talking away in Spanish. They were apparently worried that the port authorities would deem the bikes as cargo, and would not allow the boat to continue. We stood around for a while and to make a long story short – we bought tickets for the following day. We received a piece of paper as proof, but just how official that was going to be, we did not know. It appeared that almost everything is possible - all you need is plenty of time and patience.
12-13 April - Turbo – Capurgana (by boat)
We loaded our bikes again and moseyed down to the port. The boat was full, both with people and luggage, to such an extent that Ernest had to sit right in front on top of all the luggage. Now that wouldn’t have been such a bad thing if it had been a smooth ride! It was, however, an extremely bumpy ride (to put it mildly). We pounded the waves at high speed, hanging on for dear life.
After two hours of being jerked around, we arrived at Capurgana with stiff necks and sore backsides. The ride was soon forgotten as we arrived at this tiny remote village. The sea was a true Caribbean blue, and with no road to Capurgana, it is as remote as it gets. We settled (like rich people) for a room right on the water! We swam and snorkelled in the clear lukewarm water and sat on our little balcony, enjoying the evening breeze. I found a bottle of papaya wine and we sat sipping wine as the sun set.
We got our exit stamp from the small immigration office and were all set to go to Panama. We kind of overslept the following morning (must have been due to the papaya wine) and decided to take the boat to Puerto Obaldia, Panama the following day.
14 April - Capurgana, Columbia to Puerto Obaldia, Panama - and back!
We were up early so that we didn’t miss the boat to Puerto Obaldia. The boat was quite small, barely able to take four of us with luggage and the two bikes. It was pouring with rain as we loaded up and set off over the swells along the rugged coastline towards Panama. Due to the rain, sea spray and wind, I felt absolutely frozen for most of the half-hour on the water. It was a little disconcerting that we had to pull in at the tiny Sapzurro, about halfway, to top up on fuel, and the single outboard seemed to be spluttering a bit at times. Our first sighting of Panama through the driving rain, the miserable little military outpost of Puerto Obaldia, wasn’t particularly exciting. We offloaded, packed the bikes, were checked by the army at the end of the pier, and headed in the direction of the immigration office.
We felt justifiably uneasy when the immigration officer kept paging through our passports and looking at us suspiciously. So, we weren’t all that surprised when he said that we needed a visa applied for in our home country to enter Panama (contrary to the info we’d gathered from the internet), and he refused us an entry stamp.
While we were trying to figure out what to do next, we set up camp out of the rain in a derelict house where some of the other waiting travelers (including two other cyclists) were also sheltering. However, the immigration officer soon re-appeared and ordered us onto the next boat back to Columbia. We sat waiting for about two hours at the dock, and by this time the rain had stopped, so we were being scorched by the sun (from one extreme to the other). But that is not the end of the story. Upon arrival back in Capurgana, Colombian officials informed us that two days had passed since we were stamped out of their country, so they could not reverse our exit stamps. Now we had to go to a major Colombian city (about a week away by bicycle from where the boat would drop us), and await our fate. So, for the time being, we floated around, neither in Panama nor in Colombia!
15 April - Capurgana
Seeing that there is a small consulate for Panama in Capurgana we decided to wait out the weekend and see if they could maybe help us. We doubted whether that would help, but it was worth a try.
We found a really cheap room and found more people with problems getting into Panama. One, an Argentinian, was refused entry to Panama because he had musical instruments with him, and was thus deemed to be a working musician and could not enter as a tourist.
In the meantime, we sent an email to the South African embassy asking for our visa status in Panama.
The place we stayed at was very interesting, bare and basic wooden rooms with a communal kitchen where everyone gathered. The kitchen was an outside gazebo in the garden and, due to the lack of gas and electricity, one had to make a fire for cooking. I’m sure it was the fire-making exercise that made everyone gather around, so it was the most popular spot. The rooms were sweltering hot, and although we had a fan, it only worked for the few hours that the electricity was on. Needless to say, the kitchen area was also the most breezy so that was the place where everyone hung out.
16 April - Capurgana
It was our lucky day as the embassy replied promptly informing us that we did NOT need a visa for Panama and attached a letter from the Panamanian embassy stating the necessary. Although it was in English, we printed it out and set off for the small Panamanian consulate. The two rather unhelpful ladies continued playing their computer games (they could have at least put the sound off!) while we sat patiently waiting. They were not going to get rid of us that easily. Eventually one picked up a cell phone, left the room, came back and told us that she had confirmed with the immigration office in Panama City that we did not need a visa. She advised us to continue on to Puerto Obaldia and present our letter from the embassy there. Whether she really phoned or not, we couldn’t be sure – she might have just wanted to get rid of us. When we asked her for the name and phone number of the person she spoke to, she replied that it was general enquiries at the immigration office and could not give us any name or number!
So back to the Colombian immigration we went, and this time they could miraculously cancel our previous exit stamps and give us new exit stamps.
17 April - Capurgana – Puerto Obaldia
It rained really hard during the night and we woke to a fresh and damp morning. The regular boat was quite expensive (my money was running low) so we waited at the dock for a better offer. Finally we got a good offer. However, the “regular boat” had a problem with the “good offer”, and after fighting it out amongst themselves, the “regular boat” eventually took us to Puerto Obaldia at no extra cost.
This time the sea was even rougher, but we arrived safely and proceeded to the immigration office once more. We went to great lengths to explain ourselves in broken Spanish (proudly presenting our official letter and all), and were still told to come back the next day, when the boss was in. At least this time we were not sent back to Columbia! The annual rainfall in the area is more than 10m p.a., so we found a nice, covered campsite on the verandah of the derelict community hall. I now had the total sum $85 to get both of us to Colon city, the first place we would be able to get more money. We spent $10 on food and a few beers and settled in while it was pouring down with rain. We were happy that we had found a roof to camp under; at least we could sit outside the tent, cooking and talking.