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Colombia

 

(1 079km - 39days - 10 March – 17 April 2012)

 

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10 March - San Rafael del Mojan, Venezuela - Maicao, Colombia - 90 km

A surprisingly pleasant ride led to the border, with the route running along the shores of a salt lake and, although windy, it was scenic and rich in birdlife. Being a Saturday and, therefore, market day, there were plenty of fresh fruit and vegetable stalls by the side of the road.

 

It was an easy crossing into Colombia. I found few things as exciting as cycling across a border and entering a new chaotic border town where one instantly knew you were in a new country with a new set of rules. Hardly across the border, a kind man at a roadside stall offered us watermelon, something that instantly endeared me to Colombia. Then it was onto chaotic Maicao, where it took weaving through hectic traffic to find accommodation. Pavement restaurants were aplenty, and there was, therefore, no need for cooking.

 

 

11-12 March - Maicao - Riohacha - 82 km

Powered by the wind, we flew across the windswept Peninsula de Guajira. With its thorn trees and goats, it was a unique and seldom visited part of Colombia. Along the way, Ernest ate grilled goat meat with the local Wayuu tribe - what a unique experience.

 

Riohacha was our next town on the map, and it turned out a surprisingly pleasant one, with the result two days were spent on the beach. Blessed with a five-kilometre-long beach strewn with palm trees, it was much less touristy than one would expect and instead crowded by locals. The old pier, constructed in 1937, offered a cool breeze in the evening. I sorted out my new internet connection and 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 beautiful, happy days. The weather was good (mid 30s), a slight tailwind assisted us, and the scenery was sublime. The thorn trees abruptly disappeared and were replaced with more natural tropical vegetation consisting of lush green foliage and trees. On arrival at tiny Palomino, I was surprised to notice a hostel as well as other travellers; the reason being the nearby Serra Nevada National Park as well as idyllic Caribbean beaches. The park was unusual in as it had the highest coastal mountains in the world. It rose to a height of 5,775 metres above sea level, in a distance of only 42 kilometres from the coast.

 

Both the hostel and the travellers were rather interesting. Most seemed to be of the hippie type, dreadlocks and all. It was fascinating speaking to them and listening to their beliefs and ideas.

 

A short walk through the forest brought me to an indigenous village where people still wore traditional clothes and went 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 there were some 30,000 indigenous people, mostly Arhuaco, Kogui and Wiwa living in the area.

 

15 March - Palomino – Casa Grande - 40 km

The local store sold the most beautiful, colourful sheaths. They appeared to be quite popular as just about every man I saw carried one. I must mention the store also sold plastic chairs as well as Coca-Cola. Even the wall art was exciting - in fact, I found just about everything strangely fascinating.

 

Our path led along a beautiful stretch of coast with a yearly average rainfall of about 4,000mm at elevations of 500m to 1,500m above sea level. It was, therefore, not unusual to cycle through a tropical rainforest area with exotic trees growing 30 to 40 metres high.

 

On spotting a beach suitable for camping, there was no question that the tents would be pitched. It was still early, and a walk along the beach brought us to a nearby store where provisions could be purchased for breakfast. Back at our tents, the time was whiled away by swinging in hammocks, watching the surf roll in and sipping a cold beer.

 

16-17 March - Casa Grande – Taronga - 47 km

It was a slightly hilly route to Santa Marta and then 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 then, backpackers had discovered this little settlement of Taronga and there were more hostels than local houses. Down by the beach, however, fishermen were still bringing in their catch as they have done for generations. Although it was a famous traveller’s destination, it still had a village feel where goats wander the main road, and pavement stalls sold cheap snacks.

 

18-20 March - Taganga – Santa Marta - 19 km

The following day it was back up and over the hill to Santa Marta. In Santa Marta, Ernest found a bike shop to do much-needed maintenance. After all was done, it was already late and best to find a hostel for the night. I was more than surprised to meet a South African lady who was looking for a teaching job in town. It was very seldom I met fellow South Africans as they aren’t the most adventurous of travellers, mostly preferring to stay on the well-worn tourist path or on organised tours.

 

Santa Marta was more interesting than I had expected. A walk into town revealed a giant statue of Simón Bolívar. 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 Bolívar Plaza.

 

Being the oldest (remaining) city in South America, Santa Marta had a great architectural heritage with beautifully-renovated colonial buildings, lively squares and a charming waterfront.

 

The region was also home to the Tairona people until the Spanish arrived. History has it that the Spanish attempted to take 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 were, therefore, quite a few monuments in town depicting the Taironas.

 

Another day was spent in Santa Maria, and Ernest went to the market to have his tent zip fixed. I wandered around town, exploring the narrow lanes and alleys of the old part. Sometimes one stumbled across a really comfortable hostel, like the one we were in, which made lazing around easy.

 

In the process, I learned about a six-day trek to Ciudad Perdida - it sounded exciting, and I spent the best part of the day preparing for the hike.

 

Ciudad Perdida was 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. It is said Ciudad Perdida housed approximately 2,000 to 8,000 people and was apparently abandoned during the Spanish conquest. At the time of my visit, the trek was still not very popular after the 2003 hostage drama, where hikers were kept hostage by gunmen in uniform for more than three months. I didn’t think it was going to happen again, despite all the internet warnings.

 

Ciudad Perdida

 

21 March - Day 1

I got picked up from the hostel and, after a two-to-three-hour drive, reached the start of the trek. After a light lunch, our party 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 already 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 our first climb. On the other side, it was a slip-sliding affair along a muddy track until reaching our first camp.

 

The accommodation was in comfortable mosquito-netted hammocks, and after settling in, it was time for a cold beer while our guides cooked up a rather tasty meal on an open fire.

 

 

22 March - Day 2

I woke early due to forest noise (it is surprising how noisy the forest can be) and, after breakfast, our guide let us further up the mountain. Our muddy route led us through a dense and picturesque forest. River crossings were easy as it wasn’t the rainy season (although it still rained every evening) and they made good swimming spots which were welcomed in the heat and humidity of the forest.

 

After trekking for four hours, our second camp came into view and consisted of mosquito-netted beds - a luxury. As it was still early, most sat playing cards while our guides cooked supper. After sunset, mosquitoes were out in full force, and I was happy I had brought two bottles of mosquito repellent. It wasn’t only bugs that were out but also fireflies, which seemed larger and brighter than any fireflies I’ve ever seen.

 

23 March - Day 3

 

In anticipation of a long day’s trek, the walk started early. Indigenous villages seemed to pop out of the dense forest at random. The area was home to the Kogi (a Native American ethnic group) who lived in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Their civilisation dated back many thousands of years.

 

Again, there were plenty of swimming spots along the way. Camp was reached around midday, and after lunch, started the trek to the ruins of Ciudad Perdida. Ciudad Perdida consisted of a series of 169 terraces carved into the mountainside. The entrance could only be reached after a sweaty climb up some 1,200 slippery stone steps through a dense and humid jungle. I was quite impressed with the ruins as they were more substantial and more impressive than I had expected.

 

24 March - Day 4

The following morning it was time to start heading downhill. Although it was hot and humid, there were several river crossings and numerous places for swimming.

 

25 March - Day 5

Our final day arrived and, after breakfast and a visit to a waterfall, it was time to tackle the final stretch. The trail was often muddy, uphill and slippery, but loads of fun.

 

26-27 March - Santa Marta

Back in Santa Marta, I desperately needed to do laundry and reorganise my panniers. It was time to get back on the road. It was also precisely five years since I left Cape Town, and invested in a bottle of wine and a bag of crisps.

 

28 March - Santa Marta – Barranquilla - 110 km

Our day went much as expected, except for a steep five-kilometre uphill out of Santa Marta – I didn’t see that one coming! The road between Santa Marta and Barranquilla ran along a narrow strip of land wedged between the Caribbean Ocean and Lake Santa Marta. Needless to say, it was 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 route was lined with stalls selling cooked shrimps and fresh fish (uncooked). Wooden shacks lined the shores of both the lake and the ocean, and it was a completely different world to the mountains I’d just returned from.

 

Barranquilla was another hectic city with crazy traffic, and what appeared to be dilapidated buildings. One can’t expect much from an 18,000 pesos room, and it was best to ignore the broken windows and settle in.

 

 

29 March - Barranquilla – Porte Veronica - 46 km

The next morning, we only got underway at around 10 o'clock, and by then it was already scorching. The sky was cloudless, and the relentless sun made for an exhausting day of cycling. On spotting a tiny coastal community, I pulled in and found accommodation right on the beach. Lunch was on the beach in the shade of a gazebo; just the thing for a hot day.

 

30 March - Porte Veronica – Cartagena - 87 km

About 50 kilometres from Cartagena was the Volcán del Totumo, a 15-metre high mud volcano. Not one for ever wanting to miss anything, I turned off and what a good thing! El Totumo was an active mud volcano, but instead of spewing out lava, it spat out mud. To reach the crater one had to climb up a wooden staircase to the rim of the crater and could then lower yourself into a bottomless pit of smooth lukewarm mud. I wallowed in (what I believed to be) mineral-rich mud, like a contented hippo. The nearby lake made a handy place for washing off mud. Then it was back on the bike and onto Cartagena.

 

31 March - Cartagena

Cartagena conjured up romantic images of colonial wealth, and it didn’t disappoint. It was indeed a lovely and fascinating city with a long history. I understood that various cultures and indigenous people have occupied the area around Cartagena as far back as 4,000 B.C and that Spanish Cartagena was founded in 1533. Cartagena's colonial walled city is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

 

Inside the elaborate city walls, were the old town, complete with cobblestoned streets, leafy plazas and old buildings with beautiful bougainvillaea-covered balconies.

 

 

1 April - Cartagena

It was also time to start thinking about how to cross the Darian Gap. At the time, the Darien Gap was a break in the Pan American Highway located on the border between Colombia and Panama. It consisted of a dense jungle which stretched for about 100 kilometres with no roads or facilities and was considered home to the lawless, anti-government guerrillas and drug-smuggling cartels. The gap made overland travel across Central America pretty much impossible, and the only way around was by sea or air.

 

We pondered which route to take: whether to try and get a ride on a yacht or fly to Panama. From what I could understand most arranged a lift on a yacht or flew from Cartagena, and I took to the streets looking for a vessel heading to Panama. I didn’t find any leaving within the next day or two. Instead, I wandered the streets of the old city and ate snacks from roadside stalls.

 

It was another stinking hot day, and I couldn’t wait for sunset, which brought some relief from the relentless heat. Unable to find a yacht, it was best to cycle as far as one could and then see what options were available.

 

2 April - Cartagena – Cruz de Viso - 51 km

On leaving busy Cartagena, the traffic was bumper to bumper, and it was after 11 a.m. before clearing the city limits. It was incredibly hot, and sweat ran out my body like a tap left open.

 

Even after leaving 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 couldn’t get past the backed-up traffic, and instead of waiting in line, tried to jump the queue – what a mess! We, fortunately, had a free run.

 

After about 50 kilometres, the heavens opened up and the heavy rain, thunder and lightning forced us to take shelter at a service station. By the time the storm was over, the traffic jam had freed up, and the blocked-up traffic came thundering past. It was safer to take a room in the next village and continue in the morning when the traffic had returned to normal. It was a great room with cable TV and air-con; good thing as well as, by then, I was in great need of an air-con room as I had come out in a severe heat rash.

 

3 April - Cruz de Viso – Toluviejo - 81 km

It was a slow day as it was hot and the road in a terrible condition. It was, however, a scenic ride past vast cattle ranches. On reaching Toluviejo, it was already too late to continue to Tolu, and stayed for the night.

 

4 April - Toluviejo - Tolu - 20 km

It was a mere 20 kilometres before arriving in Tolu – another idyllic coastal village. Little did we know it was the beginning of the Easter weekend. Easter weekend in Colombia ran from Thursday to Sunday. The tiny fishing village of Tolu was chock-a-block with holidaymakers. The beachfront was a hectic and festive place, jam-packed with traders, food stalls and music, and it was a good choice to stay and enjoy the festive mood.

 

5 April - Tolu – Cerete - 94 km

From Tolu, the road headed along the coast for about 20 kilometres and it was lined with idyllic looking beachfront accommodation, but we continued past and soon headed inland along the river. The road was again in poor condition and the going slow and on meeting other cyclists on their way south, I was happy for the break.

 

On reaching Cerete, a roadside hotel suited us just fine for the night, and pavement stalls provided an inexpensive but tasty supper.

 

6-7 April - Cerete – Arboletes - 86 km

 

The route was much hillier than expected. Not only was it hot, but also came with a headwind, and I was more than happy to reach the end of the day. Once again, Arboletes came as a pleasant surprise. It was a tiny seaside village with a lovely beach, small offshore islands, plenty of food and fruit stalls, and a friendly atmosphere. Arboletes means "Land of Trees", though it was purely historical as almost all the forests in the area were cleared to make way for the thriving cattle industry.

 

In fact, it was so pleasant we also stayed the following day. It was a section of coast way off the beaten track and seldom visited. Early morning, I was on the beach and just about the only person there.

 

 

8 April - Arboletes – Mellito - 61 km

The nice, paved road gradually disappeared, becoming a dusty, potholed road. As the day wore on, our path deteriorated even more and became a muddy, stony and bumpy road. At snail’s pace, we moved along, creeping up steep hills, through tiny communities where people stared slack jawed. Busses and trucks moved no faster than us trying to avoid the worst of the potholes.

 

On reaching the small settlement of Mellito, we called it a day and decided to tackle the rest of the way the following morning.

 

9 April - Mellito – Turbo - 69 km

There was nothing to do but get back on the muddy and potholed road. Fortunately, it only lasted another 20 kilometres and at Necocli, inquired around for a boat to Panama but without any luck.

 

After another 50 Kilometres of cycling our path reached the hectic, dusty and crazy town of Turbo. A room across the street from the port provided a balcony from where one could sit and watch life go by. The horse and cart were still put to good use and seemed the preferred means of transport to and from the harbour.

 

10 April - Turbo

 

 

Turbo, considered the start of the Darian Gap, also marked the end of the road for us in Colombia, and from Turbo we’d to make another plan. Not being able to speak the language made organising things even more challenging. At the harbour, we enquired about a cargo boat to Panama, but it appeared it wasn’t legal for cargo boats to take passengers. Apparently, there was a checkpoint close by and no one was prepared to give us a ride. There were, however, daily boats running to and from Capurgana, a tiny hamlet situated on the Colombia/Panama border and I was sure once there one would encounter boats running to Panama.

 

 

11 April - Turbo

Early morning it was off to the port. The ticket office was a busy place as many boats left from Turbo for various destinations along the coast. Fortunately, we met Simon (an Austrian gentleman who lived 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 in Spanish. They were apparently worried port authorities would deem the bikes as cargo, and wouldn’t allow the boat to continue. To make a long story short, tickets were bought for the following day. The “ticket” turned out to only be a handwritten piece of paper, and just how official it was, was anyone’s guess. It appeared almost anything was possible - all you needed was plenty of time and patience.

 

12-13 April - Turbo – Capurgana (by boat)

It was “take two” as we moseyed down to the port with loaded bikes. The boat was full, both with people and luggage, to such an extent Ernest had to sit right in front on top of all the bags. It 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). The boat pounded the waves at high speed, passengers bouncing right out their seats while hanging on for dear life. It was, in fact, not unusual for people to pick up back and neck injuries on those trips.

 

After two hours of being jerked around, we arrived at Capurgana with stiff necks and sore backsides. On arrival at this tiny, remote village, the ride from hell was soon forgotten. The sea was a true Caribbean blue, and with no route to Capurgana, it was as remote as it gets. We settled for a room right on the water's edge, 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, enjoying the sunset.

 

From Capurgana boats ran the short distance to Puerto Obaldia in Panama but, as was the case with Capurgana, there was no road to and from Puerto Obaldia. We got our exit stamp from the small immigration office and were all set to leave for Panama the following morning but overslept. Not thinking it a big deal we decided to take the boat to Puerto Obaldia, Panama the next morning - a decision later regretted.

 

14 April - Capurgana, Columbia to Puerto Obaldia, Panama - and back

The next day, it was up early not to miss the boat to Puerto Obaldia again. The boat was small, barely able to take four of us with luggage and two bikes. It was pouring with rain as we loaded up and set off over the swells along the rugged coastline towards Panama making me feel like an illegal refugee. Due to the rain, sea spray and wind, I was frozen for most of the half-hour on the water. It was a little disconcerting, not only that the single outboard motor coughed and spluttered, but that halfway we’d to pull in at tiny Sapzurro, to top up on fuel.

 

Our first sighting of Panama through driving rain was the miserable little military outpost of Puerto Obaldia. 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.

 

With the immigration officer paging through our passports repeatedly and glancing at us suspiciously, we felt justifiably uneasy. We were, therefore, not all surprised when he declared we needed a visa, applied for in our home country, to enter Panama (contrary to the info we’d gathered from the embassy), and refused entry into Panama.

 

While trying to figure out what to do next, we set up camp in a derelict house where some of the other waiting travellers (including two other cyclists) were also sheltering from the rain. However, the immigration officer soon re-appeared and ordered us onto the next boat back to Columbia. At the dock, it was a further two hour wait for a boat back. By then, the rain had stopped, and we were scorched by the sun. Indeed, from one extreme to the other.

 

It still wasn’t the end of the saga as, upon arrival back in Capurgana, Colombian officials informed us two days had passed since we were stamped out of their country, and they could, therefore, not reverse our exit stamps. Instead, were told to have it done at one of the larger Colombian cities (about a week away by bicycle). For the time being, we floated around, neither in Panama nor in Colombia.

 

15 April - Capurgana

Seeing there was a small Panamanian consulate in Capurgana, I thought it best to wait out the weekend and see if they could help. I doubted whether it would help, but it was worth a try as I knew for sure South Africans didn’t need a visa beforehand for Panama.

 

After finding the most inexpensive room in Capurgana, as my money was running dangerously low, discovered more people with problems getting into Panama. One, an Argentinian, was refused entry into Panama as he had musical instruments and was thus deemed to be a working musician and couldn’t enter as a tourist. In hindsight, I think they wanted a bribe, but I was oblivious to such things.

 

In the meantime, I sent an email to the South African Embassy, asking for our visa status in Panama.

 

Our abode was a fascinating setup with bare and basic wooden rooms with a communal kitchen where everyone gathered. The kitchen was outside under a gazebo 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 which made everyone gather around, and it was the most popular spot. The rooms were sweltering hot, and although our room had a fan, it only worked for the few hours the electricity was on. The kitchen area was the breeziest and the place where everyone hung out.

 

16 April - Capurgana

It was our lucky day as the embassy replied promptly confirming South Africans didn’t need a visa for Panama and attached a letter from the Panamanian Embassy stating the necessary. Although in English, 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 weren’t going to get rid of us that easily. Eventually, one picked up a cell phone, left the room, came back and informed us she had confirmed with immigration in Panama City and no visa was needed. She advised to continue to Puerto Obaldia and present the letter from the embassy once there. Whether she really phoned or not, one couldn’t be sure – she might have just wanted to get rid of us. On asking for the name and phone number of the person she spoke to, the reply was general enquiries and she couldn’t give us any name or number. With that info it was back to the Colombian Immigration, and this time they could miraculously cancel our previous exit stamps and gave us new ones.

 

 

17 April - Capurgana – Puerto Obaldia

It rained hard during the night, making for a fresh and damp start to the day. The regular boat to Puerto Obaldia was quite expensive, and it was best to wait at the dock for a better offer. Finally, a better offer was made, but the “regular boat” had a problem with the “good offer”, and after fighting it out amongst themselves, the “regular boat” took us to Puerto Obaldia at no extra charge.

 

This time, the sea was even rougher but arrived safely and proceeded to the immigration office once more. It took some explaining in our broken Spanish (proudly presenting our official letter) but were still told to come back the next day when the boss was in. At least we weren’t sent back to Columbia.

 

The annual rainfall in the area was more than 10m/a, and fortunately a covered area on the veranda of a derelict community hall provided space to pitch the tents. By then, I had a total of $85 left to get both of us to Colon city, the first place I would be able to draw money. Ten dollars were spent on food and a few beers and with rain pouring down, settled in for the night. The roof camped under at least allowed for sitting outside the tents, cooking and chatting.

 

Although in Panama, we weren’t out of the woods as yet as there were no roads to and from Puerto Obaldia. The small landing strip could accommodate small planes, but I had no money left, and even if I did, the small six-seaters that flew to and from Puerto Obaldia couldn’t take bicycles.

 

With the Rey Emmanuel being anchored in the bay, a “lancha” was arranged to row us out the following morning. According to the captain, he would sail at 9 a.m sharp. Not wanting to miss the one and only boat we arranged for “lancha” to ferry us across at 6.30. With all arrange it was time to relax and set alarms for early morning as that was a boat we couldn’t miss.

 

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.

 

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