After several days at sea, I was glad to set foot on solid ground in Cartagena, Colombia. We stumbled bleary eyed but excited from the M/S Independence, and set about booking into hotels/hostels/garages before reconvening at customs at 9am. As luck would have it, several of our group was staying at the same hostel, run by a fellow Aussie, Stuart. Whenever there is a choice of hostels in a city, I usually go with Aussie owned/run. I don't know why, but they always seem to be better run & cheaper, and being able to understand the owner/manager is always a bonus. Before heading to customs, I pulled money out of the ATM. I was in such a rush to get to the boat that I didn't withdraw any cash beforehand, and now needed to change Colombian pesos for US dollars. Thankfully, some of the other passengers needed to do the opposite, so it was an easy and efficient switch, without a middleman taking a cut.
It was at Immigration that we three bike riders were told customs was closed until Monday (it was Saturday), so the bikes would stay on the boat. I was planning on spending some time in Cartagena anyway, so wasn't particularly bothered by this development, but the others were keen to put the Carribbean in the mirrors, so they weren't too pleased. I believe this is the first time I've entered a country by boat, which led to a discovery - Immigration offices at port authorities are much more attractive than sterile airports or warzone land borders. After getting my increasingly worn passport back, I headed out and bought a new laptop charger for a sum that felt like I was being scammed, only I wasn't. Electronics in this part of the world are ridiculously expensive - I could live in Caratgena comfortably for the weekend for the price of that charger.
Laptop reliably powered yet again, the group met at a bar on the wall (Cartagena is another walled seaside city, in the mould of Campeche) for drinks at sunset. We headed out on the town after a few to a more reasonably priced outdoor bar on the plaza. After a few more beers, one of the group was offered cocaine by a street vendor selling fake cuban cigars. Mark it down people, it took less than a day to be offered cocaine in Colombia. It has happened a few more times since, but never aggressively - I never felt threatened, only slightly shocked at the audacity. Anyway, the others continued on into the wee hours, but I had hit a wall so went back to the hostel.
The next day I visited Castillo San Felipe, which is the largest fortress that the Spaniards ever built in their colonies. It was well deserved - Cartagena has a long history of piracy and ransacking, both private and crown sanctioned. Nowdays, it provides a great place for silent reflection on the history of Latin America, and the possible influence one person can make. If voyage of Columbus had not gone exactly as it had, what would Colombia look like now? For that matter, what would Australia look like? Considering how close Australia came to being a French (or Dutch) possession, one would think my French would be better. Pondering history questions like that does my head in sometimes.
To soothe my head, I took solace in some comfort food - I had heard that Cartagena was home to decent Indian food, and I was desperate for something that didn't include beans or bbq roasted chicken. I took refuge in a delicious butter chicken, but not before having a chat with the chef, lamenting the lack of cricket on tv. He has hopes of setting up a cricket league in Cartagena to compete with the Carribbean nations, and while I hope he succeeds, I have my reservations.
The next day was pretty much spent at customs. If this becomes a trend I may spend half the trip sitting in halls, staring at immigration officers who share the same job satisfaction and demeanour as a prison worker! After waking early, we had to deal with delay after delay both on the boat (the crane wire snapped!) and in customs. We finally got our paperwork done at 4, so quickly rode to the insurance office to get covered. It's sad, but that was as close as I've gotten to a group ride so far. A special plate on one of the bikes meant more delays and other offices, but eventually everyone was set to go our separate ways.
I set off early in the morning, stopping at the insurance office to pick up some paperwork I'd left behind. 600km+ lay ahead, so I set off at speed. It wasn't long before I came across the first military checkpoint. They couldn't be friendlier if they'd given me a high five when I passed. From directions to recommendations for restaurants/accomodation, the Colombian military are there to protect, serve & help clueless foreigners. I have also noticed that people are starting to get more impressed by the fact that I've come from Canada - some of the double takes/jaw drops have been quite comical.
Colombia is a country of remarkable beauty, and I covered a startling range of picturesque vistas for one day - from the Carribbean seaside, to impossibly green pastureland, to tropical jungle, to Andean mountainside. From sea level to 3000m and back down. To put that in perspective, Mount kosciuszko (Australia's highest mountain) is only 2228m high. It was well and truly dark (and raining) by the time I made it to the hostel, but by following trucks through the mountains, I made it to Medellin in one (albeit wet and cold) piece.
The hostel was as close to a resort as an inner-city hostel can get - pool, volleyball/basketball court, soccer field, hammock area, as well as the standard lounge room and bar.
The next morning I set about making the most of these, before heading out on a tour of Medellin's most (in)famous resident - Pablo Escobar. While el Jefe of the Medellin Cartel, Escobar was largely responsible for production and distribution of cocaine in Colombia in the 1980's. You've no doubt watched a movie or two about his life, but 90 minutes can only capture so much, and Pablo's life was much bigger than any film can possibly capture. We visited one of the nearly 300 properties that Pablo once owned in Medellin. Although it was once a luxurious condo tower, sh**hole probably best describes it now. Most of the credit for the degradation must go to the Cali cartel, who bombed the building in one of the tit-for-tat attacks that plagued Colombia for the best part of a decade. We visited his grave, and were regaled with the story of how he was eventually stopped - with the police breaking down the front door of the house he was hiding in, Pablo attempted to flee by rooftop. A bullet through the ear put a swift end to his reign as the cocaine king, but it remains a bit of a mystery as to who shot him - the police claimed credit, but its dubious that any of the officers had the marksmanship to make shot, unlike the US forces who were there to assist.
From there, we visited the only property the police didn't confiscate from the Escobars- untouched as Pablo's mother had bought the property with legitimate earnings. It was there we met Pablo's brother (and former accountant to the Medellin cartel), Roberto Escobar. It was a bit surreal to be looking at an old wanted poster of somebody, only to come face to face with that person. Having served his time (22yrs halved to 11) in prison, he now dedicated his life to reducing the impact of AIDS in the Medellin through education & medication. In fact, the profits from the tour were going to the charity. It was interesting to be able to talk to someone like roberto about his life and perspectives. An interesting fact - Roberto was a champion cyclist for Colombia before his links to crime were discovered, and he was booted out of the community. I tried to ask him a question about the rampant nature of drugs in cycling, but it go lost in translation (or he just didn't want to answer).
The next day was spent relaxing, and buying a new hammock - a beautifully made colourful creation, in the traditional Colombain style. I also took some photos of Medellin, but (like the idiot I sometimes am) I had forgotten to put the memory card in the camera, so no photos.
It was time to get back on the bike, and the city of Bucaramanga was the target. The departments of Santander and Norte de Santander are no-go areas according to DFAT, but it's kinda hard (impossible, actually) to get to Venezuela via land without crossing these border areas. So I resolved to be extra cautious, and be well and truly in urban areas by nightfall. the day's riding was only 400km, but included several large roadworks in the mountains which slowed things somewhat. I met some great people along the way, including a guy taxiing people down a rail line using a motorbike, and some of the nicest soldiers I've met so far. Night began to fall as I cruised down the final hill into Bucaramanga (I was able to leave the bike in neutral for over a mile, thats how big these 'hills' are!), and I quickly checked into my hostel.
I was going to head up to the border the next morning, but wasn't sure that it'd be open on the weekend (As it turns out, that was a good call - Venezuelan customs was only open Mon-Fri) and the hostel was having a 4th birthday party that night, which sealed it. That night I went upstairs expecting to see a few fellow travellers, and a few friends of the owner/staff. I was pleasantly surprised - the place was full, and half the crowd were locals. It was exactly what a hostel party should be like - a cultural exchange fueled by copious amounts of cheap drinks. On drinks, I've found a local firewater that I don't like - Aguardiente. The stuff tastes like Sambuca mixed with paint stripper and instant regret - not recommended. Getting back on the rum, I met several locals, including Tutty. As Tutty was an english teacher, we were able to easily communicate, and she was able to translate for her brother, friends and myself. We got along like a house on fire - Tutty also sings, and I have to say I've become a bit of a fan of the songs she sent me.
The party started to wind up at the hostel, so a bunch of us headed off to a club to continue on the night. I've gotten awfully used to cheap alcohol here - a beer at a club in Colombia is cheaper than at a bottleshop back in Perth, and it's going to take some serious mental preparation to set foot in a pub back in WA. Anyway, I learned some Salsa moves (watch out ladies!) and beat the sun back to bed (just).
The next morning was generally spent regretting all the drinking the night before. In the arvo I headed out to do a bit of shopping, before heading back to catch up on missed sleep. But people were heading out to a Salsa club, so I rolled out of bed and headed out again. When everyone said "Salsa club" I imagined a dance hall style venue with instuctors. This was more like a wild west saloon with a dancefloor. Our group ranged from professional dancers to novices to me - two left feet would be a step up for me. A couple girls took pity on me and taught me a few more things, and I definitely enjoyed myself. I called it quits early and caught a lift back to the hostel with Andreá who I had met previously at the hostel party.
I struck out fairly early, hoping to make it across the border that day. Looking back at it now, the mere premise seems laughable. The road out of Bucaramanga was pretty treacherous from the start, and some serious roadworks (a 100m section of a whole lane was missing due to a landslide, and had to be remade - into the mountain!) meant serious delays. The awesome scenery didn't help - I'd stop at eacch bend to take the perfect photo, only to come across a better vista on the next turn. It never ceases to amaze me the differences in climatic zones here - I was able to buy strawberries and mulberries for dinner (two 500g bags for two dollars!) before heading down in the hot and dusty frontier town of Cucutá. There's not much to see there, but the ride had taken most of the day, so I bunkered down at the only hotel I'd trust Izzy with and mentally prepped for the border, and Venezuela.
Colombia has really struck a chord with me. In Australia we don't hear much news from this part of the world, and when we do, it's not often good. Cocaine, guerillas and La violencia tend to dominate the headlines and history pages. And they certainly warrant column inches, but only as part of a greater picture of Colombia. Colombians are some of the friendliest people I've met so far, and would go out of their way to help in whatever way they could. Colombia is also one of the prettiest countries I have seen so far. I often judge places I travel on the basis of whether or not I could live there, and Colombia deserves a resounding yes. I will be back.
Having made it to South America, I now consider the trip to be a success - every km that Isabella makes from now on without requiring major repairs I consider a bonus. I also am not concerned about missing "must-see" destinations or countries - I have seen enough to say for sure that'll I'll definitely back.
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