Mountain Highs and Lows

We are in Colombia during the rainy season and the weather seems to be taking on a familiar pattern of bright sunny mornings, clouding over at lunchtime and then raining in the afternoon and evening. Unfortunately our two sky lights have started leaking. Bizarrely both of them at the same time, so dinner was eaten with pots catching the drips.

In the morning everything was well, the sun was shining and there was a beautiful drive ahead.

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It was a long drive, not in terms of distance (200kms) but in terms of time (9 hours) as the roads were partially dirt roads and also twisty as they wound their way up and down the mountains. However the scenery was spectacular.

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Eventually we arrived in El Cocuy the village at the entrance to El Cocuy National Park. Here we had to pay our entrance fees. It was now much colder as the village is at 2800m and all the locals were wearing ponchos.

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Leaving in the afternoon it was raining as we drove further up the mountain to camp just inside the park on a small piece of flat ground just near a shepherd’s hut. The weather was awful, the rain had leaked onto our bed and sofa, which meant climbing on the roof to put tape around the skylights in the pouring rain. We were also at 3960m so were a little concerned at how the altitude would affect everyone. Had it really been worth the effort to get where we were?

We woke early in the morning and were rewarded with the most magnificent mountain views. The clouds had cleared and it was a beautiful crisp morning. Definitely worth it!

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We set off for an early morning hike and the girls skipped along the path, clearly not affected by the altitude.

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The views along the way were beautiful and we had the whole mountainside to ourselves. Unfortunately the trek to the snow line was about 8 hours there and back and would have taken us up to 5,000m so was too far for Alisha and Lucy.

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As we returned to the truck the clouds started closing in, so we finished our emergency repairs to the skylights and drove a short way to camp outside a Hacienda. As it rained most of the afternoon we were confined to the truck but at least it had stopped leaking, well almost!

The next morning the weather broke its pattern and when we woke up it was cold, grey and misty. Not been put off though we set off on a morning hike fully wrapped up. The scenery reminded me of the Pennines in England although we had to remember we were at nearly 4000m.

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As the weather did not look like it was going to get any better we decided to head down. Plus I had had a headache for 3 days so was hoping the lower altitude would clear it. We went back a slightly different way which although shorter was on a very narrow road with drop offs down to the raging river.

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When it started raining we had to drive really slowly but eventually we made it back on to the tar. After stopping off to buy some sealant in a local town we began to look for somewhere to camp for the night. As it got dark we had not found anywhere and did not want to just pull off on the side of the main road so we did what the local truck drivers do and pulled into a petrol station which would let us park up for the night. Not the most picturesque or quiet spot but it was safe, secure and flat.

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The next day we drove to the beach! Not just any beach but a white sandy beach on the side of an Andean Lake set at 3000m in the mountains. When we arrived at Laguna de Tota the weather was not exactly welcoming and it looked like a wet weekend in Bournemouth in March.

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It was very quiet though and we were the only people camping there the first night. After all the driving it was a peaceful place to relax. Alisha and Lucy enjoyed playing on their scooters and we also took the time to do some lovely home cooking. First up were homemade pizzas and then a lovely curry with homemade nan breads.

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The second day we were there was a Saturday so it was busier with the locals coming down. What we did not know was that quite a few of them would camp and play music literally all night! We understand this is very normal in South America so is something we will need to get used to. Alisha and Lucy seem to have no problem sleeping through it all.

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Beautiful Barichara

We were all in a jubilant mood as we left Cartagena at last. We didn’t get to our destination for the night, a beautiful white sandy Caribbean beach just outside Tyrona National Park, until early evening. Unfortunately every man and his dog had got there before us, it was absolutely heaving! Santa Semana (Easter week) is a huge holiday in Colombia, many people travel to see family or just to relax. The other campers and everyone we met were super friendly and the whole vibe, especially considering how closely packed everyone was, was very cordial. It was a hot sweaty night in the overflow car park back from the beach, it wasn’t quite how I envisioned my 40th birthday but we were just so pleased to have the truck back it didn’t matter.

The unanimous decision early the following morning was to head south in the direction of the mountains. After almost 3 continuous weeks in cities we were ready for a cooler temperature and less people. Alisha has even started fantasising about sleeping under her duvet. It turned into mammoth drive that day, our longest ever yet, the 660km took 12 hours. There is not much to see between the Caribbean coast and the mountains. Steve was pleased to be back behind the wheel and the kids had a whole load of new audiobooks on their iPods, so everyone was happy. The great thing about driving on Good Friday was the lack of traffic, especially lorries. The few we saw were so slow winding up the hills, it would have added hours to our journey on a normal day. We’d heard about a car park belonging to a National Park in the foot hills with a fabulous view down a long valley. Dark came earlier than we expected and we broke our usual rule about only driving in the light. There were quite a few cars and motorbikes at that point coming down, when we got to the top we were surprised to see the whole hill swarming with vehicles and bathed in lights. A chatty policeman explained to us, as we checked in with him, that they’d had more than 5000 people that day. It has a cable car, toboggan run and truly strange huge statue with a pope, lots of horses and what looks like a fondue set all lit up. However they were happy for us to stay the night and suggested we might want to make an early exit before being jammed in. After a quick walk around to check out the views we were back on the road by 7.30 the next morning.20140424-205136.jpg

Barichara is supposed to be one of the prettiest little towns in Colombia. With our recent Santa Semana experiences in mind, we came up with various back up plans as we wound our ways through the pretty hills for the two hours it took to get there. However, Barichara was ready for the hordes and we were early. There were students posted on all the corners to direct traffic through the tiny cobbled streets with overhanging eaves (one of our personal nemeses). They summoned a friend on motorbike to take us to the widest street in town to park. He said it was no problem to stay overnight and just come and find someone when we were ready to leave, so they could help us out. He exited with a wave and a smile. We are beginning to really like Colombians.

Barichara lived up to the hype. It is full of attractive sandstone churches and all the houses are white washed with green and blue painted shutters with terracotta tile roofs. Even though it was busy with families strolling through the sandstone paved streets, it never felt overcrowded or frenetic. That afternoon I took the girls to a dance festival laid on in a local park for Santa Semana. Steve had done something horrible to his knee during the long drive the day before, hobbling round the streets that morning had done him no favours and he was put on enforced rest for the next 36 hours. Missing the dance festival was no heartbreak for him but the following day he was itching to explore instead of been laid up in bed. The girls however loved the dancing, a mixture of Colombian folk dances with a samba group thrown in to spice it up a bit. We had a lovely girly time discussing steps, music and of course the costumes.

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That night we slept well on the “Widest street in Barichara”, it was our first time just sleeping on a town’s streets. Well we did until the disco started at 10……

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Barichara was slow to wake on Easter Sunday. After strict instructions in two different notes from Alisha and Lucy the Easter Bunny had managed to deliver the goods via the open sunroof. There had been much concern the night before that if he left them outside on the street what might happen to them. It gave me a chance to wander around the peaceful town by myself and sit quietly in the church for a while. Being Easter the churches had their statues mounted on platforms so they could be carried through town in processions.

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Later that morning, the girls and I joined the faithful as they joyfully paraded through town with the statue of the Risen Christ, Mary and the disciples. The old men at the back setting off loud rockets periodically seemed to be enjoying their job of heralding the resurrection of our Lord or perhaps just waking up any dawdling congregation.

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The cathedral was heaving at the end point of the procession, with plastic chairs filling any spare space between the pews. We didn’t stay for the whole service, standing for a whole service in Spanish didn’t appeal to the girls once the hymns had finished but it was lovely to join for a while.

The town seemed to spend the rest of the afternoon relaxing, some of the local children overcame their shyness to chat for a while. The girls and I wandered some more and Steve’s knee started to improve with all the rest. Thankfully it was very quiet on the street that night.

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Easter Monday saw everyone returning to work, so there was no chance of a escort out of town. We couldn’t squeeze out the way we came in due to a car parked in an awkward position. A man repairing his eaves obviously damaged over the weekend by another high vehicle (thankfully not us!) tried to explain the complicated route that we’d have to take through town to get out. Seeing that he was testing our Spanish to its limits, he offered to pop in the cab and direct us through. We are really loving Colombians! We found the town, like many others we are finding, although built on a grid system there is a known route through for buses and larger vehicles. This isn’t signposted as most drivers are local. In Barichara this involved reversing back 2 blocks, taking a right, a left, crossing back over the road we’d started on but further on, going half round the town square, a further right then a left…phew. You can see why it taxed our Spanish. He left us with a wave and our sincere gratitude about 400m from where we met him.

After restocking in the next town of San Gil, the girls and I holed up in the truck in a car park for school. Steve limped off with the washing to find a lavanderia. He returned with the local speciality, famed throughout Colombia: hormigas culonas or fried fat bottomed ants. We’d seen a whole tourist industry built around these surprising large insects with statues, models, earrings and even live ones in case you wanted to fry the little suckers fresh at home. However it hadn’t been on my hit list when I asked if Steve could find something for lunch when he was out. Being an adventurous gourmet he crunched several of them up, Alisha and I were reluctant but Lucy munched one up readily followed by a chocolate egg chaser. Not too bad, was her verdict.

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We were heading for the mountains in El Cocuy National Park next to get our first glimpse of the Andes on this trip. Like all routes through the foothills, the way in wound round hills and valleys. The road in from San Gil was also on a minor small road. The tar lasted for a while but soon gave way to a narrow gravel track, it was however in good shape, especially welcome as this was our first encounter with the wet season in Central Colombia. As the rain started to lash down we found our camp for the night on the first patch of flat land we came to two hours into the drive, next to wayside shrine to the Virgin Mary. It was a quiet spot with just a local family visiting the shrine and two boys waiting for the school bus the following morning.

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Waiting in Cartagena

After 8 and a half months and driving over 30,000kms we left North and Central America and took the one hour flight from Panama City to Cartagena. After having spent much of my working life in airports and on planes it seemed strange to be back in one after nearly 9 months. I can’t say I have missed it.

It felt great to be in South America but we were to learn that it would be awhile longer before we were reunited with our truck due to further shipping delays. In the meantime we set out to enjoy the beautiful city of Cartagena.

Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish and it became one of the most important cities in Spanish Latin America. The Spanish shipped a lot of their gold through the port of Cartgaena and due to this it was subject to many attacks by pirates including Sir Francis Drake, who I learnt is regarded as pirate to the Spanish but was knighted by the English. Because of these attacks a series of forts were built and the city was fully surrounded by stone walls. The old town is now a Unesco world heritage site and is a lovely place to wonder around.

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As it was very hot in Cartagena we would spend our days by going out for a walk around the town early. Then holing up in our hostel during the day when the girls would do their schooling and watch movies. We would then go out for another walk in the evening before going out for dinner with friends at one of the many restaurants nearby. We also discovered that the best place for a cold beer was right on the street or in the square. Here you would find most of the local community out on the street enjoying the cool of the evening with everyone buying drinks from the corner shop.

The centre of Cartagena was very beautiful with lovely colonial houses with their balconies.

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And interesting knockers on the doors.

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We also took the time to wander around on top of the city walls where you got a nice breeze from the sea.

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One day we took a walk out to one of the forts. With all the talk of pirates, Alisha and Lucy ran around the fort pretending to be pirates.

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After a few pleasurable days we were ready to leave but the truck was still at sea. As it was nearing port we decided to start the process of importing the truck and the first step was to buy local insurance for the truck. We were just starting to buy insurance when we were asked to evacuate the building. We filed downstairs with all the employees to find police and fire trucks outside. We later learnt that a bank truck carrying cash had been robbed and the robbers said they had planted 10kg of dynamite in the building. After an hour everything calmed down and we went back in the building to get the insurance. Then it was off to the copy shop for the mountain of photocopies we would need.

The next day the truck still had not docked but we decided to set off and try and move the process forward anyway. There were a group of 5 of us who were doing this without using an agent. 2 from the original group had decided to use an agent. Things initially started well, we got our original bill of lading and the shipping company helped explain the steps we would have to go through. We then walked to customs and filled in the forms and were given an appointment for our inspection at the port at 6.30 the next day. As there was then the normal 12 to 2 lunch break we could not do anything but at 2 sharp we were at the port authority for the next steps. They checked our documents to ensure we could enter the port including that we had valid life insurance. However although the ship was now in port it was not moored which meant they could not give us permission to enter the port. We also learnt that as it was Santa Semana (Easter) the last inspection by customs before closing for Easter was at 6.30 the next morning. If we missed this we would not be able to get our vehicles out for 5 more days. As much as we liked Cartagena we were ready to hit the road so were really keen to make the 6.30 inspection the next morning. Unfortunately when the port office closed at 6 the ship still had not docked so we could not be issued documentation to enter the port the next day. As the office did not open until 8 the next day we looked likely to miss the inspection. We spoke with the very helpful lady at the port and she said there was a remote chance we could still get the inspection done. On the walk back to the hotel we debated what to do. We were pretty down as we really wanted to get going after a week in Cartagena. In the end we agreed we would go to the port the next morning to give it a try.

So early the next morning we set off to go out to the port. When we got there we were not allowed to enter as we did not have the paperwork authorising us to enter. We explained we had an appointment with customs and she agreed to call them to get them to come over. After about half an hour a customs officer came over. He explained that he had the paperwork for our vehicles, that the ship had docked but that the vehicles had not been unloaded. One of our group said they had been unloaded as he had seen them on his drive to the port in the yard (thanks Brian). The customs officer agreed to come and look and we could see them in the distance. With that he said “ok I will go and do the inspection, you go and grab breakfast in the canteen”. Half an hour later he came back and said “all done, you need to go back to customs to pick up the paperwork”. We were very relieved. Back at customs the same officer was there and he quickly typed up the paperwork we needed. This meant we had all the documentation from customs before they closed for Easter. The port was working over Easter so we would now be able to get the vehicles out. The previous night we had said we needed a miracle and one had been delivered by the customs officer, whose name was, you won’t believe this but yes, Easter was in a few days, and his name was Jesus!

With the customs paperwork we returned to the port authority to get our document allowing us to take the vehicle out and to pay our port fees. When we got there the system still showed the cars as been on the ship so they could not issue the paperwork. Lunch came and went and we continued to wait. Just before 5 ( we had now spent more than 8 hours sat waiting at the port authority over 2 days) the final piece of paperwork came through. Happy we jumped in a taxi to the port to be reunited with our vehicles. Just before 7 we drove them out of the port to secure parking near our hotel. Whilst we had jobs to do they could wait. We were so happy so we celebrated with beers and a take away curry on the terrace of our hostel together with Betti and John and some of our group, Brian and Roddy ( a fluent Spanish speaker, many thanks for the great work) and his girlfriend Jordan.

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We certainly had something to celebrate. We had been told (including by an agent) we had no chance of getting our vehicles by Easter and we had done it. It goes to show it is possible. The whole process is a complicated mess involving trips to lots of different offices, masses of paperwork and taxis between the different ports. However everywhere we went the Colombian people were very friendly and helpful. This process can definitely be done without an agent, especially if you can speak Spanish fluently. You need to be patient, polite and keep up gentle pressure and you will be rewarded in the end.

It’s time to get back on the road.