Colombia has a bit of a reputation problem. Not that it wasn’t completely warranted. But the situation has changed significantly for the better since the government’s 2016 peace deal with the FARC rebels. Most of the country is wide open for tourism now, although a healthy dose of caution is still advisable. The fact that things are not completely back to normal is clearly illustrated by the heavily armed military checkpoints that dot the highways. Most major bridges in the south still have sandbag bunkers at either end. However, in our experience, the guys manning these checkpoints are only happy to see tourists and always greeted us with smiles and thumbs up. Our biggest problem in Colombia was going to be the weather. The rainy season had begun and some of the secondary roads were known to deteriorate quickly in the wet.
Despite our enthusiasm to see Colombia, our entry into the country did not go smoothly. We had heard that the border crossing we would be using at Tulcan/Ipales was severely congested with Venezuelan refugees who were fleeing the economic devastation unfolding in their homeland. The reports said that 3000 people a day were pouring through that crossing. So, we awoke extra-early and got on the road shortly after dawn. As soon as we arrived at the border we could see the stories were true. A massive hoard of humans, all carting random assortments of belongings, were queuing at both the Ecuadorian and Colombian immigration buildings. We parked the van and took our spot in line. Surprisingly, we made it through the Ecuadorian Immigration process in just over one hour.
Next, we were forced to spend several hours dealing with some seriously annoying issues surrounding the cash required to pay our $100 reciprocity fees to enter Colombia. This involved a worldwide Cirrus banking network outage, two taxi rides, emergency telephone calls, much swearing, and finally a Wester Union wire transfer from Grandpa.
With the requisite cash in hand, we joined the que at the Colombian immigration building. At this point it had started to rain heavily, just to make the depressing situation for the hundreds of refugees even more uncomfortable. We had heard from other overlanders that the Colombian guards would specifically pick families out of the line to process them faster, especially tourist families. We felt guilty, but we knew we had to try and shortcut the massive que if the Colombian officials were willing to allow it. We maneuvered to the head of the line, where several other refugee families were vieing for the pity of the guards. Rob held Averie up above the crowd while MJ waved our Canadian passports at the border guards. It worked! The guards picked us out and lifted the barrier to let us in.
Six hours after arriving at the border we finally rolled into Colombia, soggy and exhausted, but happy to be entering our seventh country. Thankfully, the border town of Ipales actually contained the first tourist attraction on our list; the Santuario de Las Lajas. And, even after our debacle at the border, we still had enough daylight to check it out.
This amazingly positioned cathedral was built (and rebuilt, and rebuilt again) over the site of a reported religious experience a few hundreds years ago. Whatever the reason for building it in in the depths of this valley, it is hard to deny the beauty of the latest incarnation of the Santaurio.
Because the rains had begun, and El Cóndor lacked 4×4, we decided we would not risk using any unpaved secondary roads. We had read accounts of extremely mucky, slippery conditions and chose, as usual, the conservative route. Unfortunately, this meant we would not be getting to see two of the major pre-Hispanic ruins located in Southern Colombia (San Agustín and Tierradentro). It always hurt to drive past things that we really wanted to see, but we knew when we started this adventure that we could never “see it all” and our trip would unfold in its own imperfect way, the same as for every other Overlander.
Our path would follow the major toll highways straight up from Ecuador to the Caribbean. Our first stop North of Ipiales was a very nondescript roadside restaurant, where stayed for free on their property overlooking a beautiful river valley. If the price and the view were not enough, the hospitality of the restaurant staff and especially Eduardo the owner was overwhelming. We could not have asked for a better welcoming committee for our arrival into Colombia.
The first major city we came upon was Cali. There are not many campgrounds to be found around Cali, but there are a significant amount of “social clubs”. These are private parks, usually featuring a swimming pool and restaurant, where the locals pay to spend their sunny weekends. Which is exactly what we did. We rolled into The Bruitera Club de la Sena where we were promptly greeted by a party of friendly locals, who turned out to be colleagues from a local engineering firm. The most outspoken of this congenial team was Luis Fernando, who, within minutes of meeting us, had already invited us to stay at his house. We gratefully declined, but we eagerly took his advice on what to see in the city the next day. Of course, he left us his phone number and insisted we call anytime if we need ANYTHING while we were anywhere in Colombia.
Although we only chose to use one full day to sample Cali, we believe we got a reasonable taste. We started by exploring the old San Antonio Barrio, where a shop owner directed us to an excellent little local restaurant. Liam and Rob got another haircut, including a major trimming of Rob’s unruly beard, and we enjoyed an ice cream on the riverside pedestrian boulevard.
To say Cali is “famous for Salsa” would be an understatement. The locals are fervently passionate about Salsa. While we could not bring the kids with us to one of its multitude of Salsa Clubs to experience it firsthand, we did pay a visit to the Salsa Museum. This was more of an homage to Cali’s grandfather of Salsa; Jario Varela and his band Groupo Niche, than an actual museum. The soundtrack of the museum was so infectious we promptly purchased the Best of Groupo Niche from iTunes as soon as we returned to the van.
We were happy to be leaving the city behind and start exploring some of the famous coffee growing region. Our base camp would be the little town of Salento, high in the foggy hills. The La Serena Hostel and campground was a perfect situation for us. The views were outstanding, the breakfast was free, and the new friends were plentiful. We immediately gravitated towards a truck camper with Canadian license plates and it’s occupants Donna and Okan and their little boy Indigo (Driven to Wander). Averie and Indigo became instant BFFs and went off to cause trouble while we met another overlanding family of five, and their dog (Clunk Monkey). This family had been travelling south from the United States for over three years! Their kids were so well spoken, witty, and interesting. Truly an inspiration to any traveling family. A few days later, we would meet even more new friends; Alex and Todd (Rambling Larder) who, like us, were on their way North to ship their vehicle out of Cartagena.
None of our new friends had a chance to visit a coffee farm yet so we all teamed up for a tour of the nearby Ocaso farm. The tour was fantastic and we all learned a lot about the cultivation of production of coffee. For instance; Brazil is actually the largest producer of coffee, followed by Vietnam, and then Colombia. Also, coffee is made from a seed, not a bean. It is squeezed out of a little red fruit (called a cherry) and then dried in the sun or with hot air.
Then the outer cover of the seed has to be removed using a vibrating sieve (or by hand). The “beans” are then sorted by quality, roasted and packaged for local consumption, or exported (un-roasted) to their final destination. Be warned that only the best quality beans are given a medium roast. The beans with defects or parasites (yes, actual little worms living in them!) are dark roasted to hide the imperfections. So now, when Tim Horton’s tries to sell you their special new “dark roast” coffee, you’ll be smart enough to know that this is only a scheme for them to maximize their profits by purchasing the lowest quality beans.
Aside from Coffee, the next biggest reason to visit Salento are the Wax Palms of the Valle de Cocora. These towering palm trees look like something out of a Dr Seuss book as they tower forty meters above the vivid green hills. The day we visited it began to rain just as we started up the hiking path. So, thanks to the pleading of the kids, we hired a guide and horses. This turned out to be a very good choice as the rain continued to come down in waves. The drenched, muddy hikers we rode passed looked increasingly jealous with every kilometre.
One of the most endearing things about Salento is that all of the taxis are colourful Willy’s Jeeps. Following World War II, thousands of surplus US army Jeeps ended up in Central and South America where they became very important tools for farming and transport. The ones in Salento did not appear to be WW2 vintage, but they were all well kept and worked perfectly on the narrow unpaved roads. We hired them to take us everywhere, much to Liam’s delight. Although he was disappointed we would not let him ride standing up on the back bumper, like the big kids.
Next up was a city that had intrigued us for many years; Medellin. It could be argued that Medellin is the route-cause of Colombia’s bad reputation. Pablo Escobar ruled his drug kingdom from Medellin through the ‘70s and 80’s, supplying the vast majority of the US cocain consumption. During the height of the drug war, Medellin had the highest murder rate, by far, in the world. Escobar paid a bounty for Police lives and over 500 were murdered before the end of his reign. Nowadays, Medellin is a busting modern metropolis with a thriving art scene.
We camped high above the city near the massive forested Parque Arví and ventured down into the city, using public transit, for a couple days of exploration. The first day we visited Parque Explora, a world class science centre and kids museum. We had been warned that a few hours would not be sufficient, and that was accurate. The centre included exhibits on everything from physics and the body, to dinosaurs, and live exhibits of reptiles. Including a real, full-grown Anaconda! After four hours we had maybe seen half of the exhibits but had to leave to get back to our campground before dusk.
Our second day in Medellin brought us to the Mercado Del Rio for a fantastic informal culinary experience. Every style of world food was covered in this food court and our table collected sushi, noodle bowls, falafel wraps, and quality craft beer.
After waddling out of the Mercado we hopped onto the metro train to the Museo de Antioquia and its exhibition of Fernando Botero sculptures and paintings. We found his style of cartoonish, rotund figures to be whimsical and intriguing.
From Medellin we endured several days of hard driving north to reach the Caribbean. We took special note of some warnings about police corruption along the stretch of coast north of the city of Barranchilla. Thus far we had not experienced much in the way of Latin American police corruption. We had read some accounts in books and online before we left, and of course many friends and family in Canada had expressed their concerns. It’s true that Latin America has a reputation, but we were not so certain it was warranted. After all, it could be argued that Canada has a reputation for “killer bears” and we all know that’s not exactly accurate. Regardless, we knew it was a possibility and so we came up with a plan for how we would respond if/when a bribery situation arose. The plan was to basically play the “dumb tourist”. We would be polite and naive but most importantly; 100% unilingual. The idea was that we would waste as much time as possible until the official lost interest.
We had experienced some mild bribe requests in Argentina and Peru, but they had fizzled quickly and didn’t really cause us much stress or inconvenience. We figured our secret weapons (the kids) had probably warded off the majority of the attempts. That changed however while driving through Baranchilla. As we curved around a traffic circle we were suddenly waved down by two policemen on a motorcycle (yes, they have to share a motorcycle). This time we just KNEW it was not going to be a simple license check so we enacted “the plan”.
The officers (whom we’ll call Good Cop and Bad Cop) approached our windows and asked for Rob’s license. Rob smiled and asked several questions in English. Bad Cop immediately pulled out his phone to translate. Bad Cop informed us that we had been pulled over for “bad driving” and the fine would be “one Colombian salary!” Yes, seriously. He went on to say that he will have to impound our vehicle for 3 days if we did not pay immediately. Meanwhile, MJ had pulled both of the kids up to the front seat and was boisterously reading a story book to them while Good Cop stared in from the passenger side window, sweating profusely from under his helmet.
Rob and Bad Cop spent the next 40 minutes passing the phone back and forth with terribly translated messages. Bad Cop eventually made the bribe request official by asking us to “donate” $300 for them to let us go. Rob deflected this request, and insisted that if we’ve done anything wrong we WILL pay the fine. This caught Bad Cop a little off guard so he went back to his motorcycle for a note pad and returns to ask Rob to fill in his own ticket! The note pad was definitely NOT a real ticket but Rob only smiled and awkwardly filled it in, with significant translation assistance. Eventually, Bad Cop realized we’re not intimidated by his ploy, and Good Cop simply looked exhausted and embarrassed to be there. The cops stopped to have a little chat, suddenly waved goodbye, got back on their shared motorcycle and sped off! Got to love it when a plan works!
This annoying event only cost us 45 minutes and did not erode our respect for the people of Colombia. It did disappoint us and changed our attitude towards the Police in Colombia, but we can also understand that these extremely underpaid civil servents might occasionally try their luck on the “rich gringos” they see driving by.
Once we finally reached our destination on the beach we knew it had all been worth it. Our campground at Casa Grande was everything we needed. Palms, sand, and friends. The only other vehicle in the camp was that of Mike and Dolores from Germany, however the next day we were pleasantly surprised to see Kurt and Monica roll up in their classic green VW. We had been bumping into Kurt and Monica since way back in Chile, Bolivia, and Peru! If that wasn’t enough, the next day, Uncle Pete jumped out of a bus with his bags! The real topper was when we found out that the owner Gorge had lived in Calgary and even worked for the Calgary Flames hockey team! It was a lot of fun to have so many friends around.
The week on the beach was not entirely fun in the sun however. There was some work to do to get our van ready for its imminent shipment from Colombia to Mexico. Because we had chosen to ship it using a commercial ferry service (Roll-on Roll-off, or RORO for short) we would have to hand over our keys to the shipping company. This meant they would have free access to the interior of our van and all of its contents. I wish we could say that we had nothing to worry about in the hands of professionals, but the truth is way too many Overlanders report theft on these ferries. We had the option to use a shipping container (like we had to ship from Canada to Chile) but the cost and transit time would have both increased beyond our means. So, the solution that we (and many other overlanders) used was to build a wooden wall in the van, just behind the front seats. This would allow the shipping company employees to enter and drive the van while the rear section could remain locked up.
Rob and Liam took the van into the city of Santa Marta and returned with the necessary supplies, including some tools, for about $50. With Pete’s help and a little ingenuity we had the pieces of the wall cut up and ready for installation after a few mornings worth of work. The rest of the week could now dissolve into surfing, frisbee, slack line, and card games.
We also found some time to perform a little beach clean-up as an Earth Day activity. The kids were very proud of the full bag of plastic and junk we pulled out of the sand.
It was hard to say goodbye to Uncle Pete again, but he had big plans to kite surf and scuba dive we had yet another important visitor to meet. Rob’s mom, known as Bamma to the kids, was flying into Cartagena to hang with us for week! We had used our credit card travel points to book a fancy hotel outside the city with its own water park and playground. The kids were vibrating with excitement.
Rob had to spend several days travelling around Cartagena dealing with all of the shipping logistics and police inspections, as well as well as a few late nights installing the wall and removing the van stereo. However, there was still plenty of time to explore the famous walled city and eat a few delicious meals.
We also decided to get out of the city for a day and splurge on a touristy day-trip to the Rosario Islands. This tiny archipelagos is an hourlong boat ride south of the city and host tourists for tropical beach fun, partying, and a little snorkeling. We even had the option to take a side-trip to the Oceanarium, where we got to experience all manner of Caribbean sea life, including trained dolphins and sharks. Yes, trained sharks!
Cartagena remains one of the highlights of our entire trip. The history of the legendary walled city was palpable and the winding cobblestone streets were seductive, despite the hordes of tourists. It was extra special for us and the kids to get to share this with Bamma.
In a happy coincidence, we flew out of Cartagena to Panama City on the same flight as Bamma. We said goodbye as she we boarded our respective flights back to Canada and Mexico City. It had been a whirlwind trip through Colombia and we loved every bit of it. We find ourselves even grateful for is the things we did NOT see, because now we have the perfect excuse to return!