We have now crossed the Darian Gap from Panama to Columbia successfully and retrieved our car in South America. Although our car arrived on the 23rd in Cartagena, Columbia we were not able to pick it up until the 28th. However, when we say pick it up we mean start the gruelling 2 full day process of paperwork and waiting around. So finally, on Friday the 29th, we drove out of the shipping container and searched in vain for insurance. Turns out they close early on Fridays and wouldn’t open again until the 2nd of January due to New Years. Why did we wait and not just drive on with no insurance, or buy it later like we had in so many other countries? Well here SOAT is mandatory here and after our friend’s experience, we decided we didn’t want the same experience.
After leaving the port, on the short drive back to their hotel they were pulled over by the police. Since they didn’t have insurance yet they were forced to abandon their car on the spot and take taxis all over town trying to find someone who would sell to them, only to find a car dealership that was just closing but sweet talked them in Spanish to help them. We, on the other hand, got into an accident with a taxi, our first one so far and of course it happens when we don’t have insurance. Frederik proceeds to run out of the car, hand the taxi driver 40$ which made him seem happy so we took off. So, all in all, we have been in Cartagena waiting around for 2 weeks which took up exactly half of the time we have to spend driving through Columbia. But now we have our SOAT so off to the good stuff.
This is the longest by far that we have ever stayed anywhere on this trip. For 2 weeks we hopped around from hostels and Airbnb, living in all different parts of the city, both good and bad, becoming ‘local’ tourists. We celebrated Christmas in the walled city, getting dressed up in the spirit of the occasion, filling stockings and decorating our dorm bunk beds with Christmas lights.
We walked endlessly through the old town, meeting a couple who introduced us to the life of rooftop bars which we filled many nights with. We liked Cartagena however it didn’t live up to all the hype for us due to the fact that it was much more touristy than many of the other old colourful cities we had been to for example in Mexico. However, it is undeniable that the streets are alive and enticing. Throughout our stay, we reunited with other friends from the road who were shipping around the same time, a friend from a hostel in Panama and Frederik’s friends from Denmark with whom we celebrated New Year’s Eve. Yay!
South South South To Medellin
It had been a month since we had driven the car any significant distance, or at all really. So we were excited to hit the road. We got off to a bit of a late start trying to find a new big propane tank that would last us months longer than our hard to find small Coleman bottles, but in the end we were successful. Our original campsite at Playa Blanca was a bust due to heavy tourism and flooded roads so we did what everyone told us not to. We drove into the night. It was a 2 day push, sleeping at a gas station in the car again until we reached our destination but boy it felt good to drive and sleep in the car.
As we drove I was blown away and became slightly obsessed with the number of different animal signs we saw on the road. So here is the series I collected
El Penol de Guatape
Our first real stop was Guatape. It is a charming town which is famous for the lake district that surrounds it and the view of the uniquely shaped inlets with islands in them, which can be seen from one giant random rock. The rock in total has 740 steps to the top. The stairs are just tacked on the side and stacked on top of one another, but as you go up the view gets better and better. At step 740 you have a beautiful, jaw-dropping, 360 panoramic view of the rolling hills surrounding this unique region. The town itself is relatively small, packed full of colour. The houses, as Frederik, would say, are as vulgar as a German ice cream dessert menu card. They are beautiful and perfect but you question the authenticity of the structures and decorations as you walk around.
Our campsite was outside of the city on the ridge of one of the surrounding mountains with a beautiful view of the neighbouring valley. We were so excited to finally be at a higher altitude because it was cold, really freaking cold in comparison to the blazing humid heat of Cartagena. We were wearing clothes we hadn’t touched yet, packed deep down in the depths of the car, it was refreshing, to say the least. Our second night we went to meet up with our shipping partners, Jen and Brandon, for dinner at their awesome AIRBNB apartment. Well, dinner (with a beautiful view of Medellin) turned into long intense and animated discussions, which turned into us crashing on their floor and eating breakfast altogether the next morning. Thanks guys for a great night!Medellin is an interesting city. My interpretation of the city varies greatly. In some areas, due to every building being built from orange brick, it reminds me of the architectural era of the 60s mixed with what I imagine to be the industrial revolution. A big mix of modern and timelessness as you ride the metro through a sprawl of skyscrapers, then small apartments bursting with colour, to houses stacked on top one another almost fall apart ending with big hearty industrial buildings. The urban sprawl is unbelievable and the population density is just as fast growing. Medellin is located in a valley and due to this population increase, no one had anywhere to built but up. So it might be as big as other cities, however, it is rare that you get such good views of the city from below and above that make you feel so small.
As in most big cities, we did a free walking tour. The tour guide was phenomenal, relaying the good and bad history of the city. We felt that in this city, in particular, it was important to do a tour to get a full picture of the history of Columbia and Medellin, which used to be the most dangerous city in the world. I will relay a bit of what we learned in a second however the main thing we took away from the tour was how Pablo Escobar is the equivalent of real-life Voldemort in Medellin.
The tour guide was not shy to talk about him and his gruesome past, however, he would not speak his name out loud. He explained the reasoning was because many people don’t understand English and when they hear his name being spoken to a group of Gringos, locals actually will come up and yell at him. This is because some hate him so deeply, and some actually truly don’t see him as a bad guy, they feel the need to share their opinion to tourists about him and their past as a city. Crazy! We experienced on this tour more interaction with locals than anywhere else. Many just stopped and listened, interested or wanting to improve their English, many came up and welcomed us and gave great thanks for coming and visiting their country, while one, after listening, came to our guide and thanked him for giving such an unbiased history lesson as he was once a guerilla.
Fun Facts About Medellin and Comuna 13
As we said previously, Medellin up to just after the turn of the century, was the most dangerous city in the world due to the war on drugs. More specifically in Medellin, due to its geographic location, comuna 13 was the most dangerous place. There are communities in the city where Pablo built 300 houses so it is here where he is seen as a bit more of a hero. However, the many other thousands of citizens that lost their lives, way outnumbering 300 houses, their families do not feel the same way. One thing we were blown away by was how fast this city and comuna transformed into now a big tourist destination, going from 50 thousand visitors in the early 2000s to 5 million last year. Although it is an impressive achievement, he didn’t sugar coat that a change this fast doesn’t come without a lot of corruption. Allthough, it is progressively getting better. The citizens of Columbia has gone through a lot yet still has come out on the other side very happy and a welcoming. We were explained, then witnessed later ourselves, that their public transportation system is a symbol of pride. Medellin was the first city in Colombia to have a metro system, not only a train but combined with gondolas so even those on the sides of the mountains could be easier connected. When you go into the metro you might think it is brand new but it isn’t. There is not a scratch to be seen, no garbage lying anywhere, it is something the citizens are very proud of, it was a symbol our guide explained, that pulled the city out of darkness when it was built in the early 90ies.
Many have focused their efforts on ‘domestic architecture’ which is taking the bad parts of the city and turning it into something new and useful while providing a place for those who once lived in those slums to stay as well. Medellin has done a good job at doing so with their downtown. Comuna 13 has also done something similar with their community, changing their face and bringing everyone together in an effort to have a happier place to live. There are many projects going on which a few to name are graffiti artwork on the walls, colourful houses, breakdancing for youth, parks and slides beside stairs and the famous outdoor escalators. It is a very vibrant lively place, somewhere we felt completely safe to wander and admire the beauty and the change.
Hitting The Road Hard
From Medellin, we still were fully embracing driving after being stagnant for so long. The roads as well didn’t make it boring one bit, as Frederik driving like a crazy Colombian, passing trucks on a 2 lane “highway” uphill which couldn’t hold a straight line for more than a 100m if you were lucky, blazed onwards. If you have the ability to travel through Colombia and rent a car it is a must. Or another excellent option is a bike tour which is very popular here on every road you’ll find a group of cyclists tackling the rolling mountains. The views are just phenomenal are really give you the full impression of the country and its beautiful geography.
This was our next stop, one we had heard loads about. Cocora Valley is located in the heart of coffee country with stunning greenery and a nice hike through hills covered with wax palms. Our campsite provided an excellent view of the sunset hitting these perfectly green, soft rolling hills. Although the next days wasn’t a clear sky, the hike was still a little fantastical as we went through so many different types of flora.
We ended our day off at a coffee farm down the road taking a tour, learning about the history and process of making coffee in the high elevation of Colombia’s mountains and ending with a taste testing. Frederik had been on me since the start of our trip about drinking coffee but I had refused, promising I would try 1 cup once we entered Colombia. Well, there was no better time to try it and the results were that I still didn’t like a normal cup of coffee, however, I would drink a medium roast cafe latte. So now he is determined to buy a milk foamer and make us cafe lattes in the morning.
From Cocora Valley we made a 2 day drive to the desert in the middle of Colombia. We turned off the highway to enter the park, driving down a dirt road for 30 minutes, confused as to how people could call this a desert. It had poured rain the day before, the small rivers flooded the dirt roads lined with trees, the only thing that might resemble a desert was the isolation in which these people lived in. However, we finally came upon a tunnel, sloshing through to the other side only to cross this giant rattling bridge which led us surprisingly, directly into the desert.
The roads were still muddy but the terrain was totally different. Frederik was having the time of his life whipping us through the mud as we followed two random signs on the hopes of ending up in the valley of constellations. There were a couple spots where we almost didn’t make it through the soft sand river beds, smashing through a wall of sand on the banks in order to get back on the dirt road but we made it. And we didn’t make it to a specific destination really because everywhere you could make a parking spot was a perfect campsite. So we arbitrarily stopped, set up camp and took in the far-reaching valley view.There was not a sound except for some distant cows roaming around. We were visited by a cowboy riding by just stopping to say hello but other than that it was a peaceful day and night. And what better way to enjoy a night in the desert than with crepes and Nutella, our staple road trip meal.
Last Stretch to Sanctuary del Las Lajas
Our GPS led us slightly astray as we headed towards the border. It took us back west, cutting across the mountains on a highway which started out very nice. Colombia is doing an amazing job at creating new and improved roads and we started driving on one they were beginning to work on. This meant that 50% of the drive was on some gnarly, ‘don’t look off to the side of the car’, dirt road, while the other 50% was as good of a road as you’d ever get back home. However, we both agree it was the most beautiful stretch we have done yet, which says a lot as we are constantly redesignating which drive is our favourite drive-through Colombia and our trip thus far.
Some nights we strategically find restaurants to eat at so we can then sleep in their parking lot. In Popayan, we thought we had done so successfully. However, lesson learned, scope out your surroundings a bit better beforehand. Turns out there was a small zoo of farm animals (South America style) right beside our car. We woke up at 12am to donkeys having a go at it, 2am to rooster going crazy and then every 2 hours it was a combination of every animal there. It made the next day of driving a little more of a drag, but it got us off to an early start so we just decided to keep on keeping on rather than cut the drive into 2.
We arrived at Las Lajas Sanctuary in the golden hour, peaking out over the gorge as we drove trying to catch a glimpse down at this famous church we had heard so much about. From across the gorge, it is quite a sight to see. The sanctuary was built in the first half of the 20th century and could really be mistaken as a castle. It is relatively new in terms of big churches across the world and it looks it as well on the outside and inside by its structure and clean and pristine upkeep. Not only is it a church but it acts as a bridge connecting the gorge, allowing its visitors to enter from either side. We were personally more of a fan from far away, admiring the placement and architecture than when up close. But it was cool to see the plaques of all different history clinging to the walls of the walkway. With this being our last stop in Colombia we headed to the border, our sights set on Ecuador, ready to meet up with Frederik’s dad for a couple days!