May 16 – June 24, 2017
A new Continent!
We traveled a total of 6 weeks through Panama, our favorite experience was the last few days we spent on a sailboat exploring the paradisiac San Blas Islands. After frolicking in the islands we crossed the open sea to arrive in Cartagena, Colombia on May 16, 2017. Since we were on a boat, there was no actual border crossing and the Captain took care of getting our passports stamped by immigration for a period of 90 days. We were so excited to be in South America, the first time for both of us.
Colombia is one of the countries that we were looking forward to visit, we heard so many good things from other travelers. Everyone raves about how friendly and welcoming Colombians are, we had some first hand experience with our Colombian daughter in law, Mariana and her amazing family living in Florida.
Colombia, is it safe?
Colombia is becoming a popular tourist destination but as you know it was not always the case; between the civil war with the *FARC guerrillas and paramilitaries leaving 260,000 dead and over 7 million displaced and the Narcos of the 80’s and 90’s, Colombia has been synonymous with violence and drugs. Negotiations for a peace process between the Colombian Government and the FARC* started in 2012 and a historic peace accord was signed in 2016 ending 52 years of armed conflict! Today Colombia is a much safer place for it’s residents and for travelers but there is still known areas of tension and drug cartels continue to be active.
*FARC: Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia (Colombia’s Revolutionary Armed Forces)
In our six months of extensive Overland travel through Colombia we never felt in any kind of danger however we did follow the same safety precautions we’ve used since we started our journey:
- never drive at night
- avoid known high risk areas
- ask the locals for advice
- find secure camp sites whether it’s wild camping, an established campground or the parking lot of a hostel or restaurant
- rarely go out at night, we socialize mostly with fellow travelers around camp fires or snug in our camper. We are usually in bed by 9 pm anyway!
Getting Silver Back
After finding a hostel in Cartagena our first priority was to get Silver (our truck camper) back. He made the trip all alone in a container on a cargo ship from Colon, Panama to Cartagena, Colombia! The day after we arrived, we got up bright and early to be at the Port of Cartagena by 8am. We knew that it was going to be a tedious process because there’s a lot of running around with paperwork that needs to be examined and approved by different offices (port authority, shipping line, customs) going to different banks to pay different invoices, having Aduana (customs) inspect the container and finally getting Silver out, hopefully without any damage.
The extraction was a lot smoother than the loading!!! After 2 days of running around and a lot of waiting we had our home back with just a few scratches but everything else intact and we got our TIP (Temporary Import Permit) for a period of 90 days. The whole shipping process cost us $2,030 plus a $20 tip to the guys that took Silver out of the container because Joe was not going to renew the experience he had in Panama. We arranged the shipping in Panama with a company called Ever Logistics run by a father and son team both named Boris! They were better equipped here, they had cell phones for directions and the container was on the ground instead of having to back up on a flat bed truck like we did in Panama.
Our first Colombian street food: Arepas, Empanadas, Papas Rellenas and Aguila beer!
Now that Silver is securely parked a few blocks from our hostel it’s time to discover Cartagena, the undisputed Queen of the Caribbean Coast!
We found a charming hostel in the Getsemani up-and-coming neighborhood, a ten minute walk to the historic district. Visiting Cartagena in May is probably not the best time of the year because it’s extremely hot and humid, there was no way we could have stayed in our camper without Air Conditioning. Hostel Friends to Be was our home in Cartagena for 10 days from May 16 to 25, 2017.
San Basilio de Palenque
With two other travelers we met at the hostel, we decided to go see the village of San Basilio de Palenque located about 2 hours south of Cartagena. To get there we had to take two buses and did the last 10 km on moto taxi. Palenque is known as the first free slave town in the Americas. It was founded in the 16th century by an escaped slave from the Port of Cartagena, he was a former African king who went on to form an army of escaped slaves and conquered the area around San Basilio de Palenque, eventually the governor of Cartagena offered them a peace treaty, but he was later executed by the Spaniards. It was only in 1691 that the Spanish Crown issued a Royal Decree officially freeing the Africans in San Basilio de Palenque from slavery.
It is also the birthplace of some of Colombia’s finest boxers, musicians and actors. The iconic Palenqueras of Cartagena, (the black ladies dressed in traditional colorful dresses selling fruits) come from Palenque even though many of them now live in Cartagena.
In 2005, San Basilio de Palenque was declared by UNESCO a “Masterpiece of Oral and intangible Heritage of Humanity”
Today San Basilio de Palenque looks like it was frozen in time, they have kept a lot of their African traditions through music, dance, language … “ the only Spanish-based Creole language that exist in the world “. A Festival of Drums and Cultural expression is held every year in October, it attracts international musicians and is one of Colombia’s most important cultural heritage festivals!
Cartagena de Indias – the walled city
Colonial city founded in 1533, Cartagena is the fifth largest City in Colombia and a hot spot for tourism. A large number of the wooden buildings were destroyed by a big fire in 1552, since that time only stone, brick and tile are allowed. During the colonial period, Cartagena was the most important bastion of the Spanish overseas empire, it has seen its share of attacks from buccaneers, in the 16th century alone it suffered five sieges by pirates. That’s why walls and a series of forts were built by the Spaniards. Bolivar nicknamed her La Heroica (The Heroic) for the bravery and resilience of it’s people.
The more “mature” readers will remember Cartagena for being the backdrop for the 1984 movie Romancing the Stone! It’s certainly not as crazy as it was portrayed in the movie but it’s definitely just as beautiful and romantic!
After 10 days in Cartagena it was time to get going, Silver was in need of some maintenance so we headed North to the industrial Port City of Barranquilla.
Besides their annual Mardi Gras, Barranquilla does not attract many tourists but it’s a modern city with a population of 1.2 million. Opulent new malls, cinemas, plenty of restaurants, services and parts for pretty much everything one needs. The extreme heat and humidity was almost unbearable when we were there but we ended up staying in Barranquilla on two separate occasions to get maintenance done on Silver at the well known (in the Overland world) Iguana 4×4.
A few interesting things about Barranquilla:
- There is a strong Arabic presence therefore delicious middle eastern style restaurants and good products in grocery store, like Tahini. It is estimated that Colombia has a Lebanese population of 700,000 established mostly on the Caribbean Coast. They came in the 19th century escaping oppression from the Turkish Ottoman Empire and later in the 1940’s seeking refuge from the world wars. One of the most famous Colombian of Arab descent is Shakira, born and raised in Barranquilla!
- Barranquilla has a terrible drainage system (which is now being addressed little by little). The absence of stormwater sewer system is a real danger for it’s residents. There is a phenomenon called Arroyos (translate to a wash, flash flood or dry river bed) when it rains certain streets turn into rivers taking cars, people or anything else in its passage. Google it, it is worth seeing! We witnessed a small one and Joe filmed it, but I can’t find the video! But what is amazing is that for the residents it’s just part of their lives, when there is an Arroyo the City shuts down for 45 minutes to an hour until it passes then everything goes back to normal like nothing happened!!!
A traditional fishing village located just 3 km North of Santa Marta, Taganga has become a bit overcrowded and popular as a Dive Resort attracting budget travelers looking to do their scuba certification and some partying. Our friend Carolina told us about the SierraVentura Hostel, we rolled in to town with our new friend Karlheiz who we previously met in Panama and again in Barranquilla at Iguana 4×4.
May 30 – June 5, 2017
From Taganga we drove 50 km along the coast to our next camp, Casa Grande surf camp, located next to Tayrona National Park known for it’s beautiful beaches and lush rainforest. We didn’t really like the camping options in the Park and we were traveling with Karlheiz and his new pup Lizzie and the park did not allow dogs so we opted for Casa Grande where we stayed a week just relaxing on the beach.
June 5 – 8, 2017
While resting on the beach we did a lot of thinking and asked other travelers on the Facebook group PanAmerican Travelers Association if we should visit the remote area of La Guajira. After reading all the positive comments of people who had done it, we decided to go for it and we convinced our new friend Karlheinz to come along in his very capable Mazda 4×4, when visiting remote places we like teaming up with other overlanders for security in case we get stuck and companionship of course.
To make it to Punta Gallinas, the Northestmost point of mainland in South America, you have to cross part of the Guajira desert and the main concerns when visiting the area are the road conditions, they can be impassable after rainfall, you have to cross a few lake beds that seem fine but could in reality be extremely soft and muddy. We heard of people being stranded for days after a bad rainfall. Another concern is the lack of visible roads, or I should say tracks, because you come across areas where the tracks go in ten different directions and if you take the wrong one you may have to back track or just get lost. There is also the concern of the indigenous people, the Wayuus, living along the way, they block the road with ropes and demand money for passage. It is also extremely hot and windy.
After getting groceries, filling up with water and diesel we hit the road. Our first stop and where we spent the first night was called Cabo de la Vela, a small fishing village on the Caribbean Sea, and a remote but popular destination for kitesurfing.
Well, things did not go according to plan… We had agreed to meet at 5:00am, when we saw Julio, he was in a different vehicle, he said to follow him to another location where he was talking with other guys, that’s when we broke the first rule of a seasoned traveller: we paid him before the service was rendered!!!
Before I continue, I have to explain something, Punta Gallinas is almost exclusively visited by small tour groups. 4×4 vehicle mostly Toyota Land Cruisers pack 5 or 6 backpackers in their vehicle and drive at extreme speed through the desert to a location where the backpackers will get off, take a small boat to cross a body of water, once on the other side, another 4×4 vehicle will be waiting for them to continue the tour. By doing so they save a few hours and everybody seems happy to get a piece of the action!
When the arrangements were discussed with Julio we made it clear that we wanted to go all the way to Punta Gallinas, not to the drop off area where the boats are. Sure enough when finally we’re ready to go, Julio tells us to follow Jesus in a white Land Cruiser with 3 young Colombian tourists! At first everything seemed fine but then he started to go faster and faster and we could barely keep up, our truck is certainly very capable but at 6 tonnes we can’t and won’t drive fast on these crazy roads! Finally Jesus stopped and we told him that it was not the agreement, then he tells us that he is not getting paid to guide us … oh boy! Needless to say that Joe did not take the news well, but finally with the help of one of the Colombian tourist that spoke English, the driver agreed to slow down … then, where do you think he took us? The very place we made sure we did not want to go, the drop off area where the boats wait! That’s when Joe went Philly on him! But it was too late, once the tourists were dropped off, Jesus took off! After everyone calmed down, we met another guy, Pedro, that was welling to guide us and he would ride with Karlheiz. From that point on the whole atmosphere relaxed and we had one of the most memorable experience of our trip!
The Wahuu indigenous tribe that has lived in La Guajira Peninsula for centuries between Colombia and Venezuela are struggling for survival. A very large mining company has been extracting coal since 1985, and apparently draining and polluting the only river, adding to this, a drought that as lasted from 2011 to 2015, the tribe can no longer grow crops and keep cattle. The children are getting sick from dirty water and we read about many deaths and cases of malnutrition in the last few years. Without access to clean water, the Wahuu, once a proud and thriving culture, are now resorting to begging from the few tourists that venture in that area. It is a very sad site to see. Apparently there is some humanitarian aid in place but without a clean and sufficient source of water, many of them are still struggling.
Adults and sometimes kids almost toddlers held ropes through the road and asked for money. We were told to bring sweets to give to the children but we realized that what they needed was water! A few of them sold crafts instead of begging so we bought some bracelets and a few mochilas (handmade bags). We never felt threatened by them, it was more a felling of sadness to see young children having to beg.
June 8 – 13, 2017
While in Punta Gallinas we met Carlos, born in Gainesville Florida from Colombian parents, he was with the US Army for 20 years and 12 years with Southcom. When he saw our Florida tags, he started talking to us, but it was weird because he looked totally Colombian but he had a Southern US accent!!! He decided to go back to Colombia to enjoy his retirement. He invited us to visit him in Palomino, where he lived. A laid back beach town with good restaurants and not to many tourists.
We arrived in a deluge!
Few Facts about Colombia:
- Population: 48.65 million (2016) World Bank
- Area: 440,831 sq miles (1.142 million km²)
- Capital: Bogota
- Currency: Colombian Peso (COP) 1 USD = 2,879 COP
- Time spent: 6 months (May 16 – November 1, 2017)
- Miles driven: 4162
- Diesel price per gallon: $ 2.69
I’m sure that by now you have noticed that our blog posts are way behind. Even though I enjoy writing it, I don’t want it to become a burden and the internet being what it is in remote areas of South America, I only write when I have a long period of down time and good wifi.
For more current updates you can follow us on Facebook at Joe and Josée’s Journey or on Instagram @ joeandjosee
Next: Colombia – Part 2 … Stay tuned!