On Christmas day, we finally arrived in South America. Cartagena was our first stop here, being the port city in which we arrived. It’s a beautiful old town that was fairly crowded, but most of the tourists here were Colombian. We spent a day strolling around the city, eating ceviche and enjoying the atmosphere. Immediately you notice that Colombia was going to be different from the Central American countries we just crossed.
The next day we took off towards the mountains. We were really looking forward to some colder weather after the heat of the last few weeks and months. As we were driving through the chaos of Cartagena, we got pulled over with the police apparently looking for things we did wrong. We stayed calm and friendly and moved on after 10 minutes. Later that day, we got pulled over again, with the police insisting that we need a front license plate. This is where our custom license plates came in handy, we simply put a plate in the windshield for future police stops.
We spent a night in Aguaschicas and then drove on towards San Gil. It’s a huge country and driving was fairly slow. As we arrived in San Gil, we planned to stay at a hostel / campground, but took a wrong turn and ended up driving a really bad dirt road. When it became clear that we were wrong, we decided to ask at the next house for directions. Before we knew what was happening, we were sitting in the family’s living room, drinking soda and getting asked all the details of our trip. After showing everyone the van, we realized after an hour what we had originally stopped by for. No problem, the family father said, but why don’t you just stay here with us? We felt bad taking the offer, since it was the holidays and there was a newborn in the family, so we didn’t want to impose. So then the family loaded up into their car to guide us to the hostel. What an amazing impression they left with us.
We relaxed for 2 days in San Gil and then moved on towards El Cocuy National Park, finally to the mountains. But in order to get there, a distance of 200km, you need to cross countless 3000m passes on windy roads. We left in the afternoon with plans to split the trip into 2 days. 50km into the dirt road, we’re coming around a blind corner on the one-lane dirt road, and a pickup truck comes speeding downhill. Reactions were too late, and wham! The pickup truck ran into our left front side. Luckily there wasn’t much damaged, our plastic front bumper wasn’t in good shape and some metal got bent. We started discussing with the other driver and soon other people showed up as well. Just what we were hoping for – a car accident on a dirt road in the middle of nowhere. We discussed with the other driver, she admitted that it was her fault, and decided to head back to San Gil to fix the situation. There, the police couldn’t help with the situation as they weren’t present at the scene of the crash. The woman called a mechanic who was looking at the car, and we insisted we need a new bumper. At this point we learned the word ‘arreglar’ in Spanish. “Here in Colombia we don’t buy new things, we fix them!” However, since it was the holidays, nobody would be there to fix things until next week. We took down everyone’s information in writing, then got offered to stay at the other driver’s home for the night. We decided to stay at a nearby hotel, completely rattled by the experience. In hindsight, everyone treated us very well and fairly.
Since we had almost a week to kill before the car would get fixed, we gave the Cocuy trip another try. The car ran fine with no damage, so we headed back on the dirt road through the mountains. This time, we were extremely careful around every single turn. It’s a beautiful drive, with mountain vistas everywhere. As we’re on our way, we came across a broken down car. So out came the tow strap, and we started pulling a Colombian family up the windy dirt road at 3,000 meter elevation. We took them to the nearest paved intersection, and they were more than thankful.
We continued on to El Cocuy, taking the less popular route on a dirt road through the canyon. Stunning views continued, and we finally arrived in the town of Cocuy in the evening. We asked around for a place to stay, and quickly were offered to stay in the lot of a tour guide’s mother. We were completely exhausted from the drive, so after dinner we couldn’t stay awake any longer. At midnight, we were woken up by firecracker noise – it was New Year’s! Nikki woke up, turned towards me, said “happy new year,” turned back around and was back asleep. Not your typical New Year’s celebration, but I’ll take it.
In Cocuy, we went for two day hikes, one of which went up to 4,600m at Laguna Grande. There are fantastic views of the glaciated 5,000m peaks around, something we have been missing since Mexico. We met some nice people at the hacienda where we stayed, among which we were impressed by a lone female Belgian cyclist who had been crossing through Colombia on her bike. A seriously impressive tour given how mountainous this place is.
After 2 days, we headed back towards San Gil to get our car fixed on Monday. This time, we didn’t drive the whole distance in a day but decided to stop in the afternoon in Onzaga. As we drove into town, we asked a gas station attendant if there’s a safe place to stay for the night. “Of course,” he said, “you can stay anywhere in town.” A little surprised we drove to the town’s plaza and asked a policeman – he gave the same answer. After 30 minutes of talking with him, showing him the van, and him showing us his dog, we parked in front of the church on the main plaza. 10 minutes later a guy walks by the car with a smile on his face, and comes to our door. It turns out he was right behind us when we had our accident. We talked briefly with him, he assured us that everything will be fixed just fine, and then took a walk around town for the evening.
When we got back to our camp spot in San Gil, we met some other overlanders there – nonurbia. It was funny because I had actually be in contact with them to figure out some details of the ferry from Panama. Their car is seriously awesome, every time we looked at it we were getting jealous.
Monday came along and we dropped the car off at the mechanic. Nikki took advantage of the situation to take a bus to Bogota, where she renewed her passport (all pages were full!). I stayed in San Gil with Leika, hanging out in a tent for a while. Even though initially the repair was supposed to take 4 days, it got done the next afternoon. When I went to pick up the car, it was like new – amazing work. With our car back in shape, Nikki’s passport renewal worries gone, and fantastic experiences with the people we have met, we were feeling a lot better about the trip.