¡Vamos Colombia! Parte uno

Right, this needs to come in two instalments because Colombia is outright ridiculously sick and I could write a novel on it.

V A N  L I F E

After a fun three weeks in the mad little world of Gigante Bay I had a ride to Costa Rica with South African Mark.

I was looking forward to this mini journey because it would give me a glimpse into “van life”. I’d met quite a few people along the way doing the same thing, families with young children in massive winnebagos, couples in retro VWs, wave hunting Chileans and Mark who has been cruising around North and Central America in his bad boy red velour interior wagon for 15 months.

They all talked positively of an amazing experience and the freedom having your own wheels bring you. When you eliminate the need to catch buses or find accommodation you really are giving yourself the absolute best opportunity to be the master of your time and freedom to its fullest. It’s also more comfortable than a chicken bus!

Mark’s wheels have ample space for two surf boards, a sail for windsurfing, a double bed, and everything you need to cook up a storm every night. It’s a perfect set up and he clearly loves it given the time he’s spent in it. As too do the women who have graced it by the looks of his Instagram account.

I’ve heard that crossing boarders with vehicles can be time consuming and complex with a lot of paper work but we managed to shoot through into Costa Rica pretty easily and quickly.

And this is where the freedom of your own wheels really comes into its full glory. Mark pin points a beach on the west coast to camp up for the night and off we go. We drive down some sandy dirt tracks and find a spot right on the beach with not another soul in sight. I pitch up a tent for the night before it gets dark and Mark whips up an impressive feast. He’s got a fold out table, two camping chairs, a little two hob gas stove and basically everything you need to cook decent meals with ease. It all fits in his van snuggly.

What I love about this van life experience is the ease at which we are able to go wherever we like. This spot would be impossible to get to without your own wheels. It’s not just freedom of time that the wheels provides, it gives you maximum freedom to go where you want and avoid the masses.

It also makes travelling places like Costa Rica which are expensive in terms of accommodation and travel way more affordable.

If you were to buy a vehicle at the start of your trip for say $3k (that’s a pretty tidy wagon), and then flog it at the end for $2k, that is $1k of the best money you could ever spend! Who knows you might even sell it for more or break even. However this pans out I think over a long trip this option whilst providing all the freedom benefits of the above could work out cheaper than accommodation and travel costs over the duration of your trip. If it doesn’t it is still worth it just to have your freedom! Not sure you can put a price on that to be honest!

I’m weighing up this mode of travelling strongly for my next adventure!

C O S T A  R I C A

My plan is to get through Costa Rica and Panama as quick as possible to basically save money. Both countries are super expensive and this becomes apparent as soon as I leave Mark and make my way to San Jose where my nights accommodation sets me back $20. I did spend one further night in Puerto Viejo which is a wicked little surf town on the Caribbean coast. 

I’d have liked to have stayed and caught some waves but given it was New Year everything was super expensive. 

Before I caught my next monster bus ride I had an unusual encounter with an American guy called John. 

Whilst making a Skype call for a prospective voluntary job in Peru I noticed this guy come and sit quite close to me, I kind of felt he was in my space a little bit and almost like he was listening in but it didn’t bother me too much and I finished the call a short while later.

As soon as I finished John introduced himself in a very quiet voice, almost like he was really struggling to breath or just talking was super exhausting for him. He was painfully skinny. He wore sunglasses even though it was raining and pretty gloomy.

All became clear as he described how he’s on the run from the FBI as a result of his 40 year investigation into the Illuminati! He explains how he’d dedicated his life to exposing this secret society and when he published a film exposing the heinous crimes of this elitist group he was immediately hounded and basically run out of the country for fear of his life knowing he could never return. Maybe a blessing!

However, his health is so bad, lungs and heart all needing surgery he is basically spending his remaining days passing on his knowledge and findings to people like me. 

He passes me four pieces of paper with various documentaries that he recommends I watch on YouTube. His request being that I pass on the same four pieces of paper to other people once I’ve digested all the information.

My bus was due to leave in 15 minutes so I had to go but I kind of wanted to hear what else he had to say. It’s certainly not something I’m familiar with and whilst it’s difficult to tell whether he was completely bonkers or not i always find it interesting meeting people with alternative views on things. That said I’m not sure he could have talked for much longer, never have I seen someone so close to death. I kind of wanted to give him a cuddle but was worried he’d snap under the force or I’d restrict his breathing to the point he’d end up dead in my arms. 

To date I’ve watched one of the documentaries called Chemtrails and it’s pretty shocking and was certainly not something I’d noticed in the skies before. I won’t go into details here but it’s worth a watch if you want to scare yourself that we are being systematically poisoned as part of a process to control global warming.

Pretty bleak viewing but if true would not totally surprise me. We live in a pickled world no doubt about it.

– Costa Rica observations:

From my brief time in Costa Rica my biggest observation was the readily available trail mix! Various nuts, raisins and M&Ms in a heady mix is sold everywhere. Such a great medley, the perfect combination of salt and sweet. Me gusta mucho and I will be incorporating this into my diet once I return to England and can buy nuts at a fraction of the price

Oh, and it’s proper jungle beach paradise

P A N A M A  T O  C O L O M B I A

The next 48 hours are a bit hazy as I spent two days on buses, a plane and a boat to get into Colombia and I’m kind of at pains writing about it because it’s essentially pretty boring. But here it is anyway.

The bus from Puerto Viejo got me to the Panama boarder where I was told I needed evidence I was leaving the country or I would have to go back to Costa Rica where they would surely ask for the same evidence. Luckily I had the fake booking from trying to sort out my Nica visa so this got the job done and I was in Panama.

Here I met the first immigration officials with smiles and jokes. Getting interrogated by a middle aged lady at the boarder why my onward destination was colombia with “is it the women?” was a pleasent change from no eye contact and grunts. Well played Panama because your boarder control personnel have to be the happiest on the planet.

It’s New Year’s Eve and I am to see the new year in in a bus terminal in the weirdly named David City. I “treated” myself to some chicken and rice. I say treated because I’d not had any meat for a long time but this chicken had more bone than meat. Plus there was no salsa picante. Some fireworks softened the blow.

I’m hoping to get a flight from Panama City to this little airport close to the Colombian boarder called Puerto Obaldia and from there get a boat around the headland to Capurgana and start the Colombian love affair.

I arrive at Panama City airport at 8am with no idea of when the flights are and whether on New Year’s Day there will even be any. I’m told there is a flight at 10:30am but the 10 seats on the plane are taken. They put me on a waiting list. At 10am I’m told I’m on the flight and pay $110 for the 1hour flight to Puerto Obaldia. The stars aligned for me there big time!

I’m in seat number one which is pretty much in the cockpit! 

I try to avoid falling asleep so I can take in the mega scenes as we cross the San Blas. I don’t last long and wake up just before touch down.

Not sure whether the inhabitants of little isolated Obaldia were massively hungover from the biggest New Years smash up of all time but the place was a ghost town and what people were there were reluctant to share my “buenos dias” and smile. I hate it when that happens! It’s so nice when you get a smile and a reciprocal greeting from a stranger, it fills me with happiness but equally when it’s completely ignored a little bit of me is gutted. An opportunity for a shared smile has gone missing. I get over it quick though. 

There’s a Canadian couple who are making the same journey as me so we organise getting the boat together. This is after navigating through many army check points. They aren’t too happy to see us either. More work for them when they’d rather be on their phones messaging the wife back home to cook some tortillas no doubt. 

We eventually find a guy with a boat, he wants $120. I get him down to $90 and another $30 notes are dropped. The guy takes our money and disappears. There is no boat at the port. I fear we might have been fleeced so I decide to not worry about it too much and have a nap. Eventually some dude speeds round the bay in a little boat and we hop in.

– Panama observations:
Difficult to call any given the time I spent here was less that 48 hours and the vast majority of it was spent on various modes of transport but;

They need to feed their chickens more

Come up with better names for their cities than “David”
¡C O L O M B I A!
Eventually I arrive in Capurgana expecting classic Caribbean paradise but I’m met by pumping music of a description I cannot comprehend. It’s like nothing I’ve heard before. All I can make out is a nasty accordion screeching and piercing through my whole body. The closest description I can give it would be accordion infused reggaeton trance. Nasty!

There’s loads of drunk men milling around and the place looks run down and just generally a bit shit. Most of the shops are boarded up as if everyone who lives and works here has either left for New Year because they don’t like it here either or they are at the port getting smashed.

The downside of travelling Colombia over Xmas and New Year is it is their summer holidays and they have the whole of December and part of January off work so it’s manic everywhere. It’s peak season and it’s being capitalised on, accommodation and transport feels hyperinflated.

I’m absolutely knackered from spending essentially five days on the road. Because it’s high season I struggle to find anywhere with a bed. After spending an hour walking around I eventually find a spot on the main high street. This is peak sound system territory. It’s full of Colombian families. Colombians have large families it appears and they love a drink and loud, terrible music. They bring sound systems with them just to blare out the music in the street or like a competition to see who play it the loudest. They play their tunes at full whack from about 8am to 12pm every day. There is no escape from it during the holiday period.

I sound like a moaning old bastard but I don’t see this music as being remotely attached to Colombian culture, it’s some weird American influenced dance music with a few outdated Colombian instruments thrown in to give it a mild Latin feel. There is no way this has been listened to for more than a few years so yeah I’m not a big fan at all. Being shattered doesn’t help I suppose. My patience is being sorely tested.

There isn’t really a beach in Capurgana so I walk over the headland to Sapzurro.

It’s the complete opposite of Capurgana and has a nice feel to it as well as being closer to what you think of the Caribbean. 

My phone had given up on me at this point so there are no pictures sadly.

After a couple of days trying to chill, eat healthily and enjoy not being sat on a bus I start to make my trek to the most northern point of South America, Punta Gallinas. I need to get a boat from Capurgana to Necocli which is a bit further north and the spot from which I’ll get a bus as far north as possible in one sitting. This boat ride sets me back another $30.

In hindsight I should have just flown for San Jose to Medellin or Cartagena. It would have been far cheaper and saved myself about five days of bus and boat rides. So anyone thinking of crossing the Panama Colombia boarder I’d highly recommend you just fly to one of the big cities and save yourself the time and expense unless you want to sample the local Caribe music!

After another two days spent on buses i eventually arrive in Santa Marta from where I can then make the final leg of the journey to Punta Gallinas.

C A B O  D E  L A  V I L L A

Not quite sure why but I punish myself by deciding to do the trip the following day.
In order to make Punta Gallinas a stop over in Cabo De La Villa is needed. Getting here requires a 4hr bus and then a 4hr jeep through the desert. Everything I’d read suggested this leg of the journey was pretty grim with any number of people cramming into the jeep with all their belongings piled in. I was kind of lucky enough to get a seat at the end where I could dangle my legs out the back. There was no room for them in the jeep because a local lady had decided to sprawl out and sleep across the whole width of the back seats. 

I bumped into two Frenchies that I’d met in Gigante Bay several weeks before so that was nice to share the ride with them and catch up on their travels. It also worked as a distraction from the pain shooting through my arse as the we ploughed over rocky dirt tracks.

Cabo itself is quite a peculiar place. It’s so remote and it’s bloody hard to get to. I wasn’t expecting bright neon lights like Playas De Las Americas in Tenerife. 

However, it is an incredible kitesurfing destination with perfect wind conditions and judging by the numbers of people in the water and outside and the number of kitesurfing camps, it looks like it has really kicked off despite its inaccessibility.

I’m treated to a display from the Colombian Champion. Pretty mental the stuff this kid was doing. I can’t add videos to WordPress, think I need to pay for that but you can view it on my Instagram account – @desrampling.

P U N T A  G A L L I N A S

The following day we set off at 6am. It’s another four hour journey by jeep across the desert to this northern outpost.

This area known as La Guajira is home to the Wayuu tribe. I’d read that the tribe was one of only a few who had fought off the Spanish conquistadors when they arrived in 1499. Consequently they are immensely proud of their land and heritage despite it being so completely inhospitable. It’s close to 40 degrees, it’s a dust bowl, only cactuses appear to grow and I have no idea how these people ended up here and decided this would be a good place to reside. I’m surprised the Spanish even wanted it.

During the drive to Cabo there were little settlements of Wayuu people who generally had a collection of hand crafted bags to sell to tourists. Occasionally we would stop and drop off supplies to the households. 

But the drive to Punta Gallinas displayed living conditions far more extreme and cut off from civilisation. Kids lined the desert tracks with little barricades made of string or rope. I’d read about the harsh living conditions and the lack of fresh water so I brought with me 8 litres of water to hand out to the kids. 

As we stop at one of the hundreds of little stops for the kids I hand a bottle of water out the window. The little boy not much older than 9 necks it quicker than your average drunk down the park with a can of special brew. He’s gasping.

It’s a pretty sorry state of affairs. Hundreds of kids have died in recent years of dehydration in the area. This can largely be attributed to the mining company who started extracting coal and then cleaning it in the fresh water supply that a lot of the Wayuu’s used. This water is now completely contaminated and I’m not too sure how they manage. Maybe off tourist water hand outs and cash in order to go and buy water. Although the nearest shop must be hours away.

It’s a shocking example of the lengths at which businesses will go to make money. The death of hundreds of kids is of no importance to these companies and their shareholders. But a positive light shines through because typically every Wayuu person I meet has a grand smile on their face and their little blockades are done with fun and humour. It’s impossible to stop at every one but the kids don’t look too despondent when you don’t stop. They quickly set up the blockade again for the next vehicle. They also get very excited when they do strike gold.

I’m not quite sure whether us giving them hand outs is the best way of dealing with the problem and the plight they face. I hear of cooperatives being set up to help organise the tribes better. They are renowned for making incredible bags and I see some women selling camerones (gambas/ prawns). I think buying products from those who are selling is better than just giving money to those begging but it’s very hard to know what to do, these people are desperate.

But it dawns on me pretty quickly that at no point in my life should I ever really moan about anything because typically these people always wear a smile even in the middle of the desert and with no water. Even when presented with horrific accordion based reggaeton trance I should feel very fortunate.

When we finally arrive at the camp for the night I’m pooped and ready for another night in a hammock. I don’t sleep that great in them generally but I’m so tired I know as soon as I’ve nailed my dinner I’ll be out for the count.

The next morning we rise early, have breakfast and set off in an open truck. I kind of feel like cattle being herded into the back of it. But despite this the scenery is spectacular and the countless days it’s taken me to get here are certainly worth it.

It’s like a world I have never seen before.

Giant sand dunes rolling straight into the Caribbean Sea. I’ll let the pictures do the talking. There’s several great stop offs along the way.

I get to meet a Wayuu family who are awaiting at El Mirrador for the tourists. 

I can’t help but notice how strikingly beautiful they are and how impeccable their teeth are. They don’t speak much Spanish so it’s difficult to converse but they too are happy for a bottle of water. They share it around sparingly.

– Colombian observations:

The mullet is still a popular hair style here

The accordion has no place in music. It is a ghastly instrument

The panaderias/ pastelerias (bakeries) are every where, it’s impossible to keep out of them!

The Arepas rivals the Papusa

Part 2 which to be honest is probably more interesting than this edition because I didn’t spend it almost entirely on a bus will follow in a few weeks.
Adios amigos!


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