Colombia: Cartagena to Santa Marta

Beach near Santa Marta/CO

Friday, 7 March 2008, Bogotá
I could start this report the same way as I started the last one: our truck is in a mechanic's workshop for the third day where they are trying to figure out the problem which causes the "Check Engine" light to come on. Meanwhile we have also noticed that the truck's Diesel consumption has risen considerably. Unfortunately a resolution still does not appear to be in sight...
Instead, I would prefer to start this report with praise of the Colombian people in general! Anyone who has read my last report, or the updates of our camping page, may have already noticed how often I mention the very friendly people we encounter in this country - and we really encounter them everywhere and everyday! Not a day goes by without us having one, two, or even ten friendly chats with people who just happen to walk past our truck, or who could be as far away as on the other side of the road when we stop, and cross to talk to us. Each time we are impressed by people's friendliness, their sincere effort to be helpful or to have a conversation with us. They willingly reformulate sentences several times until we can grasp them with our limited Spanish. And everybody is so interested in hearing our stories, seeing the inside of the camper, learning about our route, giving advice about out-of-the-way places in Colombia we should visit (Colombians are so proud of their country), assuring us about our safety, or warning us in which particular locations we should be more watchful. We truly enjoy the hospitality Colombia has to offer.
As most of our regular readers will know, Yasha flew from San José, in Costa Rica, to Australia to visit her family and friends and to deal with a few other matters. Meanwhile I was left alone to manage the shipping of the camper from Panamá to Cartagena in Colombia, where she re-joined me a few weeks later.
Cartagena has a bustling, beautiful historic centre which is worthwhile exploring for a few days, but it doesn't warrant the three weeks I had to wait for Yasha. Nearby I couldn't find any place where I wanted to camp for an extended period of time, so I finally decided to drive towards Santa Marta, some 200 kilometres away. It is at the southern end of the Tayrona National Park, an area where I found a few relatively nice places to camp and relax for some time.
Overall the Caribbean coast in this part of Colombia is not very exiting, as it is extremely dry countryside - not your lush green palm fringed beaches associated with a tropical paradise. Not many large trees manage to survive in this climate - most are stunted varieties well adapted to the dry weather and very strong winds. Interspersed you'll find a lot of cacti, many of which are quite large, and a lot of thorny shrubbery or sun-burned grass. The constant wind from the ocean does nothing to make this a more pleasant environment. During the dry season it creates a lot of swirling dust outdoors, which gets into one's eyes (and other openings), so you can't even enjoy a shady spot near the beach for long. It also blows the fine dust through every opening of the camper, so I have been constantly cleaning the inside. On the other hand, it does keep the temperature down to a comfortable level for most of the day...
During this waiting period I also tried to solve some of our ongoing problems and to catch up on some maintenance work. We needed a new deep cycle battery for the camper, which I finally found in Cartagena, I had to refill the propane bottles once more, and I spent several days in search of a mechanic to solve the "Check Engine" light problem (I obviously wasn't successful with this since we're still sitting at a workshop). Finally the day arrived when Yasha landed in Cartagena.
She was so exhausted from her trip that we took it rather slowly for the next few days. I showed her around the centre of Cartagena, introduced her to some nice restaurants I had discovered, and took her to the only beach I had found for camping, where I let her relax and sleep a fair bit. The Sunday after her arrival we had planned to go into the downtown of Cartagena and enjoy it in peace and quiet (since most businesses are closed), but instead we were invited to our "neighbours'" beach house near our camping spot. One of the typical experiences in this country: people are very uncomplicated, friendly and open to foreigners. So we enjoyed most of Yasha's first Sunday in Colombia in nice company, sharing some sangria and good food with them in the breeze under the shady roof of their beach house.
On Monday afternoon, after walking around the parts of the historical centre which Yasha hadn't seen, we decided to leave Cartagena and drive to Barranquilla (the largest city along the coast) to try our luck the next day with finding some help with the truck. Since we slept in small town near there, we arrived in Barranquilla fairly early in morning. Upon asking around we were pointed to a nice clean workshop near the town centre, where the mechanic tried his best to read our engine computer, but to no avail. He then directed one of the other mechanics to drive with us to "Navitrans", distributors of International trucks in this country (our engine is from International), where they couldn't do anything since their electronics is different. Then we drove with the mechanic to Ford, where they were asking 150,000 Pesos (~$75) for a simple engine scan, but then discovered that their equipment wasn't able to read any model prior to 1999. By then we felt guilty for keeping the mechanic from his work for almost half a day, so we drove him back to his workshop just in time for the end of his lunch break. Amazingly they didn't expect any payment since, in their eyes, they hadn't been able to help us; though a tip to buy a decent lunch was appreciated. Another great Colombian experience (except that the truck wasn't fixed). After having lunch we went back to "Navitrans" on our own, and talked to a mechanic there to get an opinion as to whether we could drive on to Bogotá, in the hope the problem could be fixed here. He supported this idea.
Since it was late in the day we only went as far as Santa Marta, where we filled our tanks and fridge, and then spent the night camping at the entrance of the National Park. The next day we went briefly into the small town of Taganga to find a book exchange, and by early afternoon finally started the long drive up Highway 45 towards Bogotá. After coming through all the small nations in Central America, Colombia is the first large country we have travelled since Mexico (about the size of Portugal, Spain, and France combined), and we still have to get used to the distances here. By dusk we had only covered some 220 kilometres, our speed mostly dictated by slow trucks in front of us. Along this stretch of highway there isn't much more than truck stops and a few dusty settlements stretching along the bitumen. We decided to turn off the main road to look in the small town of Chiriguaná for a bit quieter place to sleep.

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