Ecuador – the Poor Man’s Galapagos

We’d heard that the entire coast of Peru is polluted, at times unsafe, and therefore not very attractive, so if we want to enjoy some days on the beach, it is better to do it in Ecuador. So after many weeks of living in winter clothes, we wanted to feel the tropical breezes of the Pacific Ocean…which had been a while.

We arrived in the steaming lowlands and were greeted by sugarcane and cacao plantations. Not interested in visiting the port city of Guayaquil, we chose the highway around the outskirts of the metropolis, which accentuated the stark contrast between the life of the rich and life of the poor in Ecuador: here we passed hundreds of Mc Mansions within gated communities, with neatly planted medians and clean swept sidewalks, mega malls and shopping centers, which made us feel like we landed in Southern Florida. As we turned away from the city, the walled-in mansions made place for condo units and finally tightly packed concrete townhomes, before the countryside revealed breezy, ramshackle bamboo houses standing high on stilts above flood prone fields. Along the beach, within easy reach from the bigger cities, rows of luxury vacation homes sat comfortably together overlooking the ocean – clean, white and mostly vacant. Occasionally we passed through small surfer towns, where tiny streets were clogged with vendors, roadside restaurants and back packing tourists.

In general the road along the coast was excellent, while most of the villages would not attract any tourists. Here, missing sidewalks made walking difficult. Dust settled on chickens roasting on the barbeque … stray dogs lapped up gray-green water leaching from the homes into the mud along the curb… We settled ourselves just outside one of these villages, in Machalilla, at a street side “campground” facing the beach, because the family who runs this place does their best to keep their area and facilities clean, was very welcoming, and offered to watch Kakao when we went to visit Isla de la Plata at the adjacent Machalilla National Park. Isla de la Plata is sometimes called “Poor Man’s Galapagos” because several of the same animals assemble there, with little fear for humans, and in contrast to the Galapagos archipelago, it is only a one hour boatride from the coast, which makes an affordable daytrip possible. Just enough for Kakao to be left under care!

The first few days we remained where we were in our camper to wait out the weekend, and to settle down. We wanted to make sure Kakao knew the family and the local dogs and vice versa. We let him and enjoy the beach and run free until he felt at home. The morning we climbed into the taxi to bring us to the boat landing, Kakao remained quietly behind. On return we heard he had cried a bit, but not too long.

At the boat launch in Puerto Lopez, 14 other visitors, plus 2 guides and 2 crew members joined us on a powerful speedboat. We flew over the waves towards the island where, upon arrival a group of 5 green turtles came to greet us. For the walking tour, the group was divided into English and Spanish speakers and with a few minutes distance between the two groups, we climbed uneven steps to the plateau where most of the island’s birds roosted.  At the top we could choose which one of the two available trails we would walk. Since this time of year was breeding season for the Magnificent Frigate birds, who’d roost in the trees along the plateau loop, most of us picked that. The other one would lead us down to the coast for an opportunity to observe these and other birds in flight – much more difficult to photograph.

Before we even started on the trail, a pair of Blue Footed Boobies stopped us with their charming foot up dance – it was the start of a delightful walk through their colony. Though their breeding season had not started yet (at the end of the rainy season the risk of rain flooding their bare earth nest was still too big) there were a few of them already sitting on eggs, and certainly many of them were selecting a partner with extensive courtship rituals, rarely getting fazed by us humans passing within a few feet of them. Often we even got the impression that they called out to us if we’d walk by without noticing them. These birds are too funny!

Facing the other side of the island, low trees were littered with frigate birds. Only now, during mating season, you’d see how the males proudly displayed their bright red balloon-like gular sack, hoping to impress their favorite girls. After a skirmish with one or two other males, we saw them take off and fly past us with a slowly deflating red bulge, until it looks like a shriveled old bag, flopping left and right under their beaks. In awe of this spectacle, we’d almost forget to look on the ground, where the Blue Footed Boobies still call for our attention with whistles -by the males, and toots -by the females.

As we looped around to our starting point, we had to walk around a juvenile booby on the trail and our guide took the opportunity to point out that juveniles don’t have their trademark blue feet yet; they turn blue with age as they consume carotenoid rich fish like anchovies and sardines. As they get older and stay healthy, their feet become ever brighter blue in color.

At the far end of the island there was also a small colony of Red Footed Boobies; their diet consists more of red coloring squid. Since they are so rare on the island, their territory, as well as that of the Nazca Boobies and the threatened Galapagos Albatross breeding grounds, were off limit for us.

After a roughly three hour walk we had lunch on the boat, watched the turtles some more, and went to a nearby inlet for some snorkeling. The turtles rushed over to see us jump in the warm water, however most of us swam the other way, and only the last ones in the water had the luck to meet them eye to eye (too bad, not us).  We didn’t have an underwater camera with us, but I have to say, there was not much to see but a few schools of blue with yellow tailed tropical fish and dead coral. The ocean is dying! Nevertheless, the swim was refreshing after the midday heat, and we sat back happy and satisfied on the ride home.

Back at our camper Kakao was happy to see us, and after a good night’s sleep we left Machalilla the next day to explore the coast going north.

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Colombia to Ecuador

After three weeks staying at La Bonanza, it was time to move on. The barricades on the road between Cali and Pasto had lifted, however it was not certain if it would stay that way. The indigenous people were still upset about the president’s refusal to talk to them about the many serious issues they have with the government, and barricading the main traffic route in their region seemed to be the most effective way to get their point across. It meant that the main artery between northern Colombia and Ecuador was blocked. Within this southern region, fuel could not be delivered, stores could not be supplied with new stock, and people were left stranded. The economic disaster and the uproar should force the government to give in to demands, but it looked like the president was not willing to negotiate. For us, it meant that we had to stay put where we were near Silvia, but since we had stumbled upon one of the nicest campgrounds with the best hosts in memory, it was not a sacrifice. Together with a French couple, a Swiss couple, and an Argentinian family -all in campers, we had been marooned with some French and Chilean volunteers, and we all made the best out of the situation. We helped a bit around the farm and celebrated our togetherness with food and drink. One day our hosts Kika and Anouar decided to treat us to a Moroccan experience with a giant couscous dinner, combined with a fashion show of all the caftans Kika had collected through the years. All of us women could show off like queens!

When it was time to leave, some went north towards Cali, and some, like us and the Argentinians, went south towards the Ecuador border. We took the fast road along the Panamericana, and though the scenery was beautiful, we stopped just for the night, with just some activity before leaving. Within three days we were at the border. In Ipiales, the border town, we visited a supermarket to spend our last Colombian pesos. We bought so much, that for the next couple of weeks, we would not need to go shopping again, except for fresh bread and produce. Since grocery prices are much higher in Ecuador, this was a good thing. In the grocery store our Argentinian friends were approached by local customers warning that, if we’d like to cross the border, we’d better do it now, since the next day, the border would be barricaded. So, rather than spending a nice quiet last day in Colombia, with a visit to the famous Santuario las Lajas, we rushed towards the church, saw the long lines to get in, and decided we did not have enough time for a real visit, so instead we just took a picture from the road above it, and sped towards the border.

The border took its usual time; it was around 5PM when we and our friends drove into Tulcan and decided to spend the night in the street in front of the cemetery, in the middle of town. This cemetery is known for its crazy topiary sculptures; a must see if you have a chance, and we did. Giant boxwood heads stood beside birds and turtles, while a congregation of fantastic figures held court around a stone Pieta. Enclosed by this topiary art lay the graves of the deceased, gaily decorated with flowers. The perimeters of the grounds existed of cemetery walls where the fronts displayed small shrines dedicated to the ones laid to rest.

We said hasta luego to our Argentinian friends at the Hot Springs and Holy Waters of the Grutas de la Paz, where they wanted to stay a few days to catch up on their children’s schoolwork, while we were curious about a campground we heard much about: a place to meet other travelers and exchange information about places to visit. Finca Sommerwind was, as expected from a camping run by a German, well organized and clean. The neighboring racetrack, however, chased us away with deafening  howls of pumped up racecars. Before we left, or rather upon arrival, we met our new friend Hans, a Dutch guy who for the next two weeks would follow the same route as us.

We remembered Otavalo from our first South American travel, some forty years ago. We recalled a small town colored navy and white by the local dress of the proud Otavalo indigenous people.  We remembered camping near the lake, and visiting the market in the small town of Otavalo…so we wanted to see if we could recognize anything. The town had become a city and the lake was now built up, but we could still camp in a lost corner. The market had become huge: still colorful with an abundance of produce, jewelry and daily necessities, but with a craft section that had become too focused on tourists with junky commercial craft. The people however were the same: they still proudly wore their traditional dress, and still approachable, with a sharp sense for commerce. As we’d expected things to have changed, we were not disappointed.

Our new friend Hans had joined us at the lake and on our visit to the Otavalo market, and for the next  two weeks we would share drinks and an evening meal together, and often go our separate ways during the day. But not always! When we found each other at the center of the world (the campground “El Mitad Del Mundo”) he invited us to join him in his truck, to drive up the Cayambe volcano, over  a “road” that we never would have been able to finish. The Cayambe volcano is the only snow-capped mountain on the equator, so you can imagine how high it must be! As the road went higher towards the icecap, tarmac turned into cobblestone, then into gravel with increasingly more and deeper potholes. Until at one point it looked more like a riverbed with boulders and rocks of various sizes. Left and right, cars were deserted by people who decided it was safer to walk the rest of the way. Motorcycles struggled to keep their vehicles upright while navigating the uneven terrain. Stubborn bicyclists seemed to do best on this stretch. And Hans! With a huge smile on his face he was able to show off the capabilities of his amazing camper truck….handled it like a pro, all the way to the end of the road! From there on, we could walk for about another hour to get to the glacier. We had to leave Kakao in the truck, because 1: he was officially not allowed in the park (even though we saw stray dogs running around there) 2: he was a little sick, maybe from all the shaking and the high altitude, but probably  from a bad infection of his gums – we’d have that looked after later.  We got ourselves dressed as warmly as possible, got out, and braved the icy mountain wind… and discovered, at 5600m (or 15,100ft) it is exhausting to walk! Even walking on a flat surface took our breath away, but going up was close to impossible! During a cup of hot chocolate at the refugio, we studied the trails leading up to the glacier, and decided for the easiest one to the bottom of the glacier. That trail was hard to find, and only when we had climbed up to the first split, I saw it below us. Being a way up already, Thijs and Hans wanted to continue up, while I decided to go down to the lower trail. So, together we saw both sides, but none of us managed to reach the ice. Maybe we were just too old for that!

After a short stop at the Equator monument, we drove into Quito to find a veterinary that we could trust with dental work for Kakao. We spent the night on a parking lot for a park, used by tons of people devoting a chunk of time on sports and workouts. We walked to the vet’s clinic, where Kakao was looked after right away. A bad case of gingivitis could hopefully be solved with antibiotics, mouthwash, and new toothbrush and paste. Now, a week later, I am happy to report his mouth looks much better!

After the vet’s visit, we decided to walk the 4km towards the old center of Quito. We visited the cathedral and looked around the Grand Plaza, searching for a place to eat with dog in tow. We came to the conclusion that Ecuador is not big on street side restaurants, but hidden away you can find some beautiful courtyards with outdoor seating.

We didn’t stay much longer in Quito, but decided there that we needed to check out Mindo, since everyone talked about how nice that place was…  Mindo is located on the west side of the Andes mountains, much lower and warmer than Quito: a tropical little paradise, we heard. On the way there, we passed another Center of the World equator monument, this one clearly visited by many more tourists, with a museum, souvenir shops, restaurants and model houses of the country’s indigenous peoples. 

We arrived in Mindo late in the afternoon, in the pouring rain. As we drove down the main street, expecting gazes followed us from deserted, fluorescent lit restaurants. Stray dogs lay around in dry crevices, expecting handouts…maybe the crowds would only turn up during the weekends…? We stayed here a couple of days, and explored just about all the streets of town. We discovered a few standouts in eateries, and ventured out into the jungle to visit the Mariposeria, a butterfly sanctuary. It was a magical experience to be surrounded by hundreds of colorful, light flutterlings, and especially rewarding to get a big blue morpho butterfly to land on you. 

The main attraction of Mindo is adventure experience, like tubing or ziplining, and that is not really our thing. With unpredictable weather and regular showers, even hiking to the waterfalls was not attractive. So we left, a little disappointed, to see if the weather would be better in the mountains. 

We visited a popular and well developed national park around Cotopaxi, a perfect looking volcano-and at 5897m Ecuador’s second highest summit with a pretty good road leading up to a trail towards the glacier. With the car park at over 4600m, I was already dizzy before I even got out into the freezing cold, so you may conclude already: we didn’t continue to walk up! We did however enjoy the views over the bare landscape and the international company around a fire on the campground.

To top off our volcano tour, we took a side track through picturesque pastoral country to the popular Quilotoa volcano, this one with a lake deep inside its crater. Here we were lucky with the weather: it was not too cold and it was not raining, so we had the opportunity to walk around the crater’s edge, accompanied by some dogs who loved to challenge Kakao for some play, about a foot away from the precipice… had me stop my heart more than once!

As usual lately, Hans joined us at the end of the day for a nice meal together (he ventures out to see about double as much as us in a day) and together we chose our next stop to be Banos. While we would travel straight towards this old hot spring resort, Hans planned to make one last volcano visit, because it would be the highest one to visit…we were done with that already!

While Banos was not exactly what we had in mind while thinking about a Spa Resort (the town was what we thought of as an very average South American town, the many hot springs were like commercial swimming pools, with an exemption of one old fashioned, old dame hotel/resort) we found, just a few kilometers out of town, inside the narrow canyon that defines Banos’ character, a nice little campground on a flat piece of grassland next to the fast running river. Now I would not have mentioned this campground if it did not have this challenge: not only was the road along the canyon wall rather narrow, but the drive down to the camp was so steep with switchback turns, that once we were down, I had nightmares about us not being able to climb back out again. The place itself was just perfect, with wifi, hot showers, clean bathrooms, laundry service, freedom for Kakao, and friendly hosts. Hans joined us a day later and took us along in his car for shopping and a look around Banos, and another drive up the nearby volcano – we took the wrong road that didn’t bring us to the top, but there was an opportunity to swing over a cliff…wow! Thank you Hans, for another exciting ride with you!

Our last dinner together with Hans. From here, he went north, we went south.

The main attraction in Banos nowadays is not necessarily the hot springs. Banos is the jumping off point for adventure seekers, zipping over the canyon, rappelling off the steep cliffs, white water rafting and jungle tours. We were ready for the jungle – not with a tour, but by ourselves.

The night before leaving the campground, I laid awake, worrying… would our truck be able to make it up the steep, switchback driveway…? As far as we heard, there had only been smaller campers down there, and one big overland expedition vehicle, and they’d all made it out ok….but they’d all had low gear, and four wheel drive! With memories of our experiences in Copacabana near Medellin still in my mind, I decided I didn’t want to sit in the camper on the way up, too afraid it wouldn’t make it all the way up…roll back…tip over, and what not. So I walked halfway up the drive, to watch the steepest climb, the sharpest turn and the next climb, which altogether would be the worst part of the drive. Fortunately, the drive was rather short. Thijs didn’t think anything of it, and in full speed he blasted by me, turned, and without hesitation drove on until he was on the main road. What had I been worried about? I guess I just need to gain my confidence back, and this surely helped.

Down there under the trees, along the river, you should see a glimpse of our camper

From Banos we went down towards the Amazon watershed. In Rio Verde we stopped and took a hike down – and up – to see the Pailon del Diablo, an impressive waterfall. Then we went on to Puyo, where we wanted to see the botanical gardens or the orchid gardens. Wrong directions and unexpected closing made it difficult and steady rain made an extended effort miserable, so we decided we could do without and, hoping for the rain to stop, we drove on south, past ramshackle houses and much clear cut forest-turned-into-pastures. In Macas we turned towards Cuenca and the mountains again. The sky finally cleared. Higher up, we were above the clouds, with a gorgeous view over endless layers of mountains. Along the mountains facing us, we could see long silver ribbons of waterfalls cut their way down the mountains, dropping into wild streams, to eventually feed the mighty Amazon.

Cuenca is a lovely city with beautiful buildings and a mild climate. At the moment it rains a little too often for my liking, but I guess, since it still is rainy season, it is to be expected. Cuenca is also known for its many churches and conservative religious attitude, so we thought it would be an excellent place to observe Semana Santa, the Holy week before Easter. Now it looks like Semana Santa here is more of a private affair: we missed Palm Sunday, so we started on Thursday, when you have to visit the seven main churches and go to confession, on Friday there is are small processions in the morning, and after that you have to eat Fanesca, the traditional 12 grain-and-bean and salted fish soup (no meat, since it’s still lent!) , accompanied by puffy empanadas del viento and all kinds of additions like plantain, avocado, white cheese, egg, etc.  Quite delicious! On Saturday you cannot eat that soup anymore, it is reserved for only Thursday and Friday. There may be another procession on Saturday, but we took a day off for shopping and to prepare for a Sunday trip along some village markets in the area.

Venezuelan refugee/musician, is obviously not enjoying the rain
Fanesca, the traditional Semana Santa meal

Of the villages that we visited: Gualeceo, Chordeleg, Sigsig, San Bartolome, and Santa Anna, we were lucky to enter San Bartolome during their 445th year anniversary. The narrow streets of the small mountain towns were filled with parked cars and along the church square, vendors sold fried foods, sweets, barbequed chicken and guinea pigs and the occasional whole roast pork. People from the surrounding area, dressed in their best, lined up to show samples of their harvest. A grand jury selected winners among them, and with loud music the party ended into the night.

For us it was getting too late to make it back to Cuenca, so when we found a wide, flat and easy spot on the edge of town, we decided to spend the night right there.

Yes, that is the advantage of traveling by camper!

Starting point= Finca la Bonanza in Colombia, A = Tulcan, the Ecuador Border town, B=Otavalo, C=Mitad del Mundo/Cayambe, D=Cotopaxi, E= Quito, F=Mindo, G= Lago del Quilotoa, H=Banos, I=Macas (Amazon Basin), Car logo= Cuenca

Towns and villages of Colombia.

After several quiet weeks in the campsite” Al Bosque” above Medellin, we were ready to explore more of Colombia’s countryside. With a nightmare experience still fresh in our mind – of our failed attempt  to get up a too steep street without  a possibility of turning around – we carefully picked a destination with roads that should be do-able, if only to give us our confidence back.

Guatape is not too far from Medellin and heavily visited by tourists, and the winding, low Andes road was good enough for a test run. We discovered that our front suspension was still unsatisfactory, but it would have to do for now.  The town of Guatape was charming with brightly painted houses and interesting murals in bas-relief, often depicting the trades or occupation of the inhabitants along the bottom parts (the zocalos) of the town’s houses. Another special feature (along the lake that gets you to Guatape) is “El Pinon de Guatape”, an out of place looking, massive granite monolith rock. For a fee, you can climb the 740 steps to the top for a breathtaking view, which unfortunately was obstructed by fog when we were there, so we decided to leave the climbing to our camper. 

Guatape

And climbing we did! After a day’s drive through a valley towards Bucaramanga, the road went up and up on our way to Barichara. This pristine mountain village was long forgotten and now re-discovered by townsfolk looking for a romantic country get away.  It was clearly not high season when we arrived there, because we found quiet stone-paved streets, and the doors of many white plastered houses closed. A variety of restaurants may open in the late afternoon, at a time that we had already retreated in our camper at a famously beautiful camping set in nature, on a nearby bluff overlooking a valley and the mountain range beyond. Ten minutes’ drive outside of Barichara, Finca Guaimaro had been purchased by a Dutch couple with plans to turn the land back to its original natural state. They’d already planted thousands of trees, installed a sustainable water system, and gorgeously re-designed the existing farmhouse.

From Finca Guaimaro it was possible to reach Barichara by hiking a trail through the farmland and scaling a cliff to reach the top of the bluff that leads to the town through a surprisingly well maintained botanical garden. Even during the weekend the village felt peaceful and relaxed. Small groups of men gathered on street corners. They occasionally stopped their conversation to watch a car pass by. Signs beside doors – some open, some not – showed evidence of art galleries, fashion- and crafts stores, or fine coffee shops. We walked along the main street from the central square, up to Capilla de Santa Barbara, which looks over the red roofed houses of the small town. Here we hoped to find the creperie open for business by the time we were ready for lunch, but no such luck. Instead, we went
back to the square, and had eclairs and sweet bread with good, strong coffee at a fashionable bakery/coffeeshop .  Then we took a tuc-tuc back to the farm.

We didn’t want to leave! Life was so peaceful and everything so perfect on the farm. When the day would be warm, the giant tree we parked under provided shade.  After cool nights we woke up with the song of birds. Kakao was free and could walk the trails with us, unleashed, without danger of traffic. Magic butterflies dazzled around our faces in the shade near the creek below. We reminisced and exchanged experiences with other travelers… enjoyed a drink around the campfire… ate fresh baked bread in the morning… cleaned up under the warm open air shower, and marveled at the ideas realized on the farm. But within days we had to drive to Bogota where we should extend our permit for the camper. It had been that long since we entered this country. Time flies when you’re having fun!

Halfway on the route from Barichara to Bogota lays Villa Leyva, another colonial town, this one especially known for its giant square. It was a perfect stop, breaking up the drive into two manageable pieces. We arrived in the afternoon and walked around some. Like in Barichara, the streets were quiet and almost deserted. And like Barichara, the well preserved colonial style has become popular by upper class city people, who purchased many houses for vacation- or weekend homes, leaving them empty on the days in between. That afternoon, we stayed in town a little longer, until sunset brought some life around town. In awe, we wondered why and if that big, 14,000m2 cobblestoned square was ever needed. I thought it may have been a good place for military exercises or parades…but the cobblestones?… not so good! We learned that the square used to be just dirt packed, and a dusty meeting point for the local major agricultural trade; the stones were added much later to keep the dust under control. Nowadays, only one or two festivals a year take advantage of the space, leaving wide open views during the rest of the time. 

Villa Leyva

We reached Bogota on Wednesday  afternoon, where we fought our way through heavy traffic (though finding our way around was not as hand-wringing as in Mexico City!) and found the office to extend our temporary import permit for our camper, and were done with time to spare. Piece of cake! We found a nearby parking lot allowing us to spend the night and left the city after breakfast…did I mention I don’t like big cities? Since this city was already checked off our bucket list some 40 years ago, we did not feel the need to re-visit anything there and happily went down to the lowlands again.

Or so we thought. However, Bogota lies in a high valley between mountain ranges, and to go down, we first had to go further up. The road through the mountains was filled with roaring, smoking trucks crawling up the slope. After that, it went down, and down… To spare the brakes, we, like most trucks, went slow… and going down took forever. The road was old and worn, while promises of a new highway were visible everywhere: we saw immensely tall bridges spanning  valleys, and we saw tunnels, and stretches of wide, smooth road, and concrete pillars reaching to the sky. But we did not see much action. The construction seemed to be stopped at most places.  I bet the truckers can’t wait for the road to be finished. You already pay toll for the road anyway… maybe they have to collect another chunk of money first to continue?

When we reached the bottom, a small town with big attitude welcomed us.  Armenia had stores that we expected in much larger towns, like a great supermarket with international products that we craved for. The regional capital did not have much to offer in architecture, except maybe for the spacious, modern gold museum, which, before opening as the Gold Museum, was used as the city hall after the last earthquake, and now as a community and educational center in addition to the rooms showing off the pre-colombian gold and artifacts of the region’s Quimbaya population.

We decided to stay in Armenia to wait out the weekend, since our next destination would be another tourist destination, the Valle del Cocora and the town of Salento. Towering wax palms, which can be up to 70 meters tall, are the tallest palms in the world and Colombia’s national tree. In the Valle del Cocora a multitude of these trees stand out in otherwise clear cut pastures, which is a sight to behold and one of Colombia’s main attractions.  We preferred to see a “natural” phenomena like that in an impression of solitude, and I am glad we waited for the week days. We spent the night on location and were among the first ones out on the trail. By going against the normal direction, we truly had the feeling we were alone on a narrow trail, through the pastures, with just some mules staring at us from a safe distance. When we reached the mirador at the top of the mountain, we finally met some other visitors. From here, we could enjoy the view over the verdant hills, where the tall wax palms stick out like some giant grass blades forgotten by the lawnmower. Resembling  patches on a blanket, swatches of virgin forest covered mountain tops and deep crevasses – areas too difficult to cultivate. Within those woods I noticed, with some difficulty, the wax palms in their natural environment: still rising above a supporting forest canopy.  I imagined that within such forest, these wax palms would never have gained their fame as extraordinarily tall trees, and assume that they became outstanding trees, left standing after the forest was burnt down in order to gain farmland; simply because the fire could not reach their crown. So now there is an eerie landscape with short, green grass, and towering vertical stems with tufts of palm fonts high up in the sky… nothing else in between … which gives the landscape an unreal feeling – which attracts thousands of tourists to the region. On our way down we met the crowds: busloads of multinational visitors: German speakers were obviously more used to climbing mountains and had casual conversations while keeping a good pace; English speakers, well equipped for mountain hikes; there were French speakers with small children, who gave them an excuse to wait and catch their breath; Asian groups stuck together as a unit, and of course the Latin speakers – Colombians, Brazilians and all nationalities in between – were omnipresent – after all, it is Latin America!

Back at our camper, we had a bite to eat and drove to the nearby town of Salento, where we found a flat piece of land to spend the night at a horse stable/campground close to the center of this charming and colorful town. We were not surprised to hear that Salento is crazy busy in the weekend, but between Tuesday and Wednesday it was sleepy and friendly, with a choice of cozy restaurants to enjoy a delicious trout meal.

According to local people, Salento is overrated, and nearby Filandia is much nicer, so we had to drive there to have a look – and were a little disappointed. Yes, it’s not touristy and more a center for the local people to shop and meet up, but the jubilant urge to decorate is sparse, so after a stroll around the center and a cup of chocolate on the square, we left.

Along the central square of Filandia

Several people had urged us – if we like these colorful kind of towns, we have to see Jardin.  We were a little hesitant to go, since that town would bring us almost back to Medellin…but after a fourth insistence, we decided to go.

The winding mountain road to Jardin is gorgeous with wide views over acres of dark green coffee bushes and lush banana trees. Mountains disappeared in the distance under dramatic clouds and a humid atmosphere. Late in the afternoon we arrived in Rio Sucio, where we’d turn left for the final road to Jardin. Again, Google maps led us on a shortcut through town: through an alley that grew steeper and narrower… but this time we turned back in time, though the turn was still a tricky one with a sharp turn along an overhanging eave on one side, a light pole blocking the other corner, and the intersection going from steep up, to steep down. Once back on the main road, we had to convince ourselves that this was the main road, since it was just slightly wider than one lane which soon turned into a dirt road – under construction to install culverts where otherwise creeks washed over the road. However, we really enjoyed that road. Sparsely populated by some forestry settlements, and often forced to drive really slow over the rough washed out rocks and potholed gravel, we felt close to nature in a jungle scene with giant foliage, ferns, moss covered waterfalls and screaming cicadas. We expected the drive to Jardin to take less than an hour over that road, but in the end, those 50 km took over 4 hours. We spent the night at a deserted lumber-loading terrain and arrived the next day just in time for lunch in Jardin.

Though many elements are the same, every Colombian colored town is different. Jardin calls itself the most beautiful town in Colombia, so we arrived with high expectations, and were somewhat disappointed, since the colors of the woodwork were not as brilliant as in Guatape or Salento, and the styles of the houses was not consistent, with contemporary buildings in the mix. But here they had pretty balconies, and a church with an impressive interior.

In my opinion, Jardin’s biggest charm was its setting in nature. Bordering a tropical forest, along a clear creek surrounded by fertile lands, flowers and fruits attract an abundance of birds around the edge of town. We stayed a few nights at a small finca “La Isla” with just enough room for us and one more van. Here, fruit was presented to a multitude of birds that appeared around dawn and dusk. Within the stream that ran through the property, a pond with giant koi intrigued Kakao, our dog. Right outside our door, an unlikely pair – a young bull and stallion- curiously observed our actions from behind the fence while waiting to be fed bananas by the finca’s owner who, with tears in his eyes, admitted that these were not his animals and he had no control over their future. And the two were so sweet: I received kisses from both the horse and the bull – I never realized how raspy a cow’s tongue is, and how wet its kiss!

We left Jardin via the northern route, which is a perfectly paved two lane road through lush coffee fields. We finally wanted to head to Cali, and though the southern road was shorter, we chose to find out what the other way looked like. We still experienced major construction with off and on waits for our turn over the one lane left open for traffic, and of course, the toll booth interruptions. We headed for the valley that would bring us smoothly to Cali, but in the end, the word that the road was fully closed for a long stretch, forced us to turn back onto the same mountain road by Rio Sucio that we used on the way to Jardin (except the dirt road part).

There is an excellent mechanic in Cali, who has helped many overlanders like us with car problems, so we wanted to see if we finally could get our suspension problems solved there.  The garage was located in the old but definitely not the best section of Cali, where the streets were narrow and clogged by parked cars in such a way that every time a truck came through, I could not believe it passed without scratching – with just millimeters to spare! We spent a couple of days getting work done in the street, and parked for the night at a truck parking around the block. Now our suspension finally feels the way it is supposed to!  Satisfied, we spent a few more days with Lloyd, an old Norfolk VA friend and his new wife Avi in the south of Cali, in a section of town that feels like a developed country, with a giant luxurious shopping mall, gated communities, neighborhood parks with walking trails and exercise in full use, and well-groomed dogs on leashes.

It was only a few hours’ drive from Cali to our next stop, the village of Silvia, where Andean indigenous people color the town, specifically on the Tuesday market day – still a few days away. We decided to camp at Finca “La Bonanza”, still about 15km outside of the village.

As soon as we entered the compound, we were greeted by Kika, Anouar, and their three children; a Moroccan family who settled in Colombia after several years of overland travel through South America. Even though we never met, we were welcomed like old friends and invited at their table for a midday tajine. We heard that, even though they have lived in the Silvia area for the last few years, they only moved on the farm a few months ago, and with a lot of work to be done, they also invite “work away” volunteers to stay with them in exchange for work. An American couple was present when we arrived, and as we stayed longer (than planned) they were replaced by a bunch of Argentinians, and after that two French, a Chilean and a Swede. Some of the campers also liked to participate, and Finca la Bonanza was always open to discuss a volunteer deal. It created a happy, bonded crowd with regular celebratory meals and get-togethers.

After a rather loud party, Medusha, the finca’s dog, delivered eight puppies.

On Tuesday we went to the market. The small town of Silvia is colored by the many vibrant blue wraps of the Andean indigenous population who come from their mountain homes in the neighboring reserve; an autonomous region which we could only access through personal invitation from one of its inhabitants. With our Moroccan hosts in charge on the market, we were offered a range of exotic fruits to taste…some we’d heard about and some we’d seen before from a distance…. The ones we liked, we bought.

Market day in Lidia
This is Viviane, who plans to show us her community

Anouar had to go to Silvia as well, so he drove us and showed us around. Like Kika (who drove us the following Tuesday), Anouar knows many of the people at the market, and through them we heard that the Panamericana to Ecuador was expected to be blocked by demonstrators for maybe two weeks. We had to make a choice: stay put or leave. We decided to stay, and so far we don’t regret our decision: with a mix of nationalities at the finca, we get to practice all our languages – English, French, German, and most importantly Spanish – and learn about each other’s cultures. We enjoy the mountain environment with its incredibly fertile land and springlike temperatures. In and near Silvia we get to know a little more about the indigenous population…we were invited for a visit today, but Viviane, our hostess, fell ill so we’d have to wait for another day….

Our route, except after Jardin we went north-west before going south again (map refuses to show that)

The place where time stood still

It is early morning when a loud drip- drip of water drops falling onto our skylight makes me wonder if it is raining. I look out the window. Fog has surrounded us. Overhead, the waterlogged tree releases it’s surplus moisture from it’s leaves over the roof of our camper. Cool air makes me want to stay in bed a little bit longer: there is no rush, we’ll wait until the sun breaks up the fog …. we have all the time in the world …. We are still in the cloud forest of Al Bosque, in the almost too tranquil mountains high above the city of Medellin. Waiting here for parts and repairs has been a zen-like test of our patience. Now, after one month of practicing an appreciation of a simple life filled with a sea of time, we look forward to leaving; on to a new experience.

Don’t get me wrong, we had a good time, albeit interspersed with times of boredom. So, when overwhelmed by the idea of endless time on hand, it was good to have our dog Kakao, who would never turn down a long walk in the neighboring woods.

The path in the forest is not an easy one: no part of the trail is horizontal, and large sections are washed out, leaving slippery ridges of multicolored clay along narrow, deep gullies. Some parts are defined by tree roots that hold on to some of the soil, thus creating steps for easier climbing. Along the trail, the forest is often dense and impenetrable, not only with undergrowth, but also because of the steep fall-offs and creeks with soft, humus-rich bottoms. An occasional moss covered clearing allows the daytime sun too penetrate the forest floor. A shimmering of butterflies celebrate the presence of brightly colored blossoms where-ever the sun gets a chance to reach bottom. Kakao rushes criss-cross along tiny game trails, sometimes disappearing for an uncomfortably long time. He’d have me worried and staring in the direction he disappeared, until he emerges far ahead in the other direction. At twelve years old, his speed amazes me; running up and down the hills, while we huff and puff with an excuse of high altitude.

When we arrived at Hostal Al Bosque, we were disappointed to discover we were the only overland campers there. We had expected to at least meet one or two to exchange some travel experiences with … but only a day or two later one arrived, and then another one. The British couple arrived with engine trouble and, just like us, needed a mechanic and parts to be able to continue the journey. Through the weeks that passed they became our friends and partners in the practice of patience, and Happy Hour drinking buddies. Upon arrival, it took days before a mechanic showed up to inspect our collective damage, and days before our first necessary parts arrived from Bogota. After that, Thijs decided he wanted to order some other suspension (always suspension!) re-enforcement, to be sent here. And that’s when the waiting game started …. waiting for the mechanic to show up – around once a week- and waiting for packages to arrive. While we were at it, we had an envelope with some important paperwork sent to us, by UPS from Virginia, with a guaranteed three day delivery… after nine days and a lot of phone calls, it could finally be picked up in Medellin, since UPS would not deliver here. It makes you wonder, what does a guarantee do?

With the arrival of the weekends, more guests would come to stay, and at one point the camping was just about full. Since the weekends were also the only times the nearby restaurants were open, we considered it the most exciting times while there. We’d sit around the campfire, join our friends for a restaurant meal and go down to Medellin for shopping (while the traffic is light) or a sight-seeing tour.

But then again, the time comes when everybody else packs up and leaves us and our British friends behind. The quiet is suffocating and we have to make an effort not to get depressed. We stay put at the campground, waiting for our packages to get delivered, and the mechanic to arrive to help us out….. We walk the short distance to the local grocery store for our daily necessities, take Kakao and some of the resident dogs out for another walk through the woods, and watch the butterflies flutter by; the most glorious, irridescent ones just out of reach for a closer look or a picture. Time stands still again….

After what seems like an eternity and a joined effort by all of us and the campsite management (thanks, Juliana, David and Daniel!) , we received what we needed and Thijs proceeded to install the parts without the help of Edgar, the mechanic. Now we belong to the guests leaving. Already the campsite looks deserted, but we leave our British friends with some other Dutch overlanders, who just arrived back to their troubled truck, and also may be staying for a while. We wish them good luck and hope to see them again somewhere down the road, in better spirits. On to a new adventure!

A few more days in Cartagena, but then … we have our camper back!

Just when I finished writing the last post and pressed “Publish”, Thijs walked into the room – much earlier than expected, and empty handed. The camper was on the ship that had arrived in Cartagena, but it remained on the boat when it departed again, heading for Panama. Apparently they only loaded more vehicles that needed to go to Panama, and they would return to Cartagena later for delivery. We’d have to wait another week…

But then, finally, exhausted after a long day of paperwork to get our truck out of the port, Thijs proudly drove into the hotel parking lot – with a complete camper – nothing seemed to be missing! What a relief. Yay!!!

The following day, after getting the camper move-in ready, we wrestled the early midday traffic in the part of Cartagena that we’d always avoided during our pleasure outings, but had to pass through this time to get out of town. Around the market quarters, cars and trucks, ever stopping-and-continuing buses, motorcycles and taxis zig-zagged from lane to lane and slipped into any available opening in front or around us. Horse- and hand-carts desperately tried to keep up with the flow. Pedestrians crossed the road by squeezing through the smaller cracks, while walking mattresses or boxes and the like completed a sense of utter chaos.

Originally the idea was that we would meet up for Christmas with some friends in Medellin. The delayed departure from Cartagena however, made it difficult to make that date. When we arrived at the beach hangout of Lucas and Rosario, who invited us to visit when we met them at our hotel in Cartagena, we did not want to leave. Lucas was by himself while Rosario was hosting friends and visiting family in Medellin (we were supposed to join her there). With his warm invitation and an interesting environment, we found it would be a sin to rush, so we decided to stay and wait for Rosario right there.

IMG_20181231_131038IMG_20181228_174632We had one little issue: our camper was too tall to pass through the gate to their property and although we could sleep in the guest room, our long awaited camper with our possessions had to stay on the street … So after two nights we moved ourselves to a nearby campground, where we could re-organize ourselves after all these weeks, do our laundry and some shopping. We would visit Lucas for lunch or dinner, some deep talks or a game of dominoes. We ate at the best fish restaurant along the coast of Colombia, and took Kakao for walks along the beach and the nearby mangrove forest.

The highlight of our stroll to Lucas was the hand-pulled pedestrian ferry across the creek that separated his place from the village where we camped. Kakao learned to step on and off the barge without being afraid of falling in the water – something he’s had trouble with before: when in a panic he wouldn’t wait for the boat to get close enough to the shore and ended up in the water – exactly what he was most afraid of. But no more!

When Rosario came home, we celebrated together with a nice dinner prepared by her niece. Her niece, a chef, specialized in local caribbean dishes, like fried coconut rice, a thick chicken and rice soup, and a cheese and eggplant soup. Especially the cheese soup was memorable.

On New Year’s day we said goodbye – to our friends, and to the Colombian coast. Because of the holiday there was not much traffic and the road inland slowly got smoother and faster. Following the Cauca river upstream, we climbed some. Tropical vegetation held the slopes together. At regular intervals along the side of the road, water spouted high out of a jumble of black plastic tubes sticking out of the mountainside. Confused, we wondered what the purpose was and why they wasted all that water, though of course this was spring fed water that would otherwise lead to the river anyway … Then we noticed  ramps alongside the waterspouts … they were advertising car washing, with beautiful, clean spring water!
When we started looking for an overnight spot, the thermometer was still an uncomfortable 31 degrees Celsius. We continued driving until just before dark we reached a roadside restaurant with a large parking lot. The elevation was just a little higher, so we hoped the temperature would go down a little during the night. The restaurant was closed for the holiday, but the owner didn’t mind us parking there. In the morning we woke up when the restaurant started to get ready for their first customers. Soon the parking lot was so full that we had to rush to drive out before getting closed in by the cars and trucks that parked helter-skelter everywhere.

The houses along the road changed from plastered red bricks to wood planks – gaily decorated with flowers and plants in brightly colored pots. Just when I remarked how lovely these small houses looked, plastic covered shacks started appearing beside them. Higher up the mountain and closer to the pass, these makeshift shacks where everywhere. On the pavement in front of these shacks, crowds of men, women, and children shook hats that  they held up in front of them. Later on we heard that these were Venezuelan refugees – part of over a million that have fled to Colombia from their once affluent, oil rich country, which now has an inflation rate of one million percent.

After a night’s rest Thijs looked under the hood and under the car, and discovered that one of the engine mounts had broken. Since this had happened before in Nicaragua, Thijs knew what to do: he removed the broken part and ordered two new mounts. Then we waited; with a long Epiphany weekend ahead, delays were to be expected. Luckily we could not be stuck in a better place: 1000 meters above Medellin, the air was crisp; and the campground of Al Bosque is a dog’s paradise with plenty of room for Kakao to play with a small pack of friendly resident dogs, and direct access to a dense forest with a choice of trails. Nearby stores and restaurants eliminate the need to drive to a supermarket for our food supply. (Just finding a bank for much needed cash was a problem)
After a week of relaxing, we worked on our taxes, laundry, blog. We socialized with other overlanders, and regularly walked through the woods. When the parts arrived, Thijs  installed it in minutes. The next morning was a Saturday; the best day to drive into Medellin. Google Maps still wanted us to take the little country roads (with 4 ton weight limits which we exceeded), but we were wiser now and stuck to the main, (yellow colored on the map) roads. The longer but gentler drive down took an hour and a half. When we reached the city in the bottom of the bowl, Thijs stopped, worried that the brakes were not working the way they should be. Fortunately, with lighter traffic on Saturdays, we found a spot to pull to the side of the road to let everything cool down a bit. We found a nearby brake workshop just down the street, where immediately several men started to work: they replaced some worn-out brake shoes and changed the brake fluid, while I made us a sandwich for lunch. After the workshop guys took a few selfies and group pictures in front of our camper, we could continue with our business about town: find a bank that would accept out card, visit the garage whose owner had helped us get the parts (alas: he just had closed shop by the time we arrived), and try to go shopping at PriceMart, the Latin Costco sister south of the Mexican border.

Exhausted, we arrived back at Al Bosque just before dark. We got a lot done, but also came to the conclusion that the front suspension, which we thought we had upgraded in Norfolk, VA, failed. The heavier spring blade has no spring in it, so every time we hit a pothole or a sag in the road, there is no cushioning. At one pothole, the cabin hit the undercarriage so hard, it cracked the windscreen. Maybe this had also caused the engine mounts to fail…in any case, we need to have that worked on.

We will be here for a little while longer.

Cartagena: waiting for our camper, part two

Today is December twelfth. We are now in our sixth week of waiting here in Cartagena. We start to feel at home; Kakao gets greeted in several  places around the historic district. We are making friends, both in town as well as in the hotel. Hotel Bellavista, which started out as (in our opinion) an okay place – a little old and rundown,  but personable and very dog friendly, is also very interesting with a faithful crowd of  friendly, easy going, artistic, and at times eccentric people from around the world. The owner turns out to be an art collector, welcoming his artist guests, some of them year after year. I already had the feeling that at times he must have accepted artwork as payment for lodging. Recently we got to know several of the regular guests. One couple, who we initially thought to be French, are Corsican and Colombian/US American, living and working in between the three places. We have had some interesting conversations about travel, culture, Cartagena, and the hotel. If everything goes as planned with our camper, we may celebrate Christmas together with them in Medellin. An other interesting couple who also comes here frequently, is Italian and, just like us, recently gave up their green cards after living for years in New York City. He must be a pretty well known artist who does installation art a little reminiscent of Christo. He makes photos and film of stuff  that he burns.  He comes to Cartagena for projects and its biennale.  And we discovered he knows our Italian (acquired relative) cousin Fabio, also an artist living in New York!

Last week Friday we took Kakao out for a walk along the beach – this time in the direction of the city. As we were getting close we decided, instead of turning around, we’d continue our walk over the city walls: nearing the end of the day, the sun had lost its burning power, and a nice breeze made our stroll pleasant. We approached the foot of the rampart, where an enormous gathering of livestock trucks had taken over the surrounding lawns. On closer view we spotted  horses…and more horses…and then a section full of horses. It looked like a horse market, with men grooming and inspecting the animals. A few horses  showed off their dancing skills, others just looked gorgeous. Looking down from the rampart, the gathering was impressive, and Thijs wanted to have a closer look – to find out what was going on. Kakao is well behaved and a little intimidated by these large animals, but I didn’t think it would be a good idea for him to mingle and maybe startle the horses, so I stayed on the perimeter. After quite a wait Thijs returned with the conclusion that most of these horses were here for a parade through town, and some would exchange owners. It was not clear at what time the parade would start, but not anytime soon, so we continued on our planned walk over the wall towards the best point to see the sun set. 

We were not the only ones enjoying the evening on the wall. We saw stages being built, and chairs arranged in front of them. Costumed kids organized themselves for a performance. Families took their time choosing drinks or souvenirs offered by hawkers. Lovers settled in the privacy of  gun ports in the battlements, from where cannons used to point towards pirates and other enemies threatening the ancient city. Wedding parties burst out of buses, carriages and narrow streets, ready to party. Brides posed for photographers in the setting sun. There was magic in the air.

We had not prepared to stay away very long and decided to head home. Kakao was hungry and tired! On passing the horses again, there was still no sign of a parade. As we were once in the middle of one in Mexico, we had some idea what such a horse parade would be like, so we left it at that for the night. Back in the hotel, rows of candles in paper bags were lined up along the edges of the grand patio. We assumed there would be some party planned, remarked it would be too windy to light these candles safely – and went to bed.  In the morning, when I took Kakao out for his walk, I saw the candles were burnt down, and on my return along the neighboring buildings, I saw colorful signs of melted rows of candles every where. What was that all about? The girls in our hotel explained about the “Noche de las Velitas”, celebrating Maria’s immaculate conception by lighting rows of candles just before dawn – around 4 AM. So now we know, after the fact. The horse parade also had to do with the occasion. We missed this celebration, but not the surrounding magic.

With still many days to go before we could claim back our camper, we looked into our vaccination situation. During the last moves from Virginia Beach to Baltimore and on to Amsterdam, while separating and storing items, we must have misplaced our yellow vaccination cards. Proof of some important lifetime vaccines (like especially Yellow Fever) are registered in there, and we might need to show these cards somewhere along the way.
Over a month ago in the US, we’d already contacted Passport Health  to see if they still had copies of our vaccinations, but were told that our records were too old, and thus deleted. Now in Colombia, we learned that, in their battle to eliminate that disease, you can get a (free!) yellow fever vaccine.  Maybe it would be good to just get another shot, just to have a record of it again.
The local health department is in Getsemaní; a neighborhood known to be more bohemian; with artists, art, and good restaurants. We could combine a vaccination with a visit.

When I told the nurse  behind the counter what we were there for, she asked for our age, and told us that because of an increased risk, they don’t give a yellow fever shot to people over sixty five. Instead they could give us a doctor’s note explaining the refusal, and according to the nurse, that should suffice. No problem, we thought, we’d had that lifetime vaccination over forty years ago, so we would be protected, and now we didn’t need to get that painful shot again, just for the paper.  (The doctor’s note did cost us some money, and looking at the secrecy of this process, we had the feeling that the payment went directly into the nurse’s pocket.) Oh well…. To celebrate, we enjoyed a seafood pizza at a close-by tiny triangular square, adjacent to an open air furniture workshop. The water bowl offered to Kakao made it clear that our dog was also welcome. 

After lunch, we explored the many narrow colorful streets where its inhabitants were busy installing Christmas decorations over chairs,  arranged in the middle of the street. We felt like we walked straight through their living room, and exchanged greetings. We passed murals, and outdoor sculptures similar to some we’d seen all over town – that must be a popular artist! 
On our way back to our hotel, we passed through Parque Del Centenario, a smallish city park that houses sloths, monkeys, iguanas, parrots, and who knows what else. We spotted one giant iguana interacting with a girl, as if dancing. I went to take a closer look, but the moment I wanted to take a picture, the iguana raced into a tree…. because Thijs had followed behind me with Kakao. Iguanas clearly don’t like dogs!

Since this blog entry was not written overnight, several days have passed since I started. If everything goes well, we should be able to get our camper back today. We are sooo looking forward to moving back in our own place again but, at the same time, we look back at the wonderful time we had here in Cartagena … the people we’ve met … the friends we made … just four days ago we  were invited to a well organized art opening – we met one of the four artists some days before; it was going to be his first show. Just like we had done in our former life, we wanted to attend the show to encourage an emerging artist – again, just like home. We connected with a bunch of people – some of the guests mistook Thijs for one of the artists who indeed looked just like him. A musician – friend of one of the artists – from New Orleans sat next to us; we helped convince him to play his sax to provide a beautiful melancholy mood to the event. Even Kakao was not alone; there were three other dog attending the corridors connecting the luscious green courtyard with the exhibit rooms.  

The thought of leaving Cartagena is bittersweet. The extensive stay gave us the opportunity to love this city not only for its architectural beauty, but especially for its people.

Cartagena: waiting for our camper

Four weeks ago today, we delivered our camper to Port Everglades, Florida, to be shipped from Miami to Cartagena, Colombia. The sailing time was supposed to be two days, but we had to add an additional three days in port for handling. Not bad, we thought, when we packed our bags for a short stay away from our home. Then we learned that three days later, it would be weekend, and nothing gets done. Also it would be Veterans day weekend, so add one more day. Instead of five days, it would now be eight. We can survive that, we thought. On the last day before the ship was supposed to leave, we flew to Cartagena with our weekend bags and a kennel full of dog. After one miss, we found a good hotel that also welcomed Kakao. The beach was across the street, and old Cartagena about twenty minutes walk away.  That weekend we heard about a late tropical storm threatening the Florida coast but, we thought, by now our camper should be safely stored away in the belly of the enormous ship. No worries!  Close to the arrival due date Thijs made an inquiry about the location of the ship.  

“Oh, no!” He moaned. “Our truck is still in the Miami port… US customs has held it back for further inspection!”…..What on earth would they be looking for, in a vehicle leaving the country? What would they not want you to take out? We never heard of this before….And worse, they needed the keys to get into the back of the truck – the area that we made sure would be impenetrable to prevent infamous stealing. If we’d send the keys, who knows what could happen, and who would be the responsible person in case of loss? After a night of thinking about it, Thijs decided to book a return flight and meet the customs people themselves, hand them the keys for inspection, and afterwards he may be able to retrieve some additional necessities for a longer hotel stay, and lock the car himself. The Customs check – which turned up nothing, Thijs flew back to Cartagena. Our camper could go with the next ship – three weeks later. We recently heard that the sailing schedule is delayed, and instead of a straight crossing, this time there will be several stop-overs. Now, due date for arrival will be December twelve or thirteen…we will see. 

In the meantime, upon arrival, Cartagena had welcomed us with a big Independence day celebration. Over happy rhythmic African music, our taxi driver pointed out that we arrived just after a big parade; the one after / from which the local beauty queen would be selected. However, there were still three more days of celebrations ahead. 
The next day we headed into town and explored just about every street, where one building sings more jubilant than the other with bright colors and flowers. The whole town felt like one big celebration, but we did not feel like we hit any Independence day activities. It turned out we were there too early in the day! In the hotel we googled for more information, so  the following day we arrived in the middle of a parade that would represent many cultural and ethnic groups from the area. Proud dancers showed off their bright costumes with flowing dance moves; pulsating music kept them motivated in the blistering sun. One awful tourist lady stopped the steady flow by posing in front of every group for a series of pictures her husband had to make. Ugh! She was always in everyone’s picture, unless you waited until she was done, and the paraders were passing already! The police controlling the crowd was mild and forgiving.
At the tail end of the parade, the public – prepared with tall spray cans filled with something like shaving cream, started a crazy fun foam fight. No one was spared – even Kakao was speckled at one point. Satisfied and hot we returned to our temporary home.

After all the celebrations, we tried to get in a rhythm of going into town, enjoy the sights (trying not to get overheated), find a restaurant that would accept Kakao’s presence – which would usually be an outdoor venue; enjoy lunch, wander around some more, and go home. With Kakao in tow, visiting museums or other distinguished places was impossible. After a few days, we had seen enough. We decided to rent a car and head North, to a corner of Colombia that would be out of the way once we’d have the camper. With a destination in and around the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta – the highest mountain in Colombia- we also hoped for cooler temperatures. We first visited Pueblo Bello, a small town known to be the shopping destination of the magical Arhuaca indigenous population. We hoped to learn a little more about these people, like how they manage to keep such strong identity in culture, language, dress, and religion through centuries of outside contact. The temperature and the environment of Pueblo Bello was lovely, and we saw many Arhuacos, who stand out with their white dress and caps. There is pride in their posture, and they looked as curiously at us, as we at them (we were about the only gringos there), but when a local merchant offered to drive us to the indigenous village high up in the mountains, we declined. By then we learned that Kakao could not come along, and tourists would be tolerated, but not really welcomed.  We had learned that isolation, self reliance, and pride is their key! 

On the way to Pueblo Bello we passed one Arhuaco settlement. When we asked if we could visit, the woman we talked to said no; they were in the middle of a reunion.

We decided that visiting Pueblo Bello was enough for us, and after two days we continued our trip along the East side of the mountain range, along the border of Venezuela. Except for an enormous open air coal mine that stretched for thirty miles (largest in the world) there was not much to see, so we reached the coast in time for lunch at the funky beach town of Camarones. On arrival at a fish restaurant, children, and women with black faces  came over to offer their ware for sale. These were people from the Wayuu- or Guajira tribe, people known for making extremely colorful and popular mochillas – handy tightly crocheted shoulder bags of different sizes. I would have bought one if I would have found one with just the right color and style, but instead I bought a couple of little woven bracelets to satisfy the kids. 

As we slowly headed back towards Cartagena, we stopped for the night at a couple of beach towns. Because of Kakao we had a few restrictions: we could not visit the National park of Tayrona (and couldn’t leave Kakao behind in a hot car), and most hotels didn’t like to have dogs in their rooms or public areas. When they did accept Kakao’s presence, we tried to control his behavior as much as possible. No jumping on the beds, no barking, and no howling when alone! The latter was the hardest, so we just didn’t leave him alone. Thankfully the iOverlander app showed a few dog friendly hotels, which became the first choices in our search. We learned by trail and error not to book in advance, for sometimes the picture is better than the  reality. 

When we arrived at an, according to the app, dog – friendly beach hostel in Palomino, we were not quite rejected, but discouraged to take a room there, by slowly taking away the comforts of the available accommodations.…no private bathrooms…no AC….second floor... All didn’t sound like a big deal, until we were shown the “room”. Going up ladder-like steps (Kakao had to be pushed and pulled up), we were given a gazebo attic space, mattress on the floor, no place to unpack our luggage. When we still accepted it- since it had taken us half an hour of driving through a labyrinth of mud, potholes and dead-end streets to get there – they raised the already steep price as a last resort to discourage us. Though offended, we persisted, for one night. Mainly because beach atmosphere was nice. I noticed that, a few days later, the dog friendly logo has been retracted from their site.

Before immersing ourselves in the Cartagena heat again, we chose for one more stay in the mountains. Just outside of Santa Marta, connected with an excellent road gaining just enough altitude to be pleasant, we arrived in the small village of Minca. There is nothing significant or charming in the layout or building style, but what made it special to us was the presence of some European businesses, like a hostel, a bar, some restaurants, and a bakery.  We enjoyed  whole grain sandwiches filled with fried eggplant, onions, tomato and avocado, a delicious spaghetti, and a chocolate croissant for a change. The Swiss run hostel was immaculate, and the nights were cool. At the crack of dawn, birds enthusiastically celebrated the beginning of a new day. Below, a rushing creek lent a soothing sound on the deck. We walked to the waterfall and judged the water refreshingly cold.

By now our rental car had to be returned, so we continued our way along the coast, with one more beach-side overnight stop. Finally, the old Cartagena hotel welcomed us back with the same favorite room that we had before. It felt like coming home.

We also found out that the ship transporting our camper would be delayed by another ten days. Will we ever see our home again? Never will we ship a vehicle again! 

Cartagena, however, surprised us once more with an exciting event. On Saturday morning  we noticed an unusual amount of cyclists stopping at our beach for a swim. They are doing the Ironman triathlon, explained the hotel’s proprietor … Really?… Come on!… Here? we thoughtBut when we looked it up – good old Google – it turned out to be true! The big event would happen the next day. That Sunday morning, when we crossed the street to take Kakao for a walk on the beach, I was surprised to see how little traffic there was, until we noticed that the street was blocked off for traffic, because the bicycle part of the race was due to pass through there. We missed the swim part which happened before the bike race, but that afternoon we walked into town (the historic section) to witness the final part of the triathlon. Exhausted  runners were encouraged by friends, families, volunteers and spectators like us along the narrow streets towards the finish at Cartagena’s famous clock tower square. When we felt overheated just from strolling to and through town, I can not imagine the exhaustion these people feel at the end. Respect! And a massage was well deserved!

An other week has passed. We know that our camper is floating around somewhere in the Caribbean sea. The new arrival date of our camper moved up to December 15th – a Saturday – which means that we can only start collecting our vehicle on Monday the 17th. Another week of waiting. This blogpost is stretching on forever, so I think it is best to split our report about Cartagena in two posts. Expect more about this beautiful city in a week or two… and hopefully we can report about continuing our travels just before Christmas!