Unlike the rest of the country, Caribbean Colombia is hot and humid. The northern coast and plains are a marked contrast to the temperate green highlands of central Colombia that we enjoyed for the last weeks of 2017. Now to kick-off 2018, we help another overlander after his unscheduled rendezvous with a local moped near Mompos; cross the desert of La Guajira; go to jail in colonial Cartagena and finally… we wave farewell to Cuthbert as he sets sail on a cruise to Panama. Oh… and in between all that, Marcus learns to kite-surf!
Crashing-on to Mompos Pizzas
Isn’t it funny how regions change across a country? As we came down from the highlands to the northern plains, we noticed not only the obvious increase in heat and humidity, but also a very different socio-economic atmosphere. Colombians of the rural lowlands seem to be poorer. Housing looks to be of lower quality. From the number of people just sitting around at the side of the road, employment looks to be fairly low. Supermarkets stock lower-quality goods, children are less well-dressed, there are more decrepit cars on the road, and from the number of military and police check-points along certain roads, the security situation is a little trickier here too. But it’s still a lovely country. People are still friendly and it’s a privileged journey to pass through here.
After the New Year’s festivities, we leave the south-end of the Caribbean coast, tagging along with nice-chap solo German traveller Bernd, heading inland towards the cutesie town of Mompos. Mompos sits so far in the middle of Colombia’s swamp-lands, that from the west it is still only accessible by car-ferry. On the way, Bernd, driving in front of us, has an unfortunate and unscheduled rendezvous with a local moped at a junction. The motorcyclist comes off his bike and rolls around on the floor like an Italian footballer, clutching his knee and declaring to anyone who will listen how bad the accident could have been. There’s no damage to Bernd or his camper, but he is naturally shaken.
So far in Colombia we have had nothing but professional courtesy and good humour from the police at routine traffic stops. In these slightly different circumstances, the police display an admirable ability to combine this professional, business-like manner with… shall we say… a pragmatic approach to solving Bernd’s ‘administrative problem’, a problem that might otherwise have taken a few days, if not weeks, to resolve 😊.
So arriving in Mompos a day later than expected, we explore the small town. It’s exquisitely charismatic, with beautifully preserved colonial streets and a fabulous pizza restaurant. As with many, many (many) places in South America, Mompos claims to have some kind of historical connection with the Latin American Independence hero, Simón Bolívar. Apparently, he came here a few times and rather liked it, but I guess he went to many places a few times and rather liked them. Maybe with Mompos he liked the pizzas… 😊. Anyway, if he did indeed like it here, I can kind-of see why. Mompos is a bright little jewel… with great pizzas… albeit plonked in the middle of a hot, humid and mosquito infested swamp!
Almost Venezuela… again
Exiting Mompos’ swamp-zone, we head north-east to the Guajira desert peninsula. It’s almost 500 km on Ruta 80 past the city of Valledupar, along the Venezuelan border. Remember I said that highway security seems generally tighter in the lowlands? Well up this way it’s even tighter still. Venezuela’s political situation is famously tense at the moment.
Way back in north Brazil we pondered long and hard over entering Venezuela at its southern border. Here we don’t have that dilemma as the border isn’t open to vehicles. But it is possible to cross on foot, so the Venezuelan escapees come flooding in, fleeing their country’s current sad state of affairs. They’re picked-up on this side of the border to travel south. Cars stuffed with people are stopped at the many military road-blocks and checked for illegal immigrants. And it’s not only people making their way into Colombia… there’s clearly a lot of blatant petrol smuggling across the border too (police seem to turn a blind eye to this as it’s sold in old Coke bottles at roadsides all around this area). There’s also a regular supply of the tasty Venezuelan ‘Polar’ brand beer – no complaints from us about that 😊.
At the official police and military road-blocks, it’s fortunate that our Cuthbert doesn’t seem to fit the profile of vehicles being targeted for checks; we’re waved through every point with a smile. But this isn’t the case further north at the less official ‘check-points’. A bit further north in the more remote desert, the indigenous Wayuu people rule the roost and the ‘check-points’ are children, often no more than tiny-tots, holding a string across the track to stop cars and beg for treats (click here for the full story of La Guajira and the dilemma with Wayuu kids).
Kite-away in Caribbean Colombia
As we’re pottering around La Guajira, we happen upon another English overlanding vehicle coming down the track towards us. Ha ha! What a place to meet fellow Brits 😊. Declan and Rachel are avid kite-surfers and it just so happens that this particular part of Colombia is kite-surf-heaven. We arrange to meet with Declan and Rachel later in Riohacha where we spend a lovely few days with them, and Marcus is persuaded to give kite-surfing a try.
Lesson 1 – handling a training kite, he completes in 10 minutes flat, then moves quickly onto the full-size kite and his first go at body-dragging. This is the bit where you ‘allegedly’ learn to control your kite whilst being dragged face-first through the briny, so that when you lose your board (and you will at many stages, lose your board) you can use the kite to steer you to retrieve said board. Lessons 2 and 3 are a bit more of this body-dragging lark, then by lesson 4 he’s deemed ready for the board.
His instructors are amazed how quickly he is picking it up, but now comes the even trickier bit: standing-up and whizzing along. It takes a few attempts, but soon Golden Boy is up on his feet. He has a few goes at whizzing along… before falling unceremoniously flat on his face. Nevertheless, he is picking it up surprisingly well… not bad for an old boy. And me? Gosh no! None of that silly nonsense 😉 It’s far too entertaining to spectate from the beach. But I can see we may soon need to find space for some new sports gear in the truck!
Jail-birds in Cartagena
At last we’ve reached our very final destination in the whole of South America… the port city of Cartagena. And what a place to end on! A beautiful colonial city with endless quaint and cobbled streets to wander. We’re preparing Cuthbert for his Caribbean cruise to Panama, but in between a series of meetings with our shipping agent and the port officers we do some catching-up with friends.
First, we’re thrilled that Aussie globetrotter Amanda Jacka, who we first met on our Antarctica trip from Ushuaia over two years ago, is back in South America and just happens to be in Cartagena. We spend a lovely evening with her reminiscing over some beer and pizza.
Next, we have a final reunion with Declan and Rachel. We’ve enjoyed lots of great beach time with them over the last couple of weeks, but this time we go to jail with them :-0 !!!! How so????
Well… Restaurante Interno aims to educate and train inmates at the San Diego womens’ prison. It offers high-end gourmet food, all prepared and served by the women learning skills to hopefully set them up for a better life after release. They even cultivate much of the produce themselves in the prison gardens. The prison is within Cartagena’s old city walls and adjacent to the main tourist area. The restaurant is nicely set out in a small external courtyard with access directly onto the street, but the kitchen is behind a locked barred gate. Food is passed through hatches to waitresses who have access to the open street, so they are presumably selected from the ‘lower-risk’ population of the prison.
So how was our prison-food experience? We loved it. The food was excellent; gourmet standard and beautifully presented. A three-course menu with fresh juice costs 90,000 pesos (around £25). This is expensive by Colombian standards, but the food quality is far higher than your average Colombian fayre, and the price includes a donation to their cause. With a couple of bottles of a crisp Sauvignon blanc (not included), the four of us had a lovely evening out. Highly recommended and a great cause if you happen to be passing and fancy a treat.
So… the time has come. South America has been fabulous ‘n all that… but it’s time to put Cuthbert on his luxury Caribbean cruise to Panama. At the shipping agent we meet British chaps Martin and Roger with their trusty overlanding steed, Stanley. Stanley is about to become Cuthbert’s new chum and shipmate, but he’s a little older than Cuthbert. In fact he’s a whole 76 years older than Cuthbert!!! Stanley is a beautiful 1938 Morris 25 – yes, that’s 80 years old!!! Not that he’s let his age prevent Martin and Roger from getting out and about. They’ve driven Stanley around the world once, and now they’re doing the south-to-north route through the Americas.
Now… it may not surprise you greatly to learn that there are many things more simple in the world than shipping a foreign vehicle from Colombia. In addition to the paper-work, inspections are required to see that the vehicle isn’t being used as an elaborate Escobar-style drugs mule. The whole process is somewhat less than slick and efficient, but it could have been worse (note: we booked Cuthbert’s shipping with IVSSUK and can highly recommend them for overlander vehicle shipping). Over several days of waiting around for port, customs and drugs-checking formalities, we spend considerable time with Martin, Roger and Stanley. It is both fascinating and a great pleasure for us to hear about their extraordinary travels and we wish them all the very best for their onward travels.
As we wave good bye to both Stanley and Cuthbert boarding the ship, we reflect on our last couple of years. It’s been a blast, and in many ways we’re sad to leave. But the adventure continues. We have a flight to catch to Panama City. Normal ‘adventure’ service resumes in Central America in a few days. We do hope you’ll join us 😊