Back on the Road: South from Cartagena


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South America » Colombia » Medellin
July 19th 2018
Published: July 20th 2018
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In 1992, while living in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I bought a used Subaru for $600 from a used car lot. I paid cash, signed the usual bill of sale, title etc., as well as a bunch of acknowledgement forms advising me that the vehicle lacked even the most rudimentary safety equipment. The entire transaction took about 15 minutes. That's about how long it takes to check into a hotel or pay for groceries in Colombia. There is a cultural penchant for red tape which has taken (me) a little while to get used to. This just about drove me to the brink of insanity three days ago as I witnessed a five-minute transaction at a toll booth between the attendant and the vehicle immediately ahead of us, involving phone calls and consultations with supervisors. So far, however, that's the only thing I can really complain about. So I guess what I'm saying is that I'm enjoying Colombia, as is Fi, who has much more patience than me. Since leaving Cartagena - which must be Spanish for "place of blistering heat" - we've found the mountain landscapes to be very scenic, and the people generally quite friendly and helpful.



I'll briefly describe how we've made it this far since our last blog post, which found us in Medellin after having dropped off our camper ("Tortuga") in Galveston, Texas, and flown out from Houston. After a week lolling around in Medellin, we took a 10-hour, and then a 3-hour bus ride over a period of a day and a half, to arrive in the mountain tourist town of San Gil, a linear distance of less than 170 miles. San GIl is where adventure enthusiasts such as paragliders, rock climbers, white water rafters, and bungee jumpers have been coming for over a decade. The most adventurous thing we did there was go to the botanical garden and look at butterflies. From San GIl we took a local bus to the picturesque and charmingly small hamlet of Barichara. Lonely Planet describes this small town, with its white stucco buildings, terracotta tiled rooves and cobbled streets, as one of the prettiest towns in Colombia. Apparently, South American movies and TV series film on location here for its appeal. We can't disagree; it was truly a very pretty little town. While there, we did a 10km hike along a trail to the neighboring town of Guane with a lovely Dutch lady, Annamiek, who was staying at the same hostel as us in San Gil. We really enjoyed meeting Annamiek, with whom we also spent some time at a local swimming area along a river near Curiti. Stopping along the way to rest in a beautiful flower garden at a small finca (little farm) where a lady sold refreshments, we finished our hike and took the bus back to San Gil. In the more mountainous and temperate areas of Colombia, flowers grow everywhere. Some are recognizable, but some, including orchids, look like creations from Alice in Wonderland. Quite a visual feast.



We left San Gil, opting to fly to Cartagena, instead of a 16+ hour bus ride. Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage site, due to its walled port city built by the Spanish that is only one of three in the Western Hemisphere, and remains part of a working city to this day (as opposed to an artificially preserved tourist attraction). All I remember is the searing heat. We spent a week in the city, much of it getting Tortuga out of the port. Getting back to the red tape issue, between Fi and myself, we've bought three vehicles in the last three years, have undergone three major surgeries, bought a home, and sold a motorhome. Every one of those events involved reading, signing, copying, and forgetting about numerous forms and disclosures. If one were to gather all of the paperwork from each of those events and put it into one big pile, it would still not eclipse the amount of paperwork we had to fill out to satisfy the various fiefdoms and port authority strongmen before we could drive away with Tortuga. Luckily, the process wasn't too complicated, just tedious and long. We finally had the green light to drive out of the port with Tortuga about 5 days after we began this process, which is about average, from what I understand. If we had hired an agent in Cartagena, we may have been able to shave off a couple of days... at an additional cost of ~$300. Having more time than money these days, our choice to forego an agent was a pretty simple one. Fi, whose Spanish is excellent, made it possible for us to do this ourselves successfully. Notwithstanding our "Free Tortuga" campaign, we made some time to get together with friends we had met in San Gil: Claude, Lisa, and their charming daughter Simone, all from Quebec. They were a fun, easy-going family, and we really enjoyed the time we spent with them in San Gil, and were happy to meet up with them again in Cartagena, especially as they were staying in the beautifully air-conditioned Hilton hotel, right down the street from the condemned rodent-emporium building we were staying in (actually, while our building looked like it was about to topple over, the AirBnB apartment we rented was quite nice). We also met up with David and his partner Jorge, who happened to be in town at the same time. David is the brother of Jen, of "Jen and Gavin fame" whom we met and befriended in Mexico as they were on the tail-end of a two-year overland adventure of their own. Jorge, a computer engineer from Cartagena, took us all to a local restaurant that he knew well. Although we had seen and strolled by this same restaurant before then, we probably wouldn't have thought to eat there. We're glad he pointed this place out to us, as the food was pretty good. As with Claude, Lisa, and Simone, we really enjoyed spending time with David and Jorge and wish them both well.



From the port, we spent two nights at a finca just outside of Cartagena (but still well within the heat zone) owned by a gregarious British fellow named Graham, who's been living in Colombia for 45 years. Having arrived as a young man as part of a service corps project, he decided this was home for him. We enjoyed meeting him and his family and would stay there again, once outdoor air conditioning is installed throughout the greater Cartagena metropolis. We departed on Sunday (four days ago) and are now back in the Medellin area, this time at a campground/hostel in the eastern mountains of the city. The air is crisp, and at 2600 meters above sea level (8400') the air is a bit thinner. I also got a little refresher lesson in how elevation affects air pressure: while messing around with our port-a-potty, staring directly into the bowl while opening the valve to the holding tank, I got a very rude reminder of how contents under pressure tend to exit their containers at high velocity. Luckily, we only
Annamiek, our Dutch friendAnnamiek, our Dutch friendAnnamiek, our Dutch friend

We stopped at this little farm during our hike to Guane and enjoyed a cold beer and a chat with the friendly lady who was the caretaker.
use the potty for "number ones", which was bad enough. You only need to make that mistake once (or twice) before learning better.



We've been in Colombia for just over four weeks now, and our impressions have been generally very positive. Recycling bins are everywhere (Texas, Arizona, and Colorado take note!) and the infrastructure in places like Medellin is surprisingly modern and clean. There are even little reminders in public places encouraging people to be friendly and courteous to others (we could use a few of those signs and announcements in my home country). We were well advised that Colombia can be a noisy country, and although that can certainly be true, we've been able to seek out the more tranquil places so far. We're visitors here, so we adapt. Our plans are to depart this mountainside campground in a few days and head southward into the Zona Cafetera (Coffee Zone) which is home to more nice weather, cool nights, and lushly landscaped green mountains. We hope you enjoy the photos; there should be 20 in all. Thanks for checking in with us.

~Ken and Fi


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US Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, CartagenaUS Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, Cartagena
US Coast Guard Cutter Eagle, Cartagena

The US Coast Guard just happened to be in Cartagena on a training cruise for cadets. We were able to take a tour onboard, which was a trip down memory lane for Ken - he spent 3 weeks on the boat as part of his training in 2000!
Stuck in an accident on the way to MedellinStuck in an accident on the way to Medellin
Stuck in an accident on the way to Medellin

It was a good way to meet some Colombians!


20th July 2018

Good to hear from you!
Thanks for the post! I wonder how you're doing every time I pass your house! Still at it still tries to go in there every day when we walk by. I tell her you're not there but she doesn't seem to understand! Glad you're having a good time! Things here are going well. We're finally getting some rain! Things were so bad that they actually closed the national forest to everyone and all vehicles. The Durango train set a giant fire that has burned about 70,000 Acres. Thank goodness for the rain! They're hoping the fire will be under control by the end of July. Other than that, nothing really new. Just enjoying the warm weather! Keep in touch, and glad things are going well!
20th July 2018

Glad you're doing well!
I'd been wondering about you guys! I love reading your updates and learning a bit about other parts of the world. We've been pretty busy here at The HUB and miss having you both on staff. Take care!
15th August 2018

The name Cartagena actually has an interesting history. Of course the Colombian version is named after the Spanish City. From there it starts to gets interesting. The Spanish city is a hispanicization (I think that's a word like Anglicisation) of the Latin Carthago Nova (or New Carthage which the Romans gave after conquering the city during the Punic Wars), because, the city was founded as a colony of ancient Carthage who were the mortal enemy of Rome. It's founder Hasdrubal was the brother-in-law of the famous General Hannibal Barca. The Carthaginian name for the city was simply Carthage (or New City) the same as the original North African Carthage; unlike the Romans the Carthaginians decided not to name it New New City (the Romans apparently didn't care or probably thoughts it was funny). The Spanish on the other hand got the hint and abstained from naming the Colombian city as Nuevo Cartagena which would have an etymology like New New New City (fortunately the Spanish didn't get that carried away). Of further interest is that the original Carthage (the one in North Africa) was founded as a colony of Tyre, the ancient Phoenician city now in Lebanon. This city famously started off as an island, but, was connected to land by Alexander the Great during his siege of the city and forever since has been just a peninsula. Tyre itself simply means rock in Phoenician (although the similar sounding Latin word Tyro means new person like a novice, but, this is just a coincidence). But, Tyre itself was considered a new city to its shoreward neighbor Ushu, which was called the old city. Who knows what Ushu means but it sounds almost Mesopotamian, which of course means...never-mind. (And unfortunately there is no Nuevo Mucho Caliente Ciudad). Anyways sorry for the above. Glad you both are doing well and I wish you the best of luck.

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