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Published: February 9th 2019
Finca La Bonanza, Silvia
With Anouar, Kika and their three lovely children at their campground near Silvia.
Being back in this beautiful country for another month before we ship Tortuga from Cartagena is turning out to be very enjoyable so far. After we left Cuenca mid-January, we put in a few long days of driving to get up to Ibarra, in northern Ecuador, where we spent four nights back at one of our favourite campgrounds, Finca Sommerwind. It was great to catch up with our friends there and spend a few days relaxing around camp before crossing the border into Colombia. We had been wondering how the border crossing would go this time, as when we crossed over last August it took a very long time and the immigration officials were completely overwhelmed by the huge number of Venezuelans heading south. The night before we left Sommerwind, an unfortunate incident occurred in Ibarra, where a young Venezuelan man fatally stabbed his pregnant Ecuadorian girlfriend in the middle of the street in front of a crowd of onlookers. This act triggered a massive protest in the city against Venezuelans (even though it was essentially a case of domestic violence), and sadly a kind of lynch mob effect, which saw angry young Ecuadorians raiding hostels frequented by Venezuelans and burning
all their possessions. Tensions, which had been building over the last few months, seemed to be coming to a head, and we heard rumours that Ecuador was about to completely close its border to Venezuelans.
So we were expecting a hectic day at the border, and were astonished when we arrived to a completely different scene from that in August. There were no snaking queues; we went straight up to the immigration desk to get our exit stamps for Ecuador; crossed into Colombia and spent about 15 minutes getting entry stamps and a temporary import permit for Tortuga; and we were on our way! A 45-minute crossing as opposed to the 6 hours it took us in August! We noticed a significant UN presence at the border as well as some Red Cross vaccination stations, so it seems that international help has arrived and enabled the border officials to better handle the influx of refugees, as well as providing Venezuelans with much needed food, shelter and medical care. It was also interesting to see that quite a lot of Venezuelans were actually now heading north, presumably back to Venezuela, though we are not sure if this is because they
felt renewed hope in their country, or because they were not able to find work or be welcomed in Ecuador or further south. Probably the latter, sadly, as many Ecuadorians and Colombians we met advised us that unemployment in each country and the lack of good-paying work was already a long-standing problem before the Venezuelans' arrival en masse.
Once we were back in Colombia, buying our compulsory vehicle insurance was the only time-consuming event we had to contend with. We had been advised by the customs officer at the border to purchase it from a nearby supermarket, so off we went and had no trouble signing up for it at the special car insurance booth inside the store. But as with most places in South America, we had to make the actual payment elsewhere - in fact at the regular supermarket checkout till! So we found ourselves behind a long line of people buying everything from groceries to, well, car insurance! As Ken has wearily lamented in a previous blog post, Colombian supermarkets allow you to do many transactions in addition to your grocery shopping, and so checkout lines are invariably slow-moving and tedious as you wait for people
to recharge their phones, pay their electric bills, validate coupons...and yes, pay their car insurance bills! Anyway, it all worked out and Ken was only a little ruffled as he is getting quite used to these little South American idiosyncrasies by now.
After a couple of long driving days, we spent 2 lovely nights at a campground up in the mountains north of Popayán, near a town called Silvia. Finca Bonanza is owned by a wonderful Moroccan family - Kika, Anouar, and their three teenage kids - and we were given a very warm welcome by them all. They had travelled for three years around South America in their motorhome before deciding to settle in the area and start up a campground. Their property has an interesting history: it was the weekend retreat of a notorious Cali cartel boss nicknamed 'The Scorpion', and apparently he used to host huge parties there for his cartel cronies, bringing in women from Brazil, guests arriving in helicopters, and blasting music across the surrounding mountains (he had no neighbours to annoy back then, and even if he did, who would dare complain!). There is even an escape tunnel under the property, but the
Fi and Mariposa!
Another little pup that I wanted to adopt...
family are reluctant to explore it in case there are bodies down there....you can't make up this stuff! Anyway, we spent a really great time at the finca and on leaving, were treated to a load of organic vegetables from the garden, free range eggs and some freshly baked Moroccan bread. It was a lovely time and we wish Kika and Anouar all the best - and hope that none of the Scorpion's friends/family ever show up there in the future! Silvia was a picturesque little town with a heavy indigenous population, and we spent an enjoyable afternoon mooching around the central plaza, and walking up to the Iglesia de Belen for a good view of the surrounding countryside.
Our next stop was the coffee region (zona cafetera), which we had already visited in July last year but enjoyed so much that we wanted to return. Back at our favourite campground, La Serrana, it felt as though we had never left. Breakfasts were still included in the camping fee, the staff remembered us, and we even went on the same hike again in the Valle de Cocora. A bit of deja-vu, but when you're in such a beautiful place
it hardly matters. We met plenty of other overlanders during our 5 days there, and enjoyed the confusion that always ensued when they saw our Colorado licence plates but discovered we were heading north. Most people on this kind of adventure drive the whole length of the Pan-American highway from Alaska down to the tip of Argentina, but we of course had a different objective for our trip. Anyway, once we had explained the rationale behind our somewhat convoluted route, they seemed satisfied (or were just being nice and secretly labeling us as utter nutcases). Deciding that we should really try to see at least one new place in the coffee region, we moved on to the smaller town of Filandia and stayed at a campground run by a pair of British motorcyclists, who had been travelling through the Americas but ended up living in Filandia after adopting a street dog that became sick. The day we left their place was the day we made an impulsive decision to head east, instead of north back towards Medellin. We had initially planned to go back to Cartagena the same way that we drove down in July, but it seemed a shame
We stopped at a truck stop on the way to Villa de Leyva, and enjoyed this huge meal complete with soup, main course, arepas and dessert for $3 each!!
to not see anything new, especially as we might not come back to Colombia for some time (or ever, as Ken prefers to say!). So at a road junction near Manizales, we looked at each other and said "sod it, let's go east!". And so we did!
It proved to be a great decision, as we arrived in the beautiful colonial town of Villa de Leyva, in the province of Boyacá. This small town is a popular weekend destination for Colombians from Bogotá, but during the week it is quite tranquil, and the highlight is the cobbled Plaza Mayor - town square - which is one of the biggest in the Americas and has a wonderful atmosphere that you can enjoy from one of the many cafes and restaurants around its edges. We spent the first two nights at a campground right in the town centre, where the caretaker/manager assured us that it was 'muy tranquilo' (very peaceful) at night, only to then crank up the volume on his loud speakers within ten minutes of us setting up camp. He was a nice guy, but by 10pm Ken had had enough of his antics and politely asked him to
turn it off! Thankfully he obliged, and we did have a peaceful night, apart from the rooster squawking its lungs out every hour from 2 to 6 am (this is the awful same beast that also attacked my legs the day before and left beak marks on my shins!). The second night at this campground was peaceful enough until about 11pm, when the same caretaker guy came back blind drunk, and proceeded to roll around on the grass, screeching and shouting incoherently until he passed out! This was enough for Ken to suggest (insist upon) a change of location, and so it was that we made our way to Hostal Renacer, on the outskirts of town - a boutique hostel with a small camping area, which was so wonderful that we stayed for 5 nights. We met some great people there, including a retired German couple, Jürgen and Christine, who are on a three-week trip around Colombia, and Alex from the UK, at the beginning of a 5-month trip around South America on his motorbike. The onsite restaurant was so cheap and friendly that we ate most of our meals there with our fellow travellers, making just the odd trip
out to do a hike to some waterfalls and another one up to a viewpoint on the edge of town. It was one of our most enjoyable times of the whole trip, and we were pretty reluctant to leave, but our time for shipping is growing closer so we pressed on northwards to Barichara - another colonial town that we actually visited back in July while we were waiting for Tortuga to arrive in Colombia.
We're now staying at a campground near Barichara, run by a lovely Dutch couple, who have been living here for the last 10 years and have built a wonderful house on their 8-hectare farm, with a large, grassy area for overlanders like us. The house is all open-air living, as the weather here is hot year-round, and they have heavily invested in sustainable projects - recycling waste water, composting, reforesting large areas of their property and making their own delicious bread, jams and yoghurt. It's another wonderful place to stay and we are enjoying the last few days of relaxing before we start the long, hot drive up to Cartagena, where the dubious joys of international vehicle shipping await us. This might be the
last blog we post while in Colombia, as the next couple of weeks won't be too exciting to write about! At the moment our cargo ship is set to sail on the 22nd Feb, arriving in Houston on the 27th. Once we have Tortuga back in our clutches, we'll make our way to San Diego to collect our beloved mountain bikes and spend some time there and in Arizona (to meet up with Ken's parents and sister who will be on their own motorhome trip from South Carolina). Afterward, we'll be driving over to the east coast, via Colorado, to store Tortuga with Ken's parents in Greenville sometime in May. And that will finally be the end of this Tortuga Tour! We'll put up another blog once we are back in the US, but until then thanks for following our trip. Hope you enjoyed the narrative, and there are a few photos below too.
~Fi and Ken
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