We arrived at the airport for our departing flight to Colombia a good two and a half hours before it was due to take off, allowing us plenty of time to check-in. Having never flown with animals before, we weren’t sure how smoothly this was going to go.
As is the way; when you’re running late everything is slow, but when you’ve got plenty of time, you don’t need it. We had cleared check-in and security within half an hour. We got plenty of stares as we walked around the airport with two cats, but they were pretty well behaved, even when we had to take them out of the bags and through the scanner. So we sat there at the boarding gate with the full two hours to go, enjoying a ridiculously expensive coffee and croissant with the last of our dollars.
Even with the flight being slightly delayed, we were still in the air before too long and starting our incredibly short flight across the sea to Cartagena. I had wondered if the cats would freak out on take off, but they lay in the bags under the seats as calm as anything. The last time we took a flight this short, it was to Ireland. In 45 minutes there is barely time to reach cruising altitude and hand out the snacks, before we were already beginning our descent. That part was the same here, the main difference seemed to be the cost, it had cost about $40 to fly to Ireland, and this had cost us nearly $500, not including the pets. We hoped that once we arrived in South America the cost of living would be so much lower that it would make up for what had been a rather expensive three months.
The plane touched down, and soon enough we walked across the tarmac in the burning midday sun, towards customs. That was a pretty straightforward process and as we had no bags to collect we were pretty much good to go. We explained to someone that we needed to get paperwork for our cats and they led us around to the right office. A very friendly guy filled everything out for us and we paid £10 to bring out cats into Colombia. With directions to the hotel preloaded on the airport wifi, we grabbed a cab. Our incredibly happy taxi driver drove us around the outskirts of the historic town, chatting away. After around twenty minutes we arrived at our apartment, Heather was waiting outside to show us where to go. I think at this point, I could finally relax. We had made it here easily and now all we could do was wait for our container. I had checked the boat tracking this morning which said that the boat had arrived here the same day as us, it seemed to all going remarkably well.
I supposed we should have known that nothing is ever straightforward. As Kartik and Sim started getting messages regarding the port entrance and the collection of their vehicle, things were all rather quiet about our container. It turned out that while their container, which had left two days later than ours, had been loaded on the correct boat, ours had not. After getting the tracking number for our container rather than just the boat, we say already that it had a 7 day delay added and a different ship. Apparently, the ship was overbooked and they hadn’t loaded ours. This was even more annoying as we had loaded early. We had booked 5 nights in this large apartment, with Kartik and Sim unloading their van the following day and collecting it the day after. The rest of us resigned ourselves to the wait, checking the shipping information daily. As often as we checked it, the day kept changing as well as the boat it was supposed to be on. By the time the arrival date and boat changed for the 4th time, it was clear we would need to book some more accommodation.
As frustrating as it was to be waiting, at least we weren’t alone. The first night we arrived, Heather had cooked dinner for us all. The theme stuck, with every night a different couple cooking for everyone else. Marine and Roman delivered some great fish with a classic French sauce and a lemon tart. I was particularly impressed to see that Roman had really committed to the lemon tart, making meringue by hand with a fork. Sim made curry with some of the best pakoras I’ve ever tried and a classic Indian dessert. When our turn came we did a pie and veg, as for once we had a proper oven. Not only was it cheaper to buy in bulk, but it was also lovely to try everyone else’s favourite food. It’s nearly unheard of that anyone cooks for us, so it was a fantastic experience to sit down at the dinner table every night and enjoy a feast. Not only that, but it certainly made the waiting more bearable.
When the time came to change apartments, the five of us moved into a cheaper place on the other side of town. Heather got to sleep in an actual room rather than on the couch and the whole thing cost us about 50% less, a good thing when the delay just kept getting longer and longer. Kartik and Sim said they were planning to leave, but in actual fact it took them longer to sort out their van than they planned, it not being entirely finished when it left Panama. We still saw them around town and invited them over to our new place for more shared meals. Here we stayed for another week, mainly just eating.
At one point we headed into town to go on the free walking tour. Apparently, a common thing on this continent is that the larger cities offer free historical tours. You pay as much as you feel it’s worth at the end. Despite it being so hot most days that we couldn’t summon the motivation to do much, it seemed a shame to miss this. We had gone to the old town for lunch once before and while we didn’t look around too much, it was clear just from that short visit that it would be worth returning to see the beautiful buildings and colourful streets.
We met our guide Roy in the small square outside the navy museum where he took us off around the old town, guiding the way with his large yellow umbrella.
As we approached the end of our second week in Cartagena, we finally got more definitive news. Our container was loaded onto a ship and had actually left Panama. As it was coming up to the weekend though, it would depend on when the ship arrived as to which side of the weekend it would be. The customs office doesn’t work over the weekend and the port is closed on Sunday too. When our boat had still not docked by Thursday evening, we knew that we wouldn’t be going anywhere until at least Monday. Once again, we extended our apartment rental. Ana, the agent in Colombia who deals with the port and the import of the vehicles messaged us Friday saying that we could unload the container that day, but we would have to leave the vehicles in the port all weekend, or we could wait. Despite the fact that Heather was desperate to get on the road, we didn’t want to leave our vehicle in the port. We were told there were cameras and it was secure, but not only would we have to leave it there for 3 extra days unattended; we would also have to leave it unlocked. This was not something we were willing to entertain as it seemed to make paying for a container a little redundant. We said we would unload Monday.
When Monday came, we arrived in the morning as instructed where we sat and waited for an hour. We were then given some health and safety equipment to put on. As we walked to the entrance, something changed and we walked back to wait in another room. Two hours later we were still there. Then we were told that they would take us for lunch as the port was busy and we could come back later. So, we headed out for some lunch. It was around 1pm when they said that we could return to unload. Now later in the day, this meant we would have to leave the cars again. We weren’t keen and Jean in the other car was adamant he wouldn’t do that. Heather was frustrated because she wanted to get going and Marine was angry her lunch had meat in it. Tensions were running a bit high. In the end, we said we would try again the following morning. In the meantime, Ana pulled some strings and we spent the rest of the afternoon doing the paperwork for customs. Apparently, this is a special favour and not allowed, but it would speed up the process tomorrow. We were told to meet again at the port at 8am.
That evening we got another message, we needed to go and pay Ana at 9am. But we thought we were supposed to be at the port. No, they hadn’t actually confirmed a time slot at the port but they hoped it would be at 10am. Once again, many an angry message was sent via WhatsApp. We hung around the apartment that morning waiting. We didn’t want to pay until we had got our container unloaded. Kartik and Sim had paid after at the port and we didn’t see why we couldn’t do the same. In the end, we got another message telling us to go to the port. This time it seemed like the real thing. We put on our safety gear and actually went inside. The guy accompanying us led us to our container, where we checked the safety lock. It was definitely ours.
Then they put the ramp into place and cut off the lock. We started to unload. First the bikes, then Jean’s car and Ruby last. One thing I noticed as the contained doors swung open was the overwhelming smell of petrol. Previous experience told me that if any of the vehicles were leaking fuel, chances are it would be Ruby.
When it was my turn to unload, I reversed back slowly until I reached the edge of the container. There someone signalled at me to turn it off. At the back, I saw the enormous fuel puddle underneath. That troublesome hose from Panama had somehow come loose again and chucked fuel everywhere.
Fortunately it was a quick fix to tighten the hose while the port workers fussed around and photographed the fuel spill. Now, not leaking, I freed Ruby from the container and parked her up on the port. So close. We were told they needed to process some documents at the port and that we would be able to pick up our vehicles that afternoon. While they are left unsecured on the port, at least it would only be for a very short time. I was glad our waiting game had paid off in the end.
We headed over to Ana’s office and paid here, before being dropped off back at the apartment. Normally we would have probably had to go through a customs inspection, but whatever they had pulled with the paperwork the day before meant that we didn’t have to worry about that. Before too long, we were told to return for our vehicles. It was another sweltering day, and port rules dictate that you must wear closed-toe shoes and long-sleeved clothing. I bought some shoes and trousers for this and Heather lent me a jacket (I didn’t know we needed to pack these things when we loaded up). While this was kind of her, it was a waterproof jacket. As you can imagine, wearing a waterproof jack in those kinds of temperatures is somewhat unpleasant and creates a kind of ‘boil-in-the-bag’ scenario.
We waited at our vehicles for some time before we got given our exit paperwork. The guy explained which way we had to drive out while Roman translated. I couldn’t understand a word that anyone said in Spanish here and was getting rather annoyed with myself. Hopefully, it was just the accent of this city, not the entire continent. We drove around and joined a queue to get out. This took a while, but soon we pulled up outside. We handed back our equipment. We were officially free!
I had not been looking forward to driving in the traffic, especially with one indicator out and no horn. The horn seemed to be the replacement for the indicators anyway. Traffic merged in and out of large multiple-lane roads without warning or care for anything else. The apartment was only a 15-minute drive, even so, I hoped I made it in one piece. I was relieved to pull up outside. The apartment manager said she would come and open the garage for us later and we could park inside safely, it was all good. With everyone happy to finally be back on track we sat on the balcony and celebrated.
Leydis, with the keys, arrived to open the padlock for the parking spot. It was our van and two bikes. It’s a good job Roman’s bike was in the garage as we were told that we had to fit all our vehicles in one parking space despite the garage being basically empty. After a lot of shunting, we squeezed Ruby in and then arranged the two bikes. It wasn’t what I had expected, but they were surprisingly anal about the little things in this place. We got told off for putting our rubbish out on the wrong day and for using the garage key to leave rather than the gate key… naturally it was unheard of that a bike could tuck itself out of the way at the side, rather than be in a designated space.
The next day, we waved goodbye to Heather and then there were just us four. While we could have left, we decided we wanted one more day to sort ourselves out. We need to organise the van and fix the horn and indicators. Roman was still waiting for his bike and so we booked one more apartment for one more night. The others had arrived before us and checked in, it was some kind of gated community. They told us that we couldn’t come in with our vehicle until after 2pm, despite the owner saying we could arrive at 12.30pm. this was the administration policy apparently, so we waited on the street outside in the sun, with two very hot cats for nearly an hour before we were allowed in, for absolutely no apparent reason. The owner appeared in his car and showed us where to park. We were there about ten minutes before a little old lady started shouting that we couldn’t park there from her balcony. Then a guy came out and saw Ruby, he said it was fine, apparently the first car he owned when he was 17 was a kombi and so we got the special VW treatment again. Despite the fact that we could have left it, we moved anyway to a more level spot to do some repairs.
The horn and indicator were easy fixes and we made the most of having access to a washing machine. We sorted our stuff out and turned the fridge back on. I was impressed that in the whole time in storage, our batteries had only dropped .02%. Despite the fact that it was pricey, I have not for one minute regretted installing that new battery bank.
For our last night in the town, we headed out with Marine and Roman. We revisited the sushi place we had gone to in the week and had some more excellent food and cocktails rounded off by a drink in the craft beer bar next door. It was the perfect end to the wait, despite being frustrating at times, we had safely been reunited with Ruby, made some more good friends and eaten a lot of lovely food. We were ready to start the next chapter.