Starting out in Colombia

It’s always slightly scary to drive in a new country for the first time. You’re never quite sure how the police will be, if the traffic laws are different, or how your fellow drivers are. We had seen enough in Cartagena while we waited for Ruby, to realise that city driving was not going to be fun. In the brief day we drove her through the city this was confirmed. Bikes cut in from all sides and directions, cars drifted in and out across lanes dodging the local bus service. No one gave way to anyone, all signals were irrelevant. You had to drive aggressively to get anywhere at all. 

Before we headed out though, we went into town one final time to sort out our Yellow Fever vaccines. it was inevitable that at some point on this continent would be asked for them and it’s possible to get them for free in the city. With this sorted, we got some final sightseeing of the colourful streets before headed back to the van to leave.

So, as soon as we were packed up and ready, the first thing we did was to leave the city. We had a spot planned a short way out of the hustle and bustle at a quiet beach; where we planned to give ourselves a day to get back into the swing of living in a van. We arrived in plenty of time at a huge sandy beach full of empty palapas and shut restaurants. Someone half-heartedly waved us towards their restaurant and once they realised we weren’t interested we were left by ourselves. This was perfect. We needed to remember how this van life thing worked all over again. 

Later on, Marine and Roman joined us. They had gone ahead to Barranquilla to shop at Decathlon for some new camping equipment. That was going to be our first stop tomorrow. 

After a peaceful night and a pleasant swim, it was time to keep going. As much as it was great to be back on the road, we knew that we had to start dealing with our rust issues. We had set aside a week to get the front of the chassis welded back together, something that had given me a few sleepless nights and a slight feeling of panic every time we encountered a speed bump. While we really didn’t want to be back in a garage, it seemed the sensible thing to do. As the repair involves removing the entire front beam, I wanted to find someone who knew Volkswagens as there is a significant amount of mechanical labour as well as the welding itself. Cartagena hadn’t had much in the way of a VW scene, but we had found a VW guy in Barranquilla and arranged to meet him that afternoon. 

The morning we met to visit the smallest volcano in the county. Volcano Totumo is a mud volcano, popular with locals and tourists for its rumoured healing properties.

Having never been in a mud volcano before, we decided it was something we should do. We arrived and parked up, deciding to have some lunch at one of the local restaurants before going for a ‘swim’.

It was definitely an odd experience to swim in mud. You feel like you should swim the same way as water, but the buoyancy is completely different. It’s impossible not to float. you can stand vertically in the mud as if you were on land, but floating. The restaurant owner’s kid had my phone and was our stand-in photographer for the event. Once you climb into the mud pool, you are enthusiastically massaged by one of the locals, whether you really want it or not.

When we were ready to get out, we climbed back down very slowly to the lake. We were covered in slick mud and so were the steps, so extreme caution was needed.

At the bottom, we were escorted to the lake where one of the women there took my hand and led me into the water. She then gave me a good wash, rather than leaving me to my own devices.

We were mostly clean, but we still needed a proper shower which we got back at the restaurant. Then back at the van, we were nearly ready to leave when the washer, cameraman and masseuse descended on us for tips. despite the fact that it is an incredibly touristy thing, we definitely had a fun and memorable morning.

Before we went and found out just how expensive this was going to be, we decided to spend some more money we didn’t have in Decathlon ourselves. We were long overdue for a saucepan upgrade and a new camping chair after all. After messing around in horrible traffic when the car park height restriction was too low for us, we finally got in and got our stuff. Then we set off to meet David. His garage is huge and looked like it catered for quite a lot of commercial business. They had a paint shop too, two things which I take to be an indicator of the fact they will probably do a good job. We met David and he waved us in before they jacked up the front of the van to have a proper look at what we wanted. Good start. Nothing worse than someone who won’t give you a concrete price or won’t look at it properly either. He doubled check with us exactly what parts we wanted welding (there’s a lot of areas here) and we pointed out the priorities for this time around. Two rotten sections above the wheels that allowed wanted into the cab whenever we drove through any water, the front drivers side jacking point that had rotten so badly we could see the floor inside through the hole, and various mounting points for the front beam. David took his time, looked at it all and gave us a price of 3.5m pesos (about £500) and three days worth of work. He explained apologetically that it was a big job. We were well aware. As it was a Friday already and the bank holiday was coming up too, we decided that we would start the work next week and so with everything planned nicely we drove out towards Santa Marta. 

We were nearing the end of the day as it was, but we should have just made it there in the daylight. Instead, our gearstick decided to pop out several times on the way, costing us valuable time. Marine and Roman were already parked up at a hostel in Taganga and while it wasn’t suitable for cars the owner said we could park outside for free. It was on the side of the road, but it was late and we didn’t have many better options so we were grateful for it. It turned out that Will and Beth who we knew from the Overland Embassy in Panama, were also staying in the town. They too were interested in diving and they came and joined us for a quick nightcap beside the van that evening. After a long day, we were keen to get an early night but it wasn’t meant to be. There were two problems here, one was that stupid Lizzie narrowly missed being hit by a bike, and the other was that there was a raging party in the town. It was so hot here that sleeping was hard anyway, maybe we had been spoilt with two weeks of air con but as I lay there in the dark with our two fans blasting hot air at us I felt like it would have been hard to sleep for anyone. Even without the heat, sleep still wouldn’t have been on the cards as the party continued on until the small hours. At three, it had a cooled a little and I hoped that soon the noise would start to wind down too. This wasn’t meant to be though, the music continued on, through the entire night and until about midday the following morning. We met an equally sleep-deprived Marine and Roman, who hadn’t done any better than us. Then the neighbour to the hostel came and told us to leave. We were happy too, we needed to find a better spot. We tried another place around the corner, owned by a German guy. Again, there wasn’t space for us to park inside but a small space on the little dirt road opposite.

It was a much quieter road though and Helmut was a friendly guy. He invited us in and offered us use of all of his facilities, while several large tortoises puffed around the terrace at our feet. In a generally dry and barren town, he had created his own little oasis of green trees and ponds which he shared with a large assortment of rescued animals. 

With a spot for the night sorted, we drove into Santa Marta to speak to one of the dive schools. We booked a spot with them for two days time before returning to Taganga. Lee wanted to watch the football that afternoon so we headed to the local shop which had put all its chairs on the street and was handing out beers while everyone craned to see the one small screen. We watched as Colombia faced of against the US, getting utterly demolished in the process. The locals didn’t seem to bothered, the beer flowed and I was hopeful that an early start to the drinking would mean a quieter night later.

Back at Ruby, I fed the stray cat population and noted that we should probably lock our doors while we sat in Helmuts garden. A homeless guy was sleeping under the foundations next to our door.

While the night was definitely quieter, the temperature was still brutal and yet again, we both struggled to sleep. In the morning we thanked Helmut for his generosity in letting us stay for free, and decided that we needed a break. Taganga is not really cut out for campers. Some other friends of ours were staying up in Minca, a small town up in the mountains behind Santa Marta. I could think of nothing more appealing than a quiet, cool night and with it being only a short drive away, we set off. 

We weren’t the only ones struggling with the heat, Ruby too needed a few engine breaks to climb out of the heat of the city on the hairpin mountain roads. We reached the dirt track down to the finca and edged our way down some of the rougher sections before the track opened up into a large grassy field, full of campers.  Matt, Cinta and Gaia greeted us and introduced us to the other vans. Lots of local Colombian van lifers as well as a Spanish couple in a more modern T25. 

We had only been there a matter of hours, before we were served up local lunch. Despite the fact that they had no idea who we were, we were instantly included in free food which involved sampling the typical food. Our friendly fellow campers also invited us to join them on a hike to Poza Azul.

We should have known that this was a terrible time to go, a Sunday. The place was packed.

Later, we enjoyed a campfire. Up here in the coolness of the mountains, it was possible to actually enjoy the warmth. We sat around toasting marshmallows and suddenly practicing a lot of Spanish. It was almost a shame to be heading down into Santa Marta the next day. 

With such a friendly group, and after a lovely cool nights sleep where we actually needed to use our duvet, we decided to return again. First, though it was time to dive again. It didn’t seem 7 months ago that we had learnt in Honduras, definitely time for a refresher. After parking Ruby somewhere secure, and in the shade for the cats, we headed to the marina. We met Roman standing on the jetty, newly qualified from his first diving course. It being so hot here on the coast, I had expected the sea to be pretty warm too, and so I was a little surprised to be handed a wetsuit. Still, we wriggled into them and got the rest of our gear sorted before heading out on the boat for Tayrona. We had booked ourselves two fun dives, the first of which deposited us in a rather enthusiastic current. 

With different equipment and after not diving for so long, we both spent our first dive trying to get back into the swing of things. Getting through our air rather quickly and remembering exactly how to breathe. There was nothing spectacular to see here, unlike Santa Catalina in Panama, but it was just nice to be back in the water again. 

For the second dive, we had it together. I realised that they had gone a bit crazy with the weights and after adjusting for that, it was far more relaxing. While there weren’t turtles and sharks, we did get up pretty close to a moray eel. I also saw a sea cucumber for the first time as well as this stone fish, the most venomous fish on earth!

After our pleasant afternoon, it was time to head back up once again to our cool and quiet spot. We had been keen to stay in one place anyway over that long weekend, with the current election that was taking place. It turned out that there was a tie however between two of the three main candidates, meaning that there would be another voting day in three weeks. In the meantime, we agreed with David back in Barranquilla that we would start the welding on the following Monday. This gave us a week up in the mountains, to explore. 

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