After nearly two weeks of not driving, we quickly reacquainted ourselves with the van. The gears seemed a bit on the sloppy side, but other than that she was driving fine. That was good, because after leaving Barranquilla there are not many places to stop. The first town of interest with some decent camping is Santa Cruz de Mompox, but that’s a good seven hour drive from Barranquilla. After spending so long not living in her, we felt like we needed that days to get back into the swings of things again. We still needed to sort out the inside a bit and put everything away properly. By the time we left the city it was mid afternoon, we picked one of the only available looking spots on the route that wasn’t a petrol station and set off.
We made it just out of the city when I lost all the gears. We thought at first it was the gear stick shift plate problem back again, but after checking that and finding it was ok, we had to look further. Lee checked underneath and found that the bolt from the gearbox coupling was gone. I’m not sure if the garage never refitted it and it took some time to work loose, or whether it was merely coincidence, but it was gone. We were pulled over on the hard shoulder of the motorway and I sat filing and cutting a new bolt to replace the one we had lost. It’s a regular bolt, but has a tapered point which locates the coupler to the gear shaft and so I used the front bolt as a pattern to make us a new rear one. Before too long, we were underway again, but our delay had cost us some time.
An hour or so later, we pulled up just outside Villa del Carmen, a restaurant that apparently allows camping. It’s on the side of the main road, but at least set back a little way for the safety of the cats. The gates however, were locked. We spotted the owner though, and after Lee went to ask he let us in anyway. Apparently his restaurant shuts at 5pm but he was happy to let us park up for a pound. He really, really wanted us to use the spare bedroom in a little casita, but we were quite insistent we wanted the van. It may be small, but I was looking forward to my own bed again.
Tourists clearly weren’t normal here. He located himself on the porch outside in his plastic chair so he could sit and watch us. I think we were just an odd concept to him, but to have some sit there for several hours an observe you like you are some kind of specimen is a little off putting. When his friend came to join in I tried to politely close the curtains.
Then he wanted us to take some photos for him, I presume to leave a review with, which we were happy to do. We were required to pose in the kayak and photograph the restaurant. With the beautiful sunset too, it’s nice enough location.
After as good of a nights sleep as you can have in a pop top by the main road, we set off to truly start exploring Colombia. That means a lot of driving. We were heading to the aforementioned Mompox, a pretty colonial town that acts as a convenient midway point between Barranquilla and the east of the country. Really there are two routes, you either head this way to explore the east side of Colombia, or you head south to the town of Medellin. Both are big drives. We had seen a few interesting places to explore out east though, so we started to put some more miles on the clock.
We arrived in Mompox, after a long but easy drive in. This northern central part of Colombia is completely and utterly flat, in distinct contrast to other regions which mark the start of the Andes mountain range. Our fellow travellers had warned us of how hard the roads could be here, with the altitude gain as well as the conditions, but we had yet to start climbing.
The only downside of remaining at the same altitude, despite now being much further away from the coast, was the heat. It was still incredibly hot and we couldn’t wait to hit some higher altitude and enjoy the cool nights once again. In the meantime, we explored Mompox.
It’s a pretty town and a designated World Heritage Site. We walked the little riverside walkway, filled with cute cafes and small restaurants, before ending up in the village square.
With such a nice little waterfront, we stopped off for a drink on the way back to the van. A combination of loud music and a very big fan made it impossible to know what we had actually ordered. In the end it seemed we had the Colombian version of a Michelada; here that just means salt and lime with your beer, rather than in Mexico where you’ll get a whole load of other ingredients too.
Some of the locals had told us that we should move the van to outside the church, it would be safer they told us.
“Is this place dangerous then? We asked.
They looked horrified. “No. It’s very quiet here!”
Good enough for us. And so we stayed put opting for the peaceful option, especially as the area outside the church was currently occupied by band practice for the local brass band.
It was indeed quiet at night, but then again any other noise would have been drowned out by the thunderstorm that raged around us. I kept checking out of the windows in case the river broke its banks and came creeping up towards us, but we were still high and dry, just deafened by thunder and blinded by lighting.
As pretty as the town is, to us towns are not normally the highlight of the trip and so we were eager to head out to the countryside. We planned to stop at Los Estoraques, a park with unusual rock formations just above the small village of Playa de Belen. We arrived a lot later than we would have chosen too, we were still learning just how inaccurate the times provided by our sat nav were, and it was already dark. It was a little unclear whether you could actually camp in the park or not. Apparently there was a local dispute over the matter and it depended on which side was currently winning as to whether you could stay or not. We were tired after a long drive though and we decided to chance it. With the elections happening again today the town was a busy place and there was a substantial presence with the police and military. We didn’t want to get hassled, so we decided to risk the park camping, further out of the town. The road up was actually a small stream and the parking lot at the top quite flooded too. Not wanting to get stuck, we stayed close by the entrance and set ourselves up. A few people on motorbikes came and went, but no one seemed to mind we were there. The small shop that charges for the entrance having shut earlier that day. The night was completely dark and silent, just what we needed.
I heard the the scooters arrive at about 6am the next morning, a perfectly reasonable time to get to go to work it seems. They probably thought they were giving us a good lie in, or couldn’t figure out why we hadn’t got up yet, when they starting knocking on it at 7.30am. Fortunately they didn’t mind us being here, the girl who came over kind of explained the charges. We got that it was 20,000 pesos to camp each night (four quid) and I’m sure she said the entrance was 15,000. We gave her a 50,000 note and she gave us 10,000 change, so we were even more confused. Having got the money, she proceeded to stand by the door, rather than go back to her shop as we had expected. There was an awkward pause. We offered her coffee. She took a coffee. Then she was summoned back to the shop, we were a little relieved. It was hard to understand her Spanish and it was a bit too early for me to be sociable. Five minute later she returned to stand in the door and stare. She complimented me on our pretty beer cans (and yes I did understand correctly) and then left me to fill the awkward silence. At least I’d drunk my coffee now, so I could attempt conversation while Lee abandoned me and hid in the toilet.
It seemed that we were more of the an attraction than the park itself. All day we had people come over, take photos and ask us about the trip. They were all lovely, friendly people, but there is only so many times a day I can repeat myself and in the afternoon we escaped by visiting the park itself. What a beautiful place this is.
The last time I could compare something to this would probably have the deserts in the US. This was no desert though, the rock structures stood amongst green fields and small rivers.
We ambled around the park, exploring the mini side canyons with huge pillars of rock towering above us.
Back at the van, I decided that I needed to practice flying Steve 2. This seemed like a good place to try and so I had a go at remembering the controls, it had been a long time since I flew a drone. I wasn’t doing too badly until I crashed him into a hill, fortunately it seems to have been a soft one rather than one of these unforgiving rocky pillars.
The visitors were slowing and another person came over to collect payment. This was a lengthy discussion about what things costs and what we had actually paid for. In the end, the didn’t charge us for our first night, which was pretty good, although we had to pay the foreigner rates for park entry, 10,000 each instead of 5,000. I wasn’t complaining, it was a lovely place anyway and a peaceful nights sleep is sometimes worth paying for.
Tomorrow would be another long day of driving, our next stop said it was around three and a half hours away but we were getting wise to that. One look at the road on the map showed a crazy mass of hairpins and we knew we definitely would be slower, that’s assuming we didn’t get stuck behind another lorry as well. It would be worth it though, to stay in the ruined town of Gramalote for the night.