Colombia to Ecuador: 28 hours on a bus

The morning we decided to leave Medellin I don’t think we quite realised how long it would be until our next bed. After changing our minds a few times along the way we bit the bullet and said f@$& it – let’s just go to Ecuador! Researching flights it seemed impossible to fly without spending $400 one way p/p and even though we weren’t on a crazy tight budget – that was ridiculous! So alas, we decided to begin our overland journey and cross one of the most notoriously dangerous border crossings in the world via bus – for $50! The night before I had nervously read accounts of lost/stolen luggage, broken down buses in the middle of the night and poor miscommunication from buses leaving travellers stranded. The main tip seemed to be ‘whatever you do – don’t cross the border at night!’. Leaving Medellin at 2pm we caught a very comfortable bus for 9 hrs to the city of Cali and from Cali boarded a sketchy bus at midnight to the Col/Ecu border. Well not exactly. The bus said it dropped you at the border which really means ‘we will drop you 2 hrs out so you’ll will need to get in a smaller bus, two taxis and cross the border on foot’. Breezing through immigration we were stamped out of Colombia and into Ecuador with no worries! Woo hoo! Changing our Colombian Pesos to American Dollars at the border was also painless – even if we did possibly, maybe buy black market currency. I am proud to say that 28 hours after boarding in Medellin we arrived in Otavalo, Ecuador with nothing but a few sore necks and tired eyes.

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We stayed the night in Otavalo, a small town in the Andeas famous for it’s (very short so we look like giants) indigenous community and their Saturday market. We were lucky to wake up market day morning and see the town turned into a labyrinth of stalls selling hand made souvenirs, fresh fruit and veg, raw meats and even live animals (we didn’t check that section out). As we walked through the maize of merchants we began testing our Spanish as we bartered to trinkets. We split from our translator Zohra with words of advice to ‘remember you’re a gringo so they will try and sell everything for double the price!’. Knowing this I was more then happy to laugh off some of the prices we were told and watch as moments later a much cheaper version was agreed upon. It took a lot of strength to hold back on buying 100+ hammocks and ponchos but I made a practical purchase of a 100% wool, handmade sombrero – a steal at $15! I loved these markets and they were a fantastic start to our time in Ecuador.

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Colombia: Medellin

After the high of Cartagena, a few too many Mojitos and long days in the sun it was time to move on. Honestly I was a bit apprehensive to visit Medellin at first. After our not so great time in Bogota I wasn’t feeling psyched and also a bit sad to be leaving the laid back attitude of the coast. But after less then a day I was sold. The people were friendly (we understood their spanish!) the public transport safe and immaculate (only train system in Colombia) and the cable car rides breathtaking! One of the routes takes you up over the mountains to a beautiful park – Parque Arvi. Our guide showed us the different species of plants that keep the animals alive. It was very exciting to pick up words and context as he toured us around. My Medellin highlight was undoubtably our 4hour Walking Tour led by the amazing Hernan (Eeeernaaan). I learnt a hell of a lot during this time. From a brief ‘cartoon’ history of how the region was formed, to touching on the Escobar years and ‘the violence’ to Medellin today. Hernan provided an unbiased and entertaining point of view and along with priceless information from a Paisa (antiquoa native) we were able to visit neighbourhoods off the beaten track. Neighbourhoods that just a few years ago you wouldn’t dare to visit. The city has spent a lot of time and money investing in areas and improving safety. Whether it’s the Botero sculptures around the city, numerous parks and paved squares or outdoor eateries – locals and tourists feel safe to be outside. A relatively new concept considering the very dark and very recent history. A lot of which still continues today behind closed doors. I believe Medellin is the symbol for a new Colombia and I feel very fortunate to have witnessed the strength and determination of its people. The perfect ending to our time in Colombia – ‘Where the only risk is wanting to stay’.

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One of our days in Medellin we spent day tripping to the sleepy Spanish colonial fishing town of Guatape. Famous for its giant rock which you can climb 750 steep cement steps to get to the top. The view was beautiful but my favourite part was definitely riding into town in the pimped out Tuk Tuk. Later after lunch, we hired a boat and a gangster captain to take us out on the water. We drank Medellin rum and listened to spanish hip hop. Amazing. In the last photo you can see the rock we climbed.

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Colombia: Cartagena – Tayrona – Santa Marta

Arriving into 40 degree humidity at 7pm at night we automatically felt more relaxed. As a Queenslander I feel at ease in the heat. It only took an hour flight but we went from cold, grey and dreary Bogota to sunny, humid (Darwin humid as Trent would call it) and happy Cartagena! Situated on the North Coast and famous for its pirate protected walled city and Caribbean influence – Cartagena is a very popular tourist destination. The people are incredibly friendly, the fruit and alcohol is in abundance and you can get lost wandering around the old town. We spent over a week in this beautiful city and we absolutely loved it. Mornings were spent exploring, afternoons for napping and nights for drinking and attempting to Salsa. What more could you want? We could live in Cartagena.

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We split up our time in Cartagena with a trip to Tayrona National Park. We awoke at 4am and waited for a bus to pick us up. An important thing to understand about bus travel in S.A – it will never, ever run on time. And that is something you must accept and embrace. 3 hour journeys turn into 7 hours as your advertised ‘Directivo’ bus stops at every town and every corner to pick up locals. Or to stop so someone can get on and sell you empanadas, bread, soft drink anything you name it! On one hand as someone who is known to be quite impatient I think of all the time wasted. But I have grown to sort of love this bus culture. I love that we can be 2 hrs from a town and a lady still gets on and gives you the speech about how her empanadas are the best – rides for 20minutes – gets off and then takes another bus back to where she started. They do this all day and this is their job – incredible. So as you can imagine our 5 hour bus took 7 and we were finally at the entrance to the park. An incredible 2 hour walk through the jungle in what I believe is the most intense humidity of my life! We saw monkeys, lizards, coconut crabs and lots of creepy crawlers. We made it to Cabo San Juan beach and that is where we stayed for 2 days. With our new friends we had met in Cartagena Simon and Zohra! After 3 days of swimming in the Caribbean, lying in hammocks and living off wine and crackers (we had no cash and ATM broken) it was time to head back to Cartagena via Santa Marta. Lucky for us, Queen Zohra who was the only one who brought bulk cash – paid for a mule to carry our backpacks in and out of the jungle. In the last photo you will see what I referred to as the ‘Death Boat’. An alternative to walking out of the park was a boat that left every afternoon (right as the afternoon storm rolls in) throws as many people onto the boat then speeds off. I read horrible accounts of the boats breaking down in the middle of the ocean, women being told to head to the back in rough waters and many other things. Lucky for us we had no cash so couldn’t afford it – we did watch as it pulled away one evening and I gave the sign of the cross to those below. A lady saw me and her face went white – I think she just realised what she was in for !

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Colombia – Bogota

When you are visiting a country that is infamous for drugs, kidnappings and prostitution you get some funny looks. Especially from relatives. I knew my mum was terrified so why wasn’t I? Tourism in Colombia was on the up and up and the more we read about this place the more we were dying to get there! Sure there were still accounts of kidnapping but hey they were posted in 2012. That’s a long time ago right? There was a reason why South America was becoming increasingly popular for a holiday destination. So we arrived into Bogota without a care. Until things started to go not exactly like we planned. At first Colombia and I had a pretty rough start. Arriving in the capital, after 2 weeks cruising through American National Parks was indeed a culture shock. From the stern customs officer who didn’t understand our Spanish, to the stern cab driver who didn’t understand our Spanish, to the stern money exchange worker who.. you understand the pattern. After a short pre-trip Spanish short course we thought we would at least be able to master the basics. But it turns our Bogotonians are rude bastards and only speak their type of Spanish. This isn’t a gringo generalisation by the way. We met a lovely guy from the coast of Colombia that told us he even gets scammed in Bogota because they pick up on his accent and charge him more for everything. And he’s a bloody Colombian! What chance did blondey and bob Marley have??On day 2 (my birthday) we decided to buck up and head to the old Town of La Candalaria to explore. Forgetting that the word ‘explore’ loses all form of whimsical adventure when it isn’t safe to get lost. Although our accommodation was only a 30-40 min walk from the Old Town cabs are a necessity. And it is a rarity to see people wandering around without pounding the pavement with purpose and quickly heading to their destination. You slow down, look at a map or give the slight idea that you may not know where you are going and you become a target. This is highlighted by machine gunned Policia everywhere you go. On foot, on motorbikes, in the middle of the street and it lots and lots of cars. Just everywhere. Welcome to Bogota. Since travelling more of the country we have learnt that it isn’t the norm to have streets littered with National Police. We now know that if you see 5 cops at the front of the street – you don’t go down that street because they are there for a reason. Crime is still very strong in Bogota and we were warned by many that muggings at gun point are still very common and you would have to be incredibly stupid to go out at night. After three days in the capital, days of a few sketchy moments (I’ll tell you when I get home mum), being continuously lost in translation and staying in at night watching badly dubbed episodes of friends we were ready to get the f$&& out. The more we travelled the more people we would meet who had similar experiences in the capital, to our relief. We’d talk to others who had visited Bogota and the response seemed to be a variation on a common theme. Example below:

Random hostel guy/girl: So where else in Colombia have you been?
Us: Well we flew into Bogota then ..(interrupted)
Random hostel guy/girl: Bogota! Shit.. What did you think of it?
And then comes the look. The look in hostels where you have both been to a place, you both semi hated but you are still playing it cool to not be an ugly backpacker. The backpacker that says things like ‘Oh yeah I’ve DONE Europe. I’ve DONE the UK. When really they did a 10day Contiki and don’t remember shit.
Us: Yeah..it was ahh um yeah I mean some places were nice um ahh..
Random hostel guy/girl: I totally understand what you mean.

After not the best start to our ‘adventure’ but one to remember, we booked the next flight to Cartagena and said goodbye to the Capital. Hoping to return sometime in the future. Maybe when our Spanish had improved and their crime rate dropped.

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