Overlanding in Colombia…is that a good idea?
—Only one way north—
Mention Colombia in a conversation and the words danger, drugs and armed guerrillas usually follow along close behind. So it is little surprise that the country’s notorious reputation had me rolling up the bus windows and double checking the locks. Nevertheless, it’s hard to keep your guard up for long when the people are so friendly and welcoming; even the national army, who occupied the shady patches with their automatic rifles, seemed to wave at every car that passed by. At night, if we were parked in a dodgy area, the police would wake us up and escort us back to the station where we could sleep safely outside – the 3 of us and the dog. The second time this happened the FARC set off a car bomb outside another nearby police station. Yep, Colombia was going to be an adventure, and by the time I left over 3 months later, it was my favorite country in South America!
Once we’d settled into the salsa rhythm of this vast and varied nation my travel companions decided to leave ‘Hasta Alaska’ and all its associated dramas behind them. Surprisingly, for the first time since I left Chile, I found myself travelling in Co’Pito alone. I was just reveling in my new found freedom and 50kms (30 miles) into the journey, when a Venezuelan motorcyclist flagged me down on an Andean hairpin. As he too was also heading into the stifling hot city of Cali, home of salsa dancing, we agreed to travel into the center together -a wise move as it is still one of the scariest places I have ever driven into. After a couple of days of confirming my birth defect of 2 left feet and a scary night involving a group of Colombian Gangsters, and the words “turn out your pockets, NOW!” I was happy to be heading out to cleaner air and clearer skies.
By the time I arrived in the famed coffee region I had 6 Europeans staying in Co’Pito and a UK guy travelling alongside on a motorbike. The change in both group and climate was revitalizing. We set up camp for 2 weeks in Salento, a beautiful town with the world’s tallest palm trees.
We were invited to an ayahuasca ceremony with 150 local adults and children. The widely practiced ritual basically involves soul searching/cleansing by drinking a DMT based tea brewed from jungle vines, and lying in a semi-psychedelic state for 12 hours whilst a Sharman (yes, complete with feathered head piece) plays strange instruments, chants and blows head-spinning smoke over the fidgeting mass of bodies on the floor.
Still having not learnt to say no, I piled even more people into a struggling Co’Pito and pointed his nose uphill and over more tough Andean terrain. It wasn’t long before he finally (and rightfully) protested by the way of ejecting a sparkplug clear out of the head.
A number of futile attempts at repair gained us precious few kilometers before I had to admit defeat and ask everyone to hitch-hike to their destinations. As if to rub salt into the wound, I managed to crash the bus into the only barrier around for miles, broke the main door handle so I couldn’t close the bus at all and broke the key in the safe, which had my passport and all of my money inside.
With little money and even less options I had to convince a reluctant local mechanic to help me remove the engine and re-thread the spark-plug hole. I had seen it done 3 times in the past 3 months, although I had no mechanical knowledge (but then he didn’t know that). He had no idea what he was doing either (but then I didn’t know that) so like this we somehow managed to wrestle the engine out, repair the problem and get me back on the road, and all before lunchtime!
Trying to find spare parts for a VW kombi in Colombia isn’t an easy job, so with no other option I had to head for the capital, Bogota. It was immediately obvious that things worked differently there. The first night, my motorcycling side-kick got his watch ripped from his wrist by a knife-wielding tramp. We gave chase through the twisty and chaotic streets, managing to draw level just as he ran into an assembly of unenthused policemen – non-too-subtly ditching his weapon amongst their feet. “Gotcha now we thought.” However the police played favorites and insisted that we would have to pay the thief ($5) to get the watch back.
If that wasn’t enough adrenaline, the next day I discovered the national sport of Tejo, a solid contender for best drinking game on earth. You’re not allowed to pay to play Tejo, you “buy in” – the price, a crate of fine Colombian beer. Your party is then issued with heavy metal pucks which you proceed to launch 20m across a room into a clay pit. The objective, to make the dynamite target explode! It’s a guaranteed laugh, and one of my favorite discoveries from Latin America.
—Rice and Rum here we come—
With the kombi full to bursting point, we continued north to the long awaited Caribbean coast. By this time it had been many months since I had seen the ocean so for me there was no question where I would be camping; I wanted to feel sand between my toes when I stepped out of bed in the morning. Even before my tired engine had come to a grateful stall, I was running into the warm sea in all my clothes overjoyed at a long-overdue salty bath.
Colombia’s northern coast is so good that I lost track of time and overstayed my visa. With endless tropical coastline, Caribbean culture bursting from every doorway and pristine national parks to die for, it’s not hard to see why. I even celebrated my birthday bathing in a mud volcano! However, it wasn’t long before the call for exploration drew me away from the tourist scene and into the rugged department of La Guajira.
I’d heard that to get to the furthest northerly point in South America, I’d have to head towards Venezuela and cross a road-less desert – a desert that turns into thick mud in the rainy season. The locals insisted that it was strictly 4×4 access only. After we got caught in a monsoon and spent the first night stuck in the mud miles from help, I was starting to think that they might be right. Co’Pito was up to the challenge however, and we survived some of the most difficult terrain that we had thus far encountered. It was a thrilling, heart-in-mouth drive, but we arrived at a remote Wayuu indigenous community to a breath-taking sunset and a real feeling of accomplishment.
The next day whilst I was appreciating the tranquility, remoteness and pace of life of this simple community, we were approached by 2 stunning bikini models. They asked if they could pay for our food, drink and accommodation for the next few days and hang out with us; in return they wanted to take their clothes off and take some pictures with my bus…I paused only long enough to pinch myself!
Any expectations I’d had about South America were blown clear out of the water. It truly is an outstanding continent that just begs to be explored. By this point I had been here for a year and I had run out of road, or rather, the road ran out on me! My next obstacle was the infamous Darien Gap – a 160km stretch of jungle swampland notorious for drug smuggling and riddled with armed guerrillas. Having endured the 3-week-long hideously bureaucratic process of shipping Co’Pito to Panama, Central America was calling. Now I had to find a way to get myself and the dog there. The problem was, no-one would take her, and I couldn’t leave her behind. So, I did what any devoted owner would do, I bought a patch of bright yellow material, put on some black sunglasses and painted a stick white. So, like this I closed the chapter on South America – a truly unbelievable beginning to the journey of a lifetime – and, disguised as a blind man, I stumbled forward into one of the most dangerous and inhospitable jungles on the planet in search of another adventure.
Read More from our Off-Camera Adventure in South America in our Overlanding Story e-book: