Archive for the ‘Colombia’ Category

Las Lajas, Colombia – Snow in Colombia

Mittwoch, November 16th, 2011

We look out of our window and everything is white. Is that the proof that in this country nose candy lies everywhere on the streets? Hardly. A dramatic thunderstorm with long-lasting hail shower lets the temperature drop from 30° C / 85° F in the hot morning to 8° C / 45° F. That is called diurnal climate. All seasons in one day, typical equatorial highland climate – we are in 9,000 ft after all. We still camp on the parking lot above the pilgrimage town Las Lajas. Joerg had for some of days an indefinable afternoon fever without any other symptoms, which hindered us from driving on. Is it one of these odd virus diseases passed on by mosquitoes that disappear as fast as they appeared? I bake a convalescence cake just to be on the safe side and lift my cake embargo lasting for years. Whatever helped, it seems that we are ready to continuing our trip.

The parking lot is well visited by busses with pilgrims, especially on weekends. Then the parking lot attendant turns up who collects the parking fees. We stay undisturbed. Besides a small chat the man doesn’t want anything from us. Astonishing. A bit above the parking lot a family lives who owns a water connection and kindly supplies us with drinking water for our water tank. When filling up this morning – we want to be prepared for our onward journey – we talk to the adult son of the family who washes cars in daytime about the necessity to learn Spanish when travelling individually in this part of the world.

A reoccurring question is, if Spanish is difficult to learn. The grammar is difficult, I explain him, much more difficult than in English. He hesitates: Isn’t German the same like English, isn’t that our mother language? Besides the disturbing gap in the young man’s education he expresses what we often experienced. If a Latin American speaks another language (mostly English) that is a magnificent achievement. They assume that every tourist naturally speaks English, that it must be his mother tongue. They don’t even consider that learning a foreign language (English as well) might be linked with the same difficulties for us. To put it in a nutshell: All non-Latin Americans are gringos, and all gringos speak English. Beautiful simple world.

Las Lajas, Colombia – The wonder-working Virgin

Dienstag, November 8th, 2011

The Virgin Mary in the pilgrimage church in Las Lajas is regarded as miraculous. From the border town Ipiales it is seven kilometres / 4.5 mi east to the small town. There is a spectacular sight from a view point into the deeply carved gorge where Rio Guáitara gurgles before even reaching the village. A 45 m / 150 ft high stone arch bridge spans the river, the small grey and white church leans on it and cuddles up to the ravine wall. Nuestra Señora del Rosario de Las Lajas was finished in 1949 in neo-Gothic style and replaced the chapel from 1803.

According to the legend Holy Mary appeared to a deaf and dumb Indian girl on a day in September 1754. “The mestiza is calling me!” she said to her mother, pointing on a rock where the Virgin became apparent. Henceforth the child was able to hear and speak. The spot where the miracle took part is the altar back wall today, the Madonna was drawn on the rock. The Holy Mary is still wonder-working. At least this is what thousands of votive tablets tell that were glued to the rock face with plaster.

From a small parking lot (2,000 Pesos) in town we walk down to the pilgrimage church along uncounted souvenir shops. An alternative parking lot above (N 00°48’27.5’’ W 77°34’54.7’’) is quiet, free of charge and offers a lot of space for camping. But take care, every year in September (around the 16th) thousands of Ecuadorians and Colombians make a pilgrimage to Las Lajas to ask for fulfilment of their wishes. The pay kiosk is already waiting for the masses.

Volcán El Azufral, Colombia – Our first mountain over 4,000 metres / 13,000 ft

Montag, November 7th, 2011

The wool hat on the head, the fleece jacket and the thick winter rain jacket at the top, the warm rain hiking pants down: that’s how we start today’s hike. Oh yes, we are still in Colombia. But even on the equator it is chilly in 13,000 ft. The average temperature here is 6° C / 43° F, plus there are deep clouds and rain that reliably starts in the afternoon. The hike is still worth it. It brings us onto the quiet Volcán El Azufral, what means sulphur volcano, of which the highest point is 4,070 m / 13,350 ft. It has three lakes in its crater: Laguna Verde that got its green colour from the sulphur, the deeply dark Laguna Negra and Laguna Blanca, which has more green than clear water.

Laguna Verde has snow-white beaches and bare rocks that are covered with a yellowish white sulphur layer. It is possible to partially walk around the lake. The chilly, constantly bubbling poison water is not suited to swim in. From holes in the ground stinky steams escape. The surroundings of the volcano are densely grown over with thick moss pillows, lichen, grasses, and low brush. 70 creeks shall rise from here what I believe straight away. The almost 5 km / good 3 mi ascend from the parking lot at 3,670 m / 12,000 ft to the sign on the summit at 4,000 m / 13,125 ft are wet and muddy.

We manage the trail that is apart from the last stretch mildly steep in a nippy hour and fifteen, despite the elevation. Then it takes half an hour to descend the 200 m / 656 ft of elevation in almost one kilometre / 1000 yards down to the lagoons, fist through a rocky brook bed, then over steps partially broken off in an extremely slippery upland moor. This is equally the most difficult part of the hike. It came in useful to us that we already slept the last night on the parking lot what helped us to become acclimatized.

The access to volcano Azufral is two kilometres / 1.25 mi behind the city of Túquerres on the road to Olaya (turnoff at N 01°05’43.1’’ W 77°41’08.4’’). From there it is 7 km / 4.5 mi continuously worsening and partially narrow gravel trail. Parking is at the side of the road at the ranger station (N 01°05’41.7’’ W 77°41’08.4’’), for camping we have to use the upper part of the trail. Levelling is difficult but possible (only for AWD). Volcano access is 1,000 COP pp, parking 5,000 COP once only. We don’t pay anything for two nights camping. The hike is worth the effort, it is a simple mountain over 4,000 m / 13,000 ft, and a great habituation to higher elevation.

Túquerres, Colombia – Panamericana Sur

Sonntag, November 6th, 2011

Along the Pan Americana from Popayán to the south some camping options offer:
* Truck stop Biomax, Panoya, 68 km / 43 mi north of Pasto, quiet grass/gravel area: N 01°34’04.1’’ W 77°21’00.1’’
* Texaco truck stop north of Pasto, a lot of space, very busy: N 01°15’49.5’’ W 77°16’42.7’’
* Gas station south of Pasto, quieter: N 01°09’48.1’’ W 77°17’43.9’’
* The restaurant Country House in Pasto that was mentioned by other travellers in the past is ruled out since it’s not operating.
* Biomax truck stop Porvenír, N 01°06’57.5’’ W 77°22’51.2’’
* Esso truck stop south of Tangua, N 01°03’53.2’’ W 77° 25’43.7’’
* Esso truck stop 14 km / 9 mi north of Ipales, N 00°54’31.7’’ W 77°31’40.0’’
* Terpel truck stop Ipales, N 00°50’05.3’’ W 77°35’55.8’’
* Fuel is in Colombia generally more expensive than in Ecuador. Diesel costs about 8.000 Peso per gallon, gas around 10,000. On the other hand, fuel is said to have poor quality in Ecuador. It is good to know that the department Nariño at the border to Ecuador has tax privileges. Upon leaving Cauca prices at the gas stations change. Diesel is only 5.000 COP per gallon.

Popayán, Colombia – Operation in the eternal war

Freitag, November 4th, 2011

Helicopter rotors boom above our heads. One after the other arises into the air, propeller-driven planes roar. We knew that there is a military base close to the house of Carlos and Lucia. But who would have guessed that there are so many helicopters stationed here? The noise doesn’t seem to end and Popayán’s inhabitants slowly start to worry. It can’t be an exercise. Something’s going on. But only the evening news discloses the secret: The Colombian military killed the leader of the biggest guerrilla organisation FARC, Guillermo León Sáenz Vargas alias Alfonso Cano, during a large-scale operation that was planned for two years. He held the office since 2008. His body was found besides the one of his girl-friend close to the village Micay. The detailed facts of their deaths are unknown at present.

The Pacific region of the department Cauca, of which Popayán is the capital, is in the hand of the guerrillas for years. Although the targeted killing without legal proceedings seems to be questionable according to criteria founded on the rule of law, the Colombian nation welcomes the act. The guerrilla organisation that might really have fought for the country’s workers and farmers became really only an end in itself. It terrorises citizens, steels land from farmers instead of getting it for them as basis of life, abducts, kills, and finances itself with drug trafficking. The FARC shrank from originally 17,000 members to about 8,000 today.

The people still stay suspicious. Many of the former or present members of the government (including an ex-president) are said to have belonged to a guerrilla or paramilitary organisation in the past. Many government members are suspected of dealing with illegal organisations and exchanging information. Further the rulers are reproached for promoting the eternal war since arms trade is as lucrative as the drug dollars that flow into the country. Therefore the blow against the FARC is a big thing for Colombians, during American and European news hardly takes notice of this incident.

Popayán, Colombia – The white city

Donnerstag, November 3rd, 2011

Popayán counts – beside Cartagena and Mompós – to the most beautiful colonial cities in Colombia. For us it has much more charm than Cartagena, since it is also outside the historic centre a pleasant city worth living in. The town with only 250,000 inhabitants that was founded in 1537 has produced more intellectuals, bishops, and presidents than any other Colombian city. Its constant spring climate makes our stay pleasant.

Its title Ciudad Blanco origins from the uniformly whitewashed facades in the old town. Here are the sights like the Basilica Metropolitana, the square clock tower Torre del Reloj with a clock from London (since 1737) with only one hand, the baroque church San Francisco, and the bridges made from hundreds of thousands of bricks. Doing a round is especially worth in the evening when the colonial buildings are lit full of atmosphere.

Popayán, Colombia – The two faces

Mittwoch, November 2nd, 2011

Here they are again, the two faces of Colombia. We arrive in Popayán in the early afternoon to look for a camping option first. The only truck stop that has some space to park and is somehow suitable is the southern Biomax (N 02°25’12.6’’ W 76°37’57.5’’). We ask additionally at a restaurant with big parking lot, but you can probably imagine the answer: Yes, but … it’s 50,000 Pesos. Of course. We head to the Carrefour supermarket first to buy some grocery. Here they have a truck access as an exception (at N 02°27’36.6’’ W 76°35’43.4’’). Further south on the Pan Am there is the less expensive Exito supermarket.

We hardly started to push our cart through the aisles, the other Colombian face stands in front of us: Lucia and Carlos, a super-nice Colombian couple. They take the overnight question off our shoulders because they simply invite us to stay with them. From one planned night result three. Later Carlos explained us his theory how they found us in the huge mall after they discovered the Unimog in the parking lot. Well, how would you look for two Germans driving such a vehicle? 1. Travellers don’t buy clothes or shoes, they purchase food and have to be in the grocery. 2. Unimog drivers have to be tall, everything else would be uncomfortable. 3. Germans aren’t usually dark types, they have more likely blue eyes and lighter hair. 4. Where to find Germans in a supermarket? In the beer aisle. That’s exactly where we meet.

Coconuco, Colombia – Stressed backsides in hot water

Dienstag, November 1st, 2011

It seems to be harder to find overnight places in Colombia than a couple of years ago. All restaurants along the Pan Am asked for 50,000 Pesos (27.50 $) per night from us – regardless if we were willing to dinner there or not. I don’t hesitate calling this outrageous, but maybe they simply want to chase this kind of traveller away. Other places simply didn’t want us. Generally I would say Colombia already discovered that money can be earned with tourism without that they provide appropriate infrastructure or service. For example, there is nearly nobody in this country speaking English – neither in high-educated circles, nor in tourism (the young generation starts to change). I guess one can’t expect from every overseas tourist to visit a language course before? I also have the feeling that they are quite interested in other than South American travellers. And we have to always consider that Colombia is a developing country where average salary is around 200 $! On the other hand, people especially in the south are very friendly, extremely polite, and honest. Nowhere else except in Canada we received so many food presents than here.

In the hot springs of Aguatibia close to Coconuco we are asked for 8.000 Peso (4.50 $) entrance fee per person plus 15.000 Peso (8 $) per vehicle / tent for camping (no service except a very far bathroom up the hill and cold outside showers) – 17 $ together, close to the edge. We stay nevertheless to relax our muscles stressed from horse riding in the algae-green fizzing thermal tubs well at body temperature and in the little bit cooler, clear-blue mineral water pool stocked with tiny fishes. Besides, overnight places are rare in this area. Coconuco is located at the road # 20 from San Agustín to Popayán. For the good 100 km / 65 mi five hours have to be calculated: one hour pavement, three hours gravel with many working areas where there is only one-lane traffic. From here, where the hot springs are located, it’s another hour pavement to Popayán. On the plateau at 3,000 m / 10,000 ft elevation frailejonas resp. espeletia can be seen. These composites are so-called half-shrubs and typical for the tropical highlands, but grow only in northern South America. On a stem of dried leaves pineapple-like small tops grow that look a bit like a small agave with white fur. Termales Aguatibia, Coconuco, N 02°18’23.9’’ W 76°30’26.0’’

San Agustín, Colombia – Horses and a sore bum

Montag, Oktober 31st, 2011

Pacho is a lucky man, because Pacho has got everything: a lovable personality, patience, a knack for horses, and a lot of knowledge about nature and culture. In spite of our “guide allergy” we couldn’t resist Pacho when he offered us a horse ride into the surrounding mountains and to other archaeological finds. The price of 50,000 Peso (27.50 $) seems to be reasonable, and finally we are four and a half hours on the way. The tour brings us to some minor important, nonetheless worth seeing excavations that are only accessible by horse: La Pelota and El Purutal where at the most beautiful statues still remaining colours in red, yellow, black and white can be seen. In the grove above there are trees producing yellow and red resin that might have served as paint. More likely is the theory that minerals were used for tinting. La Chaquira and El Tablon are other interesting spots.

The horses that Pacho gives us are excellently educated. They follow even the possibly not perfect commands of complete greenhorns. Pacho lets us ride in front and determine the speed. Trotting and galloping are no problem as long as the horses go along with it and terrain allows. Pacho speaks only Spanish (slow and clear), but everybody seems to understand him, even without language knowledge. He can be contacted via Finca El Maco. We highly recommend him, but everybody has to cope with consequences for his bottom on his own.

San Agustín, Colombia – Jaguar men and snake eating owls

Sonntag, Oktober 30th, 2011

San Agustín is an important archaeological site of an early Indigene advanced culture. The area was perhaps populated from 6000 BC on, today’s leftovers origin mainly from 200 BC to 700 AD: statues from lava stone and basalt, burial sites, earth embankments, and aqueducts. Since the San-Agustín-culture didn’t use characters not much is known about them, speculations are predominant. The amount of impressive statues show jaguar men, armed guards, women with babies, and a lot of animal symbolism like owls, eagles, and snakes. The culture carried out human sacrifice and maybe cannibalistic rites.

Most important place for findings is Parque Archeológico de San Agustín, not far from town. Here most statues and graves are located, and a ceremonial bathing place in the rocky part of a river bed. The mysterious civilisation chiselled three bathtubs and symbolic figures like snails, snakes, frogs or faces into the rock, and the water runs through the contours. Access to the park (half day is required) costs 10,000 COP per person for one day, the combined ticket 16,000 (5.50 resp. 9 $). The latter is valid for two consecutive days and for other archaeological sites in the surroundings, which can be reached with a jeep tour or own vehicle.

Camping is easily possible. We decide for Finca El Maco that belongs to Swiss René Suter. There are only two sloping lots for vehicles, but there are enough stones to level them. The shower is hot, the staff friendly, and internet complimentary. For Swiss food on the menu (except Rosti, Swiss sliced fried potatoes) we look in vain. We pay 8,000 Peso pp (4.50 $) per night. In the end of town heading to the archaeological park turn right following the sings to Hotel Yalconia / Piscina / El Maco. Shortly before reaching the swimming-pool a trail turns off to the right to Camping San Agustín (N 01°53’19.6’’ W 76°16’46.3’’), another option. A bit further uphill El Maco follows on the right side (N 01°53’31.4’’ W 76°16’47.8’’).

Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia – The green desert

Freitag, Oktober 28th, 2011

The Tatacoa desert is a geological and climatic oddity. Surrounded by lush-green fields and a land that consists in great parts of rain, rivers and swamps a 330 km2 / 130 mi2 big dry savannah is situated, which is a bit euphorically called desert. In the dry period temperatures at lunch time can reach 50° C / 120° F, during the short rainy seasons in spring and autumn it is pleasant. On the green steppe grass cattle, horses, goats and sheep graze – like now. In-between cacti, brush and even trees grow. Where the earth is eroded red and light grey sand hills, dunes, and bizarre rock shapes appear. A landscape that looks like the Badlands in South Dakota or the Painted Desert in Arizona – only in mini format.

The observatory that is most of the time closed during rainy periods due to overcast, and its astronomer Javier have a good reputation. Although the proximity to the city of Neiva and the herewith associated light pollution is disturbing, the mostly dry and for Colombia clear air seems to be unique in Colombia. For those who haven’t seen a desert yet Desierto de la Tatacoa is a beautiful experience. For desert experts it is still a pretty landscape and moreover free of charge. Organised camping is offered in different places, free camping is generally possible. Free and guarded is the area around the observatory (bathrooms and cold showers for a small fee): N 03°14’02.2’’ W 75°10’13.5’’.

Valle de Cocora, Colombia – Switzerland with palm trees

Mittwoch, Oktober 26th, 2011

It is a landscape like in the summerly Swiss Alps (perhaps like the Tetons?): high mountains, forest covered flanks and fertile willows where black-and-white and brown cattle stuffs. But stop, something’s wrong in this picture – palm trees. Up to 60 m high wax palms, the palmas de cera, grow with their skinny stems from 2500 m / 8200 ft elevation on. Their delicate tops are often caressed by clouds. That’s why we can’t see but only hear the squawking parrot swarms that help themselves freely to the hanging fruits. The wax palm belongs to the world’s highest palms. Colombia’s national tree isn’t found anywhere else in higher concentration.

Between Pereira and Armenia the town Salento is located. To the hamlet Cocora it is another 13 km / 8 mi up onto the mountain on a narrow paved road. From here guided tours on foot or horse start, but it’s easy to scout out the palm slopes under your own steam (no entrance fee). Several steep and arduous trails start uphill on the right side of the road. Ask locals or just follow the horses’ paths. Don’t miss the trout farming truchera. A visit would cost you 2,000 Peso what might be interesting or not, but trout fillets are sold for 12,000 COP per kilo / 3 $ per lb, four whole trout for 5,000 COP (2.75 $).

Camping is possible in Cocora at the restaurants for 8,000 Peso pp, our pick is the Bosques de Cocora (N 04°38’18.2’’ W 75°29’16.7’’). Who wants to take a closer view to the village Salento can park at the hostel The Plantation House for 18,000 COP in front of the door beside the street, including use of bathrooms, kitchen, and Wi-Fi. (Coming from the west turn right in the beginning of town at the fire station bomberos, turn right into the next lane, then it is after 100 m / yards on the left side. Not very convenient to park at the street, but the town centre is within walking distance.) Another camping option presents itself at RV-Park Monteroca near the main road Pereira-Armenia, 4 km / 2.5 mi in front of Salento, 17 km / 11 mi from Cocora. There are maximum two lots, the access height looks o.k. for at least 3.5 m / 11.5 ft. There are nice pick-nick tables at the river. Incl. bathrooms, hot outside showers and use of kitchen 15,000 COP pp are due (N 04°38’36.5’’ W 75°35’01.8’’).

Guayabal, Colombia – Coffee: the long way from the bean into the mug

Sonntag, Oktober 23rd, 2011

Coffee is, after petroleum, the world’s second most important export product. Who expected this? And Colombia is one of the largest exporters of this much in demand and sensible product. All coffee from this country belongs to the high quality sort Arabica and is from exquisite quality. There is also coffee that doesn’t meet the export demands: immature or overripe beans and those that are infested by a bug. These beans are picked out during processing, but not thrown away, because they have purchasers as well. They are either roasted and drunk in their own country or sold to the Nescafé Company that produces instant coffee from them. How delicious.

That’s not all we learn about the noble beverage today. Cultivating the seedling is a science in itself, the bushes need a lot of care and have a limited life of about 21 years. Coffee is harvested between September and May with two main harvests in October/November and March/April. The plants only grow in elevations between 1300 and 2000 m / 4200 and 6600 ft, the higher the better is the quality. They need a balanced climate of sun and rain. Right now harvest is bad due to too much rain and missing sun hours. Coffee harvest is manual labour: only the red and yellow mature fruits are allowed in the baskets. Mobile pickers that also work in different plantations like banana, cotton, tobacco or sugar cane can harvest 100 kg / 220 lb coffee beans per day and get 20 cents per kilo / 9 cents per pound.

During processing the outer skin is peeled by machine, composted and later on used for fertilizing the plantation. In several washings the sweet coating of the pip has to be removed, some haciendas make wine of it. Again and again faulty fruits are sorted out. Finally the beans are dried and transported to the fabric of the coffee federation where they are weighed and their quality is reviewed. Only there the second peeling takes part where the parchment skin is removed and the coffee is packed for exporting. The skins are sold back to the coffee farmers for a small amount of money, who use them to heat the drying oven. The parchment as fuel is resource-saving, cheaper and more odourless than charcoal or propane.

The coffee bean is during the whole process of growing and production extremely sensitive to outer influences that could ruin smell and flavour. Fertilizers and insecticides can only be used thriftily. The beans have to be packed airtight for their transport to the United States or Europe where they are roasted, mixed and possibly ground. It remains a mystery to me – now more than ever – how a pound of this plush brew can be sold for a couple of dollars in supermarkets. The winners of this business must be the big coffee companies, the losers the harvest hands and the coffee farmers. The highly interesting tour at Hacienda Guayabal costs 20,000 Pesos per person in Spanish, 25,000 in English (11 / 14 $). It took us 2.5 hours. Of course a coffee tasting is part of it.

Guayabal, Colombia – Mountains over mountains

Samstag, Oktober 22nd, 2011

Colombia is mountains. Mountains over mountains. Our today’s driving comprises 442 km / 280 mi. This doesn’t sound much for the moment. But with over 5,000 curves and more than 8,000 m / 26,000 ft metres of elevation this is a real task. We start at the “sugarloaf” at 2000 m / 6600 ft, then descend into the valley at 200 m / 660 ft until we cross the Central Cordillera at 3700 m / 12,000 ft (with some more ups and downs of course). While heading down to the 1400 m / 4600 ft high Manizales we are lucky: The dramatic rainfalls of the last nights that partially spared us, partially not, made a whole mountain slipping down. In the meantime the lane is ploughed, but the city is without water for days. We see people on foot, with mopeds and cars to fill water into canisters where it runs. If we’d have come earlier the road would have been closed.

Without a certain place to sleep we wouldn’t have undertaken this ride, but we are expected. Hacienda Guayabal is situated in the heart of Eje Cafetero, the Colombian coffee triangle, close to the town of Chinchiná. The coffee finca offers accommodation in different classes, but camping as well for 10,000 COP (5.50 $) per person with bathroom, hot shower, day room with electricity, and a lot of coffee and some titbits during the day. Heiress Doña Maria Theresa has everything under control; her adult son speaks some English. He calls us many times on the way, concerned where we are. In Chinchiná he even organises that we are picked up by a car to be guided to the hacienda. That wasn’t the worst idea, it is a bit complicated to get there. Their cuisine is well-known (18,000 COP for a rich 3-course menu). Tourism is developing slowly in Colombia. Hacienda Guayabal is one of the not too many coffee producers who offer tours. But that’s for tomorrow.

Hacienda Guayabal, N 04°57’25.2’’ W 75°36’24.3’’,

Peñol-Guatapé, Colombia – Colombian sugarloaf

Freitag, Oktober 21st, 2011

A reservoir for the supply of energy of the big city – this is Embalse del Peñol-Guatapé, 50 km / 30 mi west of Medellin, but even more. Recreational and water sports pleasures of different kinds are offered. The Peñon de Guatapé or Piedra del Peñol as it is also called is accordingly commercialized, but worth visiting on quieter weekdays. The 220 m / 720 ft high monolith that reminds of Rio de Janeiro’s sugarloaf peaks visibly out. In a cliff fold a stairway with 679 steps was built to climb the mountain of granite, quartz and feldspar. From down the stairs seems awe-inspiring, especially since we are above 2,000 m / 6,600 ft. In the end we are faster on the top than expected, from where we have a marvellous view to the model railway landscape with the odd reservoir where hundreds of islands look out. Most visitors don’t ascend but are contended with visiting the souvenir shops and restaurants where they can take to the floor with local music. Spending the night is unlike the past years unfortunately not possible any more (N 06°13’18.9’’ W 75°10’44.5’’, parking 4.000 COP, mountain climb 8.000 COP pp).

There are some more spots in town where we aren’t welcome to camp – an experience that seems to by kind of typical for this country. People who know the place well send us to the other end of Guatapé where a camping area is located. The town itself is very pretty in paisa style. The houses especially along the lakeside promenade malecón have shaped painted plinths with flower, animal, or toy themes. The tradition of the colourful designed houses originally should keep hens from picking at the base courses and kids from scribbling them. A street to the right just behind the bridge that adjoins the malecón leads to the small campground where tenting is intended. But we fit in, pay 10.000 Peso (5,50 $) and get a beautiful view to the lake and Peñon de Guatapé (N 06°14’06.7’’ W 75°09’13.5’’).

Medellín, Colombia – Hovering above the brick city

Donnerstag, Oktober 20th, 2011

Most towns with over a million inhabitants in the New World aren’t excessively worth seeing. This is actually true for Medellin as well, but there is an interesting way of sightseeing: cable railways and a 30 km / 20 mi long metro built on pillars. From Parque Arví, a recreational area for locals where we camp, a 4.4 km / 3 mi long cable railway hovers over the forest and than steep into the valley (one-way ticket 3,500 Peso = 2 $). Then we have to change into the “regular” public traffic network where we can travel back and forth as long as we want and we don’t leave the station (1,700 COP = 1 $). Another cable car lets us fly above the uniform russet city: red brick buildings and just as red roofs set the tone for the scene.

We leave the metro at Parque Berrio to admire Plaza Botero in front of Casa de la Cultura. Here stand 23 monumental sculptures of the Colombian sculptor Fernando Boteros – the world’s best paid artist. All statues from black bronze are voluptuous, carnal, and corpulent. If cat or horse, Roman soldier or woman – the unconventional masterpieces contain a high recognition factor. Back to Parque Arví we may hope for another cool night in 2,400 m / 7,900 ft, during Medellin is located at 1,500 m / 5,000 ft. At Ecoparque Piedras Blancas (N 06°17’41.5’’ W 75°30’00.8’’), a part of the Arví park, we are offered the night for 14.400 Pesos (8 $) per person on the lopsided gravel parking, but the choices for camping are little in Medellin. For just 1,000 Pesos (55 cents) a bus brings us to the cable car station respectively back. Medellin has also a conveniently situated Carrefour (N 06°19’03.1’’ W 75°33’25.2’’). The multi-storey car park problem with the low entrance height is solved by the market-own gas station where we can stay at the side after asking the manager kindly. The fuel is reasonable in addition.

Taraza, Colombia – Guerrillas, paramilitary and drug cartels

Dienstag, Oktober 18th, 2011

The blighter that is the night guard of the lunch snack bar would have earned a tip. But there it is again, the incorrigible greed that leads to get nothing. Before we even can take our wallet in our hand he claims that his boss wants 50,000 COP camping fee. Again impudent 27.50 $. I point out that this isn’t quite in accordance with the facts and simply refuse. Without contradiction he opens the gate. Right now, the North Colombians don’t maintain their image too much.

The Pan Am takes us further south. With many potholes, cruel flooding, road blocks, and many toll stations. Hopefully the money is at least used to improve the roads. Large sections of the country are under water, bridges and roads are washed away. We see poor people whose even poorer huts are flooded half-way. And something else characterizes the Pan Americana: police and military. They don’t only accompany the road, at many truck stops stand up to three tanks. This shall establish security at least along this main road. The situation in Colombia has improved a lot during the last years, and it can be considered a mainly safe country for travellers, but there are still left-wing oriented guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary and financially interested drug cartels that fight together or against each other. It might be recommended to sleep in guarded zones like the truck stop in Taraza. There is a nice and quiet lawn behind the gas station at a river, and free of charge into the bargain: N 07°35’15.0’’ W 75°23’41.9’’.

Turbaco, Colombia – Disproportions

Montag, Oktober 17th, 2011

It might be not ideal to visit a local tourist attraction on a holiday. The mud volcano 50 km northeast of Cartagena rises 20 m above its surroundings. A wooden stairs leads up to the five meters wide mud hole where you can take a healthy plunge. Emerging from the bath as grey zombie you’d have to walk down to the fresh water lagoon to regain a healthy complexion. The resident fast food stall staff had a couple of too many sips from their own beer look askance at us. From an open trunk ear-splitting music blares. We find the entire ambience such unpleasant that we quickly decide to head south. But the day will give us some other experiences: In each village the music bawls as loud as at the volcano. Are we already to old to understand that? Or is the enormous volume a forced funtainment for inhabitants and by-passers? Side roads aren’t paved, what wouldn’t be bad, but in catastrophic condition.

As soon as a road is at least mainly paved we have to pay toll. Not much, sometimes two or three dollars, but if cleaned up every couple of dozens of kilometres, it accumulates. But the high point is the search for an overnight place: Most parks and touristic attractions close early, their parking lots are locked. We ask in a restaurant with a small lake in front of their door. After letting us wait for a whole quarter of an hour, we receive a positive reply, but they want 50,000 COP – 27.50 $! For nothing than parking, there is no bathroom, water, electricity or other luxury. We keep going, although it is getting dark. Behind the village Turbaco at the Pan Am we find a lunch snack bar where they are friendlier: N 10°18’13.5’’ W 75°23’33.8’’ (but check price for overnight carefully in advance).

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Light-fingered

Samstag, Oktober 15th, 2011

Local third-party insurance is mandatory in Colombia. Luis helps with one as well. Yesterday night everything was closed, and most offices don’t open Saturdays. Gas stations offer insurances, but they run for a year, that’s expensive. We find an office in the old town that sells a so-called SOAT (HBL Seguros, Centro, Pasaje la Moneda, Tel. 660 2005). Minimum term is three months. The quote is calculated according to the cubic capacity, about 80 $ for a 3-liters-engine.

According to other travellers there is only one filling station for propane in Cartagena. (Gas tanks have to be emptied for the ferry transfer.) We ask at a gas station, but they send us to Cartagas 20 km out of town as well (N 10°19’11.3’’ W 75°30’06.7’’). On the way there we pass the mall Caribe Plaza where a Carrefour settled, a good spot to take food. The mall has a multi-storey car park with an entrance height of max. 2.4 m. At the “back entrance” there is a small parking lot subject to charge, which seems to be suitable for most vehicle sizes (N 10°24’56.7’’ W 75°31’43.7’’).

In the afternoon when we move all our stuff back into the driver’s cabin that we have completely emptied for the RoRo ride, we have to realize small losses. An electrical thermometer that didn’t even work due to empty batteries is gone including the outside sensor that was cut from the cable. Later we realize that also our very practical movement sensor lamp at the ladder was also stolen. RoRo or LoLo, ship and harbour personnel are known for being nimble-fingered, but the route Colón-Cartagena is especially infamous.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Harbour needs nerves of steel

Freitag, Oktober 14th, 2011

The day seems to be endless. At 8 a.m. we head to our colombian angent Luis Ernesto La Rota from Enlace Caríbe (,, Luis speaks English), at 8:30 p.m. we get Arminius out of the port. Then we have to get our luggage from the hotel, go to Luis to pay and receive all the papers and to the next hotel that offers camping on its parking lot. They are so friendly there to prepare some food for us right before midnight. In the meanwhile we are shoved by Luis, his wife, or one of his three co-working sons from one office to the other, again and again to the customs, showing the passport, getting a visitor’s permit, and waiting, waiting, waiting. The customs officer is decisive, he decides when he wants to inspect the vehicle (it’s just about license plate and VIN number), but it could happen that he’s not there anyway. Parallel Luis’ family members complete other formalities for which we don’t have to be present.

Our agent Evelyn in Panama has warned us: The port and customs formalities in Cartagena are feasible alone, but not in one day. She was so right. Luis was recommended by her and by other travellers, and we would like to forward this recommendation. Despite his not little fees he saves time, nerves, and money as well, because every night in a hotel costs. Instead of paying a taxi all the time he drives us around in a company car. Luis flat rate is 170 $. Jo and Ray, a Dutch couple from Germany, has its camper on the same ship and join us. Thus we save a lot of money since Luis only takes 10 $ more for the second party and we can share the fee. Additional we have to pay the final Bill of Lading and harbour fees, each around 100 $.

Necessary papers are the passport, the temporary and then the final Bill of Lading. In the end we receive the important customs paper for the vehicle. For the harbour (only vehicle owner) it is highly recommended to wear long pants and closed shoes, otherwise access could be denied. Further a proof of a health insurance is mandatory – it might be checked or not. Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t have got Arminius on a Friday so late. But Monday is a local holiday and so the customs tries to finish as much as they can.

Hotel Bellavista in the Marbella district at the Caribbean shore offers besides simple rooms (double 70,000 COP with van, 80,000 with AC, breakfast 8.000) camping in its walled parking lot. There is no view to the sea, but a shady parking option close to the city. The 30,000 Peso without respectively 40,000 with electrical hook-up seem to be excessive, since we are tightly surrounded by other parking cars and the whole thing has not too much to do with camping. It is the location that has to be paid. The beach is right in front. Water for the tank is available, the shower (cold water only) and especially the loo are in questionable condition, but staff is friendly. Advance notice is highly recommended due to limited space ( GPS: N 10°26’05.8’’ W 75°32’18.1’’.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Flight to a new continent

Samstag, Oktober 8th, 2011

We fly to Colombia. RoRo ferries don’t take passengers due to insurance reasons. Best price offers COPA Air by internet booking (around 30 $ less expensive than at the counters in many malls), the second supplier Avianca is most of the time more expensive. Prices change, a one-way-ticket is around 350 US$. We fly via Bogotá what extends travel and flight time, but is a bit cheaper. We fly over the Darién Gap and know now that we definitely don’t want to drive there, in the rainy season it’s quite impossible. The hilly jungle landscape is criss-crossed by uncountable meandering rivers; larger and deeper areas transformed into swamps.

At the ATM machine in Bogotá I withdraw 1,000,000 Peso or COP and become millionaire. That corresponds to about 550 US$ – too many zeros for my concept. Another possibility to get from Panama to Colombia is a mini-cruise with a sailing boat through the San Blas archipelago. These Caribbean islands belong to the autonomous precinct of the Kuna Indians and are relatively untapped by touristic means. The sailing ship Stahlratte seems to be recommended by many travellers (, they transport motorcycles and bikes as well. Unfortunately there is no suitable cruise for us.

We take a room in the hotel Oceano that has bearable prices and a convenient location somewhat close to the harbour. Rooms are simple, modern and very clean with TV and air-con. Despite price-fixing arrangement via our agent in Cartagena the administration asks for more than double the price, but this can be solved quickly. We get the double room including breakfast and taxes for 57 $. Rooms to the main road have a balcony; at the back without balcony it is quieter. The restaurant is acceptable.