As the old saying goes, “It’s not what you know but who you know” rang true for me as I was sitting on a hostel couch in Cali considering what my next move was. I was overwhelmed with all the things I could do in Colombia but was not ready to leave Cali when the hostel owner (Gabe) asked me if I wanted to go on a road trip up to the Northern Caribbean Coast with his 5-year-old daughter. We met a couple of days earlier and had hit off the beginnings of a new friendship. I am not sure what it was that ignited our friendship, but I am going to put it down to us both being from Australia with very similar humour.
I knew I wanted to stay in one place in Colombia for a while, to immerse myself into the culture, practice my Spanish and possibly continue my study of Salsa. A 2.5-week road trip was the perfect way to have a sneak peek at all the places on my list of “possible home away from homes”. I could then choose my favourite and completely avoid the FOMO feeling of missing a great town. I had really hit the jackpot here!
Needless to say, I saw and learnt so much about Colombia on this road trip — I learnt about the culture, the people, the landscape, the places I like, and the places I didn’t — all through the things I saw and the stories Gabe told me. Gabe has been living in Colombia for 9 years (in both Santa Marta and Cali). He was reminiscing a lot on the drive up and I was privileged to hear his stories about his transition into the Colombian Culture — a journey I am currently on.
Now I don’t know about you, but when I have a car and am going on a road trip it is all about the scenery — going to the places I usually cannot on a bus (or plane for that matter). So of course, we took the most scenic route we could. Without a doubt, winding through The Andes was absolutely breathtaking. Each turn opened up into a jaw-dropping view of rolling mountains, cliff drop-offs, the open mouth of a new town, or a new cluster of clouds. Yep, that’s right, we were above the clouds for most of the journey through the mountains. On the drive from Bogotá back to Cali we hit 3,300 metres above sea level! It was very fresh up that high — a nice break from the sweltering heat in a dark car with leather seats.
If you are driving south from Bucaramanga to San Gil you must drive through the Chicamocha Valley. The views are phenomenal with large limestone cliffs plummeting from The Andes to Río Umpala. It was one of those drives that felt forever, where you think “have we already been through the valley?” “It wasn’t that impressive…” Then BAM!! She literally hits you in the face with her beauty. Slowly cruise up to Parque Nacional del Chicamocha for gorgeous views of the valley and river. There are chair lifts to take you even higher, and an adventurous water park nestled on the edge of the cliff.
Ugh, not another truck!
Colombia is known for its beautiful landscapes and gorgeous mountain ranges and valleys. Along with attracting many tourists to explore the mountain ranges, The Andes also brings an increased risk of landslides, and so many times on this journey we were stopped at roadworks — the aftermath of yet again another devastation. This makes it very difficult for the country to have a rail system to transport goods, so the solution is trucks — and lots of them. We constantly got stuck behind trucks as we were climbing the mountain ranges — and got very envious of the motos that could swiftly take over on any given corner — we had to wait for the right time, and even then it was scary!
OMG, did I really just see that?
I have travelled a lot in many different cultures and experienced the way people live their daily lives, so I would be lying if I said what I saw on this trip surprised me. Either way, it is still impressive to watch.
Remember all those trucks? Well, they too have to stop for a little coffee break; usually at a conveniently located truck stop. After a well-deserved rest began the slow resumption to get back on the road; and this would be where the locals (and commonly Venezuelans) would run after the truck, jumping on the back for a lift to the next town — unbeknownst to the driver. Quite often as we gained in on a truck we would see people sitting in precarious positions, sometimes in what I would assume dangerous spots, for that free ride — well played.
Now the ride on the truck seems quite tame, but wait until you are climbing The Andes into Medellin and you see the children and their daredevil stunts — my draw dropped with my heart in my throat. The kids would get on their BMX bike and hold onto the back of a truck (again unknown to the driver) and get a lift to the top of the mountain — not that scary, but it’s next that’s wild. The kids would fly down the mountain, lane splitting between trucks, cars and motos all while doing a wheelie. It was intense! In Santa Marta, I was on a bus chatting away to locals where we saw a kid lane split, doing a wheelie — on flat ground — and almost hit the bus. I heard a collective “Uufff!” — I am sure the locals’ jaws would have hit the ground too on the climb to Medellin.
One thing that did shock me was when we got close to the Venezuelan border. With the current state of the country, it is not a surprise to see Venezuelans fleeing to Colombia for a better opportunity. But making it from the border to Bogotá is not an easy feat and is done all on foot. You can now understand why some hop on the back of a truck for a break from the long trek in the Colombian heat.
Entrepreneurship at its finest
When I have travelled to Latin America I am always impressed with the tack locals use to make a living. Waiting in a queue for roadworks you can pretty much be guaranteed to have the opportunity to buy your lunch, dessert, drink and coffee all from the comfort of your car seat. Driving into a town and realising it’s coffee time you don’t need to stop, just signal to one of the many coffee ladies as you are approaching the speed bump and take it a little slower than usual. Same goes for waiting in line at the toll booths. The coffee (known as Tinto) is ready to pour from a thermos and full of sugar that will have you buzzing for hours and able to complete the drive.
Navigating the hairpin turns in The Andes can be tough, especially when there is a truck doing the climb as you are descending, and they need your lane to make the turn. Lucky the locals make it easy with their Go/Stop signs; they will be your eyes to tell you what is coming around the corner and prepare you — just make sure you toss them a coin as you pass.
How to prepare for your Colombian Roadtrip
There were things I learnt along the way that Gabe knew, or there were things we both found out together. If I was to do this trip solo, this is what I would like to know before I leave:
- Each large town has Pico y Placa, meaning that at certain times of the day certain vehicles cannot drive, dependant on the last number on the licence plate. Commonly, the days/times for your vehicle change every 6 months to keep things fair, so be sure to google each town you are visiting to plan accordingly
- As mentioned, there are a lot of roadblocks from road works, landslides and sometimes protests. Be sure to speak to people in the town you are just about to leave as you might get news of what is happening on your route. We had someone who headed to Medellin from the north telling us that they had to wait for 3 hours at a roadblock the day before, so we quickly changed our route and went East of The Andes
- Prepare for a lot longer journey than indicated, we used an app called Waze where people can upload and confirm locations such as roadworks or police checkpoints, you then get warned in advance
- There is a tonne of road tolls, so be prepared with small change. Usually between 8,000 to 12,000 COP. Sometimes you may be able to use the ticket from the previous toll, so be sure to check if your ticket says so. For example, as we just past a toll booth we were rerouted to another toll and were able to use the previous ticket to show that we have paid for that road/area
- If you can use a motorbike, use it! You can get past the trucks quicker, you do not have to pay for tolls and no Pico y Placa. It is neat to see the bypass for the motos on the right side of the toll points
This experience was a great introduction to Colombia and I now have met a great friend. In case you were wondering, Cali was the town for me and I have now been here for 2 months.