Colombia to Venezuela

We had come to the end of our time in Colombia, and we had a great time there.  We did spend quite a bit of time pondering what country we would go to after Colombia. We had 3 options facing us.

  • 1. Travel through Venezuela and Brazil back to Uruguay, and ship home from there the same way we got here – on the Grimaldi Lines ships.

  • 2. Ship around the Darien Gap to Panama, and keep heading North, eventually shipping home from the USA or Canada.
  • 3. Drive south through Ecuador and Peru (backtracking) to get to the very south of Peru where we could enter Brazil, and then to Uruguay and ship home.
    Fuel stations are usually pretty formal affairs. Not this one!

    Fuel stations are usually pretty formal affairs. Not this one!

    We had met up with Jurgen and Ruth for the Venezuela trip (which was always plan A), but while we were in Colombia we started hearing reports of demonstrations, road blockages and violent clashes between the demonstrators and police. There were also stories of violent gangs making things worse as the police were so tied up in the the protests. This was a tough decision to make as some countries had declared that the first 50km of land along the border between Colombia and Venezuela was a no-travel zone, and the Venezuelian government had placed the province around San Christobal under martial law, and guess where the border crossing we had planned to use was? Right in the middle of it.

    We contacted quite a few experienced travelers to see if they had any contacts for first hand information, and got in touch with a few folks that were “in-country”. Based on information we picked up from all sorts of places, we decided to cross Venezuela, and to follow a few simple rules to make it as safe as we could. More on all of that in the Venezuela post in a few weeks! ūüôā

    Hub troubles and the man who fixed it

    Hub troubles and the man who fixed it

    The first step was to get from Villa de Leyva in the south part of Colombia,back to the only remaining safe border crossing at Maicao (pronounced My Cow) in the North part of Colombia. Nothing quite like a thousand kilometre backtrack to cheer everyone up! We got as far as San Gil and as we parked up by a supermarket we noticed a burning smell, oil decorating the inside of the rear passenger tyre. Brilliant. We limped to a camping site about 3km outside of San Gil, and took the hub apart and discovered the same problem that we had with the other rear hub over a year ago in Argentina. Needless to say we were a bit ticked off as we had really been watching the oil levels and renewing the oils diligently after the first problem.  The fun was going to be, where in Colombia would we find the parts?  Well, as it turns out, it was easy. We contacted Huan Pablo back at Hacienda Venecia who was a major Unimog fan, and asked if he knew of any mechanics in San Gil. He gave us a few names, most did not work out, but one of his contacts turned out to be a Unimog specialist in Bogota! We got in touch with him, and he turned up the next day in San Gil to help get us sorted.

    Similarly to the problem we had before, the drive gear was damaged, and it’s really the only part that is expensive and hard to find. However, he was used to this problem, and his solution was to machine down the bearing surface on the gear, and to make a ring to press into place to recondition the gear. This took a few days to do as he had to bring the gear back to Bogota, but once it was ready, he called back up and reinstalled the gear and off we went again. Top marks to Colombia’s Unimog hero – Luis Felipe. 40 years working on Unimogs!

    St. Patricks day dinner

    St. Patricks day dinner

    We continued to the border, and decided to cross in the morning, so we spent the night in a wild camp in the desert about 10k from the border. It was St Patricks day, so a nice dinner was called for and bbq’d Salmon was the dish of the day. Smashing!

    The next day as we got close to the border we could see hundreds of small stalls selling black market fuel from Venezuela. They were selling it in containers great and small, the smaller motorbikes were buying just a litre at a time. We decided to enter Venezuela with enough fuel to do 400km at least as we had heard it’s difficult or even impossible to buy fuel as a foreigner in Venezuela close to the borders – and that turned out to be true. Still, it hurt to be buying diesel at Colombian prices when a day later we could buy it cheaper than we could buy coke (at least that was what we had heard).
    Fuel drums everywhere

    Fuel drums everywhere

    The guy with the fuel can hid his face from the camera, the other guy gave a grin

    The guy with the fuel can hid his face from the camera, the other guy gave a grin

    Colombia

    Very simple houses next to the Venezuela border

    By the border, we saw people building houses of of clay and wattle, it brought back memories of a poem we had to learn in school.

    “I will arise and go now, and go to Inishfree,
    and a small cabin build there, of Clay and wattle made”… Props to Mr. Yeats.
    timber and stone walls, ready for a mud layer.

    timber and stone walls, ready for a mud layer.

    Exiting Colombia was easy, just like all the others. Then we drove to the Venezuela entry point, and the waiting started. Possibly the slowest border crossing to date, but we got in, and the Venezuelan adventure began.
  • Categories: colombia | 2 Comments

    Colombia – Bogota and Villa de Layva

    a look down a street in the evening in Colombia

    a look down a street in the evening in Colombia

    We have stayed in Villa de Leyva a little longer than expected.  No complaints as it is such a lovely little town. We were able to park our truck on a campsite called Hostal Renacer Colombian Highlands, a super place to park for a few nights while enjoying the ambiance of the town.  It is only 1.5 km walk so not too far to get to the many restaurants it has to offer. The Hostal is top notch with the best facilities as in toilets and showers we have seen in the whole of Latin America so far.  Our parking patch was excellent so peaceful at night and more importantly very safe.

    Candy floss seller on the main road.

    Candy floss seller on the main road.

    We left for a few days and went to Bogota. ¬†Bogota is the capital of Colombia and has 9 million people living in the city. ¬†So so much traffic I really wonder how anybody gets to work on time or get anything done in a day. ¬†The climate is crisp and cool with daily temperatures on average between 14 and 19 degrees. We used the Transmilenio to go in and out of the city – a massive public bus¬†transportation¬†system ¬†which is fast and efficient. ¬†Really its the only way to travel in Bogota unless you like driving on congested streets and choked freeways. ¬†Bogota is still quite dangerous. Even the locals told us to take a taxi once we got off the train which we did as our motto is always ‘listen to the locals’. We traveled in Jurgen and Ruth’s truck as it made sense to just bring one and stay in a hotel. It was weird to spend 2 nights out of our beloved mog!

    There is a handy 24H secure parking spot behind Portal 80 Mall, Bogota (N4 42.725 W74 06.533). Fine for a large truck, you can sleep there or leave the truck. its behind the hospital, behind the mall.

    Gold Museum

    Gold Museum

    We visited Museo del Oro (Gold Museum) which has over 34,000 pieces of gold from Colombia’s pre-Hispanic cultures. ¬† It is one of the most important¬†collections of its type worldwide. It’s one of the best things to do in Bogota, and is based in the old part of the City which is nice to wander about during the day.

     

    Gold, and how much was worn

    Gold, and how much was worn

     

    Bogota from the mountains

    Bogota from the mountains

    We also took a funicular/cable-car to see Cerro de Monserrate. ¬†This dominant mountain peak shapes Bogota’s cityscape and has a church built on its summit which is about 3,200 m.a.s.l. Here you can see some ¬†of the best panoramic views of Bogota and lucky for us we were there before the smog came down. ¬†When you look down you really see the chaos of the city. ¬†Mind you its not a patch on Monserrate outside Barcelona.

    dramatic clouds rushed in over Bogota to give us a downpour

    dramatic clouds rushed in over Bogota to give us a downpour

    Waiting for the way home!

    Waiting for the way home!

    Chess. In a bus shelter as it's raining. Only in Colombia!

    Chess. In a bus shelter as it’s raining. Only in Colombia!

    Our last visit was to La Candelaria Bogota’s old historic quarter. ¬†Pretty cobbled streets with shops, craft stalls and galleries can be found here. ¬†Many colonial buildings with¬†magnificent¬†bright colours can be seen and once you reach the Plaza de Bolivar you are in the thick of it all with musicians, food vendors and of course thousands of pigeons.

    That was pretty much all to see in Bogota and really none of the above are a must see. ¬†Our main reason for going was that we had to collect our GPS there, while Ruth and Jurgen had to extend their TIP, Temporary Import Permit for their truck as they were almost 3 months in Colombia. ¬†When Merv and I traveled to Medellin we left our GPS in for repair to the main Garmin dealer there and were told that we could collect it in Bogota which suited our travel plans. We use a Garmin Montana 600 which has a nice touch screen. It seems it’s spent too much time in the Sun, and the screen protector for the screen started pressing the touch screen when it gets hot. Visually it looked like someone kept pressing the centre of the screen, with the effect that it was as useful as half a¬†scissors. It has a new screen installed, and ‚ā¨180 later we are back in business. Nice to know where we are ūüôā

    one for my buddy Stuart - time for more hat shopping?

    one for my buddy Stuart – time for more hat shopping?

    the land of protests and marches...

    the land of protests and marches…

    Colombia - Bogota

    Togging our ready for a bit of protesting. Good craic though!

    protesting with vigor. while reading the paper....

    protesting with vigor. while reading the paper….

    See the 2 guys on the wall?

    See the 2 guys on the wall?

    Sunday morning brick replacement

    Sunday morning brick replacement

    some wild designs

    some wild designs

    now that's a big bit of art

    now that’s a big bit of art

    buying tickets for the confusing bus system

    buying tickets for the confusing bus system

    4x4 or a coffee machine? Would you believe both?

    4×4 or a coffee machine? Would you believe both?

    Coffee de Campo - no frills 4x4 coffee!

    Coffee de Campo – no frills 4×4 coffee!

     

    Entrance to the mine

    Entrance to the mine

    On our way back to Villa de Leyva we stopped at a place called Zipaquira, about 50 km North of Bogota. ¬†The salt mines are the main employers in this area. The town’s Salt Cathedral is the attraction here and is 75m long and 18m high. ¬†Quite a unique place in its own way. It’s an old mine that has been made into a Cathedral, but I’m afraid its as much of a tourist attraction as a place of worship.

    Coolest cross I've seen in a while...

    Coolest cross I’ve seen in a while…

    strange and frightening statues in the mines

    strange and frightening statues in the mines

    reflection pool makes super reflections in the dark

    reflection pool makes super reflections in the dark

    some miners had too much time on their hands

    some miners had too much time on their hands

    Light show for those largely untroubled by original thought.

    Light show for those largely untroubled by original thought.

    junk for sale in the salt cathedral

    junk for sale in the salt cathedral

     

    Saying goodby to Lotah and Martina who are heading South

    Saying goodby to Lotah and Martina who are heading South

    Back in Villa de Layva, we said goodbye to a lovely couple who had been camping there with us. They are on their way South, and we may well be on our way North so we swapped a lot of tips and tales of the routes we each had ahead of us. You can see what they have been up to here: Cross America.

     

     

    The lights on the white wall at night make a fantastic atmosphere for wandering about

    The lights on the white wall at night make a fantastic atmosphere for wandering about

    Dramatic clouds help set the scene

    Dramatic clouds help set the scene

    We then were back to Villa de Layva for a couple of days, Merv had a small repair to do on the passenger door window to convince it to wind up and down when we wanted, not when the mog decided it was a good idea. Once that was done, we were ready for adventures new!

    a look down a street in the evening in Colombia

    a look down a street in the evening in Colombia

    the German pub in Villa de Layva. Expensive but tasty german beer.

    the German pub in Villa de Layva. Expensive but tasty german beer.

    villa de Layva

    Passing the evening with friends in Villa De Layva, Colombia

    a seriously big town square

    a seriously big town square

    Categories: colombia | 1 Comment

    Colombia Overland

    colombia coffee farm

    When visiting a Coffee farm, where else would you park?

    Colombia is right at the¬†northern tip of South America. It’s bordering countries are Brazil, Ecuador,Panama, Peru and Venezuela. Colombia also can boast that it is the only South American country with coastlines on both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. It’s climate is great with tropical conditions along the coast and eastern plains, then cool with less humidity in the highlands, nice to have the option of both. The currency being used is the Colombian Peso (COP) and you feel like a millionaire when you withdraw from the ATM’s as it’s all hundreds of thousands. For example 600,000.00 COP is roughly Euro 225, disappointing really….

    People have the opportunity to dive amongst corals, climb volcanic slopes, visit indigenous tribes, trek in the Amazon rain-forest, chill on beautiful beaches and last but not least visit and spend time on coffee farms which was what we were really looking forward to.

    Well many people said ‘Oh you are going to drive through Colombia’, we said YES, and I think those people didn’t know how to react. Most people think of drug runners and rebel conflicts but tourists are rarely affected by this. For us it was our plan to go all the way to the very southern tip of South America which we did , and we would have felt cheated if we didn’t mange to go all the way North, hence Colombia.
    We were fully aware of its past history, after all who isn’t, but people who had driven through before us had only good reports, and so far we can vouch for this warm and welcoming country to tourists. Columbia is voted the HAPPIEST country in the world. We know that parts are still dangerous, so naturally we steer away. Colombia has cleaned up its act regarding drug cartels and guerrilla warfare to some extent.They now sell way less bullet proof cars too..

    We went for a look at the Mud Volcano along the Caribbean coast. and wimped out.

    We went for a look at the Mud Volcano along the Caribbean coast. and wimped out.

    We haven’t done as much wild camping here as in the rest of South America for obvious security reasons. This can be a bit of a pain as you have to be a little bit more organised…..The roads mainly in the south are armed with police and military all carrying machine guns, as the FARC is still active in some areas, so once you get used to that, it’s no problem. After a while you don’t even notice them. When we have been stopped, which has been quite a few times, it’s all smiles and thumbs up. They usually just want to see our papers for the truck, so they hop up on the step beside Merv , stick their head into the cab, ( curiosity we reckon on seeing a foreign vehicle) and generally just have a chat . In fact in all of the countries we have been to in South America, Colombia Aduana (customs) were the only people to say ‘Welcome to their Country’ as they stamped our passports as we entered Colombia from Ecuador. ¬†Oh, they even gave me a seat while waiting in the aduana office, first time to be offered a seat by a Latin American, so we reckoned hey that’s a good start.

    Church in a Valley

    Santuario de Las Lajas

    Ipiales was our first town in Colombia coming north. Our reason for stopping was to buy insurance (Called SOAT) for our truck as our Policy that we bought in Europe before leaving did not cover Colombia, the only country in South America it did not cover… I wonder why… We were able to buy it in a supermarket very quick and easy.

    On the edge of this town we visited the religious pilgrimage site of Santuario de Las Lajas. Quite a unique little place with the church built into the side of a mountain . Getting through the town , or not getting through in our case , was a bit of a challenge due to its narrow one way streets.

    We spent a couple of days on an Eco- Farm outside the charming little town of Salento in a the midst of rural coffee area, with rolling lush green hills and many hairpin bends.Yet again small little streets to navigate our way through hence adding to its mystique. It is surrounded by mountains which are rich in character, and once there you really don’t want to leave. The locals have a saying that the town is full of short streets but long memories , I guess this is true now that I have visited there. Hiking the local countryside is the prime activity in this area and we opted for the hike to see Palms de Cera,( Wax Palms ) as these rank amongs the tallest in the world, up to 60m. We had a super view of fields of green grass and hills from our truck , nice sunsets, and each morning at about 6am we heard the milking machine start…. Bliss.. Salento also has the best curry house in South America!

    View from the eco farm La Serena

    View from the eco farm La Serena

    We hit a new mechanical issue as we went along, the brakes would not release fully after use! The poor old mog was slowing down, and not very keen to climb hills. We found they released themselves after a 1 hour stop, and would be fine for some more kilometers , but the problem would come back after a while. The full technical issue was discussed over on benzworld, but for us it meant a day searching for unimog brake seals in Colombia. We would have had more luck searching for gold nuggets in the rivers, but we were in the capable hands of local mechanic Christian, who helped us search high and low. We did get to experience a few local dishes at lunchtime, and can safely state that we will never be having CHICKEN FEET SOUP again! Finally we were directed to the local seal expert who decided to make some for us using a larger seal, a jewellers lathe and some sharp tools. We ended up with a rebuilt brake master cylinder! We also found the problem was in a tiny valve, cleaned it out and all is well! After 3 nights spent on the side of the road we were back on track. Christian spent the whole day with us hoping on buses from one town to another until we found somebody who could help us. ( he was supposed to be in his own job) . He could not have done enough for us, such hospitality.

    Coffee Plants

    Coffee Plants

    Moving again we were now off to find and stay on a Coffee Farm . We drove through many rolling plantations and terraced slopes which were hemmed by banana plants , bamboos and coffee bushes. You could stop at quite a few places to sample , a bit like a wine tour , except your high from caffeine rather than vino. For me way way too many coffees, haven’t needed much sleep since, lol. Most of these coffee farms are hidden down winding little lanes and are accompanied by lovely wooden houses all painted in bright colours. We stayed on Hacienda Venecia which really was an oasis of tranquility. There were two types of accommodation , the hostel and the main house. The main house is built of 100 year old typical bamboo and is beautiful, stunning. Of course we stayed in the truck but were able to use all the facilities , including free coffee 24/7 as you would expect! We parked overlooking one of its coffee fields. The tour is excellent and yet again another place we didn’t want to leave…..

    Coffee bean after sprouting

    Coffee bean after sprouting

    Coffee Bean on it's way to  becoming a new plant

    Coffee Bean on it’s way to becoming a new plant

    Coffee Grade 1 on top for export, and grade 2 for domestic consumption

    Coffee Grade 1 on top for export, and grade 2 for domestic consumption.

    Sarah walking through the coffee plants

    Sarah walking through the coffee plants

    We stopped in the city of Medellin . In the 1980’s Medellin was one of the most murderous cities on the planet as it was under the control of drug lord Pablo Escobar. Since his death it has blossomed into a city of considerable elegance, although some dark unsafe areas still remain. We parked our truck for two nights on the street and we had no problems, in fact everybody living in the area was keeping a close eye on it for us, so happy days. This city is pleasantly warm year round with an average annual temperature of 22 degrees C. Here we picked up our pal Owen who travelled with us all the way North to the Caribbean Coast . For part of the way to the coast we passed through lush mountainous areas and sleepy villages, many many hairpin bends . The road was so so busy with trucks, we fitted right it, and were amazed when we met a normal car, they were far and few between. Oh so many trucks! Along by the roadside there were many little restaurants to eat at, all simply done with tables and chairs outside , colourful table cloths and even some hammocks to snooze in after your lunch. Snoozing to avoid the mid-day heat is a big thing here.

    After driving for a few days pretty non-stop it was time to relax and chill on the beaches along the coast for a few days. It was very hot but with a balmy breeze thankfully, and I don’t think the temperature ever went below 28 degrees C, not even at night… so sleeping in the truck was very warm and sticky. Here we met up with our friends Jurgen and Ruth, also Maki so it was time to catch up over a few cool Colombian beers and fresh fish as we made plans to travel together for the next while .

    Overlooking the bay

    Overlooking the Taganga bay

    Ruth, Sarah, Jurgen and Macki

    Ruth, Sarah, Jurgen and Macki

    Sunset with a few nice clouds

    Sunset with a few nice clouds

    Jurgen and Ruth on some of the scenic roads to Cocuy.

    Jurgen and Ruth on some of the scenic roads to Cocuy.

    For me it’s always difficult to leave the warmth, but we still had more places on the list to visit. As Colombia is such a big country you have to travel long distances to reach the really cool places. Many places are off the beaten track and without your own transport they are not easy accessible. Parque Nacional El Cocuy was one such place and even though the locals told us that from a particular village called Onzaga it would only take four hours, it was more like forty-four hours. We had to park up overnight as the terrain we were traveling on was full of pot-holes, broken roads, no tarmac in some places, and generally just bumpy all the way, so it was a very slow drive. In fact some-times we were driving blind as we were not even on the map. Mind you the scenery made up for it. This parque is a hiker’s paradise with endless possibilities for hiking, trekking and camping. It is home to many snow-capped mountains, glacier lakes and beautiful valleys. We spent two days hiking, most enjoyable. During the day the weather was lovely, but once the sun went down it was very cold, after all we were over 4,000 m.a.s.l.. We spent four nights in the park and we were spoilt for choice as to where to park our trucks. It was great to be back wild camping again. Mind you we were low on water so we had to dedicate a few hours collecting it from the river, oh such fresh water.

    The road is a bit weak in spots

    The road is a bit weak in spots

    Overland Colombia

    Stocking up in El Cocuy.

     

    Cocuy landscape

    Cocuy landscape

    Cocuy roads

    Cocuy roads

    Apo with his bike spent a few days with us.

    Apo with his bike spent a few days with us.

    Two overland trucks parked on the edge of the hill in Cocuy

    Two overland trucks parked on the edge of the hill in Cocuy

    Colombia Overland

    Great view of a small farm in Cocuy where we bought a small sack of spuds

    blowing out birthday candles

    Merv’s third birthday while on the road

    Mongui was a beautiful little town, all painted with white walls and green shutters. Like most towns in Colombia even the smallest of smallest towns/villages have very decorative churches. Here I went in search of a birthday cake for Merv. After visiting most shops in town , eventually I was successful , and ended up with some chocolate cake, his favourite. He was very surprised indeed. Yet again this town had small little streets to maneuver through , but never the less we managed, and ended up on a dirt track which took us to our parking spot for the night overlooking the small town below. Oh it was tranquil, no other lunatics would even venture this way, only us. In order to reach these little quaint places you have to travel on very small roads, so to get everywhere takes much longer then anticipated.

    Mongui square

    Mongui square

    Lake Tota also took us a while to get to, due to lack of local knowledge, and trying to find a map here is next to impossible. Every little town we went through we would ask directions (not always correct information given) so eventually we would end up in our given destination. Many places I don’t think were used to tourists so we were always given big smiles and waves. For example in one little town we stopped to buy charcoal where we saw a “Se Vende Carbon” sign. Turns out they were selling something similar to coal, and we wanted “Carbon de pollo” – Charcoal for cooking chicken! The guy from the store said he would help us get some, so took Merv on a long and complicated trip through the town asking each chicken bbq place could they spare some charcoal! After a search of some womans kitchen , going through their restaurant, we got a bag and were on our way. This man would not take a tip , so Merv really had to insist. He was just so pleased to help a tourist that was in his town, as I said before the Colombians are such warm people. Lake Tota is well known by the Colombians, but only recently has it reached the major travel guides, so it is still a little undiscovered by tourists, great for us. It has a beautiful white sandy beach and is famous for trout fishing. No problem parking our trucks here. Unfortunately the weather was not in our favor so we only parked for one night here.

    Villa de Leyva streets

    Villa de Leyva streets

    So it was on to the long awaited Villa de Leyva. Oh it didn’t disappoint. This is a beautiful preserved town, a stunning whitewashed colonial town with cobbled streets. It has the largest plaza in Colombia edged by bottle green shuttered buildings with window boxes full of flowers, also lined with many cafes, restaurants and a German Pub.! Little mews type shops sell handicrafts, and many back streets have charming hotels and cafe’s. Strolling through the Plaza at dusk is something quite spectacular as here you join tourists and locals alike as they sit on the steps of the cathedral and the plaza sipping wine and beer, before deciding which restaurant to have dinner it. Really one is spoilt for choice. Guess we might have to stay here sometime in order to sample all the town’s culinary delights. Not to mention the French Bakery. Villa de Leyva is certainly up there as one of the nicest places in all of South America for us. The Saturday fruit and vegetable market is a must, a great place to sample some local dishes and as always served with a smile.

     

    Villa de Leyva street corner

    Villa de Leyva street corner

     

    Sausage and spuds. Who knew Irish food and Colombian food was so well matched?

    Sausage and spuds. Who knew Irish food and Colombian food was so well matched?

    Lunch at the market, with a few beers to wash down  the sausages

    Lunch at the market, with a few beers to wash down the sausages

    a huge number of old pickups are used to bring fruit and veg to the markets.

    a huge number of old pickups are used to bring fruit and veg to the markets.

    Right now, we are trying to decide on what happens next. Till next time……

    Categories: colombia | Comments Off on Colombia Overland