7th December – After discovering that we are unable to visit the “Lost City’ of the Tayronas (Ciudad Perdida) in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, without a guide and arrangements for a 6 day hike, we decide to stop at Camping Cantamar in Rodadero, shortly after Santa Marta on the coast. We catch up with our South African friends here for a few days. We haven’t seen them since Quito in Ecuador and so enjoy a barbecue and share pizzas together at the newly opened Dominoes in town.
8.30am and it’s 35 degrees….so hot and many mosquitoes. Every day by late afternoon, a hot, dry wind springs up carrying with it clouds of dust. We make a wasted journey to Finca Carpe Diem amongst the hills at Bonda, hoping for some cooler weather. However, after a long, slow journey up a terrible dirt road for almost an hour, we arrive to find that they do have camping as advertised but only for tents. No space or flat ground for vehicles. We return to Rodadero for one more night before leaving for Cartagena de Indias, our final destination in South America and where we will arrange the shipping for our vehicle to Panama.
10th – 20th December – We cross a narrow spit of land crowded with fishing villages and where the people are living in squalid conditions amongst piles of plastic and rubbish, that also lines the water’s edge. It could be a beautiful area with its calm inlets of sea, big, white egrets sitting motionless in the murky water but we learn later that this area is home to some of the poorest people of the area. The outskirts of Barranquilla are full of crowds, noise, heat, dust and more piles of rubbish. Lorries are everywhere on the road, thundering past sweaty ponies and donkeys pulling heavy carts but trotting steadfastly on….how I admire them! We pass a shopping mall and try to find the parking area just to stretch our legs and get into some shade. Instead we find ourselves amongst back roads, where nearly every house has a tiny yard to the front, surrounded by a cage of bars with more bars covering the windows and doors. This must surely be the closest you can get to living like a caged animal!
And so on to Cartagena, where we know there is camping in the parking yard of Hotel Bellavista. The waterfront road separates this lovely old building from the Caribbean, where white-crested waves are rolling in and people are finding shade under colourful, Coca Cola sunshades.
Bellavista is tucked amongst a mixture of modern, high-rise buildings and old, many of its front windows are open to the sea providing a wonderful breeze. Although this interesting building needs a little TLC, in the time that we are here, we gradually find it to be a haven of peace and calm from the outside heat and traffic and to sort out our shipping. The present owners make you feel very welcome and many interesting people pass through its doors, both travellers and locals.
Bellavista was inhabited by a painter from 1903 to 1980 and his work still covers many of the old walls. Massive trees are uprooting some of the tiles in the large, central courtyard where everyone taps away on their laptops and fat cats look for comfy places to sit. Archways lead through to smaller, tiled yards with flowering trees and many rooms leading off.
The parking yard is completely secure behind high walls and big metal gates, a little scruffy when we first arrive but it is gradually tidied up a little. Other overlanders are already parked up (Austrian, German, Swiss and French) but most are heading south. It’s all OK apart from being incredibly hot still. There is a large and very useful Exito supermarket close by and within walking distance.
We are recommended Manfred (a German guy), who can arrange all our shipping from here in Cartegena. We phone him and arrange for a meeting in a couple of days time. We then have a nice surprise with the arrival of two Dutch vehicles and one German, all travelling north. In no time at all we have agreed to share a 40ft container with Ad and Bernadette from Holland, whilst the other two vehicles will share a flat rack, as they are both too high to fit into a container. Sharing a container will certainly help with the cost of the shipping.
It is said that Cartagena de Indias is one of the most beautiful cities on the Caribbean coast and the Old City (within walking distance from Bellavista), certainly has some wonderful and very colourful buildings amongst its winding streets.
Founded in 1533, the city and port suffered many sieges in the sixteenth century, one of the most infamous being led by Sir Francis Drake who held the town hostage for more than 100 days. After he finally withdrew, the Spaniards began constructing stone ramparts to encircle the city and many fortresses, most of which are still standing today, the most impressive being Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This walled city was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.
We buy fresh fruit from these colourful women in the Plaza de Bolivar…….
….admire the many metal figures in the square…….
…and browse the handicrafts.
Returning to our shipping, our meeting with Manfred in a coffee shop inside a local supermarket goes well and the ship will be leaving on the 19th or 20th. We all feel confident with using Manfred as he knows his job having done this now for a number of years for many other travellers. We all spend the next few days looking for the cheapest, direct flights to Panama City and a cheap hotel once we are there. We all want to stay together but everything is disappearing very fast because of Christmas!
After a sudden disappointment that our ship is delayed until the 22nd, everything is back on track and so it’s all go! More paperwork back at the supermarket with Manfred at 7.30am and we then follow him to the port, where our vehicles have to be left for the Drug Police Inspection the following day.
Another early morning at the port and we have a great view of the modern skyline of Cartagena across the water. Our vehicles are lined up waiting and the inspection requires EVERYTHING to be taken out of them and laid on the ground.
Sniffer dogs then go through everything including the empty vehicles…..two lovely cream labradors, tails wagging……can’t wait to do their jobs.
Everything then has to be put back. It is very hot by now, sweat is pouring from us and our patience is wearing a little thin as we are being asked to hurry. They want to get the two vehicles into the waiting container and get it sealed, all of which has to be done under supervision to make sure that nothing illegal is slipped in following the inspection!
Our vehicles are strapped down, the container sealed, stickers put on and photographs taken of everything and we are finished. However poor Bernd and Dagmar (with their vehicle from Germany) and Hermanus (with the other Dutch vehicle), are now told that there is no more time to inspect their vehicles and contents today, everything will have to go back inside and they will have to return tomorrow! It’s a close call to get everything done in time for our flight to Panama City. Thanks to Bernd and Dagmar who were up at 4am our time to ring Germany, our flights have been confirmed for the 21st. We are also grateful to Bernd for his fluent Spanish which has helped us out on many occasions.
We have a final meeting with Manfred at Bellavista to each pay our bills. We would certainly recommend using him to any other travellers heading for Panama.
We have time for one more visit to the Old City and walk back along the stone ramparts, as the late afternoon sun is deepening the colours of the beautiful, old buildings along the seafront.
21st December – We leave Bellavista today. It’s been a good place to stay and a meeting place for other overlanders.
We arrive at the airport in plenty of time for our early afternoon flight, which is just as well. We are all clutching our Bill of Lading papers with both names instead of the usually required return air tickets and this did cause some delay to be accepted and a bit of panic to us all. However, Bernd’s perfect Spanish comes in useful once again and the girls behind the desk are all great and sort everything out for us with smiles once they have understood.
Our South African friends arrive and we have coffee together and then a photography session around the big Xmas tree in the departure area. It’s a sad farewell but also a positive ‘see you again one day’ rather than a definite goodbye. However for the first time since we met, we will both be going in opposite directions, as they have decided to return to Brazil via Venezuela.
And so it’s also goodbye to South America. Such a diverse and spectacular continent where we have met so many welcoming and friendly people that have helped to make our journey so special. We have been very lucky to have visited amazing places and fortunate to have traveled everywhere safely. We are leaving with many wonderful and lasting memories!
Complete cost of shipping etc. between Colombia and Panama will be on my next blog for Panama.