Roads of Colombia

On the Pacific side of mid-Colombia, heavy rains knock on the roof of Savannah. I watch the water drip from my open vent way too long before I decide to close it. Instead of mopping it up, I scooch my rope rug over the wet spot and hope it absorbs the water. It’s a time of change, but not yet the exciting kind. Rather, the kind of change where it takes a bit to realize it has already happened. My body and mind feel sluggish, as if to try to delay the inevitable shift that this change will bring.

Andre and I said our “see you laters” in Cartagena on the 28th. It didn’t make sense to try to drive out of Cartagena together to Medellin or Bogota where he could either catch a connecting flight or fly out to the US. With all of the delays, we made the adult decision to part ways in Cartagena where he would catch a flight from there to Bogota (then to the US).

We carefully plotted our farewell to involve the least amount of crying. He helped me load my stuff into Savannah, we exchanged a quick hug and kiss, and he booked it to the elevator to tell the security guard to open the parking gate for me. I pulled out without looking back at the hotel and swallowed the lump in my throat in order to concentrate on navigating the bustling morning traffic of the city. It was time to continue my journey South.

I was able to quickly leave Cartagena behind and enjoyed the relatively decent, paved roads towards central Colombia. In the next two days I would bee line it to Medellin and through to the other side – I was kind of over being in cities. I got flagged once at a police checkpoint. He peeked inside the van and asked why I was alone, I explained my boyfriend had left for the US that morning and without even asking for my documents he waved me through.

I wasn’t sure how long the drive would be – Google maps estimated 18 hours to Medellin while Maps.me estimated 6 hours… That first day of driving I put in about 7 hours and got halfway. I slept outside of a trucker hotel, after confirming with the receptionist that it was safe and that there was wifi (since there was no reception). It was still quite hot and I realized I hadn’t eaten all day, so I sat outside at the café and accidentally ordered chicken (gizzard) soup AND chicken breast with rice/beans/plantains. I managed to eat most of it though! It was a snake day (where I eat one giant meal in a day).

The next morning I blasted off early after being awakened by the trucks starting up. I choked on the exhaust being sucked into the back doors of the van by the fan and decided it was as good of a time as any to get a move on. I would be following the Cauca River from the town I slept in (Caucasia) part of the way down to Medellin. The river was massive and beautiful, although when I thought how it would be to raft it – scary.

After crossing a bridge over the river, the road began to climb up into the mountains. I was amazed that this was the main route to Medellin as trucks, buses, and passenger vehicles crawled up the steep turns. I decided to become part of the truck train as passenger cars would speed around the slower bunch of us and nearly risk being run off the road. It was mostly paved but with some rough, muddy sections. Interestingly, there were also stations along the road for trucks to get washed. The water from the mountain waterfalls and streams was funneled into hoses and there was so much water that it seemed pressurized!

When I thought the road could not possibly keep climbing, it did, for miles and miles. Occasionally it would level off and a giant mountain town would appear. I got gas at one of these before continuing on. The mist thickened as the road climbed higher; it was only here that I realized I was actually entering the Andes mountain range! This mountain range is one of the longest continental ranges in the world running through Venezuela, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Argentina, and Chile. The temperature outside dropped down to the 50s, I welcomed it and opened the windows. After a seemingly endless summer, beginning in May while I was living in North Carolina all the way through Central America’s heat, this was literally a breath of fresh air. Throughout the drive I passed some interesting wildlife crossing signs: serpent, monkey, ant eater, panther, and iguana. And at one point a small, fluffy, black and white dog felt the urge to run alongside Savannah and I clocked him running at about 25 mph – impressive!

I didn’t try to take any photos as I crossed through Medellin, it was way too crazy and honestly probably some of the worst traffic I’ve driven through. As the mapping apps argued about which way was the best, I missed my co-pilot navigator. As long as I stuck to the river though, it appeared I would be spat out the other side. Luckily, this plan worked.

Again, being bad about food, I realized by late afternoon I had basically another no-food day besides a few spoonful’s of peanut butter. I stopped at a gas station for some snacks and figured I would hit a grocery store in one of the smaller towns I was heading for. The app we use for camping options, iOverlander, listed two promising locations: a restaurant parking lot and outside of a cemetery. Unfortunately though, once I arrived at the restaurant it appeared that the parking lot was turned into an outdoor seating area and the cemetery was only accessible by a tiny road blocked by an arch that Savannah certainly wouldn’t be able to fit through. The town was cute and quant with giant mountains looming on all sides.

I pushed on, down another ridge to where another trucker stop was listed. Not ideal, but it listed a flat parking lot with a guard. I asked the reception lady how much for a night and she replied with 20,000 pesos (~$5). With no shower or bathroom, and not really even level parking, I asked for 10k pesos since there were no amenities. Perhaps she was having a tough day that influenced her mood, but she wasn’t the friendliest and wouldn’t budge. I didn’t want to keep driving in the dark, so I settled for the slanted lot at 20k. I cooked up some ramen and fell asleep early. I had read that part of the next section of highway that I would be driving has daily closures from 11 AM to 9 PM for construction so I wanted to be through it early in the morning.

I snoozed my alarm at 5:30 AM but then anxiously began thinking about what I’d do if I did get caught in the closure, so I rallied and battened down the hatches in Savannah for take-off. The construction started almost immediately outside of the town I had slept in, La Pintada. Most of the drive was down to a single lane so it was a game of waiting in long lines and then racing ahead until the next station controlling traffic. I guess I thought we would all stay in line for these bouts of single lane movement but as soon as the worker held up the passing sign to go, people freaked out to try to get ahead of everyone else. Not wanting to crash while trying to keep up, but also not wanting to lose the line and potentially not be accounted for when the other lane of traffic was let loose, I felt like I was a rally car driver. Savannah did so good and I nearly anthropomorphized her as we dodged and weaved around cars and potholes along the raging river. Somehow during this chaos, my mind wandered to thinking about how cool it would be to have a dog companion on the rest of the journey – at least I could talk to him/her and not feel crazy. Unfortunately though, my reality check was that border crossings would be even harder and a dog should have a yard to play in, not be contained to a van.

I narrowly almost missed the turn to Pereira, the town I am currently in and where I’ll set off on a backpacking trek tomorrow. At the last possible minute, I decided to follow Maps.me instead of Google maps and was rewarded with signs to the town. It really is more of a city than a town though and I was amazed again at how giant cities can pop up within the mountains. I arrived in the city by around 9:30 AM and did see signs along the route that it would be closed by 11 AM, phew!

The journey had only begun though as now I needed to really find some groceries, more gas, and at ATM as the toll roads were bleeding me dry of pesos (not nearly as bad as Mexico though). I thought I had a plan and found a grocery store with parking, but it didn’t exist and I fled the city towards where I hoped to stay. I WhatsApp’ed a number I found on iOverlander for a newish hostel in La Florida. They quickly responded that they were stuck in Chicago but would try to help me out. The caretaker is currently at the hostel and, after assuring them that I’m basically self-contained in my van and am only looking for a shower and a safe place for Savannah, agreed to let me park at their (closed) hostel. I was blown away by their kindness and efforts to make things work out for me; they had driven the PanAmerican highway a few years ago and through that were motivated to open up a hostel of their own to help travelers.

There was still one problem though, I had driven all the way to La Florida after I got scared off of the city without buying groceries or going to an ATM. But now, with a place to stay locked down, I found new energy to return back into the city, find a grocery store and get some cash. Again, I really missed my travel partner as he was a bit better with these things than I am. I got some pasta to stock up on carbs for the hike, a bottle of red wine to celebrate the new year, and some supplies to bring for meals while hiking. I returned to La Florida and, after a little trouble finding the place, met the caretaker and her wonderful family and tucked Savannah in next to some flowering hedges that attract hummingbirds.

While I’ve been here, I researched a multiday hike that I will begin tomorrow up to Otun Lagoon in a national park just outside of La Florida. The family here helped me figure out how to get a chicken bus up to El Cedral where the trailhead begins – the road is really rough and Savannah will be safer here. I took a much needed, but icy cold, shower that took my breath away. And then I rested and sat with my thoughts while tinkering around Savannah.

I love change and hate it at the same time. It’s a weird relationship where I’m driven by craving change and new surroundings and experiences, but I’m also sensitive to its consequences – like goodbyes or lacking community or having the next daunting task feel incredibly overwhelming. This morning it took me hours to get out of bed as it felt like life suddenly became so hard and I know that I alone made it this way. But that’s okay, I did get out of bed and then tackled the next challenges that lay ahead.

It’s been a quiet, reflective day to start the new year and I feel fortunate to have the opportunity to experience it. Looking back on my thoughts from 2 years ago (written here), I think past Kelly would be happy with how her next years turned out. This past year was huge and involved a lot of really amazing adventures and a lot of personal growth. This next year will probably be the same and in even more new places that I’ve never been. Where my year in the desert felt like internal, personal growth, this year branched out into developing important relationships with others and showing up completely as myself. I feel lucky that I was able to find myself in the Kalahari and walk away taller than when I arrived. This past year has been nothing short of making each moment count.

Tomorrow, I will take my thoughts on a long walk up into the mountains. I’ll find comfort in a wild place that I’m sure will inspire me to keep chasing after that feeling of awe. As uncomfortable as I am with my feelings right now, I do know that this path is the best for me. For better or for worse, my life motto has stuck – if you’re gonna get it, take it big.

On repeat lately – here

One thought on “Roads of Colombia

  1. I was so hoping that Andre either changed his mind or missed his flight and you wouldn’t being doing this all on your own, but I understand and as much as I tend to worry, I know you’re more than capable of finding your way from one adventure to another. It is just so hard to wrap my head around the fact that you and Savannah are actually driving through South America. I know I don’t need to say BE CAREFUL, but I will anyway . . .
    Love you and traveling with you in spirit! Aunt Pat
    p.s. Whenever you mention a city or river or whatever, I have to go to a map to find it. And I’ve always been amazed by the Andes!

    Liked by 1 person

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