Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Part 4 - Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

 A summer breeze warms my face as I look out from the old fortified city wall across the skyline of the new part of town. Cartagena de Indias, can you think of a better name for the place where we were to end this fantastic trip? A great finish to a great tour, but also a confirmation of my feelings about a country that has been longing to be discovered for over four decades. I visited Colombia for the first time in 1991 and was instantly won over; the nature, the colonial cities and the people... especially the people.

The next day we left our hotel at 10am for a 400km drive to Medellin. We had already heard that the first part would be relatively flat, then more or less sloping up until Manizales, and from there a final pass of 3,000masl just before Medellin. The road started out perfectly smooth, even turning into a four-lane highway of sorts after the first 25km. Intervals of two and four-lane roads, and road-works kept us on our toes, and it became clear that by next year this entire stretch would probably be much faster to traverse. We reached Pereira and entered the famous coffee region of Colombia, one of the more prosperous parts of the country. The region is one beautifully green and fertile land filled with coffee plantations doubling as hotels. One can spend a good time here between the picturesque towns of Pereira and Armenia, relaxing at the haciendas, learning all there is to know about coffee and enjoying the splendid natural surroundings. We sadly did not have much time to stop, but luckily I had been here before (see a few blog entries back).
We pushed on toward Medellin, which was still quite a long way off. We were experiencing some minor problems with the car. The passenger window had sunk into the door and decided it did not want to come up again, whilst dark clouds were gathering in the sky above us. The “Amp” light was on again, meaning we were once more driving without charging the battery, and the Volvo’s loyal engine was having difficulties adjusting to the climate and had started to heat up. We stopped at a gas station upon leaving Pereira, filled up our tank and provisionally sealed the window using an old raincoat and a lot of duct tape. As the rain started pouring out of the sky, we ordered and devoured one of the best hamburgers on our trip in the station’s cafeteria. This combined with really great service and one of the most impeccable toilets ever seen anywhere, let alone in a gas station, caused Johan to officially baptize the place as one of the very best pit-stops along the entire South American Pan-American Highway. And I think he was right!

Stomachs filled and window temporarily closed we drove on. Though half of our challenges were taken care of, the battery and overheating problems persisted. However, anyone who has driven an older car before knows that an overheating engine can be dealt with, at least temporarily, by turning on the car’s heater. That said, the fans that transport the hot air from the engine to the passenger compartment do so by means of electricity, so when your engine problem is combined with a battery charging issue, then you are kind of screwed. On the road to Manizales we were stopped by another one of those unexpectedly friendly police officers, who wished to see our papers. We killed the engine and did as we were asked. After a nice conversation we were told we could move on, but of course our battery was as dead as could be. Without much ado the police officer stopped another car and ordered the driver to help us jumpstart the Volvo, which was taken care of without questions and with much friendliness and ease. As we stood there with our heads under the hood of our 1968 travel companion, I had a closer look at the electrical wiring. I followed one of the wires that seemed to come from the alternator to one of the fuse-boxes and opened it. It seemed like one of the fuses was kind of dirty and not plugged in as tightly as it should be, but that was nothing a Swiss army knife and a band-aid from our first aid kit could not resolve. I have never been much of a McGiver, but the “Amp” light did not bother us anymore after that.

What with all the pit-stops we had kind of fallen behind schedule and had to make haste. Around 5pm, dusk set in just as we were headed back into the mountains. We had one last pass to conquer before we would be able to descend into Medellin. With the day fading, we found ourselves on a meandering mountain road littered with heavy trucks, slowing us down quite a bit. The car was not happy with this at all, and as well as having the now perfectly functioning heater at full blast, I had to resort to hitting the clutch, brake and gas pedals at regular 20-50m intervals to make sure the engine ran enough rpm’s to keep itself from boiling over. The last 25km were kind of tormenting, the temperature inside the car was around that of an over-eager Swedish sauna, and there was no way for us to escape the huge traffic jam slowly creeping down the hill into Medellin. We eventually reached the city limits around 8pm, but due to the maze of one-way streets that managed not to match with our map at all, it was another hour and a half before we finally found our hotel in the old city center. Old indeed, as our hotel, built in the 1940s, seemed not the have been touched since. We didn’t even bother to have dinner, but located our copper grandma beds and crashed straight away.

We checked out one early Sunday morning, and without having seen one bit of the much-heralded city of Medellin we hit the highway at 6am and made our way towards Cartagena de Indias. We had been informed about yet another 3000m pass we would have to cross 200km after leaving our hotel, and with another 500km to go after that, so we did not take any risks this time. The early bird factor, and the fact that it was Sunday and this is still a catholic country, made for sparse traffic (apart from many sinning cyclists) and we conquered the pass around 11am. After this point we descended easily into the next valley, which would be our stomping ground until reaching Cartagena that night. We made good time and even though we had left the mountains behind us the landscape was attractive and varied. We encountered very little traffic throughout most of the rest of the trip, and sometime around 4.30pm we only had 150km to go before Cartagena. Here we encountered a little more traffic and saw the damage done by the high waters of the past weeks. Colombia is graced by three Andean mountain ranges, intersected by three large rivers, all of which end in the Caribbean Sea near Cartagena. As all three of them had been processing much more water than normal, they had simultaneously overflowed, flooding many villages in the area. We passed numerous houses under water and crossed various bridges on the verge of being inundated by the huge mass of water surrounding us. Parts of some of the bridges had already given in, but we managed to cross them and drove into Cartagena through little back streets around 6pm. Of course we got neatly entangled in the evening peak traffic, but we did not care. Cartagena is a beautiful city, and we were happy to slowly finish the last part of our journey, savoring the salty air of the Caribbean after 10 days of hard driving all the way north from Lima. We eventually made it to the Hilton, our hotel for that night, located in the new part of town and looking out over the Caribbean Sea. A feeling of euphoria came over us and we lost very little time parking the car, stuffing our luggage in our rooms and cleaning up just enough to be allowed into the Café del Mar in the old part of town. A nice and cool place located on top of the fortified wall surrounding the old city, with spectacular views of both the city and the sea. Nothing could taste better than a couple of ice-cold beers to finish off yet another unforgettable trip.

The next day, December 20th, Johan took the Volvo to the harbor from where it would be shipped back to Europe. Just before he left we said our goodbyes, as I would fly back to Lima that same afternoon and from there to Buenos Aires the next day. I was going to arrive in Peru around 1am and had arranged for a room in the Ramada Hotel at Lima Airport to catch as much sleep as possible before my 10am ongoing flight to BA. Of course my life would not be what it is if it had not thrown me one last little curve ball in the form of my old fried Guillermo Gomez, a pal from the early days in Peru, who had moved to Venezuela a long time ago, but who happened to be in Lima and decided it was time to pay me a short visit, even in the middle of the night. This is how I ended up in the hotel lobby drinking double pisco sours with a great friend until the wee hours of the night, missing my flight that next morning and almost arriving too late for Karin’s birthday the next day… Luckily everything was planned well ahead, so when I finally touched down at Ezeiza Airport at 7am on the 22nd, my father was there to pick me up, while my visiting sister and my daughters had already arranged a beautiful breakfast in our garden. Karin just walked down the stairs when I entered the front door. “Ah, you’re back,” she said, “just in time!” We hugged and life was simply great.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ecuador to Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

After leaving Ecuador at Ipiales we entered Colombia, and when the torrential rain had subsided, we continued along the road to Pasto. We were not sure how the road conditions would be, but we needn’t have worried; it was in mint condition, recently asphalted and smooth as silk. We traversed through a spectacular, green and mountainous landscape, regularly passing waterfalls and enjoying views of fertile valleys. Both Johan and I have seen quite a bit of South America, but this was one of those moments when you are simply struck silent, taking in the awe and savoring it. Probably it also had something to do with the fact that we were driving into a country that until recently was considered too dangerous to visit, let alone drive through, and we were entering one of the areas still marked “grey” on the safety map of Colombia. The overwhelming natural beauty, and the peace and calm that the countryside beamed back at us simply did not marry with that cautious warning, or with the enormous road signs showing Colombian Special Forces with heavy weaponry and futuristic war-helicopters, which were, supposedly, protecting the area. We never saw anything even remotely resembling military, apart from a couple days later when we saw troops helping people out in the flooded areas to the north. The road was as safe as any we’d driven down already.

We reached Pasto at nightfall; a relatively small town in the mountains (150k inhabitants). We arrived at our hotel after an easy cruise through the town, parked our car in the garage and went for a short walk. During our walk we stumbled upon an impressive and surreal Christmas garden; an enormous stable with figurines belonging to the Christmas story, some of them higher than the actual buildings surrounding the park, and most of them decked out in rainbow neon lights. Large amounts of people roamed the park, stopping to buy things at stalls selling food, beverages and a wide array of religious objects. Again an unexpected and beautiful moment, enhanced by the warmth of the people we would learn to enjoy Colombia for.

The next morning we left for Cali. The sun was already beaming in the sky and before we knew it we were out of town and on the Pan-Americana Highway again. According to the owner of the hotel we just left, the road to Cali would be more mountainous and in some parts would be of worse quality, mainly due to the fact that lately this part of the country had seen a lot of rain and there had been several landslides. Still the entire stretch for today was only 380km, so we felt that making it to Cali before 5pm should not be too much of a challenge. The first part of the trip was mountainous indeed, sloping down from Pasto at 2500masl to more tropical surroundings at 700masl. Colombia seemed to be much more densely populated than the other countries we had passed through thus far and the road was busy with all kinds of traffic. Especially the large amount and great variety of trucks brought our traveling tempo down significantly. The scenery was pretty and we took our time, stopping to take pictures and enjoy the views whenever we felt like it. Even so, the road was in good shape and we expected to make it to beautiful Popayan around 1pm for lunch, but that turned out differently…

 Closing in on Popayan the road got hillier, and while we were cruising along the winding tarmac, all of a sudden we ran into a long line of vehicles. This of course happens from time to time, when roadwork is being done and one lane is closed off. During regular intervals traffic from one direction and then the other is given priority to take the lane left open. This was a different situation however, as we saw no traffic coming down the mountain and could not see where the jam started. Eventually we turned off our engine and got out of the car, just like everybody else. Our Volvo drew attention as usual, and several people came walking along for a friendly chat. Johan got talking to the owner of one of the cars in front of us, who was also en route to Cali, and meanwhile I went for a walk to find out what was causing this unexpected stall. I walked for a good 20 minutes and still hadn’t reached a point where I could see what was going on. What I did see were a couple of empty sand trucks coming down the hill looking like they had just unloaded. After some asking around I figured out that there had been a large landslide uphill and that the entire road had disappeared. The trucks coming down were the first of a series that had been commissioned from higher in the mountains to bring sand and rocks to fill in the missing part of road. Apparently these had already managed to cross the gap, so I started walking back to Johan and our car. When I arrived Johan was standing with a Colombian baby on his arm, salsa music blaring from the Volvo’s powerful speakers (the Xplod car stereo was definitely no old timer) and people smiling, dancing and taking pictures all around. Nice stop! We shared some snacks and water with other drivers and finally the first cars and motorcycles started coming down the mountain.

It still took a long time before we were could start driving again and in the end the whole episode took four hours out of our driving day. Lunch in Popayan was not an option anymore and we pushed on straight to Cali. During the wait we were approached by an elderly gentleman, also on his way to Cali, but by bus. He was on his way to visit his family there, but the bus ride would take him through Popayan where he would have to change vehicles and lose many precious hours, so he asked if we needed a guide to get us into Cali city in exchange for a ride. We said ‘no problem’ and that turned out to be a lucky move. Cali has over 2m inhabitants and we had no clue how to find our hotel. Funny enough our passenger happened to live very close to the hotel and as he knew the town like the back of his hand. It took us about 10 minutes to traverse the myriad of highways and little streets to arrive around 8pm to the front door of our hotel. We said goodbye to our passenger and ran into the bar for a few cold beers before retreating to our room with two super king-size beds for a good night’s sleep. Another day full of warm, spontaneous, exuberant and friendly Colombians and their beautiful country with spectacular landscapes, managed to send us to the land of dreams in a matter of seconds.

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Part 2 - Ecuador to Colombia in a 1968 Volvo Amazon

South America Road-trip in an old-timer

Ecuador is a nice country to drive through in your own car. After having made it without problems to Loja and on to Cuenca, we were headed to Quito, the capital of the country. In Quito we planned to stop and take a rest, but before that we had to cross 450km along the ‘avenue of volcanoes’, a route that promised some spectacular views.

We wanted to leave Cuenca on time to make sure we’d have enough time to take the drive easy and stop for some picture taking. However, we were confronted with a slight electrical challenge. The car battery was not charging and after checking the fuse-box and wiring we decided it had to be the dynamo/generator. We asked one of the hotel’s drivers to give us a jump-start and for directions before we drove to a near-by garage specializing in car-related electricity issues. The owner took one look at our beautiful Amazon and decided that he would help. It took him about 15 minutes to disconnect and take out the dynamo, another 15 minutes to completely take it apart, clean it up and find a small part being worn out to the bone, for which he of course happened to have an Eastern-European-made generic spare. Putting it all back together whilst charging our battery to the max took another 30 minutes, and the total operation cost us about 15 USD. Even so, we did not leave Cuenca before 1pm and so we prepared for a late arrival in Quito.

The first part of the route was very hilly, full of hairpin bends and in bad condition. On top of that, a thick fog confirmed our feeling that this would become a long day, but after passing the town of Alausi, just like a couple of days before, the mist disappeared as we drove into a wide valley and onto a beautiful 4-lane highway. The odds had changed to our favor. During the last part of the journey we hit the Volcano Avenue, and the landscape was indeed spectacular. We managed to get a glimpse of snow-capped Chimborazo; the highest active volcano in the world, and we saw clouds and gasses rise from the Tunguragua Volcano. Sadly, around these parts the sun sets around 6pm, so we missed the perfectly cone-shaped point of the Cotopaxi. We eventually made it to Hotel Quito at 8pm, which given the hectic ride into the city, wasn’t bad going at all.

Hotel Quito is situated in the La Floresta neighborhood, a nice part of town from where one enjoys a beautiful view over the city. The next day was our allocated resting day, so we took it easy and both decided to visit our local business partners. 

Thursday we made our way toward Colombia, crossing the equator en route. We left at 9am with the sun high in the sky and it promised to be a beautiful drive. From our hotel we made it relatively quickly to the highway, taking us out of town before we knew it. Whilst driving further north and away from Quito the landscape turned dry and rocky around us, completely different to what we had seen before in Ecuador. We passed some of the many rose-nurseries this region of the country is famous for, and in which the Dutch have made some heavy investments, and after about 40km reached the equator. First we made a stop at the ‘previous equator’, initially indicated by the Inca people as the line where the earth is at its widest. However, correct GPS measurements indicate that the ‘real equator’ lies about 30m further north, so we were obliged to make another stop at the official monument placed there a couple of years ago. We did not spend too much time here (I lived in Ecuador for half a year in 1994 and have been to this spot many times before) and drove on. We had a long way to go still and had no idea how much time we would need to get to the Colombian border.

On our way we passed through the towns of Otovalo and Ibarra. Otavalo is famous for its textiles and the huge Saturday market. The indigenous people are proud of their legacy, much stronger than many other indigenous people elsewhere in Latin America. They are happy to demonstrate where they come from through their costumes; this is one of the few places where one still finds men as well as women fully dressed according to the local codes. We drove on and passed a beautiful green valley, a lot lower down and warmer. Sugarcane was the main crop here, planted by the Europeans soon after their arrival. The Europeans brought many African slaves to work the plantations and therefore this still is a mainly black region, which is something one would not expect driving through the Andes with its typical indigenous people. The sun was strong and we enjoyed our trip to the Colombian border, arriving there at around 3pm. Without warning, the 2-lane road we were driving on turned one-way leaving us no way out of an enormous traffic jam; it seems there were other people wanting to get into Colombia…

After about an hour in the queue the weather changed; clouds appeared in the sky and slowly but surely it started to rain harder and harder. At some point it felt like there was no space between the huge drops anymore. For some reason our car was not washed of the road and we slowly crept toward the border facilities where we had to get out of the car and were soaked in a matter of seconds. Paperwork went smooth, helped by the laughs and giggles we caused running from window to window, leaving puddles everywhere we went. Colombians like a good laugh and we realized we would have a good time in this new country.

The Amazon was not prepared for the amount of water we brought back in and her fans did not manage to clear our windscreens, forcing us to drive on while constantly polishing the glass on the inside, with our windows open, allowing more rain in. One of the customs officers, between great outbursts of laughter about our appearance, had given us a golden tip; when your windshield wipers cannot process the amount of water falling out of the sky anymore, put on your darkest sunglasses; for some reason, they break the light filtering through the film of water on your windscreen, creating an almost perfect view again. Sounds odd, but we tried it and it works… kind of. Only do this when nothing else helps and you really have to push forward, and then only at a very low speed, as the images are distorted enough to create accidents, but it helped us get out of that valley and onto dry land back on the road to Pasto.