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.

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