Wednesday, September 28, 2011
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.