As we had wandered around Cartagena we had noticed a hostel offering door to door tourist buses to Santa Marta, our next destination. In we went and booked two seats for the next morning. We had breakfast and got a taxi to the other hostel for the bus. Somehow they got everyone's luggage in and we settled down for the trip. It was remarkably ok and we arrived at the door of our hostel as described.
We were shown to our room. It was a good size but wow was it hot. After five minutes I said to Jill 'I'm sure someone wrote a review about their room being air conditioned'. We had put a note on the booking site for aircon. We went to reception and were soon in a new room with air con. Slightly more expensive but I would happily pay double. In a humid 35C aircon is not a luxury it's an essential.
Santa Marta is billed as the place where Colombians go to get sun on their backs and sand in their toes. It is on the Caribbean coast so it should be good. We walked down to the beach to see what it offered. Simple really. A small beach with litter and rubble and a container port at one end. Not at all scenic. There were also 4 massive sound stages being erected. It seems there was a music festival taking place. We walked around in daylight and were not sure if we'd chosen well coming here.
That evening we went out. There was a warm breeze blowing and the town was completely different. Lots of people, lots of bars and music playing. A real transformation. We found a small pedestrian street with restaurants and had a lovely meal of sea bass.
Most backpackers don't stay in Santa Marta. They go to a small village about 10 minutes further on called Taranga. Described as a turquoise bayed fishing village that doesn't know what's hit it. It is also described as very laid back. Mostly it seems because narcotics are freely available and the whole place is stoned. It seems the local police turn a blind eye as they get a cut of the profits.
We thought we would pay it a visit. The area may be on the Caribbean but this is not Turk and Caicos. This is not much more than a shanty town with a scruffy beach. Having said that it was nice to sit in a beach bar with a cold beer and people watch. We didn't get offered any narcotics though !!!
We always seem to move to a new place on a Sunday. This was no exception. The lady at our hostel said just turn up you'll get a bus. Not us we went to the terminus and bought our tickets in advance.
We were starting the long journey south to Bogota right through the heartland of Colombia's interior. This would be our last long bus ride. It was scheduled for 9 hours from Santa Marta to Bucaramanga. We had only planned an overnight stop before moving on the next day to San Gil.
The bus was scheduled to leave at 11.30am and arrive at 8.30pm. We had booked a hostel so fingers crossed. We had booked two front seats so no issues with reclined seats in front of us.
When I saw the coach I thought hmmmm lots of scratches and bits of body work missing. Oh and one wing mirror taped together. Many a good tune played on an old fiddle I told myself. Many factors determine a good bus trip in South America. The bus, the driver, the road, the weather, the traffic.
My risk monitor moved up the scale when the driver was making a phone call as we backed out of the bay. This was the first of 30 calls he took during the trip. I lost count after that, mostly because I had my eyes shut.
Two things to know about Colombians. Their vehicles only have two speeds. Stationary and flat out. Their music systems only have two settings. Off and Colombian. The Colombian setting would drown out Slade at Wembley arena. Slade are in the Guinness book of records as the loudest band in the world.
This coach offered both. The driver looked like Dracula and drove like he couldn't die a second time. We left Santa Marta on dual setting. Flat out with the stereo on Colombian. We drove for a couple of hours like the devil himself was in pursuit before we hit a traffic jam. This was where the fun started.
It was a big tail back. Usually that would signal an uncontrolled event like an accident. Do remember though that this is Colombia.
While we were in the jam a 'Brasilia' bus pulled in behind us. Clearly there was some history between our driver and the crew on the other bus. They were out on the roadside gesturing and shouting things. Our driver was returning the compliment. As we crept forward someone kicked our bus or threw something at it. A guy outside was laughing and holding his privates as a gesture. He stopped smiling when our driver climbed half out of his window and tried to stab him with a screwdriver. It looked like we were about to witness a murder when the traffic moved. We had been stationary for over an hour.
The problem hadn't been an accident. The road was being repaired and was down to one lane over a bridge. Workmen? Nope. Traffic control? Nope. Just a free for all. This road is chock a block with heavy lorries. The system seemed to be that traffic flowed in one direction until someone forced it to stop. Then it flowed the other way.
Anyway we got over the bridge. Slowly but still with the stereo on Colombian.
Shortly after we came to a toll booth. We found ourselves side by side with the 'Brasilia' bus. Gestures and insults resumed. As we moved away a vehicle went to overtake the 'Brasilia' bus and our driver tried the same. Not a prayer. The other driver swerved to close the gap. Our driver should have braked but oh no let's keep going. Inevitably they hit each other. The 'Brasilia' bus drove off and our driver decided to pursue. We are now travelling at about 60 kph down a dirt road with one bus swerving from side to side and the other trying to force it off the road. Our driver is on his mobile again.
You know the driving has got really bad when Colombian passengers are screaming at the driver to stop. Fortunately the 'Brasilia' bus turned off and our driver calmed down......a little. Actually I don't think he did. For the next 9 hours we were subjected to warp 9 speeds and full blast music. Jill and I spent 11 hours staring like rabbits in a headlight out the front window while this idiot overtook everything in his way. Just when you thought it couldn't get worse, it got dark and we moved into the mountains. I have never been so relieved to get out of a vehicle in my life. No doubt he will do it all over again tomorrow.
On top of all that the ticket conductor periodically went around the bus collecting everyone's rubbish. Very thoughtful we thought. He put it all neatly inside a carrier bag then promptly threw it out of the window.
Instead of arriving at 8.30pm we arrived at 11.15. We jumped in a taxi only to find out it was being driven by the bus drivers' father. Here we go, warp 9 again.
Nearly 12 hours on the bus of death all we really wanted was a shower and bed. We had to wake up the receptionist at the hostel and she showed us to our room.
What's your definition of a double room with private bathroom? In the room or down the hall? Yeah, ours too.
The receptionist didn't speak English but Jill kept saying 'Banos no privado'. She kept replying 'Si si privado'. After 10 minutes she phoned the owner who did speak English very well. Jill spoke with him then so did I. 10 minutes later he turns up. Now the fun starts.
He kept insisting it was only for us so was private. We kept saying a private bathroom is in the room. He then said all the rooms were like this (Lie). He then said it was because we only booked yesterday. That was true but it wasn't why we had this room. Clearly we'd been bumped by someone else arriving before us. I was tired, sweaty and hungry. That's not a good mix with me. When he said' It's all we have, you are only here one night. Take it or leave it' I lost my temper. 10 seconds later he is telling us to get out or he'll call the police. Nice chap.
Time for me to either deck him or calm down. Not wishing to spend the night in a Colombian custody centre I sat down and took off my boots. 'I'm not going anywhere' I said. 'How much is this room?' When he said the price I said 'but that's the same as a room with a private bathroom' 'Take it or leave it' he said again. 'And I want the money now or you go and I call the police' It's now midnight in a strange city sometimes you have to know when you are on a loser. I got out a wad of cash and threw it on the bed and said 'there take it, now get out so I can shower in my private bathroom'. He went with Jill to do the passports and registration. Jill said he took an age with mine and said he wanted to see the stamp to be sure I was here legally. Cheeky f*****.
In the end we slept pretty well. Next morning we went down for breakfast and met Mrs hostel owner. Well she couldn't have been more different. Somebody clearly didn't want a s*** review for their hostel. 'Good morning, I am so sorry about the misunderstanding last night. It is a mistake on the web site. Thank you for bringing it to our attention. What would you like for breakfast etc etc'. Jill spoke, I grunted.
10 minutes later we are joined by Mr Hostel owner. I smell a man who has been well and truly k*** ed by his wife. It was a bit like Sybil and Basil Fawlty. Talk about grovelling I almost brought up my breakfast. Nice try mate but I'm writing this hostel review and it ain't gonna make nice reading for you.
We were soon in a cab on our way to the bus station. This guy was clearly a cousin of the coach driver. 90kph through a 30 limit with the stereo on Colombian. Before we got out of the taxi we were surrounded by men shouting 'San Gil San Gil' Our ruckies were out of the taxi and in a minibus before I could blink. It felt like we had been kidnapped. We had the back seat to ourselves and the journey was ok apart from all the mountain bends when you are thrown from one side of the bus to the other.
4 hours later we are in San Gil. Good job that's where we wanted to go! Our plan is to town hop to Bogota rather than endure a 20 hour bus trip. Into a cab and off to our hostel. I'm unsure which is in the worse state the driver or the car. At least it was slow and the stereo like everything else on it was broken.
This hostel is really nice. A nice friendly couple run it and the room is good. We had a relaxing afternoon looking around the town.
Today we had a fab breakfast on the roof terrace. Then it was off to the local bus station. We caught a mini bus to Baricharra a beautiful colonial village in the local mountains. After a brief look around we set off on a trail through the mountain countryside to visit Guane, described as the 'land time forgot'. The hike took an hour and a half through beautiful countryside. Guane was as described. Beautiful white single storey buildings, terracotta roofs and cobbled streets. Only a few parked cars and almost no people about. We had planned to catch a bus back to Baricharra but the walk had been so lovely we decided to walk back. As we left the village a mongrel dog joined us and he walked the whole way back with us. We got a few odd looks when he followed us into a cafe where we got an ice cream and he plonked himself on the floor. He looked quite disappointed when we got on the bus and he wasn't allowed to come.
After the trials of the mad bus driver and hostel owner today has been wonderful. Tonight we had dinner in a 'locals' restaurant. It was a set meal, fruit to start then soup, followed by chicken in a plum sauce with potatoes. A small dessert to end. Price? £4 each. 'Time for bed' said Zebedee.
We were woken at 7am by a Colombian family being noisy as usual. It would appear that 'Frederico' is a little s*** and it requires granny to stand in the corridor and shout his name repeatedly. Oh well I could do with a cup of coffee anyway.
Today is jungle day. After breakfast we hopped on a bus bound for Carrichala. We told the driver we wanted the waterfall and he duly dropped us off. We went into the grounds of a farm come cafe bunged the farmer 12,000 pesos and headed off up a trail. It was only a short hike but it was through jungle. As we disturbed the undergrowth dozens of butterflies flew out. Some with shocking blue or yellow wings the size of your hand. Onwards we went until we reached the waterfall. What a beautiful setting. We walked through the river across the rocks hanging on to an overhead rope. The view was amazing. The water cascaded down from hundreds of feet above crashing on the rocks before joining the river.
We sat for an hour then walked back along the trail. As we walked we saw another trail heading up into the jungle. Wonder where that goes? Only one way to find out. So upwards we climbed through bushes past beautiful flowers until we emerged right near the top of the waterfall. It was a long haul up but well worth the effort.
We soaked in the view before heading back down to ground level. We were soon on a bus back to San Gil. Once back in town we had a well earned beer then headed for the local park on the edge of town. This is like a small self contained jungle. It has huge trees, rivers and fabulous flowers. There are also vultures, parrots and peacocks. We spent a couple of hours exploring it. While we were inside there were big thunder claps. Once outside we saw the sky and a storm was brewing. It was hot, humid and flashes of lightning lit the sky. Time to head to the hostel.
Tonight we went to 'Gringo Mike's', a burger joint run by an American. One burger could feed a small country. As we left the skies opened and the streets ran with water. It was a dash back to the hostel where I'm sat writing this with a glass of red. We are moving on in the morning. Fingers crossed for the trip !