SOUTH AMERICA OVERLAND #11

02-August-2010: Cartagena (Colombia)

Manaus is an international sea port despite being 1500 kilometres inland from the Atlantic Ocean. It is situated just 3 degrees south of the Equator and has half of the Brazilian Amazonas population. The climate is hot and humid. It was like music to our ears to hear more English spoken here, after 5 days through the Amazonas on a cargo barge with an all-Portuguese speaking crew. Kienny was also very surprised to find a Chinese couple selling stir-fried homemade noodles at a street stall next to a hotel and enjoyed the opportunity of speaking Mandarin again. What a cosmopolitan city this is!

Whilst in Manaus, we attended a free concert at the Teatro Amazonas, a well preserved and well-known opera house. It was an ensemble of 17 classical guitar players with a percussionist and a solo vocalist. It was an excellent concert show-casing all Amazonas and Brazilian classical and contemporary compositions. We shared a private box with a local Brazilian songwriter who spoke a little English. He was of great help in translating everything into English for us. It was obvious that he was very passionate about Brazilian music for he was moved to tears quite a few times during the concert.

After a couple of nights in Manaus, we were on the road again enroute to Venezuela on the BR-174 highway. The first section of this road was good bitumen. Many locals from Manaus come out here to picnic at the many waterfalls in the area. The landscape is tropical with many palm trees just like in Malaysia. We also encountered our first serious rainfall on this trip. We travelled across many rivers and lagoons. The road went from good and fast to very slow and badly pot-holed bitumen. One could not take one’s eyes off the road for a split second.

The BR-174 traverses through the Waimiri-Atroari Indigenous Reserve. It was very slow-going as we had to weave from side to side to avoid the continuous potholes. It had been drizzling so the road was muddy in parts. This area is full of lagoons, wetlands and impenetrable jungle vegetation with lots of beautiful birds and butterflies. We also stopped on the Equator where we crossed from the Southern Hemisphere to the Northern Hemisphere.

That night, we found a suitable place to pull off the road to bush-camp. It was hot and humid and the mosquitoes were very welcoming. Just before we went to sleep, we accidentally locked ourselves out of Troopy. We both got out of Troopy to go to the toilet and closed the door to keep the mosquitoes out. What we did not know was that the door lock was depressed. When we tried to get back into Troopy we found ourselves locked out! Neither of us had keys on us as we were in our underwear due to the high heat and humidity. There we were in our underwear scratching about trying to find a way to break into Troopy. Fortunately, we had opened the rear passenger windows for sleeping, and we were able to pull away the insect gauze on one window and reach in to unlock the passenger door. We went to sleep in disbelief of our predicament but at the same time were very relieved that we did not have to break a window or worse, try to flag down a truckie in the dark in our glamorous underwear to get help!

The next day’s travelling was much the same with more potholes and slow roads until about 135 kilometres south of Boa Vista where we struck possibly one of the best roads we have travelled on in Brazil! The slow muddy road through the Indigenous Reserve finally wore out the rear brake pads. We heard a strange scratchy noise coming from the rear tyres. We knew Troopy needed new rear brake pads but did not think we had to change them this soon in the heat and humidity. We found a shady spot for Geoff to work on the brake pads and after an hour’s work we were on our way once again.

As we neared Boa Vista, the countryside changed from dense jungle vegetation to more open savannah country back dropped by mountains. The road continued to rise in altitude (900 metres) till we reached Pacaraima, where we exited Brazil. We noticed the cooler temperature up here, a most welcome relief. We then crossed into Venezuela at Santa Elena Uairen. The customs and immigration offices have a very modern air-conditioned building. The border police, immigration and customs officers here were all very friendly and relaxed. Before we could apply for the car import permit, we first had to drive 25km into Santa Elena to purchase compulsory third party insurance. We found the Mapfre office, changed money on the street corner, paid for the insurance and returned to the Senat office at the border to apply for the car permit. The whole process from immigration, insurance and customs proceedings took just under three hours. Finally, we were let loose into Venezuela.

Venezuela is the only country in South America where there is a black market for currency. The government has set up an unrealistic two-tier exchange rate but due to the artificially high exchange rate a black market in US dollars has emerged. Instead of getting 2 Bolivares for every US dollar at the official exchange rate, the black market rate is 7 Bolivares for every US dollar. The money changers in Santa Elena provided a drive through service.  We negotiated on an exchange rate of 7.4 Bolivares for every US dollar. At this exchange rate the cost of travelling in Venezuela was quite cheap.

The first things that struck us in Venezuela were the very old 1970s big American Chevrolets, Pontiacs and Ford petrol thirsty vehicles. They all looked fit for the scrap metal yard as most were in very dilapidated condition. The other marvel in Venezuela is the cheap price of fuel. Diesel was US$0.006 cents per litre! Yes, this figure is correct and has the right number of decimal places. We put in 150 litres of diesel for less than US$1.00! All the service stations at border towns are patrolled tightly by soldiers to prevent this liquid gold from being smuggled out of the country and sold for a handsome profit. The soldiers record the number plates and total amount of fuel bought by the locals. It was unfathomable that fuel could be so cheap. Ironically, a small bunch of bananas costs more than 150 litres of fuel.

It was getting dark by the time we finished border proceedings and bought fuel. We found a bush-camp just out of Santa Elena and were inundated by hundreds of small black biting insects. It was hot, humid and very uncomfortable with the minute insects getting in through the window gauze. Since fuel was dirt cheap, we closed all the windows, left Troopy’s engine running with the air conditioner running on high, ate breakfast cereal for dinner and set up our sleeping area inside Troopy. It was not till late in the evening when we stopped the engine after a big thunderstorm cooled things down to a nice sleeping temperature.

The road from Santa Elena to Ciudad Bolivar is very good and passes through the savannah, many waterfalls and indigenous communities. The landscape changed from savannah to avenues of lush green trees across undulating hills as we journeyed westward. There were many police check-points along the way, all very friendly and courteous. At each check-point, they looked at our passports and stamped the back of our vehicle import permit. As we neared big towns, we passed through toll plazas but never had to pay anything. The roads into and out of big towns and cities also expanded into fast motorways.

We found our way to Posada La Casita, about 12 kilometres from Ciudad Bolivar. It is on a green acreage with mango and palm trees, offering comfortable tourist accommodation, delicious meals, laundry, pool, tours, camping and secure parking. The owner, Pieter, also owns Gekko Tours which runs all-inclusive tours to Angel Falls. Pieter’s wife is Venezuelan and she is a fantastic cook! Venezuela’s star tourist attraction is Canaima National Park which is home to Angel Falls. This is the world's highest waterfall in the world, with a height of 979 m (3,212 ft) and a plunge of 807 m (2,648 ft). The waterfall drops over the edge of the Auyantepui mountain in the Canaima National Park , a UNESCO World Heritage site in the Gran Sabana region of Bolívar State, Venezuela. There is no road access. Everything has to be flown in to Canaima.  It is then another five hour boat ride to get from Canaima to Angel Falls. We booked our tour with Gekko Tours.

On the morning of our trip to Angel Falls, we were taken to the airport where we were each assigned a seat in one of the many 6-7 seater light aeroplanes all lined up on the runway, ready to take off. The plane ride was very smooth and Kienny survived the trip having no symptoms of motion sickness. We flew over vast areas of virgin forest, wetlands and huge river systems. The plane ride took about 45 minutes. We landed at the indigenous village of Canaima where we were met by our tour guide. After a short ride to our Camp, Kavac, we were assigned our room for the first night and had lunch, where we met our guides and other members of our group. As has become the norm, we were once again the oldest couple in our group.

Our first excursion was to the Canaima Lagoon and Waterfall. We took a short boat ride to the opposite shore of the lagoon from where we walked a short distance to Canaima Waterfall. The footpath took us behind the waterfall where we were completely drenched by the falls. It was a very welcome soaking as the weather was hot and humid. We then walked a little further to the top of the waterfall where we were able to have a bird’s eye view of the area. It started to rain as we got there but we were not bothered as we were already wet. We simply found a little pool of rushing water to sit in and enjoy the view. Just before dusk, the mosquitoes descended upon us and we had to plaster on the repellent. We made our way back to Camp Kavac for a shower and nice dinner.

We left Canaima village the next morning and set off on a 5 hour boat ride up the river in a one tonne wooden canoe dug out of a single tree trunk fitted with a powerful outboard Yamaha Enduro motor. We had to hike through the savannah for about half an hour early on while the boat negotiated very shallow rapids. The next stop was at the Pool of Happiness where we could take a quick dip in a pool of water fed by a small waterfall dropping down to the river. We continued on our way to Angel Falls, powering through many big rapids and getting soaked in the process. We travelled 85 kilometres along a fast flowing river through the amazing tepui landscape, rainforest vegetation, plant and birdlife. The red rusty colour of the river water is a result of bleaching by decomposing humus from the rainforest.

Late in the afternoon, we caught our first sight of Angel Falls. We came ashore and started the one hour hike under the canopy of the rainforest up to the viewing point. The weather was starting to close in on us with thick dark clouds, thunder and lightning all around us. We pushed on regardless and were rewarded with a clear view of Angel falls as the clouds had lifted. Once again, we got wet from the spray of the falls. There it stood, a tall rocky cliff with a mighty body of water plunging over the edge with a thunderous roar. We spent some time soaking up the power and beauty of Angel Falls. At Canaima Lagoon, the altitude was about 200 metres. Here at Angel Falls, we were at an altitude of about 580 metres.

It started to rain as we trekked back to our boat. We got soaked as we trampled on soft and squishy humus and on the extensive network of matted tree roots. When we got to our meeting point, we had to wade across a creek to Raton Island and from there the boat took us across the river to our jungle camp. We were assigned our hammocks to sleep in for the night. The temperature had dropped a little with the rain and it was good to change into dry warm clothes.  We found the camp cooks busy preparing our dinner. We saw wooden skewers of chicken pieces roasting over a bed of beautiful amber coals. Our guides doubled as waiters and served us our dinner of roasted chicken with potato-coleslaw and rice. It was delicious! With our tummies full and warm, we tumbled into our hammocks for the night. We fell asleep to the sound of rain pelting down on the tin roof accompanied by a symphony of snores coming from all directions. There must have been fifty or sixty hammocks that night, all full of travellers from around the world. The more upmarket jungle camp housing Japanese tourists was another 100 metres upstream from where we were camped.

The next day, it was a much quicker two-hour boat ride downstream back to Canaima. After being fed a huge serving of spaghetti Bolognese, our Indigenous guide Churrum and Miguel, nicknamed “little Inca” from Peru, escorted our group of ten people to the airport for our 45 minute plane ride back to Ciudad Bolivar. Luis, the mechanic from Posada La Casita was there to pick us up. We picked up a group of Swiss backpackers and returned to Posada La Casita where Troopy was securely parked. We spent a couple more days here just relaxing and catching up on laundry, emails and odd jobs.

From Ciudad Boliva, we made our way North-West to Puerto Colombia on the Caribbean coastline of Venezuela. The highway was basically pretty good except for a few potholes in parts. We also passed oil wells just south of El Tigre. There was not much broad acre cropping to be seen until about San Juan where we saw fields of corn and a few granaries. We had to pass through a couple of big cities with congested roadways but fortunately, we were not stuck in the traffic jams for too long.

The sun was setting by the time we were actually on the mountain pass to Puerto Colombia. There had been a landslide and we had to stop for half an hour to allow the road crew to clear the road. It was a narrow winding road with very tight hairpin bends and it was difficult to see in the heavy fog, mist and drizzle. We came upon a layby where we decided to stop and camp there for the night, hoping that there would not be too much through traffic in the night. We were at an altitude of about 1600 metres and the temperature was a bit chilly. We had a good night’s sleep except for a carload of giggly young people who stopped to party for a short time but then left without paying any attention to us.

The next morning was an exceptionally beautiful drive to Puerto Colombia along a very narrow road fenced in by thick rainforest trees and gigantic clumps of bamboo. Puerto Colombia definitely had a Caribbean atmosphere with sounds of Caribbean music blaring from the coffee-shops and street vendors. This is our first time we have been on the Caribbean Coast. The boats here are colourful and the people are a mix of Caribbean and South American. Many women wear colourful, long flowing dresses with scarves wrapped around their heads. The beach at Puerto Colombia has beautiful clear water and a nice sandy beach with lots of coconut trees on the foreshore swaying in the breeze.

From Puerto Colombia, we back-tracked to the city of Maracay and then followed the coastal route to Maracaibo. Venezuela is the fourth biggest oil producer in the world. The North-West coastline is a busy area with big oil refineries and processing plants. Huge tanker ships are anchored off-shore loading Venezuelan crude oil. The big cities of Maracay and Maracaibo have MacDonalds, Pizza Hut, Wendys and Burger King. There are some very nice high-rise apartments alongside some very poor housing estates. Despite the large revenues Venezuela receives from exporting oil, most people are quite poor.

Before exiting Venezuela at Paraguachon we filled Troopy’s 270 litre fuel tanks. We had to each pay a departure tax of US$9, get our passports stamped at the immigration office and turn in our car permit at the Senat office. We were told that this particular border crossing could be unsafe at night due to cross-border smuggling activities. Whilst we were paying the Venezuelan departure tax, someone from inside the office told us to keep our windows closed, doors locked and not to stop for anyone as there are armed robbers on the road. We were a bit concerned after hearing this news and felt an urgency to move on as fast as we could.

The Colombian border post was in close proximity to the Venezuelan post. The process was straightforward. First, we had to call into the migration office to get our passports stamped. Then, it was across to the DIAN building to apply for a temporary vehicle import permit. Once completed, we had to pop next door to the Seguros lady to purchase compulsory third party insurance. Everyone was very friendly and helpful. Once we were through border proceedings, we drove through Maicao to Riohacha where we found a beach front hostel room at Hostal El Castillo del Mar. The evening was very hot and humid.

After spending a relaxing two days at Riohacha, we continued along the coast to Taganga, a small Colombian fishing village on the Caribbean coast, well known to many tourists for its many underwater diving opportunities. We spent two nights here at a French owned Hostal La Casa de Felipe. This is a terrific hostel which is well laid out and catering to backpackers and overlanders. There is a restaurant operating independently of the hostel, owned by a Dutch chef. We have had a couple of outstanding meals here with beautiful fresh sourdough bread.

The Pan America Highway runs the length of North America, Central America and South America, but unfortunately there is a 150km stretch through the Darian Gap where no road exists. So whilst Colombia and Panama share a land border, there is actually no road linking the two countries. This is the last remaining incomplete section of the Pan American Highway. As such, this has made it necessary to ship the short distance between Colombia and Panama. In the past weeks, we have been in touch with Luis La Rota of Enlace Caribe Ltd. Luis and his lovely wife Sonia, are in the business of importing container seals and desiccants. They are also shipping agents who can help overlanders ship their vehicles between Cartagena to Panama. Both are Colombians and Luis speaks good English. We had booked a container to ship Troopy with Seaboard Marine.

In Cartagena, we found a secure parking lot on Calle del Guerro in Getsemani as recommended by other overlanders. We also found a nice air-conditioned room at the Hostal San Roque in the same street. We are within a quick half hour’s walk to the shipping agent and to Naves, the agents for Wallenius Wilhelmsen Logistics.  Our first task was to visit Luis at Enlace Caribe Ltd. We learned that the Seaboard Marine ship we were booked on has been delayed due to a tropical storm in the Gulf of Mexico. We visited the Naves office, which are the Colombian agents for Wallenius Wilhelmsen who have a Roll On Roll Off (RORO) service between Colombia and Panama. They had a ship that would arrive before the delayed Seaboard Marine ship. Initially this was more expensive but after some discussion we were able to negotiate a price that was cheaper than going with Seaboard Marine container service. Over the course of the next four days we spent an hour or two each day doing the required paperwork to export Troopy from Colombia to Panama. With the help of Luis and Sonia at Enlace Caribe Ltd everything went very smoothly. The most difficult process was the one and a half hour long Anti-Narcotics inspection. The four Anti-Narcotics police officers and sniffer dog were all very friendly but the process was very thorough and intrusive with the officers even removing some side wall panels from Troopy. As expected, no drugs were found and Troopy was given final clearance to be driven onto the ship bound for Panama.

Cartagena is a lovely UNESCO heritage city with old walls, ramparts and rambling old houses with overhanging balconies dating back centuries. In the newer quarter, the shoreline boasts upmarket apartments with many yachts and catamarans moored in the bay area.

Colombia has been real surprise. Our expectations of Colombia were grossly distorted, mostly by the way Colombia is portrayed in the media. In talking to the locals and other travellers we have learnt that the security situation has improved significantly in recent years. We have found the Colombian people to be very warm and friendly. They always seem to have a smile on their faces. We went through many friendly police checkpoints and got lots of handshakes and waves from the police and soldiers. Unfortunately, our time in Colombia has been shorter than we would have liked. We are booked on a direct flight from Cartagena to Panama with Aires this evening.

Much of our trip through South America has been cold often at altitude. As we have headed north over the last six weeks we have mostly travelled at close to sea level where the temperature has been tropical, hot and humid. We have had a great time exploring South America. In Australasian equivalent terms, we have driven 38,591km from Macquarie Island, half way between Tasmania and Antarctica, to just south of Bangkok in Thailand. Even so, we are still not quite half way in our quest to drive from Ushuaia at the most southerly point in South America to Prudhoe Bay in Alaska, the most northerly point you can drive to in North America. Stay tuned for our upcoming adventures through Central America.

Practical information on shipping a vehicle between Cartagena, Columbia and Colon, Panama can be found here.

The pictures for this section of our trip can be found by clicking
here, here and here or by selecting the Next arrow button at the bottom of this page.
 

A map of our trip can be seen by going to http://dreamers1.com/americas/GoogleMaps/SouthAmerica.html or by selecting the Map button at the bottom of this page.

The WEB site containing our travels in Africa, Russia and South America is http://overland.dreamers1.com or by selecting the Contents button at the bottom of this page.

Best Wishes,
Geoff and Kienny Kingsmill
Email: gkingsmill@yahoo.com
WEB: http://overland.dreamers1.com

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