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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
and Kienny Kingsmill