After a longer than anticipated wait to recuperate Tommy and Milou from the port, followed by our unexpected battery problems, it was really time to hit the road! During our last evening in Cartagena, we had drinks with a French couple (Estelle and Antoine) who were just wrapping up their one year road trip in South America! Coincidentally, their trip was ending right where ours was beginning….in the parking lot of the Bellavista Hotel in Cartagena. This hotel is well-known amonst overland travellers not for its comfort and modern facilities (it definitely is in bad need of some major renovations), but for the convenience of its location on the main road out of Cartagena and most importantly for its large secure parking lot which we used to get Tommy ready for the road. Estelle and Antoine started out backpacking but soon realized that having their own vehicle was the way to go. They bought their truck camper in Chile and spent quite some time fixing it up. After hearing their story (one major mechanical problem after another), our minor issues with Tommy were quickly put into perspective and forgotten.
It is difficult to describe the joy we felt leaving Cartagena behind us as we drove our first cautious kilometers northward along the caribbean coast. Our first stop was the city of Baranquilla which was only about 130 km away, but we were there on a mission. We had to find a local propane tank for our gas burner in the camper that would be small enough to fit under the bench seat in the kitchen area. Only a 5 kilogram tank would do. After numerous futile attempts to locate such a tank in Cartagena, we had high hopes for “Julio Gas” in Baranquilla, which many overlanders have cited as being the spot for refueling foreign tanks. It turned out the Julio did not have what we were looking for, but was able to direct us to one of his neighbors who pulled out the almost perfect tank from his garage. Almost perfect becaue it was the right capacity, but height-wise, it was a bit too tall. Seeing our disappointed faces, one of the guys ran back into the garage and came back with an electric saw. Size was a very minor issue that could be easily overcome with the right experience and tools!
We were finally off to find our first overnight spot with Tommy, which we had pre-selected from a few possibilities on iOverlander. For those of you who are not familiar with this application, it is an extremely valuable resource for finding places when you are travelling independently (e.g., overnight spots, grocery stores, gas stations, administrative services, etc.). It led us to a parking lot next to the Maria Reina Cathedral in a nice secure area of town. While we had originally decided not to “wild camp” during the first weeks of our trip in order to get used to being on our own on the road and to develop a sense for security, this spot felt safe and the other alternatives were less appealing. Despite being extremely hot and the noise from the traffic and people, we had a decent first night.
The next day we set off early in the morning towards Santa Marta. On the outskirts of town we came upon a brand new modern suspension bridge which would take us over the river. It was incredible that we were the only ones driving on it….almost as though it was not yet open to traffic. We were almost all the way to the end of this very long bridge when we noticed a huge gap in the road in front of us. It was only at this moment that one of the construction crew casually walked up to us to tell us to go back the way we came. We had passed many people along the way, but nobody paid any attention to us nor gave any indication that the bridge was still under construction! No road closed signs anywhere either. This kind of explained why maps.me did not seem to recognize the road we were driving on!
After this initial incident, it was smooth sailiing thereafter as we moved up the coast past Santa Marta, to Minca, Palomino and Camarones. Although the scenery was nice, it was extremely hot and humid (not to mention the mosquitos) and we were glad to head inland after a few days.
It must be mentioned that driving in Colombia is a real challenge from several points of view. First of all, traffic in and around any big or even medium sized city is atrocious. As a result one has to adopt a rather agressive style of driving while at the same time being defensive and always alert. The traffic lines on the road do not really mean anything and the notion of orderly lanes does not often exist. Speed limits are also completely ignored despite the warning signs about radars and the numerous police check points set up along the road. However, things seem to work fine this way and we have only witnessed a few accidents to date. The police and military personnel along the roads are very friendly and polite and whenever stopped the first thing they do is introduce themselves and shake your hand. Figuring out what some of the traffic signs mean has also been amusing.
We will be heading to the mountains in a couple of days in search of fresh air and a change in scenery. We will also see how well Tommy does at higher altitudes with a full load on his back!