Monday, 10 January 2022

We are back in Colombia at Last

Its been some time since our last Blog Post, which was back in March 2020.

Like everyone, our lives were disrupted, but thankfully we, and our families,  are all safe and well.

Although frustrating, our time back in the UK wasn't wasted. We soon realised that this break from Cloud9 wasn't going to be a short one so we purchased a motorhome and spent as much time as we could travelling around the UK. We also volunteered at our local Covid Vaccination Centre for a few shifts. This helped us get our jabs early. And lastly, our eldest daughter moved house so there were plenty of jobs to do there.  

As the months went by we started to worry about what condition Cloud 9 would be in when we returned. Water ingress, Insects and humidity became a real concern. Unfortunately, we couldn't consider returning until we felt it was safe to do so and the British Government took Colombia off its "All but essential travel List"  This all happened in the first week of November 2021. We had our third Jab, Colombia was taken off the list and America opened up for transiting through. By the 10th we were on the way 

Cloud 9 had been stored at Camping Al Bosque, just outside Medellin. It's at nearly 3000m and the drive up there went on forever as our anticipation and anxiety levels climbed.

We expected the worst but were pleasantly surprised with, what we found. 

Outside was filthy and nature had clearly taken over. Inside, however, was dry and relatively clean. There was no sign of damp, humidity or mould. The cabin area had clearly been home to a million, now dead, flies but all in all we were pretty happy. The biggest issue we discovered was the starter batteries were dead, but after 20 neglected months, this was no surprise. The Cabin batteries were still good.

The cleaning began and in a few days it was looking much better 

New batteries arrived and the nervous moment of starting it was upon us. I knew that after 20 idle months and at nearly 3000m it wasn't going to be a quick start. All filters were changed, fuel primed and the button was pushed.
Once we were happy with the mechanical aspects of the truck and its roadworthiness, we started a dialogue with the local customs agency known as the DIAN

Like visitors who need a visa, all temporarily imported vehicles into countries require a similar permit known as a TIP. Colombia initially granted us a 90 day TIP in December 2019 and an extension of a further 90 days in March 2020 just days before we left the country. So technically the vehicle has been illegal since June 2020, some 17 months. Although the DIAN has published several papers during that time for people in our position our legal status was unknown. We filled out all the forms and submitted our application along with a long explanatory letter outlining our circumstances. We hoped that in the wake of a Global Pandemic common sense might prevail.

How wrong could we be. despite our pleas and objections the head of The DIAN in Medellin couldn't get past an existing flow chart that said " has the vehicle been in the country for 90 days " "Yes".  Has it been granted a 90 day extension"  "Yes"  ........ It must leave. They also claimed that the land borders had been open during this time and we should have left before now. This wasn't true as no land borders were open at that time.

There was no common sense or consideration applied to the circumstances. Our Application to have the vehicle remain in Colombia was flatly denied and we were granted 15 days to leave the country or the vehicle would be seized.  As all land borders were still closed at this time, our only option was to ship the vehicle out. 

We were gutted, this wasn't what we wanted to do but had no other choice.

Whilst waiting patiently for the outcome of our application to arrive we managed to meet up with some fellow overlanders.

When we left Colombia, back in March 2020 an Overlanding couple known as the Southbound Sea Hags, "Dechiara and Somer" stayed behind and became part of the local community. One of the great things they did was fundraise and Organise a Christmas party for the girls in the local Orphanage. We were glad we could help out, albeit from afar. We managed to take the opportunity to visit the orphanage. It was a very humbling experience. The girls were delightful and it was an experience we will remember.

I have a feeling that Dee and Somer will make this an annual event so don't be surprised if you see some fundraising plugs on our Facebook pages every Christmas.

Whilst we were out with Dee we managed to pick up a load of young Colombian hitch hikers in the back of her pickup 

We also managed to catch up with fellow Overlanders, and avid Vloggers, Curt and Snow at Parque Arvi where you can take a Cable car ride down into Medellin city. This was a great catch up as Pat is an avid watcher of their youtube Channel.

The direct route from Medellin to Cartagena is about 650 km, but we decided to try and make the most of our 15 days and visit a few places along the way. 

It wasn't without pockets of excitement 

One of these stops was the Underground Cathedral carved out of Salt at Zipaquirá. This underground network of carved out tunnels was created by local miners in 1950 . It reaches a depth of nearly 200m and has huge caverns and endless passageways.

With the Clock ticking we moved on to the north eastern town of  Barichara.  Knowing that it was made up of small narrow cobbled one way streets we decided to employ a local Tuc Tuc driver to drive in front of us through the town to the parking area on the edge of a deep valley at the far side.

You can see from the photo that the roadway was made of flat highly polished granite slabs. At one point we had to drive up a very very steep section. Unfortunately, we had to stop just prior to the top at a give way. Our hearts stopped as the entire truck started to slide backwards down the steep hill. I could not find any traction on the slabs. Luckily there was nothing behind us and the truck stayed in a straight line.  Bit Lucky there 

With some long drives, we eventually made it to Cartagena. we had arranged to stay at Hotel Casa Burgos in the Manga district, which is one of the few places that we could park our truck in their car park to prepare it for shipping.  It did take a bit of shuffling and major tree surgery to get it in though.

Cartagena Riverside area and Old Town was nothing like anything we had seen in Colombia. It was a mixture of Ultra Modern with old Colonial buildings and the evidence of wealth was everywhere from the high rise apartments to the superyachts moored in the marinas 

On our first night, we headed to a posh restaurant on the river front. The table in front of us had a large party of affluent looking socialites at it. Half way through the evening a catamaran came towards us with a two piece band playing romantic tunes on it. At this point, one of the men at the table got up, knelt on one knee, and proposed to his girlfriend. Very romantic. 

The food and skyline views and the old town of Cartagena were amazing. 

Although we were enjoying the town we still had a job to do, which was to get our truck on a ship to Mexico and prepare it for the trip.

As a poor Spanish speaker, the thought of doing all the local arrangements is very daunting, so like most people we employed a local, well recommended agent called Ana Rodriguez. She arranged the Ship, The Customs inspections, the Drugs inspections, all the paperwork and permits, communication and the Delivery to the port. I have to say she was a delight to work with. She was very professional and in constant communication with us. I really don't see any need to make arrangements outside the local country. I think using a local is the right way to do this.

We stayed right in the City at Casa Burgos and prepared the vehicle for shipping.  Many vehicles get broken into during the shipping process so I secured metal plates over every window and skylight to make it hard for them to get in. 

With everything in place, the day came for the vehicle to be delivered to the Port.  We had an appointment to be there shortly after 9am. This was the day our permit expired so we had to get it checked into the port that day.  We have owned this vehicle since 2012 and it has only failed to start on two occasions. The second time being this day.  There are only three things that will stop my engine from firing up. Lack of air, lack of compression, or lack of fuel. It is nearly always a fuel issue. After some frantic calls to my dear friend Perry in Germany, I started examing the fuel lines between the tank and the pump. After about an hour I found a small length of rubber fuel hose that looked like my problem. After I replaced it the truck fired into life again. Meanwhile, Ana had saved the day by quickly changing the arrangements and we headed to the port. 

The procedure for Exporting a vehicle is quite a process. Firstly, a huge amount of documents has to be prepared and the place on the ship booked. Ana took care of all of this. Secondly, after delivery to the port, the vehicle is examined by the Customs Officers to check that its identity is correct and that all the Engine and Chassis numbers are the same as shown on the documents. And lastly the vehicle is thoroughly examined by a Police Officer and a dog for  illicit drugs. The Customs part of this process went smoothly. However, we had been told that the drugs search would involve emptying everything, yes everything out of the vehicle. If we were lucky we might get a Police Officer who was in a rush or simply less conscientious. No such luck for us. The vehicle was emptied. It was near 35 degrees and the port area was a gravel and dust surface. It was a very long day as we have two vehicles (Motorcycle), I think I lost about 2 kilograms in weight. The interior of the truck looked like it had been burgled.  

When everyone was happy all the doors and lockers were sealed up and we said goodbye to Cloud 9. The next time we would see her would be in Veracruz Mexico in about a weeks time and hopefully in one piece. 

After we said goodbye to Cloud9 it gave us a few days to enjoy the beautiful city of Cartagena. 

This Colonial style walled city has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it was easy to see why.

We also managed to squeeze in some great social time with Ana and her family and our wonderful new friends from Brazil Marcos and Marianne

So this was it.       Its goodbye South America.

We have had the greatest of times here and more importantly, we have met the most wonderful people and have made friends that will be in our lives forever. 

Let's hope the truck arrives safely and our journey through the Americas can continue with as much adventure. 

Hasta Luego en Mexico 

Friday, 1 May 2020

Brazil. Islands and Carnivals

In my last post "Colombia, Coffee and Culture"  I wrote  about our lovely stay in Manizales.

It was during this time that Pat had a conversation with a fellow traveler Fran Calder .

"We are in Brazil and are hoping to go to the Carnival in Rio"
"We have always fancied that"
"Why don't you come"
"That's a good idea"

Within 2 days the trip was planned, it started as a long weekend in Rio de Janeiro and finished up as a   month long  trip to Salvador, Coastal Islands, Buzios, Rio de Janeiro and Foz do Iguacu.

Being independent travelers the trip was planned with military precision. Flights, Hotels, Excursions, Hire Cars and Transfers were all booked . It became so complicated that I even had to make a spreadsheet that reminded us what was going to happen on each day. 

The final plan for the 30 day trip was 8 Flights, 6 hotels, 1 stay with a great friend, 3 boat trips, 1 hire car, and many day trips.

At this time the term Corona Virus hadn't hit the news. By the time we set off it was a mere rumor of a problem in the far east.  

Medellin to our first destination at Salvador took three flights. After a quick overnighter in a hotel we set off  towards the island of Boipeba. A ferry, 4 hour taxi and small boat trip and 8 hours later we landed at the small dock on the island.

In order to keep the island in good ecological health there are no cars allowed. There is however, a handful of quad bikes. We hired two local guys with wheel barrows to carry our luggage to the quad bike station. 

Twenty minutes later the Quad bikes delivered us to our island paradise , a small hut on the beach in the village of Morere.

What a slice of heaven. Turquoise seas, golden sand humming birds  and no vehicles. Chilling out, swimming and snorkeling  were the order of the day. 

The boat the to neighboring island of Tinhare only took a few minutes and on this island a small number of vehicles were allowed. Transfer to the hotel was in a Landrover, and the route along the beach took an hour. Pat was grinning like a Cheshire Cat and felt that we were back overlanding

In order to cut down the physical length of some of my blog posts I have now adopted the slide show approach. I hope it makes viewing it a bit easier.

We survived the boat journey back to Salvador without incident, despite some websites referring to it as the Vomit Comet . Two hours of total unpleasantness. Most of the crew were armed with mops and buckets and were very busy.

The historic Colonial town of Salvador Bahia ( aka Salvador or The Land of the Drum ) was the original capital of Brazil and was founded by the Portuguese in the mid 1500's.

Its location and growth was sadly born on the back of the slaving industry that thrived in the Americas.

Still to this day the Afro / Brazilian culture is what makes this place amazing and unique.

The old center of Pelourinho was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1985.  This would be our home for the next few days . Pat had booked a beautiful hotel that overlooked the main street. The view from our window would make you think  you were in Lisbon or Porto.

When the term Carnival and Brazil are used in the same sentence you automatically think of Rio de Janeiro. However, carnival season in Brazil is national and nearly any town of note will have its own Carnival. Salvador Bahia is no exception and by design we hit town right in the middle of it.

As you will see later in this post, the Rio Carnival is enormous. It's all about floats, costumes and parades. The Salvador Carnival is totally different. Here it is all about communities, culture and most importantly Music. The weapon of choice in any Salvador band is the Drum. Literally for 24 hours a day during our stay there was never a minute that you couldn't hear the sound of drums. 

I cannot describe the feeling of watching a drum band with over 100 members. It actually stirs up emotions.  

The Drum phenomena known as Olodum was created to combat barriers within the community and unite people who shared a common interest, Music and drums.

It was fantastic to see large bands made up of every aspect of the community. Old, young, male, female  indigenous and immigrant, rich or poor all shoulder to shoulder.

Olodum works.


A fantastic example of these drums in action can be seen in this, slightly dated, video by Paul Simon which was filmed in the streets of Salvador. It's quite a long video, feel free to move on if its not your type of music

The silhouetted Martial Art / Acrobatic  / Dance routine shown at each end of this video is known as  "Capoeira." It is a practice that dates back to times of slavery with its origins in Angola. Although the martial art element has been declared illegal, mock combats are common place in the street theatre that can be seen during carnival.

Salvador was alive, The music never stopped and the people never slept. Unlike many  European festivals , alcohol appeared to play little or no part in the festivities. 

Rio de Janiero was our next destination. 

This huge sprawling city on the South east  Atlantic Coast is home to about 12 million people. Unbelievably, during Carnival season an additional 5 million tourist arrive. 

The world famous city views were streamed into nearly every home on the planet when the Olympic Games was hosted there in 2016.

This city has opposite ends of the social spectrum living on top of each other.  Apartments costing millions of dollars overlooking the beaches of Copacabana and Ipanema are literally just a few minutes walk from the densely populated Favelas built near vertically on the hills behind them.

Probably the most diverse city in the whole of South America 

One of Pat's wonderful friends and fellow traveller  "Roberta," who we had met in Chile two years earlier, lives on the outskirts of the city by the beach in the area of Tijuca. Foolishly, Roberta once said "If you are ever in Rio come and stay."  Not sure she meant 6 nights, but she was the perfect host, and we loved getting to know her better. Staying in her beautiful apartment was a highlight.   Thanks Roberta we cannot wait for our paths to cross in the future xx

Whilst there we also managed to catch up with the previously mentioned Fran Calder and her husband Doug.

The list of things to see in Rio is overwhelming. But the usual beaches, Statues and Mountains were lined up.

Sugar Loaf Mountain

Christ the Redeemer

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Copacabana Beach

Ipanema Beach

The big attraction for all the visitors is Carnival.  Daily around the city, usually at beach locations, are mini Fiesta or Street Parties  known as Blocos. Sadly these have a bit of reputation for being unsafe for tourist, so we chose not to take part in these, bearing in mind that the rate of crimes and murders in this city is unbelievable. In an effort to cut the numbers of crimes down, the city now only permits some Blocos to occur between 7am and 10am.

Instead, we set our sights on the main event. The Samba Parade in the cities arena " The Sambadrome"

This event that runs over 4 nights, starting at 10pm and running through to daylight. 

The entire event is a huge competition between Samba Schools from the local communities. Each school spends the entire year creating their Floats, Costumes and Choreography, employing hundreds of participants and maybe thousands more behind the scenes.

The floats are enormous. We were sitting in the higher seats and still found ourselves almost looking up at some of them.

Each school gets one hour to walk the 600 meter route. Six Schools per night take part, with various themes ranging from Indigenous issues to the Circus and Movies. 

Winning this competition is akin to winning the world cup. 

The stadium has 90,000 spectator capacity and is packed every night. This is the same as Wembley Stadium in the UK or the Rose Bowl in Pasadena USA.

I must point out at this time that Corona Virus was still a low level, almost unheard of,  threat in South America.

Despite its reputation for high crime and violence, which I am sure exists in some areas, we never had any issues in Rio de Janeiro and never once felt at Risk. We loved it.

We love seeing locals playing unusual games. You may remember back in Filandia  the game involved throwing lumps of metal at explosives.

Here on the beach we saw a two person team sport that was a mix of   Football and Volley ball ( Soccer) . 
This imaginatively named "Footvolley" was a great spectator sport . We couldn't quite grasp the rules but using any part of the body to get the ball over the net seemed acceptable

Buzios lies in the Atlantic Coast about 175 km directly east of Rio de Janiero. Its a very popular sea side resort and many people from Rio have second homes here .

We went there for 5 nights..... It rained .

Our final port of call was a location that had been on our Bucket List since before this trip was planned, but we had never been able to get there.  The nearest occasion we had was when we first arrived in Uruguay. At this time we were about 1500 km away but decided to head south in the opposite direction.

Foz do Iguazu lies on the Brazilian side of a three way border between Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay. 

The borders between these countries is clearly defined by the T shaped confluence of the rivers Parana and Iguazu.

The attraction that brings in many thousands of tourist is the magnificent water falls that lie between Brazil and Argentina. These can be viewed from both sides.

Probably one of the most spectacular natural occurrences I have seen.
From the Brazilian side you can take a boat ride up river near the base of the falls and view them afar on a walkway. However, from the Argentinian side you can get really close and stare right down the phenomena known as the "Devils Throat" 

Due to the water levels being a little lower than usual , we were unable to take the boat ride to the foot of the falls on the Argentinian side.

Another great, but completely unnatural, feet of engineering in Foz do Iguazu is the Itaipu Dam.

This 8 km long structure holds back the Parana river between Brazil and Paraguay. 

Built over 13 years starting in 1971,  this  joint venture between both countries  is physically the second largest Hydro Electric Dam in the world being only slightly smaller than the famous Three Gorges Dam in China. However, the Itaipu Dam actually produces more electricity.  

The 1350 square Kilometres of reservoir feeds 20 Generators that can annually produce in excess of 90 Billion KW of energy.

The power is split 50/50 between Brazil and Paraguay, however Paraguay then sells most of their share back to Brazil giving the Brazilians 90% of the production .

After 3 long flights we eventually returned back  to Cloud 9 in Medellin Colombia.

By now the Corona Virus had really taken a grip in Europe.

The Colombian Authorities were quick to respond imposing regional and national lockdown measures.

However, we soon realized that if the virus got a similar hold as it had in Europe , that it was unlikely that the Colombian Health Services would cope.

In view of this, and our imposed travel restrictions,  we decided to try and get back to the UK. 

The problem, was that we weren't the only expats trying to return home, so all the flights were over subscribed ten fold.  With near 70% of international flights out of Bogota being cancelled we were reluctant to move from the comfort of our truck without an absolute assurance that we could make it all the way back to the UK. The thought of spending days sleeping on the Airport floor wasn't appealing.

The camp site we were on had other campers from Germany, America, France and Austria.  We kept hearing of rescue flights from all these countries picking up stranded Nationals, except British ones.

The British Embassy in Bogota rang us several times a day but just couldn't assure us of a viable escape plan. They had no rescue planes organised.

The internal flights were due to cease on the Wednesday , meaning that it would then be impossible to escape as there would be no way to get to Bogota. 

Despite Pat having spent every waking minute of  an entire week scouring the flights, we had  just about resigned ourselves to the fact that returning to the UK was just out of reach. Then, at the last minute, Pat managed to spot a French flight to Paris leaving at 5 minutes past midnight on the Wednesday morning.

Thinking if we can get to Europe then we are home and dry, the decision was made " Go for it "

Luckily for us we had already booked a flight from Medellin to Bogota . This flight was originally booked  for 3 days earlier but had been cancelled and re scheduled twice. By chance  its latest time slot fitted in exactly with these new plans. However, we knew that if this flight was cancelled for a third time our entire escape plan would collapse at the first hurdle.  

The whole journey was a very fragile chain of events that could have left us stranded at any stage. Pat was keen to take the chance as she was eager to get home. I , on the other hand,  was very reluctant to even set off with the odds of success against us.

This and disputes over how much luggage we should take made the whole experience very stressful to say the least

Making the choice to leave our comfortable home hoping that our journey will be successful was a big leap of faith. Especially knowing that by the time we arrived in Bogota our return option to the truck would be closed as internal flights would have ceased . 

This move had the potential of leaving us stranded in a cheap hotel in Bogota for several months if the international flights failed. We know fellow travelers  that even now ( 6 weeks later ) are still trapped midway on their journey, confined to their hotel rooms. 

It was a big gamble to say the least

Even as we set off we hadn't yet finalised the last stages of the Journey between Paris and the UK.

Whilst sitting on the marble steps ( All the benches and trolleys had been removed ) in Medellin airport waiting for our flight to Bogota , Pat managed to book the last two seats on the last British Airways flight to the UK from Paris. 

We got to Paris to discover that there had been 5 flights from Charles de Gaulle to Heathrow scheduled that day and the first 4 had been cancelled, leaving our flight as the last chance. We watched the departures board constantly and sighed with relief when our boarding was announced. 

The airports were deserted and Charles de Gaulle looked like a scene from a Science Fiction disaster movie.  The usually busy halls full of rushing travelers were deserted.   Very Spooky.

Unbelievable it appeared that most of the previous cancelled passengers had made alternative arrangements and we flew back to the UK with only 20 people on the whole plane.  

Upon Arrival in the UK we fully expected to be delayed by the Immigration Services  and questioned about our journey. Surely in a crisis of this nature monitoring or even controlling entrants into the country would a high priority, especially as the UK had already implemented lockdown measures at this stage.

You guessed it.  Nothing. Between landing and walking out into the street we didn't speak to one other person. Our passports were swiped in a machine and Customs were completely deserted. 

Although a very long journey it all went remarkably well and we are currently , like everyone else , in a lockdown situation, staying with family.

Who knows when we will see Cloud 9 again.

Hasta Luego