Paradise Does Have Its Price!!!

Trip Start Sep 07, 2011
Trip End Dec 22, 2011

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Flag of Colombia  , Bolívar,
Saturday, October 15, 2011

Copa Airlines flies the 291 miles between Panama City and Cartagena in about six hours including a connection in Bogota.   About $300 one way buys some 737 comfort and even a couple of snacks thrown in.  A quick and painless flight does pose a few problems, however, for a trip where I want to experience all things local where the average person will never step foot.  Missing out on a unique cultural experience and some spectacular scenery would be a shame.   My route from Panama City has taken over a week with chicken buses, fast boats, kayaks, donkey carts, Colombian van shuttles and even a beat up old Toyota pickup truck helping to complete the journey.

This last day of bridging the Darien Gap has been an all day affair and truly a once in a lifetime experience.   And I use "once" in the strictest sense of the word.   I only want to experience this grueling day once and the view from a Copa Airlines window seat is looking mighty fine right about now since I am worn out.

A 7am fastboat started us out for the several hour trip across the water to Turbo from Capurgana.   Those in the know sit in the back as the front slams down into the water every time a wave lifts the fiberglass boat to even newer heights.   Those in the know also experience a bone jarring ride as I can attest since no part of the boat seems completely immune.   Most of the two and a half hours were a constant few seconds of smooth airborne time and then a rough smack down.   At one point wind so strong delivered a refreshing salt bath every fifteen seconds as spray washed across the open air seating.   Needless to say we arrived in Turbo nicely soaked.  And this is the “dry” season with calmer seas!

If the stamp in my passport didn't tell me otherwise, I'd have thought I landed in Vietnam with all the motorbikes, chaos, mom and pop shops selling all varieties of knock off crap and people hawking this and that.   People of Caribbean descent and Spanish everwhere knocked me back to South American reality.  Vietnam is a whole lot safer, too, than this busy little port city filled with hustlers and a seedy underbelly. 

As is the norm in these parts due to a lack of a proper bus system, our group of eight hired a van to carry us up the coast to Monteria.   The driver dazzled us with his full set of driving skills...slam on the brakes, swerve left or right with shocking violence and pound the hell out of the gas pedal.   The mostly dirt roads kicked up all sorts of dust and we were covered in a fine powder by the end of that ride. Three Colombian girls rode along, too and one of them even dazzled us with her puking skills the entire ride.   The driver seemed to be over it as he would aggressively pull over everytime she stank up the van.  I sat in the back row and became painfully aware that this van's shock absorbers had long since been pounded into submission by what look like roads but are more just dirt and rock suggestions as to where one aims the vehicle. Yes, highways in this area of Colombia are actually dirt with some stretches of "pavement" thrown in.

Switching to another van in Monteria was painless enough and we invited two of the Colombian girls to share our ride since they were heading to Cartagena anyhow.  No good deed goes unpunished is such a true statement as they refused to sit in the front seat and delayed our departure.   If someone invites you into their van and you are getting a discounted price due to more travelers going, get in, sit down and shut the hell up.  This wait time was all a nearby police officer needed to shake down the driver in some sort of “safety check.”   The two showdowns  lasted 30 minutes and in the end we won and the driver won.  In fact we loudly applauded the Colombian girls as they finally took the front seats.  This driver wins the award of the two today as he was even more adept at making a 10 seat van maneuver like Nissan engineers never could have dreamed.

All in all 98 percent of the roads were bone jarringly bad, and a solid quarter of them were barely passible as we inched through craters several feet deep.   Forward movement meant constantly shifting into the oncoming "lane" to negotiate rough washed out dirt even as other cars came at us head on horns blaring.   Driving school here must issue a license with an endorsement for being a full on adrenaline junkie.

I am now thinking whichever travel genius invented the old phrase getting there is half the fun must have flown in air conditioned comfort from Capurgana.   As much as I love a good adventure 15 hours of being banged around boats and vans does test my patience, as it did all of ours actually.  True it is that there is no such thing as a free lunch since we paid the bill today for a fanstastic scenery filled week making our way to beautiful Cartagena.   Maybe I am being a bit too harsh in saying this was a once in a lifetime journey today.   If another remote corner of the world I have yet to explore presents itself, sign me up. The best things in life require some true effort and traveling is no different.

How I got here:

Unknown Named Hotel to Dock – walk – one minute
Capurgana to Turbo Fast Boat 55,000 Pesos ($29) – 2:30
Turbo to Monteria 35,000 Pesos  -  Van Service  ($18.50) 4:30
Monteria to Cartagena 40,000 Pesos ($21)  – Van Service 5:30
Driver dropped us off in front of Media Luna Hostel

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