Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Our Pilgrimage To Buga, Colombia

Most people who visit Buga, Colombia go to see the famous Basilica del Señor de los Milagros. The city receives over 3 million pilgrims per year. Within a few blocks of the basilica, you arrive to a sea of vendors trying to sell all manner of religious paraphernalia - crosses, Jesus paintings, figurines, rosary beads, the list goes on.

Basilica del Señor de los Milagros

We visited Buga with a different sort of pilgrimage in mind.  When we arrived to Colombia almost 2 months prior, we had marked on our map in bold letters, "Beer!", for the town of Buga. We had read about The Holy Water Ale Cafe from fellow overlanders. They brew their own beer and serve it along with homemade bread and pizza. Let me repeat that - homemade beer, bread, and pizza.

Coming from Portland, Oregon (or Ann Arbor, Michigan for that matter) has put us at a severe disadvantage for being able to enjoy ordinary beer. We are, without a doubt, serious beer snobs. Latin America just doesn't do beer very well. If you want some watery, weird-tasting beer that's likely made with sugar and corn, then you're in luck. And don't tell me that I should try Club Colombia Roja.

We arrived to Buga in the afternoon, and parked pretty far out of town, just in case the parking situation in the center was tricky. We walked about a mile to reach the basilica, and around the corner, we found The Holy Water Ale Cafe. We were anxiously skeptical about the whole situation. We had built this up for 2 months and hundreds of miles. How could it possibly live up to our expectations?

This is me, saying, "yessssssssssssssss"

The Holy Water Ale Cafe did not disappoint! We were worried that the micro-brewed beer was going to put a dent in our wallet, but we were prepared to shell out the big bucks. As it turned out, each glass of beer was only ~$2 USD!!! Instead of waiting for dinner, we had our first few rounds in the afternoon, with plans to return for dinner. They didn't serve pizza during the day, so we shared a curry chicken sandwich with a side of baba ghanoush.  We buzzed and bloated ourselves with a few glasses of absolutely delicious IPA and a good red ale too.

Beer and sammie

So happy to be drinking a delicious IPA straight from the tap

We spent the next few hours trying to find a decent place to camp near the center of town. Other overlanders had suggested that we could park in a big dirt lot near the police station or at the large parking lot at the fire station. The policeman called his boss and gave us a thumbs up. Then, he walked back across the street and said no. We have no idea what happened in the intervening 10 seconds. There was no confusion with the fireman. He said no as if it was ridiculous to even ask.

With no other options, we decided to pay to park in a guarded and walled lot, right at the basilica. When we drove in, we asked if we could park overnight, and asked how much it would cost. The total for the entire stay was to be $8 USD - not bad.

We hung out in the truck for a couple of hours letting the beer and sammy settle in our stomachs. We even showered and spent some time online. As the sun set, we locked up the truck, and headed back to The Holy Water Ale Cafe. We had assumed that it was clear that we were "living" in our truck. We were surprised when we exited the fortressed lot, that one of the kids, who was presumably one of the guards, told us we could not sleep in our truck. In a panic, I said in my crappy Spanish, "we will return in a couple of hours, will you be open?" That got him off our back until we could figure out where we were going to park for the night.

This picture is for my dad. It's the view from the balcony of the brewery (during the day). Slightly different electrical codes in this part of the world, huh?

In our haste, we only
 bought one of the these to go.
How could we be so stupid!?
Unfortunately, this bit of information ruined our evening. We were completely worried about where we would park for the night. Over beer and pizza (delicious, btw) and a liter of IPA to go (why, oh why did we only get one?!), we concocted a few different stories that might enable us to sleep in the lot for the night. Scott's idea: "we're going out dancing later." Never mind that it was a weekday and we had no idea where we would've gone "dancing". More preposterous, is that we've never "gone out dancing" together in our lives! My idea: "We aren't sleeping. We will leave soon" - meaning we would sleep and leave "soon", as in, the morning. Both of these options were pretty lame.

Around 9 pm, we headed to the lot. After a short pause before the gate where we tried to get our story straight, we nonchalantly walked through the gate, past the sleeping guard dog (a yellow lab), and also past the guy lounging in the "guard's" office. We whispered while we were in the truck and never turned on a light. Did we actually just sneak back to the truck? We weren't sure. Maybe the guard saw us, but didn't want to make a fuss?

The next morning, we started the truck up and drove towards the gate. The 2 young guys manning the gate couldn't believe we had "snuck" back to our truck and slept in it. We mostly understood their body language (rather then their Spanish). They were dying with laughter. Something about "dormiendo" with tons of belly aching laughs. I guess we did in fact "sneak" back to our truck.

In retrospect, we are totally bummed that the parking/camping situation was so inhospitable in Buga. If we had been assured that we could sleep in our truck, we would've had much more fun. Regardless, The Holy Water Ale Cafe is a worthy pilgrimage for any beer lover.

Friday, November 15, 2013

Suesca to Salento... 200 Miles... 13 Hours...

Our early celebration of successfully skirting the western edge of Bogatá, with nary a traffic jam, probably jinxed us. Our celebration was mostly silent, but I know both of us were thinking the same thing, "hmm, that was easy." Bogatá is notorious for horrible traffic.

Our 200-mile, 13-hour route from Suesca to Armenia

We had planned on driving either 150 miles or 200 miles that day, depending on our progress. As we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, we couldn't stop saying "wow!" at the gorgeous scenery that appeared around every turn. At the 150-mile mark, it was around 1:30 pm. So, we agreed to keep going. This is where the jinxing comes in... the final 50 miles took us 7 hours! The drive went from, "wow, this is beautiful", to "OMG, I sure wish we weren't driving over this gorgeous pass in the rain, fog, and dark".

You know it's great scenery, when you can pop the camera out the window of a moving vehicle and capture this

We started driving at 7:30 am and finished at 9:30 pm

We can't really explain why it took 7 hours to drive those last 50 miles. We never saw an accident, nor a 1-way lane due to construction. The road was perfectly paved, but incredibly curvy. So curvy, that they were in the process of constructing bridges to straighten things out. The only thing we can blame it on is the over zealous trucks that would take up 2 lanes when driving around a tight corner. I guess when there are hundreds of hairpin turns, with hundreds of trucks (in both directions), things can get pretty backed up.

Serious feat of engineering to construct these bridges along the highway

The drive took so long, we almost ran out of fuel. We hadn't planned for all the idling, so we started turning the truck off at every stop. We didn't make it to our final destination, only to the first gas station, where we got some diesel and asked if we could sleep for the night. The next morning, we drove to Salento, where we were greeted by this gorgeous view from our camping spot, almost enough to make us forget what it took to get there...

The view from La Serrana campground in Salento, Columbia

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Rock Auto To The Rescue

By Scott

Before starting our trip to South America, I spent a couple months and a couple thousand dollars getting El Tigre ready for the journey. Most of that money was spent at RockAuto.com. Despite their barebones website, their prices, speed of delivery, and customer support is excellent (by the way, we are not sponsored by anyone).

They recently bailed me out in Colombia. I was attempting to modify my fan clutch to engage at a lower temperature. In the process, I ended up cutting through the housing. A local told me I might be able to find a new one in the seedy auto parts neighborhood in the giant and hectic city of Bogota, but that it would cost $200-300. Instead, I found the fan clutch I wanted from RockAuto for $100 with FedEx Priority International shipping for $85. I ordered on Sunday, the part shipped from the US on Monday, it cleared customs on Tuesday, and was delivered in Bogota on Wednesday!

That's pretty awesome. The one downside is that I ended up paying another $50 in Colombian import taxes to take delivery. These taxes would have been legitimate if I lived in Colombia, but since I'm passing through Colombia, and the fan clutch will leave with me, it should not have been subject to import taxes. Unfortunately, I didn't make RockAuto, FedEx, or Customs aware of that ahead of time.

Old clutch with epoxy and sealant. It probably would have worked. Luckily, we didn't have to put it to the test.

During this episode we parked at the Hostal Renacer in Villa de Leyva. The owner, Oscar, was extremely helpful in getting the part delivered to a friend and fellow hostal owner in Bogata. Oscar happened to be driving 3 hours to Bogata to visit his friend the day after our part was delivered!!!! Oscar picked up the part and hand-delivered it to us in Villa de Leyva - unheard of!

Camping at Hostal Renacer was peaceful and quite nice

For other overlanders, it is possible to avoid paying import taxes for goods that are leaving the country with you. The key is to contact Customs in advance. From what I've read, all countries in South America have a process for Short Term Temporay Importation of goods that will subsequently be exported. It's really no different than how your vehicle and personal effects are handled when driving across borders, or how your luggage is treated when flying into a country. If you aren't reselling the items, or giving them to locals as gifts, you should not be taxed.

In Colombia, in order to be classified as a temporary import, the package needs to be delivered to a specific warehouse designated by Colombian Customs.  I'm sure that would have slowed down the delivery process, but it would have saved me $50. That's a pretty cheap lesson that could pay off if I screw up again and have to ship something really expensive, but surely that won't happen, right?

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Colombia - We've Never Meet So Many Overlanders In One Country!

After our night with the super-friendly, gun-toting watchman in San Martin, we drove a slow, windy road south to arrive at the top of Chicamocha Canyon (pictured below). It was a stunning landscape so we decided to pay $5 to park overnight in the National Park lot, located conveniently next to the police station. Later, we learned that we could've parked for free just up the road - dang.

Chicamocha Canyon - 6500 feet deep

The next morning, we headed to the quaint colonial highland town of Barichara. We had read a recent account of someone who camped in Barichara overlooking the canyon, but didn't know exactly where it was. While walking along the edge of town, we spotted our not-so-illusive camping spot. There were 2 other campers already parked for the night - one couple was German and the other Swiss. It was a great place to camp, so we stayed a couple of days and explored the area.

Germans, Swiss, and Americans - lined up along the canyon edge in Barichara
Morning coffee and morning allergies
Cathedral de Barichara

Since we've arrived in Colombia, we have met more overlanders than in the past 2 years combined. It may be that we are now on the more traditional overlander trail, as opposed to the obscure surf beaches we visited in Central America. Our next significant stop took us to Villa de Leyva, where again, we met 6 more couples (4 German, 1 South African, and 1 American) doing the overlanding thing.

El Tigre felt awfully small next to this 30-year old German firetruck. The tires weigh 330 lbs each (without the rim)!!!!!!

The American couple, Nate and Sarah from The Long Way South, seemed to share our obsession with pizza, so we ended up going out for pizza 2 different times with them. We never pass up an excuse to get pizza.

It's no wonder we met so many overlanders in Villa de Leyva. We all stayed at a place called Hostal Renacer. Despite not having the best parking situation, overlanders flock here the world over. The facilities are clean and functional, there is a free breakfast every 5 days, and a 20% discount for stays longer than 6 days. Scott decided to take the opportunity to do some work on the truck. Things didn't go according to plan, but lucky for us, we were parked somewhere comfortable to wait out the unplanned mishap. When we arrived, we told them we would stay 1-2 days, but ended up staying 16. Stay tuned for the next blog post by Scott...

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Riot Gear and Nice Colombianos

Two day drive from Minca to San Gil
After we stretched our legs and lungs in Minca, we were ready for the 2-day drive through the northeast corner of Colombia. We quickly gained an appreciation for how big Colombia is compared to the itty-bitty Central American countries to which we had become accustomed. Welcome to South America!

We had planned to stop at a town called Aguachica because it was about halfway to our destination of San Gil. We drove all day (which was only about 200 miles), and as the sun was thinking about setting, we pulled into a gas station and asked if we could park for the night. The attendant replied (in Spanish), "yes, you can park for the night, but you shouldn't". He suggested there were some "bad things" going on at the moment that made Aguachica less-than safe. He told us to drive another hour and we would find a safer situation. As we drove out of town, we saw police hanging out along the highway with full-body riot gear set up beside them.

It all started to make sense... We had read about fellow travelers who had been delayed due to the agricultural strikes in the region. We later read that farmers, truckers and health workers (about 200,000) were protesting the government and setting up roadblocks. They wanted the government to set minimum prices for their products and offer discounts on the price of fertilizers, seeds, and diesel. In addition, they were demanding greater access to land ownership and wanted better public services in rural areas. In retrospect, I can't imagine these people would've wanted anything to do with the gringos in El Tigre...

Protesters. Picture courtesy of argentinaindependent.com

Another little tidbit about the drive: since we were so close to the Venezuelan border, the price of gas (diesel) dropped from around $4.30/gal to $3.70/gal. Love that smuggled Venezuelan diesel!

We drove another hour to San Martin and found a hotel/restaurant/gas station where we camped for the night. We arrived to the parking area and asked if we could park alongside the dozens of other trucks. The restaurant employees were a little confused and told us to go to the attached hotel. Finally, they started to understand that we had all we needed in the truck and just wanted to park for the night. The owner and night watchman came bounding out of the darkness with a pistol-grip shotgun, a huge grin, and a big handshake. He was incredibly kind and friendly and guided us to a spot in the back corner of the lot - all for free. In the morning, we made sure to buy breakfast at the restaurant.

Colombianos have been nothing but kind and welcoming to us. We are echoing the chorus of other travelers who have declared that Colombia has some of the friendliest people they have met.