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Mompox to Bucaramanga, COL


July 2nd

Sunday morning we were up and at ‘em and out of our hotel and parking spot in Valledupar by 8ish. Our destination today was Mompox, a little city that used to be quite a going concern that is in the middle of the Rio Magdalena Valley right on the river. It is touted as the “unCartagena” for its colonial feel without the colour, hustle and bustle. Simon Bolivar spent time here as well (many towns keep track of how many days he actually did!) and these towns all want to announce this privilege with statues and monuments showing his time in their fair city.

The most direct route here is not a simple paved road – there is one route that you can take that is paved but it goes way out north and past the city westward then south and back east adding at least 100km to your drive. We opted for the route with dirt roads (because we can!) and as it’s not rained heavily in a little while, we hoped to encounter mostly dry conditions. The lowlands bring with it much agriculture and there were many farmers’ fields enroute.

We also were now driving on the other side of the Sierra Nevadas.

The route took us from Valledupar to Bosconia and then south to Cuarto Vientos and then we headed westward on pavement for about 10 clicks before hitting the dirt road which lasted about 60 kms.

Note: As mentioned in the previous post, fuel is brought in from neighbouring Venezuela and is substantially cheaper then Colombian gas and so before making the turn at Cuarto Vientos, there were a few roadside “stalls” selling five gallon lots of gas. We decided to top up and they poured one lot in. The weird thing was the gas gauge didn’t budge! They claimed it was due to lack of pressure when pouring it in but when Doug fills our tank from jerry cans we don’t have this happen. So we were at first concerned that they didn’t give us any gas and ripped us off but Doug watched them put it in so…. Then we thought maybe they gave us watered down gas or worse, diesel! We drove about 5km and turned around and Doug spoke to them, smelled the gas cans and was confident we got gas and we chalked it up to experience and we’ll see what happens when we fill up next time.

This road was rutted and pot holed but we’ve been on much worse; our one concern was that there was a way across the river to get to Mompox as just showed the route crossing the river but not how: would it be a ferry or a bridge – we didn’t know! The Garmin had us going a less direct route which appeared to have a bridge but was somewhat longer. We did stop a couple drivers and pedestrians to ensure we would be able to get across and learned that there were small ferries and if we really wanted a bridge, we could travel further down the river and there was a bridge at Gualan (the Garmin route). We opted to check out the ferry and carried on.

The ferry was similar to the one barge-like one we had taken with much trepidation back in Guatemala and it was only a five minute crossing. This barge did not have its own motor however and the “captain” rode alongside it on a small boat with an outboard motor steering us along. There was also a man onboard with a long pole helping to push off and land. Unfortunately, the captain missed the landing spot and we had to get unstuck from the bank and try again. Not a big deal, just a little excitement.



Then it was about 12 kms of mostly pavement (albeit at times potholed) into the village. We had a spot in mind; a little hotel that allowed campers in the lot but it turned out that they felt their power supply would not run our AC (and it was SUPER hot AND humid here on the river) so we opted to take a room instead.

After checking in, we went for a walk to explore the town and see its sights, which included a cemetery, colonial buildings, the riverfront and of course, churches and squares.   It’s a cute little village with some charm but definitely no Cartagena. It is noted for its rocking chairs in the squares that apparently come out at night and people sit and chat during the evening out on the streets.

The big attraction here is the river itself and they offer a late afternoon sunset cruise down the river for only 25,000 COP which is about $8USD so we decided to take it. You are supposed to see many birds, giant iguanas and the like. Not many people were aboard and we managed to snag some rocking chairs up front for the tour. The ride was not super exciting but very chill (bonus: you could purchase cerveza!) and we did see a few different birds but nothing new and no iguanas. At the turn around point, a small village, the tradition is guests are supposed to put small money in a plastic bottle, and a number of young boys from the village jump into the river and you throw the bottles to them as they swim towards the boat. That was great fun to watch and participate in.

a heron on the shore and a cormorant in a tree

On the way back, the sun set and you could see the lights of Mompox (photo at the top). We returned to the hotel, made dinner, had showers and were in for the night.

Monday morning, after speaking to a number of people about our route to Bucaramanga (where the brake rotor is being delivered) we opted to take the dirt road along the river and cross over the aforementioned bridge and then hit pavement once again the rest of the way. Along this way, we did hit two huge puddles where the river had flooded but made it across with no difficulty and then we aired up on the pavement and hit the “freeway” shortly after the town of El Banco.

Later approaching one of the tolls on the main highway, we saw two young backpackers on the side of the road and picked them up. Alberto is from Uruguay and he’s travelling with his buddy, Marcos, from Argentina and they were heading to Floridablanca which is just after Bucaramanga so they came along for the ride.

Before reaching the final toll on the road, we were approaching “E” on the gas tank and decided to fill up and see how the gas gauge reacted. It took what we expected and we heaved a sigh of relief.

Then began the hilly uphill drive into Bucaramanga with many twists and turns (which means lots of slow trucks) and it began to rain. By the time we reached Floridablanca, it was raining hard and we couldn’t find parking at the large supermarket we wanted to go to; we dropped off Marcos and Alberto and carried on up another hill to a camping spot. This was a grassy field at a paragliding place that offers power, water, bathrooms and internet at the main building and we settled in for the night. We are up over 1100m/3000′  now so it’s cool enough at night that we don’t run the AC.

Views of Bucaramanga from our camping spot:

Note: we are NOW the furthest south we’ve been on this trip. In Panama, at Playa Venao we were the furthest south in Central America but coming into Colombia, the road took us north once again. Here in Floridablanca (outside Bucaramanga), we are just a little further south the Playa Venao.

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We stayed here until Saturday. We hung around the site Monday thru Wednesday, doing repairs and housekeeping stuff; the hose for the fresh water tank intake and cracked and we could not fill the tank completely without it leaking; we had a six inch tear in the screen on the inside door, some caulking needed redoing and general cleaning. Thursday, we took a bus into Floridablanca to the large shopping malls; there are actually four good sized ones all in one area. The main errand of the day was Fran’s cell phone; a few days ago she still had reception and could use data but was unable to make any calls; two days ago it lost that ability as well even though we knew there was money in the account.

At the Tigo client service centre, we learned that when we purchased the sim card the number became active but they never told us we had to “register” the phone nor would we have known how to do this, so as consequence, the phone service was eventually blocked. So the woman said it would take about 48 hours to “unblock” it and then we’d have to return to “register” it. Apparently it is a law in Colombia that all cell phones must be registered – so that begs the question, why wasn’t this done in Cartagena when we purchased the sim? Aaaaah Latin America!

We wandered around the four malls walking to get steps in the coolness, had some lunch and then began the search once again for a plantar fasciitis brace for Doug as his foot it not getting any better. We had looked in a few drugstores over the past month but found nothing; one did tell us that we needed a medical supply store for such things, but who knows how to find those!? We went to a large drugstore that seemed to have some medical devices and a woman in there gave us the name of a medical supply store by a hospital and we caught a cab and went over there. They had one!

We walked back to the mall to catch the bus back but after 30 minutes of waiting it never showed up so we caught a cab as it had just begun raining.

After dark, a Sprinter campervan arrived with a young couple from Germany. Martin and Elena have been in South America for six months and have about three weeks left; they bought their rig upon arriving in Uruguay and have a buyer for it in Ecuador when they’re done. We enjoyed some chatting with them and they left the next morning.

All this week we’ve been keeping an eye on the shipping of our brake rotor; it left Fort Worth on Monday afternoon but by Wednesday night appeared to still be in Memphis at the FedEx centre – WTH? Finally, on Thursday it showed as being in Bogota and being delivered to Bucaramanga! So Friday we decided we’d head into the centre of Bucaramanga and check it out as well as go to the mechanic’s shop to confirm that they would receive it that afternoon and make an appointment to come in Saturday morning to have it and brake pads installed. They had received notification that it was coming that day and how much the duty would be; we paid them for the duty so they would not be out of pocket and got an appointment for 7:30 next day.

We have also been looking for some rubber weather stripping with an adhesive on one side and spent the a good hour going from hardware store to hardware store trying to find it. Each place would send us somewhere else until finally, an air conditioning place sent us to one that sent us to a totally different type store that actually had the size we wanted but not adhesive, so we bought it, then some rubber glue and another thing off the to do list.

This city is pretty modern by Latin American standards and has little of its historical glory days remaining. We saw an old church that looks like it was not being used but other than that, not much in the way of attractions.

It was Fran’s birthday so we decided we’d go out for lunch. We’d been eating so well the past few weeks we both wanted to be “bad” so we succumbed and actually went to McDonald’s and tried out some of their “premium” burgers. As we are in a part of Colombia that offers paragliding Fran decided that to celebrate her 58th, instead of gifts, she’d like to do a tandem when we get to the national park on our way to our next destination. We’ve both paraglided before and Doug actually took the course in Salt Lake City but the scenery will be much more spectacular and we’ll be much higher up.

When we returned on the bus from Bucaramanga (it showed up this time!) a land rover was parked in the camping area with us. Ruedi and Elvira are from Switzerland and have been travelling south like us for a year with a year to go. We had happy hour with them and it turns out we were heading to the same place tomorrow (after our garage appointment) we we’ll see them again.

Saturday was a successful day!!! Yipee!

Not only was the rotor there, it was the correct one and they were able to install it with the brake pads and we actually bought an extra set of the latter for a future time. We were on the road by tenish and then Fran needed to hit the Tigo store to “register” her phone and we needed groceries. We made the mistake of trying to do both of these things downtown and it was a zoo! Parking for a vehicle our size seemed impossible as most lots were underground so Doug found a spot on the street about a block from the Tigo store here in el centro which was only two blocks from a grocery store.

Fran hopped out and after twenty five minutes or so of back and forth her Spanish and their broken English and lots of waiting, her phone was good to go. Since there was no parking at the grocery store two blocks further down the street, Doug stayed parked where he was and she walked down to get the shopping done. What a chaotic experience; carts were scarce, aisles were super narrow and line ups were long so what should have taken 15 minutes took almost triple that time.

She walked down the street a bit towards Doug, put the bags down and called him; he’d been forced to move and now had to find his way back to that street in the crawling traffic. Then we got out of Dodge as fast as the traffic would allow and went south again past where we’d spent the next several days.