When travelling for about 10 months, not everyday is bound to feel like vacation. This admittedly lengthy post details 30 hours that we can really only laugh about now – several weeks later. And warning, this post contains some PG13-rated content.
This post describes our overland / over water journey from Medellin, Colombia to Aguacate, Colombia. Medellin is a bustling metropolis in the middle of the country with a population of about 3 million whereas Aguacate is a cluster of homes in the Caribbean with a population of about 30. It’s unlikely that there are two more contrasting places in the whole country. Aguacate is where we would be spending 6 nights over Christmas. It is located just south of the “larger” Capurgana and Sapzurro (combined population 2 thousand), right below the border with Panama. We knew going in that the overland / over water journey would not be pleasant, but both we and our budget needed a break from airplanes. The trip would entail a bus ride to a town named Turbo where we would spend a night and catch a boat the next morning.
The morning that we departed from Medellin started well enough. We opted to take a taxi from our hotel to the bus station rather than take public transit – two tourists with large backpacks on a commuter train during rush hour can be quite an inconvenience (as we’d learned from past experiences). Besides, the taxi (we were told) would only cost us a few extra dollars. When we asked our hotel if they could call us a taxi, they pointed out the window to the large taxi stand right across the street. We were caught looking a little stunned, wondering how we didn’t notice it after walking by it for the past 3 days. By now though, we’re used to looking stupid. When we got into the taxi we were surprised to see a fare meter – it had been a while since we’d seen one of those. With no haggling over the price required we were on our way and, lo and behold, the fare was only a few more dollars than taking public transit.
Once at the bus station, we had a little trouble finding our bus. We swear there is a different Spanish word for “platform” in every South American country. One of the ticket agents eventually showed us the way, leading us through a quick security check, right to the door of the bus. As we waited for our 9:30am bus to depart, there was a steady stream of men coming on board trying to sell their snacks. This wasn’t unusual in South America, in fact it can be quite convenient if you’ve forgotten to pack something to eat (the bus ride was scheduled to last 8 hours). These men however were quite passionate about their snacks, describing them in great detail and indicating how they had a special price. This was new, everywhere else vendors boarded the bus rather quietly – maybe loud (somewhat obnoxious) vendors was a Colombia-thing. At 10am we still hadn’t left the bus station – we soon got the impression that the bus wouldn’t be leaving until a few more seats filled up. We pictured would-be passengers inside the terminal haggling over and getting a reduced-price last-minute ticket. We felt instantly ripped off (like looking stupid though, we were now also used to feeling ripped off). After another 20 minutes, a few more passengers climbed onto the bus and we were on our way.
Immediately after pulling out of the bus station we stopped to let one more person on the bus. We had instant flashbacks to buses in Bolivia where the driver would stop for passengers after leaving the station only to overload the bus and pocket the fare for himself. This individual that was let on, however, had a different agenda – he instantly launched into a long diatribe about healthy / natural living. We couldn’t figure out where this loud speech was going, so we quickly wrote him off as some travelling wack-job preacher of sorts and put in our headphones. After at least two songs on the iPod, the “preacher” pulls out some book and it turns out to be a bloody recipe book for natural foods! This guy had invested at least 10 minutes into this sale and, (somewhat) alarmingly, it worked. After selling his cook books to several passenger he (thankfully) jumped off the bus, miles from where we had originally picked him up.
Two hours or so later, the bus pulled into a dodgy roadside restaurant where everyone but us piled out for lunch. After this 40 minute pit stop (delay), the road got much windier and the pavement ended. Soon, the older woman directly behind us started to get sick (note that this was not the first time we’d seen people get sick on a bus). Fortunately, we were able to use the forced air from the vent above us to mask the smell of the vomit. Unfortunately, for some unknown reason, the woman failed to use the plastic bags that had been provided and her vomit ran under our seats onto our shoes and backpack. It took another five hours before two more seats became available so that we could move. Thank goodness the bus had air conditioning and our iPods were fully charged.
As we got closer to our destination (Turbo), our intercity long-haul bus morphed into an intracity transit bus. We started driving about 20km an hour to stop for anyone willing to pay about fifty cents to ride a few miles. The last leg of the journey, which should have taken only an hour, took double that.
Once we got into Turbo, the bus driver pointed us in the direction of Residencias Florida, the hostel that every guidebook and website we read recommended that foreigners stay. After only two blocks, we found the hostel located on the very noisy central plaza. Luckily, the hostel had a room available near the back which was relatively quite. Like the city itself, the hostel was no beauty – a shower curtain separated the toilet from the rest of the room. If this was the best accommodation in the city, we would hate to see the other places. The owner however was kind enough to reserve us a seat for the boat in the morning. When we asked what time we should be ready, he suggested that we meet in the reception area at 8:30am as the boat was leaving at 9am, mas o menos (more or less).
After some fast food and cheap beers on the square, we called it a night. The room, however, was so hot and the bed was so uncomfortable (we mean unbelievably uncomfortable, like a-hardwood-floor-might-be-softer uncomfortable) that we probably got only a few hours of sleep. At 8am, the owner of the hostel knocked on our door rather frantically, saying that we had to get going. This was all very confusing given the conversation we had had not more than 12 hours ago – apparently the boat would be leaving at 8:30 (in the end, much less than 9am!). So we threw our things together and jumped into a taxi with another guest. Again, more confusion as we understood that we could walk to the boat from the hostel. Eventually, the taxi dropped us off at a private home (not the public docks) and then drove away without any of us paying the fare (we figured the hostel took care of it).
Once inside this home, we found several other people waiting around and a speed boat tied to a private dock out back. We checked ourselves in with a friendly woman behind a table and then found some seats amongst the other passengers. Everyone was in a jovial mood, however, one passenger in particular was definitely the life of the party. He was in his mid-forties, a bit overweight, shirtless, and drinking Aguardiente (a Colombian liquor that taste a lot like Sambuca). He immediately took an interest in us foreigners (the only two of the group) and quickly offered us shots of his liquor (Ashley did one and Patrick stopped after three – hey, it wasn’t even 9am). Eventually the man with the liquor would offer us both cocaine to which we politely declined.
The boat ended up leaving at 9:30. Unsurprisingly, the rush/panic of the morning was for nothing. On the way out of Turbo, the speed boat was required to stop and provide its papers to the navy. Before stopping though, the captain told us that if the navy asked where we were going that we had to answer “Unguia” (a town in the opposite direction of our destination). Days later we would learn that our boat likely didn’t have the proper registration to go to Capurgana – the private home and private dock all eventually made sense. And of course the owner of the hostel in Turbo that booked our boat must have made a nice commission for booking us on an unregistered boat.
The first hour of the boat ride was fine – a little bumpy, but we were expecting that. The last hour, however, was, without exaggeration, torture. The captain was an absolute animal, failing to slow the throttle over the large swells. It was literally a full hour of being violently smashed up and down on our hard seats. Mid-way through the ride, Ashley pinched a muscle in her back which made the remainder of the ride even worse. Not only did we end up with sore backs, but we also had sore shoulders and arms from holding on so damn tight.
To top it all off, we ended up passing our stop. We had asked the people sitting behind us to tell the captain that we had to get out at Aguacate (one stop before Capurgana). They assured us that the boat always stops there and told us to relax… next time we talk to the driver directly. Thus, from Capurgana we had to backtrack in a smaller (but thankfully slower and less bumpy) boat to Aguacate for another 20 bucks.
When we eventually set our packs down at the Bahia Lodge in Aguacate, we were absolutely exhausted. Thankfully the lodge and the entire area was absolutely gorgeous – truly an unspoiled paradise. If we ever go again though, we will be sure to fly!