After the dent two transmissions put into our budget we are looking to be as economical as possible while on the road. One of the biggest ways to minimize expenses is to buy food at local markets or grocery stores and cook for yourself. Even though food is relatively cheap in Colombia it is still cheaper to cook for yourself. Breakfasts at a restaurant run about 6.000 pesos ($3USD) for a good sized meal and dinners are about 10.000 pesos ($5USD) for a really good traditional meal where the locals eat. You can spend more than this at some of the fancier establishments. I arrived to Bogota late last night and decided to get food delivered. The total cost was 11.800 pesos for grilled chicken in a mushroom sauce, arepa, and some baked potatoes, delivered. The portion was large enough to fill me up before getting to the arepa.
Another great way to save money is to camp out as much as possible. Lodging so far has been fairly reasonable with camping being free. The hostel I am at tonight is 20.000 pesos/night ($10usd) in a dorm room. The cheapest I have paid for a room is 17.000 pesos for a private room. Most places seem to stay in the range of 17.000-20.000. Paul, Helen, and I have been alternating between hostels and camping to save some money but still stay showered and responsive to emails. We mostly stay at gas stations or truck park type places. A lot of these places have 24/7 bathroom and shower access and most are staffed by a full time attendant who provides a small amount of security or at the very least acts as a deterrent.
The toll roads are killing us. You can easily spend over $100USD getting from Cartagena to Bogota and there is little you can do to get out of the tolls. Not only are the tolls expensive, they are a bit difficult in a RHD vehicle with no passenger. Pull up to the toll, put the truck in neutral, e-brake up, undo seat belt, lean over and roll down manual passenger window, hand out money, wait for receipt and change and reverse the process to take off again. The toll workers so far have all been surprised and amused at the right hand drive and always make comments about it, sometimes calling over the other workers to take a look. I always take this opportunity to ask if they will let me through the tolls for free but so far, no one has. I will keep trying! They say that I need to keep the receipt in case I get pulled over because the police ask for it and there is a big fine if you don’t have it. At this point we have spent more on tolls than lodging in Colombia and almost as much as we have spent on fuel. Diesel is roughly $3.75/gal here (7.500 pesos/gal).
To avoid some tolls and have some fun we decided to venture out into some dirt tracks that were shown on our map. We had little idea if they were actual roads or not so we asked around to a couple of locals. I have learned to never trust a single person but group wisdom is usually correct. In Panama everyone wanted to help and no one wanted to let you down so they would give an answer even if they had no idea. My strategy for finding my way now is to get directions, drive for about 3 minutes, and stop and ask again. Ill keep doing this until I feel like everyone’s story matches or I reach my destination. It stinks to drive for 20 minutes only to be told to turn around the way you came because the first directions were wrong. We used this strategy to find the road from Puerto Triunfo to La Dorada. We would not have found it otherwise. We made our way into a tiny village, through the village, and at the very end, there was what appeared to be a wide walking path that was actually the road. There was no where to go but down the path and a group of elderly men assured us that it was the way so off we went. It turned out to be a fantastic ride through some farmlands and some very scenic hills. We spent several hours on the road and the trucks definitely got a workout.
We encountered lots of farm animals on the way. The cows didn’t mind us one bit and seemed pretty curious about what we were doing there. They didn’t budge an inch and we had to weave our way around a bull taking a nap in the middle of the road and the rest of the herd, munching grass on the sides. We also encountered some horses that had no concept of sharing the road with other traffic. They just wanted to trot along in front of our trucks and refused to pull over.
The roads were great. I am guessing that the road is maintained by the farmers and I use the word “maintained” lightly. This road required something with ground clearance to traverse. 4wd was probably not necessary but the height was.
Arch of trees
The road opened up to run along a river for a little bit. This is where we met one of two cars we passed on the road all day. This one was a pretty new Toyota Hilux filled with farm workers who were really excited to see our trucks. Thumbs up were exchanged and they were on their way. The other vehicle was an older Jeep of some sort. It had a YJ style front end but had a long wheelbase. I’m not a Jeep person but I have seen a lot of these in Colombia and no where else. It could very well be a knockoff made by some Chinese company.
We see these Daihatsus everywhere. These and super old Nissan Patrols are everywhere. I don’t want to say they are the most common but they certainly seem plentiful. Maybe it is just because I notice every single one we pass. Very cool rigs.
We made it about half way down our dirt track before we landed in a small town called San Miguel. This town obviously sees VERY little traffic. Everyone came outside when we drove through and quickly surrounded us when we stopped to ask directions from a local in the road. On our way into town we passed two policemen standing watch near the road. After 5 minutes or so of talking with the locals we hear a dirt bike coming up pretty quickly. It turns out to be the police who wanted to shake our hands, look at the trucks, and help us out with anything we needed. Another 5 minutes of talking and they had us follow them the remaining 300 meters to a ferry that would take us across the river. We were certainly not expecting this. While waiting for the ferry we continued to talk with all the locals and the kids were having a blast playing around the trucks. The ferry was actually a legit ferry and not a cobbled together, floating mass of wood, barrels, and other scrap materials. The river current was very strong and the ferry had a clever propulsion method to help it across. There was a cable strung from one side of the river to the other and the ferry was hooked to it on a roller. Under the ferry was a rudder that was turned from one side to the other, depending on which was it needed to cross. Everything was powered by just the flow of the water underneath the boat. The ferry cost us 4.000 pesos ($2USD) for each vehicle. This is about half the cost of a single toll on the main road to Bogota so we were ok with paying it, especially since it went into the hands of a resident of a small village and not into a big government pot of funds.
The police and military in Colombia are insanely friendly. A large part of this is due to a recent push to get the police and military on the same side as the people. The strategy worked well for the drug cartels, so it should work with the police. I think they are trained to give thumbs up as unique or obviously foreign vehicles drive by. The first thing they do when approaching you is to shake your hand.
The scenery on these dirt roads was pretty impressive and it really felt like we were in an area that is not seen by too many travelers. I like to get off of the gringo trail as much as possible.
We maintained a good speed down the roads. Both of our trucks have a fair amount of body roll but they handled great on these roads at speed. We were going well over any reasonable speed for this type of terrain. Definitely lifted tires over bumps a few times. The trucks are now absolutely filthy and neither of us having working windscreen washer fluid sprayer things. Mine was destroyed by a quick oil change place (why they had to move the washer bottle is beyond me). For the most part there were enough puddles that the wipers were pretty much on constantly.
Highway to Bogota
We camped at this truck stop/hospedaje place for a night and awoke to a crowd of people gathered around the trucks. This is a pretty common sight here in Colombia. People are really interested in the trucks and very friendly. We talked for a while and when it was apparent that we were leaving everyone rushed off to get their cameras. We took a bunch of photos with everyone at the hospedaje, shook hands, and departed back towards Espinal.
We were warned by many people that Espinal was a very dangerous place and that we were almost certain to be robbed of our wallets and cell phones and we should never go with less than 3 people in our group. The trouble was that the only ATM for miles and miles was in Espinal. We decided to check it out. We had driven through the night before and it didn’t really seem that bad. We found the only ATM in town without much incident and after parking, I took everything out of my pockets except for my debit card, just in case. Helen and I walked the 200meters to the machine while Paul stayed behind to guard the trucks. We retrieved our money without incident but on our way out of the bank we could see Paul surrounded by people. We got a little nervous and as we got closer we realized that the three old men and the crowd behind them were probably not robbing him. Again, we spent 10 minutes or so talking with what seemed like everyone from the town. A very nice gentleman named Carlos invited us to his place to stay if we were ever back in his town and another fellow gave us his phone numbers and address and told us to call if we need anything while in Colombia. As usual, we had nothing but great experiences.
A lot of vehicles here are propane powered. I mentioned this in another post. I saw a vehicle yesterday that for one, I didn’t expect to see at all in Colombia (and now I have seen two!) and second, i did not expect for it to be propane powered. You can see the propane tank under the truck held up by the blue straps.