How many people can claim to have driven 15 and a half hours straight – on Colombian roads of terror – have killed a chicken and arrived at their destination in one piece and sound of mind? I for one have chalked this experience up as an adventure in survival driving.
The journey from Bogota to Mompós and vice-versa is something I have penned in detail over the months and years and is something that is getting neither easier nor shorter despite significant improvements in the department of Cesar.
So, a few days ago, I decided it was time to take in a different route to stem my absolute boredom and distress at having to descend the winding narrow path that leads out of Bogota, through Villeta and past Guaduas and Honda. Yes, it’s beautiful once you are out of the cloud that inevitably forms here in the early hours – I leave between 3 and 4am – and once you get within reach of the Magdalena River valley, it is quite breathtaking.
This route has been nothing short of a death trap over the years and is a ridiculous excuse for a highway placed on such fragile and unstable terrain. There has to be a better way than this 3 plus hour danger road. I have cycled the death road on numerous occasions in Bolivia and for those thrill seekers looking to shear their nerves a little more, just try driving here in Colombia.
So, anyway, this time I would take the road that backpackers traditionally take to get to adrenalin-fuelled destinations such as San Gil and Bucaramanga. This took me out through northern Bogota passing Zipaquira and then on to Velez. If you did not know or were not aware, this is the home of bocadillo. Bocadillo veleño as it is known here in this corner of Santander is an extremely sweet reduction of ripe guava with sugar which is then molded into squares to consume by itself, with various dairy products or really, however you see fit. I digress, should you wind down your window to ask directions, just as I did, you will note that both Velez and Barbosa reek of burnt guava jelly.
But, I am well off point. I am enjoying the drive, I am not stressed, and I am not worried for the next 18-wheeler to come screeching wide around a blind corner such on the other highway. In fact, I can see everything.
Even the chicken.
But it did not stop. And I flattened it.
And kept going.
In fact, I floored my car through the uplands of this region of Santander.
No one was in pursuit.
The road wound down and the scenery while spectacular was shrouded in damp. I headed on to Cimitarra, but it was never going to be as simple as I had imagined. I don’t know why I had this sense of security, after all, this is driving in Colombia and this is still a relatively alive conflict zone. The road narrowed, became one lane, unpaved and then sludge. My weak 4×4 could make it but I doubt anything else less powerful would have been successful.
Signposts alerted me to work on the road. There was plenty, and it is coming along well. At some point in the next couple of years barring natural disasters this stretch linking east and west Santander could be ready.
Small towns were passed and I thought about all I had read regarding guerrilla incursions in the area, and I know for a fact they still take place. It made me think of Mompós and the difficulty we have in reaching our town. All of these towns through which I now passed in Santander are far more within communication with the outside world but are as equally forgotten…does that make their situation worse?
People stare at me. Obviously I am an alien creature in these parts. Perhaps it is because I have chicken entrails or worse a chicken’s head clinging to my front bumper or the motor grill.
A horse ambles untroubled along the road.
A couple of women sit on the berm and chat.
There is no other traffic and I bump along feeling the shocks in the car creak and bitch at every jolt. Of course it’s going to have to go into the shop soon. Cimitarra proves to be far further than I had imagined. Consulting the map, directly to my right is a stretch of hills and mountains referred to as the Cordillera de los Cobardes. It is from here that the newly formed ELN guerrilla group descended to Simacota and took the town in 1964 to announce their arrival in the armed conflict in the country. Obviously I relate their actions to the name of this eastern ridge of the mountains here, but of course, it has more significance in the struggle for independence that took place in Socorro.
I cannot help thinking of the populations here. At the mercy of earthquakes, incredibly fertile land, not all that far from the emerald mines in Boyacá and supposedly rich in so many highly coveted minerals. For certain illegal mining and the transshipment of drugs come through here at some point or another. So close and yet so distant from civilization.
Without a signpost in sight I managed to hit the highway at the right point above Puerto Berrio. While it was an adventure, while I enjoyed this variation in scenery and while I will make the journey again this way, it will not be on the route back to Bogota, that much mud and that much construction taking place will only be an impediment to the smoothness of the voyage. I will have to come through Honda on the return journey.
But for now I am content to have seen more of this country Colombia which I call home.