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Notes from the home of the hitchhiker

about me photo

Hi, I'm Paluch

I started to hitch many years ago when I was still a kid. After a while I'd seen most of Europe and it started to feel like it was never going to be enough. So... I decided to hitch around the world! After crossing the Atlantic, hitching all the way to Antarctica and then up north to Alaska, sailing the mighty Pacific and visiting Australia and New Zealand, now it's time for the last continent - Asia!

Roadside Letters is more like a book than a blog, a book being written on the road and published chapter by chapter. I need time to enclose each text in some frames, so when you read about one place I'm already somewhere else. Sometimes there is also lack of inspiration, no time or simply I run out of savings so my head is somewhere else. Therefore you can't really follow me in real time, but I hope that won't stop you from checking out what's new on the roadside every now and then.

'You are welcome to come with us!', I read a message on my phone. I didn't even get to Cartagena yet and it already looked like I had a ride. There's probably no better message to see in the morning when you're looking for a boat! Including a link to the video of my first boat hitchhiking proved to be a good idea. Sundy, who answered me so quickly, mentioned that her boyfriend Paul, who was also the captain of their boat, was following Loïck's blog. So they kind of knew me already. Sweet!

Guys wanted to lift their boat in Cartagena to paint it and I decided to use this time to visit Tyrona National Park. The entrance fee was not cheap and I was quite broke, so my plan was to sneak in to the park by night, especially that one person at the campsite explained me where the second, less controlled entrance was and what's more important he passed me a wristband that every visitor received. Its colour changed every day, but there was a campground at the park and some people stayed longer so obviously guests had bands in different colours.

I started hitching in the afternoon and I was quickly picked up by a mid-age lady. She was going to visit her friend who happened to live next to a path which was the second park entrance. I was invited for a drink and when the owner of the house heard about my plan, he offered me a hammock in his garden so I could grab a nap before my night adventure. I was told that there was no proper ticket booth at this entrance, during the day park rangers were just patrolling the area on horses. I gave my sincere thanks to the guy before I hit the hammock and set my alarm for quarter to three.

When I woke up all I could hear was the noise of the night jungle which was always bringing me a bit of fear. I switched my head light on and started to follow a path winding up the hill. I froze many times on the way seeing a snake or other beast, which only a second later always turned out to be a shadow of a grass or branch in a dim light of my old torch. With all the adrenaline my imagination was like on steroids.

Around 6 a.m. it started to dawn and I finally could see a bit more than a metre or two of the path in front of me. Ten minutes later I arrived at the ruins of an ancient Indian village with stone structures. From there the path led through a kind of massive stone steps and it was hard to tell if they were natural or man-made. The green surrounding me was so intense, the chirping of birds and the trickling of streams under the stones were so soothing. There was no more adrenaline, there was awe.

I went down to the campground where people were preparing their breakfasts and then marched to a beach in a cove, dotted with big bright boulders. I found one secluded, with trees perfectly shaped for my hammock, so I had a nap after which I continued walking towards the main entrance and then the main road. I got a ride back to Palomino in a minute.

Back at my campsite I started to exchange emails with Sundy, I needed to know more about the deal. Boat hitchhikers usually covered their food expenses and I wanted to know how much they expected. She said it was fifteen euros a day which was pretty much the same when I was crossing the Atlantic. On top of that there was a local tax in San Blas that we would share, but it wasn't much. I could survive for less on shore in Colombia, but only when accommodation wasn't considered. I was okay with the price, but because I was so broke I had to know how many days they wanted to stay in San Blas islands, before getting to a port of entry with immigration office.

Sundy told me there was one in Porvenir still in San Blas and while it was on an island it was just a stone throw from the mainland town of Carti. Supposedly the road connecting Carti with Panamericana was recently paved. I could get my stamp in Porvenir, be dropped off in Carti and hitch from there to Panama City. Everything seemed sorted, I was ready to go, but then I received another email. I didn't like it.

According to some other sailors and reports on Noonsite, Panama introduced a mariners' visa for everyone arriving on sailboats, which meant all crew or passengers. Hundred and five dollars? Are you insane? Fuck, I couldn't afford it. What about all the backpackers taking trips on sailboats to Panama? I checked a website of one company organising such tours. It was stating that every passenger had to pay it, unless they flied out of Panama in seventy two hours. Ah, that was some trail. I searched the internet for more info but couldn't find much. I needed to get to Cartagena quickly, it was time to meet Paul and Sundy in person anyways. The website for my host's campsite was ready so I packed my stuff, said goodbye to everyone and hit the road the next day.

Hitchhiking was very easy, it seemed that northern, coastal part of Colombia was the easiest for finding a lift. I needed one ride back to Santa Marta and two to Cartagena. I was dropped off in the afternoon at the airport where I hid straight away. The city felt so much more sticky humid, the air conditioned terminal was a nice relief. I stayed that night at a bus station to save some money and in the morning moved to the cheapest hostel I could find.

The old town was absolutely beautiful, with colourful colonial architecture and absolutely packed with tourists. I found one company bringing backpackers to Panama so I went to find out more about the seventy two hours thing. They confirmed that such transit visa existed, was free and all I had to do was to have an onward ticket within that time. I already knew how to get a free onward ticket for most countries in Americas with Copa Airlines. With them it was possible to hold a reservation for forty eight hours and pay later, such reservation looked like a proper ticket with confirmation number, names and dates which could be printed. If there was no payment it was automatically cancelled. Once in Panama I could hitch to Costa Rica. It looked like I was sorted, now I wanted to meet my future captain and his girlfriend.

We met at Club Nautico where their boat, called Arbutus, was on anchor. She was thirty six feet long aluminium sloop built in France with retractable keel and rudder which allowed the boat to sail in really shallow waters or even land on a beach. Because of that feature Arbutus had a central cockpit and the dining and living area was at the stern with six windows pretty much around. I'd never seen a boat like that.

In real life Sundy, who was a Japanese Canadian from Vancouver, seemed even more chilled out and funny that I imagined by reading her emails. My first impression of Paul, a tall short-haired guy, was that he was more quiet and distant, but in just a few hours I realised I was wrong. My third hitched boat and my third captain were again French. Funny, I had no idea why, but somehow I was connecting very well with Frenchies. I spent one more night at the hostel and moved to Arbutus. The weather forecast was good so we raised the anchor the day after.

It was a fine morning with light clouds on the sky. We motored down the Bay of Cartagena for a while watching the skyscrapers of Boca Grande, the modern and posh part of the city, on our starboard side. Once we passed Boca Chica, the southern strait connecting the bay with the Caribbean Sea, we set the sails, switched the engine off and enjoyed the sounds of splash and breeze. We sailed for a few hours and in the afternoon we dropped the anchor on the leeward side of the Roasario Islands. The idea was to wait here for a couple of more hours to avoid arriving in San Blas by night. The archipelago wasn't perfectly charted and the coral reefs were a real threat. After late dinner we were ready to hoist the sails again.

We were sailing downwind with a nice speed all night. The morning welcomed us with a dark steel sky and it looked like it could get rough. Luckily it didn't.
 'We got a fish!', suddenly I heard an excited voice of Sundy. 'Help me out!' We were rolling the line in and in and finally saw it, pretty big tuna. It was fighting for its life trying to dive deeper but we were stronger. Ten minutes later all was left of this creature was two yummy looking fillets. One species eats another, that's the prosaic aspect of life since its beginning on this planet.

Mural in Cartagena Colombia
Mural in Cartagena
Once my night watch was over I fell asleep quickly in my bunk and when I woke up a few hours later I literally ran to the cockpit. The view of the archipelago was mind-blowing! Islands, islands, islands. There were around three hundred and sixty of them in San Blas and we could admire many of them on our port side. Some bigger, all covered with mangroves. Others tiny with just a few coconut palm trees and a beach surrounding them, so small you could walk around it in a minute or less. Just like in cartoons. And the corals, I could see them very well through the clear emerald water. Mind blown!

I studied geography in university, but somehow I hadn't heard the name San Blas until recently. Even after discovering its existence, I imagined typical Caribbean islands with cities and harbours, hotels and cars. San Blas had nothing of that. It felt more like arriving at remote atolls of the Pacific. Some islands had a few rustic cabins to rent, a few sheds covered with palm leaves, maybe occasional bar or shop. There were probably two towns in the entire archipelago, where locals lived somewhat more modern lifestyle. The rest didn't change much for centuries.

The islands were inhabited by the indigenous Kuna People who fished for seafood in their cayucos*, collected coconuts and traded them for other goods with mainlanders and sailors. While men wore western shorts and T-shirts these days, women still preferred traditional colourful dresses and beads around their calves. San Blas had autonomy within Panama and locals could apply their own laws in Kuna Yala, as the islands were called in their language. It was not only a beautiful, but indeed an exotic place.

We dropped the anchor in Chichime Cays between two islands, but space was a bit limited and if the wind changed we could end up on the beach, so we moved behind the bigger of the twin islands. In the evening we had guests coming over for dinner, two Spaniards Sundy and Paul met before. Lorenzo and Mario sailed around San Blas on their boat Lycka and from time to time they invited tourists on board to make a living. The dinner was on me, or rather on the sea, I just cooked that tuna fillets. I went totally freestyle in the galley improvising with spices like a jazzman with his trumpet. A delicious, Asian inspired meal came out of it. We called it Chichime Soup.

In the morning we sailed south to Dog Island where an old navy gunboat was sunk next to a beach. Perfect spot for snorkelling. Corals of different sizes and shapes were all over and the shipwreck itself was home to numerous fish species glittering with all the colours possible. The weather couldn't be more Caribbean, hot and sunny with water so warm that it wasn't really refreshing. Luckily there was some breeze.

From Dog Island we moved the same afternoon to Banedup located a few miles to the northeast where we dropped the anchor for the night. The next morning, while we were swimming and snorkelling again, Paul spotted an octopus hiding between corals. Spearfishing was forbidden in San Blas so Paul started to improvise a tool with a hook to catch that weird but delicious beast. The design of the tool was being improved constantly and after an hour or two of messing around and playing seek and hide he finally got it.

Once we got it on board Paul gave him a lethal stab and ripped off his beak. Then we smashed its body against the deck as it supposedly was helping with tenderising the meat. None of us had much experience with turning an octopus into a dish, improvising again. We raised the anchor early afternoon and sailed further south to meet other friends of my captain and his mate. Philip and Monica were waiting for us in Los Grullos Cays on their catamaran Miss Molly.

'The recommended route in Bauhaus' guide** leads around this island', Paul pointed to an isle some thirty degrees to the port side, 'but all the charts show it's deep enough to cut through between the two islands. It will be faster.'
'Maybe we should lift up the keel?, I asked.
'Yeah of course! Here's the handle, can you do it?' I started to slide the keel in using the hydraulic jack. Once done I moved to the bow to observe the depth. We were motoring slowly towards the channel between the two islands. I was scanning carefully the sea bottom I could see clearly, but it looked like it was deep enough to safely pass.

'To the star! To the starboard!!!', a moment later I shouted as loud as I could. 'Coral mushroom!!!'
Boom! Too late, we were stuck. The waves were throwing us rhythmically against the coral, it felt like we were hanging on it. Paul lifted the rudder and pushed the engine to its limits but we didn't move at all. Suddenly I noticed a guy in a dinghy speeding up towards us and a second later he was pushing us while his outboard whined and smoked terribly. Khrrrr, I could hear a scratchy sound and it was it! We were free! I looked at Paul's eyes, Paul looked at me, then Sundy scanned our eyes. We all looked like we'd seen a ghost. Actually, in my imagination I'd seen a ghost, a ghost of Arbutus. Just an empty hull lying on its side washed by waves, like the wreck of a yacht we'd seen earlier in Chichime. A dead leftover of something that used to be a living floating home. Arbutus was lucky this time.

We followed the dinghy and I learnt that the man who saved us was Philip from Miss Molly. We dropped the anchor all still a bit shaky and Paul dived straight away to check the damage. Only a minor scratch on a hull and two plastic washers smashed on the rudder shaft. Changing them took us maybe half an hour. It had to be done straight away, they were separating the steel shaft from the aluminium rudder and these two metals didn't like each other, quick corrosion guaranteed. That evening we spent on Miss Molly, invited by Philip and Monica. We brought a pot of delicious octopus stew Sundy concocted, after all we owed it to Philip, he saved us at the reef.

We spent in Los Grullos one more day and then sailed northeast to Holandes Cays where we dropped the anchor for the night. The weather changed, heavy clouds were covering the entire sky. After some snorkelling and relaxing on one of the islands of the cays we set the sails again and sailed down to see some civilisation. Nargana was a proper town with a shop or two, a small restaurant, houses made of bricks, even a free public wifi. It looked more like a regular Latin American town or village, though it was built on two islands connected with a pedestrian bridge and there were no cars. We bought some fresh fruits and veggies, which as we were told, were brought to town once a week on small cargo boats from Colombia, and left Nargana for Green Island where we found a safe haven for the night. It was blowing quite strong that afternoon.

'Hey Paluch, we know we agreed on a certain amount of time, but the islands are so beautiful that we would like to stay maybe two more days. Are you okay with that?' I was just about to answer, but Sundy continued. 'We know that you're broke right now, don't worry we don't want any money from you for those extra days.'
'Ha' I smiled, 'I don't see a problem. San Blas is fucking amazing!'
'We were also thinking of not clearing in in Porvenir, but in Portobelo instead, they have an immigration office. We want to stay on anchor there and start the paperwork for the canal transit.'
'Portobelo…' I checked the map. 'Oh yeah that's way closer to Costa Rican border. Perfect for me, I was a bit afraid there would be no traffic from Carti. I'm absolutely up for that.'
Good people, that's for sure.

From Green Island we sailed west to Cambombia where Charlie and Karen, a couple from Wisconsin, were awaiting us on their beautiful boat Changing Tides. They were other friends of Arbutus crew. We had a dinner, a few drinks and lots of sailing stories. These guys were cruising around for quite a while. After a night in Cambombia we sailed back to Chichime. We made a small and quick loop around only a tiny part of San Blas. In order to see it all, check all the anchorages, put feet on most of the islands we would have to spend here months, maybe even years. And some people actually did.

Octopus on board the sailboat in San Blas Panama
Octopus finally on board
In Chichime we had our last night at the archipelago and we went for a beer to a local bar with Mario from Lycka. This was one of the most popular islands and beside the bar there were cabins to rent and a campground. It was funny to go back to the boat on the dinghy all tipsy and cheerful. I almost felt like singing. Luckily I didn't, I was definitely not talented.

We sat the sails right after breakfast and started to go west, leaving this little piece of paradise behind us. In the afternoon we arrived at the anchorage near Isla Grande welcomed by growling sounds of howler monkeys. We reached Portobelo Bay around noon the next day. We were passing many boats on anchor, some looking like they didn't lift it for years. I was ready to take care of our anchor but Paul was still going, passing boats one by one.
'Not yet, not yet', he was repeating and I started to recognise letters on signboards ashore.
'Why so close?', I wondered.
'You'll see. Okay, now!' We waited for a while then checked if it was holding. Once confirmed Paul took out his mobile phone. 'Let's see what wifi we get here… Casa Congo… Oh, there, let's go for a coffee.'
'Ha ha, I got you you bastard, there's nothing better than free wifi onboard!'
'Yep!' Paul laughed proudly.

We strolled around Portobelo after our coffee mission, it was very old town which according to a legend Christopher Columbus settled himself. There was Aduana building, the antique customs house, many fortifications in and around town and a church with its famous sculpture of Black Christ. There was a lot of history in this place, history of conquistadors and gold shipped from here to Spain and history of pirates and their attempts of stealing all that gold. Captain Morgan, one of the most famous between them all, even captured Portobelo in 1668.

There was a festival going on in town just as we arrived, Festival of Devils and Congas during which a lot of locals dressed up as devils. There was a lot of music, dancing and flares, occasionally some devils would even whip white tourists. It was a sweet revenge for the years of slavery as most locals were descendants of people brought here from Africa. So I had to be on my guard.

The immigration office opened when all the festivities were over and it was finally time to sign out of the boat. I was asked for the ticket, the officer checked the details on it and after stamping my passport he wrote something next to the stamp. When I got it back I checked it curiously. It was written: '10.10'. All right the clock is ticking, time to hit the road. From that moment on I had seventy two hours to leave Panama. I hugged goodbye Sundy and Paul and went for my first hitchhiking in Central America.

The first lift was within half an hour with a pickup collecting metal scrap. Then a car brought me to the junction in Sabanitas. While I was standing next to McDonald's a wave of colourful butterflies flied over the road. There were hundreds, maybe thousands of them, migrating south east. Soon after I had a ride directly to Panama City with a truck driver. The city surprised me, there were a lot of skyscrapers, it looked like some kind of Miami.

It took me a while to get to a bus terminal as I was dropped off at the outskirts. I had to get to La Chorrera where the motorway was turning into something more hitchable so I got on an old American school bus painted in bright colours with music blasting from the big speakers inside. They used them all over Panama as intercity public transport, especially on shorter distances.

Night time arrived quickly and I spent it at a petrol station with a permission of yet another friendly worker. It took me a couple of hours to find the first ride and after three of them I ended up in Santiago early afternoon. I had to walk for a bit to find a decent spot, which still didn't work for me for the first hour or two. Finally a car packed with a family stopped.
'We're going to Tole!', they shouted.
'No idea where it is but whatever.' I quickly jumped in.

Roadworks first and pot holes later made us move very slowly. A woman behind the wheel, who was a mother of two teenagers, was very quiet on the beginning, but slowly began to be more curious about what a person from Poland was doing in Panama. I had plenty of time to tell my story. When we arrived at the exit for Tole it was almost dark.
'If no one picks you up tonight, where are you going to sleep?'
'I don't know' I looked around, 'maybe at this bus stop.'
'You're crazy!' I just smiled, then I went to ask workers who were repaving the road if it was okay to sleep at the bus stop. They didn't mind. Suddenly I saw the car that brought me here coming back. 'Here, take it! I don't want you to be hungry.'
'No no, I can't!'
'Just take it!'
I ended up with fifteen bucks in my hand.

I needed only two quick rides in the morning to get to the border. A stamp out, a stamp in and I was in Costa Rica. Shortly after I got off in Ciudad Neily and started to walk around town. It had such a different feel than the ones in Panama. It was very clean, neat, kind of organised. The buses were modern and quiet, local pubs had people seeping beer or coffee during the day. It felt so different, it felt European somehow.

I camped that night in Golfito on the coast and around noon came back to Ciudad Neily where I could use the internet in a university library. I stayed one more night in this lovely, but very expensive country and hitched back to the border. I paid eight dollars departure tax on Costa Rican side for stamping me out. When entering Panama I was asked to show a ticket, another fakey I prepared earlier, and cash to prove I could support myself. I took a bunch of dollars, mostly singles wrapped in twenty bucks bill. That worked. The last thing was to pay two dollars municipal tax and I was back in. But this time I could stay six months and it costed me a tenner in total. Hundred and five bucks? Fuck you!

Hitching back was so much faster, I was changing cars like gloves. One of the drivers was a Colombian who lived in Panama for more than ten years. When I told him that I just arrived, had almost no money and was looking for a job, he invited me for food and at the end gave me twenty dollars saying: 'I was in the same situation when I first came here.' Fair play.

When I got off in Portobelo I went straight to Casa Vela, a place for sailors and run by sailors. It was owned by a married couple from Germany who sailed over here some years ago. After dropping the anchor in Panama, Ray opened a loft where he was fixing sails and Birgit had a little bar next to it with the cheapest beer in town. Occasionally there was lunch on the menu or a barbecue. It was their way to make a living and trying to save to sail the Pacific one day.

I met them earlier with Paul and Sundy and I knew they had a lot of local knowledge. My idea was to try finding a job on boats that bring tourists either to San Blas or Colombia. Lorenzo's girlfriend Alejandra was working on such a boat and was very happy with that. Sooner or later most boats ended up in Portobelo for provisioning. First though I needed to find some base, I had less than hundred bucks left, I hadn't been so broke for years. Birgit mentioned there was a hostel in town, and I went there in the evening. Just ten minutes talk with the owner was enough to seal the deal. I would start volunteering the next day. Finding a base. Checked!

Captain Jack's Hostel was run, obviously, by Captain Jack. He was a funny guy, a bit like a pirate, with long grey ponytail and a loud laugh. The hostel had skull and crossbones flags and other pirate paraphernalia all over the place. Jack sailed down from New Jersey some years before and dropped the anchor here for good. The place was not only a backpackers' hostel, but also a restaurant with a bar, quite expensive to be honest. A bit strange mixture, but it was working.

Portobelo was surprising me regularly. When I first arrived I met Artur, a Polish guy who was brought here to help out on a boat, but ended up messed up with drugs and turned into Arturo that everyone knew, who would always ask for a dollar. Just like some other local bums. Sometime later I met another Pole, Beata who had a boat here and chartered it from time to time. We were sitting over a beer in Casa Vela when she mentioned another Polish sailor, Mikołaj.

'People call him You You here', she said.
'Hold on, You You? It's sounds familiar.' I couldn't remind myself where I knew this nickname from, grinding it in my head.
'It's after his first boat.' 'You You, boat, Mikołaj… No fucking way! They had this blog, well him and his girlfriend Patrycja. What was it called… It was my inspiration to start boat hitchhiking.'
'They're not together anymore, she's back in Poland now.'
'I know, I sent her a message a few years ago asking for an advice when I found my first or maybe second boat. She was very helpful.'
'You should be able to meet Mikołaj soon, he works as a skipper on one of the backpackers' boats running to Colombia and back. He's here every ten days.'
'Brilliant! You You, fucking hell…' I was still shaking my head in disbelief.

After a week or so I met with Sundy and Paul again and I ended up on board the Arbutus one more time. I had my two days off and they needed some help with crossing the Panama Canal. By regulations every small vessel passing through the locks had to have four line handlers apart from the captain. So it was me and Sundy and we were joined by Lorenzo and his girlfriend Alejandra.

We arrived at the Flats Anchorage near Colon in the afternoon, which was almost at the entrance to the locks of the canal. Once the adviser from the Canal Authority joined us we motored up the canal, tied with another sailboat and entered the first chamber together behind a massive cargo ship. Now it was line handlers' job. We had to manage the lines tied to the walls of the sluice to stay within a safe distance from them, as the chamber was filling up with water and the boats would go up. We repeated it two more times and stayed overnight at the Lake Gatun.

In the morning I wanted to refresh in the lake even though it was home to alligators, but another adviser showed up very early. We motored half a day through the lake and the canal and then repeated all the process again three more times, but now going down in each chamber and finally reaching the sea level. Welcome to the Pacific guys! Sundy and Paul were very happy, now they were free to sail towards Australia. For me it was time to go back to Portobelo. I had my duties now.

Working in the hostel was so much fun. There was actually not much work regarding the hostel, I was more bartending and sometimes waiting tables. I loved the vibe of the place. Jeff, who was a manager, had this grumpy 'I don't give a fuck' attitude, but always performed with a big smile. I started to follow and quickly became cheeky with customers as hell. Someone would ask: 'do you have a cold beer?' and I would be like grrr, cold beer, why would I have a cold beer… big smile. People loved it. After all it was the pirates' bar.

The food was pricey but it was delicious, it was catered more for sailors than backpackers. We had three cooks. Angelica was a local girl, Francis came from Dominican Republic and Madu was from as far as Cameroon. I had only one free meal a day, but girls in the kitchen always took care of me. As in every restaurant there were some leftovers, some wastes, some wrong orders. I was spending pretty much only on breakfasts.

Jack himself was a real entertainer. Sometimes he would bring up his karaoke set and sing. And gee, this man could sing. Angie meanwhile, Madu's daughter, would dance around with Parranda, Jack's dog. What a show. There was maybe lack of organisation sometimes, hostel check-ins were done on a piece of paper, same with food orders or even pending bills. One evening I wanted to pay my beer bill but I couldn't find it. I asked Jack if he'd seen it. He just shrugged his shoulders adding: 'just do what you can.' So I started to do what I could. Pirates' attitude rocks!

One day I finally met Mikołaj, or You You. He had long dreadlocks, big contagious smile on his face and the vibe of peace and love. The Polish Rasta.
'I know you from your blog!' I said straight away.
'Oh wow, it was ages ago, but good to hear that somebody was reading it.'
'Yeah man, not only once. Maybe because of this blog I'm here now. So thanks man!' We both smiled and ordered another beer.

Soon after I met Miro, another Polish sailor. There was also Ukrainian couple Lena and Leo, crazy Russian lad Vito, French Ramon, Scottish Alan, Irish Dave, Brian, the jewellery guy… Oh so many characters, it was such a sailors' hub. One evening a guy shared his story. Before the global crisis in 2008 banks in America were giving out mortgage loans not only for fixed property, but for yachts as well. He paid some small percentage, sailed down to Panama, changed the name and numbers of the vessel, faked the boat's registration papers and showed his middle finger to the bank. If that was a real story, he would be a real pirate!

Days were passing and it didn't look like I would find a job on boats. When I mentioned Jeff that I might move to the capital city to find some paid work there, he told me he would try to convince Jack to pay me some salary. Then I heard the same from Lorena, Jack's girlfriend. And soon they succeeded! I was so happy I didn't have to go anywhere else. I loved this job. And from that moment on I got into it even more. I translated all the menus to Spanish, searched with Jeff for new drinks recipes, created a new cocktail menu, I even went to Panama City to buy cocktail glasses. I wanted my margaritas to look more posh.

I had total freedom in the bar, so I was experimenting and I did it often with Lorena. She would sometimes come in the evening a bit tipsy saying: 'Paluch, prepare me something nice!' One night we were messing together with bottles and created really yummy drink. 'What should we call it?' we thought. There were two creators, one from Poland and one from Colombia. And that's how Polombia was born. We put that name on the blackboard for special offers. In the morning we both looked at the board confused. What was inside? We had a few during the process. It took us half a day to recreate it.

Szymon Kuczyński Atlantic Puffin sailboat Portobelo
Szymon and his tiny Atlantic Puffin
One morning I received an email from Patrycja from Poland. What a coincidence, I just met her ex-boyfriend. She wanted me to help a Polish sailor who was on his way to Portobelo. Szymon was on a mission to sail solo around the world on a tiny boat called Atlantic Puffin. She was only twenty one feet long. What's more, she had no engine whatsoever! Szymon was not too good with foreign languages and he would need some help with the canal transit.

We met personally a few days later and I called one agent to organise the transit. The problem was that an engine was required to cross the canal. The agent wasn't sure yet how to manage the situation and we knew already it would take some extra time. We couldn't just sit and do nothing. And we didn't. Every time I was off we would go hiking through the surrounding jungle. When I was working Szymon would come to Jack's and we would seep Guinness together trying to motivate ourselves to do something about our websites. I was usually more successful. His effort worked contrary, I would just grab another Guinness and mess with customers, if we had any. It was a quiet time at the bar.

The agent was sometimes unreachable, sometimes bringing up some crazy ideas, but at the end he organised an outboard engine which we installed at the improvised wooden bar at the stern. I crossed the canal with Szymon, which was my fourth time, as I was making some extra quid with line handling. It was amazing to see Szymon in action. He could leave a busy bay just on sail. Same with dropping the anchor in a spot filled with sailboats. He only needed a few seconds to analyse the wind the current and waves. After that he knew his route, how to trim the sails and how many tacks were necessary. Old school sailor. I saw him the last time in Panama City after the canal transit and soon he left for French Polynesia.

Weeks were passing like days, months like weeks. The six months of my visa free stay was nearly over. I had to go again to Costa Rica to renew it and this time I had a company. Felipe was a Chilean whom I met in Ecuador. He studied documentary filmmaking and moved to Panama City to do some projects, so we met first at an apartment he was renting for a few drinks and later in Captain Jack's when he came over to watch Chile's Copa America match together. We started our trip in La Chorrera and even though we were two, it was really easy. Felipe had such a funny style of hitching, he would wave his Chilean flag grinning from ear to ear in front of upcoming cars. We did the same route as I did the last time and it took us only three days.

One evening Jack told me suddenly that he wouldn't have a job for me anymore. It was slow, that was a fact, but it wasn't the only reason. All of a sudden he was not right about me having a beer during work and generally drinking sometimes on the house, which was happening before with his knowledge. I wasn't sure what caused this change, maybe he got grumpy after drinking less, I hadn't seen him with his morning beer recently. Speculations, I would never know. And it didn't matter, it was time to move on. No hard feelings after all. And these were exact words he used when I said goodbye.

I first thought of moving to the capital, but somebody told me they were looking for someone in Casa Vela. Birgit wanted to keep the bar open till late to make some extra money. They were usually closing at five, six the latest. The deal was decent, I could live in the place and get a percentage of my sale, plus some food. After the first day I noticed it was really slow, I had to attract more customers. Soon I had toasties on the menu in four different flavours. A beer without a snack? Can't be.

'Hey Paluch, how are you?', I was greeted one morning by André with his strong Quebec accent. 'Listen, could you make a website for me? I need it to promote my trips to San Blas, I have to get more customers. I'll pay you well.'
'Sure I could prepare something. Do you have any ideas how it should look, any particular colours you would like to use?'
'No clue, I'd leave it up to you. I don't even know how to open a Facebook account', he laughed.
'Okay, I'll prepare a draft in the next couple of days and we'll see if you like it, then we'll work on details.'

André was one of many sailors chartering his boat and his offer surprised me a bit, I didn't know why he asked me. While I knew very little about designing websites I could always use a free platform, there were many of them that had ready templates. I was using them before. In Casa Vela I had my regular customers always up for a beer and a toasty, but it was never too busy, I could work on the website during my working hours. Extra cash was always welcome.

A week later the website was ready and I was paid more than agreed on the beginning. Portobelo was a small town and the sailors' community was even smaller, information just like gossips was spreading around quickly. The same week I was approached by another guy, this time from Iran, with the same request, designing a website. That made me think. What if I learnt more about web design and programming? I could create whatever I, or any future customer, would imagine and want. I could start a small freelance business I could carry with me. That made me really think.

The second website never materialised at the end, the Iranian man's boat was grounded on one of San Blas' beaches in bad weather. In the same time I realised that I spent in Panama nearly eight months. The urge to move, to hit the road again, began to grow in me and soon I was ready for goodbyes.

I went to Captain Jack's to see Jeff, the girls in the kitchen and Jack himself. I wished all the best to Lena, Leo and Vito with whom I was spending a lot of time recently. Big hug went to Vivi and Cristobal, a Brazilian-Chilean couple who was visiting me every night in the bar and to many more people I could see that day. The biggest hug was for Ray from Casa Vela, my home for the last two months. We spent many evenings with Ray, seeping beer and debating about life. I also sent a message to Birgit who at that time was back in Germany.

All that goodbyes took a while and it started to get late, so I jumped on a bus to Sabanitas. I looked at the Portobelo fortifications for the last time. They were made to protect it from pirates, but some modern versions of them were still hanging around. I had something in common with them. I could drop my anchor wherever suited me and sail off whenever I felt like, never really knowing where my next haven would be.

* Cayuco - a dugout canoe used by Kunas.
** Bauhaus' guide - The Panama Cruising Guide written by Eric Bauhaus, the best guide for cruising in San Blas, with the most accurate charts available.

Laguna Quilotoa in the Andes of Ecuador
‘Hi Aileen!’
‘You were hiding you bastard!’, she hit my arm playfully.
‘Ha ha ha actually I was.'
‘Give me better a hug.'

She looked good, it was nice to see her again. I was observing her for a moment from the park near the cathedral, she didn’t seem nervous or afraid. She did it, she came alone to Peru! First we went to the market for a feast, I wanted her to taste all the Peruvian goodies I tried so far. She was shocked by the local prices, it was like three times cheaper than in Chile. After lunch we crossed the bridge over the Tumbes River walking towards a petrol station. It was a hot and humid day, unlike other parts of the Peruvian coast this area had massive mangroves and patches of jungle. The effect of the weakening influence of the cold Humboldt Current.

The first lift was within ten or fifteen minutes and it was a three wheeled auto rickshaw. On the beginning I said that we didn’t need a taxi, but the young guy behind the wheel just waived his hand saying: ‘Hop on, I have to go to the nearby village anyways.’ Sweet, the first ride with a Chinese rickshaw ever. In Peru! For the second lift we waited half an hour, maybe even an hour, time kind of melted as we were talking. It was almost dark when we got off in Máncora.

After dinner and a few beers we went to a hostel I booked before. It was more like a row of bamboo bungalows. The place was very new, a swimming pool was still under construction, but it didn’t matter, the beach was less than a hundred metres away. Waves could be heard inside. Aileen brought a gift, a bottle of gin so we started to celebrate another meet up of una chilena and un loco polaco.

For the next couple of days we were chilling out on the beach and having fun with massive waves, trying delicious food or strolling around town browsing through crafts and clothes in local shops. It was easy to lose the sense of time and unfortunately Aileen didn’t have much of it so we had to think of our next destination. First we thought of passing by the city of Loja in the south of Ecuador, but after researching a bit more we decided to visit Laguna Quilotoa high up in the mountains.

We started hitching late and ended up in Tumbes when it was already dark. Our driver told us to grab a minibus to the border, which was just a few miles away and cost like nothing. Minibuses were coming and leaving but getting on one wasn’t an easy task, people were nearly killing each other to jump on. After a few tries we finally got inside packed like sardines and worrying about our backpacks attached to the roof. It didn’t look safe but there was no other way.

The first thing we heard from a policeman on the Ecuadorian side was that we couldn’t get our passports stamped here anymore. The Customs and Immigration was moved to a new terminal built at the bypass of the city and taxi was the only way to get there at this time. We confirmed the price with a few locals first and soon ended up in the office. Paperwork done, now it’s time to find a place to crash.

‘Excuse me, do you know if we could camp somewhere around here?’, I asked straight away one of the officers.
‘Em, let me think… You know what, go to that white booth at the exit, I’ll let my colleague know about you by the radio.' A few minutes later we were shown a nice lawn for my tent.
‘Is it safe here?’, I asked the other officer.
‘Of course, I’m here all night’, a pistol was discretely shown to us. ‘Here’s the toilet if you need.'
As almost always, ask politely and you’ll be given.

In the morning we started to hitch near the roundabout at the end of the bypass. Soon one guy stopped just to tell us to move to a petrol station maybe a mile up the road. Supposedly a hotel next to us was some kind of an unofficial brothel, not a great spot for hitchhikers. At the station, which was in much higher standards than Peruvian ones, the first lift appeared in just a few minutes.

The roadsides seemed cleaner and roads wider than on the other side of the border. Road works were accompanying us constantly as many old roads were being gradually turned into dual carriageways. They weren’t maybe the safest ones, many sections didn’t have a median or grade separated junctions, but they were all brand new and replaced old ways many of which didn’t even have tarmac a few years back. The country was going through the most extensive upgrade of its road infrastructure in the history, an example of the so called ‘Ecuadorian Miracle of President Rafael Correa’, fuelled by petrodollars.

We ended up in the village of El Cambio not far from the city of Machala and continued hitching just behind a roundabout. This time it took us a few hours to get a lift and in the evening we were dropped off in Virgen de Fatima where a toll station was. We asked the security for a place to crash and soon a nice lawn with freshly cut grass was our home. There were even free showers at the station. Perfect!

After breakfast we walked to the other side of the station and stuck our thumbs again. The day had a lazy feel, it was Sunday. In a few minutes we were again at the back of a pickup observing again endless plantations of bananas, as Ecuador was the largest exporter of this fruit in the world. We walked for a bit to get out of the centre of Milagro and waited maybe an hour to get a ride to the junction where E25 was meeting E49. Here we could get all the traffic between Guayaquil, country’s largest city and port and the capital city of Quito.

The next car stopped literally in seconds and two guys inside brought us to Quevedo with a stopover for lunch. Only hundred kilometres were missing and the sun was still up in the sky. Soon we were again at the bed of a pickup surrounded by bunches of bananas. After a few miles of flat road we began to climb up the cordillera. Temperature was dropping with every sharp turn, we started to pull out layer by layer from our backpacks. We got off in the village called Zumbahua at the altitude of three thousand and six hundred metres above sea level. The peaks around us were covered with dry grass. The wind was freezing our ears.

We spent the night in one of the family run hotels and early morning started to look for a bus to the lake. As we couldn’t find it we took one of many four by fours providing transport to this spectacular place. Once we walked to the rim of the caldera - a large volcanic crater, the view blew me away, well with the help of the strong wind. Two hundred and eighty metres down from the rim was the lake with its magnificent greenish water. Passing clouds were throwing fast moving shadows over the surface of the water, it looked like ancient Andean gods were spilling a new layer of green paint over and over again. We took a steep trail to the lake and at this altitude it wasn’t an easy walk. Even going downhill was exhausting, deficiency of oxygen was making us stop every few steps. I didn’t even want to think about climbing back up. Luckily we had some coca leaves with us.

After some rest in the hotel and late lunch we put our backpacks on the side of the road hoping for the best. The sun was low, but somebody was waiting already for us in Quito, so we decided to give it a go. It was worth it! The first car pulled in and the couple inside was going to the capital as well. We began to ascend to the valley observed by a massive, snow-capped volcano Cotopaxi. This giant was reaching nearly six thousand metres. We stopped in the city of Latacunga as the couple wanted to show us what locals ate. We got chugchucaras, a mix of deep fried pork, boiled hominy, potatoes, fried plantains, empanadas, popcorn, and pork rinds. The amount of grease it had was enough to keep me going for a week!

Mad Dog shot business advertisement Montanita Ecuador
My Mad Dog business add
Around 8 p.m. we were dropped off in the old town of Quito. After giving Carlos a call we marched to a hostel he owned. He was a Couchsurfing member but we met him through my Polish friend Monika. We thought we would just wait for him in the hostel and move to his place, but he actually had a free room for us in this beautiful mansion called Mía Leticia. We met him the same night, but as he was a busy man we didn’t have a chance to chat much. It was amazing that he was doing all this for us.

The old town of the capital was just twenty five kilometres south from the equator and it was the best preserved historic centre in Americas. Quito together with Polish Kraków, were the first World Cultural Heritage Sites as entire towns declared by UNESCO in 1978 and with a massive, neo-gothic basilica dominating in the landscape it had a European feel. And I loved the fact that heavy advertising was forbidden in this part of the city. Only small, metal shop-signs were allowed, usually in one dark colour. Even international fast food chains had to adapt.

The last few days of holidays Aileen wanted to spend on the beach to get some sun, so we decided to go to Montañita and the best was that we had a place to crash already. Monika bought a house there with the idea of turning it into a hostel.* This town was the most popular spot on the Ecuadorian coast so it could work well. She wasn’t there at the moment, being with her boyfriend Daniel in Rio de Janeiro, but she had a spare room for me. I could stay there for longer, fixing and helping around the house and it was my life saviour as I was running out of cash. It was time to find a job again.

This time we took a bus, boring but necessary as I had some weird kidney infection. It was hard to walk for me even without my backpack. The house was occupied by a Russian girl Lena who lived with her two kids as well as two other couples. It was built nearly entirely with bamboo and covered with passion fruit vines. It looked really cool.

We spent with Aileen a day or two on the beach and went to a nearby town of Puerto Lopez for gift shopping, where she found a hammock for her mom. And then she hopped on a bus and back to her reality. I was proud of her, she seemed more confident probably realising that travelling was actually easy. For me it was time to print CVs and look around for my next job. There were dozens of hostels and hotels, many restaurants and bars and a few discos, the only problem was the weather, days started to be grey and drizzly, the high season was over.

A few days passed and my hopes went down, no one was looking for new staff. I had to figure out something and one Saturday evening I went to town to meet new people and look for ideas. I was surprised how many people were selling stuff on the streets and it wasn’t only jewellery and crafts, but also snacks and drinks. Even marihuana brownies! Municipality was charging every seller five bucks a week without asking for any documents, local police was very liberal, it looked like I could start my own little business. That night I met Marvin and Ana, both from the States, but both with Latin roots, Marvin Nicaraguan and Ana Colombian. They were selling jelly shots and told me the sale wasn’t bad, they managed to save something. I didn’t want to copy them, I had to think. Think you bastard!

Suddenly I got it. Mad Dogs! These shots were very popular in Polish bars, especially between students. They were easy to prepare, just vodka, grenadine and Tabasco sauce. All the ingredients were available and vodka was extremely cheap, just three dollars a litre, it was actually cheaper than grenadine! Let’s do it! I printed a little sign to promote it and one evening hit the streets.
It was misty Tuesday, not many people on the streets, but within an hour I had my first sale. By the end of the night I sold like fifteen shots. Not bad! The next day I went again and quickly had my first customer.
‘Are you from Poland?’, a girl asked me with thick French accent.
‘Yes I am.’
‘Wow, I studied for one semester in Poland!!!’
‘Yeah! And I loved Mad Dogs! I had sooo many of them ha ha.’ She grabbed one and then another one. Soon she became my unofficial promoter, finding me customers all around. We did quite a good sale and at the end of the night we got drunk in my place with the leftovers. Loads of fun!

Days were passing and I was hitting the streets and the beach most nights. The best were of course Saturdays. But once days started to turn into weeks and then into months I started to feel worn out. Working till 4 a.m. was exhausting plus all the shots I had to drink myself. The pattern was always the same, a curious group was coming and saying they would buy a round only if I’d drink with them, they would pay for my shot as well. Fair enough. The problem was that I didn’t really like sweet cocktails, I began to feel so sugared up. There were also parties after work and lack of sleep or sleeping till the afternoon. Montañita was getting me, not only me.

This town was just a fishermen village until it was discovered by surfers and hippies in the sixties. Over the years it became one of the top party destinations in Ecuador and I met many people who lost themselves in Montañita. They came for a couple of days and stayed for weeks or months, all this caused by cheap booze and drugs. I started to dream about the road again.

Monika was about to come soon with Daniel, I checked my passport, my visa would be still valid after their arrival, but I wouldn’t have much time to spend with them. I didn’t want to overstay my ninety days as I heard Ecuadorian Immigration was quite strict. I couldn’t just cross the border and come back either, I would have to be outside of the country for three months in order to be let in again. A few days with them and I would have to run to Colombia.

When they arrived they came already with the first customer, a Norwegian guy they met on the bus. I didn’t even prepare a room for him properly, my bad. We went out one night, cooked some Polish food together, I helped them a bit with the first stage of the renovation and it was time to hit the road. I gave them big hugs wishing them best luck with the hostel. I was really grateful for letting me stay, it saved my ass. I walked to the statue of a surfer at the town limits and began to hitch.

I needed a minute to find a ride, pickup again. Three hours later I was dropped off in Manta where I stayed overnight at a petrol station. It took me entire day to get to Quito and I decided to crash again at a station in the outskirts to not waste time, my visa was valid for one more day. It was weird to be shaking at dawn again, I spent so much time in the tropical part of the country and now I had maybe four degrees Celsius. On my last day in the country hitchhiking was like a miracle, actually I never had problems with that in Ecuador, one of the best in Latin America. Pan-American Highway was winding through picturesque Andes, it was a real pleasure to be a passenger there. With three lifts I got to the border town of Tulcan in the evening.

Hostel El Cielo Montanita Ecuador
The house and future hostel of Monika and Daniel
I was ready to leave the office after getting my stamp, but then I decided to confirm something.
‘One more thing’, I asked the officer at the counter. ‘How long can I stay in Colombia?’
‘You have ninety days, but if you meet a hot chick in here you can extend it easily in any Immigration Office. Just pay eighty thousand pesos and enjoy your time!’, he said with a smirk in his eye. He shook my hand wishing all the best. Nice welcome.

That night I spent at the bus station in the centre of Ipiales, the city on the Colombian side of the border. It was really cold, the temperature reached the freezing point. In the morning I marched vigorously to the outskirts trying to warm up. One young lad passed me on his bicycle and turned back in a few seconds curiously asking me about my nationality and other facts. He was a hitchhiker himself sometimes and he gave me a few thousand pesos for breakfast. Colombians seemed like a friendly bunch.

A quarter later I was picked up by a mid-age couple driving an old white truck. We were descending slowly down the narrow valley, river at the bottom was irregularly reflecting morning sun. The couple was very chatty and curious, we were talking about Poland, Colombia and other Latin countries. They dropped me off on the bypass of Pasto, it was very green around, I had this strange feeling like I was somewhere in German Alps, everything seemed so organised and neat.

My second lift in Colombia was with a young guy driving a sedan and he got me to a toll station near the airport. It took me a while to get the next ride, but this time it was all the way to Cali, three hundred and fifty kilometres in one go. My driver studied in Argentina and came back home to visit his family. The closer we were to Cali the hotter it was getting and when I got off in southern part of the city I could feel this sticky tropical heat again.

In half an hour Fausto showed up to pick me up and take me to his parents’ house. It was good to see this guy again. We met in Brazil in Foz do Iguaçu at the house of Taisa, Effy and Maite and we kept in touch since. The next day his father offered us a ride to Popayán, a city hundred and forty kilometres south from Cali, where he had a meeting. He worked for a national agency of agriculture or something like that and I had a lecture about plants and crops of Colombia on the way. Popayán was known as The White City, almost all the colonial architecture of the old town was white including the churches. It was higher up in the mountains so it was cooler than Cali. On our way back we saw a destroyed bridge. I was told that it was blown up by the revolutionaries from FARC who were active in this area. The peace process was ongoing and kidnappings and killings were rare these days, but governmental infrastructure was still attacked quite regularly.

I stayed a few more days in Cali, it was considered the world capital of salsa and we went to one salsa club with Fausto the other night. I felt like a teenager surrounded by experienced adults. Everyone could dance so well, but not me. It was embarrassing. December was slowly passing and one evening I received a pre-Christmas gift from Fausto’s mother, a set of new clothes. I really didn’t know what to say. His both parents were so cool. At the end of my Cali time we all packed into the car and drove to Montenegro in Eje Cafetero region also known as The Coffee Triangle, where Fausto’s uncle had a coffee farm.

For the first two hours we were driving north along the flat Cauca Valley. Plantations of cane sugar were common and from time to time we could see so called cane trains, massive lorries with five even six trailers. Once we left Ruta 25 the road started to wind up the rolling hills covered with dark green coffee bushes. We first visited other family members in the city of Armenia and then drove to the farm near Montenegro. All the family was so welcoming, after just a few minutes I was told I had friends here and I could always come back.

The same afternoon Fausto and I were given a tour by his uncle and shown the coffee growing and production process. Most Colombian coffee was coming from such small, family run farms. The fruits were handpicked and only red and ripe fruits were allowed to meet the highest standards. Then the pulp was removed and the seeds were sun dried. The best part of the tour was that I already knew how that coffee tasted as I had a cup in the morning!

The following day together with Fausto we decided to visit Salento, the oldest town of the region. The morning was grey and misty, the tarmac was all wet. The town was very tiny with less than five thousand people, but it was a huge tourist attraction together with the nearby Cocora Valley. After a stroll around town and a climb to a lookout point we took a jeep taxi to the valley to see the tallest palm trees of the world, the Quindío wax palms, which were the national trees of Colombia.

Coffee fruits Eje Cafetero Colombia
Coffee fruits
We went for a short hike up to the forest and once we were back the mist begun to hang on our shoulders. We jumped on a back step of a fully packed jeep holding tight and hoping it wouldn’t start raining. The fog was like a dull white cloth in which the sun started to burn out holes. Suddenly I saw a foaming stream rambling through the bucketful of green. Contrasting blue started to appear above my head. I was filled with cosmic joy.

In the morning I said good bye to all the uncles, aunts and cousins of Fausto and we drove back towards Cali. I got off at one military checkpoint wondering when I would see Fausto and his crazy family again. Lovely people! I grabbed a quick coffee and started to hitch to Bogotá. An hour later I was inside an old truck whose speed never reached more than sixty kilometres per hour and once we started to ascend the Cordillera Central we were going down even to ten per hour. We reached our destination, the city of Ibagué when it was totally dark. I camped near police checkpoint, but it wasn’t easy this time. First I was told that they couldn’t let me do it, they didn’t want to be responsible for me. Luckily one of the cops was curious enough to ask me a few more questions and so the conversation started. At the end he said: ‘Pitch your tent here, I’ll have an eye on you!’

I started very early, before the sunrise and while I was hitching an old lady came to me with a steaming cup of coffee. She told me to leave the cup in front of the blue door on the other side of the road. How sweet! I needed only one lift to get to the capital, this time with a guy working for the United Nations. We had a great chat on the way, I could learn a bit more about the civil war that was tearing apart Colombia for half a century. Landscapes were changing constantly depending on the altitude. Our range was from four hundred to nearly twenty eight hundred metres. When we climbed down to a plateau where the city was located I saw coniferous trees along the road. Heavy clouds were hanging low.

My driver, whose name was Mao brought me all the way to the restaurant which Luisa was running. The last time I saw her was in Hostel Barrio Paraíso on my last day in Valpo, where she lived with Francisco. Now she was back in her hometown and working hard as always. She had this easiness to start her own business. Soon I also met her father and brother and after work they gave me a ride to a hostel in the centre.

December was supposed to be one of the driest months in Bogotá, but it was pouring like hell every afternoon, it was hard to do any sightseeing. Nights were cold and I was enjoying really hot showers in the hostel. We were going out regularly with Luisa and her friends and I had a chance to see Ángela again, another person I met in Chile. After a couple of days I was ready to see another city, the infamous famous Medellín. Around midday I went to see Luisa in her restaurant and she tipped me off about a place called Palomino where I could easily find a job. Then I jumped on a bus to the toll station Siberia.

I got a ride in an hour and in the evening ended up at a petrol station, which I thought would host me for the night. Luckily soon after I found a truck going directly to Medellín. I slept the entire night comfortably and when I woke up I wasn’t sure what was going on. It must had been a new road, my map was showing me I was in the middle of nowhere. We arrived in Medellín in the afternoon, the city was stuck to the steep hills and filling the entire valley of Aburrá.

The name Medellín for most foreigners who never went to Colombia and didn’t read much about it was bringing a thrill in the spine and thoughts of crime related to drug cartel wars and the name of the most famous drug lord Pablo Escobar. Luckily these dark days were long gone and in recent years the city won many prizes. It was even called the most innovative city in the world, with rapid reforms in local politics, education and related to social inclusion of poor neighbourhoods. Modernisation of infrastructure was key element of the growth and the public transport was the best example of it. Beside the brand new Metro System there were lines of cable cars servicing poor areas in the hills and a massive electric escalator in Comuna 13, the city’s poorest neighbourhood. Medellín was a showcase example of positive change.

I stayed in the city only for two days in the house of another couchsurfer called Philipe, who decided to move to Colombia from his home country Brazil. I could practice my Portuguese again, words started to disappear from my head. After a bit of sightseeing and some chillout in the house I hit the road again with the destination of Santa Marta. I was almost back to the Caribbean, after two and a half years of rambling around the continent.

The first lift appeared in a few minutes and it got me to a junction some eighty kilometres before the city of Bucaramanga. I spent pretty much all afternoon on the side of the road and just before the sunset I finally got another ride, this time with a tanker. The guy first said he was going to some small town, but at the end I realised I had a lift all the way to Santa Marta. After maybe an hour he suddenly turned into some dirt road and stopped near somebody’s house. Its dwellers switched off most lights and started to roll barrels.

‘Hey Polish, help us with filling up the barrels!’, I was asked quickly.
‘What should I do?’
‘Just hold the hose and give me a shout when the barrel is nearly full’, I was instructed by the driver. At that moment I realised I was helping in crime, the illegal sale of the leftovers of petrol from the tanker. No clue how many barrels we filled, maybe five or six and they looked like fifty litre ones. A lot of leftovers for a family.

When we drove off the driver took something from his pocket and told me: ‘That’s for your help! And it’s Christmas soon, so treat it as a gift as well!’ He smiled when I took the fifty thousand pesos bill. I smiled too, easy twenty bucks! We continued driving into the night, sometimes talking, sometimes being quiet. My head started to feel heavy again and again as I started to fall asleep and suddenly I woke up terrified after a sharp movement of the vehicle. We pulled in as the driver was swearing badly and I spotted fear in his eyes. We nearly had a head on collision with another lorry. It was close.

I was trying to talk some nonsense to keep the man awake as he was repeating that we need to find a hotel. The truck had no bed at all. It took as another scary ten or fifteen minutes before we checked in to a motel. He paid for two rooms and told me to be awake in four hours. After the nap we continued up north without any more surprises. I got off at the outskirts of the city knowing I would never forget that ride.

In Santa Marta I spent the entire day on the beach. The climate was drier than I imagined with cacti on the surrounding hills. In the evening I took a bus outside the city and crashed at one petrol station for the night. In the morning I was ready to continue towards Palomino which Luisa mentioned when suddenly my phone rung. Luisa? It looked like she found me a job in Santa Marta!

I jumped on a bus to downtown and started researching the accommodation options. There was a place called Taganga connected by public transport and it was a picturesque fishermen village which was just turning into another tourist party trap. Hostels were popping up like mushrooms and that’s where I found the cheapest option, a hostel with a tiny backyard where I could pitch my tent.

Margarita Cocktail Santa Marta Colombia
The next day I went to see Luisa’s friend Orarbol and his girlfriend Carolina. First they showed me their food trailer called Zingara which they towed into a beach in the southern part of the city. It was next to an apartment tower where many people were renting places for Christmas-New Year’s holidays. We took a lift to the top of the tower where a swimming pool was located. Partly inside the pool was a small bar. Orarbol and Carolina needed someone to work behind that bar. After a quick training the deal was done, I had a job till the end of the holidays, something like two weeks. Gracias Luisita!

I soon became an expert not only in the preparation of sandwiches, ceviches** and shrimp cocktails but also in margaritas, piñas coladas, mojitos and other drinks. Finally I could learn these exotic cocktails, the pubs I worked in before never had them on the menu. One evening in the hostel I met Alvaro, a mid-age guy who was building his own hostel. We talked about how important online promotion was these days and he soon offered me a free accommodation in an exchange of a basic website. Nice!

On the last evening of the year I went to the Taganga beach. I already had plans to celebrate that night together with Ochin, Max, Pancha and Pelao, the two Chilean couples I met in Machu Picchu. We were doing pretty much the same route and bumping to each other in Montañita, Medellín and now here. I had to wake up early for work and when the alarm buzzed at seven I thought I wouldn’t make it. Hangover was killing me but my margaritas were still excellent.

Holidays passed quickly, my job was over and after a goodbye party with Orarbol and Carolina I went to Palomino where I got quickly with just one ride. I ended up in a brand new hostel and campsite opened by Orarbol’s friend Mauricio, his brother and his brother’s girlfriend. The deal was the same again, they would let me stay for free and I could use their laptop to make a basic website for them.

The town was tiny, actually it was a village but it was turning into another tourist hot spot. Just a few years back there was one hostel, now there were more than ten. Neverending beach had soft sand and coconut palm trees were giving nice shadow to relax. The best were mornings, around sunrise when the sky was clear. Far in the south it was possible to spot snow-capped peaks of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. It was the only place in the Caribbean where one could see snow! Nights were nicely fresh and nearby river much better and safer to refresh than the turbulent sea.

One morning, to my surprise I heard Polish language in the campsite. Anka and Paweł were travelling through Central America and gave me lots of tips. In exchange I recommended them some places in Colombia and further south. The other day I saw burnt red faces of Stig and Eirik, crazy Norwegians I met in Montañita. In Ecuador they were typical rich Scandinavians blowing loads of money on parties. Now their saving where almost gone, they slept in hammocks on the beach. I was messing that they turned into hippies. It was funny to see it.

Two and half years in South America, so many connections, so many reunions and random bumping to each other. So many friendships. I was thinking a lot about it, I was on the verge of this continent. And I was ready to leave it behind. I still wasn’t sure how to do it. There was no road between Colombia and Panama. I heard crazy stories about people walking through the jungle but most of it was bullshit. The infamous Darién Gap which was the natural barrier between South and Central America was full of dangers. First the lethal nature, then the still existing problem of kidnappings made by FARC and other paramilitary groups. Land crossing was not my option.

Boat hitchhiking was something I knew already, but reading blogs of other travellers was giving me a sense of hardship. The demand was high, so it was a huge business for many boat owners, especially that there were beautiful San Blas Islands on the way. Marinas were impossible to enter without permission. Loads of obstacles.

One evening, when I was still in Palomino I decided to check the Cartagena Couchsurfing page. I knew I had to get there in order to find a boat as it was the main port with two marinas and an anchorage. Suddenly my attention was grabbed by a note left by a Swiss guy. He was looking for a boat willing to give him a lift to Panama. His post was one month old. Below was one day old answer starting simply with: ‘Hey if you’re still in Cartagena we have a boat…’ I sent a private message straight away!

* Hostel - it’s now up and running, it’s called El Cielo Montañita and has fantastic reviews. You can check their Facebook page or book a room through Hostelworld.
** Ceviche - a dish made of fresh raw fish cured with lime and mixed with chopped onions, cilantro and other ingredients for example mango.

Old indigenous lady waiting for a bus in one of Andean towns
After getting my passport back I was directed to the tourist office which was next door. I'd never seen an immigration officer doing that, well I actually had never seen a tourist office in the same building with Customs and Immigration. Paraguay was in fact the most forgotten and undiscovered country on the continent, not only by gringos,* but even by its neighbours and maybe that's why they tried to sell it just at the entrance point. I stashed free maps and started to walk along the main road overwhelmed by the ads shouting from every wall. Ciudad del Este was a duty free zone and cheap electronics and clothes were sold in many shopping centres and on the streets. I was always trying to not have prejudices about places I didn't know, but it's easy to get them installed by others. Drivers from Argentina and even my friends from Brazil were warning me to be careful in Paraguay, they described the place as messy and disorganised. And my first impression was close to their description. But after a bus ride to far outskirts I started to change my mind. Never judge a country by its border towns, they're usually the worst representation. You can apply this rule to almost every country in the world.

I got off in Minga Guazú next to a petrol station and a supermarket and started to hitch at the traffic lights. It took me maybe two hours to find the first ride in Paraguay, and it was a short lift to nearby tolls. The place was well lit, so I decided to try by night, but I gave up after an hour. The tolls were not only friendly for hitchhikers, but also for bus and taxi passengers and even worked as a truck stop. I moved to a petrol station and I was welcomed by a security worker with a massive shot gun, something I hadn't seen since some remote areas of northern Brazil. There was no wifi around, but I had a safe place to crush and clean toilets with a shower. Not bad.

In the morning I needed a few hours to find a lift, so it wasn't as fast as I expected, however I was hitching with a sign saying Asunción which considering the size of the country was far, three hundred kilometres away. I was picked up directly to the capital city by a trucker and I was surprised with his version of Spanish, it was so spiced up by indigenous Guarani language, that I had problems to understand it sometimes. And I bet my driver was trying hard to use the standard Spanish for me as much as he could. We were going through mostly flat areas, only closer to Asunción it became hilly, roadside mango trees were in blossom, small households looked neat and taken care off. I could feel some sense of aesthetics, it felt nice. And it's nice when it's nice.

In the capital I was awaited by Chalo from CS. When I arrived in his little flat he was just working with Geographic Information System for his thesis and it was great to chat about something related to my education. He explained me also a lot about the story with Guarani language. Paraguay was actually bilingual country and while it used to be associated with lower classes and farmers, in recent years it became trendy and many people from the capital city started to study Guarani and show off their language skills. It also became a kind of posh to pronounce the Spanish letter 'r' the same way like in American English, which was unusual and that was influenced by Guarani as well. It was a huge revival of this indigenous language, something not seen in Americas on such a scale. In the city and its surroundings I visited the lazy town of Areguá and the nearby Icaparaí Lake where many locals were chilling out on weekends. I also went to the famous and quite photogenic Mercado 4, a dirty and stinky market where supposedly you could buy anything from fruits and veggies to fire arms and human organs. I hadn't seen any of the latter, though I didn't look under the butcher's counter.

Sculptures by the roadside in Paraguay
Sculptures by the roadside in Paraguay
In Asunción I was considering going straight to Bolivia through the Paraguayan Chaco, but I was told that the road there was in pieces. I loved the idea of hitching such roads, just like my previous trip in the Brazilian Amazon, but now I had a deadline called Aileen. I decided to hitch the Argentinian national road 81 going parallel to the frontier. It was used by trucks bringing cheap cars from Chile's duty free zone in Iquique to Paraguay. After a long bus ride from the capital I arrived in Puerto Falcón where I crossed the border on foot around 8 p.m. So back to Argentina, with good wifi and fantastic espresso at their petrol stations.

After breakfast it took me half an hour to find the first lift. It was a girl on a motorbike who brought me to a checkpoint of Gendarmería where she was working. After another half an hour I got a ride thanks to the officers who asked one Paraguayan driver to pick me up. Cheers lads. I was brought to Formosa early in the afternoon and quickly after I got a ride with another Paraguayan truck. That road would be completely empty without them. In the evening he invited me for a barbecue in one of the roadside restaurants and after a few hours nap we continued together until 1 p.m. the next day. We crossed together almost all the Argentinian Chaco with cacti and bottle shape trees on both sides of the road as straight as an arrow. I was dropped at the junction with Ruta Nacional 34. In one and a half day I did nearly eight hundred kilometres, I was very close to Bolivian border.

At the junction I found a station with showers, so I first washed myself and then my clothes which in the heat of Chaco dried up within an hour. In a few minutes I got a lift to Tartagal and by the end of the day with two more rides I arrived in the border town of Pocitos where I camped next to a police checkpoint. In the morning I spent the last Argentinian pesos which were worthless outside the country and crossed the border with that beautiful mix of excitement and fear. Again, I heard some stories about Bolivia, everyone was saying that it was the poorest and the least developed country on the continent. From one side it meant that everything was really cheap and I devoured a massive amount of empanadas right after the border. From the other side I was wondering how was the safety like, how hitchhiking would be or such a trivial thing as public transport. I couldn't see any buses, only tiny minibuses without too much signage, imported usually from Asian countries. One of them took me for a few cents to the Customs Office in Pajoso where truck drivers were doing they papers. From there I was picked up in just a few minutes. Was hitchwiki wrong?

I read there that hitchhiking wasn't easy in Bolivia and that locals expected to be paid for a lift. Speaking Spanish was probably helping me and it wasn't a problem to ask the driver if he could pick me up for free. The surprising thing was that he said he would never take any money from a hitchhiker. Was he an exception? When he found out that I had a decent camera he asked me for a photo session with his lorry and then invited me for dinner. We parted in Villamontes from where I got a lift for another ten kilometres very soon. I quickly learned that cars with stickers along the top of the windscreen were taxis and I started to ignore their beeping and other attempts to take me for a fare. After a few minutes wait I was picked up by a sports car with Argentinian plates. The guy was Bolivian living for years in Salta and now on his way to Santa Cruz de la Sierra. We had a few beers on the way and at the end he told me I changed his life. Sometimes hitchhiker works as a psychoanalyst, the anonymity lets people open up. I shook his hand wishing all the best.

It was late when I got off the car, to the city centre and all the hostels was still far and I was so wrecked that I decided to crush wherever, even on a secluded street, specially that it looked like a safe, well off area. It was my first day in Bolivia and already all the fear of unknown was gone. I got up before the sunrise and went to the centre to look for a hostel. Santa Cruz was an old colonial town with beautiful architecture and a peaceful vibe. It felt a bit like Brazil, most people were of mixed ethnicity and they seemed very friendly and open to foreigners. Even though no one from Couchsurfing could host me, many people wanted to hang out and I had to choose with whom to go out that evening. First I grabbed a few beers with Julia and later I was invited for dinner by Ericka. She had to work till late, but because she was the manager, she decided to invite me to the restaurant where she was working. Combining work and fun is possible. After closing we went out dancing with some nice electro beats and I could hear another shocking life story.

Ericka was born in Santa Cruz, but her parents migrated to Spain when she was a kid. On her trip to France a few years ago she was stopped by police and even though she spent most of her life in Europe her papers were not totally okay. She was arrested, sent to a camp for illegal immigrants and deported to Bolivia. Her parents still lived in Spain. That's what civilised western world was doing all the time, separating families. It was hard for her to find herself in the new reality, she had no friends, almost no relatives, she felt like a stranger. Crazy shit. The next day we went for lunch together and topped it up with ice cream and coffee on the beautiful Plaza Principal enjoying the lazy Sunday afternoon. Soon after I grabbed my backpack from the hostel and hit the road again hoping that Ericka would have a chance to travel freely like citizens of Europe, Chile or Brazil and that she would see her parents again. Life can be so unfair sometimes. We don't choose a place to be born.

In order to start hitching I had to avoid the madness of suburbs so I first took a taxi to Satelite Norte and than another one to Warnes. It took me a while to sort out where I could pick it up from and I arrived at a petrol station when it was almost dark. Local stations were different than the ones I knew so far. International brands didn't exist anymore on this market after the nationalisation brought by Evo Morales, the socialist president. Their standard was low, there were no shops or cafeterias, no wifi, however some still had showers, especially in the lowlands with its extreme heat. After nighttime fight with leafcutter ants, which ended up with a broken tent pole, I got to Montero early in the morning. I jumped there on a cheap motorcycle taxi to get closer to the toll booth and police checkpoint in one.

I got the next ride almost immediately with a truck and something was not adding up again. I heard and read before that hitchhiking was slow in Bolivia also because all the vehicles were very old. I couldn't see any of that. Many trucks still had their original license plates so it was easy to tell where they were imported from. Sweden, Norway, Germany and other European countries. They were all quite new. My driver told me that Morales changed the law and the tax for second hand vehicles wasn't high, but it was illegal now to import cars and trucks older than five years. Smart. By the end of the day I arrived in Ivirgarzama after getting stuck at one point for a few hours. Locals showed me coliseo, a roofed basketball field when I asked them where I could camp. Perfect protection from the storm building up that evening. There was a sign cemented to the wall which read: 'Co-financed by the European Union.' In Bolivia?

There were other projects like that, for a long time Europe was trying to create jobs and take people away from growing coca. Americans were doing that in a different way, they had their troops and DEA** agents in the area to destroy plantations from air. Morales, as an ex coca grower, kicked the Americans out. Coca was grown and used by the locals for centuries, even before the Inca Empire times. Only in the end of the nineteenth century German scientists isolated cocaine from leaves. The majority was grown for local consumption in the form of leaves that were chewed or used for teas and medicine and now it was legal again in Bolivia. In the same time farmers who sold them on the black market were prosecuted, following the policy called 'Coca yes, cocaine no!'*** This policy started to bring positive effects, United States didn't want to acknowledge that though. Morales had the courage to tell the great America: 'out of my backyard' and try a new approach to the problem. European Union, against the US, started to support him in that and financing for instance electronic system of registration of the farmers and transports. Will America start seeing things soberly one day?

Cable car in La Paz Bolivia
Cable car in La Paz
Early in the morning I got a lift very quickly and that lorry was going all the way to Cochabamba. Following a few hours of easy drive through the plains the road started to wind up the mountains. Dark green jungle soon disappeared in a thick fog. We were swimming in this milk for an hour or two and when it finally started to water down, I saw pine trees, lakes and potato fields. The tropics in the morning and temperate climate by midday. I had a quick look on the historic centre and then started to look for a minibus to get me out of the city. I wanted to keep on going, somebody was already waiting for me in La Paz.

I first took a minibus to Colcapirhua and then one more to Vinto. There was probably a way to get directly to the petrol station in Vinto, but it was hard to find such bus. The station wasn't the best place to hitch, mostly taxis and buses were using it, so I took a taxi to get to the tolls in Suticollo. Half the booths were not operating, there was some kind of holiday going on and a good crowd, with beers in their hands, was dancing to loud music. Yes, at the toll station! What a free country.

The night was cold, I was actually shaking while packing my broken tent on a potato field in the morning. At the tolls I saw people, usually old ladies in their traditional clothes, hitchhiking. They were offering money, probably less than a bus fare, so here I definitely needed to mention the word free to not be surprised. After a few hours I got a ride with one family to Parotani. Behind that village the road was climbing even higher up onto the top of the freezing Altiplano. In half an hour I was picked up by a truck with extremely heavy load and our speed rarely exceeded fifty kilometres per hour. We reached the roof of Americas after many hours of breathtaking drive.

From Caracollo we were driving along a dual carriageway which was still under construction, so even though it was finally flat, our speed was low anyways due to the roadworks. Beside some short urban sections, this was the first proper express road being built in Bolivia, maybe the highest road like that in the world. It would connect La Paz with Oruro, cities located more than two hundred kilometres away from each other. Another myth about Bolivia busted. I heard only complaints about the condition of their roads and maybe secondary roads were in a bed shape, but the main roads I saw were absolutely fine. Morales was pumping gas money not only in the infrastructure, as a matter of fact, but in many social projects as well. The country was going through rapid changes and it looked like the society was benefiting. There was one concern about Morales though, he was trying to tamper with the constitution in order to stay in power. He was elected democratically, and in democracy no one stays in charge forever.

'Here's five Bolivianos for the taxi.'
'No it's okay, I can walk,' I refused while putting my backpack on.
'The junction is too far, just take it. Tell the driver you wanna get to the junction with Ruta 4.'
'All right, thanks man.'
A minute later I was inside a taxi and he was right, the junction was quite far on the other side of Patacamaya. The national road 4 was used by many trucks bringing stuff from Chile, it could be a good spot, but once I arrived it was already dark. Camping here, in the Altiplano? No way, I had to continue. I put my fluorescent vest, scribbled La Paz and the first lorry stopped. Two hours later I was inside the cosy and warm apartment of Guely.

I met Guely in Valpo, she stayed in La Valija Hostel for about two weeks. She was an artist producing noise music and that was the reason she went to Chile, they had a noise festival in Valparaíso. I spent a few days in La Paz and we were usually hanging out at her place and messing with music, but we also went out to some events organised by her and her friends or did some sightseeing. One day we went to El Alto, the satellite city built on the verge of the plateau which became larger than La Paz itself. The latter, located in a natural bowl, simply started to run out of land to spread. In El Alto there was a massive flea market every Sunday, probably the largest in South America and the view during the shopping was amazing. Old ladies in their traditional clothes, La Paz at the bottom and the white majestic Mount of Illimani reaching the deep blue skies.

La Paz was the seat of the country's government and obviously was going through many changes even more intensely. The municipality introduced the first few lines of proper city buses with large comfortable vehicles with wifi on board. The idea was to eradicate all the minibuses that were uncomfortable and caused massive traffic. Getting to one with my backpack was a real hassle. The government decided to connect La Paz and El Alto in even more effective way than buses. It started to built a few lines of cable cars. The first line was freshly opened and we took it with Guely on our way back from the flea market. It could take ten passengers every twelve seconds and the ticket cost almost as little as the bus ride. The thrilling view was included.

After the nice chill out in La Paz I headed further northwest, towards the largest lake on the continent, the famous Titicaca. I first got to El Alto and then got stuck trying to figure out which minibus could bring me to the city limits. There were hundreds of them. The traffic in El Alto was immense and the interesting thing was that the traffic cops there were women wearing the traditionally looking dresses as well as reflective vests. I had to go through the pain of packing and unpacking my stuff into these tiny buses three times to get me to the tolls in Vilaque. Shortly after I got a lift with an old man to Huarina. The traffic became scarce, trucks used different road to get to the Peruvian border, so I was down to tourists and pilgrims going to Copacabana. I walked for a few miles until a four by four stopped to bring me to the ferry crossing in San Pablo de Tiquina. Red evening sky was reflecting in the crystal clear water of the lake. The wooden ferry was very wobbly, but it brought me safely to the other side of the narrow strait between two basins. Once it got dark I could see lightnings in the distance, I started to look for some shelter. One lady suggested me to pitch the tent in front of her house and I agreed, however, after hearing the first drops I moved to a construction site round the corner. My cheap tent wasn't good enough for a storm, especially now with a broken pole.

The nights weren't as cold as I first thought, it was around zero at dusk, doable. It took me two lifts and maybe five hours to reach Copacabana. The town was full of pilgrims, local basilica was a shrine famous throughout Bolivia and Peru and people were just celebrating one of the most important holidays of the year. All the vehicles had windscreens colourfully decorated. Crucial part of these celebrations was taking place on the Calvary Hill and I climbed it with other pilgrims with all my stuff on my back. At the top shamans were doing ceremonies holding crucifixes and large bottles of chicha**** or beer in their hands, always spilling a bit for Pachamama before taking a sip. The sun was reflecting at the endless waters of the lake, the scent of burning wax was mixing with the smell of flowers and herbs just like Catholicism was mixing here with local beliefs. It felt beautifully weird and weirdly beautiful.

The border with Peru was only ten kilometres away and I got there just before the sunset with a couple who never picked up a European before. The first thing I noticed after crossing the border were the three wheeled auto rickshaws, just like the ones on the streets of Asian cities. I didn't expect them at all. After maybe an hour spent in one internet café the town had a sudden blackout, probably caused by the upcoming storm. Buildings around the main square had arcades so I sit there wondering where I could camp. I couldn't see anything, total darkness. A few minutes later some guys with uniforms and torches showed up so I asked them outright if I could camp where I was sitting. They didn't mind. I had no clue who they were, it wasn't police, more like private guards. Why did they spent all night there? The first day in a new country.

After grabbing a warming drink, and locals on both sides of the border had yummy hot beverages made of corn, quinoa and other grains and seeds, I marched till the end of town where I got stuck for a few hours. The only cars were unmarked taxis and minibuses, no trucks whatsoever. I took one of the buses to the junction with the main road but there wasn't much more traffic either. It looked like even less people had private cars here than in Bolivia and if someone had one, it was operating as a taxi. A few cars stopped, but when I mentioned a free ride they drove off without a word. Around midday finally someone was curious enough to listen to my story and not charge me for a lift.

People in the Altiplano looked so different than in other regions, their faces, the colour of their skin, their clothes. They were mostly Aymara and Quechua peoples. They not only looked different, they were behaving differently, they seemed more distant and cold, they were replying with just a few words and not asking too many questions, they had no curiosity of who I was and what I was doing in their land. Of course there were exceptions, but that was my general impression. Was it caused by geography only, the harshness of the climate, or maybe after the arrival of Spaniards they became like that to protect themselves and their culture. Or, maybe I was doing something wrong. Anyways, the cultural difference was huge.

An hour later I ended up in the town of Juli. Marching towards its outskirts I was wondering how long would I wait this time. How shocked I was when the first car stopped and the couple replied to my question: 'of course we'll give you a lift for free!' They dropped me off in Puno where I grabbed a local fish from Titicaca lake for lunch and jumped on a minibus to the periphery. Peruvian cities away from tourist routes had a strange feel. Already in Bolivian Altiplano they seemed exotic, all those houses with unplastered rough brick walls and huge metal doors. In Peru they looked similar, but hundreds of the auto rickshaws on the streets gave them even more oriental vibe. Just after getting off the bus a familiarly looking car stopped in front of me. 'Get in, we gotta go to Juliaca.' Another lift with the same couple!

Around three pm I arrived in another chaotic city. A bus that even had a number displayed, got me to a police checkpoint far outside the centre. It took me maybe an hour to find a lift, this time with a prison guard on his way to Ayaviri. We drove through the tundra like environment, dark apocalyptic clouds were hanging low. Our conversation looked like an interview, first he asked me dozens of questions about my trip, then it was my turn, I still didn't understand so many things in this place. I got off on the bypass hoping to find another lift before the dusk, but the plan didn't work, so I walked to the roadside restaurant to warm my body with a coffee. The owners were very forthcoming and invited me to try kankacho, grilled lamb which was a speciality of Ayaviri. They also told me there was a newly built bus terminal in town and I could crash there for the night. Brilliant.

It took me only ten minutes to find a ride the next morning and it was a truck going straight to Cusco. The driver didn't expect any money for the lift and told me that truckers usually gave lifts for free. It was a different story with many private cars, they were expensive and there was no way to bring second hand ones to the country. That's why so many vehicles were cheap Asian brands including all the rickshaws. Buying a car was an investment that had to be paid off some way, running a taxi was one of the options. My driver did trips to neighbouring countries and we played the comparison game. I received also many tips about food and what was worth trying. Peruvian cuisine was famous all over South America and maybe even further, and the best was that I could get two course lunch here for as little as one dollar and fifty cents.

Walking in Cusco was like walking in a dream. The colonial architecture with stone walls and Mediterranean style roofs was absolutely beautiful. And all the churches every few steps, it was like a Peruvian version of Kraków. As one of Peru's top tourist destinations the city was well taken care of and the chaos of other cities seemed so distant. In the evening I ended up in a hostel run by a guy called Pakari, his hostel was called in exactly the same way. It was cheap and located only a minute walk from the main square. Pakari found me there a spare tent pole. Cool spot. One of the first things I wanted to do was confirming what I'd already found out about the cheapest way of getting to Machu Picchu. I couldn't imagine skipping this wonder.

Ruins of Machu Picchu Peru
Machu Picchu
Most backpackers were getting there after a few days trek along the Inca Trail, from the other side most tourist were taking the fast train from Cusco. Both options were quite expensive. Of course I could try to hitch as close as possible, but it could take days as it wasn't close to any main road and most traffic would be tourist related. I had twenty three hundred kilometres and two weeks left to make it to Tumbes for the arrival of Aileen. I had to make an exception from the hitchhiking only rule. The best option was a a six hours bus to Santa María, then another two hours bus ride to Santa Teresa and finally a taxi to Hydroelectric Plant. From there by foot. And that's what I did after two days spent in Cusco. I left most of the stuff I wouldn't need in the hostel. Climbing Machu Picchu with twenty kilos on my back could be painful.

The bus ride was boring as hell, how people could travel this way. No chance to speak with the driver, no view of the road stretching in front of me. Most people with earphones in their ears or snoring. There were three other travellers on the bus, but I had a chance to speak with them only after arriving in Santa María. Two of them stayed for the night in the next town and I continued the trip with a tall Viking looking guy called Ernesto, who in reality was from Argentina. We quickly realised we were on the same wavelength. After getting to the plant we filled up our stomachs and started to march along the train tracks surrounded by jungle. It was hard to believe that I was shivering the same morning.

We walked for two hours out of which the last twenty minutes in the darkness. In Aguas Calientes we went straight to the ticket office and I got my ticket without problems, but Ernesto ended up with nothing. He thought that as a citizen of Mercosur country he would have a discount, but it was available only for residents of the Andean Community. He didn't have enough money and straight away started to send messages to his family and friends in Argentina to get some help. To be so close and not enter? The same evening we met with Taisa, the Polish Brazilian from Foz do Iguaçu. We were in touch since I left Brazil and I knew she would have a uni field trip to Peru, but I was still surprised that the timing was so good for both of us that we managed to meet. First she popped in to my hostel and now we were both at the gates of Machu Picchu. After a few beers I went with Ernesto to the only camping in the village. I wanted to get up well before the sunrise.

I met with Taisa and her Peruvian friends at the entrance gate, where the queue was already building up. All of us wanted to climb the Machu Picchu before the hordes of tourist would come there by buses. We started to climb the neverending stairs around 6 a.m. It was a trek full of sweat and short breaths. After an hour we reached another gate where our tickets were checked and I was forced to leave my backpack in a locker and pay extra fee even though everyone else was entering with backpacks. Why? Because. Great service ladies and gentlemen. I was trying to ignore it, I knew that after a few more steps I would see it. The sun was already brightening the highest peaks surrounding the Inca's town. The first view was definitely breathtaking, especially after the trek. How did they build it? And why here? This place had something, though, I wasn't one of those who felt connection with ancient civilisations, cosmos or aliens, it didn't have any spirituality to me that so many people claimed it to have. Maybe I wasn't that spiritual, or more likely, my spirituality had nothing to do with places like that, for me it was just a beautiful place. And I mean really beautiful.

Walking downhill to Aguas Calientes was much easier and we had a lovely chat with Taisa on our way back. I was happy to see her again, that was the real beauty of travelling, not just meeting people but meeting them again. At the camping I talked with Ernesto and two couples from Chile who just arrived. Everyone wanted to know how was it and I preferred to say: you'll see it yourself. I came back to Cusco the same evening and after one more day in the city I hit the road again.

I wanted to go straight to Lima, but one couchsurfer from the capital told me she would be in Huancayo with friends for the weekend and I was more than welcome there. I heard that most drivers going to Lima were choosing the road PE-30A via Nazca and then along the coast. However, the distance between Cusco and Lima via Huancayo was nearly the same. And now I had someone to visit there. Let's do it.

I had a lazy morning and pretty much like always arrived in a good spot very late. From the final stop of the minibus I started to walk towards the last petrol station in Poroy. Suddenly I heard: 'hey, polaco!' Who the hell knows me here? It was one of the couples I met in the camping site in Aguas Calientes. We tried to hitch together for a while, but it looked impossible to find a ride by night. Ochin and Max wanted to look for some flat meadow, but I told them to camp at the petrol station. They'd never really done it before and were surprised seeing our tents pitched just like that at the staff car park. The night was freezing, but how enjoyable was the hot shower in the morning. It was hard to close the tap.

I was really surprised with the amount of traffic, I was hoping for plenty of trucks, but the road was kind of deserted. We met two lorry drivers at the station who were willing to take us, but they were still waiting for a phone call from their boss, they would move maybe in one hour, maybe the next day. The time was passing lazily on the roadside, we grabbed one beer, then another one and another. It was nice to hear the Chilean accent again. Finally late in the afternoon, the two drivers waved at us shouting: 'pack your stuff in, we're going! Ochin and Max jumped into one truck I moved to another. After maybe an hour of talking I fell asleep, the beers did their job.

I woke up when the lorry stopped. I quickly checked the map. Fuck, we passed the junction for Huancayo.
'I'm getting off here, I told you I want to go to Huancayo,' I said still half asleep.
'But you gotta go to Lima first.'
'Why? There's a road from Abancay that goes to Ayacucho and then to Huancayo.'
'No truck is taking that road.'
'Well, there should be some cars at least.'
'Maybe, I don't know, I would go to Lima first.'
'That's like twice as far, I will check that road.
I said goodbye to the drivers and my hitching compañeros and started to look for any open shop, I was starving. It was 2 a.m., but I still found one and then I camped until five.

I was picked up in the morning within ten minutes and after one hour I was back to the junction. It didn't feel like I lost that much time. For another lift I waited one hour, this time it was an old four wheel drive with a young lad inside. He dropped in Carhuacahua where I quickly found another ride at the bed of a small truck. The air smelled with eucalyptus, snow capped Andean peaks were surrounding me. It was perfect morning. After arriving in another village I switched my map on to see what was its name. What? Where the hell am I? It looked like I missed the junction while going with the 4x4. But I hadn't seen any. I asked the road workers and they told me this was the main road to Ayacucho. Were both the maps I had wrong? I decided to continue, but the only traffic I saw was heavy machinery paving the road. After a few more hours I realised this road was being closed from time to time, my chances to pass through were close to zero. The lorry driver was right, I had to go by Lima. And he was driving all the way there. Eh, let's go back again.

After an hour I had a lift back to the junction with the main road. With a bit of luck getting to Huancayo for the weekend was still possible. One hour passed and nothing, another hour, no change. I asked one guy walking by where I could get water and his answer was: 'river'. On my way to check it out I saw a small truck so I waved from the distance and it stopped. I climbed through the open roof to the empty back and first saw two backpacks and then two guys lying on the floor. Colombians. One of them was deaf so his friend was translating, but they both had a brilliant sense of humour. Suddenly we stopped, the side door opened and two more hitchhikers jumped in. Holy shit! Pancha and Pelao, the second Chilean couple from the camping near Machu Picchu. Unbelievable.

The road was winding up the mountains and we were talking, walking in circles, taking pictures or lying motionless. Guys were also juggling and making jewellery to sell on the streets. The only thing missing was water, no one had any left. With every hour passing it was getting colder, we started to put more clothes and finally we all ended up wrapped with our sleeping bags. The night was really cold, but I managed to had a few hours sleep. When the truck stopped it was just before the sunrise and when I heard from the driver his trip was over I ran straight to a nearby stall to grab water. I drank like a camel.

Road PE-1N through desert north of Lima Peru
National Road PE-1N north of Lima
I was in the city of Nazca, surrounded by the desert with its famous geoglyphs. After walking for a bit together I wished the Colombians luck in their further trip. Pancha and Pelao left earlier in the search of cheap accommodation. When I trudged to the city limits I refreshed myself as much as I could and stuck my thumb again. A moment later I was sitting in a comfy lorry's cabin. The road PE-1 was the main artery of the country spreading from the border with Chile to the border with Ecuador. Its large part was in the motorway standard and it was packed with trucks.

I was dropped just behind Ica and got stuck there for a few good hours. It was like 2 p.m. when I finally hitched a ride to Lima. Those few wasted hours could had been enough to find a lift from Lima to Huancayo and arrive there late in the evening. But now I had to forget about it, it was too late. Once I spotted the waves of the Pacific the road turned into a motorway and we drove mostly in silence for another few hours. I got off close to the historical centre of the city. I had two things to do that evening: call people in Huancayo so they wouldn't wait for me and find a cheap accommodation. I was in bed by ten.

Lima felt grey, maybe because of the constant curtain of fog and clouds hanging above the city. I didn't feel like staying there for another night. The interesting thing was that it had a big China Town with really good and affordable restaurants locally known as chifas. Lima had the largest Chinese community in Latin America. In the evening I took a bus to Ancón and got off at the weighbridge close to which I camped. I still had seven days and only twelve hundred kilometres to the meeting point with Aileen. Hitchhiking was relatively good most of the time and I made that distance in three and a half day, usually with trucks. Behind the windows for all that time I had different shades of white, yellow and grey, the desert that began in central Chile was spreading almost until the frontier with Ecuador. Thousands of miles of wilderness with only small patches of green in the valleys.

Instead of going straight to Tumbes where the airport was located I spent the last three days in Máncora. It was the most popular tourist destination in the north of Peru, mostly because of the good waves for surfing. The town had plenty of hotels and hostels, restaurants served cuisine from different parts of the world, it was clean and tidy for Peruvian standards and the sun was shining all year round. I spent most of that time near hostel's pool or on the beach, which meant ouch sunburn. I went to Tumbes the day before Aileen's flight and it wasn't an easy hitch this time. It took me five hours to find a lift to the city that was only hundred kilometres away. Five hours in the sun. Auch. I crushed for the night in yet another petrol station and in the morning marched to the city centre. 'At one o'clock, on the cathedral stairs on Plaza de Armas.' That was our deal. I checked the time, four hours left. Only four hours.

* Gringo - in most Latin American countries this word means foreigner, usually white, from places other than South and Central America. In some countries its meaning is narrowed to people from the United States only.
** DEA - Drug Enforcement Administration is United States federal agency tasked with combating drug smuggling within the country and abroad.
*** Coca yes, cocaine no! - a colloquial name of the policy. More info and data available on Andean Information Network website.
**** Chicha - in Bolivia it's a fermented alcoholic beverage made of maize. In other Latin countries other ingredients can be used and it can be non-alcoholic.