‘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 a 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 a 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!
|My Mad Dog business add|
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 top party destination 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.
|The house and future hostel of Monika and Daniel|
‘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.
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 can’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 the 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 some sightseeing. Nights were cold and I was enjoying really hot shower in the hostel. We were going out regularly with Luisa and her friends and I had a chance to see Ángela, 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 chilout in the house I hit the road again with the destination of Santa Marta. I was almost back to the Caribbean, after two and 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.
I soon became 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 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 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.