Colombia by Bus — Reluctantly, the Only Way to Go

Colombians, especially those living in crowded metropolitan areas, love to take frequent “stay-cations” to popular festivals, sports events and general sight-seeing throughout this very large country – Colombia is the size of Texas and California combined, ranks fourth in the overall population of Latin America, and tenth in population density.

While there are sometimes promotions for air travel, the majority of Colombians are just fine with crawling into a very large, flashy, sometimes even two-story bus for an interesting long-distance haul. Let me just mention that this large country possesses three remarkable stripes down it’s back – namely branches of the Andes Mountain Ranges, called Cordillera Occidental, Cordillera Central and Cordillera Oriental.

These giant examples of extreme geology are responsible for dramatic changes in climate, speed, temperature and sleep.

That being said, the trip involves winding, narrow roads, variations in speed, ranging from 100 mph on downhill stretchs and 5 mph on uphill, one lane roads, huge variances in temperature ranging from 99% humidity in valleys and river basins, to freezing mountain tops where snow can be seen. My particular experience involved traveling from Bogota to Medellin, where we passed through a village at 11,000 feet and a town ion the Magdalena River, which was a muggy and hot as the Amazon basin.

Upon arrival at the tour company headquarters, we entered a second-floor office with three large waiting rooms filled with people and suitcases.

Because there were so many people going to Medellin for the annual Feria de Flores, a second bus had been added. Luckily (?) we were assigned to the smaller bus. The large bus advertised cushiony, reclining seats, air conditioning and an on-board bathroom. Our smaller bus also had reclining seats and air conditioning but no bathroom. Now there are advantages and disadvantages to each type of bus, as we later found out.

Our trip was scheduled to leave Bogota around 6 PM so that we could have the pleasure of sleeping all night, refreshed and ready to attack out tour schedule bright and early the next day. The conductor and the guide on our small bus assured us of plenty of bathroom stops and snack or meal breaks. Leaving Bogota, we sped ahead of the larger bus and were afforded some nice four-lane highways for a short distance downhill from the lofty Colombian capital, which rests at 8,300 feet.

Soon the roads diminished in width, and spectacular mountain ranges protruded like sharpened teeth in the distance. Winding down the slithering roads, around hairpin curves and indiscriminately passing slower traffic, we soon were engulfed in balmy humidity and temperatures rising into the 90s. Back up we went over the hills and dales, crossing rivers and barging through tiny pueblos.

Test # 1: Trying to sleep while pitching back and forth and rolling from side to side, with the ocassional skreech to a halt for police checks and stray dogs. Virtually impossible!

At about 2 AM we stopped at a very large, very hot truck stop under a large tin roof, but devoid of walls. Here we were treated to cafeteria-style meals, including fast food and hospital-approved dinner selections. Large banks of bathrooms were located on the far side and a spacious souvenir shop dominated half the enclosure. For some reason, unknown to us at the moment, we were given a very ample amount of time to dine — two and a half hours — so we sat at picnic tables. The real reason we were “treated” to such a leisurely middle-of-the-noche dinner hour, was the fact that we had to  wait for the larger bus, which was much slower, in order to keep all the passengers on schedule.

When finally everyone on both busses had had their fill we were ready for the remainder of the journey.Included in the journey was our accommodation at a Medellin hotel in a suburb across the river from the city center. We arrived at dawn, 6 am, and were informed that breakfast would be served at 8 am sharp. After another hour and a half of sleep, we sonambulized into the dining area.

Let me mention that neither the hotel rooms, dining area nor office was air-conditioned. The beds were made out of materials that felt oddly like wood and cardboard boxes, and a lone fan provided little more than a tepid breeze in the sweltering 86 degree (F) pre-dawn heat.

My enthusiastic travel mate decided that we should take a taxi after breakfast to see the highights of the city, noting that the guides told us to be back in the lobby by 11 AM. We taxied to the downtown Presidential Palace and Botero Square in the mid-morning heat, the sun brightly shining. Then we rushed back to the hotel to be herded by the guides for a walk to Medellin’s lovely rail transit system. We rode the rail to the cable cars and were treated to high-elevation sight-seeing of Medellin’s poorest barrios far below and crested the heights of the surrounding mountain range that keeps the city in a bowl of bus fumes, heat, rotting garbage and humidity. The temperature and rocking cable car, coupled with the hotel’s paisa breakfast did not agree with one of our cable car’s fair passengers and she upchucked. Poor thing! The heat was ridiculous, the morning’s breakfast greasy, and the cable car’s rapid zip from station to station would be a challenge for the best of travelers. However, she handeled it elegantly and cheerfully.

Next, we got off the transit system at – you guessed it – Botero Square and the Presidential Palace for “free time” — 3 hours to sightsee, have lunch, buy souvenirs, check out the druggies and rasta people,  dodge pickpockets and robbers, and try to avoid vendors selling everything from ice cream to drain stoppers. By now, the temperature had risen to 95 degrees in the shade, and there was very little shade to speak of.

Back on the bus, we were herded to the large staging areas where music, dance, food and partying would commence later in the evening hours well after dark. The party there was just getting started but everyone was so exhausted that many of us returned to the shaded tree lined avenue where we were supposed to meet the bus after another two hours of “free time”. Finally, we were taken to a recreation of a paisa village high on the mountaintop over-looking Medellin with spectacular views, food, more souvenirs and trinkets, beer and ice cream. Our guide got lost in the crowd, enjoying many cervezas with local friends, and we, again, had to wait until she could be found — another hour or so! We returned to the hotel too exhausted to notice the lack of air-conditioning, or what kind of cafeteria special we were being served in the hotel dining room that night.

Next day, bright and early on another day of scorching sun and heat, we boarded the buses for an antique car parade, a pre-cursor to the Flower Festival Parade. We arrived at the parade route a 9 am and lined up along the roadway, where sitting in the grass (or dirt) was the only option, to wait for the parade that was supposed to start at noon. It didn’t actually start until 2, and finished at about 4. We waited and hoped the bus would collect us at 5, but again delayed it arrived at 6. Finally, we were herded back to the hotel for dinner.

Whoever is in charge of logistics for these guided bus tours should be re-assigned to Antartica and forced to live in an igaloo with no blankets and only a Dell computer for company. The timing of events and the bus schedule were so so poorly co-ordinated that we could have walked to the events from the hotel and back in the time it took to wait for the bus!

Next morning our group was divided into those who wanted to pay extra to go to the mountainous lake area of Guatape or go to a swimming pool amusement park. At first, the small bus was to accommodate the few who wanted to go to Guatape, while the large bus would hold the swimmers. Then it began to rain, and the Guatape tour group swelled like a Bogota sewer drain. Off the small bua and onto the big bus we were herded  as most everyone decided to go to Guatape.

Here we learned valuable differences between travel in the large bus and travel in the small bus. From about the fifth row back, the large bus smelled like cheap perfume in an attempt to mask the bathroom odors, after having been well used by the 60 passengers coming from Bogota. The AC sort of worked, and the windows opened, thank God, but super speakers were embedded in the overhead storage compartments every few rows, and if you were unlucky enough to be sitting under a speaker, an appointment with a hearing-aid specialist would be necessary because of the volume at which the conductor cranked the music to entertain the group.

The larger bus took the winding curves at approximately 4 mph, so it took 3 hours to travel 20 miles. Finally, we could catch up on our sleep!! Guatape, El Penol, a delicious lunch, and an entertaining boat ride made this the highlight of the trip.

The following day we were herded to the main parade of the Ferias de Las Flores for many hours of beautiful flowers, stilletos — men, women and childern carring large wooden structure stuffed with flowers on their back, marching bands, regional dances in gorgeous costumes, heavy drumbeats and animated musicians belting out Carribe beats, mounted police on horseback, beauty queens in convertibles, politicians and corporate sponsors advertising their wares, and on and on.

We departed at sunset on Sunday night, exhausted, sun-burnt, and laden with souvenirs.  Like a horse that has been on a trail ride and knows it is returning to the stable, our bus driver raced to return to Bogota. Another sleepless night ensued as our smaller bus ripped around curves, barreled down mountainsides, indiscrimantly passing slower traffic on blind curves goin up steep inclines, and  than 80 to 90 mph around bends, passing trucks on blind curves,racing other tour busses aand running over speed bumps at full throttle, the entire way back to Bogota.

It was a trip I will not soon forget.

NOTES on Survival for bus travel

1.Check for discount air-fares.

2.  Get thewhole story first, itinerary included. It may be cheap, but is it  worth it?

3. If taking a bus, travel during daylight hours

4. Make sure your last will and testament is up to date.



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