Before we started our trip we were warned about Colombia. Namely, we were cautioned about the possibility of getting kidnapped by the FARC. We tried to ignore the stories, but when my beloved This American Life podcast ran a story about a Colombian radio station that exists for the sole purpose of communicating with the country’s kidnapping victims, our ears perked a little bit. However, after speaking to people who had spent considerable time overlanding in Colombia, we were put at ease. “Just stay on main roads and tourist areas and you’ll be fine. The rebels operate in the remote jungles and mountains now.” Easy! We just hadn’t realized how easy it would be to wander off the main roads. Soon enough, we found ourselves several days’ drive from civilization in the middle of the Colombian mountains, in what has historically been a FARC “red zone”.
Nacho had arrived on the ship at the port in Cartagena, and with it started my second round of hoop jumping to get our wheels out of the port. A ride on an airliner, several taxi rides, various port and customs offices, and too many hours were spent sitting around waiting for things to happen. I was denied entry to the port without proper footwear, so ended up spending a full day walking around the port wearing Sheena’s shoes.
To describe the convoluted, inefficient mess that we endured to get Nacho out of there would stir up far too many painful memories for me. I’ll just wave my arm and say many things happened, and in the end Nacho emerged from the port being driven by a guy named Mark. When it was all over, we happily putted away from the overheated city, looking for adventure. Our research revealed that there was a mountainous national park on the Eastern end of the country called Parque Nacional Natural El Cocuy, so we pointed Nacho’s big blunt nose Eastward and sat back for the long, slow haul.
The first two days of driving went off without a hitch, but by the end of day three it was about time for Nacho to break down. After all, we hadn’t broken down in a few hundred miles. Lo and behold, as we topped a mountain on the edge of Chicamocha canyon, our oil light started to flicker. Usually it only flickers when it gets wet, because the water causes the decomposing sensor wire to short against the engine. This time it wasn’t raining, and I pulled over to discover steam pouring out from under the van.
We hastily removed our belongings from the back of the van – shoe bin, Dutch ovens, my clothing – and opened the engine compartment. Sure enough, the plastic nipple on the rear coolant bleeder valve had somehow broken off, causing our coolant to empty itself all over the engine. The wet coolant had caused the sensor wire to short against the engine, alerting me to the impending disaster through the oil pressure warning light. I knew there was a good reason not to fix that wire! I whipped out the Dremel tool, created a new nipple, reconnected the coolant hose, refilled the coolant, and slapped on an additional pipe clamp for good measure. Disaster averted, and we were on our way.
By the end of the day we made it to San Gil, where we set up camp for the evening. Since leaving Cartagena we had been looking for a paper map to augment our GPS, but had found that the only places in Colombia that sell paper maps are the toll booths. And so far, every toll booth gave me the same answer when I asked for a map: “no hay.” In the morning, a quick search around town revealed no paper maps, so we reluctantly drove off the grid, mapless, towards the tiny mountain town of Mogotes.
The paved road to Mogotes switchbacked straight up the side of a mountain, and then descended the other side into a river valley. We drove for an hour or so along the river as it wound its way between enormous mountains, until we reached the town. A short distance beyond the town the road turned to dirt, marking the beginning of a multi-day dirt road drive through the mountains. I had flashbacks to that fateful day in Guatemala when I graduated from boy to man over the course of 12 hours on the death highway. This was poised to make that drive look like mere child’s play. We dropped into first gear and started creeping, slowly, toward El Cocuy.
The road between Mogotes and San Joaquin started so sweetly, like Martha Stewart, but after winding through the foothills the gradient pitched upward and the road revealed her darker side. We soon found ourselves plodding straight up the side of the mountain toward our first dirt road mountain pass. While the horizontal distance between Mogotes and San Joaquin is only a few miles, we found ourselves feeling uneasy at how long it was taking to climb the enormous mountain separating the two towns. The road narrowed and to our left the river valley spread out thousands of feet below us.
Near to the top of the pass, we encountered our first challenge. The road steepened abruptly before crossing in front of a waterfall. The road had been washed out, and subsequently repaired with concrete. The water, rather than flowing over the repaired road section, had found its way under the concrete, and had since washed all of the soil out from underneath it. The concrete remained, several feet of unsupported 4″ thick roadway suspended in mid-air, while the river had left a gaping chasm that funneled into a ravine.
We gunned the engine, Nacho let out a battle cry akin to that of a handicapped newborn pony, and we came to an uninspired halt in the middle of the abrupt uphill section before the waterfall. A classic display of Nacho’s frailty. I attempted to back up to have another run at it, but in doing so got us stuck in the ditch, wedged against the canyon wall. Just then, as if to add insult to injury, the sky opened up in a magnificent downpour, further weakening our 4″ thick concrete bridge and my confidence in getting to San Joaquin in one piece. After a while the rain stopped, we negotiated our way out of the ditch, and a few repeated attempts at the climb saw us safely on our way.
After reaching the top of the pass we rested for a moment before putting Nacho in first gear and lurching downward, toward countless switchbacks and dozens of landslides strewn across the road as it wound along the razorback spines of the mountain. Each time we crept through the path of a landslide I allowed my gaze to wander over the edge to see what kind of carnage it had caused farther down the mountain. On one occasion we spied a truck at the bottom edge of the slide, at least a thousand feet below. Sheena and I shuddered. Nacho shuddered.
We slowed down long enough in San Joaquin to verify that we were traveling in the direction of Onzaga, the next tiny mountain hamlet, and then carried onward, skirting the river at the bottom of the canyon. Our GPS had suggested that midway between San Joaquin and Onzaga there would be a road passing directly over the top of a mountain to our left, which would lead us to the town of Soata. The road didn’t exist on any map we’d seen, but if it existed it would put us within a half day’s drive of our destination, and would save us a full day of driving. As we approached the point where our GPS showed the road, we found a small bridge over the river to a dilapidated building. I parked Nacho in the middle of the road and got out to investigate.
As I rounded the side of the building, I found several men sitting outside on benches, beers in hand. Their eyes were all glazed over, and several of them had wookie eye – their eyes pointing off in different directions like the cookie monster. The drunken glaze in combination with the wookie eye sent mild waves of fear down my spine. When they saw me they all stood up and surrounded me. Someone whispered something about what I was selling and another kept counting to ten in English, his wookie eyes staring off into the trees behind me. After a while I ascertained that in fact the road did not go over the mountain, and that we’d have to get the hell out of there and drive to Onzaga after all.
A man and a boy seemed insistent that they were coming with us, but I pretended not to understand them. Another man who had been shaking my hand continuously wouldn’t loosen his grip on me. He stared at me, his wookie eyes burning holes in the sky to either side of my head. I managed to squeeze my hand free, wave goodbye to the group, and quickly retreat to Nacho where Sheena sat wondering what was taking so long. Our would-be passengers looked totally betrayed, their eyes gazing randomly all over the place.
More mountains followed and by nightfall we reached Onzaga. The town was quiet and only a few souls stirred in the street as we pulled up to the first hotel we saw. When we walked inside we found the owner and her friend, a truck driver, sitting around a plastic table. We checked into a room – nothing more than a concrete cube with two rock hard beds – and came back to chat. We showed the truck driver our planned route on our GPS, and although captivated by the touch screen, he was quick to inform us that our route sucked, and that he had a secret route that was way better.
“You see this part? No good! Totally mountains. No good! You drive to Covarachia, good! Your plan, no good!”
He spoke with a confidence that said I know what I’m talking about and you’d be a fool not to listen. A FOOL! He gave us some rudimentary directions to get to his secret road, but we were still leery. I checked Google Maps, Google Earth, and our GPS, but the road didn’t exist on any of them. Not only that, but we couldn’t even see a road on any of the satellite images. What to do? The man was pretty assertive, so in the morning we left at the crack of dawn toward the truck driver’s secret road.
Many days later while chatting with a local man, we told him of the convoluted route that we’d taken to get to El Cocuy.
“Yes, we definitely took a hard route to get there. We passed through San Joaquin, Onzaga, Covarachia…”
“WAIT!” he said. “You went to Onzaga?!”
“Uh, yeah. It was pretty quiet. We felt like aliens there,” I said.
“Didn’t you know that Onzaga used to be completely controlled by the FARC? All of these little towns are home to the FARC. Until very recently it was called The Red Zone.”
Looking back on the advice given to us about where to travel in Colombia, we realized that we’d done exactly the opposite of what we were told. We somehow found ourselves leaving a former FARC outpost on a tiny mountain dirt road so small that it didn’t even exist on any map or satellite image.
Spoiler Alert: in the end we didn’t get captured by any rebels. Maybe, just maybe, the danger in Colombia is as remote as the danger that we were supposed to have encountered while traveling in Mexico.
Next time: The Road to El Cocuy, Part 2: The Truck Driver’s Secret Road