Colombia/Panama 2010: the longest bus ride ever, 12 hours in Bogotá, and the world’s best hostel

Note: This post comes from an email I sent during a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in June 2010.

Greetings from Panama City, gateway between the oceans!

Although I haven’t written for a few days, there is not a ton to report. Let’s start with the bus ride from Cartagena to Bogota, otherwise known as a day I will never get back…

I spent my last day in Cartagena lazing around the hostel with some shopping thrown in. I worked my way through about 70 pages of the Spanish version of the new Eclipse novela by Stephenie Myer while in the rooftop hammock and eventually descended to brave the souvenir shops, where I bought some jewelry and a dress. It was a cloudy, rainy day, so there just wasn’t much else to do. Greg and I ended our time in Cartagena by visiting a grocery store, where some Colombians helpfully advised me in which type of aguardiente, strong Colombian liquor, to buy before our long bus ride. I also coached Greg on how to ask Olga, the beautiful and friendly proprietess of the hostel, to be his best friend forever in Spanish… something I picked up from reading the novela. (It’s literally “do you want to be my intimate friend for eternity?”) Unfortunately, Olga had already gone home by the time we returned, so Greg will now save this for another lady.

Our bus ride to Bogota was supposed to last about 16 hours. A British girl we met said she had heard 20 hours. Let’s just say, we were all wrong. We boarded a bus in Cartagena that was having air conditioning issues, and the Colombians were so indignant about this that most of them stormed off the bus before it left Cartagena. We were told it would be fixed in Barranquilla, which is great, except that Barranquilla is two hours NORTHEAST of Cartagena when we were supposed to be heading SOUTHWEST. However, always the flexible travelers, we shrugged our shoulders and settled back to enjoy the trip as best as we could. It really wasn’t uncomfortable on the bus when there were just seven of us. We passed plenty of small towns where chickens, goats, cows, and donkeys were plentiful and arrived two hours later in Barranquilla, a place you might recognize from a line in Shakira’s “Hips Don’t Lie”. (En Barranquilla se baila asi!) We were pleasantly surprised to see that the air conditioning issue was resolved within 15 minutes, but this turned out to be for the worse. The bus was FREEZING for the rest of the night… even in my ankle-length dress with a sweater, jacket, and shawl around me, I was wholly unable to get warm and spent the night alternating positions every few minutes in an effort to minimize my discomfort.

The bus ride featured a number of movies that I can safely say I will die happy without ever seeing again. They included “Highway Assassin 2”, “Boat Cruise”, “Wrong Turn 3”, and a random series of music videos that were really more like raunchy short films. When these were not on, we would get spurts of salsa music that unfortunately did not inspire the same spirit as the rumba chiva. Meanwhile, we just drove, and drove, and drove… eventually winding through the mountains, where I was grateful (despite my tendency towards motion sickness on winding roads) not to be sitting in the front of the bus, because our driver’s favorite game was to pass the cars, buses, and trucks in front of us. On winding roads. I took a few pictures of situations in which we could have run into an oncoming truck and also have a picture of the sign that indicates that passing is not allowed.

Every once in a while we would stop to let someone get on the bus to sell food or drink… I could have bought a ham and cheese pastry with a cup of coffee for about 75 cents US, but when you’ve just been sitting forever, you don’t have much appetite.

We hit some traffic when we got close to Bogota, and so despite being on the outskirts of the city, it took another two hours for us to fnally get to the bus station… at 6:30 pm, also known as 23 hours after we left Cartagena. Conclusion: I am never, ever taking a bus like that again.

I was quite disappointed not to be able to see Bogota in the daylight. Our hostel was in the old part of the city, and I managed to see the Plaza Bolivar (they exist everywhere, including here in Panama City) but not much else. I had opted not to bring my camera with me during our venture to find dinner, which I regret now because Bogota has lots of very interesting graffitti (it reminded me a lot of Zagreb). My favorite said, in Spanish, “we don’t want to be an American colony”. I definitely want to return to Colombia and see not only Bogota but Medellin, Cali, and other places that are supposed to be very interesting and fun.

We got up at 3:30 yesterday morning for our 6:30 flight to Panama, and it was at the airport that I finally had some Colombian coffee. I don’t have a great palate for things like coffee, beer, and wine, but it did taste pretty damn good to me… or was that just because I was in a semi-zombie-like state after extended sleep deprivation? I managed to fall asleep on the plane in spite of the coffee but was wide awake during our drive from the airport. Our cab driver was extremely well traveled and had a number of things in common with me… has family in Indiana and Colorado, likes Croatian people, etc. He had all sorts of things to say about how great the United States is and what the Panamanians are like.

Our hostel here is perhaps the most genuine hostel experience I’ve ever had. It’s called Luna’s Castle and overlooks the bay near the fish market. There is no air conditioning, but floor to ceiling bay windows stay open, and ceiling fans keep the air moving enough to keep things pretty comfortable. I was able to go to bed last night with a view of downtown from my pillow… awesome. There’s also a ping pong table, do it yourself pancakes for breakfast, a movie theater (we watched “the Big Lebowski” last night), and a bar that offers $1 cocktails from 9-10 pm. People are staying here from all over, including Britain, Germany, New Zealand, and Israel. Some of them have been traveling for months (living my dream). I had a fun time last night talking to a Londoner and a New Zealander who didn’t know the difference between Washington state and Washington, D.C., nor did they know where either of them are.

The hostel is in an old part of the city, where we walked around yesterday before hiking through a park that boasted a multitud of species of birds, monkeys, and other animals, none of whom we saw… but we did observe some amazing colonies of ants, and at the summit we got some pretty awesome shots of the city and the canal. It was absolutely worth the sweaty and somewhat perilous hiking up and down… I nearly faceplanted four times but emerged unscathed.

We are heading to the canal in a few minutes… should be pretty interesting!


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