May 14, 2006 GMT
Sir Francis Drake

Had another of those days yesterday.

Up at sparrow's, and followed the directions of the parking chap to get out of Maracaibo. An hour later I finally managed to get out on to the road north, thanks to a helpful truck driver at the BP station.

As with most countries, police checkpoints proliferate the nearer the border yout get, and at one on the 60-mile ride north the policeman tried to tell me that the road to the frontier was the little one to my left. Not likely. Don't know if he was trying to have a laugh, but even my navigation's better than that (city escapes notwithstanding).

Anyhow, when I reached the border the Venezuelan formalities were pretty simple, as was getting into Colombia; me, that is, not the bike. I went to DIAN (the customs service) to do the bike paperwork. It was now 10:30, 35 degrees and extremely humid. No-one to do the paperwork. "Ten minutes" I'm told.

Three-quarters of an hour later the lady arrives. Much shuffling of carbon paper while a soldier casually leaves his AK47 (or whatever) on the chair next to me and makes photocopies of the appropriate bits of paper. Then the forms are filled in. Next problem. The chief who needs to countersign the forms is in Maicao (five miles away) and isn't coming to the border today. All I have to do is take the papers to Maicao, find the Police Command Post and Major Cerano, get his signature, then return to the border so they have their copy. I know border towns - absolute bear gardens and I don't fancy my chances of finding either the Command Post or the Major. But I really, really need to have the paperwork correct. Then a very nice Venezuelan chap (Carlos) who also needs signatures says he knows where the place is and I can follow him there; not only that but he's giving a couple of soldiers a lift there. So off we go, having the usual tollbooth game (you have to go round the side, I can't go backwards, but, I'll pay the toll, Oh, OK) on the way. And sure enough we dive into the middle of the beargarden on dirt streets. Carlos and nice young soldier #1 take my papers and go in while I sit outside chatting to nice young soldier #2, and five minutes later I have my signed paperwork and Carlos is happy to take my copies back to the border as he has to go back there anyway. Hurrah.

So I was now running rather late, with 400 miles to Cartagena and only seven hours of daylight left.

Colombian roads are really good (when they haven't been washed away) so I was able to make pretty good time. What really helped was that there was a fairly heavy army presence all the way along the road (thus reducing my chances of being shot at by FARC) who have also appropriated most of the police checkpoints, so I only had to stop once for a document check. There was only a quarter of an hour of torrential rain (albeit more than enough to be soaked through) and I managed to get to Cartagena just as it got dark.

OK, so I'm lost again. I stopped at a petrol station (er . . . BP again) to consult maps, and a nice young man asked (in English) if I needed help. So I explained which hotel I wanted, and asked him to flag a cab for me to follow; he did so, and not only that but went in the taxi as well, and ferried money between me and the driver when we arrived as I wasn't in a position to get off the bike.

Cartagena is absolutely beautiful; the old and extremely impressive city walls were built after Sir Francis Drake laid siege to and nearly destroyed the city. My hotel is in a 17th-century monastery which has been wonderfully restored. Like Venezuela, many people speak English, often self-taught (and many have bemoaned the fact that the BBC World Service no longer broadcasts to South America). Both countries also claim zero illiteracy; you see hoardings saying "Now everyone can read this message". I don't know how true this is. Oh, and BP was front-page news in today's Sunday paper.

If you read the Foreign Office's Advice to Travellers about Colombia you'd probably think twice about coming here.

Posted by Cynthia Milton at May 14, 2006 07:32 PM GMT
 


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