After a wonderful week in Cartagena, Colombia, Ellen and I are about to hit the road again. This time we’re on our way to our cousin’s house in Pereira.
We had hoped to do this leg of the journey by plane, as the roads are apparently slow, prone to landslides, and not always safe. When we tried to book our tickets on Christmas Day, it would have cost us $75 per person to fly on New Year’s Eve, but the site wouldn’t accept my Canadian Visa card. By the time we were able to get in touch with the airline to book our tickets, the price had more than doubled and our preferred dates weren’t available, so it looks like the bus is our only option.

Google Map shows the road as being fairly direct - rumour tells us otherwise.

Google Map shows the road as being fairly direct – rumour tells us otherwise.

According to the word on the street, this bus trip is particularly unpleasant. The bus company claims it’ll be 12 hours to Medellin, our stopover for the night tomorrow. Other travellers assure us it could take 20 hours. Rumour tells of buses held up by robbers late at night, bags stolen, roads closed for days at a time. On the other hand, hundreds of people travel the route every day – three companies service the route and ours offered six departure times per day – so surely the proportion of travellers who get held up must be low. Lonely Planet names our bus route as one at risk of guerrilla attack, but assures us that “in most cases these assaults are purely political – all passengers and their luggage are kindly let off before the bus is put to the torch.”
Having informed ourselves of the risks and decided to go anyway, Ellen and I went to the main bus terminal to buy our tickets in advance. We chose the 6am departure so we’ll be travelling mostly during daylight hours, but we thought we’d prefer to know that space was available, especially because the week between Christmas and New Year’s is apparently the busiest of the year. Althought tomorrow we’ll get to the bus terminal by taxi, today we ambled our way there on a city bus.
Cartagena’s bus system is fascinating. Instead of one main bus company serving the city, dozens of independent carriers run routes every which way. We found out which brand of bus went to the bus terminal, but when we got to the street we’d been told it left from, it was clear no buses were to be found. Luckily, we remembered from our strolls around the area where to find a bus stop, and waited for our bus.
Catching a bus here is an experience unto itself, and I’m glad we took one. The colourful mini-buses passing by honked and played melodies to attract passengers. It seems you can flag one down just about anywhere on the route, rather than at pre-arranged stops. Many carriers have guys hanging off the side of the bus, calling out its destination and heckling passersby to ride. Upon hearing one guy call out “Terminal”, we ditched waiting for our intended bus and hopped on. The bus was crowded but not unpleasant, except for the lack of leg room, and a variety of vendors wander on and off the bus selling cold drinks and fruit. One interesting sales tactic is to hand out a chocolate bar to everyone on the bus, then demand payment or the chocolate bar back. This has the added benefit of tempting small children to open the chocolates before their parents can stop them, thus guaranteeing easy sales.
Having found the bus terminal and secured our early-morning ticket, Ellen and I had our last meal in Cartagena for the foreseeable future – I’d love to come back here, but who knows how our plans will go. Ellen is talking to the hostel owners about arranging a taxi or other ride to the bus terminal – they suggest leaving here at 4:30am to make sure we aren’t late. I’m drinking a beer and blogging – it’s nice to have a sister as a travelling companion! We may not post tomorrow, but I’ll certainly try to post from Medellin on Sunday.

There are certainly enough little yellow taxis around during the day - here's hoping we'll find one at 4:30am!

There are certainly enough little yellow taxis around during the day – here’s hoping we’ll find one at 4:30am!