Colombia – Cali, Popayan, Ipiales

The drive down to Cali is pretty uneventful, apart from the numerous tolls. I’m a little envious of motorcycles as they have a special skinny toll free lane at the toll booths.

I’m staying at a hotel for the week, best spot I could find with parking for my Land Cruiser. Lucky I confirmed ahead of time as they have exactly one full sized parking spot inside the gates.


Cali is quite a bit lower in elevation and much warmer. It feels like being in southern California. Plenty of palm trees. I visited the Cali gold museum, which is a subsidiary of the Bogota gold museum.


Not much going on in the downtown area, the Iglesia la Merced dates back to the 16th century.  The neighborhood of El Penon is good for walking, plenty of restaurants and little squares to hang out in.

I spent one day at the Cali zoo. It’s small but nicely laid out. One of the most popular exhibits was the Australia zone. I was amused as it contains just about every Australian cliche you can imagine. Except maybe a Crocodile Dundee actor.  I always enjoy seeing the tapirs.

From Cali I head south to Popoyan, The White City. Should be obvious how it got its nickname. Great to walk around, the streets and sidewalks even in the very center of town are wide and spacious. It’s a little harder to find restaurants and stores as they are not clustered around the Plaza de Armas (town square) as is usual.


The landmark of Popayan is the Puente del Humilladero. I’m staying at a nice hotel (above) just a couple blocks off the town square. There is no place in town that offers both accommodations and parking for a 2.3m vehicle so I am parked in a lot down the street. It wasn’t until I was leaving on Saturday to head south that I found out that the lot is closed on weekends (this is not uncommon but usually they tell you that when you park). No problem, another couple of days enjoying the town. As with many other Colombian tourist towns, there are plenty of tourists on the weekends but they seem to be mostly Colombians.

Side note: In towns there are two ways to stay at a hotel or hostel with a large vehicle. With my rooftop tent I am 2.3m tall, a standard garage entrance is 2.1m .

Method 1: Find a place ahead of time that can accommodate a 2.3m vehicle, easier said than done in many city centers. (I guess option 3 is stay way outside of the city but that’s no fun).  iOverlander is very helpful here. Also on Airbnb I have a standard template that I email to potential hosts stressing just how large and tall my vehicle is. I have had some that still insist that I can fit into a 2.1m garage.

Method 2: Figure out where the central location for lodging, hotels, hostels is. Then find a parking garage nearby, park myself then head out and find a place to stay. This is the best option in places with narrow twisty streets. Usually parking is only a few dollars per night, it’s secured with an attendant during the day and locked up overnight. Once parked I grab my daypack and a duffel bag and look for a place to stay. The only downside is finding that the lot is closed when you’re ready to leave, as above. I’m not the only person this has happened to, it seems like it’s a common thing.

With my Land Cruiser finally freed from the parking lot, I continue south to the border town of Ipiales. It’s a long drive, 333km which takes about 8 hours plus numerous expensive tolls. Ipiales’ claim to fame is the Santuario de las Lajas. In 1754 someone saw an image of the Virgin Mary in a grotto on this site on the side of a canyon, and numerous shrines have been built here ever since. The latest and most ambitious was started in 1916 and completed in 1949. It’s pretty impressive.


The path to the sanctuary goes steeply downhill from the parking lot. Not bad on the way down but at 2950m (9678′) I am huffing and puffing on the way back up. Luckily there are many souvenir and snack shops along the way.


On to Ecuador!


One year on the road

So I was sitting at the Steel Horse Filandia in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region and it occurred to me that it was exactly one year that I had been on the road, leaving Chicago on July 2, 2016. Looking back over the past year it’s incredible how far I’ve come, what I’ve seen, who I’ve met along the way.

One thing people always ask (not fellow overlanders, because they know it’s like asking “how long is a piece of string?”) is how much does this cost, being a world adventurer?

I have a little notebook that I track every day where I am and what I’ve spent on everything (in local currency).


So after exactly one year on the road, the total is 24,184.28 or $66/day. Not bad compared to living in the center of Chicago.

Trip Expenses 1

Almost one third is direct traveling, 17% being gas and another 12% tolls, ferries, airplane tickets, container shipping Panama to Colombia, vehicle expenses like insurance, oil changes, filters, parts.

Lodging is slightly more than one third, although I probably spent an equal time camping as staying in hotels and Airbnb the latter is much more expensive. In North America I camped almost all of the time, then in Central and South America it’s probably 50/50.

Food is one quarter of the total. I started out tracking restaurants, groceries, beer separately but gave up after a short time. It’s all food.

The Other category at 9% of total includes tours, haircuts, dentist, vaccines and prescriptions, toiletries, laundry, clothes, etc.

Colombia – Coffee Region


Leaving Medellin I head south to the famous coffee region of Colombia. It’s only about 280km to the town of Filandia but with recent rains the road though the Andes is blocked by landslides in many places. In some areas it’s just a short detour around the blocked section of road but at one spot I had to wait for an hour for bulldozers to clear a path through a fresh landslide. Probably about 10 hours to make it through 280km, and in spite of the road conditions they were still charging the full toll amount.

Filandia is a small rural town in the heart of Colombia’s coffee region. Nearby Salento seems to get all of the tourists while Filandia seems much more authentic. One thing I didn’t expect was that despite the amazing coffee that comes from Colombia, it’s hard to find a good cup of coffee. All of the primo coffee is exported to bring in as much money as possible. What’s left is called tinto, basically what the rest of the world doesn’t want.

My destination is the Steel Horse Filandia, which will some day be a full service hostel for the Filandia area. As of today it’s not quite open, but they are accepting self sufficient overlanders for camping. It’s a mile or so down a twisty muddy road from town in a very quiet location.


It’s owned by Yvette and Paul from the UK; Paul is currently back in the UK so Yvette is handling all of the work associated with getting the hostel ready to open. Below right you can see a picture of their cat, also named Paul. This cat is part parrot; he likes to jump up and perch on people’s shoulders.


One day I make the drive to the Valle de Cocora to see the famous wax palms. The 200 foot tall palms only grow in this valley.



Then an afternoon in Salento. Yes, this is definitely where all of the tourists go. Nice for an afternoon but a little crowded.




One day I am hitching a ride into town with Yvette and her friend in Yvette’s old Nissan 4×4 when maybe a half km out of the Steel Horse we are flagged down by a little girl jumping up and down in the middle of the road. She says her brother has cut himself with a machete and they need help. Pulling into their driveway, the mom comes out and explains that they have no car or phone so all they could think of was to post the little sister on the road to flag down the next vehicle. He accidentally sank the machete into his calf around 10:00 and it’s now around 12:00. Not much traffic on this road. He comes limping out of their small house with a dish towel tied around his calf and still dripping quite a bit of blood. We get him and his mom set up in the back and head into town, and in the little Filandia hospital they take him right into their ER.

Later in the afternoon the whole family, including the limping kid with the newly stitched leg, comes up to the hostel to say thanks. They have a bunch of fresh pineapple and the mom has brought some dish towels so she can scrub the blood out of the back of the Nissan. Yvette accepts the pineapple and tells them not to worry about the blood.

Later in the week Yvette loses her cell phone somewhere between the hostel and town. She spends the entire day searching everywhere in the hostel and along the road, then the next day goes to town to buy a new phone. The day after that a guy shows up at the gate with her phone in hand. He’s found it lying along the side of the road and it’s a complete mystery how he knows that it’s hers or where to return it.

Continuing south I stop in the town of Buga on the way to Cali. Its claim to fame is this church, which seems to be built out of millions of bricks. It’s not, it is all concrete and the millions of bricks are painted on. I have an enjoyable night at the Buga Holy Water Ale Cafe and Hostel


Colombia – Medellin

It seems like I am setting a new record for getting pulled over here in Northern Colombia. Since leaving Cartagena I’m averaging 2 or 3 times per day getting stopped at police and army checkpoints. Most of them are pretty quick and friendly, just asking me where am I coming from, where am I going, check my papers then on my way again. In one small town two police officers on a motorcycle pull alongside and hit the siren. I think they’re just bored; after the usual questions we chat for awhile about how long I’ve been in Colombia, how do I like their country, how long have I been traveling.

I go to the giant rock of El Penol outside Guatape to climb the 675 steps to the top. It’s a sunny day and it gets pretty sweaty by the time I reach the top. Luckily there are several little cafes on top selling cold drinks and ice cream.


Quite a view out over the reservoir. It’s a very popular tourist area for people from Medellin, just a few weeks later there is a major disaster when a party boat loaded with people sinks right out there, killing many people.


I drove through Guatape for a bit, hoping to stay for the night. It’s famous for its brightly colored buildings and packed full of tourists. There was no overnight parking anywhere that I could fit into, so had to drive back past El Penol to a little hotel on the reservoir.

Next day on to Medellin, second largest city in Colombia. Located in a large valley of the Andes mountains the weather is pretty much perfect all year long, giving it the nickname of “City of the Eternal Spring.”  Since it’s very long and narrow one subway line covers pretty much the whole city.

The highlight of central Medellin is the Plaza Botero, filled with lots of sculptures by Fernando Botero. The  Museum of Antioquia is located on the plaza and is also chock full of Botero paintings and sculptures. The museum has a cafe on the square that is the perfect place to have a snack and watch the city pass by.




I’m staying at a hostel in the upscale Poblado neighborhood. They offered to let me camp in their driveway but it’s really tight so I opt to just park there and stay in a dorm bed.


The Metrocable is a cable car line that ties into the main subway line, giving the poorer people up in the hills easier access to the rest of the city, as well as panoramic city views for tourists.  Unfortunately when I got there it had just shut down for the entire month for maintenance.


Whoever opened this burrito shop has been to Chipotle once or twice. It’s almost an exact copy of the Chipotle menu and assembly process, in about the space of a one car garage. The burritos were excellent, I had to come back for more.


When I got insurance in Cartagena I only bought one month, as I didn’t have clear plans for Colombia and didn’t yet know how amazing this country is. The month is at an end so I need to get another month or so before driving out of Medellin. I didn’t think it would be a problem as the agency near the port in Cartagena had no problem writing a policy for any amount of time, but everybody in Colombia buys a year at a time. It proves very difficult to buy less than one year of insurance here, but after a full day of chasing around to different offices I finally find a place that will give me a two month policy.


I am really enjoying life in Medellin; the weather is perfect every day, people are very friendly, the Poblado area is packed with restaurants, bars, shopping.



Colombia – To Bogota

There are a couple of popular beach spots on the Caribbean coast, but I decide that I have had enough of hot weather for awhile and it’s time to head to the mountains.

The highways are pretty good, although the main highway south to Bogota is under construction everywhere. It’s being expanded from a 2 lane highway to a 4 lane divided highway, so at some points I’m on the new section with a passing lane, other times all traffic is on the old two lane section, or all traffic on the new section. It constantly changes and if there’s not a lot of traffic I have to really pay attention to figure out where I should be driving. Also paid the first of many tolls to come.


Stayed one night in a truck stop hotel near Bosconia, where the highway from Cartagena meets highway 45 south to Bogota, then another night in Aguachica.

This guy has a chihuahua riding on his shoulder like a parrot, propped up by his passenger. It looked pretty happy.


Stopped for lunch outside Bucaramanga, great meal of steak with more steak. A big change from the usual meals in Central America.


Arrived in San Gil. Not quite the mountains yet but much better weather. San Gil is famous for white water rafting trips, climbing, and caving.


Then on to Barichara. It’s an old colonial town up in the hills, founded in 1705. Very picturesque and a great walking town. It’s a favorite location for filming telenovelas and movies, and has a lot of upscale homes hidden behind those white walls.  Somewhat touristy but not over the top.

I spend a week here in a cozy family hotel just a block off the central square. Start each morning sitting on the square with a coffee and snack. Plenty of very good restaurants for dinner each day, I think my favorite was 7 Tigres Pizza

Then on to Villa de Leyva. Founded in 1572, it’s much larger and more touristy than Barichara, but still quite nice to walk around. The main square is huge, the largest in Colombia. It gets pretty crowded on the weekends but during the week it’s quiet and peaceful. I wanted to drive my Land Cruiser into the center and get a picture, but they have barriers and police there to keep it limited to pedestrians only.

VilladeLeyva (2).jpg

Will and Cate are staying at the same little hostel/campground on the edge of town. One day we sign up for the Jeep tour of Villa de Leyva. It turns out that the tour does not actually include the entrance to any of the sites, just driving us from place to place then saying “OK go buy your ticket and go inside.” We visit the Fossil of Villa de Leyva, a monastery built using fossils, a winery, and the mirador which is just a small hill above the town. With all of the wine going back and forth it ended up being a fun afternoon.

As with the main square, quiet during the week but filled with tourists on the weekends.


Tons of great restaurants. Colombian tapas, grilled chorizo with spicy salsa.


Chihuahuas south of the US have been very friendly and happy.


On to Zipaquira, about and hour outside Bogota. The major attraction here is the Salt Cathedral.  They have been mining salt here for hundreds of years, and at some point the miners started carving a cathedral into the salt. The original cathedral was closed several years ago due to safety, so they have created a while new cathedral along with the stations of the cross in a new section of the mine 180m underground.


With the exception of the railings and lights, everything is carved from salt. The guides encourage you to lick any part of the walls (but not the statues) to test the saltiness.


Each section was done by its own group of salt miners. Some of the intricate statues took over a year to complete.

The cathedral is a popular place for weddings. There is a road tunnel going down into the salt mine to allow the wedding party to drive right up to the cathedral in a limo.

Finally, into Bogota the capital city of Colombia. It’s very modern and easy to get around.

The Museo Nacional was originally a prison in the 1800’s,  now an art and history museum. The Juan Valdez cafe in the courtyard garden is a good place to sit back and enjoy some Colombian coffee.

I have a week at an Airbnb in the Chapinero Alto neighborhood. It’s a downstairs apartment in the back of a house with its own entrance. The neighborhood is quiet and safe and my hosts are super nice and helpful. Like any big city, Bogota has a range of neighborhoods and safety, with some areas fine during the day but best avoided after dark, others that you shouldn’t enter at all. Once I figure out how to buy a transit card it’s really easy to get around on the big express buses.


The Gold Museum is one of the biggest tourist stops in Bogota. It has the largest collection of gold artifacts in the world.

I meet up with Will and Cate for a street art tour in downtown Bogota. Very interesting with lots of details on the various artists, the types of art and crews involved, the etiquette and protocols that have developed over time.

Bogota sits at 2640m, so the weather is much more pleasant the the heat of Cartagena. I actually have to put on a jacket for the first time in quite awhile. Also a bit of rain here and there so I also have to dig out my umbrella. All in all a good place to spend a week.




I fly from Panama City to Cartagena with a stop in Bogota. It’s funny, both Panama City and Cartagena are steaming hot but it’s rainy and cool in Bogota; people are wearing coats which is something I have not seen in awhile


I’m staying in the old walled city of Cartagena, it’s very picturesque. The old city is not all that big so it’s easy to walk around the whole thing. I didn’t know much about Cartagena before arriving but after a few days I can see why it’s a big tourist destination.


I have a few days to wait for the container ship to arrive and spend them just walking around the city. Great street food, one day I ate nothing but food from carts.



It is incredibly hot and humid though, best to take an air conditioned siesta at the height of the afternoon.


Monday morning arrives along with the first snag; the ship is late. It was due in Sunday night but does not arrive until Monday late morning. We can’t get our official Bill of Lading (first step in the import process) from the shipping office at the port. They say to come back Tuesday morning. They did give me an unofficial copy which is good enough to start the customs process. I catch a taxi to the Aduana office and once I find the right office it’s great; they are actually happy to see me and assign an English speaking assistant to help me complete the form. Once it’s done you usually have to go outside and down the block to make a copy but since it’s pouring sheets of rain they tell me just to fill out a second copy in their office.

Tuesday morning first thing Will and I are at the Seaboard office in the port to get the Official Bill of Lading. Now there is an issue with our agent; Seaboard says she has not released it while she insists that she has. Lot of back and forth then they tell us to come back after lunch. After lunch the situation has not changed, finally after a couple of hours we get the documents. It’s almost closing time in the port but we go to the port office to get started on the clearing. They look at our documents and tell us “Oh, your container is in the OTHER port.”

Wednesday morning Will and I are at the other port when it opens. We are assigned a port consultant who will assist us in the rest of the process which is pretty nice as we were expecting a day of running around from office to office. The first snag of the day is when he asks for our medical insurance. I just have an old Blue Cross card and Will has something similar. It does not work. They want a detailed policy showing coverage for any accidents occurring in Colombia. We both buy an internet policy from World Nomads for 1 week coverage ($48 USD ouch) which satisfies them. Lots of form filling and I got designated as the container owner which means I have to sign and print my full legal name and passport number many many times. Every once in awhile we have to go out to the bank counter in the lobby to pay one fee or another. Finally we are ready to go into the port and open the container, except the machine that brings the container to the unloading area is broken. Come back after lunch. And they are serious about their lunch hour and a half here, at 12:00 the office lights go out, curtains down, doors locked. After lunch we return and get ready to enter the port. Safety vests and helmets are mandatory, except they have only one set so Will gets the helmet and I wear the extremely smelly vest. We get there just in time to see our vehicles coming out of the container. A brief check by the customs agent and she hands us our TIPs. We drive off to the other side of the yard then back into the office for more paperwork.


We return to the port to claim our vehicles, but still need to have them weighed for some reason then a couple more forms and we are set loose into Colombia.


Very easy leaving Costa Rica as there was nobody else at either immigration or customs. Panama took a little longer, first finding the immigration office in the police station, then walking around the corner and getting insurance for the month. I apparently picked the wrong insurance office, it took almost half an hour to get my details entered and the insurance printed out. Then to customs with all of the usual copies of my documents. After receiving the temporary import permit, back around the corner to the fumigation station. There is no fumigation going on nor any evidence of any kind of fumigation equipment. Just pay $1USD and get the fumigation form. Back across the street to the police station and hand the officer at the front desk copies and I’m done.

As I leave the border it starts raining quite hard. I’m up in the mountains on the usual very twisty road and in pouring rain it’s pretty slow going. I had intended to make it to Boquete but once the sun sets and the rain continues I stop at a hotel in the nearby city of David. Next morning off to Boquete in the sunshine. Pull into the last open parking/camping spot at Pension Topas next to my friends Will and Cate and set up camp.

Weather here is great, sunny and not too warm. It’s a beautiful little town full of American, Canadian, and European expats. Lots of good restaurants.


On the other side of the main street is Mike’s Global Grill. Mike is from Chicago and has decorated his place accordingly. Great food and happy hour specials. I had the No Bueno hot wings, which were truly the hottest wings I have ever eaten. If you squint a little it’s just like being in a Wrigleyville bar.


Around the corner is an excellent bakery and cafe. I start my mornings here with either breakfast or one of these tasty muffins.


I was walking to the grocery store when I saw Dr. Luz’s clinic and realized that I was due for a cleaning and checkup. Made an appointment for the next morning. Dr Luz does all the work herself, no hygienist or receptionist, so it went quickly. Very nice place, all of the modern equipment. 30 minutes later I was out with a clean bill of health and clean teeth for $40USD.


After a week in Boquete I headed to the Pacific coast, on the way to Panama City. Roads here in Panama are pretty good.


Stopped for a few days at a surf camp outside Santa Catalina. The road ends at the river, which you have to drive across to get to the camp on the other side. It’s pretty shallow at low tide, just have to make sure I time my departure with the tide.


Nice spot right on the beach, I can lie in my tent and watch the waves rolling in.


On to Panama City. The PanAm highway is easy going and I drive 260 miles in one day, probably a record for Central America. I have been focused on the details of shipping to South America and hadn’t really thought about the Panama Canal and the end of Central America. It was a big moment crossing the Bridge of the Americas, entrance to the Panama Canal, and coming into Panama City.


Panama City is huge, very modern with the only subway in Central America. I’ll be here for a week arranging shipping, staying at the Best Western. Very nice room with strong AC, important as it is crazy hot here. Also has an indoor parking garage. The garage clearance is 2.3m and the Land Cruiser is 2.25m with the rooftop tent so I drive very carefully up to a parking spot on the 4th floor.


Shipping to Colombia is the most complicated and expensive border crossing yet. We have a shipping agent who deals with the container line, but she only communicates with us via email. We still have to navigate from place to place and get all of the red tape done by ourselves.

The container ship leaves from Colon on Saturday, but you have to check your vehicle in at Colon by the Wednesday before. Prior to that you need an inspection for export and a background investigation for export completed in Panama City, which takes a full day.

We’re both here early so we decide to get the inspection and investigation done on Friday. For the vehicle inspection you have to arrive at the customs inspection yard in a shady neighborhood at 7:30 am, get a number, then park with your hood open so the engine can cool down. Inspections don’t start until 9:00 am. Once they get going they do the foreigners with campers and RVs first, probably to get them out of the way as the lot is really crowded. For the foreign vehicles they just check the VIN against their paperwork, collect copies of our documents, and send us off. The Panamanian vehicles get a thorough going over, they take impressions of the engine serial number, VIN on the frame and body.

Once that is complete we need to return to the nearby Secretary General’s office in the afternoon where they determine the vehicles are not stolen and there are no outstanding fines or tickets. More copies of everything: driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, vehicle registration, and Panama temporary import permit. After a long wait we are called up one by one and receive the official document giving permission to take the vehicle out of the country.

Cate with Moby waiting for inspections to start. It’s really hot already at 8:30am.


We send our agent copies of the permission documents and she tells us that we have to make the full payment at a bank in Panama City before proceeding to Colon to drop off the vehicles. It’s Saturday morning and Will and Cate have already left the city for the weekend. As we are planning to drop off the vehicles on Monday and the bank is closed on Sunday, there is only about an hour left to get it done. Luckily I have enough cash on hand to cover the entire amount so I jump into a taxi with $1,800USD in my pocket and head to the bank. Although Google assured me that it was open til 1 pm on Saturdays, the sign on the door says 12:30. It’s 12:24 when I jump out of the taxi and quickly enter. For the payment I just make out a deposit slip with the agent’s name and account number and hand it over with a big pile of cash. With the day’s task completed and the pile of cash safely in the bank I decided to walk back to the hotel in order to see a little of Panama City. It was a hot and sweaty walk, had to stop halfway for a cold drink.

On Sunday I drove over to the Panama Canal Locks and Museum. The museum has tons of stuff on the construction and operation of the canal, including the new super sized locks that just opened. I was lucky enough to see a ship coming in from the Pacific and going through the locks, there is a large shaded viewing stand in front of the first lock.


It takes awhile to raise and lower the water in the locks, but the ship went through pretty quickly. In the video below you can see a couple of people dancing around in front of the ship, I think they were taping an episode for Good Morning Panama

Monday off to Colon, about and hour and a half drive on the highway.

First stop is at the Seaboard Marine office to get stamped copies of our bill of lading, then down the street to the customs office where they get three copies each of: bill of lading, police permission certificate, driver’s passport, driver’s license, vehicle title, insurance and the temporary vehicle import permit. They issue a cancelled temporary import permit and put a stamp in my passport saying it’s OK to leave the country without my vehicle.

Back down the road to the actual port, we park outside and walk in to get more paperwork done. It takes forever due to some kind of computer problem, but eventually we get our documents processed and pay the port fee. We finally drive into the port and park in the valet lot waiting for the customs inspection. The inspector shows up with his dog, rifles around the vehicles a bit then runs the dog through. The valet guy takes detailed pictures all around our vehicles and we hand over our keys. I’m a little disappointed that we don’t get to drive into the container, or at least see our vehicles going in.

We walk out to the road and catch a taxi to the bus station in downtown Colon. The whole city is pretty sketchy and this is the sketchiest area. Instead of waiting for the bus Will and Cate order an Uber ride to their hotel near the airport and I tag along. Then just a $30 taxi ride from the airport and I’m back at my hotel.


I spent a couple more days in Panama City just relaxing and walking around. It feels good to be in a big modern city with all of the associated conveniences, and it feels very good to have the first half of the shipping to South America completed. Then back to the airport for the flight to Cartagena with a stopover in Bogota.