Adventuring is often punctuated by moments of quiet bliss and moments of exhilaration which are counterpointed by moments of the mundane. All of which, make life interesting. The previous entry describes a high note. This one registers on the other side of the scale.
Hired a taxi to Valledupar bus terminal on Sunday morning, the day after the Vallenato festival. In retrospect, I ought to have left on Saturday. The town was packed with visitors (mostly Colombians) and after the festival they wanted to get back the their towns. Many people travel by bus. My next destination was Mompox. However, I was interested in completing my terrestrial circumnavigation the Sierra Nevada De Santa Marta… so I opted to go to Barranquilla.
Three companies go to Barranquilla but all the buses had been booked full for the next few hours. On days with many travelers alternate buses are plied into service. I was lucky to get a ticket on one departing at 3PM. The bus station was jammed. I watched carefully as visitors went through the same thing I had. They approached company windows and were informed. I watched how different people reacted. The situation was no different than holiday airport scenes in holiday seasons in the US. Lots of strangers going here and there, each with their own unique agendas and emotional responses. It was the denoumont scenario of the festival.
Bus departed 45 minutes late. Journey normally takes 5 hours. The road to Barranquilla is a two lane road. A solid line of traffic was the norm on our journey. Add to that, the continual road maintenance crews and the police checkpoints and the impatient drivers who often pull into the oncoming lane to pass with little regard for safety. More than once the traffic stopped completely and cars would pull around the bus into the oncoming lane and both lanes would be filled with cars, trucks, and buses heading in the same direction. Then people would get out of their vehicles and walk ahead to see what the issue was. I overheard at one such point that bumpers were locked together by two vehicles who were in opposing directions. The crowd intervened and the clog was unclogged and slowly the traffic began to lurch forward.
My 5 hour journey took 8 hours. I had accomplished my goal of going completely around the tetrahedral mountain. Exited the bus in the strange (to me) town of Barranquilla about 10PM. Showed the address of the hostel I had chosen to the taxi driver at the small bus stop. He looked at the address and shook his head. 20,000 pesos to go there. He recommended a hospedaje not far away and said it was a safe neighborhood and the owners were honorable. He explained that the address I had showed him was very far away.
It being late, and me being dirty, hot and tired, I was in no mood to quibble. He dropped me off in front of a house in what appeared to be a residential neighborhood. He rang the bell. Five minutes passed before someone turned on a light and opened the multiple barricaded entrance. Yes, there was space… with a/c, and a private bathroom. There was no sign of any kind on the outside of the house. Once inside, I saw that there was a refrigerated case of sodas behind the usual chest height counter. I presented my passport copy, paid and was shown to the room. Turned on the a/c, removed my duds, took a shower and laid my weary self on a nice double wide bed. I was out in no time. No internet at the hostel.
Next morning I negotiated my way on the bus system to the city of Barranquilla. The cab driver from the night previous had not lied. It was quite a distance to the city. Took two different buses to locate the hostel address I had been looking for. Not worth the effort. Nice place, I am sure, but the neighborhood lacked character… very nondescript. The guide book pumped the location of the hostel as being near the largest parade route during carnival. Beyond that, I could see no special features or reasons to move from my place.
Barranquilla is famous for it’s version of the Mardi Gras carnival festival. Local guide books claim that it is the 2nd largest party in South America, after Rio De Janeiro. The guide book states that Barranquilla is the 4th fastest growing metropolitan area in Colombia. Population approaching 2 million inhabitants, many newly arrived, giving it the overall sense of a bustling commercial center tainted with a transient flavor. The metropolitan city area is huge: nearly 60 square miles.
I am sure there are many wonderful things to be said about the people of Barranquilla. I mean no disrespect to them, nor to it’s unique history. My opinions and impressions are formed by my unique experience of the place. My limited impressions of Barranquilla are that it is a most unremarkable place from a tourist perspective. I am glad for the people of Barranquilla that they have the annual carnival celebration.
Barranquilla is laid out in a pattern that accommodates it’s relationship to it’s geography. ‘Baq’ (as it is sometimes referred) is an ancient port town. It served as the point where Spanish ships entered the Rio Magdalena from the Caribbean sea. In times past, Baq was strategically a very important port. The Rio Magdlena was the main commercial route to the interior lands. Rio Magdalena begins near the small town of Honda (near Bogota) and flows into the Caribbean. Along the banks the early immigrants grew important crops, grazed cattle and created small settlements.
I rode several hours on different days aboard different buses in Baq and never saw the sea nor the river. I know they are there. What I am conveying is that a person must go out of their way to see them. They are not an integral part of the Baq vistas. There are very few buildings over ten stories high. The city has the feel of a never ending suburb on the edges of a city. I saw only a few streets or neighborhoods that conveyed a sense of visual charm. Many may exist, but I did not experience them.
I did receive extraordinary hospitality from a man who directed me to the ‘casas de cambio’. The man and his wife were tending their small store when I asked them if they knew where I might find a place to exchange dollars for pesos. The man voluntarily (I did not ask) walked with me for seven city blocks directly to the cambio shop. I returned with him to his store and thanked he and his wife for their gracious help. When I told them the part of town I was staying they asked if I had family there. I sensed that they were concerned I might not find the place. I told them not to worry; that I knew how to get around. The man again (I did not ask) accompanied me to the bus stop and made sure I got on the right bus.
Kindness and gracious behavior towards a stranger in town. I wish I heard of or could cite examples of these types of kindnesses directed to strangers visiting the US… especially in city environments. Maybe they do occur, but one would be hard pressed to find them in ‘mass media’ distribution sources. My ‘homeland’ (an expression I never heard prior to the day when the laws of Newtonian physics and ordinary common sense were suspended) is a culture which appears to emphasize the scandalous, the spectacular, and the sordid these days.
Spent only a few nights in my a/c digs in profoundly suburban Barranquilla. Never saw the ocean, nor the river. But did see hundreds of buses of many different sizes, shapes and conditions, mototaxis, horse drawn carts, and low rise buildings in various states of repair. Seems to me like Baq deserves to have it’s yearly carnival. I can only imagine…
Next up: Mompox