8th April. Pasto, Colombia.
As I stepped from the shower all the lights went off in the building!!!! ‘This is like deja-vu all over again’ I thought. Stan gave me look and said “what did you do this time?”
We climbed the stairs to where breakfast was to be served and with only a slight delay were pleasantly surprised to find it ready. The electricity came back on and later Diana had a narrow escape when she went to use the lift and the power went off again, just as she stepped into the lift.
We prepared the cars, loaded the luggage and, leaving only three oily puddles on the beautiful garage floor, backed into the street and made our way out of town. By the time we were leaving emails had begun to emanate from Jaime Chacon to contacts along our route through Colombia. On the previous evening he had given us the name and telephone number of a good friend, Enrique ‘Kike’ Perdomo in Popayan, our next stopping place. Kike was Mister ‘fixit’, should he be needed!
Today we knew that the elevation profile had a long descent at the beginning, a steepish climb of 2,000 feet, another descent and finally another climb of about 2,500 feet and the distance was around 160 miles. The road, in fact, was spectacular, winding around gorges, clinging to vertiginous mountain sides on ledges cut into it, hanging over impossibly deep valleys, where the road could be seen snaking to and fro to the valley floor where a feint line marked the course of a fast running river. Although the road surface was poor, there was little traffic and we could take advantage of the whole width of the road to find the least bumpy path.
Frequent toll booths were a surprise: the road just before, often with pot holes being filled by itinerant locals, rewarded with a few pesos by some of the truck drivers, might disappear shortly after the booth for several hundred yards. The tolls are the most expensive we have encountered in South America and, with four or five a day, they add considerably to the cost of traveling any distance.
The countryside was stunning, the agricultural richness apparent and the hillsides often studded with new coffee plantations. Sugar cane taking up much of the flatter ground, it was interspersed with beans, rice and bananas in a rich green tapestry of verdant growth. On we went, the miles ticking by until a smell of oil and mist of oily smoke into the interior reminded me of the time the engine had blown to the south of Lima. Pulling up on the grass verge I leapt out, heart in mouth and noticed streams of oil oozing from the offside bonnet louvres. I opened the bonnet and through the blue haze of burning oil, found the engine compartment swamped in a thin layer of engine oil. It was soon apparent that the oil gauge supply pipe, exiting from the filter had fractured, just above the union, and oil at 12 psi. had sprayed out forwards and been blown by the fan throughout the engine bay. The copper pipe, work-hardened by silver soldering and the frequent removal during head gasket changes, had split due to vibration.
For a few minutes we stood looking at the mess and considered how to repair, or alternatively bodge, the pipe. Diana produced a biscuit tin of bolts and fittings and suddenly held up a grease nipple “simples: BSP thread on both – it should fit” and it did! Removing the fitting and replacing it with the nipple, wiping up some of the mess, and we were underway again in about 20 minutes.
Despite having left in the morning at 08.00, we seemed to have spent an awfully long time on the road today and did not arrive in Popayan until about 17.30. There had been climbs and descents, a not unusual number of police checks and a short lunch stop for crisps and juice, but it was 9 1/2 hours later and here we were again entering a town without a map, GPS not recognising the location and no hotel booking. I was tired, not a little grumpy and feeling rather more stressed about towns without signage or directions. After an abortive first foray into the grid system, I asked Amanda to stop and spotted two traffic policeman, standing on the opposite side of the road. Crossing the road through the hurtling cars and buzzing motorcycles, I announced to the astonished couple, that “I spoke little Spanish and was looking for ‘this hotel’” indicating the guide book in my hand. Slow pondering followed and then indications of a general direction, laced with shrugged apologies that the exact location was unknown to them. Frustrated I made vaguely ‘British harrumphing’ noises and strode back into the traffic stream, oblivious of the dangers.
To my great surprise as I arrived back at the car across four lanes of traffic, I found the taller of the two policemen at my side. In very strongly accented Spanish he seemed to indicate that he would find the hotel for us. Back he went and he and his companion mounted their motor cycle and, imperiously holding up the traffic flow with raised hand, crossed to our side of the road and indicated that we should follow. What occurred then had to be witnessed to be believed.
At each of the frequent road junctions, the motor cycle would stop and halt the flow of crossing traffic. With red and blue flashing lights on the rear mounted stalk and in the gathering dusk, we would be ushered in convoy across the junction, sometimes turning to the left or right, but always as we moved on the two cops would overtake and override the traffic at the next junction. If the traffic halted ahead of us, it being a very busy time in the old town, their siren would be employed and the traffic ahead encouraged to move on at pace! Another pair of police outriders joined our cavalcade and soon they began working in harmony; one ahead, the other stopping the crossing, turn and turn about.
This was fine and good progress was made, however it seemed to be taking some time and then I noticed that we had passed the same hotel twice! At last a consultation was made with a police car that had joined in the fun and we retraced our steps, two roads forward, turn right, two roads and turn right, back the way we had come. By now the noise and confusion of all concerned was reaching crescendo, several police units were stopping traffic, but then going off in other directions, we stuck like glue to our original cops, they might not know where they were going, but it was evident that they would not give up until the place was found.
At this moment I suddenly read on a wall, the name of the hotel we were searching for. Demanding that Amanda stop ‘NOW’, the other two Austins tucked into our wake and in the narrow street in the middle of the evening rush, it now being dark, we came to a halt. I legged it around the corner and found the lobby. Rooms were available and the parking close by. Back at the cars, chaos and noise, ruled over by at least six motorcycle cop pairs. The immediately local junction was being controlled by two police motorcycles, parked inconveniently in the road and both waving traffic at different times and in different directions. Our original escort, anxious to have their photograph taken and with offers to sit in the driver’s seat, they handed their crash helmets to me and posed, serious faced, for photos on their official phones. Then, having understood the hastily-drawn map, we drove across the junction in opposition to the crews working it and took off to round the church and find the parking lot.
The excitement amongst the motorcycle cops now being at frenzy level, the following small armada, its brightly flashing blue and red lights, dazzling all in the vicinity, roared off, rounded two sides of the square and arrived at the closed parking lot. Now with the bit firmly between his teeth our original officer, hammered on the door and would have lifted it off its hinges had the diminutive elderly attendant not arrived in double-quick time and as we turned off the road into the peace and tranquility of the closed parking area, I counted no less than nine motorcycles and two police cars now released from escort duties speeding off to help another motorist in distress. Our original two escorting officers, satisfied that no further harm could be caused by us this night, accepted our profound thanks, shook our hands and took off into the night.
Giggling with relief and disbelief we unloaded our cases and made for the hotel. It turned out to be a beautiful place, once the townhouse of a wealthy trading family, built in the traditional Spanish colonial way with two courtyards and surrounding rooms on two floors. We were just in time for last orders for supper and seemed to be the only guests. A last job was to contact Jaime in Pasto and ask him to contact Kike, whose number did not seem to work, for help with the fractured oil pipe.
9th April. Popayan, Colombia.
A late night call had confirmed that Kike would be with us this morning and over breakfast we had decided to modify the itinerary and take our rest day in Popayan instead of the following day in Cali. I went to the garage and removed the oil pipe in anticipation and Diana and Stan had short shopping lists of things they would like to buy for their cars if we could find them. When he arrived, Kike was immediately reassuring.
The repair was no problem, the items we were looking for were bound to be available and he had all the time in the world to assist us. We walked to the part of town where all the motor-part traders are located and it was evident that Kike knew everyone and he was well known. Although his English was about as extensive as my Spanish, by gesture, Spanglish and guesswork we obtained most of what we were looking for, including some simple olives for the 1/8th BSP oil pipe.
Kike asked if we could join him at 15.45 to meet a friend, Felipe, Director of the Popayan Processiones de la Semana Santa, a Holy Week event that has been running continuously since colonial times. Diana, Stan and I made repairs and serviced the cars for the rest of the morning and later Kike called back with his two daughters Natalia and Laura to show them the cars, Natalia spoke excellent English, having attended a bilingual school in Bogota, before moving back to be with Kike in Popayan. During the morning’s work I had heard a chicken clucking in the vicinity and it was finally discovered in a corner of the garage tethered by one leg to a log, behind some scrap ductwork. Untangling her when she managed to get tied up in the metal, we became firm friends and for most of the afternoon she sat, between eating banana and rice, watching me working on the car. Several more times she got entangled, but did not object to being picked up and unwound or petted by us.
The car fettling having taken longer than anticipated, I just had time for a shower before meeting Kike and had persuaded him to bring Natalia with him so that she could show us her favourite helado parlour. Felipe having metro us at the car park, took us to his favourite cafe where we sampled potato empanadas, the best in Popayan! He was right: crisp golden potato wedges with a piquant peanut dip and one of garlic and peanut, were consumed with gusto, lunch having been missed.
Then we walked to Felipe’s office, the nerve centre of the Holy Week parade. Preparations take all year to complete and the 2014 procession is already in the planning. This time, they will have 57 weeks to prepare, this year’s Easter being very early and next year’s very late. There are Easter processions in Italy, Spain and France that have a longer history than Popayan’s, but they have all been interrupted by war and pestilence. Not even the devastating earthquake in 1983 stopped this procession, now a UNESCO-heritage recognised event.
We were shown the carved figures and carrying-plinths and saw the photographs and commemorative certificates in the collection. It is a point of honour that some of the bearers have done this annually for decades, the resulting injuries are carried as a badge of honour. The weight of each float is carried for two hours by only eight men and over a distance of 2 kms eventually this results in huge calloused lumps on the the shoulders of those who keep it up, a permanent disfigurement the size of a tennis ball on each shoulder.
We were shown the restoration workshop, where we saw several women, carefully cleaning the centuries-old gold leaf, with delicate swabs, to remove the wax and smoke of decades of candle illumination lining the route of the annual procession. There is also a woodwork shop which delicately repairs the hundreds of figures when damaged, one of the pieces we saw in the workshop being an Italian carved figure of 1575. Research is also carried out on preservation of the gold-leaf decoration and wooden carvings. Much of this information was relaid to us by Natalia, surely a future teacher, guide or organiser, such was her assured approach and unflappable ability to deal with two languages, questions, humour and information simultaneously.
We enjoyed a very good cup of coffee and then departed with Kike and Natalia to an helado establishment of her choice, where ”two postres” Price excelled himself! Returning to the hotel we said our farewells to Natalia, who would be at school by 06:45 the following morning and made arrangements to meet Kike, who had kindly offered to lead us out of town after taking his daughters to school.
Enjoying a late stroll around the gleaming white-painted city centre in the warmth of the dying day, we considered what the day had brought, the kindness of Kike and Felipe’s, the confidence and maturity of 13-year-old Natalia, our visit to the headquarters of the Easter Procession, potato empenadas, police escorts, friendship and – again – that “trail magic”. Sated by the day’s good fortune and feeling of well-being, we returned to the hotel. On the way, began a series of telephone calls, followed by emails from Hugo Suarez Fiat. Hugo had been one of the names mentioned by Jaime when we met in Pasto, now he was about to become a constant presence in our travels through Colombia and beyond!
10th April. Popayan, Colombia
Expertly guided, we soon reached the city limits and made our fond farewells to Kike with promises of news of our progress and the efficacy of the fixes he had helped with. It was just past 08.00 and we had a meeting to make on the outskirts of Cali with Hugo, who had offered to meet us and guide us through Cali to an alternative destination which would help us reach Cartagena by Sunday.
The need to be in Cartagena by Sunday was to enable us to meet a shipping deadline from there to Colon, Panama. The once-a-week service leaving on Friday, required a certain amount of paperwork preparation before we could load the cars into a 40’ container for the short passage to Colon. During a short holiday to Colombia, the previous December, Diana and River had researched shipping agents and times in Cartagena and it was imperative that we got the process underway in good time.
The morning’s run was about 60 miles and we had been warned of poor roads in between. In fact the road was better than we had anticipated, running between huge fields of sugarcane, through market gardens of salad crops and small towns and villages. To the accompaniment of friendly waves and loud whistles – the new form of greeting – our progress was for once quite rapid and a little early we stopped 10 miles or so short of Caldas and called Hugo.
He gave us directions to a meeting place and we made our way through the increasing traffic as we neared this larger city. In spite of our bungling, the traffic was kind and after a couple of mistakes we arrived outside a large shopping complex and parked in the taxi rank. No one turned a hair, since, in South America at least, almost all traffic regulations are flouted by all, so simply stopping and waiting is not a big issue and not one toot was directed towards us.
particularly helpful, almost every second car being yellow, mostly taxis! However his arrival was not such a modest one: his canary-yellow Ford Thunderbird made quite an impression. Without ceremony we followed behind, his car drawing the attention,ours adding curiosity points. The hills are short and steep in Cali, we managed them all with a small struggle and after seemingly skirting the city we arrived outside ‘Caliwood’, Hugo’s other passion, which contains his extensive collection of film memorabilia.
Parking the cars neatly outside under the watchful eye of one of the staff, we went in there to be dazzled by the magnificent collection of cinema and home projectors, from 70mm to 5.5mm, Cinemascope to 1907 home 3D stereoscopic prints and viewer. Film posters lined every inch of wall space and a growing collection of domestic cameras, slide viewers and projectors adorns shelves and display cabinets. Hugo’s wife, Gloria, joined us briefly and we were pleased to make her acquaintance. Hugo had arranged lunch at a local restaurant, where we were introduced to other members of the local car club, the OCCCCC (Obelisco Classic Car Club Cali Colombia), who had dropped by to see the Austins. We discussed our plans for the next few days and options for breaking the journey where it would help our arrival in Cartagena on schedule.
Hugo had very kindly arranged accommodation for us that night and two nights after we were to be met by the Federation of antique car clubs in Medellin, where a lunch and overnight stop had been organised. In all too short a time, it was time for us to say farewell to Hugo, with promises from us to keep him in touch with our travel plans and from him to fix contacts for us through some of Central America. Final photos were taken and with our sincere thanks hanging in the air, we departed in the usual haze of exhaust smoke and oily drips in the parking area!
Kindly led from ‘Caliwood’ to the outskirts of the city, we once again turned northwards and began to clock up the miles towards our destination of Bugalagrande, a town in the middle of the most fertile and productive sugar plantations in Colombia. Signs had been evident, warning of the crossing of sugar-cane trains and now we began to see them. Vast tractors, pulling as many as five loaded wagons trundled towards the processing plants at about the speed of our hill-climbing. Once again, however, our stately progress seemed not to be a hinderance to anybody, well, not enough for them to get agitated and so we drove on into the evening’s approaching dusk.
Out in the countryside, we at last found the entrance to the Hacienda and filed into the gated gardens. In front of us stood Hacienda La Teja, three hundred years old and restored to its former glory during the last century.
Originally a staging post for the Spanish governing classes to stay overnight on their way north or south, it became a family home and sympathetic restoration work has returned it to a fair representation of its original form, while introducing modern conveniences. Simon Bolivar, hero of South American Independence, had stayed at the Hacienda on two occasions, his horse being buried under a mango tree in the garden. Left in possession of the beautiful buildings, we ate supper as a thunderstorm raged overhead for an hour or so, feeling more in tune with the building than the elements outside. We slept in three interlinked rooms, the middle one occupied by Stan, where Simon Bolivar had slept. Despite predictions of disturbance from spirits in the night, we slept peacefully or unaware of shared accommodation, grateful for the quiet, harmonious surroundings.
11th April. Bugalagrande, Colombia.
After breakfast, we packed the cars and attended to the daily routine maintenance: check oil and water levels, inspect the engine bay, kick the tyres and discuss the fuel situation being the normal extent, unless anything had been noted the day before. In the case of Bertie, I had put in new plugs in Popayan, the old set being badly fouled. Now I was gradually resetting the SU carburettor to suit the lower altitude and the lower levels of ethanol in Colombian ‘Extra’ fuel, about 15% we had been told, rather than 19% in Ecuador. The octane rating was given as 92, but we had all noticed an improvement in performance since Pasto, the first place we had filled up in Colombia.
A call from Hugo alerted us to watch out for a friend waiting at the Hacienda gate and as we approached the road from the farm road, there we saw a slim figure with camera the ready. Introducing ourselves we learnt only that this was Hernando, a near neighbour and farmer of sugar cane who had wanted to come and admire our cars. With time against us and 160 miles to go, we were able to answer a few questions but could feel the excitement Hernando had at seeing the Austins here in Colombia. Sad that we had so little time, we promised to wave to his wife as we passed the next turning and left to regain the Panamericana Norte. Later Hernando passed us on his way back to the farm and we waved as he turned away to the east. Only later did we learn that 50 years ago Hernando Puerto was a famous Colombian racing driver on the Circuito Central Colombiano. Now over 75, Hernando had a lively twinkle in his eye and made our day start very well. Hernando, we salute you and your accomplishments.
Very soon after, the phone rang again and Hugo asked us to watch out for Cesar, whose town we would soon be passing. Sure enough, within ten minutes we were flagged down by Cesar Garcia and his girlfriend who, having been alerted by Hugo, had dropped work at the dental surgery in Zarzal, and raced to the Panamericana to invite us for a morning break.
Sadly time did not permit us to accept this gracious offer, so after hearing about the local antique car club activities and receiving a generous offer to join them, we said farewell and pressed on, our destination today being La Pintada. This goal would place us favourably for the next day, when we would face a major climb and steep descent to a town short of Medellin, where we were to be met.
On and on we pressed, the countryside attractive but the road seemingly endless.
Hot and bothered by not very good running, we passed more sugar cane fields, coffee plantations and agriculturally lush country.
At 17.00 we entered the none-too-promising-looking town of La Pintada. The town was at the bottom of tomorrow’s climb and in the few minutes after we stopped the noise from lorries descending this climb was deafening. Exhaust retarders and air brakes combined, promised a noisy night if we were anywhere in the vicinity of the road, but there seemed to be nowhere away from it! Amanda went to enquire of the rather closed looking place we had stopped by and came back to say it was in fact, open and quieter than appearances would suggest. Reluctantly I agreed to go and look and she was right. We were asked to order supper then, because we were the only guests and were offered a jug of cold lemonade to be going on with. This arrived and was delicious: cold, tart and made from fresh fruit. Things began to look up.
After showers and a break, dinner and a beer, we watched as the local aerobics class began in the very small open space in the town below us. Too tired to move, battered by the volume of the dance music we watched the shadowy figures going through their routines, to the amplified instructions of the leader. Finally, exhausted by the day and watching the exertions below we went to bed and blessed sleep, the traffic noise cancelled by the fans in our rooms which provided ‘white‘ noise through the night.
Tomorrow was going to be interesting, we had some idea of the plans made, but the details were as yet unclear: guests of the Federation of antique car clubs in Medellin, a photo-shoot for Diners Club magazine and accommodation arranged somewhere in the city for us. How the remaining three days travel in South America worked out and getting the cars to Panama, I shall reveal in Part 3, together with mileages, consumption figures (not gin!) and parts failures.
Thank you for reading this far and thank you for your comments to date.