La Carretera Alta, Part 4 – South American Efficiency

Cartagena Port
The port city of Cartagena, Colombia (Source: Harbour Ship Agency)

Given that the industry has been kicking around for the better part of 3000 years, shipping is a bizarre, clandestine enterprise. As an outsider, I was bewildered by the complex jargon, procedural inefficiencies, needless intermediaries and the extremely delicate balance between chaos and order.

And that describes my experience in an American port, and in English. Attempting to conduct the process in an exotic country and in any tongue other than your native one is nothing less than an ordeal. Behold, my tale of woe…

We spent a little less than two weeks taking Spanish language classes and getting spanked on old school sandbags near the sleepy hamlet of Suesca. More on that later, perhaps, as the home of Colombian rock climbing deserves an entry of its own. But for now, be aware that we left those cool, damp hills for a fuggy rubbish dump – the godforsaken port of Cartagena.

Google “Cartagena” and you’ll be presented with various beautiful images of colourful barrios, pristine beaches and classic architecture. Visit it in person and you’ll be presented with mounds of garbage, air pollution, water pollution… well, pollution of every type really. Add to the mix chronic overpopulation and underemployment, heavy industry with inadequate infrastructure, and packs of wild dogs, and you have something of an idea of the character of the city.

Cartagena Barrios
What Google thinks Cartagena looks like… (Source: The Independent)
What Cartagena actually looks like… (Source: El Universal)

By orders of magnitude, Cartagena is easily the dirtiest place I’ve ever visited… and I’ve spent time in Tarin Kowt, the jewel of Central Afghanistan. I’m not a city person at the best of times so I couldn’t wait get out of there, but first we had important business to attend to – rescuing La Tortuga from the musty confines of a shipping container. This involved a complicated 12 step process, which I suppose makes it sound like Alcoholics Anonymous. In this case, we weren’t required to embrace Jesus to complete the steps, but it might have helped if we did.

Starting the process is the most difficult step. First, we were required to visit an unmarked window in an unmarked building on an unmarked street and present our Bill of Lading (yes, lading, not loading or landing or any other actual word) to the ambivalent clerk. She handed us a post-it note and told us to pay the amount noted in Colombian Pesos. She did not specify where to make this payment, but after some data wrangling we discovered it was possible at a nearby supermarket. Every employee in the store seemed just as perplexed by the process as we were, but eventually we made the payment.

With this achieved, we returned to the secret window and were gifted a procedural document, mostly in English. This revealed that there are three disparate bodies which must (but don’t) work in concert: the shipping agent (Seaboard Marine), the port facility (COMPAS) and customs and importation (DIAN). It was the latter organisation which we now had to visit, which (of course) is located on the other side of the city. A cheap but hectic taxi ride deposited us at the DIAN office where we were told to see “Hans”.

There are multiple buildings in the complex with hundreds of people in them, none of whom have name tags. Nevertheless, we finally found Hans. He issued us with a Temporary Import Permit and the vague invitation to “come back later”, presumably to organise our customs inspection. We then returned to COMPAS so that we could be ignored for the next three hours and subsequently told to return the following morning. And this (as is written in Genesis) was the first day.

The second day went surprisingly smoothly, but only because the Seaboard Marine agents took pity on us and helped us expedite the process. I think by now you have a grasp on the relative efficiency of South American bureaucracy, so I won’t go much further into the grisly details, suffice to say that it involved two reams of paper, multiple payments via cash and card, several hours spent in waiting rooms, a 40 metre bus ride, a lip-service inspection and empanadas.

By all accounts, we got off lightly. Others have endured this maritime purgatory for up to 4 days and parted with substantially more currency, so we were relieved to be speeding our way out of Cartagena after a mere 2 days. Our destination was Huaraz, Peru, some 3300km distant.

The Pan-American Highway begins its South American leg here, bypassing the infamous Darien Gap between Panama and Colombia (again, a story worthy of its own article… watch this space). The Colombian section is complex and time-consuming, threading its way through vast mountain ranges and slowing for small villages and sprawling megalopolis’ alike.

Occasionally, we were halted at police checkpoints. These were quite prolific on the road from Medellin to Cartagena, presumably still a major ratline for drug trafficking. Given that our insurance and licences were up to snuff, they weren’t very interested in us and allowed us to continue without much fuss. The military checkpoints seemed to exist just to give us the thumbs up.


We averaged about 300km per day for 10 hours of effort, our progress hampered by an endless procession of trucks labouring up the endless inclines. Driving in Colombia is a true masterclass in the art of overtaking, and once you’ve seen a B-Double lock up all axles after failing to pass another truck on a hairpin turn, you’ve seen it all.

The scenery changed from swamps to rainforest to cityscapes to coffee plantations to cane fields to desert. Medellin came and went, an affluent city which must still be enjoying the fruits of Escobarian dinero. Eventually, we arrived at the border, passing into Ecuador in the fading light.

DSC_9746.JPGDaylight revealed Ecuador to be a beautiful country – clean and green with soaring peaks and clear, shallow rivers. Early in the morning, we were surprised by the Pan-Am’s sudden and essentially unannounced crossing of the Equator. Later that day, we were allowed fleeting glimpses of Chimboarazo, but Cotopaxi remained hidden by cloud. Even the farmlands were interesting, forming a quilted patchwork of brown, amber and green, far different from the monocultured crops found in Western countries. If I were to return to South America, Ecuador would be high on my list and it seems criminal that we were only able to shoot through.

Northern Peru was a stark contrast, an arid wasteland which rivals Cartagena for squalor. It baffles the mind to see such enormous cities located in such desolate and dry terrain. For days, one sees little else but oil refineries and chicken sheds, all covered in a thick layer of dirt. There seems to be no plan for waste disposal other than taking it to the edge of town and dumping it in a pile, the result of which is that the winds which whip unchecked across the barren plains spread the garbage far and wide. It’s apocalyptic. Think Mad Max and you’re getting close.

Turning inland was a blessing, and we forged into the hills via one of the most incredible roads I’ve ever driven. A wild river carves its way through a spectacular rocky canyon, devoid of vegetation but with a stunning pallete of earthy colours. Halfway along, a hydroelectric plant harnessed the power of the river, with manufactured waterfalls and deep tunnels bored into the living rock. The road was in various states of repair, a single lane with the occasional crumbling edge leading to the abyss. Let’s just say that the driving was… engaging.


With the road climbing ever higher, the vegetation returned and the terrain became infinitely more inviting than the purgatorial wastelands to be found on the coast. Before long, we’d arrived in Huaraz – the climbing capital of Peru. Surrounded by glaciated peaks, alpine meadows and clear flowing rivers, we knew we’d reached the promised land.

For La Carretera Alta, the introduction was over. The real trip had begun.

Ryan Siacci, Esq.
May 2018

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  1. Hi Morag and Ryan, glad to read you’re managing the turmoils and savouring the pleasures! Miss you!! Jon xxx

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