“And how did you get around the country?” my coworker asks me after I’d filled him in on most of my basic Colombia trip details.
“Entirely by bus,” I respond, waiting for him to grimace in response. He is a seasoned traveler who tends to seek out a more luxury travel experience. Although he hasn’t been to Colombia, I know he will know what it means to travel by bus there — long drives that sometimes reach the destination hours after you expect them to, bumpy mountain roads, and speed racer drivers.
The look on his face says everything I expected, he thinks I am nuts. He tells me about the time he was living in Pakistan and the only piece of advice a coworker who’d lived in Colombia gave him if should ever go there was to avoid the bus and fly everywhere.
I wouldn’t trade any of my bus rides — even the most uncomfortable ones — for a flight. Traveling by bus is not always fun, but it’s where so much travel magic happens. As I tell him about my bus travels in Colombia, I smile the kind of smile you get when you view self-imposed rugged experiences through the rosy goggles of hindsight and completion. One of my most fond memories is the day I traveled to San Gil:
Villa de Leyva to San Gil
We tried to leave earlier, but there was laundry to pick up and new people to chat with over breakfast. The hostel dog, barely bigger than a rat, yips at us and chases us one last time as we try to squeeze our backpacks into the trunk of a hatchback taxi. The driver takes us through the center of town and we have one last look at that lovely Plaza Mayor.
The bus station is full of unfull vehicles waiting for a specific number of people before they leave. This station doesn’t have much in the way of timetables, tickets, or order. It’s all about filling up a van and hitting the road. My friend goes to talk to a driver and comes back to inform me that we will be riding in the dirty, rickety old van in front of us. We squeeze our stuff into another trunk, squeeze into the awkward seats of the van, and we are off.
It’s a van full of women, and in addition to me and my Austrian travel buddy, there are two other solo female travelers. One of them is a Canadian who I’d encountered on the Bogota Graffiti Tour and we talk for a little bit. But mostly we sit in silence as we take in the countryside.
It’s a beautiful, necessary silence, the kind that leads to the utmost gratitude for the beauty of our remote surroundings in the Colombian highlands. It’s the kind of appreciation that remains unexpressed, but deeply felt in the core when you’re completely present in a moment.
The Colombian women request to be dropped off at various points along the bumpy road and soon there are only gringas left in the van. It’s now gloomy and wet where we are and the land has changed. All around us, perfect green rows of plants we can’t identify creep up steep hillsides.
As we enter a tiny town, we are surprised when the driver stops and tells us this is where we have to get out… on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere. Apprehensively, we exit the van and grab our backpacks. He points to the other side of the highway, and we dash across it when no cars are coming.
On the other side, we wait in front of a restaurant/rest stop. We’d picked up some information from the driver about what to do next, but we aren’t sure if buses will pull in and pick us up or if we have to flag them down. After a few mini buses pass by without even glancing at us, we realize it’s the latter. It’s an awkward spot where we can’t see vehicles coming until they are very close and buses continue to pass us by.
The rain had stopped, but it begins to pour on us again. We alternate between taking cover under an awning and looking after each others’ stuff, taking bathroom breaks, and standing in the rain to look out for buses.
It’s a funny thing trying to get out of some unknown town in a foreign country with three people you didn’t know a week before, not quite knowing what you’re doing and how you’ll get to your next destination. There’s a hint of fearlessness in each of us, as well as hint of relief that we’re not doing this on our own today. There’s an unspoken camaraderie between four bold women.
I recognize a sparkle in the eyes of these kindred spirits who feel at home so far away from their homes, so comfortable in uncertainty. I have no idea where I am, but I am in good company.
Ever since we reached the outskirts of Villa de Leyva, I haven’t been able to get the words out of my head about adventure being one’s fate; that it’s not that certain people have chosen adventure as a lifestyle, but they’ve tapped into something innate that draws them to it.
Today is an adventure solely of the mind and heart. No one is running off cliffs (yet), but we’ve found ourselves well beyond typical notions of security in a Colombian town that we don’t even know the name of, waiting for a bus we are not sure will come.
I notice that there is a motel across the street. As time passes, I joke that if we can’t find a bus, at least we know we have a place to stay. It’s amusing to think about, but none of us really wants to stay here overnight. This gives us more fuel to find a bus. We lean as far into the street as we can to look out for buses, and when we see a bus headed towards Bucaramanga, we jump around and wave at it. We cheer when it stops for us.
It’s a relief to be on a bus and heading in the right direction. I talk more to the one other traveler I hadn’t had a conversation with yet and she turns out to be a fellow Californian who grew up about 25 minutes away from me. I’d noticed she had a look about her that spoke of years of adventurous experiences, and sure enough, she’d been living in Central America for awhile and working in the tourism industry. She had been traveling in Colombia for a couple months, and now at the end of her trip, she wanted to revisit a place she really liked in the northernmost part of Colombia called the Guajira, a place few foreigners visit.
I am turned around in my seat, absorbed in our conversation when I notice that I’m getting motion sickness, a very rare occurrence for me. This is also when I notice how fast the driver is going on the curvy mountain road. I have face forward, put in my headphones and avoid looking out the window to calm my stomach.
As if his driving isn’t bad enough, he decides to put on a movie at top volume, The Fast and the Furious Number Infinity, or something like that. While he zooms along the curves, I watch the people in the movie also do impossible things with their vehicles and listen to incredibly bad dialogue on top of it.
I am again relieved when we arrive in San Gil, but it means I will have to part ways with the three people who helped me through this Colombian bus adventure. Two are headed to Barichara, a colonial village near San Gil, and the Californian is going to the end of the line in Bucaramanga which is as far north as she can go for the day. I make plans to see my Austrian friend again and bump into the Canadian at another point in my trip, but I don’t see the woman from California again.
We exchange goodbyes and well wishes, then I go off into San Gil, a town that’s a base for people who want to fly with birds or experience rapids like a fish or just walk down a cliff that has a waterfall pouring down the side of it. It’s a place that’s known for being the adventure capital of Colombia
Well, I like adventure. Nice to meet you, San Gil.