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Monday, 03 May 2010

Cartagena, Colombia: Buses in South America, To Look or not to Look?

Written by Brendan van Son
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I stepped off of my plane into the humid Caribbean air confronted by a familiar regret regarding the next leg of my journey: another Latin American bus! In South America, it seems like on every single bus journey you’re putting your life into the hands of stock car racers who haven’t been told that they’re now driving a bus. On the steep-edged, sharp mountain curves, one often hears the questionable rumble of the pressure to the driver’s gas pedal — the result of which would test even an astronaut’s G-force tolerance levels. Bags on the ground and objects in the overheads are often launched across the bus in the seemingly gravity-free environment. The locals, who are quite used to the situation, carelessly continue reading the latest futbol news or bouncing their unbuckled kids on their laps. Speed limits seem like more of a recommendation, as drivers appear to have no issue passing police officers at top speed.

Cartagena, Colombia: Buses in South America – To Look or not to Look?, Latin American bus, travel South America, Columbia’s coastal treasure, travel Cartagena, travel Columbia, Cartagena de Indias, Brendan van SonHowever, the bus journey to Columbia’s coastal treasure, Cartagena, that I was about to embark on didn’t seem to have the makings of a death road experience. The trip was only meant to take about two hours along a paved highway.

I climbed onto the bus with the two usual options: to look or not to look. The option of looking seats you comfortably at the front of the bus with full views of the highway, for better or worse. This option keeps you away from the bumps and oft-wretched smelling toilets in the back of the bus. It seems that no one told bus designers that if you put a toilet above the heat of an overworked engine, the cooking process would not have the greatest affect.

I headed to the back of the bus in order to avoid the terror of being able to watch how many near misses our driver could rack up, based on my assumption that the journey would be short (so no one would use the toilet) and smooth (due to the paved road).

As the trip progressed down the winding highway, I quickly realized that I had made the wrong decision. It seemed as though a fellow traveler was having quite the battle against a common Latin American travel foe: Montezuma’s revenge. A fight of which, according to the aromatic evidence, he was losing. Moreover, the driver seemed to have no true regard for the massive speed bumps that lay all over Columbia’s secondary highways. With each bump came a hard slam on the breaks in advance of contact, sending our strained faces into the back of the seats in front of us. This was followed by the bump at the front wheels and then a heavy foot to the gas pedal. By the time the concrete lump reached the back tires we were traveling near full speed. The force of contact would send me a couple feet into the air, and my Ipod (which was resting on my lap) to the ceiling. The back of the bus had all the makings of a bad rodeo.


About an hour into the trip, I decided to make the switch to somewhere in the middle of the bus. I was certain that I never wanted to make another bus trip in my life, and based on this driver’s skill, I wondered whether I would even have a choice. After many near misses and countless numbers of ongoing/outgoing passengers resting their backsides on my shoulder, I finally made it to my destination of Cartagena de Indias.


Other than Santa Marta, which sits about 4 hours north up the coast; Cartagena is the oldest surviving city on the South American Continent. It was established as a sea port in 1533, two years before the conquest wars were won by the Spanish against the Incas in the Andes of South America. It quickly became the most important port in South America, because it was here that the Spanish held its gold and silver exploited from the continent and its people. The treasures sat in the noble city forts waiting to be shipped across the ocean on Spanish Galleons.

Cartagena, Colombia: Buses in South America – To Look or not to Look?, Latin American bus, travel South America, Columbia’s coastal treasure, travel Cartagena, travel Columbia, Cartagena de Indias, Brendan van SonOf course the treasures held by Cartagena made it a literal gold mine for pillaging pirates and privateers. After a number of attacks, including the most devastating assault, one by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, Cartagena erected a series of sturdy cement walls and a solid concrete fort to protect it from further peril. These robust walls still protect Cartagena’s old city today.

Throughout the many civil wars in Colombia, Cartagena has remained a safe haven. Despite a single truck bomb set off by Pablo Escobar’s Extraditables, the city has been left untouched by the years of violence and destruction. It is a city of vast cultural diversity as well. The sound of Castelllano Spanish is often mixed with the colorful flavour of Caribbean slang which gives the city a unique cultural attitude.

Today, the city is divided into numerous distinctively different districts. The most notable of these districts is the colonial center of El Centro. The old town provides a sharp contrast to modern tourist district of Boca Grande. El Centro may be one of the most charming places in all of South America. It has the vibe of New Orleans mixed with the peace and charisma of a small Spanish village. Its narrow cobbled streets and colorful colonial buildings might leave you wondering if you’ve stepped back 400 years, until the yellow taxi cabs wiz up and down the calles.

Cartagena, Colombia: Buses in South America – To Look or not to Look?, Latin American bus, travel South America, Columbia’s coastal treasure, travel Cartagena, travel Columbia, Cartagena de Indias, Brendan van SonThis city was once known as one of the most romantic places in the New World; and one look at all its vicariously hanging balconies and bright churches will leave you without a doubt as to why. The stone walls that used to protect the city from pirates now shield the city from the crashing Caribbean Sea waves. The barrier provides a raised walkway – one of the best ways to truly enjoy the city and the sea. It is one of those places that can leave you at a standstill, sucking in a deep breath as if you were hoping that you could breathe in the atmosphere and keep it with you forever.

As I leave Cartagena, I look out my window and see a city of a charm, history, and character that is indescribable. Its feeling cannot be explained by words, or even pictures.

As I take my seat in the middle of the bus and the driver closes the swinging arm door at the front, I realize that if my next destination offers even half of what Cartagena has, it will be worth all the bumps, bruises and anxiety of my bus journeys.

© Brendan van Son

Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012

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