The Next Chapter: South America

May 10th through June 5, 2022

Delay and dirt are the realities of the most rewarding travel. Paul Theroux

Flying over the Darien Gap from Panama to Colombia

Crossing into South America was a major milestone on our journey. It was essentially the midway point of the trip and it got us thinking and reflecting. How will we migrate back to “normal” life? Could we do this longer? It felt like time was flying by.

Strolling through the Getsemani neighborhood in Cartagena

We landed in Cartagena Colombia on May 10th; the same date Francine was scheduled to leave port in Panama. As we were waiting to board the plane, we were notified the shipment would be delayed until at least May 14th. At first, I felt anxious about being stuck in a city for over a week while we waited. We had just spent five days in Panama City outside our Francine comfort zone, and we were ready to get on the road again. We had no choice but to wait. It took a couple days to warm up to Cartagena, but Cartagena warmed us up instantly! The intense heat and humidity of the city quickly made us grateful we were staying in a hotel with air conditioning rather than a hot Francine.

While we waited, we got to spend time with a family who was shipping their van on the same boat as us. They were a Spanish & French couple with an eight-year-old daughter who was full of life. We sat with them in a vibrant alley of the Getsemani neighborhood exchanging stories while flamenco dancers and salsa bands passed by. The streets and night life of Cartagena are packed with color and energy! Our friends told their story of leaving France in 2019 for a one-year trip in their van. Over margaritas we heard about how the pandemic altered their original travel plans and they figured out a way to extend it into a five-year trip. We instantly connected over the value we place on time over money and the importance of getting our living in while we have our health and relationships with people to enjoy the ride with.

I began to realize that many of the long-term travelers we have connected with on our journey are those who also lost parents at young ages (in their 30s, 40s, 50s). I started to wonder if despite the sadness and heartbreak of losing a parent far too early, are we the lucky ones? As crazy as it may sound, I pondered if the losses make us look at life through a different lens where tomorrow is not always guaranteed. I used to dream of retirement until I realized my dad never reached that milestone, therefore, I better find a way to incorporate my dreams into the here and now.

On an afternoon when these thoughts were flowing through my mind, Will and I walked up to a cathedral where the lovely tune of Con Te Partiro was drifting through the towering arched door as a bride began to walk down the aisle.

We stopped to watch the enchanting scene and I was surprised to feel my emotions suddenly stirred. I looked up the lyrics later that day and listened again to Andrea Bocelli sing of deep love and painful loss. It was a gentle awakening. I felt appreciation for what I have and am doing, sorrow for what I have lost, and determination to make my life worthwhile. Maybe the best part of this trip is having the time and headspace to really feel the feelings.

Card from Will…he modified the quote slightly

Will gave me a card years ago that said, “This is our world. Shape it or someone else will.” The card hangs above the kitchen sink in Francine as a constant reminder. Our world has never felt normal. Sometimes I feel guilt over making decisions that take us far away from friends and family. I get homesick and crave the relationship and life stability that comes from staying in one place for a long time. However, the wanderlust Will and I share will most likely keep us chasing challenges and adventures, so I have learned to embrace it. Life is never boring and the paths we choose are not easy. We are constantly encountering new problems that need to be solved. A house on wheels always needs attention, whether it’s water and propane fill-up, emptying the tanks, or maintenance. Figuring out where to have packages sent for documents, parts, etc is difficult when we are always on the move. Our phone plan kicked us off for not being in the same location long enough, so we spend hours seeking out WiFi and SIM cards in each country. Financial institutions are alarmed to see charges coming through from new countries every few weeks, so we have had to battle to keep those active. The world does not really know what to do with people who are jobless and homeless by choice.

Found this fitting visual while staying cool in our hotel in Cartagena

I’m off topic, big time! The nine days we waited in Cartagena for Francine provided plenty of time for reflection. She finally arrived in Port on May 15th, but we had to wait another four days for her to clear customs and be ready for pickup. The process was hectic. A man called Mr German came to our hotel to have us sign stacks of papers we did not understand. We would answer the same questions over text and phone multiple times, making us question what in the world was going on. We did not realize we had appointed me to be the one who would pick up Francine at the port. I had never driven the rig, so this was a bit stressful.

The night finally arrived to put on the hard hat and boots to make the pick-up. We were anxious to reunite. I waited nervously as it grew dark. I could see Francine, but for an hour had to wait for an official to accompany me to her. Oddly, we could not see our friend’s campervan. My phone battery was dying and I couldn’t connect with Will. At last, I was allowed to inspect Francine and found that she had not been burglarized and was ready to roll. Sadly, the same could not be said for our friend’s vehicle. It had to be towed off the boat because somewhere between the Panama and Colombia ports it was damaged so badly that it was not drivable. The clutch was on the floor and they were also burglarized. While we were relieved at our situation, they were living a nightmare. We spent the night sleeping outside the port gate and towed them to a mechanic the next day.

The shipping experience was quite a ride. It cost double what we had budgeted and took four times as long as planned, but we were thrilled to be back on the road in Francine the Travel Machine. We bid farewell to our friends at the mechanic. We had one week to fill between pickup and meeting friends who were flying in from the US. We made an action packed drive from Cartagena to Camarones and back to Santa Marta. We learned the art of making arepas, saw pink flamingos in the wild, gazed at snow capped mountains next to crashing ocean waves, and finished our scuba certification with a charismatic guide named Chopper in Taganga. We fell in love with the town of Minca – coffee, cooler temperatures, refreshing river, and unique birdsongs. We thought it was starting to rain as we watched the sun set one night. It turned out to be hundreds of loudly chirping cicadas peeing down on us from the trees.

We were excited to get back to Santa Marta and meet friends who had flown in from Alaska and Minnesota to do the four day/three night Lost City Trek with us. We also convinced our travel buddy Irish John to join us! It was an election day in Colombia which meant no booze sales, so we smuggled some drinks in to the hotel pool and caught up with these beautiful people who decided to join us on this crazy journey.

Early the next morning we took off for the hike. It was a hot and humid adventure through the jungle to arrive at the archaeological site of the ancient city in the Sierra Nevada mountains. We enjoyed incredible views, steep climbs, river crossings, slippery descents, and learned the culture of indigenous people who live there. Lodging was a combination of mosquito net covered bunks and lofts packed with tents. It was a perfect example of Type 2 Fun – every moment was not enjoyable while it was happening, but it will be fun to reminisce about later. Despite the dirt, sweat and random freak-outs, it was wonderful to spend quality time catching up with dear friends in the beautiful Colombian wilderness.

We got to spend a night at the Marriott with our Minnesota friends before they flew home, and randomly walked into a conference booth from our company back in Australia. Contrasting our current life to our previous life was wild! The next day we piled into Francine with our Alaskan friends and headed back to Minca. We took in more sunsets, toured a coffee farm, and caught up with overlanding friends from London and Germany.

As we wrapped up time with friends I thought about how our lives have gone down such different paths, however our bonds are crazy strong, even after nearly a decade of seeing some of them! We will cherish these memories and friends forever, and are grateful they spent the time and money to travel to meet us.

It was time for us to head south. We had a long way to go to the bottom of South America and the open road was waiting. Medellin was our next destination and it required a couple solid days of travel and sleeping in dirty gas station parking lots. Alas, the adventure continued.

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