The 27 Hour Bus Ride

Sabana de Torres Travel Blog

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Leading up to the accident

After a few days of recovering in Cartagena it was off to Bogota on what was supposed to be an 18 hour bus ride which cost 130,000 pesos since it is peak travel season in Colombia. For the first time I actually had a timid taxi driver and made it to the bus station only 10 minutes before the bus was scheduled to leave only to find that I was first person to load luggage onto the bus. Despite this we actually left more or less on time and the bus proceeded along good roads. We made a stop at some restaurant/store/bathroom bus stop in the middle of nowhere around 9pm. Naturally I was the only non Colombian there and had lots of people looking at me.

At the scene #1
The bus service in Colombia is a little confusing. Even though I was on a direct bus service to Bogota people still got off and on the bus randomly and we occasionally stopped to pick people up. I doubt that these people would have known if there were seats on the bus with things changing over so much so I'm guessing that they were riding on a essentially a standby status. We passed through numerous little towns which had seemingly no reason for existing except that they were along the road. At around 5am we stopped to let off this elderly couple at an abandoned bathroom in the middle of nowhere. I have no idea how they got anywhere from there, but I'm sure they knew what they were doing. About 15 minutes later we came to a stop behind another bus, and we waited for a long time, at least an hour or so because the sun started to rise, without moving an inch.
At the scene #2
At around 7am the driver shut off the engine. From the window I could see people standing on the side of the road. Lots of people. A few people got off the bus and I did as well. I asked someone why we were stopped and they said that there had been a head on collision not far ahead of us. Seeing the way that the bus and other traffic moves this was not surprising. Those lines in the middle of the road aren't even a suggestion in Colombia, they are generally just ignored. You can pass someone around blind mountain curves, just honk your horn before you pull into the other lane to pass. If there is a shoulder you can even pass with oncoming traffic, the cars coming towards you are then obligated to move onto the shoulder to give you room to pass, sometimes they don't even slow down but merely flash their lights.
At the scene #3
Needless to say, there were numerous close calls when our bus pulled these same maneuvers. After we had been waiting for about 3.5 hours, engines started and everyone piled back onto the buses and we began to crawl forward. At this point cars and buses were trying to pass us in the other lane, making it almost impossible for oncoming traffic to pass by us. The two lane road had 3 lanes of vehicles on it. It took us another 30 minutes to reach the scene of the accident, which was maybe a 1/3 mile away. It was now about 9am, the accident had supposedly occurred at about 5am. Four hours later the cars were still in place, there were no police or other emergency personnel on the scene, and traffic was being directed by random people holding fence posts that they had pulled out of the ground.
At the scene #4
It was total chaos and luckily we were finally moving by it. It was hard for us to move because there were 3-4 lanes of vehicles on the 2 lane road and our bus had difficulty squeezing by. Once we started moving we passed car after car after bus after truck just stopped in the road, engines off and people standing in the road. The sun was out and baking everything in sight so people were sleeping under trucks and in the shadows of cars trying to find whatever shade they could. There was tons of traffic since everyone was heading out of Bogota for New Year's. And I estimated that traffic was stopped like this for maybe 20 miles. And not once did we pass any police or anyone coming to the scene of the accident. These people were going to be stuck in traffic all day.
Leaving the scene
It was just unfathomable that this would happen on a major road to/from the capital city. This five hour delay surely put us way behind schedule but no one really knew where we were and in Colombia there aren't many road signs to help you out. I had nothing to do but listen to music and look out the window.

I started thinking about Colombia and the things that I'd seen so far. As we passed soldiers standing by the road I had a hard time seeing anything but a kid with a gun behind the camouflage after interacting with the soldiers by the Lost City. The minimum age for military service is 18 but some of the ones we talked to had said that they falsified documents or lied and were only 15 or 16. Military service is also mandatory but I was told that you can pay your way out of it if you want to, $1500 or one year of military service. When you pay the money or serve in the military you get a card which you need to show in order to get a job or got to school. But apparently even if you pay there is no guarantee that the military might come by to check your papers and say oh this isn´t correct and unless you know someone with connections you are stuck. With so many men in the military this might be one explanation for the large number of young single women with small children that I've seen everywhere. It is really strange to always see young women with kids far outnumbering the number of young couples. I'm not quite sure why this is but others agreed with me about noticing the same thing. The whole cocaine culture is quite fascinating as well. I´m sure that a significant number of the rich families in Colombia have ties either directly or indirectly to the cocaine trade. It is not hard to imagine how much money this generates as the coca leaves that a farmer makes can be sold and turned into cocaine in a single day. That cocaine sells for about $5 a gram on the streets of Colombia, for a profit, and by the time it reaches the streets of the US it sells for over $100 a gram probably after being cut several times over. The soldiers that we hiked with to the Lost City were out on patrol looking for coca plants, when they find them they spray them with pesticide which kills the plants but not the roots, in about a years time the plants will grow back, healthy as ever. For the people in it there are tremendous amounts of money to be made, much more than a farmer could ever hope to earn otherwise. Another strange thing in Colombia is the communications system. Cell phones are prevalent but there are many different cell phone companies and each has its own plan with included minutes, much like the US, and there are different prefixes for the numbers from different companies. However, calls from one cell company to another cost a fortune, so these call stores are everywhere and you just go in and they have cell phones from all the different companies that you can use. By far the best culinary aspect of Colombia has to be the tropical fruit juices, they are just awesome. I´ve had so many different kinds, some of them I have no idea what they are and others the people haven´t even tried to describe what they are. Some of the ones that I´ve tried and I don´t know if there are english translations to these or not: maracuya, lulo, zapote, barajo, tree tomato, mora (a type of blackberry), guanabana, plus a few others that I don´t even know how to spell in spanish. They blend these fruits with either milk or water and they are only a dollar or two. I think there are at least 20 that I haven´t tried yet, hopefully they will have them in Ecuador too.

The bus ride continued past some nice scenery along Rio Magdalena then climbed up into the mountains via a slow and winding road until I finally saw a sign that bogota was 110 km away. On this road with our bus trying to pass along these blind curves probably meant 2-3 more hours. As we entered the sprawling metropolis of 8 million people that is Bogota the scenery became less spectacular until the mountains bordering Bogota on the east side came into view. Soon thereafter we arrived at the bus terminal around 4pm, completing the 27 hour bus ride. I had been warned to carefully check the serial numbers on the taxis to make sure that the license plates, match the numbers on the side, roof, and window, and that these are identical with the number on the drivers license displayed inside the cab. There are some fake taxis which have been known to kidnap people and take them to ATMs to withdraw money. Everything checked out fine and within 20 minutes I was at my destination, looking forward to not being on the bus anymore.

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Leading up to the accident
Leading up to the accident
At the scene #1
At the scene #1
At the scene #2
At the scene #2
At the scene #3
At the scene #3
At the scene #4
At the scene #4
Leaving the scene
Leaving the scene
Sabana de Torres
photo by: AndySD