Daytrippin’ Colombia Style

To Bus or not to Bus – That is the Colombia question

Not so long ago,  a colleague and I needed to travel from Medellin to Manizales. We set out at noon and I assumed it would be an easy trip. After all, it is only 150 kms. from south Medellin. With a North American mindset, I calculated 1 1/2 hours and doubled it, assuming that the traffic in Colombia would not flow as quickly as I would hope.  Eight hours later, ”it was a dark and stormy night”, we arrived .  One by one, I peeled  my fingers off of the steering wheel and stumbled into our hotel.

I have to admit the drive was spectacular. Cruising along the peaks of the Andes in the bright sunshine is almost mind boggling. The road seems to wind its way along the highest pinnacles and I swore if I had missed a  curve we would have been airborne…. and it is a very long way down.

The road infrastructure in Colombia suffered a great neglect as a result of the internal strife that this country has endured. There was no need to spend money on roads when very few people were using them. It was until armed military escorts  became prevalent during the administration of President Alvaro Uribe did the citizens venture back onto the highways. The current president has initiated numerous road construction projects and hopefully within 5 to 6 years the movement of personal and commercial goods will become much easier.

The issues one faces on these drives is that the roads are generally only 2 lanes . In some cases there isn’t much more room to construct more.  Secondly, they are not well maintained and full of potholes. I am still uncertain why there are so many tolls between Medellin and Manizales when the road conditions can be so atrocious. Thirdly buses, and transport trucks tailgate so at times you may have 3 or 4 semi’s, bumper to bumper going up hill.

Now think back to what they taught you in driver training. Never pass on a curve and never pass over a double line and worst of all don’t pass going up a hill on a curve over a double line.  You can forget that rule in Colombia or the 150 km trip might take you 12 hours.

One of the other challenges one faces with road travel within Colombia is mudslides.  On a two lane road, if one is fortunate only one lane gets blocked. However, if both lanes are covered, the wait can be lengthy.  Cartagena to Medellin is normally around 12 hours. If the road is closed it can be up to 24 hours !

The final challenge about driving, whether it be in car or by bus, in some of the isolated areas of the country, there are still ”banditos” and I do know of buses being pulled over. Usually one passenger is complicit and then at a predetermined, quiet spot the bus is pulled off the road. This is a night time activity and the most travelled roads in the daytime do not have this issue.

Virtually the entire country is accessible by bus.  The long trips have highway coaches and usually they are very comfortable. For the more adventure seeking traveler, it can be an exciting journey and an excellent way to see the country. For the over 50 crowd, accustomed to a bit more comfort then I propose a slightly different approach.

Two years ago a discount airline opened its gates to the public. With that brought about a much more reasonable cost of travel. Even the larger carriers at times have dropped their prices to be competitive. Now it is possible to target the large centres where this airline flies.  If you book well enough in advance, the price of your ticket is less than the bus.

I made the trip from Cartagena to Medellin by road – only once. Now I think about a possible 24 hour bus ride or a 70 minute flight.  If my flight is delayed by weather, a one or two hour inconvenience is still much better than a kidney shaking bus journey.

Of course if you want to see the countryside this defeats your purpose – or does it ? I recommend this travel to many readers simply because I believe you can make better use of your travel time with this method.

By focusing on the major cities and flying between, you can easily plan day trips by bus that will still allow you to experience Colombia, probably better than wasting your time sitting on a highway coach. Not only that you can target your sites.

The bus ride to Medellin from Bogota can be at least 8 hours. By air, it is 35 minutes.  From the international airport in Rionegro (Medellin) it is about one hour by bus to Guatape. It is an hour into the city and then another hour to Santa Fe de Antioquia. The hours spent traveling between cities  can be utilized much more effectively sight seeing, then staring endlessly out of a bus window for hours on end.

If your primary goal is to see the major sites in Colombia, consider ‘daytrippin’.