Repeat after me — adventure is not always fun. Things do not always go as planned, which makes travel hard and long. But sometimes things go very wrong and it’s downright scary. For example, on the day-long series of bus rides from Guatape to Salento, Colombia, one of our buses broke down, and then we got a flat tire while riding through heavy fog in a private vehicle later that night. It was a day of crazy transportation from Guatape to Salento.
On Tonight’s Program: Our Route from Guatape to Salento
We wrapped up our time in Guatape and decided to head south to Salento. There wasn’t a straightforward way to do this trip. We had to hop on a bus from Guatape to Medellin, take a taxi to a second transit station in Medellin, ride a bus from Medellin to Armenia, and finally find another bus from Armenia to Salento.
There are vans that can take you from Medellin directly to Salento, but they were sold out that day. Besides, a story is better with a little adventure, right?
The First Act: A Bus Ride Unlike the Others
Most of the large, commercial buses we’ve taken between South American cities have been pretty nice with A/C, TVs, comfortable seats that dip low enough for sleeping, and a toilet in the back. But when we first sat down on this bus, we realized that it was very old, and I was dismayed to find that we’d been placed in front of the already-smelly toilet. The seat cushions were completely worn, the A/C knobs didn’t work, and my seat (and the young man’s seat in front of me) wouldn’t stay up. It reclined further and further with every road bump until this kid’s head was on my lap. We had to wake him from his nap and ask him to sit upright.
The road from Medellin to Armenia was a mess at the time, too. Not only was I nauseated from the wet, windy, mountain roads, the toilet’s stench and the driver’s sharp turns, but a huge portion of the road was also under construction. This meant we had to stop every few kilometers and take turns passing the drivers on the other side of the road. It was a long trip, and I eventually fell asleep from lack of movement on the bus ...
As I slowly awoke, I realized two things: 1) I was sweating on what should have been a freezing cold bus, and 2) The bus was groaning. Eyes still heavy with sleep, I listened to my surroundings. I realized the bus’s groaning came from its inability to shift gears. It also slowed down with each failed attempt. My eyes popped open in fear as I absorbed my surroundings.
The Shifty Old Bus from Medellin to Armenia
“Jimmy! Jimmy the bus isn’t shifting gears,” I said, waking him. I repeated myself, and within seconds, our bus slowed to a complete stop. I looked out the window with fear. We were still on a wet, curvy mountain road in the middle of nowhere, and cars and buses fly down these roads. Were we going to get hit from behind? We were seated in the back of the bus — and in front of a stinky toilet!
The people on the bus went silent and the lights and TVs on the bus went dark. We all held our collective breath as the bus driver tried once, twice, three times to get the bus going again. After the fourth time, it finally went back on again, but there was still no relief — the bus wouldn’t shift or go forward. With every try, we actually slipped further backward down the hill. Shrieks of fear could be heard with every backward jolt.
I could hear my heart racing in my ears. I wondered to myself if it would be safer to go toward the front of the bus. There were no seatbelts, so if we were hit from behind, we’d all be tossed around just the same, right? But at least we wouldn’t feel the worst of the impact and be swamped by sewage? I debated this internally as the bus tried — over and over again — to shift gears.
I was just about to share this internal debate with Jimmy when the bus magically shifted gears and we crept forward again. Cheers of relief erupted throughout the bus as we all shared a collective sigh of relief.
At the next construction stop, the bus driver hopped out of the bus, changed into a mechanic’s jumper, and started working on the engine as we waited. First, he did some work on the engine up front, and then he removed some of the flooring in the back, next to us, and hopped into the underside of the bus. Jimmy said he only tightened up a few things in the back, but the work he completed up front must have worked because that stinky, shifty, old bus got us to Armenia a few hours later.
Intermission: Get Ready for an Expensive Ride
Between the neverending road construction and the bus’s mechanical issues, we got to Armenia four hours later than scheduled. No buses made the drive from Armenia and Salento that late at night, so we realized right away that we had no choice but to take a taxi. We did a little research online to see what to expect cost-wise and our mouths dropped to the floor — 70,000 COP. That’s about $19 for a cab ride, which was higher than we spent on accommodations.
After asking around a bit, the bus driver’s assistant offered to take us to Salento for 60,000 COP in his car. He looked really young, like he was about 18 years old, and said he was an Uber driver on the side. Since we had so few options, we told him yes, although we wanted to double check current pricing with the taxi drivers.
When we got to the bus station in Armenia, the young bus assistant walked with us as we asked the taxi drivers how much it would cost to take us to Salento — 70,000 COP. As we walked away, the cab drivers lowered their price to 60,000 COP, but we decided to give our business to the helpful kid instead. From the smile on his face, I’m sure this exact same routine happens every single time he offers rides to tourists.
The Final Act: A Flat Tire on the Drive to Salento
Thankfully, the bus driver’s assistant was a more cautious (aka normal) driver than a taxi driver, but like them, he didn’t have a seatbelt for me in the backseat. He didn’t know much English, so Jimmy spoke to him in Spanish. We found out that he was named Mateo, was married for six years, and had a one-year-old daughter. (So he wasn’t as young as he looked!)
As we drove higher into the mountains surrounding Salento, the wet conditions quickly changed into a dense fog. Visibility was super low — we could only see about five feet in front of us, and the curvy mountain road with no guardrails or pull-offs grew more and more treacherous. Mateo slowed waaaay down, but about a mile from Salento, the car started to make a funny “kerthunk, kerthunk” sound. It took everything I had not to make a huge groaning sound myself — another car issue?
There was nowhere to pull over, so Mateo put on his emergency blinkers and hopped outside with a flashlight to check his car tires in the middle of the road. I panicked — we were in the middle of a windy mountain road again, but this time, it was in the black of night with fog that swallowed our tiny vehicle whole. And I didn’t have a seatbelt in the back seat, again. I felt incredibly exposed. If anyone drove up behind us, I really didn’t think they would see us in time to stop.
Mateo didn’t see our flat tire at first glance, so he hopped back into the car and started driving away pretty quickly. But when the sound started right back up again, he parked the car in the middle of the road again. This happened a couple of times until he finally gave up and drove the rest of the short way to Salento.
Relief washed over me as we pulled into the bus station parking lot near the entry of Salento. After about 13 hours of nauseating mountain roads, smelly and dirty toilets, uncomfortable seats, mechanical issues, and panicking about our safety, we were a couple of blocks away from our accommodations.
I stepped out into the rain, breathed in some fresh air and stretched my legs as Jimmy helped Mateo change his flat tire. Jimmy is a pro at changing tires and pointed out a couple of Mateo’s incorrect and less safe moves as they completed the task together. He was grateful for Jimmy’s guidance — so much so that he gave Jimmy a hug of gratitude and relief when they were done.
Epilogue: Why We Travel
As we walked to our place for the night, I thought about our hectic and stressful day. As crazy as it was, it could have been a lot worse. Because of the bus drivers’ mechanical skills, we were able to make it to Armenia instead of getting stuck in the middle of nowhere. And because of Jimmy’s mad tire-changing skills, he was able to contribute a little good into this crazy day too.
When exploring the world outside your comfortable box, not all days are easy or within your budget. But that’s ok. All kinds of travel experiences — good or bad — leave a mark on you and change your perspective in the tiniest way. This personal growth is why people still continue to travel after difficult or bad experiences.
I wonder … travel will inevitably change me over the next couple of years — but how?
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