We left Cartagena behind to wait for the truck’s arrival in the port of Santa Marta. We were attracted by the city’s reputation of a laid-back bohemian atmosphere and were hoping to get some relaxing times around Tayrona National Park and the Caribbean Sea. When we got there we quickly realized that moving around at daytime was a struggle with the heat and humidity. Luckily our friend Lavy joined us by the end of the week and we departed on a hop-on hop-off journey by car around Tayrona National Park, at Palomino, Merecumbe beach and Minca mountain village.
At the end of our tour we finally got the call that our dear Brutus had arrived in the port. Excited to pick up our beloved motorhome we were shocked to spot that thieves had broken into our truck and had taken away great memories of our trip. Disaster!
Santa Marta was the first Spanish settlement in Colombia, and as such it carries plenty Hispanic heritage and charm. The port city is located by the Caribbean coastline, in the vicinity of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta range of mountains and their rainforest vegetation. The town became a gateway for backpackers due to its accessible prices and free spirit atmosphere. From here many depart to explore the Tayrona National Park and several trekking routes in the region, including the famous hike of the “Ciudad Perdida” (The Lost City), also known as Colombia’s ‘Machu Picchu’.
Since Brutus would be arriving in about a week in Santa Marta port we decided to give it a try, and spent some time there. Hotel prices are lower than in Cartagena, and as we were traveling light we could try a few places until we found the right spot for us at the Sierra Nevada hotel. It was within our budget, brand new, with great AC and service, and it had a pleasant vibe. We enjoyed a few days chilling and roaming Santa Marta streets, seeing the old town and the waterfront. We were lucky to find a French restaurant with a “menu of the day” at a great price, where we savored a more European type of food. That was exactly what I was missing at that moment.
Unfortunately, there were couple of things we could not experience around Santa Marta. And although in normal circumstances they would have been extremely high in our agenda, adventuring whilst pregnant needed a lot of consideration. We had to pass the multiple days hiking tour in the search of the Lost City in the Sierra Nevada, as an example. We couldn’t stay for too long in the jungle due to the many infirmities transmittable by mosquitos, and we were especially concerned with the zika virus. We could not do much scuba diving or sunbathing either. So, there was not much else to do but to enjoy the several good restaurants in and around Santa Marta, with its upcoming atmosphere and culinary offerings.
As we were mostly staying in town, we were soon enough bored. And although Santa Marta has a lot of potential it is not in the same league of Cartagena. The old town buildings and the road infrastructure need a lot of TLC. The colonial buildings and squares would do much better with a revamp. Security wise we did not feel at ease once the sun was down. Begging was constant, often aggressive, and local vendors harassment was unpleasant. Nevertheless, it did not bother us too much as with such heat and humidity we spent quite a while indoors, writing and waiting for Brutus’ arrival.
After a few days in town our friend Lavy called from Cartagena. We decided to go together on a hop-on hop hop-off adventure experiencing the most exquisite boutique hostels in the region. Lavy would also show us a little bit more of the Santa Marta he knew: the best of the nightlife entertainment. A whole different world of backpackers and youngsters were populating the vibrant night scene, enjoying live Latin music, cool DJs and funky cocktails. It was a pity I could not enjoy the cocktails . The pregnancy kept me sleepy, I couldn’t drink, nor was I in the mood to party. We soon departed with Lavy to Palomino and Merecumbe white-sand beaches and the mountain village known for its jungle nature and waterfalls, Minca.
The small beach of Palomino is located about 80km from Santa Marta, and is favored by backpackers due to its happy-go-lucky style. The beaches, turquoise waters and reasonable prices make it a champion. Lavy managed to get us a very good discount for an extraordinary hostel by the beach called The Dreamer. We were excited to change and scale up, getting some fun in the sun. The Dreamer was probably the best hostel we ever stayed in. It had a wonderful environment, plenty of shade around the pool, palm trees and tropical vegetation. It was just two minutes’ walk from the beach. The pool was lovely, and the private and spacious bungalows had substantial amenities and comfort. The food and the buzzy atmosphere were great, which were enjoyed by a bunch of young travelers from all over the world.
Nearby we had a delicious pizza with a thin sourdough base whilst watching a Champions League match. On our way back we got a Zacapa bottle of rum to celebrate Lavy’s birthday. Life couldn’t get better than that. What a lovely time!
The following morning I booked a one-to-one yoga class for pregnancy with a teacher who was an indigenous Colombian. A wonderful and genuine experience! I wished we would stay there from the very beginning when we arrived in Santa Marta. Unfortunately, we only got one night to enjoy this small paradise. I highly recommend it for the adventurous travelers looking for fun in a chilled and genuine Caribbean atmosphere.
The next day we went off towards Merecumbe Beach hotel which was only 30 km away from The Dreamer. This was more JP’s type, a luxurious bungalow resort that Lavy managed to get another great deal for one night through his connections in the hospitality industry of Colombia. The place was impeccable, outstanding gardens full of tropical fruits and flowers, colorful singing birds zooming around, well-spaced bungalows, top breakfast and great beach infrastructure.
Strolling by the beach we enjoyed a dramatic sunset with a wonderful view of the mountains merging into the sea. A little piece of heaven which again, did not last long :)). We would certainly return and do recommend.
We checked out, and travelled to Minca, a tiny offbeat mountain village just behind Santa Marta. We were delighted to visit it since we heard it had a beautiful jungle nature, refreshing waterfalls, an authentic scene and at altitude, more pleasant temperature. We had been craving for some fresh mountain air for some time.
When we arrived in Minca by late-afternoon the sun was setting. We were hungry and decided to go for a pizza and drinks at a nearby restaurant. The food was decent, the drinks and the laughs were great, but after all the driving we were all tired, so we called the night. On our way back we were flabbergasted by the amount of mosquitos trying to get a piece of us. They were everywhere, and they were the one thing I wanted to avoid due to Zika virus. I just wanted to get out of there asap!
The next day after breakfast we were all ready to leave, especially after receiving the great news that Brutus had finally arrived in the port of Santa Marta. We could not wait to get our expedition vehicle back and continue our journey south.
Surprise! Surprise! Thieves had broken into Brutus!
We got back to Santa Marta excited to take the delivery of Brutus at the terminal the same day. The RoRo vessel arrived early in the morning as per JP’s GPS signal. We had the exact location of Brutus at terminal and we wanted to get it out of there asap. Our first set back was that Hoegh’s shipping agent was late to finalize the paperwork and we could not start the importation procedure. JP called numerous times, and these people were so unprofessional. JP was fuming, because we could only start the temporary importation process once we had the document issued by the carrier. We had to wait another day to get things going.
The next morning, we were first ones to arrive at the Port Authority of Santa Mart to kick start the paperwork process. Unfortunately, despite being around and running from desk to desk the whole day, we could not get the designated inspector to find time to check out the truck the same day. That meant we would need another night at a hotel, and that Brutus would sleep a second night, alone, at the terminal.
We returned the following day at literally at 07:30 am, hopeful to complete the paperwork and to get on the road by 10:00 am. Even after one hour waiting the lady in charge would not bother to get going before finishing her coffee. Well, nothing seemed to be on an efficient-operational mode at the Port Authority building.
Eventually, the time had come. The customs officer woke up and looked at us for inspection. We walked to the parking lot. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of Korean cars. When we saw Brutus in the parking lot in one single piece it was an incredible feeling. JP was almost crying of excitement. The inspector was also happy to complete the process. We were walking around, content, the truck seemed to be in good order externally. But then JP noticed a small damage in one of the windows blinds. He rushed to open the door of the living cell, which was not locked…
It was like a bomb. We got our electro-hydraulic stairs out, and before even climbing JP could see the footsteps. We knew. Thieves had broken into Brutus forcing two of the window locks. The thieves have their signature. Everything was turned around. Dirt and fingerprints everywhere: on the carpets, couch, bedsheets, window, bathroom. We could see from where the burglars had come in, what they touched. We left the truck at Manzanillo Port Terminal in Panama clean as in a pharmacy. Then everything was dirty. We felt our intimacy brutally violated and our private space abused.
Besides the window break in damage they had taken everything of value they found: one drone, two camera lenses, one hard disk, two backpacks, tools, a vacuum cleaner, a shaving machine, a sound speaker, pillows, clothes. Damage of about 3000 Euros.
When we thought we had the inventory of stolen things summed up we would find something else missing. When we realized they had stolen even our refrigerator magnets that we collected from all the wonderful places we had been from Halifax to Alaska and from there to Colombia, we were heartbroken. They were colorful tokens of memories! We were distressed by that emotional loss more than anything.
The thieves were no newbies into crime scene and knew exactly what they were doing. They broke into Brutus forcing the right-side window of the living cell, which is located over 2 meters high. They forced the locks in such a way that it was hardly obvious from the outside. Once inside, they closed the window and the blind with whatever glue or tape they had with them or they could find inside. Then, when it was safe to do so, probably with the help of another person from the gang, he would exit by the living cell door, which is openable from an emergency open button on the inside. This way the thieves managed to evade all the checkpoints along the shipping process. They make hard to the authorities or the shipper, in this case Hoegh, to get a grip of what was going on in their shipment. Furthermore, this technique allows most players in the chain to claim no responsibility. Please let me illustrate, there are inspections at every step of the journey. The vehicle is only boarded in Manzanillo if the outside looks are in good order. It is only offloaded if it looks in good order, and so on. When they break in without signs on the outside, no one can really be sure where the gang of thieves is based and at what point the truck was broken into.
All these facts brought us to suspect that the thieves were operating at the Manzanillo terminal, in Panama. Brutus had been there waiting at the patio for a delayed Hoegh ship for almost a week. Besides, JP had an awfully bad feeling of the real motives of the people looking at our stuff in Panama before the shipment. Yes, that was when the dog went in. We did not believe it was broken into when Brutus was inside RoRo vessel, where only the crew has access to the truck. The chance of someone breaking in Santa Marta was smaller since Brutus was there for only 2 days. We could see that where it was parked in Santa Marta there were plenty of surveillance cameras. Besides, the terminal manager at Manzanillo confessed that there were other motorhomes before us that arrived in the port in the same condition. So, all in all, our conclusion was that an organized gang worked at the Manzanillo terminal, in Panama.
The question about who did it and where it happened tormented us for a while. JP was a pile of nerves, he went ballistic at the customs authorities and made sure everybody was on our case. He would not give up in finding justice and went to the police station to report the theft. He found at least 20 people ahead of him trying to report their own cases and stayed there until he got his turn, when the police station closed. Nobody really cared nor they did anything about it. And whilst JP was there at the station I was pregnant at 36 degrees Celsius cleaning the dirt and the traces the thieves had left inside so we could get out of there as soon as possible. And although it was a tiring exercise, psychologically it made me feel better. Somehow it helped me out to clean my mind about what happened and to move on.
After all the pain, meetings, reports and emails, the only thing we got out of that (besides anger and stress) was 200 Euros from Hoegh related to costs to fixing the damaged window. All the rest was on our account. The shipper takes no responsibility for valuables inside the vehicle.
The other painful fact was that there were no specialized shops in Colombia where we could find spares for our broken locks. For this reason, we had to travel with improvised locks for a long time. Basically, anybody could break into our truck if they would only push harder our window. Thank God, we came across with no other thieves wiling to climb 2 meters to break inn our window.
Whilst we were desperate to leave Santa Marta JP insisted to go once again to the police station to finalize the police report. “What is right, is right” - he said. It was to no avail. We had to forget about it, close this chapter, and continue with our expedition.
Although we had appreciated the beauty of north Colombia with its Spanish heritage, the breezy atmosphere of the Caribbean coastline and the dramatic views of the Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta mountains, we had endured one of our lowest moments from our sabbatical venture. The heat, the humidity, my continued tiredness, and the invasion of our private space made us apathetic. We had a new continent to discover and our motivation was almost down to zero... But we had to stay strong and motivated, and with Brutus’ core in good order, JP stepped down filling the truck’s turbo and we finally left Santa Marta without looking back. Our next step would be Medellin, for the second pregnancy scan and to find out the gender of our baby. We were looking forward to the news!