On the Road — Colombia: Running the Blockades

This Sunday morning, I take a break from packing Rocinante (my faithful knapsack). Tonight we shall be traveling north to the border. The paper crumples in my hands as I focus in on one news story: Striking Colombian truckers have blockaded the international bridge at Rumichaca. Nothing and no one are able to cross.

With the rush of getting ready to update V!VA Colombia guide, I haven’t had time to catch up on the news. For months, I’d read about how the La Niña rains were causing landslides throughout the country, blocking roads. But I had totally missed this development.

Monday morning I arrive in Tulcán. When the sun paints the eastern horizon and cock crows echo through the streets, I head to the plaza. An unmoving line of border-bound combis line one side. We wait for over an hour before the van is full. The border is quiet. For once, no long lines jam the immigration posts.

Ipiales is the same city as it’s always been. The streets buzz with traders from both sides of the border. It seems hard to believe there is a siege. It turns out the truckers have agreed to park near another town, while waiting for negotiations. The crux lies in the government wanting to lift tare fare controls, leaving them to the mercy of the market. Truckers fear they’ll lose a lot of money, without those guaranteed fees.

I am free to head down the road to Tumaco, on the southern Colombia coast. In the three years since I’d been there, much has changed – and yet not much. Houses tightly packed along narrow boardwalks still cram Barrio Puentes, in danger of tsunamis. There is yet a strong military presence, with planes returning back to base after a day of spraying coca cultivations. It is said great strides are being made in combating the narco-traficantes and guerrillas. New hotels have opened, especially out at Playa El Morro, and new tourist agencies are ready to swoop people away to Bocagrande and the region’s other natural wonders. The tourism officer tries to convince me to stay around for Tumaco’s Carnaval, highlighting regional Afro-Colombian music, dance and cultural traditions. But as tempting as Playa El Morro’s beaches and tranquility may be, I must be moving on.

But not so fast, Pachamama seems to tell me. The night before I plan to leave, it rains. A landslide is blocking the road inland. But the next day I am able to head down the road. Just before Nariño Department’s capital, semi rigs line the highway.

Pasto now seems to wear a solemn face. Because of the truckers’ paro, food and gas supplies are running low. Commerce is at a virtual stand-still. My last day in the city is a whirlwind, and Rocinante must be ready to leave early next morning. I forgo watching the news before I go to bed, and awaken in a flurry. The urge to move on is burning at my soles.

I arrive at the bus station. No, there are no buses today because of the strike. Since the previous afternoon, the camioneros have been tightening the noose around the city. The highway south is totally blockaded. Trucks are moving into position in other directions. Soon there will be no exit to the north, either.

But one company is willing to send minivans out. Studying the maps, it has found an alternative route leading to above Laguna de la Cocha and into the Sibundoy valley. The way is safe – and still unbarricaded. Should I take the chance or resign myself to holing up in Pasto until this blows over? I plunk down the cash for my ticket and board the combi.

Ah, the thrills when a paro is declared. This experience joins the ranks of when I got stuck in one town after another during Bolivia’s 2005 nation-wide strike. Or that time, back in 1999, when a strike blocked highways throughout this very same Colombia. The only way out was some dirt road going deep into the zona roja. Still, even after all these years, I have not been able to find that track on any map. Well, the adventure out of Pasto wasn’t that much of a trip – some day over an Águila beer, I’ll tell you the tale.

But for now, Rocinante and I must get back on the road, savoring Colombia’s multi-faceted natural and cultural beauty.

Editor’s note: Lorraine Caputo is one of V!VA’s longest-tenured writers. These days, she’s back on the road in Colombia, updating our 2011 edition of the book. Check the blog for more of her updates from the road.

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