The Great, or at Very Least, Mediocre Colombian Bus Adventures of Anna

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.

I had just gotten off the boat from Tayrona National Park and back to Taganga, that two and a something hour boat ride from hell which had us rocking over waves, diving from the crest to the stormy ocean beneath us, not a single dry person in the boat.  This had been an adventurous day in Tayrona, one I wouldn’t soon forget, but I was in a rush to find a taxi to the bus station in Santa Marta to take me back to Cartagena. 

As I tentatively stepped off the wobbly boat, my feet meeting the cool ocean, I felt rain drops, slow at first, sporadic, and then heavier and heavier still, until visibility was considerably depleted and people in the little cafes that lined the main strip of the somewhat crummy Taganga ran for cover under palapas or into souvenir shops, standing, shivering, amongst the cheap trinkets as they waited on the storm to pass.  I had no time to spare, as it was already almost evening and I wanted to reach the station in time to board the four-hour-or-so bus to Cartagena; tickets were not available online, nor was the schedule.

I was staying at a hostel at that time in Taganga, a few nights in a beautiful little oasis removed from the tiny tourist strip, peaceful with a garden and fountains, along with my own private little room.  This was a welcome reprieve from the bustling Bogota, where I had spent a few nights, met some incredible new friends, but also had two traumatic experiences; I had needed this space to reconnect with nature, with myself, and to put things into perspective a little.  

My feet slid in and out of my flimsy flip flops as I trod through the muddy streets, running as best I could with my backpack and now-soaked towel over my shoulders.  Arriving at the hostel, the receptionist greeted me with a warm grin, surveying my drowned-looking hair and clothes, and asking what I might need.  A shower, I’d said, and a taxi, “de una vez!”  I could just make a five-minute shower, enough to get the mud off, and jump into the taxi and get going, get back to Cartagena before the strike of midnight, back to my ‘home’ hostel of my Colombian trip.

She took a deep breath before addressing me: “Ay, Anna…But there are no taxis available when it rains like this in Taganga!”  She was apologetic, probably due to shock and possible onset of tears…the station was about an hour’s drive away.  “See, we only have three taxis here.  I don’t mean services, I mean actual taxis.  When it rains, they are really busy, but let me see what I can do.”  She whisked me off to the one available public shower, a (literal) hole in the wall with no roof, though I suppose one wasn’t needed at this point, anyway.  

As I was soaping away, taking in the warmth, a tap on the rickety wooden door, “Hurry, Anna! The taxi is here!  I found one, but he said you need to come immediately!”  Having no time to dig through my pack, I put on my wet dress again, slid my feet into those slippy flip flops and slipped and slid off to the waiting taxi, waving goodbye to Taganga, and soon to Santa Marta.

I arrived in my still-damp ensemble at the station, the open air welcoming after the rain, and perused the buses boarding to see one almost full with giant glowing letters across the front reading, “CARTAGENA”.  Hooray!  I toddled over, anxious to relax, sit back and warm up after my long day, only to be told by the driver that I needed to first purchase my ticket at the kiosk.  Off I ran, lined up, a virtual blonde giant amongst the locals, and asked for my one way ticket to Cartagena.  

“No.”  The ticket agent said.  Literally, all she said was an emphatic, “No.”  I wasn’t sure why, and I asked, but she simply replied, “No, you can’t go on that bus.  You can take,” she waved her hand to nothingness beside her, a dismissal, “Some other bus somewhere.”  Now, I have tried all my life to control my temper – okay wait, that’s a blatant lie, but bear with me – but in that moment, I can attest that the bus station in Santa Marta got a solid ten minute education on Swearing in the English Language.  My tirade, however, fell on deaf ears – perhaps because she couldn’t understand what I was saying to begin with, though I did speak Spanish  for the entirety of my trip, otherwise – and I wandered about, muttering inconceivable word combinations to the open-jawed locals who stood and watched, likely wondering who this great giant blonde woman was and what she was on about.

A man approached me in a uniform similar to the one the other driver had worn, urging me to follow him to the stalling bus with no title in the lineup.  A few people were sat in the mini bus, seemingly waiting for take off, bored, in their own minds, all of them locals.  

“Get in,” He told me.  “Where are you headed?”  Now, in retrospect, I do realize that any man anywhere approaching me and telling me, “Get in” and, “where are you headed” would be call for alarm, but I suppose I was in a different place back then.  “Cartagena”, I answered, feeling defeated.  I had to make a boat the next morning from the harbour at Cartagena and already I felt I would never make it.  Maybe I’d set up a life in Santa Marta, living in a box in the bus station, writing letters to my children on bits of paper cups, singing songs for money…

To be fair, these thoughts didn’t cross my mind, either, but I was a tad desperate so I got on the bus, found a little row of seats to myself, and hoped for the best.  The driver came to see me before he prepared to drive, and said, “We’re going to a town called Baranquilla, and from there you can find a bus to Cartagena.”  he clapped excitedly, as though he’d performed a magic trick and wasn’t I pleased?  I smiled, thanked him, and settled in for the ride.

The bus from Santa Marta to Barranquilla is about two-ish hours, except when it is pitch black outside and you have absolutely no idea where the actual hell Barranquilla is and you’re alone and a female, in which case it is 184362320349 days.  About two or three times, our bus was boarded by military people wielding machine guns, holding digital cameras.  They were, I found out, doing a passport check of some sort, and when one approached me, I smiled and held out my passport, taking note of the likely loaded gun in front of me, anxious not to cause any distress or sudden movements.  “I need to take a picture of you,” He said.  I, in my state of complete ignorance, said, “Well, that’ll cost you! HAHAHAHA!”  He didn’t smile.  I put my passport down and let him take the picture, and then, as though nothing happened, he walked off and we drove on.  This happened each time they boarded, and I couldn’t tell you if they took pictures of all the passengers, but I can most certainly affirm I did not crack any more jokes.

We arrived in Barranquilla and I wandered into the almost-empty station, taking in the worn green plastic chairs that sat in a row, all connected, screwed into the floor, nobody sitting in them.  The shops were closed, but one little cafe remained open, and I took my wary self over for a cup of coffee and an arepa.  There was nowhere to charge my mobile, so I sat in silence for a time, until I was approached by the girl who worked behind the counter, keen to ask me questions about Canada, what it was like, what were the people like, and her dreams to visit one day.

Hours later, I was on the final leg of my destination, the bus to Cartagena. The air conditioning was frigid as I held my backpack tightly around my chest, desperate for warmth and comfort.  It was one in the morning when I arrived in Cartagena, the station almost empty.  It was time to return to my hostel, my ‘home base’ of this trip.  Only a few hours of sleep and I would be on to my next adventure, a three-hour boat ride to a hostel in the middle of the ocean, Casa en el Agua.  I had now experienced Colombia by boat, taxi, plane, horseback and bus…and what a beautiful, exciting, tragic adventure it had already been.