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I’d been on Colombian soil for about 23 minutes when someone in the street offered me cocaine. I turned the tables on the chap, who was wearing an inconspicuous green t-shirt decorated with marijuana leaves, and asked him about the political situation in Colombia as I had just been handed a leaflet about a demonstration.
“Mucho corruption, mucho corruption.” he said (second Colombian stereotype in under half an hour). He claimed that 80% of the population don’t like the new president, Juan Manuel Santos. He seemed unhappy that Santos had reinstated ties with Hugo Chavez. Interesting though his opinion was, I’m not sure if his percentages were to be trusted, was it 80% of the people or was it the 80% cocaine he was trying to sell me that he was talking about? I think I’ll speak to a few other people in Colombia before taking his opinion for gospel.

Paul Theroux’s first stop in Colombia was Barranquilla an “inconvenient and filthy rat-hole” two hours to the north of Cartagena, where he was stuck for some days during the national senatorial elections. Even Paul himself could not say why he had flown there, he escaped and did some sightseeing in Cartagena as soon as it was safe to leave, before taking the train from Santa Marta to Bogotá.

“It is boredom and idleness that motivate sightseers” says Paul about his look around Cartagena. His restless mood took him to Hotel Bolivar, where he wrote a letter to his wife and then took a stroll around the town. Hotel Bolivar no longer exists and no amount of questioning could lead me to its former building. I was directed to: Plaza de Bolivar, Tienda de Bolivar, a Statue of Bolivar and numerous other Bolivar-related places but not Hotel Bolivar, the closest I came to some real information about its whereabouts was from a guy who said: “That hotel closed 6 years ago but I’m not sure where it was.”

My stroll around Cartagena’s old town took me past the best the city had to offer in Spanish colonial architecture, all in various states of (dis)repair, the buildings give the city a real European air. People were peddling to the tourists every direction you looked, bracelets, bags and even phone calls were up for grabs. I was intrigued by the women sat next to boxes with mobile phones on them – attached by string, charging passers-by to call their loved ones. A version of the pay-phone I had not seen before. There was no sign of the second-hand tool shops that Paul saw on his walk around town, I think these have moved to the park, where after initially thinking I was being threatened by a man with a screwdriver I realised he was actually trying to sell me some tools, in a slightly menacing manner.

Despite being a beautiful city I was keen to get moving to Santa Marta and find out the truth about the train, as Cooks Oversea’s Timetable was lacking in specific details (see previous blog post). I took a bus to Santa Marta, the road had not changed a great deal since the seventies, it was still littered with “pitiful” huts, now punctuated with concrete slab shop buildings with ill-fitting windows and brightly painted signs, all with stray dogs and bored looking locals on plastic chairs sitting outside them.

Staring at the huts and shops was preferable to looking at the road, which was beyond chaotic, huge numbers of scooters and motorbikes fought for road space with buses, trucks and cars and the incessant beeping did nothing to calm my frayed nerves. “The worst drive since leaving Vancouver” the Swedish couple on the motorbike told me when I bumped into them on the street. I felt secretly pleased it was not just me with my heart in my mouth on that particular road.