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[For an audio/vlog version of this blog story, click here.]

‘Why are you going by bus when flights are cheap?’

That’s how some Bogotá acquaintances reacted when they heard I was taking the land route for my grand return after a 12-year absence to the Caribbean coast city of Cartagena, over 1,000 kilometres away from the capital

Fare deal
Considering the bus journey takes about 26 hours while the flight time is an hour or so, flying certainly has its advantages. Price, though, is not one of them.

Colombia's plebeian transport: A riveting ride

There’s rarely a dull moment when bussing it in Colombia.

Domestic airfares were similar, even occasionally cheaper, to bus fares during Colombia’s low-cost carrier heydey, from 2016 to 2020, roughly speaking. However, with the rather curious departure of Viva Air, closely followed by Ultra Air, bus travel is once again a lot cheaper; generally less than half the price of flight tickets.*

For sure, if it is a time-is-money case at the origin or at the destination — or at both — then the financial savings made by taking the bus would most likely be wiped out in a matter of hours.

In a year of scant paid work, this hasn’t been a concern for me. Indeed, taking a little bit more time to get to and from the destination, and thus being out of Bogotá for longer, is a minor bonus.

Land travel also allows for more flexibility and last-minute decisions. Simply turn up at the bus terminal at the moment you want to travel, pay in cash and go. It’s often more hectic during religious/school/state holidays, times I tend to avoid in any case.

Another advantage is that you can view the scenery and get a flavour of the towns along the way, fleetingly as this is. (Although, some food/toilet breaks are taken in towns rather than at isolated and expensive service stations and restaurants well outside urban centres. Stopping in a town means one has a bit of choice when it comes to snacking.)

‘I had a mildly drunk middle-aged man for company for, mercifully, a short period. What he lacked in stature he made up for in fidgetiness.’

As has often happened with me, one bus journey to a certain destination, um, paves the way for the next trip, in a that-place-I’ve-just-passed-through-looks-interesting sense.

On this escape to Cartagena, the town of Aguachica in the Cesar department made it onto my to-visit list. I duly did just that, spending a night and day there to break up the return journey to Bogotá. I plan to write more about hot and sticky Aguachica in a later post.

Road reading
Coming back to the benefits of long-haul land travel, it appears that even a mammoth bus trip of 26 hours still leaves one with a smaller carbon footprint than a flight of one hour.

Of course, many of those shouting the loudest about the impending doom due to climate change are too busy saving us all to have time to focus on their own environmentally harmful practices. They are, after all, statistically safer in the air, too. We can’t risk further endangering humanity by putting the lives of these heroes at greater risk, can we?

Notwithstanding all the above, as somebody who can be quite restless, I don’t exactly look forward with great joy to spending hours locked up in a metal box.

This is offset by the fact that I am travelling, I am going somewhere — when not stuck in traffic, that is — while the dead time gives ample opportunity for reading and pondering.

What one can’t really plan for is the aforementioned traffic.

In Colombia, alongside standard causes of congestion such as the sheer volume of vehicles and roadworks, there’s also the potential road blockages. These can be natural, i.e. landslides, or human-made in the form of disgruntled workers, social groups or rebel fighters. The latter is not as common as it once was but can still cause disturbances in certain regions.

Noisy neighbours
Another uncontrollable is fellow passengers. Previously, I had a mother with a couple of young kids seated next to me, kids who at one moment would roam over me, the next bawl out, then they’d spew out; sometimes it was all three at once. Rent-a-dad, eh?

On this latest trip, I had a mildly drunk middle-aged man for company for, mercifully, a short period. What he lacked in stature he made up for in fidgetiness. I did contemplate trying to put him to sleep with a knock-out blow. His stop came just in time.

The near neighbours aren’t always a pain, though.

Again, on this most recent journey, it was because of Barranquilla-bound student *Pleasant Paola* and her talking up of Aguachica, her hometown where she boarded the bus, that led me to visit the place on my return from Cartagena. Her gifting me of a piece of *torta de tres quesos*, three cheeses cake, from the pastry shop La Tortería where she works during college holidays left an impression.

Now, while it’s a lottery as to who sits next to you when travelling solo, it’s not a complete free for all. On most long-haul/overnight trips, each passenger is assigned a seat. Yet, there’s nearly always some dispute and subsequent musical chairs mid-journey.

The seemingly simple solution of insisting people take the seat number stipulated on their ticket doesn’t always work. Double bookings appear to be a frequent occurrence. Nonetheless, a lot of the time it’s purely because passengers, knowingly or ignorantly, take a different seat.

‘Our competitor bus, firmly focused on the duel, unperturbed by pedestrians, managed to squeeze ahead and stop in front of us, blocking our way.’

On-board entertainment had been another contentious issue — anyone for another ire-raising Fast & Furious movie? — but it seems many bus operators are now leaving that, literally, in the hands of the passengers and their smartphones.

Newer buses with some companies now also come with seat-back screens with various entertainment options so the individual can choose what to watch, listen to or play. Or silently opt-out. I’ve experienced these screens with Berlinas and Expreso Brasilia.

Knight driving
Now, even if you get the perfect fellow passengers and non-invasive entertainment, the bus drivers will invariably take you on an emotional — and physical — rollercoaster.

In keeping with the Colombian motorist standard, the bus drivers’ overall aim is to push the boundaries of land travel. Passengers, if thought of at all, are merely pawns.

I was privileged to have front-row seats to the duel between my bus, from the Concorde company, and bitter rival Copetran; a modern take on the medieval game of jousting.

It took place on the rather narrow road between Barranquilla and Cartagena. One of the notable feats was a daring act of undertaking by our Concorde driver.

In fact, I thought it was the clincher. Concorde, true to its name, sped away. You can’t, though, keep a good Copetran down.

In a busy town en route, our competitor bus, firmly focused on the duel, unperturbed by pedestrians, managed to squeeze ahead and stop in front of us, blocking our way.

In a highly controversial move, the rival driver alighted his charge and approached the window of our Concorde conductor. Not only did he fire angry words at our driver but he also dealt him a slap in the jaw, mild as it was. I believe that left it in a tie. Dates for the rematch have yet to be announced.

The things one misses out on when flying, eh?

Train of thought
Outside of happenings on the bus and between rival buses, Colombia’s road infrastructure is another challenge.

For sure, the Andes present their own unique problems, such as the aforementioned landslides.

Yet, on the journey from Bogotá to the Caribbean, after entering the Cesar department at the town of San Alberto, the mountains give way to low-lying plains. Here you get the first significant stretch of dual carriageway since Bogotá-Tunja.

The frustrating part is that this dual carriageway is intermittent. What makes this frustration worse is that all along the way are unfinished works.

They are all part of the Ruta del Sol, Route to the Sun project, mired in controversy and corruption as it has been for years. So all along one is given reminders of how much shorter the journey could be if only the works were finished.

If it takes me another 12 years to return to Cartagena, the route might be fully ready by then.

Or maybe Colombia will come to embrace the joys of modern, efficient train transport. Let’s resurrect the railways!

*A note on prices: I paid 130,000 COP for a one-way direct trip from Bogotá’s northern bus terminal (Calle 192) to Cartagena with Concorde. The return trip was more expensive as I did it in two legs. It was 80,000 COP from Cartagena to Aguachica with Copetran and another 80,000 COP with Brasilia from Aguachica to Bogotá.
Listen to The Corrigan Cast podcast here.

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La vida en Colombia desde la perspectiva de un periodista y locutor irlandés, quien ha vivido en el país desde 2011. El blog explora temas sociales y culturales, interacción con los nativos, viajes, actualidades y mucho más. Escucha su podcast acá: https://anchor.fm/brendan-corrigan.

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