Final Thoughts

It went by in a flash.

Honestly, I didn’t think we would last more than 6 weeks, but here we are about to board our final flight home to Vancouver. A year ago, we made the decision to go on this journey and even as the days inched closer to our departure date, it felt crazy and surreal.  Even during the first few days, it felt like we were just on another road trip. All we did was take it one day at a time and make small decisions each day. Where should we sleep tonight? How much do you want to drive today? When should we cross the border? Does Zoe have enough food?

Before we knew it – it was February and we were looking at flights back home. There are so many moments we want to highlight, but here are a few that we keep reminiscing about.

Colombia

Bogota

If it weren’t for the heat in New Mexico, we would have never made the decision to skip Central America. We also didn’t realize that 6 months wasn’t nearly long enough to go through Central AND South America. Looking back, we’re glad to have made the decision.

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Sitting at 9,000 ft, we fell in love with the cold city of Bogota within a few days. The people are warm, the city is friendly (to Zoe especially), budget-friendly and the food is delicious. We would go back in a heartbeat. We did so much walking around the city and every day we found new neighborhoods to see and explore. The Spanish isn’t easy to understand and even though a lot of people don’t speak English, they are so friendly in trying to help you out.

Barichara

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It has the perfect climate of around 25 degrees all day and then the afternoon breeze rolls in around 3pm, for a cool evening. Frequently rated as one of the most beautiful towns to visit in Colombia (or Villa de Leyva), it was worth the detour to stay there for 5 days and spend it with like-minded people who are also traveling long term. We met up with a Swiss Couple and their dog many times and shared the pains of traveling with a dog. Every day we walked to the small town to get fresh groceries and cooked as a group in the communal kitchen and shared stories.  A fantastic place to hunker down.

Ecuador

Quilotoa Loop

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I was dealing with altitude sickness for most of Ecuador, but the Quilotoa loop was one that took our breath away – literally. You drive, drive, drive up through a hill and all of a sudden you come upon the rim of this crater and see the pristine blue lake below. It is definitely one of our favorite hikes and one for the books.

Bolivia

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People say Bolivia is the last true South American country. It is less developed than its neighbors, and still holds the desolate charm most people look for in South America. The landscape, the people, and the scenery are unmatched. Everywhere we look, it felt like we were on another planet and there is nothing like it.

Chile

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Chile was a stark contrast to the less developed Bolivia. Paved roads, highway rest stops, and credit cards accepted everywhere – it felt like we were back in North America. Our favorite part wasn’t any of those modern conveniences, but the beautiful road trip through the Carretera Austral (Route 7). Rated as one of the best road trips in the world, we were skeptical. But dang – It blew us away. Every 2 minutes our jaws were dropping at the beautiful scenery (including the Catedral de Marmol). It was like all the beautiful national parks in North America were aggregated here.

Argentina

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Argentina was our final country and honestly, it has so much to offer and we wish we had more time here. From Mendoza, Bariloche, Perito Moreno Glacier, to Buenos Aires – it is a country filled with so much culture, love for life, and of course delicious food. We loved it here and the friendly people really made all the difference. If nothing else, they have amazing Patagonian Lamb, and Steak – Albert beef tastes like a sad mock comparatively.

Final thoughts

We are incredibly grateful for this trip. Grateful for the people who helped us along the way. Grateful for the ability to take this trip when we did. Going to the countries we’ve been dreaming about and immersing ourselves in the countries has been amazing. We’ve also met some incredible people who have taught us so much about what it means to travel, learn, and really live.

Our Spanish is only a little bit better than when we left, but we definitely want to keep learning and go back to all of the above countries someday. Some of the things we’ve learned:

  • you don’t really need that much on a day to day basis
  • whatever you see on the news is the worst and not an accurate reflection of the country
  • people are really friendly and willing to help
  • not a lot of Asian people do this, therefore we got more attention
  • take it day by day –  things change so quickly in South America you can’t plan very far in advance anyway
  • travel while you can, don’t wait – you make the opportunity happen
  • take time out of the day for you and your loved ones
  • be grateful for everything

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Last but not least, I am so grateful for a partner who said YES. I probably could have done this alone or with Zoe (a lot of women do this kind of trip on their own), but it was infinitely more enjoyable with someone to share this experience with. Plus he makes me laugh every day – that’s hard to find.

Thanks for following along and reading our adventures in South America and until next time – Hasta Luego!

Love,

Steve, Anna & Zoe

Animals of Argentina

Our final stretch towards Buenos Aires. Route 3 along the coast is quite slow and there really isn’t too much to see, but we are definitely dragging our heels since we won’t be doing any more camping after this stretch. We are almost at the end of our 6 month journey…

So we stop by a free national park where there are thousands of Magellanic penguins nesting on the coast – Parc National Monte León. They all come here from Brazil during the month of December to have babies and only stay for three months. We were incredibly lucky to have been driving up right when the babies are all grown up and they are just learning how to be grownup penguins – which also means there is lots of activity.

Anywhere else in the world, you wouldn’t be allowed to go 1 km from the penguins. But this is South America! We hike 2km from the parking lot and start seeing penguins under prickly bushes, literally right next to our path.

Sea Lions Galore

Then, off to the small town of Caleta Olivia where we are promised a colony of sea lions. We were expecting to see them above a cliff, but we drive up to a small pebble beach off the highway. After walking 5 minutes on the beach, we see a herd of them 10 meters away. We probably could have walked right upto them, but they look enormous and dangerous so we keep our distance. Did you know they have a mane like a lion? They also roar really really loudly.

On our drive up the coast, we see the Atlantic Ocean, Guanacos, and rhea birds (they look like small ostriches). It’s like argentina is trying to show us its natural wonders just before we leave.

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We can’t believe this trip is coming to an end. Once we get to Buenos Aires we’ll be there for a couple of weeks to decompress, get a haircut, and maybe get a little fat off some food.

This isn’t our last post. We’ll do one more for Buenos Aires and another final post looking back at some of our favourite moments from this entire journey. For now, all we can say is – it really is about the journey not the destination.

The Carretera Austral

For the past 10 days, we’ve been driving through the Northern Patagonia region in Chile. It’s supposedly the most spectacular and challenging road in Chile since it was isolated from visitors until the first section was finished in 1983. Someone we met in Peru described it as the best road he’s ever driven on and he’s driven Argentina and Chile for the past 4 years.

 

We decide from the very beginning to take our time and really enjoy the road instead of driving through it as fast as possible. It’s the last ‘big’ thing we will do before we start heading south towards home, so it’s a weird feeling for us. We start the journey by crossing over from Bariloche, Argentina to Puerto Montt, Chile. We have been warned by others that there are really limited supplies on the route (since everything is brought on boats or grown in the region) and cash is hard to come by, so we stock up on both in Puerto Montt. From there, we drive to Hornoprien and then take a 7am ferry ride for 6 hours to Caleta Gonzalo. From here, we can drive the full 927km road to Villa O’Higgins then backtrack up to Chile Chico or take a ferry down further or do a modified route to Chile Chico at 632km.

Now the entire route drives through countless national parks and natural reserves. You could easily spend probably months doing hikes and camping in this region with no shortage of views and spectacular glaciers surrounding you. But we are limited for time so we are doing the modified route to Chile Chico to cross into Argentina instead.

I won’t list every little place we stayed at, but this is some of the best camping we’ve done in South America. The land is so vast and every 10 minutes we see something beautiful and want to pull over for pictures and stare. We stay put in places until the rain clears, because we are afraid if we drive further we might miss something. The region is covered in glaciers, mountains, lakes, rivers and beautiful scenery that really does make you go whoa-whoa-WHOA. Everyone should do this drive once in their life.

One of the main views

Steve trying his hbd at guitar

Home made bread

Cherries from our campsite

Honestly, we didn’t even get to do the many hikes or side roads to other beautiful places you can do. And all the beautiful parks you can imagine clustered into one semi-paved road. It’s really something you have to see in person.

 

Hola Ecuador

Leaving Colombia

First thing in the morning, we drive to the border and actually pass the Colombian customs office and park just before the Ecuador border.

  1. We get our passport’s stamped out of Colombia (The building with all the white tents outside of it).
  2. Walk 50m to the DIAN office to cancel our Temporary Import Permit – TIP. BTW, there are ladies with stacks of US Cash walking around (they exchange Colombian Pesos for you) and they will show you the way to the DIAN office.
  3. Drop off your original TIP
  4. Drive over to Ecuador’s offices

Hola Ecuador

Again super simple! I don’t know if it’s because we had our lucky swiss charms, but we went to the Ecuador passport office and within one hour – we were done! We cross over and start our Ecuador journey. First stop, the tree sculptures. These tree sculptures are hidden inside a cemetery in the small town of Tulcan.

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We take it slow and do a nice and slow road trip through the north of Ecuador. First, stopping for a night at a campground called Finca Sommerwind and then driving through the mountains and then we get to our first wild campsite just outside of Apuela. It’s a safe small town and we find a free campsite right by the river. Even though we’ve only been in Ecuador for a few days, we already love the lushness of the lands. It’s so much green all around, we are surprised and already know 2 weeks won’t be enough to explore this country.

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We know it’s been a while since our last post, but we’ve had more… car issues. That will come in the next post, but long story short – we had to replace some parts unexpectantly. With the amount of driving it’s normal, but it’s difficult to try and deal with all these issues in a foreign country when you only know basic Spanish (and that is being generous).

Adiós Colombia

We spend the last few days of Colombia soaking up the mountainous scenery and trying to enjoy the country as much as we can before we head to Ecuador – so we make a quick stop at Campground La Bonanza. Kika opened this campground after Overlanding with her family of 5 for three years. We share her Morrocan hospitality of warm mint tea, fresh croissants, and endless advice on our journey south.

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Campground La Bonanza. Zoe with new friends!

We spend a couple of nights at Campground La Bonanza and meet up with the swiss overlander couple. Since the southern region of Colombia has some safety issues (think Guerrillas), we decide to travel together until we cross into Ecuador. We travel to a park for the night and hang out in their comfy van for the evening sharing drinks and stories. Then we drive to Ipiales to spend the night near the border so we can get an early start for the border crossing the next day.

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Blurry Group Photo! (Anna, Steve, Pascal & Virgine) – Missing (Zoe & Quito)

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Santuario De Las Lajas – disco lights sort of ruined its beauty. In the daytime, the church looked like Rivendell

They’ve done all of Central America and for us – this is our first border crossing so we are happy for their expertise. Plus, spending 4 nights together sharing drinks was really an unexpected pleasant surprise.

Our method to the madness

How do we travel? Well, first we find places that would be interesting to visit. While we have good intentions on doing all the must-dos of the country, many times South America’s ever-changing landscape forces us to pivot.  Many times, we meet people on the road who tells us of places we haven’t even read about, so we make another pivot – and more often than not, it’s worth the pivot.

We start planning up to 2-3 days in advance on where we will eat, sleep and what we plan on doing. It might stress other people out not knowing where they will be, but we’ve always traveled this way and having the flexibility really helps with the sanity aspect. Even though you might have planned really well, maybe the entire highway comes to a halt because of a rock slide and now we have to wait 4 hours (it hasn’t happened to us, but wouldn’t be surprised if it did).

Final Thoughts on Colombia

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Our last morning in Colombia

Colombia was warned as dangerous, filled with kidnappings, and surely we are going to have to keep looking over our shoulders. Instead, it was filled with friendly and helpful people who are proud of their country, and breathtaking landscape changing by the hour. Sure it was really slow traveling through the roads and the driving methods are questionable, but overall it really was amazing. It was the perfect country to start our South American journey and we are so so glad we took the time to really drive the country.

Onward.

Bogota, Colombia

Mina de Sal de Nemocon

On our way to Bogota, we stop off at Mina de Sal de Nomocon – an old salt mine. The mines are interesting and from the shallow saltwater pool, the reflection looks like the ground is falling beneath you.

Bogota

We decide to stop by Bogota for a couple of days to resupply –  Steve needs new pants and I need a belt. Since we know this city pretty well, we’ll be staying in Bogota for a few days to get the supplies we need – like pants, belt, etc. Steve ends up finding his hiking pants from Tatoo – a Colombian outdoor clothing/gear store. We also have a chance to visit Min Mal – a local restaurant highlighting ingredients and cooking methods from Amazonian region of Colombia.

We also meet up with Pascal & Virgine who have also stopped by in Bogota and we go for a disappointing dinner in the Usquen park area. The company is good so its all ok! Since we know we’re going towards the same regions – we know we’ll meet again! Guess who loves Bogota? This dog.

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Barichara, Colombia

Barichara

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A small town in the countryside of Colombia filled with cobblestone roads, white walls, and red-tiled roofs. It’s a town that looks like it was built for a fairytale so we decide to stay at least for a couple of days. The city’s climate is in the high 20s all day and then around 3pm, the cool afternoon wind comes in and the evenings are nice and chilly 15-17 degrees. It’s perfect weather for us. We find a campsite run by a Dutch couple nearby that many overlanders have recommended called Guaimaro.

Guaimaro

Julia – an architect and Joep – an archeologist, has built a beautiful home (based on permaculture) and campsite just outside of Barichara. Almost all of the construction materials were recycled/repurposed from the previous buildings, and the large stones were excavated from their property. They use the sun to heat up the water for a beautifully built outdoor shower surrounded by big tropical leaves and stones. Due to the scarcity of water, all the grey water at the campsite is recycled using a plant filter which is then used for toilets and watering the garden. It’s a thoughtfully designed and beautifully made Finca they’ve taken seven years to perfect. They are currently adding in two more outdoor shower/bathrooms (they get lots of campers), and eventually adding a small natural pool. If you are looking to do a workaway program near the countryside of Barichara, Colombia – you can find them here (https://www.workaway.info/en/host/125846781179).

When we arrive, we meet a couple from Australia (Daphne & Danny) who is doing a work away program and traveling around South America for a year. There is also a French couple name Solene & Julian who have been traveling parts of South America for 5 months also doing a workaway. And Kelly, a sole backpacker from Estonia, has just started her journey. Couple of nights in, a Swiss overlander couple name Pascal & Virgine with their Dog Quito also roll into Guaimaro. There is a communal kitchen so we make dinner, hang out, and talk about our journeys. It lets us know that the idea of traveling for 7 months isn’t radical, but the norm within this kitchen.

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These wonderful people shared their stories and experiences – we’re so grateful to have spent 6 days with them

We ended up staying 5 nights at Guaimaro. During the day we hike the 45 minutes to the town of Barichara, get lunch, fresh produce, then walk back and spend the day researching, reading, and planning our next steps. After 5 nights, we are sad to leave especially, Julia’s freshly baked bread – but we pull ourselves away and go to our next steps to Las Gachas.

Bucaramanga from the sky

(almost) time to go

After picking up Norma, we take a look to see if everything is ok. We are supposed to be leaving for Aguachica tomorrow at 8am and Norma doesn’t want to start. At 9pm, we knew we weren’t going anywhere tomorrow. we message our host Marco for the Airbnb and he says no problem of course we can stay another night. He really has been a lifesaver.

After lots of trying different things, Steve takes apart the starter motor and cleans it and voila she starts. Because we went through the storm in Houston and then she sat idle for a while, she had a bit of rust. But regardless, we delay leaving by one day to give ourselves room just in case anything else comes up. So we have one more day for Steve to recover a bit more from the cold and rest. We have one last meal in Cartagena and then pack up Norma to go.

A fork in the road

In case you missed it, there were large protests happening in Ecuador beginning of October. The government got rid of the gas subsidies thereby increasing the price of gas to double or triple rates overnight. Borders were closed, there was a state of emergency with curfews, and the people brought the country to a standstill by blocking all major roads. Now, they called to stop in protests after 12 days but since the “peace talks” aren’t going so well between the indigenous leaders and the government – they are planning another massive protest on October 30th. Why does this matter?

Well, in order for us to get anywhere down south to Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina.. etc – we have to go through Ecuador. Now, we’ve been talking to other overlanders and they’ve been stuck in Ecuador with limited options. We don’t really want to be putting ourselves in danger unnecessarily so here are the choices we have.

A. Drive as quickly as we can through Colombia and Ecuador before the protests can begin.
B. Drive slower through Colombia and see how the talks unfold past October 30th.

Considering we’ve already been in Colombia for a month, we originally wanted to do plan A. But…We haven’t really been able to explore Colombia outside of the two major cities. So because of FOMO (Fear of Missing Out), we opt to slow down.

Floridablanca

Just about 4 hours (175km) from our last stop in Aguagchica, we arrive in the city of Bucaramanga and Floridablanca. It’s in the mountain andes ranges so the temperature is much cooler than the Carribean coast. We find a small paragliding shop/restaurant/campsite/home of Oscar overlooking the city of Floridablanca and we know we’ve made the right decision.

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As soon as we arrive, Oscar welcomes us to his property and just as we pull into the property, someone is taking off to go paragliding. We go talk to him to inquire about the price and its $80,000 COP for 15 minutes or $30 CAD. Back home, it’s about $300. Steve decides this is a great opportunity and might as well while we are here. So we both end up going up. I honestly thought it would be so scary being so high up with nothing to hold in place but a harness. It was a complete opposite. It was peaceful to be up there and you feel like you are just floating in the air like a bird would be.

In the evening, we rest up and look to the fields and see fireflies flying around the field. We hear monkeys howling in the background and every once in awhile we hear the mangos falling from the tree behind us. Even though we didn’t get much sleep because of a neighbor’s birthday party until 2am, we finally feel like we are seeing the country that we came to see.

Next? off to Barichara – often described as the prettiest town in Colombia!

Esperamos “we wait”

Norma finally arrived on Thursday October 17th at 10:00pm. The process for unloading a vehicle involves many many many steps and considering our Spanish is basic at best – we hired Ana Rodriguez (a customs agent) in Cartagena to help us with the process. Lots of people choose to save the fees of an agent and do it themselves. And looking back on how complicated the process is – hiring Ana was the best decision we made.

Warning – This post is really really long. Long story short – Ana saved our lives and we got Norma after a lot of waiting. 

Wednesday, October 16th

We go to meet Ana at her office for the initial meeting and ask questions (using google translate) and get the paperwork started. We’re optimistic at this point and think – o it will only take a day or two. After using google translate to communicate (Ana only speaks Spanish) for a couple of hours, she says we have to wait until the shipping company Hapag Lloyd responds to our request.

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Bill of Lading usually gets sent to the address listed on the shipping document and at the time of us shipping our vehicle (in September), we only had our Airbnb address in Bogota. She is asking them to cancel this being sent to Bogota and have us manually pick it up at the office in Cartagena. We go back to the hotel and wait. She requests this at 11am and doesn’t hear anything back.

Thursday, October 16th

We finally hear something and after paying for an invoice on our behalf, Hapag Lloyd has canceled the transfer of Bill of Lading to Bogota. At 4pm, Edgar (a driver hired by Ana) comes to our hotel to pick us up and take us to Hapag Lloyd. But the 7.7km drive takes us 50 minutes. FIFTY MINUTES because of the traffic. It’s too late and the office closed so we turn around and go home.

Friday, October 17th

8:30am – Ana picks us up with a driver Edgar to go to Hapag Lloyd in Cartagena. Apparently, Hapag Lloyd in the US hasn’t received notification from the shipping company that we’ve paid the invoice thereby releasing the Bill of Lading. We contact Obed in Houston to ask since we paid the full invoice three days ago. The nice man at the desk in Hapag Llyod says he has to receive confirmation and then he’ll give us a bill to pay at the bank.

I have a pretty bad cold at this point and I’ll sleep anywhere. We wait for Obed for three hours at the Hapag Lloyd office and then Ana says she can drive us back to the hotel while we wait. I think she felt bad hahaha. Finally, at 3:30pm, she says we have to come back and they’ll release the Bill of Lading. If I am not there to pick it up before they close at 5pm, we have to wait until Monday morning. We get a uber and a man who felt like the most careful and slowest driver in all of Colombia takes us there. I mean he signaled when he was making a turn and did shoulder checks (which is.. not very common in Colombia). With 10 minutes to spare and finally we get our Bill of Lading!! I’ve never been so excited to see a man stamp a piece of paper.

Saturday, October 18th

Last night, we had a crazy amount of storm – I mean thundering and tons of rain. so at 6:30am, we wake up to what sounds like Zoe walking in puddles. And yes yes it was Zoe walking in puddles of water. The storm last night had leaked the water in from the balcony so about a cm of water had come in and pooled in our bedroom. Thankfully, we didn’t leave anything on the ground.

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At 8:30am, we go to the Port and try to arrange an appointment to meet with an inspector who has to sign off on the actual contents of the container before we can do anything. Before any of that, we have to pay the port fees. Guess what hasn’t been generated ahead of time? The invoice. So we meet with a nice man named Harold who says we have to wait while the system generates an invoice related to our container. It takes the system (or Harold) 3 hours. We get charged for the port moving the container because they placed in the wrong area and it’s much more than we estimated.

We’ve been having trouble with our debit card and haven’t been able to take out cash so we only have US cash.  Guess what the port doesn’t take. Creditcard or US cash. They only take Colombian Pesos. We only have half of the invoice amount in Colombian pesos. And if we don’t pay this today, then we delay things even more. Ana fronts us the Colombian pesos by asking her husband to get the cash for us. She literally saved our butts.

After another hour of waiting, we finally have a booking for Monday at 8:30am! The inspector will meet us at the Port when the container is opened so that we don’t have to do multiple trips. We are done at 3pm.

Monday, October 19th

7:20am – Ana and Edgar come to get us and we finally go to Port to unlock the container. Wait. we are going to a different port. Turns out, Norma is actually at a different port then we did the paperwork on Saturday. We get there and Daniel, a lovely man (who speaks perfect English), comes to get me. I am the only person who can go since I am the owner of the car. The inspector we scheduled on Saturday isn’t coming so we just go ahead with the process. We go the container and after waiting another hour for the supervisor, the maintenance guy, the bolt cutters, the battery, and jumper cables – we finally get the container opened and there she is!

Now, I check over to make sure everything looks good. Take pictures of the car, the VIN, and the plate and then Ana sends it over to the inspector ahead of time. We do a damage report and then we leave Norma there. We drive to another building – DIAN – where we have to get an inspector to sign off on the pictures I took and to grant us a temporary import of Norma in Colombia. We wait. again.

In order to take Norma home, we have to have him sign off before 11am and it’s 10am when we arrive to drop off the paperwork. The port won’t let you drive the vehicle until you get insurance. You can’t get insurance until we have the temporary import permit. They won’t sell you insurance past 12pm. If it’s past 12pm, you just have to wait until the next day to buy insurance.

It takes the guy 70 minutes to sign off and Ana has to frequently go back and check to see if he is actually working on our paperwork. I mean, he was supposed to show up at the port so he could do it there. but I guess it was an empty promise. After excruciating 70 minutes, we finally get the paperwork at 11:10am and we book it to the shop that sells SOAT (insurance). Most places will only sell your insurance that starts the next day, but Ana brings us to an office where they will let you buy for the day-of and we make it with 20 minutes to 12pm. WOO HOO!

We get the insurance, go back to the other Port (we went to on Saturday) and file all the paperwork we’ve gathered (Bill of Lading, the Inspection, The Temporary Import from DIAN, and the SOAT insurance). Then the last waiting period. They have to file all of this and then give us a letter to authorize the release of the vehicle and verify that we can indeed drive away with it.

Now, all of Colombia takes a lunch break from 12-2pm. I am not joking. Most businesses will close from 12-2pm while all of their employees go and have lunch at the same time. Given, they start their day earlier and end later – but you can guarantee that no business is getting done during these two sacred hours. So, now we have to wait again.

At 2:30pm, we finally hear back and got the paperwork. After more waiting and verifying at the port, we finally drive Norma out at 3:30pm. We go back to Ana’s office to say our thanks and goodbye. We can honestly say that we would have lost our minds if we had to do this ourselves. During the impatience and annoyance, she laughed at funny things and took the pressure off. And times when every single representative we went to would shake their head and make us wait again, she took the time to explain everything by typing it all out on google translate. She is hardworking, giving, and honest person and we are so glad to have met her. We talked about her visiting us in Canada, but she said maybe – because it might be too cold. hehe. THANK YOU ANA! ❤

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If anyone needs the services of Ana (importing/exporting to Cartagena) – you can find her information on her Facebook page – https://www.facebook.com/tramiteexportacionvehiculoscartagena/