Travel from Bogota to Villa de Leyva is a straight forward travel move. Though I recommend taking a city bus to the bus terminal in Bogota to avoid the taxi drivers. Once at the terminal, you must get a bus to Tunja first (price: around 13,000 pesos) and then transfer to a minibus to Villa de Leyva (cost: 6,000 pesos firm).
Laden with a completely full rucksack, two stuffed messenger bags, and a smaller day pack, I walk out of my room at the Hotel Internacional in Bogota like Atlas burdened with the weight of the world. My wife had a rucksack on her back and Petra on her front in an Ergo baby carrier.
“Do I look ridiculous?” I asked my wife. “No, you look like someone traveling with a kid.”
Deciding our next destination is all too often an “exit gate of the hotel” decision. It doesn’t really matter where we go at this point, and choosing destinations is something that I don’t waste too much mental bandwidth with. Life is life everywhere, and this is what I’m out to observe. But there are two paths before us:
1. Bogota to Medellin, then to the beaches near Panama.
2. Bogota to Tunja, then Villa de Leyva, some mountain pueblos, then the beaches of Taganga to work in a hostel.
If we choose the later option it means that we may not hit Medellin on this journey — the South American epi-center for travel bloggers.
“It is nine hours to Medellin and four to Tunja,” my wife spoke after consulting the receptionist at the hotel. We debate stopping off at an intermediary point between the two main cities of Colombia, but nowhere on the map jumped out at us as somewhere to stay for a while — and one day stays in places are highly undesirable. The goal of lifestyle travel is to make homes in sequential order, and getting off a bus just to get back on one again the following day did not jive well with this plan.
So the option of Medellin or north stood before us. I looked at my daughter, who was stuffed into the Ergo carrier yelling, “Petra stuck! Petra stuck!” and knew what option to choose:
“Lets go to Tunja.”
Networking and friend making be damned.
There is a limit to bus travel with a small child. Petra puts up with three to five seat hours on a bus well — she sleeps, plays, looks around, she is a real good traveler. But a nine hour deluge would push her to the limit. After eight+ hours of bus travel singing “the bear went over the mountain” for the 385th time, the luster of the moment has usually worn off. But the kid has been traveling since she was six weeks old, she knows the drill and takes the road well, and us, as parents, have learned the parameters we’re dealing with.
Taxi to the Bogota bus station
I hate taxis and will gladly walk 10 kilometers any day to avoid taking one. But a load of “family travel gear” creates an additional obstacle to this. The wife says she does not want to cram into a city bus with all of our baggage. The lady running reception at the hotel gladly called us a cab.
“How much should the taxi cost?” I asked her.
She didn’t really know, but said around 10,000 pesos. “Don’t worry, there’s a meter.”
A meter in a taxi cab often just means that it is far easier for the driver to backup ripping me off: he just drives the long way to my destination, adds on extra costs for baggage, the kid, the wife, our boots, my mustache — any stupid thing he can think of adding on a fee for with the click of a button on the meter. I hate taking taxis because I hate fighting with people, and taking a cab means at least a small battle roughly 25% o the time. But even more than I hate fighting with people, I hate being ripped off. Flagging a taxi is an invitation for conflict: the drivers all over the world know that foreigners are idiots, don’t know the proper price, and they can charge them more. If you have never fought with a taxi driver, you’re a sucker for being ripped off.
My taxi taking strategy is usually to flag one down in the street and negociate a price prior to getting in (often even if they have a meter). Then when I arrive, I pay exactly the agreed upon amount. But in this case, I made an error: I did not confirm the price of the cab before getting in. I took it for granted that the hotel ladies were correct when they said there would be a meter. I had my compass ready to ensure that we would be driven in the proper direction, but when I looked up to read the meter we were all ready gone.
There was no meter.
“Where is the meter?” I asked the driver in Spanish.
“There isn’t one.”
He then pointed to the place where the meter usually sits. He had removed the meter when he saw that he would be picking up some foreigners.
“How much is it to the bus station?” I asked.
Three bucks over the going rate. The battle was on.
“Everybody here knows that the price to get from Candelaria to the bus terminal is between 8 and 10 thousand pesos,” I explained in Spanish. “We know the price.”
“No, it is 15,000, the people at the hotel don’t know the price.”
“I’ll give you 10 thousand, no more.”
“No, 15 thousand or I won’t take you.
“OK, drop us off here then.”
The driver pulled over to the side of the street and flashed me a huge smile. I looked back into the backseat at my poor wife in a sea of heavy bags and baby, I knew this was not going to happen. Like Petra in the Ergo, I was stuck. The driver called my bluff and pulled back onto the street. I continue the charade. I tell the driver to pull over again. He does and flashes me the same I’ve-got-you-and-I-know-it smile.
I truly did not know what the price should have been. I only asked the receptionist at the hotel, and she did not seem to really know. Everything in Bogota was also proving cost more than what had been published online and in guidebooks. But my insecurity at knowing the proper price was more than equaled by my confidence in knowing the habits of taxi drivers. Removing the meter was a surefire indication that he was going to rip me off, and there was no way I was going to pay his price.
“I’ll give you 10,000, no more.”
“No, the price is 15,000,” he replied with a snarky grin.
The driver was around my age, and our haggling was in good humor. I told him to keep going. “But I’m only going to pay 10,000,” I say with a laugh.
We went through the same charade — he pulled over again, I looked back at my wife, the driver and I stare each other down once more: who had balls big enough to win this three dollar battle? We sacrificed a nut each as I agreed to pay a buck more.
A voice then crackled over the driver’s CB radio. It was his dispatch. He told the lady on the other end that he picked up the tourists from the hotel. The lady barked back that he was not suppose to, that the call was for another driver. He made up a stupid excuse — “I thought I was suppose to get them, sorry.” He flashed me a sly grin, hung up, joked with me about it.
This is why I often refuse to take taxis. But I could not be angry, it was my error of judgement: I knew what game I was getting into and did not set my pieces properly, I relied on hearsay that there would be a meter rather than my traveler instinct of confirming the price before getting in the cab.
The cab ride took over a half hour. Having nothing else to do I talk with the driver. He asked what I do for a living: “I write stories on the internet about fighting with guys like you over a dollar. I’m a travel writer.”
We arrived at the bus station, I grabbed my bags, my kid, my wife, and left the driver with 10,000 pesos. I make to walk away — taxi drivers rarely give chase — but I would not have felt good about it. I have a sense of honor that goes beyond a dollar. I returned to the taxi and gave him the extra buck. Enjoy the beer.
Bus from Bogota to Tunja
Chaya sits with the bags and I walk through the bus station with the kid, asking at each bus company’s kiosk about buses to Tunja. We move down the line collecting quoted fares. They get lower as I get to the end of the row. Soon enough I was quoted a price low enough to not bother haggling over. I’m aiming to pay 4,000 pesos per seat hour on a bus in Colombia, and the quote price was well within this range. “It leaves in five minutes,” the lady behind the glass partition told me and quickly shot over a ticket.
We go out to the bus yard and I hand our backpacks over to a guy loading them into the bottom storage. He puts a little tag on each bag and hands me the redemption tickets. A good system. The bus left on time. The interior of the bus was posh with TVs, leg rests, plenty of leg room, storage racks that you could actually fit a carry on sized bag into. There was also garbage cans at comfortable intervals all down the aisle which were all empty.
I fear I may get use to the luxery of these Colombian buses.
The transfer from Tunja onto a minibus to VIlla de Leyva was seamless. 6,000 pesos was the price everyone paid who was going to Villa, and the money was collected by an officious looking conductor on the outskirts of the city. There was no fighting, no haggling, nobody trying to rip anybody else off — good, straight forward traveling.