Backpacking in Colombia: A Stop in Sopo

Sopo in Colombia (north east of Bogota) will hardly be remembered as a famous historic site or place of interest in backpackers guides to the world. However I will remember it. Bland, poky and basic, it was from this town that I said my farewells to my Colombian hosts Julio, Paula and Claudia. On my final full day backpacking in Colombia, after touring the town of Chia, we ended up in Sopo.

I had also never heard of Sopo before arrival in Colombia. It is a very typical small town. Uncommercial and untouristy, it also has a main road towards Tunja. This was key in my onward journey, as I managed to get a cheaper and shorter bus journey from Sopo all the way to Cucuta, Colombia’s ugly border city to Venezuela.
Breakfast was at Julio’s farm in Santa Ana Alta. Those crispy corn pancakes were outstanding, as was all the food I tried in Colombia.

Saying goodbye – a fond farewell to Zoroastro, Julio’s Farm at Santa Ana Alta. I hope to return someday.

Central Sopo – it was here that I luckily managed to withdraw some cash – 10,000 Colombian Pesos. I still had on me about 100 US Dollars (essential for South America). I had about 2 weeks of money issues from Colombia onwards, called on help from my parents, yet managed to access some of my accounts from various places.

If things started to go wrong on the way to Venezuela for me, this all began in Sopo. I failed to get my US Dollars or Colombian Pesos changed anywhere into Venezuelan Bolivares. I knew this would be an issue as I would get ripped off at the border to swap them over. Even worse is that I had no idea where the next cash point would be on my journey. Coupled with the fact that even the next cash point may not be safe, and may not accept my cards.

Colombia is dodgy for cash points. People will try to forge your card, copy your pin, steal your card etc. In Sopo, I managed to withdraw 10,000 Pesos on one transaction. However I had asked for 30,000 and then 20,000 and been rejected. Julio later told me that for security some Colombian cash machines will set an ATM withdrawal limit per card per day, especially for foreign cards. The fact that I even got any money out was a Godsend and undoubtedly saved me from being stranded in the dodgy border city of Cucuta (which I had no intention of visiting for longer than 3 hours!). 

But I needed to pay for my bus to Cucuta, and to buy a few presents for Julio and his family. The souvenir shop in Sopo was good and I picked up the presents I wanted for 10 US Dollars. I had a foresight that I should use the US dollars to pay rather than my Colombian Pesos as I could get ripped off if I had too many US dollars later. I will detail the Colombia – Venezuela border again, but basically I managed to get into Venezuela without paying the full fee for the border taxi (because I didn’t have it on me, well I had some US dollars but kept that to myself), and gave them all my remaining Colombian Pesos. Looking back it actually ran quite smoothly, even though it took me about 5 hours to get from Cucuta to San Cristobal. Easily the worst border crossing I had ever done, made Ciudad del Este in Paraguay seem like a breeze.

Back to Sopo. The Church in the Square.

Me standing by the church in Sopo Square.
The main street in Sopo.
One of few information boards in Sopo.

Rural Sopo – where the town ends and my bus heading into green Colombian wilderness towards Tunja.

Random Russian style buildings – a Circus I’m led to believe – on the edge of Sopo by the bus station.

Sopo Bus Station. In all it’s glory. Not a hint of sarcasm.

The view across the street at Sopo Bus Station. Hills and mountains in the background. Those are old Bogota and nearby buses that they put on a scrapheap or decide which ones or parts to re-use. An eyesore. But only if you don’t enjoy looking at them.

The bus timetable – possibly. The company was Concorde and they do lots of bus services around Colombia. A few funny moments were to come on my Sopo experience. Julio helped me book the correct bus to Cucuta at the terminal, assuring me it was the safest one available (which it probably was – just no foreigners in sight!). I had no doubt it was – as Colombian buses go…

However while booking, the guy had asked for my passport and where it said “Nationality – British Citizen” he had thought that was my name. I then told him – “No my name isn’t British”, before realising “Oh actually it is British. I mean it’s a British name.” It all got a bit confusing and when I showed him the “Jonny” part of my passport, instead of reading it and writing it on my ticket he heard what I said as “Channer” instead of “Jonny” and wrote that on my ticket. We all had a laugh that it could be Chandler from US TV show Friends, but for me the funniest thing was that I now had a new name for leaving Colombia. My name for the remainder of my Colombian experience would be “Channer British”. Julio was in stitches laughing, I keep ticket stubs for buses, trains, football matches etc. and this is one of the most comical to make up that collection. The guy was a bit dense really and the bus cost me 70,000 Pesos in the end. It said Bogota to Cucuta on my ticket, but he didn’t charge me from Bogota, Colombia’s capital which was already about 22 kilometres north east of the Bogota area (though further from the city centre).

The ticket office where the Colombian guy had given me a new name, as well as a ticket towards Venezuela. Julio and I described the dude as “mas loco”, “very crazy”. It just became a joke in a long run of good times with Julio Felipe. One of life’s true gentlemen and a credit to his country, often tarnished by war (indeed recently a Colombian footballer playing in China was shot dead over a game of poker on his return to Colombia. Sad indeed.).

As we waited beside the dreary bus depot, Felipe told me a little bit about Sopo’s historical significance and meaning. Basically a mountain town named after the rocky area nearby, it relied on livestock, cattle to maintain a trade and act as a settlement away from the madness of Bogota. It’s hardly a nice town, but 21,000 local people live a sustained and unchanging life there. One which you may never want to live, but can only respect those who do.

We swapped presents in the car as we said our farewells. I got a salt holder for Claudia, Felipe’s Mum which was funny as on the first night I wanted to use their salt holder to put in my tea, mistaking it for sugar. Paula, Felipe’s sister I gave her a scarf. I hope she enjoyed it. Paula kindly let me use her computer a lot to use internet, which I think helped me book my hotel in Caracas and my guesthouse in Paramaribo. 
I have a habit of carrying random different currencies in my wallet, and so my gift to Felipe was one of money – I gave him a 5 pound Northern Irish Northern Bank fiver (sometimes locally called a “flim”). I thought this would be a nice touch to say “you can spend it when you visit Irlanda del Norte someday”. That 5 pound note had been my last money transaction in Belfast in 2009, so I had kept it as my lucky fiver on my travels. Indeed, the irony arose later as did my confirmation of my beliefs in superstition…This 5 pound note had been my lucky one, and one I would never give away (not for the value, but for the superstition) and for me it said a lot about my friendship and admiration for Julio that I could give him this fiver. Indeed my luck ran out. A bag slashing, vigourous border checks, attempted mugging, food poisoning, visa refusal and over inflation were all things I experienced in the next few days on leaving Julio and Sopo behind.

I had kept friendship and sacrificed my security and my luck. And I was happy with that. Colombia left an amazing impression on me, it’s neighbouring country Venezuela would leave a sour taste and everything went wrong there (except for the nice hotel I found in Caracas). I hope my luck transfers to Julio and his family, who live a charmed but basic life in Colombia. I’ll always be on hand to help on the farm if I return there.
Paula, Julio and Claudia gave me a gift too – a wristband or bracelet with WAYUU written on it – an old Colombian language and the Colombian flag also on it. I wore it for most of the rest of my travels and will treasure it as another memento of my journeys on this round ball.

The tears were saved for another day as my green and white Concorde bus pulled into Sopo Bus Station. Hugs, kisses and fondness followed, and soon I was onboard the bus, alone again as the only foreigner heading north east to Venezuela. It would be a full 48 hours until I spoke English again…

Where – Sopo
Population – 21,000

Transport Used – Julio’s Family Car, Sopo – Cucuta Bus

Strange Currencies – Colombian Pesos and US Dollars
Nationalities Met – Colombian
Next Stop – Eventually Cucuta, via Tunja, Duitama and Pamplona
KEY SONG –

THE CAESARS – JERK IT OUT:
(long before I even visited Colombia – Julio and I were dancing and listening to this back in Bournemouth in 2005 in the beach hut selling hot dogs and ice creams at Best Break)

VIDEO DRIVING THROUGH CENTAL SOPO:

VIDEO ON MY BUS FROM SOPO AND LATER TO CUCUTA:

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