No, Colombia is not the super dangerous, violent country that it once was. But like most countries, including South Africa, theft, pick-pocketing and robbery still happens - and tourists are the targets. So this post is about something much milder, but it can have a significantly negative effect on your life and your travels.
Our bank cards and cash were stolen from our locker in the hostel we were volunteering at in Taganga.
So I know, many of you think that this is not a big deal, but in actual fact, as South African citizens, this was a crisis that lead to a series of very frustrating and unfortunate events. Allow me to explain...
As South African citizens, we had to apply for a Colombian Visa, and it is valid for 3 months (90 days). More about the application process here.
We travelled and saw what we came to see. Then we applied through Workaway to volunteer at a hostel in Taganga from 14 July to 06 August, with 6 extra days on Po's visas (16 on mine - no idea why they had different dates) before we had to leave the country. Ample time.
Then my wallet got stolen.
The day before, we withdrew money from the ATM, COP 700 000 (approximately R 3, 380). Note that because we were not paying for accommodation, this was enough money to last us until we leave the country. We always withdraw the maximum amount of money from the ATM as we lucky South Africans always get charged an additional COP 12 600 in fees per transaction regardless of the amount you withdraw.
We suspect a young, very talkative Colombian guy who stayed in our room, because 1) he was over-friendly and offered to buy and make food for 10 people there at the time, and 2) he booked for 2 nights, but stayed only for 1 and suddenly had to leave back to Bogota at 1 am in the morning (suspicious right?). But this will remain a mystery.
Ok, it was also our fault because we did not lock the locker - this is the first time ever that something like this happened there! However, the money and cards were in a small pouch, inside a foldable shopping bag in the back of the locker, more like a huge cupboard actually. This cupboard had all our toiletries and other stuff in it in the front of the locker. The only way anyone would know there was money in there, is if they knew what they were looking for and where to find it.
Anyway, now to stop cards and order new ones: we had the Mastercard Multicurrency CashPassport, often advertised as the best travel banking solution for South Africans, received from our bank FNB (I am still working on a post that compares fees). And we have used these cards in all our other overseas trips. It works great... until they get stolen.
Travel banking solutions for South Africans are very limited to tell you the truth, especially for long terms travel. And with all the technology available at the moment, still old fashioned.
So to stop our cards and order replacement cards, we had to contact Mastercard. We had to call from a fixed line telephone. Our bank, also requires this if you have a problem. Now, if you are travelling, you obviously don't have a landline telephone, at most, you have WhatsApp and Skype when you have an internet connection. In South America, many businesses and even hostels don't have fixed line telephones, and often only use WhatsApp and cellphones even for business contacts.
Eventually, I got my parents to contact the bank and cancel the cards. But now to order new replacement cards, we had to personally speak to them, on a fixed line phone! This was impossible. The internet cafe didn't know what a toll free number was, and also didn't have calling rates for South Africa or the UK (where Mastercard is situated). So we couldn't make the call.
At this time, the Wi-Fi in the hostel was also not working for 3 weeks, so if I needed to check anything online, I had to go to a nearby cafe on the beach and use their Wi-Fi.
Once again, my father called Mastercard and asked them to call me back to sort out everything. I bought a local SIM card for this purpose only. Great. Replacement cards were ordered, but it will take 7 to 10 working days, and we had 6 days including a weekend left on our visas.
The hostel owner was really helpful, and went with us to immigration to extend our visas a week after the cards were stolen. So much confusion though:
First we needed a police statement. The local police in Taganga couldn't provide such a statement, and we had to go to the Fiscalia branch in Santa Marta. Also, we could only extend our visas 2 days before they expire. We will get 30 days extra. This is cutting it really close.
We went back and forth to the Immigration department probably 5 times, and every time we got a different answer as to what to do.
First they treated it as a normal extension, an easy process where you just bring your passport and they provide the extension, the cost is COP 58, 000 (R260/$18/Euro 16) each.
The second time they realised we had to apply for visas to enter Colombia, so now, it is more difficult:
We need the police statement, exit flight tickets, bank statements, the works. We still could only get an extension approved 2 days before expiry. Now it will cost COP 98, 000 (R440/$31/Euro 27) each. Keeping in mind that it already cost us about R1200 each for the initial tourist visa.
The third time, they realised that for some obscure reason, our visas were Volunteer visas and not a tourist visa (we still don't know how this happened because of specific requirements when you apply for a volunteer visa which we obviously didn't comply with when applying for visas). So always, check that you get the right visa!
Now this Volunteer visa cannot be extended and cannot be changed to a different category of visa like a tourist visa. We had 3 days to exit the country. With no money and no cards.
Eventually, we could explain the whole situation about no money and cards, told them my parents bought plane tickets (white lie), and got the statement from the police which they didn't look at. After paying COP 58, 000 each, we got a 2 week extension only! We were still waiting for our cards.
Finally, the cards arrived but we weren't informed, and it was delivered to someone we didn't know.
Eventually after contacting DHL we were asked to pay import fees of US$101 each before we can get the cards. What? No-one said anything about import fees. Another few days back and forth, and we eventually found out that the cards were delivered to the security guard at the hostel owner's father's address. Another 3 days passed before we got them.
In the meantime, we had decided to skip Central America and go to Asia because it is just so much cheaper there for South Africans. South America is expensive.
It is really difficult and expensive though to fly from Colombia to Asia - at least R15 000 up to R20 000 each! Crap that is a lot. We checked all our options and eventually, we just had to bite the bullet and get the cheapest to Singapore.
The problem is that all flights have a layover in either the US or the UK or Europe. And guess what? South African's need transit visas for all these countries!
And this is not an easy online application process. For all these visas, you have to appear in person at the Consulate in Bogota, and we were very far from Bogota. And, it will take from 5 to 10 days to process, and you have to pay a ridiculous amount of money to stay in the airport for 2 hours! For the US Transit Visa, the fee is $160 , that's R2 331.00 for sitting at an airport. For a UK visa, you can get the direct transit visa for 35 Pounds (R 653) or 65 Pounds (R1 211.00) if you go through customs for connecting flights for instance. Seriously? Can this get any worse?
So we had to leave the country as soon as possible.
And that's how we ended up in Panama.
Because we needed to leave Colombia a.s.a.p, we just took a flight to (very expensive) Panama thinking it would be easier to get out of South America. Not!
(to be continued)
*Prices indicated were correct at the time of writing COP 1000=R4,50.