Accomplished journalist, Karen Catchpole and former lawyer turned-photographer Eric Mohl, have been on a trans-continental journey for six years, seven months, and 7 days for the sole purpose of getting to know their own home and neighbors: the Americas. They arrived in Colombia in June.
Before June 19, Catchpole and Mohl had travelled through 40 different overland border crossings. Though not all were that simple, by their sixth year of driving their larger-than-life red Chevy Silverado truck past checkpoint after checkpoint, they had, “gotten pretty good at it.” However, as they approached the southernmost tip of Panama, they could tell this would be a completely different story.
Facing the two New York City natives at this moment was the ominous Darien Gap: a stretch of land separating Colombia and Panama made up of dense jungle and rain forrest with no real functioning roads connecting the two countries. The Darien Gap is the sole missing link in the PanAmerican Highway, the highway that spans from Alaska to Argentina. Only the most experienced and daring hikers have traversed this gap, and even they almost always take guides.
The two recalled the moment and laughed in agreement. Though determined, Catchpole and Mohl were not about to bushwhack their way to Colombia.
“You have to really want to get to Colombia,” noted Ms. Catchpole.
The two instead embarked on their only other option; they shipped their truck from Panama to Colombia and took a sailboat themselves to meet their sturdy vehicle in South America. Thus began their journey in Colombia.
Shipping The Truck
After only a few months here, the couple has concluded that Colombia, their first stop in South America is very different from its Central American neighbors to the north, but they are still searching for why exactly. Both Catchpole and Mohl offered their perspectives as seasoned journalists and travel writers to Colombia Reports one Sunday afternoon at their apartment in the small quiet neighborhood of Prado, Medellin.
Colombia? Not a Chance. Venezuela? ‘Perfect, Go!’
“Hold on, go back to when we were planning this trip though in 2003/2004,” Karen backtracked after describing the voyage from Panama to Colombia. Eric chimed in saying that Colombia was not a part of their plan then. When they left New York in 2006, Venezuela would be their first stop in South America without question.
People would say to them, “Venezuela? Perfect, go! Do it! Go!” recalled the journalist.
“Venezuela was fine. Colombia was not at all,” explained the photographer, “You could fly from city to city, but you couldn’t drive.”
However as they began to travel, as if it were occurring right before their eyes, Colombia was transforming into a thriving and rising country while Venezuela was becoming squeezed in former President Hugo Chavez’ grip.
“It’s as if Colombia and Venezuela traded places while we were on the road,” commented Catchpole.
“By the time we were in Mexico, we’re saying ‘bring it on!’ to Colombia.”
And just like that, Venezuela went off their list (much to their dismay) and Colombia secured the spot (much to their excitement).
Colombia is ‘foreign and sexy’
It benefited them as freelance writers in fact to be headed to Colombia because Colombia’s image has only been getting better in the United States’ eyes.
“Stories from Colombia are much easier to sell right now,” confirmed Catchpole. When questioned on why this is the case, Karen thought for a minute and then explained frankly.
“Colombia doesn’t seem that foreign [to people in the US], but it’s foreign enough to be sexy.”
“Central America gets spill over from [scandals like] the Iran-Contra Affair with Nicaragua…and people are tainted by those negative images,” interjected Mohl.
But they both emphasized that “Colombia is sexy and cool right now.”
The two believe that perhaps because the country of Colombia has never really been an enemy of the United States, they aren’t seen as threatening.
“Colombia’s a country that went down the wrong path, that was on the wrong side of the tracks, but now is great,” professed Catchpole. People can now cheer-lead for South America’s north-west country.
Both conceded that Colombia’s international stars Sofia Vergara, Shakira and Juanes might have helped that image along too: “Central America doesn’t have many superstar figures like that,” Mohl observed.
The People are ‘Fantastic’
However amongst their Colombian stories concerning kite-surfing in Cabo de La Vela on the Guajira Peninsula, old beautiful villages that are truly spectacular, and Starbucks’ entry into one of the biggest coffee capitals in the world, their biggest discovery has been how friendly and accommodating Colombians have been, from the people at, “Fernando’s tienda,” across the street from their apartment to the soldiers they encounter at checkpoints.
“The people are fantastic, and it’s an incredibly diverse country,” asserted Catchpole, and both agreed that of the 11 countries they had visited up until this point, Colombia is definitely in the top three along with Mexico and El Salvador in no particular order.
Soldiers at checkpoints would “smile… shake our hands…[and] they ask us how we like Colombia, and actually want to hear what we think,” which is definitely out of the ordinary across Latin America.
The diversity aspect also stuck out to the duo as different from other countries they had visited.
“We’ve spent the past four years in Central American countries that have smaller populations than Medellin, so it’s very refreshing for us to be in a big place,” remarked Mohl. Catchpole included that “some of these countries just have a lack of critical mass–Panama has some very cool, creative, fantastic, very hip people, but there’s twelve of them.”
Infrastructure is ‘Strangling’ Colombia
At first glance, one of the only real problematic issues that either can see in Colombia today that’s different from other countries (besides the wild motorcycles that congest Colombia’s cities) is the infrastructure, especially between cities. Mohl jumped in on this topic.
“Where Colombia is suffering is their lack of infrastructure. They were plagued by a war for 50 years and then there was a decade of Uribe making changes like Giuliani, perhaps heavy handed, but stuff got done.”
“Why did it take us two days to get to Medellin from Cartagena?” questioned Catchpole.
“A drive like that in any other country would take 8 hours tops. For us it took 16 hours over two days,” said Mohl, “These roads look like Guatemala and Honduras roads! Not the roads of a thriving and growing modern country.”
“The infrastructure is strangling the country.”
The Road Ahead
What lies ahead of these two travelers is at least 11 months in Colombia. “We want to go to Boyaca…and go everywhere that is accessible. That’s the way we roll,” Eric announced with smile. “We’re gonna do Cali and the coffee area, go up into the mountains, hit Bogota, go into the south, and go everywhere we can. I’d really like to do the Amazon too.”
The journalist gave a quick skeptical look.
On reflection the two really just want more time to soak in what Colombia has to offer, as they had done with the previous ten countries. They want to learn to know the country, as in and out as possible. Catchpole reflected on the upcoming months in Colombia.
“I think that we haven’t hit the heartbeat of Colombia just yet…”
“But I’m looking forward to finding it!”
The Life Travelers
Karen Catchpole and Eric Mohl began their journey after wanting desperately to get to know their neighbors in the entirety of the Americas. This decision came after a period of post-9/11 uncertainty, where both felt as though the country was becoming incredibly partisan and divided and all of a sudden “the US became very foreign to [them].” They were initially planning to journey through Africa, but they agreed that it is more important now to discover the two connected continents in which one has always been home. Traveling is not a vacation for Catchpole and Mohl. Traveling is work, and it is their life.
Karen Catchpole is an accomplished journalist known for being a founding member of women’s magazines, Sassy and Jane. Karen has freelanced for several major US women’s magazines and has produced for The Jon Stewart Show, and created programming for Oxygen and MTV. Recently Catchpole has been writing primarily about travel and Latin American related articles. Catchpole spent most of her career in New York City but grew up in Paso Robles California.
Eric Mohl is an accomplished lawyer-turned-photographer, who put down his corporate briefcase to pick up his camera and realize his lifelong dream of shooting nature, travel, outdoor and adventure photography. Eric has published photos in National Geographic Adventure, Afar, Escape, Outside, Asian Geographic, and The Minneapolis Star Tribune just to name a few. Mohl has been featured on Bloomberg Television’s ‘Stealth Lawyer’ series, The Huffington Post, and Fox Business news as well. Eric Mohl was born and raised in New York City and was a self proclaimed, ‘Deadhead.’
- Interview with Karen Catchpole and Eric Mohl (Colombia Reports)
- Trans-Americas Journey (Trans-Americas)