Colombia: Failed infrastructure and the “optimist” of our roads

Driving the switchbacks of Route 25, the main road from the coast to Medellín, I push the accelerator to the floor and swing out past a smoking truck, scanning the road ahead for obstacles or on- comings, catching glimpses of the Río Cauca rushing through its magnificent gorge far below, while my kids are yelling in my ear “Come on, come on, we can pass it!”.

I make the hair-split decision to pull back and tuck in, when another big Mack comes steaming down the hill all air horn and hot asbestos. Our little car shudders in its slipstream.

Driving Colombia’s main roads is a white-knuckle ride worthy of any theme park and travelling as I do several times a year from Bogotá to the costa (a two-day drive whichever way you go), gives us plenty of thrills and plenty of time to complain about the country’s infrastructure problems.

My family are well used to my rants by now. First, up is usually drainage, along the lines of: “OK, so they have built a new road but why the hell don’t they put in proper gullies and drainage channels.” My children then have to suffer a sermon on the fact that the asphalt road surface looks hard but is ‘actually a liquid’ and can deform like plasticine under those 55-tonne trucks, more-so if the ground is soggy with water filtration.

But, of course, that effect is worse if the asphalt layer is gossamer-thin in the first place, which seems to be the case in the newish four-lane Ruta de Sol that skirts the Magdalena River, and focus of multi-million-dollar corruption scandals. “They skimmed the contracts – and the tarmac!” I yell, as we deviate around a newly-formed pothole on this flagship highway.

Then, on a mountain stretch, comes an ominous road-sign stating, Geological Fault: Zone under Observation. This message always sends me into a rage as the road ahead deteriorates into a series of steps and then one lane disappears al- together over a cliff. The problem is the same hole, same steps, same sign have been there for five years.

“How many more years are they going to just watch it!” I shout, to no- one in particular, given that my passengers have heard the same rant at precisely the same spot for five years and are now oblivious to my exhortations.

But, hell hath no fury like my wrath at turning up at the single-cashier toll booth between Monteria and Caucasia. The deal on this stretch of road is that, yes, the engineers seem to have done a good job of putting in a dual carriageway and passing lanes, and even a smidgeon of drainage, and we cruise smoothly past Cordoba’s lush haciendas with their dopey brahman cattle. But, then we inexplicably stop.

It becomes clear that the 500-metre-long queue of traffic is waiting to pass through the single toll booth. Yes, all the time gained on this super new road is instantly squandered by queuing for 20 minutes for the privilege of handing over $12,000 pesos – one of the highest road tolls in Latin America – because some mulish planner forgot to blueprint a multi-booth toll station.

“This is nuts!” I yell at a vendor as he walks down the line of cars to sell his rosquitas and gaseosas. My impatience is tempered by news of a bridge collapse on another road far away, between Bogotá and Villavicencio. One span of the unfinished Chirajara suspension bridge has collapsed with construction workers resulting in nine dead and many injured.

The 450-meter construction was visited by President Santos just two months previously, and lauded as a “100 percent Colombian-engineered infrastructure marvel”, similar to those found “in Switzerland, Germany, the United States”, and “source of pride to all Co- lombians.” Then, the tragedy.

The event marked a downbeat start to 2018, but also a reminder of the immense challenge of taming the wild Andes, the planet’s longest, newest and most restless mountain range. As President Santos correctly pointed out during his site visit, the Andean geography is “much more complicated because these are mountains in formation and that requires more care, requires a more sophisticated engineering”. So, it was never going to be easy. In fact, a landslide swallowed 200 souls in the same spot in 1974.

But, behind that reality is the lingering suspicion of human ineptitude. I cannot proclaim any expertise in engineering – the most complex structure I have ever erected is a tent – but looking back over the years it seems that Colombia has more than its fair share of infrastructure failures. According to one engineering report at least 63 bridges have fallen down in the last 30 years due to structural failure or ‘scour effects’, a technical term for being washed away.

Buildings also collapse on an all-too regular basis with an all-too familiar pattern: multiple deaths, revelation that building codes, planning laws, plain common sense was not observed. Then bribes paid to avoid inspection, a background of cost-cutting prompted by a carrousel of sub-contracting, and promise of an inquiry. Then nothing. Until the next one.

We do know not know what human factors caused the Chirajara collapse, or if its was “fuerza mayor.” The event is on our minds as we wind our way through Antioquia, at one point leaving behind the hectic main road and taking the muddy tracks over the mountains from Barbosa to Concepción, Alejandría, San Rafael and San Carlos.

This is Colombian driving at its best: winding dirt roads with plenty of natural hazards, but no trucks, hardly any other cars, just the occasional chiva bus. And no tolls. It is hard work at the wheel, but I much prefer to spar with the road than monster trucks. We stop to explore crystalline rivers and waterfalls and look for torrent ducks, and overnight in remote rural towns where after dark drunken vaqueros storm the cobbled streets on their high-stepping mounts.

We reach San Carlos with its vibrant plaza, good but cheap hotels, and excursions to a mysterious jungle-clad mountain topped by limestone massif.

And then, another collapsed bridge. Yes, our plan to reconnect to the main road to Bogotá has been thwarted by failed infrastructure. We stand on the bank of the Río San Carlos looking down at the jagged concrete stanchions, all that remains of the solid bridge that until October last year spanned this lively river.

“How can a whole bridge get washed away?” asks my daughter. I quote Murphy’s law: if it can go wrong, it will go wrong. And, in the case of the San Carlos Bridge, and the Chirajara Suspension Bridge, it did go wrong.

“How do we get to Bogotá?” I ask a man with a dog. “Downstream there is a ford across the river,” he says, looking our small 4×4 car up and down. “With luck you might make it.”

We find a recently-bulldozed muddy access road down to the riverbank, where I sit and contemplate the 60-meter crossing over the surging river. A mega-wheeled Landcruiser charges across the flow, over-revving and digging its large wheels into the stony riverbed, sending rocks and water spraying in all directions. “Let’s do it, Dad,” says my son. Er, no. I explain that, yes, we would probably cross the river in one piece, but the water would submerge the axles and turn the oil to mayonnaise. Deep river crossings take preparation, I explain.

We backtrack and find an even lonelier – but relatively passable – backroad to Puerto Nare and the Magdalena River. The route follows the Samaná gorge, which it crosses at the gloriously intact Puerto Garza bridge, where we are treated to the sight of a veil of water cascading off the sheer gorge wall into the river below.

The road is bad again with plenty of wash-outs and landslides. Here, the steep hills have been clear-felled for cattle grazing, and the eroded and scarred hillsides show a clear connection between the human need to eat meat, bad farming and collapsed infrastructure. It is not just Man versus Nature, it is also Man versus Man.

As we squeeze by one landslide, I invoke Murphy’s Law again. “Who exactly was Murphy?” asks my daughter from the back seat. “Murphy was an optimist,” I reply.

She thinks for a second. “Could he have come from here?”

I think for second. “Why, yes, surely Murphy was Colombian.”