You are currently browsing the monthly archive for December 2012.

We woke up yesterday morning bright and early, ready to explore the city. Medellín is about 80% of the way from Cartagena to our cousin’s house in Pereira, so it was a good stopover to break up the long trip. I’m certainly glad we decided to spend a day looking around rather than leaving immediately. When we got up, the friendly hostel staff gave us a map of the town and pointed out various attractions that we might like to see. After a week wandering the downtown core of Cartagena, we were ready to do something a little quieter, so we decided to check out some of the city’s parks.

image

The first park we headed to was at the top of a mountain near the city. Our metro ticket got us halfway up the mountain by cable car, and then we bought a supplemental ticket to continue the rest of the way to the park at the peak. For about $2 apiece, we enjoyed stunning views as the cable car took us over the city, up the mountain, and through a forest to the park entrance, which was included in the price of the ticket there.
The park was just where we needed to be. We were far above the bustle of the city, surrounded by greenery and the smell of pine and cedar trees. Quiet trails led off in all directions (none of them signed) and we ambled this way and that trying to follow the completely inadequate map, while taking pictures of flowers and trees along the way.

image

Smaller than my pinkie fingernail!

image

There were so many types of variegated flowers

image

Love the colour on these berries!

Eventually we gave up on finding the trail along a stream, which kept leading us into people’s farms and backyards, and wandered the flora trail instead. This trail was marginally better marked, with occasional signposts along the path, albeit blank ones covered in graffiti.

image

We had no idea which way to go from this sign. This wasn't an isolated incident - all the trail signs looked like this.

After several hours’ walk, we returned to
the park entrance, where we bought lunch at a bustling market. Our set lunch was amazing – rice and pork with a hard-boiled egg, fried bananas, potato salad, and a big slice of bacon, all wrapped up in a banana leaf. We shared one between us so we’d have room for dessert – rice pudding and local mixed berries – before heading back down the mountain to our other destination, a park in the city.

image

Exactly what we wanted for lunch

image

Probably tastes better than it looks - I wish I could send photos of the smells and flavours, too!

The second park was next to the planetarium in the heart of the city. If we’d spent a few days in Medellín, I’d have spent a full day there and another at the planetarium besides. (The planetarium had a Darwin exhibit I would have loved to see, even if it’d be hard to understand in Spanish.) The park was a perfect place to have a quiet day in the city. There were plenty of peaceful corners to set up a picnic. We decided to head to the butterfly garden first, as I’d wanted to see one in Costa Rica and we’d decided against it because it had been expensive. This park was entirely free, so I wanted to take advantage of the opportunity. It did not disappoint – I got to take pictures up close of a variety of species I’d seen in the wild, as well as a couple of new ones I hadn’t seen in Costa Rica.

image

Monarch butterfly

image

Pretty brown butterflies were everywhere.

image

This one let a girl touch it!

image

This one looks like an owl to deter predators. It is blue when its wings are open, but I guess my camera looked like a predator.

image

Don't know what kind this was

image

Blue Morphos butterfly - this was a mounted specimen but we saw tonnes in Costa Rica

image

Almost transparent orange butterfly

image

Amazing iridescent specimen

image

Not yet hatched

After the butterflies, we began to explore the medicinal garden, but had to turn back because Ellen was getting tired.

image

Luckily we didn't leave before we saw this lizard - he was huge!

She went back to the hostel while I went to the bus station to buy our tickets to Pereira for the morning. On her way to the hostel, she stopped by the grocery store to pick up a few bottles of the local microbrewery’s offerings, which were so good we drank them all as soon as I got back. We had thought about heading out to look at Christmas lights along the river, but we decided to spend a quiet evening in the hostel instead.

image

Excellent local microbrew - hope local beer is available in Pereira, too!

Overall, Medellín was a delightful stop on our way to Pereira. If we have more time, I’d like to come back here – rumour has it there is good paragliding here that’s among the cheapest in South America. Certainly, the weather (cool but not cold) and the friendly people make Medellín even more pleasant, and the microbrewery’s tasty offerings are the icing on the cake. If you have the chance to visit, don’t pass it up.

Advertisements

Well, that was almost disappointing. After all the fear-mongering about the road between Cartagena and Medellín, the trip was completely uneventful. Ellen and I left the hostel at 4am, giving ourselves an hour to reach the bus terminal on the other side of town. We were there by 4:15, bleary-eyed and grateful for the cafe con leche vendors, waiting eagerly for the breakfast vendors to be out. At 5:30, we boarded our bus, and were pleasantly surprised to be moved to the front seats (with the most leg room) to allow a family to sit together toward the back.
The bus ride was much more pleasant than we expected. The road was rough at first, gravel and full of potholes, but was kept in fairly good repair. General road maintenance seems to be handled by the local children, who were out on the highway with shovels, buckets of dirt, and big smiles for the drivers of passing cars, who were apparently supposed to tip them for their troubles. I suppose that’s one way to keep your kids out of trouble on the weekends!
The locals seemed to be industrious and creative when it comes to making money. Several vendors got onto the bus and gave the driver a free snack in exchange for the opportunity to sell their wares on the bus. They rode for a few kilometers and got off to catch a bus in the other direction back to their shop. Other locals had hoses by the side of the road and splashed the bus as an offer to wash it.
After passing through the rough stretch of the road, we got into the mountains, which were beautiful. The roadside and hills were dotted with family farms. There were pigs and chickens ambling across the highway, and little old men in cowboy hats riding very small horses or leading donkeys laden with baggage. It reminded me of the hills around Mastatal in Costa Rica, where we spent so much time on the farm.

image

Can't decide if the farms here are poorer or richer. Most have more livestock than the ones in Costa Rica but less well-maintained homes.

Our best guess was that this last stretch of road was the one that was supposed to be dangerous. I suppose if somebody wanted to hold up a bus, they could knock a tree down onto the highway in the middle of the night and force the driver to stop. The road was busy in the middle of the day on the Saturday of a long weekend, but at 3am on a Thursday, it might be possible to get away with robbery on that road. We saw a fair amount of police presence, though – young men in military uniforms with automatic weapons – that made me feel that the road through the mountains was safe.

image

Mountains near Medellin

We arrived in Medellín approximately on time – fifteen and a half hours after leaving – and found our way to a hostel. Once again, our first choice of hostel was full, but the wonderful lady at the reception desk actually moved her stuff out of her own private room so Ellen and I could sleep in her double bed while she was working overnight. Really, Colombians are amazingly friendly! While she was preparing the room, Ellen and I wandered out to a hamburger joint down the road, where we got burgers made from locally raised buffalo, with yucca fries dipped in garlic sauce on the side. This was a welcome change of pace after a week of variations on the same meal of rice, beans, salad, and fried fish that we had every day in Cartagena. While we were eating, the burger stand owner and another customer chatted to us about the sights of Medellín and the surrounding area.

image

Medellin is a beautiful city built into a hill.

Overall, it was a wonderful day of travel. Part of the reason we liked it is because we had low expectations – when you hear something is terrible, anything better than that seems pretty good.

After a wonderful week in Cartagena, Colombia, Ellen and I are about to hit the road again. This time we’re on our way to our cousin’s house in Pereira.
We had hoped to do this leg of the journey by plane, as the roads are apparently slow, prone to landslides, and not always safe. When we tried to book our tickets on Christmas Day, it would have cost us $75 per person to fly on New Year’s Eve, but the site wouldn’t accept my Canadian Visa card. By the time we were able to get in touch with the airline to book our tickets, the price had more than doubled and our preferred dates weren’t available, so it looks like the bus is our only option.

Google Map shows the road as being fairly direct - rumour tells us otherwise.

Google Map shows the road as being fairly direct – rumour tells us otherwise.

According to the word on the street, this bus trip is particularly unpleasant. The bus company claims it’ll be 12 hours to Medellin, our stopover for the night tomorrow. Other travellers assure us it could take 20 hours. Rumour tells of buses held up by robbers late at night, bags stolen, roads closed for days at a time. On the other hand, hundreds of people travel the route every day – three companies service the route and ours offered six departure times per day – so surely the proportion of travellers who get held up must be low. Lonely Planet names our bus route as one at risk of guerrilla attack, but assures us that “in most cases these assaults are purely political – all passengers and their luggage are kindly let off before the bus is put to the torch.”
Having informed ourselves of the risks and decided to go anyway, Ellen and I went to the main bus terminal to buy our tickets in advance. We chose the 6am departure so we’ll be travelling mostly during daylight hours, but we thought we’d prefer to know that space was available, especially because the week between Christmas and New Year’s is apparently the busiest of the year. Althought tomorrow we’ll get to the bus terminal by taxi, today we ambled our way there on a city bus.
Cartagena’s bus system is fascinating. Instead of one main bus company serving the city, dozens of independent carriers run routes every which way. We found out which brand of bus went to the bus terminal, but when we got to the street we’d been told it left from, it was clear no buses were to be found. Luckily, we remembered from our strolls around the area where to find a bus stop, and waited for our bus.
Catching a bus here is an experience unto itself, and I’m glad we took one. The colourful mini-buses passing by honked and played melodies to attract passengers. It seems you can flag one down just about anywhere on the route, rather than at pre-arranged stops. Many carriers have guys hanging off the side of the bus, calling out its destination and heckling passersby to ride. Upon hearing one guy call out “Terminal”, we ditched waiting for our intended bus and hopped on. The bus was crowded but not unpleasant, except for the lack of leg room, and a variety of vendors wander on and off the bus selling cold drinks and fruit. One interesting sales tactic is to hand out a chocolate bar to everyone on the bus, then demand payment or the chocolate bar back. This has the added benefit of tempting small children to open the chocolates before their parents can stop them, thus guaranteeing easy sales.
Having found the bus terminal and secured our early-morning ticket, Ellen and I had our last meal in Cartagena for the foreseeable future – I’d love to come back here, but who knows how our plans will go. Ellen is talking to the hostel owners about arranging a taxi or other ride to the bus terminal – they suggest leaving here at 4:30am to make sure we aren’t late. I’m drinking a beer and blogging – it’s nice to have a sister as a travelling companion! We may not post tomorrow, but I’ll certainly try to post from Medellin on Sunday.

There are certainly enough little yellow taxis around during the day - here's hoping we'll find one at 4:30am!

There are certainly enough little yellow taxis around during the day – here’s hoping we’ll find one at 4:30am!

In the four days we’ve been in Cartagena, Ellen and I have spoken to only one other Canadian and one European. The rest of the people we’ve interacted with have been locals, or at least South American. We’re not off the beaten track – there are at least 4 other hostels within a three-block radius – but we’re refreshingly free of the typical tourist traps catering to American and European travellers. It has allowed us to pay attention to the local residents and learn more about them, which is for us a large part of our trip.

Our hostel, with its usual cohort of friendly locals chatting with the owner outside.

Our hostel, with its usual cohort of friendly locals chatting with the owner outside.

I love people-watching, and Cartagena is an excellent place to do it. There are lots of plazas and shady parks with pleasant benches to sit on, and many vendors wandering by to offer iced lemonade, cold beer, coffee, or ice cream. If a cafe or restaurant is more your style, the old town is full of little sidewalk tables where you can get an overpriced snack or meal along with a break for your aching feet. Cartagena is a town built for walking or riding a bicycle – the narrow streets were built to maximize air flow through the city, rather than traffic, I’ve heard. Anywhere you sit, you’re sure to have people amble past you.

A wonderful shady park full of places to watch people

A wonderful shady park full of places to observe passers-by

The residents here are hard to identify, I have to admit. When I was travelling in Korea or the Philippines, it was easy to spot the tourists and differentiate them from the locals. In Cartagena, it’s not so simple. For starters, the people here have diverse heritages. Colombians are mainly descended from the local indigenous peoples, European colonials, and African slaves. We’ve been told the plaza a block from our hostel is where the black slaves began their fight for independence from the Spanish colonists, and that certainly shows in the people we see in the neighbourhood. While the guidebook tells me Colombia is about 20% black, the proportion in our neighbourhood must be closer to 60%. The rest seem to have European ancestry, but they speak Spanish when they walk by, so we guess they’re local as well.
If we were spending more time in this city, we’d probably be able to tell you for sure who is from where. Colombians are notoriously friendly. People smile and greet us on the street. Colombian culture seems to call for men to shower women in compliments – anywhere we walk, we hear men telling women they’re beautiful. We’re not sure if it’s supposed to be polite or misogynistic, but catcalls, whistles, and murmurs of admiration are the norm here whenever a woman walks by, and it’s not just the drop-dead gorgeous women on the receiving end.
In fact, the variety of shapes, sizes, and colours of people walking by is refreshing. In Panama and Costa Rica, we noticed the few curvy women we saw had to squeeze themselves into jeans three sizes too tight. Here, both men and women come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s wonderful to behold. Some people wear skinny jeans, some people wear loose flowing dresses, some wear short skirts and tank tops, and some wear polo shirts with shorts. There doesn’t seem to be an overriding style like I saw in Korea, or a refusal to accept one’s body, like I saw in Panama.
I admit, there are times when the whistles and comments get to me, when it’s too hot outside and I haven’t had a siesta, and the crowds of the city are getting to me. My body clock is still timed to the farm – I’m up at 6am and ready for bed by nine, which has some disadvantages when all the Argentinians and Chileans at the hostel want us to go partying with them all night. But I have to say, it’s nice for the ego to have taxi drivers tap the horn to catch your attention so they can blow you a kiss. I’ll be glad to visit my cousin at the coffee farm next week, but in the meantime, Cartagena, with its friendly people, is a wonderful place to be.

On the morning of Christmas Eve, Ellen and I went back down to the docks where we’d arrived in Cartagena, to drop off our passports at immigration. (Apparently Christmas is a celebration but not an excuse for a two-week-long holiday like in Canada.) While we were there, a European man approached us to ask whether we could give him advice about taking a sailboat to Panama. He wasn’t sure if the trip was right for him. This is the advice we gave him.
Take this trip if you like camping. Life on a boat is a lot like camping. Take this trip if you like boats and sailing – boats are slow, imperfect, leaky, meandering, and peaceful. Take this trip if you’re comfortable being uncomfortable. Your clothes will be wet, your food will be cold, even the fresh water will seem slightly salty, and I’d be surprised if at least one of your things doesn’t blow overboard. (Mine was my bikini bottoms, hanging up to dry on the last day.) Don’t take this sailing trip if you think you’re in for a luxury cruise. Don’t take it if you have high expectations, expensive tastes, or a strong need for control. If airplane delays worry or offend you, this isn’t the trip for you. If getting a flat tire ruins your road trip, you should rethink sailing. According to our captain, most trips go more smoothly than ours went, but if you expect smooth sailing, you’re invariably going to be disappointed.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

The cabin was bigger than our tents, but the beds were narrow, so it was hard to sleep comfortably.

This trip was perfect for us, but for Betty and Wilma, the other two tourists on the boat, most of it ranged from barely tolerable boredom and misery to pure unadulterated torment. I’m going to tell you my perspective on their story as a bit of a cautionary tale of expectations gone wrong.
Betty and Wilma were travelling together, having met at a hostel in Central America. Both were well-travelled, and Betty worked in tourism for a cruise line. They both spoke Spanish fairly fluently, as well as English and their native language. They had arranged a sailing trip at a hostel in Panama, but didn’t like the way their first captain spoke to them about the boat, so they arranged passage to Cartagena with Antonio instead. (It is recommended, by the way, that you meet your captain and make sure you’re comfortable with the boat before you pay and board.) They told us they’d paid less than $400 for six days’ passage from Portobelo, Panama, to San Blas, and then on to Cartagena.
On their first night on the boat, the sea was rough and they were seasick. They decided that they couldn’t go on to Cartagena, and that the captain should change course and go to Turbo instead, avoiding the open water crossing they feared. Now, there are many boats that go that route, but Antonio’s boat wasn’t one of them. The captain agreed to look into it, asked around, heard it was dangerous, and decided to continue with the original plan to Cartagena. When we got on the boat, bound for Cartagena, and wouldn’t agree to change our plans for them, they flipped out. They screamed, they raged, they cried, they threatened. Ellen and I might have considered agreeing to arrive at a different port than Cartagena, except we didn’t want to encourage them in thinking that they could veto the captain’s decisions, and besides, our cousin Daisy told us we’d love Cartagena.
Betty and Wilma seemed to think that the boat was like a taxi, and that they, as paying customers, were in charge and the captain, as their employee, should do what they wanted. I saw it as more like we were hitchhikers, or possibly paying guests, sharing the captain’s journey with him and helping with chores and food. The captain is the expert, the captain is the owner of the boat, and it’s his decision where he will take it and when. The girls didn’t see it this way at all. This difference in perception was just one of many as the trip progressed.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

For the trip to work, everybody has to take their turn helping the captain with the boat, like steering while he adjusts the sails.

Both girls were scared of the sea, rather than exhilarated by it as Ellen and I were. It turns out that while Betty was a generally pleasant and positive person who was nervous about sailing, Wilma had what must be clinical anxiety and was actively trying to bring Betty, and the rest of us down. Neither of the girls was comfortable with the boat. Both interpreted each creak and bump of the boat as something awful happening. Every gust of wind felt like a storm, and every wave foretold a tempest descending upon us. The isolated islands and night sky free from artificial light pollution that Ellen and I so openly admired were indications that nobody would find our bodies when we inevitably gave in to our imminent destruction.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that show the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

A frighteningly isolated island with no night life, surrounded by dangerous storm clouds that indicate the ship will probably be hit by lightning.

You assume I’m exaggerating. I’m really not. These girls, especially Wilma, suffered the worst anxiety on the trip that I’ve ever witnessed. Neither was comfortable sleeping, and while Betty took seasickness pills that knocked her out one night, Wilma sat upright, knees curled up around her in fetal position, eyes wide open like saucers, for the entire sea journey.
Needless to say, the nervousness had its predictable effect on them. Betty came down with a urinary tract infection that she was sure would turn into a deadly kidney infection. Wilma had a full-on panic attack on the open water, convinced that the boat wasn’t moving, the sails, motor, and radio non-functioning, and the water and diesel used up. She flailed, punched the captain, and freaked out, completely lost to hysteria.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water to check the motor when it stalled.

To be completely fair, the captain did have to dive into the water at one point in our trip to check the motor when it stalled.

After about 40 hours on the open ocean, we saw an island in the distance, and both Betty and Wilma begged the captain to radio the island for emergency assistance to get them off the boat. While Antonio was fiddling with the radio and confirming with Betty to what extent she’d be able to pay for an emergency rescue, Wilma saw a nearby motorboat and flagged down the three Colombian fishermen in it, who cheerfully ferried the two girls to the nearby island, home of an expensive resort. We waited while they made arrangements and got medical treatment, then had to go back to the resort with them to get a statement from the doctor (who wasn’t even a doctor at all) that they’d left the boat and been treated, so the captain wouldn’t be held responsible for getting them to Cartagena.
Finally, we made it back to our sailboat and were able to do the last 24 hours of the journey in peace. We had realized, but couldn’t fully appreciate while they were onboard, how much their anxiety had affected our enjoyment of the trip. Whenever we’d made a comment about enjoying the weather, we were contradicted. If something was bad but not terrible, “just you wait, it’ll get worse.” Mostly it was Wilma being negative, but neither girl was happy with the trip. I’m sure there are dozens of travellers being warned against our captain, as they painted him as a willfully neglectful, dangerously inept seaman.
Really, I felt sorry for all of us on the boat while they were in the worst throes of anxiety. The captain was sleeping restlessly if at all, worried Wilma would stab him in the night from another panic attack or bout of hysteria. The girls suffered immensely because of their fear, and mostly because they didn’t turn back or make other travel arrangements when they realized they were uncomfortable. Ellen and I got off lightly. Their fear and anxiety cast a shadow over some of our enjoyment of the journey, but overall we still loved it. It was too wonderful not to love, for us.

Usually, if a town has bars on the windows, it indicates it’s dangerous, run-down, not family-friendly. Same with graffiti – clean towns, with proper neighbourhood associations and fine upstanding citizens, paint over any pesky graffiti before hoodlums take over the streets. Here in Cartagena, there are both bars on the windows and graffiti on the walls, and it’s the most amazing, friendly, positive place. I am constantly saying to Ellen, “Oh, our cousin Renee would love to raise her kids here. Look at the kids playing ball in the square, and all the moms dancing to Salsa music nearby!”

The church in Plaza de la Trinidad - host of bingo nights, Salsa dancing, food and drink vendors, and children's soccer games.

The church in Plaza de la Trinidad – host of bingo nights, Salsa dancing, food and drink vendors, and children’s soccer games.

Everywhere I look, I see another thing that someone at home would love. Our cousin Josh would love to skateboard on these winding streets. Jill and Chris (our parents) would love to paint the beautiful buildings in the old city. My friend Ashley would go crazy looking at the souvenirs for sale from little vendors all over the city. Yejin would admire some of the attractive guys wandering by. Why aren’t all you people visiting Cartagena? Let’s have a meet-up here!

I wish I could capture the beauty of the buildings here as well as this street vendor's lovely paintings

I wish I could capture the beauty of the buildings here as well as this street vendor’s lovely paintings

But back to the topic – the bars on the windows. In Costa Rica, as I mentioned last week, there were metal bars and barbed wire fences. Here, there are also bars, but not to the same extent. The wrought iron bars are decorative as well as functional. Wooden bars usually have flowers in pots beneath them and vines growing through them up the walls.

Form meets function while showing Latin America's typical attention to beauty

Form meets function while showing Latin America’s typical attention to beauty

The bars seem more to define private versus public spaces when people’s doors are open, rather than to serve as fortifications against unseen enemies. Here, the bars are a pleasing and integral aspect of the architecture, painted or stained to complement the walls. I can’t imagine Cartagena without bars, and I wouldn’t want to.

The bars here suit the design of the buildings

The bars here suit the design of the buildings

I’ve also seen lots of graffiti here in Cartagena as well – incredible works of art that add to the beauty of the crumbling old city walls, brightening dark spaces. Instead of showing disrespect for the city, they seem to show the love the people here have for their town. A missing stone from a wall becomes an eye socket in a portrait – a feature rather than a blemish.

Mural or graffiti? In this case, probably a mural, but who can tell?

Mural or graffiti? In this case, probably a mural, but who can tell?

This artist is prolific and incredible at portraiture

This artist is prolific and incredible at portraiture

The wall nearest the hostel is full of samples of this graffiti artist's work

The wall nearest the hostel is full of samples of this graffiti artist’s work

I don't read Spanish well enough to understand this yet, but I captured a picture for when I do

I don’t read Spanish well enough to understand this yet, but I captured a picture for when I do

This one caught our eye because it looks a little like us!

This one caught our eye because it looks a little like us!

A colourful statement on new construction versus traditional buildings

A colourful statement on new construction versus traditional buildings

Really, this town is beautiful. You should come visit.

image

Ellen and I both have so much more to say about our amazing sailing trip from Panama to Colombia, but first, it seems unfair to Cartagena to have been here 24 hours and have said nothing about its charms. Cartagena is a beautiful, welcoming, delightful city. We arrived yesterday morning after a long six days on the boat without a shower or cold drink, so we were smelly, dirty, hot, and tired. Our captain, Antonio, recommended Mama Waldy hostel in the old city, so without hesitation we got into a taxi and paid about $3 for the five-minute ride from the port.

The old city's fortifications were originally designed to protect it from storms and pirates - we crossed this bridge into the walled city to reach our hostel.

The old city’s fortifications were originally designed to protect it from storms and pirates – we crossed this bridge into the walled city to reach our hostel.

We were welcomed into this family hostel in the friendliest way. It’s a cool stone building on the corner of a quiet street near a bustling square. The hostel has large open windows and doors, with cheerful salsa music playing from speakers on the back of very well-worn couches. The proprietress (who I assume is named Mama Waldy) gave us water, followed by iced tea, shortly after we arrived. After drinking nothing but boiled rainwater, served lukewarm, on the boat for three of the last six days, ice cold drinks were a welcome refreshment! We were the only guests, although lots of locals drop by to hang out and chat.
We ventured out briefly the first day, to get some money and a phone card, and were impressed by the gorgeous seventeenth-century architecture all over the old city. Tiny alleys with brightly-painted buildings spread out from the plaza like tendrils of weeds, each inviting you to explore their winding walkways. Balconies hang over the sidewalks, offering patches of relief from the hot sun, and tropical vines climb buildings and walls, dropping flower petals onto the cobblestones and bricks below.

IMG_20121224_100028

Many buildings are painted cheerful summer colours, and it seems the locals take pride in repainting regularly.

In the evening, after we’d had a brief siesta, we had planned to wander the city taking pictures, but our intentions were pleasantly hijacked instead. When we got up, our hostess handed us each an ice cold beer, and invited us to sit on the front steps and chat. Our Spanish stood up to the test, and we discussed interesting sights in the area with a friendly local who works at another hostel but prefers to hang out at Mama Waldy’s when he’s not working. He invited us to head down to the Plaza de Trinidad for a beer, where we found the church had put on a hopping fiesta complete with dance competitions (kids, enter your parents!) and bingo. He had to leave to go to work, but a few cheerful groups of Cartagenans made us feel welcome. One woman took Ellen under her wing and gave us a couple of bingo cards – excellent practice at keeping up with rapid-fire numbers and letters in Spanish!

Ellen and her bingo mentor listen for the winning numbers

Ellen and her bingo mentor listen for the winning numbers

I had a flock of teenaged girls and boys next to me, asking me about my travels in an awkward mix of shy mumbled English and heavily accented Spanish. Even though we were exhausted and left the fiesta by nine o’clock, it was an excellent first day in Cartagena. On our way back to the hostel, we couldn’t resist tasting some street food – meat on a stick!

Ellen and I enjoyed a well-earned dinner of beef and chicken kebabs with potatoes, onions, and peppers - all for about $1 each!

Ellen and I enjoyed a well-earned dinner of beef and chicken kebabs with potatoes, onions, and peppers – all for about $1 each!

This morning we made up for yesterday’s lack of wandering by walking back to the port first thing in the morning to drop off our passports at immigration. We gave ourselves an hour to walk about a kilometer, so even with stopping every ten meters to take pictures, we had plenty of time to sit in the shade and write or sketch, watch cranes hopping along the waterfront, admire boats in the harbour, and chat with the captains at the Nautical Club where we were to meet Antonio.

This crane was waiting by the side of the waterfront - it seemed nervous but let me take its picture.

This crane was waiting by the side of the waterfront – it seemed nervous but let me take its picture.

Here you can see the fortifications from the old city, with the new city behind them, and an old-fashioned ship sailing through the harbour

Here you can see the fortifications from the old city, with the new city behind them, and an old-fashioned ship sailing through the harbour

After dealing with our passports, we wandered around the old town until lunchtime, hoping to find sundresses, which everyone seems to wear but nobody appears to sell, and a post office for Ellen to mail some letters.

Christmas shopping Cartagena style! We didn't actually buy anything, of course.

Christmas shopping Cartagena style! We didn’t actually buy anything, of course.

When we were ready for an early lunch, we decided to stop at a small restaurant and get a meal. The restaurant didn’t have menus and we didn’t know what we ought to eat anyway, so Ellen asked for “something tasty because we’re hungry” and we eagerly awaited our meal. We were served a pleasant soup with fish, parsley, and yucca, the root we’d planted so much of on the farm in Costa Rica. The soup was delicious and we agreed that yucca may be our new favourite vegetable.

Amazing fish soup was exactly what we wanted for lunch!

Amazing fish soup was exactly what we wanted for lunch!

A few minutes later we were surprised to find that the soup had only been the first course, and each of us had a whole fried fish, served with coconut rice, tomato and onion slices, and lentil sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and we consumed the entire meal. I have to pause here to describe coconut rice, because its name doesn’t do it justice. It’s rice cooked in coconut milk, and it’s nutty and slightly sweet, but served as a savoury side dish for meat and fish dishes. It is slightly stickier than the rice usually served in Central America, but not as sticky as Korean and Japanese rice. I’ve only had it twice, and each time, I smiled every time I took a bite.

Whole fish with coconut rice, tomatoes, onions, and lentils! Yes, we each had one!

Whole fish with coconut rice, tomatoes, onions, and lentils! Yes, we each had one!

Ellen's fish looked so angry as she was eating it, I couldn't resist another picture.

Ellen’s fish looked so angry as she was eating it, I couldn’t resist another picture.

We are definitely staying in Cartagena for Christmas (tomorrow) and possibly for a day or two afterward, before we head out to visit our cousin Daisy. We’re tempted to do a tour of something locally, but we may just wander the city and see what there is to see. There certainly seems to be a lot worth seeing!

This waterfront-facing home looks grand.

This waterfront-facing home looks grand.

This beautiful red brick building is near the entrance to the walled old city.

This beautiful red brick building is near the entrance to the walled old city.

This tree growing up the wall beside a staircase is typical of how the locals keep their houses.

This tree growing up the wall beside a staircase is typical of how the locals keep their houses.

Beautiful multicoloured flowers hanging over the streets below

Beautiful multicoloured flowers hanging over the streets below

Vines growing up the wall, and very attractive bars over the open windows down a small alley

Vines growing up the wall, and very attractive bars over the open windows down a small alley

(Note – this post was written by Ellen on December 19th as we were sailing through the San Blas Islands in Panama. We are now in Cartagena.)

Even in the rain I love being on the boat. Yesterday, we just went across a small channel, but I loved the feeling of the waves. I know it could get really bad when we go across the open water to Colombia, but I just love the feel of warm wind blowing through my hair (what little of it I have left), and the drop in my stomach as the wave peaks and we drop into the bottom of the wave. I love swimming six times a day, and having nothing more pressing than trying to cook good meals with bad ingredients (both bad in the sense of rotten and bad in the sense of quality and taste) and trying to ration our beers.

Rationing beer isn't that bad at all, really!

Rationing beer isn’t that bad at all, really!

Our copassengers aren’t ideal, as they seem to think that paying for passage gives them the right to order the captain around and demand control that isn’t even possible, let alone fair. They’re really lucky that our captain, Antonio, is so easy-going, or they’d be dropped off on some island and told to fend for themselves if they pulled that shit with other captains. Other travellers have told of bad seas, broken sails, broken motors, and lost bookings, so I can’t really understand how they expect to have control over every aspect of their travel.

They wanted to change the destination but it didn’t work out with our plans, or with the captain. I can’t really figure out how they can’t see the other side of the story. They got on the boat, planning to go to Cartagena, but got really seasick, so they changed their minds about the two-day trip over open water. But then we got on, still under the impression that we were going to Cartagena. They’re super worried about the open water, and expected to get dropped off at the other port on the way, based on their travel book and hearsay. Then the captain told them that the first port they wanted was too dangerous, after talking to other sailors on the islands. The other option for a port would cost them an extra $75 because it takes time to go into the port and changes the route to Cartagena. As far as I’m concerned, both of these arguments are totally logical and reasonable, but they got super angry that he’s “breaking his agreement”.

To me, they are just as guilty of breaking an agreement because every guide book tells you that the trip across open water is bad and the smaller the boat, the worse the waves and seasickness, so they decided to change their agreement in spite of knowing these things previously. Like Hannah said, it’s like getting on a bus, being the only two passengers, and requesting that it change its route since there’s no one else on board, then when other passengers get on, getting angry that the driver won’t go to the other destination that was never planned anyway.

Oh well… they’re kind of control freaks since they keep insisting on knowing exact times for departure, arrival, and other things that are totally dependent on weather and circumstances, then getting angry that the captain “doesn’t keep his word”. It’s a boat, we’re sailing through paradise, and they’re worried about the exact time we’re arriving in Cartagena.

It’s great that I’m such a happy camper, because this is exactly like camping, except without wood fires to cook over. Although, the night before last, the captain of another boat cooked fish soup over an open fire, which took from 8pm to 10pm to finally finish. We also got a nice bowl, although with skin, scales, and eyeballs all swimming around in the soup, hiding amongst the potatoes and veggies. It was a bit dangerous to be eating it in total darkness. I just stuck with the broth and picked out the obvious potatoes.

Yesterday we saw dolphins twice. Once about ten minutes after I’d been swimming in exactly that spot, just off the island of Chichime. I had even been thinking how terrifying it would be if I saw a fin, thinking of sharks. I can only imagine how much I would have freaked if I had seen one while I was in the water. The water is so blue-green and clear that I’m always sure I’ll see a shark just below me, or some other menacing creature. The second time we saw dolphins was when we were crossing the channel and a group swam by the boat, jumping and splashing. It was one of those awesome moments of indescribable beauty.

Ellen splashing around just before we saw the dolphin

Ellen splashing around just before we saw the dolphin

We also saw a sea turtle today. Hannah and I were at the front of the boat while we sailed past an island. We were nervous of some rocks ahead, which we seemed to be heading for. The boat was on autopilot and Antonio was down in the cabin. We agreed that we would clear the rocks without a problem, but we saw what looked like a large log floating right in our path. We called for Antonio, just in time for the turtle to slide into the water.

Just one of the gorgeous sunsets - we were too "busy" admiring them to stop and take pictures.

Just one of the gorgeous sunsets – we were too “busy” admiring them to stop and take pictures.

Today we stopped between two islands, one that must have been uninhabited, because it had so much jungle right up to its edges. It’s something so wild and beautiful that there’s no way to capture it in words or pictures. The sun set right behind it, with giant clouds sending down beautiful pink-orange-gold beams of light to the aquamarine ocean below. Waves are crashing into the trunks and roots of fallen trees, and for once, the palm trees can’t dwarf the jungle around them. In the water around us, thousands of fish of every size, shape, and colour teem in water that is the colour of a postcard, so clear and perfect, with coral and seaweed darkening the depths in patches. Yellow and black striped fish come to the surface by the dozen, when anything small lands in the water, and they circle the boat like a mirror image of vultures, waiting for scraps we toss aside.

Gorgeous water - I don't think I managed to get any fish in this picture, though.

Gorgeous water – I don’t think I managed to get any fish in this picture, though.

Other fish are jumping out of the water, and I can see pelicans diving everywhere the fish jump, taking mouthfuls of bounty along with the sea water. Groups of five to ten birds fly overhead in formation, alighting in the palm trees that dominate the second island. Its groves of palms with soft green grasses and white sand paths look welcoming, and I can’t help the pull of their enticing quiet solitude. Despite this serene and isolated exterior, I know that the natives that fish and trade their wares here, the Kuna, live on the island, which explains how the jungle has been kept back from the shore.

When we went walking on the island today after dinner, I saw a sting ray in water right by the beach. Hannah and Wilma were ahead of us, and they passed right by it, which is probably why it was on the move. It was about 8 inches wide and 18 inches long. The moonlight was bright enough to see by, and the moon was right overhead, so our shadows lay only below us, and the shape of the palm leaves was cast onto the white sand below.

I also saw one of the nicest shooting stars I’ve ever seen. Hannah had just gone in to get ready for bed, and I was lying back watching the stars. The night sky here is crystal clear, with no man-made lights to be seen. Half the sky was lit up with clouds bright from the half moon, and the other half was rich and black, full of stars, but they had a soft light that was overpowered by the strength of the moon’s rays. I saw the shooting star streak relatively slowly through the sky, with a long trail behind it and clearly defined fiery edges. I wish there was some way to capture it. I realized I actually have nothing more I could wish for!

Travelling from Panama to Colombia overland is practically impossible, so Ellen and I decided to take the advice of a few people we’d met in Costa Rica, and do that leg of the journey by ocean instead. It was absolutely the right decision for us. Our research for the trip was sketchy at best – I googled it, checked what the Lonely Planet travel forums said, and asked a few people what they thought. Total time invested in research – maybe thirty minutes. We didn’t book anything in advance.

Our hostel in Panama had a list of boats sailing to Colombia along with prices and dates, including one leaving the very next morning, so Ellen arranged the trip while I quickly googled the boat name to check if there were any special instructions we needed to know. There were only the usual instructions – bring your own alcohol, bring snacks if you have a large appetite, bring seasickness pills just in case, and carry enough cash for the entire journey to Colombia plus spending money if you want souvenirs. There are no bank machines or grocery stores in the San Blas Islands, so whatever you think you might like, you have to bring with you.

Coming up with the cash for the trip in 12 hours was a challenge – both of us have withdrawal limits on our debit and credit cards, and the hostel in Panama would also only take cash. Luckily, we met a couple of people in the hostel who wanted to go to Costa Rica and were willing to trade us colones for dollars, so we scraped together a little over a thousand dollars for the two of us. We ended up spending $415 each on the boat trip, including accommodation, meals, and water, plus another $35 for the hostel’s booking fee and $30 for transportation to the San Blas Islands where the boat would meet us. In San Blas we also had to cough up $15 for the motorboat that took us to our sailboat, so we had $80 left over for spending money and emergencies.

Our 4×4 – actually a very clean and modern SUV – picked us up in Panama City at 5:00am Monday morning, and we headed out to the San Blas Islands over a bumpy dirt road. We had to pay cash at a checkpoint when we entered the Kuna’s lands – the Kuna are the local indigenous people who live on the San Blas Islands – and signs told us photography was forbidden on the river or in sacred places. Shortly thereafter, we arrived at the river, which was just begging for a photograph – dense tropical jungle overhanging a green-tinted river, with locals in boats puttering up and down carrying cargo, local families, and tourists. A local guy seemed to be in charge, and he checked our boat name, made a few phone calls to find out where it was moored, and put us in a motorboat with a couple of local guys to head out to the appropriate island.

Since we hadn’t been told otherwise, and my google search had indicated the locals didn’t like photography, we took very few pictures as our motorboat zipped between islands. The first island we came across seemed fairly poor – tumble-down shacks hanging out past the land over the water, with few trees and lots of people. We gassed up there and puttered along to a more pleasant island while the two Panamanian passengers told us about the area and we struggled to hear them over the roar of the motor and splash of the waves. Farther from the mouth of the river, the islands became less crowded, and the scenery was dominated by white sand beaches and palm trees, with huts made of reeds rather than the wood and tin of the first island’s structures. We dropped off the other two passengers and continued across open water. Ellen and I couldn’t stop smiling as we bounced over waves in the beautiful blue water, with fish jumping beside us and pelicans flying overhead.

We got to the Trophy Girl, a blue sailboat and our home for the next five to six days, at about 10am. Our captain, Antonio, was from Spain, and the only other passengers were two European girls, who I’ll call Betty and Wilma. Almost as soon as we arrived, Antonio rowed the two of us out to the nearest island, where he bought gas and water and we wandered the beaches and swam in the waves. It was incredible. It was paradise. There were a dozen other boats anchored offshore, and a couple of families of the local Kuna living on the island, but we had the beach to ourselves. We spent that day, like most of our days in San Blas, lounging on top of the boat watching the waves, swimming in the clear water, paddling to the island to wander the beach, writing, and sketching. That evening a Kuna family nearby had caught lobster and fed us a simple and delicious meal of lobster with coconut rice. After eating, we headed over to a makeshift bar where tourists from another boat were having drinks and a bonfire. Not a bad way to spend our first day in paradise!

The next few days are a blur – we went to one island or another, played in the waves, watched the fish jump, saw a sea turtle, almost stepped on a stingray, got our passports stamped to exit Panama, saw a ridiculously high number of shooting stars, went snorkelling, wandered white sand beaches, and sketched palm trees, birds, boats, and reed houses. The weather was mostly sunny, clear, and calm, with blue skies dotted with white clouds all day. At night the winds picked up a little, and the waves occasionally splashed over the boat. Some nights all we could see were stars, and other nights we could see lights from other boats and islands. It was wonderful, and we loved every minute of it.

Image

How can you not consider this paradise?

On the morning of the fourth day, we headed out into open water toward Colombia and Cartagena. Antonio showed Ellen how to signal and had me operate the motor and steering while he manhandled the anchor and sails. I felt amazing steering the boat, at the wheel, as we left Panama for the open sea. Less than an hour into the trip, my stomach had other ideas. Ellen was interested to note that a person’s face actually can turn green when they’re nauseous – I was in no condition to speak, or do anything but stare at the waves and will myself not to throw up. Shortly thereafter, I was down for the count, and I spent the first 24 hours of our open sea adventure in my bunk. Luckily I was able to hold down a motion sickness pill about 16 hours into the journey, and my stomach settled as we started the second day.

Image

Ellen took this delightful image of me sleeping off the seasickness.

Once my stomach was cooperating, sailing over the open sea was amazing. Once again, the weather was beautiful, the sea was calm during the day, and we sat in the shade below the sails and watched the waves. There was not another boat to be seen, and no land in sight. Every ten minutes, we’d look at each other and grin and say “I’m so glad we’re here!” My face started to hurt from smiling so much. It was wonderful.

Unfortunately, the other two passengers were not feeling as enthusiastic about the trip. Wilma was terrified of the open water, and Betty had come down with a urinary tract infection, so they were not happy campers at all. When we saw an island after two days at sea, Wilma begged, cursed, and implored the captain to radio for help, and then flagged down a trio of fishermen in a motorboat. We waited offshore while the two of them were taken to the island for medical treatment (Wilma for a panic attack and Betty for her infection). The two of them decided to stay on the island until a motorboat could take them to Cartagena, which would take only two hours, but which required me and Ellen to go to the island with them to get some proof that they had left the boat for an emergency and that the captain hadn’t just killed them and thrown their bodies overboard.

Finally, after a six-hour delay dealing with Betty and Wilma’s crisis, we were back on the sea sailing toward Cartagena. We thoroughly enjoyed our last 24 hours on the ocean, and agreed that the peaceful speed of sailing was much more pleasant than arriving in two hours in a motorboat, for us, anyway. In the morning, at first light, we started our approach to Cartagena. The motor on the sailboat wasn’t working – the captain guessed that the diesel he’d bought in San Blas was either dirty or contaminated with water – so we sailed into port slowly and carefully. After cautiously manhandling our bags so they didn’t get wet as we rowed the dinghy to shore, the captain arranged for us to go through immigration the following morning, and recommended us an amazing hostel in the old part of Cartagena, where many of the buildings are originals from the 17th century.

Image

The modern part of Cartagena, as viewed from the boat.

We have so much more to tell, about the boat, about Betty and Wilma’s crisis, about Cartagena, and about the trip in general. But we’ve just finished breakfast and have to head over to immigration to show our passports and officially enter Colombia, and besides, we want to wander the old city and take pictures of the architecture. So we’ll type the rest of our journal entries later today. We’ll probably be posting twice a day until we catch up, so if you’re bored over the holidays and need something to read, check back often!

Ellen and I have made it safely to Cartagena, Colombia. We had an amazing six-day sailing trip through paradise (also known as the San Blas Islands, Panama) complete with dolphins, sea turtles, coconuts, palm trees, white sand beaches, and perfectly clear blue water.

Remind me why we don't live here all the time?

Remind me why we don’t live here all the time?

We will update you on the backlog of posts we wrote on the boat, but in the meantime, I think we’ll wait for our land legs to come back. My hostel bed is significantly wider than the 15″ bunk on the boat, and the prospect of stretching out with a glass of cold water is too inviting to pass up.