Bocas del Toro

This archipelago of 6 densely forested Caribbean islands and scores of uninhibited islets straddles the border between Costa Rica and Panama and is a real gem that has found its way to become my favourite place so far, reasons for which I will touch upon later.

With the New York times travel section recently touting Panama as its #1 destination, specifically outlining Bocas del Toro; unfortunately the secret has leaked, and there’s no sign of the development slowing.

The real-estate boom has bought bulldozers and bullying interests, particularly from the government who has been selling off large chunks of the islands to foreign (usually American) firms to either develop large hotel resorts or to look for natural resources within its rich lands.

The locals we have met here, openly debate the merits and downfalls of increased tourism with differing views depending on the specific group you speak to. After being captivated for nearly two weeks by this beautiful, laid back place, I too began questioning the effects of not only tourism but more generally the ever present American interests on Bocas, which I think acts as a good proxy for the rest of this country.

Panama receives over 2.2 million tourists per year, which considering is over half it’s entire population is a huge amount. In addition to the average two week holiday maker, there are a large number of expats, mainly from the U.S. building condos across the entire coastline.

As I thought this through, it occurred to me that Panama is used to being a transition point with it’s strategically positioned canal accommodating over 10% of the worlds commerce passing through. While the Americans have come and gone from the canal, that waterway still attracts plenty of investment backed by the prosperous banking community, particularly with the current plans to extend the canal with a $5.3b investment underway.

It’s not just people and goods either. A vast majority of the bird population of Panama, which is one of the largest in the world, is migratory, some only staying for a few days, giving a new meaning to the term fly-by-night visitors. Then there are the whales, which pass by every year to spawn. The parallel with other tourists is striking. Not to mention the sea turtles, who lay their eggs and then leave.

In fact, the history of the country has been greatly impacted by those passing through; from Columbus, the first tourist, to Balboa who ‘discovered’ the Pacific, something the local Indians already knew about; to certain pirates, who where known to take advantage of the Spanish gold trade; to the “Forty-niners’, who needed a narrow strip of land to walk across (gold again); to the French and then the Americans, who wanted to cross to some place else by digging a hole; to the retired Americans on some vague three to five year plan; to nervous investors from Venezuela.

As I ask myself the question of whether all this investment is good or bad I find myself torn; on the one hand Panama is now one of the wealthiest countries in Central America with the highest standard of living, however it is also slowing loosing it’s charm and indigenous way of life.

The two main islands in this archipelago provide a good basis for this discussion. The larger island, Colon which is home to its capital Bocas del Toro is the most developed, having been built by United Fruit Company in the early 20th century.

The smaller island, Isla Bastimentos is only a 10 minute boat ride away but a completely different world. Where Colon is a bustling portal town with bars, restaurants and beach clubs all set up to cater to not only the gringo trail but more specifically the surfer trail; Bastimentos is an under developed tropical gem split into two by a dense wild life rich jungle.

Although the great surf and secluded beaches of Bastimentos attract the day trippers from Colon, most of these fools tend to leave before dark; probably because there is only really one local bar on the island in the town of Old Bank.

Whilst on the subject of the surfer crowd, I simply can’t resist having a little moan about this new type of traveller we have encountered here. Although they have provided some welcomed eye candy, the pleasant impression from a distance is completely spoiled when up close, especially when they open their mouths!

Usually made up of spoiled little American rich kids sharing half a brain cell between them all, they are followed by even dumber crowd of spoiled American rich girls who do nothing more than give the surfer boys a huge ego…most likely to compensate for their tiny dicks!

If you haven’t already figured out which island I preferred, the fact that I spent only one night on Colon should make it clear. The effects that tourism and more specifically, American tourism has had on this island are disastrous… no doubt a KFC and MacDonald’s drive through are just around the corner, where local fisherman, hooked on all the junk food will begin trading in their fresh fish and lobster for a quick salt fix.

Bastimentos is home to two distinctive communities, the indigenous Indians (Ngobe Bugle tribe) and the descendants of the black slaves brought in and used by United Fruit (which is basically a state run enterprise) to work the banana plantations that cover pretty much all of the Central American lowlands.

Interestingly, these two communities don’t really mix with each other, which I find quite strange since they both are very different from the people we encountered in mainland Panama and unite against the common cause of over development, as well as the pillage of their ancestral land for the benefit of others. In my opinion the main reason for their indifference of each other is down to that fact that socially they couldn’t be any more different.

The southeastern edge of the island is home to the Ngobe tribe in the village of Quebrada Sal. The community consist of 60-old thatch and bamboo houses, an elementary school, a handicrafts store and a general store and football field. This tribe have lived in the islands way before the arrival of the Spanish, still keeping many of their traditions alive; being one of the only tribes in the Americas to have kept their traditional monarchy.

The historic West Indian town of Old Bank (where we stayed) is home to the black community and only a handful of indigenous Indian.Whilst the Indians only speak Spanish, the black community tend to speak Creole, giving a completely different feel to the island. Being brought up in the U.K, this place is the Caribbean I had always heard about.

The town has no roads, only a concrete footpath lined on both sides with rustic wooden houses. Kids play in the street (apart from the Indian kids who are obviously not allowed to mix with the blacks) whilst their parents watch on their verandas. The women Kaine-roll their men’s Afro into the latest Hip Hop style shipped in from the U.S. Men, young and old, hang out by the water selling the weed they haven’t quite managed to smoke themselves, all washed down with a bottle or two of rum!

Although I may have painted the stero-typical scene, it is hard to describe by words alone, since there is just a vibe about this place that has to be seen to be understood.

Insert video if possible

Until the 90’s most of the adults worked in neighbouring Almirante, on the mainland, to tend to Banana fields. By the early 2000’s only a handful still worked the fields with most of the men taking to fishing, farming small plots or just chilling while the women sell little cakes and things.

As an interesting aside, Almirante was the birthplace of ABBA’s Chiguita banana! 80s classics can be heard all over town with every house playing their music loud. Unlike were I live, this doesn’t bother the neighbours since the entire community socialise with each other daily, often enjoying each others loud music.

The most striking thing for me was the amount of laughter you hear, as well as the fact that no one locks their doors; crime is virtually non-existent. Everyone knows each other, which isn’t hard since there can’t be more than 100 families living along the footpath that effectively is the town.

Although very poor and some what decayed, this place couldn’t be happier…the locals here have definitely done something right. Given that no one really does much, particularly the men, everyone seems to have a lot of free time on their hands. This fact, coupled with the sounds of Luther Vandross and Stevie Wonder, makes for a lot of ‘sexual healing’; which explains the number of kids running around!

Some people obviously do work, whether that be running some form of B&B from their home, or owning a ‘restaurant’ i.e a shack on the footpath with a couple of chairs outside. Our favourite place to eat was at the local chicken joint which to my mind must be the original KFC; this guy was most definitely the Colonel.

On the weekends, the local restaurants and bar on the sea front turn into dance halls where all the local youth meet; the sight of which helped to cement my theory that this town must have been the inspiration for the film Dirty Dancing. I can just see a spoiled little American rich girl from one of the expensive hotel resorts, finding herself on the neighbouring islands where all the local workers live, learning dome dirty dance moves and falling in love with the hotel salsa teacher!

There are also a handful of expats living on the island; having clearly fallen in love with the place, as have I. The majority of them own some form of business to carter for the small tourist trade which is mostly elderly surfer dudes or couples on a romantic get aways.

We stayed at one of the most beautiful hostels (Hollywood Hostel) we have every stayed in, to be fair it was more an Eco lodge run by the craziest couples we have ever met.

The husband (the financier) is a 45 year old-school raver from Brighton that has had a truly colourful life; worthy of an auto biography. Sandra, the wife, is an aggressive but hilarious little 32 year old fire cracker from Columbia. Along with their spoiled little 8 year old daughter, Naomi and Rino, a beautiful boxer/rottweiler dog, this some what unconventional family call this enchanting place home.

Our first night will most definitely go down as one of the most bizarre nights of the entire trip. We should have really foreseen the type of night ahead of us when one of the first things Simon handed us ( before even checking in!) was a dubbie of some of the smoothest green; Inhaling the second hand smoke was enough to send you into the most tranquil of states.

The rose tinted specs were soon thrown off when little Sandra (who was in the middle of dying her hair red) got our room ready for the night. Since the cabins were full for the first night we agreed to sleep in the tent out back, which considering that we are now seasoned campers didn’t phase us. What did however, was the sight of this 4’6 woman hacking down a palm tree with a machete that had to be the same size as her. Things were made even more surreal by the way in which she was blindly hacking away at it whilst telling us the most hilarious story about her current hair dilemma.

Having fallen asleep drunk and most likely stoned with the hair dye still on, she woke the next morning vomiting due to what she believes was toxic poisoning. She obviously blamed poor husband Simon for this, since he obviously should have woken her…although strangely she still hadn’t bothered to wash it out yet!

The constant bickering between the two of them provided hours of entertainment, although we weren’t quite expecting to have been chatting until 6am the following morning!

Electricity and water on the island, like Sandra, is somewhat temperamental, with black outs that can last for days. Our first night was one of those days, which meant we had to snuggle in the gazebo by candle light drinking copious amounts of beer.

Since it was still Carnival weekend, Simon was clearly in party mood, making frequent journeys into his room; which at times felt like 10 minute intervals. Given he has lived a life of excess, ingesting every chemical out there, it was difficult to follow his conversation in the first place let alone with him leaving mid sentence, only to return saying something complete different.

This Ozzy Osborne carbon copy (the only real difference being that he is bald) eventually gave us the tour of the main private house whilst on one of his little journeys. We both soon realised how he could afford this place and be living the dream; having not worked at all through out his life.

As you can probably guess we were feeling mighty rough the next day, but being in paradise quickly spruces you up. Beautiful beaches tucked away behind lush jungle with some of the best waves sure as hell beats being tucked away in bed in rainy London with your only move being to open the door for the Domino’s Pizza guy!

We were fortunate enough to be staying in the cabin at the back which had a huge loft style room along with private kitchen and veranda. The best part of it all was the fact that the entire walls of the loft were made simply from mosquito mesh; creating the feeling that you were quite literally sleeping in the jungle, but with all the luxurious trappings you would ever need. With views of the sea and the most spectacular sunrise and sunset I could have stayed in the room all the time.

I think one of the reasons for us enjoying this place so much was also down to the fact that for the first time in 6 months we were able to get back into a routine of sorts. Andre as usual would wake a good two hours before me, meaning that I would wake to a substantial breakfast.

After chilling in the hammocks for a while to digest the food we would begin the daily hike to either Wizard beach or Red Frog beach, depending on how we felt that day…or how hot it had already got. The walks themselves were a treat since we saw a whole host of tropical animals….even a sloth ! something we had been wanting to see since we left London.

After spending hours topping up the tan or catching some waves, we would nap under the shade of the huge tress that lined the pristine, somewhat deserted beaches before heading back to make some dinner (my department) and chill back at the hostel.

We effectively repeated this day for nearly two weeks which surprisingly didn’t get boring in the slightest, especially surprising since Andre usually finds it hard not actually doing something or producing something or someone….usually me 😦

Although I do think that it had something to do with the little man crush he developed on the hunky Canadian surfer (that as well as having a Men’s Health body also had a GQ brain) that was also staying at the hostel. He just happened to be called Andre too which to be honest stirred up all type of thoughts in my mind…everyone needs a phone upgrade every few years don’t they? 😉

You can thank all this free time for this mammoth post which I would be surprised if anyone bothered to read to the end. For those of you who have, I just have one last little interesting fact about Bastimentos before ending your misery; It is the only place in the world where a particular species of frog lives.

Known simply as Red Frog, these little fellas are the only fogs in the world that are not nocturnal. The reason for this is because they have no predators given that they are poisonous, which you can obviously see just by looking at them.

Whilst they wouldn’t kill you if you touched them they would if you ate them!

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By garyabela Posted in Panama

Carnival 2012 – Las Tablas

This pre-Lenten celebration takes place the same time and in the same spirit as Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Four days of revelling, parties and partaking in ‘the pleasures of the flesh’ are justified due to the impending repentance 40 days before Holy Week.

The centre of attention at any Carnival celebration are the beautiful Carnival queens, dress in colourful and loud costumes that are changed twice daily. They wave, blow kisses and dance to the beat of the big brass bands that follow right behind their impressive floats.

We had heard that Panama’s most popular and well attended Carnival is in the town of Las Tablas (Pop 8,000), in the province of Los Santos. The population of this small town swells to an estimated 100,000 people who come to enjoy the decades old battle between “Calle Arriba” (Upper Street) and “Calle Abajo” (Lower Street). These two opposing bands put on an incomparable show driven by a rivalry between the two camps over who has the best queen, the best floats and the best costumes with sometimes some quite colourful exchanges between the camps.

Given the lesson we had learned re the difficulty in finding accommodation in Panama City without a reservation, we thought it would be wiser to go the day before the Sunday showdown to a neighbouring city; to be sure to find accommodation and make the day trip out to the small town.

Our guide-book explained at the city of Chitre was a 3 hour drive from the capital and so we head to the bus terminal with what we thought was plenty of time to arrive whilst it was still day light. The bus terminal in Panama City is huge with one of the biggest American style shopping malls I have ever seen attached to it. Being so modern you would have expected that the systems employed to manage the departures would be equally as modern and efficient.

We bought our ticket expecting to have a departure time, seat number and gate to which to leave from. What we got back was something entirely different; a blank ticket with simply the destination hand written! We were then told to join a queue that seemed to go along the entire perimeter of the largest bus terminal we had seen thus far!

After spending the first half an hour in the queue bitching about the stupidity of the system and generally the complete lack of service here, we decided to ask a local behind us if we were in the right place to get to Las Tablas and whether all routes had to queue in the same line?

The young girl laughed explaining that this was just the queue for Las Tablas and that there had been a queue here for the past three days! Given the popularity of the Carnival in this particular town, buses would be running for 24 hours over the 4 days to cope with the sheer number of people. When she asked if we had a reservation for a place to stay, to which we obviously replied, no, she laughed even harder explaining that she had made a reservation 6 months ago!

This is the point we both realised that we were in for a pretty rough couple of days with most likely a bus bench for a bed. Four hours later we had moved the 200m and actually boarded a bus. Of course the only road to the town was completely grid locked with traffic; resulting in us arriving to the city of Chitre (40 mins from La Tablas) at about midnight. Given our usual luck with these things the bus terminal was about 2km outside of the city in the middle of nowhere, just off the main road. We couldn’t even find a taxi driver to take us into town because without a reservation they said it would be impossible to find a place to stay.

Sitting on the curb like a homeless hippie we had both prepared ourselves for a couple of uncomfortable hours sleep on our backpacks. Before accepting defeat and curling up for the night, we asked one last driver. Finally a little bit of luck came our way; he had an annex that although was in the middle of construction had a shower and a blow up mattress that he could give us to stay for the night.

Although it was no Hilton it was better than the bus terminal, we also got a free ride back to the bus terminal in the morning.

We finally arrived in Las Tablas and must have been some of the first people there; we were definitely the only gringos! After an interesting local breakfast of hot dogs and fried stuff the party seemed to get into full swing.

The street became full to the brim with party goers of all ages that would erupt into a state of hysteria when the float passed showing off the local queens and brass bands.

Given that we are firmly in the tropics, the mid-day sun is simply unbearable, even for two sun worshipers like us! The situation was only made worse with the crush of people who simply got stuck in the streets… reminding me at times of the awful tragedy at the last Love Parade in Germany.

The only thing that made it even the slightest bit more bearable was the large trucks position on every corner of the main square that would literally hose down the crowds with chlorinated water!

After a near death experience when one of the large trucks attempting to reverse park around a corner, over the thousands of revellers that just happened to be stuck on that particular stretch of the road (of which I was one!). We decided to call it a day and head to the next major town to catch a bus up to Costa Rica and on to Nicaragua.

By the time we arrived to the border city of David we had realised that it was too late and not actually possible to catch an international bus from any other place other than Panama City.

We decided to take refuge in what has to be the strangest hostel ever; run by an overweight mid-western American that had simply substituted her trailor park for a large hostel in a foreign country. She had everything painted in differing shades of purple….the clue should have been in the name; The Purple House.

The following morning we made a last-minute decision to get in some more beach time before leaving Panama and headed to Bocas del Toro.

By garyabela Posted in Panama

Panama City

Having been confined to a 42 ft boat for the past 6 days, with no personal space, it was nice to reach the main land. It took around 2 hours to reach Panama city from the coast, cutting through some of the most dense rainforest with have seen; which at times felt more like a roller costa ride due to the steep terrain. Thankfully I was still feeling the motion of being at sea, and so the constant up and down was a good way of adjusting back to being on dry land!

It is easy to forget where you are when approaching Panama City, since it feels remarkably like NYC; as you cross the bridge along an insane highway into downtown which is a sea of modern skyscrapers. The only road into the city is choka block with traffic, made even more familiar with the endless sea of yellow cabs honking their way through.

To be honest, everything I have seen of Panama so far, doesn’t feel quite right. Everything seems to be a carbon copy of the U.S; from the large shopping malls, petrol guzzling SUVs to the only ‘restaurants’ around being one of the big three; Mac Ds, KFC or BK! Where has the Panamanian identity gone ?

Panama is one of the most ‘westernised’ countries we have been to so far, with Panama City being the wealthiest capital in all of Central America. To be perfectly honest, unlike some of the other countries we have been to, I didn’t really have any pre-conceived ideas of Panama, which may be part of the reason for my general surprise. Not withstanding the fact that I had been on deserted islands for the past 3 days, and so any urban development would come as a little bit of a shock to the system.

This initial shock has sparked the young historian in me; in order to establish how this country has become what it has, one must understand where it has come from. Even as early as the occupation by the Spanish, this country has been an important international centre, in the most part due to its geography.

Shaped like a serpentine, Panama is the slither that connects South with Central America as well as being the narrowest piece of land between the Caribbean and the Pacific. It’s for this reason that it’s has always served as some form of transport hub and the outlet for the pillage of South America over its history.

It should then come as no surprise that for most of its modern history, Panama was really simply another star in the U.S flag. U.S interest have, to my knowledge, never been so blatant. The U.S actually invaded Panama as recently as the late 80’s in order to oust dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega (who at the time of writing is all over the press due to being on his death-bed in jail). The justification was to bring him to trail in the U.S for supposed drug trafficking….those of you who would have read my Bolivian Culture post will know what my views are on the U.S War on Drugs.

U.S interference in this countries affairs first became prevalent during the gold rush on the West Coast in the mid 1800s. The majority of Americans were living on the East Cost in those times and traveling to California via Panama was cheaper, quicker and safer due to hostile native Indians. As a result the Transcontinental railroad was born which was later super seeded by the Interoceanic canal.

Interestingly the French were first given the contract to build the canal; unsurprisingly the French had bitten off more they could handle (something they would later repeat with WW1) resulting in the contract being put up for sale in 1885. At this time Panama didn’t even exist since it formed part of Columbia, who had refused to allow the contract to be sold to the Americans.

The Columbia’s obviously underestimated the mighty force of this puppeteer, since a civil war broke out resulting in Panama gaining its independence in 1903 with the support of the U.S.

The Panama Canal was completed 90 years ago and has been hailed as an engineering marvel, extending over 80km from Colon to Panama City allowing over 12000 ocean-going vessel transit every year. So significant is the canal to international shipping that the ships world over are built to fit within the dimensions of its locks.

Although we were only in Panama for a day we felt obliged to make the trip out to Miraflores Lock. Trust me if you ever go to Panama don’t bother going! It’s a massive tourist trap that is really not that impressive, the locks on regents canal are nicer!

Whilst it’s not so amazing to see up close I did find out some interesting facts about the Canal;

1. Each lock holds the equivalent amount of water to supply a city of 100,000 people for one day.
2. During WWII over 1400 U.S naval vessels passed through it.
3. It’s the only place in the world where military commanders must turn over navigational control to an elite group of 200 pilots.
4. Even though the U.S relinquished control of the canal, it retains the right by treaty to defend the canal in the interest of national security.

There have been various treaties between the U.S and Panama regarding what is NOW an important components of their GDP. Relations between the two countries have been fractious to say the least. Ironically tensions only came to a head when Panama finally got wise to the fact that as a country they were hardly benefiting at all by its construction which although was financed by the U.S had made the U.S considerable amounts of money on their initial investment as well as involvement in Panamanian affairs.

The old town of Panama city is where most tourist seem to stay which explains why this area of town is currently being refurbished, unfortunately to a point where a lot if its old character and charm is being quite literally painted over. What were once local bars and cafes are being replaced with swanky gringo espresso bars and hotels.

For all the German readers, I thought you might be interested in seeing who we bumped into whilst in the old town, foreign Minister, Guido Westerwelle who clearly enjoyed feeling like a celeb with a huge entourage and special festivities in his honor!

Given that we had arrived to the city on the first day of Carnival it was near impossible to find an empty bed without a reservation, which of course we didn’t have. Thankfully we were still with our Captain who took a ride down with us and knew of a former 1 hour hotel in a rougher part of town that had rooms.

Finally Frederico really came through for us since we slept in the biggest bed ever, with air-conditioning and free porn…although not to our taste 🙂 if you have read my previous post you will understand why this was such a welcomed change for us!

Given the insane heat during the day we really didn’t spend too long walking around, however we did manage to get to the fish market to sample some of the finest cevish we have had.

I leave Panama City thankful that I have been but also thankful that I only really spent two days there before heading on to our next adventure….Carnival!

By garyabela Posted in Panama

En route to Panama – archipelago of San Blas

I was surprised to learn that there is no real connection to Panama from Columbia by road, which put my initial plan of continuing along the Pan American highway to Central America completely out of the window!

With last-minute flights costing a fortune, we were only really left with the option of taking a private sailing trip across the border. Although an expensive excursion, having seen some pictures of the islands of San Blas (which form the main part of the 6 day adventure) we decided to splash out and have a ‘holiday within the holiday’.

Although we hadn’t actually seen the boat we booked, all the initial signs were good; the captain seemed very safety conscious and professional (having given us a slight discount for postponing the trip by 2 days) notwithstanding the fact that he had bothered to make an impressive business card and website.

After hearing some horror stories of local captains on unsafe boats sailing through the high seas drunk, we were prepared to pay a premium for this little treat of ours. Unfortunately our enthusiasm and excitement was damped somewhat before we even went on board.

As we approached the boat in the marina we were a little disappointed with its size, although comforted by the assurance from the captain (Frederico) that he would never take more than 10 people on his boat. We were the first people to arrive, however our fellow sailing companions soon arrived in force! Although they were a really lovely bunch, there was simply too many of them. The boat had rooms to sleep 8 comfortably, however there were 11 passengers in total as well as the captain and his skipper (Armando) not to mention a little rat of a dog (poodle) called Reina.

In an attempt to repress the Jewish mother in me, I decided to simply let it go and continue with the usual backpacker introduction chats, which have become the bane of my existence; where are you from? where have you been? how long are you traveling for? yadi yadi ydada

The group consisted of a couple from Brighton (Chloe and Rich), two German girls (Giana and Kathi ), one English girl (Jo), one Australian girl (Sarah), a weird Dutch couple (who I didn’t speak to once during the whole trip and so don’t even know their names!) and one French guy (Julian).

Frederico was soon ready to have us all aboard and asked us all to put our hands up if there were any couples in the group. Instinctively I was about to put my hand up but then soon realised that Dre simply looked to the floor given that he never likes to proactively tell anyone that he is obviously gay. In the most part I tend to agree with him and so kept my hand down. Being homophobic at this particular juncture proved to be a grave mistake since we were relegated to having to call the communal dinning area home for the next 6 days. If it wasn’t bad enough that we had to sleep on the narrow sofa, we had to share the sofa with Julian, the captain and the skipper (who got the worse deal since he had to sleep on top of the cooker!) and to top things off the dog!

After about an hour on board; having just seen all the others make themselves comfortable in their cabins unpacking all their stuff, the Streisand in me came out and we decided to take Frederico aside for a little chat about the whole arrangement.

What we thought was a reasonable request for a discount, sparked a full-blown arguement with Frederico who took it as a personal insult, insisting that in his 15 years of doing the trips he had never had any complaints. He quite literally erupted with anger and became adamant that he would ask the girls to move out so we could take their cabin. In fear of being type cast as ‘those people’ within the group, we simply agreed to just suck it up and deal with it.

Since Andre was such a pussy throughout the whole drama; preferring to stay schtum, I obviously had a strike put across my name by this Jackal and Hyde personality. Within less than a minute of the arguement ending, this bad-tempered Frenchman (the captain) was being as nice as punch, assuring me that this would be an amazing experience with the best cuisine…said with the conviction only a true french men could have.

The first meal he served us before setting sail didn’t do much to improve my general distrust of the French; cheap super noodles in a simple vegetable stock! At least the view of the harbor by night made up for the appalling cuisine.

After about 5 minuets in the open sea I could understand the logic behind the student meal; just about everyone except, Andre of course, fell sea-sick due to the bug swells that gave the boat and me a battering. We were soon projectile vomiting off the back of the boat which just happened to be my sleeping quarters. To add to insult, my camper bed at the back of the boat was flung around like a ping-pong ball making and already sleepless night worse!

Ironically this arrangement worked well for me since I sent the best part of the two days out in open sea hanging off the back with them. The most disturbing part of the entire experience was pulling a noodle from my nose!

The only real time I managed to pull myself away from laying down flat (apart from getting up to puke of course) was to run to the front of the boat to see the dolphins that decided to join us for part of the ride.

Despite being the worst 38 hours I have ever had to endure, arriving at our first island in San Blas (Holandas) made it all worth while. We arrived just before sunrise to what I can only describe as the most picture perfect scene. From this point on everything didn’t seem so bad. I even began to understand the moody french captain a little better…reminding me a little of my father and how precious he is with his boat.

The most breath talking scenery that felt like something out of a travel magazine was home for the next three days; remote uninhabited islands covered in large palm trees with the whitest soft sand, surrounded by crystal clear blue waters.

The little rat of a dog even became my friend…so much so that it became hard to see the difference between us…obviously we were using the same stylist!

The archipelago de San Blas consist of over 400 islands dotted along 226km of the Caribbean coast from the Colon Province in Panama to Columbia.

The islands themselves are surrounded by large coral reefs which in addition to providing some of the best snorkeling in the world, help keep the waters here clear and calm. Unfortunately they have also claimed a number of boats, making it feel like a boat cemetery at times.

We didn’t have an underwater camera to capture the explosion of colour we saw down there, so I have attempted to source the details of the fish from the net.

As an interesting aside, the lead coffin of Sir Francis Drake can also be found at the bottom of the ocean here. Thought of as a pirate by the Spanish, the English saw him as a hero for helping defeat the Spanish armada when they tried to take England in 1588 (FYI the big old boat near Borough Market is a replica of his ship the Golden Hind). Drake died whilst attempting to take control of Portobello and was buried the next day in the Caribbean; the scene of his most daring exploits.

Unlike the Captains of those times, Captain Frederico had insisted that there be absolutely no alcohol drunk whilst being out in the open sea. Although this alarmed the English contingent on the boat, it seemed to make perfect sense from where I was kneeling! As with most Brits on tour, the beer was open by sunrise that morning and continued throughout most of the trip. Given Andres disgust at this truly ‘English’ trait, you can imagine how pleased he was that the heavy drinking took place every night in his room! Thankfully the first night in San Blas was spent on the beach with an open fire cooking some tasty sausage and potatoes, my only one complaint was that there simply wasn’t enough of the great tasting food.

Although still hungry, Andre was happy, since he got to show off to the rest of the group by catching huge crabs.

We also managed to catch a whole host of other things for dinner!

The three days were spent sailing around islands and visiting some of the local Kuna people who call this paradise home.

The Kuna are not the most welcoming of tribes, although if you had to share this place with hundreds of tourist on big yachts you can understand why. They are however, extremely interesting and worthy of a paragraph or two.

The Kuna Indians have governed the region since the 1920’s when the Panamanian government granted the tribe the right to govern themselves following a Kuna uprising which saw the death if 22 Panamanian policemen and 20 Kuna who befriended them as part of the revolt.

Today they not only rule themselves but also have two representatives in the Panamanian legislature as well as the right to vote in Panama. Today there are an estimated 80,000 Kuna spread Along the cost line as well as the islands. Whilst the majority speak Spanish, they have their own language (Kuna) which sounds unlike anything else I have ever heard.

They also have their own flag which at first I found a little disturbing…although not as much as ‘tha Gerrmanns’ on board!

I later realised that it was in fact the other way round and is a symbol used within Buddhism meaning peace.

Those that live on the islands live in such close proximity to each other that only 40 of the 400 islands are actually inhabited; the rest are mostly left to coconut trees, sea turtles and iguanas.

Few of the islands are more that 10km from the main land, with all the heavily inhabited ones being very close to the cost in order to be close to their agricultural areas and vital natural resources, such as water, firewood and building materials.

Also on the mainland are the giant trees that are used to construct their chief mode of transportation – dugout canoe called a cayuco.

The Kuna still stick to many of their traditions which I find astonishing in this day an age. The women for example are not given a name until she has had her first period, at which time a party is held where her hair is cut short and her parents select a name for here with the help of a medicine man. Until that day the girl answers to a nickname. Most Kuna women still dress as their ancestors did; with a gold ring through their nose and a black line painted from their forehead to the tip of their nose. A length of colourful printed cloth is wrapped around the waist as a skirt, topped with a short sleeve blouse covered in brilliant coloured molas (traditional Kuna textile). To make themselves more attractive to the men they wear many necklaces, rings as well as colourful beads that completely cover their lower legs.

Interestingly, should a man want to divorce his wife, he can only remarry once he has had his first wife’s approval.

The inhabited islands are jam-packed with bamboo-sided, thatch-roof houses often housing multiple families as such the hordes of tourists (particularly from the huge cruise ships that stop by for a photo opp) have led many of the Kuna to become disenchanted with the idea of foreigners in their islands.

In addition, the behavior of many tourist is appalling to the Kuna, particularly the scantily dressed women. As a result of repeated violations of their privacy and sensibilities, the Kuna often ask tourist to pay fees to visit and will not allow photos to be taken without paying a fee (as result many of the pics of the locals here are from the net since we are on a budget, especially after blowing it on this trip!).

Thankfully the young children don’t seem to see any issue with tourist, something we experienced first hand when we went to a smaller island.

Since the below picture is already out their in the public domain (thanks Andre!) I feel I have no choice but to explain myself. Before you think I was violating sensibilities so to speak…I was introducing the children to the world of Angry Birds on my iPhone!

Andre prefered to go old school and play boring word games in the sand; ironic really since he is Mr. Digital!

Whilst on the topic of the children, there is an abnormally high number of Albinos within the community, I later found out that they in fact have the worlds highest incidence of Albinism. Since few Kuna marry outside their villages they are all inbred! Usually short, large-headed and thick-necked (reading this back is making me question whether I am inbred since I seem to fit this description with the addition of webbed feet!).

When seen amid the rest of the Kuna, the albinos can be quite captivating.

In some societies, albino children are viewed as freaks of nature and are ostracized by their peers. Not so in the Kuna society. Kuna children are taught that albinos are special people – children of the moon – and that they are destined to be leaders.

As a result, the moon children are not only the most popular kids in the tribe, but they are also the most rebellious due to their big egos. Unsurprisingly a high percentage of moon children put their abundant confidence to work for them and actually become community leaders.

As a final interesting fact, until the late 90s the principle currency was the coconut! The Kuna grow them like crazy, harvesting over 30 million on a good year. They barter away most of these to Colombians in return for fruit, clothing, Nescafe and other goods. The Kuna are shrewd businesspeople; because until recently their economy was based solely in the sale of coconuts and so they protect it by fixing the price which is determined once a year by the tribes chiefs. This is also a way of preventing the Kuna starting price wars with each other which would hurt the community by lowering the standard of living and potentially forcing some Kuna out of business. I find this particular notion extremely telling with regards to the culture amongst the Kuna people.

Unfortunately, even with such strict adherence to their traditional values and culture, the modern world is slowing changing their way of life. An alarming example of this is the effect the cocaine trade from Columbia is having on the people.

The U.S are strictly prohibited from patrolling their waters, which means that it has become a hot spot for illegal drug trafficking. Often large shipments of cocaine are dumped in the sea, which for a price, the Kuna are willing to retrieve, before passing them along as part of the route into the U.S market. To make matters worse, a lot of these young hungry Kuna men are now also using the stuff, creating an addiction which will no doubt cement their poverty and dependency on wealthier more powerful nations.

Cartagena and Isla de Baru

After rushing to get back to Cartagena a few days before we set sail, our captain informed us that we would have to embark two days late due to another malfunction, this time with the boat!

Thankfully this portal city has bags of character that could occupy you for weeks. Cartagena is without doubt the jewel in the crown of Columbia’s 1760km of Caribbean coast line. Being one of the first regions conquered by the Spaniards, Cartagena is the oldest surviving Colombian colonial city that grew in importance across the New World as the main port and market for the millions of slaves brought in from the west coast of Africa.

The high concentration of Afro-Colombians make this city feel completely different from anything thing else we have seen in Columbia so far. Everything here has more of a Caribbean feel, from the food served on the streets, to the colorful buildings; buzzing with locals trying to sell pretty much anything to the thousands of day trippers that swarm the old town like a sea of locust from the large cruise liners.

The costenos, as they are known, have a distinct and contagious historical identity different from other Colombians. “Lazy” and “inefficient” are words often used around the rest of Columbia, although I like to think of it as “carefree” and “unpredictable”.

Although visually stunning the touristy old part of town is simply overtaken with tourism and a little too perfect for our tastes, so we decided to stay in the poorer part of town, a favorite with broke backpackers like us.

Getsemani, feels more like Havana, with kids playing in the streets and old locals gambling in the shade, escaping the mid day sun. At night things liven up with bars and restaurants blaring out a funky salsa beat with the same old locals trying their hand as drug pushers to backpackers occupying the dozen or so hostels that line the Calle Media Luna.

Andre was fortunate enough to stumble upon a collection of prolific street drawings tucked away on a clandestine street in the neighborhood. These drawings, I later learned, were different depictions of Pedro Romero—a revolutionary war hero during the early 18th-century uprising against Spain. Romero’s true depiction is unknown, so in memorium, various artists gathered on this street to pay an aesthetic tribute to the late martyr.

It had been the longest amount of time we had stayed in once place since Buenos Aries (all of 5 days!); thankfully we were staying in a cheap and relaxing hostel (Hotel Holiday) which had simple rooms built around an inner courtyard, giving it a Melrose place vibe.

The only thing disturbing the vibe was yet another pesky hippie from Argentina who thought he would serenade us all with his awful flute playing!

We were joined by two new Polish friends we had met out last night in Tayrona (Dorotha and Ania) and Sev, our dorm mate from Amsterdam. After being there a while our group managed to grow with another couple traveling with a mother as well as Sev’s boyfriend, Matt.

To say that this was an eclectic bunch of people would be an understatement! I won’t bother going into it too much since you just had to be there on one of the many warm Caribbean nights spent sipping bear in the garden to fully appreciate the strong bond we all forged with each other.

To give you a little idea, I have tried to describe our new friends in a sentence…

1. Dorotha is a beautiful Polish girl, living in Paris and working as an exhibited artist with all the trappings that this pretentious scene bestows on one. However when the harsh exterior is pulled back you see a kind and caring girl.
2. Ania is also originally from Poland but moved to Paris two years ago and is most definitely the spiritual type that simply enjoys life to its fullest.
3. Sev is the daughter and grand-daughter of the Dam red light district with her father being a client. She has lived in squats and built a party business which she sold to finance the two years she has been traveling! Impressively this has all be done before the age of 29 and to add to her accolade she too is an artist selling her photography along the way.
4. Mat is Sevs boyfriend who she met traveling and comes from Cheltnam, where he was a plumber.
5. Noelie and Lucas are another couple that have met whilst traveling. Noelie is probably the prettiest French person I have ever seen and Lucas is a Canadian with an native Indian background living in California where he legally (kind of) grows weed which has helped finance his purchase of a couple of hectors in Mexico!

To add to the mix Noelie’s mother also joined for a while which gave us a real United Colours of Benetton feel.

Since we were all going separate ways after Cartagena, we decided to do a mini road trip together to the Isla de Baru which is about an hour away by boat. Getting there was an experience in itself since we decided to listen to Andre and take the what we thought would be the cheapest option; a local boat from the real port of Cartagena.

This place couldn’t be more different from the beautifully restored port (which reminded me of home and the Valletta harbour) in the touristy part of town. It is a filthy mix of local fishermen that set up stalls around the perimeter of a huge market catering solely for the poor communities that live for miles around the main harbor. Whilst initially feeling a little unsafe being the only white people there; after waiting for over 3 hours for the boat to leave, we got to have a true insight into the real Cartagena, which I much preferred to the one they would like you to see!

The main draw of the island is a beach called Playa Blanca which totally lives up to its name with the whitest sand I have ever seen. We all fell in love with the place so much we decided to stay the night in wooden shacks that were built on stilts overlooking the sea. Our hosts where a crazy local couple and their pet pig who catered for our every need. Any (the wife) was without question one of those people I will never forget! With a nervous stutter and I am sure a few screws loose she was a charming women that was grateful for the business.

Just when we thought things couldn’t get any better we came across a real sea horse swimming alone in the clear waters….I thought it was only the sight of dolphins that could make any grown man react like a little girl but trust me sea horses have just as much effect!

The only down point to the entire stay was saying good bye, hopefully we will all see each other this summer in Berlin for a reunion weekend! If it wasn’t hard enough saying good bye to our new friends we had to come to terms with the thought of not having our 3rd wheel with us anymore; Andre managed to loose our beloved Puft!

Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona

Given our unexpected short stay in Medellin, we were faced with a 7 hour waiting period at the bus terminal to catch our second consecutive night bus to our next destination, Cartagena. Being the hardened travelers that we are, we actually saw this as a positive since it usually means we could catch up on some sleep; particularly needed ahead of another sleepless night.

Unfortunately as with most things in Medellin, the bus terminal was obviously trying too hard to be something it’s not. In an attempt to give the impression of a sophisticated metropolitan transport hub, the station security insisted that we were not allowed to lay on the sofas, benches…or even the floor!

After ignoring them a couple of times (which resulted in being rudely awakened with a sharp poke) we had really began to annoy them which lead to one particular knob developing a personal mission to watch our every move for the next 6 hours! After feeling like Tom Hanks in “Terminal” we were glad to reach Cartagena and the prospect of a decent night sleep in a proper bed!

We had planed to stay for only one night given that we would be returning to embark on a sailing adventure to Panama. We were lucky enough to find a boat that was leaving within a week , however this didn’t leave too much time to explore the northern Caribbean coast to get the beach fix we have been desperately longing for since Brazil (over 5 months ago!).

Despite the need to sleep, we moved on after just a couple of hours to make our way to a beach town called Taganga, which lies on the border of the National Park Tayrona; the most northerly point of our trip.

Given the journey we just made, we decided to take the bus which I was told would collect us directly from our hostel for a little extra. Since I had found out about it from the receptionist (NB non English speaking), it clearly became my fault that this was to be one of the biggest mistakes made thus far. What I had translated as being a bus was in fact a ‘transfer’ organised by a private firm with small mini buses. Not only are they nearly double the price, they go around the entire city picking up and dropping off just about every OAP American from the swanky hotels that seem to dominate the city skyline. What was supposed to only be a 4 hour drive, turned into 8 long, hungry hours which as you can imagine didn’t do much for relations with the big one!

Thankfully we managed to finally get lucky since we stumbled across a precarnival practice run where the entire village (in normal circumstances a tourist trap geared to the partying gringo) fill the streets dancing to music, spraying flour and foam at just about everyone.

The fortune of good luck seemed to last to the following morning; after arriving to one of the most stunning national parks. Tayrona grips the Caribbean coast like a jungly bear hung at the foot of the Sierras Navada de Santa Marta. With beaches that feel like something straight out of Gulliver’s island, the next couple of days were total bliss.

Days were spent trekking through lush jungle that you only seemed to share with howler monkeys and some of the largest most colorful butterflies. The treks lead you to a variety of beaches that are all as equally stunning as the next, whether they are small intimate bays to the large endless stretches of pure golden sand, all complimented with the most luscious green back drop.

Although most of the larger beaches where unsafe to actually swim in, playing in the huge waves that literally break on the beach front was sufficient to cool off from the blazing sunshine.

Nights were spent camping or simply sleeping in hammocks (which I can tell you is not as comfortable as one would think!) in one of the handful of sites that sit just behind the beaches.

Given that it’s me writing this account you shouldn’t be surprised to read that the good luck didn’t last too long. Apart from realising that in the rush we didn’t take out enough cash (usually my department) to last us 4 whole days, I had made what has to be a most serious mistakes possible; allowing a splash of sea water touch (ever so slightly) Andres most beloved possession; the one that doesn’t need a wash 🙂

Considering that the camera hasn’t been working quite right ever since, the frustrated creative dealt with it all surprisingly well. After feeling completely awful and way too remorseful, I had remembered that he himself had an error in judgement the day before. A carnival goer had completely covered him (and his camera) in flour! this I believe is the real reason for his dysfunctional camera….although deep down I am sure it’s indiscretion with the sea hasn’t helped.

Although innocent, I still unfortunately got my punishment; a sliced foot from the tree house we were staying at.Thankfully there was a nurse on hand to painfully clean me up.

If being so poor that we had to survive on eating coconuts for the best part of two days wasn’t enough to deal with, my dysfunction began souring this otherwise sweet excursion; forcing us to abandon any attempts at seeing the ruins deeper in the jungle.

The region was once territory of the Tayrona people, famously known as the lost civilisation of Columbia. Although it’s no Machu Picchu, the Ciudad Perdida ( lost city) is a mysterious city deep in the jungle that requires over 6 days of hiking. Thankfully we had decided even before my injury that we had both had enough of hiking; in any case I have pulled the pic below off from the net.

Tayrona was the first advanced indigenous culture encountered by the Spaniards in 1499. Although they defended themselves fiercely for over 75 years in uninterrupted war, they like most eventually fell, giving the Spaniards their first real taste for gold and so creating the myth of El Dorado.

Since we have over 300 pics of this place I thought I would add a few others that I think capture the moment.

Medellin – the birth place of Pablo Escobar

This is fast becoming one of the most popular cities on the gringo trail, said to pack a punch of a city twice its size. Known as the City of Eternal Spring due to it’s pleasant weather it is also famous for it’s cut flower trade, helping to make Columbia, with Holland the largest exporters in the world.

To be brutally honest I really fail to see what all the fuss is about. Given the city didn’t really exist during colonial times, it lacks any notable colonial architecture simply feeling like a mass of large highways which seem unavoidable when trying to explore the city by foot.

We attempted to give the city a chance, however after traipsing around from one uninspiring site to the next; in what felt more like the City of Eternal Smog, we decided to call it a day and head to the bus terminal and cut our losses.

To be fair there are some interesting monuments and status scattered around, namely by Rodrigo Arenas Betancur and the world famous sculptor Fernando Botero.

However like most things this city has to offer, they just didn’t quite seem right; most of these beautiful works of art are just not given the proper space they deserve; being obscured by high rise buildings.

Whilst I appreciate that spending less than a day in a city isn’t long enough to develop a strong enough impression, I left feeling that it is really an ambitious country town whose ambition masks a great anxiety about it’s place in the world. The popularity of the outdated mullets by every man under the age of 30 simply adds to the impression that this city is simply trying too hard to be something it just isn’t right now.

One of the main reasons for coming here was to do the unofficial Pablo Escobar tour,which takes you to the drug lords former residence; meeting a man who is supposedly his brother. Unfortunately we gave it a miss given the expense but I simply wouldn’t be doing this city justice without commenting a little on this cities most famous and notorious child.

I won’t bother explaining what he did since he must be the most famous drug lord in history, however what I did find quite interesting was the fact that he turned the Medellin Cartel into a political party, established two newspapers and financed massive public works and housing projects leaving me and many local Colombians asking the question; was Pablo Escobar (friend) or villain?

By the time of my birth he accumulated a staggering $20b making him one of the worlds richest people. What I find most remarkable, is that he and other cartel bosses attempted to make a deal with President Beslisario Betanvur (who with the help of the U.S launched a campaign against the drug trade); in return for immunity from both prosecution and extradition, they offered to invest their capital in national development programs and pay off the countries entire national debt, some $13b!

The governments decision to turn down the offer lead to increased violence and conflict with a particularly brutal campaign of terror in ’89 following the governments signing of an extradition treaty with the U.S.

The election of a more liberal President in the early 90’s, with the slicing of the extradition laws,led Escobar to turn him and other cartel bosses in with a deal to be under house arrest. He soon escaped from his luxurious home which took an elite U.S funded 1500 man special unit 499 days to track him down, shooting him dead atop a Medellin rooftop in 1993.

Cali and Valle de Cocora

We had always planned to spend a couple of days in Cali, Columbia’s second biggest city (after the capital, Bogota) for Andre to catch up with an old friend from Germany, Stefan who has been completing his PhD here.

The Lonely Planet describes this as a city who’s business is business, not tourism, which I think is a pretty fair assessment since there isn’t an awful amount to do for your typical gringo.

Thankfully our local connection hooked us up in a great relaxed hostel at the bottom of their version of Primrose Hill; the bohemian, friendly neighbourhood of San Antonio. You can thank this place for the lengthy boring blog posts I have subjected you all to recently; days were spent chilling, catching up on admin and finally getting around to updating the dreaded CV/LinkedIn profile. Nights were spent enjoying the cool breeze eating street food (consisting of 101 ways to eat Plantaine) and sipping bear at the one of the many bakeries come bars that adorn almost every corner.

Stefan really did out do himself with his next tip; to head a little further north to trek in an area known as Valle de Cocora. With literally less than a page of coverage in the Lonely Planet you can easily drive right past this area. Thankfully we didn’t since it has to be my favourite place in the world.

I won’t even bother trying to describe it because to be quite honest, I can’t really find the right words. What I will say is that this place left me speechless (much to Andre’s delight! ) and somehow didn’t quite feel real.

You begin your trek from a charming little town called Salento, where you catch a ride on a local jeep (often hanging on for your life standing at the back!) for about half an hour driving through the actual valley that from a distance looks more alpine than rain forest.

The splattering of wax palms throughout the region (the national tree of Columbia) reveals that deep within these hills is in fact an all together different landscape; lush damp rain forest that is home to some of the most colourful birds.

It’s also home to over 132 types of humming bird, thankfully we were lucky enough to see a handful of them.

The trek is done in half a day leaving plenty of time to enjoy the town and the neighbouring coffee plantations that call this beautiful part of the world home.

We actually spent the night in a working coffee plantation. Ironically even tough Columbia has some of the worlds best coffee there isn’t actually much of it here in Columbia since it’s all exported, leaving the lesser quality coffee for local consumption. As with most of South America, finding a good strong coffee that’s not made almost entirely of condensed milk is nearly impossible! Even the coffee at the plantation wasn’t much to write home about 😦