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 😦

Finally…..Columbia!

We have been dying to get to Columbia since just about everyone we have met has not stopped singing this countries praises. We also only managed to get our hands on a Lonely planet the day before leaving Ecuador, making our entry into the country even more suspicious as we really weren’t quite sure what to expect.

The actual crossing of the border is a pretty sketchy affair…we had read that the area around the border is actually quite dangerous particularly at night due to all of the bandits active in region; it’s for this reason we went through the border by day.

Since there are no international buses from Ecuador to Columbia, you have to get to the border towns and take taxis to and from either side, which in itself feels a little sketchy. It is made even more precarious with a handful of doggy characters flashing large wads of cash, pestering you to change some currency.

The small town of Ipiales is the first bus terminal you come to after crossing. It was there that Andre’s friend (who lives in Columbia) decided to send us an email letting us know that his friend was shot in the head by bandits that robbed her bus doing the exact same route only last week!

Given that we were only a couple of hours away from sunset we both secretly began to panic a fair bit, so decided to just get to the bigger town of Pasto before dark; continuing our journey through the cocaine region (where the FARC are present) by day the following morning.

[After hearing such a horrific story, I thought it would be a good idea to educate myself a little more about the FARC and more generally the guerrilla situation. Whilst I was aware that Columbia had been a ‘no go’ country for travellers in the past, I was surprised to hear that it has only been as recently as the past five years where it has been considered safe enough to actually travel through; even more alarming is that there are still large parts of the country (particularly in the mountainous regions) that remain off limits.

Before attempting to explain what FARC actually is, it’s important to understand a little about Columbia’s history which like most (in fact all) countries on this continent is full of bloodshed and violence; a direct result of the inequalities born from the Spanish conquest.

One would have thought that independence from Spanish rule (via Simon Bolivar in 1819) would have seen the end of oppression for the people of Columbia. Sadly the creation of two vehemently opposing political parties not only led to the demise of this great liberator but also planted the seed for a new inglorious page of Columbia’s history.

Fierce rivalry between the Conservatives (centralist tendencies) and the Liberals (federalist tendencies) resulted in a number of civil wars throughout the 19th century. The liberal revolt at the turn of the century turned into the Thousand Days War, resulting in the death of over 100,000; it also gave way to America effectively seizing control of Panama and with hindsight control over the entire continent with the building of the canal.

(side note: Gran Columbia had included Venezuela, Panama, Columbia and Ecuador during the time of independence)

The turn of the 20 th century also saw the most destructive of Columbia’s many civil wars, known as La Violencia which claimed over 200,000 lives lasting until as recently as the 1950’s. The incomprehensible brutality stemmed from generations of Colombians being raised as either Liberals or Conservatives, which to my mind, has helped shape this beautiful countries most recent era of terror. La Violencia had left over two thirds of the rural mestizo and indigenous underclass in poverty, widening the forever present gap between them and the wealthy hang over of the colonial era and so laying the foundations of the emergence of extremes groups of both sides.

The first of these groups to become more organised where the Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Columbia (FARC),who were soon joined by other armed groups including fellow Marxist rival, the Ejercito de Liberacion Nacional (ECN).

As communism collapsed around the globe, the political landscape for guerrillas shifted increasingly to drugs and kidnapping as a source of finance with paramilitary groups being allowed to be involved with drug cartels as long as they kept after guerrillas…can you see the vicious cycle forming here!

The UN has stated that one in every 20 Colombians have become desterrados (dispossessed or displaced) since the 80’s, making Columbia home to more displaced persons than any other country except Sudan.]

Although the city of Pasto (in the heart of FARC territory) is set in a luscious green valley, this city is a bit of a shit hole which didn’t really do much for the shifty first impression we had.

Thankfully the next morning started off well with a great traditional breakfast; huevos pericos (eggs scrambled with tomato and onion) with baked plantain and my favourite so far, arepa ( a thick corn tortilla with melted cheese).

The journey through the south of the country to Cali was beautiful, passing some of the most dense tropical jungle we had seen.

Finally we were beginning to experience the Columbia we had heard so much about. This feeling was however short lived, since our coach was pulled over by a paramilitary group who were patrolling our particular stretch of the pan American highway.

Initially I thought they would just get on the bus and have a look at passports etc, however we soon realised that all the men where being asked to leave the bus for a search!

It was here where I would have preferred to have been a usual ignorant gringo, since I was overcome with fear in the thought that these men with huge guns were in fact a guerrilla group disguised as the military. Thankfully the solider didn’t notice the moistness as he asked me to spread em’ against the side of the bus!

Of course, Andre wasn’t even phased by the whole situation; even going so far as giving the soldiers attitude due to their rudeness!

Thankfully everything seemed to be in order and after about 15 minutes we were back travelling through the most stunning scenery with the most idyllic lunch time stop serving the most amazing food.

This was the view from our table

Although we didn’t manage to take a picture, we saw about 30 Andean condors (Columbia’s national animal) flying just over head as we ate lunch. This put us both in an even better mood, since we had been attempting to see such a large group since arriving in Patagonia.

Although we have only been in Columbia for a day, I think this is going to be one the places you simply dream about going to; creating some unforgettable memories

Ecuador – a quick dash through

With the realisation that we haven’t really got that much time left and now also have a good part of Central America to get through, we have decided to be a little more vigilant with the places we choose to see, as such we only really spent 5 days in Ecuador.

Whilst there is a lot to do here it is all quite similar to what we have seen; preferring to get to Columbia to make our way to Caribbean Coast as soon as possible.

The first stop was to do a trek that is described as a highlight of Ecuador called the Quilotoa Loop. It’s basically a three-day trek in the Andes around a volcanic area known as Cotopaxi.

The trek combines various bus journeys to surrounding villages as well as a pretty tough trek up to the rim of a dormant volcano that has a beautiful emerald blue lagoon inside that the locals claim is bottomless.

Since we are still in the rainy season the valleys do get very overcast at times making visibility very poor. However, when there is a break in the clouds, the scenery is pretty breathtaking. The big difference with the Andes of Ecuador compared with other countries is, that they look more like the rolling hilltops of the countryside in the UK. Agriculture across the entire region gives it a beautiful patchwork look with miles and miles of varying shades of green.

One of the highlights was staying in a pretty lush hostel high in the mountains called Cloud Forest. As the name suggests you sleep in wooden cabin style rooms that along with the surrounding lush environment are engulfed in the clouds making for a mystical experience.

We decided to cut out the last day of the trek which was to a town called Zumbahua for a local market in order to make it up to Otavalo for their famous market .

This proved to be the right decision since this is the largest market in South America and a definite highlight of our trip. We had a 4am start from Quito to get there in time for the animal section of the market which was the most bizarre and authentic thing we have ever seen.

Andre on the other hand made a very bad decision with his choice in footwear that morning!

If you’re wondering why the are so many guinea pigs, it’s because they’re classed as a culinary delicacy across most of the Andes (called cuy). Sadly we didn’t manage to actually try it since it was really quite expensive in most restaurants.

After seeing and smelling as much as we could we tried a traditional breakfast which consisted of a chicken curry thing and rice!

The market takes over the entire town on Saturdays and sells pretty much anything and everything.

Seeing the Otavalenos in itself was worth the trip, since they have a very distinctive look; the men don’t cut their hair, looking more native American Indian than we have seen throughout the Andean region. As you can see from the pic below both the men and women have a distinct fashion sense.

Since we didn’t really spend that much time in Ecuador it was hard to dig too deep into the culture here, although as with all of the countries that surround the Andes, the culture is dependent on the altitude. Serranos (people from the mountains) and costenos (people from the coast) can spend hours telling you what makes them different (i.e better) than the other. Largely rooted in the historic rivalry between conservative quitenos (people from Quito) and the more liberal guayaquilenos (people from Guayaquil). Serranos call people from the cost manos (monkeys) and say they’re lazy and would rather party than keep their cities clean. Costenos, on the other hand, say serranos are uptight and elitist.

Ecuadorians are definitely some of the most friendliest people we have come across on our travels, who seem genuinely proud of their country, clearly happy to see foreigners enjoying it too.

Teh indigenous population makes up about 25% of all Ecuadorians, however there are a dozen distinct groups in Ecuador, speaking some 20 different languages. The largest are the Quichua of which the Otavalenos are one of the best known communities. Straddling the border to Columbia in the province of Esmeralds there are many Afro-Ecuadorian. descendants from the slave trade.

The capital Quito is divided into two; a historical centre and the new town which is where all the gringos seem to stay. Thankfully we stayed in the historical center which is really the only area worth spending some time in.

The Monestary of San Francisco is one of the most impressive buildings in Quito. It also shrouded in one of Quito’s most famous legends, that the indigenous builder cantuina, who supposedly sold his soul to the devil to help him complete the church on time. The story goes that on the last day of the deadline, he removed one of the stones to keep it unfinished and so duping the devil; the pic above is my representation of what happened to him after having dealings with the devil…silly I know

Finally another interesting little fact is that one of the most widely played sports in Ecuador is volley ball, however they do have a slightly different take on the game since the net is about 3m high. This is supposedly to make it harder and stop people power slamming, which I find quite ironic since no man is taller that 5’6 and would have a pretty hard time power slamming anyway! (and before you say it I know that’s a little rich coming from me!)

Pan American highway

With another 39 hour bus journey to look forward to, I was delighted to finally get over the food poisoning that left me hugging a dirty toilet for the best part of the weekend.

Having spent the past 2 months zigzagging through the Andes, it felt like a real luxury to be on a flat straight coast line road where the nightly temperature doesn’t feel sub-zero as you attempt to sleep…usually unsuccessfully!

Those of you who have been following our blog will know from previous long haul journeys, something was bound to go wrong for us; this time it was the return of filthy Argentinian hippies that were the main source of our discomfort.

As usual we went for the cheapest company but thought we would spoil ourselves to what they called “Royal Class” being lucky enough to grab seats 1&2. Normally seats 1&2 on the top decks of busses tend to have the most leg room; an important requirement for my ergonomically challenged friend. However this bus was unlike any other we had been on before; the first two rows were replaced by a ‘communal area’ with our seats being the first row behind it.

Whilst space wasn’t an issue the animals that decided to occupy the area for the entire journey to Mancora from Lima were. There are many examples I could give to explain their complete disregard for others but I will resist the rant…let’s just say this time the bongo box was replaced with a flute!

This particular stretch of the Pan American highway (which connects the whole of the Americas, beginning in Seattle/USA and ending in Southern Patagonia/SA) provides some stunning scenery as it cuts through large sand dunes that plummet directly into the Pacific.

Given that we have been craving some more beach time since leaving Brazil we couldn’t resist a stop in Mancora which the Lonely Planet describes as,

” the place to see and be seen along the Peruvian coast…to rub shoulders with the frothy cream of the Peruvian jet set”

After traveling for so long we have learnt not to always trust what this supposed Bible says, preferring to make our own minds up after hearing about places from other travellers. The party loving travellers have all agreed with the Lonely Planet so we were prepared not to like the place but thought we should check it out first before completely driving through.

We literally stayed for a couple of hours to have a swim whilst waiting for our next bus across the border to Ecuador, which I think says it all really.

In hindsight we should have stopped off at a pop up beach town called Asia aka Km97. It is basically a series of white wash summer houses along private stretches of white beach where the elite of Lima come to party the weekend away with DJs setting up along the beach, with no restraint on how long or how loud they can play their tunes. Interestingly the entire town is literally only there for a couple of months of the year (Jan-Mar) giving it a true pop up status!

The border crossing into Ecuador was interesting in that there wasn’t really a border! Instead there is a pretty hectic town which I never quite figured out what country it belonged to? The whole experience was quite hectic and involved erratic back and forths between immigration offices and several squashed cab journeys – all under the patronage of a stressed Peruvian immigration support officer who seemed to be on a strict time limit! 1.5 hours later and we were on our final overnight leg to Quito.

Lima

At first glance, Lima looks nothing more than a sprawling city clinging precariously to dusty cliffs, engulfed by the vast shanty towns that overspill into the surrounding hills.

It’s for this very reason that most travellers simply pass through the city. Thankfully we were stranded there over the weekend in order to get our visa for Cuba which meant that we were forced to peel back the layers and enjoy the many different areas beyond the usual historic centre.

The Spanish founded Lima in 1533 naming it the City of Kings; making it their viceregal capital. Strictly speaking they re-founded it since there was an adobe indigenous settlement of over 200,000 people prior to their arrival. However as you can imagine given the importance of the city, a series of mud shacks simply wasn’t the correct image, so the city was completely rebuilt with some of the finest colonial squares, palaces and mansions.

Despite being devastated by multiple disastrous earthquakes as well as being ransacked by Chile during the War of the Pacific (1879-83) it remains truthful to the image its founding fathers had aspired it to be.

Luckily for us it was the city’s 479th anniversary that weekend which meant the Plaza de Armas transformed into an explosion of colour and music demonstrating Peruvian culture at its best.

In an attempt to be more factually correct, it was really only lucky for Andre and Helen since I was sick in bed for the best part of 48 hours, missing the entire celebrations thanks to a seafood Chinese meal at one of the many chifa restaurants in Chinatown.

To be fair, the food was actually amazing and cheap as chips; it was simply a bad judgement from my part to go for the seafood.

Since the city is so huge, getting around by foot is impossible (outside of the historical centre); with taxi rides being quite pricey we were delighted to discover a brand spanking new train line which was completely free in a bid to get the locals more familiar with using it. Given the novelty of actually using a train the locals seemed to ride it just for fun, taking pictures along the way, which obviously included pictures with the 6’5 blonde gringo that has hair on his legs!

The instruction leaflets handed out when you entered a station were equally amusing.

The city is playing catch up with its infrastructure since its population has dramatically ballooned from 600,000 in the 1940s to over 9 million today. A result of the influx of poor rural families seeking a better life, explaining the huge shantytowns that hold this otherwise beautiful city to ransom.

The area of San Isidro is home to just about every embassy; as with most other cities this area was like being in another country, full of modern buildings and beautiful country clubs with a thriving (and clearly wealthy) expat community.

The areas of Miraflores and Barranco which hug the cost line feel more like L.A than Peru. Obviously where the rich and famous live, these areas are full of swanky Michelin restaurants, clubs and shopping malls to appease the sea-view penthouse types as well as the American tourists!

The city is also rich in culture with hundreds of museums and galleries that can rival any other major city in the world.

Our favourite was the Museo de la Nacion which housed one of the most moving exhibitions I have ever been too; a must see for anyone going to Lima.The building itself is a great example 70s architecture with the harsh concrete rooms of the 6th floor being a sobering backdrop for the permanent installation called Yuyanapaq.

With most of our time sent in the above mentioned districts it’s easy to forget that Peru is still one of the poorest countries’ on the continent with the average Peruvian earning a mere $2 a day. Yuyanapaq brought the harsh reality of Peru’s tragic resent history crashing home. The name comes from the Quechua language meaning “to remember”and is a photography exhibition created by Peru’s Truth &Reconciliation Commission as a tribute to the internal conflict between 1980 and 2000.

It was the first symbolic reparation which played a significant role in the long road to national reconciliation. Any community that comes out of a history of violence faces, several dilemmas, one that is inevitable and radical:to remember and forget. However the expression on most rural people’s faces leads me to believe that things have not yet been forgotten and the 70,000 people who died have left behind a legacy of widows and orphans that will forever remember the atrocities that occurred during that period.

If you have been completely oblivious to Peru’s very recent history; which I was, I urge you to do some research on the origins of the conflict. Even after learning about it as I have, I find it hard to draw any conclusions or opinions as to who was is the right or who was in the wrong. It’s a complex and delicate history that is born from the discrimination of the indigenous people who although started with the most noble of intentions ended in tragedy for everyone. The sad thing is that in spite of all the bloodshed this discrimination is still ever-present in Peru today.

On a more lighter note the other standout museum was the MALI (Museo de Arte de Lima) which had a particularly insightful exhibition by Fernando Brice called drawings of modern history.

If these establishments weren’t enough to appease our thirst for culture enlightenment, our hostel (Hotel Espana) felt like a museum since it is an old mansion stuffed full of baroque art and the most stunning garden roof deck with what seemed like a whole zoo running around freely

By garyabela Posted in Peru

Sandboarding en route to Lima

Since my last few posts have seemed to develop into mini dissertations I am going to keep this one short and sweet.

With time against us we are going to make our way north as quickly as possible with Lima being out next stop. To break up the 22 hour bus ride we decided to take a one night stop over at an oasis called Huacachina.

The journey from Cuzco was pretty interesting since you literally feel like you have entered a different country after passing the Andes. Overnight the landscape seemed to go from lush green rainforest to dusty, desert mountains of sand!

It’s these huge sand dunes that are the main draw of Hucachina since you can sand board down them which is a lot of fun. Getting to the top of the dunes in gas guzzling beach buggies driven by crazy Peruvian was actually more fun!

The oasis itself is a bit of a shit hole that has been set up for the gringos. It’s about a 5 minute taxi ride from the next big town (Ica), the inhabitants of which seem to dump all their rubbish in the area. Unfortunately the place is full of plastic which blows across the dunes; one day stop over is more than enough in this place!

We decided to skip the town of Nazca since it looked pretty dead and is only really worth going to if you are interested in getting in a plane to see the world-famous Nazca lines.

These mysterious lines were created by the coastal Nazca culture (who are famed for producing highly decorative ceramics) and were largely ignored untill another American ( Paul Kosok) flew across the desert and noticed them etched into the earth. Initially he thought it was an Inca irrigation system; obviously there is more to them than simply watering the plants, but nobody really knows what their purpose is.

By garyabela Posted in Peru