We can’t tell you much about Cartagena because it was so hot/humid we didn’t spend much time outside. We arrived on the first day of a 4 day holiday commemorating the independence of Cartagena from Spain.
This is a big, no make that a huge, deal in this town. Partying in the streets, and you wouldn’t believe all of the firecrackers that people threw. It didn’t seem safe because they were thrown around people and under cars but I didn’t hear/see any actual problems. We spent a short time when we met up with our former shipmates the first evening around the crowds but spent the rest of the time either in our air conditioned room or away from the crowds.
Cartagena is a good sized city of around one million people. It boasts an historic old town. We didn’t see much of it although it would have been nice to if the heat/humidity hadn’t made us hermits. We felt safe where we were (except for the firecrackers) but I wouldn’t advise you to use the street money changers, Dan had one pull a slight of hand on him which cost us about a hundred dollars.
Nearby is Santa Marta, also on the ocean, which is supposed to be a destination place that we missed as well. Doubt we will get back this way again but if we do, we will see both the old town and |Santa Marta.
We had originally planned to go by bus to Bogota but it was going to be so long that we flew. It was a little under $100 per person, including checking two bags and taking the rest onto the plane. The plane was a jet and very comfortable; it was a short ride of about 90 minutes. We ran into some of our shipmates at the airport but that is the last we have seen any of them.
There is no road between Panama and Colombia, only thick jungle and unsavory characters (so I’m told). So the options are to go by boat or plane between the countries. Plane is faster and cheaper but we decided to splurge and take a catamaran (type of sailboat) and enjoy a few of the over 300 San Blas Islands.
The trip to the sailboat started early, we were picked up by the shuttle close to 5 A.M. After a number of stops, we drove through jungle area and finally reached an area where we paid a small tax to the indigenous people to be taken by panga (small covered boat with outboard motor) to the catamaran.
That trip was about 40 minutes or so to reach the sailboat which was anchored near one of the over 300 islands in the area called “San Blas”. The islands range in size from something you can walk around the outer perimeter in 5 minutes to something large enough for a number of houses. The ones we went to were all either uninhabited or inhabited by the Kuna natives.
The water around the islands is beautiful and some had nice fish that were visible when snorkeling. Unfortunately there was no water treatment so the coral in the area had been damaged a fair amount from waste and anchors.
On the inhabited islands, the locals sold beer and sodas and some crafts. We bought a beautiful mola for $20 from the woman who made it. It took her about 2 weeks of working off and on to cut out and sew the design on by hand. We paid $20 for ours and will frame it when we eventually return to Durango. They sell for much more in the stores.
Some islands had a lot of coconut trees, others didn’t. I was walking between two trees one afternoon and a coconut fell about 3 feet from me as I passed. Whew, that was too close for comfort!
There were 13 passengers and 3 crew on the boat. The oldest person other than us…including the captain, was 31. While we didn’t care for the smoking that several of them did, everyone was extremely nice and there were no problems between any of the passengers. The people were from England, Scotland, Australia, and Germany. We were the only Americans on the ship. There was one crew member with good English but Dan and I had an hour long conversation with the captain, entirely in Spanish, one night. While we didn’t understand 100% of it, we did get much of it…about Colombian life, drugs, safety, etc. Our Spanish improves every day.
Life on the boat was wake up, eat breakfast, swim or take the dingy to the island where you could snorkel, walk around, or just relax. Lunch was served about 1 or so while we went to the next island. The food was delicious, plentiful, and they did an amazing job of working with various allergies or food limitations among the passengers. We had delicious lfresh lobster one night. We had octopus another night (my least favorite meal) and the other meals were more basic. One passenger couldn’t eat shellfish so he got a nice steak that night! All this from a tiny, tiny, tiny galley.
I had been concerned about feeling claustrophobic on the boat but our room was fine and they were able to provide power for my CPAP at night. We each brought a backpack with clothes, etc. (everything else was stowed for the trip) but we didn’t really change clothes since we were in bathing suites the entire time.
We arrived in Cartagena Columbia after 3 days of island hopping and then 36 hours of open seas. I was worried about the open seas but the weather was good so it wasn’t choppy and a little Dramamine worked great.
Of course we went to the canal to watch ships go through the locks. It is a very popular tourist destination and was moderately crowded with people taking pictures and watching. There is a museum which is excellent that explains the entire process from its inception to the controversial expansion that opened in 2016 for the bigger boats.
The canal is big money from the standpoint of the income going through it each day as well as the tourism and banking associated with it. The cost of going through the canal is typically $400,000 to $600,000 or more for the newer, larger ships. The money has to have been received and cleared the bank before the vessel is allowed to get in line to go through the locks. It takes 8-10 hours for the entire not quite 50 mile long trip. You might check out this website that has information which is probably fairly accurate even today.
Fun fact, the lowest tolls to date were paid by Richard Halliburton, who swam the Panama Canal in 1928. Halliburton paid only 36 cents.
Here are three animations that Google created from our pictures:
Men working on a ship as it goes through the canal
Ships going through the canal. The cruise ship in the background is using the new larger canal. Note the vehicles on tracks that guide the ship through the canal; up to 8 vehicles are used per ship
The dirt that was removed to make the canal was used to fill and expand the shoreline. There is a long, safe, paved area along the shore for walking, riding, and even sports. Of course there are restaurants as well.
Panama City iis a modern, vibrant city and is relatively safe. We had no issues while we were there. We heard mixed things about the water so we were careful not to drink tap water (we have a device to treat tapwater which we used when possible, otherwise we got bottled water).
We apologize for not posting for over a month. Between leaving Boquete, no internet on the sailboat, being exhausted, computer issues, poor internet, and procrastinating, we have be neglectful. I like posting thoughts and things we have done/seen and it ways heavily on me when I have lots of posts I want to do but don’t for whatever reason.
After a very relaxing, enjoyable stay for several months in Boquete we had to move on, if for no other reason than our apartment was rented. We had been there about 3 1/2 months and made a number of really good friends, mostly expats, so it was hard to leave.
We caught the bus to David (remember? accent on the second syllable). It was a modern bus but for some reason had valances on the windows.
From David to Panama City was a long ride, finally arriving at our hotel after about 9 or 10 hours.
The bus was a modern bus like you would see in the USA. There was someone akin to a train conductor on the bus who took our tickets and made a number of announcements, all in Spanish…very fast Spanish so I didn’t catch most of it. There was one stop which was great because even though the bus had a restroom we were told by that conductor type person to only urinate in it. Don’t know what happened if you really needed to take a poop; I had heard that the restroom wasn’t something I would want to use anyway so fortunately we didn’t need to.
The next morning, we went on our own to the Bio Museum which was extremely well done. Each person receives a playback machine to listen to descriptions of displays in your language of choice as you go though the exhibits. As you would expect, the emphasis was on the environment and changes to it over the eons. In one exhibit, they had pictures of a number of people…doesn’t this person look like Dan? It isn’t but he is similar looking!
Caldera is a very small town only about 17 miles from Vista Grande, 35 minutes by car. It is one of the towns that we passed through on the way to Bocas del Toro.
First we stopped off to see some petroglyphs on large rocks. The rocks were thrown out of Volcan Baru at some time in the past. According to this website, the carving was done about 1000 years ago. The area is a national park although there isn’t any really easy access. You have to go through the lower part of a fence (barbed wire above you so crouch carefully) and then walk about 10-15 minutes through a field to get to the park.
There are many, many relatively small boulders from one of the eruptions of Baru and some are quite large. To make the carvings easier to see, they have been painted white.
After we looked at the petroglyphs, we drove a little farther and then parked. We walked 4 kilometers each way (about 5 miles round trip) to Paraiso Escondido La Abuela Hostel where we looked but did not go into a very nice hot spring pool. The hike was fairly flat and had a mixture of full sun and nice shade along the way.
It would have been a wonderful hike if we had started earlier (we started about 9:45 by the time we arrived after the petroglyphs and Caldera may be close to Boquete but the temperatures are worlds apart. Caldera is only about 814 feet high where as Vista Grande is about 3858′. Instead of temperatures in the 70’s, they were in the mid 80’s (plus fairly humid). So the town is aptly named since “caldera” translates to “boiler”.
We had brought enough water but didn’t carry all of it with us on the hike. Big mistake. I ran through my water and then Dan’s and finally Lesia’s. Dan went down to the river 3 times to fill the water bottles with river water to pour over my head. Finally Lesia walked ahead and brought the truck back so save me some walking although by then I was within 5-10 minutes of our parking spot…I could have made it but was glad not to have to.
Hot Springs Sign
If we go back again, we will about 7 in the morning and take 2 containers of water for each person with us. That way we will be finished by about 10:30 and have a lovely walk. The 5 miles isn’t the hard part of the hike at all.
Bocas del Toro is an archipelago (group of islands) at the northeastern part of Panama, very close to the Costa Rican border. This is an extremely popular tourist destination even though you are seriously warned not to drink the water (which also means not to eat anything that is washed such as raw vegetables and to avoid ice). Unlike other tourist areas like Granada Nicaragua where the nicer restaurants or ones that cater to tourists which use filtered water for drinking and ice, we didn’t see/hear of any in Bocas that did that.
We were extremely careful not to drink unfiltered water and not to use ice or eat raw veggies. I would have thought I got the amoeba infection there anyway except that the incubation period is much longer. (I did try literally a single drop of homemade hot sauce in a restaurant a few hours before I got sick but that wasn’t the cause if it truly was an amoeba infection).
While I didn’t get to enjoy anything other than walking around, Dan went on an all day catamaran ride where he snorkeled and saw starfish (and got sunburned). We had planned to go on a bio-luminescence tour one night but couldn’t because of the diarrhea. By the time I was well enough to consider being on a boat without a restroom for 2 hours, the moon was out again so you wouldn’t be able to see the glow.
Other common activities in the area are bicycling (we did do that-me once and Dan several times), fishing, shopping the locally made tourist items, and the like.
To get to Bocas, you go to Almirante, a small town on the mainland. As you arrive into town, there is often a person on a bike who offers to show you where to park and get the taxi (for whatever you tip the person). You park your car in a gated lot for $3 per day (not 24 hours so if you arrive on Monday and leave on Wednesday, you pay $9). From there it is a short walk to the water taxi that takes you to the island for $7 per trip per person or $10 round trip (if you do a better job of keeping up with your receipt than we did, LOL). That ride is about 30 minutes and the water taxis run every 30 minutes from 6 AM to 6 PM. The ride was fairly calm both ways since you are in a bay area.
Food is pretty good and not outrageously expensive. We had excellent seafood, usually Corvina which is a very mild sea bass.
The weather was mild with afternoon rains most days.
The drive to Almirante was verdant with rural, poor, windy, hilly roads, and was very pleasant. There are places where the road slumps several inches with no warnings. A lovely drive but quite long given the distance is only 180 KM (111 miles). It is supposed to take just over 3 hours but was really closer to 5, including a 30 minute stop for a bite to eat. Not sure why but many of the indigenous Guaymi peoples’ houses in this area are on stilts, in the mountainous area of the drive. (We did see clothes drying under some of the houses but don’t know if that is the reason for the stilts.)
I learned to drive in New Jersey and thought I knew what aggressive driving was. No way!
We rented cars twice and within an hour of driving, I knew that Costa Ricans forget about their national saying “Pura Vida” when they get in their cars. “Pura Vida” refers to the relaxed, easy going lifestyle here.
Once in their cars, many are in a hurry: speeding, tailgating and passing, AND the passing is done on curves, no-pass zones, in the fog…anywhere they think there is enough room to get by. The only plus is that often the vehicle being passed is going v…e…r…y slow.
Oh, and many roads are narrow, with steep gutters, sharp curves, and lots of one lane bridges on country roads.
Leave lots of time to get to your destination and let your travel days be very flexible days.
Most of the time in Costa Rica we were staying somewhere where we didn’t eat out much. In Monteverde we stayed with a local family who cooked for us. Here at the Finca Soley there is a kitchen and we make our lunch and dinner (breakfast is provided).
In Nicaragua we ate out all of our lunches and dinners. Our “go to” place was “The Garden Cafe”. Good local food, excellent sea bass (corvina). There was also a Chinese restaurant where you chose your ingredients and sauces and they stir fried it for you. I believe it was called “Wok and Roll”. The “Pita Pita” restaurant was great as well. El Zaquan was excellent but a bit more expensive than some of the others. I think all of the restaurants had courtyards, often with a fountain.
We were careful about the tap water in Nicaragua. We either used our own purified water or made sure the restaurant we ate at used purified water to cook, serve, and for ice. Initially we steered away from raw veggies/fruits in fear of their being washed in bad water but we found that wasn’t a problem at the restaurants we went to. I was glad to have a fresh salad again.
Here are a few pictures from various restaurants to give you a feel for them.
Security while traveling is critical. We have learned a few things.
The first is mindfulness (tip 1). This means being aware of your surroundings and being present in the moment. At the point you are no longer mindful and your brain is thinking of something else, you have tuned out what is happening around you and you are vulnerable. This includes being on your phone talking or texting someone. Maybe you are reading. Whatever it is, stay mindful. When traveling with others, one of you can do other things while one is staying alert.
Lindie lost her wallet. While she had a wallet that hooked on a belt loop and could be inserted inside her pants, one day she did not do that because it was awkward. She lost the wallet or it was stolen. It is likely it fell out of what was a shallow pocket. If someone picked it there was no awareness at the time.
Fortunately the credit cards were not used and she was able to replace them and her insurance card fairly easily. The replacement Colorado drivers license is still in process. It will catch up to her.
As a result of this, we have added buttons to all pockets in our pants and shirts. This ensures that belongings stay where you want them and someone else’s hand cannot easily slip in (tip 2).
A very flat money belt is useful (tip 3). REI and Amazon both carry ones that are lined so that an electronic device cannot read them. It is an RFI impervious lining (tip 4). You can also get small sleeves that hold three credit cards. When traveling each day, we do keep enough money in our pockets to take us through or part way through the day (tip 5). This prevents flashing what we have.
A new friend recently traveled on the public bus from San Jose to Monteverde. She lost her backpack, including passport and credit cards. They were taken while on the bus. She knew as a seasoned traveler to keep things on her lap or to have her foot through the strap (tip6). Her mindfulness slipped and her belongings were gone. It is strongly advised: Do not use the overhead bin (tip 7).
We took the same bus route several weeks earlier, and I was glad to see that the bus driver made everyone get off when we took a restroom/meal break. We did take the things we had with us in the seats with us (tip8).
On that trip I discovered that claiming luggage from under the bus was a potential place to lose luggage. Although there were luggage receipts to present, the person pulling luggage out was not checking that the numbers matched. For our next trip we got our tickets early so that we have the front seats behind the steps into the bus. This will allow us to be first off and first over to the luggage, so we can protect our stuff (tip 9).
We have decided that when we travel from place to place, that we will go directly to our lodging via taxi so that we are not carting a lot of things around in unknown places (tip 10). We will use a day pack otherwise (tip11).
When traveling distances, our day packs contain enough daily essentials that if we were to lose our other luggage, we don’t have to rush to replace things (tip 12).
Since we arrived in Monteverde, we realized how hard it is to stuff our pockets with things we might use during the day. We bought fanny packs and use them for receipts, snacks, replacement camera battery, a little change and a few bills, etc. The fanny pack is worth much more than the things we have in it. This keeps us from digging into our pockets looking for something, only to have things fall out easily as our hand comes out (tip 13). We keep them across our belly, not our fanny.
When we have a choice, we now travel earlier so that our arrival is in daylight. Moving around at night adds vulnerability. Taxis will be used at night and they will be called, not flagged down (tip 14).
Here are two stories from friends.
One was in Bolivia or Peru and mustard was squirted on her. While distracted her backpack was stolen.
The other friend had a man with a bundle over his shoulder walk right into him. Suddenly he felt something at his pocket, reached down quickly, felt the hand and rapidly spun around, knocking the woman attached to the hand into an elderly man.My friend lost nothing, yet the woman yelled at him about how he caused her to fall into her grandfather. Yeah, right.