The Drug Run: Panama to Colombia

So, I’ve made it all the way to Colombia! I’m now in Barranquilla, right on the northern coast, where I’ve met up with my uncle P who lives out here. Spending a few days up here while I plan my next moves – my flight leaves from Bogota 2 weeks on Friday, and that’s if I want to actually take it. As you can imagine, I’ve not planned this far (I don’t even have a book for South America!), so am plotting and planning. While I’m this far south I’m also quite keen on popping over the Equator to tick off the Southern Hemisphere, so a trip to Quito, Ecuador or Leticia, Colombia could be on the cards. And then I have to decide if I actually want to come back at all! (oooooh exciting)

Back in Panama City I waited a few days extra to get on a boat with some people from the hostel [for anyone looking at doing the trip between PC and Cartagena I did it with a guy called Fritz the Cat, a name quite funnily now indelibly left in my passport]. The day we left didn’t start too well – we were left behind by jeeps sent from the hostel to take us to the ‘port’, since a load of Israelis who hadn’t reserved a space jumped in front of us (bastards), so we had a lot of to-ing and fro-ing and arguing on the phone with people to try and get them to pick us up. Luckily, I was with 3 Americans, so all that came naturally to them, and I could take a quiet seat back and seeth quietly in my stereotypical British manner.

Well, needless to say, 5 and a half hours later another jeep came to pick us up and 3 hours after that we arrived in a tiny little town called Carti in the north of Panama. At one point on the way we passed into the Darien province (reportedly one of the most dangerous areas in the world) but to be honest I’d been up since half 4 so was grabbing some winks in the car.

The San Blas islands where we stayed for 3 days were quite simply phenomenal. Mindblowingly beautiful islands, lovely warm Caribbean water, gorgeous clear blue sea. I also taught myself to properly snorkle there as well, which was nice. We got taught how to do it back in Utila, but I hadn’t been snorkelling since, so now I had an opportunity to practise I took full advantage and was going up to 8-10m down to admire the reefs, instead of from the surface.

On one of the days some of us from the boat went spear-fishing for lobsters with the local Kuna tribe that Fritz (the Austrian owner of the boat) got along with, which involved fannying around with a makeshift lassoo on a stick to try and catch their legs in before someone else powered in and skewered them. We didn’t in fact find any lobsters but caught a couple of crabs.

Then on the third night, the voyage began. I’d picked up some seasickness tablets in PC before we left, as some people I’d spoken to who’d come the other way said it got a bit rough. But despite the fact I had them, I wanted to see if I could rough it as a sailor anyway. I couldn’t. I lasted at least until the first meal, but then in true Gap Yah style… well you know the rest. So I immediately hit the Dramamine and though felt a bit rough for the rest of the time held everything down.

We left San Blas at about 5pm and got into Cartagena harbour at 2.30am two nights later. I think the full night of sailing was possibly one of the worst nights sleep in my life. The next day, as there was nothing to do but sit, look at the water, feel nauseous, read or sleep, I tried to sleep for most of it wherever there was space in the boat. I think it was about 6pm that I finally felt like I’d woken up properly for the first time that day.

But arrive we did, and into Cartagena, Colombia. And it was hoooooot again. The last few days in PC it rained, so was comparatively cool. We got off the boat at 8am and in the taxi to the town we passed one of the thermometer/clock-on-a-stick things that said it was already 32C. Sheeez Louise.

Cartagena has a bigged up rep from the Lonely Planet, but I was disappointed. It’s apparently one of the jewels of South America – if so, I’m happy I did Central America. Or maybe it was cos I’ve just done Central America that I wasn’t too impressed – it was a nice colonial town, with some nice big defensive walls, but then I’ve had that for 3 months already in Guatemala and Nicaragua. Not even beginning to mention how expensive it was too! The accommodation was about $8 (reasonable) but the food and beers where back up at San Jose prices! A standard bottle of local brew set you back in places upwards of $6-7,000pesos, which is over $3 – not bad compared to back home, but I’ve been used to prices a third of that!

So needless to say I spent a couple of nights in Cartagena, said goodbye to the guys from the boat, and headed up north to Barranquilla.

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Costa Rica and Panama

On Tuesday the heavens opened.

It was the first rain I’ve had in three months and by George did it more than make up for it. It’s like the rain in England when it really pours it down, and then some. It was unexpected, but still quite nice. It’s rained every day since, but only for an hour or two max, but when it’s not raining it’s still very hot and humid.

I’ve whizzed through Costa Rica and also most of Panama, and am now down in Panama City waiting for a boat to Colombia.

San Jose I really liked – the Lonely Planet (awful book) gives it a bad rep and I think undeservedly. Admittedly there’s not much to do there (the best thing we found was a cool science museum for kids that we walked into for free), but it was safe and there’s always something on.

I spent three days in San Jose before moving on to the Caribbean coast to a little town called Cahuita, which was quite like Dangriga back in Belize. Lots of Rastas, lots of smoking, and an absolutely gorgeous beach that stretched on for miles. Also quite a dangerous beach if you swim in the wrong place, but absolutely beauuutiful if you walk a little bit to where it was safe.

It was however in Cahuita that shock horror I discovered that I’d lost my Visa card in San Jose, and being only a little town with one cash point that didn’t accept my Maestro card I was pretty much screwed money-wise. I spent the evening deciding whether to go to one of the other towns along the coast in the morning to try there, but in the end decided to go back to San Jose where I thought I’d be sure to be able to get something out (and failing that there would always be a Western Union if the worst came to it), and did in fact miraculously manage to get my actual card back when I went back to the last place I could remember using it on the off-chance it might still be there. So that was nice. The guy at the bank brilliantly made me show my passport to prove it was my card, despite the fact the card doesn’t have any name on it at all (a Thomas Cook buy), and indeed despite the fact the signature on the back of the card is different to the one in my passport – he put the card next to my photo, probably searched in vain for a name, couldn’t find one so handed them both back to me thanking my for my patience and assuring me he only had to check to ensure the security of my card and so that not any old Joe off the street could come in and claim it. Unless, it seems, they own their own passport.

However, Costa Rica was on the whole pretty expensive – I was spending the same on a bed as I was in a whole day in Nicaragua – and I didn’t really have much planned to do there, so after heading back to San Jose for another night I went straight down to Panama (incidentally back through Cahuita again – I did that 4hr journey three days in a row!), whizzed through the border (a cool little River Kwai style rickety old bridge) before heading out to another Caribbean archipelago called Bocas del Toro to meet up with Nicole and Ryan whom I’d met back on Utila.

On Bocas it was still raining. In fact it was chucking it down. I’d gone there to hopefully do a bit more diving, but rain til noon meant (apparently) that the sand or silt was all kicked up and there was not very much to see, so we never got round to it. When the rain eased up though we rented some bikes and had a nice little cycle along to some of the better beaches.

However, on the third day it was still raining, and the others were heading back to San Jose to get flights home, so I decided to move on to a nice little town called Boquete, up in the Panaman (Panamanian?) highlands. Here it was raining, and cold! It actually felt like being back in England! For the first time since god knows when I actually had to dig my jumper out of my backpack. In Boquete I met up with George from Nicaragua and we hired some scooters. And let me tell you, riding up and down through Panamanian (Panaman?) mountains with nothing on the roads was sweeeeet. Probably averaged about 60kph and even topped 100 at one particularly straight downhill bit. But was absolutely brilliant fun, and has also tempted me to consider getting one back home (I can see the look on your face mum).

However didn’t spend long in Boquete either, and after two nights took the long ride down to Panama City to see the canal and try and sort out a boat for Colombia. We saw the canal from the Bridge of the Americas on the way in (I’d never heard of this bridge but apparently it’s quite famous so I’ll give it a mention). Am gonna check it out properly tomorrow.

It’s looking likely that I’ll be getting a boat on Sunday. Should be a 5 day trip spending a couple of days in the San Blas islands (google it, the pictures look incredible – picture paradise islands and you’ll picture these) before a couple of days sailing before landing in Cartagena on the Colombian coast. And I’m WELL excited. Can not wait to get out there!

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More Hot Volcano Action

Leaving San Salvador afforded me the earliest rise I think i’ve probably ever had. Bamba quite nicely organised a 3.30am departure from Salvador, meaning I got up and 2.45 and promptly fell asleep again at 3.31. An uneventful trip led us back through Honduras (still no stamp) and into Nicaragua (no stamp here either).

Having heard lots of bad things about Managua, I left straight away and headed north to the nice little town of Leon. There are two little colonial towns in Nicaragua, Leon and Granada, both founded in 1524 and both vying with other ever since: the capital passed between them before moving to Managua, and apparently there was always a split along political ideals as well.

However, the first and most obvious thing to notice about Nicaragua is that it is HOT. Forget all the countries I’ve been to so far, this has been by far and away the most scorchio. Even by 9am it’s approaching too hot to go outside, and by 11 it’s too hot even in the shade.

Leon was a nice place, though there wasn´t really much to do there. It is however home to the biggest cathedral in Central America, which I have to admit I thought was an accolade held by that of Mexico City, so I’m none the wiser as to which is actually. I met a lot of English people in the hostel, which was an absolute shock as there’s been a complete absence of them along the way. Up til then I must have met about 6 English people, and there were 6 in this one place. One of whom was from Tunny Wells, but he was a bit funny. Went to Skinners I think.

The hostel I was staying at is however the home of (apparently world-famous) volcano boarding, which pretty much involves climbing a live volcano and sledding off it before it erupts; so what with it being world-famous and all I felt I had to give it a go. We went out in the afternoon (so after the midday heat, but it didn’t really make much difference) and after a nice 45 minute journey in the back of a pick-up (surely one of the best ways to travel), we had a nice 45 minute walk up Volcan Cerro Negro.

I must point out now that the sleds were no more than a plank of wood with another plank across it to sit on, and a rope to hold on to. All steering was to be done with your feet, unless you wanted to cut your hands up on the volcanic rock, and if you fell off then try to roll to lessen the friction. There was a guy at the bottom with a speed gun (the record is over 80kph if memory serves) to add a competetive element to it. I managed a measly 35kph but believe me that was more than enough! Good fun was had by all.

The next day was quite exciting too: yo y los ingleses went to a gallera, or cock fight. I went in not really knowing what to expect, seeing as they’re banned seemingly everywhere globally, but left wondering why as it was BRILLIANT! Surely never before has so much fun been had watching two chickens attack each other with a baying crowd watching their every move. Admittedly it became a little gory when the owners started sucking the blood out of their necks, and when they were put back down to fight and just collapsed on the floor to be pecked at by the other one, but for the 15 minutes of preceding cock-on-cock action (phwoarrrrr) it was most definitely worth it. I took a video which I’ll probably whack on facebook when i get back. And the ring was also plastered with the Pepsi logo, although I would be surprised if they actually knew they were endorsing Nicaraguan cock fights.

From Leon I headed south to Granada, the other colonial heavyweight of the area. Here I met one of the English guys from Leon (George) and we went on a canopy tour, as it was cheaper here than in Costa Rica. It was in Nicaragua that we met lots of people coming up from CR foreboding how expensive it is there, and telling tales of passing through in 2 days and that being enough – we thought that if it was true, you can do all the stuff you can do there here anyway, just at half the price. So I made the decision (aided by a general wish to get to Colombia as soon as possible as well) to stay here for a bit and do all I wanted to do in CR here, before rushing through towards Panama afterwards. The only thing I felt that perhaps I might be missing out on was scenery, but then I’ve had plenty of stunning scenery along the way, and the people, but then can Ticos really be that different to people from the rest of the area? I’ll never know.

The canopy tour was disappointing. But then ziplinings a bit old hat – there’s only so much you can do when you’re tied to a rope zooming through a jungle, and I’ve done it before so it wasn’t really that exciting. Maybe it would have been better in Costa Rica. LOL.

George managed to find a hostel with a pool, which in this weather was an absolute godsend. There’s nothing better when you’re sitting around trying to avoid the heat but sweating ridiculously anyway than jumping in a pool to cool yourself down straight away. I think that after two and a half weeks here I’ve acclimatised to the heat now – that is, I don’t feel like it’s too hot. I can however tell how hot it is firstly by how much sweat there is running down my face blearing the view through my sunglasses, and by how burnt the back of my neck is when I go to bed at night.

From Granada we took a boat to the island of Ometepe in Lago de Nicaragua, the largest freshwater lake in the world (presumably, along with one in Mexico too). It’s a fabulous little island with two massive volcanoes on it, separated only by a thin isthmus, and it really is old school. After spending the night after we got off the late ferry in the small town of Altagracia, we went to a little finca on the slopes of Volcan Maderas and spent the best part of a week there. It has to be said there wasn’t really very much to do there – it was cheap, it was sunny, and it had a fantastic beach 15 minutes walk away – but it was very relaxing, and a really good place to get away from everything. Not that I really needed to get away from anything in the first place, but hey.

A lot of chess and reading took place, and on adventurous days we made the 10 minute walk to the nearest shop. On really adventurous days (and when we were really bored) we made the 45 minute walk to the nearest internet point. And on one very adventurous day, we decided to climb the volcano.

We were climbing Maderas, the smaller of the two volcanoes – Concepcion, the other, erupted when we were in Leon and they were still stopping people from climbing it – but it was still a big ask. Leaving at 7 in the morning (I have more early mornings here than I ever did back in England!), it took us just under 4 hours to reach the summit 1394m above us.

I have to admit I’ve seen better summits. I think maybe even the motte of Tonbridge Castle has a better view than we had from the top of Maderas. On the way up we had absolutely breathtaking views of Concepcion and the lake, and we’d been promised similar views at the top. It didn’t help that we didn’t even know we’d reached the top until we started a descent towards the crater lake. There had been rumours of a flag or something to mark the summit, but nope the only indication we got was that we started going down again. The potential was fantastic – that high up we should have been able to see for miles – but sadly we couldn’t see past the trees. The top of the volcano is a cloud forest (which I guess means it’s a forest in the clouds) and actually got pretty nippy, but meant we could see bugger all. The crater lake wasn’t much better either – there was a nice gloomy mist, reminiscent of Dartmoor walks, rendering visibility to about 20m. Still, after 4 hours’ walking it was nice to wolf down a dry bit of dry bread that passed as a healthy nutritious lunch and enjoy the views before the 3 hour descent.

I won’t lie – going up was punishing. I do minimal (if any) exercise and I was more than prepared to pack it in after 20 minutes and go back to bed. Towards the top especially it turned to almost sheer rock face, so despite the let down at the top it was still quite an achievement to make it there at all. Going down, however, was absolutely blissful! The knowledge that every step was a step towards a shower, a hammock and a rest!

I’ve now returned to Granada, where I’m staying til Saturday. Because of Easter, everything’s shut down today (Thursady) and Friday, cos the whole country’s gone to the beach for a big party. I’m braving Managua on Saturday night before going to San Jose in Costa Rica on Sunday, before heading straight off into Panama.