Taking in Colombia’s coffee region

After the bustling city of Medellín we figured we’d go to the more relaxed Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee region, known for pristine nature, lush valleys and, well, coffee. Zona Cafetera is a zone in the Colombian Andes where nearly half of Colombia’s coffee is harvested in just over 1% of the country’s total area.

Cappuccino

Valleys

Our main destination was Salento, but on the way south we stopped by Santa Rosa de Cabal to visit the San Vicente thermal baths. We spent a day relaxing in the (very) hot pools, enjoying the Turkish baths, peeling and mud treatments, high up in the valley. The water is heated by underground volcanoes and was at times almost scolding hot. We had a nice day at the pools and the town itself was also nice, with some good restaurants and cool bars/nightclubs.

Muddy face

Superman!

Next stop was Salento, a lovely little town in between coffee fincas and an awe-inspiring landscape. The town was quite charming with colorful houses, the town plaza on a hill, a little “shopping street” and several local restaurants. Tuva got her American-food fix at a great little cafe called Brunch, which served great breakfast and lunch, and even (somewhat creepy) Mickey-Mouse shaped pancakes. We also enjoyed the local trucha (trout), the comida tipica for the region, at Camino Real, a restaurant in the tourist street.

Above Salento

The church in Salento

One of the main goals for our visit was to hike in Valle de Cocora (waxpalm valley), where we walked in the beautiful landscape between 60 meter high wax palms for about 5 hours. 2 of those hours were in pouring rain. Luckily we borrowed rain boots from the hostel, so the only part that wasn’t wet in the end was our big toes. The 20-minute jeepride back to Salento, where we had to stand on the back of the jeep, didn’t help either, and made sure we got soaked all the way to the skin..!

Apart from the rain the trip was really nice. We hiked to a finca high up in the valley, where they had hot chocolate (or a cold soda) and a lot of humming birds. We were lucky enough to have two little dogs leading us all the way up. After the finca we hiked into the cloud forest, which had an almost magical (trolsk) feel, before the clouds subsided and revealed the mighty palms of the valley. We will probably never see the same landscape anywhere else.

Tuva in Valle de Cocora

Happy couple in the valley

The other goal of our visit was to visit a coffee farm. We went to Finca Don Elias, where we got to see and learn about the coffee berries, how to get the beans out of them, dry the beans, roast them and finally grind them to aromatic coffee. The
guide, Jose, was really nice and we learned a lot about coffee and how it’s produced.

Coffee berries

Our coffee guide

Roasted coffee

Silhouette

Cloud forest 2

Palm hills

Wax palms

More photos from the coffee region and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

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The big rock in Guatapé

When we were in Medellín, we took a quick daytrip to the nearby (about 1 hour busride) town of Guatapé. Guatapé is known for the big rock El Peñol (also known as El Peñon de Guatapé or La Piedra), lakeside summer houses for the wealthy, and the bombed out summer house of Pablo Escobar, the Medellín druglord.

Ready for the big rock

We started by climbing El Peñol, which is about 720 steps along the side of the rock. At the top there was a spectacular view of the area, which really is beautiful and worth the admission fee of 10,000 COP.

The Ascent

Islands

We also took a guided boat-trip on the lake, which we managed to haggle down from 80,000 to 60,000 COP (it was pretty easy and we still probably paid to much). The lake is actually artificial, and they submerged a whole town when it was created, leaving only the cross on the church visible above water.

On the boat-trip we got to see a lot of beautiful vacation houses, owned by various drug traffickers, mafia and government officials, and also the disco and bombed vacation house of Pablo Escobar. We also got to listen to a lot of 80’s music that we suspect was salvaged from Pablo’s old disco.

Sunken town

Pablo's bombed house

Pablo's disco

The town of Guatapé is itself very beautiful with its brightly colored buildings all over, and we could have stayed the night if we have had more time.

Chiling in Guatapé

Main plaza

Cab

El Peñon BW

More photos from Guatapé and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Medellín

After a very warm stay in Mompox, we were really looking forward to the “city of eternal spring”, Medellín, in the Antioquia region of Colombia. A city of about 2 million inhabitants it is very different from the other places we’ve visited in Colombia.

Medellin

Medellín has a less than favorable reputation, with a history of drugs, terror and violence, hosting the Medellin Cartel and Pablo Escobar in the 80’s and 90’s. In 1990 it was actually more dangerous to be in Medellín than in Beirut, Lebanon (where there was a civil war!), and it has only been safe for tourists (and locals) for about 10 years.

Now, thanks to a math teacher (who was elected mayor), Medellín is a modern city with an efficient metrosystem, beautiful parks and many museums, and we really enjoyed our 5 days there. We stayed in a newer area of town called El Poblado (or: Zona Rosa, Gringolandia) which is where most hostels, nightclubs, etc. are at. It’s also the safest area of town, so a good place to stay.

Plaza Botero

Blown bird

Some of our highlights here were:

  • Parque Explora: a technical museum for children of all ages, where we learned about the mind, the body, Darwin, fishes, and laws of physics. Maybe we’re just nerds, but we had a lot of fun (we spent more than 6 hours there)!
  • Museo de Antioquia, which features a lot of paintings and sculptures from the great son of Medellin, Fernando Botero (those voluminous people, animals and other things), and also some other art collections.
  • Watching a soccer game: the two local teams played a match in Copa Colombia, so a lot of noise, and crazy balancing on the top of the stadium
  • A walking tour in the center of town with Pablo of Free Walking Tours Medellín (the tour was free, but most tipped around $20, because it was so good)
  • Riding the MetroCable where we got some great views of different parts of the city, the slums of Medellin and the surrounding mountains. It is connected with the rest of the metro and can be used on the same ticket (only costs $1 for a trip). The cable also takes you to the impressive library and Parque Arvi, which is also worth visiting if you have the time.

Darwin and me

Yellow frog

Museo De Antioquia

Pablo of Medellin free walking tours

Up

Football fans

Cable cars

More photos from Medellin and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Off the beaten track in Mompóx

On our way from Cartagena we decided to do a little (ok, long) detour to the lovely town of Santa Cruz de Mompós. Also known as Mompox, it has a smalltown feel (although there are 60 000 inhabitants), a beautiful cemetery and very, very hot climate.

Mompox lies alongside Rio Magdalena and to get to Mompox we first did a 6-hour bustrip from Cartagena to Magangue, then a break before the bus drove onto a fleet that was pushed upriver to La Bodega, and from there another hour drive to Mompox.

Rio Magdalena

The feel of Mompox

The thing about Mompox is that it feels like a town that doesn’t depend on tourists, thus you don’t get hassled by people wanting to sell you stuff, like so many other places we’ve visited. We met a lot of people that genuinely just wanted to talk to us and some even practiced their English on us (even the dogs seemed friendly here!).

Although it is in the Lonely Planet as one of the top 10 i Colombia, it felt a bit off the beaten track (dare we say “hidden gem”?), probably because it takes some effort to get there and it is really hot in the day. We stayed at Casa Amarilla (the yellow house), which is a lovely place – although the staff was a bit hard to find at times.

We spent our 24 hours there walking around looking at the town, and we got to see a procession from the church next to our hostel, in preparation of Semana Santa in a couple of weeks. They had a float with the Christ carrying his cross, and stopped at different paintings, that were placed on tables lining the streets, to recall a story (is our interpretation). The whole procession must have taken hours, we only watched one block of it.

Tuva making new friends

Night procession

The cemetery in Mompox is really lovely, especially at dusk. We are not usually cemetery-lovers (nor, ruin lovers or museum lovers), but it just felt magical. There was also an insane amount of cats at the cemetery, very cute (and also not so cute) kittens everywhere! We even went back the next morning to see it at dawn and walk around the rest of the town when it still wasn’t too hot.

The cemetery

Burning lights

As for food we found a couple small restaurants by the riverfront, and sat down at one that, interestingly, served turtle stew (we chose the less adventurous chicken and pork). It was very rustic, but served very good coconut rice and a half liter (in a measuring cup) of fresh juice. At night we had a very good, and a bit expensive, pizza at restaurant El Fuerte, which is run by an Italian that cooks his pizzas in a stone oven he has made himself, alongside all his home-made furniture. He didn’t have any menu, he just asked us what we didn’t like and proceeded to cook a “pizza symphony” for us. Very yummy indeed! We also had some great coffee at “Star Coffe” by the Iglesia Santo Domingo.

Pizza El Furte

Some other interesting things we noticed in and around Mompox was the complete lack of traffic safety (we’re talking 5 people on one MC and no-one is wearing helmets) and their less than environmentally friendly way of throwing away garbage. It is normal to just throw whatever out the window of the car that you don’t need/want, resulting in the highways and surrounding nature looking like a big trash-pile. These things aren’t special for Mompox, but it seems that they are more normal on the countryside than in the big cities.

Colombian road safety 1

Our short stop in Mompox was absolutely worth it, we recommend it to anyone who wants to see something different and experience Colombia outside the typical tourist track!

Iglesia San Francisco

Iglesia Santa Barbara

Donkey

Rio Magdalena at dawn

More photos from Mompox and our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Strolling the streets of Cartagena

After our wet experience in Tayrona we were done with beach and were looking forward to a bigger city with some culture and history, and our next stop on our Colombian adventure, Cartagena, fit the bill perfectly!

Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with an old, walled city within and lots of colonial buildings. There are two main tourist areas in Cartagena: the old town and Bocagrande, a more upscale part with lots of American stores and fast food restaurants. We chose to live just outside old town and were very happy with that decision (Hotel La Magdalena – cheap and nice!).

The clocktower

Couples enjoying the sunset

We spent most of our time walking the streets, looking at the old buildings and churches, drinking coffee and soaking up the city’s atmosphere, which was very nice. One day we walked straight into the film set of a new Colombian TV-soap, unfortunately they didn’t need any Norwegian statists at the time..

We visited the museum Palacio de la Inquisicion (Cartagena’s history and the Spanish Inquisition) and the big castle Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, both good experiences. We also had some good eats, especially a Peru Fusion restaurant and the ice creams from La Paletteria (we also tried Gelateria Paradisio, but were not impressed..).

Paletteria 2

Visitor

Watchtower

We also considered going for a trip to the surrounding islands and to a man-made mud volcano, but opted out because of our time constraints and that they seemed like major tourist traps.

All in all we had some really nice days here, and Cartagena is absolutely a must-visit on a trip to Colombia, both for its history and culture, but also for it’s nearby islands and beaches (for those who want a taste of the Caribbean).

The postcard shot

Dat ass

Happy dog

Old and new lines

Amarillo

Sloping wall

Tourist-Tuva 1

More photos from Cartagena and our travels in Colombia can be found here.

Halfway through – 7 travel insights so far

Today we are halfway through our Latin American adventure, 109 days down and still 109 days to go (luckily)! We’ve had a blast so far and are looking forward to the second half. This post contains some of the things we’ve learned so far traveling.

Local bus

Be open to new people and experiences! We’ve met so many interesting people on the way, both fellow travelers and locals, and this has really made our travel that much more fun. We’ve learned to be open to the people we meet and the new experiences that sometimes result from the encounters. This has lead to our itinerary changing every other day and developing on the way, leading us to some places we hadn’t heard about just a couple weeks or days before. (NB: in some places, like bigger cities, you should still be a bit careful with who you talk to on the streets as there are a lot of hustlers out there trying to fool you..)

Don’t plan too far ahead! Ref. previous point, you will want to change it due to new information, loving where you are, bad/good weather, or new friends. We try to look one week ahead, but don’t book a hostel until a day or two before we need it, just so we’re sure that’s where we want to go. The downside is that sometimes we don’t get our first choice and/or have to pay a little more..

Learning a little Spanish is both very useful and a lot of fun! To be able to buy tickets, get a taxi, ask directions, order (the right) food at restaurants, book a room and have a simple conversation with a local will really enhance your travel. We spent 8 days in the beginning at language schools (in addition to duolingo.com and some audio-courses before we left), and it was so worth it. There are surprisingly few who speak English, even in the hostels.

Buses in Central and South America are excessively cold – so put on your pants and sweater/fleece and bring a blanket! It seems having A/C is such a luxury here that they use it as much as possible.

Time in Latin America is relative – if it says a bus takes 4 hours, it most likely will take 5 hours or more. Therefore we never plan bus rides or planes back-to-back. It’s kind of like money in the USA – you need to add 25% to the quota to find out how much you’re really going to spend.

You can never be too sure that what you think you’re paying for is what you actually get – check every detail and don’t assume anything. Travel agents will sell you the sunshine story and don’t tell you the things that can make you reconsider, so ask about everything that is important for you. For instance: a “direct bus” isn’t necessarily the same bus all the way.

5 things we’re really glad we brought:

  • Fleece jackets: they can be used whenever it’s a little cold (ref. the cold buses) and weigh almost nothing compared to how much heat they give.
  • Waterproof bag (the thick kind): it has saved our electronics many a wet boat trip and doubles as a portable laundromat together with some travel soap and a small clothes line.
  • Sandals: we both bought some just before we left (Mathias didn’t think he needed them at first) but we’ve used them almost 80% of the time on travel (at least Mathias), as closed shoes gets too hot/cramped and flip-flops are not always the best to walk a long time in.
  • Packing cubes and mesh pockets: both bigger cubes and smaller pockets that you can close and still easily see what’s in have really made our packing much faster and more efficient. It makes it easy to find the stuff you need and put it back in the right place. A time saver when we pack our bags almost every second day to move on.
  • Kindle and iPad: perfect for long buses/flights/waits, when you have nothing to do but sit. Tuva has so far read more than 25 books, which would amount to a really heavy bag if she opted for the physical kind instead of a Kindle. Also, the iPad doubles as photo editor and blog-reader.

Tuva and her beloved Kindle

That’s it so far. Today we came to Santa Rosa de Cabal in the coffee region in Colombia, after 5 hours on a roller coaster of a bus through beautiful scenery. We’ll spend tomorrow soaking in the thermal pools nearby and getting some nice, relaxing spa treatments :)

Must-have apps for travel

Here’s a summary of what we’ve found to be the must-have apps for when you’re traveling (long term).

First of all, this post will focus on apps for iOS, since both of us have iPhones and neither have very much experience with other OSs (although Mathias is seriously considering jumping the ship to Android..). Many of these apps might also exist on Android/Windows Phone and others probably have just as good replacements if not better.

Top 3 must-have apps

City Maps 2GoCitymaps2go ($1.99) is an offline map application. We use this basically every day and it is an absolute must-have. You need to download the maps ahead (by country, city or area), so know where you’re going, and then you have access to pretty detailed street maps with GPS positioning and also hotels, attractions, shops, etc. (some maps are more detailed than others). You can also add your own points of interest, bookmark and make a note on any point, which is quite useful!

XE CurrencyCurrency (free) is a very good currency converter and has saved us many times when we were scratching our heads trying to figure out how much an amount equals in NOK or USD. For travels in many countries with different currencies this is also a must.

 

iTravelWikisherpa / iTravel (free / $2.99) is an offline version of Wikivoyage (earlier Wikitravel) and it’s like having a really small guidebook with you everywhere. Of course it’s not as detailed as Lonely Planet, but some of the information is actually fresher and you also get Wikipedia-articles of some of the places. Also here you need to download the pages you want to view offline, but it’s pretty simple and fast. It’s worth noting that it has been a bit buggy and we almost gave up on the app (there were a lot of problems with Wikitravel), but since the latest update it’s been working better. A really good app for reading up on your destination on long buses and flights.

Apps for booking hotels and flights, and checking out reviews

All these apps have web versions that in most cases works better on the laptop than the app.

Booking.com Hotel reservations for 275,000+ hotelsBooking (free) the best and cheapest (we’ve found in average) booking of hotels, and good source for hotel reviews.

 

 

Hostelworld.comHostelworld (free) the best booking-app for hostels and a good source for hostel reviews.

 

 

TripAdvisor Hotels Flights RestaurantsTripadvisor (free) really good for checking out reviews on accommodation, restaurants and things to do. We use Tripadvisor almost religiously when coming to new places and finding out what to do and where to stay. The app is a bit buggy though.

momondo - Cheap Flights & TravelMomondo (free) a great app for searching for cheap flights. Checks many airlines at the same time and gives you the cheapest fares.

 

Skyscanner Alle fly, alle steder!Skyscanner (free) similar to Momondo, but have some different airlines, so it’s worth checking both to get the cheapest fares.

 

 

KAYAKKayak (free) very good aggregated booking for flights and hotels. We haven’t used it much, but got some very cheap flights when we booked flights from Panama – Santa Marta and Bogota – Quito together (multi-destination booking)

Other apps we use a lot on travel

Tweetbot for Twitter (iPad edition)Tweetbot ($2.99) is the best twitter-app we’ve used and lets you create drafts of tweets with geolocation wherever you are and then you can send them later when you have wi-fi available.

 

Camera+Camera+ ($0.99) is one of the best camera apps we’ve found, but what makes it extra useful is that it is integrated with Tweetbot so you can easily style your pictures with various filters and compress them (if you’re on a slow connection) before tweeting them.

 

SnapseedSnapseed (free) another great photo-app that has some unique filters and adjustments that Mathias uses a lot for his photos on both iPhone and iPad.

 

SkypeSkype (free) – you should know what it is already (IP telephony and video-chat), but what makes it even more useful when traveling is “Skype out”, with which you can add money/credit and call (and SMS to) regular phone lines all over the world at a lot cheaper prices than using your cellular network. We’ve used it a lot to call local numbers when traveling.

Viber - Free Phone Calls & TextViber (free) gives you free phonecalls and messages to others who have Viber. We’ve found it to use less bandwith than Skype when we have bad connections.

 

WordPressWordPress (free) is a good app for blog-editing and just checking up on blog activites and comments.

 

 

FlickrFlickr (free) is a good app for viewing pictures on Flickr and checking up on any activity on your photos there.

 

 

PocketPocket (free) is an app that lets you save blog-articles and web-pages for reading offline. Invaluable for long bus-trips or flights, or just on the beach.

 

Video Download - iBolt Downloader & ManagerFree video (free / $0.99) is the best video downloader we’ve found and lets you download videos from Youtube, Vimeo and other sites for viewing off line (it is a bit buggy though and tends to restart downloading some times, so please let us know if you have any better ones!).

So there you have it! The best travel apps, tested and approved by yours truly. Please let us know if you have any further suggestions in the comments!

Soakin’ in Tayrona

Our Colombian adventure started in Taganga, a small fishing village by the Carribean Sea, and also the closest town to Tayrona national park. We hadn’t heard much about Taganga, but we’d heard a lot about how beautiful Tayrona is and that it’s a must do on a visit to Colombia.

To be honest we weren’t that impressed with Taganga; the town beach is not impressive, neither is the nearby Playa Grande, restaurants are so-so, and it is generally rather dusty and dirty (we may be a bit blasé by our previous beach encounters in Nicaragua, though). We did have a good 3-course meal at the restaurant Babaganoush, which we highly recommend.

Shady street

Fishing boats

We spent a lot of the time in the hotel pool (see a pattern?), and a day at Playa Grande (a 10-minute boatride away). Playa Grande is a really busy beach, filled with beach chairs, restaurants, kayaks, pedalboats, tubes, masseurs, ceviche sellers, hustlers, snorkelers and people – very similar to European beaches in the most touristy places..and it’s not especially pretty. We had a very good lunch there, though, which was fried fresh fish at one of the many restaurants on the beach.

Playa Grande

Beach chairs

After 3 nights in Taganga we were ready to go to the much-praised beaches of Tayrona National Park! We booked a speedboat to El Cabo San Juan, the prettiest beach in Tayrona. The guy selling the tickets said that the sea was “like a plate”, giving us high hopes for a fun ride! No such luck – it was a bumpy ride in huge waves with the wind throwing bucketloads of water down our necks! Tuva has now sworn off speedboats for the rest of this trip..

El Cabo San Juan is beautiful, the rock formations are so special and the beaches are clean. Unlucky for us it was overcast.. No luck in the weather department, but still a good day. We decided it would be the most interesting to sleep in hammocks at the Mirador – a building on top of a hill overlooking the sea and the beach.

El Cabo San Juan

Panorama from the mirador

Hammocks at the mirador

Sleeping in the hammocks could have been the experience of a lifetime – we imagined clear starlit sky, big moon and lovely sunrise! This is not quite how it unraveled..

It started out good: it was tempered, a light breeze and we could hear the waves clashing on the rocks around us and grasshoppers in the distance. We had brought blankets for the cold night but didn’t even need them at first! The only thing that could have made it better was if the cloud moved to reveal a the starry sky, but oh well. Little did we know of what was awaiting us..

Calm before the storm

El mirador

After an hour or so we got a little drizzle. No problem, just refreshing. But it didn’t subside, in fact it increased a bit. Then the wind picked up and the blankets came on. Still okay, no problem sleeping here.. Then suddenly the heavens opened up and we had a blazing storm all around us! The rain and wind together soaked us completely – we had to hold the hammock closed over our bodies trying to keep dry. As the minutes crept by we got increasingly wetter and colder all throughout the night, and the only thing that kept us positive was that “It could have been worse, we could have had only shorts and t-shirt on, like the guy next to Mathias, sleeping in fetal position. At least we’re not freezing to death!”. So no sleep. And all wet.

The best thing we can say about the night is that it definitely was an experience! Not exactly what we pictured, but still an experience :)

It got even better/worse when we discovered that our little hill had actually been separated from the main beach by a river overflowing and digging out the sand! We had to put on our swimwear and pack our stuff in the watertight bag to wade across waist-high water with strong currents to get to the restaurant. When we got there we learned that mostly everyone was wet, many of the tents were flooded and in general people weren’t super-happy to be there.

Survivor

River

It continued to rain, but when we finally had to leave Cabo it actually stopped and we had a nice 2-3 hour trip through beaches and jungle to Cañaveral and the bus. The night in the hammock really made us appreciate the dry and comfortable beds when we got back to our hostel, Divanga B&B.

Into the jungle

Tarzan in the jungle

Our experience of Tayrona is a bit tainted by the whole weather situation (it actually was a tropical storm from Panama), but we could see that it definitely is a beautiful place and if you’re lucky with the weather you’ll be in paradise.

For anyone who wants to go to Tayrona, this is what you need to know:

  • You can go by:
    • Speedboat (1h, 40 000),
    • Shuttle (50 min + 2-3h hike, 15 000) or
    • Local bus (1-2h + 2-3h hike, 6000)
    • There is never calm sea, if you don’t like big waves or getting wet – take a bus!
  • There is a 37 500 park entrance fee (which seems to increase continuously)
  • You can stay several places from Cañaveral to El Cabo, but we found El Cabo to be the prettiest place and surrounding beaches, so it’s worth the trip
  • Hammocks costs from 20 000 p.p (you can bring you own tent for a bit cheaper)
  • Meals are not cheap, but no too expensive either (breakfast around 6000, lunch and dinner 15 – 30 000 at El Cabo
  • They have toilets, showers, changing rooms and lockers
  • Bring warm clothes for nighttime, it can get windy and chilly!
  • Pack all electronics in a watertight bag!
  • You’re not allowed to bring plastic bags or alcohol (they sell it though)

El Cabo beach 1

600hp

Wet and muddy, but happy

Taganga

More pictures from Taganga, Tayrona and the rest of our travels in Colombia can be found here.

100 days of travelling!

Today we’ve had
100 days on the road
100 days of new experiences
100 days of meeting new and interesting people
100 days of doing whatever we feel like
…and it feels good :)

100 days of travel

It’s been unreal and a lot of fun so far. We have celebrated the day with walking around Cartagena and a better meal at a Peruvian fusion restaurant in old town.

At  Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Here are some (more or less random) stats so far:

22 places
9 beaches
7 countries (11 with transit countries)
5 colonial towns

23 buses and shuttles
11 flights
11 boats

27 hotels, hostels, B&Bs and homestays/casa particulares
15 of these had “warm” water
10 meals prepared ourselves
6 nights in dorms
3 nights on a bus
2 nights in tent
1 night in hammock

27 days of prime tanning time
26 (fantasy) books read by Tuva
15 Norwegians met by random (more or less)
10 dives by Mathias
8 days of Spanish class (35 hours)
6 snorkeling trips
5 pairs of “Ray Bans” bought
3 pairs of “Ray Bans” destroyed
3 salsa classes
2 surfing trips
2 instances of severe sunburn
2 haircuts (both Mathias)
1 volcano climbed
1 instance of altitude sickness

10,000+ photos backed up (75 GB)
571 photos uploaded to Flickr (update)22 blogposts

Panamanian encounter

Our short Panamanian encounter started after 26 hours of bus from San Juan del Sur (or actually Rivas) and we were pretty beat up when we got to Panama City. We had 4 goals with our stay here:

  1. Visit Tuva’s friend, Maria, in Panama City
  2. See the Panama Canal
  3. Buy everything we have dreamed about the last months at a real, big, American-style mall
  4. Chillax at the San Blas islands

We managed to reach all goals with the six days we had, and then some. It must be said that if we’d had some more time we would have visited the cloud forest in Boquete and the beaches in Bocas del Toro, but because of our limited time we had to prioritize!

Tuva and the skyline

Tuva studied together with Maria from Venezuela in Lyon, France, 2007-2008 and lucky for us she now lives in Panama City, together with her husband, Fernando (also from Venezuela). We had two great evenings with them in Panama City. The first evening we went to restaurant La Mar, where we tasted some fine Peruvian cuisine (ceviche!), and the day after we got served a homemade Venezuelan dish, Arepas, together with some dangerously refreshing cold red-wine with 7-Up (try it!). Arepas is a dish based on a Maiz-flour patty, which you can find variations of all over Venezuela and Colombia, so we’re already looking forward to tasting the different varieties on our journey south!

Long lost friends

Apart from the mandatory visit to the Panama Canal at Miraflores and the Casco Viejo (old town), we also checked out the Causeway, where we got a nice view of the Panama City skyline, and spent a lot of time in the cool air-conditioned malls (it’s very hot and humid here!). It’s worth noting that we took a lot of taxis around town in order to not have to wait too long for buses, and that the taxi-drivers always will try to get you to pay the tourist price (= 3-4x normal price) if you are/look like a ignorant tourist. We talked to people at the hostel to get the real prices and ended up only paying a little more than the locals. Mathias really honed his haggling skills here and even managed to get one of the taxi trips under local fare (we think)!

The Panama Canal

Clean lines

Panama City skyline 1

Our next stop was a 2-night trip to San Blas, where we booked a private cabaña at Isla Iguana (Kuna name Aridup), one of the nicer islands on the archipelago. We left 6 in the morning in a 4×4 “shuttle” and the trip to the dock took about 2,5 hours: 1 hour on regular roads and 1,5 hour on what can best be described as a paved roller-coaster. The jeep takes you up 45 degree steep hills before you dive down into a just as steep descent with a sharp S-turn or two, in less than safe speeds and driving-profiles, making you glad you didn’t have a big breakfast before you left. If you are lucky enough to get the middle seat without neck-rest you will get a really good 1,5 hour core-workout.

We entered Kuna-territory and had to show our passports several times and pay miscellaneous taxes before coming to the place where the boats would pick us up to go to the islands (after an hour-long wait). Luckily our island wasn’t too far from shore, so we had a short boat-ride out. Arriving at the island was just as in the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, apart from the crazy pirates, with just a couple of palms sticking up from an otherwise desert island. When we looked closer we could also find some people there and some small cabanas.

Relaxing-Tuva

Scouting

We paid $50 per person per night for a veeery basic cabaña without bathroom and including 3 (basic) meals. Everything on the islands is basic, not surprisingly, as they lie quite remote in the Caribbean and are run by the local Kuna tribe. We found 2 nights to be quite enough and apart from just relaxing at the beach we also had a trip to nearby Perro island, where we snorkeled around a shipwreck and saw starfish (estrellas de mar).

Tuva happy with the luxurious cabana

The girl and the shipwreck

Free diver

All in all San Blas was a nice experience and could possibly have been better if we hadn’t had such great beach times just recently in Nicaragua.

If you want to go to San Blas you need to know the following:

  • It costs a lot to get there:
    • $60 in 4×4 both ways (you can probably do it cheaper by bus, but after having seen the roads we recommend the 4×4)
    • $12 in various taxes (keep your receipt! You need it to get out again.)
    • $20-$30 in boat, depending on the distance to your island
  • Everything is basic and the prices are pretty high (at least $26 for dorm and almost double for private, but it includes meals)
  • You should bring enough water to last you the days (we brought a gallon each) and some snacks for in between meals, as there isn’t too much to buy there
  • Bring your liner, mosquito repellent, sun-screen/after-sun, basic toiletries, beachwear, some cards/books, flashlight, camera, passport and some money – not much else
  • Some islands are more inhabited than others, resulting in more garbage and sewage and less idyllic beach paradise – check your island before you go!

Canoe

Calm

My favorite spot

Full moon rising

Beware of muscular joggers

Alien shapes

Panama was short and sweet, now it’s off to Colombia for a 3 week adventure starting on the Caribbean coast and ending in Bogota. More pictures from our travels in Panama can be found here.