Category Archives: Colombia

Colombia to Panama Overland – Does Cheaper Mean Better?

Bee Says: As you may have guessed from our wildly ambitious 6 month schedule and the breakneck pace we have ploughed through South America: a driving force in our travel decisions has been to try as much as possible and to always opt for the off-the-beaten-track and less well travelled routes. This was the main reason behind a decision that we made early on regarding our pivotal crossing from Colombia to Panama (and therefore South America to Central America). The options to cross from Colombia to Panama are as follows:

1. Fly from one of the major Colombia cities to Panama City: Appx $300 per person.

2. Travel on a sailboat, taking a 4 day tour via the idyllic San Blas islands: Appx $400-550 per person.

3. The “newly safe” route via Capurgana (the Lonely Planet only declared it safe in September 2013, and have a full page spread in the latest South America on a Shoestring recommending it) that we opted for which consists of:

  • Travel to Turbo, a seedy town in the Golfo de Uraba in the north of Colombia. You will need to spend the night, in order to be at the dock bright and early the next morning to catch…
  • A lancha / panga (speed boat) that travels 3 hours to Capuragana, a beautiful Caribbean coastal resort. Another night here, and then…
  • A second speed boat 45 minutes into the first town in Panama: Puerto Obaldia where you will go through a lengthy customs search and interview, due to the fact this route is still occasionally used by drug smugglers.
  • In Puerto Obaldia you can link up to the 3-times-a-week Air Panama flights to Panama City (which you MUST book a seat on in advance, Puerto Obaldia is only reachable by boat or plane and as it´s sat in the middle of the Darien Gap… is not a place you want to find yourself stranded in!)
  • This route cost us (including all travel/accomodation) $147 per person.

On this trip, I have learnt that backpacking is a constant balancing act between budget, comfort and safety. There is a constant responsibility to stay within your financial means, but without cutting so many corners you endanger yourself. As you can see, taking the adventurous #3 route above was half the price of any other route and with the Lonely Planet heralding it as safe, we decided to take the plunge.

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We had been so excited to test out the new route and then to log on here and recommend it to our fellow travellers. Unfortunately, we are here to do the exact opposite. By reading our story you can make up your own mind, but I would advise everyone to AVOID this route at all costs and suggest that Lonely Planet on this occasion have woefully under-researched the journey. Safe is certainly not a word that springs to mind when I shudderingly re-live the experience.

Nick Says: On paper this trip sounded perfect – not very well travelled, lots of adventure, and a chance to save some mega bucks. It seemed like the type of trip I had enjoyed taking in the past, and got us off the luxury buses and flights we’d been taking recently. In fact, it was nice to have to think for ourselves again! We started nice and early on Boxing Day, getting to Cartagena bus station and finding transport for Monteria (there’s no direct route to Turbo, the destination of the day, meaning we had to do it in two stages). Once crammed aboard our tiny little bus, we set off on the supposedly 4 hour journey. A word to the wise, set off as EARLY as possible if you ever find yourself on this route. It takes forever! 5 hours later we were nowhere near Monteria, and the bus pulled into a nameless station. We were then all booted off and piled onto an even more smaller bus, where the previous 2 inches of leg-room felt like a luxury from a Shah’s royal palace. Bee took the opportunity to go to the loo, leaving me with a Spanish phrase to make sure they waited for her. Obviously cue the bus engine roaring into life, and me desperately repeating the phrase as they drove off with Bee still at the station! For some reason, the driver wanted to park the other side of the road. Slightly agitated now, I looked over in no small relief as a clearly bemused Bee was led by a guy I’d never seen onto our bus and back to me. I’m still none the wiser why it couldn’t just wait for her!

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A bumpy and dusty hour later we were finally in Monteria, and in the waiting arms of the bus touts. I didn’t think it was possible, but somehow these guys had found an even smaller bus to cram us onto for our next 4 hour ride – this time to Turbo itself. 6 more bumpy and dusty hours later, we arrived in darkness to our destination. Kindly dropping us at the hotel we wanted to stay at (which we’d been unable to contact before getting there) we set on our way, 12 hours after leaving our Cartagena hostel. We quickly found our hotel, bounded up the stairs, and found there were no rooms available. Dang. So we went back into the delightful streets of Turbo, but this time the guy behind reception came with us in order to show us another potential hotel. After pointing us in the right direction, we got there and found… no rooms. Hmmm. Turbo is not really the place you want to be stuck in at night with nowhere to go… We quickly walked back to the main drag praying something would turn up, and luckily the travel gods listened to us. I’ve found on almost every trip I’ve ever been on that if you place yourself entirely on the mercy of human kindness, you’ll never go wrong. Most people will genuinely want to go out of their way to make sure you’re ok. And so it was with Ron, the first hotel’s reception guy. He had followed us to the second hotel to make sure we were alright, and then spent the next 20 minutes personally escorting us around Turbo to find accommodation, even picking up another lost traveller en-route. Once he had completed his quest and safely deposited us (at a delightful hotel that possibly charged by the hour), he gave us a cheerful wave and was on his way. A true Christmas miracle.

Bee Says: We slept fitfully on our plastic sheeted bed, waking up at 6am and desperately keen for a shower. Only… this wasnt just an Aguas Caliente lie, this was an Agua in GENERAL lie, and we found the shower could only muster a few drops of dribble before giving up entirely. Therefore, as we trundled down to the dock, the main concern on my mind was how smelly I might appear to our fellow passangers. This soon took a major nosedive in terms of things to worry about! We had researched a few blogs prior to the trip, and the consistant piece of advice was to sit near the back of the boat, as the crossing is notoriously choppy. To be fair to Lonely Planet, they had hinted at this… claiming the ride was so bumpy “if you still have your teeth intact at the end of it, itll be a journey you never forget”. For this reason we were sat at the dock, names first and second on the passenger list, 3 hours before we departed therefore feeling confident about our chances at the back row. Sadly when the time arrived to embark, locals with ID cards were called to the boat first and snapped up the luxury back seats, leaving us and a couple of other travellers with the misfortune of foreign passports to be herded onto the dreaded front row.

Within moments of setting off, we had the sinking feeling we’d made a terrible mistake. The main problem was that it was a flimsy 30-seater power boat that had 3 whopping engines attached to the back (legal…?) and so once we set off the power was so strong that the front where we sat, was almost vertical! The ocean had a 3 metre swell  and storm clouds were swirling in, yet it soon became clear that the captain (in his waterproof mac and ski goggles) didn’t care about anything other than gunning the engine, getting us as fast as possible over that crossing and pocketing the money. This meant that every wave we hit, we were launched into the air and would come crashing back onto the wooden seats with a crack. This happened over and over. Locals were crying, people were screaming in pain, it was absolutely traumatising and a waking nightmare of collective fear. Waves came from every direction and every few minutes we would be launched so high off our seats that you’d have this sickening few seconds of total awareness before you landed of just knowing how much pain was about to course through your body… but there was nothing you could do to stop it. I have certainly never felt anything like it, and before long I was hunched over with every nerve ending from my head to the base of my spine shrieking. 

Because Nick is constantly putting my needs above his own, when he realised how wounded I was feeling, he twisted round to comfort me. He spent ten minutes just lifting me out of the seat to try and absorb the shock impacts himself. He sang little made up songs in my ear and whispered how brave I was being. It was at this moment that we got smashed by the hugest wave yet, sending Nick in his twisted position back into his seat with a crunch, swiftly followed by his agonising screams. Something was very wrong. We had a terrifying few minutes thinking he had broken his back or slipped a disc, and we were in the middle of nowhere with an hour left on this hellish journey. There was a small glimmer of fortune in that shortly after we pulled into a small fishing village to refuel, and at least we could check that Nick could stand and hobble, reassuring us slightly that he hadn’t broken anything. It wasnt reassuring really though, as he was white as a sheet and murmering in pain. As we boarded to set back off, we pleaded with the locals, but no one would give up their back seat for injured Nick (I dont blame them) so he had to take a seat next to the captain. He found the back less bumpy, but was absolutely drenched for the duration alongside his i-pod (sorry, k-pod) and Casio watch. Which do you think survived? Good old Apple! I remained upfront and had an agonising hour of being apart from Nick and having horrific imaginings that he was in so much pain he might faint and fall overboard, and generally fretting none stop that I couldnt comfort him or even see him.

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After what felt like forEVER we docked in Capurgana. The stories we began to hear from locals who noted Nick´s condition were fast-flowing and harrowing; ranging from the uncomfirmed reports that two weeks earlier 14 people were thrown overboard and some were left out at sea, the numbers of people who arrive with smashed teeth, ruptured spleens… oh and that days previously a Taiwanese lady was so injured, the military had to airlift her out (as the worst part is that Capurgana is so isolated it can only be reached by boat or plane – no roads) Take the tales with a pinch of salt, but it was shocking to hear that even the hostel owners and tourism officials raging so publicly about this cowboy operation!

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Nick Says: Now I’ve had my fair share of incidents while travelling – ribs broken by a Thai boxer, a night in the Darwin A&E dept, chased by wild dogs, attacked by Indian jungle bees, and a mishap with a pot-hole in Albania. But this was the most scary and painful of all. The pain was sickening, and coupled with the genuine terror that I might have done something permanent! So I almost wept with relief when I discovered I could still walk. i just couldn’t do much else. Seizing up and with limited mobility, we got ashore at Capurgana. Luckily my reservations I had fired off hopefully into the void several days earlier (and never heard back from) came good, and we were soon ensconced in Luz del Oriente, a fantastic hotel right by the dock in Capurgana. After settling into one of their Lord of the Rings themed rooms (ours was Gandalph. No explanation or apparent reason at all why this Caribbean resort had produced this small tribute to Tolkien), the owner provided us with ice for my back and the advice that I should get myself to the clinic for ‘the injection’. The fact that there’s a well known injection for people in my position and pain says it all really. So we hobbled into the ramshackle health hut, where a lovely Colombian lady doctor made sure nothing too bad had happened, and then invited in a nurse. Who proceeded to pull down my board shorts and stick a needle into my bum. So this was ‘the injection’. After handing over $20 for that privilege, I then received a prescription for lots of amazing drugs designed to help me, and settled onto the floor for two days of recovering before the next part of the trip.

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In any other context, Capurgana would have been a potential trip highlight. It’s a remote, unspoilt, Caribbean gem. The water looks lovely (and is apparently warm), the people are super friendly, and there a ton of activities to do. But not for me or Bee, who spent our time recovering from the trauma of our crossing. Unable to even dress myself, Bee had to become my carer. I could hobble down to dinner (where the table had to be dragged over to me, as I waited whimpering for food) but that was about the extent of my adventures. In fact the only good thing about my stay in Capurgana was that I was able to get an amazing hat with a crab on it to replace my poor Panama hat, which was another victim of the Turbo boat. When I had bought it we had jokingly put a bet on how long it would last. Neither of us expected a mere 4 days! He burned brightly and briefly.

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After what seemed like an instant, it was time to leave South America behind and enter Central America. It wasn’t really the way I had anticipated doing it, but it was dramatic. Using previously unsuspected strength, Bee managed to haul both our bags, both daypacks, and me down to the dock, where we got in a tiny motor-boat destined for Panama. What a difference a captain (and lack of three super-charged engines) make. Despite even larger waves, we skillfully weaved our way through the ocean with barely a bump. I think we both breathed a huge sigh of relief. I was even ready to let him off the fact he may be smuggling Class A’s along with us and our luggage. Within 45 minutes we were putting ashore in the tiny town of Puerto Obaldia, the first major settlment in Panama. Although there was really nothing major about it. I remember thinking that I couldn’t see where the airport would be, which was a worry considering Bee’s dislike of tiny aeroplanes… But these thoughts were quickly chased out of my head as we waded onto dry land (no docks here) and trudged into customs. Luckily we were prepared for how thorough they would be, otherwise it would have been a shock after the light-touch ways of the South American borders. We had to unpack everything we owned and show them to a stern looking man (cue confusion over what Bee’s contraceptive pill was. She finally explained in Spanish that it was for ‘no baby’ causing much hilarity for the woman queuing behind) who would flick through everything. It was a good opportunity to see just how much tat we’ve gathered up so far. I NEED that wooden ludo set dammit! Then we set on our way to the border control. What a difference a passport makes. We had travelled over with some Colombian tourists, and they had to provide print-outs of bank statements, $500 in cash, and answer quite a lot of questions. One look at our EU passport, and we were waved through without a care in the world. The Colombians were quite rightly a bit miffed, and asked why, which just made the official demand even less of us. I might have well have saved myself 50 quid on the Yellow Fever vaccination for all the good it’s done us here. Anyway, once through that gauntlet we could finally check in. Except it was hard to find the Air Panama office, There was this shack down a road with an Air Panama sticker on it, but that couldn’t be it could it? Well, obviously it was.

Bee Says: I like flying. I dont like small spaces. Get me on a standard Boeing jobby, the type we have zoomed around from the Galapagos, and I am a happy sky soarer. However, the thought of the teeny tiny propeller planes has always turned my stomach, to the point that we didn´t bother with the Nasca lines as I wasnt sure I had the guts to get in one. We had booked our flight to Panama City online and with Air Panama. We had been told the flights get busy, so I had assumed we would be getting a standard big plane that would be packed with passangers. The first hint that this might not be the case, was when we headed to the Air Panama shack, to check in our backpacks. They were weighed, and we turned to leave, when the local man (who turned out to do EVERY air related job single handedly, from check in, to baggage handling to donning a flurescent tabard and waving the plane in…) tapped me on the shoulder and explained that I needed to be weighed too. I laughed in his face! I thought it was a joke! From his frosty face I swiftly realised it was not a joke, and sheepishly stood on the scales whilst making horror-movie faces at Nick over my shoulder and saying through gritted teeth “JUST how SMALL is this plane if they need to weigh ME??”

Like good air travellers, we had given ourselves two hours to “get through” the airport. Turns out, in this case, the airport was an empty room with a fan in it, next to a landing strip. Oh and gaurded chummy Panamanian military man, who chatted away to us in Spanish whilst gesticulating wildly about the varying temperatures in North Panama. This would be great, except he regularly used his huge rifle to gesticulate with. Right at us. As we waited, a plane landed and out hopped a comically large number of soldiers from the tiny 20 seater vehicle. I looked at Nick and shook my head sadly. “No way can I get on that”. As it turned out, I should have begged them to let me in it, clinging to the wing and refusing to let go… because suddenly a tiny Hummingbird flew into view. Oh I’m sorry, an aeroplane disguised as a bird. It was SO SMALL. I didnt have time to freak out, as the pilot herded me into one of the EIGHT SEATS.

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We were lucky enough to be seated right next to the pilots, who both looked about 19, and spent the majority of the flight rotating between huge arm stretching yawns or rummaging around on the floor for a lost pen. Despite my doubts, I actually enjoyed alot of the flight. The views were incredible. Unluckily we hit a ton of thick cloud turbulance 30 minutes in, and I was the only female onboard to make it through the few-hundred-feet-drops without crying! Note how the man next to me is also weeping, leaving Nick to comfort his teenage daughter who was in a real state by this point. It is times like this that my Spanish homework really pays back, as I knew how to say to her “you are so brave” and I hope she believed it.

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The bumps werent fun, but I have to admit, the rest of the flight actually was! The most rewarding part was seeing Panama City suddenly jut out of dense jungle, and our pilots gave us a real sight seeing treat as they landed us with mindblowing views of the Panama Canal. By the time we landed I was on the biggest adrenaline high of my life and just gobsmacked that I had spent an hour in that tiny tincan of terror and hadn’t had a nervous breakdown, especially as I was still quite jittery after the boat of doom and fretting about Nick’s back! In fact, I would get in one again (maybe on a clearer day)… just maybe not for a few weeks. We have had quite enough excitement for a little while.

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Nick Says: We had been warned that getting through customs once at the airport in Panama City could take upwards of 4 hours. And so it was with only a little enthusiasm I greeted the announcement that we had to go into the special police offices behind a little door in arrivals. Luckily for us though, but unluckily for them, it was our Colombian travel buddies they were interested in. While they were both hauled in for lengthy interviews with a man with a gun, me & Bee sat around for half an hour, answered a question about when I was born (which I didn’t even understand) and then skipped on our merry way. After 4 days of travel, a near disastrous boat journey, and an adrenaline pumping fall through the skies in a tiny tin can, we had made it to Panama. We were in Central America.

Was it worth it? Well I guess we’re several hundred dollars better off and we’ll have a story we can tell forever (if we had flown the blog may have been a bit shorter), but overall I don’t think I’ll be repeating this particular trip. While not scared to get back in another speed boat, I’ve definitely got a healthy respect for them now, and will be demanding to sit at the back! Getting soaked is preferable to permanent back injury. We’ve also been told horror stories about the sail boats, although also some tales which made me want to do it too. So for ease of use, and most importantly safety, we would recommend you fly from Colombia to Panama (or vice-versa). I love pushing myself, and love travel adventures, but at the moment this trip is too dangerous for us in good conscience to say go for it. I hope they sort the boats out between Turbo and Capurgana, and I really hope nothing bad happens anytime soon there. Although I think it already may be.

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Christmas in Cartagena

Nick Says: Ah Christmas. A bearded, fat, and jolly Santa. Reindeers frolicking in snow-scenes. Tinsel around the palm tree. Wait, what?! Welcome to Christmas in the tropics my friends. We arrived in Cartagena ready to embrace another party hostel but unlike Pariwana, the dreaded Cusco experience, this time we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. After the wilderness of Tayrona, it was time to come in from the cold (or rather the 35 degree sweltering heat) and get ourselves some company.

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Once arrived at our festive home of Mamallena, we quickly settled into our barn like room and set out exploring Cartagena. Based in Getsemani, the former red light district turned trendy hot-spot, we were minutes away from reaching the walled old city. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities on the continent, and has a long and famous history, including being destroyed by Sir Francis Drake once upon a time. It now has a beautifully preserved centre which is probably the most gorgeous looking urban place we’ve seen thus far on our trip. Crumbling colonial buildings and churches sit on cobbled streets which spill into plazas bedecked with lights, music, and people enjoying themselves. Even the police seemed in on the action – one officer delighted in showing us the latest recruit to the force, a tiny, playful puppy. Although to be fair, the cops did swing into action later as a drunk guy decided to stage a one man protest about, well something I guess, in one of the plazas. Sadly his protest seemed to mainly involve him banging his guitar (never once strumming it) and shouting incoherently while several old guys drank beer and laughed at him. The other excellent thing about being back in a city, and particularly a vibrant, tourist filled South American city, is the sheer amount of street sellers peddling their wares for you. Be prepared to want several things you hadn’t even known you needed as you woke up that morning…

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Bee Says: On our first morning in Cartagena, Nick had made a big decision. In the couple of months prior, his travel beard (or as I liked to call it, his Mr Twit beard) had grown into a luxurious chin mane. He had become very attached to this new facial addition, constantly asking me to “pet the beard” or give it a stroke. I was less attached to the beard, especially the prickly kisses. Given that we were about to do the dreaded Colombia-Panama crossing, which due to its preference by narcotic smugglers includes an interview with customs officials, Nick eventually decided he might look less sketchy if he went and got a nice cut throat shave. He woke up early and ventured out to find a barber.

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An hour later he returned with his shiny smooth face AND wearing a panama hat, that he had bought off a man on the street. He basically returned a different person to the one who left! His lust for souveniers only grew as the day went on, and as I was queuing to buy some market food, I turned to see Nick purchasing an authentic Colombia football shirt from another guy on the street! Not that I am questioning the fact its real, but I do wonder why it only has 2 stripes down the arms instead of the usual Adidas 3… Something I enjoyed about Cartagena was the food. Quel surprise! On our first night, sleepy from the 6 hour drive and stupid from the hot hot heat (topping out at nearly 40 degrees) we staggered to one of the closest nice looking places called iBalconi. I picked it because you could sit out on beautiful balconies overlooking the old town, but didnt realise I was had unwittingly taken us to the best pizza in Colombia… maybe even South America! We opted for the 4 cheese, which basically was a chunk of dough drowning in a gooey cheese lake.

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The street food in Cartagena is magnificent. I got completely addicted to arepas which are a cornmeal potatoey mix, stuffed with cheese, and grilled on hot plates on the pavement served oozing with melted butter. There are also a team of beautifully dressed local ladies, who trundle the streets with bowls of fruit on their heads, and serve up the freshest exotic pina, papaya and melon salads. I should probably confess that we also went on a special mission to seek out the legendary Cinnabon in the Mall Plaza, not quite so traditional but soooo sweeeeet.

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Nick Says: When I could drag Bee away from the street food sellers, we also managed to bag ourselves some culture in Cartagena. One of the finest museums they have there is the Palace of the Inquisition, an incredible looking colonial mansion where hundreds of poor souls were taken, interrogated, and never seen again. The lower floor displays the history of this period, and has a list of questions they used to ask women being accused of being a witch. There were over 30 of them, and ranged from the (almost) reasonable, ‘Are you a witch?’, to the really oddly specific, ‘Which 7 beasts attended your dark wedding?´’. We then got to see some of the fun medieval torture devices the holy men uses to prove people’s guilt, before our path led us out to a lovely orchard garden, complete with this season’s must-have ornaments – gallows and a guillotine.

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After indulging ourselves in some more arepas and beer, Bee’s longing glances at the horse and carriages got the better of her, and she went off ‘just to check on the price’. Next thing we knew, we’d bargained ourselves an amazing deal and were trotting off to see the rest of the old town. We clattered through the streets and peered down alleys, fought off buskers (no senor, I do not want to hear your rendition of Pretty Woman, no matter how much you tell me it’s the tradition in Cartagena), accepted the amusements of a clown, and then surprisingly saw two of our fellow Tayrona travellers, an English girl named Nicola who was travelling with her Mum. Considering the last time they’d seen me I was bearded, vest-wearing, and living in a tent, to see me trot past cleanly shaven on a horse drawn carriage… they did well to recognise us.

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Bee Says: We had selected a lively hostel with the aim of adopting a new festive family to share Christmas with. This certainly paid off, as within a day of arriving we met Jon and Shaz who are a vivacious British couple who have been living in Sydney for 6 years and taking a Latin American detour en route home to return to London. They in turn introduced us to Ro and Pooj, an Indian-Australian couple who had just got married in Cusco and were Honeymooning. Add to that a pair of amazing Dutch girls who taught us how to twerk (a vital life skill) and a couple of other British lads, and we had a huge Christmas crew to venture out with on Christmas Eve.

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Nick Says: Earlier in the day we’d spotted that most traditional of Colombian eateries, the Hard-Rock Cafe. Joking that this is where we would spend Christmas Day dinner, it was with a sense of destiny our group trudged in on Christmas Eve to tuck into burgers and chips. In our defence it was the only place open… Once filled with carbs and meat, we then returned to our hostel. With all the locals celebrating their Christmas (the heathens do it on the 24th rather than the 25th), it was up to us to make the party. And the only way to do that was to down far too many shots, take over the bar’s sound system, blast Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody and gather the four Brits to bellow out the words. Small wonder then that me and Jon seemed convinced it was a good idea to search the streets at 5am looking for a rooftop bar a drunk guy had told us about.

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Bee Says: Christmas Day was.. odd! It didnt feel at all like Christmas as I applied sun cream and started sweating the moment I opened my eyes. Slack old Santa had failed to find us in Colombia, but Nick had bought me a new CLEAN teeshirt and I bought him some explorer books for the kindle. I skyped my family, but the Wifi was frustratingly dodgy, probably due to overloading of similar travellers making similar calls. We made attempts at various phone calls to family and friends all day but never with too much success. The best part of the day was at 3pm, when Mamallenas wonderful staff put on a full chicken roast dinner with all the trimmings, INCLUDING Yorkshire Pudding which bought a tear to my eye. I even got to feed some to the parrot, who loved it of course, forming a lasting memorable Christmas miracle moment. Despite the fact I was far from home, it was lovely to share the day with new friends and fellow backpackers, with everyone swapping stories and sharing the feast.

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The best part of Cartagena? We saw Santa driving a pimped out scooter!

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Into The Wild: Colombia

Nick Says: After the dreamy paradise of the Galapagos Islands, it was time to get back to reality. Luckily for us, our current reality is backpacking round some of the most exciting environments on the planet. Phew… But thanks to illness and extended time playing with sea lions, we were now distinctly behind schedule. We had to be in Cartagena for Christmas, and to make it there in time plus fit in some of Colombia we decided to fly. Or rather fly 4 times in 2 days, including Friday 13th! First up we bade goodbye to island life, and hopped on a flight back to the mainland. After a brief stop in our beloved Guayaquil (not allowed out for a Sweet & Coffee sadly) we then flew on to Quito.

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We’d heard much about Quito. Sadly none of it was good. However, we’d also heard a lot of bad things about Venezuela and that turned out pretty well for us. We never got the opportunity to see for ourselves as the brand new Quito airport is about 40km away from the city, with no real road yet completed there. We heard horror stories about it taking hours in traffic to travel there and back, and not fancying either the $50 round trip fare or the possibility we’d miss our 6am flight the next day, we made use of what seems to be the only hotel nearby, the Quito Airport suites. Run by a young couple, it seemed a bit of an undiscovered gem. They picked us up and dropped us off hideously early, made us a delicious home-cooked chicken meal, and basically provided us with everything we needed (including a TV that was playing Fast & Furious: Tokyo Drift) for our brief one night stop at a cheaper price than travelling into Quito and back.

Early the next day we boarded a flight to the final stop in our South America adventure, Colombia. I’d been most excited about visiting here out of all of South America, and couldn’t wait to see if it lived up to the hype every other backpacker we’d met and who’s been gave it. Landing in Bogota, we were stamped through with one of the stranger border crossing questions I’ve had (‘Are you from Miami?’) and then it was time for a leisurely breakfast. With our flight to Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast at 11.05am we had HOURS. More than enough time to slowly eat decadent scones and stroll around. Until we noticed there was no flight to Santa Marta at 11.05am. There was however one at 10.05am. Which was in about 20 minutes… Cue our panicked run through the airport, hurried rush through check-in, a comical lining up in the wrong boarding queue, before finally getting the right gate. And finding our flight was delayed until 11.05am. Of course.

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The first thing we noticed upon landing in Santa Marta was the muggy tropical heat. We hadn’t felt this since Venezuela and Brazil, and within minutes we were sweating those scones off. The second thing we noticed was a tiny bemused looking dog on the luggage carousel, endlessly travelling round and round awaiting collection, her tiny pink bow wilting in the heat. After a break-neck paced ride to the hostel (I think drivers only have one mode of driving in South America, and that’s basically ‘F*ck you other drivers!´… plus maybe this guy had watched Fast & Furious the night before too?) we were able to unwind after our two days of crossing from islands in the Pacific, to the Caribbean Coast. After our months of slowly inching around the map by buses and cars, it felt like some sort of magic we’d stumbled across and harnessed. Then I cracked open a beer and sat by the pool. Santa Marta, little did we know, is home to the worlds best (says us) Christmas lights, so we spent alot of time wandering around them. Our favourite was the giant light-up whale. So festive!

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The next day we set off for the nearby town of Minca. If you’re ever in this part of the world, I highly recommend a visit. Up in the hills of the Sierra Nevada, it’s slightly cooler than the coast and super chilled out. We travelled with a lovely Belgian family (the daughter lived in Medellin, and her parents were visiting for Christmas. Quite a turnaround from their initial statement that she would only go to Colombia over ‘their dead bodies‘) and spent time swimming in cool river spots, driving through scenery familiar to fans of Romancing the Stone (which the Dad delighted in re-enacting scenes from for us), and finally taking a tour of a coffee farm called La Victoria. The place was amazing. Built originally by a British company in the 1890s and named after our then Queen, it still uses the original machinery to sort and produce the very best coffee beans. It was liking stepping into a timewarp where the industrial revolution was still a living memory. I half expected it all to be steam-powered, but hydro-electricity had been harnessed in this forgotten mountain corner of Colombia. Our 21 year old guide was super enthusiastic about showing us the run of the farm and factory, and as always you never appreciate just how much effort goes into something as simple as a cup of joe. However, like most of South America it was quite difficult to actually get nice coffee in Colombia – they seem to prefer instant. At least at the farm we found out a reason for this dearth. The best beans are only sold to Europe – the locals just get all the lesser standard stuff. However, they did save some of their best for a tasting at the end, and it was some of the best coffee I’ve ever had.

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Bee Says: From Santa Marta we got a heaving ramshackle bus our to Palomino, where the only spare seat meant that I had half of my leg stuck out the broken rear door for part of the journey… oh and a huge piece of meat (that belonged to another passanger) wedged beneath my feet. This was also the same bus where a man got on carrying a SWORD. He seemed like a nice enough fellow… but still. Weapons are big news in Colombia, mostly farmers with machetes and policia with guns, but we drove past plenty of military casually aiming rifles at the road. I think this is one thing I will never get used to, and being in such close proximity to all of these items brings me out in an insteant sweat sheen. No one else seems fussed though, so we just have to accept it and be muy tranquilo. Palomino is described in the Lonely Planet as being one of the undiscovered gems of the Caribbean coast, where you can stumble across fishermen grilling their catch on the beachfront. It certainly isn’t that rustic anymore (the signs for yoga and surf lessons are a sure sign that the Gringo trail has reached this sleepy resort); but it still had a lovely remote vibe, with only a handful of hotels and hammock huts, and 3 restaurants to choose from. For our first two nights we treated ourself to a Cabana, a traditional palm-thatch building with an outside bathroom… Check out the view from our morning shower!

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It was shaping up to be an idyllic night of beer, star gazing and after a slap up meal of fresh-caught fish, we walked hand-in-hand back to our cabana. After time in the Andes and Galapagos, we’ve had a welcome break from mozzie bites. However, in Palomino, they were back with a bitey vengeance and makes us irritated. For this reason, before we left for dinner, I had slung up my sacred mozzie net and spent ages pedantically making sure there wasnt a single gap between bed and net, so no pesky mozzies could get trapped inside. Upon our return, Nick got straight into bed. Then I got into bed and spent another protracted 5 minutes messing with the edges of the net and smoothing it down, all the while my big tropics-hair getting caught in the net and generally faffing around. Eventually I settled down, lifted my head, and at eye level was a SCORPION. On the INSIDE of the mosquito net. Yep! I have never seen one in real life and was frozen with fear… watching it with its tail reared, dangling procariously next to my bare body! Nick, who is so  cool as a cucumber in all deadly situations (and we are racking them up on this trip!) suggested helpfully that it might be an earwig? to try and calm me down! Luckily we both rolled gently out of bed without getting jabbed, we sprayed the spikey guy with DEET and then shovelled it into the toilet. I love it when my northern-ness rubs off on Nick and was so proud to hear him exclaim “he’s a hard bastard!” when the scorpion was still alive in the loo. We still have NO idea why the scorpion got inside our mozzie net, and never will, but we have since found a hole where he must have chomped his way in. Anyway we are so lucky that we spotted him… or it could have been a real fright in the night! Safe to say we didn’t sleep so well in our luxury cabana and had that constant “oh my gosh something is crawling on me” feeling and kept setting each other off with the creeps. To get in and out of our cabana we also had to run a gauntlet of sprinklers, which were all pointing at different directions, making merely leaving our room like a challenge from Crystal Maze… where one of us always got drenched.

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We spent our next three nights slumming it in a dorm, but deciding people were a preferable sleep companion than creatures. We had a gorgeous few days of lazing on the beach, drinking cold beer, exploring the local area (and drinking in the beautiful view of the snowcapped Sierra Nevada mountains) whilst enjoying the mini safari of less-deadly animals that visited us: huge bats, bright green lizards, mocking birds and my favourite; hummingbirds that gathered at every flower like butterflies. I also got to do my first Yoga of the trip (why was there such a lack of it everywhere else?!) and started off with a nice easy Hatha Yoga class, split into stretches, breathing and meditiation all whilst sat listening to the lapping waves of the sea. I felt fantastic afterwards and signed up for a class the next morning. As I appraoched the class… something was different. There was only two people there and it was a different teacher. All the same she welcomed me over and mentioned something in spanish about Hatha Yoga, but I now realise she said HIGHER yoga. Uh-oh. Queue the most intense hour of my life, where any position I couldn’t get in (most) she man-handled me in and out of!  There was NO meditation, just more and more advanced body-tangling mind-melting stretches. All the while, I was being seriously glared at by the other pupil (tanned Spanish boy with dreads and nose-ring) as I think he had been hoping for a 1-on-1 session with the very beautiful and supple instructor! I crawled back to Nick afterwards and spent the next few days with a distinct hobble. Hardly zen! That night was our last in Palomino paradise, and also happened to be a full moon, so we gatecrashed a beach bonfire and sat for hours staring wideyed at the beautiful night sky. This had certainly been a trip-highlight, and despite Scorpion attacks and loco yoga, we felt like we had just had an absolute taste of tropical movie-tyle beach perfection.

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Nick Says: What to do after spending four days on a beach paradise? Go to another one I guess, except more remote. And so it was that we found ourselves on a bus (spookily the exact same one we caught from Santa Marta to Palomino. We recognised the drivers assistant who had a tendancy to hop out of the moving bus, then return in lightening-quick speed with weirder and more extravagant purchases, water, coconut, ice cream sundae!) 50 minutes down the road about to check out the legendary Parque Nacional Tayrona. I’d been wanting to visit here since I was about 18. I’d read about how it was a undiscovered travel gem, then a top backpacker pick for Colombia, until it’s current status as one of Colombia’s tourism mainstays. It’s one of those places I’d read about countless times, dreamed about visiting, and now was in a state of almost disbelief that I was on its doorstep. We hopped off the bus at the main entrance of El Zaino, and promptly celebrated by eating an ice-cream and eating chill-cheese Dorito’s (perhaps their finest ever flavour). Then it was time to enter the park. After getting our wristbands, we hopped on a taxi-bus for the 10 minute drive to the main ‘town’ of Canaveral. From there we set off on our hour long jungle hike to Arrecifes, where we hoped to find some cheap lodging. Picking up a new travel buddy en-route, a German girl named Anne, we clambered up over rocky paths, though vines, and over beaches as we caught glimpses of the incredible scenery that awaited us. A monkey high above us gently lapped at a coconut, dripping agua de coco over us. It seemed as if we venturing into the complete unknown, until we rounded a corner and met a guy selling ice-creams.

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Tayrona is built for exploring. It’s easy enough to find paths and locations, but big and wild enough to take a few turnings and get totally lost. While Bee spent the day swimming and diving for treasure at la piscina (literally translates to swimming pool as its the only swimmable part of coastline in Tayrona) me and Anne decided to see if we could make it to a jungle location known as Pueblito. After a quick swim in the gold-flecked waters that lapped Tayrona, we left Bee on her beach towel and set off. Still early, we pretty much had the park to ourselves and made it quickly to the main tourist spot of Cabo. While an undeniably beautiful spot, it felt maybe a bit too touristy for our Robinson Crusoe fantasies and so we quickly left. However, we also unwittingly left behind the path to Pueblito. Venturing onto yet another white sanded beach, the crowds began to thin. Wanting to check if we were going the right way, me and Anne approached a sun-bather to ask, and realised we would be addressing our question to his hairy bum and balls. Yep, we’d walked onto the nudist beach. Back into the jungle it was, where apart from occasionally stepping onto the beach to get some light, the air was thick and heavy, and termite nests swayed in the branches above us. Meeting some friendly Colombians, who spent each Christmas visiting the park, we found out that Pueblo was still another 2 hours away, and maybe could be reached on this path, Figuring that Bee might think I’d been eaten by monkeys, who had undoubtedly grown tired of coconuts by now, I headed back, once again at Cabo, Anne turned into the jungle barefoot to conquer Pueblo. Hours later she emerged at our campsite, to tell us Pueblito was just a few huts, and a tough muddy scramble up almost vertical paths. I felt smug drinking a beer at that point.

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Bee Says: I think 7 years of living in London has lit a desire in both Nick and I to find the most inaccessable places to visit. Tayrona is certainly up there, as once you are ensconsed in jungle you can relax in the knowledge that you are hours of hiking away from roads, cars and crowds. We arrived to Arrifices and the first campsite was mega$$$. The classic tip to never stay at the first place you find, massively paid off. Admittedly to find Don Pedro we got lost 3 times, had to hike through 3 rivers and then follow a dirt track into seemingly nowhere for 20 minutes until suddenly! There it was! Don Pedro was an oasis in the middle of the dense green, ok so it was basic but it had everything you need to cosey up to your fellow Tayrona travellers: Cold tins of beer, long tables where basic criollo dishes are served up at night, and hut showers. We had been planning to stay in hammocks, but it was only $2 more to have the luxury of a tent (bite protection is always best) so we made our home in the tent (photo above) which was perfectly comfortable even if it did get alot of night visitors snuffling out food. One night my foot was even nuzzled from the outside by what I think, from the silhoutte, was an armadillo! My favourite thing to do was once the sun had set, head out to the wilds with my head torch on. I’ve never seen anything like the HUNDREDS of eyes gleaming back at me from the dark, relected in my light. The seemingly pitch black wilderness was suddenly glowing with night dwellers. One night, after Nick, Anne and I watched the sunset on the beach, we walked back only to be swooped at  by a vast black creature with blood red eyes! None of us could get a torch on it quick enough to identify the species of our attacker, but it was the stuff of nightmares. Luckily it took one whiff of our stinky hiking selves and bogged off into the black. Of course, like everywhere in South America, there was no cars, no electricity and no wifi… yet somehow there was cable TV (served from a noisy generator) where the campsite crew would huddle to watch cartoons.

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Not being a natural adventurer, the one thing that tempted me into this remote jungle was the TRAVEL LEGEND that somewhere… deep beneath the canopies… was apparently the best pan au chocolate in South America. It’s hinted at in Lonely Planet and people who have visited Tayrona whisper hished directions to the bakery as they pass in hostels and bars. We ended up hitting jackpot with our campsite, as it was a mere 2 minute stroll (follow the irrisitable smell that starts wafting to your tent at 4.30am!) to pick up these giant chocolate loafy beauties, which fill you up all day for hiking and swimming. You could easily walk past the small shack serving up these  unexpected delights, and it seems totally surreal that they existed so far from all other home comforts. Forget yoga, stuffing my face with these is my happy place!

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We actually didn’t want to leave Tayrona. We had so much fun in our jungle existance, and were also enjoying witnessing a blossoming Romeo and Juliet romance between the camp site manager Raphael and our adopted hija Anne. Luckily for us, as he tried to woo her, we benefitted with the occasional free treat from the tuck shop! His seduction techniques paid off when he left a piping hot pan au chocolate outside her tent one morning – surely the way to any ladies heart! By the time we left we had got a bit hike cocky, so trying to get back to Canaveral we took a wrong turn and ended up lost on the horse and mule path! This scenic route took us up and over boulders, clambering cliffs to avoid muddy hoof-trodden bogs and at one point, over a long plank of rickety rotten wood… where if you fell off one side was a spider the size of a dinner plate… the other was a stinky pool of stagnent water. Safe to say, we all made it over in double quick speed. We spent most of the walk alone but every once in a while we’d hear a yell and have to leap to the side, as horses carrying cargo and  food galloped past! Finally we reached Canaveral and from here it was a swift jeep back to the main entrance, then a mini bus, and back to Santa Marta. We felt like different people to the ones who had entered a few days earlier.  The dense jungle, the white sand beaches and the water that literally glitters with gold mineral flecks… it left us in awe.

Nick Says: And so it was we returned to Santa Marta feeling almost like we were going home. In our last time there we had enjoyed the home comforts of an air conditioned mall, watched The Hunger Games at the cinema, and gone to such exotic locales as a supermarket. After a week spent on the less developed coast of Palomino and Tayrona, we returned stinking, dirty and beardy (Bee had let herself go). So perhaps it was no wonder that security guards followed us round any shop we stopped in at… But that didn’t really matter, as we were back in civilisation for one reason – date night at the cinema to watch The Hobbit. Despite having no idea what the elves and orcs were saying (Spanish subtitles), I felt wrapped up in almost a sense of December normalcy, watching an epic on the big screen. However, the next day we would be off to Cartagena for Christmas, and pushing ever closer to Central America, which we hoped to reach by a slightly more adventurous route than the usual plane or sailboat… TBC…