Part VII: Panama

Saturday 9th – Friday 15th March

It is nigh on impossible to cross the border on foot between Colombia and Panama (and indeed South America and Central America) unless you are pretty handy with a machete and fancy your chances in the 160km long swampland that is the Darien Gap. I didn’t…plus I was loathe to get on yet another flight. So, from the comforts of my sofa back in Blighty, blissfully unaware of what I was letting myself in for, the decision was taken to sail across instead. Easy right?

In Cartagena, I meet Captain Jules Garzon Contreras who is to be the man for the job with his 42 foot sail boat the Perla Del Caribe. He spent some time navigating in Chile and Europe before settling into life on the Caribbean and has been plying this route on this vessel, and the Stephanie, for the last four years.

By the time I book the sailing, I have heard all sorts of stories about the crazy captains, oversold cabins, reef crashes and the terrible swell that plagues that route. So, it is unsurprising that when I show up to Club Nautico in Manga at 5.15am to board the Perle, I have packed more than a dash of trepidation in my backpack. As for the vessel, and in the words of Interpol’s Paul Banks ‘You’ve never seen a finer ship in your life’

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Somehow, sitting on the jetty watching the sunrise with the gentle clinking noise of the sailboat masts calms me though. I will look back on this as, quite literally, the calm before the storm.

My shipmates start to surface at 6am; German couple Jessi and Hendrik, Chris and Jay from New York, Norwegian pals Magnus and Ask plus Dutch Rob who will also be my cabin mate. I load my bags into our compact bunk bedded cabin and without (much) further ado, we head off, setting sail for pastures new and in turn waving farewell to South America and half of my entire trip.

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We motor out of the calm Cartagena bay, and hoist the sail for the first time.

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At this point, everything changes and it starts to feel decidedly rougher. My rule during flights is, if the attendants don’t look nervous, then neither should I be. I apply the same logic here. Jules and first mate Jose are so laid back they are practically (and literally at points) horizontal. Here we all are looking fresh faced and hopeful that the sea will look kindly upon us.

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Within the first hour, two big waves hit; the first soaking everyone in the boat, the second throwing me from my seat onto the deck. “Disfrutar! Será así durante las próximas 36 horas!” laughs Jules, which basically means we are in for another day and a half of this before we hit Panamanian land. Oh dear.

The first full day and night is brutal, people start to feel decidedly green around the gills (thank Cristo for my seasickness pills) and it’s hard to focus on anything but the power of the waves. After we see a cargo ship outside the port, we don’t pass a single other ship the whole way. We are joined by some bottle nose dolphins though who gracefully speed to the front of our ship to catch the fly fish swimming/flying there. I find a spot in the corner of the deck with a panoramic view of the waves coming towards us and it helps to steel myself for the expected onslaught of each one. Some of them, we are essentially surfing over the top of. Jules insists that this is relatively calm weather…I would NOT like to be out here on a bad day.

We settle into it a little more on the second day, filling the time by idly playing ‘Would You Rather’ (oh yeah Paul Valentine, we’re going global!), the Name Game, Dream Dinner Party and Country Capital Currency. This, at least, takes our mind off the waves and soon enough…land ho! Just as the sun is setting, the stunning, unspoilt and idyllic islands of Panama’s San Blas come invitingly into view.

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On the approach however, two very big waves head towards us, we estimate somewhere around the four metre mark, and even Jules has a fearful look in his eyes as the ship bobs around defenceless in their power. With a huge sigh of relief, and some rather nervous laughter, we survive to tell another sailor’s tale.

And with that, we all relax..

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Now we have three days to look forward to cavorting in San Blas’ crystal clear turquoise waters, exploring her reefs and devouring her seafood. There are 378 islands and cays in total, but only 49 of these are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people.

The first item on the agenda is conquering the smallest island we have ever seen. With only two coconut trees and a makeshift thatch lean-to, it is straight out of Castaway. We paddle out in the zodiac, by we I mean Hendrick and Jay (solid work gents.) Magnus swims across and makes it there ahead of us.

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There is little to do here but crack open fresh coconuts…

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Drink aforementioned coconuts…

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Grin smugly at finding paradise…

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Capture paradise…

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Lounge nonchalantly on driftwood

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And of course, stare at the sea.

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Some of us even somersault with glee.

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We lift anchor and sail away to the next islands two hours away and make our home there for a couple of nights, spending our hard earned cash at the island’s only bar owned by the delectably named Jonny Maracas. Here we stock up on rum and Balboa beers for the nightly aftershow. We even invent a brand new drink, which is a twist on the Coco Loco. The recipe is complicated but for those of you who want to try it at home:

1, Simply cut off the top of a ripe and juicy Maracuya (passion fruit to you and I)
2, Fill it full of golden rum
3, Eat eagerly with the biggest spoon you can find

Ladies and Gentleman, I give you, the Maroncuya. (Do you see what I did there?)

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Hendrik and I are its biggest fans.

It wasn’t long before talk amongst the boys turned to speargunning fish, but Jay was the only one to come up with the goods slaying a huge and ridiculously delicious Red Snapper. Jules was beside himself with glee and set about gutting it for our lunch.

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We were also introduced to our dinner before we ate it in some cases. Lobster tails anyone?

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Snorkelling was another favourite pastime, the best of which was around a 20 metre shipwreck seconds from the bay which hosted hundreds of colourful fish including my personal favourite the Giant Damselfish (juvenile) The were plenty of shipwrecks in the area serving as a warning to captains navigating the shallow bays and reefs.

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And so, the pattern continued. Exploring the islands…

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Eating very well and speargunning fish, some of which unfortunately could not be eaten. (Warning: Please do not look at this Angel Fish for too long or you might die inside)

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Snorkelling, and larking around on the boat…

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Sunbathing…

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Then sunset with a few rums.

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All too soon it is time to leave our island paradise behind, and head for Panama City and a brand new stamp on our passports by way of a little skiff boat and an overly air-conditioned 4×4. (Note the maracuya lollipop, Ask and Magnus had us all addicted to these by the time we reached terra firma. I am still twitching now…)

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Getting to Panama City is something of a rude awakening. Not only is it a far cry from the San Blas islands, but it is also the most built up capital city I’ve seen in South or Central America. It is beautiful in its own way, but coming to it from La Paz, Lima, Quito and Bogota shows just how Americanised it has become.

It is a whistle stop tour for me, as I have only two nights before flying north to Belize. So, I have to make it count. First things first, transiting the Panama Canal’s famous locks in a boat. It is a 48 mile canal which connects the Atlantic Ocean (via the Caribbean Sea) to the Pacific Ocean, and it’s completion in 1914 meant saving sailors up to four weeks sailing time and allowing them to cross the Isthmus of Panama avoiding the longer Cape Horn route and the dangerous Strait of Magellan. Here is the Isla Morada, the vessel that would take us from ocean to ocean. Thankfully I still had my sea legs on from the sailing.

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One careful owner, only the world’s most famous gangster Al Capone! It has also been chartered by Steve McQueen. Wowzers.

Being dropped and raised up 85 feet as you cross the the Pedro Miguel locks and the Miraflores locks is quite something.

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It is hard to get across in photography, but look at the water line on the wall in the last shot and it will give you some indication.

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There is time only for a night on the town in Panama City.

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I meet up with Inca Trail partner in crime Kim Sumner at the hostel, and we scoop up Jessi and Hendrick from our boat trip alongside new pals Lucy, Luca and Brett amongst others and head out for dinner at Lebanese joint Habibi’s complete with belly dancer. Afterwards, we head to the old town for a drink in Relic Bar and Mojito Sin Mojitio (you will never guess what I ordered) The latter provided particularly amusing reading material in the bathroom. Note sexual preference of the quail.

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En route, we re-enact what I’m sure is the punch line to a classic gag, how many gringos can you fit in a taxi? This many.

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Then it is a fond farewell to Kim, but only until we meet again in Guatemala.

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And another fond farewell to yet another country. Thanks Panama, promise I’ll come back and spend more than five days in your slim-hipped lands again. Honourable mentions and special thanks to Jules and Jose…for getting us across those seas in one piece. We salute you.

And the soundtrack was:
Interpol ‘Take You On A Cruise’
Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’
The Clash ‘London Calling’
Primal Scream ‘Screamadelica’
The Antlers ‘I Don’t Want Love’
Foo Fighters ‘Pretender’
Mos Def ‘Miss Fat Booty’
Jay Z ‘I Just Wanna Love Ya’
N*E*R*D ‘Lapdance’
Dave Matthews Band ‘Crush’
Kaisers Orchestra Various
The Doors ‘LA Woman’
Steely Dan Various
The Kinks ‘The Kinks’

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Part VI: Colombia

Thursday 28th February – Saturday 9th March

Step up Colombia, for your time is now. The splendours of the Galápagos Islands were always going to be a hard act to follow, but Colombia did indeed step up. I fly into Bogota with grand plans of travelling overland by bus north to the Caribbean coast before setting sail for Central America. In actual fact, extending my stay in Ecuador puts an ever so slight squeeze on my time in Colombia which demands that I take a flight north rather than suffer 18 hours in a bus. Watch me as I kick and scream…

Colombia has a chequered past of corruption and violence, and most people’s view of the country will involve a combination of illegal drug cartels, guerrillas and paramilitaries. It was the only country on my list to produce a gasp from those incredulous that I would dare to travel alone there. In fact, the security situation in the country over the last decade has shown signs of real improvement, and tourism has picked up significantly in the metropoles as a result. It is a very beautiful country, and doubtless I will be back there to get to all the places I couldn’t cram in on this trip. But first, the story of Bogota.

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Yes, Simon Bolivar, liberator of Colombia (among other, chiefly Andino, countries) is ever present here in Bogota with countless statues and museums devoted to him, the places he lived and even where he took his last breath. Plaza Bolivar is also in his name, but is less stunning due to the disrespectful, and quite talentless, graffiti art that festoons it.
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The first job on my list was to buy a new camera, so I go forth to megastore Akosto to upgrade from my measly Panasonic Lumix DMC TZ7 to a SZ20 (the South American equivalent of a TZ30) Suffice to say, I am happy as Larry with this upgrade.

A trip to the Museo Del Oro is a must to see how metallurgy developed in Colombia against a timeline of its South American neighbours. Of particular interest was the tribal significance that the headresses and burial jewellery had. 20130326-184839.jpg20130326-184849.jpg20130326-184855.jpg

Central Cevicheria is the first dinner stop for an outstanding Cazuela de Mariscos which is like a thick and creamy coconut seafood stew.

Aside from illegal drugs, Colombia is also famous for emeralds so I spend the next morning shopping for one. There is a whole shopping centre slap bang in the middle of the city dedicated to nothing but the stones in their natural and pure form. The first shop I step into I enquire to the female attendant as to the price of a dainty little necklace. It’s 8.3 million Colombian Pesos ( around £3K.) What’s Spanish for “I’m in the wrong shop love…” Once I find my own level, I settle into the haggle nicely and come away with a beautiful ring.
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Then, onto art of another kind. Graffiti art is completely legal in Colombia making its capital a hotbed of global talent. Street artist Christian Petersen, known as Crisp, takes a brilliant tour through the city’s best walls, which also tell a very interesting socio political story of the country. As luck would have it (set up) prolific Argentinean artist Rodez is finishing a wall as we amble by.
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We also see great work by Pez, APC (the largest graffiti group in South America), Crisp, Miko and Kochino.
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But my favourite is DjLu, who includes the phrase ‘Always Play’ in his work and has shied away from commercialising his work despite his fame, and earning power, in the country.
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It is a fascinating way to spend an afternoon in the city, and can be booked at Bogota Graffiti Tours

The walk works up an appetite, and I get more than I bargained for with restaurant/nightclub Andres Carne de Res (literal translation….Andy Beef) which the Footprints guide describes as ‘like being in a Tim Burton movie’ Boy, they hit the nail on the head
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Before dinner, I am propositioned by these three women…20130326-192603.jpg

…mesmerised by this dinner guest…
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…and bamboozled by a 50 page menu. My partners in culinary crime for this outing were the lovely Cindy, Jen and David from the biggest of big apples, NYC. Outstanding drinking partners they made too.
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So, following a sumptuous shrimp cocktail and a chargrilled Argentinean steak, the cocktails flow.

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The only slight black mark on the night was when the DJ played The Wanted’s ‘I’m glad you came’ How on earth did they make it all the way to Colombia?… Then we all bowl home in the wee small hours.

The phrase ‘No rest for the wicked’ also applies to tourists who evidently are paying off some bad karma in a previous life and force themselves to sightsee on the wrong side of a bottle of rum. We choose to take ourselves up to Monserrate, the mountain that dwarves Bogota, for unrivalled views of the city. Cable car up, and funicular down. That’s how we roll.
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It is Sunday so the sinners are out in force, having walked over 1500 steps uphill to repent and/or be thankful
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One of the best things about Bogota are the little art installations of people that stare down at you from above the shops and houses. Here are a collection of my favourites.
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So, a hop skip and a flight later, I land in Cartagena, undisputed heavyweight of the Caribbean coatline and the town most associated with pirates in the Caribbean. It is a very important city to the country’s economic development and has a beautiful fortressed colonial old town at its heart which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Despite its beauty, I don’t take many photos of Cartagena, mainly because I was exploring it with a guy who’d had his camera stolen whilst snapping happy a few days previously in Bogota (Hi Viv if you’re out there) So, let’s all take a minute to imagine colonial architecture at its best…..

…hang on, I did take one photo, although it is taken from the old town, so is not of the old town. Sorry.

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Anyway, one of trickiest tasks in Cartagena was watching Manchester United crash out of the Champions League…oh wait, that was easy. Trickier was trying to find a sailing from Cartagena to Panama City that suited my travel dates and my incurably high requirement for actual information. Turns out all of the (mostly European) captains that ply this route don’t have commercial licences, and as such it is all a bit underground and they are, it is fair to say, flahool with the safety standards including double booking cabins, drinking behind the rudder etc. Along the research path, I hear many horror stories including that of infamous captain Fritz who crashed and sank his 40 foot sailboat Fritz the Cat off the coast of Panama just last year because he was allegedly too shitfaced to see the reef. Right so. My expectations are low. Finally, I get some sense of impartial and genuine information from Lauren at Blue Sailing and meet Colombian captain of the Perle del Caribe, Jules Contreras. She’s a fine vessel, and he’s a fine captain having worked that route for five years. Plus, the dates work for my connecting flight to Belize and will ensure I have hang time with the delectable Kim Sumner when I get to Panama City. More on what happened next in the Panama chapter!

With this out of the way, the path is clear for a final few days in nearby Santa Marta which is the jump off for the stunning Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona along the coast to the east. Firstly, I have to commend La Brisa Loca for being the all time best hostel I have ever stayed at. I was not used to its super plush standards at all having come from Peru and Bolivia. Looky look, there was even a pool!

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Anyway, Tayrona is an area of stunning natural beauty and dual ecosystems as jungle meets beach. Think stunning sea birds alongside howler monkeys and iguanas. Full exploration requires a good four hour trek of the grounds but the rewards are stunning unspoilt beaches. I start off with Canaveral, then Arrecifes but decide to settle in a hammock on the coarse sand of little known Playa Arenilla.

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On the trek back to the park entrance, this little (possibly rabid) dog keeps me company. Thankfully he does so without licking my hand or biting me so the haemoglobin is safe for another day.

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Then, it’s back to Cartagena to prepare for the sailing trip when not only will I leave Colombia, but also South America for pastures new. Peru, Bolivia, Ecuador and Colombia, I doff my (sailing) cap to you.

And the soundtrack was:
The Maccabees ‘Given To The Wild’
Local Natives ‘Gorilla Manor’
Idlewild ‘The Remote Part’
Jurassic 5 ‘Jurassic 5’
Mogwai ‘Hardcore Will Never Die But You Will’
Captain Beefheart ‘Bluejeans and Moonbeams’
Crystal Castles ‘Not In Love’
Hooray For Earth ‘True Loves’
Editors ‘In This Light And On This Evening’

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