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If It Wasn't For Those Medellín Kids...

Medellín

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The loose plan for the remainder of my adventure is for a whistle-stop tour around northern South America, spending some time in the Amazon before heading up to the Caribbean islands. Exactly where I'm going and how I will get there I have not yet decided. The countries are much bigger than those in Central America and distances between places are vast. It appears that internal flights are relatively cheap and will provide an alternative in the likely event that I get fed up of interminable bus journeys.

The first interminable bus journey I took was from Santa Marta (a taxi ride away from my hostel in Taganga) down to Medellín in central Colombia, a mere 15 hours. Thankfully the bus was quite spacious - until, that is, a woman with a fat arse got on and sat next to me, dangling her oversized posterior over my half of the seat. The bus had free wifi and plugs to charge things up, and showed films on screens embedded in the back of the headrest of the seat in front. Liam Neeson does not sound so menacing threatening Albanian sex traffickers when dubbed into Spanish.

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I spent six days in Medellín, a couple more than I would have if I'd got myself organised properly. I stayed near Parque Lleras, a small but lively square surrounded by a lot of bars and restaurants, however I didn't meet many people as my two hostels there were very quiet and sparsely populated.

In the evenings, the square would fill up with a mixture of local teenagers and gringos, mainly drinking cheap beer bought from behind the grille of a nearby offy. As the evenings wore on, the area also attracted individuals wearing red jackets who would wander around selling snacks and cigarettes from boxes around their necks like ice cream women at the pictures. It was difficult to escape these persistent irritants and I must have rebuffed them 50 times in my time here. Invariably, they also did a sideline of weed and cocaine ("the best of the best" I was told). Also hanging around were scantily-clad young Colombian prostitutes who propositioned me on a number of occasions. My Mum will be pleased to know that I kept my money in my pocket on both fronts.

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I did a couple of tours in Medellín, the first of which was a five-hour walking tour given by a very passionate 'paisan' individual called Pablo.

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One of the more striking buildings on the tour was the Rafael Uribe Uribe Palace of Culture, designed and built by a Belgian architect... or at least partially built. He got so annoyed by the people of the time whingeing about the design that he packed up and left, leaving them to finish it themselves. They found it too difficult so just built a wall next to it with a couple of simplistic windows.

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Around this palace and elsewhere in the city (and in fact in cities all around the world) are a series of sculptures by Medellín artist Fernando Botero, mainly depicting people and animals with exaggerated features, typically making some of them extremely fat and others disproportionately small.

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Pablo took us round a lot of places which 25 years ago would have been very dangerous, largely due to the criminal underbelly that thrived here under the auspices of one of the most notorious drug lords of all time - Pablo Escobar. Escobar headed up the Medellín drug cartel that dominated the global cocaine market in the 80s and early 90s. Extreme violence was commonplace in the fifteen years or so before Escobar's demise in 1993 and, in fact, Medellín was regarded as the world's most violent city during this time, 6349 people being murdered in the city in 1991 alone.

One such no-go area is now the Parque de la Luz in Plaza Cisneros, a square containing bamboo gardens and 300 tall poles, each of which lights up in the dark. Probably more spectacular in the evening but it was still pretty impressive in the daytime:

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Parque Bolívar was a pretty little park, the centrepiece being a statue of Simón Bolívar on horseback. It seemed to be the hangout for the local down-and-outs, with people living in tiny tents and cardboard boxes, others selling a variety of wares from shopping trolleys and the unmistakable odour of cannabis pervading throughout.

The final stop of the tour was to a park where 25 people were murdered when a bomb exploded during a concert there in 1995. A bag containing the device was placed next to a Botero bird sculpture, and the damaged original remains there to this day alongside an identical version built subsequently, together representing the old and new Medellín.

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Our guide never referred to Pablo Escobar by name in an effort to avoid upsetting local passers-by who often take offence at him continuing to associate the city with Escobar after all the strides that have since been taken to move on.

Medellín has Colombia's only metro system, completed in 1995. Given that it was built in the face of such corruption and violence, it has come to symbolise the city's progressive transformation into a modern urban city. For that reason, its trains are treated with respect - there are no damaged seats, graffiti or scratched windows, unlike, for example, the Tube in London. In 2003, Medellín actually beat off 199 other cities to win the 'Innovative City of the Year' award, given by the organisation with the world's most boring name, the Urban Land Institute.

The second tour I signed up for was one specifically dedicated to Escobar's life. I was already interested in him thanks to a fantastic book I read years ago called Killing Pablo, about the lengthy (illegal) operation by the Americans to track him down, in the misguided belief that his death would aid Ronald Reagan's futile 'War on Drugs'.

The tour was mostly spent in the back of a minibus while our guide gave us the facts and the driver took us round half a dozen or so locations relevant to Escobar's life.

In the 15 years or so after Escobar's ascent to the helm of the cartel, nothing got in his way - individuals in positions of power such as police, judges and politicians were either bribed or killed. In 1989, he had a plane blown up, killing 110 people, in the mistaken belief that a particular political candidate was on board. Bars and restaurants closed down as no-one was brave enough to go out in the evenings.

At the same time, Escobar cultivated a Robin Hood image for himself amongst Medellín's poor, building facilities such as hospitals, churches and football fields in deprived areas, successfully ingratiating himself with the impoverished locals. This allowed him to rely on them to provide and/or conceal information as necessary, and also to secure votes to further his political ambitions.

As a lot of shootings were carried out by people on motorbikes, a law was passed forbidding riders from wearing helmets, in order that perpetrators could more easily be identified. Still to this day, it is illegal (for men) in Medellín to ride pillion on a motorbike.

At its height, the Medellín cartel controlled 80% of the global cocaine market, bringing in $60m per day in the process. This made Escobar one of 227 billionaires in the world in 1989 according to Forbes magazine.

Some of that money Escobar spent on his own private zoo. After his death, the animals were rounded up and transported elsewhere... with the exception of the hippos, which proved too troublesome to capture so were just left to roam about as they pleased. They inevitably bred, and as a result the Medellín area is the only place in the world outside Africa containing wild hippos.

Escobar eventually received his comeuppance when he was tracked down using radio triangulation to a house in a middle-class area of the city and shot as he tried to escape out the window over his neighbour's roof. Our tour took us to this house, which is still there and now apparently occupied by a family of four.

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Despite Escobar's death, and the associated decrease in violent crime, the drug industry itself has remained largely unaffected. Once the Medellín cartel ceased its operations, a different cartel based in the city of Cali just filled the gap and the status quo was quickly restored.

Anyway, that's more than enough about Pablo Escobar. Another part of the city's regeneration is the cable car that runs from the edge of the metro system into the deprived barrios in the hills of Medellín's outskirts. I took a trip over this area on my way to Parque Arví.

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It was rainy and miserable at the park so I didn't spend much time there but even so, as nice as it was, compared to other parks I'd seen in recent weeks it didn't stand out that much.

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One valuable lesson I learnt in Medellín was not to go on iTunes after a few beers. I bought a few albums including one by a band I've never heard of (Grouplove). I doubt I will be listening much to 'Hits of the 1960s - 100 Original Hit Recordings', despite including such classics as 'My Old Man's A Dustman' and 'Tie Me Kangaroo Down Sport'.

OK, one more Colombia instalment to look forward to, and then it will be on to Ecuador.

Posted by LordGibil 17:00 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

Creature From The Blue Lagoon

Cartagena; Taganga

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I left you last on the ferry from Panama to Colombia with revolting hot dog sausages lining my belly and the aroma of smelly feet flowing through my nasal passage.

The port from where I caught the ferry was in the city of Colón on the Caribbean coast. All the travel websites had described Colón as a highly dangerous place with nothing to see and a high likelihood of being mugged if you dared to walk around at any time of day, so I was keen to spend as little time there as possible. Based on the area near the bus terminal, 'shithole' would have been a pithier and no less accurate description. So, I got a taxi straight away to the port despite it being five hours before departure. Despite explaining (in Spanish) a number of times that I wanted to go to the port and take the boat to Colombia (and showing him my 'Ferry Xpress' ticket), he didn't get the message, so I got to see some slightly less shit parts of the city before we finally arrived.

There were no facilities at the port, not even anywhere to buy a bottle of water, so I was glad when we finally boarded. Naturally, within half an hour, all the gringos had found the tiny bar hidden away at the back of the boat. As with the ferry I took in Alaska, the 20-hour journey passed by in no time. At least this time I had the foresight to download some podcasts to keep me occupied. View of Colón from the ferry bar:

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My initial destination, Cartagena, was the first Spanish settlement in South America, founded in 1533. It is billed as Colombia's most romantic city ("the Venice of Colombia" according to one website, despite there being no canals) and the country's most popular honeymoon destination and accordingly has plenty of plush hotels and fine dining options. There are beaches here but its principal attraction is its Old Town, a walled area full of beautiful colonial buildings, colourful houses and interesting sculptures.

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I spent a few hours meandering around the Old Town in roasting hot temperatures - mid-to-late thirties Celsius, and humid with it. Outside the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower), a group of young Venezuelan missionaries attempted to convert me to Christianity - a futile venture to say the least. One of them told me she believed this was not a chance encounter and that God had brought us together to allow them to show me the way. Now I am one of the few people that likes Jehovah's Witnesses coming round as I enjoy a good-natured argument, but I managed to suppress my inner Dawkins on this occasion, not least because their English wasn't the best. My new friend said a prayer for me and we went our separate ways.

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I'd heard that Cartagena was expensive, especially within the old town, but I didn't find it that bad. Converting currencies accurately has never been my strong point, and here I had to divide everything by 3800 to get from pesos to pounds, but by my reckoning it was around £1 for a bottle of beer and £10 for a hostel bed. I found a fantastic cafe called El Zaguán where I could get a delicious 3-course meal and drink for about £7. And get it I did, on each of the three days I was here.

After a lot of walking around and a lot of sweating over the course of the three days I took a bus along the coast to a village called Taganga. A bus with no legroom that was late setting off, meaning I got to enjoy the company of a load of boorish American 'jocks' for an extra hour. The driver paid scant regard to road safety - double lines and 'no overtaking' signs not applicable to him for some reason (or to lots of other drivers too, to be fair to him). Despite this, it still took five hours to arrive rather than the advertised three. Thankfully, the American oaves fell asleep pretty quickly so the rest of us got some peace and quiet. After not being annoying for two hours or so, they made up for it by waiting until we were about to set off again from the half-way stop-off point before deciding to go to McDonald's.

Like Cartagena, Taganga was really hot and humid, but as it was a village it didn't take long to walk around and get a feel for the place. Up until as recently as ten years ago, Taganga was a small fishing village, but in recent times has become a popular place for backpackers due to its proximity to beautiful beaches and sea-based activities. In the main it consisted of a series of bars/restaurants and tourism services and seemed pleasant enough, but I was warned a couple of times not to walk back to my hostel at night (about ten minutes away). Despite the increased income brought in by tourism, it seems many locals are not seeing any of it and poverty/crime here is a problem.

My hostel - Casa de Felipe - was pretty good so I hung around there in the evenings instead. It was a big place with a decent bar and restaurant - and several cheeky cats.

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The highlight of my time here was a hike around Tayrona Park. There are two ecosystems at work in the park, apparently, between the mountains and the sea, meaning lots of interesting animals live here, and exotic-sounding birds with names like military macaw, black-backed antshrike and lance-tailed manakin. None of which I saw.

A group of us started the hike at Cañaveral, passing through Arrecifes and ending up at Cabo San Juan, each of these places being nothing more than a series of food and drink stalls and campsites.

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The hike initially took us through the forest for an hour or so, occasionally encountering people riding horses through the narrow pathways. Hazards on the forest floor, other than equine excrement, included leaf-cutter ants that marched frantically back and forth across the trail, creating a smaller trail of their own in the fallen leaves and undergrowth. I wondered what would happen if I picked up a leaf-carrying ant, put it down somewhere and removed its leaf. The answer is that it did not attempt to reclaim the leaf, instead simply rejoining its comrades on the trail and heading off in the same direction as if nothing had happened.

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The trail eventually took us close to the park's beaches. Even though I am not a fan of beaches, I do agree that they generally look nice - and the beach at Cabo is up there with the nicest I've seen anywhere in the world. It was hard work whittling down all my photographs to those uploaded to the gallery and the couple thumbnailed below.

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Lovely as they were, the beaches were not the best part of the day. Walking by a lagoon next to the beach at Arrecifes, I stumbled across a ten foot caiman, lying there at the edge of the water with its mouth open. Now I'd seen a couple of caimans on a kayak tour in Ometepe but this was much more memorable as it was totally unexpected. I only managed to take one photo as I clumsily dropped my bottle of water and the startled beast scuttled off back into the lagoon.

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That was it for northern Colombia. Next, I headed south away from the beaches and down in the general direction of Ecuador. Only 50 days til I come home...

Posted by LordGibil 17:22 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

Panamaniacs

Panama City; El Valle de Antón

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This instalment covers my time in Panama City, most of which was spent in the company of my mother who was here to join me for a ten-day holiday. In my last update I left a few cliffhangers:

Will she find her way here in one piece?
She turned up all right, on time, but minus her suitcase which had been mislaid by Delta Airlines in Atlanta. She also had a pronounced limp after suffering ankle ligament damage. A proper footballers' injury, she sustained it not after a bruising kickabout but after falling over at home three weeks ago. It had not improved and unfortunately was to mean we didn't get to walk around as much as we'd hoped over the next ten days. The bag turned up 24 hours later.

Will I misplace or irreparably damage any of my other valuables?
Yes. Things started off well as the 8-hour bus ride from David was in a very comfortable double-decker. As we set off, a young local stood at the front giving a rapid-fire speech in Spanish that made everyone laugh for 20 minutes or so. The comedian turned out to be a jewellery salesman and just when he'd got everyone in the palm of his hand, out came the bracelets which he managed to shift several of before he disappeared.

Anyway, the missing valuable in this case was my wallet. As I got out the taxi at the hotel I went to pay but it had vanished, never to be seen again. I lost around $150 (Panama uses US dollars), $50 in other currencies, five bank cards and my driving licence. It must have been half-inched out my pocket between getting out the bus and in the taxi, a period of around five minutes. Fortunately, one of my lost cards was due to expire and my mother had brought the replacement card out with her, so I am able to withdraw money.

Will the luxurious hotel improve my mood?
It did but that was tempered by the wallet incident. The hotel was a Best Western, so good but not top of the range, but by the standards I was used to it was like a palace. Very comfy beds, air conditioning, a tremendous restaurant and a cocktail bar/pool area. It was just what I needed.

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Will I ever stop whingeing?
I wouldn't have thought so.

We generally took it quite easy, partly because of Mum's ankle, partly as it was very hot and partly as that was what we felt like doing. These are the highlights of the ten days:

Casco Viejo (Old Town)
We took a couple of walks around here, popping into various market stalls and gift shops along the way. The centrepiece of the area is the very picturesque Plaza de Francia, a square dedicated to French efforts in building the Panama Canal. Also around here is the presidential palace (not that we could see it as the road was guarded by the military) and the impressive Metropolitan Cathedral (Catedral Metropolitan de Nuestra Señora de la Asunción to give it its full name) amongst other colourful buildings and pretty plazas. We also saw a 'vomit fruit' tree, the same fruit that I'd seen (and smelt) in Tortuguero.

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Panama Canal
As impressive as canals get. Ships use the canal to get from the Pacific to the Atlantic or vice versa, a journey that takes around 8 hours. To lessen the amount of excavation needed, construction of the canal included creating an artificial lake (Gatun Lake) between the two oceans. This lake is 26m above sea level, so locks operate at either end to allow ships to complete the crossing. We watched a couple of ships sail through from a viewing platform built into the Miraflores Locks museum situated next to the canal. Mum disappeared at one stage for half an hour and I had to get them to put an announcement out to find where she was.

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Brief History lesson: A French company began construction of the canal in 1881, but eight years later they went bust after underestimating the amount of work required. They also lost the small matter of 22,000 workers, predominantly recruited from the Caribbean, most of which succumbed to yellow fever or malaria. At this time it was not known that mosquitoes carried these diseases. The Americans eventually finished the job off in 1914, and in fact they still controlled the canal until 1999 when it was handed over to Panama.

There are two lanes through the locks, and a third is now being built to increase capacity and allow larger ships. The Nicaraguans have also started building their own canal, which will be good for Nicaragua but not for the environment, especially as it goes straight through Lake Cocibolca.

Isla de Taboga
After queuing up at the crack of dawn to get tickets only to find they'd sold out, we eventually got a boat over to Isla de Taboga. The most interesting thing about the boat trip over was that one of our fellow passengers had a blue dog which was happy to pose for photographs.

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The island is a common destination for the city's locals and tourists alike, principally for its lovely beach. We walked round the local village for a while in the blazing sunshine, then Mum found some shade while I hiked up to one of the island's highest points, Cerro de la Cruz. The trail wasn't initially clear so I was inadvertently wandering around people's back gardens for a bit before a friendly local pointed me in the right direction.

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Amador Causeway
This was a long thin strip of land connecting the mainland to three small islands Naos, Perico and Flamenco. It was built from rock excavated from the canal construction to act as a breakwater to protect the canal's entrance. We hired a buggy and pedalled along the causeway and around the islands for an hour and a half or so. It should have given great views of the city, but one side was boarded up due to construction work so we made do with the Pacific side where pelicans were doing a spot of fishing.

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Parque Natural Metropolitano
This park, close to the centre of the city, consisted of five hikable trails, each about 1km long. We did three of them and saw a fair bit of wildlife - a couple of agoutis (that look like a cross between a rat and a rabbit), turtles, loads of leaf-cutter ants and a couple of colourful birds later identified to us as a squirrel cuckoo and a yellow-backed oriole. No monkeys or sloths, although they did apparently live there.

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The top of one of the trails gave great views of the city:

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Restaurants
There were several on Via Argentina, the road by our hotel, and we tried most of them. The best by a long way was a Caribbean place called El Caribe - fantastic jerk chicken with all the trimmings (i.e. rice, chips and plantains) plus the ubiquitous bottle of hot pepper sauce. One place was showing the Harlem Globetrotters on telly, who I'd not seen since the 80s and forgotten about.

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New Phone
My damaged phone still hadn't shown any signs of life so I decided to get a new one - the iPhone 6, which I had planned on getting on my return to the UK anyway. After a lot of research into whether the version bought in Panama would work in the UK, reading contrasting opinions ranging from 'it definitely will' to 'it definitely won't' and everything in between, I concluded that it would so took the plunge. All working fine so far.

Carnaval
Panama City held its 'Carnaval' over four days whilst we were there. This was initially good news, but after speaking to a few of the hotel staff it no longer appealed to me, especially with my mother and her dodgy ankle. As it was a public holiday a lot of the locals buggered off out of town, meaning shops and restaurants were closed, including when I first went to buy my new phone. It also explained why Taboga Island was so busy. They selfishly snaffled all the water supply from the local area; Irish Paul's hostel hadn't had any for three days so he got a taxi to our hotel for a shower.

Navigating round Panama City is made all the more difficult in that there are hardly any street signs. The easiest way to get about is by taxi. That typically involves being quoted a price double what you finally settle on, then settling in for a white-knuckle ride with no seat belt. Here on the road it is every man for himself. The most important part of a Panamanian's car is seemingly the horn, and it was no surprise to see several cars missing body parts or with a caved in wing or broken windscreen.

All in all, a very relaxing ten days and just what the doctor ordered from my point of view, apart from it just being good to see my Mum again. She set off back to Lincolnshire, via Amsterdam and Manchester, and thankfully arrived home with no luggage problems. And she took with her a load of stuff that I no longer needed, including the infernal painting I'd bought in Guatemala and carried around in a cardboard tube ever since. Having such slimline backpacks has made a big difference already.

I spent one more night in Panama City, in the Luna's Castle hostel in the Old Town area, a place full of remarkably attractive young people, and me, where you could get a beer for 50 cents in happy hour. I needed to work out what to do next and decided on getting a ferry over to Cartagena in Columbia.

It was now Saturday and the next ferry wasn't until Monday so I took a minibus two and half hours southeast of Panama City to El Valle de Antón, a town residing in a 6km-wide volcanic caldera. The Bodhi Hostel in which I stayed had only opened two months ago so was brand new, with sleeper carriage-style triple bunks.

In the morning I visited a serpentarium. Bill, a short long-haired old fellow from Florida, was a very enthusiastic guide and was bursting with snake facts that he couldn't tell me fast enough. For example, all non-venomous snakes are shiny and all venomous ones are not. One cage held a two metre-long fer-de-lance similar to the kind that I had a close encounter with in the Brazilian jungle in 2003. The staff passed around a somewhat less dangerous rainbow boa for visitors to hold.

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There was also an enclosure with loads of turtles, a couple of caimans and a crocodile. Bill was bleeding from a wound inflicted by a snapper turtle, and he yanked it out the pool tail first to show me it. It had a neck like Mike Tyson.

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After lunch, like Walter the Softy from The Beano, I went to a butterfly house, a big walk-through cage containing about seven different types of butterfly and some annoying children.

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The next day, I embarked upon a mammoth 30-hour journey to Cartagena in Columbia. But not before I'd had some disgusting hot dog sausages that I bought from the local supermarket. It was tough to tell whether I had to take the plastic skin off, but either way they were fit for the bin.

Right now I am eating up time on the 16-hour ferry from Colón to Cartagena. It's nearly time to go to 'bed' (i.e. a reclinable seat) but I went there earlier and somebody nearby had very smelly feet so will stay up for a bit longer yet.

Posted by LordGibil 19:48 Archived in Panama Comments (1)

Touching Sloth

Bocas del Toro; Valle de las Minas; David

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Before I set off on this 8-month odyssey, I thought there were bound to be times when I was miserable and lonely and wished I was back on the sofa watching Jeff Stelling on Soccer Saturday with a nice cup of tea. So far, despite a handful of low points, such a moment has not yet come. The week or so I've had in Panama have come closest. But, before I start moaning, here are the details of my adventures in that time.

My journey from Puerto Viejo in Costa Rica to Bocas del Toro in Panama followed a familiar pattern - lugging my inexplicably heavy backpack around in sweltering temperatures, queuing at the border, fobbing off bullshitting taxi drivers and sitting in cramped buses for hours on end. The border was represented by a bridge crossing the River Sixaola, and here I am walking across it:

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Bocas del Toro (Mouth of the Bull) is an archipelago of islands off the coast of northwestern Panama, in the district of Bocas del Toro, which is in the province of Bocas del Toro. The most popular island here, and the one I went to, was Isla Colón, the chief town on which was called... Bocas del Toro.

In my first hostel, the Tangara, there was not enough room to swing an amoeba never mind a cat, so in the morning I moved to the Heike next door - equally cramped but for $3/night less. Plus, you got free pancakes. I felt like a lazy day so I was glad that it rained on and off all day as it meant I had an excuse to sit around and do nothing rather than feeling compelled to go off exploring.

Later, Paul turned up, having spent an extra day in Puerto Viejo visiting a jaguar sanctuary that I wished I'd gone to based on his photos. We had a pint in a great pub called the Bookstore Bar, which was unsurprisingly full of books and, rather more surprisingly, a cushioned coffin you could sit on. It also had a table tennis table where I played some world-class wiff-waff in front of an enthralled audience of one person.

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We went on to another great bar called Barco Hundido that overlooked the Almirante Bay, part of the Caribbean Sea between the island and the mainland. Boardwalks sectioned off floodlit areas of the sea that effectively became part of the pub, giving excellent vantage points for spotting marine wildlife whilst supping a beer. Looking down revealed the wreckage of a small ship and a smorgasbord of edible and inedible sea creatures - I saw crabs, starfish, a load of tiny jellyfish and an odd-looking thing a bit like a cuttlefish. We were joined in the bar by another Irish lad called Adam who we'd met in Puerto Viejo.

It was 'Ladies' Night' at the Aqua Lounge, a 5-minute $1 boat ride away onto Isla Carenero. In my experience, ladies' nights at bars are full of even more men than there are usually, but here there was no such disappointment as it was crumpet central. There were a couple of swings that people became more inclined to jump off (into the sea) the more they drank. Plenty of rum & Cokes were sunk and we stayed until kicking out time (4am) - all in all, a very good night.

I had booked myself onto a boat trip the next day but, along with a guy from Chile, was kept waiting an hour and a half for some non-existent other people to turn up before the trip was abandoned.

Instead, despite the miserable weather, Paul, Adam and I went to a bat cave in the middle of the island. The cave could be walked through from one side to the other in about ten minutes, although it appeared until after halfway that there was no other exit. The cave was partly filled with water but there were enough rocks around to enable it to be traversed without getting in more than ankle deep. Spider-like insects with long feelers were everywhere, the lucky creatures' diet presumably consisting of little other than bat excrement. Squeaking bats flew all around us as we shuffled along in the dark, one missing my face by a few centimetres. Towards the exit we saw hundreds of them huddled together at the top of the cave - a great sight even though I was trying not to shine my torch onto them.

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I really fancied a curry that night so splashed out and stuffed my face. It is imperative never to leave an Indian restaurant without feeling like you've eaten a space hopper but, despite the traditional over-ordering and having the biggest starter I've ever had, I was merely very full indeed, a rung below the requirement. It wasn't that good anyway, very bland and the poppadoms most disappointing.

My rearranged boat trip managed to go ahead the next day with only an hour's delay, this time with eleven of us. We stopped off at three separate places to see dolphins, starfish and sloths. We got right up close almost within touching distance of a sloth as one happened to be on the edge of a branch overhanging the sea meaning we were able to park up underneath it. We saw two, both very cute and both relatively active - one munching on some leaves and the other meandering across a branch.

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After seeing the dolphins (from close enough to get a good view but far enough away to not get decent pictures) we set off to a reef to go snorkelling, at which point it started raining cats and dogs. It was raining so hard that not only did we get soaked but, even with sunglasses on, it was painful to look up as the rain struck us in the face, so we all had to sit there with our heads bowed and ride it out.

Once in the sea I was like a fish out of water (or like a me in water) as usual and, whilst flapping about, managed to drop my snorkel which drifted down to the sea bed. Disorientated I swam over to the boat and got a new one before realising it was the wrong boat. They gave me one anyway. The snorkelling wasn't that great in comparison with others I've done due to the bad weather, and I was glad when I could get back in the (correct) boat and dry off.

When back in the boat I handed my iPhone over to the skipper to take a group photo. The boat lurched to the side and he nearly dropped it in the sea, much to everyone's amusement. He may as well have done as not long after I jumped into the sea with it in the pocket of my trunks - and it hasn't worked since. So, not many photos in this update.

The reason for jumping out the boat was that we were off to a secluded beach. In my view, beaches are nice to look at but a pain in the arse to be on, so I was extra grumpy after the phone incident as I sat around being uncomfortable and getting covered in sand. The others built a sand turtle which they called Tits for a reason I sadly missed.

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That evening I had a lovely Thai meal whilst being entertained by three hummingbirds squabbling over a feeder. This was followed by a night out at another cracking pub called The Iguana Bar, which again overlooked the sea and was full of travellers from all over the world. At some point we saw a tiny albino beetle. Not the highlight of the night, but thought I'd mention it anyway.

I could have done with an extra day or so here but I had three days to get to Panama City halfway across the country. So I went, with the Irish lads, to a remote hostel we'd heard about in the middle of nowhere called Lost & Found. It was in the jungle roughly halfway between Bocas del Toro and Panama's second biggest city, David, and to get there it was necessary to get off the bus at a certain point known to the driver and hike up a steep hill for 15 minutes. Cars could go some way up the hill but all supplies had from that point to be carried by hand.

Its location was within a cloudforest, which gave great views for miles around, including of Panama's biggest volcano, Barú (visible through the clouds in this photo):

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Evening meals were cooked for us but other meals had to be made yourself, so whenever hungry you would just raid the fridges and cupboards, cook what you wanted and mark the individual items on a list against your name for payment later.

The toilet block was a long way from the (crowded - again) dorm along some uneven steps, making going for a midnight wee a somewhat hazardous affair in the dark. On the way there was a caged kinkajou (also known as a honey bear) that they had rescued a couple of years ago. Kinkajous are nocturnal creatures similar to raccoons and this one (called Rocky) was a very friendly specimen. A group of us went into its cage with its carer and it climbed all over us, nibbling at someone's face and licking my foot.

The hostel did have a small bar area with table footy and a variety of board games with missing pieces. We managed a couple of rounds of the US version of Trivial Pursuit - making it take even longer than it does normally - and a bit of Guess Who? where the correct answer was sometimes a person not even on the grid. In honour of Paul and Adam, the staff made the mistake of asking if we knew any Irish music, so I hooked up my iPad and blasted out The Pogues for nearly three hours.

One of the activities offered by the hostel was a treasure hunt. Initially this began in their maze, and then took us (via a clue in the shower block for some reason) to various points along a river, involving a hike through the jungle. Despite going wrong a few times (not least because the map wasn't to scale), it was all very enjoyable, but after four hours we had had enough and were glad to be back.

That evening I noticed some crazy black squirrels going berserk running up and down trees and jumping six feet between them for some reason. Impressive and amusing in equal measures.

Despite all the fun I was having in this unusual place, I was really fed up of staying in congested dorms. My mother was due to fly out in a couple of days to meet up with me for a holiday in Panama City, and it couldn't come soon enough, not least because she'd booked both of us in to a Best Western hotel where I could spread out and enjoy a bit of comfort. Only one more day to wait, and I spent it in the city of David, in an air-conditioned double room, on my own, in peace and quiet with nothing to do - fantastic!

I did have a wander round David in the evening when I went for a pizza and it seemed like I wasn't missing out on much. One reason I don't, in general, like going to restaurants is the amount of hanging around involved - trying to attract the attention of the waiter, waiting for the bill/change etc. I just want to get my food down me and scarper as soon as possible. So it was with delight that I noticed the pizza place had a button you could press to summon the waiter over and another to ask for the bill. An idea so great that even Duncan Bannatyne would like it, and the sooner it catches on in England the better.

Now, as if I haven't moaned enough already, here comes the proper moany bit. Since I left the US at the end of November, the repetitive cycle every few days - packing, travelling, finding a hostel, unpacking, organising tours, washing clothes and writing my blog, along with enduring spartan living conditions such as cold showers and uncooperative toilets - has not been a problem, a tolerable inconvenience in the grand scheme of things. However, this has been chipping away at my resolve bit by bit until it has almost caught up with the enjoyment I'm getting out of doing this. Travel fatigue is definitely starting to get the better of me at this stage.

So the timing of my Mum's arrival could not have been better. In theory, a relaxing break.

Will she find her way here in one piece? Will the luxurious hotel improve my mood? Will I misplace or irreparably damage any of my other valuables? Will I ever stop whingeing? Find out next week!

Posted by LordGibil 09:18 Archived in Panama Comments (4)

Patriot Games

San José, Tortuguero, Puerto Viejo de Talamanca

semi-overcast
View Americas 2014-15 on LordGibil's travel map.

A popular destination here in Costa Rica is a town called La Fortuna. That would have been an obvious place to go next, but I had already been there as part of RTW I in 2003, so I gave it a miss this time. At the time, the nearby volcano Arenal erupted regularly making for great views of the red lava at night, but it was now dormant.

Instead, after a rushed lunch in Santa Elena and another bus journey I found myself in the capital, San José. There's not a great deal of interest here, relatively speaking, but I needed to break up the journey to my next stop, Tortuguero. After wandering around looking for the Golden Frog hostel for a while with no map and no phone charge I found it and met up with occasional travel buddies Will & Maëlle for a couple of hours. My 'private room' turned out to be a 4-bed dorm with no-one else in it, but I wasn't complaining as I spread my stuff everywhere.

Tortuguero is a national park accessible only by boat or plane; there are no cars at all. Similar to Rio Dulce in Guatemala, the boat journey through the river and lagoon here was worthy of a tour in itself.

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Irish Paul was here ahead of me along with two American dudes (Sam and Bo) he'd met in La Fortuna who had their baseball caps on the wrong way round. I'm not exactly certain what a 'jock' is in US terminology but these two fitted my perception of one perfectly - they liked 'to party' and were not shy of whipping their tops off at the sight of a pretty girl. Decent enough lads but the 20-year age difference between us was very evident.

We stayed in the main village, which consisted of a footpath that ran parallel to the lagoon on one side and the Caribbean Sea coast on the other, five minutes' walk from each other down muddy side paths. Alongside the main footpath were various tour operators and disappointing restaurants. One meal was improved by the sight of a bird in a nearby tree trying to get its wing over by showing off to a female. It perched on a branch and swung round 180° so that it was upside down, opening its wings and squawking as it did so. I never found out if it worked but I may give it a go next time I'm in a nightclub.

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It was noticeable how the place was devoid of tourists in the evening. On Friday night the whole village was virtually deserted. Saturday was busier but the two bars between them contained around seven non-locals, including the four of us. We saw plenty of visitors during the day, but clearly they were here for a day trip only.

Most the things to do here either I'd recently done already (kayak trips, rainforest hike) or didn't want to (fishing), but one thing I was keen on was a night-time hike as apparently this is when the red-eyed frogs and other beasties came out. The four of us went walking round the very humid forest on a marked path (mostly underwater thanks to an extremely heavy downpour) for an hour or so with our torches and the only thing we saw was a grasshopper. We could hear the frogs croaking but they proved elusive.

It was not turtle egg-laying season either so we were never going to see that, the main reason people come here. So all in all Tortuguero was a disappointment with regard to the wildlife on show. In fact my favourite animal was a clumsy dog that started following me around. It was so preoccupied with keeping its eye on me (and occasionally trying to undo my shoelaces) it fell down a hole in the pavement. It was perfectly all right but it gave me a good laugh.

At least on the boat out of there our driver pointed out a couple of sloths doing what sloths do best - nothing, fast asleep in the treetops. Paul and SamBo were accompanying me; the boat took us to Limón, from where we got a bus to Puerto Viejo de Talamanca, a much more lively town further down the Caribbean coast.

Our hostel, Rocking J's, may well be the biggest hostel I've ever stayed in. As well as several dorms, there were a couple of floors' worth of tents, a separate room full of hammocks, outdoor areas front and back and a bar with pool table and 'beer pong' table.

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Once we'd got checked in and had a couple of games of pool, we headed off to the pub as the dudes wanted to watch the Super Bowl between the Seattle Seahawks and the New England Patriots. I used to be into American football as a student but these days it doesn't hold much interest for me, but I watched the second half anyway. The place was unsurprisingly full of boisterous Americans, especially so at the conclusion when someone made a mistake and threw the ball and the wrong person caught it.

Later we ended up at the Lazy Mon bar, where we drank some fizzy piss and played table tennis against someone who appeared to be making the score up as he went along - in his favour.

I had an admin day whilst the others hired bikes and went fishing. They caught nothing but saw sloths, monkeys and toucans in the trees at the side of the road on their way there. Very pleased for them, and not at all jealous.

I'm on a tight schedule now as I need to be in Panama City on the 10th (as my mummy is coming out to visit me), so after a couple of days I set off for Bocas del Toro, my first port of call in Panama. As I now write this, I am sat on a balcony of my hostel there and am therefore up to date with this blog... for now. As I now write this, I am five days behind again - ah well.

Posted by LordGibil 07:21 Archived in Costa Rica Comments (1)

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