Panama for us was all about getting Priscilla out of the port and getting moving north. We had made a decision to spend more time in Colombia which limited the amount of time we had to explore Panama.
We had also heard from fellow travelers that besides the San Blaas islands there was not much to see in Panama that we would not see elsewhere. We had decided against the San Blaas because of both cost and feeling Keira was a little young to thoroughly enjoy the experience and to cope with the sea sickness that is inevitable during part of the crossing. San Blaas islands were being left to explore on another trip.
THE PANAMA CANAL
We did however take the time to visit the Panama Canal. It is truelly a marvellous piece of engineering and it is incredible to watch the large container ships going through the lochs. We went to The Miraflores Loch, which has viewing platforms and a museum.
THE PORT/ PRISCILLA
, AlThe day came for us to retrieve Priscilla from the Port in Colon. We were very nervous about the process, having our previous horrifc experience in our heads.
There were two factors that had potential to complicate the process: 1/ we were sharing a container which meant in order for us to get our car, both vehicles needed to be cleared at the same time, 2/ it was a public holiday the next day (mothers day) and the port would be closed, so we needed to get it cleared in one day or we would have to wait 2 additional days.
In an attempt to alleviate these potential problems, we decided to employ the services of a shipping agent who came highly recommended by other overlanders, Boris Jaramillo. He proved to be a huge assest.
We were staying in Panama city, so our first step was to get to Colon. It meant another early morning. At 530 am we set off to get a taxi to the bus station to meet our shipping companions, Alejandro and Vanesa. Then we took a 1 1/2 hour bus ride to Colon. From there a taxi to the shipping companies office to get the original bill of lading, without which we could not progress.
We originally got told that the ship had not arrived. Through persistence we determined that it had arrived, but that they had not received the bill of lading. A quick call to our shipping agent in Colombia and we had our copy.
Next step, pay for the shipping container and get the container ready to offload. Done!
At this stage, Boris' father and business partner arrived, our knight in shining amor. he took Mike and Alejandro off to secure insurance and complete the aduana (customs) paperwork that was required.
Keira, Vanesa and I went back inside to a cafeteria inside the shipping company to wait for their return. We had no idea that this would be 6 1/2 hours later and we had no idea what was going on. Keira was so patient. For entertainment, we drew, cut out and coloured a multitude of figures which we incorporated into a play.
Later we learned that there was a problem getting the insurance companies to accept Argentine documents in order to process insurance for Alejandro's vehicle. Boris was the key to getting the insurance, taking them to 3 different agencies. Without him this would not have happened.
Then they waited at Aduana for the clearance of the documents and for the paperwork to release the container to us. This took a long time.
Having completed all of these steps, they were heading back to the port, when they got stuck in a traffic jam. Alejandro and Mike had to run 2 kms to get back to the port before it closed.
Finally we got site of Priscilla as Mike drove her out of the vehicle. It took about 45 mins to complete the final processing with Priscilla being fumigated on the way out of the gates.
We arrived at the port at 8 am and we finally got Priscilla at 4.40pm. It was a long and trying day.
The trip back to Panama city was OK, right up to the point that we drove onto a toll rode that required you to have a pre-paid card. Again, we were confronted with a "fee" that we had to pay, which again fluctuated as we talked to the guard. It was getting dark and we were tired so it was just one more thing to deal with. We paid the fee and went on our way. This happened twice but the second time we just drove off
By this point we were tired of Panama, on the whole we had found people to be less than friendly, the roads were busy, and we were done with cities. We were surprised at how obese the people were.
Sorry not much good to say from our point of view. Maybe this is unfairly so, as we did not explore the whole country.
We had 2 more early mornings with long days to drive through the country so we could cross the border to Costa Rica.
Medellín is the second largest city in Colombia. The surrounding area is made up of nine cities that literally join to make a metropolitan area with more than 3.5 million people.
Other travellers had reported enjoying the city.
When booking flights to Panama, we discovered that it is actually cheaper to fly through Bogota or Medellin in Colombia and then get an international flight to Panama city. We had chosen not to visit Medellin when driving north in Priscilla, but now had the opportunity to explore the city, at least for a few days.
Not having Priscilla, we once again had to seek out a hostel. Through a recommendation from a friend we found a great hostel in a nice neighborhood. The name of the hostel was El Alternativo. It had a great kitchen area and a wonderful upper deck.
Whilst there besides chilling out and taken care of some business, we did explore a couple of areas of the city.
We took the metro to the city to Plaza Botero. Fernando Botero is a Colombian sculptor and figurative artist, originally from Medellin. He donated some of his sculptures to Medellin and they have been placed in a plaza in the city.
The sculptures are amazing and so immense in size.
The museum that displays his paintings is equally impressive. We all enjoyed our day very much.
Botero's paintaings are really interesting. The figures that appear in his paintings are voluptuous. He uses vibrant colors which make his paintings fun to look at. Early in his life his uncle enrolled him in a bullfighting school, a career he did not pursue. He did however paint many pictures depicting bullfighting.
We were not able to take photos of the paintaings, so I have included a few pics from the web that will give you an idea of what his paintings look like.
In the museum they also had a couple of kids playrooms, with games that had themes of Botero's paintings. Keira loved this room.
THE CABLE CARS/VIEWS OF THE CITY
Medellin has the best public transportation system in Colombia. The city is connected by a metro system and by cable cars which take people to the upper suburbs.
The city being situated in a valley and with its cable car/teleferico system, reminded us a lot of La Paz in Bolivua
Medellin is the city of boob and butt implants. This is known throughout the country. Many Colombian women have both breast and bottom implants, and even some men partake in the later.
It became a game for us, picking the fake ones out of the crowd. It still baffles me why anyone would want to have a bigger butt!
We enjoyed our stay in Medellin eventhough we are not city people. The city is very busy and the downtown area around the market place is insane with traffic and people. Far too overwhelming for me.
The barrios (suburbs) however are more relaxed with nice restaurants and coffe shops.
We were sad to be leaving Colombia and South America.This marked the end of a big portion of our trip. However we were eager to move on, get Priscilla back, our freedom and begin our exploration of Central America, which also meant for us seeing some very good friends.
Cartagena is a colonial city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. It was once the major port of the Spanish for their trade route, and a strong hold of the Spanish who built a wall around the city to protect it from invasion.
Cartagena was one of the few cities in Colombia that we had decided to explore. It was also the port from which we would ship Priscilla (our vehicle) to Colon in Colombia.
The drive from Los Angeles to Cartagena was fairly uneventful, until we ran into our first corrupt policemen. They pulled us over under the pretense of speeding, which we were not doing.
They took our papers and asked Mike to step out of the vehicle. They were friendly, had seen we were a family, and it was a very public place, so we had no concerns of trouble. Other overlanders had informed us that they had encounters with corrupt police on this stretch of road, so we were somewhat prepared.
In order to assist Mike with Spanish, although the policemen knew key words in English, I also got out of the vehicle. Then the negotiations began. We were told we would need to pay a fine. The initial amount stated was $300 USD, which we had no intention of paying. Taking the lead of other overlanders, I stated that we would like to fill out a formal form and Mike told them we would go to the police station to pay the fine. The amount quickly dropped to $100 USD. Feigning that we did not have that much on us, we negotiated down to 100,000 Colombian pesos, equivalent to $30 USD.
The policeman ushered us to the side of the vehicle out of site of the road where we handed over the money and received our papers back. Corruption at its best! Apparently they also do this to locals although they know foreigners have more money. This is just a part of travel in Sth and Central America! We feel ourselves to be lucky as this was our first time. Other overlanders had paid bribes throughout Sth and Central America. No one reported any trouble; it is more like a business transaction. We may have more to come, we shall see!
Driving into Cartagena was quite a culture shock after the tranquility of Los Angeles. We found a parking garage to store Priscilla for the week, and headed to a hostel in the Getsemani area. Getsemani is a suburb with hostels and restaurants but still has Colombians living in the neighborhood, so it is colorful and interesting.
A week before shipment, we had to meet with our shipping agent, Luis at Enlace Caribbe to complete the necessary paperwork. We would be sharing a 40 ft container with a couple from Argentina that we had not met yet. We had been connected online through overland forums. Our first meeting went well and we heard that our shipping companions had arrived in Cartagena. Everything was going smoothly, although we were both anxious due to our terrible experience with shipping into Buenos Aires. The following week we would put Priscilla into the container for shipment.
In the meantime, we enjoyed the luxuries of a hostel, with a real bed, air conditioning and our own bathroom. We spent many hours watching movies, reading books, and catching up on emails and blogs.
We also explored Cartagena. We went to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an old Spanish fort; walked along the old city wall; and walked the streets in the old town area. It is a really interesting city, and as far as cities go, we did like it.
The houses and buildings in the old town were very colourful with creeping vines reaching to the windowsills. Like other South American cities, Cartagena has several plazas and many churches.
It was fun to sit in the plazas and to watch the venders selling their wares. We tried some of the sweets below, delicious, but one is enough because they are super sweet.
CASTILLO SAN FELIPE DE BARAJAS
The Castillo San Felipe de Barajas is the fort that was built by the Spanish to protect the city and the port.
It is really interesting to visit. There are a multitude of tunnels connecting the various areas. In the walls you can see pieces of corral and shell that were used in its construction.
ENJOYING CULINARY DELIGHTS
We ate out all week, enjoying sushi, pizzas, Italian and Indonesian. However by the weeks end we were tired of bought food and craving home cooking.
I was long overdue for some hair maintenance, so with the help of an American girl living in Cartagena, I found a hairdresser.
As I have stated before, it is always an experience going to a hairdresser in a foreign country and you never know quite how it will work out. I was happy that it wasn’t green or pink; actually I kind of liked it.
The pics above show my "new do."
The day arrived for Priscilla to leave us. We had prepared her by taking our valuables with us and placing all other items securely in the back. She even had a wash! Keira and I said good-bye and Mike drove her to the shipping yard to be placed in the container. Mike was pleased to be able to drive her in himself and to help with the process. Priscilla was secure and ready to ship.
The following day we flew to Medellin, another Colombian city to spend a few days before heading on to Panama.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Priscilla
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- sleeping in a real bed; Keira- exploring the fort/seeing a monkey and big lizard in the park; Riss- having relief from the heat with an air conditioned room
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-trying not to get anxious about the shipping process; Keira- walking around the city in the heat; Riss- trying not to get anxious about the shipping process
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike- Italian food/Indonesian food, Keira- sushi rolls and fried ice cream; Riss- edamame
BEST CAMPING SPOT: none this blog
PARADISE (PARAISO)! We found it. A beach oasis that represents the most popular word in Sth America “tranquil.”
Los Angeles (“the angels” in Spanish) is a campground on the Caribbean coast in Colombia. I am not going to reveal its exact location, as it is a hidden gem that needs protecting.
We had first heard about this beach location in June in Cusco, Peru. Cristian and Claudia our friends from Chile had recommended the location to us. We always knew we were headed there, and were desperate for some beach time and a vacation from our vacation. We had been moving every 1-3 days during our 12 months of travel and we just needed to stop.
From San Gil, we did 2 long days of travel, stopping overnight in a hostel to break up the journey. The terrain and the climate began to change as we headed towards the coast. We welcomed the warmer weather.
Our expectations were high so when approaching the Los Angeles, we prepared ourselves for possible disappointment. After driving down the driveway with bananas and tropical fruits growing either side we came to our first view of the beach and the campground. Perfect! Think of an image of a tropical beach with coconut palms, green grass, blue skies and a beautiful beach and you have it.
A family of 9, 8 brothers and one sister own the property. The property has been in the family for 4 generations. Up until 8 years ago, it was a working finca (farm) producing tropical fruits. At that point the family converted part of the property to a campground and tourist facility. They have several accommodation options from a private villa, to rooms, to hammock areas and camping. The accommodations are nestled amongst the trees with plenty of open spaces. They have a restaurant for meals and also do fresh fruit smoothies.
We set up our camp on the grassy area amongst the coconut palms. Not directly under obviously knowing the damage that a falling coconut can do.
After a few days we quickly established a flexible routine. This actually felt good after having not an ounce of routine for the past 11 months.
My day would start with completing exercises and a walk on the beach. Mike would begin with drinking a cup of coffee watching the waves rolling in. Whilst Keira watched a movie in the tent, her daily treat. We spent our days taking walks on the beach, sun baking, reading, making sand castles, swimming and playing in the waves, socializing with friends and fellow travelers, and generally relaxing. Every 5-7 days we would venture either 45 mins into Santa Marta for supplies or take a short bus ride to another village to collect basics, fresh fruits and vegetables. Several times we had fresh fish, which we bought from Los Cocos the fishing village on the next beach.
Of course there are always chores to do like washing clothes, cooking, washing dishes and daily organizing. On weekdays, Keira and I also spend 1-2 hours each day completing some schoolwork.
The difference being that our tent is our bedroom, our living room is the great outdoors, our kitchen on a folding table under an awning, and our classroom a table in the restaurant or the sand on the beach. This can be challenging at times but we have now got use to this life.
Privacy is a bit lacking in this situation. We were often the topic of interest for fellow travelers and Colombians, as they watched us going about our lives. People are fascinated by our story, and the set up of the vehicle. There are so many photos of Priscilla and us out there. We wished we had charged for each one. It would have funded our trip.
MORNING ROUTINES- OUR LIVING ROOM/GYM
BEACH TIME- OUR BACKYARD
On our second day at Los Angeles, Alex arrived. They were all staying at another hostel further down the beach. After seeing Los Angeles he collected Dayci and Aubrie, and moved down there with us.
Susanne and 2 of her friends Mario and Valeska arrived too, so for a couple of weeks we had our own community. Each night Mike made meals for us all, with everyone sharing the assistant chef role, and dishwashing duties.
Dayci plays guitar and both Aubrie and Dayci sing, so we sat on the beach a few nights listening to some songs they had composed.
We took a few excursions during our time there. We went to Tayrona National Park for a day trip and ventured 5 hours further north along the coast to Cabo de La Vela. See separate blogs for photos on these adventures.
We had spent 14 days at Los Angeles when we went to Cabo de La Vela. After 2 nights in Cabo, we decided to return back down the coast. We stopped at several other beach locations but they just didn’t meet the standards of Los Angeles, so we returned again.
At various points throughout this time we said goodbye to our friends. Alex returned to Germany for a visit and will return to Colombia in a few months to resume his travels again. Aubrie and Dayci set off to continue their exploration of Colombia and to do some more volunteer work. We said goodbye to Valeska and Mario in Cabo de La vela, as they stayed on to kite surf. Susanne also stayed in Cabo but returned to Los Angeles for Mike’s birthday. It was hard to say good-bye to everyone as we had a wonderful connection. And in the absence of your biological family, you become each other’s family for a while. Saying good-bye we made promises to keep in touch and to see each other again. And I think we will.
Another wonderful thing about Los Angeles was meeting Luis, Fabianna, and Miranda, a Colombian family also camping. They had been living there in their tent for 3 months. Luis and Fabianna are artists, using recycled plastics and items from nature to create mobiles, statues, and maracas, which decorate the property and add a uniqueness to the site. They also have painted murals around the campground. Most of the supplies they use are found washed up on the beach or in the waste products of the campground itself.
Miranda (aged 3 1/3) and Keira quickly became friends, playing with each other everyday. Both being only children Miranda and Keira, often acted just like sisters, with the ups and downs of a close relationship. The language barrier was a challenge at times. Keira worked really hard to learn new words and phrases to communicate better. Her Spanish improved remarkably through her play with Miranda, some of the other children, and through her interactions with Fabianna and Luis. She now assists me with pronunciations of words, and interpreting what people say.
The other member of our family whilst at Los Anegeles was a shaggy dog called Luna. She is the sweetest dog we have ever met. She would visit us at various points throughout the day for a belly rub and a snuggle. Her eyes had such depth and although quite young, she was an old soul with a big heart.
We would have loved to take her with us, but she has an amazing life in paradise. We will miss her!
LUIS AND FABIANNA'S ARTWORK
Being rainy season, we had a few big storms come through. The rain was torrential and would last for 4-5 hours. Several times we had a small river form behind our car and we had several items wash away, only to find them in the little creek the following morning. With the rains, came the toads and the crabs. Mike and Keira would go on crab and toad hunts on these nights, getting wet but having fun. Keira was in her element.
Other animals we encountered whilst there, were several varities of crabs, iguana, geckos, squirrels (they would jump between the palm trees), white cranes, pelicans, and parrots to name a few. Mike also saw an ocelot in the trees on a stormy night.
The next beach around was beautiful . The crocodiles thought so too as they inhabit a pond area where the river meets the ocean, Needless to say we did not swim there.
THE RIVER BEACH- SITINGS OF CROCODILES
Halloween made it to Los Angeles, with Keira and I decorating the car and our friends helping us to create a Halloween atmosphere. Miranda and Keira dressed up as fairy princesses in Keira’s dresses and wings. And with a little help from fellow campers, friends and staff, the girls were able to trick and treat throughout the campground. Keira was really thoughtful and gave Miranda the fairy outfit to keep.
We celebrated Mike’s birthday on November 18th. Keira and I decorated the car with balloons and signs, and we had a little party with music and even a birthday cake.
SLEEPING IN HAMMOCKS
The last 4 nights at Los Angeles we packed up the tent, wanting to keep it dry for the time period of shipping. We moved to the hammock area, sleeping in our own hammocks with mosquito nets for 4 nights. It took a little getting use to, but it was wonderful to be in the open with the fresh sea breezes.
We kept thinking we would leave Los Angeles and go and explore somewhere else but our “maybe tomorrow” turned into another 17 days. It was hard to leave Paradise.
And we left on the last possible day that we could. The family all came out to say goodbye. We had definitely become a part of their small community whilst there. We swapped emails and made promises to return one day. And I hope we do.
HIGHLIGHTS/CHALLENGES OF THIS AREA:
MOST VALUED POSSESION: Mosquito repellent/sunscreen/mosquito nets, and a local remedy of garlic and limon to cure stomach problems
BEST EXPERIENCE: Mike- everything; Keira- having Miranda to play with/playing on the beach; Riss- spending time on the beach, the ocean is in my blood and I feel so invigorated and at home when by the coast.
MOST CHALLENGING EXPERIENCE: Mike-trying to get work done in paradise; Keira- sometimes it is hard when I don’t know how to say something in Spanish/saying good-bye to my friends and Luna; Riss- leaving Los Angeles
BEST FOOD DISCOVERY: Mike-,fresh fish from the local fisherman; Keira-fresh coconuts/smoothies/brownies; Riss- fresh coconuts to drink and eat each day; using fresh coconut to make our own coconut milk and coconut rice/Mike’s meals
BEST CAMPING SPOT: Los Angeles
Cabo de la Vela (Spanish for "cape of sails") is a headl;and in the Guajira Peninsula in Colombia, close to the border of Venezuela. There is a small fishing village that has now become a tourist destination, especially for kitesurfers.
The cape is surrounded by the La Guajira Desert. The landscape is barren with some scrubby bushes and a few remote huts where local people live.
There has not been rain the area for about 3 years All fresh water has to be brought in for drinking. Salt water is used for all non-drinking purposes.
As you can imagine the people there are very poor. They rely on fishing, tourism and selling their craftwork.
We headed to the area to explore it, but to also meet up with our friends Val and Mario who had gone there to kite surf. Susanne came with us.
On the way we stopped at Porto Nuevo to restock our fruit and vegetable supplies. Since Cabo de La Vela is so remote, we needed to make sure we had enough fuel for the trip.
We stopped at the last big town Riohacha to top up our tank, however there was only one gas station in town that still had gasoline. We think the shortage may be attributable to the border closing to Venezuela, as we believe the towns fuel supplies came from Venezuela.
The local people had shown initiative having stocks of fuel in canisters to sell. Not trusting the quality of this fuel we stayed in line for an hour to finally get served with gasoline.
Cabo de La Vela is really a village with only one street that follows the coast. It has a few restaurants and basic hostels and the houses of the local people. Most of the dwellings are thatched.
Kite surfing is one of the main tourist attractions. It was fun to watch the kiteboarders, when the winds picked up in the afternoons.
We stayed at the Kite Addict surf school with our friends. We camped in our roof tent whilst our freinds slept in hammocks. Mike cooked meals on the camp stove for everyone,
Facitilies were basic, and everyone was allowed one bucket of fresh water for washing per day.
Wanting to help the local people we brought some of their craft work. We were often approached by the woman or children asking for things that we had.
Again it is that difficult ground as to how to help the most. We felt that the local people had a disdain for foreigners. I guess who can blame them, as we appear rich compared to them. We were a little disappointed when one of Keira's favorite toys went missing when some local women and children were by our car.
We left feeling incredibly lucky that we were born into the lives we were.
Early in the morning was the best time to swim, as the waters were calm and with no wind there were no kite surfers. We could safely swim. It was extremely hot, and the winds were relentless in the afternoons and evenings.
I got sick whilst there with headaches, lethargy, aching joints, and a rash. Dehydration or dengue? After 2 nights we decided to head back towards civilisation just in case.
We said goodbye to Val, Mario, and Susanne with the hope and promise to meet up again sometime and somewhere.
We checked out several other beaches on the way back but decided we had already been in paradise at Los Angeles, so returned there again to a big welcome from the staff.
Luckily after several days I felt ok again. Illness of unknown origin. That is travelling!
The Tayrona National Natural Park is one of the day trips we completed whilst staying on Colombia's Caribbean coast.
Tayrona National Park is a protected area in the Colombian northern Caribbean region. The park covers 30 square kms of area in the Caribbean sea and 150 square kms on land. It is home to many species of animals, insects, birds and plant life. The environment is extremely diverse, from beaches to mangroves, to coconut groves and several higher elevation terrains.
Tayrona is a popular tourist destination. We had been hearing about the park from fellow travellers for many months. Fortunately for us, we had a couple of days warning that the park was going to be closing for a month, so we took the opportunity to visit whilst we could.
Most of the park is not accessible by vehicle, so in order to access its beaches you need to complete a 2-3 hour hike, 4-6 hours return. It is actually fairly tough as the climate is hot and humid and at times you are hiking in the direct sun.
We got to see a variety of insects, birds and animals on our walk.
The scenery and the beaches were quite spectacular. Some of the beaches are protected with no swimming or access allowed.
After a 2 hours hike we came to La Piscina, a swimming beach. We welcomed a swim after the long and hot hike. We hang out here enjoying the beach for a couple of hours.
Cabo San Juan is a beautiful bay, accessed after ~3 hours of hiking. It is the destination that alot of backpackers go to. For us it was a little bit of a disappointment. In the bay was a large speedboat, not condusive to the environment, and there were so many people crowded into a small space. The camping was out in the direct sun, and meals were served at a very busy restaurant.
We were also surprised to learn that 95% of the park is privately owned and that many indigenous groups and locals live in the park itself. There were a lot of dwellings throughout the park and during our walk you could see the impact that the excessive tourism, human and domestic animals are having on the environment.
We enjoyed our day at Tayrona but all agreed that we loved OUR beach and camp at Los Angeles better.
Just a place to keep our mates informed on where we are at, and what we are up to.