Middle Colombia: Manizales to Bogota

As we wound our way for eight hours through the mountains from Guatape, our stomaches rolled and the scenery turned drastically more intense as we entered the mountains of the northern Andes. We were headed to coffee country and our first stop would be the small city of Manizales. Not much to look at itself (except for a beautiful cathedral in the central park), Manizales is surrounded by rolling green mountains and nature reserves. We made our way to  the Recinto Del Pensamiento, a nature reserve about a 20 minute bus ride outside of town. Set in a cloud forest, we walked trail after trail of beautiful woods seeing more than a dozen varieties of orchid flowering along the way. At the top of one hill we found ourselves surrounded by beautiful flowers (Colombia is the flower growing capital of the world) and 14 species of hummingbirds wizzing all around us. It was unreal. We took a ski style chair lift up over the trees as butterflies flew below us and Lauras feet kept hitting the tree tops. We also walked through a medicinal herb garden learning about the different herbs of the region. The nature reserve was spectacular and a testament to the Colombian peoples appreciation of their natural bounty. It definitely made our stop in Manizales an amazing one.

A couple hour bus ride south and we found ourselves in the rarely touristed town of Santa Rosa de Cabal. We stopped in Santa Rosa because we had heard about the termales, the hot mineral pools in the surrounding woods where locals go to soak and relax. After dropping our bags in the one hostal in town and throwing on the swimsuits, we made our way by taxi out a dirt road to the Belneario de Santa Rosa termales. As we walked up the path alongside a gorgeous river with tiering waterfalls down the hillside, we came around the bend to see a series of 90′ waterfalls flowing down a cliff from the green jungle above and a large grassy green clearing laced with creeks and dotted with soaking pools. It was uterly amazing. We discovered the hot mineral water comes down from another hillside through a series of chutes and joins up with a bit of the cold water of the waterfall in several cement pools set amongst the rolling green grassy hills. After cooling ourselves in the cold natural waters at the base of the waterfall (it was freezing!) we spent the day soaking with the locals in the hot mineral baths with the gorgeous giant waterfalls looming overhead. What a spot. Don’t tell anyone about it though, it was nice being the only gringos there!

The next day we made our way to the beautiful coffee village of Salento. This is the heart of coffee country and the town is surrounded on all sides by green hills and coffee fincas. During the days we wandered the dirt roads through the hills past fields of coffee plants and banana trees. At one farm we met the old man who owns the place and he invited us to sit on his porch and have a cup of coffee with him, grown right there on his land along a river. He was a kind old man in a wide brimmed farmers hat and the coffee was delicious, especially good in its natural setting. At night the only thing to do in Salento is play Tejo! We met some locals who took us to a Tejo field behind a dingy local bar and taught us the game. Essentially a steel ring about 10″ in diameter is placed on a hill of mud and then covered with paper packets filled with gunpowder! This is the national game of Colombia by the way. Then you stand about 20′ away and throw a 2lb steel weight at the “target”. If you hit one of the packets they explode! Theres a whole scoring system which I never really got but what a fun way to spend your evening. Walking home from a game of Tejo at night in the cool mountain air down stone streets with people heading home on horseback we really felt like we were experiencing Colombia the way we had hoped to.

A 10 hour bus ride to Bogota, the capital city, a quick nights sleep and then a 7 hour bus ride East and we found ourselves in the town of San Gil. San Gil is the “extreme” adventure capital of Colombia and since we’ve already done ziplining and rafting and kayaking etc. we figured, why not try out paragliding?! A truck took us to the highest peak in the area, a rolling grassy hill overlooking the valley for miles and miles with howling winds, specifically updrafts. We harnessed ourselves to the front of our pilots while a bunch local kids pulled out the shoots behind us until all at once, the shoots caught the wind, and up we went! 2000 feet up we went. Nearby clouds were at eye level as our feet dangled below us over the plateau, over lakes and roads, trees and canyons, fields and houses. For what seemed like an eternity (20 minutes or so) we flew, silently over the earth. It was an amazing sensation and one we won’t soon forget. While in San Gil we also did a short hike through the Parque El Gallineral, a forest of what we called “ghost trees”. Which were actually just a variety of ordinary trees covered with long hanging grey moss. It felt like we were in Sleepy Hollow though and was cinematic to say the least.

A brief detour through the beautiful colonial town of Barichara and then on to Bogota for one final stop to visit the Museo de Oro, the Gold Museum. A spectacular collection of South American historical gold work spanning thousands of years. Colombia has been good to us. Very good to us. Such an extraordinary country and people it is hard to leave. But our next stop is Quito, Ecuador. At zero degrees latitude we’ll be right on the equator. I’ve never been south of it, I wonder if it’s different down there?

Northern Colombia: From Cartagena to Guatape

When most people from the west think about Colombia they think about Pablo Escobar, drug trafficking and the hundred years of war and violence that plagued the country for the better part of the 20th century. To look at the country today you never would know that was once such a part of their culture and daily life. Colombia is probably the most beautiful country we’ve visited so far with tremendous mountains, beaches and flora and fauna. It also feels like one of the safest. The people of Colombia are so friendly and positive and the culture of education and nationwide infrastructure development is unparalleled by any of the countries in Latin America we’ve visited so far. It is a country so proud and moving forward rapidly from a dark past in so many ways it’s exciting to be here at this stage in their history. Our first stop would be Cartagena on the Caribbean coast.

When I was a kid, the film Romancing the Stone with Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner was one of my favorites, I probably watched it a hundred times. The adventures of Jack T. Colton and Joan Wilder were ingrained in my mind as they made their wild quest across Colombia to Cartagena. “Cartagena”. The name has always held a place in my heart and had an adventurous allure to me to the point that I always hoped one day I’d see it too. Well check that one off the ole bucket list. Old town Cartagena is surrounded by a 300 year old 20′ stone wall lined with turrets to defend the spanish colonial gem. It is a World Heritage Site and therefore the whole old town has been preserved immaculately. Continue reading

Where Seas and Continents Converge: Panama

Two flights, three buses and four days after leaving Great Corn Island, Nicaragua our little twelve seater touched down on the airstrip of Bocas Del Toro, Panama. We’d essentially made our way due south from one Caribbean island off the coast of Nicaragua to another one off the coast of Panama via a transcontinental journey zig zaging through Nicaragua, Costa Rica and into Panama. There is never a direct route down here it seems. Bocas Del Toro is an archipelago of islands in the northern part of Panama near the Costa Rican border. Virtually undeveloped 20 years ago, Bocas has exploded into a tourist mecca for those seeking a safe, affordable Caribbean experience. For years I´ve dreamed of visiting, having heard great stories of the laid back lifestyle, the beautiful scenery and the “island life” that put Bocas on the map. It was there in spades, mind you but unfortunately so were the gaggles of Caribbean tourists and the high prices that accompany them. High by our standards at least. Having been blown away (and spoiled) by the snorkeling in Caye Caulker, the scuba diving in Utila and the beaches of Little Corn, Bocas just was a bit underwhelming for us and we left after a couple of days instead of the week we’d planned. We seriously needed a break from the heat too. Since leaving Guatemala we’d spent the past two months in heat in the 90’s plus every day and were a little tired of sweating. With that plan in mind we decided to head to the highlands of Panama for a reprieve. What a surprisingly fantastic idea that turned out to be.

Our next destination would be the small town of Boquete in the mountains, an absolutely gorgeous gem of a place with a beautiful river cutting through it, waterfalls, strawberry fields, coffee farms and spectacular valleys around every turn. With year round temperate weather we actually got to wear our hoodies at night, it felt like we were back in San Francisco! We flat out loved it, it was the perfect change of pace. From walking and talking to folks around town we met a retired ecology and history professor from the states who had been living in Boquete for years. He took us out on an educational tour of the area (seriously he squeezed 40 million years of Panamanian history into 4 hours) visiting unique geologic sites, learning about the strife of the local indigenous farm hands, tasting coffee from a local farm and visiting a haunted mansion! He wouldn’t go into the creepy abandoned mansion in the woods but spent 20 minutes regaling tale after tale of all the people that died mysteriously either building it or attempting to live in it since it’s construction a hundred years ago. Obviously the second he stopped for a breath, Laura and I jumped the fence and headed up the trail to explore the place. We wandered through the empty stone halls full of leaves and rubble as the jungle had already been reclaiming the structure for years. It was like something out of a horror movie and we joked about spending the night in there when ALL OF A SUDDEN…. Okay, I’d love to have a story here of a ghost attack or a mysterious image that appeared in a photo when we got home or being slimed or something but that didn’t happen. Or did it?

After a few days relaxing in the cool climate and good vibes of Boquete, we made our way across the country looking for a taste of the urban in Panama City. The multi bus haul took us about 10 hours but also showed us so much of the beauty that is Panama. We were blown away by how spectacular the biodiversity of the country is and we were subsequently blown away as well by how huge and modern Panama City is. The whole country is so dynamic and full of stark contrasts, it constantly surprised us in a good way. If there is one place so far that we could see ourselves living for a few years it would be Panama City. Honestly. It is such a great mix of well preserved old style and sleek new modern. We spent much of our first day walking around Casco Viejo, the Old Town for a taste of history. Having been abandoned by the wealthy for luxury sky rise living 50 years ago, Old Town is in the midst of a renaissance and half of the 300 year old structures are in the process of being restored to their original glory. It is a sight to see. Surrounded by a 30′ stone wall on all sides to protect it from the Pirate Henry Morgan (who had sacked and completely destroyed the original Panama City in the 1600’s), Old Town was declared a World Heritage Site in 2003 and for good reason. Check it out if you can, it is colonial architecture at it’s finest. Our next stop would take us forward a few hundred years and into the future, the Panama Canal. Being big science and history buffs, taking a tour of the Canal really put the grandness of the endeavor in perspective. It took over 30 years to build, cost over 6 billion dollars and more than 30,000 people died to make it a reality. We spent a day learning about it’s history and watching tankers and freighters make their way through the locks. Four little trains on tracks on either side help guide them through with ropes, unreal. That’s one more thing off the ole bucket list.

After a few more days of enjoying the niceties that come with being in a modern metropolitan city (okay it has only been 3 months since we left the States but these city kids were needing this, big time), we made our way north on the original Panama Canal Railroad! Riding in a vintage glass domed car through the jungle alongside the canal was something else. This we learned was the original transcontinental railroad. The two hour ride from Panama City on the Pacific Ocean to Colon on the Caribbean Sea was actually a favorite for west heading Americans during the gold rush to avoid dealing with Native Americans in the central US. It was also a favorite for me since I love trains, especially old ones with wood walled passenger cars and oil paintings of tropical birds. Okay I admit that was a first for me. It was a truly historic journey.

From Colon we then headed west to a small village called Portobelo. Originally named Puerto Bello meaning “Beautiful Port”  by Christopher Columbus when he set eyes on the gorgeous Caribbean bay, Portobello was the biggest Caribbean port of the Spanish in the early 1600’s and it’s believed that more than half of the gold that left the Americas for Spain went through there. The fortifications were impressive but alas, Henry Morgan figured out a way to take the port and leveled the town in 1668. What remains there now is a small town with beautiful waters and some amazing ruins of the previous Spanish forts. We spent several days exploring the ruins, each of which still have lines of rusted canons at least twenty across pointing into the bay where Henry Morgan must have come in from the sea. Also while hiking up to one of the forts we were lucky to see in a tree a family of sleeping nocturnal Owl Monkeys! So cool. Dazzled by our natural surroundings in this undeveloped corner of the country we decided to do some sea kayaking in big ocean swell which we had never done before. It was kinda nuts but fantastic and challenging both physically and mentally.  After that we made our way up a river, kayaking through mangroves with a local guide we hired. We spent a whole day seeing every kind of bird imaginable, lush jungle covered mountains and hearing nothing but the sound of the river and the wind. We really felt completely away from the things of man. Just amazing.

A wild and crazy bus ride back to Panama City (see previous post) and then off to Colombia… South America here we come! Panama you will be missed.

Road Wisdom: Another Chicken Bus Adventure

The last one of our four feet was barely off the concrete when the accelerator hit the floor. The bus roared and launched forward to 50 mph in less than 10 seconds as we grabbed on to our bags and nearby seat backs to keep from being thrown into the aisle or down the stairs onto the street through the still open bus door. The passengers watched us as we tried desperately to get ourselves and our packs to open seats in the back as the bus swerved violently back and forth on the windy country road. Laura and I began laughing at the insanity of it as we inched slowly down the aisle falling over ourselves as the bus continued to accelerate around turns, faster…faster.. the driver indifferent to whatever was going on behind him. Move one foot… then one hand…. then another foot…. then the other hand…. Finally we got to an open seat and threw our packs against the buses back door and hurled ourselves into a seat. The passengers and ourselves immediately had to grab on to the seat backs with both hands as the bus banked hard around a turn at 60 mph and felt as though it was about to roll over. I looked up with a too familiar wrench in my gut to see a large sticker on the wall staring at me of a disgusting troll baby with white eyes giving me the finger and another of the doll from the Childs Play horror movies with “Chuqui!” written under it. We were on yet another wild ride on a “chicken bus” as they’re affectionately called in Central America. 30 year old Blue Bird school buses from the US that have made their way south for a new life and been given amazing paint jobs, chrome, sound systems and colorful neon and LED lighting. They are the public buses of Centro and are known for blasting Tropicale, Rap & Regae music, honking their horns constantly and driving at insane speeds on the wrong side of the road on blind curves with children, teens, adults and the elderly packed in without seatbelts, many standing crowded in the aisles. Something you would never, ever see legal or condoned in the US but the primary form of cheap transportation in Central America. It is truly something to behold. But then after we started riding them for a while, we began to see that they are more than just a way to get from one place to another. They are part of the community and fabric of the small towns they connect. The constant honking is them either honking to another passing bus to say hello, honking as they pass by the homes of people they know or honking to warn people they’re coming around the bend. People on their porches wave to the buses as they pass by and people on the buses wave back. They’ll drop everyone off directly in front of their house and if they pass by at 50mph they’ll slam on the brakes and even back up so the person doesn’t have to walk. It’s an amazing system that seems like chaos but in reality is such a part of everyones day to day life that I couldn’t picture it any other way. The chicken buses ARE Central America and are the heartbeat of the rural communities and are in turn those communities connection to the urban centers. An hour (of hanging on for dear life) later we reached our destination with $1 less in our pockets but a better understanding of the people and the towns and communities we passed through along the way. Would love it if they had seatbelts and a schedule though!