Monthly Archives: April 2014

Love in the Time of Cartagena

“Hey, where you from?” A street hawker approached me on a corner as we explored the old town of Cartagena. He was selling jewellery.

“Australia.”

“Oh yeah, Melbourne, Sydney, Brisbane?”

“Keep trying.”  This is a pretty typical routine for any traveller from Western Australia. But this time it took a hilarious turn.  Another guy overheard the conversation and joined in.

“Perth?”  he shouts out. “West Coast?”

“Yep, you got it.” I was a little surprised by this, most of the tourists I had seen here seemed to be North American, South American or European, and many of them don’t know Perth either.

“I got a very good friend from Perth.” he said this with a cheeky smile. “Ben Cousins.”

I was even more surprised to hear that name.  Aussie rules football stars aren’t exactly world famous. But then the penny dropped and I couldn’t help laughing out loud.

He leaned in closer and lowered his voice. “Yeah, I know him well. You want cocaine?”

I politely declined, still laughing, and took off to catch up with Bec and Sally. “Hey guys, you gotta hear this…”

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASal. Enjoying one of Colombia’s more legal pick-me-ups. 

Oscar was sitting at the port and we were keen to get our van back as soon as possible. So I spent the better part of two days on the back of motorcycle taxis zooming between our hostel and the various port and customs offices dealing with paperwork. In the evenings we strolled around the Getsemani area and soaked up the amazing sights and sounds salsa’d the night away with some new friends from the San Blas trip.

Cartagena 03Oscar at the port. 

Cartagena 01 Cartagena 02Getsemani crew

Cartagena is a huge milestone for us. It not only marks the starting point for a new continent, we had to leave the road and the van to get here, and it has also been driving our schedule for the past few months since we had plans to meet Bec’s parents here this week. It has been great hanging out with Sal and Shaun again, catching up on the latest news from home and indulging in good food and good wine. And, the apartment that they rented was pure luxury, with a rooftop pool and amazing views of the sunset over the Caribbean sea. Such a treat.

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Cartagena has to be one of our favourite cities in Latin America so far. The old walled town has been well preserved and is colourful and lively and easy to explore on foot. The food has been amazing and the street art, local characters and caribbean music add a little extra flavour.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  Cartagena 14OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Sweets for my sweet

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Touring the old fortress. 

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We hopped in the van after an idyllic few days here and pointed the nose for Santa Marta, with hope in our hearts that Oscar would handle the tropical heat and get us there without hassle.

Island Hopping to Colombia

“Oh shit, we’ve lost a Guna.”

“What do you mean we’ve lost a Guna? How can that even happen?”

“Well, he went skinny dipping with you guys and no one has seem him for a few hours. We only found his clothes.“

“Shit. I hope he’s ok.”

“Yeah, I’m not too worried, he’s a good swimmer, they all reckon he’s the best free diver in the village.”  This from Adam, the Kiwi tour guide, who was characteristically chilled out about the whole incident.

“Everyone back in the boat!” he shouted. “It’s time to go.”

We scouted the island and the ocean on the way back to the village, shining headlamps and calling out every few seconds for the missing man. To everyone’s relief, our missing friend was asleep safe and sound in his hammock. For some reason, he had decided to swim about 1km home. In complete darkness. Naked.  

The short flight from Panama City to Cartagena is ridiculously expensive, so for marginally more dinero we hopped our way through the beautiful San Blas Islands, from Panama to Colombia. 

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We travelled with a great group of people and the trip surpassed my expectations. This time of year is when the seas are the roughest, so the boat rides were like a roller coaster, while constantly being blasted in the face by salt water. I popped dramamine religiously, so for once I didn’t join the unfortunate souls throwing up overboard.

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We even had a “wedding” (symbolic, not legal) on the island. These lovebirds had met about six weeks ago in Guatemala and had decided to take the plunge, matching outfits and all.

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This wasn’t the only celebration though, there were also a number of birthdays. Two boat loads of people dubiously piled into one boat, and guided by head torches we slowly made our way to a deserted island to party. This was also the infamous night we lost the Guna.

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One of the highlights for us was being able to visit the Guna villages. The indigenous Guna people living on the islands of San Blas migrated to there from the mainland after Spanish colonization. What is remarkable, is that they have been able to establish political autonomy and govern themselves. This was gained through an armed revolution in the 1920’s in response to the Panamanian government’s attempts to suppress their customs.

The Guna women are particularly beautiful, and for the most part continue to dress in their traditional fashion.

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OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASea drop toilet. I always looked down and never saw anything. Apparently the fish are quick.

When the tour finished, we still had two boat rides and two bus rides to get to Cartagena, but in the company of new friends, it didn’t seem so bad.

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The Waiting Game : Panama

There is no road connecting Panama to Colombia, in the 48,000 km of road all the way from Alaska to Patagonia, there is only this 100 km or so of road missing.  So, to get across to South America we had to spend a bunch of time in Panama City arranging for the van to be shipped as cargo to Cartagena.  

Knowing from the experience of others that this week would most likely be expensive and stressful, we chose to book a guest room through airbnb and took the opportunity to enjoy a little downtime in between rushed visits to shipping agents, customs inspections and the port. I think this was a good plan.

In reality, we spent most of the week watching tv and movies in air conditioned comfort.

After a few days, we finally handed over the keys to the port workers and they assured us it would be carefully loaded into a container. We crossed our fingers and hoped that we would see it again, safe and sound in Colombia. Now vanless, we had some time to wander around the old town, and enjoy our last night in Panama.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA The new Panama City, from Cinta Costera

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It looks a little different after sundown and with a low tide

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Deep fried whole fish with patacones- Mercado de Mariscos (Seafood market)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Birdlife, Casco Viejo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Street life, Casco Viejo

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Kids on the balcony

Also, our hosts David, Nicholas and Nahun treated us really well, keeping us well supplied with good company and good food throughout the week. OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA Bbq

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAHomemade patacones

We had the feeling that we were missing out on much of what Panama had to offer.  But that’s sometimes just the way things go.  A quote from one of my favourite John Steinbeck books puts it perfectly:

“This journey has been like a full dinner of many courses, set before a starving man. At first he tries to eat all of everything, but as the meal progresses he finds he must forgo some things to keep his appetite and his taste buds functioning”

This is kind of how we felt in Panama, we’d been moving quickly and were concentrating on the logistics of getting across the gap without really stopping to look around much.  But now, with North and Central America behind us, we’re hungry for South America.