Colombia

Colombia travel tips

We only spent a couple of weeks in Colombia (not enough in this amazing country!), so the advice and tips I can offer are pretty limited. Here, for what they are worth, are my two cents:

  1. Plan a lot of time in this country, if you can. Like I said, we only had two weeks. While it was enough to hit the highlights of the country, there was so much we missed, like more moutains, deserts, whales, lost cities in the jungle, and Amazon trips. Many of the backpackers we crossed paths with said their favorite country was Colombia.
  2. Domestic flights, if booked at least a couple of days in advance, can be almost as cheap as buses. While FARQ has mostly be contained, they can still destroy parts of roads and cause travel delays. Airfare can be cheap through budget airlines, like Viva.  Sometimes purchasing the tickets can be complicated, as the internet prefers Colombian credit cards, but it can be worth it.
  3. If you plan to do the boat crossing from Colombia to Panama, you will probably do a trip to Capurgana/Sapzurro to reach the tour boats. There are no roads to Capurgana, so you will need to take a boat across the bay to get there. Boats leave from Turbo and Necocli, which are also a little difficult to reach. Expect expensive airfare to Turbo or bumpy buses to Necocli or Turbo.
  4. While Colombia still has a bad reputation for drugs and gang violence, the Colombian law enforcement and government have worked very hard to expand the safety of their country. Perhaps foreign backpackers are treated differently than local Colombianos, but we didn’t have a single dangerous/bad experience there, and neither did anyone else we talked to. My friend had been warned beforehand by a Colombian relative how dangerous the country was, and was shocked to find how amazing the people and culture actually are. It ended up being her favorite place.
  5. While most places are safe, the Darien Gap still isn’t. I wouldn’t recommend it, based on word of mouth. Several friends of a friend traveled from Colombia to Panama via the Darien Gap and they said it was amazing, but they would never do it again. It seems cheaper, until you realize you have to bribe every policia you come across, even though what you’re doing is perfectly legal. And it doesn’t seem that dangerous, until you learn you have to hire a guide to get you through the jungle and you had better pray not to see a drug cartel or they may kill you. Alternatives are going via plane, which isn’t too bad. You have to reserve tickets at least a week in advice and be comfortable in a six-seater plane. There should be resources online to help with that. Otherwise, word of mouth is the best way. The most popular alternative is, of course, a San Blas boat tour. This is what we did, and I loved it.
  6. There are plenty of buses, about at Peruvian prices for Chilean comforts. Not bad at all.
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Categories: Colombia, Practical Matters | Tags: , , , , , | Leave a comment

San Blas paradise

By far the most scenic route from Colombia to Panama (or vice versa) is a San Blas tour. They are usually four days of island-hopping in a sailboat/catamaran or a motorboat with nights spent on the islands, and it is a great way to get in some beach time and meet the Kuna people, and indigenous group originally from Colombia hundreds of years ago.

We chose San Blas Adventures, a more commercial endeavor, rather than booking a captain at a hostel or at the docks, because I had heard too many horror stories of picking the wrong captain, and I have very little faith in my captain-picking abilities. SBA seemed more official and had good ratings on Tripadvisor. So we went with them. There were 27 people on the tour (I didn’t realize how commercialized it was until I saw the roster) plus captains and two guides. We began at our meeting point (Capurgana docks) at 6:15 am to get a water taxi to Sapzurro, the next town up the coast. It cost 7,000 pesos a person, and once there we got breakfast (8,000 pesos a person) and hopped in our boats for the four days. All of our bags were wrapped tight in garbage bags and we had split our belongings: one small bag for the trip, the large bag for when we arrive in Carti, Panama.

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The border crossing wasn’t terribly unpleasant, but it was unnecessarily long. Puerto Olvidia, the immigration point, was 30 minutes away. We had all “crossed out” of Colombia by visiting the immigration office in Capurgana the day before, so this was just our entrance into Panama. Because this is one of the most common routes the drug traffickers/cartels take for shipping goods to the States, the customs take searching bags very seriously. If caught with anything, you can be thrown in prison for 10 years and there is very little your embassy can or will do about it. So the bag searching took over an hour. And they’re sticklers for paperwork. But in the end we all made it through unscathed.

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The boat rides between islands were a little rough at times, but nothing like the disaster we experienced from Turbo. We slept in hammocks mostly, though the second night there were enough beds for everyone. Accomodations are basic throughout: “bucket showers” (and here it really was nice to have a spouse to pour the water on you), squattie-potties half the time, bathrooms without doors, and limited electricity (no outlets or cell service though). But you’re not there for the luxuries of the developed world–you’re there for the sun and the sand and the coral, of which there was plenty. The islands Waginega, Cocovendera and Pelicano were particularly good.

Food was quite good and filling–breakfast was mostly fruit and some oatmeal and things, while lunch on the islands were sandwiches. Dinner was the catch of the day, which usually meant octopus, lobster, or other animals doused in delicious sauce and spread over rice. Jordan and pictured with dinner below (crab). All food (but no drinks, even water) are included on the trip. Drinks were overpriced, being on the islands, but were not as bad as they could have been. A bottle of water ranged between 1 USD to 1.50. A can of coke did as well, while alcohol was a little more expensive. I strongly recommend buying a 5 liter jug of water before the trip (we did it) and mainly drinking that. Even though we bought some drinks and finished off the 5-liter between three people, we were all a little dehydrated by the end of the trip. The sun and salt just do that to you.

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The Kuna people, who live on the islands and have a few farms on the mainland, have experienced rapid change in the past 20 years. Five years ago they had no electricity. In fact, it was illegal to cut open coconuts after 7 pm because it was dark and the village leader/shaman was worried people would hurt themselves. Now most families have solar panels, but still no one opens coconuts so late–it has become bad luck. The Kuna have their own language, customs, and clothing, though more and more the young people go to Panama City for college or even study abroad in other countries. They had a lot of strife with the Panamanian government over land and water rights as well as the normal troubles of an small, indigenous group, but those have mostly been worked out now.

IMG_6968San Blas Adventures works very closely with the Kuna people, using them as boat captains, lodging hosts, and restaurant service as well as the obligatory drive from Kuna land all the way to Panama City ($30 per person in a 4×4, about 3 hours one way).

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As you can see by the photos, we greatly enjoyed our time. The four days went by quickly (though I hardly slept at all because hammocks are just uncomfortable) and we loved the blue, blue water with all the shades. Snorkeling wasn’t the best we’ve ever done, but it was decent and included in our trip price. On our way to the mainland (the town of Carti) we saw starfish and dolphins, which was a perfect end to the trip.

Once on land we collected our baggage and waited for the 4×4 jeeps. These are pretty much your only option to get out of Kuna land, even though it’s pretty expensive. Our ride back was pretty uneventful, though both Sarah Ann and Jordan got pretty carsick. The road is (mostly) paved, but it rides like a roller coaster for the first hour and a half. There are military checkpoints (again, looking for drugs), but they didn’t bother us. Some days they let people pass without even checking passports, other days they check every pocket in every suitcase. We were lucky, because that can slow groups down by almost two hours. We made it into Panama City by 6:30 pm, which is pretty good timing.

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All in all, that was San Blas. More succinct advice follows below.

  • Double bag your suitcases, because even though we tied things tightly, garbage bags rip easily and a lot of our clothes got wet
  • Choppy water means the bags will bounce and slam on each other. Some friends of ours had their laptop ruined from the jostling
  • Bring water and anything else (but nothing in glass bottles! Some people on the tour learned that the hard way) liquid you may want
  • Expect very basic accommodations
  • Have cash ready to pay for things, like drinks, and the $22 fee to leave Kuna land along with the $30 jeep trip
  • Sunscreen and aloe. Bring it

 

 

Categories: Colombia, Panama | Tags: , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Journey to Capurgana, the long/hard way

Our exit from Colombia was to be the San Blas islands tour, which is a safer and more Caribbean journey than passing through the Darien Gap. The meeting place was in Capurgana, on the other side of the country, so we began backtracking by buses and collectivos along the Caribbean coast.

We began by getting a bus from Cartagena to San Antero, a small local town on the coast. It was a fine bus, similar to what we have ridden in the past. But because the pueblo is small and has no bus terminal, they dropped us off on the side of the road at 10 pm–a little later than we were expecting. From there, we had to walk into town. And we kept getting conflicting answers about how far the hostel/restaurant we were staying at was.

Colombia won the soccer/football game that night, just as we passed by neighborhoods with our rolling suitcases and my pillow, so there was a spontaneous parade of motorcycles (usually three or four people to a moto) waving flags and honking at everything. We got some odd looks. We made it to city center and a horde of mototaxi drivers descended upon us. To make it more confusing, we still didn’t know where Mangle Colora’o was. Some blessed soul found the son of the owner of the hostel/restaurant, who directed us the right way. For a moment I thought we would end up on mototaxis, rolling our suitcases behind us, rather like this photo I thought was so ridiculous:

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Because of course a pinterest pin that I laughed at three years ago would come back around as part of my immediate future. We were saved last minute by the only taxi driver in town, who got us where we needed to go. Far, far off the beaten path on a long dirt road, the restaurant had private rooms for 35,000 pesos apiece with air conditioning.

The next day we spent wandering through the town. There really is no reason for tourists to visit, and we stuck out like sore thumbs. But it was all good because the food was cheap, the hats were cheap, and we got a slice of normal Colombian life.

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And the beach wasn’t too bad, either!

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Unfortunately our luck didn’t continue, because we got up at 6 am the next morning to catch a direct bus to Turbo, where we needed to be. Apparently that direct bus didn’t exist, and after waiting for an hour and a half on the side of the road (Again, obviously gringos that don’t belong), we hopped in a collectivo. It wasn’t bad. We were all about to ask to ride in the back of a pickup truck to get to Monteria, a town with a bus terminal, but the collectivo came along and charged 16,000 pesos (a little overpriced) apiece.

So we ended up with another collectivo-ish thing to Turbo. In the Monteria bus terminal the yellers and hawkers swarmed around us, trying to take our bags and drag us to their office or their bus, but we just had to stand firm and leave the area to find breakfast. I really hate how they swarm. We prayed for a big bus, but got a very stuffy, very hot collectivo thing for the five-hour trip to Turbo. It was utterly miserable. easily 95 degrees and the collectivo was so crowded that they turned a 5 gallon bucket upside down to make a seat for yet another passenger. We were relieved when we arrived at the Turbo docks at 3 pm.

Now in our conversations with people and reading the Lonely Planet guidebook, we had been told the 2 hour boat ride from Turbo to Capurgana was rough, but we weren’t told that they stop sending boats in the afternoon. We had been warned away from Turbo–in the evening it isn’t safe, it’s ugly, and there’s no appeal whatsoever. But even though the sign on the ticket booth said that boats left for Capurgana from 6 am to 6 pm every day, the ticket lady said “no boats until 8 am tomorrow.”

You can imagine how upset and hot and tired we were. In case anyone else finds themselves in our same predicament, there are hotels in the city center area, for varying prices. The nicest, which is a huge orange brick building, is about 50,000 pesos per person. We found a cheap place, Good Nigth Hotel, for 20,000 a person in a private room with fans and air conditioning. That is a really good deal. There are also banks with ATMS in the area.

The next morning was total chaos. Although everyone told us the tickets would be about 50,000 a person to get on the boat, they were 60,000. Then there was no order to how the boats were packed, loaded, and sent off. Our boat was an hour late, because it’s Colombia, and the guys who packed the boat saw us as easy targets. They told us our bags were 55 kilos total, and we were only allowed 30. They said no such thing to other Colombians. They said we had to pay 20,000 pesos for the overweight baggage. Well, I don’t even weight 55 kilos, so there’s no possible way our bags actually weigh that much. We argued and argued, and they dropped their price down to 15, then to 10. We insisted we shouldn’t have to pay, that the bags weren’t overweight. Then they threatened to toss our bags overboard. So Sarah Ann just gave them 10,000 pesos to make them go away, and we finally got on the way.

So all the warning I got about this boat ride is that it was a little rough and we should just buckle down and wait out the two hours. All three of us ended up in the very front of the boat, which is the roughest part, we learned. And the waves were extremely choppy. It. Was. Awful. We all got bruises. None of us were particularly seasick, because we didn’t even feel the waves, just how our captain was racing the waves (and losing). I had bruises on my legs, back, and even on on my arm.

“Now I know how everyone on the Mayflower felt,” Jordan gasped in between jolts.

“I think I’m going to start crying,” Sarah Ann confided.

I was so fed up. I’m pretty sure, even though I’ve never driven a boat, I could’ve done a better job. “If there is an earthly entrance to Hell, it’s in this bay,” I said between gritted teeth.

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About two-thirds of the way there, we saw the boat that left 30 minutes before us, just listing in the water. Everyone on board was soaked and getting sunburned. No one really knew what the matter was at the time, but it seems that they overpacked luggage and people on board, and due to the high waves, they were taking on a lot of water. So they settled down and waited for us. As soon as our boat pulled up along side, about seven people stood up and startled hurling bags onto our boat. And then five or six started jumping ship into our laps. I hadn’t been scared of the water before, because I knew it was normally choppy, but when everyone dove for our ship, I got a little frightened, I’ll admit. And as soon as our motor stopped and we felt the waves, half of our boat got sick and vomited over the sides. It was miserable. We eventually ended up in Capurgana three hours later, bruised and exhausted.

So, in total, tips for the journey:

  • If you have to stay in Turbo for a night, it is possible and reasonably priced
  • I’m 95% sure there are ATMS
  • The boats to Capurgana don’t leave after noon
  • The boat ride is awful. If at all possible, sit in the back of the boat
  • Expect chaos and scams at the docks. Watch carefully when they weigh your bags
  • You will survive and Capurgana is a welcome relief once you make it
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Cartagena: Beautiful city of Colombia

So our plane ride to Colombia (via VivaColombia) was exciting. Well, the flight itself was normal for any budget airline (think RyanAir), but we booked the tickets the same day as the flight, which confused all the agents. So we waited at the check in counter for an hour until someone decided what to do. My best guess is that the money hadn’t been sent by the bank yet, so they were hesitant to give us service. We did get on the plane, with these beauties:

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I took the photo on an old iphone, so it’s a little blurry. But yes, those are handwritten boarding passes. And the best part? When we got to security, the guards didn’t even blink when they saw them. Apparently they’re that common.

Landing in Cartagena was a blast of hot air. It is definitely hotter than Medellin, which is on the edge of the Andes and a little less Caribbean. A taxi from the airport to district Getsemani (which I recommend staying in, it’s in Old Town near the old walls) was 15,000 pesos. I thought that wasn’t a bad price at all. The balconies, flowers, and street vendors reminded me of Latin America, but the colorful architecture and trees were distinctly Caribbean. It was such a fun combination of accents, skin tones, foods, and street names.

Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 and now has a population of almost a million people. Originally built as a key city for the expansion of Spain, it became a secure fort city on the Caribbean sea, where the Spanish would store gold taken from the indigenous people and store before shipping it to Spain. Portions of the forts and old wall still meander through the city, reminding us of how closely the past and present are intertwined. People now rest in the wall alcoves, waiting for buses, that were used five hundred years ago for cannons and watchposts looking for Francis Drake and other privateers interested in the gold. Native people lived in the region first, of course, until the Spanish came in, and the remains of their cultures can been seen outside of Cartagena in the countryside still. For anyone interested in architecture, history, or beautiful sights, Cartagena is a must. We almost didn’t go, but at the last minute we decided to fit Cartagena in and leave Bogota out. I’m so glad we chose Cartagena!

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Our hostel was a few yard from a bridge across part of the bay, near a supermarket and a pharmacy, which we made use of. The opposite direction was toward the forts, the ferry to the islands, and the picturesque neighborhoods.

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The most popular tourist spots are:

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We particularly enjoyed the colonial parts of the city, such as the churches behind us.

One stop we liked was the naval museum, which Sarah Ann described as, “the best eight mil we ever spent!”. It was indoors with fans and shade, which was fantastic, and had a great history of the caribbean region, from the indigenous to the landing of the Spanish to current day operations, post-cold war. And they had a model submarine!

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Sarah Ann had a blast playing with the comms and buttons on the submarine, while I enjoyed the ten minutes in there because it was air conditioned. I know, so American. But so worth it. Jordan enjoyed the 1700s-1800s navigational props and pretending to captain a ship.

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Just outside the naval museum is an entrance to some of the old walls of the fort, complete with restored cannons and all. Across the street is a restored ship, used by the ferry company for events like wedding and fancy parties, which just made the backdrop great.

 

 

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Just in the plaza right next door is a lovely church and restaurant/hotel that made a scenic view. We played around in the area and bought a cup of strawberries (1,000 pesos!) from a local woman.

 

IMG_4055There’s plenty more to see and do in Cartagena, just as there were more beautiful neighborhoods to explore, but our time was up. It was time to begin the journey to Capurgana, where we will meet up for our San Blas tour.

 

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The new Medellin

Twenty years ago Medellin was one of the most dangerous cities in the whole word. Even ten years ago travelers steered clear of the area. But with Pablo Escobar’s controversial legacy beginning to fade, the city has grown, developed, improved, and invited backpackers and other tourists to see the architecture, the pueblos surrounding it, and the commercial infrastructure. Today is a great stopping point on travels through Colombia.

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We spent two full days in Medellin, mostly resting and recuperating from traveling so much to get there (another overnight bus!). Frankly, the best things I can do is make a list of the places we went with my recommendations and links to better sites than mine regarding the city.

We stayed at a great hostel with an amazing owner, but it was in the Belen region, a little far from interesting things to do in city center or the shopping areas. Above is a me in Botero Plaza, the statue garden, all sculpted by Fernando Botero who donated the sculpture to the art museum on the plaza about ten years ago.

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Also in the city center, besides endless stalls selling cheap clothing, odds and ends, and soccer balls, are old churches. Because it was Sunday when we stopped by, we went to mass for a bit. It’s a great cultural experience (even if you can’t understand much), and I recommend that travelers go at least once during the time in Latin America.

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We tried for ice cream, but that was a total failure. I have given up in ice cream of South America. I must admit, while I like to consider myself adventurous, I know that when it comes to food  my tastebuds are very picky. So this dish (which was given to us by mistake) is a Little Debbie brownie surrounded by two odd flavors of ice cream (we couldn’t guess what it was), a pile of shredded cheese with chocolate drizzled over it, and three canned peach slices. As you can tell by the look on my face, I wasn’t impressed. So a word to to the wise: stick with soft serve. Or better yet, in Colombia, try Mimo’s. It’s the best soft serve I’ve found in months.

From Medellin we took a plane to Cartagena, which was an adventure in and of itself.

Suggested Medelling planning blogs:

 

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Photo Essay: Our first week in Colombia

Leaving Ecuador at 6:30 am. This is the only (safe) land-crossing between Ecuador and Colombia. We were a little concerned about money changers or over-bearing taxistas, but no one has a lot of energy that early in the morning, so we were fine. The border opens at 6 am and we easily got stamps and walked across!

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Several hours later, we finally found our resting place for the next day: a hostel in a little town called Chachagui outside of Pasto, Colombia.

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There’s hiking in the area, but we were in sore need of relaxation. The next day we took a collective to Cali, a larger city north of us. It was unusually hilly, curvy, and bumpy going through the mountains. All three of us were completely carsick, which is rare for any of us. It was a long eight-hour trip.IMG_3852 On the collectivo we met a girl named Jennifer who was friendly and invited us to her house in Tulua, two hours beyond Cali. We were tired of spending money, so we thought, sure, let’s go with the friendly stranger and see what happens! It ended up being a great cultural experience, complete with a few miscommunications and all sorts of stuff. I’ll probably write a blog post about language miscommunications in the future. But we did lots of cool stuff, like swimming in a natural swimming pool filled with river water and going salsa/clubbing with two of the roomates.

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and were the only gringos dancing in the club:

IMG_3899We also went at say Jurassic World in the Tulua movie theater. It was all dubbed. So we got practice with translating. Because it was a matinee there was only one other couple in the theater, it was easy (and enjoyable) to talk amongst ourselves, trying to figure out the finer plot points.

From Tulua we got an overnight bus to Medellin, which will be a real blog post that I shall write at a later date!

 

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Morgan S Hazelwood

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