Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Cartagena & Tayrona National Park: A Little Taste of the Colombian Coast

NOTE: This blog is best viewed using Firefox, or Google Chrome. Internet Explorer for some reason cuts off the captions on my photos.

Any mention of the nation of Colombia, and it is almost impossible to avoid thoughts of drugs and danger. Pablo Escobar, Medellin, Cocaine. These three subjects have more or less dictated the current notion foreigners hold of Colombia. However, after only one week of traveling through this impoverished land, did I realize Colombia has so much more to offer (alongside all the drugs and danger of course). Traveling along the Caribbean coast from the 500 year-old colonial city of Cartagena to the hammock-strewn beaches of Tayrona National Park, I have come to the conclusion that if being a drug lord doesn't fulfill your dreams, the coast of Colombia definitely will. Onto the highlights:

Cartagena - Arriving by plane into the colonial city of Cartagena - "the most beautiful city in Colombia" - any pre-existing premonition of Colombia was immediately thrown away, and instead replaced by awe at how a country so stricken by violence and a turbulent history could have so much to offer. Staying at an amazing hostel within the walls of the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City), a 5 minute walk takes you along quaint colonial streets, containing almost perfectly preserved buildings for the past 500 years. Any thought of danger is nowhere to be found, and instead locals and foreigners casually stroll the car-less roads each and every evening. +5 points to Spanish invasions on their architectural impact.

Volcan de Lodo El Totumo (Mud Volcano) - Approximately 45 minutes outside of Cartagena resides a volcano, that instead of spewing ash and lava, releases lukewarm and fairly soothing mud. Yup, mud. Resembling a fairly large dirt mound (almost identical in size to Magic Mountain at Burns Park Elementary School), at the top of the volcano sits a shallow mud pool with the capacity to hold dozen of tourists within the it's "spew." (The thesaurus does not provide many options for "mud"). While appearing to be fairly innocent in nature, this shallow pool is actually over 2000 feet deep, and the force of buoyancy keeps all those inside afloat. Despite our greatest efforts, nobody within our group of 8 was able to propel themselves beneath the surface of the pool (despite managing to fill everyone else's ears, mouths and eyes with our splashing efforts). After a fantastic 10 minute "massage" by one of the locals from the area (I must say, he spent a bit too much time near my inner thighs), we were shuttled to a shallow lagoon whereby several, fairly forceful Colombian women, attempted to bath us (and in the process remove your bathing suit without warning). Finally, before leaving, an onslaught of "hey, you pay me's" erupted, as apparently every person with which we had come into contact required a tip. Thus, I was forced to provide the standard tip of $1.50 to my masseuse, the man holding my bag, the man taking photos (he actually deserved this tip), and of course the man watching my sandals. I'll let the photo below tell the rest.

Tayrona National Park - While my travels in Colombia have only lasted just over a week, it is already more than apparent how new to tourism this country actually is. What Lonely Planet describes as a "simple journey," instead turned into the following adventure in transporting myself and Laura from Cartagena to Tayrona National Park:

Lonely Planet Route: 4 hour bus to Santa Marta, 1 hour shuttle to Taganga, 1 hour journey to Tayrona National Park. Total travel time = 6-7 hours

Actual Route: 1 hour taxi to bus station (conveniently leftout of LP route), 4 hour bus to the middle of nowhere, 1 hour wait as people slowly depart from the bus until only "gringos" remain, frantic transfer over to 2 hour bus to Santa Marta (at which point my shoes were conveniently stolen), dropped off in the middle of nowhere outside of Santa Marta, somehow find a 1 hour shuttle to Taganga. Sleep. 1 hour shuttle back to Santa Marta, 1 hour bus to entrance of Tayrona National Park, 30 minute jeep ride from the entrance of the park to the "easy hiking trail," 1 hour hike through knee deep mud and over hoards upon hoards of fire ants as thunder rumbled in the background, 1 hour hike along beach. Final destination reached. Total travel time = 13-14 hours over 2 days. So yeah, pretty much just as described.

In the end, the journey was more than worth the hassle, as Tayrona could be one of the most amazing places I have ever visited. For only $15, you are able to sleep in a hut of hammocks set upon a rock in the middle of the ocean, with palm-tree-lined beaches only feet away. Once again, I will let the photos tell the rest of the story.

(As a note, our bus BACK from Tayrona was apparently attempting to smuggle food across the country, and was thus stopped by the police for a 2 hour inspection. I'm pretty sure almost 2 tons of food were removed from the buses luggage compartments, with almost another 2 tons remaining inside the bus, unnoticed by the police as underneath every seat were 50 pound bags of food. Add to the fact that we didn´t even have seats at the time as the bus was full upon boarding, and, well you get the gist. Travel + Colombia = Not Easy).

As this blog has gone beyond the "2.5 minute attention span" of most my readers, I will leave at that. Onto the pics:

Cartagena - Definitely putting up a fight for most beautiful city in Colombia

Especially at night

Hanging out in the mud volcano (I'm the one covered in mud)

Definitely the smallest volcano ever

Had so much fun in the mud, decided to take an hour long hike through some more on the way to Tayrona

Tayrona National Park - Well worth the 2-day journey

Accommodation = $14 hammock in a hut overlooking the ocean

Despite the hurricane-force winds at one point during the night, sleeping in a hammock is definitely my new favorite activity

Ominously-colored sunset

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Panama City: Boats, Buses and Bdays

Given the lack of life-changing experiences and memories during my 3 days in Panama City, I leave you instead with some bullets and some pics:

- Visiting the Panama Canal: The 48 mile passageway that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific is considered one of the seven "modern" wonders of the world, and a place I always have dreamed of visiting ever since seeing it's depiction in my favorite movie (Panama Canal Film). Visiting one of the two main "locks" along the Canal at Miraflores, we spent almost two hours watching boats enter the canal, whereby they were lowered approximately 25 feet, and then departed off for the Pacific. Although many say the experience closely rivals the thrill of watching paint dry, I'd have to say... well, that is a perfect depiction. My own personal highlight was explaining to Laura why the boats need to be lowered, since at the time, I was under the belief that "the Atlantic Ocean is actually higher than the Pacific, and the canal allows boats to be lowered to it's level." While I can only assume my Mom is shaking her head right now, and others are questioning the usefulness of a lifetime of education, for the rest of you head-nodders, I provide you the following: Insightful Insight

- Riding a Diablo Rojo: These infamous buses have been the most popular form of transportation in Panama City for decades, and $0.25 allowed us to share in this experience. Although no seats were available, and really no standing room either (if there was air between two people, it would soon be filled be another body), the experience of riding one of these artistically-designed buses can only be further described by the picture below. ¨Terminal! Terminal!¨

- 29th Birthday: Celebrating what is most likely the least exciting birthday age in any person's life (this statement may be up for debate for anyone over the age of 25), I spent the last birthday of my 20s reveling in the perfect fashion for someone approaching the age of 30 - asleep at the bar before midnight. While I did redeem myself by visiting an authentic Panamian club the following night (remind me never again to endure 5 straight hours of Regatone), the $20 ¨Gringo Cover¨ took a nice bite out of my $20 per day budget.

- Taxi Drivers: Although my trip has only lasted just over a week, I have already come to the conclusion that every taxi ride in Central and South America will be my own personal Spanish lesson. I would like to especially thank Alberto, our driver to/from the Canal as well as the airport, for helping me progress in my path towards fluency. Muchas gracias mi amigo. Nos vemos la proxima vez!

Next Stop: Shakira´s House (Colombia)

Onto the pics:

The view of Panama City from our hostel - not too shabby for $10/night

¨Panama Skone¨

Panama Canal (Before) - Pay attention to the white yacht

Panama Canal (After) - Donde esta?

The infamous Diablo Rojo

$2 Ceviche is muy delicioso

These Spanish colonial cities have caused me to develop quite the doorway obsession

Indigenous Panamanian lady who charged me $1 for a photo. Sneaky sneaky

Love me some sunsets

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Bocas Del Toro: Panamanian Paradise

Arriving into Panama on a fine sunny afternoon, I was provided with the distinct pleasure of spending the next 8 hours wandering aimlessly around the Panama City bus station/mall while waiting for my overnight bus to depart. After chowing down on a superb "Pollo con Arroz" at the 2nd of three separate food courts (all of which had about 8 separate restaurants selling fried chicken), I decided to kill the remaining 7.5 hours by practicing my Spanish with some of the various storekeepers around the mall. Unfortunately, knowing only 4 verbs and the translation for 12 types of fruit doesn't get you very far when attempting to purchase, well, anything. Thus, pure boredom, several trips to the internet cafe, and a solid amount of mall walking kept me entertained until my bus departed.

My first overnight bus ride, an experience that is expected to occur several times over the course of my trip, was, for lack of a better term, quite the experience. Traveling 200 miles over the course of 9 hours, the first half was spent enjoying the romantic Latin flavor of, what i can only assume, is the Panamanian Fabio. I was quite enticed by the videos of him professing his love to a random Latina woman, all of whom were either laying in bed in a silk nightgown or staring out the window adoringly, wishing for Fabio to embrace them in his arms (which of course would ALWAYS happen at some point in the song, causing the Panamanian woman seated next to me to shyly hide a smile). Despite this soothing love-inspired music, I unfortunately only managed a few hours of slumber, as our driver seemed to possess the incessant urge to honk at every moving object in Panama.

Upon my arrival in Bocas Del Toro, a chain of islands on the western coast of Panama, I was shuttled over to the ferry station for a 30-minute boat ride to the island, before proceeding to wait for Laura to arrive from Costa Rica. Given my previous ability to highlight places visited in Powerpoint-esque format, I provide you with what I can only assume will be my future method of summarizing places visited during this expedition. Onto the highlights of the 4 days in Bocas Del Toro:

- The 7 hour wait for Laura upon my arrival in Bocas Del Toro, providing me with time to ponder those hours upon hours of waiting "by the flagpole" during elementary school, as no other means of communication existed in the age before cell phones

- The 17 bed bug bites which now provide my legs with a pleasant constellation-esque look (Aries Belt is almost perfectly placed on my left heel)

- The free Spanish lesson received by three 8-year olds at the bus stop, in exchange for a $1 plate of rice and beans. They thanked us for the food of course by requesting more money. Oh poverty...

- Randomly running into former high-school friend Erik Stringwell and his wife Leah on their honeymoon... twice

- Beautiful beaches, friendly locals, and other non-sarcastic bits of information that, in all likelihood, nobody on this blog cares to read about

After the 4th day in Bocas, with the arrival of my 29th birthday only hours away, we decided to spend the night celebrating the best way possible in this fine section of the world: On another night bus. This time, however, we unfortunately were not joined by the soothing tunes of Latin lust. Instead, thanks to our new drivers desire to take every turn in Panama at breakneck speed (there are a LOT of turns in Panama), the new sounds of our journey were instead those of passengers relieving themselves of dinner onto the floor of the bus. (Insert Happy Birthday to Me Song). All was not in vein however, as the experience did allow me to learn an additional phrase in Spanish: "Excuse me sir, there is a little bit of ¨"sick" underneath my seat. It smells bad. Thank you." Fluency is almost around the corner!

Next stop: Panama City

Onto the pics:

Albrook Mall: Three foodcourts and not one bookstore, gotta love the 3rd world

The Panamanian Fabio rocking his locks of lust

Bocas Del Toro Town - Thriving with nothingness

Bike riding our way over to Bluff Beach

Life is rough

For this guy, life is REALLY rough (as a note, his hammock is attached underneath his 16-wheeler)

$0.50 beers? I could get used to that

3 dedicated dogs that probably followed me for about a mile before I gave in and left them my scraps

I´m pretty sure running into Erik and his wife Leah on their honeymoon tops my most random travel-encounter list

Friday, May 13, 2011

Welcome to My Blog... Again

Friends, Family & Curious Readers (who fall into neither category, and thus I question how you came upon this site),

I’d like to welcome you to the second part of the TBD-part series of my travel blogs: “Going to South America – Donde Esta El Bano?”

For those of you who shared in my adventure to South Africa during 2007 and 2008 (“Coming to South Africa – A Journey Back to My Roots”), I present you the opportunity to join me for a less-extensive, yet no-less-exciting excursion to the southern-most continent of the Americas (aptly named South America).

For three months I will be wandering around this enormous Spanish-speaking land, joined by my Scottish travel pal, one Ms. Laura Dykes -- a friend discovered on my flight from Nairobi to Cape Town 4 years ago, and with which I have stayed in touch ever since (despite the difficulty I have in translating Scottish --> English -- rumor has it they are the same language, although it has yet to be confirmed by reputable sources – i.e. Wikipedia). Although no plans have been set in stone, I envision spending about 2-3 weeks in each of the following countries:

Panama --> Colombia --> Ecuador --> Peru --> Bolivia --> Chile

While Argentina and Brazil both present amazing opportunities for exploration, I imagine these fine nations might find themselves beneath my feet another day. As for now, they will carry the label of TBD on my travel map, as I don’t imagine they are going anywhere.

Now, many of you may be wondering, “Mark, how do you manage to take these trips? Aren’t you concerned about your career? Your personal life? Your semi-flamboyant, and worryingly-mentally-troubled dog?” To those who wonder such notions, I provide the following:

Career = Haha, that’s a funny word

Personal Life = I must say, the addition a new-found girlfriend to my life has made this journey a bit more difficult to embark upon than I envisioned. I never before thought that the words “Hey, I’m going away for 3 months to travel with another girl” would inflict such anguish, although Julie has been more than amazing in supporting my trip. She even was kind enough to purchase for me a going-away gift, the perfect place to store all my “valuables” as she termed it: Here’s a photo: Julie's Gift . I can think of no better place to store my passport.

Dog = I imagine by letting a few flies or other insects free in the apartment, Kerby will be more than stimulated for the next three months.

I leave with you the following: Farewell Song

See you in Panama!