Monthly Archives: July 2013

Beautiful Colombia

After thirty hours rocking at sea, we awoke to the sunrise in Cartagena. We disembarked and hopped in a cab that took us to Hotel Villa Colonial where we stayed during our five days in Cartagena. Located in the travel friendly Getsemani neighborhood in walking distance to the sights, it was a wonderful place to stay at nearly half the price of the other hotels and even hostels around but was just as nice.

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The view from our balcony

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The terrace

After a little rest and recovery, we wandered around the old city and marveled at the beautiful old buildings along the cobblestone streets, each a different, sunny color with wooden balconies spilling over with bright bougainvilleas. Colombia immediately felt different from Central America somehow. I cant really put my finger on it, but the colors, the heat, the music, the people, the whole vibe was new to us and we loved it.

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The next day began the arduous process of getting the van out of the port. Luckily, our shipping partners, Johnny and Patricia, were staying in a hostel just around the corner from us. Aron and Johnny spent three entire days running around to various offices at the two shipping yards, paying fees, getting papers signed and stamped, and trying to navigate through the extremely convoluted process. In the meantime, Patty and I strolled around Cartagena and dreamed as we browsed jewelry shops featuring Colombia’s famous emeralds.

When Aron and Johnny finally succeeded in getting the cars out of the port, we celebreated by enjoying our last day in Cartagena together. We walked around and sampled all the streetfood we could find: fresh squeezed orange and mandarine juice, various ceviches, a soft fried bread stick sort of like a donut with cheese in the middle, and Colombias’s famous arepas- a fried corn patty filled with egg, meat, or cheese.

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Once our appetites were fulfilled, we visited the Castillo San Filipe, a huge stone fortress lined with canons overlooking Cartagena. Along with an immense stone wall surrounding the entire old city, the fortress was built to fend off pirates and to store gold. We heard that gold was found stashed in some of the historic buildings of the city during their recent renovations.

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Strolling one last time through the old city, we enjoyed the warm breeze and the beautifully lit up night.

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We parted ways with our new friends as they headed to big city life in Medellin while we headed southeast to do some camping and enjoy the outdoors in the Andes mountains of Colombia.

Colombia is enormous compared to the countries we traveled through in Central America. We set out feeling a little lost but headed in the direction of San Gil, a town known as a base for outdoor adventure sports like kayaking, paragliding, and mountain biking. While it looked like a short distance on the map, it took us an entire two days of driving to make it there.

In the middle of our second day of driving, the scenery changed from flat, green farmland to magnificent mountains. We drove through the stunning Chicamocha Canyon and winded up the sides of the mountain while enjoying spectacular views.

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San Gil turned out to be a good choice and is a small town nestled in the mountains surrounded by a plethora of outdoor opportunities. Of all the options, we decided to check out Cascadas Juan Curi, a series of beautiful waterfalls that more adventurous folks rappel down. We camped at a finca (farm) along a creek fed by the waterfalls. The farm was run by a sweet little elderly señora who invited us in for agua de panela, a Colombian specialty which is sort of like hot sugar water with cinnamon. Panela is a natural sugar that is everywhere and in everything in Colombia.

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In the evening we hiked twenty minutes up the lush canyon until we reached the first waterfall. A series of ladders and climbing ropes led to more waterfalls up the way. The scenery and the waterfalls themselves were absolutely stunning and miraculously we had them all to ourselves.

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The next day after some van maintenance we packed up to visit the quaint little colonial village of Barichara, a place preserved 300 years in time. Rows of white buildings with terra cotta roofs lined the little cobblestone streets of the sleepy village surrounded by rolling hills. The area kind of reminded us of a small, old version of Santa Barbara in California.

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Church in Barichara

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Barichara

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From Barichara we walked to the nearby even smaller colonial village of Guane via the Camino Real, a famous old stone path that passed by farms and goat herders.

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El Camino Real

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Hanging moss tree hair along the Camino Real

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Church in the central plaza of Guane

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Guane

Our next stop deeper in the mountains and at a higher elevation was Villa de Leyva, another beautiful old colonial village. With similar architecture and style as Barichara but larger and more populated, Villa de Leyva was a wonderful place to be for a few days. There are so many outdoor activities to do in the area one could easily spend two weeks here.

We camped at Hostal Renacer, a beautiful spot just outside of town with lovely views and a huge fire pit which we sat around each evening with fellow travelers drinking beer, sharing stories, and making pizzas.

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Here we slowed down a bit and spent a lot of time relaxing and cooking at the hostal. I had a bit of a cold with a relentless cough so we took it easy and did a little hike at Paso de Angel (Angel’s Pass), a walk along a narrow mountain ridge with beautiful views of the valleys below.

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We spent a morning wandering through the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva and visited the Saturday market. It was hard not to buy everything, the rows of stands with fresh, colorful produce were magnetizing: sweet mountain blackberries, freshly shelled beans, baby papayas, and all kinds of other local fruits and veggies.

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The main square in Villa de Leyva, supposedly the largest in South America.

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Saturday market

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Enjoying corn, arepas, and coffee at the market

After a few mellow days, we headed three hours east to Lago de Tota, Colombia’s largest lake. Along the way we passed by a variety of little mountain villages, each with a beautiful church peeking out over the buildings.

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At 10,000 feet elevation, Lago de Tota was icy cold and was surrounded by small farms growing onions, potatoes, and other crops, creating a pretty patchwork of greens and purples all around the shore. Fuzzy sheep and cows grazed on the hillsides and all the locals wore warm woolen ponchos to keep out the chilly mountain air. I really think this was one of the most beautiful, scenic places we have visited on our trip.

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We camped under the full moon at Playa Blanca, a white sand beach on the shores of the lake. Although the setting was gorgeous, we were driven away by the icy wind that blew across the lake in the morning.

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Near the lake, we visited Mongui, another beautiful, quaint, colonial town. The mountain setting and the locals walking around in traditional woolen ponchos and sombreros added to the tranquil beauty. We strolled around and shared a local specialty of fresh trout in mandarin sauce at a cozy little restaurant.

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So far, Colombia has been one amazingly beautiful place after another. So much so that we are getting accustomed to waking up in new, breathtaking places. Not to mention, the Colombians we have met are some of the kindest, friendliest, most helpful, and most enthusiastic people of our entire trip. They love their beautiful country and are proud to share it with travelers.

Only halfway through the country, next we cross the Andes mountains to visit the Zona Cafetera, Colombia’s coffee zone.

Categories: Colombia | Tags: , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Panamania

After an adventurous three weeks in Costa Rica, we crossed into the rolling green, jungle hills of Panama. Aron and I traveled to Panama together three years ago for two weeks and visited Bocas del Toro (the islands off the Carribean coast), Panama City, the canal, and spent a few days in the Pacific beach town Santa Catalina. On this trip, we had more time to explore the mountains and beaches of the Pacific coast which were wonderful and we really enjoyed.

A few hours after the border we came to our first stop, Boquete, the Napa Valley of coffee. Up in the mountains, Boquete is beautiful, cool, and green and was refreshed by rain nearly every afternoon. We enjoyed a little bit of everything that Boquete has to offer including hiking, hot springs, and coffee farms. We started off by hiking the sendero los quetzales (quetzal trail), a steep seven mile trail through cloud forest where the elusive resplendent quetzal likes to hang out.

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Getting a late start in the afternoon, we decided to hike to the Cerro Punta ranger station at the end of the trail, camp for the night, and then head back in the morning. As we walked along we enjoyed the beautiful cloud forest scenery until it started raining halfway to our destination. Deciding to press on, we pulled out our tent fly and held it over us as we walked the last two hours of the hike in the downpour like a nylon caterpillar. We literally hiked through the storm with thunder and lightning all around us, sloshing through mud puddles wondering if the trail was ever going to end. When we made it soaking wet to the empty ranger station at Cerro Punta, we were happy to find a little covered shelter where we could camp for the night, ring out our clothes, and not get struck by lightning or freeze.

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In the morning we awoke to birds chirping and were treated to gorgeous views of the mountains and valleys around us. It made braving the storm all worth it.

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After hiking back to civilization in sopping wet shoes and recovering from our near hypothermic experience, we took a tour of Finca Dos Jefes, an organic coffee farm in the hills of Boquete. The owners are originally from Berkeley, California and bought the farm ten years ago when the farm had been abandoned due to low coffee prices. Being on the coffee farm was similar to being at a vineyard with sloping hillsides, beautiful blue skies, and rows of dark green coffee plants.

DSCN6568 (640x480)The red coffee cherries are picked and dried, then the pulp is removed to reveal the coffee bean which is then roasted. We picked some red coffee cherries, roasted our own coffee, and did a tasting of light, medium, and dark roasted coffee.

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The classic coffee aroma shot

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Roasting our own batch of coffee

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After about 10 cups of coffee we took advantage of the cool mountain weather to visit the Caldera Hot Springs, a twenty minute drive and a ten minute hike from Boquete. The scenery was beautiful and the cool river next to the hot springs was perfect for cooling off after cooking ourselves in the steaming hot natural pools.

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Hotter than it looks

Aron spent the last day in Boquete looking over the van since it had been making some strange noises. He re-greased the front wheel bearings and did some maintenance in hopes that it would solve the problem. Coincidentally, that day another couple, Jonathan and Jennifer of Drive Chuck Drive who are traveling in a Vanagon from Oklahoma, pulled into Pension Topas where we were camping. As luck would have it, Jonathan is a mechanical engineer and has an extensive knowledge of VWs. He and Aron spent hours talking about the vans and showing each other stuff and he gave Aron some great advice and ideas.

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Van camp

From Boquete we drove six hours to Santa Catalina, a beach with nice waves that we had visited on our last trip and really enjoyed. We found a great spot to camp at Surfer’s Paradise Hostel up above the waves and had such a nice time with everyone there that we stayed for nearly a week. The owner, Italo, has been surfing here for over 20 years and gave us tons of information and helped us make ourselves at home. Sandra let us use her kitchen where she taught us how to make patacones (fried plantain patties) and where we cooked huge family style dinners with the other guests.

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“The Point”

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At Surfer’s Paradise we became good friends with two Swiss guys, three Aussies, and two Puerto Ricans and we all set out to visit some of Panama’s other surf breaks together. Before we made it very far, the rubbing noise that the van had been making in Boquete started getting worse so we stopped in the town of Santiago to figure things out. It was looking like the wheel bearings needed to be replaced and we started worrying that we might need to have some shipped from the states since we imagined they would be difficult to find in Panama. Aron wrote to Jonathan and Jennifer for advice and it turned out that they were going to be passing through Santiago the next morning and offered to stop by to take a look. To make things even more amazing, Jonathan ended up having a spare set of wheel bearings that he graciously gave us in addition to giving Aron a useful mechanical lesson in replacing them. What luck! Thanks Jonathan and Jennifer!

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The guys hard at work in the hot Panama sun

After the van was taken care of, we blissfully headed to Playa Morrillo to meet the rest of our traveling friends. Playa Morrillo is just starting to become known as a surf spot and is still pretty remote. There currently isn’t any lodging in Morrillo so we stayed in the nearby town of Torio and camped next to the cabinas where our friends rented rooms.

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View from Ludwig’s place where we camped

Playa Morrillo was just ten minutes down the highway and a stretch of muddy road. The guys enjoyed two mornings surfing some fun barreling beach break while I went for a run, collected shells, and explored the coast line. We also met Daniel and Oswald,  two super nice surfers who run cool hostels in Panama City that we ended up staying at.

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Our Aussie friend, Jack, rippin

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After two days in Morrillo we drove up and around to Playa Venao, a beautiful but expensive tourist beach with a nice mellow beach break that even I could surf. We planned to continue onto Playa Cambutal, another fun surf beach, but the rains hit hard and didn’t let up the entire time we were at Playa Venao so we decided to head to Panama City and get started on shipping the car to Colombia.

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Our Panama traveling family

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Camping in the rain at Playa Venao

Our Swiss friends, Patrick and Tobi, joined us on the long ride to Panama City. After navigating through crazy Friday evening traffic, we managed to find our hostels and take a brief rest before heading out for some fun.

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Daniel invited all of us to his friends birthday party on the roof of the Hard Rock Hotel so we shined our sandals and put on our best clothes. The live band was rockin and the views of the city were gorgeous.

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We spent the weekend exploring the city before all the chaos of trying to ship the van to Colombia would begin on Monday. We discovered the Mercado de Mariscos (seafood market) near the water and enjoyed some of the freshest and the greatest variety of ceviche we have ever seen in one place. Being Saturday, the place was popping and the tables filled with locals eating fresh seafood and drinking beer spilled from the sidewalk into the parking lot.

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From there we strolled on over to Casco Viejo, the oldest and most beautiful part of Panama City.

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Lured in by the sunset and the beautiful boardwalk along the ocean, we decided to walk the hour back to our hostel.

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Monday rolled around and the dreaded process of getting the car shipped began. We found another couple of travelers, Johnny and Patty from Wandaroundtheworld, to share the shipping container with to decrease the exorbitant cost a little. Our shipping agent held our hands along the way: they  made all of the shipping arrangements, led us through the crazy streets of the big city to the police yard where the vehicles would be inspected, helped us get our paperwork in order, and led us to the loading area in Colon where we drove the cars into the container and kissed them farewell. The whole process wasn’t nearly as much of a hassle as we thought it would be.

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The next day, we hopped onto a sailboat that would take us to Colombia via the beautiful San Blas islands. Our home for the next five days along with thirty other people was an 85 foot sailboat named The Independence. The waters around the islands were calm and clear and perfect for snorkeling. The crew cooked us three amazing meals each day that included fresh lobster and fish caught by the local Kuna Yala that would row up in their canoes alongside the sailboat to sell their fresh catches.

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The first three days of the trip were spent cruising through the archipelago, snorkeling, diving off of the boat, hanging out with the other travelers, and all out relaxing. Then came the thirty hour open ocean crossing to Colombia. As soon as we hit the open ocean the sailboat started rocking up and down over the swells and didn’t stop for the rest of the trip. We took Dramamine every couple of hours to avoid seasickness and concluded that it must have some sort of tranquilizer in it because we basically slept on and off for the entire thirty hour crossing. We arrived in Colombia in the middle of the night and woke up to the sun rising over Cartagena. When we deliriously got off the ship the entire world kept rocking back and forth and it took us two days to get our land legs back.

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It’s hard to believe that after seven months of traveling, we made it to South America!! It all seems like a dream…

Categories: Panama | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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