Pirates of the Caribbean 5: Backpackers Quest

These last couple of weeks I’ve been getting excited about the journey from Panama to Colombia. This is a border that takes a bit of thought as although 98 years ago man was able to build a canal across Central America, he still has not managed to build a road through the Darien Gap. Nor has a ferry service been able to operate for any significant period of time – despite many attempts.

We decided on taking a sailboat from San Blas in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. It’s a route that’s been operating for a few years and seemed somewhat well travelled. Despite that, it comes with many warning of unscrupulous captains overfilling sailboats which in the worst case scenario can sink. A nasty reminder in the recent case of Fritz the Cat!

We felt pretty secure in the thought of taking the Sacanagem, a boat with a great many good reviews to be found on the internet. Kinda funny really when you consider the boat is, according to its captain Federico, named after a sex act during an orgy! Nice.

Arriving at the boat on a sunny Saturday morning off the coast of Panama among tropical coconut islands surrounded only by shocks of electric blue water, all seemed well.

As our lancha left us on the yacht to return to the mainland, Federico introduced us excited tourists and travellers to the luxury boat and we all settled in. Even as he told us his engine didn’t work and we wouldn’t be going anywhere till it was fixed. An easy job apparently but we were warned about arriving a day late in Colombia. Do you think I cared from the photo below?

20120808-124715.jpg

Two days passed where we enjoyed the sun, sea and generally life. Who can really complain when the clear waters are teeming with fish? Strangely however, we hadn’t eaten any of them but we did have some of Federico’s slightly odd but very tasty spaghetti with papaya. Tastes better than it sounds!

Sadly poor Federico was starting to look a little stressed with his attempts to fix his engine. Not a good sign. Even less so when bad weather set in – especially bad for a sailboat with no engine as it means no power from the solar panels.

The diagnosis was not good. We would have to abandon ship. 4 of our group decided to take a refund and return to Panama City. The remaining 4 took a chance and Federico’s kind offer to leave us on a nearby island while he fixed the boat … for “maybe a week”. Oh dear. The weather didn’t help, somehow the tranquil blue Caribbean had turned into a merciless beast of swell and spray. Silly to say but I was more bothered about keeping my electronics dry – the youth of today!

20120808-124746.jpg

However, unlike the Pirates of the Caribbean movies, the rum was not all gone so we settled in for the long haul. To be honest I still didn’t care.

2 …maybe 3 days passed where we sat in hammocks, played volleyball, read books, ate fish (at last) and watched Pirates of the Caribbean 3. If Carlsberg did airline delays they’d be this good!

20120808-124825.jpg

One day (I’ve genuinely lost count) we were awoken from our hammock slumber by an English accent asking if we knew Federico. This was Alice who had a boat leaving for Cartagena that day with conveninently … 4 spaces! It seemed Federico was still having trouble fixing the engine and had transferred us to Alice’s boat, the Odyssee II.

After 3 more days of island hopping we would set sail for Cartagena. Now when things work out well, they work out well. The Odysee was much more of an old fashioned boat, made of steel with a wooden interior it felt like a proper boat. And for dinner that night? Crab and Lobster. I mean, come on, I am one hell of a lucky sod.

The area itself is governed independently from much of the rest of Panama under the local tribe, the Kuna. The Kuna are a tribe who it is believed fled their homelands in the jungle of Colombia due to incursions by other tribes. They cleared much of the islands of natural mangroves and planted coconut palms to create the idyllic looking islands there today.

Much of their livelihood depends of this as they barter coconuts with passing ships and other Panamanians. Tourists for example are not allowed to touch fallen coconuts. Tourism provides a welcome bonus to the Kuna through a tax levied on entry and relatively high prices of souvenirs etc. From my experiences they are doing relatively well to minimise the impact of tourists on their home, however you can see the incursion of paved roads, new airstrips and US television impacting some of the younger generation.

The Kuna maintain their own law and culture, for example Kuna are not allowed to marry foreigners, minor law breaking is dealt with by their own courts and much of the society is matriarchal. During our (extended) stay in the area we were able to gain a little insight into life here.

Our 3 days on the boat were just incredible, blissful, beautiful, relaxing, the pictures say more than I can put into words. We sailed around the paradise islands of San Blas taking the chance to snorkel, sunbathe, swim and generally just relax.

20120808-124729.jpg

20120808-124757.jpg

20120808-124738.jpg

With the possible exception of when I took the tiller with a bottle of rum. Arggh me hearties.

Alice and her captain Umberto (it helps to have a Colombian national as captain for entry reasons to Colombia) decided for us to leave for Colombia at sunset, giving us extra time in the islands and helping us get through any seasickness by sleep.

Katrina was especially worried about the crossing as she has felt the onset of seasickness during a couple of boat journeys on this trip. Thankfully, the Caribbean was a great deal tamer than the day of abandoning the Sacanagem and plenty of deck space allowed for fresh air. Nobody chundered.

After our days in the island which on reflection passed by far too quickly, our only full day at sea of the 40 or so hour crossing did drag a little. It’s a bit strange seeing nothing on the horizon all day. My highlight was small pods of dolphins swimming up to the boat, sadly they departed as quickly as they arrived without the chance to take a photo. We did however get an amazing sunset.

After another night on the ocean and with dawn breaking over the southern Caribbean we were greeted with an incredible view of the city of Cartagena and my first glimpse of the South American continent. A perfect way to say hello to a new country and end what has been one the most enjoyable journeys I have ever taken.

20120808-124706.jpg

If you’re considering this trip yourself I highly recommend Alice and the Odyssee II. If you decide to take the Sacanagem, then despite the engine trouble it is a very nice boat and Federico is a very friendly and humourous captain. He also has an adorable little Poodle called Reina.

If you decide to take a different boat then read the reviews online. Check you are happy with the boat before you hand over your cash. If you’re fussy over food it may be best to take some of your own as well as any alcohol you may want as it is expensive in the islands.

Further, as we left Panama we heard of a new $100 tax soon to be enforced on all passengers leaving for Colombia. It remains to be see how this will impact the route. I have also heard stories of Colombian authorities looking to take a piece of the action.

The bottom line is this however, if you have the chance to take this trip. Go.

Advertisements

Cuba: Photo Blog

As mentioned in last post, Cuba has to be one of the most photogenic locations in the world. I became somewhat addicted to taking photos there. Here are some of my favourites from my time in Havana and Cayo Largo.

Havana

Havana Club

Fading Beauty

Capitol at Night

Scrapyard

Broken Down Car

Pushcart

Palm Sunday

Classic Car

Cars

Y Sin Embargo

Just before the splash!

Truck

Cayo Largo

Cayo Largo is a small island off the south coast of Cuba, dotted with a few hotels and surrounded by crystal clear water lapping clean white sand beaches.

Fresh Coconut

Eagle

Curious Cat

La Movida

You can find many more of my photos on Flickr.

Getting to know Cuba

I don’t even know where to start with Cuba. As I write this I’m in a poky little airport on the island of Cayo Largo with an inexplicable 2 hour wait for a plane that is already on ther tarmac and all the passengers in the terminal sipping mojitos or cold beer. But then perhaps inexplicable is the best word to describe this country?

I’m not going to profess to somehow be an expert after a few days in Havana or just over a week in a decent hotel on a tropical island but you start to notice things here. Havana has to be one of the most photogenic cities around, with crumbling colonial architecture left to decay since the Revolution in 1959, thousands of old American cars on every street corner and beautiful people everywhere you look.

Classic Car

There’s no Americans here (and I mean it in the nicest possible way but it’s kinda nice) due to frosty relations between the two countries which have even flared up during this trip thanks to comments my the Miami Marlins coach saying he loves Fidel Castro, something he has since been forced to apologise for. To be honest I don’t really understand why it should be such a big deal, Cuba as a nation couldn’t pose any less of a threat to the USA at this point in time.

Alas, back to this strange place. You can feel the lack of resources through the nation, whether it’s making old Plymouth’s and Lada’s keep running, the limited items in the shops in front of which huge lines suddenly form when stocks come in or the continued use of ration books. Despite this, I’ve come here as a tourist and stayed at a very nice hotel where virtually everything seems available.

Potentially more strange are the conversations you have with people in Cuba, there’s an acceptance their country is comparatively very poor with places such as the Canada and Europe and that their confidence in Fidel and Raul is perhaps waning (for want of a better word). Many people I have spoken to have outwardly complained about their leadership and said the country will only improve when they are both dead. It almost feels like there is the potential for an event similar to the Arab Spring here. But, and there is always a but, Cuba is home to 12m people, 5m of whom are said to be in the police and will inform on dissidents who can be detained without charge.

Let’s move onto the currencies of which Cuba has two, the peso and the convertible peso or CUC (which is pretty much equal to a US Dollar). Local people are paid in pesos while tourists must convert their money into CUC. Items in many if not most shops are priced in CUC so many Cubans will have to change their money into CUC to buy items. Those items due to restricted supply actually turn out to be incredible expensive, I saw a bottle of shampoo for sale in a supermarket (albeit one in an upmarket district of Havana) for 11 CUC. I just didn’t expect that in a poorer country before I arrived.

Because of this, there’s a thriving black market here for almost everything. Meat which costs a fortune in the supermarket will be hawked by anyone who can get their hands on some through methods which are not neccesarily legal.

This black market even extends to jobs. Based on people I’ve spoke to, a typical job in Havana might pay you anywhere between 300 and 700 pesos per month, that equates to 12-30 CUC or US$ per month. That is not much to live on! This makes jobs in hotels highly valued due to the comparatively lucrative tips one can earn. Jobs in most hotels are said to require the employee to speak a second language, preferably English. Many staff in the Melia Havana hotel I stayed in could not speak much English (nor it seemed French as my Spanish is currently very poor) .Yet people I met who conversed in very competent English complained that they were unable to get a job in such hotels as their English wasn’t deemed good enough and those in the hotels had gained the jobs through ‘informal’ relationships.

I’m pretty sure I’ve only scraped the surface of the country, if that. I’m not sure I understand why the incredible Capitol building isn’t used more for the government (unless they don’t like that it looks like the White House other than for tourism purposes). I haven’t got a clue why when tourists are such a lucrative source of income to the country that more is not done to get them to spend money (hint: more souvenirs or tours about the Revolution would be an excellent idea Mr Castro.)

I’ve probably sounded a touch too critical about Cuba but I really don’t want to. I love the place, the people have been so friendly, Havana and Cayo Largo have been incredibly beautiful and any country which gave the world the mojito deserves some credit! How many cities in the world will you find a scrapyard containing old steam locomotives you can climb all over but rusting away just yards away from an such an incredible capitol building?

El Capitolio

Heck, in Cuba you have an international airport that has it’s own beach at Cayo Largo, where you can hear the annoucements as you swim, if I hadn’t already cleared security and be in the bar writing this I’d be back out there catching the last few rays of the day.

Time isn’t a particularly relevant thing in Cuba, so I think I’ll have another cerveza while I continue waiting for my flight….having seen the ageing Soviet plane I’m about to get on, I might need it!

P.P.S. I survived!