You’re going to Colombia!?

After a fantastic few months in Central America, a few people were asking if we dared go to Colombia next. Of course was the answer!

Colombia doesn’t have the best reputation in the world, thank Pablo Escobar and the cocaine trade for that! However what we found was totally different, I’ve added a new city to my all time top 5, experienced incredible scenery and extremely friendly people. Here’s a little run through of our time there.

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We arrived in the city of Cartagena following our eventful sailing trip through the San Blas islands of Panama. The first thing that struck us (apart from being back in civilisation) was the heat, Cartagena is a HOT city. Just a few yards of walking down the street and you’re ready for another shower!

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We only spent a couple of days here enjoying the old town and taking in the nearby mud volcano. Yes that’s right a mud volcano. The basic idea is a small hill that looks a little like a volcano that you can bathe in – grey, sticky mud. I managed to drop my camera in it, thankfully it’s waterproof (and it seem mud proof).

Although we were able to wash off the mud in a nearby lake, we didn’t have the opportunity for a shower before catching a night bus to Medellin. Not great.

Most people who know of Medellin associate it with Pablo Escobar, the drug kingpin of Colombia during the late 80s and early 90s. During this time Medellin was under siege by the US and Colombian governments vs. Escobar’s ‘sicarios’ who would carry out vicious murders on anyone deemed to be against him. Locals found themselves caught in the middle of this.

Since such dark times, Medellin has rejuvinated itself in terms of housing, transport and cultural buildings. I absolutely loved our time here.

After arriving we were a bit grumpy following a long bus journey and upon arriving our hostel we weren’t much happier. It’s not often a shower following a mud volcano will leave you feeling dirtier – but when the water comes out brown and you’re sharing it with a pair of giant cockroaches, it isn’t a pleasant experience. I therefore don’t recommend the Pit Stop Hostel in Medellin. For less than a couple of skanky dorm beds there we found a spotless hotel with a rooftop jacuzzi – go figure.

The perfect pick me up was however found that evening – beer – and not just the typical lager found all over Latin America. Real beer! I’d been craving a proper pint for months so when we found out about the 3 Cordilleras brewery and their weekly tasting nights we were there instantly! For about $10 you get 5 beers and a souvenir glass to take home with you. I was in heaven with their dark Porter and American Style Amber Ale – the perfect Thursday evening.

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The following day we took the chance to explore the city. Medellin has the feel of a working class city with a lot of soul, a bit like a Glasgow or Manchester in the UK, Nashville in the USA or Kaunas in Lithuania. Downtown there are huge sculptures by the famous artist Fernando Botero, as well as a museum exhibiting his paintings, in the same area as locals working and shopping.

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While cooling off with a raspado we chatted to a local guy who worked as a truck driver, learning English ‘for fun’. We also found a park for bare feet with fountains galore – one of them caught Katrina out!

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Medellin as a city is very narrow, hemmed in by the surrounding mountains on which neighbourhoods sprawl up. To connect these to the city more easily the government has built cable cars. That afternoon we rode up one to see the view and it was breathtaking. In a day it was great to get a flavour of an entire city, rather than of just one small and probably touristy part. To end it, and rest our tired feet, we retired to the jacuzzi on the roof of our hotel – bliss.

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We spent quite a while in Medellin as the city just lured us to stay longer. One day we heard of a parade through the city so went to watch, it turned out to be the end of the flower festival which is marked by the Cabalgata, a long procession of horses.

To many, 4 hours of horses passing by would be pretty dull, not in Medellin. The city has a reputation for ladies taking advantage of cheap plastic surgery, so many horses were ridden by beauties that we just couldn’t take our eyes off! Many locals couldn’t take their eyes off us and were eager to share Aguardiente (the local spirit) and ask why we weren’t back in London watching the Olympics.

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Another highlight (literally) of Medellin was paragliding, the city has a reputation for it. We drove up one of the surrounding mountains, strapped ourselves to a pilot and ran off the edge of a cliff! It’s not as exhilarating a feeling as I expected, there’s no huge adrenaline rush that I’d experienced from skydiving or bungee jumping, it’s more pleasant.

For about half an hour we floated with the birds taking in the view of the city from even higher than the cable car. However towards the end with all the circling around we did start to feel a bit queasy, though I think that has more to do with excessive drinking with some Colombian girls the night before!

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I’d been missing football a little while travelling, less so as I write this following Burnley’s poor start to another season, but had to see a football match in Medellin. We took in DIM vs. Patriotas in the Colombian Premier League which DIM won 2-0. The noise from some of the home ‘fanaticos’ could teach English clubs a thing or two about noise despite the rest of the stadium being quite empty.

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After adding Medellin to my top 5 cities list (alongside Glasgow, Shanghai, Brussels and Hanoi in case you were wondering) we left for Cali.

Now anywhere after Medellin was going to have a hard act to follow, but I just never warmed to Cali. It could have been a few rude taxi drivers or irritating hotel workers but I just didn’t such a good feeling from the place.

Despite that we did love being big kids and taking tonnes of photos at the zoo, one of the best in Latin America I’m told.

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Close to Cali is the village of San Cipriano where they have quite possibly the most brilliant railway in the world. The trains here are powered by motorbikes! There is no road to the village of San Cipriano, just an old railway line, so local people have made their own transportation service by attaching some homemade wheels to a wooden bench upon which they strap a motorbike. The back wheel sits on the track and pushes the unorthodox vehicle along the track. The experience was awesome!

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From Cali we made for the border with Ecuador stopping on the way in the pretty little town of Popayan and the chilly border town of Ipiales. Close to the latter is the spectacular church, Santuario Las Lajas, built across a gorge.

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From there we headed across the border into Ecuador. We’ve had a great time in Colombia, I’d definitely return and suggest anyone with a bad idea of the place come see such different country.

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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?

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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!

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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.