Tuesday, 19 March 2019

Postcard from Colombia

I'd decided to head to Colombia on the advice of my Indigenous friend Juan; the plan was to visit Cartagena, then up the coast to the Tayrona National park and Cuidad Perdida. I'd actually visited Cartagena about 20 years ago, and remembered a beautiful Spanish colonial city; the old town hasn't changed, but my, what a lot of tourists! Anyway, I found a nice little hostel right in the centre of the old town in a lovely restored colonial building, and spent a few days just wandering around, drinking in the atmosphere.
Colourful fruit sellers waiting for clients

Easy to get fresh fruit here

And plenty of Vegan restaurants

Looking across from the old town to the new hotel complex

After five days wandering around, chilling out in the Hostel swimming pool and eating good vegan food, I decided it was time to move on. Now in all the years I've been travelling, I have always relied on the Lonely Planet guide books to give me ideas about where to go. 
This next part of the trip showed me that perhaps I'm not now their target audience. The book recommended an island in the marine national park as worth a visit, and suggested driving down to a town called Tula a couple of hours south of Cartagena, then a side trip to Mompos, which was (supposedly) a wonderful, unspoilt colonial town inland on the Magdalena river.
So I hired a rent-a-wreck from a local car hire company and drove down the coast to Tula. It actually took five hours due to the incredibly bad roads; when I got there the town was a dump! No foreign tourists, just nationals. I'd found a hotel online that looked decent - I was actually the only guest. The staff were so amazed to have a gringo staying that they fell over themselves looking after me!
They booked me a trip out to the island for the next day, and even managed to put together a quick evening meal.
The trip out to the island was well worth the hassle! Clear blue sea, plenty of marine life, and those white sand beaches.A little slice of paradise.

Oh but the town itself was unbearable for this old vegan, barbeques billowing smoke on every corner, music blasting out of every bar until the early hours - I realised then that Im probably 40 years too old for the Lonely Planet recommendations!

Then came the really adventurous bit, driving inland to Mompos. Allegedly there was a direct road, my satnav showing a four hour drive. What no-one mentioned was that the direct route took me straight to the banks of the Magdelena river, with no bridges across! After some gesticulating and shouting with a couple of local guys, one of them showed me a dirt track that ran through a fishing village, across a farm to a ferry. It was the dodgiest ferry I've ever seen, basically two fishing boats tied together with a platform bolted on top, strictly one car at a time.

What, down there?
 Eventually, after an encounter with two policemen trying to extort money from this gringo, I eventually got to Mompos. Which was a real one-horse town, only the horse had left!

At one time it had been a major port on the river, full of rich merchants houses and boasting seven churches. It then fell on hard times, and became a forgotten backwater. I stayed in one of the lovely restored colonial houses, but there was absolutely nothing to do in the town once I'd visited the seven churches! I then got chatting with the other guests, all of whom were foreigners like me and had come there after reading the Lonely Planet.

Fishermen still use dug-out canoes
So after a couple of days melting in the heat, I drove back to Cartagena to return the hire car, and get ready for my trip up to Tayrona National Park. The only slight problem - they shut the park!!

Evidently the Arhuaco Indians actually own the park, and decided to close it for a month so they could hold some religious ceremonies. So I finally came to the realisation that I was basically just wasting my time hanging around, time to do something completely different.  Having thrown away my guide book, I went online to look for inspiration. What I wanted to do was something interesting; there we are - whale watching in the Dominican Republic. Perfect. Just a two hour flight and I'd be somewhere different. Bag packed, off to the airport - Humpback whales look out here I come!

Thursday, 14 March 2019

Back to Panama ... on the way to Colombia

I'd been so keen to leave Panama for Costa Rica that I'd ditched my original plan of visiting the mountain town of Boquette, located on the edge of the National park right on the border between the two countries. As I had to travel back to Panama city to catch my next flight, I thought I'd catch a bus across the border and visit Boquette on the way. Located on the lower slopes of the Arenal volcano, the town is renowned for hiking and outdoor activities. When I arrived, the first thing I spotted was a flower festival in the centre of town.

I booked myself in to one of the many cheap hostels in the centre of town, it was OK for the money, although I was little concerned to see Heath Robinson had wired-up the electric shower!

Next day I went on a nice hike up to the 'lost waterfalls'. Nice scenery on the hike up the mountain; the friendly guy at the entrance to the waterfall made me take a photo of his map so I didn't get lost!

Not a complicated map

 I had a nice day, met a young Dutch couple at the waterfall so we all walked back to town together. The guy at the entrance to the waterfall did offer us cheap accomodation in a lovely little wood cabin perched on the hill, but it was a few hours walk back to town so we declined.
 The next day I set out to hike the volcano; I caught a mini-bus up the hill to the park entrance and set off - man, it was difficult! Maybe the elevation, maybe my lack of exercise, but after a couple of hours walking I'd hardly got anywhere, then coming towards me is a group of youngsters on their way back down. " How long to get to the top?" I asked, "About 6 hours up, and 4 to get back down" came the reply. After a few moments pondering, I decided not to be silly, so turned round and decided instead to walk back down to the town!

 I'm glad I did as the scenery going back down was so pretty. Then as I turned a bend I noticed some guys spreading something on the ground - coffee beans. This area is famous for it's 'Artisan' coffee - this was a small processing plant. I wandered in through the open gate and had a little look around, next thing a young guy asked me if I wanted a look round? He then showed me all this lovely old machinery and explained the whole process.

 As I carried on down the hill I was amazed at the flowers just growing wild by the side of the road - never seen anything like it!

 So, pleasantly surprised by the lovely little town and friendly people, I started to get a slightly better feeling about Panama (after slagging it off in my previous post). I actually hung around another couple of days just chilling out, hiking along the river and eating vegan ice cream from a shop run by a Venezuelan couple. Eventually though, it was time to move on. I'd been here two months and wanted to see somewhere else, so I got the bus back to Panama City and from there a flight to Cartagena in Colombia.

Monday, 11 March 2019

Catching up - Costa Rica

I caught a flight to San Jose in Costa Rica, hired a (very small) 4wd vehicle and set off for La Fortuna, which is a small town just below a (live) volcano. The plan was to hike the volcano, visit the local thermal springs and waterfalls and generally look for wildlife. I managed to find a little cabin for rent just outside the town, set in tropical gardens with a nice swimming pool and breakfast included - ridiculously cheap and I was the only guest!
Suzuki Jimney

Where is everyone?

It wasn't me - honest
 First stop at the volcano, only too be told by the park ranger that I couldn't hike up as they'd had a couple of small eruptions, so I just hiked through the surrounding forest. Saw plenty of wildlife - unfortunately my camera had died so I only had my phone to take photos with - apologies for the quality.
Volcano at La Fortuna - NOT dormant

Big Tree

Family group
 After five days hiking the area I decided I needed a beach, so drove down to the Pacific coast, which was a bit of a disappointment. First stop was Tamarindo, where I'd booked a couple of nights stay in a little hotel; evidently it was a famous surfing town, so full of young Americans (dude!) being fleeced by the locals, dirt streets with grey water running down the middle, 5 star hotels next to tin shacks. Not my scene, although I met a Venezuelan Vegan chef that delivered food by push-bike around the town, so at least I had some decent food.
Yep, deserted beach
 I carried on south along the coast towards the Marine park, much more rural with no tourists. Found a lovely little cabin up in the hills rented out by a French family - they even let me use their swimming pool. Oh and gave me a massive plate of fruit each day for breakfast!
So thats how you're supposed to do it!

Funny-looking squirrel

Nice Fruit!!
 I took a boat trip out one day, supposedly there were humpback whales out in the park, but all we saw were dolphins. Did some snorkeling but not many fish. Bit of a disappointment really.
Marine National park

Spotted dolphin
 Another day I made a trip to the most popular national park in the country; sure enough there was plenty of wildlife to be spotted, but it all seemed a bit - Disneyland. The guides all knew where each animal was to be seen, we basically queued-up to take our photos.
Capuchin monkeys
There's a Sloth and baby in there somewhere

Howler monkey
Strangely enough, after three weeks I was getting bored. I guess I must be spoilt, but the heat (constant 30 degC) and lack of decent food was getting to me, plus it seemed every person I met had their hand out asking for money. I'd actually driven the whole length of the country, and back again. My plan was to carry on up into Nicaragua, but for some reason there were problems at the border crossing, and no-one was getting across from Costa Rica. I never did find out what the problem was, by now I just wanted to get away. After a bit of head-scratching I decided to head to Colombia instead; I remembered Juan, my Arhuaco companion from Panama city, telling me all about Cuidad Perdida (the lost city) sitting up in the mountains behind Cartagena. So, flight booked to Cartagena via Panama - ready for the next leg of the journey.
Everyone's watching!