Sunday, 21 May 2017

Palomino

The next stop on our itinerary was Palomino, a small town on the Caribbean coast with a lovely beach and laid back vibe.

Palomino beach
The beach goes on for miles, but you're not supposed to swim due to strong offshore currents, however, we arrived to find around fifty people in the sea - all fine. So, we took the advice with a pinch of salt, only went in to waist deep and after the waves had broken. It’s too hot to not cool off!

Miles of beach in Palomino
There was glorious sunshine every morning, and we even had a view of the snow-capped Sierra Nevada mountains from the bottom of the garden in our accommodation.
 
It's hard to believe that it's possible to see snow up there when we were stood melting down at sea level, in extremely high heat and humidity! It's apparently the highest peak in Colombia and you can just about make out the snowy peaks in my photo:

The snow capped peaks of the Sierra Nevada
Mountains in the distance 
In the afternoon, the sunshine would eventually give way to thunderstorms and torrential rain and the occasional power cut.

The main mud road of the town is characterised by several large puddles that fill the entire road, so it takes some time to get anywhere, picking your way around the puddles.
When it rains, we were recommended to just go out barefoot to avoid the issue of soaking your trainers or losing a flip flop in the mud!

We went 'tubing' down the river one day – a much more sedate affair than in Laos – just floating down the river in a giant inner tube, with views of the mountains, until we reached the sea. We just had to be sure to get out before we floated out to sea!
 
Tubing in Palomino
Getting to the start point however was a little hairier - it basically involved getting on the back of a motorcycle taxi whilst carrying our tubes!

All in all, Palomino was a lovely place to stay for a few days. After four nights, we travelled down to Santa Marta, so we could do a day trip into Tayrona National Park.

Once in the park, we embarked upon a six-mile hike along the coast, which was tough as it was so hot and humid. It's also not possible to swim on most of the beaches due to the strong currents and big waves so we had to wait a while before we could cool off.

Tayrona National Park
Most of the park has well organised trails with boardwalks, but parts of the track are very muddy and we had to wade across three shallow rivers in some parts – I think probably due to the heavy rain that has been falling.

Rough seas in Tayrona Park
After two hours of hiking, we eventually reached Arricefes and there's a beach nearby where we could finally swim in a sheltered bay – where cooling off was much appreciated. The park is stunning – wild beaches, huge boulders and big waves. Well worth the strenuous hiking effort.

Huge boulder cracked in half
We were glad we decided against the option of hiring a hammock and mosquito net and staying over in the park – it seemed a fairly horrific experience – though one that Hannah apparently enjoyed when she visited a few years ago! Perhaps as we approach the end of our trip the travel fatigue is setting in and we need our home comforts!

We are now down to our final week – how time flies! First we’ll head back to Cartagena for a few days, then we fly to Mexico in preparation for our flight back to London.

Tune in again next week for the final instalment of the blog (well, for this trip anyway!)

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

Cartagena

Cartagena is a beautiful, well-preserved old town surrounded by tall city walls. Much like other old Spanish colonial centres, it has a really European feel – both architecturally and culturally – and within the city walls, there were even horse and carts (like we saw in Seville, Spain and also in Merida, Mexico) ferrying the tourists around.

Gate to the old town

Wandering around the narrow streets
Outside of the old town it’s a different story: the chaotic suburbs descend into traffic mayhem, diesel fumes and an urban sprawl where all Cartagena’s residents live. It was quite a contrast travelling in from the noisy suburban bus station outside of town, into the colourful centre of the old town. Needless to say we stuck to the centre of town once we’d arrived!

The city walls are filled with narrow streets, colourful buildings, brightly painted street art and big shady squares. It’s incredibly hot and humid so we were grateful for the cold air conditioning in our hotel room – the first we’ve had in a while and feels like a real treat!
 
View from the city walls
The best itinerary in Cartagena is to drop all sightseeing plans and get lost wandering around the streets of the old town. We walked miles in the shady streets, popping into shops and cafes for a Colombian coffee and some air conditioning, and strolling along sections of the city walls, taking in the city views.
 
City walls and sailing boat

Strolling around the walls
All the doors in the old town are much taller than standard doors as when the city was built, people used to enter buildings on horseback, so the added height is to cater for the horse and rider.

People’s homes also used to be marked with a symbol if they were one of certain occupations – usually the door knocker is in the shape of one of the following animals to represent the following professions:
  • Lion – works for the king
  • Iguana – rich/noble people
  • Owl – doctor
  • Mermaid – Sailor
  • Dolphin – Fisherman
It was fun to walk around the old town spotting the different animals, though we’ve yet to see an owl…
 
A rich person used to live here...
We stayed in Getsemani, a ten-minute walk outside the centre and a popular location for backpackers. It’s a vibrant area with lots of great bars and cafes and generally the standard of food here is really good. We found a lovely cafĂ© for breakfast with three resident cats, which serves the best banana pancakes (even better than mine!)
 
Street art in Getsemani
We’ll return to Cartagena in a week or so, ready for our flight back to Cancun before we fly home, but in the meantime, we decided to explore some more of the Caribbean coast and headed north to Minca in the Sierra Nevada mountains.
 
Minca, in the mountains
We spent a couple of nights there and did a spot of hiking to nearby ‘Pozo Azul’ waterfall for a swim, but our day’s adventure got prematurely cut short when the heavens opened and we got soaked through. So much for 100% waterproof Goretex shoes if they get so full of water that you’re squelching around in them! 

Soaking wet!
After a brief stop in Minca, we’re now in Palomino and I’ll fill you in on our adventures here in the next blog post.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Medellin

So, on to country number ten! After two changes of plane in Panama City (one stopover, one broken engine cover) we landed in Medellin. Known as the City of Eternal Spring, for it’s cool climate – so we were able to enjoy a few days away from the heat and humidity of the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica  – though that said, it was a different kind of humidity in Medellin as rainy season has just begun in Colombia, so we had some heavy rain and thunder storms most days.

Medellin is probably most famous for being home to the late Pablo Escobar, renowned drug-lord and dictator. Unfortunately, the recent ‘Narcos’ series on Netflix has glamorised Escobar’s life, which the local people are unhappy about as he brought about a lot of suffering, including kidnappings, murders on the streets of Medellin.
Pablo in prison
We went on a Pablo Escobar and City tour with Fede, the owner of our hostel, born and raised in Medellin, and who experienced first-hand life under the rule of Escobar.
 
Fede was friends with Pablo Escobar’s son at school and so spent time in his family home. Unrelated to this, he was later kidnapped by FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) Guerillas, held hostage for 17 hours, beaten and released only when his family paid the ransom. 

Fede took us to Escobar’s first family home in Medellin, the prison that was both built by and housed Escobar and the house in which he was later shot (apparently by the Colombian Police, though many believe he killed himself before the police could get to him).

The view from the prison was stunning – essentially affording Escobar a view over all of Medeillin – and despite being locked up, he could see exactly what was going on with views over the airports and oversee his business still being run.
 
View from Pablo Escobar's prison cell
On the tour, we also visited Barrio Antioquia, famous for being the dodgy suburb, next to a very well-to-do suburb – and one that the police won’t go in to.
 
Fede drove us through the neighbourhood pointing out to us who was selling the drugs, as well as the ‘watchers’ on every corner, checking for suspicious activity, unknown vehicles and so on… We even saw someone indiscreetly handing over a roll of banknotes in exchange for drugs in broad daylight. Fortunately, we viewed all this from the safety of the car and didn’t stay for long!

Lastly, we went to Comuna 13 -  once Medellin’s most dangerous neighbourhood, now transformed into a vibrant and colourful district, where local residents are no longer afraid to leave their homes – and it’s a destination for tourists alike.
 
Comuna 13

Colourful Comuna 13 
The ramshackle brick houses atop one another climb up the hill, in a very densely populated neighbourhood. Where once the close proximity of the houses meant gang-members could make a quick get-away (it is said there are secret passageways between some of the houses to facilitate an easy escape), then are now painted brightly with street art and a series of escalators run up through the comuna and the streets are filled with enterprising locals selling empanadas and mango ice cream, and tourists taking photographs against the colourful backdrop.

Kev posing by the street art in Comuna 13
We had an alternative view of Comuna 13 when we took a cable car over the city to Park Arvi, where we planned to do some walking, however, it started raining heavily pretty much as soon as we got out, so we stopped for a craft beer and a game of chess at the top then jumped back on the cable car back down as it looked like the thunder storm and rain was about to settle in for the afternoon.


There’s a great foodie scene in Medellin, along with some great local and national beers, which we are gradually working our way through! Favourite so far include Club Colombia, Chapinero Porter from the BBC Bogota Beer Co. and Medellin brewed ‘3 Cordilleras Sweet Stout’.

Live from the BBC (Bogota Beer Co)
Next, we are on our way to Cartagena, via Tolu and the Islas San Bernardos, an archipelago of ten islands in the Caribbean Sea, including Santa Cruz del Islote, the most densely populated island on Earth – every part of the tiny island is covered by houses.
 
Santa Cruz del Islote
We made a stop on Tintipan and spent the afternoon on the beach, but unfortunately it meant for sand-fly bites for Kev!
 
Isla Tintipan
I’ll write again from Cartagena.

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Bocas Del Toro

It was a long journey over two days to get from Montezuma to Puerto Viejo, travelling via the capital, San Jose. Considering Costa Rica is a fairly well-developed country with a decent standard of living, it is surprising the condition of the roads, many of which are unsealed, pot-holed and require a four by four to get around. Even our accommodation in Montezuma advised leg one of the journey to San Jose would take three hours, where it in fact took seven! Still, we’re not in any kind of rush, so no problem there.

We arrived in San Jose to torrential rain, thunder storms and a power cut – it was actually a welcome relief to the high temperatures and humidity in Montezuma! Our accommodation had a view over Poas volcano, which had a small eruption a couple of weeks ago – just a bit of gas and smoke – but we were relieved to pass through without further incident as the area was on alert for a while, in case of further eruptions.

As we travelled through Monteverde and Montezuma, we kept meeting people headed from or to Bocas Del Toro, Panama (on the border with Costa Rica) – to the point where we wondered what we were missing. Upon a little research, we decided that too we should amend our itinerary (which was pretty open) to spend a week there and add another stamp to our passports…

So, we hopped on a bus to Puerto Viejo (a journey which actually took its designated travel time of five hours and not the usual seven!), the jumping off point for Bocas Del Toro.
Puerto Viejo is a backpacker destination in its own right, however – a very laid back atmosphere, miles of coastline, nice beaches, good surf and hot weather.

Puerto Viejo - Playa Cocles

Puerto Viejo is on the Caribbean Coast, to which there’s a really different vibe to the Pacific Coast. In addition to the local Costa Ricans (Ticos, as they like to call themselves) there are also local Caribbean people, speaking in their own Creole dialect and serving up ‘rice and beans’ and other Caribbean food in their restaurants.

We stayed near Playa Negra, where the sand is black (burning the soles of your feet as you run down to the sea) and two kilometres away there’s Playa Cocles, a long stretch of white sand, good surf and nice for swimming.

Surfboards on Playa Cocles

There’s a jungle path to walk between the Playa Negra and Playa Cocles and on the way, we saw three sloths in the trees! The first two were sleeping as we spotted them during the day, but we saw the third one at dusk and he’d just woken up and was having his dinner (breakfast?) Please forgive the terrible photo – I really tested the limits of my camera in the fading light and zooming right in. Still, you can still make out that it’s a sloth and at least it wasn’t moving too fast to photograph!
 
Sloth!

After a few nights in Puerto Viejo, we took the shuttle over the border into Panama and then the boat into Bocas del Toro.

Bocas Del Toro is a chain of islands and we chose Isla Bastimentos for our first stop, as it seemed a bit quieter with nice beaches. It's really picturesque with wooden houses built on stilts over the sea.
  
Isla Bastimentos

However, we decided to move to a different island after one night due to there being no running water on the island because of a water shortage.
We were allowed to have a short shower from the tank, but basically had to ask the hotel management for permission to use the water. Now, the weather app on my phone told me the humidity levels were at 92% at one point, which makes the 32 degree temperatures feel so much hotter, so you don't feel clean for long – and we decided we just couldn’t live without running water. What divas we are! 

So, we took a boat back over to the main island and stayed in Bocas town, which was perfect for us.
All the nice beaches are a short boat, or bus ride away and the town has the best food options as well – though to be honest the standard of food is nowhere near what it was in, say, Mexico!

The closest beach, on Isla Carenero, was idyllic with calm turquoise water, white sand, palm trees and a restaurant with decking out over the seas that served the best pina coladas. After a couple of visits there, however, Kev learned the hard way that there are also sand flies, which made a meal out him. Astonishingly, they went for Kev and not me – it is usually the other way around! At last count, Kev had over a hundred bites and is currently being driven to distraction by the itching…

Isla Carenero

The island was also home to some small crabs with one claw as big as their whole body – I thought it was interesting how some were right and some were left-handed (or clawed!)
 
Left and right-handed crabs!

Fortunately, we also visited some other lovely beaches without sand flies: Bocas del Drago, which leads on to Playa Estrella is home to hundreds of orange starfish, which you can see with a snorkel, just a few feet from the shore. I saw around thirty of them in as many metres, whilst swimming along the shore.

Bocas Del Drago

Starfish at Playa Estrella
I also thought I’d share with you the famous Costa Rican (and Panamanian, evidently) ‘suicide shower’ – so called because there is an un-earthed heating element in the shower head itself and you are advised not to touch the shower head with wet hands - for obvious reasons! This is a particularly fine example of one in our guest house, complete with gaffer tape and a piece of string holding it up! (Note: the accommodation also had a cold-water shower which we preferred to use!)

The famous suicide shower!

After another day in Bocas, we’re heading back to San Jose via Puerto Viejo for two nights to break up the journey. Then on Wednesday we fly to Colombia for the final leg of our journey – I will write again from there.

Friday, 21 April 2017

Montezuma

We've spent a lovely week on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica in Montezuma. The cool temperatures we experienced in Monteverde have been replaced with thirty-five degrees, sunshine and high humidity, so it was a bit of an adjustment to make but lovely to be back on the beach again. 
 
Montezuma beach

Montezuma is a lovely, laid back town with a similar vibe to, say, Zipolite in Mexico - lots of people arrive and never leave - and it's easy to see why: endless beautiful beaches fringed by jungle and excellent surf (not that we take advantage of it but it's fun to watch the waves crashing on to the shore!)
 
Another Montezuma beach

We arrived during Easter week (Semana Santa), which happens to be the busiest week of the year for holidays in Costa Rica - and everyone heads out of the city to the coast.

Only booking our accommodation the day before we arrived, we were lucky to find somewhere to stay at all, but fortunately we found a real gem of a place: set amongst a mango orchard and backing on to jungle, but just two hundred metres to the town and beach.

I reckon the locals outnumbered the tourists ten to one, but on Easter Sunday everyone went home and the town was suddenly deserted.
 

Kev on a deserted Playa Grande

Practising handstands on the beach
We'd wake each morning to the sound of howler monkeys in the trees, howling to each other  as they picked the ripe mangoes above our accommodation.
 
One morning we had a particularly loud wake up call at 5am, where there must have been at least twenty of them up there - it was so loud and sounded quite ferocious!
 
The mangoes were so plentiful that the monkeys would pick one, take a couple of bites and then drop it (where it would hit the roof of our chalet with a loud thud!) if the monkeys cries don't wake you the sound of falling fruit will!

In addition to the howler monkeys in the trees over breakfast, we also watched white-faced monkeys in the trees and on the beach foraging for food. They are much less tame than the long-tailed macaques in Asia and weren't trying to steal anything from our bags.
They got quite close to us on the beach - or rather we were sat quite close to the trees they were foraging in, but didn't seem interested in us, which was a relief!


White-faced monkeys
The end of our week saw the first rain of the year - an hour's torrential downpour. We had luckily left the beach by then and made it to shelter of a restaurant for dinner.
 
Bizarrely, the rain awakened thousands of red crabs and the next day as we walked the jungle trail to Playa Grande, all we could hear besides the surf and the cicadas was the sound of crabs scuttling through the leaves.
 
Crabs!

As we went to leave the beach later in the day, there were hundreds of them gathering at the entrance to the beach and at the shore, presumably ready to make their way down to the sea. Each crab about the size of my hand with distinctive orange legs, purple claws and black back.
 
Hundreds of crabs!

Back at our accommodation in the evening we even found crabs scurrying around on the steps leading up to and outside our room on the patio! Sadly, there were also lots of them squashed on the road.

I have no idea where they all came from, but the town was all of a sudden crawling with them! During dinner we watched as a couple of them stealthily crept into the restaurant, sneaking into a dark corner. I'm not sure if they were looking for food, or the ocean, but the locals didn't seem to be bothered by them.
 
The rain also brought out the bugs in their various forms: mosquitoes, flying ants and other unidentifiable insects. I was thinking earlier in the week that there weren't many bugs around considering we were in the hot and humid jungle. Well, here they are now!
 
As an interesting aside, we have noticed how sand castles vary around the world: in Thailand they build sand temples, in Mexico they build sand (Mayan) pyramids and in Costa Rica they build sand volcanoes! It makes sense but I never thought of sand castles as being a particularly British thing!
 
Next, we're crossing over to the other side of the country, to Puerto Viejo on the Caribbean coast, by the border with Panama. This region is the home of Chiquita bananas, so think of us next time you're buying your bananas in the supermarket!
 
I'll write again next week.
 
Pura vida! (as they say in Costa Rica)

Thursday, 13 April 2017

La Fortuna and Monteverde

On to country number eight: Costa Rica!

At the airport check in desk, the Aero Mexico staff member laughed when he looked at photo page of my passport – I asked him what was so funny (the picture isn’t THAT embarrassing!) and turns out the main character in a computer game called Starcraft is also called Sarah Kerrigan! She even looks a bit like me (maybe)!

Lead charater, Sarah Kerrigan, in computer game, 'Starcraft'
After a brief overnight stopover near the airport, we headed to our first destination, La Fortuna.

La Fortuna means ‘fortune’ and is so-called because when the Arenal volcano, which looms over the town, last erupted it erupted on opposite side of the mountain, sparing la Fortuna. I do hope this isn’t tempting fate when the still-active volcano next erupts (currently next predicted to do so in a few hundred years).

It is said that only one in two visitors to La Fortuna actually get to see the peak of Arenal volcano as Costa Rica’s tropical climate, frequent rain and the sheer height of the volcano means it is often shrouded by clouds and the view is not great.
 
The view of Arenal volcano from La Fortuna
We went on a ‘two volcano hike’, a five-hour trek up the steep side of a dormant volcano that sits next to Arenal. The clouds descended the day we went so the views weren’t great but the hot and humid conditions at the bottom soon turned into cooler temperatures and swirling mists when we entered the clouds.

Cloud forest hike
The dormant volcano is now what is known as a flat volcano – where it has collapsed into itself and formed a fifty-metre-deep by five-hundred-metre-wide lagoon in the crater, filled with rain water.

Posing by the crater lake
After hiking back down the other side of the volcano, we continued on trails that took us over hanging bridges and on to a waterfall.

The benefits of hiking with a guide meant he pointed out plants, birds and animals along the way – that would otherwise have been too well camouflaged for our untrained eyes to spot. We saw a toucan, hummingbirds, a tree climbing snake, an eyelash viper, a white-faced coati, funnel web spiders, the famous red-eyed green tree frogs (synonymous with Costa Rica) and heard the song of nightingales that sounded like a water harp.
There is certainly a lot of biodiversity here – apparently five percent of the world’s species can be found in Costa Rica.

A tree-climbing snake
After our hike, we were taken to a river to soak in its thermally heated (thirty-eight degrees Celsius) water. It was strange to be in a river as hot as a bath, but lovely to soak our legs and feel clean again after our long day of hiking.

The following day we fancied another soak in the thermal water so we went to one of the many nearby hot springs. The pools are arranged so that the higher up you go the hotter the water – the bottom pool being around thirty-seven degrees and the top pool around forty degrees. However in a hot climate, it was a bit too hot to spend too long in the hotter pools and I kept needing to cool off in the cold plunge pool.
Generally Costa Rica is a bit more expensive than its neighbouring countries and as a tourist you are more often than not charged in US dollars rather that in ‘colones,’ the local currency. It’s also the busiest time of the year – Easter week plus the last month of dry season so it’s busy with tourists and local holiday-makers alike.

To keep the cost down, we’ve been eating in the local cafes, called sodas. Our favourite local speciality is the ‘casado’ – chicken, fish or a pork chop with rice, black beans, plantain, salad and vegetables. Pretty balanced and healthy too!
 
 
Local speciality: casado
We had a much better view of the volcano on day two, though the peak was still in clouds. However, when we took our boat transfer to Monteverde, we were very lucky and had a wonderful clear view.

 
We spent our next few nights in Monteverde: hiking in the cloud forest (which due to the dry season and sunny weather, wasn’t in the clouds on the day we hiked, but made for lovely walking conditions)



We did an amazing zip-line canopy tour, high above the tree-tops and reaching top speeds of one hundred kilometres per hour and including a ‘Superman’ zip line, where you fly headfirst like Superman!

 
 


I also had the opportunity to do Central America’s highest bungee jump! A 143-metre cable car jump, where I went off backwards (for added fun!) There were stunning views from the top and I’d put the jump in my top three bungee jumps – just a shame it wasn’t a bit higher, with a bit longer freefall!

The bungee platform over the cloud forest
Lastly, we went on a coffee, chocolate and sugar cane tour – Costa Rica being a producer of all of the above. We got to see the process of each of the above from growing the plants, to harvesting them and producing them into the finished product – which we then got to sample.

Cocoa beans
A freshly picked coffee berry
Here are some interesting coffee facts for you:

-  The lighter the roast the more caffeine there is – so a stronger, richer tasting coffee has less caffeine than a weaker tasting blend!

-  There is more caffeine in a cup of tea than an espresso.

-  Milk reduces the effect of caffeine so a latte is not as strong as you might think…

'Caffeine per cup' chart
Next up we’re on our way to Montezuma for a week of relaxation and beach time. We’ve been warned it’s where all the Costa Ricans will be heading for Easter weekend too so it’s likely to be very busy – but also a nice chilled-out vibe. I’ll blog again from there next week.