Panama City, Panama – Impressions

When you think about Panama, the first thing that comes to mind is turkey. That’s right, turkey. Actually, it’s the Canal, but sometimes its nice to think about turkey…right?

But there’s more to Panama than just the Canal and this time I’m not talking about turkey. Panama City was founded in 1519 by the spanish as a launching point for the eventual conquest of Peru. Then, 150 years later, the city was attacked by pirates – over 1200 of them – and burnt to the ground. The ruins are still there as a tourist attraction – Panama Viejo (Old City).

One of the more complete buildings that remained…

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Two years later a new city was built further along the coast. It would eventually grow to surround the site of the old city, which is now a World Heritage Site.

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Similar to Cartagena in northern Colombia the new city was built with a wall surrounding it to protect it from future pirate attacks. This new city has more similarities to Cartagena than just a wall, the entire district within the walls look similar too.

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It has also been given a World Heritage status – Casco Viejo (Old Quarter).

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The Panama Canal was begun by the french in the late 1800s, but after an estimated 20,000 workers died during its construction – many from Yellow Fever and Malaria – the project was abandoned. The United States took over the project in 1904 and ten years later – 2 weeks after the break out of WWI – it was officially opened.

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The locks system is fairly basic. Water is locked off in sections allowing ships to enter. Then the water is slowly released into the next bank of locks, equalising the water level so the ships can move further along. This happens three times before the ships are through the locks. There are three sets of locks along the 48km of the canal.

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Between the Canal and the US presence over the next 100 years, Panama City has grown along the beach front.

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The central city has a decidedly western feel, like the business districts of most other large cities. My arrival coincided with Christmas and New Years, meaning bus services and travel destinations were filled to the brim with locals for the holiday season. But after 10 months in Latin America it’s nice to spend a couple of weeks in a place that feels a little like home.

Views from atop the Hard Rock Hotel…

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Next, after the holiday season, I travel to Bocas del Toro in northern Panama.

The World Wanderer

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Looking Back, Part 3 – Northern South America

Peru

As I left Bolivia I made my way around Lake Titicaca and along the Andes to Cusco, capital city of the Inca Empire more than 600 hundred years ago. Cusco was built in the image of the Puma, a holy symbol of the Incas.

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Cusco’s a popular tourist destination because of it’s closeness to Machu Picchu. To get to the ruins many people walk one of the expensive hikes in the region: the infamous Inca Trail, The Salkantay Trek or The Jungle Trek. While these hikes are said to be amazing, the expense and length of time needed to prebook put me off. Instead I caught the train to Aguas Caliente, the township at the base of Machu Picchu mountain, and climbed the near 2000 steps to the ruins. At altitude, these steps are still hard going. The ruins felt like Disneyland because of the huge number of tourists but it was still beautiful to behold…

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After Cusco, I travelled to the city of Arequipa, the southernmost city of Peru. Near Arequipa is the county’s third most popular destination, Colca Canyon. Colca Canyon is one of the largest canyon’s in the world, twice as deep as The Grand Canyon. The hiking there is very cheap and doesn’t require a guide. I explored the canyon for three days, including the final climb, a kilometre straight up.

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After Arequipa I headed down from the Andes for a time, stopping at Huacachina, a small town near the ocean renown for its massive sand dunes. I spent an afternoon sand boarding down the slopes.

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Next was a visit to the capital, Lima. I stayed in the tourist zone of Miraflores which felt like I was in the centre of any other city in the world. I then moved to the historical centre and this was more to my liking with great architecture and a distinct lack of tourists.

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I continued north and back into the Andes to the city of Huaraz nestled between the Cordilleras Blanca and Negra. From Huaraz a group of us hiked the four-day Santa Cruz trek, with one of the hardest climbs I’ve ever completed.

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From Huaraz, I made my way to the far northern coast and the country’s second most visited destination, Mancora. Mancora is a beach town where I stayed for four days in a cabaña 20 metres from the Pacific Ocean. After the Santa Cruz hike, it was great to just sit and enjoy the beach for a few days.

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Ecuador

I left Peru and headed across the border to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, where I made plans to visit the Galapagos Islands. Two days later I was on a plane – my first since arriving in South America – and a few hours later landed on the famous archipelago. After booking a four-day cruise around the islands, I made friends with a Uruguayan guy at the hostel and spent the days prior to the cruise exploring Santa Cruz island with him, including a great swimming hole and the Giant Tortoise sanctuary.

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The cruise was amazing, I enjoyed snorkelling through the icy waters and swimming with penguins, fur seals, sea lions and sea turtles. On land there were many bird species including Blue Footed Boobies, the smaller water iguanas and the large land Iguanas.

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Back in Quito, I met some friends at the hostel and explored the city with them, including some amazing architecture, the original site of the equator and the newer more technologically accurate equatorial site. I had also prearranged with some locals to hang out with and spent a week enjoyed their company.

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With my friends from the hostel, I headed north for a weekend to the adventure town Minca buried in the rainforest, where we hung out with Hummingbirds, zip lined ourselves crazy and generally enjoyed our stay.

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Next, two of us travelled south to the city of Riobamba where we hiked to the amazing crater lake of a collapsed volcano called El Altar. Most hiking in Ecuador must be done with a guide, but the two of us enjoyed the three-day hike without one.

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Then we headed south to the southern city of Cuenca where my friend headed into Peru and I explored Ingapirca, the ruins of an Incan Fortress.

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Colombia

Then it was back to Quito for a last few days before I headed north into Colombia, to the city of Cali where I stayed for three days. I explored the city via a walking tour, learning its history, and climbed one of the hills to the local statue of Christ.

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From Cali I headed north via a very winding mountain road where the bus driver thought he was formula one driver. After the humidity in Cali, Bogota was cold. I’d prearranged to meet some people in Colombia’s capital and they were so friendly I stayed for three weeks to spend more time with them, including attending a huge Pop Culture Festival…S.O.F.A.

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Bogota is not well set up as a tourist destination but during my stay I caught a cable car up to a temple of the hill giving awesome views across the city.

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Then with general sadness at having to leave my friends in Bogota, I headed north to Medellin, a more popular city for tourists and home town of the late Pablo Escobar. I hung out at a New Zealand owned hostel and between a couple of nights partying I took a walking tour, both with a group and a separate one with a couple of guys from the hostel.

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Next I headed to Cartagena, a city on the Caribbean Sea where I hung out for a few days in the extreme humidity. Cartagena’s Old Town has a great stone wall around it that once protected it from pirate attacks 500 years ago. The entire old town is a world heritage site.

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Further along the coast is a small beach town of Taganga where I stayed for a few of days. It was a quiet little town away from the bustle of the larger Colombian cities.

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From Taganga I booked and walked the four-day jungle trek to find the Lost City, an amazing ruins of the local tribes that had been abandoned 500 years earlier. The trek was humid and sweaty, and this made the long climbs up clay trails more difficult. Swimming in the icy rivers were highlights of the sweaty days.

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After a couple of recovery days in Taganga, I headed back to Cartagena to say farewell to South America. After 9 and a half months of amazing adventure, it was sad to say farewell to the continent, although my travels were not yet at a conclusion. In Cartagena, I booked a cruise on a yacht with 11 others to make my way through the Caribbean Sea to Panama, and the beginning of my Central American adventures.

This will be an adventure I will never forget.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 2 – Central South America

After a 20 hour bus ride from Patagonia, I arrived in Mendoza, Central Argentina. Mendoza is a wine region and boasts some of the best red wines in the world. While I wasn’t the biggest fan of red wine before, after my time in the city I was a Malbec convert. One of the fun things I did while in the City of Steak and Red Wine was to spend the day enjoying some aguas calientes, a set of hot pools near the city. While this might seem strange for a desert city, it was amazing and included a huge buffet lunch.

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Around Mendoza are several wine areas and the best way to see them is via bicycle tours. The wine was delicious and cycling around the area after many glasses of wine was both crazy and fun at the same time.

Beyond the vineyards, the tallest mountain of the Andes, Aconcagua.

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Next I caught a bus across Argentina to Cordoba, the country’s second largest city. While staying in the city I got out-of-town to Parque Nacional Quebrada del Condorito – Condor Gorge National Park – for a long day walk in the heat.

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Next I headed to the Buenos Aires and stayed in a different area of the capital from the beginning of my trip. As I knew I was heading back to the city, I made contact with a friend of a friend and organised to hang out with him and his friends while I was in the city. They were very friendly and I stayed in the city over two weeks to spend time with them.

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During my stay in Buenos Aires, I caught a ferry across the river to the Uruguayan city of Colonia. While I could have stayed in Uruguay longer I was happy to see the more expensive country for the day and get the stamp in my passport. I enjoyed learning about the city and the country in a guided tour.

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I then bused headed north for my final Argentinian destination, Puerto Iguazú. While the township was very touristy, it had good reason, Iguazú Falls is one of the more popularly visited places in the region. While it had been raining the day I visited the Argentinean side of the falls they were still like nothing I’d seen before. I even took a boat to get right up close to the spraying water.

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The following day, I took a bus across the border to the Brazilian side – Iguaçu Falls. While it’s the same set of falls, it’s a totally different sight and you get closer to the Devil’s Throat, a formation of rock that water pours into from three sides. Both Argentinian and Brazilian sides are a must see if travelling to this end of the world. It was then back across the border to Argentina for a final night before booking a bus to Rio de Janiero.

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After a 24 hour bus ride to Rio de Janeiro – the longest trip in a bus I would take – I found the city to be dirtier than expected. It also gave me a sense of danger I hadn’t experienced in either Argentina or Chile. I’d booked a cheap hostel near the location of Carnival and it turned out to be the smallest hostel I’ve ever stayed in, squeezing 18 people into the space most hostels would fit 6. It also only had one bathroom.

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The hostel aside, the natural wonders of Rio were amazing. I visited Christ the Redeemer, Sugarloaf Mountain and took a bicycle ride along both Ipanema and Copacobana beaches.

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I then took my second 24 hour bus ride to a city called Campo Grande in western Brazil for an overnight tour through Brazil’s Pantanal. The Pantanal is a vast swampy area south of the Amazon. It’s similar to the jungle in many ways, just without the trees. We spent the night on the border of Brazil and Paraguay (the closest I would get to the landlocked country). On arrival we ate Piranha, the mean looking faces leering up at us from the pot. The next morning, we took a boat trip along the river to fish for more Piranha…

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…and to see Caimans, smaller cousins of Alligators.

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Then it was over the border and into Bolivia. As soon as you enter it’s obvious that Bolivia is the poorest country on the continent. The roads are bad, the towns are dirty and the buses are owner operated family affairs and include the kids running up and down the aisles while badly dubbed Steven Segal movies are blasted very loudly. My first stop was the city of Santa Cruz, where I stayed at a brand new hostel for a couple of days before heading on to La Paz.

La Paz is a bustling city high in the Andes and when I arrived my head was exploding from the altitude. It only took a good night’s sleep to recover, thankfully. While the entirety of La Paz is terracotta in colour it grows on you as you explore the city centre and beyond. The lights at night are amazing up the walls of the bowl the city is built in.

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Using La Paz as a base, I had many adventures in Bolivia. For a start, you can’t come to the city without hearing about or doing Death Road. Death Road is a crazy stretch of dirt road 65km long and famous for the cliffs on one side with no barriers. It gets its name from the people who have plummeted to their deaths from it. Riding down it on a bike is one of the most thrilling and fun things I’ve done on this trip.

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Next I hiked along an alternative route to Death Road called El Choro, through cloud forests and past my first Incan ruins. During the hike I climbed to the highest I have ever hiked, 4900m, and at that altitude the climb was intense and difficult. It was a great hike and also my first with a guide. Not something I relish, preferring to carry all of my own gear and cook my own meals.

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Then I caught a bus to Uyuni for a 3 day tour around the Salt Flats and along the Andean High Plains to the three-way border of Bolivia, Argentina and Chile. The Salt Flats are like an inland sea without the water.

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There were so many different terrains on the high plains and many stunning views. We visited some very interesting places, like the lodge made entirely from blocks of salt where we stayed on the first night. Views across Lago Roja – Red Lake.

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Then it was back to La Paz where I managed to suffer from food poisoning, an illness everyone seems to get in Bolivia. Don’t trust the street food! For my final days in Bolivia, I caught the bus up to Lake Titicaca, the highest navigable lake in the world. After a day tour to Isla del Sol, I booked a bus into Peru…

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Next, Part 3 of my Look Back Series where I complete my time in South America by working my way to Colombia.

The World Wanderer

Looking Back, Part 1 – Patagonia, South America

Patagonia is at the southern end of South America and is an area that is jointly owned by both Chile and Argentina. Patagonia contains the tail end of the Andes mountains, the second largest ice field in the world and is predominantly set up for tourism with is brilliant mountains, amazing lakes and so many hikes you could walk around it forever. Thankfully, that was the primary reason I came to Patagonia.

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I arrived in Usuhaia, Argentina in the last days of summer and was stunned by the beauty of the mountains and the seas near the most southern city in the world.

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With Autumn came low season and a slowing down of the tourism industry. This didn’t mean there was a lack of people, just not as many. And, if anything, it was a good thing because the numbers in high season can be overbearing. In Ushuaia, as I waited for a boat to Antarctica I did several hikes in and around the Martial Mountains.

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After a 12 day trip to the White Continent…

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I left Ushuaia for a 12 hour bus trip to Punta Arena, the southern most city in Chile, for a two day stop of before heading to Puerto Natales, another 5 hour bus ride north.

Puerto Natales has a large tourism industry set around two places, the southern fiords of Chile and Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Chile’s most popular and most expensive national park. I spent a couple of days in Puerto Natales preparing for my hike before heading to the national park where I spent 9 days hiking around the Torres del Paine Massif. A fantastic hike.

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Back in Puerto Natales, I made the decision to catch the Navimag Ferry though the patagonian fiords, but I also wanted to head into Argentina to hike around Mt Fitz Roy. So I decided to do both. I booked the five day ferry trip and with several days before it departed, I caught a 5 hour bus across the border to El Calafate in Argentina.

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There is a famous glacier near El Calafate in Parque Nacional Los Glaciares called Perito Merino. But after coming back from 9 days hiking, and having seen plentiful glaciers in Antarctica, I decided to just rest in El Calafate for 3 days before heading north to El Chaltén. In El Calafate I had, perhaps, the best Asado – BBQ – I’ve had in South America.

El Chaltén is 3 hours by bus from El Calafate and is set at the north end of Parque Nacional Los Glaciares. The town principally supports hiking around Mt Fitz Roy, which is another name for Chaltén. For three days, I walked what I call the Fitz Roy Triangle around the mountains to see some wondrous peaks and lakes.

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Then I was back on a bus to El Calafate for the night before then heading back to Puerto Natales once more.

The following night I was on the Navimag Ferry and was preparing for the trip. The ferry left Puerto Natales at 4am the following morning and wended its way south west to pass through a thin gap before heading north. That was when the rain started and it stayed with us for the rest of the trip. It was a shame because we missed a lot of the mountain views due to the low clouds. So the only thing to do was to stay inside and get to know some of the travellers.

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I arrived in Puerto Montt at the end of the journey and made my way to my Hospedaje, a home stay style hostel. Compared to the small relaxed towns of lower Patagonia, Puerto Montt felt like a bustling atrocity set beneath a might volcano.

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I guess it was just the more people all in one place. After a couple of days around town, I headed 2 hours north by bus to Osorno with the intention of hiking the Puyehue National Park and climbing a small volcano. I hitch-hiked out to the parque to find it had been closed because of a missing hiker. So I stayed the night in a cabin before flagging down a bus heading to Osorno.

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Three hours north of Osorno, again by bus, is the town of Pucón. Pucón is a beautiful little town on a lake and below a large active volcano. Every tourist seems to climb the volcano, so instead I’d planned a 6 day hike around the base of both it and the one behind it. All I needed was a nice space of fine weather, but after a fortnight the break in the weather never come. The time wasn’t wasted, I spent much of the time writing. Before leaving Pucón, I caved and climbed the volcano…

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A day or so later, I said a final goodbye to Chile as I crossed the border back into Argentina to the city of Bariloche in the Lakes Region. In Bariloche, I decided to take a 2 week Spanish course,  But on the weekend prior I climbed to Refugio Lopez near the top of Cerro Lopez to look down upon the lakes that give this region its name.

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A week later, during my weekend off study, I climbed Cerro Catedral and stayed at Refugio Frey next to a frozen mountain lake.

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After my second week of study, I travelled a 100km south to the small not very hippie-like, hippie town of El Bolson. It would have been nice to have hiked in the mountains there, but due to the time of year, it turned out to be a rather uninspiring visit.

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After two nights, I was back to Bariloche for my final days in Patagonia before heading north by bus for 19.5 hours to the warmer wine regions of Argentina – Mendoza.

My trip to Patagonia was wondrous trip through the southern portion of South America, reminding me very much of the South Island of my home country, New Zealand. And being such a vast place, you just can’t see all of it. Perhaps one day I will come back and explore more of it…

Next, I head around northern Argentina and then through Central South America…

The World Wanderer

Colombia to Panama Cruise via San Blas Islands

 

After nine and a half months in South America it’s time to make my way north into Central America. I’ve mainly travelled by bus around the continent, but as the border between Colombia and Panama is said to be controlled by guerrilla groups and dangerous – whether true or not – I decided to look for other options. Because I’m carrying excess baggage I avoid flying so I decided on a 5-day cruise through the Caribbean Sea via the San Blas Islands instead.

The San Blas Islands are to the east of the Panama Canal and of the approximately 378 palm covered, golden sand islands, 49 are inhabited.

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The boat I booked was the Luka, a 56’ yacht that has been converted into a cruise vessel. For the 12 passengers and 2 crew there are few rooms and most are crammed. Because I’m a solo traveller I drew the short straw of sleeping in the saloon. While it’s not ideal, the couch like seats are longer than the berths in the rooms, and as I’m 189cm (6’3”) a longer bed is better.

Day 0
We all arrived at the dock at 8pm and were ferried out to the yacht where we waited in the calm of the harbour. We were due to leave at 10pm but it was closer to midnight before we set off. Eventually we set sail under motor which caused many of the rooms to be rather hot overnight, even with their built-in fans.

Cartagena Harbour at night…

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Day 1
No-one slept well and two of our number suffered major seasickness overnight, spending the night on the deck throwing up. I woke very hot and tired after 9 hours sleep. With the motion of the sea and the heat of the cabin, I couldn’t stomach breakfast. Standing up also caused me to feel sick, so I went back to sleep until the early afternoon. When I awoke I also couldn’t stomach lunch so went on deck where the cool wind made me feel a lot better. There wasn’t much to see though, no sea birds or land, only the waters of the Caribbean sea and the very occasional dolphin – too quick for the cameras.

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I stayed on the deck for much of the rest of the day enjoying the sun and the cool of the wind. While it’s winter in the northern hemisphere and I’m told it’s snowing in parts of the US, I’m spending most of my time in just shorts, even late into the evening. And though I slept for most of the day, without anything else to do I was ready for bed at 10pm. With the flashes of lightning on the horizon we prepared for a rainy night.

Day 2
It did rain overnight, while not heavy it meant we had to close the hatches which increased the heat of the rooms below deck. I woke early, not surprisingly, and just hung out in the galley until breakfast was served. After breakfast I went on the deck and enjoyed the breeze on the overcast day. Along one side we could make out the mainland as the San Blas islands came into view.

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The smaller San Blas islands reminded me of the islands of the Pacific – beautiful golden beaches, palm trees and not much else, all surrounded by reefs that keep out the heavy seas. We were ferried across to one of the islands, known as Turtle Island because sea turtles are known to lay eggs here in September.

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The day was spent hanging out in hammocks on the beach, swimming, eating and drinking. What else is there to do on a virtually deserted island in the Caribbean sea?

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In the evening, we cooked beef skewers over an open fire as we continued to take in the surroundings. After dinner, the weather turned against us and it began to rain. After the first shower, several of us headed back to the yacht. We’d only just made it when the clouds opened and it poured, drenching those still on the island.

Day 3
In the morning, the captain went to pick up the three passengers that had chosen to stay on the island for the night. While there was a hut where the locals lived, it was not the best in rain, so the three slept little as they shivered in the cold and wet.

After breakfast, we set sail for the next group of islands. While we were told it was only 45 minutes away, it took us nearly 2 and a half hours to get there in the heavy cross winds. When we arrived, most of us couldn’t wait to get over the side and into the clear warm water.
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Then after lunch, we were dropped off at one of the islands and left to our own devices. While it had been gorgeous weather when we’d arrived, it turned sour after an hour or so, so we headed back to the boat where we hung out for the afternoon swimming between showers.

While we were on the island, the captain had brought a bucket of Lobsters to the boat that was to be our dinner. This was to be our only taste of seafood on the trip.

Day 4
In the morning we sailed for another set of islands. These islands were actually only 45 minutes from where we had anchored the previous day. We were ferried to one of the larger islands and hung out on the beach drinking beer in the sun while a bronzed blonde girl kite-surfed back and forth along the beach.

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After midday we were ferried back to the boat for lunch before many of us swum out to a small desert island not far from the boat. I made it to the island without issue, but because of an old sports injury, on the return trip my shoulder locked up and I had to be collected by the crew. A little embarrassing, but you get that.

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In the afternoon the captain changed his plan and instead of sailing overnight for Portobelo harbour, our end point, we set sail at 3pm instead. Most of us slept through the rocky 8-hour journey as it was difficult to sit on deck. We were woken for an early dinner, then it was back to sleep again until morning.

Day 5
We woke on our last day to the dirty brown waters of Portobelo harbour and waited while the captain took our passports to immigration.

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Panama has recently passed a law requiring travellers to show proof of onward travel out of Panama or suffer a US$105 tax. Onward travel must be in the form of airline tickets. This has resulted in most travellers creating false flight tickets to avoid this absurd tax. While the rest of my boat mates had copies of real or fake tickets, I did not. As it turns out it didn’t matter and we finally got to land without any further fees.

A Not So Good Cruise
While I’ve painted a fairly positive picture of this cruise, it wasn’t all happy travels. Beyond the rough seas, rainy afternoons and the chap who was sea sick for the entire 5 days – none of which could be helped – the cruise was particularly badly organised. The Owner didn’t come with us on this cruise, so the two Panamanian crew had free rein. The captain spoke english well but the chef did not. Briefings were non-existent, so for the most part we had no idea what we were doing each day unless we pestered the captain, who gave us information that changed regularly. Sure, trying to estimate travel times when winds go against you is hit and miss, but the different between 45 minutes and 2.5 hours is vast even for an experienced captain in the region. Then dumping us on an island and disappearing while the locals on the island hound us for the US$2 per person entry fee is poor form.

The cruise was not cheap, but having hot dogs for meals 4 times was not acceptable. In fact, beyond the BBQ Crayfish and the beef skewers on the beach (which we made ourselves), most of the meals were sub par, including stale breakfast cereals, stale bread and potato slush.

Overall, the trip was an experience and while the location was great with the beautiful islands, pristine beaches and seas, the cruise itself was a great let down.

Next I explore Panama City…

The World Wanderer

Taganga, Colombia – Impressions

The city of Santa Marta, birth place of pop singer Shakira, is a mere four hours by mini bus along the coast from Cartagena. A further five minutes along the coast is the little fishing village of Taganga.

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While the township looks sleepy, it’s actually a popular place for tourists with over 30 hostels and hotels scattered through the many dirt roads. Walking down any of these dirt roads towards the beach and the town changes, becoming more like a large beach resort with many restaurants and beach kiosks along the beachfront.

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While the town itself is sleepy, the bay is a prime location for snorkelling, diving and fishing. It’s also close to Tayrona National Park, with its short hikes and many other quiet beaches to visit.

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But more importantly, the beach town is the gateway to Sierra Nevada National Park and the popular Jungle Trek to Ciudad Perdida – Colombia’s Lost City. Taganga is also the perfect place to recover once having completed the trek.

And like most places in South America, Colombia is a Catholic culture, and they go crazy for christmas…

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Next, I head back to Cartagena for my final couple of days in South America before I embark on a 6-day Caribbean cruise via the beautiful San Blas islands on my way to Panama.

The World Wanderer

The Lost City – Ciudad Perdida, Sierra Nevada National Park, Colombia

In the jungles of northern Colombia there’s a magical city known as Ciudad Perdida – ‘Lost City’ in spanish. Believed to be built around 800AD (650 years before Machu Picchu in Peru) the site is said to be the central city of the Tairona people, connecting the many small villages around it. Originally home to between 2,000 and 8,000 people the city is said to be four times as large as Machu Picchu and far more spread out.  Abandoned around the time of the Spanish conquests and the city was only rediscovered in 1972.

There are now regular jungle hikes to the site taking between 4 and 6 days. It’s considered a moderately difficult hike and since I was in the area I decided to do it.

Day 1
I was picked up from my hostel at 9am with just my little pack. I’m not used to carrying so little and I almost felt like I didn’t have enough with me. But then I usually don’t go on guided treks, preferring to walk alone with all my own equipment.

After a ten minute minivan ride from Taganga – the beach town where I’m staying – I was dropped off to the tour company’s office in Santa Marta where I was to meet the others in the group. I’d figured I wouldn’t be alone on this fairly popular trek but I didn’t expect to be one of 19 plus guides. With so many others hikers it was difficult to find the serenity of nature I enjoy when hiking alone. But I did my best.

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By 11am, we were off in a pair of 4x4s heading towards El Mamey, the village that serves as the hike’s trailhead. An hour later, we left the sealed highway and headed along a rough dirt road suitable only for 4x4s, motorcycles and horses. A further hour later and we arrived at El Mamey where we were provided with lunch.

After lunch and once we were all ready we headed out along a dirt road, crossing a pair of rivers as we went.

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It wasn’t long before we began to climb in the muggy heat. While the steep climb was not at altitude like my previous few hikes, where lack of oxygen slowed me down, the somewhat oppressive heat stripped me of my energy, having a similar effect. As we worked our way slowly up the tree covered hill, the clay of the trail seemed to capture the heat and send it at us from all directions. Sweat ran from everywhere and I was soon soaked completely, a state I was to be in for the entire four days of the hike.

We had reached the top of the hill and were walking along a ridge line when the afternoon rains finally arrived to cool us down.

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We took shelter at a small cabaña until the shower passed but it was not to be the end of the rain for the day. As we continued, low clouds began to move in around the hills, bringing a much appreciated cool breeze.

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We continued along the cloudy ridge until it dove down a long steep clay and mud trail before crossing the river to another village. Finally, we climbed a smaller hill to the cabaña where we’d be staying the night.

Under a wall-less tin roofed building there were line upon line of hammocks covered with mosquito netting.

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One section of the wall-less hut was a massive kitchen where the guides prepared our dinner of chicken, potatoes and rice. As we ate the rain returned, this time very heavily and accompanied by long peels of thunder and brilliant flashes of lightning. After dinner and a couple of beers – no South American hike would be complete without beer at the camps – I headed to bed in preparation for the next day.

Day 2
It rained heavily for a large portion of the night, well past the time I’d gone to sleep. Sleeping in a hammock was a first and quite comfortable using a blanket as a pillow. I used a second blanket briefly early in the morning when it grew a little cooler and I was thankful for the protection of the mosquito nets.

At 5am we were up and given breakfast. It was an early start to avoid the oppressive humidity later in the day. It was still hot, a wet heat that made it difficult to regulate my own temperature. But this was only a problem when I was climbing, which was much of the morning following the dirt trail through the endless trees of the jungle. During the climb we paused from time to time in various villages to get our breaths back and to take photos.

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The trail dove down hill again for a long period and at the bottom we were forced to remove our boots to cross a river. Wading across, the water came up to our thighs in all its cold and gloriousness.

With only 30 minutes to our evening’s cabaña, most of us stripped down to our shorts (or to bikinis for the girls) and went for a swim. It was difficult for us to leave the river, but we eventually tore ourselves away, dressed and walked the 30 minutes along one bank to the cabaña.

After lunch it was shower and relax time as we waited for the afternoon rains. We are only 1km away from the steps leading up to the Lost City. So close we could hear the buzzing of mosquitos.

Day 3
Many of us were woken by the breakfast crew at 3.30am, not because we had to get up but because they were being noisy. I managed to get back to sleep and at 5.30 was up and having breakfast. Then we were off along the bank for the 1km to another river crossing where we again had to remove our boots. Even first thing in the morning the cold of the river was refreshing. On the other side we found the 1,200 or so steps that lead up to Ciudad Perdida.

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The ancient tribes must have had small feet as the steps are tiny. Still, it didn’t take us long to get to the top where we emerged into the city’s market area covered in sweat. After reapplying insect repellant, I zipped on my leggings and rolled down my sleeves as defence against the mobs of ravenous insects.

We spent three hours walking around Ciudad Perdida…

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From the market, we headed up the hill by steps…

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…that led to the rich quarter of the city where the best views could be had.

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There aren’t any buildings left from the day of the city builders, as unlike the Incas, the Tairona built houses from bamboo, wood and mud. A few natives do live here but their buildings are recent.

In places around the city are gun toting soldiers, protecting visitors to the city for the last decade. The last kidnapping in the area was ten years ago in 2003. Next we headed down a long flight of steps to the poorer quarters.

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After some history lessons we climbed back down the main steps, very slowly and eventually made it to the river where the boots were off again as we crossed. 30 minutes later and we were back at our last nights accommodation for lunch.

Next was a long ten kilometre hike back along the trail to our final night’s cabaña at the bottom of a very long downhill. In the heat of the afternoon, and still drenched with sweat, we were thankful to arrive at the camp. It didn’t take us long to get out of our wet clothes and into the cool river. On the far bank a waterfall feeds into a grotto behind a huge rock. There’s an elaborate technique for getting across, the last of which is to power swim through the strongest current. A couple of us made a chain to catch some of the less strong swimmers as they were being swept past.

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That evening we relaxed under the beady eyes of many Cane Toads enjoying the rain.

Day 4
The final day was simply returning along the trail we’d walked on our first day – up a steep long climb, back along the ridge line and down a very long climb. 15 minutes before we arrived back at El Mamey, we stopped at the river for a final swim – they couldn’t have stopped us if they tried! Then after 30 minutes in the water, we were back on the trail for the final short walk to the village, where we stopped for lunch before being transported to Santa Marta and the end of the adventure.

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Overall, the 4 day jungle trek was a great adventure, and while the constant sweating and dripping wet clothes left me covered in a heat rash, it was worth it to get to the Lost City and my final adventure in South America.

The Lone Trail Wanderer.