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Warren and Cynthia's Wacky World Adventures

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Mar '10

Spanish School and Carnival – Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Classroom at Spanish By The SeaAlthough most of the instructors (Aicel and Esteban, to name my 2 favorites) were fantastic, the Spanish By The Sea administration left me wanting. Firstly, their confirmation letter states ‘be there 18:00 Sunday for orientation and an oral and written placement exam’. An email to me also requested I be there a few minutes early to pay in full (they only take cash). I arrived 5:53, showed my deposit confirmation and paid the rest. I asked for a receipt, but the large Nordic woman wanted to wait ‘until later’. One thing you learn when you travel – NEVER give over cash, especially a large sum – without a written receipt. I asked her to at least sign my confirmation letter. At the end of an hour long chat about the island, three of us who were not lodging at the school wanted to know when we were going to take our placement test. Helga (name changed to protect, well, me considering she’s a 6-foot plus, buxom Viking) bellowed, “You’ve not taken the exam? You were supposed to do that earlier.”  So no oral exam just a rushed written 10 page exam warranting a mere 15 seconds perusal by Helga – she must be a fabulous speed reader – had her declaring our placement for our first week of schooling.

The major complaint, even by the instructors, was the ever changing schedule. You needed to check the schedule every morning, before 1 PM and then again before they close at 7:30 – it’s like the shell and pea game – you’ve got to keep a vigilant eye on the thing or you’ll miss something and pay dearly. I learned that the hard way when I’d checked the schedule at noon after my second day of 4 hours of morning classes. I was still in a particular room with a particular instructor for my 5th and 6th hour, but when I returned at 5 PM, Helga exclaimed “Oh no! You missed your class!” What? I guess I’d not checked the time – they’d moved it from 5 to 3 PM. There had been only one other person Beginner Diabloin the class and he missed it too. Gee, I wonder why. Then she had the nerve to say, “Oh and it’s Tuesday so you need to pay”. I felt like punching her out but she was a lot taller and thicker than I was so I opted for an angry disgusted look as I reminded her I’d paid the other night and could produce the receipt. In the end she let me make up the 2 hours the following week (I was lucky I was there to study for 2 weeks) and I made it through – albeit with my head swimming with a bit too much Spanish after 2 weeks of intensive studying.

Bocas is small island town on Isla Colon but they take Carnival seriously. Juan, from Casa Verde, had reserved part of the upper terrace of Ron Don’s (across the street from the main park square) so we had a good upper viewing of the festivities. There was a large lighted stage with DJs throughout the weekend, but the most intriguing part was the dance of the devils.  Around 4PM on Saturday, costumed men, some boys, began to arrive in head-to-toe all red costumes. All the costumes are handmade, bells jingling around their ankles as they stomped through, the devils employing whips to encourage the crowd to press back to the edges. As the red devils part the sea of humanity, the red and black devils arrive – their duplex color indicative of their intermediate level. As the crowd presses back, idiots, challengers, with meter-long wrist-thick branches begin to challenge the devils. The sticks are used to protect the challengers’ legs from the whips as they attempt to goad the devils (WMV video) .  The big guns then start to arrive all in black. They are one step below the master level: the master level takes at least six years of dedicated training and performance to aspire to. Now the whipping and devils dance begin in force (AVI video clip). A troop of challengers form a concentric circle in the middle of the street, sticks at the ready. Carnival Challengers CircleOther challengers flit in and out from the edges and if they are “trapped” by several devils, they fall to their knees so the devils cannot continue their whipping; hoping at this point to be rescued by the mass of challengers keeping a wary eye in the middle. Nice idea, but mostly the “sucks to be you” attitude prevails and the rogue challenger has to limp away – usually without his stick since the more advanced guys are rather adept at snagging it with the whip and flinging it yards away. Finally the masters come out – just two this time – and they are in black costumes fringed with white. Things become fever pitched as challengers and devils alike try to gain the upper hand. Cops are everywhere to try to maintain order, but you can feel the tension in the air and at one point I had to look away from a challenger Carnival Night Stagewhose calves were full of bloody welts. “Uhm, shouldn’t someone maybe take him to the hospital?”

At 6PM all the devils unmask and the challengers can see just who gave them the worst whoopin’. Challenges continue but things start to die down; Moms take pictures of their kids with their favorite devil and the injured challengers hobble away. As the night stage starts to awaken, I snake my way back to Casa Verde, my calves twitching in sympathy for the challengers, I weigh the importance of tradition against the ability to walk without a limp.

Visit the gallery for more pictures.

Mar '10

Sunday Boating – Bocas Del Toro, Panama

After 2 days of grueling travel, a morning run made me ready to face the world again. As I entered the guest house,Getting on the catamaran tattooed Juan was bustling around like a colorful humming bird cheerfully flitting about. He stopped suddenly when he saw me, “Want to go on a boat ride today? It’s free, lot’s of fun.”  I grinned – if he had a tail, it’d be wagging. “Will we be back by 5? I have orientation and a placement test for Spanish School at 6.” Pause. “Uh, Five? Uh, sure, sure”.  Hmmmm, not very reassuring… but, hey  this was an island, I figured the school might not even start on time, why not go?  I was not sure what I was getting into, so I figured I’d better let Warren know in case I met an untimely demise. I’m a decent swimmer, but I had a feeling  we’d be lucky to have life vests. I had 2 frantic hours where the internet was unavailable and wondered if something happened to me, would anyone ever find the passport and money I’d stashed behind the picture in the room…

Juan said we should meet at noon so we could all go to the store and stock up on food and booze for the trip.  He brought out a creaky, wheeled cooler and then returned with a can of WD40 with which he proceeded to oil the retractable plastic handle. We joked as he leaked oil the entire way to the store, that he should be careful not to blow a plastic tire or break an axle.  At least he left a 400 foot straight line breadcrumb trail back to the hostel in case we got, uh, lost.

Back at the hostel, a boat was waiting right at our dock. We each paid a $1 for the 10 minute trip to Isla Carenero where we pulled up at a dock hosting a huge, Kermit the Frog green catamaran. The covered middle section had 4 booth style tables (which were claimed quickly) and speakers mounted on the wall through plastic cutting boards blaring island music. When the world ends, look for plastic cutting boards to be the new subwoofer.  

Panamanian Marlboro CigarettesWe cruised the sea between the islands and the boat seemed to attract stragglers like flies to, well, you-know-what. It was amusing to watch small boats race up along side and spew their passengers onto our boat. One person had a pack of cigarrettes that I could not resist taking a picture of; it had a graphic photo of a belly-up rat and cochroach (like they’d been hangin out and WHAM!) – the warning states cigarettes contain the same carsinogens we use to poison rats and cochroaches. I think I heard that same thing not too long ago about hot dogs, cell phones and whole wheat bread.

When we stopped we got to dive off and swim around the boat. One little boy seemed to know all the best spots to jump off the boat, so I followed his lead, communicating through “thumbs up” signals on his efforts.  When he went off the captain’s roof, I was the only adult that the captain hoisted up onto the roof of his lookout to dive off.  Scary as hell, but well worth it. Later, as the kids and I jumped up and down on the netting between hull and center part, through Spanish,  I learned the child’s name was Jose, his brother Ricardo and his father, William.  Jose and other girl Jumping on Catamaran Net

At the end, they passed a hat around for costs to run the boat. Knowing it wouldn’t be a free thing for long, I regretted terribly not having more on me to give. I immediately ran the last beer up to the captain and thanked him for such a fun trip. As I dropped into an awaiting water taxi in the hopes of showering before my Spanish schooling commitment, William bent down with a grin and extended his hand. All I could muster was a hearty “Mucho Gusto!” as we shook hands.  We waved good-bye and as the boat pulled away, I remembered why I loved to travel.

Next up: Spanish School and Carnival – Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Feb '10

Arriving in Bocas Del Toro, Panama

The water taxi arrived from Almirante to Bocas within 30 minutes.  Like lemmings, we all filed out onto the main street. I turned left and within minutes arrived at Casa Verde. TheBocas: Central Park (img1) girl in the office seemed a bit bewildered and heightened my stress of being up for nearly 2 days straight, as she searched for my reservation. Finally finding it, I tell her I only have enough for the first week now. I have to help her do the math since dividing an even number by 2 seemed to stump her.  She photocopies my passport (which she leaves on the copy machine) and writes a receipt (which she forgets to give me) and asks to give her 15 minutes because the room is not quite ready. I prompt her for the receipt, walk out the door and turn right back around “My passport?” Why was I feeling this was not going to go well?  (In all fairness, knowing now how crazy these places get the week before and during Carnival, she was probably just having a bad day)

The only ATM on the island charges an outrageous $3 per transaction (above your own bank fees).  Since it was 3:30, I’m glad I was not warned, until days later, that it often runs out of money late in the day. The town is small but they have a cute little central square with huge mangrove trees. I walked a little further and decided I definitely View from overpriced 'Pirate Bar'needed a cold beer. I popped into “The Pirate” bar with the Mount Everest of barstools – after a herculean effort to seat myself, I began to worry if I’d get a nose bleed. The indifferent woman bartender handed me a beer, which was grossly overpriced at $2.50, but the view of the inlet through a nice flower lined deck was beautiful (although I discovered later the at Buena Vista, a few doors down, has the same lovely view, better service and $1.50 beers).

After a trip to the grocery store, I returned to Casa Verde to discover the girl had locked herself out of the office (light on, radio playing), had no backup key, and could not give me my key because it was in the locked office. Swell.  She did give me another room (one that would sleep 4 people) and said she’d move me tomorrow. Shortly thereafter, she simply left. 2 guys came to check-in and I explained what happened and I thought she might have been going to look for someone named Juan. Since it’d been over an hour and I could walk the entire island in that time, I began to suspect “look for Juan” was code for “I’m outta here”. Scott and Jack (the Australian accent made it sound like Jake – which he became in my mind) introduced themselves and plopped down their gear to wait.

A tattooed guy came bustling in about 5:30 named Juan. He had not heard of the problem and promptly fired off a few expletives. He did manage to remedy the situation by moving me to an available single room for which there was a key, and Scott and Jack into the room I was originally given. Isla Pastores (as my room was named) had a refrigerator, new orthopedic double bed mattress, dresser, mirror and A/C with a remote control – life was beginning to look good… until I took a shower.  They actually had HOT water, although it alternated between scalding and chilly resulting in a lot of dancing in and out. At least it was hot and with 2 long, grimy days behind me, I decided that even a temperamental hot shower was heaven.

Next: Sunday Boating, Bocas Del Toro (visit the Gallery for more pix)

Feb '10

Getting to Bocas Del Toro, Panama – Part 2

Nearly 2 ½ hours on the bus, we stopped for 10 minutes to use the bathroom & get food. I got off simply to give my bum a break – the roads in Costa Rica are atrocious. One major pothole caused even the driver to gasp and I swore we’d broken an axle. After that we stopped at Cahuita, Puerto Viejo, Bri Bri, then finally Sixaola. Puerta Viejo was a quaint, sandy little beach town and I could see why it was popular with the tourists. Of course we made several spontaneous stops, but in the end, to my shock and surprise, we still made it in the time allotted.

At the border, the bus stops at a fork in the road (which is really just a parking lot ). Bearing right up the paved hill, trucks waited in line to cross the “bridge”. There is a small bridge first, but  then to the right after that is customs, where you fill out a form and have the guy stamp you out of Costa Rica. Don’t expect to hear anything the guy behind the plexiglass window says to you, even if you are fluent in Spanish – the idling trucks waiting to cross the bridge make it hard to hear yourself think, let alone communicate verbally. Another American backpacking couple was there to whom I offered my pen (pens are priceless when you are traveling) and found out that they’d gotten a bag stolen from their car in Puerto Viejo – even with the car within plain sight while they sat out eating lunch. They parked their rental in the lot on the Costa Rican side and would be in Panama for an indeterminate amount of time. I asked if they were worried and Kristin shrugged “It’s fully insured.”

While the other couple was getting their passports stamped, I’m approached by a guy in a polo shirt with José embroidered on it. Right – who’s not named José in Latin America? His real name could have been Jack the Ripper for all I know. He spoke English fairly well and was offering a direct ride to the water taxis in Almirante for $10 a person. I’d read about this and decided that after 2 pretty sleepless nights and a bone jarring 5½ hour bus ride, I’d rather not make 3 more transfers (bus to Changuinola, bus to Almirante, taxi to the boat docks) and instead opted to pay for the exorbitantly overpriced 60 km ride in a rickety minivan to the boat docks.

Brige to Panama The old railroad bridge we had to cross didn’t seem sturdy enough to support my weight, let alone the weight of a truck (one of which was right in front of us and I wondered how survivable the drop to the river was). At the Panama customs, the other couple sailed through. I gave my passport and eTicket and watched the guy grow a beard; he seemed to decide now was a good time to spend an eternity thumbing through a passport and checking porn online. (Well, I assumed it was porn, because no guy spends that much time looking at a computer screen unless it’s porn (or, OK, maybe a video game)).

I finally got my stamp (didn’t have to pay anything) and set my watch one hour ahead, but the waiting was not over as José decided he needed more passengers (of course – he’d lose his Latino card if he didn’t pack us in like, well, a van full of Latinos). Twenty more minutes and we were finally on the road. Once out of the squalor of the border town Guabito, the roads were astonishingly smooth.  The van, however, was not smooth as we ground gears, bumped, and limped our way up every hill.  I couldn’t control a bark of laughter when the driver waved on a large school bus to pass us as we simply prayed we’d make it up the hill.  At least the scenery was pretty.

As we pulled onto the sandy road by the water taxis, the driver warned us not to give our packs to the waiting children to carry. I’m not sure why anyone would, considering he pulled up so close to the entrance that you’d step out of the van and fall right through the door of the taxi ticket office.  Paying $4 a person we took the Bocas Marine Tours taxi – life vests included even if you had to wear a child sized one – out of the mangrove lined inlet. Once out on sea, I marvel at the fact that the water looked so smooth but felt like we were speeding over large gravel rocks. My feet and, ahem, other places tingled deliciously. Girls, leave the vibrators at home.  

Next: Arriving in Bocas Del Toro, Panama

Feb '10

Getting to Bocas Del Toro, Panama – Part 1

At 5:30 AM, I waited sleepily at Reagan National Airport to be processed through the enormously long lines at check-in and security in the hopes of leaving before what they eventually dubbed “the blizzard of 2010”. The security signs screamed “high alert” status as we inched along. Finally on the plane, there was an anxious moment as a flight attendant asked a seated passenger for his boarding pass and ID. She then announced “this is not your boarding pass”. The startled passenger looked at the pass and exclaimed “I’ll be damned. TSA on high-alert today and yet I was able to get through all the check points with someone else’s boarding pass.” She disappeared for a bit and when she returned she had another passenger in tow. He thought he merely needed to change seats, but she then gave them the bad news “Your luggage will wind up at this person’s destination and his at yours.” Nice. We finally took off mere hours before the snow began to fall in earnest.

Since I did not get through customs in San Jose, Costa Rica until after 4 PM, I decided to take a $10 taxi into town instead of the bus in the hopes of making it to the bus station before it closed. I’d just gotten colones from the ATM near the baggage claim so I paid the taxi window the posted amount in colones, passed the ticket to a red-coated gentleman with an ID badge and was whisked away in the next taxi. The taxi driver was kind enough to take me to the Terminal Caribe bus station, wait for me as I discovered the counter selling bus tickets to Sixaola had just closed and would not reopen until 5AM (although in the morning I realized I must have missed the “y media” part) and then drive me to a place that met my description of close, cheap and safe.

He dropped me off at Tranquilo Backpackers, a roomy bohemian hostel where the check-in also serves as the bar. They only had dorm spaces left – $10 plus a key deposit. I shrugged “OK, but I snore, so you choose”. He grinned and put me in the 8 person coed dorm room he was staying in saying “The guy in that bed snores too, so you won’t be alone”.

Tranquilo Backpackers I spent the evening frequenting the reception area for liquid refreshments and chatting with various backpackers. By 11, I washed up in the shared girls bath (3 toilets, 2 showers and 2 sinks – not bad), locked my valuables in the room locker for my bed (glad I’d brought a pad-lock with me), then climbed my way up to the creaky top bunk. Knowing I’d only have a few hours of rest, I slept with my clothes on, put my shoes at the end of the bed, hat and light by my side, and my fanny pack with my passport, valuables and a tennis ball strapped to my back in the hopes it would prevent me from sleeping on my back and thus snoring. It worked perfectly because it also prevented me from sleeping.

Terminal Caribe boarding area At 4AM, I finally decided to get up. Trying to be quiet, I turned on my light, gathered my things, and climbed my creaky way down the bottom of the bed. The last step was a doosy, I nearly fell and had to recover myself by stepping on the bed below (praying the guys toes weren’t where I had to step) and toppled over my water bottle in the process. Sighing, I climbed my creaky way back up so I could retrieve it from the middle of the bed where it had rolled, climbed down again, got my stuff from the locker and banged my pack against the narrow door on my way out. So much for being quiet.

It was still dark and bus stations are always in sketchy parts of town, so I had the reception guy call me a taxi. I asked the driver how much to the bus station – 1000 colones for a 3 minute ride. It was early so I let that go and wasn’t surprised when his meter (they call them “La Maria” – is that because females always run up the bill?) showed half the price at 500 colones.

Arriving at 4:50 AM to the bus station, the Sixaola window was not yet open. At 5:05 I asked the security guard (smaller than I and if he didn’t have a stick, I could probably take him out) if he knew when the window opens. Replying 5:30, I decided that my new motivation to learn Spanish would be to be able to sleep in. I sat on the cement seat and when the window opened, everyone formed an orderly line behind me. Ticket in hand, I was off for a 5 ½ hour ride to Sixaola. (continued “Getting to Bocas Del Toro, Panama – Part 2”)

Apr '09

Bogota, Colombia

First of all, we would like to thank you all for humoring us as we discover this amazing world that we live in. We are now home, but we would be remiss if we didn’t do our final entry on the very nice city of Bogota. Thanks again for all the nice comments, we always enjoy hearing from our friends as we travel.

Freddy, the manager at the hotel in Taganga was nice enough to give us a ride to the airport (it was a 45 minute drive) for our flight from Santa Marta to Bogotá. After Cynthia got her nail file ripped out of her clippers by a security guard (because, lord knows, she could file someone to death with that thing!), we boarded the Avianca flight to Bogotá. We got a taxi to our hostel and discovered that since they didn’t have a private room with bath available (what we reserved), they let us stay for three nights in an apartment for the same price (50,000 pesos ($20)/night). Aside from the super saggy beds and chairs, it was quite nice and spacious with a dining room, kitchen, large refrigerator, cable TV and wireless internet.

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is a huge sprawling city of 8 million people. We spent the first day touring the city center and were very surprised at how modern and clean it was. The heart of the old town is called Plaza de Bolívar, where a mix of different architectural styles can be found. The city hall faces some of the most important buildings of the country, such as the presidential palace, the palace of justice, the old congress building and the magnificent cathedral. The city also shares the large number of shops that all major cities have, including flea markets and the makeshift shops that spring up on blankets all over the side walks. One funny thing we saw was a guy with several guinea pigs huddled at his feet and about 30 feet away were a number of small “houses” (plastic bowls turned upside down with a cut out door). Onlookers would bet on a house by placing money on it and if the guinea pig he released went into that one, you’d win a percentage of the bets. It was quite amusing to watch(VIDEO).

The next day we toured Bogota’s Museo del Oro (Gold Museum). It houses the finest collection of pre-Columbian gold in the world, boasting 33.000 individual pieces, from simple earrings, bracelets, necklaces, rings and figurines to some of the most beautifully crafted breastplates and masks. The exhibit offers insight into the historical, geographical and social development of pre-Columbian cultures through stone, clay, bone, textiles and, of course, gold. It is a great place to see what the Spaniards missed in their frenzy to melt down all of South America’s treasures.

Well worth the 1 ½ hour local bus rides to the town of Zipaquirá (Zipa as it’s affectionately known) near Bogota is the Salt Mines and Cathedral de Sal. We went thinking the cathedral was a little alcove in the side of the salt mine, but it turned out to be a huge magnificent complex. The 14 stages of the cross are lined up en route to the deeper sections, each created by a different artist. In one area a cathedral was built into a cave-like area in the mine in 1954, however due to deterioration it was closed (too dangerous). A new cathedral opened in late 1995, 180 meters below the surface, and is simply gorgeous. The cathedral itself is quite austere with very high ceilings (we’d say almost 100ft.), huge carved pillars, and stunning acoustics. It resembles some sort of fairy tale cathedral. You could almost say it glows. Mass is held there each Sunday, as is the occasional concert. We actually took two tours: the mining tour which was a little cheesy – even for 5,000 pesos, you wore hard hats and got to try to knock a chunk of salt off the wall with a pick axe (Warren managed an impressive chunk) and the main cathedral tour (15,000 pesos). A posted sign indicated private tour guides were 30 U.S. dollars so we were a little apprehensive when employees at the entrance indicated an English tour would start in 20 minutes, then changed their minds and had a guy without a uniform take us through. In the end, it turned out he did work there but was not on duty that day. We probably over tipped him in our relief!

We returned and spent the last evening packing and having a nice cheap meal at our favorite little restaurant the Italian Wok. Yes, it was the name that drew us in, but we definitely recommend the Italian offerings and not what ia made in the Wok. We made it back uneventfully and even smuggled in two kilos of white powder, no not what you think, but laundry detergent that Cynthia liked. Check out some more great pictures in our gallery

So until our next adventure, thanks for sticking with us and we hope you also enjoyed our travels. Cao!!!

Mar '09

Taganga, Colombia

View of Taganga from Techos AzulesOpting for the slightly more expensive, but door-to-door service and air-conditioned MarSol van to Taganga, we arrived 4 hours later at Hotel Techos Azules. Taganga is a fishing village just outside Santa Marta. We had over ten days to relax, practice our Spanish and soak up the sun, so we negotiated a room with private bath and a small kitchen for 45,000 pesos/night ($18). The idea of making a meal without rice and beans was very appealing. After 2 nights in a larger, more expensive room, we moved to our cheaper room with a great view. The first day we wandered around Taganga and discovered that there wasn’t much to see except fishermen bringing in their catch (and their outboard motors) at the end of the day.

The next day we hopped one of the frequent and cheap collectivos (1000 pesos per ride (40 cents)) to Santa Marta, a large Caribbean resort and seaport, to shop in the big grocery stores. Our first meal was a deliciously thick juicy cheeseburger. Latin America does not know how to properly make a real American burger. Another memorable meal was the best pork loin chops I think we’ve every tasted. It is very strange the things that you crave when you are removed from home. Although we had no light in the kitchen we still managed to make so many good meals that Cynthia started to complain that she was beginning to develop the Latin belly. We did explore Santa Marta a bit, but the hectic city is an entry port for cargo so it failed to impress. It does have a thin beach if you like to watch them unload ships all day. It is also famous for being the place where Simon Bolivar expired and you can tour his last residence here on earth.

Taganga has a decent beach, half of which is occupied by fishing boats and the other half seemed to be used as a poop sandbox by the numerous local stray dogs. Fluorescent green uniformed trash collectors were impressively effective in their efforts to keep the beach and cliffs free of debris, however fecal matter was, well, another matter. We never could bring ourselves to swim there, but a 15 minute hike over the north hill was Playa Grande, a longer beach with lots of seafood restaurants, expensive beer and few stray dogs. We enjoyed snorkeling and hanging out there for a day. We did enjoy a few hours at Rodadero one day – a very long, touristy beach which was actually impressively nice and is popular with Colombian vacationers (maybe because of all the beer and drink vendors roaming the beach – what service!

Next to Taganga is the national park reserve called Tayrona. It is a large area of rugged coastline that boasts some of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean. We took a natural gas taxi (we all were required to leave the car when he filled up at the station) from Taganga with Thomas, a German traveler who was nice enough to let us in on his plans to visit this beach he had yet to discover. It turned out to be more expensive than we’d planned – a 110,000 pesos ($44) round trip taxi ride, 70,000 pesos ($28) park entry fee (Thomas (an imposing 6’4”) bargained it down from $40, figuring the guard at this remote entry was just going to pocket it anyway), and a 50,000 pesos ($10) boat ride. Thankfully we divided all that by 3 (actually, for the boat, 5 since another couple had been waiting to split the fare). Playa del Muerto was beautiful, but not as deserted as we had hoped; so much for “Beach of the Dead”. There were a couple fish restaurants, beach cabana’s, and maybe 20 people but we moved to a more deserted end and enjoyed our 3 hours there snorkeling, swimming and just soaking up the sun. It was nice that the boat was hired to stay with us, and the taxi driver did not ask for money until we arrived back at the hotel, so there were no worries about getting back.

Taganga is not only a backpacker resort, but one of the nicest places (and cheapest) to SCUBA dive in Colombia. After several days of extremely high winds (which took out the power for several hours 2 days in a row) Cynthia and I waited a few more days then finally did some diving. The first site off Isla Aguja was a drift dive; it was great having the current move you along – until you had to fight it to get back! At our 15 foot, five minute safety stop, it was amusing to see each man extend a hand up and grab hold of their woman dive buddy to prevent them from floating to the top. They all looked like they were holding women balloons. After lunch at a small cliff-side beach, the boat went out for a second dive (which Cynthia declined) that had a swim through. Both sites had very nice corals and an abundant, and wide variety, of fish, but not a lot of large sea creatures. We dove with Aquantis because they were new so the equipment was in good shape and they spoke English. During the off-season, the dives are only 100,000 pesos for 2 dives with all the equipment, lunch and free underwater photos.

Cynthia had hoped to spend time at the language school in Taganga, but they were closed for renovations, so she solicited two hotel employees to practice. Unfortunately, I think she spent more time teaching them English then practicing Spanish! But she had fun, made new friends and after 13 days, we said a reluctant “good bye”. We had to catch our flight to Bogota and Freddy, the manager, kindly offered us a ride to the airport. He’s a very busy man and we’d no idea it was a 45 minute drive! We could not have chosen a more relaxing and wonderful place to stay – they even had a family of Rottweilers who were so cute! Our friend Rusty asked when we were going to take a vacation from our vacation, this definitely was it. Check out the additional photos in our gallery!! Our last stop, Bogota.

Mar '09

Cartagena, Colombia

We arrived at the Cartagena airport and grabbed a 8500 pesos taxi ride to Hotel Vienna in the Getsumani district (backpackers ghetto) just outside the old city. The hotel was booked, so they called Hotel Villa Colonial. A guy arrived and insisted on carrying both our large packs (a good 50lbs worth of luggage) as we followed him through the suffocatingly hot, narrow streets. After spending one night there, we discovered that everything is made out of adobe bricks, including beds and pillows. So we found a small, hot, cave-like room at the Hotel Marlin for $14. Here the bed was actually too soft and out of 5 displayed speeds, the fan only functioned on two: Hurricane and “Holy shit, is the fan on? It’s really hot!” Did we mention that Cartagena is really hot???

Cartagena is probably South America’s best preserved example of Spanish colonial architecture. It is a walled city whose walls (ten’s of feet thick at points) took about 200 years to finish. It was an important shipping center for looted gold and the slave market. We spent the first day and a half just wandering the narrow streets admiring the architecture and marveling at the fortifications. We stumbled upon a huge stage being built in a square for a national cinema festival which included live performances. We stopped to watch some rehearsals. We didn’t brave the crowd the night of the event, but we did walk to a smaller outdoor square in the Getsumani district for a movie viewing.

The following day we checked out the touristy part of Cartagena, Bocagrande, with its beach resorts, high-rise condos and hotels. The beach is narrow at first, but widens at Calle 4. There didn’t seem to be much wind which might have been OK for sitting still on the beach, or in an air-conditioned room, but made moving about rather unpleasant. Did we mention that Cartagena is really hot? At least the entire stretch has lots of beach cabanas (a shelter consisting of a tarp over a frame) for rent to keep you out of the sun – you just have to be prepared to be constantly badgered by touts. It is amazing the variety of things you can buy at the beach. Who needs to shop when the shopping comes to you?

Our last full day in the city, we visited the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the largest Spanish fort in the Americas. We paid our 14,000 pesos ($6) entry fee and we walked the entire fort, including the low-ceilinged interior tunnels where there were living quarters and offices. We got some great views over the city from the top of the hill and reveled in the all-too-brief moments of the sporadic breeze. Did we mention how hot Cartagena was??

Anxious to get to our little fishing village on the Caribbean, we found a door-to-door, AIRCONDITIONED bus service. Instead of getting a local bus (unairconditioned) to the station, then finding a bus (unairconditioned) to Santa Marta, then another local bus (unairconditioned) to Taganga, we booked two seats on MarSol bus line for 40,000 pesos (about the same price) which picked us up at our hotel and delivered us directly to Hotel Techos Azules (Blue Roofs) where we will spend the last of our travels relaxing, beaching, and diving. For some more pics of Cartagena check out the gallery.

Mar '09

Medellin, Colombia

We arrived mid-afternoon in Medellin’s large, two-level, clean and surprisingly calm bus station. At the information booth, we showed the woman the address of Melissa’s apartment and after consulting with another fellow, they had no idea where it was – so much for “information” booth. She said for 100 pesos a minute we could use the public phone to call a home phone, but if we needed to call a cell phone, we’d have to use one of the market booths. Seems you can only call cell phones from other cell phones and you have to know the service provider of the phone you are calling so that they can use their network, otherwise it costs more, or may not even go through. Simple, right? The lady was very kind and called Melissa’s home phone and gave us a paper with the destination of a super market (for the taxi driver) where we met Melissa and Juan.

Melissa and Juan had invited us to stay with them a year ago. Her mother had warned her that if anyone was going to take them up on their invitation, we would – and we did. They and their oh-so-cute! dog Bella, were nice enough to give up their living room to us for the next three days.

The following day, we got a guided tour of Medellin from Juan. The city is a vibrant, modern city not unlike any other major city in the world – museums, historic sites, parks with sculptures, even a metro. The metro is the first and only of its kind in Colombia and it put our Washington DC metro to shame(and you can ride it to any stop for just 60 cents). The cleanliness was amazing – I think if someone had dared us to lick the floor, we just might have – and the lack of push and shove was definitely unique in South America. It also has two lines that are actually cable cars (like you’d see at an amusement park) called the “Metro Cable”. We rode one line up to the district that used to be isolated from the rest of Medellin. As Juan pointed out, since the area had be reunited with the central part of the city, people have been able to make a better life for themselves, feel like they are a part of Medellin, and crime dropped. Seems the cable car was probably one of the smartest things the government ever invested in. The cable car also provides some amazing views over the city.

The next stop was plaza Bolivar, next to which was Cathedral Metropolitana built from over a million bricks supposedly a secret mixture of bull’s blood and specially “manufactured” horse pooh. I’d hate to be the guy mixing the secret recipe. We enjoyed a walk through the market district, a quick beer at Juan’s uncle’s bar, a walk through the very nice and modern convention center, then hopped in a taxi to Juan’s other aunt’s & uncle’s restaurant. After a huge plate (one of which was more than enough to feed a family of four) of rice, two types of sausage, pork, ground beef, egg, plantain, lettuce, tomato, beans, avacado, french fries, and some beer, we thought we would burst. But no rest for the stuffed as we then made our way to the top of Cerro (hill) Nutibara for a look at a replica 19th century Colombian village and some great views over the city.

Thanks to the hospitality of Melissa and Juan, we had a wonderful stay in Medellin. Amazingly, we booked some really cheap online airfares ($40 each way) on Avianca from Medellin to Cartagena, where we will spend 3 or 4 days. Check out some more great pictures in our gallery.

Mar '09

Popayan & Armenia, Colombia

At 7:10 AM, loaded with our big backpacks, we watched several sardine-packed trolleys go by before we decided to act like Ecuadorians and force our way on. Physically propelled off the bus at the stop for the bus terminal (Cumanda), we walked to the lower level and bought a $5.00 ticket for a bus to Tulcan. We believe the motto of this bus company was any warm-blooded creature pausing momentarily along the side of the road was a potential passenger and they must stop and honk/whistle at them. Needless to say, it was a very long ride. They also loved to pass slow moving trucks on a blind curve .We showed you a picture in an earlier story, now we captured a video.

Nearly 7 hours later we caught a $3 taxi ride from Tulcan to the “frontera” – well worth it considering it was pouring rain. Ecuadorian immigration would have been a breeze, if not for the computers going south when we were only 2 people away from the desk. Wait a minute … we had to wait an hour and a half at a South American border because the computer system went down? When did Bill Gates get here?

The rain let up and we finally crossed the bridge, passed the parking lot of white taxis, and breezed through Colombian “Migration”. Heading back to the taxis, we learned they’re more like collectivos: they’ll wait until they cram 4 passengers (a tight 3 in the back and one in the front) for the $1 per person fare to the Ipiales bus station. Cynthia, encouraged by the heavy sighs from the 3rd passenger (a hill-woman), finally yelled an impatient “Vamos! Vamos!” at the driver who’d been outside for 5 minutes trying to solicit one last fare.

From Ipiales bus station, we caught the next 5000 pesos pp, two hour bus ride to Pasto, Colombia – a decent town to break up the trip. We’ll remember Pasto for 1) Their trash truck that plays a tune like the ice cream man (they’re probably just as exited when they hear it, “The garbage man! The garbage man!”), and 2) Chorizo On A Stick – with the most tasteless bread patty on the planet that somehow compliments the sausage.

Cali, an industrial town further north, looked like a real pit hole, so we were glad we’d chosen to stay in Pasto. We stayed at a very nice hostel, “The Koala Inn” a short taxi ride to the center; the owner was very friendly and helpful. The next day, we booked the 10:30 AM Cooptranar bus to our first destination, Popayan. The bus was actually big, comfortable, had a bathroom and was cheaper than any others since the woman had told us 23 mil (23,000 pesos or $9) the day before and we caught her on it when she then quoted 25 mil the next day. Everything is negotiable here in South America

We were pleasantly surprised by the roads here in Colombia; the highway to Popayan is smooth and divided, there are call boxes along the shoulder, the median is nicely manicured and there are comprehensible road signs. They pay for it though. The Columbian peso symbol is the same as the U.S. dollar sign so a car toll for $5800 is not uncommon. We’ll never complain about New Jersey Turnpike tolls again. (OK, $5800 is really only a couple U.S. dollars, but it was still a jarring sight.)

Popayan is a very nice colonial city in southern Colombia, and we probably would have enjoyed it more if it weren’t for 1) The entire central square being blocked off due to construction, and 2) Us both catching bad chest colds which the chokingly visible pollution was, shall we say, less than helpful. At least we stayed at a very clean and friendly Hosteltrail Guesthouse – even though a room facing a lighted intersection is, in any South American city, the noisiest room (when the light turns green every car, truck and motorcycle must beep their horn). We did discover a carnival in town – which looked like any other small town type carnival in the U.S. – except it was spoiled by the rock hard corn on a stick that Warren decided to try and then immediately discarded. With all the corn they grow here, you’d think they’d know how to grill it. Sheesh!

Melissa, our friend in Medellin, booked us a nice hotel in Armenia, in the middle of the coffee region. We were anxious to get out of the smog and noise of the city, so, in the middle of racking fits of coughing, we packed up and hiked to the bus station. We arrived at the station in Armenia and a guy with an ID badge around his neck, trained to spot the confused looking backpackers, came over to us and showed us to the local bus to Pueblo Taupo. For about 50 cents each, we were dropped at the door of Hosteria Mi Monaco. The hotel was beautiful, set in the country with a plethora of birds (from hummingbirds to turkeys), a pool, ping pong table, pool table, restaurant, etc. Although it was twice what we’d budgeted a night, it was the perfect place to recover from our colds.

The next day we got a taxi and went to the Ruenca Coffee plantation for a tour. It cost 13,000, but was one of the most comprehensive tours we have been on. Our guide, Jenyfer, spoke Spanish slowly and repeated things slowly and clearly so that we’d understand. It lasted over 2 hours and they showed us both traditional and modern methods of processing coffee, an informational trail that was very interesting, and introduced us to the wonderful taste of their coffee. We even got to harvest some beans. On the way back, our driver stopped at a fruit stand and selected for us a “piña oro” – gold pineapple – the area is known for them, they are small and deliciously sweet.

We’d been having a bit of bad luck and were beginning to feel like a rain cloud had been following us. Literally. As we walked the 2KM to Pueblo Taupo, we barely made it before the skies opened up. We watched a down pour (the likes of which we’d never seen before) flood the single street with several inches of rain in less than an hour. We waited out what we could, only to feel its fury again the morning of our departure. After standing for twenty minutes on the roadside with no shelter, barely able to see which collectivo we should flag down through the drops, we finally made it to the Armenian bus terminal and off to Medellin, on the comfortable 8 AM Flota Occidental bus, to visit Melissa and Juan. You can check out more pictures in our gallery.