The overnight bus brought us to our final destination – Bogota. As soon as we got off the bus, we noticed we were dizzy and out of breath. Bogota is 7,000 feet above sea level and you definitely notice the altitude until you get used to it.
The next thing we noticed was that people were standing in line to get a taxi even though there was a line of cabs as long as we could see! You had to stand in line to have an official calculate your fare. It keeps the cabs from price gouging, but I’m not sure it was worth the 30 minute wait!
Bogota was dirty, crowded, not as safe as Medellin, and had much colder weather, especially at night. Our cab dropped us off at our hostel, Hostel Chocolate, which was the antithesis of the rest of Bogota. It was quiet (almost empty) and very clean. We picked it because it didn’t have a reputation as a party hostel and because they serve hot chocolate for breakfast – a Colombian tradition. Our only complaint was the desk staff – most of them were cold and unfriendly. Luckily, we were able to make our way around the city without their help.
We spent our first day there checking out the neighborhood – La Candelaria is the student/hostel neighborhood. Unfortunately, all the students were at home for holiday vacation. This made students a bigger target for crime and it wasn’t safe to walk around at night – or during the day we learned. People on the street would stop and tell Pat to put his camera away nearly every time he took it out. We ran into a couple staying at a nearby hostel and they told us that some girls they knew had been out during the broad daylight a few days earlier and they had gotten held up by some local hoodlums. When the girl that was giving them trouble found out they only had $18US on them, she got so angry she stabbed one of the tourists. Luckily the tourist wasn’t badly hurt, but it definitely put us on edge about our time in Bogota. As a disclaimer to put our parents’ minds at ease, they were walking in an unsafe area, something that we were sure not to do.
The weather calmed down and we were able to get a boat from Capurgana to Turbo. Turbo is a dirty, relatively unsafe port city so we were only there enough to find a bus and head to Medellin. Luckily that was only 15 minutes! We loaded our bags onto a coach bus for the 8 hour ride to Medellin.
As we arrived in Medellin it was like being in a completely different world. We were greeted with a huge Christmas light display that stretched the length of the city. It is part of a competition between Colombian cities:
We headed to Hostel Kiwi in the Zona Rosa with a few of our friends from the boat. Unfortunately, the didn’t have enough room for all 7 of us, so Pat and I went to a hostel around the corner – Tamarindo. Compared to the recently remodeled, flashy and modern Casa Kiwi, our hostel seemed very sparse but we were happy to be in a quiet place with a private room. Plus they had cheap laundry service. All of our clothes were soaked with saltwater from the boat and absolutely putrid.
Even though Medellin was super modern and fairly clean, we decided only to spend one night there because we were worried about being stuck there for too long because of the holiday season and missing our flight out of Bogota.
We even caught a Quincienera (15th birthday celebration):
Medellin was a great city for people watching. It was also very safe – it seemed like there were police on every corner.
We couldn’t leave without going out to eat for traditional columbian dinner at Agua Clara. Beans, rice, avocado, fried plantains and red meat – delicious!
By Pat, as I spent about 17 hours of this day curled up in our cabin in the fetal position.
The day started with a slow morning departure from the calm waters of Holandaise, with rain that soon followed once we left the small chain of islands. As the rain escalated into a monsoon, higher winds allowed us to put up the sails to speed us along. The energy amongst the passengers was rather timid, as we were unsure of what was to come.
With small waves turning into pumping swell, Poseidon made an appearance around our now seemingly tiny vessel. Many of our mates were going to lose their breakfast in a short while. As the hours passed by, larger swell came along. Soon enough, we were in 10 foot breaking swell, and items and people were flying about the boat as we descended sideways into the trough of each large swell. Every 5 minutes was punctuated with a wave that made it seem like the boat was sure to capsize. Only 3 passengers and Federico were left on the main deck, while the remaining folk returned to their cabins to hide from the storm (Kelly included). One hour seemed like four as we bounced our way through the unrelenting Caribbean Sea.
Eventually the wind and the swell became large enough to put a bit of fear into even our highly experienced, ex-navy captain, Federico. After fear had crpt into the pores of everyone on the boat, Federico made the decision to land early along the Columbia/Panamanian border in light of the continual deterioration of the weather.
We were are very relieved, even though the storm continued for another 13 hours through the night until our arrival into calmer water. LAND. We could see land. We slowly trolled into a small bay shrouded by towering mountains of tropical rain forest, upon which Federico began whipping up a very welcomed breakfast of ham and cheese sandwiches accompanied by delicious smooth, chocolatey columbian cafe.
It wasn’t quite how we pictured our arrival into Columbia, but we were happy to be safe.
Day three was Christmas day and our last day before open water. We sailed three hours to reach Hollandaise island. There was a bit of rain in the morning and it was fairly cloudy all day.
Pat did some snorkeling but got stung all over his gibblets by invisible jellyfish. This combined with the cloudy weather was enough to kill my motivation to leave the boat. I did take one dip so I could wash my hair in the ocean! There isn’t enough fresh water on the boat for real showers, so salt water is all we had to stay clean. It definitely doesn’t give your hair that soft, clean feeling that a real shower does!
Federico cut up the snapper and we ate it sashimi-style with soy sauce. It was amazing! We also had another one of his awesome salads – this time with apples, cauliflower and curry.
We were supposed to have a Christmas bonfire on the island, but the firewood was wet and the boys weren’t able to start a fire. There were also sandflies on the island so we celebrated Christmas night on the boat instead.
Instead of eggnog, we had rum and coconut juice, straight from the coconut:
Over some cans of Balboa, a Panamanian beer, we talked about all sorts of topics, including where we were when Michael Jackson died. Apparently, the death of the King of Pop wasn’t just big news in the US! We finished the night with a group jump into the ocean. Tomorrow we will hit open water.
This morning started abruptly with the grinding of the anchor being raised right outside of our cabin. We only sailed for one hour before we reached our destination of Chichimai. This beautiful island was relatively uninhabited and surrounded by a coral reef. We spent the day snorkeling, enjoying the sun and being totally relaxed – med school and the cold Wisconsin weather felt like they were light years away!
There was quite a bit to see in the ocean, including many starfish, and a wrecked sailboat. Some of the boys tried to climb the mast and were interrupted by the wacky captain of the boat. He waved a machete at them from his wooden canoe and told them he had plans to raise the craft using huge air tanks.
The ship from above:
Federico continued to feed us like kings. We had a sausage and egg scramble for breakfast, fried breadfruit for a snack (it tasted just like french fries!), and fresh caught lobster dip.
Some locals visited the boat and sold Federico a huge snapper, some octopus and lobster.
That night, we decorated a tiny christmas tree the Rich and Amy had bought and listened to Christmas music on Aoibhinn’s (Aveen) ipod. It turned out to be a wonderful Christmas eve!
The day started all too early with a 5:00am shuttle bus ride to Mirimar to catch a small fishing boat that would take us to our sailboat. Normally, another town closer to the sailboat landing handles this trip but with the torrential rains and mudslides that have hit Panama in the last month, the road was out and we had to leave from Mirimar.
The inexperience of the people in Mirimar with transporting tourists was immediately obvious. They loaded twelve backpackers and all of our luggage into a small boat. We made it about 5 minutes off the dock before the boat started to fill with water because it was so overweight. We were forced to turn around and unload half of our group. The boat trip took about 2 hours and felt like a carnival ride. In addition to enduring a thunderstorm, we crashed through wave after wave that completely covered the entire boat. Luckily we had already put on our Scopolamine motion sickness patches!
We had to go through special customs to be granted access to the San Blas islands. Even though the native tribal people of San Blas are part of Panama, the people living there consider themselves a sovereign nation. It was pretty low key, all we had to do was show them our passports and give them $2.
Our small charter boat then took us to our 43 ft. yacht, to meet our captain, Federico. After taking a grand tour of what was to be our humble abode for the next five day, Federico immediately began cooking our first lunch, freshly caught jackfish with a tasty vegetable salad.
We spent the time before the second boat of passengers arrived snorkeling on a nearby reef. The coolest thing we saw was a lionfish. When we mentioned it to Federico, he told us it was considered an invasive species and needed to be reported to the Panamanian coast guard. An aquarium in Miami broke 10 years ago and released lionfish and hundreds of other species of fish into the Caribbean sea.
The second boat finally arrived and all 11 passengers were on the boat. We had an awesome mix of people from all over the world – New Zealand, Germany, Australia, Ireland, Great Britain, and America. On top of this was a Colombian girl who Federico was transporting back to her homeland after she was stranded on one of the San Blas islands.
Before long, a boat came to pick us up to take us to visit a traditional village on one of the San Blas islands. We were able to wander the island and buy crafts from the locals. I admired the skirt of one of the local women so much I bought it off of her and used it as a sarong for the remainder of the trip! Pat also bought some breadfruit right off of a tree for $1.
Back at the boat, Federico made his first batch of his famous secret recipe popcorn for us. He wouldn’t tell us exactly what was in it, but our guesses are turmeric and paprika. It was delicious! We fell asleep early, tired from all of the activity of the day. The next morning we would begin our sail trip.