A Travellerspoint blog

Central America - Week 23 & 24

Colombia - Panama

sunny 36 °C

(Panama City)

The journey to Capurgana was the journey from hell. There was no direct bus. First, we took a bus to Monteria, where we met Stephen from Vienna. We then changed to get on the local bus to Turbo. The driver assigned our seats, which were at the back and made for very short people. The road was not really a road; Franck called it a dirt road...well, it took us about 5h00 hours to cover 150 km. We eventually made it to Turbo, a town where you would not dream staying more than 12h00. We were here in transit to take a "lancha", which is the local motorboat, the next morning.
We arrived in Capurgana after a 2h00 boat ride in the Caribbean sea, which was very bumpy. I listenned to the owner of the hostel and got the best seat, which was at the back in the middle of the row (please, remember that if you ever take a lancha for your own safety and comfort).
Capurgana is a little town on the Caribbean sea , where the main activities are resting and fishing. We initially planned to stay one night. We then decided we were very tired and needed some rest. We spent three days in paradise. We stayed at the hostel Los delphines, which I highly recommend. The owner, Hannibal, was lovely and the food, mainly fish, was excellent.
Hannibal suggested we go to Sapzurro the next day, which is an 1h00 walk through the jungle from Capurgana. From there, it is possible to go to La Miel, which is the closest beach in Panama. Unfortunately, it is not possible to enter Panama fron La Miel as it is isolated from the rest of the country by the unsafe jungle, the Darien gap. We hence headed to Sapzurro early the next morning. We saw more animals than in the Amazon. It took us almost twice the time as Franck stopped at every bird noises. He did see some toucans and a tiny yellow frog with black spots. He was then amazed by the spiders and the spiders's webs. Even I did think we were in some Indiana Johns movies.
Sapzurro is a very small town, which deserves risking getting bitten by big spiders and other insects. It is colourful and simple, basically few houses by a white sand beach with a few coconut and banana trees.
We then made our way to La Miel, again uphill to the border and downhill to the beach.
We were welcomed by military officers who claimed to be allergic to my camera. The weather was cloudy and the currents brought a lot of garbage from the nearby islands. The beach was okayish but very dirty.
We then decided to return to Capurgana by boat as we were exhausted from walking in the jungle. At our suprise, the boat dropped us in Sapzurro. We refused to pay and walked back through the jungle. While walking back, we saw a big wild animal passing by that got really scared after noticing our presence. It was brown with a pointed nose and a stripped tail [Franck: a coati]. We then saw a few monkeys that were jumping from branches to branches. This was priceless and made us forget the pain of walking in the jungle, which was hot and humid.
We then met Stephen for a pleasant evening at the local bar, which was owned by an old Colombian man, who could have been a member of Buena Vista Social Club. He slept behind the bar. The beers were really cheap and the music was local. At 21h00, he pretended running out of beers as he wanted to call bed time. The next morning, we went to El Cielo, which were supposed to be really nice waterfalls where you can swim as we were told. On our way there, we realised that what we thougt was a football pitch was actually the airport. This was the smallest airport I have ever seen. Kids were crossing the runway to go to school.
We then entered the jungle and crossed 14 little rivers and got our feet wet. The walk was nice but we were quite disappointed by the site as it was just little ponds that did not deserve the entrance fee. I admit however that I did enjoy the swim after walking in this heat.
The next morning we left early to get the boat accross the Panamean border to the small jungle town of Puerto Obaldia. The 45 minutes journey was a little bit scarry as the 10-people boat was shaken by high waves that crashed into the boat and got us all drenched.
We eventually got there safely and were welcomed by emigration officials who thoroughly searched our bags before getting our passports stamped. In a second attempt to reach the San Blas archipelago since Cartagena, we enquired about boats that could take us there from Puerto Obaldia. One guy was willing to take a group of up to 7 people to an island in the archipelago about 2h30 away in a similar boat to the one that we took to cross the border. Unfortunately we were about 9 people and the the guy said that he wouldn't leave until the following morning, assuming that the weather would improve. Charlotte and I decided to get on the flight to Panama and try to arrange our trip to San Blas from there. Thankfully, we made sure to travel to Puerto Obaldia on one of the 3 week days when a flight was leaving for the capital as we didn't want to get stuck in this unattractive town. Since we hadn't booked the flight in advance, we had to wait until all the passengers had checked-in to know if we could get two spaces. Luckily we grabbed 2 of the last 3 seats available on the tiny plane from Air Panama.
We waited at least 6 hours in front of the airport and finally boarded the plane at about 3.30pm.
The 1h flight was quite scenic as we flew over the jungle and saw Panama city from the air upon arrival.
Despite having already been searched in Puerto Obaldia and having our passports stamped, the emigration procedure in Panama city took about 3 frustrating hours. First we had to queue to pay for the flight (92 USD each), wait for people to search our bags again, had a short interview with an emigration officer, queue again before being body searched (I had to take my trousers and t-shirt off!) and when we thought we were finally free to go, we were all taken individually into a small room to be questionned and gave again the same information we had already given during the first interview. They waited for all of the passengers to go through this before "releasing" us after 3 long hours. Free at last, we had to bargain hard with taxi drivers to take us to the hotel we had choosen in our pretty bad footprints guide book. The address of the hotel was incorrect but fortunately the taxi driver knew the place and took us there. It was full. the girl at the reception told us that all hostels she had contacted were full and told us to walk a couple of blocks away where some hotels always had some rooms available. We checked-in at hotel Corona for 25 USD a night in a brand new room that smelled of dust and looked like a prison cell with no outside window. We had TV, air conditioning and the most powerful shower from South America... but we also found out later that some "couples" were paying by the hour to stay in this hotel. Anyway, it was clean and functional so we stayed there for 3 nights in total. While walking that night in search of a restaurant we went to a small Chinese place which turned out to be really good and of excellent value but the neighborhood didn't seem particularly safe so we hurried back to our hotel after dinner.

On the next day we headed toward Casco Viejo, the touristic old colonial peninsula of Panama city. This was a nice place - although very run down - with a lot of activity including street performers and top models preparing for the evening fashion show that was taking place in the evening.
Panama city is a city of contrasts with extremly trendy and modern areas that ressembles Miami or San Diego in the US but also with really poor neighborhoods and shabby buses and buildings.
From Casco Viejo, we had a perfect view of the financial district with its skyscrapers rising into the sky from the see. In the afternoon, we went back to the first hotel we went to to get some information about trips to San Blas. The girls we talked to the previous night told us that she could arrange for the transportation but the guy at the reception on that day discouraged us and said he wouldn't organize it for us as the boat trip was too unsafe. We later heard stories about travellers going overboard on that boat. Frustrated again in our 3rd attempt to reach the San Blas islands, we decided to give up and go to Bocas del Toro on the Caribbean coast towards the border with Costa Rica after spending another day in Panama City.
In the evening, we went back to our favorite Chinese restaurant and took a taxi to Casco Viejo to enjoy the night life. The fashion show was on and there were DJs playing music and a lot of free drinks as part of a promotional stunt from several companies.
On the next day we headed toward the "causeway", a group of small islands linked to the city by a few bridges. The main draw to this area is the tax free shop, the view of town and a small protected nature area where we saw iguanas and sloths in the wild while walking into a small forest.

In the afternoon, we went to Miraflores to see the very famous Panama canal. The scenery was not bad. The Caribbean sea on the right and the pacific ocean on the left. We saw two ships crossing the canal from the Caribbean to the Pacific; one was from China, the other from Japan.
In the evening, we headed to Uruguay avenue that is known for trendy bars and clubs...we were quite disappointed as it was expensive and not entertaining at all. We hence went to our favourite Chinese restaurant in the dodgy area of Panama...the taxi driver asked us twice if we really wanted to stop here.

On Sunday morning, we took a 10h00 bus to Bocas del Toro, which is a set of islands North of Panama on the Caribbean side.
3__Bocas_del_Toro_003.jpgWe stayed at the very cheap and pleasant hostel Sagitario on the colon island. The island was full of americans and canadians. Some of them have settled there and opened little bookstores and restaurants. We went to the bookstore next to the Om's Cafe, where you can browse through books while having a beer or a rhum and coke. We knew that Maria, the Spanish friend we met in San Augustin and Tierradentro was somewhere in Bocas. The town being really small, we eventually bumped into each other. We spent the next day with Maria and Alex from Canada. We first went to Delphines bay where we expected to see dolphins (90% of the time according to the boat driver); we might have been among the unlucky 5%. We then went snorkelling in Coral bay. We indeed saw really colourful corals and weird green fish with a rond head and thin and long tail. We stopped for lunch on Zapatilla island, which was a deserted island with white sand and coconut trees...another paradise island. It would have been perfect if the weather had not been cloudy with heavy showers. We had few sunny and really hot moments which gave us some nice pictures of the Caribbean islands.
Having smelled Indian food the night before, we realised we haven't had a nice curry fro the past 6 months...we hence headed to the Om's Cafe and enjoyed very tasty and spicy food. The sky was clearing up as we could see stars. We were looking forward for the next day.
We woke up with heavy rain and decided to leave. On our way back, we met Philippe from Cannes who made fun of Franck by calling him Antonio (Banderas)... too bad we were French and got the joke. Anyhow, we ended up talking to each other. Philippe was travelling with Max and Valerie who decided to settled in the town of David, in Panama after spending some time sailing around the world. They told us to stop in David at the hostel Chambres en ville as we did not know what to do (spend more time in Panama in Golfo de Chirique or head towards Costa Rica)...We hence took a bus to David and stayed in Chambres en ville, where we met for the second time the French guys plus one French Canadian. David is not particularly nice. It is however a town where people stop over on their way to Costa Rica, Bocas de Toro or the Golfo de Chirique. We indeed recommend staying at Chambres en ville as it has a really nice garden and a swimming pool. The owner, a little madam, is also lovely. She also has two parrots; one of them can say Hola with the same tune as you would not recognise who is speaking.

We spent the next day in the hotel and ventured out for 3 hours to visit yet another disappointing site - some waterfalls where we were supposed to bathe. The garbage on the bank put us off and we decided to leave for Costa Rica the next day.

We didn't really give Panama a chance! We liked Panama city but as for the rest of the country we weren't in the mood to explore as people were generally not very friendly, prices quite high and the weather quite changing. We haven't heard many good things about Costa rica either and may whiz through the country fairly quickly as well in order to spend more time in Nicaragua later.

Posted by lebrunfo 14:52 Archived in Panama Comments (0)

South America - Week 21 & 22


sunny 30 °C


In most big cities, Monday is not the best day for a visit: museums are often closed, people are going back to work and bars and restaurants are deserted. Bogota was no exception to this rule. The old historical center is not bad - allbeit a bit run down - with a lot of old colonial buildings and the central square is spacious and surrounded by some imposing governement buildings and churches. High mountains with lush vegetation complete the scene. Allltogether, Bogota is not a bad town and conveys some energy from the big student population that lives and studies there.

We only spent a full day there and before leaving for Villa de Leyva the following day we visited the gold museum, which has an important collection of gold items such as masks and funeral ornaments found in various archeological sites in Colombia.

Upon arrival in Villa de Leyva we were very pleased to see such a neat and tidy colonial town with an impressive cobblestoned central square - probably the widest in Colombia. The rain and cold soon caught up with us and we started dreaming about caribbean beaches...

On our first we decided to brave the rain and walk to some nearby sites including some kind of desert area with several lakes with blue water and to a fossil museum where we could observe an almost intact fossilised dinosaur's skeleton.

The walk was longer than expected and we managed to get a bus back to town under yet again heavy rain. We spent the rest of the day watching movies on our computer in one of the nicest hostel rooms we have stayed in during our trip.

On the following day, we wanted to hike up a moutain lake in the Ibaque national park but as usual for the past week, adverse weather in the early hours of the day demotivated us and we decided to sleep in! We eventually rented bicycles and started what was supposed to be a short 11km ride to nearby waterfalls. Obviously, we got soaked under intermittent and heavy rain and the route was very hilly. We made it to the waterfalls totally exhausted and hiked around there for about 2 hours before heading back to town on muddy moutain roads. We probably got lost a bit and a 4 by 4 driver who saw us stopped and asked us if we wanted a lift as he said that the town was quite far. We accepted the offer and got back to Villa de Leyva at the back of the 4 by 4.

On the next day we decided to head North towards the coast with a stop in San Gil. We took an early bus accros the mountain on dirt roads to the small village of Arcabuco where we had been told that connecting buses to San Gil could be found. When we got there, no one knew of this bus... but after stopping a few buses on the road, one of them did actually go to San Gil, where we arrived early afternoon. After buying a ticket for the night bus to Santa Marta on the coast, we left our luggage at the bus terminal and jumped on a local bus to the small moutain village of Barichara. We loved it. We only spent about 3 hours there but enjoyed walking the cobblestoned streets, admiring the colonial architecture and watching people living their lives in this village where it seemed like time had stopped since the 15th century. I was half expecting Zorro to turn up at any time on his horse! We finally got back to San Gil and got on the 9pm night bus to Santa Marta.

We arrived in Santa Marta on the Caribbean coast at about 9am. The sun was finally out and the early morning heat made us feel good. Santa Marta is a cahotic and dirty commercial port but we decided to spend a night there before going on a 5 days trek to Ciudad Perdida (the lost city) into the moutain and the jungle. We arranged the trip at our hostel fairly quickly and checked out the local market where I also bought a small rucksack that I was going to use for the trek. In the afternoon we went to the small fishing village / backpacker's party town of Taganga and I expected the worse. Actually we had a pleasant time at the beach and were lucky to attend the colourful carnival that was on that day. When we got back to Santa Marta, the party was even harder with carnival celebration everywhere in town. This felt a bit dodgy and we only observed some of the action from a distance while walking back to our hostel.

On the next morning we left for the trek and we first met our 2 guides as well as the other people from our group. Surprisingly we were only 5, Charlotte and I, Roxane and Sebastien, another french couple and Mathias, 23, from Sweden, almost on his 3rd consecutive gap year before starting university! Apparently the lack of people on the trip that day was due to the attendance of most travellers to the famous Baranquilla carnival. It turned out to be much better that way, i.e. in a small group as we met bigger groups while walking and didn't envy them at all.

The first two days of the trek were quite easy as we only walked half days and had a lot of free time and resting time. The weather was hot and humid though and insects, especially ticks, were my main concern during the first two days. All guys had to inspect their bodies thoroughly and we all discovered ticks on us. I had 7 of them on me during a 24h period and started to get totally paranoid. I do really hate bugs and I was really worried. As we were going higher up in altitude, ticks were not a threat anymore and we only had to cope with a few mosquitoes and ants but nothing really serious. Some friends probably got stung by fleas present in blankets or hammocks in which we were sleeping but we were luckily saved from that. The scenery was quite tropical with jungle vegetation in low altitude mountains with small waterfalls and rivers in which we did bathe many times to cool down after walking for a few hours in the heat. Charlotte particularly enjoyed jumping off a 7 meters high rock into the river... I was too scarred to do it! (I did it on our way back though and felt like my eardrums exploded as i went down under the water so I will not repeat the experience!)

On the third day we left early for the longest hike all the way up to Ciudad Perdida. After about 4 or 5 hours going mostly uphill we arrived at the camp site at the foot of the lost city and had a light lunch there. Our guides told us that french TV reporters were on site to film a documentary, that we may not have the site for ourselves and that it might spoil the whole thing. We instantly thought that it was Nicolas Hulo (a very famous TV reporter and pseudo politician) filming for his Ushuaia program in France. After walking the 1800 steps all the way up to the upper part of the lost city some military guards told us that the filming crew did a TV program on the indigenous people from the mountain but that they had left just about an hour ago. They had a photo of the crew and we immediately recognized Nicolas Hulo in his hot air ballon. To our friends in France: please try to tape the program when it will be on TV as we would love to see that!

Let's give you a bit of history about the lost city now! It was built over 800 years from 600 BC by the same indigenous civilization that still lives in the area nowadays. The city was never inhabited but was used as a ceremonial place where all sorts of rituals took place. Not much is known about the type of celebrations and activities that took place there. In the 15th century, the indigenous people abandonned the place and it was only discovered again in the 1970s by gold diggers / treasure hunters who researched the area.

With the filming crew out of the city. we had the place for the 5 of us. It felt really great to be there almost alone in the city, lost in the middle of the jungle at an altitude of about 1200m above sea level. As during most afternoons, it started raining heavily and the place took on a mystic turn with clouds and mist above the trees. We then went back to the camp site, seing a venomous snake on the way, to prepare for the long two days walk back to where we started.

With the lack of sleep, the rain, the mud and longer distances, the return leg of the trek was probably harder than the way in and we arrived all very tired at the end of the route for a well deserved lunch. We were then transferred back to Santa Marta and then onto Taganga where we decided to spend two nights to relax. We started our relaxation by going to a nice restaurant with our friends from the trek.
On the next day we didn't do much else than going to the beach in Taganga and booking our transportation for Cartagena the next day.

We arrived in Cartagena early afternoon and enquired about the sailboats to Panama. Apparently the next availlable departure was not until 8 days later. This bad news left us frustrated and we decided to get another route into Panama with a combination of buses, small boats and possibly plane unless we find a boat on the Panama side that would take us to the San Blas islands of the atlantic coast a bit further North in the country. The difficulty with getting to Panama from Colombia is that the border zone, also called the Darien gap, is a very dangerous area populated by indigenous populations and drug dealers. The only way into the country is by boat or by plane. We are planning to go through Capurgana and Puerto Olbadia as some other travellers we met have done recently. This should be fun!

We hence quickly visited Cartagena in one afternoon. The historical center is very pretty but overly touristic. This is the only town in Colombia which has always seen a big flow of tourists even during the years of guerilla and unrest. We saw some street performers and nice architecture before heading back to our hotel to finish this blog and prepare for the adventurous border crossing into Panama that should take about 4 to 7 days if everything goes according to plan! Oh. I forgot almost the most important fact of the day.. I had my first hair cut in almost 6 months ;-)


Posted by lebrunfo 18:19 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

South America - Week 20


semi-overcast 15 °C

Let's be honest.. this week hasn't been the best. The two highlights were the Indigenous market of Silvia on Tuesday morning and the hike in the Cocora valley in the lovely village of Salento. Apart from that we haven't really been lucky with the weather, have spent quite a bit of time in buses and have been unlucky in some instances as you'll find out later. Since last October we have spent about 387 hours in buses (16 full days!!) and we are starting to get tired of these hours spent in the bus listening to some terrible latino music. We are now longing for some Caribbean beaches and might be looking for them in Venezuela within the next fortnight... If not, we might hurry up a bit towards Northern Colombia and Panama although we have heard mixed reviews from fellow travellers about the coast in Colombia. One sure is certain, I think we have seen enough mountain scenery in the last 5 months and we may be looking for something a bit different in the months to come.

Let's go back to where we last stopped: Popayan. We spent Monday hanging out in this nice town before going to the market in Silvia the next morning. Indigenous from all the surrounding mountain villages come here every Tuesday, dressed up with their traditional clothes, to trade all sorts of goods in this very colourfull market. Back to Popayan, Charlotte cooked a delicious soup made of fresh products that we bought at the market.

We finally left Popayan for the small mountain village of Salento in the Zona Caffetera (coffee plantation area). We soon realised that the untamed beauty of the South gave way to a more professional approach of tourism with its pitfalls: overcrowded foreign-owned hostals, higher prices and less genuine contacts with the locals who are a lot more used to seeing tourists. Don't get me wrong. The place was beautiful but we didn't feel the same relaxed and friendly atmosphere as when we first entered Colombia.

When we arrived in Salento we were welcome by a heavy rain and we walked around town for the good part of an hour to find a decent hotel for the right price. We stayed at La Casona de Lilli, which was very good. I then rented rubber boots in preparation for the hike in the Cocora valley the following day.

The next morning, we took a jeep at 7.30am to take us to the start of the mountain trail. We headed off with Maria, our spanish friend who we had been travelling with for a little while. The heavy rain had stopped but the sky was very misty and the low clouds above the wax palm trees made it a very interesting and eerie sight. The terrain was extremly muddy and we were pleased to wear the rubber boots. The 5 hours round trip into the cloud forest passed through some waterfalls and steep slopes as well as a farm where we could observe some more humming birds of various species but the real attraction was the palm tree forest which is specific to this area of Colombia.
We walked the last hour of our hike under torrential rain and the view of the palm tree forest started to be totally blocked by the fog. Luckily we had seen it early on in the morning. As we got back to our (freezing cold) hostel we tried in vain to get warm and dry our clothes.
The next day, the sun came back and we went on a pleasant hike around the village and stopped by an organic coffee plantation, which we could visit to learn more about the coffee making process.

In the afternoon we left for Manizales a few hours further North, which looked quite promissing based on what we could read in the guide book. When we arrived it started raining heavily and we rushed to the cable car, just out of the bus terminal, to get to the hotel we had selected.
This was a pleasant way to get in the center of town, which is located on one of the various hills in this town surrounded by high mountains. The hotel was full so we had to take a cab to go to the next one where we stayed for 2 nights. In the evening we went out to check the atmosphere in this student town but didn't stay out long. The area was buzzing with students eating cheap food and drinking beers in the streets before going to some more trendy bars out of which we could hear some loud and unattractive music. After months of isolation in our mountains we had finally caught up with the civilization and felt closer to Central or North America than to rural South America.

The next morning we had planned to visit the Rio Blanco Nature reserve but in order to do so we had to get a free permit from the park administration. We headed to the registration place but were told that the person in charge of this was not working on Saturday (despite what we had been told at our hotel) so we headed to the park entrace anyway, hoping to be able to hire a guide at the gate. Unfortunately we were shown the door and couldn't visit the national park! The taxi driver then took us to a popular park just out of town, where an art and orchids exhibition was on. This was absolute rubbish. There were zebras grazing around an artifical pond, while loud classical music was beeing played in the park through speakers. While waiting for the bus to take us back to the centre of town, we were amazed to see how many rich people in their brand new 4 by 4 were going to this place... It seemed to be the place to be that week-end! After wandering through the fairly uggly town center we decided to call it a day and went back to our hotel to watch movies on the flat screen TV!

The next morning, we left without regrets to Bogota. The journey took us 9 hours at an average of about 35-40 kph through winding mountain roads. The air conditioning was at its minimum level and I was freezing for most of the journey. On that day we also had our most expensive lunch ever and also probably the worse food ever. I though I misunderstood when i asked for the price so ordered the food anyway. We finally arrived in Bogota and the taxi driver took us to our hotel in what looked liked a really dodgy area when we arrived at night on Sunday after dark. It's actually okay during the day. We spent the evening in the freezing hotel - dreaming about hot Caribbean beaches - and realised that all museums of interest were closed on Monday - the only day we had planned to stay in Bogota!

Next week will be better! I guess that one bad week out of 20 is not a bad record!


Posted by lebrunfo 14:22 Archived in Colombia Comments (2)

South America - Week 19


rain 22 °C


Popayan was a pleasant colonial town characterised by small white houses and cobbledstone streets surrounded by green mountain scenery.
It was a good place to relax on a Sunday and observe the life of local people going to one of the numerous pretty churches around town.

After a morning walk we went back to our hotel and watched our first DVD of the trip on a flat screen TV in the nice TV room from our hotel! When you travel for so long, sometimes it is nice to feel at home and do nothing on a sofa while watching TV. It's a nice change to spending 20 hours on a bus...
In the evening we decided to travel a loop around Popayan that would take us about a week through a remote mounainous and desert areas once known for Guerilla activity but nowadays more famous for 2 major archeological sites in San Augustin and Tierradentro.

The french foreign office website said categorically not to travel from Popayan to San Augustin but travellers do it every day so at 6am the following day we were on our way to San Augustin on a very bumpy 6 hours ride accros the mountain. Honestly we don't understand the fear that western countries have about Colombia: without a doubt we can say that Colombia as by far been the safest place we have travelled to and people here are the nicest in the world. We haven't been to big cities yet but as far as the countryside is concerned we feel at ease everywhere we go and kidnapping of tourists is unheard of here.

Upon arrival in San Augustin we checked in at La Casa de Francois, a very nice hostel owned by a French-Colombian couple. Francois moved to Colombia 17 years ago and opened a bar there in the middle of guerilla territory. He told us that he later found out that high members of the guerillas visited his bar. They initially came undercover to check what this frenchman was doing there but enjoyed the atmosphere very much and were possibly regular customers. Apparently, people from the guerilla like french people a lot because of the way we rose against our rulers and beheaded our kings during the French revolution!!

In the afternoon we visited the archeological park set amid nice mountain and forest scenery. The main attraction are the numerous statues that were found guarding the tombs of important persons from an ancient civilization. Not much is known about the history of this place but the statues of various shapes and sizes are trully interesting to watch.

On the following day we went on a jeep tour around some more archeological sites, waterfalls and coffee plantations.

We mostly paid for the transportation as there was no guide with us and although the driver was nice and friendly, he didn't tell us much about the places. One of the most interesting aspect of the trip was the visit to a small sugar cane factory where we saw how "Panela" (some kind of sugar cane cubes) where produced.

After an exhausting 8 hours excursion we went back to La Casa de Francois where his Colombian wife cooked some amazing food to us.

We left San Augustin with our two new Ozzie friends, Fiona and Sharon. We took a combination of shared taxis and buses to Villa Vieija at the edge of the Tatacoa desert via the towns of Pitalito and Neiva. After discussing with Pedro Paolo, a local guide who advised us to stay in the village for the night, we decided not to follow his advise and to take a moto taxi to the "Penion de Constantino" into the desert, which had been recommended to Sharon and Fiona.

The other accomodation options in town where old dormitories in convent-like buildings,where we didn't feel like staying. Pedro called the owner, Jairo, and realised that he was in town. So Jairo turned out on his motorbike a few minutes later, taking Fiona on board, while Charlotte, Sharon and I stayed in the moto taxi for the 10km trip into the desert.

Jairo showed us our rooms.. a small hut in the middle of his property for Charlotte and I and a few bunk beds in another hut for the 2 girls.

The location was amazing. On one side you could see the "red desert" and on the other the "grey desert". The desert takes its colors from the different minerals that can be found in the soil.

Usually at this time of year temperatures can reach up to 50 celcius but luckily for us, we were told that the weather had been a bit mad lately with heavy rain and cooler temperatures. We had very little rain while we were there but the atmosphere was a bit stuffy and humid with highs of 28-30 degrees maximum around midday.

At night, Jairo prepared us some simple but tasty Colombian food, which is almost always served with "patacones", some kind of round flat cake made of plantain.

When we woke up the following day we discovered that we were covered in bites from all sorts of insects... We'd rather not know what it was exactly but there were without a doubt bites from mosquitos and possibly also fleas, sand flies or other things... We slept under a mosquito net but we were stung as soon as we got out of it! The cold shower in a hut at the back of the garden helped us ease off the itching.
Jairo went to pick up Pedro, the guide, in the morning and he took us on a walk in the "red" desert.

After a great lunch prepared by Jairo while we were away, we relaxed in hammocks for a few hours before heading for another walk in the "grey" desert with Jairo.

We headed out into the desert a bit too close to dusk and the night fell as we were about an hour away from the campsite. Luckily it was full moon and Jairo knew his way very well so we came back safely to the camp except for a few more bites all over our legs and arms! Jairo's remedy for us was to get a small bottle of rum that we drank after dinner. When he came back to the table with a second bottle, Fiona and Sharon went to bed so I was left drinking the second one with him while trying my best to hold a conversation in Spanish!! Charlotte was of great help for the Spanish conversation but not so much for the second bottle of rum!

After leaving the desert on the next day, we got on a shared taxi to Neiva taking on board two fishermen and their boat on the roof of the truck. No surprise that the trip took twice as long as normal. From there we didn't have to wait long before jumping and squeezing into a small van to the town of La Plata. We were stuck there for almost 3 hours before getting our connection to San Andres de Pisimbala in the archeological zone of Tierradentro. We left our bags at the bus station and went for a walk around town where locals where quite surprised to see a group of tourists. People are not really used to "gringos" in this part of Colombia and are rather curious about us and always extremly friendly and welcoming. After boarding the back of the pick-up truck, we were soon joined by another 8 persons, including Maria and Gerdette, two travellers from Spain and Ireland who we had briefly met in San Augustin a few days earlier. The rest of the passengers were Colombian famillies squashed between all the gringos.

The journey was quite "fun" for about 3 hours on unpaved mountain roads with numerous pot holes. We arrived at night and checked in La Portada which was a very good hostel where we paid about US$10 each daily for the room, breakfast and dinner! Since we had left Popayan, which was rather expensive, we had spent almost nothing and probably had some of our best time since we left 4 months ago! We have been told though that other more touristy parts of Colombia are quite expensive so we will try to go a bit off the beaten paths as much as we can in the weeks to come, which is not that hard in a country like Colombia where tourists don't go too much anyway. In San Augustin for instance, only about 20% of the visitors in 2010 were foreigners and out of these, there were about 250 german and 200 french people who were the most represented among all the foreign visitors.

During our first morning in San Andres, we walked around the archeological sites, which consisted mainly of underground tombs with some paintings and carvings. It wasn't as impressive as the stgatues from San Augustin nevertheless some of the tombs were nicely decorated.

Early afternoon we started walking towards Inza, the main town in this area but eventually got on a passing truck for the remaining 30 minutes journey. We got lucky as it was market day and we arrived just on time to get the almuerzo (lunch) before walking down to the village of San Francisco from where we did a small hike up the moutain the visit the pyramid and the cave under it.

On our way back down we stopped in the village and asked around where we could buy some Chicha, some kind of locally made alcohol. For about US$0.50 we got a full jar of it and relaxed drinking what tasted like a strong English cider. The people from the village probably never saw a group of 5 tourists sitting around like that here and started gathering around us as the sun was setting down and there was no sign of any bus or car to take us back to San Andres! The people told us that only 2 persons had a car in the village and one of them was busy watching football and didn't want to take us to San Andres while the other wasn't there! Finally, a car passed by and took us on board - for free - for the 40 minutes ride to San Andres. Charlotte, Fiona and myself sat at the back of the truck as it was getting quite chilly.

On our last day in San Andres, after walking around the church before the Sunday mass in search of some sneaky photo shots, we headed for a 4 hours hike with "Mono", the hostel's owner dog, accross outstanding green and tropical mountain scenery.

As we were finishing our hike, the weather turned a bit nasty and the rain didn't stop until the following morning when we were going back to Popayan.

On the following morning, the 6.30am bus to Popayan never came. We had been told that transports in this region could be challenging and a bit haphazard and this has indeed been rather unpredictable since we started this loop around Popayan. We decided to move ahead bit by bit taking cars to as far as they would go towards Popayan. After 2.5 hours and 2 cars later, we arrived in Inza where we had been 2 days earlier in 40 minutes! From there a women gave a few phone calls and arranged for a pick-up truck to take us to Popayan. We were 8 at the back and 6 at the front .. to start with! All the luggage were tied up above the truck and I saw a bag or two fall off the roof as we were driving... I think they were bags of fruits carried by one of the locals in the car. After the torrential rain the night before, the road was a mud bath and quite narrow in places. The driver got bogged down in the mud while letting a truck pass us in the opposite direction. Luckily the driver tied a rope around his car and a worker in a mechanical digger pulled the car out of the mud. After this, 2 more passengers got in at the back and I decided to stand at the back of the pick-up, holding the roof of the truck for about 2 hours in the dust and the wind!

We finally made it to Popayan in 7 hours where we are having a "laundry day" and planning our next adventures.

Posted by lebrunfo 16:44 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

South America - Week 18



In the end we didn't do the canopy in Mindo! We are probably the only tourists who have been to Mindo and not done this but since it rained for about 48h non stop we preferred to take it easy indoor reading and relaxing before the long journey towards the Amazon region.

Back in Quito on Sunday evening at about 7pm we first stopped at the bus station to leave our main backpacks before heading a couple of blocks away to the main square to get some food before our night bus at 11pm. We couldn't leave our small day pack as there was no safe left luggage facility so we took everything with us, including our laptop, 2 cameras, passports, wallet with debit/credit cards and about 200 US dollars in cash in my money belt. As we got within 20 meters from the main square with all the bars and restaurants, 2-3 guys walked toward me while 2-3 other guys walked towards Charlotte from the opposite direction. We were trapped! They tried to immobilize us and started searching our pockets but despite all the recommendations we read not to fight back, we didn't really cooperate and yelled for help and didn't let them take anything. As we shouted, 2 new guys came running towards us but, unlike what we thought, they didn't come to help us but instead to help the others to rob us! That was quite a scary moment. They finally missed my wallet located in one of my 6 pockets and didn't notice the money belt. It seems that they didn't notice either our backpacks and left frustrated saying in Spanish "They have nothing !". We were left in shock and ran to the nearest bar and ordered a chocolate brownie while recovering from this misadventure. We later found out that the police - usually present at all times in every corner of the tourist places - don't work on Sunday in Quito!

Happy to leave Quito for good we spent the night in the bus towards Lago Agrio, our meeting point for our 5 days trip into the jungle near the Colombian border in the North East of the country. The bus from the company Esmeralda was the best we had since entering Ecuador and we managed to get some sleep during the 7h hours journey. We met Chelsea fron North Carolina, David and Hayley from London and boarded another mini van that took us after 2 hours to the bank of the river where a boat was waiting to take us to the Lodge in the Cuyabeno Nature Reserve another 3 hours from there up the river.


Upon arrival we met Enrique our guide and were taken to our rooms, which were in open air wooden huts where the only protection from bugs were mosquito nets around our beds.


The site was quite far from civilization although we later found out that Ecuadorian oil companies - already researching the area outside of the nature reserve - might be getting closer to being allowed to start looking for oil inside the protected area: it would be a real disaster for the ecosystem and also for the local communities living in the area who do not benefit much from the potential revenues created by the oil companies.

(jungle life in the communities)

Our days at the camp were organized mostly around three activities in the early part of the day (between 6am and 10am), mid to late afternoon (4pm to 7pm) and at night (8pm to 10pm). Activities were day and night walks in the jungle to observe insects, amphibians and plants, day and night canoe rides to observe birds, monkeys and anything we could find, piranha fishing, pink river dolphin watching, visit to a local communty, etc, ...


Although there are a lot of species of animals present in the jungle as we could tell from the amazing noise produced by all the birds, insects and monkeys, we were a bit disappointed not to see more wild life especially in comparison to what we saw in the Pantanal region in Brazil a few months ago. The main difference between these two regions is the dense vegetation in the rain forest whereas the trees and plants were more sparse in the Pantanal, hence allowing more opportunities to see large mamals and birds.


The stuffy and suffocating atmosphere inside the rain forest was however very impressive and to a certain degree quite frightening: when walking into the jungle during the day we could hardly see the sun and at night the amount of insects and amphibians we saw was simply incredible. At any time of the day or night, walking into this hostile environement was a reminder of how little the human specie is in the natural world. End of my philosophic thought! As far as mammals sightings are concerned, the most interesting one we saw was a sloth (paresseux en francais) but it required very good binoculars and a bit of imagination! The most spectacular feature was actually to see how the guide managed to spot it whereas all of us couldn't even see it for a while despite knowing that it was there high up in the trees! Top marks for Enrique. Charlotte particularly enjoyed the visit to a local community where a young girl showed us how to make some bread made of yuca, a plant that can be found in this area.


Just a few words about the tour which we booked in Quito with the agency Dracaena: the lodge was great and in a area where other agencies don't go so we were only 5 tourists on the site, the guide was very knowledgeable and the food excellent. I would definitely recommend it to other travellers.

On the last day we left the lodge at 9am and got back to Laqgo Agrio at about 3pm. For obvious reasons we didn't want to go back to Quito as previously planned so we waited until 10.40pm in the uninspiring town of Lago Agrio, before getting on the direct night bus to Tulcan (8 horrible hours with almost no sleep...), the safest border crossing point in Ecuador for Colombia. We arrived in the cold and the rain at the Ecuadorian emigration office just before 6am but in order to get our exit stamp the emigration officer needed to make a photocopy of our passports (we still haven't understood why) but said he couldn't do it before 8am... We were left frustrated, tired and upset by that and had to wait for 2h30 before we could actually leave Ecuador. We then entered Colombia in less time than needed to write it! Our next destination was Popayan about 350km North of the border. The 9.30am bus that was supposed to take 6 hours left at 10am and took 8h to get to our destination... The scenery was very similar to the one in the South of Ecuador near Vilcabamba and also near Banos when we did our cycling trip. The few people we have met since we arrived in Colombia were very nice to us and the warm welcome we have received was a nice change to how we have been treated on the other side of the border in the previous weeks.

We finally arrived exhausted in Popayan and ready for our next adventures in Colombia.

Posted by lebrunfo 08:12 Comments (2)

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