“There are no foreign lands. It is the traveler only who is foreign.” – Robert Louis Stevenson

Sunday, July 29, 2012

So you want to sail between Panama and Colombia?

The Dorien Gap is a break in the Pan-American highway that really is as wild and untamed jungle as it gets in South/Central America. You are nuts to expect to traverse it overland. But, there is an alternative: You can sail around it from various ports in Panama (Colon, Portobello, El Porvenir, Carti) via the San Blas Islands to Cartagena (or Carpugana) in Colombia. It only takes around 3 days to cross, but most boats spend 2-3 days island hopping in the idyllic San Blas islands on the way, extending the trip. Depending on the boat, it costs between $350 and $600, most boats being $500. Hostels DO take a cut so if you can arrange with the captains directly, you will pay less.

The first thing: this is a backpacker trip. Expect it to be crowded, don't expect gourmet food, most captains/boats are doing this for cash -- you are not their best friend, it is not a luxury cruise, and many boats take more passengers than they should. Yes, it's a rough crossing, so do bring sea-sickness tablets and do actually take them if you are likely to feel ill. Also, it is BYO so plan wisely for what you'll want to drink for the whole time, including non-alcoholic drinks. Bring snacks -- there is nothing scheduled between meals.

There are lots of yachts out there: do your research on forums online and ask at the hostels. Note: if leaving from Panama, you will not see your ship until you are getting onto it. The San Blas departure area is remote (3-4 hours from Panama City), so you are committed to it in a way you aren't in Cartagena (although most people don't bother to check out the boats in Cartagena, either, though all will dock in the bay where they're visible).

Here are a list of boats that were running the trip in July 2012 with websites when I could find them:

Gypsy Moth -- quite sought after
Independence -- biggest boat doing it, 25+ people on board
Black Dragonfly
Ave Maria
Nani Moaina
Northern Drifter

Or check out this hostel in Panama: http://www.mamallena.com/sailboats.html or this hostel in Cartagena http://www.casaviena.com/sanblasisland.htm although almost any of the main hostels will be able to help you. This website may also be useful. Or this one.

Despite some websites online saying that there is a ferry, this no longer runs. From what I understand it ran for about a month in early 2012, but stopped soon after due to lack of demand.

The shorter alternative to the Cartagena route is the shorter Carpugana/Sapzurro/Puerto Obaldia trip, but be warned: there are no ATMS on either side, so bring enough cash to get yourself out if no boats are going -- it is not uncommon to get trapped there! This also does not really avoid the open water crossing, as you will likely still have to go across the Gulf of Darien by ferry in Colombia (unless you fly to/from Medellin). One regular company that runs this trip is the Darien Gapster. These shorter trips are usually around $300-$350.

Yes, motorbikes and bicycles can be transferred on the bigger boats. Expect to pay a full person's fare for the bike. It will have to be transferred to the boat by crane and go on the small river boats to get to/from land in San Blas -- most boats do not dock at either end, transfers are by speedboat/zodiac.

Yes, Fritz the Cat sank in June 2012. They are rough open seas and sailing is not without risk. Make sure you feel confident with your captain and discuss their experience.

Do bring a waterproof camera or a dry bag if you can get hold of one -- the San Blas islands are idyllic, but you have to swim to get to them.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Treking to the Lost City

Deep in the jungle in the Sierra Nevada behind Santa Marta in Colombia lies the Lost City, a pre-Colombian Tayrona settlement rivalling Machu Picchu in its inaccesible, yet spectacular location. There are various companies (Turcol, Guiyas, Magic Trek, etc) that run different types of trips, but most are around 5 days. Here's how mine went:

Day 1
Elevation: 100m at village Machete Pelao to 400m
Walking time: 3 1/2 hours
Adan Camp
I started the day with a 2 hour drive from Santa Marta to the little village of Machete Pelao. We stopped on the way so that the jeep could be used to help a friend move some wood. After turning off the main road we wound up a dirt track in the land rover. I waited a while for the rest of my group to arrive and watched a finishing group celebrate. 3 hours for one pair, then 4 hours, 5 hours, etc. Lunch was a delish sandwich. We walked 3 1/2 hours with a swim in the gorgeous river after half an hour then 1 hour straight up! Had a watermelon snack at the top with the ducks eating the scraps and seeds before walking along the ridge and back down again to the camp on the river in a gully. We slept in hammocks and had quite a lot of time to chat and get to know one another. Pistachios! There was another swimming hole and showers were possible. It rained hard at night and I was glad it wasn't during the day.

The group was really international: Miguel, Jenny and Wilson were the guides, and we had English, Czech, Colombians, Swiss (French and German), Spanish, Dutch, Belgians and me, the token kiwi.

Day 2.
Elevation: 400m to 700m
Walking time: 3-4 hours approx 2+ swim + 1
Camp 2
We started the day going up a small rise, then around a ridge past another camp and a few villages, then more upwards hiking, but not too bad. A delicious orange at the top-- its amazing how good fruit tastes when you're hot and thirsty! Along another mountain top then down around the ridge, across a creek then we stopped for a welcome swim. Big relief! A leisurely sit in the sun to dry off, then a pineapple snack before resuming walking. 1 hour more up a valley to the second camp (beds!). It had a lovely grass area (likely used as a helipad), and a convenient swimming spot. The further up we went, the cooler the pools and rivers got. Many rains upstream made the river quite full so only those who swam early got a dip. Our soup lunch was perfect for our appetite, then most of us were content to snooze all afternoon, especially when it rained. Camp 2 had no electricity so our 7pm dinner and chat about local tribal traditions was by candelight.

Some interesting tribal traditions:
-A man marries an older woman with children and later chooses one of her daughters as 2nd wife (in theory it avoids conflict)
-A chief is usually born during a full moon and lives in a special house alone for 5 years as a rite of passage with no meat, salt, oil, etc
-Shamans make a coca leaves and shell mix as a drug for men which creates wild visions (likely toxic!)
-Marriages can end (separation) if it's not working
-Marriages are arranged by tribal elders after a girl's first menstruation and these husbands are much older than their wives
-They bury people under their houses, so the houses (like those in the Lost City) are sacred
-There are only 3 tribes in the Sierra Nevada, and they are all descendants of the lost Tayrona civilization. The Lost City is sacred to them. Tribes: Arsarios, Cogis, Arquaco
-The Cuidad Perdida was first built by a Tayrona tribe around 6 BC.

Day 3
Elevation: 700m to lunch to 1200m in lost city.
Walking time: 4 hours to Base camp. 1 hour up to lost city
Camp: in lost city

We were up at 5.30 am to leave at 6 and started with and upward section, across a new suspension bridge (3 months old) then around a saddle. My favorite day of walking: 4 hours beautiful walk through fields and lovely forest, fording a river and bypassing the trail by going up the river. I sprained ankle very badly just before lunch camp. I had a swim in the river to bring down the swelling then Wilson taped it up and I hobbled up the steps 1 hour to the lost city itself, arriving around 3 pm. Many people were in the lunch camp ready to head down, but really this was the only contact with people not from our group in the whole 5 days. The stairs were incredibly intact after so many centuries, and there were lots of them (1200?). There was another river crossing (3 all day) before the stairs. I needed walking sticks to get across!

The lost city itself had many circular areas of housing areas then more stairs. A main road of the city goes up along ridge, 3 stones wide. There was a Colombian Army camp in lost city and it was astounding to see people watch the Euro Football Cup finals at the top in the barracks! I enjoyed a snooze at 4 pm to help my ankle get a rest, then enjoyed some nuts and beer - the army's way of making some extra funds. Dinner was finished by 7pm so we moved on to rum, chatting, and a special local ankle treatment made from boiling dead/brown banana leaves up and getting a massage. The camp included a big frog and a friendly spoiled cat.

Day 4
Elevation: 1200m to 700m
Walking time: 3 on site, 1 hour down, 4 hours out. Long day!
Camp: back to camp 2
I started the day with a scorpion sting! I grabbed my towel from the hook and he was hiding beside. If I am afraid of any creepy crawly, this would be it, only second to snakes. I woke the whole house up in my panic, and wondered if I would die. Our dear guides turned the room upside down to find him, then lopped off his head, slit its stomach open and rubbed the guts over my sore finger. The contents of its stomach negate the poison making only my hand hurt instead of my arm (and no taste on my tongue, either). Disaster averted. Miguel said if it'd been a black one, we might have been in a bit more trouble.
We then had a 3-hour guided walk around site learning about how the huts were built, how the rocks were cracked using heat, the grave robbers history, etc. such an amazing place. Each circle, of which there were many, covered a family burial plot. 1 meter below was a small treasure, then a layer of coal, then another meter or so, and pots filled with more burial artifacts and a bigger treasure. Each dead person's soul was inside a statue of gold, explaing the drive of the grave robbers. Our guide, Wilson, who has been guiding people to the lost city for 20 years or so, explained that each circle with a tree was one the grave robbers had not gotten to, and was currently unexcavated. There was some government excavation in the 80s, but the traditional people were upset at what they saw as the souls being removed from their resting place and put in prisons (museums). They protested the excavations so all were stopped. Future excavations are still under negotiation. The Tayrona descendants would like to bury the gold unearthed in a secret location but whether they would allow archaeologists to document it first is just one of the issues being discussed. Several other old Tayrona sites exist but are closed to visitors, including one high above the snow line built after the Tayrona were beginning to fear Spanish encroachment.

We then had 1 hour down the steps, a quick stop for lunch, no time for a swim. It was 3 1/2 hours along the ridge and down, across the swinging bridge and along river past a camp to the friendly spacious camp of 2 nights before. Rain started so it was very muddy and slippery, so slow going. Definitely not a good hiking day.

Day 5
Elevation: 700m to 100m
Walking time: 4-6 hours all the way out
Camp: None

Up at 5am for one of the longest days: Two major uphills to get all the way out. It wasn't as tough going as I thought it would be. We stopped briefly for a swim and a break half way through, but lunch was not till the end. I think I made it in 5 hours? Not bad for stopping to film an ant march and for having a sprained ankle. Such a feeling of accomplishment, and a beautiful journey to an amazing historical place. No comparing or judging, just enjoyment.

Posted via DraftCraft app

Monday, July 09, 2012

Testing Blog Ap

Since I'm on the road with only my phone and Ipad, so I'm posting using only those and have found quite a few hiccups in terms of uploading photos and HTML formatting. Blogger only has an ap for the iphone so quite a few limitations with it, sadly. I am posting this post with another ap, and then I'll go to the paid aps. Let's try a photo:
I like the resize ability and I can move it side to side, but whether or not I can add a label to it or to wrap text around it I can't see. Since it isn't connecting to blogger yet, it also can't access photos from the other blog. Bummer. Ok. Time to post. Let's see how it looks. (This was posted with DraftCraft Free, which it turns out, only gives you 10 free posts-boo!)

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Amazing leaves!

Look at these amazing leaves... Nature is so beautiful.