Monday, July 29, 2019

Caribbean Side of Panama and Costa Rica

Almost everyone I've talked to that has been to Panama has told me that I must visit Bocas del Toro. Such consistent (and insistent) recommendations should not be ignored, so with the limited time we had we prioritized a visit to this archipelago of small islands off the northwest coast of Panama. Fortunately, they are easy to get to and although we got dropped off at the small coastal town of Almirante at 4:30am we didn't have to wait too long for sunrise and the first of the small speedboats to begin the crossing to the islands. We first passed through a narrow channel of huts on stilts (it's the kind of place where kids take canoes to school) before hitting more open water and crossing to Bocas town, the largest of the settlements and main tourist hub for the area. It is rainy season in Central America now so we have been under constant threat of rain and thunderstorms. Brief, strong showers are not uncommon, especially in the afternoons and the high humidity is inescapable.
This is for the most part clear, warm Caribbean waters and Bocas has a lot of tour agencies and activities on offer. It's a backpacker to mid-range vibe, no big resorts and fly-in packages. There are a few beaches outside of town on the main island. We crossed the island on the local bus and visited Starfish Beach which was pretty though tourists have killed most of the starfish at this point so there weren't many to see. If you like your beaches with warm shallow water, a thin sliver of sand to lay on and a lot of palm trees then look no further.

Walking out to Starfish beach

Starfish beach

With the limited time we had, rather than using the little inter island boats to independently try to visit other beaches in the area, we opted for a cheap day tour that would take us around to a number of sites quickly. It started with dolphin watching in the bay, a bit of snorkeling, relaxing on a beach on a small uninhabited island, observing sloths in the mangroves and finally more starfish. None of these things blew us away but it is pretty and we enjoyed the day.

Our little tour boat

Deserted Zapatilla island
Lunch stop on tour

I can see how people could spend longer than planned relaxing at Bocas but that wasn't an option for us. Not only was time a factor but also money. Panama is definitely more expensive than the last few countries we've been in and that also had us motivated to keep moving along. From Bocas we caught a morning boat back to the mainland and from there negotiated a shuttle to the border where we walked across a little bridge into Costa Rica. It is the quieter border crossing side of the country and we got through and on the next bus without any hassle or too much delay.
Our first stop in Costa Rica was Cahuita and we knew right away we would not be spending long in the country. Costa Rica is ridiculously popular, much more so than the rest of Central America, mostly because of its reputation for safety, stability and natural beauty. If you want to have a safe, family-oriented tropical vacation and not have to worry too much and have money to burn, it's great. For us, not so. Outside of Patagonia, Barbados and Antarctica, I think Costa Rica was the most expensive place we went this year. I'm not always against spending money (despite what the rest of my family will tell you) but I am only willing to do so when there is perceived value in doing so. I don't feel the need to spend random time on beaches or in national parks just because they are popular, so we specifically targeted certain activities we knew we could accomplish quickly and successfully and left the country in 5 days.
The first activity was to see sloths in the wild. This was a major bucket list item for Sasha and while we had seen a sloth in a park in Cartagena and just a couple days before on our boat tour in Bocas, neither had been good enough to leave us feeling truly satisfied. Sloths are very common in Costa Rica. You can pay lots and go see them at some "rehabilitation" sanctuaries and even hold them I believe, or try your luck with seeing them in a national park somewhere while hiking. We'd heard that it was pretty much impossible to not see them at Cahuita National Park so decided to take our chances there. Unlike almost all other parks in Costa Rica, Cahuita NP is easily accessible without a vehicle, doesn't have an entry fee (it is by donation only) and doesn't require a guide (though having one can make wildlife spotting much easier). The entry to the park is at the edge of the town of the same name and we spent several hours walking the 8 km trail through the park. It is described as a loop but is an incomplete one as it leaves you at the other end of the park on the main road where you can easily get on a local bus or shuttle back to town. The trail parallels a nice beach which seemed to be what most local tourists were visiting for. There were 2 places where we had to walk through small streams but otherwise the trail was mostly shaded and well laid out, at times just a sandy path and at other times an elevated boardwalk over flooded land. We saw (and heard) howler monkeys which we love, capuchin monkeys, sloths and a variety of birds and smaller critters. We had a great day and would definitely recommend it.

Sandy trail through Cahuita NP

Cahuita beach

A stream to cross

It seems that most people rent a car or use shuttles in Costa Rica. We were on the public buses as always and it wasn't difficult or uncomfortable though we often had to hold onto our luggage because there was nowhere else to put it. We made it from Cahuita to Tortuguero village in a long day using a combination of 4 buses and a boat. Tortuguero is a small village on a sandbar built between a river and the remote northeast coast of Costa Rica and not accessible by road directly. It is a popular destination however, especially during various turtle seasons when sea turtles come ashore to lay their eggs. Fortunately for tourists there are 4 species of turtles here and they lay at different times so there is usually something going on. The green turtle laying season starts in July and we were right at the beginning of it. As planned.
Tortuguero National Park lies just outside the village and is dense jungle cut by waterways and canals on their way to the sea. Wildlife is also abundant here but the only way to visit is by boat tour or on a short muddy hike along a limited trail paralleling the coast. We started the morning with a two and a half hour canoe tour into the national park. We saw birds, a caiman and some more howler monkeys. This is a very wet area, especially in the rainy season so it's not surprising we got poured on. Maybe that is why we didn't see as much as I expected. That afternoon we got poured on again as we went stomping around in the national park on a flooded and muddy trail.

Boats to Tortuguero

Tortuguero port

Mother and baby howler monkeys

Tortuguero beach
Tortuguero village

Just after sunset we met with our guide for a final foray into the park, this time with a walk back along the muddy trail to a staging point where we would wait until the local turtle spotters found a turtle for us. It is done this way so that the tourists spend a minimal time on the beach itself where they could damage nests or scare away any turtles that haven't committed to laying yet. Once a female turtle is finished digging her nest and and begins to lay her eggs she goes into something of a trance and it is safe for us to approach. Only a red light is used and no photos are allowed so we don't have any but if you get a chance it is a pretty amazing thing to see. The lightning was good for viewing the turtle but when it finally started pouring we ended up heading back a little early. It was a 2 km walk back to the village in the strongest downpour I've been in. Usually these only last a couple of minutes at such strength but it was ferocious the entire walk back. I've never been so fully clothed and that wet before. My rubber boots were full of water by the time we got back. Fortunately it was warm enough and we weren't eaten by jaguars (apparently lots of turtles get eaten so it could be a thing) so we had a good but busy and wet day overall.
The following morning we had the unpleasant task of packing up our gear (still wet) and traveling all the way across the country to its second largest city, Liberia. This entailed taking the boat back out of town (the water level had risen significantly in the 2 days we were there and several homes were flooded in the village and surrounding area) and 3 bus rides and took about 11 hours. It was our final night in Costa Rica and we were merely staging ourselves for the main, western crossing into Nicaragua the following day.

Saturday, July 27, 2019

Panama City and the Canal

Panama City. Round 2. We'd passed through and had an overnight stopover near the beginning of this trip but didn't have time to visit any of its tourist attractions. This time we gave ourselves 3 days to give it its due. My strongest memory and impression of Panama City will probably be of shopping malls. We seemed to have spent most of our time in them eating, shopping or simply transiting (the bus terminal is beside Albrook Mall). There is a lot of money here and an impressive skyline of skyscrapers. From a distance it looks very much like a tropical city in the US. We never lost that impression and overall found Panama (and for the most part the rest of Central America) to be extremely "Americanized". I had thought Central America would be like a mini South America but found it much more closely aligned with American culture and practices instead. I'm getting ahead of myself a bit but for example baseball instead of football, more fast food chains and taxes not included in the listed price. Small things but they add up and the source of the influence is obvious.
Panama is best known for its canal and we couldn't come and not pay a visit. Fortunately it is easy to make a trip out to the Miraflores locks to see the ships passing through and visit the onsite museum. The building of the canal is a pretty messed up story of tragedy, arrogance, political intrigue and eventual engineering triumph. Many don't realize that the successful separation of Panama from Colombia as an independent nation is directly related to US interests in building the canal. It all started with the French though. Hot off the success of building the Suez canal, French engineers started planning for a canal across Panama in the same style. What worked in Egypt will work in Panama right? Ha! Egypt is flat and dry so a sea level canal made sense. Panama was undeveloped disease-ridden jungle covered mountains and the stubborn and arrogant French wasted 20 years and thousands of lives trying to cut a sea level path all the way from coast to coast. The Americans eventually took over, built some locks, flooded the central section with an artificial lake and finally opened the canal in 1914. The canal is mostly used by ships traveling from the west coast of the Americas to Europe or the east coast of the US to Asia and saves about 3 weeks of travel time compared to going around South America. As ships have gotten larger over the last 100 years, in 2016 Panama finally completed an expansion upgrade to allow for the newer, larger ships to pass as well. Somehow we ended up easily spending 4 hours out at the Miraflores locks before they closed and sent everyone away. The important thing is visiting at the right time. Traffic is all one way because of the narrowness of the canal so in the morning traffic flows east and in the afternoon it flows west with a couple hour gap of quiet in between.

Entrance to the canal on the left, city on the right

Miraflores locks and the mechanical "mules" that pull the ships through the locks

Well before the establishment of the canal, it was obvious that the area was the shortest land crossing between the Caribbean and Pacific coasts. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that the first Spanish settlement on the Pacific was at Panama Viejo. This original site lies just outside of downtown and is a set of ruins left behind when the colonists abandoned it following its destruction by pirates (led by the famous Henry Morgan) in 1671. A new settlement was started a few km away and has become the restored touristy colonial neighbourhood of Casco Viejo. Now the most touristic part of the city, only 20 years ago it was 5% preserved and considered too dangerous to visit. Today it is a mix of destroyed building shells sitting between restored buildings with little restaurants or souvenir shops and while far from the nicest colonial centre we've been to, was safe and interesting enough for a short wander.

Panama Viejo

Panama Viejo
Taking a break in Casco Viejo

Casco Viejo

Ruined monastery, Casco Viejo

Monument to the French canal builders
Downtown view from Casco Viejo

Of course the other side is also important so we couldn't neglect the history of the Caribbean side of the trade route equation. While Panama Viejo became a port for the collection of goods (gold but mostly silver) coming up from Lima and other parts of northwest South America it still needed a departure point on the Caribbean side. Enter Portobelo and the Spanish treasure fleets.
After a brief journey overland from the Pacific coast, the treasure would be taken to Portobelo where huge trade fairs would be held, the ships loaded and left to sail back to Spain, hoping to avoid pirates along the way. Portobelo has a deep, natural harbour and quickly became the main port for the export of silver from the mines of Peru and Bolivia. Obviously this needed protecting so a few forts and other defensive structures were built. Despite this, Portobelo was sacked on multiple occasions by pirates or the British (often the same thing) and Sir Francis Drake is even said to have been buried in a lead coffin somewhere in the bay after his death.

Santiago battery, Portobelo

Portobelo bay

San Jeronimo fort, Portobelo

These local buses are known as "Red Devils" and drive like maniacs.

The canal was later built with its Caribbean entrance some 50 km to the west of Portobelo at a city called Colon and today Portobelo is a very small and sleepy town quietly neglected in its decay. No effort seems to be put into the maintenance, restoration or even promotion of the fortifications but they are a free open area for those that want to explore. A few rusted cannons pointed out to sea are all you get to help your imagination recreate the glory of days long gone. On our way back from a day trip to Portobelo we went all the way into Colon to change buses. Colon has a terrible reputation for being dirty and dangerous and in all honesty I have seen war zones that look more inviting. We had to walk two blocks to get to the bus station and that was more than enough. It stands out as a perfect example of the bizarre duality of Panama. There is money in the country and Panama presents itself as a modern global country but it all seems to be in the city. Everywhere else we went (granted it wasn't many places) looked very run down and poor which isn't unusual for us but the contrast stood out more than we expected. We left on a night bus headed west (Panama runs east/west not north/south like most people believe) to our final Panamanian destination, Bocas del Toro.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Bogota to Cartagena

With mom now in tow we wanted to make a nice impression. Unfortunately Bogota was not the place to do that. Of all the capitals we visited Bogota was our least favourite. It is a huge city (one of the most populous in the western hemisphere) so it must have a bit of everything and I'm sure there are very nice areas if we went out and looked for them, but we didn't. Why? Because we did what we always do, we were tourists doing the tourist thing for a couple days and as such we can directly compare with everywhere else we've been. The conclusion we came to was that if you wanted to visit the historic centre, see the central plaza and cathedral and the most recommended museums, you were going to be exposed to something that felt dirtier and sketchier than your norm on the continent. I'm not saying it is the worst, and we didn't have any problems, but we were happy to leave. It didn't really help that the weather is often cold and misty which it was for us most of the time we were there as well.
Although Bogota became an important Spanish administrative capital early on, it lacks the same architectural grandeur and beautiful plazas to be found in Quito, Lima or Buenos Aires. One thing for which Bogota has become a world leader at is cycling. Every Sunday and holiday the city has the "Ciclovia", a time where the city shuts down 120 km of streets and the cyclists and pedestrians take over. They've been doing this since the 1970's and it is now copied to some degree by dozens of cities around the world. We were in Bogota on a holiday and I was shocked at the scale of the shutdown and the level of public participation. I remember hearing about it long ago, and I was glad we were able to witness it. Also impressive in Bogota is the Gold Museum, the world's largest collection of gold artifacts, mostly of pre-Columbian indigenous ornaments.

The National Capital, Plaza de Bolivar, Bogota

The cathedral on the plaza

Pretty courtyard in the Museo Casa de Moneda

Leaving Bogota we got back into the small town life with a first stop at Villa de Leyva. It is a small colonial town only a few hours north of Bogota so unsurprisingly the most touristic of the bunch we visited. It is quite well preserved and underwent very little development after the initial colonial period when it was a distribution hub for the region. Its main plaza is the largest in Colombia to this day. We had 2 nights and 1 full day to explore. Whitewashed walls and narrow streets lined with flower pots. It is all very cute and must make a lovely weekend getaway for the locals.

Villa de Leyva

The biggest plaza in Colombia

Pretty, touristy streets
When you build a house on drugs it becomes a local tourist attraction...

Another half day north we found ourselves in San Gil, the "adventure tourism" capital of Colombia. Plenty of tours were on offer to bungy jump, river raft, etc but we were there to see another nearby colonial town. Barichara is one of the prettiest and best preserved of Colombia's colonial towns and we really liked it. It has the typical grid layout and is perched on a ridge overlooking a nearby canyon. While the town itself is pretty with its whitewashed walls and tiled roofs, we were also there for a little hike downhill to the tiny village of Guane. The path follows the remains of a colonial path built over the indigenous paths linking many villages around the region. Because modern roads have largely bypassed this area, it remains very sleepy and undeveloped and it is still possible to follow these paths for days and make something of a full trek out of it. I don't think anyone actually does yet though. Tourism has still not realized its full potential here. The 2 hour hike to Guane is the lazy tourist version and we enjoyed it, especially since we had it pretty much to ourselves. The path is usually uneven cobblestones and lined with a low rock wall and scrubby pasture land on the other side. The only problem was the heat. We were starting to get into lower elevations which meant more heat, something we were still trying to get used to. The good news is that of all the countries we've been to on this trip, Colombia has consistently had the best fruit juices so rehydrating became enjoyable and we found a nice location with a view in Barichara for pre and post hike drinks.


The view from Barichara

Starting the hike to Guane

Entering Guane

We went to Mompox next, arriving in the early morning after a direct overnight bus from San Gil. Our first impression of Mompox was not the best. It was rather smelly and run down on the outskirts of the village where we were dropped off. A few blocks in though and we found the little historic area that parallels the Magdalena river, the biggest in the country. Mompox was an important river port for traders along the only route between Cartagena and Bogota before roads through the interior were finally built. In the 1800's its prosperity started to decline and by the early 1900's the river had shifted, along with the main trade routes and Mompox was left in a sleepy state of decay. Rocking chairs are a thing here. It was hot and humid so we found an open cafe along the waterfront (actually rather difficult because tourism is minimal and most of the buildings are shuttered up these days), sat in a rocking chair and sipped our drinks and watched the world slowly float by. If you weren't in a hurry, it was kind of a perfect set up, so we ordered more drinks and continued to rock...  Mompox has a few small churches on a few small plazas but there was little else to see and do. We didn't complain.

The quiet waterfront streets of Mompox

The former market building
Santa Barbara church

Antique cafe

Rocking chairs and drinks. Enjoying the lazy life :)
The Magdalena river

Our last stop in Colombia was Cartagena, easily the most touristic place in the country. Cartagena was of critical importance to the Spanish as one of its main ports and trade centers in the new world. Cartagena sits on a protected bay that makes a huge natural harbour, encouraging its growth and importance during the colonial period. This also made it a very attractive target for pirates and the city was successfully attacked on numerous occasions. This necessitated the building of what would eventually become the most extensive military fortifications in South America with a string of fortresses around the bay and 11km of defensive walls and bastions around the old town. There is also a huge central fortress, San Felipe, that we visited. It was interesting for the views and its extensive tunnel network within.
Cartagena is very popular on the cruise ship circuit and we were lucky that there weren't any in port when we were there but there were still more tourists than we'd seen in a long time. I actually liked Cartagena more than I thought I would. It was very much more Caribbean in look and feel than South American. Unfortunately Sasha was sick and couldn't join us for all of our exploration of the city.

Much of the walls around the city of Cartagena still stand.
The clock tower gate into the old town.

The former slave trading squae

San Felipe fortress

Overall we were making good time and felt that with about 6 weeks left we would be able to quickly pass through Central America. There is no overland route from Colombia to Panama because of the Darien Gap, a wild and dangerous stretch of jungle separating the two countries. There are ways to quasi-overland the journey by taking sail or speedboat tours between the two but these are multi-day trips that island hop along the coast. The scenery looks beautiful but for the most part sounds like obnoxious party trips, prone to poor service and overpriced overall so in the end we ended up flying from Cartagena to Panama City instead.