A Travellerspoint blog

April 2017

Chapter 12 - Colombia

By Nikki (coz Neil made her)

semi-overcast 20 °C
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Maria, our walking tour guide in Bogota, asked if we knew what semiotic symbols were, in this case she meant images or symbols that we associate with a country. The Eiffel Tower for France, beer for Germany and of course Kangaroos for Australia. There was an uncomfortable silence before Neil bit the bullet and said "Cocaine?" when we were asked about Colombia. Which was of course the point of the question. After such a long and sordid history of drug production, cartels and extraordinary wealth produced from same, cocaine has become the semiotic symbol of Colombia. As we found out however, Colombia is so much more than this perception of a country overrun with drugs and violence. Whereas Maria made sure she acknowledged the very real reality of the influence of drugs in Colombia, it also became very evident during our tour, that these issues no longer define this beautiful country, and that for the first time in 55 years, it is reestablishing peace, cultural heritage and its place on the world stage in terms of arts, tourism and food.

We didn't really know what to expect from Colombia, but both of us agree that it is the country that challenged our preconceptions more than any other. The infrastructure in the main centres is developed, we felt safe (while of course being very sensible about it), the people are wonderfully friendly and Colombia has some of the best food and coffee we have had on the trip (sorry Brazil!!)

Our introduction to Colombia was the small Amazonian town of Leticia, stranded on a tiny peninsula of territory at the bottom of Colombia.


We actually disembarked from our Amazon sojourn in the Brazilian town of Tabatinga, but the two towns have now merged into one and there are no formal border proceedings. We popped across to Leticia for the night and then jumped back across to the border on a tuk-tuk the following day to get stamped out of Brazil at the police station. We were then displaced persons for 24 hours until we were stamped into Colombia at the airport the following day. I have never experienced such an informal and porous border crossing before! There was a distinct change in entering Leticia however. Despite being a river town like the others we visited in Brazil, it was clearly more wealthy and, blessed relief, we could start speaking Spanish again!

Bogota, the capital of Colombia, is at an altitude of 1800m above sea level, and you can feel it! However, we didn't mind puffing a little once we got lost in the streets of La Candeleria, the old town sector of Bogota. Cobbled streets, beautiful colonial architecture of brightly coloured buildings with dark wood balconies, soaring churches and palatial public buildings are interspersed with galleries, theatres, bars and restaurants. We spent three days wandering the city, including a fantastic walking tour that included trying Chicha, cocoa leaves and of course Colombian coffee! Nearly every city has a walking tour and most of those in South America are ‘free’, with a donation expected at the end – well deserved on every single one that we went on!


But for as much fun as we had in Bogota, on both visits, the highlight of Colombia was our time volunteering with Manos Amigos in Ibague. Ibague is 3 hours west of Bogota and most travellers only know it as a brief stop on this bus journey to Cali or the coffee growing region of Armenia. We spent 10 days here with an amazing grassroots organisation whose goal is to prevent the local children from dropping out of school and getting involved in the very prevalent drug industry. In Colombia, children go to school either in the morning (6.30 til 11.30) or afternoon (1 til 6). The two Manos Amigas centres provide an alternative place for them to go to when they are not in school. In the mornings and afternoon sessions the staff and volunteers ensure that all the children do their homework for the next day and provide educational activities, as well as ensuring that the kids have somewhere safe to play and a meal.


There is no question as to the good that this program is providing to both the children and the community. The centre in San Juan Barrio sits across from a park which for the entire day is full of adults and adolescent taking cocaine, sniffing glue and engaging in prostitution. It is incredibly confronting to think that these children need to only look out the window to see this. That said, the time in the centres is full of fun and the children clearly enjoy themselves, as well as the love and affection they receive from everyone involved.


We stayed with the woman who runs the program, Berenice, and her family while in Ibague and we received such a warm welcome that it was hard to leave. We lived and worked in Spanish, so our language skills improved out of sight, especially with the wonderful patience of our hosts and the staff at the program!

Our stay at the program was not all work of course! We had a great night out playing Tejo with the staff and volunteers. Imagine quoits, but throwing heavy metal weights at a clay target, instead of innocuous hoops at a pole. Oh, and if you hit the target just right, it explodes. Yup, fun the way it was meant to be had - beer and explosions!


We also spent a weekend in Salento, the coffee region, 3 hours north of Ibague (3 hours in Colombia is only about 150kms due to the conditions of the road and traffic). We glamped in a tent at an eco-lodge with amazing views over the coffee plantations and hiked to a local plantation for a guided tour of the coffee making process. Apart from the bug bites (4 weeks of blisters and itching!) it was a great place to visit with a lot more to be done that we could achieve in our one full day (like the Corocon Valley).


Saying farewell in Ibague was incredibly hard, especially after the children from both centres put on an amazing concert for us, including dancing, singing and the presentation of hand made letters and posters from each of them. And the very special Manos Amigos t-shirt, to be treasured if it survives the trip home!


Due to our rather ambitious itinerary we only had one more stop in Colombia, being Cartegena on the coast, where we planned to catch a boat to Panama. Cartegena was a beautiful old city, which felt incredibly safe to walk around both day and night. Your greatest risk was being accosted by one of the hundreds of touts selling Panama hats and sunglasses. It was the first time we had run into this sort of touristy hassle on the whole trip! We didn't go to the beaches, that are apparently very beautiful, as we had quite a bit of organising to do for our next leg to Panama, but wandering the old city for a couple of days, walking the city walls at dusk, and finding a gin bar made it a fabulous stay anyway!



We missed out on Medellin, Tayrona and all of the other absolutely amazing places that we had had recommended to us on our way up to Colombia. But we are saving those for our next visit....

Posted by capetocape2017 14:35 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Chapter 13 - Central America - Panama

By Neil

sunny 33 °C
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After 100 days it was time to say goodbye to South America and move onto Panama.

The 30,000 km Pan American highway runs from Alaska to the bottom of South America continuously. The sole exception is the Darien Gap.

Map showing the Darien Gap, an area of rainforest and swampland between Colombia and Panama.

In our travels, many travellers that we met said the way around this technical hitch was to catch a boat from Cartagena, Colombia, to El Provenir, Panama, passing, on the way, so they said, the incredibly beautiful San Blas Islands.


The boat we took was called the Amande, a 52 foot sailing yacht.

Captain Nikki !


The “Amande”. The sailing boat that we took from Cartagena, Colombia to El Provenir, Panama – via the San Blas islands.

There were 11 passengers and 3 crew on the boat. We thought “Hey, we’ll get a double cabin with a private bathroom. That will be nice”.

You’ll notice from the map above that before we reach the San Blas islands, there’s a bit of sea to cross. It wasn’t that rough but let me ask. Have you ever slept, or tried to sleep, in a tumbling tumble dryer on high heat ? That’s what the cabin was like. There were two tiny windows to the outside, it was hot as Hades, and the room was corkscrewing. I lasted about 2 hours on the first night before having to get up and get some air. The other 4 nights I didn’t even try; I just slept on the deck. The trip across the open sea was only 36 hours and once we’d arrived the sea was calm, although I still slept on the deck. Nikki was ok sleeping below decks, as was the rest of the passengers and crew. However,…..

Arriving at the San Blas islands; a group of 315 islands off the north coast of Panama, we understood what the other travellers had been saying:







And Nikki's toes...

We had 3 days on the islands; one day for each of the 3 islands we visited. We even saw an even more desolate island:




Altogether, a magical experience. However, after washing in the sea for 5 days, and sleeping on the deck, we were rather looking forward to a good shower and proper bed. First, however, we had to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific. When we did this in reverse, from Antofogasta, Chile to Buenos Aires, it took about 3 days. This time, it was 2.5 hours.

The bed was awesome ! And a proper shower !

Our Apartment in Panama City


Panama. Of course, the first thing that comes to most peoples’ mind when you mention Panama is the Canal. I’ve mentioned in previous blogs that, prior to the first ship going through in 1914, you had to sail around Cape Horn if you wanted to get from Europe to the Pacific. This took a long time and was dangerous. When the Panama Canal became operational it had a massive effect on world trade.

It all started with this bloke, however, in 1513:

Vasco Nunez de Balboa – The first European to see the Pacific.

The importance of this potential crossing was recognised early on. It took a long time to come to fruition. Partly because the Spanish, Portuguese, British, Dutch, and French were all having a bun fight over the New World. Well, actually, to be more precise, over the gold the Spanish and Portuguese were stealing from the indigenous populations and transferring to Europe. The Brits, not wishing to open up a war with the Spanish and Portuguese directly came up with a cunning plan. They decided that they’d sort of back the Pirates and they became called “Privateers”. Ie Pirates that would try to extract the gold from the Spanish/ Portuguese.

One particularly enterprising Privateer was called Henry Morgan…

Sir Henry Morgan - Welsh Privateer

He ransacked Panama in 1671 and left it in ruins. But came away with a Kinghhood and the Governorship of Jamaica.

Panama City was rebuilt a few kilometres away and the original town was left in ruins for 250 years but now the original colonial architecture is in the process of being rebuilt and the city is beautiful. And the climate is a little less humid than Cartagena in Colombia.



Lots of people use the old city as a location for taking photos. Like this ballerina....


And here are some photos of our hotel:


Photos of our hotel in Panama


The Panama Canal

The building of the Panama Canal started in 1881. Ferdinand de Lesseps, the develop and builder of the hugely profitable Suez Canal succeeded in setting up, and getting investors to invest in, the (French) Compagnie du Canal de Panama. De Lesseps estimated the cost at US$400 million (a heck of a lot of money back then). The picture below shows the final set up of the Panama canal. However, the French originally thought that it could follow the pattern of the Suez canal and not have locks. This turned out to be a complete disaster from a technical viewpoint. The amount of earth that needed to be moved was colossal.


However, more of a problem was the Health and Safety problems. At AGL, the company I work for, the target for employee injuries is Zero. The actual measure of Lost Time is 1.8.

In the building of the Panama canal by the French, the mortality rate (the number of employees dying) was, in 1884, 200 per month ! The culprit ? This critter.

The Aedes Aegypti Mosquito.

The Aedes Aegypti mosquito carries Malaria and Yellow Fever. The death rate was not helped when, in order to try to stop ants crawling into the beds someone had the bright idea to put the bed legs into bowls of water. Which became stagnant. And bred mosquitos.

A staggering 22,000 people died during between 1881 and 1889 when after moving only 22 million metres cubed of earth, the company, having spent US$287 million, went bankrupt.


Did I hear the bugle of the American 7th Cavalry ? Yes. Whilst all the above was going on Panama was part of “Gran Colombia”, a conglomeration of Panama, Colombia, Venezuela, and Ecuador.

The Americans kind of wanted the canal and started discussions with Gran Colombia which were fruitless so the Americans decided to back Panamanian Independence in 1903. Well, sort of independent. The US would have rights to develop the canal and perpetual sovereignty over the canal and 8 km’s either side of it.

So, after buying the work and equipment that the French had put in for US$40 million, working on the yellow fever and malaria issues (sanitation, water quality, roads, sewerage), putting in US$335 million, in 1914, the steamhip Ancon made the first crossing of the Panama canal.


In 1977, Jimmy Carter agreed that the Panamanians would gain sovereignty over the canal at the end of 1999.

In Jun 2016, the first ship made it through the parallel path of the Panama Canal that was wider and deeper to all for bigger ships. Achieved and a cost of US$5 billion.

The annual income from the canal is now US$2 billion with a profit of about US$1.3 billion/ year.



Photos of the Panama Canal and the historical monument for the Canal


Manuel Noriega, Operation Nifty Package, the Vatican Embassy, and Rock as Psychological warfare

Manuel Noriega was the Panamanian dictator in Panama from 1983 to 1989. He was a bad man.


Then he stopped paying the USA the fees from the Panama Canal. So the US launched "Operation Nifty Package" to get rid of Noriega. (I'm not making this up !).

He ran away to the Apostolic Nunciature of the Holy See, also known as the Vatican Embassy to seek asylum.

The Americans resorted to using the ultimate psychological torture.


Yes. They played, at ear splitting volume, "Welcome to the Jungle" by Guns and Roses, "I Fought the Law" by the Clash, "Too Old to Rock 'n' Roll: Too Young to Die" by Jethro Tull.

After 10 days Noriega gave himself up and is now in a jail in Panama until 2031when he will be 97 years old...


Posted by capetocape2017 10:33 Archived in Colombia Tagged islands san sailing panama colombia blas Comments (0)

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