San Blas – Colombia to Panama the scenic route

San Blas, Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes

The San Blas Islands are a small archipelago that run from the Atlantic border of Colombia along the Darian coast of Panama. It’s a popular but not common destination due to its remoteness, and if you Google San Blas you’ll see why we chose the border crossing at sea rather than by air. Paradise islands, white sands, small Caribbean towns and local indigenous tribes. We will be camping on a deserted island one night and staying in a local Kuna tribe village the next.

San Blas

Once all the crew are together, and rain shower stops, we head just round the coast to an even smaller town called Sapzurro. Here we will spend the night, pack up the boat and meet our fellow travellers. Again, we get lucky with the group, a nice bunch of people, no idiots or small kids. There is a fairly miserable older Spanish couple who decide early on they are not going to help out with any of the cooking or packing and are quickly ignored for the rest of the trip, left alone to get on with their whining. The one surprise of our travels is that the people we get on with the least are not the 18 year old spoilt brats or the perpetually drunk party crowd but the slightly older travellers. Although they want to appear to be coping with the backpacker lifestyle, they continually moan about everything as if there might be a concierge lurking around the corner who might make it all better.  Some people are better suited to cruises, maybe that will be me in a few years and the grumpy old man is in me just waiting to surface – Leah might say that’s already happened.

Sapzurro is barely a town, at best it’s an attempt at a village. The Panama border is literally down a path and over a hill; we’ve heard reports of a stunning beach only a 20 minute walk away so we decide to check it out. To get to La Miel beach (officially in Panama) you first head to the back of the town and then walk up a muddy hill to a passport control at the top. Passport control is a generous description, it’s a couple of young soldiers with guns who write your name in a book and wish you on your way. We meet a couple from Cuba there who came into Panama without either a Colombian or Panamanian visa and were being held in no-man’s land indefinitely. They have been there all day and we later discover all night. We felt bad for not engaging with them, but it’s was not our fight and we certainly didn’t want to get involved.  It probably ended with a couple of nights in a holding cell and a flight home; I’m not sure what they expected as they came with no visas, what a pair of muppets.

La Miel beach, if discovered, would almost certainly sit in any top 10 beaches list.  We’ve read many of these lists on the internet and actually been to  lots of them, but few compare. We arrive late around 4pm with the sun still hot and the beach empty. Think powder white sand, water as clear as Evian and warm too. We waste two hours and remind ourselves how lucky we are.

La Miel - Panama

The next morning we are off.  Our boat is a small launcher. Two motors, a dodgy GPS (that I suspect is not actually working) and 13 passengers, heading off into the middle of nowhere. The first day’s itinerary was a stop for a rest and swim on a small island before another two hours at sea finding our island for the night.

The Darien Gapster - Our boat

En route we pass a place called ‘Scottish Point’ the scene of an attempted invasion by Scotland! No kidding! The invading armada landed here with the intention of taking the coast as their own but most died of Malaria before they got inland. A second invading force was sent, but they too all died of Malaria. They gave up, an amusing attempt at a Celtic empire.

After a small rain shower the sun breaks and we drop anchor off a small island, it’s beautiful and looks like a location from a Survivor episode. There are a couple of Kuna locals on the island who tend the coconuts (it’s virtually their currency) and they sell us a bunch as we settle in with a campfire, tents on the sand and more than a few Coco Locos (coconut water and rum drank straight from the coconut), falling asleep on the beach. If you’re reading this whilst sitting at work, sorry.

Setting up camp on the island

The next day we head out again and have lunch on another tiny island. Again, if you’re reading this at work, look away now.

San Blas - worth the trip

That afternoon we land at our home for the night, another island inhabited by the local Kuna, a fiercely independent tribe who have fought to keep the San Blas theirs. We are far from the orchestrated tourist ‘villages’ of Lake Titicaca. This is the real deal. The island is obviously poor; families live together in a one room hut and the local ‘shops’ are bare. But everybody seems happier that most you see on a morning commute in London. We have dinner cooked by the captain in the backyard of one of the families, known by the crew. Toilets are a hut on stilts over the sea, amusingly proper porcelain surrounded by planks of wood; it empties straight over the fishes.

Local toilets

After the meal we’re invited into the hut of the family and also meet the current village chief. Everybody’s a little shocked by the living conditions, around four kids, and another four family members all in one room in hammocks or a mattress if lucky. No wardrobes, so all clothes are hung from the ceiling and a central fire/cooker means the air is smoky. Slightly humbling, and although a tad voyeuristic it was a genuine invitation to meet and so was an incredible insight into these people’s lives. Leah found a new friend in the backyard.

Leah with breakfast

The next day it rained hard, our short boat ride to the mainland was uneventfully but the walk from the boat to our onward transport left us drenched. Slightly shell shocked from the past few days’ experience (it just didn’t seem real), we get into shared taxis for the rollercoaster ride to Panama City.

Capurgana – a little slice of the Caribbean

It’s not possible to travel overland from South America to Central America, partly because there are no roads, and partly because the area on the border between Panama and Colombia is full of guerrillas. In order to get to Panama you have to either fly or take a boat.

There are plenty of yachts that take people directly from Cartagena to Panama via the San Blas islands, but we’ve heard a lot of horror stories of snapped masts, cramped ships, broken toilets, lack of food, drunken captains and generally people getting ripped off. Plus, it involves two days at open sea and at this time of year the weather can get pretty rough.

So we’ve decided to take a different option. A guy at Merazonia told us of a company called The Darien Gapster which still goes via the San Blas islands but instead departs from Sapzurro, right on the border with Panama, meaning far less time at sea. It costs less too, bonus. So after booking our place on the boat, we set off for Sapzurro, with the idea of spending a few days on the beach in nearby Capurgana before meeting up with the rest of the crew.

The dock at sunset

It’s a day’s bus ride to Turbo from Cartagena, from where you have to catch a boat to Capurgana. The boat only goes once a day, in the morning, so we have to spend the night in Turbo. There’s not really any other reason to come here and it’s a bit of a dump but after a restless night’s sleep on the hardest bed in history we’re up and away.

It’s a two and a half hour journey to Capurgana and a pretty bumpy one at that, but not nearly as bad as the Lonely Planet makes out. And it’s definitely worth it. Capurgana is a sleepy little Caribbean hideaway with unspoilt beaches and because it’s not that easy to reach it still feels pretty untouched by the tourist trail. As we get off the boat we spy the perfect spot, with hammocks on a balcony looking right out onto the seafront. I leave Rich to struggle with the bags as I run to grab us a room, as well as one for the English couple we met on the bus.

View from our balcony

The town is little more than a few dusty streets and electricity is provided by a generator which runs from 8am until 2am (most days anyway). The hostel doesn’t even have internet, although we still have our trusty Kindles for that, and we spend the next couple of days enjoying the peace and quiet and making full use of our hammocks.

The centre of town

We venture to a nearby waterfall, a pleasant hour long stroll through the jungle, but to be honest it’s a little disappointing. Still, the walk itself is nice enough. If you’re feeling adventurous there are various beaches nearby to visit, you can rent horses or go on snorkelling or fishing trips, but we decide to just chill instead.

A walk through the jungle

We hang out with the English couple and go for a nice meal with them to the famous Josephina’s, supposedly the best place in Capurgana to eat seafood. Unfortunately, the prawns don’t agree with me and I spend the rest of the night with my head stuck down the toilet. The walls in the hostel are paper thin so apologies to the couple next door who must have thoroughly enjoyed hearing me puke my guts up all night long!!

A local taxi

After three days of complete and utter laziness, the rest of the Darien Gapster crew arrive from Turbo and we enjoy a nice lunch with them at our hostel before getting our exit stamps at immigration and heading further down the coast to Sapzurro, the last stop before Panama. From here it’s a three day trip to Panama City via uninhabited islands and crystal clear blue waters.

A horse eating from a rubbish bin

Cartagena – colonial city with a Caribbean twist

Despite having seen about a million colonial towns by now, we’ve heard that Cartagena is one of the more impressive and all reports have been that it’s well worth a visit. Jumping off the minibus from Taganga, we immediately see why – yes, it may well be a colonial town but there’s a definite Caribbean influence here that marks it apart from other South American cities. The multi-coloured houses are charmingly ramshackle, and residents sit out on the pavements, listening to music and watching the world go by. The sun is shining and for a city, the atmosphere is surprisingly chilled.

One of the many beautiful buildings

We’re staying in the Getsemani area of town, a popular spot with backpackers which is not quite as glamorous as the Old Town but far less western, more authentic and much better value for money. Think more white washed colonial rather than Holiday Inn. There are plenty of reasonably priced restaurants and bars in the area too, so all round, a pretty good location. As soon as we arrive, we stop off for a pizza near the hostel, bag a great balcony seat and sit watching the locals go about their day below as we fill our empty stomachs.

The streets of Getsemani

Later that evening and we decide to explore the local area more. We stumble across Trinidad Square, and bag a table at one of the surrounding cafes for a beer and some more people watching. There are kids playing football, a guy juggling, vendors selling hotdogs and burgers and people playing cards and chess. Everyone is just hanging out, enjoying the warm evening and having fun. It’s a great little scene and we while away a couple of hours soaking it all up.

Entrance to the Old Town

The next day and it’s off to the walled Old Town to be tourists. There are a few museums and churches that you can visit, but we content ourselves with a wander, taking in the beautiful buildings and peaceful plazas, before heading up onto the ramparts.

Up on the ramparts

From here, you can see the sea, and beyond, the modern side of the city, and we’re told that there’s a spectacular sunset too from the bar up there, Cafe del Mar. We decide to come back later to see for ourselves – the drinks are expensive but it’s worth it.

Richard at Cafe Del Mar
Sunset from Cafe Del Mar

Later that evening and it’s back to Trinidad Square for a couple of amazing hotdogs before heading out to a few bars in Getsemani for some cocktails – it’s not that cheap but then this is probably the most touristy place in Colombia.

More colourful houses

The following morning and we set off to explore Castillo de San Felipe, one of the largest forts which were built outside the city walls to protect Cartagena from pirates. Richard is particularly excited because it featured in the final scenes of the film Romancing the Stone (which he made me watch the night before), although he wonders where all the crocodiles have gone.

Castillo de San Felipe

We treat ourselves to a nice bottle of wine and some cheese that evening in the Old Town. The wine is very reasonably priced but the waiter tells us there is a 4,000 peso (about £1.50) corkage charge. Fair enough. When we get the bill, we see the charge is actually 40,000 pesos (£15) – more than the bottle of wine!! After pointing out to the waiter that he told us the wrong price he kindly took it off the bill – thank god! We felt a bit sorry for the guy as it would probably come out his wages so at least left a healthy tip.

One of the squares in the Old Town

Our final day in Cartagena was fairly uneventful, we were essentially killing time before heading to Capurgana. Unfortunately, we did have another Brazil nut incident. This time the culprit was a fish masala (which Rich informed me was absolutely delicious after eating it) – one mouthful and I knew. The poor woman in the restaurant was so apologetic – it was the first time she’d ever used them in the recipe – just my luck! Not the greatest end to our Cartagena experience but we had a great few days and highly recommend it. It certainly didn’t disappoint us, even after a year of South American colonial towns. Definitely one place not to be missed.

In the Old Town

Tayrona – caribbean sea and storms

Our rough schedule gives us about six weeks on the beach out of 12.

Leaving Bogota, wet from weather and wounded from overnight bus travel, we both realised that this was the end of another stage of our travels.  Our short flight to the Caribbean coast would be the beginning of our planned holiday to end the holiday – I will explain. We have had an incredible time in South America, seen and been part of some incredible experiences, but there is a limit to how many colonial towns you can visit, how many mountain treks you can endure and waterfalls just fail to impress after Iguassu. For the last three months we have planned a relaxing slice of beaches/islands with only a dash of excitement thrown in every now and again.

Our rough schedule gives us about six weeks on the beach out of 12. Starting in Tayrona national park in Colombia we will head up to Cartagena before venturing overland to the Panama border, a short three day tour of the San Blas islands will leave us in Panama. From here we have just three weeks to hot foot it through Panama and Costa Rica and into Nicaragua. We are going to have a nice quiet Christmas on Little Corn Island and New Year in the Bay Islands, Honduras. From there it will be a sun soaked shuffle up through Belize and the cayes to Mexico then home.  About three months left, two and a half in Central America, only two weeks short of our original plans.

First sight of the Caribbean coast

We land in Santa Marta, some guide books will tell you this is a charming beach town, those days have sadly long gone and it is now a bit of a pit. We catch a short taxi to the nearby fishing village Taganga. This tiny town is still visibly shell shocked from the recent influx of Lonely Planet-clutching gringos. Infrastructure is a mix of original local wooden housing with hastily built shops, restaurants and hostels in delightfully unpainted concrete. Still, there is an incredible sense of slow here.  Maybe this is the infamous relaxed Caribbean attitude we have been looking forward to, maybe it’s just the fierce heat. Although we landed shortly after a storm that left streets flooded, the next morning at 9am it’s scorching.

There are three reasons to come to Taganga, we are ignoring two of them. First, this is the cheapest place on the planet to learn to scuba dive and get PADI certified, secondly, this is the starting point for trips to the Lost City. We original had this on our list of ‘to-dos’ but meeting others travelling it seems a bit pointless after the Inca trail, so we decide to pocket the hefty fees and spend it on cocktails later on the beaches.  This leaves Tayrona national park, promising paradise beaches and warm pacific waters; well worth the effort for those with a sense of adventure.

We catch a local minibus to the park entrance, stock up with a few snacks and just a few bits in our day bags. Our destination is Cabo San Juan, about a two hour hike on foot from the park entrance. It’s a sweaty walk through jungle and along beaches, I couldn’t help myself at one point and dive into swimming trunks and then in to the sea.  We were both drenched with sweat. Mid-afternoon we arrive at a small campsite. It’s basic and accommodation is simple: your tent, our tent or a hammock. We opt for a hammock in a small hut perched on top of the rocks just out from the beach. The view is incredible and the beach is stunning but unfortunately food options are limited. There is a restaurant here but the food is awful, we were warned though and many people told us to bring our own food, but we didn’t.

Things didn’t go so well.  Relaxing in our hammock a small storm whipped up. This ‘small storm’ rapidly became one hell of a storm and sitting in the exposed huts was a surreal experience, horizontal rain flooded the floors, soaking everybody’s bags. We stayed up there , at times cowering behind a small wall until we decided we had to get out. Usually getting to the hammocks meant navigating a small stream between the sand banks and the island. After just an hour of torrential rain this stream was now a raging torrent. Stepping into it was like being hit by a bus, gingerly we made our way across the river – four of us in total hand in hand. If one of us had lost our footing or lost grip with each other we would have be swept out to sea in seconds.  Later, when the rain subsided we attempted to go back but even the locals said it was impossible to reach so we abandoned our stuff and bagged another couple of hammocks on dry land. I was soaked through and although Leah had a change of clothes I didn’t so it was an uncomfortable night!

Our Hammock hut (not storm proof)

The next morning the skies were clear and by 9:30am we were swimming in the clear waters. The beaches here are stunning, much nicer than the one you pass en route. We met many travellers who never made the extra trip, which is a shame because it was worth it.

Deserted beaches

We spent two nights in total here, exploring the nearby deserted beaches and just enjoying the nice weather.  A bus was waiting for us at the end of another sweaty two hour hike back and we spent another day in Taganga. It’s a nice little town; there is a great tea-shop serving the best tea we have had in months. There was also a vintage 80’s Spurs scarf over the door, perfect.


Bogota – student protests in the capital

We arrived in Bogota after an overnight bus journey from Popayan, on which we had been pulled off the bus by two stern looking policemen with rather large guns, asking where our visas were. After politely explaining that we were English and therefore didn’t require visas, they let us back on the bus with a smile and a handshake and we were back on our merry way.

Pulling into the bus station at 9am, we joined the long line of people waiting for taxis. There were hundreds of cabs, but unfortunately the system of asking each passenger where they were going and presenting them with a cost and receipt before getting in the car made things achingly slow and it was a good half an hour before we actually set off for our hostel in Candelaria.

Cute houses in La Candelaria

We’d struggled to find a hostel with half decent reviews and private rooms but had opted for the AlterEgo. Whilst there was nothing wrong with it, there were only a few guests staying there and the atmosphere was somewhat lacking to say the least. We did consider moving to one of the livelier hostels nearby but unfortunately Rich got ill so we decided to stay put in the end.  Still, it was centrally located, cheap, and we had a private bathroom, so I’m not complaining too much.

Student protest banners

On the day we arrived, there were student protests going on, pretty much the same kind of issues as in the UK as far as we could work out. The mood was fairly friendly from what we could tell, but the riot police were out in force and we witnessed the aftermath the next morning when we visited the central square. All the government buildings had been paint bombed, and the walls were littered with graffiti. The statue of Simon Bolivar had been defaced, and a paintbrush strapped to his hand. In the centre of the square hung dozens of protest banners. Apparently the students had been planning to camp out for the night but a rainstorm had quashed those ideas.

Simon Bolivar, complete with paintbrush in hand

We spent the rest of the day exploring the Candelaria area and a few of its museums, including the military museum and the Botero museum, which has a large collection of paintings and sculptures from the artist, who likes to paint everything and everyone fat, including the Mona Lisa, as well as a pretty decent collection of mainly modern art, including works by Picasso, Monet, Dali and Degas. Afterwards, we decided to sample some local cuisine and shared a bean casserole and an ajiaco, a potato soup with corn, chicken, capers, avocado and sour cream.

That evening, we headed first to a bar in Candelaria, Yumi Yumi, for a couple of delicious cocktails, then caught a cab up the Zona Rosa for a few more drinks. We were supposed to meet a friend of a friend but unfortunately the bar was so packed it impossible to find him, especially as we had never met before and so didn’t really know what he looked like! It wasn’t a late one, as we had booked ourselves onto a trip to Andres Carne de Res, a restaurant -bar-nightclub that we had read about in the guidebook which sounded like a lot of fun. We were really looking forward to a big night in a big city so we didn’t want to be hung over.

The streets of Bogota

The next day and Richard woke up in a bit of a state. He spent most of the morning throwing up and the rest of the day in bed and by evening he was still feeling rough so we decided to cancel our night out. We were both disappointed but as it was an organised night out there would be no chance of us coming home early if Rich felt ill, plus it wasn’t cheap so we didn’t want to waste our money if we weren’t both going to fully enjoy it. It’s a shame we didn’t get to fully sample Bogota’s nightlife as we’ve heard it’s great fun but what can you do?

The main plaza in La Candelaria

The following afternoon and it was off to the airport for a short flight to Santa Marta, to hit the beaches in Taganga and Tayrona National Park. We’d had an enjoyable, if a little quiet couple of days in Bogota. It’s certainly not as raw as I had expected – it’s definitely not as grey or edgy as Sao Paulo for instance – but for a capital city there’s surprisingly little to do there. We pretty much saw everything we wanted to see in a day, and apart from nightlife, the city doesn’t have much to keep you entertained. Still, we had fun and now it was off to the coast for some much awaited sun. At last.