The Christmas holiday season in Colombia is legendary. It’s a strong Catholic country and celebrations are worlds apart from British ones. Family is at the centre of every holiday and Colombians travel home to spend time with their extended family and generally consume a lot of food and drink.
I and some fellow expat travellers joined the tradition of having the main meal on Christmas Eve by cooking an extremely British roast dinner. Meanwhile, in the rest of Medellin the main event was only just starting – fireworks. In Spanish they are called “juegos pirotécnicos” which directly translates as pyrotechnic games. An apt name. As well as setting off rockets in every barrio (neighbourhood) in the city, a favourite pastime of Colombian youth is to light small packets of gunpowder and throw them down the street. Games indeed.
By the time New Year’s Eve rolled around I’d made my way to Popayán, the original colonial capital which also goes by the names ‘ciudad blanca’ and ‘ciudad bonita’, meaning the white city and the beautiful city respectively. To make my way there I had to join the exodus of families travelling across the country to visit other members of their extended family for the New Year. It took me three days to make a two hundred mile journey. At home an experience like that would have burst several blood vessels, but I forced myself to make it an opportunity to see a few more cities I hadn’t planned on visiting. It worked, I became a laid-back Colombian for 72 hours.
Popayán is a relatively small city, but it has a lot going for it. The architecture is beautiful, there’s a church on nearly every corner and the entire centre of the city is painted pure white, with splashes of colour where protesting students have painted new graffiti or thrown bright paint at the walls. UNESCO declared Popayán a city of gastronomy in 2005 and it’s one of the best places in the country to get a ‘menu del día’. For 5000 pesos (around £1.20) this is essentially a three course meal. You get salad, soup and a main dish, which is typically the biggest of the Colombian day. I also discovered that the Restaurante Pizzeria Italiano does some of the best pizzas I’ve tasted outside of Italy.
I had hoped to see some of the pre-Colombian archeological sites, but no buses were running on New Year’s Eve. In the days leading up to the end of the year I had noticed that life-sized effigies, complete with clothes and hair, had been springing up in the roads. Some were dressed as policemen, others in suits representing politicians – they are built to mock the figures of the previous year. At midnight on New Year’s Eve some are filled with fireworks, others with gunpowder and they are set alight. I ended up dancing salsa until sunrise.
January 1st was another public holiday and the streets were empty and silent. The only place open was a café attached to a hostel called Caracol which, along with another hostel and Popayan Tours, is run by a Scottish couple. This is the only place in Colombia where I have found a proper cup of tea, made with proper milk. After breakfast and a nap my salsa partners and I climbed to the top of a nearby mirador (vantage point) and watched the first sunset of the year.
First published: 6 January 2019
The image of Colombia in the public mind has changed dramatically in the UK over the past 5 years. A picture of staggering mountain ranges, lush beaches and a culture rich with compassion has emerged from a country previously known solely for its contribution to the narco trade. I met several people who’d just left as I made my way through Panama and their faces lit up when I told them my next destination. If I thought the people were lovely in Panama, Colombians were sweeter; if I’d thought Costa Rica was beautiful, Colombia would blow me away.
By the time I boarded the plane I was buzzing with anticipation. Ten minutes into my journey after arriving at Cartagena the decision to go there was reinforced a hundred times over. Between landing and reaching my accommodation I had six friendly encounters with different people, including someone who rescued me from trying to pull open a door that most definitely pushed. My toddler-level Spanish was met with appreciation across the board, but I decided to sign onto a Spanish course in Medellin the following week.
Cartagena is a striking colonial city with thick stone walls and flower-draped doorways set against a bright blue sky. It’s narrow streets are the perfect location for intimate hotels and the old town is interspersed with clothing and swimwear boutiques, designed and made in Colombia. I’m on a tight schedule, which is a good thing as I could very easily settle there permanently.
There’s an abundance of cafes and bars in Getsemaní, where I stayed, but before leaving I grabbed my breakfast from Stepping Stones Café. This is another social enterprise I tracked down which places an emphasis on workers rights. The hospitality everywhere I’ve visited so far has been of the highest standard, Colombians are notoriously welcoming and friendly, but sometimes this comes at a price. Colombia has opened its borders to over a million Venezuelans who are fleeing the economic crisis in their own country. This echoes the hospitality Venezuela showed several decades ago, when they welcomed in Colombians fleeing civil war. The impacts of this have deflected into the tourist trade where hostels and restaurants can now employ workers for a quarter of the wage they paid previously.
My next stop is Minca, a tiny gateway to the mountains above the port town of Santa Marta. Several degrees cooler than the coast, you can hike up into the Sierra Nevada mountains from here. It’s an idyllic town in an idyllic setting but it was a no go zone for tourists until 2012. The majority of the points you can hike to have some kind of significance either to the indigenous people who still occupy territory higher in the mountains, or to the conflict. This is not information that you can find on the Internet, nor will the people of Minca volunteer the information as a healthy tourist trade is their primary source of income, far exceeding coffee exports. But it adds another dimension to the places you can visit; it’s a reminder that this opportunity has not been available for long.
My third stop in a hectic week is Medellin. Previously Pablo Escobar’s backyard, this city is now a sprawling metropolis where many digital nomads find their home for months on end. After a thirty second walk through El Poblado it’s easy to see why. Like all cities, there are still areas that are less than safe but this district has flourished into a haven for healthy eating and clean living, rife with brunch spots. I’m staying for a week, possibly two while I attend Spanish School, and I’m making it my mission to explore outside the brunch bubble.
In many ways, this layout is typical of tourism in general in Colombia. There tends to be a district or street designed specifically to attract backpackers and holiday makers, where the majority of hotels and hostels are located, many of which have only sprung up in the last few years. For many Colombians tourism is something very different to their recent history, the past is still too raw. But for most visitors rather than glossy cafés, it’s the Colombians themselves which makes the trip such a privilege. Looking beneath the surface in Colombia is no hardship, though. My hostel owner invites me to lunch specifically to practice my Spanish with her and I’ve discovered that people are happy to chat over a cup of coffee if you ask. For the most part, your best passport for travel in this country is a big smile and an open mind.
For tailor-made itineraries, escorted small-group tours and cruises which include Colombia, please see our dedicated Colombia Revealed website.
First Published: 10 December 2018
Panama City’s old neighbourhood, the Casco Viejo, is an organised maze of floral balconies and hidden doorways. It’s a breath of fresh air compared with the business district of the modern city which has a skyline reminiscent of Miami. There are restaurants perched on each corner of the old town and boutique coffee shops down every side street, it’s the perfect city break.
But the Casco Viejo you walk through today is built on a darker past. Until UNESCO declared it a World Heritage Site in 1997 it was a no-go area for visitors. It was dominated by drug cartels and known as one of the poorest neighbourhoods until the Panama City authorities displaced the resident families, moving them to another district and began to restore the facades. The lair of the final cartel was stormed by US troups, who killed it’s leader and several bystanders in the process.
Poverty rubs shoulders with prosperity in these narrow streets and at times it feels like you’re visiting somewhere completely fake. However, halfway down Calle 6 is a café juxtaposed between old and new.
Fonda La Sexta café is the latest initiative of the Calicanto Foundation, an organisation helping disadvantaged and vulnerable women, many of them single mothers who have been victims of domestic violence. Calicanto helps to improve their self esteem and provide them with opportunities for employment. Since 2005 they have run a course, the Capta Program, which starts out in a classroom and finishes with vocational experience in a hotel training school helping to prepare them for work in hotels. The Fonda La Sexta café adds a new dimension to the range of opportunities on offer.
Upon entering, I’m struck by how clean and modern the decor is. There’s art along one wall, created by interns in partnership with a local artist, and the chairs and floor are just begging to be posted on Instagram. The menu and kitchen are run by Panamanian chef Mario Castrellón, who is known throughout Latin America. He has put together a spread of original Panamanian recipes, some of which have vegan or vegetarian twists.
I’m meeting Stephanie who’s a member of the Calicanto Foundation. She sits me down and runs me through the history of the organisation and the food on offer. It’s the second day of December (although at 30°C it doesn’t feel like it) so she encourages me to try a traditional Christmas tamale: a parcel of corn flour, with tender pork and chicken wrapped in a leaf. This gives it the shape of a unique present and adds a tangy flavour. It’s the best thing I’ve had since arriving in Panama and will be one of the dishes I daydream about in desperate moments of hunger when no food is available. Next up is a cookie that looks like a cookie, but when I bite into it, the centre is all brownie. I’ve found the Holy Grail.
Fifty per cent of the profits from the cafe go back to Calicanto Foundation to help fund their work. As well as the Capta Program, Calicanto run other events as part of their mission to protect human heritage. This is everything from exploring community problems through digital marketing to human libraries. In Panama City they have taken one of the most vulnerable groups in society and channelled them into an Instagram worthy eatery, which is hands down the number one lunch spot in Casco Viejo. It’s worth a visit for the food alone.
The LATA Foundation has supported the Calicanto Foundation for a number of years and is helping to pay for course materials, supplies and transportation for the disadvantaged women who are participating in their Capta Program.
First Published: 3 December 2018
Visiting Central America even for as little as 8 days is ample time to visit more than a few places and there is no question that spreading your time across several places is worth the effort. Combining Costa Rica with Panama will give you several different cultural flavours in a short space of time; it’s a popular combo for everyone from backpackers to families to senior cycling tours.
Both countries are blessed with two coastlines: the Pacific and the Caribbean. You can cross the border on either coastline and also inland at Paso Canoas, Rio Sereno or Sixaola, but if you are hiring a car you’ll have to leave it behind and pick up a new one on the other side. If you’re on a relatively short trip or want to cut down on travel time then it’s easy to fly between the capitals which will take just a matter of hours.
There are a few must-see places. For a trip of 8 days, you’d have to sacrifice one of Costa Rica’s coastlines after flying into San Jose. The Pacific is a mecca for surfers and wildlife watchers, with tiny surf towns bordered by rainforest. On the other side you’ll find some of the best seafood around and unruffable Caribbean culture.
If you’ve got two or three weeks you’ll have time to visit both coasts and explore some of the interior. I recommend staying in La Fortuna, hiking in the foothills of the Arenal volcano with hot springs and waterfalls to explore as well. Cerro Chirripo in Costa Rica is the second tallest mountain in Central America, where you can see both coasts from the peak on a clear day.
“You have good energy,” my taxi driver tells me. “Keep it up, people want to share it.” I am on my way to the border with Panama heading for Bocas del Toro and the San Blas islands.
Bocas del Toro is a chain of islands off the northern coast surrounded by coral reefs. There are beaches of pristine white sand where you can snorkel with starfish immediately offshore. The main island, Colon, has everything you need including a pharmacy, several supermarkets and ATMs, but has earned itself a reputation as a party town. If that’s not your scene, there are beautiful hotels to the north of the island and on Solarte and Bastimentos, the two other main islands.
There’s one more archipelago that’s earned its stripes as one of the most beautiful in the world. Draped over the top of Panama’s northern coast are the San Blas islands, of which there are supposed to be 365, one for each day of the year. These are still governed by the indigenous Guna Kala people and their tourism industry reflects this. The San Blas islands couldn’t be more different from Bocas del Toro which are distinctly westernised. San Blas is immersive, there is no WiFi or phone signal and accommodation is much more rustic: backpackers can sleep in hammocks.
Travelling south, you are likely to end up in Panama City with a visit to the canal. Depending on the costs of flights and weather patterns, the route can be done in reverse. From Costa Rica you can head north into Nicaragua (NB. check Foreign Office travel advice) or fly up to El Savlador or Guatemala and explore other parts of Central America. From the San Blas islands there is a 4-day voyage by sea to reach Colombia and to explore South America from there. But that’s another story.
First Published: 26 November 2018
If you are travelling through Costa Rica as a backpacker on a tight budget and do not have the funds to hire a car, then bus, boat and plane are the best means of transport for longer journeys. Aeroplanes are quickest but can get expensive if you need several flights on your itinerary whereas buses are used by locals and travellers alike, with the occasional ferry thrown in. This is by no means a comprehensive guide to public transport, but it will set you on the right road.
The first thing to note is that there is no central bus company or booking website in Costa Rica. Instead numerous companies run their own routes to different areas, for example Transmonteverde run a direct route between San Jose and Monteverde, but if you want to visit Puerto Viejo you will have to take a MEPE bus. To travel from Monteverde to Puerto Viejo means two buses. To make connections more difficult, the bus companies operate out of different stations in San Jose, so be prepared for a 15-20 minute taxi journey or even an overnight stop in the capital. In smaller transport hubs such as Puntarenas connections are much easier. All buses leave from the same general area, so if you ask around you’ll be pointed in the right direction and have no more than a 5 minute walk.
Another word of warning is about timetables. Up-to-date timings don’t always exist on the internet and when they do, they will be on individual company websites, so you will have to work out the best times of day to travel yourself. Not all roads are in the best condition and it is highly advisable to finish your journey before dark. Of course, all bus companies reserve the right to change their departure times at the last minute, so cut down your stress levels by popping into the bus station the day before you leave and checking their timetables. Travelblogs containing timetables (such as CentroCoasting) might give you a general idea of times but if they were published a few months ago they could be entirely wrong. I had one lucky connection where my travel companion and I were running late to make the 2:00 pm ferry to Paquera, from where we had two more buses to reach Santa Teresa, our final destination. We missed it, pulled in at 2:54 and prepared to wait another few hours for the 5;00 pm or 8:30 pm ferry. Thankfully one of us ran over to check at the ticket office only to discover the next and final ferry of the day was leaving at 3:00 pm sharp.
The serious plus side to journeys like this is the cost. The ferry I nearly missed cost 810 Colones, today the equivalent of £1.03. A bus can cost anywhere between 1000 – 10000 Colones, depending on whether its a local bus or a long distance, air-conditioned super-vehicle. To get from the Pacific to the Caribbean in a day costs around £15; the same journey by air shuttle will set you back nearly £100. If you’re short or money and relatively long on time then this is a no-brainer.
Now to the journeys themselves. Different vehicles run the same route, so while someone you meet might have spent an entire journey with their head out the window trying to catch a breeze, you could just as easily end up shivering through hours of sub-arctic temperature air-conditioning having not packed a jumper. My advice is take a waterproof so if you are sitting under an icy blast you can make a windproof tent for yourself.
Longer journeys will have a short bathroom break midway through, which you should look out for as the buses don’t have toilets. Even the smallest bus stations have cafes, corner shops and bathrooms (which might set you back a few hundred Colones) and you should have time to go to the loo and make any purchases by the time you need to get back on board. Your main bags will be stowed underneath and reassuringly tagged with a ticket so you can identify it at the end of your journey. Keep any valuables in a small bag on your lap. If you leave it in the overhead rack, chances are it won’t be there by the time you disembark. Your passport and the majority of your cash are safest hidden in a money belt buckled around your waist, underneath your clothes.
Never be afraid to ask. Hostal and hotel staff, other travellers and locals are usually willing to help and just as others will help you, in turn you can share information and impart advice to fellow travellers all of which is altogether far more effective than asking Google.
There is a good network of tourist buses for travelling between key places in Costa Rica which Revealed Travel books for passengers in conjunction with hotels, excursions and activities for tailor-made itineraries. Revealed Travel also books local flights within Costa Rica for longer distances.
First published: 19 November 2018
This week I visited a wildlife rescue and rehabilitation project supported by the Latin America Travel Association’s charity, the LATA Foundation, near Manuel Antonio National Park called Kids Saving The Rainforest (KSTR). Founded in 1999 by two nine-year-old girls, KSTR now comprises three interns, five volunteers and four full-time employees including an on-site vet. They look after over a hundred injured and orphaned animals each year including two-toed and three-toed sloths, various types of monkeys, parrots and parakeets.
Costa Rica is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet. Wandering along Manuel Antonio beach it’s easy to believe that wildlife here is more accessible to visitors too, as several species of monkey are bold enough to beg for food or make off with one of your shoes. However, touching and feeding wildlife is highly illegal and the Costa Rican government imposes strict fines on tours that offer this. There is a huge knowledge gap around the dangers that tourism poses to local wildlife which KSTR are trying to address and you can see their influence all over Quepos and the local area.
Waiting for the bus I notice ropes strung up over the road between the power lines on each side. These ropes act as a bridge across the highways for spider monkeys, squirrels and iguanas. They are installed by the regional electricity company, who now donate a day of labour free of charge each month, to prevent endangered species from being hit by cars.
But the main way KSTR want to engage with tourists is by teaching them to keep their food under wraps at the beach or park – human food is one of the biggest threats to the local monkey population. More and more pregnant females are giving birth to stillborn babies as they steadily become malnourished. Animals born with birth defects are often picked up by locals and passed on to KSTR’s rescue sanctuary, which is open to the public six mornings a week.
They very kindly took me on one of their tours around their facility where injured or orphaned animals are rehabilitated. I was picked up from my hotel and greeted by Kerri, the volunteer manager who is in charge of the various volunteers and interns who keep the program running. She moved here from the USA with her 10 year old daughter, an aspiring veterinary nurse, who also helps the research interns with their work. I also meet Dr Jennifer Rice, the director whose daughter, Jeanine, was one of the original founders. Both of them are emotional as they explain how a LATA Foundation donation helped fund the facilities to rehabilitate and release back to the wild a pack of squirrel monkeys, all of whom had been individually rescued over a period of several years.
During the tour I am introduced to a variety of animals and taught how to behave in front of their enclosures with teeth covered, no eye contact and neutral body language in front of monkeys, for example, so you don’t appear to be a challenge. We stay a safe distance away from enclosures so as not to spread any human germs and Kerri explains the complexity of the human/primate relationships that can develop if spider monkeys have too much exposure to humans. Several hours later I witnessed a group of tourists, who left their food unattended on a beach within the national park itself, pointing and shrieking as a pack of squirrel monkeys raided their sandwiches.
What is striking about KSTR compared with other rescue centres is the quality of care and compassion given to the animals. One resident is an unfortunate sloth whose lower body was paralysed after being hit by a car several months ago. Instead of being euthanized, he’s being treated with operations, acupuncture and physical therapy and is starting to regain the use of his back legs. Some animals are still too poorly to meet the public, but there are several other miracle stories to meet, including two coatimundis who are completely blind and cannot be released back to the wild. KSTR provides them with sanctuary and they are lucky enough to have each other for company.
KSTR are currently raising funds for an inhalation anaesthesia machine for the hundreds of operations they perform each year. KSTR receive most of their funding from tours of their rehabilitation centre and internships, but you can also pay to volunteer for a day with their team. If a visit doesn’t fit with your schedule, their website has lots of resources for behaving respectfully around the local wildlife. To make the most of a visit to the area, I’d recommend visiting KSTR before going to Manuel Antonio National Park. Or run the risk of losing your lunch.
Tours to the Kids Saving the Rainforest wildlife sanctuary must be pre-booked. KSTR operates on Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, 9am-12pm. Costs are US$60 per adult/$45 per child (3-12 years). Children must be accompanied by adults.
Revealed Travel books tours to the KSTR wildlife sanctuary in conjunction with tailor-made holidays to Costa Rica for passengers.
First published: 12 November 2018
Manuela de Mendonça’s blog: https://run4thehills.com/
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