Mamitupu is Magic

Written by Jon:

Not all the visitors to the Guna Yala aka San Blas visit the easternmost islands and communities, but we were eager to see the very traditional villages and even though it meant a day of motoring at the end of our passage from Colombia. We normally sail when we can so this was an unusual decision and we are happy we did as we feel we were much rewarded for coming this way.

One of our favourite stops was Mamitupu because it has a lovely community feeling which we felt a part of, and because we learned a lot about the culture of the Guna. Lots of little experiences made this island our favourite.

Our selection of simple moments included, spending a short while sitting with some of the old men in the village, eating freshly deep fried donuts outside a hut under a palm tree, talking with two young missionaries from America about their work in the local community and hanging off the back of the boat talking to a local guy and his kid about hunting for lobsters and what to do with your kids on school holidays.

Another magic moment was when we stumbled upon four Guna men carving and painting canoes, the Guna call them “ulu”. There will be a few people in each community who spend their time making these pieces of transport, beautiful enough to be art. Of the four men working, the elder guy was clearly in charge and overseeing the work of the younger guys in their early twenties. We had a chat with the man in charge and he told us a little about his work.  He said it is based on interest and others in the community prefer to fish or grow things, or in the case of many in the younger generation move to the city. But he was happy to be teaching these three young guys his skills. Luckily for us, he was happy to tell us about creating ulu and over the next few days we learned about this art.

First they need to find the right sort of tree; nothing suitable grows on the islands being mostly palm trees, instead they have sites up river where they know the correct kind of trees grow. They find one of suitable size, which is very big for even the smallest canoe and fell it with axes. On site they dig a bit more out with their axes and machetes mostly to make them easier to move.

Next they bring it back to the village where they strip all the bark and do the finer carving, making both the outside and inside fairly smooth, again using nothing more than axes and machete. The man in charge was telling us that there is often wood worm and showed where they were leaving behind traces, but they treat the boats with paint which stops it. In the old days they would use extract from fruits to paint, but modern times require modern methods in some areas. They paint the whole boat inside and out and they often leave a strip at the top and paint it another colour. Many have additional plank seats resting inside to sit drier. Also, in some ulu the plank fitted in the centre of the boat can have a hole into which to fit a mast for sailing.

These canoes are made from a singe tree, hollowed out and we spotted a few of them on land where they park their boats, that were at least 5 meters long. That must be some tree! Some of the bigger ones have an outboard engine on them and have planks at the top to make them deeper and more seaworthy. He told us that they take a month or two to make and last between 12 and 15 years doing daily work. They haul them out rather than leave them in the water so they last longer. Most of these guys paddle everywhere, setting off before sunrise to start their work on the mainland, substance farming, foraging, fishing etc. and return at midday for lunch.

We are not up early enough to see them depart but watch them return early afternoon. One afternoon we bought some mangoes from a dad in one boat and two teenaged sons in a second boat. Most afternoons someone would stop by and chat on their way home. We learned that each family has at least one ulu and they depend on it for their daily chores. They don’t push their goods onto us, unlike in the Caribbean islands, and seem happy just to hang off the back and chat, with a genuine interest in where we are from and where we going next.

We had read about a local named Pablo who had lived abroad and returned to Mamitupu and has some unique business ideas and is happy to practice his English with visitors. We met him one afternoon and talked about his business cold pressing coconut oil by hand and the work involved in the process. It seems like you need 200 coconuts and 20 hours to make about 6 gallons of oil and takes a lot of hard work. He is a bit of a celebrity in the area and it was no problem finding someone to help us find him. And he was also able to shed some light on a topic we had lots of questions about, one that broke our hearts a little bit: we talked about the trash problem on the islands. 

 

Pablo had just come from a council meeting with the elders, and he was frustrated as they simply wouldn’t listen to him about the need to clear the islands of the plastic trash which is everywhere. It is pilled up in the streets and covers the beaches. It washes up on the shores, both windward and leeward; it is everywhere and the locals seem to just not see it. These islands would delight the photographers of National Geographic and Conde Naste and they seems blasé about the trash, it is heart wrenching! Pablo told me that he remembers his mother and grandmother clearing the islands and starting everyday clearing the street outside their hut and occasionally joining forces with neighbours to clean the shoreline, too. But now when they clear the beaches one day, the next day they are covered again, because it just keep on coming from the sea and it seems impossible to fight it. The Guna Yala islands have a very rough deal, being at the end of the Gulf Stream coming down from Europe and across from Africa. It gets pushed into the Caribbean sea, collecting more trash from the islands and from Colombia before ending up on the shores of Panama and the islands of Guna Yala. Some of it will continue the Gulf Stream north up and past Florida back into the northern atlantic, but most dies with the winds here. Looking at sorts of trash we found on the windward beaches, it wasn’t local trash – these people without electricity are unlikely to buy fabric softener. But once you live in trash then you stop caring about if you make more or not, so we saw locals just dropped plastic food wrapper in the streets and among the palm trees. They have a huge problem with trash and the solution is not obvious. Maybe the booming tourism business will force the locals to clean up the islands, but I suspect without the support of the Panama government it will just be dumped out of sight in some of the most pristine and virgin rainforest in the world, the Darien, which is the mainland behind these islands. At the moment there is no organised trash collection in the area and collecting it will do little good without a means to dispose of it sensibly.

We hope to return to this magical place someday and see lots more ulu and lots less trash.

The Real Guna Yala

Eastern Guna Yala

It is said that the only island in the Caribbean that Columbus would recognise is Dominica. This could well be true, but I’m fairly sure he or more likely the Spanish explorer Vasco Núñez de Balboa would recognise the majority of the eastern San Blas (Guna Yala) without difficulty.

The Guna Yala (San Blas as it was known by the Spanish explorers) is a group of around 350 islands, mostly uninhabited, along the Caribbean coast of Panama towards Colombia.

The history of these islands, and their people the Guna, is an unfortunate one. To paraphrase the words of the local people ‘we don’t pan for gold in these rivers, as whenever we find something people want, they come and take it from us’. The Guna people were originally from the mountains of Panama and it is said they lived a quiet harmonious existence, but when the conquistadors arrived they fled to the islands and the relative safety they offered. Their population is now a mere ten percent of what it was 500 years ago, only around 70,000 remain and the population is slowly declining.

After Panama separated from Colombia the Guna traditions were under attack from the Panama government, which lead to a revolution from the islanders. In the 1920’s they were given semi autonomy from the Panama government and over the years the separation and autonomy has increased.  There is much to read and learn about these people and their way of life which is very interesting, wikipedia is worth a browse to those who are interested.

But back to our adventures…

We arrived into the eastern most port, Obaldia around 10am and cleared into customs and immigration without difficulty, but oh so slowly. Due to technical difficulties and incredible amount of bureaucracy we didn’t to leave Obaldia until around 4pm. The anchorage is safe in settled weather but uncomfortable due to the swell rolling in from the Caribbean, so we quickly motored onto Puerto Perme. Navigation is tricky in this part of the world as it was never properly surveyed, so no good quality official charts exist for the area. Instead we rely on the Panama Cruising Guide by Eric Bauhaus whose charts are vital for cruising this area safely.

Puerto Perme isn’t really a port at all, it’s just a small bay surrounded by palm trees near a local village. We spend a couple of days here, relaxing after our bumpy passage down from Colombia. After spending so much time in marinas and busy anchorages in the last few months this was a breath of fresh air. The protected little bay we were in was almost perfect, with still calm waters and only the sounds of birds and other wildlife around us and the occasional shout from children playing on the scrub land outside the nearby village to remind us we weren’t completely alone. I think we would have stayed for longer if it weren’t for the no-see-ums which hovered around the boat, ignored the mosquito nets and enjoyed feeding on us day and night. So New Years Eve came and went without much to-do in these unusual surroundings. We watched a movie and jumped off the sofa into 2018.

Before leaving we popped ashore to meet the locals and take a walk through the village. The Guna were friendly and welcoming and speaking Spanish is a great help! Their kids are super cute, waving and giggling at us from a nervous distance, with the occasional shout of ‘Hola!’. Their houses are almost exclusively built using traditional methods, branches for walls, palm fronds tied with vines for thick roofs. The only deviation from these traditional methods is the occasional use of yellow nylon twine instead of jungle vines, but the technique is identical. Amazingly these roofs are water tight in even the most tropical downpour and last for about 10-15 years before they need to be replaced. Far longer, better and quieter than the noisy corrugated tin roofs of modern methods. We chatted with a fisherman and helped him launch his boat and group of ladies out with their kids stopped to ask where we are from and they were itching to touch Teo’s blonde hair.

We left Puerto Perme and headed up the coast towards Saledup, a little island about 3 hours motor westward, but unfortunately arrived a little too late in the day so we didn’t have the sun overhead which is highly recommend in this part of the world to more easily see the reefs and sand banks. In addition the chart we had for this particular bay was noted as not being very accurate and after one failed attempt to navigate the entrance to the bay where we wanted to anchor, we decided to go with Plan B. We came very close to running aground on a sand bank on our approach to Saledup, the depth sounder showed around 20cm (8 inches) between the bottom of the boat and the bottom. Given that is was just sand and gently shallowing rather than reef or rock this in itself isn’t dangerous and Itchy Foot can quite comfortably deal with much worse without damage. The problem in this part of the world is that there is almost no-one around to help you if you get stuck. There is no tide to play with, which means you can’t just count on a rising water level to get you free and with so few cruisers around to lend a hand you have to be self sufficient. So we didn’t want to push a bad situation and went with plan B and headed towards Puerto Escoses.

The approach to Puerto Escoses is simple enough and we anchored without trouble and settled down for a quiet night onboard Itchy Foot. The next morning we woke to enjoy the sights and sounds of this rainforest bay. The sounds of the jungle drifted across the water, parrots, frogs and what sounded like wild boars (but we’re not sure! – note – we’ve since discovered they were howler monkeys) We spent the day enjoying the simple pleasures of fishing with Teo off the back of Itchy Foot and exploring the bay in the dinghy. We went ashore to try to find any signs of the 500 year old Fort Saint Andrews but without luck and the only signs of civilisation were some abandoned huts.

Since then I’ve done more research on this abandoned fort and wish we’d spent more time hunting for signs of it in the jungle. It is a truly fascinating tale of international politics, betrayal, lies, vast sums of money and was pivotal in the formation of the United Kingdom and union between Scotland and England. I’d recommend anyone to read about it by searching Wikipedia for ‘Darien scheme’. The short version is that at the end of the 1600’s Scotland was feeling poor and wanted to become an international trading company. They managed to raise over 20% of all the money in Scotland as capital for a huge project and decided to build a trading route in Panama between the Atlantic and the Pacific (like the canal but without a canal). So they took 2000 men to build a fort on  the Atlantic side of Panama. It was a complete disaster and most died from lack of food and disease, but to keep morale up back home they sent back positive letters of their success. So the Scots got a few more ships and another 2000 men and sent them down to help. They found the camp abandoned and full of shallow graves. They too tried and failed to build a fort and village. But again, before they could warn Scotland that all was not well another 2000 men were sent from Scotland. They too found the place almost empty, but they continued work on this fort and fearing an attack from the Spanish they decided to mount a daring and successful attack on a Spanish fort nearby. Unfortunately this just enraged the Spanish fleet who promptly showed up and laid siege to Fort Saint Andrews demanding their surrender. Which, after a time they did, allowing the few remaining Scots to leave with their boats and cannons. They tried to seek refuge in Jamaica but the English at the time, not wanting to upset the Spanish, told them to sling their hook. Those who tried to return to Scotland were shunned as failures and most of the survivors settled in New York, which at the time was little more than a village. After all this Scotland was broke and came to the conclusion that the best route to international fortune was to join forces with the English and form a union. And the rest, as they say, is history.

The next morning, after waking to the sound of howler monkeys, we left at about 10am (when the light improved) and headed up to our next anchorage of Isla de Pinos. Once again our expensive Navionics charts were completely off the mark, putting us clearly on the beach and a good 200m in the wrong direction. This uneventful little island was nice enough, and much of our time there was mixed between torrential rain and beautiful rainbows. In the late afternoon the light was amazing, almost perfectly monochromatic so other than taking a few photos we had a relaxing day. We left the next day once the light improved and headed westward along the coast to Ustupu.

Ustupu is the ‘main island’ in the eastern Guna Yala. It has a school, high school and even a few courses for a university. The town has a population of about 2000 people, with a health clinic and an airport. But despite all that, the majority of the population live in traditional huts made from sticks and palm roofs. We arrived in the afternoon and after ashore in the dinghy took a walk around the town. Kids were playing football in the streets, basket ball with a couple of Mormon missionaries and often came running up to say hello and even a couple tried out some broken english. In our hunt to find bread we met a lovely guy who is a teacher at the local school, and his sister bakes and sells bread out of their house. We sat and chatted with him for a while and found out more about the village and community in Ustupu. While it is not obligatory, the majority of children attend formal education in Guna Yala from the age 5 until about 12, when some of those who live on  more remote islands would stop. But those who want can continue their education into high school and even university without leaving the islands. Most who want to go to university however and up going to panama city to study. The kids take a long ‘summer’ holiday in the dry season (January to March) and then seeming spend a lot of time playing around the village or heading to work with their dads on the canoe, picking coconuts or fishing.

Before heading back to Itchy Foot for the evening (they prefer visitors leave before dark) we found a group of young kids flying kites on the windward side of the island. Between 4 and 14 years old they were building kites out of cheap plastic shopping bags, the ones that are so light they rip the first time you use them. The wooden cross bars are made from little strips of wood from the roofs or their houses. The tails are made from more plastic bags in strips. And finally the string for flying them is nylon sowing thread stolen from Grandma’s Mola making kit. The whole thing makes a kit which is surprisingly strong and very very light, which means they manage to fly them amazingly high. One kite was so high it took me about a minute to ‘spot’ it in the sky. According to the elder kids the record is 2000m (over a mile) high, which they achieved by tying more and more nylon thread spools together. It sounds incredible but given the dedication and ingenuity of these kids I’m prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt.

The eastern Guna Yala is possibly my favourite destination so far on our little adventure, with beautiful places, warm people, incredibly interesting local culture and very limited tourism, it left us feeling that we experienced something magical, something that quite likely won’t exist in it’s current form in another 20 years. We are feeling very fortunate.

Amazonas Grandes

Written by Mia:

“Feliz Navidad!” is what we said when we got to the Amazonas, the district of Colombia through which the mighty river flows. We were tempted by the crew of Kattami who showed us pictures and gave us recommendations of a great place to stay with wild monkeys and parrots. The flights were expensive and we sat in our cockpit and debated. Santa Marta is not far away and we thought it would be crazy to miss the opportunity. Plus, my brother Mark reminded me that our Grandpa travelled to the Amazon as a senior and he would want me to see it, so we booked tickets as our Christmas gift to ourselves.

We flew from Santa Marta to Bogata and from there to Leticia. We arrived just in time to slather on the bug spray and dash to the town park for the massive return of thousands of green parrots. They come to roost in the park every night and seem to have a LOT to discuss as it was very loud! We ascended the church tower to watch the sun set over the Amazon, it was unforgettable! The Amazon is 6937 km long, passes through eight countries and is the the home to 3000 species of animal. It starts in Peru and ends in the Atlantic Ocean where the estuary is 330 km wide. It moves more water than the next eight rivers combined and the indigenous people who live there number 20 million. It accounts for 25% of the fresh water in the world. This is a truly awe inspiring place.

We were eager to get up the river and the next morning Jon got up early to see if we could get spaces on the “bus” up the river. The bus is really a boat, of course and the only spaces were on the first one which gave us less than an hour to rent wellies, get more cash out, grab breakfast and dash to the ferry. We made it, hooray and we’re speeding 85km up the Amazon to the cute village of Puerto Narino. The two hour journey was amazing to us as you see whole families traveling up and down the river with babes in arms and often umbrellas to keep the sun or rain off. Rowing a boat is the equivalent of riding a bike and of course there is a lot of fishing as well. There is also a lot of erosion and the boats have to be careful to avoid entire trees floating in the water.

There are no cars in Puerto Narino and they are proud of their recycling, they have even used plastic bottles as planters. Felix, our guide, who is born and bred here told us that the town has grown extensively in the last decade and now there is culinary competition as there are two restaurants as well as street food as the intersection of pedestrian paths. He also told us he remembers when the hospital was one room, and now it has patient rooms with beds for overnight stays.

We stayed at a place called Cabanas del Friar and they came to fetch us with another smaller “peque peque” boat to travel another 10 minutes up the river. Teo was much impressed with the length of the prop and was tempted to have a go at steering. Manuel and Naddi from Monado were sitting waiting for us and they introduced us to the parrots Red and Blue&Gold macaws) and monkeys (squirrel  monkeys). Teo named them “Red”, “Fluff” and “Never Leaves our Room”. These parrots have the intelligence of a three to eight year old child and live up to fifty years.

Once we were settled we jumped into our wellies and Felix took us for a walk through the jungle to a nature reserve. The walk through the jungle was full of sights and sounds that were awe inspiring. He pointed out grasshoppers and spiders and trees and the different frog and bird calls and some extremely loud crickets along the way. We stopped for a rest at a clearing with what resembled an Amish barn raising. Felix told us it was a community center for indigenous tribes. At the reserve we visited a beautiful pond full of Victoria Regia water lillies, which look like they could hold a child’s weight on their giant lily pads. We watched turtles and two giant types of fish, but the caymans stayed out of sight. One of the huge fish we saw we the eerie Pirarucu which can grow up to three meters long and legend has it that it was once a human warrior who was changed into a fish for being vain. A couple of Howler Monkeys made an appearance just as we were leaving, they were amazingly playful and we loved just watching them play in the trees. On our way back through town we stopped for street food, grilled chicken, grilled plantains and corn and well deserved cold drinks to wash it all down. When we got back to the hostel, the Squirrel monkeys were sleeping in the eaves on one side of the door to clubhouse and the parrots roosting were on the other.

We awoke to monkeys jumping on the tin roofs of the cabanas and they were hungry! If you stand still holding a bit of food they come running across the roof and jump on you and help themselves. They are very gentle and have very soft hands. There were even a couple of mamma monkeys with a baby each on her back. The mammas were the most chilled out and gentle ones, with a tiny, adorable monkey clinging to her back. They were a definite highlight of our stay. Down by the river, next to a shed they have built a little bridge into the trees for the sole purpose of feeding the Pygmy Marmoset monkeys. These little cuties are the smallest true monkey, weighing in at only 100 grams. They are dwarfed by the bananas they love so much.

We wandered through town and went to the corner store for ice cream and later walked around the pedestrianized walkways to explore the town. It is colorful and full of planters made of plastic bottles. We followed the raised wooden walkways to the Natutama museum. We watched videos about the pink dolphins of the Amazon and the plight of the manatee who have been hunted to near extinction. Afterwards we were guided through the museum, we went through the mouth of the anaconda to see beneath the water level, there were hundreds of carved wooden figurines of the animals that live in the Amazon including the pink and grey dolphins, the manatees, the piranhas and all the other fish. We moved on to another room showcasing the indigenous people, especially the Ticuna people and how important it is to take care of the river.

There are 80 000 species of plant, and of them 16 000 species of tree grow along the Amazon including rubber trees and walking palms, but by far the most amazing of the was the Ceiba tree. They grow up to 60 meters high and our guide said they can grow to be 3000 years old, and even if this seems far fetched, they are majestic. They star in a creation legend of the Ticuna. “In the beginning of time, the universe was dark because the light was hidden behind the gigantic cup of a huge ceiba tree. To take the world out of darkness, according to the creation myth of the Ticunas of the Colombian Amazon, Yoi and Ipi, the twin heroes, brought down the tree with the help of the animals of the jungle. When it fell, the thick trunk became the Amazon River and the long branches its tributaries, the leaves became the fish and the roots the estuary into the sea.”

On our last day, it started raining and it was amazing to experience the rain 8n the rain forest. This did not stop us from visiting Lago Tarapoto with our guide Felix in a peque peque boat. We were lucky and saw both the grey and the famous pink dolphins of the Amazon. Felix said it was safe to swim, even though you can fish for piranha nearby. We even jumped in quickly jumped back in the boat but we can say we swam in the Amazon!  This amazing place will fill our memories and feed our imaginations for a long time to come.

 

Colombia Road Trip, Jerico and Jardin and Salento

Written by Mia:

We rented a car in Medellin and set off to see the countryside. We drove 800 kilometers, Jon did about 28 hours of driving and so we ended up averaging 28 kilometers an hour. There are lots of lorries and buses on the roads and traffic is slow which is probably good because the roads are curvy and there are car sized potholes and landslides to avoid.

Jerico was our first destination and we took the scenic route to get there. The road brought us past the most gorgeous, lush countryside, awe inspiring valleys and bustling towns. As we drove through towns and peered into shops and eateries it felt like we got a glimpse of the rural Colombian lifestyle. And it wasn’t long before we saw our first coffee plants, and they are gorgeous! They very often they seemed to be coupled with banana trees because they offer shade for the coffee plants, the root systems prevent soil erosion and the bark of the banana trees act as fertilizer, plus you can sell the bananas, too. It seemed fitting to take a coffee break and take in the view.

The light was golden as we finally arrived in Jerico and the drive through town to our hostel was a rainbow of brightly painted houses. There are not many hostels in town and we were happy that Las Cometas (which means “The Kites”) had room for us. It was a super friendly place with an eclectic mix of colors and tiles and furniture style and as we walked into the courtyard, we realized it is right underneath the church. In the morning we awoke to a full service. Jorge, the cool guy running the hostel is very welcoming and we had fun chatting with him not just about Jerico, but also the future of Colombia. They are running a coffee project which includes inviting a Kiwi barista to teach the cafes to make hipster coffee and giving free English lessons to locals in the tourist industry. Apparently the area around Jerico was the original coffee region and they want it back. The next day after Teo made breakfast for the coffee project, we went for a long walk around this adorable town and even spent a good chunk of time in the botanical garden. We left town later than we planned headed for Jardin and we arrived with an hour or two of sunlight.

Jardin is another glorious, colorful pueblo in Antioquia and even though the main plaza is under refurbishment, it is full of charm and buzzing with activity. The church in town is black and white striped and we enjoyed fabulous coffee and cake in its shadow. Our family run hostel “Es Tuyo” was just across the square from the church with a wraparound balcony and an amazing view, plus we had six beds to ourselves. I wanted to sublet a double to couple backpackers but Jon wouldn’t let me. There was a man and his horse practicing a special horse gait called “Paso Fino”which demonstrates great control. The sound of it is mesmerizing and we stood in awe as they went up and down the street. The next morning we wandered around town and stopped at “Dulces de Jardin” which is gorgeous family run sweet shop with tons of temptations and gorgeous tiles. On our way back to the car, Teo attracted the attention of about 15 giggly school girls who wanted to touch his blonde hair and practice their English. This was enough to make Teo shy and that made them giggle even more.

We got a late start hitting the road and there is a huge construction project and that combination meant we arrived into Solento in the dark and to make it interesting it was raining hard, too. We had been in contact with the hostel Art Valez and even though we felt bad waking the girls, we were happy to get there! They were happy to get us settled and Teo was thrilled to have a bunk bed, and he decided that upstairs was for playing and downstairs for sleeping. Solento is very cute but more touristy than the other places we visited. We were amused by the tour groups with color coded baseball caps. We enjoyed our coffee tour at the small eco friendly plantation called Arcazia. We got to see the whole process, including what terrain is best (hilly high altitude but not snow proned), when beans are ready for picking (only the red ones, our baskets were not full), what plants to use to keep bugs away (garlic and sage compost soup), how to tell if a bean is top quality (does it float or sink in a water bath) and we got to see where they roast their crops (grandma’s kitchen). We ended the tour sipping coffee on the veranda and chatting with the guide from Venezuela.

We enjoyed dinner and breakfast at a place called “Brunch” which is run by a guy from Oregon who makes his own peanut butter and write notes for your packed lunch. Teo loved writing on the walls “Are you SURE I am allowed?” and his Mickey Mouse pancake and Jon and I got through half the nachos mountain.

We went for a hike in the valley of palms, Valle de Cocora and loved hiking through the jungle and crossed the river on bridges made of logs. This was not an easy walk and we ended up with an ascent of 1000 meters. The palms of this valley are gorgeous and grow to be 60 meters tall and 200 years old. Many of them were being cut down for Palm Sunday festivities so Colombia has made them their state tree to protect them. We loved the Humminbird Sanctuary Acaime where they just buzz around your head so closely you think they might land. You might see a pattern forming but we stayed too long and then took a wrong turn which meant we were very happy that mobile phones have built in flashlights and that we met Marco from Mexico to share a laugh with on our descent. It has rained a lot and slipping and sliding in the mud in the dark was less fun, but all in this day was incredible and made us even more proud of Teo who was a complete rock star.

Our last outing on our road trip was a visit to the Botanical Garden at Quindío with an incredible Butterfly Enclosure. We enjoyed the guided walk through the garden and all the views points and the small museum but the best part by far is the butterfly enclosure. We loved it and we could lure the butterflies with orange wedges. I even had one omg nose for a while!

We loved exploring this bit of Colombia.

Medellin, so FULL of Life

Written by Mia:

Our second inland trip in Colombia started with a flight to the city of Medellin. We’d heard so many great things about this city from both other travelers and also from Alejandro, a friend who grew up there. During our time moored next to each other in Curaçao he regaled us with stories of growing up in the most dangerous city in the world

Clearly the opportunity to take our 6 year old son to the most dangerous city in the world couldn’t be passed up! Glad we have not watched the TV series yet…

More seriously, we were aching to explore a real place and grabbed the opportunity to see a bit of this incredible country and we started with the Antioquia which is a region in northwest Colombia, lying mostly within the Andes mountains and extending toward the Caribbean Sea.

We spent four days in the vibrant, edgy, unique city of Medellin. Sorry if this starts out with a school project feel but this is what Google has to say “Medellín is the capital of Colombia’s mountainous Antioquia province. Nicknamed the “City of Eternal Spring” for its temperate weather, it hosts a famous annual Flower Festival. Modern metrocables link the city to surrounding barrios and offer views of the Aburrá Valley below. Sculptures by Fernando Botero decorate downtown’s Botero Plaza, while the Museo de Antioquia displays more of the Colombian artist’s work.”

We very much enjoyed the springlike weather in the area. It is the first time in months we craved long sleeves and it was a nice, welcomed change. We stayed in the La Poblada area which  reminded us of Grunnerlokka/Soho/Islington and we spent some time around the area just soaking up the vibe. We had a ball walking through the parks, watching people and admiring the graffiti. We visited the Botanical garden which had a complete use-it-like-a-local-park feel. There were huge iguanas climbing trees but unfortunately the butterfly enclosure was closed. Just across the street is the Planetarium with the attached science museum and we enjoyed a few hours there and watched a movie on the impressive dome screen. It had gotten dark during our visit and it was incredible to see the barrios spreading up the mountain side. There are amber colored lights climbing the hills of every side.

The next day we visited the nature reserve, Arvi. It was a wonderful three hour hike over spongey woodland floor and it rained a little and we got to wear fleece jackets and rain coats. We were happy campers! We topped it off with lunch like the locals, hearty soup with avocado bits and freshly made juice which was a treat, but the best part of the adventure was the trip there and back. Medellin is situated in a bowl and to enable everyone to get around they use cable cars as part of their public transport system. We had a blast riding the cable cars and even got a birds eye view of an urban mountain biking race through the winding streets and down staircases. Teo’s Eyes were very round as he exclaimed “Epic!” It was sobering to see the conditions in the barrios and even when you can clearly see people have very little, they paint their homes bright colors and seem to be busy making a living and making their living as nice as possible.

We slowly realized that in Medellin the affluent folk live in the high rises in the center of town with doormen, lots of security, and usually a small annex where the maid/nanny lives. The outskirts with gardens are not desirable to the upper class as we are used to in Oslo and London. On that subject we have learned that Colombia and its government have divided people into strata and these levels are established in the residential areas even reach as far as how much people pay for electricity and water. Whereas it is meant to make things more fair, we were left wondering if it keeps the gaps between people more established.

We returned to Medellin after our road trip and visited the bustling/crowded Botero Plaza to see the giant, corpulent bronze statues. In an imaginary world they could meet their Stoney friends from Vigelandsparken in Oslo and they would have a marvelous time. We just soaked up the vibe and grabbed a lovely meal at well established lunch place that has served locals for generations before heading to the airport. Our trip was over far quicker than it should have been!

Colombia Road Trip, Jerico and Jardin and Salento

Written by Mia:

The guide books to Colombia are a great read and we were aching to explore a real place and grabbed the opportunity to see a bit of this incredible country and we started with the Antioquia which is a region in northwest Colombia, lying mostly within the Andes mountains and extending toward the Caribbean Sea.

We rented a car in Medellin and set off to see the countryside. We drove 800 kilometers, Jon did about 28 hours of driving and so we ended up averaging 28 kilometers an hour. There are lots of lorries and buses on the roads and traffic is slow which is probably good because the roads are curvy and there are car sized potholes and landslides to avoid.

There will be a longer blog post about Medellin, as it deserves it’s own!

Jerico was our first destination and we took the scenic route to get there. The road brought us past the most gorgeous, lush countryside, awe inspiring valleys and bustling towns. As we drove through towns and peered into shops and eateries it felt like we got a glimpse of the rural Colombian lifestyle. And it wasn’t long before we saw our first coffee plants, and they are gorgeous! They very often they seemed to be coupled with banana trees because they offer shade for the coffee plants, the root systems prevent soil erosion and the bark of the banana trees act as fertilizer, plus you can sell the bananas, too. It seemed fitting to take a coffee break and take in the view.

The light was golden as we finally arrived in Jerico and the drive through town to our hostel was a rainbow of brightly painted houses. There are not many hostels in town and we were happy that Las Cometas (which means “The Kites”) had room for us. It was a super friendly place with an eclectic mix of colors and tiles and furniture style and as we walked into the courtyard, we realized it is right underneath the church. In the morning we awoke to a full service. Jorge, the cool guy running the hostel is very welcoming and we had fun chatting with him not just about Jerico, but also the future of Colombia. They are running a coffee project which includes inviting a Kiwi barista to teach the cafes to make hipster coffee and giving free English lessons to locals in the tourist industry. Apparently the area around Jerico was the original coffee region and they want it back. The next day after Teo made breakfast for the coffee project, we went for a long walk around this adorable town and even spent a good chunk of time in the botanical garden. We left town later than we planned headed for Jardin and we arrived with an hour or two of sunlight.

Jardin is another glorious, colorful pueblo in Antioquia and even though the main plaza is under refurbishment, it is full of charm and buzzing with activity. The church in town is black and white striped and we enjoyed fabulous coffee and cake in its shadow. Our family run hostel “Es Tuyo” was just across the square from the church with a wraparound balcony and an amazing view, plus we had six beds to ourselves. I wanted to sublet a double to couple backpackers but Jon wouldn’t let me. There was a man and his horse practicing a special horse gait called “Paso Fino”which demonstrates great control. The sound of it is mesmerizing and we stood in awe as they went up and down the street. The next morning we wandered around town and stopped at “Dulces de Jardin” which is gorgeous family run sweet shop with tons of temptations and gorgeous tiles. On our way back to the car, Teo attracted the attention of about 15 giggly school girls who wanted to touch his blonde hair and practice their English. This was enough to make Teo shy and that made them giggle even more.

We got a late start hitting the road and there is a huge construction project and that combination meant we arrived into Solento in the dark and to make it interesting it was raining hard, too. We had been in contact with the hostel Art Valez and even though we felt bad waking the girls, we were happy to get there! They were happy to get us settled and Teo was thrilled to have a bunk bed, and he decided that upstairs was for playing and downstairs for sleeping. Solento is very cute but more touristy than the other places we visited. We were amused by the tour groups with color coded baseball caps. We enjoyed our coffee tour at the small eco friendly plantation called Arcazia. We got to see the whole process, including what terrain is best (hilly high altitude but not snow proned), when beans are ready for picking (only the red ones, our baskets were not full), what plants to use to keep bugs away (garlic and sage compost soup), how to tell if a bean is top quality (does it float or sink in a water bath) and we got to see where they roast their crops (grandma’s kitchen). We ended the tour sipping coffee on the veranda and chatting with the guide from Venezuela.

We enjoyed dinner and breakfast at a place called “Brunch” which is run by a guy from Oregon who makes his own peanut butter and write notes for your packed lunch. Teo loved writing on the walls “Are you SURE I am allowed?” and his Mickey Mouse pancake and Jon and I got through half the nachos mountain.

We went for a hike in the valley of palms, Valle de Cocora and loved hiking through the jungle and crossed the river on bridges made of logs. This was not an easy walk and we ended up with an ascent of 1000 meters. The palms of this valley are gorgeous and grow to be 60 meters tall and 200 years old. Many of them were being cut down for Palm Sunday festivities so Colombia has made them their state tree to protect them. We loved the Humminbird Sanctuary Acaime where they just buzz around your head so closely you think they might land. You might see a pattern forming but we stayed too long and then took a wrong turn which meant we were very happy that mobile phones have built in flashlights and that we met Marco from Mexico to share a laugh with on our descent. It has rained a lot and slipping and sliding in the mud in the dark was less fun, but all in this day was incredible and made us even more proud of Teo who was a complete rock star.

Our last outing on our road trip was a visit to the Botanical Garden at Quindío with an incredible Butterfly Enclosure. We enjoyed the guided walk through the garden and all the views points and the small museum but the best part by far is the butterfly enclosure. We loved it and we could lure the butterflies with orange wedges. I even had one omg nose for a while!

We loved exploring this bit of Colombia and with hindsight we could have done less or stayed for a month longer! If only we had time and money!

The Lovely, the Historic Cartagena

Written by Mia:

A visit to Cartagena de Indias was high on our list of must do’s in Colombia. The city was founded in 1533 and is a walled old town of 13 glorious square kilometers of quaint, narrow cobblestone streets and beautiful stone buildings with balconies and potted plants. It was built on the site of an old Carib settlement and is often called the pearl of the Caribbean coast. There was a fire in 1553 which encouraged the inhabitants to rebuild the city in stone to our delight today. The wall was inspired by the pirate sieges the city suffered, five in the 16th century alone, with the most infamous by Sir Francis Drake who was paid 10 million pesos on the promise not to level the the city to the ground.

The guide books tell you to just wander and that is basically what we did. And we loved every minute of it! We traveled with the lovely crew of Sugar Shack by bus to Cartagena on the day of their independence and we enjoyed the fiesta. There were happy people everywhere, a very colorful parade around the outside of the city wall and a fabulous buzz of excitement. And I think Teo would tell me off if I didn’t mention the “espuma” which are cans that shoot out foam like silly string. A teenage girl noticed the gleam of interest on Teo’s face and handed him one and told him to attack her boyfriend that were probably his favorite part of the day! There were espuma wars going on and Teo was right in the thick of it!

We stayed across the Independence Park from the Old Town and the area was full of fun places to eat, sleep and play. We loved checking out this area called Getsamani had a wonderful atmosphere and we wish we had been in early in the property market because it reminded us of Santa Catalina in Palma. It had a wonderful laid back atmosphere with funky bars, restaurants, hostels, street art and graffiti. We wandered through right before lunchtime the day after the party but it was shiny clean and quiet but still hummed with energy. Later we returned for a wonderful meal with Sugar Shack.

We were of course drawn back to the Old Town for another wander. We had cake for lunch a gorgeous place called Milas and otherwise wandered and took lots of photos. The buildings and especially the gates are painted wonderful colors and there are signs of care everywhere. Even the street vendors seem sweet. We stopped into many artisan shops, found a sweet shop where they were rolling lollipops by hand and spent time in a chocolate museum that was just a tasting palace with an assistant that wanted Teo to move in with her so he could help her improve her English and it seemed like a good deal since she promised to teach him Spanish, too.

We couldn’t leave town without a trip to the looming fortress and we had fun exploring the vigilant bodyguard of the city. The approach is jaw dropping and steep and we had fun with the stairs and tunnels, twists and turns. And by the way, those tunnels get dark, itchy ankles for me and nervous giggles from Teo. We loved our trip to Cartagena!

Itchy Foot Crew Gain a Continent

Written by Mia:

We took our own sweet time getting from Willemstad, Curaçao to arrive in Santa Marta, Colombia. This marks the first visit to South America for any of us. What does this mean for you? There will be lots of blogs ahead, because Colombia is amazing and we have a lot to say about it and I might as well warn you now, there will be lots of superlatives, this place deserves lots of crazy adjectives.

Our first taste of Columbia was an anchorage at Cabo de la Vela located at the northwestern tip of the country. It is the first place Europeans set foot in South America and an area that indigenous tribes call home. We really wanted to go ashore and check out the dusty village and the lookout point, but the wind was high and we were not checked in so we just admired it from deck and enjoyed a swim in the crystal blue water before heading to Santa Marta.

Stay tuned for blog posts about living in the marina in Santa Marta, a trip to historic Cartagena, impressions from Medellin and at least a couple from our road trip, mostly because we have lots of photos to share. Jon and I are both armed with cameras and both have burned through batteries already three days into our trip…

 

But just in case you have missed us, here come a few first impressions of Colombia:

The cities are big and busy busy, lots of people, lots of traffic and so many things to see and hear. And there still seems time to wish us foreigners welcome. There are 48 million people living here at last official count in 2005 and everyone is going somewhere and doing something all the time.

The countryside is beautiful and the towns in it very colorful. The people seem proud of their homes and painstakingly paint them all the colors under the sun.

 

The Wild West is alive and well in Jerico and Jardin.

People work hard, at whatever they do, wherever they are doing it. We just bought coffee from a woman walking the queue of the construction site traffic jam.

 

It takes a lot longer to get from point A to point B, because you twist up up up and then twist down down down but there is so much fun, beautiful, incredible stuff to see on the way. Jon did the math and on our trip we covered 800 kilometers in eight days and averaged only 28kph.

 

This country has more shades of green than Ireland and an incredible diversity of landscape.

People are so, so, SO friendly and proud of their country and happy to have visitors. We get lots of smiles from people we meet and we hear “bienvenido” (welcome) and “con mucho gusto” (with much pleasure) all the time. Teo is very popular with his blonde hair, and older grandmas cannot gush over him enough and just today 15 girls in school uniforms all wanted his attention, practicing their English and giggling when he talked to them.

 

Lucky for us, a little Spanish goes a long way.

 

There is SO much to see and do and it is painful to have to choose what to do with our time. Colombia has had a complicated past and we have our fingers and toes crossed for a very bright future!

 

Here is very short history of Colombia. All the way back to the beginning Vizzini! Colombia was named after Christoffer Columbus even though he never set foot in the country. The indigenous people were covered in gold adornments and early European visitors kept searching for the source and this strongly influenced the Legend of El Dorado. The first major settlement was founded in Santa Marta in1525 and followed shortly thereafter by Cartagena in 1533 with its substantial city walls and impressive fortress. At this point it was still being ruled by Spain; enter Simon Bolivar, known as “el Liberatador” because his battles across northern South America eventually lead to the liberation of Venezuela, Colombia, Panama and Ecuador. These countries later formed “Gran Colombia” which is remembered as a period of peace and economic boom, especially in the coffee industry. The coffee boom that was born in the early 20th century is alive and strong in Colombia today although there seems to be a strong desire to catch up with the coffee house barista movement we know and love. I am going to leave the Colombians to argue over their own politics and religion and bow out now.

 

And since this is being written mostly during a traffic jam, I’ll leave you with a list of missed photo ops:

 

Pimped up vintage trucks from Dodge, Mac, and Volvo decorated with Mary and Jesus and of course painted bright colors.

 

Street signs warning about road kill animal crossings including their Latin names. Our favorites were ant eaters, iguanas and armadillos.

 

Old men using ancient Singer sewing machines to create original leather Jerico saddle bags and shops selling bags of grain.

 

Kids on bikes holding on to the back of semi trucks.

 

Fifteen school girls in uniform practicing their English on Teo.

 

And the best one was a cowboy with a straw hat riding a horse up the road checking his smart phone.

 

 

 

 

Colombia, safe and sound

In the end we decided to stop in Cabo de la Vela in Colombia for a night, a beautiful little bay near a small village in the very north of Colombia. We arrived in the morning after a nice night sail. The day was spent pottering around Itchy Foot, I fixed the gas and we had a swim.

A quiet night’s sleep was rewarded with a lovely calm morning and a slow breakfast. With 140 miles ahead of us to get to Santa Marta we had no reason to rush. So coffee, fluffy pancakes (my best yet – less milk seemed to help) and a swim in the refreshing waters. It seems that as we sail west and south the sea temperature has dropped, from a bathtub 25C down to a refreshing 20C – much nicer.

We didn’t have much wind, so motored for the first two hours but by lunchtime we were sailing along nicely. Poled out the headsail and running before the wind and sea, is a pleasant way to travel. I spent the time reading a book about fishing and adjusting my standard fishing lines accordingly. It paid off! Shortly before lunch we managed to catch and land a couple (literally as they are a mating pair) of Dorado. A very tasty white fish from a beautiful and colorful fish. So lunch became fresh fish fingers!

The wind and the waves continued to build and into the night we had 20+ knots of wind. After dinner Mia headed off to bed, but it was a bit rocky and rolly so she didn’t managed to get much sleep and was up on deck again shortly after midnight to help me adjust the sails and head out of the cockpit, something we only do when we have two people awake and on deck.

About 4 in the morning Mia started her watch and I went to grab a few hours sleep before we arrived in Santa Marta. We arrived in the city around 10:30 am and were tied-up in the marina by 11am. It’s a lovely modern marina, hot showers, clean bathrooms, excellent security. They even have biometric security on the door, opened with finger prints, which Teo hasn’t got tired of yet!

We took a walk around the town in the afternoon, finding a supermarket and hardware store. The restaurants are cheap (5 usd for a main course) and the food seems excellent. The town is rough around the edges and I’m not sure how far we will wander at night, but during the day the police are obvious and the locals we’ve met a very friendly and welcoming. Speaking Spanish as always is helpful and earns goodwill. We’re looking forward to exploring the city and country over the coming weeks.

The cruising community is rarely found in a marina, so it was strange to be welcomed by people from five or so boats within two minutes of arriving. Before an early night we stopped at the marina bar for happy hour and met another 10+ boats worth of cruisers, all very welcoming. Now time to find more kids for Teo!

So, safe and sound in South America.

Off to South America

Written by Jon:

Leaving behind the ABC islands and heading to Colombia means a new continent for Itchy Foot and her crew.

Once Mia’s mum and dad left Curaçao we weren’t inclined to stay around much longer ourselves. We had the lovely company of Maple and Gaia while we waited for a weather window. The first chance to leave come too soon and then we had a long period of too much wind, followed by too little wind and it was at the first glimmer of suitable conditions we left.

Early on Monday morning we motored out of Spanish Waters and headed up the coast of Curaçao under engine. Not enough wind to sail but with some light cloud cover the passage up the coast to the bay of Santa Cruz was uneventful. We anchored in nice quiet little bay, which we had to ourselves, and spent the afternoon swimming and snorkeling.

Tuesday morning we got up late with time for coffee and quick snorkel unsuccessfully looking for turtles before departing westwards towards Aruba around at 9am. The light wind we had died completely when we were about half way to Aruba and we ended up motoring for a coupe of hours until it came back. The afternoon was filled with a lovely audio book of ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’ read by David Tennent. Just after dinner and sunset we caught a fish, sadly a little too small a tuna and a little too late to start the process of cleaning and filleting , so back he want. We also agreed to stop in Aruba for the night, figuring we would arrive around 11pm. We don’t normally like to arrive in the dark, but with OK charts, good buoyage and a full moon we decided to give it shot. Picking our way down the west coast we were motoring between the coast and the oil tankers anchored a little farther off shore. The brightly lit hotels and casinos made it very hard to see other yachts and their anchor lights but finally we managed to spot a boat on AIS and found it with the binoculars, picking our way towards them we found a good spot to anchor for the night and were all asleep by midnight.

Wednesday morning started fairly promptly as we weren’t really allowed to be in Aruba without clearing in with customs and immigration so we didn’t want to dawdle. A quick dip, coffee and bagels to start the day before lifting anchor and heading past the oil tankers and fishing boats towards Colombia. Thankfully the sailing conditions today were perfect, 10-15knots of wind, downwind, following sea, clear and perfect. We’ve made a steady 4-6knots and the day was spent doing boat school with Teo, reading, listening to music. A few nights earlier we’d watched Finding Nemo again, and Mia thinking back on this asked me today if I thought they didn’t put Dolphins in the movie cos they don’t actually exist! It seems like since coming over to the Caribbean we just don’t see them anymore. As if on cue, there they were, a pod of about 20-30 of them joined Itchy Foot for a couple of hours of paying on our bow wave and jumping out of the water. They stayed with us until after sunset and provided quite the show!

The rest of the evening was not quiet so enjoyable, as in the middle of dinner the gas bottle ran out. No problem I’ll switch to the second one, only that didn’t work. So, cold food for us and no tea/coffee until we get to Santa Marta. There is the option of heading into a bay we will be passing early Thursday morning to have rest, relax and swim before heading onto Santa Marta the next day… maybe even fix the gas valve!

We shall see.

The night watch is beautiful. Teo and Mia are sleeping. The wind is warm and coming from the right direction. The sea is mostly calm and comfortable. The moon is full and the sky is clear. One of those nights where you take the Bimini down, which I just did.