Santa Marta, Colombia
It occurs to me that I haven’t yet explained anything about our actual trip. It’s been a longtime plan of mine to circuit the Caribbean Sea. I don’t know anyone else who has done this and it seemed a neat way of stringing together the parts of Latin America that I’ve managed to miss out on previous trips.
The cheapest flights were to Cancun so that became our de facto start & finish point. I’d already travelled between there and Nicaragua in 2001, hence our decision to fly pretty much straight to Costa Rica. It’s true that this circuit is ambitious to complete in three months and certainly we won’t be able to travel as slowly as I would like, but since the primary objective of this trip is ‘quality time’ I will try not to let our speed bother me. We can easily overfly some of the expensive West Indian islands if necessary in favour of more interesting destinations like Haiti and Puerto Rico. Cuba will be the icing on the cake.
Costa Rica, as I’ve previously implied, was beautiful but too Americanised. Panama was much closer to memories of my favourite Central American countries of 12 years ago, and Peter quite enjoyed (I think) watching huge container ships pass through the locks of the canal.
I would have liked to spend longer in Panama, of course, but I had arranged to meet a friend, Dave, in Colombia. After much agonizing over the price I decided to take the well-known backpacker yacht option across the Caribbean, from the appropriately-named port city of Colon to Cartagena in Colombia, via the incredible San Blas islands. Although this journey was more expensive than the corresponding flight the cost was spread over 5 days, included all food and accommodation and the travel ‘purity’ of not leaving the face of the planet meant that it was the better option.
The San Blas islands, politically part of Panama, resemble exactly the desert islands of legend – reef-fringed, golden-sanded humps populated only by a scattering of palm trees. Days were spent swimming, snorkeling, relaxing on deck or visiting islands to drink rum around a beach bonfire. Without doubt these days were the highlight of my trip so far – and I‘m not even a big beach fan! Well, that was until the main crossing.
Personally I enjoy the pitch and yaw of a fine ship ploughing through the waves, it rocks me to sleep, but our berths in the bow were an absolute hell for Peter who, up to the very day before the boat’s departure was planning to fly. At the last minute this self-confessed bad sailor inexplicably opted to join me on the high seas. His regret was palpable in the pained expression that remained fixed to his face during the 35 hour crossing. I won’t go into gritty details but he couldn’t even sit up without retching, never mind visit the toilet, and therefore had to drink through a straw. Such a prolonged prone position is not healthy for a man of his years and I spent the entire time sitting anxiously nearby, wishing I could in some way help and regretting, erroneously, my part in his downfall. His only comment of “I’m getting myself into a bit of a state here,” a massive understatement after 16 hours of torture, almost broke my heart.
I left the poor bastard in Cartagena to recover and rushed myself to Santa Marta to meet Dave. The next morning we started the 50km trek to Ciudad Perdida – The Lost City – a pre-Colombian archaeological site deep in the jungly mountains near the coast. Think Macchu Picchu but less impressive, and with more recorded kidnappings by paramilitary groups. Don’t worry, the last one was ten years ago, since which the FARC have retreated into the amazon basin. The hiking was good though. Due to our decision to complete the trek over 4 days rather than 5, we were supposed to be shunted between two large groups (of 17 and 25) and this worked considerably to our advantage. Instead of crawling along, stopping for numerous snacks and swims every half an hour and getting increasingly frustrated with the group pace, we slipped through the cracks and got to walk alone and at our own speed for most of the trail, with only the most basic of guidance from a kitchen-hand named Jerry who preferred to hang around the indigenous villages chatting to his mates.
We got back to Santa Marta yesterday, ready for the holiday season of Semana Santa – Holy Week. Despite being a good catholic country this is decidedly a secular holiday with lots of drinking and beaching in store for most of the population. We had planned to visit Mompox, a small inland town with some of the most traditional religious processions in Colombia, but at the last minute we decided “Sod it – let’s go to beach and drink rum instead”. Welcome to the Caribbean, love.