Once I was across the river there were minibuses to Almirante. And from there, transfer to a speedboat to Bocas del Torro ($3). I walked to the end of town and found a really nice hotel. Doug told me there are only three places in town and this was the cheapest and best. I got a room for $16 with en suite hot shower (something new for me!). The decor was interesting: two walls were bamboo, one with a picture of a British hunting scene, the hunters wearing red coats and followed by a pack of beagles. The other wall had a still life of a vase of flowers. Big bonus was the big bathroom though – what luxury! I walked through the hotel to a veranda at the back which was right over the water. The water was crystal clear even here in town with plenty of fish about. I had a cold beer for 80c (they use US dollars here so no new currency to convert).
I had a wander round town which I liked immediately. Only one wide road with the houses on side streets on their own plots of land displaying a real Caribbean architecture – all wooden verandas on stilts. There was one dive shop and I got the distinct impression I had arrived just in time before a big tourist boom.
Some time later I met the Hungarian couple and a German girl and we organised a boat to take us to Zapatilla island for some snorkelling. The island was the bog standard beautiful tropical island. Did some snorkelling and managed to get myself a bit sunburned – ouch!
After the boat trip I went to the Bocabanana bar and had a few welcome cervezas frias with the German girl, Angie – she was a beer technician and the Hungarian couple who were at Swansea University. My diary then says I met an Austrian guy who took me to his Rancho by the beach 20 mins out of town to meet his wife (English, Rebecca) and their young child. They were part of a group who had got together to buy a finca. I stayed there that night and we wandered along the beech to see the turtles. That night I had a tough time with my sunburn trying to sleep in a hammock.
Had another night in town. The following day I popped into the airport (which was right in the centre of town) and found out they they did flights to Panama city and they didn’t cost much more than the boat and bus and one was going in an hour. So I quickly gathered my stuff, checked out of the hotel and was on the plane.
Although the views were great, I wasn’t feeling well. I had picked up what I thought was a cold from somewhere. The altitude of the plane gave me really painful earache as my tubes were blocked and I had a headache and a runny nose.
Coming in to land I noted the Bridge of the Americas, which “spans two continents”. I got a taxi to the old part of the city, San Felipe.
The driver was a moron and didn’t know the way. Eventually when we got to my destination we were told that the Pension I had wanted was no longer. So we reversed 50m to my second choice and the driver wanted more cash “for the trouble”. Cheeky git. Anyway, the “new” hotel, Hotel Herrera was actually quite nice. It was better than expected and with a lick of paint (on the outside) it looked palatial compared to the decrepitude all around. Quite old but not too dirty.
The room had a high ceiling, an ancient chest of drawers, wardrobe and a sink which hadn’t been dusted for months. Big bonus, my room overlooked the square of the same name. All for $6. Interestingly I went on the Hotel Herrera website. There is a new picture of the place which looks more chichi but certainly less attractive than the old place. It also says its slated for opening 2014! On google street view, the area certainly looks more chi chi than I remember but much more boring and sanitised.
As I wasn’t feeling that well I took the next few days easy just wandering the streets, changing money and picking up mail from the Poste Restante and browsing the second hand bookshops for something to read. One thing I did need to do was get a ticket on the Crucero Express which was the boat from Colon in Panama to Cartagena in Colombia. There was no alternative as there was no road crossing going across the Darian Gap between the two countries. I wasn’t getting very far because the cheapest cabin was for four people and I had to find the other three people!
I took a little trip into the business district. It was a mixture of residential and business with many big roads and small shopping plazas. I spent ages wandering round Gran Morrison one of the largest stores in Panama – just because. Mainly, however, I wandered around the San Felipe area, near the hotel – the oldest and most interesting part of the city.
I noted it as being run down, faded glory. Balconied terraced houses with people and washing hanging out. I noticed it was also the location of the Presidential Palace which was surrounded by a number of burly looking guards. It was strange to see the palace surrounded by the poorest area of the city. I also saw a police convoy racing through the streets: I first heard the wail of sirens, then two motorcycle outriders, a Police car, two unmarked cars, with guns poking out the blackened windows and another motorcycle with the passenger holding a shotgun. It looked like something out of Robocop.
Although the vast majority of people in Panama city looked European there were quite a few Indigenous people around including these Guna
23rd April. Time to see the canal. I still wasn’t feeling great but had a lie in (till 8am) and had a coffee and a glass of porridge downstairs in the little restaurant. It was probably rice porridge as a lot of the restaurants round about were Chinese. Got a bus to the Miraflores locks and saw a huge cargo vessel go through. They said that fifty ships pass in 24 hours and the average fee is $30,000. Ships are actually designed worldwide specifically to go through these locks. I also had a look at the zoo. I noted the zoo was large but the cages were small. Hopefully it is different now. I also went on a path through the rainforest, part of a National Park. Interesting but bloody hot! I got back into town feeling much better so had a beer. As it happened I bumped into the old Dutchman from the border crossing. That evening had a sit in the park outside my hotel and just sucked the atmosphere in, people just wandering about, chatting, kids playing baseball.
I met some more travellers asking around if anyone was going on the boat to Cartagena but no luck. In the end I just got the bus to Colon. After more wandering about I had to bite the bullet and paid for a single cabin on the boat – $145 plus departure tax of $20. More expensive than the flight. But they did say that booze was free! I also saw a couple of Canadians on the dock playing the pans pipes and drums and asking for money as they said they had none. I asked them why were they travelling when they had no money. “With a good heart you can get by, man” Hmmm.
Interestingly, my guidebook said there was a problem with crime in Panama City and San Felipe in particular. It suggested taking great care even in the daytime. Added to that, Colón (where the boat left and on the Caribbean side of the canal) was a sad slum and even in the middle of the day you were in great danger of getting mugged or worse. I hadn’t felt in any danger in San Felipe but I didn’t hang around long in Colón that was for sure! (Apparently since 2014 Colón has undergone a massive reconstruction and restoration).
Meanwhile, on board, the cabin was pretty good. I had a hot shower and headed to the bar for a few of those free beers. Chatted to an English guy, Rupert, I met in the queue, a French bloke Christian and a Colombian, Javier. The rest of the night was a bit of a blur but I do remember seeing some sort of cabaret. Later on they had a beauty contest?? By the time they kicked us out of the bar it was 3 am. I woke up in my cabin at 9am, still fully clothed.
27th April. Welcome to Colombia!
I managed to drag myself out for breakfast and we disembarked at 10am. Me and my new mates got a taxi into the old part of the city and found a decent place to stay. I walked around town and found a plato typico for lunch in an aircon restaurant – bliss – as it was stifling outside. I headed back to the hotel for a lie down. We ventured out that evening but it was very quiet. It was really quiet the following day – I guess because it was a Sunday. I could still remember the old days in the UK when Sundays were completely dead.
I did go to San Felipe castle though although it was a bit of a rip off at $5 entry.
That evening I had a pizza at the hospedaje before heading to Bocagrande – the tourist part of town. I met the Brazilian/Italian couple who were selling (or not) trinkets by the side of the road (I guess I had met them before but they didn’t make it into the diary then). Again it was very quiet but I guess I was just out too early.
The following is a youtube video from 2020. Certainly not the Cartagena I remember!
I then had a decision to make – either fork out on a flight to Bogota ($87) which took an hour or get the bus (£35) which took 24 hours. It was getting to the end of a long old trip and I had a bit of cash left so it was a no-brainer. I had a big lunch , said goodbye to the gang (I think I was staying with the crowd I had met on the boat) and got a taxi to the airport. I didn’t understand a word from the lady at the check in desk but I found myself on a flight over an hour earlier than planned.
I got another taxi from the airport into town. I had read that Bogota was another of those dangerous Central American/South American cities so it was some surprise that not only did the taxi driver speak English but when I said I was from the UK, he blurted out – “Dangerous place, England, very dangerous – hooligans everywhere!”
The first hotel from my guidebook was shut down, the second place looked very dodgy and the woman there couldn’t find a room key anyway so I headed for the third choice – Casa Platypus. and it still seems to be going strong. It was a typical traveller hangout – communal area with lots of info on various places and people just hanging out. It seemed quite pricey though – 7000 Pesos ($7) (2020 3700 = $1).
Bogotá was not at all what I expected. For a start it was at an altitude of 2600m so much cooler than the oppressive heat of Cartagena. It was almost like a UK University city like Oxford or Cambridge. I visited the Gold Museum which was amazing. I think the largest collection of pre-Colombian gold anywhere. It was well presented as well. I walked into a darkened room and as I approached the light grew stronger until I could see the golden objects. Wow! I learned of the El Dorado myth where apparently there is a lake in the mountains where they dropped tons of gold and precious gems. It has never been found.
In the centre of town there were lots of stalls selling all sorts and I bought a really nice woollen jumper (my mother was later to wash it and it shrunk so much it could almost fit an action man doll)
I also had my one and only brush with crime. As I was walking along a pavement I noticed a man walking directly towards me. No big deal. I swerved to one side to avoid him but he moved the same way so as to make me stop. I immediately suspected something and as I did I felt a hand come from behind me into my pocket. I managed to grab this hand and take it out and quickly move into the road and escape.
I also went to the cathedral in La Candelaria which can be seen from my room and opens out onto an enormous square – La Catedral Primada in the Plaza de Bolivar. I saw two funerals. As one coffin was being carried out, other was being carried in. One of the hearses was horse drawn and the driver managed to crash it into a bollard when leaving. I don’t know whether the occupant felt anything.
I caught the bus to the funicular which goes up the Monserrate, the mountain which dominates Bogota. (There was no cable car that day unfortunately). I spoke to two young blokes from Medellin at the top who were obviously drug dealers. That was a bit strange. It was quiet at the top as most of the cafes and tourist shops were closed. Maybe they only open at weekends. The view was fantastic though. I was actually panting a bit for air as it was over 3000m.
Wed 1st May. The Mayday holiday. I got a bus to the main bus terminal and I was the only person on it. It was a very large modern bus terminal and I got a ticket to Vila de Leyva for $7.50. It buggered up my budget, I had only $31 left and nowhere to change money in Vila de Leyva. I’ll have to starve for a few days. The bus was actually a 12 seater Ford Transit and driven by Ayrton Senna so although it took an hour to get out of Bogota we got to Vila de Leyva in less than four hours.
I found a cheap hotel and the old lady there gave me a discount because I was British. She also provided food so I was soon tucking into rice, popcorn, tomato and an old joint of beef. And then she overcharged me for that! Town was small but very picturesque with supposedly the largest plaza in the country. I bumped into a British guy, Mike who was actually writing an English Spanish dictionary among other things. He recommended his hotel and said it accepted cards so I moved there the following day and splashed out $25 for a large room with hot shower and satellite TV. There were only three other people staying there.
The following morning we were off to Raquira – a village not far away famous for its pottery. Mike was also a woodworker and so we stopped off in a workshop while he interviewed a local carpenter for an article he is writing. Meanwhile the village was very picturesque. Most of the buildings were painted all the colours of the rainbow and the artisan shops all had their wares hanging outside. One attractive house I noticed had pots outside but also a sign “no se vende”. I managed to pick up some more souvenirs for family and friends back home.
Back at Vila de Leyva I had a quick shower and then out again as people eat early in these parts. I had the toughest steak in the world and then we got chatting to an old French guy. He was there building a Viking longship. Bizarre.
That night I had a strange experience – after travelling for months and sleeping in cheap hospedajes next to busy roads, Central Americans up and about in the middle in the night – here, the silence was deafening.
And then it was back to Bogota. I stopped off in Tunja. This was an interesting little place. I compared it to a Welsh mining town as it had lots of terraced house on rather steep slopes. Plenty of indigenous people wandering the streets which made it feel very un-Welsh. I’m not sure how long I was there, maybe just a stop on the bus as I was soon back in Bogota.
And that was the end of my American sojourn. Eleven weeks passed in a flash! The following day I was on the plane back to London. However, we did make a little detour. Midway over the Atlantic the pilot received a warning that there was a bomb on the plane. Of course the passengers weren’t told this until after we had made an emergency landing at Shannon Airport in Ireland. Thankfully, I eventually arrived in London unscathed but that’s another story.