San Blas islands

Via sanblasadventures.com we made our reservation for 4 days of island hopping around the San Blas archipelago in front of the Panamanian coast.

Day 1 of our San Blas adventure began with the most annoying part because we had to get our exit stamps in Panama and we were informed upfront that this process could take anywhere between 45 min and 6 hours… thanks to ‘some luck’ it went quick that day and we only needed 2,5 hours 😉

After a boat drive of another 2,5 hours we arrived at Atidup island. This island was exactly why we signed up for the trip; beautiful white sandy beaches, palm trees, sunshine, volleyball field, food/drinks and friendly travelers to share this with! Our group was 16 people in total and a nice mixture of nationalities: Swedes, Aussies, Americans, Swiss and some Dutchies. After playing a few games of volleyball and some chilling and drinking we went to a Kuna village called Caledonia. Here we got a tour around the small Kuna town and we had dinner in a restaurant. Our accommodation was also in Caledonia and it even had real beds so we enjoyed a night of pretty good sleep.

On the second day we visited Pelicano II Island. This was an uninhabited island where we could go for snorkeling, play some volleyball, read, sleep and repeat 😉
Not doing so much was also perfectly fine because the rum of the previous day was still noticeable.
Again we had our accommodation on a different island in a Kuna village but this time we only had hammocks to sleep in. Good thing that the whole group played the drinking game ‘Kings Cup’ after dinner so it was easier to fall asleep in the hammocks 😉

On day 3 the boats took us to Pelicano Island. We had a very nice lunch on the island and in the afternoon we had a short boat ride to Cocobandera Island.
This island is owned by a Kuna family and via a rotation system there are always some members of the family to take care of the guests. The family sells cold drinks and also took care of lunch the last day. They even helped some guys of our group with injuries as they stepped in some coral the other day. In the evening we had an amazing dinner with fresh lobsters and after dinner we enjoyed the bonfire!

The last day we chilled on Cocobandera Island and we had a boat ride to Carti in the afternoon. From Carti we got transferred into Jeeps that took us to Panama City in 2,5 hours. We had a great trip and we definitely can recommend it if you want to relax in paradise!

Sapzurro

From Capurganá to Sapzurro it’s only 10 minutes by boat but the two villages differ a lot; in Sapzurro you have no moto-taxis, less garbage, there are more friendly people and it has nicer sandy beaches!

 

Our accommodation, La gata negra, was also cool! We were welcomed by the Spanish couple Jordy and Ima, who run this place since September 2017. They have a beautiful open house, surrounded by a garden and jungle. Our cabana was simple but had everything we needed and the place has a super relaxed atmosphere! And last but not least, the Spanish food was delicious 😋

The weather was good on our first day in Sapzurro so we enjoyed the beautiful beaches and the sea. At night it rained a lot, but the next day it was dry again so we decided to hike to ‘La Miel’, which is a village/beach officially located in Panama! The hike was fun, but the beaches in Sapzurro were nicer. There was a tax free shop though so we were able to buy some rum for our San Blas trip 😊

Weather continued being good during the day and heavily raining at night. We read some books and relaxed and after 3 days we headed back to Capurgana for our briefing for the San Blas tour. We did some final shopping, took the boat back to Sapzurro for our last night there and we were ready for our San Blas adventure!

Capurgana

From Cartagena to Necoclí we had a long day ahead of us full of enjoyable bus hours. First we took a bus to Monteria, for about 5 hours. The ride was not our best; we got quite annoyed with the driver’s assistant who kept on throwing trash out of the window, and the bus stopped so many times to pick up people that our average speeds was reduced to ‘tranquiló’, which is basically driving backwards 😉
In Monteria we got on a minibus, which drove two hours straight without any delay to Necoclí. Way better!

When arriving in Necoclí we found out that there was an annual, two day festival going on: much people, lots of noice and full hotels. Luckily we already booked a room and with our earplugs in we slept for most of the night. Necoclí is just as the travel blogs and guides tell you: only spend the night there if you really have to.

The next morning the boat to Capurgana was leaving at 8 a.m. and while standing at the dock we were amazed again by the mess the people make here. A potential beautiful beach was covered in plastic.
The boat ride though was perfectly fine because the sea was calm and it took just two hours. After arriving on the (always) crowded dock at Capurgana we walked along the beach for about 15 minutes to our home for the upcoming week: Cabaña Tucan.
We were warmly welcomed by Marco and his wife Alicia, and their home was the perfect quiet getaway! We had a spacious room and got a delicious pasta carbonara upon arrival. We were lucky with the Italian background of Marco and Alicia and we got great food for the rest of the week!

The next day we started with our PADI diving courses! I did the open water certification (my first time diving!) and Sjoerd did the advanced course at dive school ‘Dive and Green’. Within a day our names were changed in ‘Pepe’ & ‘Pepa’ since that was easier to pronounce 😊. During my first dive I found out that I needed medication for my (apparently) quite severe sea sickness. Luckily the medication worked very well and I could enjoy my following dives even more. We had a great time with our instructors Cristian and Andy!

After our certification the weather changed from sunny blue skies to heavy rain all day. It wasn’t too bad and we filled our days reading some books and fixing some last things for our trip. After a great week of diving it was time to say goodbye to Marco and Alicia and say hello to Sapzurro!

Cartagena

From Medellin we booked a flight to Cartagena. We flew via Bogota because it was cheap (😁) but because of fog a lot of flights got delayed and our transit flight was even cancelled. After going back and forth a few times to different ticket offices we finally got a new ticket for a flight a few hours later (10 p.m.). To compensate we got a free ‘diner’ at Mac Donald’s from the airline company 🎉

We arrived late in Cartagena and our hostel (Quintos de la Real) wasn’t completely what we hoped for… when we got there the party was well on its way, the receptionist was drunk, and our ‘room’ was more like a closet without windows with a bunkbed squeezed into it. We booked the room for 2 nights but left immediately the next morning and looked for a better place to sleep. After some walking around with our backpacks in 30 degrees Celsius we found the Zana hotel boutique. This one was heaven compared to the previous one!

What about Cartagena itself? Well it turns out that January is the busiest month of the year because the Colombians have holidays and frankly it isn’t pretty with so many tourists. As always with high seasons also here the prices increased dramatically and it was so busy that the good restaurants had queues out on the streets. But we already set our hopes on a great restaurant called ‘La Cevicheria’ and queued for 45 minutes… High season however doesn’t affect the quality of the food and we were happy again!

After that we went back to ‘Getsemani’, the area where our hotel was. Our hotel was located in a quiet street with a lovely little square at the end. Here we enjoyed a great diner at an Italian restaurant called ‘Basilica’ (we ended up here the other day for lunch and diner as well, loved this place!).

The next day we woke up early to visit Castillo de San Felipe. The waking up early was a good idea; no other tourists yet 🙂 We walked around through the tunnels of the fort and learned more about how the Spanish used this place to defend Cartagena from the English.

After this visit we spend the afternoon figuring out if our original plan, go to Capurganá to enjoy this tranquil Caribbean village, was still a good plan considering the overload of tourists in Cartagena. We tried to come up with different scenarios but eventually we figured out that Capurganá is quite a remote place so we sticked to our plan!
We pre-booked a hostel a little bit out of town (more quiet) and had contact with the dive school so we were set for a PADI course. We also got a crazy amount of Colombian pesos and dollars, since there are no ATMs at this place, and we planned to stay here for 2 weeks.

The mass tourism was a bit of a shock to us because until now we only travelled during low season. But if this is all we can nag about we shouldn’t complain!

Guatapé

From Medellin we went on a day trip to ‘Piedra del Peñol’ and Guatapé. In Medellin we took the metro to the northern bus terminal, from where lots of buses leave to Guatapé. After around 2 hours we arrived at Piedra del Peñol; you can reach the top by climbing a staircase with 659 steps and from there you have a stunning view over the surrounding archipelago. However, during the climb up the rock, we were accompanied by 4389 (maybe less, maybe more…) Colombian tourists resulting in one big ‘traffic jam’ on the stairs which ruined the experience a bit…

After we returned from the crowded rock we took a bus for about 5 minutes to Guatapé. A small touristic town with bright colored houses. Fun to walk around but honestly not that interesting. We did have a nice lunch (yeah!) at ‘Donde Sam’. From Guatapé we took the bus back to Medellin again.

To sum up: it was fine to go here since we had an extra day in Medellin, but we weren’t sure it was really worth the effort (mainly because of all the other tourists).

Medellin

From Salento we took a direct bus to Medellin. We arrived in the afternoon and didn’t do much for the rest of the day. Next day it was December 31 and during the day we walked around in the El Poblado neighborhood where our hostel (Casa Kiwi) was as well. Poblado is a nice neighborhood with a European feel; lots of fancy bars, shops and restaurants. One of our favorites was ‘Pergamino’, where they serve really good coffee. In the evening lots of restaurants were closed because of New Year’s Eve so we had a simple burger and went to a party in Hostal Selena. We had a great night there, although we kind of missed the counting down at 12 PM and the fireworks.

Next day we took it easy and strolled around El Poblado. We had brunch at Al Alma. In the evening we met with Josephine and Grant who happened to be in Medellin as well! We went to ‘El Mercado del rio’, a place quite similar to ‘the food hallen’ in Amsterdam with delicious food and wine.

The day after we went for a ‘free walking tour’ with ‘real city tours’. We walked for about 4 hours through downtown Medellin and learned more about the violent history of the city and how they managed to turn it around. It was a well organized, interesting and fun tour! After the tour we took a cable car to ‘Santa Domingo’, one of the less developed areas of Medellin. From the cable car you have a beautiful view over the town and the cable car has improved the neighborhood itself as well: it provides the people with a connection to Medellin’s metro system, for only a few pesos. It makes Medellin accesible for them and creates chances for the people outside their own neighborhood.

We enjoyed our time in Medellin, even though we mainly relaxed and tried out the coffee bars and restaurants 🙂 Besides ‘Pergamino’ we had great breakfast/lunch at ‘Al Alma’ and ‘Mundo Verde’ and we enjoyed a tasty steak for dinner at ‘Burdo’. Our hostel, Casa Kiwi, was relaxed; it had a pool table, roof top terrace and hammocks and our private room was actually pretty quiet!

Sacha Mama

Sacha Mama is a natural reserve owned by Pedro and his family (his wife Maryori and his daughters Sara and Juanita). It is located 9 km from Salento. Pedro picked us up with his 4×4 and it took is 45 minutes over the bumpy dirt road to reach their house.

The house has an amazing view over the valley and their garden. The garden is actually a forest filled with beautiful birds and exotic trees, such as; toucans, motmots, woodpeckers, palm and avocado trees, and of course coffee plants!

The house itself is basic in the sense that it does not have windows, electricity, nor hot water. But as Pedro states: ‘candles are nicer anyway’ 😊 And since there is no electricity, there is no fridge and so they only cook fresh food and every meal was delicious!

We spent the first day walking around in the garden and learning about the production process of coffee. Pedro told us about the current regulations in Colombia: almost all ‘raw’ coffee beans are exported. In Colombia you will hardly drink real Colombian coffee since the production process doesn’t take place here. Apparently most Colombians (incl. coffee farmers) drink Nescafé at home…
All export of coffee beans goes via one private owned company called ‘Juan Valdez’, it is not allowed as a farmer to expert beans directly to a foreign company. All beans are collected and mixed at Juan Valdez, get a (random) specific label like ‘fair trade’ or ‘organic’ and are sold. The farmers don’t get a good price and are forced to focus on quantity instead of quality. They all grow a specific genetically modified coffee plant (which is lower and has more fruits which makes it easier to pick) and often collect fruits that are not yet ripe. In this model it is almost impossible to run a business in the traditional way.

Pedro makes a living by offering eco tourism tours to his farm. He has a few coffee plants and the rest of the garden is a great mixture of plants and trees. This biodiversity is for example important for wildlife. Pedro guides people around and explains the traditional and new way of farming. He does not sell the beans for export, but processes them himself and sells the coffee to tourists visiting his house (like us).

It was really interesting to watch to production process of the coffee:
1. Pick the fruits (only the red ones are ripe).
2. Separate the seed (bean) from the fruit.
3. Let the bean (that looks like a peanut) dry and ferment for 2 days in a closed wooden box. Normally the beans are exported after this step.
4. Remove the skin (perkament) from the bean.
5. Heat the bean at 200 degrees for 15-20 minutes while constantly rotating. Only after this step the coffee bean looks like the brown bean as we know it.
6. Let the beans cool down.
7. Grind the beans.
8. Make coffee! Several different techniques are possible like filtration, infusion or espresso (steam).

The fresh coffee tasted great! We went to bed early – tired from listening and talking lots of Spanish all day 😉 – and slept well in our ‘tent’ in the upper part of the house.

The next day we woke up with a stunning view on the mountains, lots of birds and of course… fresh coffee! We walked around a bit in the morning and spent the rest of the day mainly reading since it was quite rainy.

We really enjoyed our stay at this peaceful place and would definitely recommend everyone who’s visiting the Colombian zona cafeteria to bring Pedro and his lovely family a visit. You can find more information about them on their website: http://www.44inc.com/fincasachamama/about.html

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To conclude: all above information is as Pedro told us (or better; as how we understood his story in Spanish 😬) so it might be the case that there are different points of view on the ‘Colombian coffee story’ or that some details are not 100% correct 😉

Salento

From Cali we took the bus to Armenia (3 hours), from where we took another smaller bus to Salento (0,5 hour). We arrived in the afternoon and explored the small (touristic) town a bit. We had really good cappuccinos and carrot cake at ‘café Jesús Martin’ and in the evening we had a nice dinner at restaurant ‘Acaime’.

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The next morning we woke up early to take a ‘Willy’ (old jeeps from World War II, the main form of transportation in rural parts of the zona cafeteria) to Cocora. We hiked 1,5 hour uphill to Reserva Natural Acaime and after some coffee we continued our hike (about 2 hours) to end up in the beautiful valley filled with wax palms (Valle de Cocora).

We returned to Salento again and chilled a bit in the afternoon. In the evening we ate some delicious Indian curry at ‘Casa la Eliana’. We stayed two nights in Salento at ‘Floresta hostal’, which was basic but good (clean and a warm shower).

Up next: a two day stay at a local coffee farmer!

Christmas in Cali

We arrived by (night) bus in Cali early in the morning. At the bus terminal we crashed at the Dunkin Donuts for some WiFi and booked a hotel: ‘hotel boutique casa farallones’, which turned out to be a very good choice. After arrival we we’re welcomed by the super friendly Sebastian and our room was great.
We spend the day with some practical stuff: doing laundry and buying a lonely planet (since ours accidentally ended up in Nell’s suitcase and went back to the Netherlands). In the afternoon we walked through the San Antonio neighborhood and had some coffee with a delicious brownie at ‘PAO pizza bakery café’. Since a lot of restaurants are closed on sundays we had dinner in the restaurant of the Marriott hotel (‘The market cali’) and celebrated Christmas Eve with sushi!

The next day we spent our (not so typical) Christmas arranging some stuff for the rest of our Colombia trip and walking through the completely quiet old town. We had a great lunch at PAO (seemed to be the only place that was open) and at the end of the afternoon we took a taxi to the ‘Salsódromo’. This is a yearly parade of salsa/rumba dancers to start the 5 day festival ‘Féria de Cali’. Instead of being inside with the whole family for Christmas, in Cali they go out dancing on really loud salsa music! We decided to join, had a Christmas diner of beer and chips and watched the amazing skilled dancers! Unfortunately you needed tickets for the best spots, so we had to watch the parade from a lookout point on the bridge. After two hours it started raining really bad, so we didn’t partied until the next day 😊

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