San Blas(t) Adventures: Sailing from Colombia to Panama

Now that the moving in is all settled, we can get back to the adventures.

San Blas Islands, Panama — August 2014

After leaving Cartagena, we spent just one night in Turbo before leaving for the promised (is)land chain: the San Blas Islands. There are a few ways you can do this three-night, four-day journey—most of which involve large-scale sailboats and lots of time in the open water. Because of my sensitive sea stomach, and because we wanted to spend time on the islands themselves, we decided to go with the group from San Blas Adventures.

At the start of the trip, as we were first sitting down to meet our other group members and get acquainted, our guide, Jessica said that this was going to be the “highlight of our travels.” I’m not usually one for hyperbolic statements, especially about travel, so I sort of laughed and took it to mean that the trip would be a good one and I’d enjoy myself. Little did I know that Jess would be right.

At first glance, this trip could seem very superficial—lots of pretty islands, a ton of rum, coconut trees, crystal blue waters. It’s everything a Caribbean calendar in the supermarket promises. But with San Blas Adventures, we got a whole new layer of experience, interacting with the indigenous Panamanian population: the Kuna Yala. And that quickly became a very special layer to all of us on the trip. San Blas Adventures is the only tourism company currently operating as a 50/50 partnership between Westerners and the Kuna. Due to bad relationships with tourism companies in the past, a lot of the Kuna communities have shuttered their islands to tourists, and the bulk of the islands we visited with San Blas Adventures were completely closed to other groups.


Spending time on the islands meant staying in actual Kuna villages themselves. I think it’s safe to bet that aside from one of our fellow travelers who was Panamanian-American, the rest of us knew absolutely nothing about the Kuna people or the Kuna culture. So I really appreciated the fact that when we arrived in the first island, Caladonia, Jess took us on a detailed tour of the village, which ran to the very edges of the land space. We learned about their history, their way of life, and their traditions—everything from their political structure to their interactions with mainland Panama to the way the celebrate weddings. What I found most fascinating was their matriarchal system. Female Kunas run the show, from families to businesses; in fact, oftentimes we’d see the men out doing the day-to-day work, and the women would be sitting in hammocks, giving directions. Jess also told us what were appropriate interactions with the villagers and what weren’t (for example, we were advised not to take photos of the women unless we specifically asked), and introduced us to different families as we wove our way through the village. I found that whole experience to be really refreshing and respectful—and felt less like an intruding tourist than a welcomed guest.

Our accommodations were also “very Kuna”: sleeping in hammocks, adventurous bathroom set-ups, and more than the usual share of the elements (especially since it was rainy season!). The first night one enterprising family had set up the equivalent of a hostel for us: basically a large hut that extended out over the water. It was absolutely stunning—but the real kicker was the toilet, which “flushed” (and we’re playing fast and loose with that term here) straight into the sea. The second night there was another hostel, but due to an impending storm that closed some of the outdoor sleeping areas, we couldn’t fit everyone in. That meant David, myself, and two others in our group stayed in an actual Kuna home, constructed of coconut fibers with a simple dirt floor. The third night we spent in coconut fiber shelters on the beach on a deserted island, with sand for the floor and fairly open walls.

Our days were spent boating from village to beach to village again, starting our mornings early and maximizing our time in the beautiful Caribbean water. We’d have a simple breakfast of cereal and powdered milk, bread and jam, or fresh fruit, take our ginger pills, and then plop into boats manned by our Kuna captains. Once we got to our “day-trip” islands, we were free to do as we pleased. Sometimes we set up a beach volleyball court, or hiked around as best we could in our flip-flops and bare feet. Sometimes we grouped together for an impromptu yoga session. On our last day, a few of the group swam to a neighboring island. There was lots of snorkeling, tanning, and Frisbee tossing. We shared books and travel stories with our 20 other group mates—who were from Australia, Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands, and America.

Our nights involved claiming our hammocks and hunkering down. The first and second nights we explored the villages and played with the Kuna children, who loved showboating for our clicking cameras. Meals included plenty of fresh seafood, chicken, rice, and D’Elidas hot sauce, served on blue and white Melamine plates as we sat elbow-to-elbow at wooden picnic tables. After we finished our meal, we’d wash the plates in saltwater, using sand as the dish soap. Then we’d gather back around for card games, drinking games, or a rousing round for Werewolf, which involved much shouting and false accusations. Pretty much every person had brought his or her own bottle of rum. Beer, Cokes, and coconuts were all available for purchase in the villages, recorded on an honor tab system.

It was as if some huge hand has pushed the reset button on all of us: despite being unshaven, unshowered, and woken every morning by huge thunderstorms, we were simply and raucously happy. Jess was right—it was the highlight of our travels: the perfect combination of good people and good times. If you ever find yourself passing through Panama and are in the mood for an adventure, you’ve got to do this.

If you’re going on a San Blas Adventure definitely bring:

  • Frisbee, blow-up beach ball, soccer ball
  • Sunscreen is obvious, but also make sure you’ve got bug spray and calamine lotion
  • GoPro, watertight camera case or underwater camera
  • Ziploc bags and trashbags for extra water-proofing (passports, docs, phones, etc)
  • Your favorite drinking game to share
  • A hat or cap to keep the sun at bay (and aloe lotion in case of sunburn)
  • A bottle of hand sanitizer and/or pack of Wet Ones
  • TOILET PAPER

Pro tips:

  • This trip isn’t for the squeamish—if you’re finnicky about showering every day or peeing outdoors, you’ll have to check that at the door.
  • SBA has snorkels, but there aren’t technically enough for everyone to have one if the whole group wanted to snorkel at the same time. We brought our own snorkels (and flippers) and were glad to have them.
  • Bring ginger pills, even if you don’t think you’ll get seasick. If nothing else, they’ll be good for settling your rum hangover.
  • It’s probably worth it to invest in some dry bags before embarking—that’s the one thing I would redo, just for peace of mind.
  • Be advised that Panamanian Immigration is serious business: they completely empty your bag and pick through everything you’ve got in there. So be careful if you’ve got your stuff packed to the gills, because it will be a pain to jam it all back in there on a tight schedule. And if you’ve got the chance to do laundry before embarking…do it. Nothing worse than the immigration lady poking through your dirty undies in front of the whole group.

Other than that, what’s left to say but have a great time!

The Adventure Begins: Turbo, Colombia

If you hate sleeping in hammocks, the San Blas islands are probably not for you. If you hate traveling by boat, the islands are probably not your jam. If you hate drinking games, meeting new people, bonfires, snorkeling, or fine white sand, you are likely going to hate the San Blas islands.

Luckily for you, there’s a destination that is the perfect antithesis of San Blas, and its name is Turbo.

For those going on the San Blas Adventure trip from Colombia to Panama, Turbo will be your first overnight as a group. For those adventuring in reverse, from Panama to Colombia, it will perhaps be your woeful last night. (This applies strictly to those coming from or proceeding on to Cartagena–those taking the bus to or from Medellin will be spared the bleakness of this less than jovial port city). Turbo’s gnarliness cannot be blamed on San Blas Adventures. Though it would be awesome to stay somewhere else that night, no matter how we figured, there was no getting around it. Turbo is literally the last land-stop before we embarked on the boats to the island.

What to expect when traveling through Turbo:

We left Cartagena in the morning, and after a ten-hour van ride that included fording a river (which was actually pretty badass), we arrived at what our guidebook called a “lawless border town.” It was late in the day and raining. San Blas Adventures had provided for our transport and arranged a hostel stay for us, which was good, because at the hour we arrived, no one wanted to go poking around the city. Honestly, it was the only place in Colombia that I felt less than safe.

The hostel we stayed in was Residencia Florida. It was a bleak little place directly across from the waterfront. Luckily, we’d been able to preview the place via this Youtube video on our ride over.

We were expecting moldy walls and bare bulbs, and it delivered! Our group was shown to a series of double bed rooms and bunk bed rooms, each with what could euphemistically be called a semi-private bath. If we’re truth-talking, though, the only thing separating the toilet from the bed was the addition of a slightly translucent and very flimsy shower curtain. If you’re traveling with a loved one or close friend, expect to become closer. If you wound up rooming with a stranger…well, best make friends quickly. The beds were about as comfortable as a stack of flattened cardboard—indeed, we’re pretty sure that’s what composed the mattresses.


There weren’t rooms for all of us at the inn, and we watched with a bit of envy as four of our number got upgraded to the hotel next door. That is…until we learned that the sinks and showers next door spouted dirty brown water when opened. So, to be fair to Residencia Florida, it could have been much worse. (Also in fairness, I didn’t see a single bug in the room, neither cockroach nor bedbug).

Food options were scarce in Turbo, especially for those among us who were vegetarians, who resorted to cheese and tomato crackers from the local mercado. The rest of us attempted different variations of street food: skewers, chorizo and papas fritas, or Hawaiian pizza. Expecting the worst, we were pleasantly surprised at the decency in both price and taste, and by no ill effects after.

It was around dinnertime that our mood took an upswing. Sitting on colorful plastic stools along the sidewalk, we cracked open cheap beers, unleashed our tirade of complaints, and found the laughter in the situation. Over ice-cold Aguilas, we traded stories of horrible drives, less-than-clean hostels, and awkward bathroom experiences. So Turbo, if nothing else, provided a fine bonding experience. And the irony of staying in the armpit of the country before departing for paradise escaped no one. The adventure had begun, and lucky for us, it could only get better from there.

Cartagena, Colombia: Door Decor

Cartagena is famous for its beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. Ornately carved woodwork, beautiful balconies, shuttered windows, shining stucco, and brilliant orange-tiled roofs all draw the eye and the camera lens, but my favorite architectural detail had to be the door decor. An unexpected bit of elegance and whimsy, these metal creations added personality and flair to the adobe they fronted and the streets they faced.

Cartagena, Colombia: A Fun and Cheap Itinerary

While Cartagena is starting to boom as a hotspot Colombian destination (if the plethora of swanky bars and burgeoning boutique hotels in the Walled City are any indication), it’s still quite possible to tour the city as a budget traveler. Here’s a few recommendations for fun and cheap ways to enjoy this beautiful port city.

Brush up on your history

Most of Cartagena’s historical attractions are either free or really cheap. We loved the Museo del Oro, which provided a fascinating glimpse into the history of Colombian gold and the Zenu culture. The exhibits were both in English and Spanish, the gold metalwork was absolutely breathtaking, and best of all, it was heavily air-conditioned. (And also FREE)

Explore the Old City

Cartagena has some of the most beautiful colonial architecture I’ve seen. Bright walls, cobbled streets, and ornate woodwork are just a few of the rich details. Spend an afternoon wandering the alleys and streets of the Old City, ducking into shops and lounging in the squares. But be sure to come back again in the evening, when the streets fill with vendors and performers. Plaza de Bolivar had a cultural dance performance every night we were there—elsewhere in the city bands played, DJ’s spun, and Michael Jackson impersonators did the moonwalk. For those worried about safety, I felt extremely comfortable wandering the streets and squares, although the guidebook expressly stated not to roam the top of the wall after dark.

Take in the sunset

Pop up to the top of the wall about a half hour before sunset and claim a seat in one of the nooks and crannies. Bring a drink (an ice-cold Aguila, a glass of juice, or a bottle of water) and relax as tourists and locals alike gather to catch sight of the sun slipping low above the water.

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This shot doesn’t do the beach a whole lot of justice, but trust me—clean and beautiful.

Skimp on the day trips

If Cartagena is just one stop along the journey, think about saving money by skipping the day trips. We splurged on just one guided excursion—a trip out to the Totumo Volcano—but opted out of other day/overnight trips to the nearby beaches. Other travelers raved about the beauty of Santa Marta, but honestly, I thought the beach at Bocagrande (just a 20-minute walk from our hostel in Getsemani) was the perfect mix of pretty, clean, and not crowded. Plus you can’t beat the view of the Old City as you float in the coastal waves.

Pass an evening like a local

Grab a beer from the local corner store (yes, you can drink in public here) and catch a pick-up football game in Plaza de Trinidad. We spent more than one evening drinking Aguilas, cheering on a passel of seven-years olds, and people-watching. Splurge on some street food (a hotdog with mile-high toppings of cheese, peppers, tomatoes, and sauces was one of our favorites) to round out the night.

Turning World Cup Stadiums Into Housing

From Stadium Seats to Sitting Rooms: Turning World Cup Stadiums Into Housing

Wow—what an incredible idea. As the World Cup medal ceremony commenced, I had more than a pang of sadness at the thought of these colossal structures going to waste. But then I came across this article on Fast Company that showcases two architects with a brilliant idea of turning the World Cup stadiums into high-density housing. With the public enraged at the use of government spending for the FIFA tournament, what better way to spin the situation into a positive than by turning them into a public benefit? Click the link above for the rest of the story and pics!

 

Travel Guides for Design Snobs

Ever wish you could find a travel guide that had as much personality as the place you were visiting? Sure, Frommers and Lonely Planet have plenty of solid information, but they’re not very pretty too look at. I recently stumbled across the London-based Herb Lester, which produces some of the most gorgeously illustrated, cheerily written city guides I’ve seen.


A little about them, via the Herb Lester Associates website:

“We research, write, print and distribute travel guides to the world’s great cities. We seek out the well-used and much-loved, and enjoy the extraordinary as well as the everyday. Old bookshops and new coffee shops, park benches and dive bars, hat shops and haberdashers: this is the world according to Herb Lester.”


So not only do a get a comprehensive guide to your locale of choice—off-the-beaten paths included—you also get what are essentially beautifully-wrought maps that could easily be framed and hung on the wall once you return from your trip.

In other words, happy shopping.

Images via herblester.com

 

Connections: Young Brazilians Meet Elderly Americans

Often the main issue with learning a new language is trying to find someone to practice with. Who do you talk to? How can you find native speakers in your home country? Agency FCB Brazil solved that problem handily by introducing a speaking exchange that used webcam technology to connect Brazilian English students with retirement home-bound elderly Americans. It’s a perfect pair of earnest enthusiasm and willingness to talk—these older folks have no one to talk to, and these young ones need someone to practice with. I love the added bonus of sharing culture and inter-generational stories. It’s a beautiful watch, and a really excellent execution of a special idea.

Traditional Brazilian Foods You Need To Eat Right Now

Buzzfeed’s 24 Traditional Brazilian Foods You Need To Eat Right Now is YES on so many levels. And it comes with recipes! I can’t wait until my classes finish up for the quarter and I have time to bust some of these out. I had the good fortune to have a lovely Brazilian as a roommate in college, and got to try a few items on the list both during those years and on a trip to Brazil with her last summer. My personal favorites?

1. Brigadeiros

Holy cow. They’re so good. Melty and chocolate and soft…kind of like a Tootsie roll that’s been left to melt in your pocket, only, you know…good.

(via Buzzfeed)
What is it: Chocolate truffles made with condensed milk instead of cream and covered in chocolate sprinkles.

Tastes like: A Nutella ball sprinkled with chocolate.
Conclusion: You’ve been missing out on chocolate rolled into balls for far too long.
Get a recipe here.

2. Pão de Queijo

Otherwise known as the #1 culprit of the 10 lbs I gained in Brazil.

(via Buzzfeed)
What is it: Little rolls of bread with cheese baked into it.

Tastes like: Yup, little rolls of bread with cheese baked into it.
Conclusion: You’ll never eat regular bread again.
Get a recipe here.

3. Feijoada.

Pure yum. We had it served with some sort of crunchy green (anyone know what it was?) and orange slices. My roommate instructred us to mix it all together, which might make you hesitate, but it was possible the best thing I’ve ever eaten. Savory, refreshing, and hearty all in one. New Yorkers, Berimbau Do Brasil in the Village makes a fantastic one of these….and last I heard they were on Scoutmob.

(via Buzzfeed)
What is it: A black bean stew with various types of beef and sausage.

Tastes like: A hearty black bean chili.
Conclusion: Chili, what are you doing with your life?
Get a recipe here.