Panama City Baby!

After our amazing sailing trip through the San Blas Islands we touched down in Panama and headed straight for the big city.

After zooming along the most ridiculous/incredible road I have ever travelled on through the Panamanian jungle we nipped across the thin strip of land to the Pacific coast.

Having spent an hour in a stuffy 4×4 weaving our way through the jungle and passing many miles of banana farms, Panama City could not have been more of a contrast.

The incredible shiny bright white mega skyline looked a force to be reckoned with. Having gone six days living on a boat only having contact with the same 10 people and seeing pure, raw and untouched natural beauty it was fair to say we knew that for now at least the simple life was over.

Luckily we got dropped off directly at our hostel because this city was a maze of skyscrapers and motorways. After the obligatory shower, unpack, rest and regroup we ventured out to find some food. Conveniently our hostel was situated right opposite a retail park with numerous food outlets and a huge 24-hour supermarket.

After our amazing sailing trip through the San Blas Islands we came ashore in the dense  tropical rainforest that makes up Panama’s Caribbean coast.

We endured a rollercoaster ride along the most ridiculous and incredible road I have ever travelled on (Machu Picchu stills holds the title for scariest) zooming through the thick and mountainous jungle, after about 40 minutes of ‘the road that makes you feel like you are in a tumble dryer’ we had escaped the rainforest , now it was a comparatively simple drive down the pot-holed freeway as we nipped across the thin strip of land to the Pacific coast.

Having woken anchored off a tranquil paradise island at dawn and then spent well over an hour spent an hour in a stuffy 4×4 weaving our way through the jungle and passing many miles of banana farms, Panama City could not have been more of a contrast.

The incredible shiny bright white mega skyline looked a force to be reckoned with, even more so after living the simple life for the last six days on the boat. Having only had contact with the same 10 people all week and living with a backdrop of pure, raw and untouched natural beauty it was fair to say we knew that for now at least the simple life was over…

Luckily, we got dropped off directly at our hostel because the city is an impossible maze of skyscrapers and motorways and we would have spent hours tired and frustrated in the midday heat trying to navigate our way around. After the obligatory shower, unpack, rest and regroup we ventured out to find some food.

Conveniently our hostel was situated right opposite a retail park with numerous food outlets and a huge 24-hour supermarket which we called upon numerous time during our short visit as we made the most of a clean and modern kitchen and saved a few pennies by cooking the majority of our meals.

That evening we had decided to meet up with some of the guys from the boat and see what Panama had to offer us in the way of nightlife. In the heavy evening heat we left our hostel and planned to meet at a bar in the old town – however plans are never that simple… we arrived to find that said bar was  closed, cue wandering around the winding streets of the old town trying to find a bar which no one seemed to as ever heard of!

Eventually we saw the huge garden with brightly coloured swings at the bar and candles and twinkly lights everywhere, we had found Finco del Mar – cocktails and beers were swiftly ordered and just kept on coming!

IMG_1567

All a bit drunk by now we decided to carry on the night, we ventured back up towards the edge of the old town where Luna’s Castle is situated and ventured up 5 flights of stairs to find a magical roof terrace.

Despite being backpackers we got carried away hanging out with our older, working friends and surely ordered more and more drinks and even some of the tiniest tapas samples I have ever seen!

Needless to say somehow we had found ourselves rubbing shoulders with the cool kids of Panama City as we sipped our drinks over-looking the vast sea of bright lights.

This group of bars is a must-visit, unfortunately I didn’t quite catch the name of the one we ended up in (the evening is already a little hazy at this point) but it was so cool – as well as the terrace the toilets are worth the visit alone – the toilet is a hotel room… I kid you not, a full hotel room complete with bed, artwork and even a bedside lamp, with an all-important ensuite of course!

A hefty bar bill later and after almost being awake 24hrs it was time to head home – except we had a slight problem, we had no idea where we were staying!! Somehow we managed to communicate to our taxi driver using vague landmarks and even vaguer Spanish and miraculously ended up back at the retail park where we swiftly hopped out and walked the last 100m to home – a good rest was much needed…

Our first full day in Panama City and we woke feeling hot and bothered as usual in the oppressive heat – deciding to take it slow we cooked our own brunch and chilled in the hostels outdoor area.

IMG_1569

Where to stay

Luna’s Castle – a.k.a backpacker heaven right in the heart of the old town and serving $1 beers to a crowd happy to sleep in crammed full dormitories – for meeting people it is second to none

Hostel Casa Areka – In amongst the high-rise mega skyline, this huge converted home has a cool open plan living space and an outdoor area complete with pool and is run by 2 friendly brothers – conveniently located right opposite a number of shops and near plenty of restaurants but it is a 4/5km walk into the old town – we usually walked one way and caught the bus the other and stuck to getting taxis at night.

What to do:

Ride the bus – I know, not exactly swanky city living,   but actually it was a great way to navigate the town (especially when you have to to-and-fro from the bus station to buy advance tickets for your onward journey) the system is quite simple(ish) it basically works in a web so each bus leaves from the main station, drives out to its destination and ten retraces its route back to the main bus station. Yes, the enormous bus terminal is a total nightmare but persevere with the crowds, queue up for your pass which you buy for 50 cents and then just top-up (we used one between us)and ride the bus around the city with the locals.

Drink the night away at one of the thousands of rooftop bars – Panama City is a lively, vibrant and modern (in parts) city which has incredible views wherever you look – whether it’s out across the Pacific Ocean or from the old town across to the metropolis of sky-scrapers, join the partying locals, grab a cold one and enjoy the hot and loud evenings.

Wander the old town – Casco Viejo – follow the inevitably beautiful winding streets aand discover little bars and cafes and street markets – be sure to snap some pics of the grand and crumbling buildings and the views out to sea!

Get your trainers on – wander or cycle or rollerblade or run all the way along the 4km waterfront promenade and admire the Pacific Ocean to one side and the mega metropolis to the other.

What not to do:

Bother with the Panama Canal – if I was back in Panama City tomorrow I would not go and visit the canal… whilst initially shocking to outsiders the harsh truth is this; they have blocked off all the access points so the only way to see it is to pay $15 each for a ticket which lets you up some stairs to see the famous Miraflores Lock and a bit of a rubbish museum – it’s well out the way from the centre of town so you have to negotiate the bus or a taxi anyway and it takes about an hour for one boat to get through… not exactly thrilling – there is so much more to Panama

Buy frozen yogurt! – Unless you want to blow $10 on a half empty, sickeningly sweet pot! Lesson learned, stick to local goodies….

Visit the causeway – in Lonely Planet described as a ‘must-see’ and described as where everyone goes in the warm evenings to get some fresh air… in reality a road, with a barrier down the middle so you can’t even enjoy the view and a smattering of dodgy looking shops and restaurants that weren’t even open… were we missing something?

Miss out on carnival! – Unfortunately due to a number of reasons (isolation on the boat, lack of internet access for over a week, general travel absent mindedness…) we came to Panama totally oblivious that carnival (basically the biggest party every year which marks the start of lent) was just around the corner – all the time we saw the stage being set for one massive city-wide party but unfortunately our travelling bug had other plans and we were already booked to go into isolation in the Panamanian mountain jungle… not exactly party of the year – we definitely should have stayed HOWEVER if you are in Panama (or indeed anywhere in Latin America) over carnival BOOK EARLY – it is the busiest time of year for everyone!!

Lost and Found in the Panamanian Mountain Jungle

After the incredible sailing trip through the San Blas islands and living the high-life in cosmopolitan Panama City it was time for something a little different on our trip.

We were heading north into the Panamanian mountain jungle for a few days of trekking and adventure! Our Australian friends from our San Blas sailing trip had told us about this amazing little hostel called Lost and Found, only accessible by hiking up the side of a steep mountain with minimal electricity, no food supply and running water we were definitely in for an adventure!

To get to this remote spot we had quite a journey on our hands;

  1. Firstly, we got an overnight bus from Panama City to David, Panama’s second city in the north of the country, along with what felt like the rest of the country (it was the first weekend of lent which is a huge national holiday across Latin America).
  2. Arriving in David bleary eyed around 6am along with the rest of the crowds we tried to navigate our way around the bus station – eventually we found the right bus, but typically it had a queue of about 200 people along with mountains and mountains of stuff – we were all waiting for tiny minibuses that were arriving every 20 minutes!
  3. Finally they sped the queue along with a coach and before we knew it we were being loaded up, however in the madness of checking out bags were on board safely and trying to establish if we could get dropped off near Lost and Found we seemed to have missed out on a seat – cue us being given 2 up turned buckets to sit on down the centre aisle… At least we only had 1.5hrs to endure!!
  4. The massively overloaded bus eased out the station and began its painfully slow traversing of the mountains of northern Panama – with an average speed of around 15mph it wasn’t until well after the 2 hour mark that we were nearing kilometre 44, our drop off point!
  5. With such minimal instructions we were keeping our eyes peeled for the fruit stand at 44km from David – somehow the bus driver realised where we were trying to go and pulled up at the side of the road, turfing us out, luckily with our bags!!
  6. Glad to be off the buckets and in the fresh air we heaved on our packs and began the steep and winding walk up to the mystical Lost and Found.

The closer you get the more the little yellow signs tempt you; ‘congratulations – you’re over halfway’, almost there, keep climbing, ‘won’t that beer taste extra good tonight’ etc…

Eventually, the jungle opened out and we saw a collection of yellow huts – we managed to find reception and sign in and we went off to brave them dorm…

Now, of all the places we could’ve chosen to embrace the communal backpacker lifestyle, it will always be a shame that we settled to do it here. The dorm was a shed, with triple-decker beds that ran head to tail.

With one window which was smaller than a shoe box and stormy conditions outside keeping the door closed, it wasn’t like the 20+ resident room was particularly well ventilated.

Regardless, we had been awake and travelling for around 30 hrs so at this point we weren’t feeling particularly fussy. After piling on all the dry clothes we had (it was freezing!) we shuffled into bed.

A few hours sleep and we hadn’t helped ourselves, it was dark, rainy, cold and we were starving, tired and irritable… not ideal. So we cooked ourselves some pasta and ventured up to the ‘games-room/bar’ for a game of scrabble!

Slowly, more people seemed to emerge (where they in the dorm?!) and suggestions were made for a ‘pub quiz’ – don’t misunderstand, the people were perfectly nice, but after living on a yacht in beautiful Caribbean islands and then Panama City for 2 weeks suddenly launching into a freezing jungle pub quiz with a focus on Canadian pop culture… I have had less strange nights!

I could go on describing each day we spent wandering the jungle in torrential rain, drinking and playing scrabble, cooking odd concoctions from what we had managed to carry up the mountain and sleeping in a squalid, over crowed dorm, but I think you are starting to get the point.

Do I have any advice?

…plenty, actually;

  • if you want to hike, take hiking gear and have a back-up plan when every piece of clothing and footwear you own is soaked through
  • take yummy food with you as this is what you look forward to when the sun sets at 6pm!
  • be prepared to be cold (we had 30c appropriate clothing, not camping kit)
  • embrace the trails – that is why you are there after all

…and finally, don’t worry to much, every time we felt cold we thought of all those many days we were too hot, or spending too much – hear we spent $10 across 3 days on a few beers and a chocolate bar.

They say life is all about finding a balance – and I like to look back on our time at Lost & Found and think of it as how we found our balance, halfway through our trip, found out what we really enjoyed and appreciated.

Soon enough, we were headed back down the mountains and out of the jungle, to the lively, friendly, creole-spiced  Bocas del Toro islands (on the same slow bus that we arrived on….)

The 10 European Cities That I Wish I Was Visiting This Weekend…

Amsterdam

Parks, cycling, canals, waffles, art, museums, shopping, nightlife and miles of winding streets waiting to be discovered… need I say more?

Canal. Amsterdam. Netherland

Canal. Amsterdam. Netherland

Siena

One day I will find myself lucky enough to be weaving my way through the eternally beautiful dusky pink streets of this Italian gem of a city; I will visit its food markets, spend hours sitting in the Piazza del Campo and finish each day with a cool glass of wine and a pizza – what else!

download

Stockholm

With over 30% of its area being waterways and another 30% parks and green spaces all spread over 30,000 beautiful islands how could you resist the Swedish capital? In case you need more persuading there is a ridiculously good food scene and some incredible shops where you try and hunt down that elusive Swede style.

download (1)

Toulon

Tucked away in the South of France this beauty gets gorgeous summer weather and lets you enjoy France for what it should be… food, wandering and wine… not so rammed full of the super-rich as some of the towns further along the coast, we’re looking at you Cannes and St Tropez!

13300

Istanbul

I think no mater how long you spend in Istanbul, even if you lived there for 20 years, you would still turn a corner and discover a totally different street or market or mosque – so many beautiful things to see and do in this half-European half-Asian city – it still counts for the list though right?

download (2)

Barcelona

Even though I became one of the millions of tourists every year that are stung by Barcelona’s insatiable pickpockets this is still one of my favourite places in the world… it is all about the sun, shopping, markets, eating at midnight and dancing til dawn.

download (3)

Dubrovnik

Bright red buildings pop against the ever-so-inviting sparkling blue Adriatic sea – all that’s on the to-do list here is to worship the sun and immerse yourself in the cities rich history.

Slider-Dubrovnik-2_1600x828

Reykjavik

Even though I truly want to wait until deepest darkest winter to visit Iceland’s capital when you can relax in the heat of the Blue Lagoon, search for the Northern Lights and experience a true winter wonderland – I couldn’t not put in on the list, so, here we are…

download (4)

Budapest

The Danube splits Buda and Pest, leaving palatial government buildings on one impressive hill side and winding cobbled streets lined with hot spring baths, tiny cavern-like shops and of course, the infamous ruin bars on the other. Unforgivably hot in the summer and furiously cold in the winter – take your pick!

Hungarian landmarks, Chain Bridge, Royal Palace and Danube river in Budapest at night.

Copenhagen

Yet another destination perhaps that should be left until winter for those pre-Christmas markets, short days lit by festive lights and a café culture that is undeniably one of the best in the world, pack your gloves and scarf because the Danish capitals natural beauty is only enhanced by a touch of frost.

copenhagen-denmark-3

Sailing the San Blas Islands; Paradise Found Between Colombia and Panama

A 5 day sailing trip across the Caribbean Sea and hopping between the picture-perfect San Blas Islands  …

… This was always going to be one of the ultimate highlights of the trip!

The thing is with the San Blas Islands I that they are just too perfect and picturesque to even begin to describe, so believe me when I say that this must be where they take those pictures that end up as everyone’s computer screen savers!

Take a look for yourself…

The sailing trip was one of our biggest expenses at $550 (or £300) however, for that money you get 5 days and nights on board the boat, all food and water, some extras like snorkel gear and fishing lines and an experienced island guide (your captain and crew).

You can check out my last post, how to book your San Blas sailing trip, for a more detailed fact sheet, but here is where you can glimpse an insight into how our week sailing across the Caribbean Sea went.

As instructed, we arrived at Cartagena’s marina at 8pm ready to meet the captain and crew, our fellow travellers and to board the Amande.

With the inevitable space limitations on the boat we had been advised to split our stuff into a main bag which would be put in the hold and our small bag of things that we needed for the week – literally a book, bikini, towel, sun cream and a toothbrush.

In addition to our small bag for the week we also had a couple of snacks and some beers – what we underestimated though was the generosity of everyone else – by the time we were boarding the boat we had a wheel barrow (not even joking) overflowing with booze – mainly beers and dark rum, how very Caribbean.

It is always a little nerve-wracking when your meeting a group of travellers that you going to be under taking an experience with, this is obviously for a number of reasons from obvious obstacles such as a crucial language barrier to the more subtle of personality differences.

Ideally you want a group of like-minded people that you can relax around and who will add to the overall experience.

On paper we sounded like a hilarious group, aged 18-40 and a mix of Dutch, German, Aussie, Irish and us Brits – however, the group could not have worked better. Instantly we were joking and laughing, comparing travel routes and experiences and most importantly of all super excited to be undertaking this incredible opportunity to island hop the San Blas.

So, here is a brief outline of all the ups and downs and amazing experience that is sailing from Colombia to Panama;

Day 1

8pm Arrive at Cartagena marina, meet group for sailing, captain and crew – load up boat with wheel barrow of booze

9pm Group chat on board – our captain Viktor explains the timetable for the next few days, explains a few boat rules (e.g. only brushing your hair over the back edge of the boat) and we decide on our cabins etc.

11pm Having spent the evening getting to know each other and joking around it is time to try and get some sleep  before we set sail in the middle of the night

Day 2

4am We are woken as the engine comes to life and we chug out of harbour – thinking the steady rocking is easily manageable and actually quite comforting

5am Clearly we were mistaken as once out of the harbour it feels like we are in The Perfect Storm – sleep is off the cards as we struggle not to knock each other out

5:05am Screams from next door indicate that the Dutch couple forgot to close their window and have had and early morning sea shower

9am After 4hrs of churning around in our cabin unable to sleep everyone emerges for some fresh air – the day is spent with people alternating between on deck, in bed and unfortunately in the toilet – conditions are super rough and most people (captain Viktor included) are feeling sick as a dog

2pm A light sandwich lunch gets everyone together for a bit and most stay on deck long enough to see a big tuna being caught

5pm As the sun sets the sea turns the most incredible deep blue colour and we are lucky enough to have a playful group of dolphins follow the boat for 10 minutes

8pm After a long day of the constant lurching and churning of the boat supper doesn’t go down to well but everyone eagerly shares their excitement for our arrival in the islands in the morning. Eventually people slope off to bed hoping to get a couple of hours sleep – many more near-knocking-each-other-out incidents occur!

Day 3

7am With sunrise you can spot the first of the islands emerging on the horizon – the sea is flat calm, the sun is shining and we could not be more excited about getting of the boat and onto the picture perfect beach!

9am A quick breakfast followed by a gathering of snorkels and sun cream and soon enough Cappy Viktor was taking us into the most beautiful beach I have ever seen. Crystal clear waters over perfect white sands which led out to an immaculate coral reef all set to a perfect backdrop of coconut-laden palms (WARNING: don’t touch the coconuts – these are the Kuna’s only currency) .

2pm After a full morning of swimming, sunbathing and island exploring it was time to head back on board the boat for some lunch… and what a lunch it was, Sophie, our French crew, had cooked the tuna we caught on yesterday’s crossing, fresh lobster tails bought from the local Kuna people and a selection of yummy salads. Everyone stuffed themselves on the delicious meal and after some lazing in the sun on deck we all decided to go back to the islands.

6pm More swimming and snorkelling and soon enough the sun was beginning to set – but Cappy Viktor showed little interest in coming to pick us up… with everyone wishing we had bought some beers to the beach we sat around chatting until the sun had long gone.

8pm Eventually we heard the tiny whirring of the tenders engine coming towards the island, after two trips we were all back on board the Amande. Shower time (a.k.a hosing yourself down off the back off the boat) soon turned into dinner and drinks as everyone reminisced on their first day in paradise.

12am As midnight came our cabins called and we all relished the chance to sleep peacefully anchored in harbour.

Day 4

8am – Rising early with the sun everyone was keen to discuss the plan for the day – it was decided that after a quick brekkie we would up anchor and sail to the next island we were visiting (normally captains prefer to use the engine to manoeuvre between islands as it is quicker and more reliable however we agreed we were in no rush and would enjoy spending the day sailing across the beautiful blue sea that stretched between the islands).

11am As the Amande glided through the perfect sea another friendly group of dolphins came and joined us swimming alongside the boat and jumping through the waves.

1pm – We made it to yet another incredible, picture-perfect island and dropped anchor – the group decided that we could wait to eat so instead we headed for shore. This island was home to the local bar and a volleyball net! Needless to say many competitive UK vs. Holland vs. Panama vs. Rest of World matches ensued! After hours of volleyball we all relaxed under the shade of a palm tree and somehow got around to doing an English-Dutch-German language lesson!

4pm – With tummies rumbling it was back to the boat for a bit of lunch – this was soon followed by some jumping in of the yacht and a visit to another, smaller and quieter island. The small group that had ventured on to the second island of the day was rewarded by a rare opportunity to get to meet and interact with the Kuna people. We met the family who lived there, including their sweet little son, as they personally welcomed us onto the island. We stayed until well after sunset at which point we thought Cappy Viktor and Sophie were coming to pick us up… instead they sped off in the dingy about 1km away from everything, stayed there (doing god knows what… sexy time, sharing a spliff?) until they finally zoomed back to the islands, picked us up and returned us to the boat and the rest of the group.

Late – Another night of back-of-boat showers dinner and drinks followed after which everyone decided to crack on with the Caribbean rum. After a while we were all sat on deck under a sky of thousands of twinkling stars, Allister, our Aussie friend produced a bottle of champagne, declaring he had an announcement to make… it turns out that last night he had proposed to his long-term girlfriend  Michelle… and she had said yes! Inevitably celebrations continued long into the night.

Day 5

9am – Perhaps a slightly more sedate start to the day after last night’s celebrations but after a quick break and a short journey to Dog Island we were ready to dive the ship wreck just off shore and see plenty more tropical fish!

3pm – A long morning of snorkelling the wreck, swimming in the unbelievably clear waters and sun bathing on the island and we were all ready for a regroup back on the boat – we had opted to push lunch later again today as after a morning anchored off Dog Island we were to make our way to the island with the immigration office on it – the beginning of the end of our time in the San Blas.

5pm – Now anchored of the immigration island it was a tense wait to see if all our fake plane tickets had worked… (Panama have recently introduced a $100 entry tax for tourists arriving by boat and planning to stay in the country for more than 72 hours) of the 20 of us, 7 had been advised a fake ticket would work fine, no questions asked…

5:30pm – The tense wait is suspended as Sophie comes back to tell us that they KNOW the tickets are FAKE!! BUT they said they are willing to give us all stamps if we pay them $100 in total… the 7 of us agreed to pay up and shut up feeling as though we had gotten away with it getting a 3 month visa for $14 each!

6pm – Having got Helena (the German) English-Spanish translator, Sophie and Cappy Viktor AND all our passports safely back on board Viktor broke the news that we were to stay anchored off this island for our last night in the San Blas. Whilst, obviously it was as beautiful as ever, this island did have the immigration office and the tiny landing strip on it… not entirely picturesque… we all came together to persuade Viktor to take us to one more beautiful island for our last evening.

7pm – Just a short hop away we were once again in total isolation anchored off yet another beautiful island, we all went on land and ventured around to bag the perfect beach spot and sunset viewpoint. Armed with bags full of beers we sat in the warm water for hours watching the local Kuna kids playing and seeing the sun dip below the horizon… now in darkness we made our way back around the island to try and get a lift back to the boat, however Cappy Viktor obviously wasn’t ready to pick us up so we visited the hut on the island which happened to be a bar, well a hut with a fridge full of beers! This clearly kept us amused until Cappy Viktor came to join us and bought us all another round whilst telling us a bit about his life as a salty sea captain!

Late – finally back on the boat we shared our last dinner together and reminisced about the week which somehow ended up in a bit of a drunken sing-song! When asked to sing a ‘typical British song’ our minds went blank… in the end we settled on teaching our multi-national friends several verses of Yogi Bear… (if you know it, then you know…)

Very Late – Fridge almost empty of beers we settled into our cabins for one last night already dreading the 6am wake-up call

Airstrip and Customs island

Day 6

6am – The 1st wakeup call sounds out and a couple of early risers start shuffling about

6:30am – The 2nd wakeup call resounds and everyone is forced out there cabins to pack there bags ready to transfer on the speedboat

7:00am – The speedboat arrives and we load it up with our bags and ourselves – after many thanks were given to Viktor and Sophie it was time to head to mainland Panama.

8:30am – After a beautiful morning ride across the glassy ocean we turn into a creek that winds up through the dense jungle, after a bit of bird-watching we arrived at a break in he jungle which was our welcome to Panama – all unloaded we waited in the heat for the 4×4’s which would take us to Panama City – now we had the sand-flies to contend with!

10am – After about a 100 ‘please, 5 more minutes…’ the little scrub land car park/dock was inundated with hundreds of travellers both arriving and preparing to leave… inevitably madness ensued. The temperature rose as did our impatience as we waited and waited and waited… suddenly the 6am start was seeming a little pointless…

11am Our group got split up and it was everyone for themselves as we all forced our way onto one of the 4×4’s – finally we managed to get 2 spaces in a car and we were making our way along an incredible, windy, impossible steep road through the jungle to Panama City!

Top Tips to get the best out of the San Blas experience;

  1. SWIM, SWIM, SWIM… seriously this water is the most incredible water you will ever see in your life, make the most of it and spend all your time swimming and snorkelling!!
  2. Be prepared to be ill… not ideal but between the sea sickness, constant swimming, drinking water stored on the boat and generally being in an unusual environment you can pretty much guarantee you will be ill at some point during this trip, HOWEVER do not let this put you off, it is the most incredible place and yes, you have to forgo a few luxuries to live in a natural paradise – but you can prevent (in parts) against sea sickness so take the tablets!
  3. Bring your own booze and snacks – it makes the whole time way more sociable and fun and due to variable meal times snacks are sometimes required!
  4. Take plenty of cash – you can buy souvenirs from the Kuna (including fresh coconuts), you will need cash to pay for the 4×4 journey (about $40) and you need that spare $100 just in case the immigration officials are feeling greedy
  5. Go with the flow – yes I offer this advice a lot but it could not be more true in this instance, sharing a boat with strangers, corrupt customs officials and that old classic, island time – there is no point in getting worked up – you are in paradise, what is the rush?

THE GANG!

The Amande


                

Sailing from Colombia to Panama; How to Book the Best San Blas Sailing Trip

If you are ever lucky enough to be in either Colombia or Panama then it is an absolute MUST that you sail through the unbelievable San Blas islands.

Now, there are many different ways to do this, each of which involve different amounts of time spent at sea and a few different companies.

These include day trips to the islands from El Porvenir, Panama, short trips from Turbo, Colombia (2.5 hrs at sea by speedboat) or from Cartagena, Colombia to El Porvenir (30-40 hrs at sea sailing).

We opted to go for a bit of an adventure and commit to the sailing from Cartagena, on Colombia’s northern Caribbean coast.

We chose this option for a number of reasons;

  1. We wanted to visit Cartagena anyway
  2. We wanted to embrace the sailing aspect of sailing across the Caribbean sea
  3. By this point we needed a break from land travel so the thought of having to negotiate our way on an over-complicated bus route through the jungle to another departure port wasn’t ideal

Perfect snorkeling off our first island stop

We hadn’t booked our trip in advance because we had no known ideal departure date and often an unreliable internet connection, furthermore using an iPhone can be tricky when browsing fairly basic websites. With these thoughts in mind we waited until we were in Cartagena and could pop in to the Blue Sailing office ourselves to discuss all options and book our trip on the spot.

Luckily, Blue Sailing’s office sits right in the heart of Getsemani, Cartagena’s old town, right around the corner from where we were staying at Hostel Mamallena. Upon arrival in the city we headed straight there and talked through our options with Laurel, the friendly American girl who runs the office.

We discussed a number of options that were leaving in around 7-10 days time and chose our boat on the following criteria;

  1. The number of people that were on each boat
  2. Whether it was known as a party boat, a chilled boat, or for fishing or diving etc.
  3. The boats captain and whether they have crew (which massively effects the type of food you get throughout the trip)
  4. And of course, the cost (trips vary from $500-$600) and benefits (comfort, food, activities etc.)

The Amande steaming towards the San Blas

Crucially, we found the Blue Sailing office to be really helpful when booking our trip, if I were to repeat the trip I would definitely refrain from booking online and go through the office.

However, this isn’t to say that our whole trip booking experience was entirely problem free… in fact, it would be fair to say that once we thought we had our trip all organised and our departure date settled it was then the issues arose!

The day before departure we woke to an email for which the subject was ‘change in plans’ which isn’t always the best sign. We popped into the office and discovered the issue; we were being moved onto a different boat which postponed our trip by 2 days.

The problem was that a boat had failed to set sail that day due to a lack of people but 4 of the travellers were booked on a flight for the day after the boat arrives – in short, they needed to get on a boat leaving asap. After a lot of discussion with Laurel we resolved the issue, we moved from the Koala 2 to the Amande, leaving 2 days later and in recompense Blue Sailing funded us for 2 return seats on their shuttle to the incredible Playa Blanca.

After an incredible stay on the Rosario Islands (read more here) we returned to Cartagena ready to depart on the Amande that night.

The beyond beautiful San Blas islands

FAQ’s;

Do you have to book months in advance?

Now this is a tricky one – everywhere you look online they recommend booking a few months in advance if travelling in peak season (Jan-May). Whilst this may be advantageous to ensure yourself a spot there are a number of reasons why I would advise against booking so far ahead;

  1. We traveled in Feb and had a pick from every boat leaving in the next month (we were only a 2 though – larger groups may have to think ahead)
  2. When travelling, plans change ALL THE TIME and we wanted to keep as much flexibility as possible therefore avoiding booking our trip too far in advance
  3. The boat trip was a big expense – at $500 we felt more comfortable visiting the office and talking through the options rather than booking on an iPhone with an unreliable WiFi connection
  4. Helena, on our boat booked on the morning of departure!

Isn’t it a bit weird living in such close quarters with total strangers?

Here is the thing – if you put enough thought into which boat you would like to go on (cost, privacy, party, activities etc.) chances are you will end up on a boat of like-minded people. Our crew consisted of 2 Dutch couples, an Australian couple, a German girl and an Irish guy with an age range of 18 to 40… and the group could not have worked better. You are all in paradise and everyone was keen for snorkeling, language lessons, volley ball and a few (too many) all important beers!

What is included in the price?

For around $500 you expect to get a pretty good setup – here is the deal with Blue Sailing;

  1. 5 nights accommodation on board (in cabins or open air hammocks dependent on the boat)
  2. All food (3 meals) and water – and they accommodate for vegetarians!
  3. Access to snorkel and fishing gear (dependent on boat) and a small tender to take you between boat and island
  4. A tour guide (aka captain and crew) who know the islands inside out and will share stories and advice (but only if you ask for it)

And… what isn’t included in the price?

It is worth taking note of these simple things that will improve your experience no end;

  1. Buy booze – the whole experience is so social and evenings are spent eating, drinking and chatting – plenty of on board fridge space ensures everyone can grab a cold one at the end of the day
  2. Take a couple of snacks – these are essential whether its not realising you don’t get dinner on the first night (as we did), not being able to stomach anything but an oreo or a dry cracker due to sea sickness or simply if all that snorkeling makes you ravenous and dinner is still 2 hours away
  3. Sea sickness tablets – the crossing is guaranteed to be choppy no matter when you go (unless you are the very, VERY rare exception) so prevention is key.
IMG_1554

Our multi-national crew

Top tips;

Know what you are looking for – they are so many different ways of seeing the San Blas so before booking it is important to know what is most important to you; partying, food, sailing experience, a private cabin or sleeping on deck in a hammock!

Get stuck in – the more you put in to the trip the more you get out – learn about the history of the islands, engage with your captain and crew, share the experience with the other travellers, snorkel, fish, explore… basically make the most of it!

Take a gazillion pictures because the islands are so stunning you won’t believe your eyes… and no one will believe you just how incredible they are!

Now you know the how-to guide keep reading to find out the ins and outs of our San Blas sailing adventure.

Our First Taste of Island Life on Colombia’s Tierra Bomba and Playa Blanca

Either side of our time in Cartagena we took the opportunity to explore Colombia’s incredible Caribbean coast a bit more by visiting 2 nearby islands; Tierra Bomba and Playa Blanca on the Islas del Rosario.

Both our quiet island stays were 2 nights and a total contrast to the busy, cosmopolitan way of life we experienced in Cartagena.

The incredible Bocagrande, Cartagena skyline

When in the city we wandered the busy streets, discovering lively bars and ate gelato, pizza and sushi. Island life however consisted of sunrise swims, early nights, simple home-cooked Colombian specialties and showers from a bucket of rain water.

Cartagena by night

Firstly we made the short trip from Bocagrande beach over to Tierra Bomba, about a 15 minute boat ride away. We stayed in a tent right behind the beach under the shade of huge palm trees and enjoyed relaxing on the quiet white sand beach and looking over the water to the incredible city skyline.

The view from our tent on Tierra Bomba

Tierra Bomba is a small island with one or two accommodation options near the beach where the ferries run from. Life on this island is super simple, The Beach Hostel where we stayed has a small simple menu of seafood and drinks but it is pretty pricey due to the isolation and the kitchen only operates for a limited amount of hours.

As the sun sets around 6:30pm and darkness descends, the day trippers are long gone and the hostel turns off the background music – in total contrasts to the bright lights of Cartagena, Tierra Bomba slips into an early night as the cool sea breeze soon sends you from hammock into tent. Just as well though, as you are sure to be woken at the crack of dawn to the bright sunlight and singing birds.

Playing on Tierra Bomba

After Tierra Bomba we headed back to Cartagena for a few days in the city (you can read about that adventure here) and, after an unexpected delay in the start of our sailing trip we had time to squeeze in a last minute trip to the Rosario Islands.

Only an hours drive in a minibus away Playa Blanca, the highlight of Isla de Rosario, is really and truely a ️paradise found! The gorgeous beach stretches around a glassy blue bay for a few kilometres, interrupted only by palms.

IMG_1432

Pristine Playa Blanca

However, I feel like I need to do a little get out clause piece here though;

Playa Blanca is beautiful and only an hours drive from a huge city – inevitably you are not going to be the only ones here, in fact, a lot of cynics warned us that the beach wasn’t worth the trip. In honesty I understand what they mean, as you arrive there seems to be a million sellers flogging you everything from sunglasses to sun loungers or a bed for the night. However, if you push on and walk for a couple of kilometres around the bay you are soon rewarded as the sellers virtually disappear, the beach becomes a lot more wild and deserted and accommodation options are now small family run affairs.

IMG_1420

Playa Blanca has beautiful sunsets

Despite the heat we wandered all the way around to Hakuna Matata, following the recommendation of a girl we met in Cartagena, and discovered heaven!

We agreed with the family a 2 night stay and were given a tiny Palm shack on stilts with a mattress and a mosquito net as our home – the hut stood right over the beach just 10 metres from the sea

DSCF3073

Tierra Bomba beach buddy

Where to stay;

We had a great time living a super simple island life – but be prepared when sleeping in a tent or in a tiny wooden shack luxuries are extremely few and far between.

The Beach Hostel Cartagena, Tierra Bomba – we led such a simple island life in our tent; early nights and even earlier mornings as we rose with the sun. For around £11 /night you get a tent, complete with mattress (and cockroach if you’re lucky like us) and access to the beach club which includes sun loungers, a volleyball net and a small bar/kitchen.

Hakuna Matata, Playa Blanca – We got some incredible advice before heading to Playa Blanca; ‘keep walking, it may be hot and hard with your stuff but if you walk the 2/3km along the beach you will find a quiet paradise’ – and we did – total simple island life bliss! A family run collection of 5 wooden shacks on stilts that are about 5m from the sea – the only luxuries are a mattress and a mosquito net but being able to see the Caribbean sea from your bed more than makes up for the lack of bathroom facilities!

Our beach hut home on Playa Blanca

DSCF3097

Beautiful Playa Blanca

How To Get There

Tierra Bomba – By Boat – the only way to get to Tierra Bomba is by boat. Small colourful ferries leave from Bocagrande beach in the heart of the high-rise heart of Cartagena – however, there is no timetable and no order, The Beach Hostel has their own red and white ferry which will take you across the 15 minute trip for free but he only seemed to go once a day, if that. Otherwise there are plenty of others ready to take you for a small fee (around $5).

Playa Blanca – By Bus – only an hours scenic drive from the bustling city and by far the cheapest (and safest) option why take any other route… however if for some unknown reason you dont want to go for the quickest and cheapest route then….

By Boat – each day a couple of maniac drivers take there enormous boats, packed with life jacket wearing tourists from Cartagena harbour to Playa Blanca – for a quite a bit of money you are zoomed around the trip (which takes about 2 hours) crammed into the boats and open to the always rough seas) for 2 days we saw these boats leave and arrive and never thought it looked like a good idea…

DSCF3064

The Beach Hostel Tierra Bomba ferry

IMG_1448

Chilling on Playa Blanca

Tierra Bomba at night

The view from our Playa Blanca bed

My top tips for getting the best out of island life

  • Take plenty of cash – if the island you’re on doesn’t have running water the is little chance that they will have a cash machine either – even though we planned to rely on cash we didn’t take enough meaning that our stays, whilst good for our budget and waistline wasn’t ideal for making the most of the time there
  • Take supplies – on both islands you have to buy everything (even water) so definitely save yourself lots of moment and stress and take supplies; my essentials include lots of water, toilet roll and plenty of snacks!
  • Don’t get burnt – luckily we have pretty sun friendly skin so with a bit of sun cream we had no problems with, how everyone, if you got burnt there was virtually no escape from the sun and definitely no escape from the heat until after dark!
  • Go with the flow – island life is so simple and no one has any time pressure or even awareness for that matter! Whether your looking to pay for accomodation or get a ferry back to the city the best way to handle it is to let them know early and be ready to leave/settle up when they are!

Playa Blanca at sunrise

Can a bookworm really manage a 4 month trip without a kindle?

I am a total bookworm.

I love to read, especially whilst on holiday, but when travelling, even more so. Whether it’s on a bus, beach, plane or hammock being able to get stuck into a good book is an essential for me on any trip.

IMG_1136

On the move…

The trouble with being a total bookworm is that I can devour a good read in just a couple of days. This doesn’t bode well when you’re trying to pack light for an epic 4 month trip and therefore can’t pack the 20 books you wish to take with you…

Nowadays technology has provided a solution for most issues in life and this includes offering a portable library… e.g. the Kindle.

IMG_1257

…or on a beach – a book is essential

However, for a number of reasons I decided against buying a kindle for the trip, instead choosing to take a couple of books with me and embark on a reading adventure which meant relying on hostel book exchanges for an ever-changing library.

I opted to not buy a kindle for a number of reasons

  1. I was saving every penny for the trip away and a kindle costs anything from £59-169 not to mention the further cost of having to buy books to download onto it
  2. I was working so much and had other top priority things to sort out in the little spare time I did have (e.g. vaccinations, malaria tablets and buying a backpack) that I actually didn’t have any time to research, source, buy, and load up a kindle
  3. I am one of those (slightly sad) people that really prefers reading a proper book
  4. I kind of liked being faced with the challenge of finding interesting books (in English) to read all the way round
IMG_1942

Even the tiny island of Little Corn, Nicaragua had a local library/book swap

So here is how it went – I bought a book from Oxfam ( a way of buying books that I would really recommend by the way) then in the airport we treated ourselves to a 3-for-2 books offer.

So between us we had 4 books (plus a Lonely Planet);

  • Last Voyage of the Valentina – Santa Montefiore (airport buy)
  • Bridget Jones; Mad About the Boy – Helen Fielding (Oxfam buy)
  • Unbroken; A WWII Story of Survival, Resilience and Redemption – Laura Hillenbrand (airport buy)
  • Young Money; Inside the Hidden World of Wall Street’s Post-Crash Recruits – Kevin Roose (airport buy)

(Kind of an odd selection but all were really good reads and would definitely recommend them)

And the swaps we found…

  • Shopaholic Ties The Knot – Sophie Kinsella (No.3 in the series)
  • Shopaholic And Baby – Sophie Kinsella (No.5 in the series)
  • Cheryl ; The Autobiography – Cheryl Cole (well, they weren’t always exactly top quality reads…)
  • Slam – Nick Hornby
  • Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austin (which I have meant to read for the last 10 years)
  • The Undomestic Goddess – Sophie Kinsella
  • Bergdorf Blondes – Plum Sykes

We found a few more as well along the way which was plenty to keep us amused on our many long journeys.

DSCF3068

Stuck in to a good book on Tierra Bomba, an island of Cartagena, Colombia

In all, even though the ‘quality’ of books we found often dipped we had a great time reading a whole range of books, trying to find English texts and bringing them with us on different legs of our journey.

Plus it meant we had one less electrical and charger to carry… perfect!

Stay tuned to hear more of my top travel tips!

Cartagena; Colombia’s Colourful Caribbean City

We could hardly believe how quickly our time had gone as we flew into the beautiful city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, our last stop in South America!

It seemed as though just a few days before we were saying hello to the Pacific for the first time, however, onwards and upwards (well, northwards at least) with our adventures.

This meant basing ourselves in the Caribbean for the next few weeks… it could’ve been worse!

Robbie overlooking Cartagena’s harbour at sunset

I know I’m starting to repeat myself, but really, this city was just too cool!

I guess now you can begin to see why Colombia was fast becoming a favourite destination (read all about our fun adventures in Bogota and Medellin here).

As soon as we stepped of the plane into the warm tropical breeze we were hooked.

Cartagena harbour at sunset

We ended up staying in the Cartagena area for about 8 days, whilst this sounds like a bit of an anomaly in our crazy, fast-paced travels (and it was) we had a few reasons for the extended stay;

  1. The next leg of our journey was a week-long sailing trip to Panama, which we had to book in advance, so day 1 was finding a boat trip and booking ourselves on it, you can read more about organising that in the next post
  2. Cartagena wasn’t the only draw of this beautiful area – the next week would become our first taste of Caribbean island life; we did two 2-night trips to Tierra Bomba and Playa Blanca which you can hear all about soon
  3. We couldn’t help but love the easy way of life we were sucked into when discovering this city and the opportunity to treat ourselves to some real bar hopping
  4. We then had a few issues which delayed our boat journey and gave us 2 more days in the area (which we used to go to Playa Blanca – an absolute MUST)

As you can tell I think I’m going to need a few more posts to share all the details of our extended week in Cartagena! So, for now, I’ll stick to passing on the highlights of this wonderful city!

Cartagena’s beautiful streets

What to see and do;

Wander the winding streets – discover little hidden shops, vast squares, artists, musicians, fruit sellers, market stalls and a whole lot more – don’t forget to look around you, the cities beauty is rooted in the brightly coloured houses, ornate windows and balconies and the beautiful climbing flowers on the front of every building.

Follow the city walls – either with a sunset cycle or a morning walk make the most of the beautiful city walls, the epic views and the much needed sea breeze!

Make the most of your surroundings – throw yourself into discovering every aspect of this area from the old town of Getsemani, the vast Bocagrande and the islands of Playa Blanca and Tierra Bomba.

Playa Blanca

Where to stay;

Hostel Mamallena – though not the cheapest this place is a real backpacker hub on the lively Calle Media Luna. This hostel chain provides the essentials of hostel life really well; good mix of dorms and doubles, a great pancake brekkie and loads of info on what to do and how to get there!

  • Opposite Mamallena there was a hostel (possibly called Media Luna) that seemed to host great backpackers parties on its roof terrace – we never made it but it sounded like fun from what we heard from others
  • If you are unable to get in at Hostel Mamallena (and it did get super busy) then don’t worry the surrounding streets are filled with other cheap places to stay

Hotel Plaza San Felipe – stayed here on the night we arrived late – it’s a beautiful old colonial building which overlooks the Parque Del Centenario as an emergency when we couldn’t find anywhere else to stay late at night – it was central, clean and comfy which was perfect for a late crash!

Tierra Bomba

Where to eat and drink;

Agua de Mar – an incredible, sophisticated and super-cool (literally) gin bar. Not cheap but totally worth the splurge, Robbie enjoyed a classic G+T with cucumber which was the size of his head and I slurped a delicious gin and red berry cocktail, the cool Cartagen-ian crowd, beautiful bar and lively bar tenders make for a great evening of drinking and observation.

Gelateria Paradiso – the ultimate ice cream shop in the heart of the maze-like old town, we couldn’t resist a few repeat visits and each time tried a new incredible flavour from their selection which changed daily – also a great air conditioned retreat for hot, weary wanderers!

Teriyaki Teppanyaki – situated on one side of the Plazuela de San Diego opposite the Sofitel this place had an incredible selection of sushi – it is in amongst a bunch of restaurants all of which were full and lively every night and had great outdoor seating, a great spot for an evening!

Bar el Coro – the Sofitel hotel lounge bar – here I had hands down THE BEST COCKTAIL I HAVE EVER HAD. IN MY LIFE. EVER. I am so annoyed with myself that I enjoyed it too much to make note of the recipe but the delicious mix was something like this; refreshing lychee liquor, lemongrass syrup and a few other dreamy bits and bobs all mixed with together with iced mango green tea and loads of ice! My mouth is watering just thinking about it, and I haven’t even gotten around to the bar snacks yet… Alongside our wonderful refreshments we had a complimentary selection of olives and crisps and we ordered a small plate of crispy shrimp with spicy sauce… delish! Again this isn’t such a great budget option however, the lounge bar is like something from a 50s classic film; comfy low sofas, enormous ceiling fans and a jazz crooner in the corner – a must visit!

Pizza en el Parque/Pizza in the Park – a perfect pit-stop just a few doors down from Agua de Mar this little pizza place offers tasty and cheap pizza… perfect after a few gins!

Fruit on the street – everywhere there were ladies in traditional blue, red and yellow dress selling the most wonderful fresh fruit for super cheap – gorge on mango, melon and pineapple (and papaya, but I don’t trust people who like papaya…)

Exito – a great supermarket with a big branch right in the heart of Getsemani, great for picking up island or boat supplies, Haviana flip-flops for £5 and ideal to get ingredients for making your own guacamole as we did one hot afternoon!

The incredible Bocagrande skyline

As you can tell we did a real eat-and-drink-tour of Cartagena and I would recommend anyone else to do the same!

All that should be on your agenda is to explore, discover and enjoy the city – and what better way than to follow your stomach!

How to have a stress free trip when it comes to money

Whilst travelling is the most wonderful, incredible experience it is pretty dependent on that one, annoying, niggling little thing… money!

After working so so hard to save for our trip we were set on making the most of every penny – we had a time scale and fit out roughy budget (£1000/month) around it.

Little Corn, Nicaragua – worth saving up for

Determined not to be one of those ‘we had to fly home early’ horror stories we got down to work…

…before embarking on our adventure we did hours of research on the best banks, credit and debit cards and  ways to carry cash to make the most of our money whilst away.

After months of account reviews, setting up credit cards and changing current accounts we finally managed to have a great, all-bases-covered kind of wallet for our trip.

must-see places and activities all cost – Chichen Itza, Mexico

Here are the details;

Primary usage

Halifax clarity credit card – totally free to use abroad (with a tiny 1% interest on cash withdrawals), easy to setup (seriously Halifax customer service is great) and paid off by direct debit each month which meant a worry free trip

Nationwide debit card – totally free for all cash withdrawals (did charge to use as a chip and pin though), the account did have a £10/month fee but that more than balanced out what we would have racked up in charges with another account so was great value

US Dollars – ‘the world’s currency’ these were accepted for large payments (e.g. travel and accommodation) all around South and Central America (and they are the currency in Ecuador and El Salvador)

Back-up plan

HSBC debit card – this was my debit card that I use at home, it has terrible international rates for both usage and cash withdrawals but does work virtually everywhere in the world – we only used it once but its key to have a back-up

Nationwide Credit Card – this was free to use abroad but was only a back-up which (very kindly) Robbie’s parents kept an eye on so the bills were paid asap – we used it twice but only in real emergencies (e.g. both out cards getting declined for no reason!)

Overall thoughts

Halifax was great but it was a Mastercard which wasn’t accepted in a few places (Visa is more universal)

With all banks the charge for payments are kept ridiculously hidden and despite all our digging and fact searching we were only aware of the Nationwide charges once the first statement came through

Booze can easily be a budgets downfall though sticking to beer means you can afford more than one


Top tips

  1. Always carry back-up dollars – keep these in a seperate safe place so you always have a back up
  2. Always know the currency and exchange rate when crossing countries borders
  3. Don’t be afraid to swap small change at borders (even if the guys look dodgy) but the exchange rate is rubbish so if you exchange more than £20 worth and your being ripped off!
  4. Double, triple check with your bank for any charges at all when abroad – the banks are trying to sell you their product so it is up to you to be critical and push for the negatives/hidden charges
  5. Always setup a direct debit payment for credit cards (in advance if possible so you can test it before you go)
  6. Keep a budget – the most crucial advice – it sounds dull but by making a note on paper of everything we spent we kept on top of our spending and had no money issues – and it only takes 2 mins!
  7. Make sure your overall budget is realistic – we set about £30/day or £1000/month – this may sound a lot but that is travel, accomodation, food, drink, souvenirs and activities – trust me, it is virtually impossible to do it on less unless you work for accomodation etc.

Markets and souvenirs are a minefield for a cash strapped traveller


How to budget

All over the web on travel blogs there are nightmarish spreadsheet ‘fail safe’ budget techniques, however who wants to be doing a spreadsheet when they could be out discovering thenworld??

The simpler the better was the method we used – though a little shaky at the start we soon perfected our method

Take a notepad (a gazillion other uses too) and record

  1. Every time you spend on card
  2. Every time you spend online (accomodation, flights etc.)
  3. Everyte you take cash out

Put a date with each entry and total eat each time you get to the end of the page!

Divide the total by the number of days you have been away and it should equal £30 (or whatever your daily budget may be)!

We think that is the fool proof way!

Besides accomodation travel was pur next biggest cost

Happy budgeting!

P.s. Don’t be scared of having some days at £50 and others at £15… When changing counties that’s just how it goes – so long as your standard of living doesn’t change your budget should equal itself out between the expensive and cheap days!

Medellin; Discovering this Modern Cities Chequered Past

Medellin is an incredible city – I think it is such a cliché to describe somewhere as full of life but that is the only way to begin to capture the vibrancy and warmth of this mountain city.

Whilst Bogota was business-like, serious and exuded capital city authority, Medellin, in contrast, was full-of-life, like a rejuvenated and creative cousin.

Despite still being high in the Andes the city felt more humid and jungle-like than any of our previous stops; we spent the long, warm days exploring the city, riding the sky train, discovering hidden parks, sculptures and gardens and the always summery nights making the most of cosmopolitan city life.

We decided to stay for 4 days as the city had so much to offer – our time soon passed and we moved on having fallen in love with the Medellin way of life.

DSCF3061

Plaza Botero – Botero’s sculpture park

DSCF3039

Puerta Urbana – a light and water feature that apparently only runs on a Tuesday…

DSCF3041

Plaza de los Luces

Today, Medellin feels booming, however, it is a city with a brutal history. Not so long ago it was the cocaine-capital of the world and the territory of Pablo Escobar, Drug cartels ruled (and fought over) the crime-ridden city and for decades the authorities didn’t even attempt to try and break the stronghold Escobar held on the city.

In stark contrast, Medellin is now a city full of opportunity, openness and education;

  1. It is home to continent-leading medical, educational and sports facilities and striking architecture
  2. During its rejuvenation plan the city remained ‘local friendly’ initiating policies such as the sky train and cable car upon which you can travel across the whole city for around 30p
  3. There seems to be endless educational centres, interactive museums, botanical gardens and cultural features dotted around the city

So here is my guide to getting the best out of this wonderful city – a perfect mix of busy sight-seeing days and wandering to find hidden gems for some time to relax and take it all in!

IMG_1344

‘Barefoot Park’ – Parque de los Pies Descalzos

What to see and do;

Parque Explora – calling all big kids, this was the best day out ever! We had such a good time at this place (think science museum/aquarium/interactive games/reptile house)! Admittedly we were a little older than the average 6 year old crowd but going on a school day meant we avoided much of the kiddie madness! Highlights include fighting a T-Rex, being put inside a bubble and seeing creatures from the Amazon! The food on offer here is a bit rubbish and mainly junk food so I would recommend grabbing a picnic from one of the supermarkets (Exito is great) and having lunch in the botanical gardens before you go in!

DSCF3030

Parque Explora

DSCF3031

Fighting a T-Rex at Parque Explora

Botanical Gardens – literally just across the road from Parque Explora these gardens were the perfect place for a sunny picnic after wandering around all morning! A beautiful exotic park filled with orchids, butterflies, snapping turtles and endless pathways to explore it all. Watch out or the roaming iguanas though – they tend to sneak up on you when you least expect it!

DSCF3002

Botanical gardens

IMG_1314

Botanical gardens – meeting an iguana

DSCF3020

Botanical gardens – meeting an iguana

IMG_1323

Butterfly garden

IMG_1328

Butterfly garden

DSCF3007

The garden’s lagoon

Ride the sky train/cable car – unfortunately Park Arvi at the top was closed on the day we were visiting (what are the chances!) but we still had an incredible time riding the cable car and having a birds-eye-view of what used to be  the most notorious area of Medellin. We got out at the top and wandered about the brightly coloured, unbelievably steep streets… but, be warned, this is not a usual tourist spot, we did get lots of funny looks and people warned us against stopping here; whilst Pablo Escobar may be long gone this area of the city still remains very poverty and crime ridden. We didn’t have any problems bit we did feel have our guards up during our quick visit.

DSCF3052

At the top of the highest suburb in Medellin

DSCF3051

At the top of the highest suburb in Medellin

DSCF3049

At the top of the highest suburb in Medellin

Go on a walking tour – either the general city one or the tour that follows Pablo Escobar’s life; we heard these were both incredible but unfortunately our days in the city didn’t fit with the tours – information for them both can be found in all the hostels.

Where to stay;

We had quite an interesting (and stressful) time finding somewhere to stay in Medellin. It is a lively and popular stop with lots to see and do, so clearly the prices reflect that, we booked a day or two in advance, here is our adventure;

Hostel Arcadia – this was our WORST hostel experience during our whole 4 month trip; rude staff, left waiting for hours, a girl got bed bugs in a dorm, kitchen looked revolting, ‘our room’ had a smashed window, hadn’t been cleaned, a broken plug socket, a broken fan and dirty bed sheets – needless to say we left sharpish!

Zen Hostel – an emergency 1-night cheap stop after the Arcadia disaster – small, clean and nice with a good kitchen but mattress was about an inch thick and the location is a little out of the way (suburbs not tourist area), we did get to discover another central area of the city and found ourselves in the middle of a celebrating football crowd around the central stadium on game day! Double = £11/night.

Hotel Plaza Rosa – After the madness and stress we decided to treat ourselves for (plus it all the hostels seemed to be pretty booked up) so we stayed back in the heart of El Poblado, it was a decent place, comfy bed, clean bathroom and was quite nice to properly have one night of privacy – we also used the gigantic room to unpack and repack our bags for the first time. Double = £ /night.

Tiger Paw Hostel – just down the road from Hotel Plaza Rosa (but more importantly about 100m from our fave breakfast spot – see below) this was a good hostel overall, good value, great location, extras like a bar, outside area and pool table but rooms were really stuffy and a bit dirty. Double £ /night.

DSCF3056

Botero’s sculpture park

Where to eat and drink;

D’andre – Carrera 37 (off calle 10) – epic, epic brunch stop! We become totally obsessed with this place during our 4-day stay in the city, we had the best salmon, avocado, eggs etc. every morning (yes, EVERY…) it was that good. Plus it is right in the heart of El Poblado (a.k.a the ‘tourist friendly’ hostel hub) – always good, always friendly and always cheap!

Sushi Train – by Hotel Diez – we had delicious, super fresh sushi here, it had a good selection which wasn’t too expensive. We also got to watch Colombia win the Miss World competition whilst eating!

We found a gorgeous little Italian, ( which I can’t remember the name of…) right between Hotel Plaza Rosa and Tiger Paw Hostel on Calle 10 in El Poblado which had the most gorgeous terrace on which to eat – overhanging trees, cosy tables with little candles and hundreds of twinkly fairy lights, if you wander the area by night you can’t miss it – we scoffed delish pizzas and salads here on two nights of our stay – it was too good not to go back! It wasn’t the cheapest of stops (mains £7-12) but it didn’t break the bank either, a must-eat-at!

DSCF3036

Another weird and wonderful sculpture which captures the creativity of this city

Whilst most my eating and sleeping recommendations are in El Poblado the rest of the city does have so much to offer; we split our time between here and exploring the rest of the city (mostly via the sky train)!

However we met loads of travellers who spent most of their time in the hostel and never bothered to leave El Poblado – they definitely missed out!

Keep following our adventure as we fly up to Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.