Friday, April 23, 1999

Travels with SG: Cartegena

Hello everyone!!!
It's been a long time since my group email...can't remember when it was actually, so here's a quick recap to were we've been since leaving the States in Jan...
We've been through Mexico, Belize, Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador (YUCK!!!) Nicaragua, Costa Rica (with my parents-had some most excellent adventures-swinging through the jungle canopy like GI JOE on rip lines, touring a coffee plantation, horseback riding up an active volcano (with lava flowing at night), watching the howler monkeys from our balcony in Montezuma, relaxing by the pool, pushing the car out of ditch that I backed us into, fixing a flat tire, buying gorgeous Cuban Cigars-see dad if you are in the neighborhood!)
Cruised through the Panama canal as line handlers on a 100 year old, 50 foot, Norwegian fishing boat-converted into a lovely sailboat...lovely Norwegian family-2 daughters, 15 months (who learned to walk at sea)and 5 years old (we taught English to)...they fed us,and we had fantastic sleeping recommendations (on deck)for our 3 day "cruise" through the canal...The "changing of the guard" is already in progress, as the US is giving control back to Panama (canal) this Dec. The Panamanians are the most disorganized lot, I sure hope they contract out to a country to that has management skills, because they have a hell of a long way to go!!! They have no concept of how to get the boats through safely, or on time. OK enough bitching...(about this anyway!)
The San Blas Islands were the HI-light of Panama!!! San Blas is on the east coast of Panama and has about 360 small islands inhabited by the Kuna Indians(who have their own government, and have not been "influenced" or spoiled by the "white" man or Panamanians...gorgeous, great humored people!!! The most beautiful beaches we have ever seen, and gorgeous clear blue/green water!!!...some of the islands are inhabited, with maybe 2-5 families...A must if going to Panama! We were in San Blas for 7 days waiting for our "charter" 28foot Cape Dory sailboat (microscopic compared to the Norwegian boat) from the San Blas Islands, to Cartegena, Columbia...this trip is not for the fainted-hearted!!! And, I sure as hell would never do it again! The first 2 days we sailed through he San Blas Islands, then out to the ocean...first day and night in the deep blue, was ok...the second day, and night and the next day-I thought we were going to die (partly because I felt like crap...ok, I guess that "sea-sick" is the proper word to use here, though I only got sick once...does this still qualify as being seasick???) The crossing was so rough..heading directly into the wind with 15 feet swells!!! Let me tell you...going to the bathroom at 2am, just totake a pee, is a major chore!!! If you like "slam-dancing" and getting thrown about, crashing into walls,getting bruised and battered, then this trip is for you,!!! All night, all I could think about was what kind of food I really missed from the US!!! Weird shit goes through your mind, at times like these!!! North Beach Pizza, Pasta Pomodoro, Sweet Heat, Zen Noodles, Really good Mexican food, a cold glass of juice...
Currently we are in Cartegena, Columbia and loving it!!! It is a small-big city feel, with beautiful architecture-old colonial Spanish-just gorgeous! And very gracious people! Two nights ago we met a bunch a other travelers at our hotel and organized a private shuttle bus (8 of us) to a volcano 1 hour away...this is a very unique volcano, in that you "climb" 15 meters up steps, climb down a 2 foot ladder, into a volcanic mud!!!(the mud is warm on the top-from the sun, and cool underneath. We had the 12ft by 12ft "crater" to ourselves for 1/2 hour before the Bahama Soccer team showed up!!! It was absolutely mind blowing...there were 4 guys in the volcano that helped you cover yourself with mud, then gave you a massage...climbing out of the volcano proved to be quite a chore for me, as my bottoms were filled with mud and I almost lost them!!! (One of the soccer players totally lost his not too long after me)The funnies was my looked like I had 3 (well you know...) not 2 (as one of the kindly-soccer players pointed out) I told him, that YES, that two of them were mine (natural) and the other one grew whilst in the mud!!! It was quite hilarous, can use your imagination!!! After you climb down the "crater" you walk 100 yards to the lake where women are waiting to rinse you off...stip you of your b-suit (like that didn't just happen) so they can rinse it and give it back you you...they even tried to clean my ears!!!
Today we rest...internet (ahh, air conditioning!!!)lunch, have a much needed NAP :) and dinner with some new friends...not sure what will be on the agenda for tomorrow????

Next stop...we will most likely head to Ecuador then Peru (Machu Pichu and Nazca lines) before heading home for in July for 2 1/2 weeks...won't be able to see all of S. America this trip, but that's life, and ours has been one hell of a fantastic adventure so far!!!
Please send email when you have time, especially those who are thinking of joining us along the way!!

Wednesday, April 21, 1999

Greetings from Cartegena!

The last time I wrote, we had just arrived on the far side
of the Panama Canal. That was weeks ago, and we spent most
of that time on boats.
We headed from Panama city to Colon where we were drafted to
be line handlers on a 50 year old Norwegian wooden sailboat
for a passage through the canal. The trip through the canal
was highlighted by our ship spinning out of control and
crashing into the side of the canal when the started filling
the lock before we were secure. Boy did the captain freak
After that we headed to San Blas where we stayed in an
indigenous village. Boy what a paradise!! San Blas has to
be the single most beautiful place that I have ever been.
There are 365 coral atolls here, each one prettier than the
last. The locals, the Kuna Indians were the most amazing
people. They maintain almost every traditional aspect of
their lives, and purposely limit tourism (The Panamanian
govt. wants to promote it, but the Indians who are self
governing refuse to cooperate in all but the smallest ways).
We were 2 of at most 10 tourists in the entire place. We
had LOBSTER EVERY DAY! And Conch, and Sea Turtle (this last
we were forced into - and it tasted GOD AWEFUL!) When we
first showed up, whom did we see, but our English friend
Nick whom we originally met in Panama City (he showed us
where to get beer on Good Friday - not an easy task).
From San Blas we hitched a ride on another sailboat to
Cartegena. The first night we anchored off of Chichimay
with Dave (from Colon).
The first two days we cruised slowly through the islands -
absolute joy. The last 3 were HELL. Categena is about 200
NM DIRECTLY UPWIND from San Blas, and we were in a 28´ cape
dory sailboat.
I don´t see how you cruisers can do this - 3 days of
pounding hull, viscous wind, miserable heat and being
sopping wet. Finally we made it to Rosario (a group of
islands 27NM out from Cartegena) and were forced to wait
there until Dawn - 50 knot headwinds and broken blocks on
the boom.
Now we are in Cartegena - What a gem! This city is
DEFINITELY worth visiting. Fantastic architecture, good
food, inexpensive, friendly, beautiful, etc.
Well, we are off to the Mud Volcano tomorrow - Hope you
all will turn GREEN with envy while you are sitting at work
and we are soaking in hot mud atop the Andes.


Saturday, April 3, 1999

Greetings from South America! (barely)

As I am now on the opposite side of the Panama Canal (the
body of water separating N and S America) I guess I can say
that I took a bus all the way to South America! It is a
slight perversion of a dream that my friend Craig and I had
when we first learned to drive; We wanted to do a road trip
to South America, and guess what?
I finally did it!
When I last left you, SGK´s mom was swinging through the
treetops like Georgina of the jungle, and we were headed to
the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica for some diving. Well, we
never made it to the Caribbean, but we did do quite a lot
After the Monteverde Cloud forest, we bounced down the dry
riverbeds that pass for roads in Costa Rica to the foot of
Volcan Arenal where Helen and Andy sprung for a few nights
for us to stay at The Tabacon Hot Springs resort. We had a
view of hot lava pouring down the side of the mountain as we
sipped frosties on the back porch of our bungalow. Andy
then coerced Helen on to the back of a horse for a ride UP
the volcano.
These horses were in much better shape than the ones we
rented in Honduras. Mine needed constant minding; if he
sensed that I was getting lax, he wanted to take off and
gallop through the woods. After Arenal, we decided to spend
a couple of nights in the coffee growing area of Orosi. It
was not nearly as nice as we had expected it to be, so after
a private tour of a coffee coop, we headed to the coast.
The Pacific coast. Jaco.
Jaco is Costa Rica´s attempt on Cancun. It doesn’t make
it though, as all of the crappiness of Cancun is missing.
After a couple of nights there, we were off to the Nicoya
Peninsula and a town called Montezuma.
Montezuma was cute. Nestled between the Pacific and the
rain forest, we were lulled to sleep at night by the waves,
and woken up in the morning by howler monkeys at our
doorstep. A troop of at least 14 of them. Way cool. The
hotel that we stayed in even had a tame Owl living there
that liked to sit on your hand or shoulder. We then headed
back to San Jose to bid goodbye to Helen and Andy, and while
they said that they wanted to stay longer (and even go to
Panama too) I know that they REALLY just wanted to get back
and see Christina and Alex.
After seeing them off, The whole country of Costa Rica
shut down for Easter Week. Nothing was open. No stores, no
restaurants, even the Casino’s were closed, so we climbed on
the Bus and headed south.
Panama City is an interesting place; We are staying in
the old part of town that the Spanish built after Henry
Morgan burnt the place down.
The architecture is very reminiscent of New Orleans’
French quarter; no surprise, the Spanish built that too and
about the same time period as well.
This whole country exists only for the canal. It was a
part of Columbia before the construction of the canal, so
that if the canal had not been built then it is unlikely
that Panama would even have its sovereignty.

Where do we go from here?
Well, we are looking to sign on as crew on a yacht heading
through the canal. The regs here call for there to be 5
crew members to make a canal passage, and many of the people
that we have talked to have simply showed up at the Balboa
Yacht club and been recruited for a free three day cruise on
the canal. After that, we are headed to the Continent
proper - where and how we don´t know yet. As all the travel
agents are closed for the easter holiday, we can´t even
begin to look into it until Monday.

Take care all!

Thursday, April 1, 1999

Greetings from The Monte Verde Cloud Forest!

When I last wrote a long update, it was 1 month ago and we were in Caye Caulker Belize. You all heard about my Gilligans Island experience, but not much after that.
Well, after we castaways were rescued, SGK & I headed to Tikal in Guatemala. The largest and most impressive ruins that we had seen so far this trip (remember that we had been to the Aztec ruins of Technochticlan, the Mixtec ruins at Monte Alban, and they Mayan ruins at Palenque). The town of Flores where you stay when visiting Tikal has nothing to recommend it though (except that Venison is on the menus in the restaurants).
We then cheated on our itinerary and flew to Guatemala City (Guate), thereby avoiding a 22 hour ride down a rocky road on an old school bus filled with livestock and only costing us twice as much.
We wasted no time in leaving Guate and heading for Antigua. Antigua is a beautiful city. At one time it was the capitol of a unified Central American Republic. Lots of people were studying Spanish here, but we decided to hold off until we got to Atitlan. We also ran into some friends that we had met on the Bus to Puerto Angel, then again on Caye Caulker - Nick and Abigail from New Zealand and England respectively. (We are firmly upon the Gringo trail!)
Guatemala is CHEAP. About 1/2 the price of Mexico. The clothing in the markets is the most colorful that we had seen so far (no wonder Avas went nuts!)
After Antigua, we headed to Atitlan - On the Chicken bus (as the colorfully painted old school busses are called due to the ever present barnyard foul). We had to take three of them to get there. The 1st one was good fun. My first real chicken bus, just like in "Romancing The Stone". The second one though was hell on wheels. We barreled down the Pan American Highway (less a highway than a 2 lane semi-paved road) at speeds that would have been unsafe for a Ferrari, never mind a 45 year old school bus. At times we seemed to be screeching around corners on 2 wheels while passing more sane drivers with the oncoming traffic within spitting distance; all the while Guatamalteco music blaring at a zillion decibels from the speaker just to the left of SGK's ear. When we were finally allowed to get off, we were shaking very badly. We were not the only ones either, a lot of the locals were shouting to the driver: "¡Manejar mas despacio!" and "¡Use sus frenos!"
When we finally got to Panajechel (the town at Atitlan) we were beat. We did try and board a boat to take us away from the travelers ghetto of Panajachel (also known as "Gringotanengo") to San Pedro, but by hat time we had had it with 3rd world transport and when the driver wouldn’t depart (he simply cruised up and down the shore looking to fill his boat) we simply got off.
That evening we ran into some friends that we had met in Creel, then again in San Christobal - Anya and her mom from Denmark - and yes, for those of you who have met them, they did find their weaving class.
The next morning we did catch a boat and headed to San Pedro. San Pedro is basically a coffee finca (plantation) that engulfs and permeates a village. We stayed at Hospadaje San Francisco in the same room that Peter and Avas had stayed in several months before. What a View! Volcanoes in every direction, surrounding a crystal blue lake.
We promptly enrolled in Spanish school. SGK managed to learn alot in the week we were there. I simply learned that I remember more of my Jr. High Spanish than I thought I did. My instructor had no game plan, and didn't speak English. We simply talked Spanish for 4 hours a day while he tried to correct my Mexicanisms and make it more Guatalmateco. It was good practice, but I probably could have saved the $50.00US by simply hanging out with the local children.
We did see some more friends here, Nils the Swede that we had met on the bus from Belize and again in Tikal, and his Irish friend Thomas who we had met in Tikal (what did I say about the Gringo trail?)
After Spanish class, we headed back to Panajachel to move on to our next stage. We checked our email and found that SGK's parental units were going to meet us in Costa Rica in 10 days. This killed our plans for a boat ride in the Caribbean to Utila, so we headed to Copan in Honduras instead. Before we could get to Copan, we had to go yet again to Guate, change busses to Chiquimula (Chiki) then change again o La Florida, walk across the border, then catch another bus to Copan. The busses and roads got steadily worse. The bus to Guate was a new, pullman style bus and the road was paved sometime during my lifetime. The bus from Guate to Chiki was an old, worn out greyhound and the road had not been paved since WWII. The bus from Chiki to La Florida was... A Chicken Bus, and the road had never been paved. Once we got extorted out of some of our good US$ for the privilege of having Honduran customs search through our dirty cloths, we were granted a 3 day visa. We also found out that there are NO busses running from the border into Copan. And there was no road any more either (courtesy of Hurricane Mitch), so we hitched a ride with an Aussie couple driving a van with BC plates. They bought the Van north of Whistler in a place called Big White where they had gone snowboarding (Yes Kathy, they bought the Van in your home town).
Honduras was WONDERFUL! Everything was dirt cheap, and the people extremely friendly. We hired an English speaking guide to take us through the Mayan Ruinas (for $10US) then hired horses and TWO guides for a 3 hour ride (another $10US). After our visas had expired, we had the same miserable ride back to Guate.
Now that we were back in Guate, we were in desperate need of CA$H. The ATM's in Belize didn’t accept our cards, and there were none at all in Honduras so we were virtually out. We promptly opened our Lonely Planet Guide (LP) to find the Amex office so we could cash a cheque. Well, the LP simply sucks. It says that the Amex office is in Zone 9, at Ave 0, Calle 12 when it's really in Zone 10, Ave 12, Calle 0. So, after wearing ourselves out with the long walk, we decide to pamper ourselves by splurging on a nice hotel (With CNN!) near the Tica Bus terminal.
The next morning we were off to El Salvador. Another bone to pick with the LP guide - it says that the Tica Bus from Guata to Panama should cost $35.00US - it actually costs 3 times that!
San Salvador. WHAT A COMPLETE SHITHOLE! We pull up to the Tica Bus Terminal; there are two machine toting guards standing knee deep in garbage in front of a razorwire topped steel gate. They opened the gate, admitted the bus into a compound, closed the door, then swept the compound for intruders. They wouldn't let us off the Bus until they were sure that noone had followed it in. Our ATM cards didn't work here either.
We had dinner at the Pizza hut across the street. Pizza Hut also is guarded - only their guards wear full body armor. As the Bus driver refused to drive in El Salvador at night, we slept in the Bus station. The only place that I could imagine as being worse is Sarajevo - where my friend Cliff is currently under fire by Serbs, Croats, and presumably Albanians.
The next morning we boarded the bus for Managua. Managua was not like San Salvador at all. It was more like San Jose, CA would look if there was no such thing as pavement and everyone was unemployed. We spent 4 days there with an old communist named Bill, who said he was Irish but was born in Boston and currently lived in Acapulco (he did have an Irish passport though; courtesy of the fact that all 4 of his grandparents were born in Ireland). He turned out to be quite a nice guy, and accompanied us on to San Jose Costa Rica.
The Border crossing into Costa Rica is like something out of a Movie. A war movie filled with refugees trying to get out of Somalia. It was complete Chaos and took several hours. Crazo would have been in his element. 1st you have to leave Nicaragua - no easy task. We waited in a queue, only to be told that since we were gringos, that we had to pay a $2.00US exit fee. OK, no problem except that we had to pay in US funds (they didn’t want their own currency) in a building at least 500 yards from where we were. We head to that building to find it full of confused gringos and no one to take our money. Finally we paid, then walked back to the other building to get our exit visas. Back to the bus. Across no mans land. Into Costa Rican customs. We wait in a ginourmous line and have our passports taken away. 2 hours later we get them back. You see, they have 1 line to turn them in, then 1 to pick them up, only the woman returning them does not follow the order that they were processed; she apparently picks them by random and calls out your name over a broken loudspeaker. What a mess!
On to San Jose. SJ Costa Rica is a lot like it's namesake in CA. A big, bustling city filled with Spanish speaking citizens, and costs about the same. We reserved a room at the Gran Hotel Costa Rica for SGK's Parental units (not us; were were in a fleabag down the street. Guess who was in our hotel? Susana and Andre, the swedish couple we had met in Managua - Susana still had not been able to replace her credit card).
After SGK's Parents arrived, we rented a car and headed for the countryside where we are now.
Today was Exciting! We did the canopy tour, where you slide from treetop to treetop GI-JOE style on a zip line. Helen loved it! after the first couple of swings, she was practically running to the front of the line to do it again. No Shit Joe and Kevin; this is your MOM I'm talking about here.

Where do we go from here?
Well, Helen wants to check out the Orchids and Butterfly farm, then we will head down to the Caribbean coast so Andy and I can do some diving, then Helen and Andy depart for the states and we go on to Panama and points south!


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