Day 1: Lima, Perú to Bogotá, Colombia
We left our comfy hotel in Barranco and attempted to take the metro to the airport. However, rush hour proved too much of an obstacle for our backpacks on the crowded trams so we hailed a cab. We had barely enough Peruvian soles to make it. Kurt was anxious about the restrictions of flying because we had traveled solely overland during the previous nine months. We were taking Viva Colombia, a discount airline, which has the usual reputation of forcing one to jump through hoops to avoid excessive charges. I told Kurt all will be well, let’s just be open to whatever happens. After Paying Viva Colombia’s bogus “foreigner arrival fee”, we boarded a quick three hours flight to Bogotá. Our carry-on and checked bags passed an easy inspection. Upon arrival in Bogotá, we chatted for about five minutes with the immigration agent about places we had been in Colombia and tips on Fin del Mundo, a place regrettably we had not been. My fond memories of happy moments in Colombia gave me a wild idea. I suggested scrapping the San Blas plan for now and heading south in Colombia to return to some of our favorite spots and to see some places we missed the first time around. We spent the night in Bogotá to give the idea some thought. In the morning, we decided that it was best to continue with our original plan and head for Central America.
Day 2: Bogotá to Medellín, Colombia
We woke early in Bogotá and headed to the bus terminal, catching a nine hour ride on Bolivariano to Medellín. The buses in Colombia actually have functional wi-fi. On the way, we received an email from my mom letting us know that my 92 year old war hero step-grandfather, Roane Sias, had passed away the previous evening. We knew our trip would be ending soon. I felt for my family as we made our way out of the Andes and into Medellín. Kurt spoke with my father. He told us to continue our travels and come home in six weeks for Roane’s memorial. It was a sad day. His mind and wit were there until the end. In Medellín, we had a quick bite to eat at the station, bought a blanket which came in handy on the next overly-air-conditioned bus and boarded an overnight to Necoclí on the Caribbean coast.
Day 3: Necoclí to Capurgana, Colombia
We arrived in Necoclí at 6am. It was too early to buy boat tickets to Capurgana so we sat in a hotel lobby and took turns going out to stores to seek supplies. Before 8am, we walked down to the shore. We were told by a Colombian friend not to take the boat from Turbo but to go to Necoclí. We were glad we heeded this advice. We read stories about the old, crowded, uncovered boats leaving from Turbo. We heard that one had flipped relatively recently. The speed boat that we took from Necoclí was virtually brand new. It was large, comfortable and completely covered. The two hour ride across the crystal blue Gulf of Urabá was not as scary as I had imagined. I’d never seen water so beautiful. In Capurgana, a helpful local directed us to our friend Olivia who manages San Blas Adventures. She’s the reason we came to this part of Colombia. She had heard that we were in South America and wrote us asking us to take a tour with her company. Olivia helped us find a hotel and advised us on a nice seafood restaurant. We had naps to avoid the heat then met her on the waterfront after sunset to catch up over sumptuous mango batidos, a treat I will never grow sick of.
Day 4: Capurgana to Sapzurro, Colombia
The next day, we had a pre-trip meeting with 27 other guests that would accompany us on a tour of Panama’s San Blas Islands. Jonah, a young, friendly Canadian guy looking like he was born for the job, would be our guide. He has extensive knowledge of the region after having guided these trips weekly during the preceding four months. Fortunately, we had just entered the rainy season which means that the seas should be more calm. That afternoon, we took a tiny boat to Sapzurro, right on the border with Panama. This one was frightening. There were just a few of us in the boat, no cover, and some dead red snapper and other large fish directly under my feet. The waves were large. A few times, it seemed that they could tip the boat. I felt my stomach in knots on the twenty minute journey. Once we reached the bay, the water evened out. I finally relaxed. We ended up taking a room in a woman’s home right next to the dock. We hiked to Panama and walked around the bend to La Miel beach, known to be one of the most beautiful in the area. We walked back just before the border closed. Then, the rain began. It started pouring. We took out our trusty Peruvian umbrellas. When we came back to our room, I experienced the most disturbing thing of the entire trip. I was picking up some clothes from the bed when I noticed something moving quickly out of the corner of my eye. A giant rat had scurried from our pillows to the slatted window directly above it. I shrieked and Kurt came running. There was nothing we could do. We dined at a bayside restaurant where we had placed an order earlier in the day. I had shrimp with the heads on for the first time in my life. I was surprised by how much I loved the dish. Kurt had fresh red snapper. We didn’t sleep well. Our new friend decided he really wanted to share the bed with us. Luckily the mosquito netting provided some protection. Kurt would occasionally clap his hands when he thought he heard the rat entering the open holes in the wall. In the middle of the night, I suggested we move our pillows to the foot of the bed so our heads did not have to be directly under the “window”. It made us more comfortable but we didn’t sleep.
Day 5: Sapzurro, Colombia to Nueva Caledonia, San Blas Islands, Panama
Kurt woke early and watched the sunrise from the dock just outside our room. It was the last day of our almost nine month trip in South America. In the next few hours, we would pass the arbitrary boundary separating South America from North America. Kurt noticed two small covered boats with many rows of seats docked in front of our room. Surely these weren’t the boats we’d be traveling in. They were. Kunayali is another name for the 378 San Blas Islands. It is a semi-autonomous region within Panama inhabited only by the Kuna people. The boat crews were entirely made up of Kuna men. They’re the only ones that know the shallow reefs. The other travelers arrived late from Capagurna. We crowded onto the two boats for our first journey. It was a 45 minute ride to Puerto Obaldia, a serious border checkpoint with Panama. We had to line up our bags in rows with ample space so that a highly trained dog could sniff each one. Then, each of us emptied our belongings on a table so border agents could search them. When the endeavor was finally through, we climbed back into our boats and made our way several hours to the first island. A third boat took our big bags to be stored at the endpoint of our trip. The first stop was essentially a sand volleyball court in the middle of the Caribbean. The destruction of the reef to create a small beach was sad but the vast majority of the surrounding aquatic environment was still in tact. We had delicious tamales in banana leaves and fresh coconuts for lunch. We spent the afternoon snorkeling over colorful coral and fish. Kurt said that he had never seen anything like that before. That night, we stayed at nearby Nueva Caledonia Island, where 900 Kuna live. We were lucky to be given a private room on the water. It was actually built over the crystal sea and it could be seen through slats in the wooden floor. We dined on conch and octopus at Fonda Doña Amelia that evening. The restaurateur, Ati, sat with us and taught us basics of the complicated Kuna language. We had met him earlier at the volley ball court. He owns the small island that it’s on, paid fifty bucks for it. We learned that inheritances are passed matrilineally and how their autonomous government works in relation to the government of Panama. After dinner, we watched members of the tribe dance to celebrate the fifty year anniversary of their settlement on this particular island. When we went to bed that evening, the sea was calm. Around 4am, we woke to wind so loud that we had to raise our voices to hear one another. I attempted to open the small wooden door covering the window above my bed but it nearly slammed shut as the rain bombarded into our rooom. The sea below us swirled about violently. Rain blew in sideways over Kurt’s bed and left it drenched. We had to share my twin bed for the rest of the night. At some point I said, “Do we need to evacuate from here?” Kurt said someone would come tell us if we needed to. It probably wasn’t that unusual. Where would we have gone anyway? The island was about the size of a city block. The seas calmed some and we got a little more sleep. When the sun rose, all was tranquil but our boats were full of water. The crews emptied them with buckets to make ready for the day’s travels.
Day 6: Nueva Caledonia to Waginega, San Blas Islands, Panama
The morning after the stormy night, we took a tour of Nueva Caledonia to learn more about the culture and other aspects of San Blas life. Before the government of Panama brought solar electricity to the islands, it was illegal to chop coconuts after dark because of numerous losses of digits due to poor eyesight. Many Kuna believe that this is still the law and will refuse to cut coconuts after 7pm. We got back in our boats and headed to the next island some hours away. This was a postage stamp sized island where we snorkeled again and played in the water. We had a very American picnic lunch. Strangely, lots of American made packaged hummus and chips are available in Panama City. This was the first we’d seen this stuff in almost nine months. We moved to an island of beach front cabins to stay the night. We drank coconuts from the tree. A man shimmied up several for us and others in our group. He then showed us a six pound crab that he had caught. We took some photos. Kurt asked how much would it cost to buy it and have it prepared. Nine dollars. We ordered it and had it delivered to the back deck of our cabin. Kurt cracked it open and delivered chunks to me as we looked out over the sea. It was so fresh and delicious.
Day 7: Waginega to Cocobandera, San Blas Islands, Panama
We traveled another few hours north to perhaps the most picturesque island of the trip. The sand was incredibly soft and the water the most crystal clear and blue. More snorkeling and swimming, of course. We lounged and read books in hammocks in the hut of a makeshift kitchen. We dined on lobster and drank more coconuts. It was the only night that we slept in hammocks in all of our travels. Kurt said that he slept remarkably well.
Day 8: Cocobandera, San Blas Islands, Panama to Panama City, Panama
Before leaving Cocobandera, Kurt swam out over the reef with some Australian guys and saw numerous lobster and an eel. We met the crew of a luxurious catamaran anchored nearby. As we were leaving, the seventy year old owner came over with his twenty year old girlfriend. The girlfriend asked one of the women we were on the tour with if we lived there. She was appalled by the boats we were traveling in. We hit one final island, Isla Pelicano, for one last snorkel. Kurt and I had a great time swimming around and pointing things out to one another. We had a fresh fish lunch prepared by some local ladies from another nearby island. We made our way with the group to the port of Cartí. Here, we collected our big bags from storage and piled into a Landcruiser that took us all the way to Panama City but not without another few security checks before exiting the jungle. It was bizarre arriving in the modern metropolis after spending the past days on those quaint islands. We had the driver let us off at the historic Hotel Casco Antiguo in Casco Viejo, the old town. It was like a tropical version of the hotel in The Shining but it would do. We checked in, ate dinner at a recommended nearby restaurant called Coca Cola Cafe and hit the hay.
Day 9: Panama City, Panama and overnight to San Jose, Costa Rica
Our night bus to San Jose, Costa Rica wouldn’t leave until 12am so we went to the Panama Canal, where we opted not to pay the overpriced entrance fee to stand on a platform to get a better look of what our country built. As a protest, we found a spot in the parking lot to get a clear and free view. We were fortunate to see the last ships of the day. They were quite impressive. We took the subway to the fish market then walked back to the old town. We saw the enormity of the new town in the distance. The number of modern skyscrapers is surreal. The old town has a similar vibe to Cartagena but it is not as grand. We ate decent pizza and observed a birthday party for a well-to-do girl and her friends. After, we remarked on the number of luxury vehicles parked outside. We walked through the main plaza for home-made ice cream from Granclement by recommendation of Maggie, Kurt’s niece. Casco Viejo has several Art Deco buildings. Kurt said that he has only seen ones like them in Houston. Our hotel gave us a late checkout, 10pm, so we had plenty of time to get ready for our overnight to San Jose. The buses in Central America have many more seats than those of South America but this bus was remarkably comfortable. I actually slept most of the night in my small seat. I never did that winding through the Andes.
Day 10: San Jose, Costa Rica
We woke from our overnight ride to spend another two plus hours in a border crossing ordeal, having to wait in long lines and unpack our bags for both the Panamanian and Costa Rican authorities. We met a couple from New York returning to Nicaragua after having gone to Panama. It was the woman’s first time out of America. She had her purse stolen on the first day of their trip. Once in San Jose, we spent too much time and energy searching for a cheap hotel. They don’t exist in San Jose or at least no longer exist. We read about a small inn with a cold spring inside of it that is now closed. Another place was being fumigated the next morning so we’d have to leave early. No discount was offered. Finally, we accepted that we would splurge and found a comfortable room on the top floor of a hotel with private balcony. It was really nice. We ate at a nearby Roman-owned Italian restaurant, took hot showers and crashed.
Day 11: San Jose to Los Chiles, Costa Rica
We came to love San Jose. The following morning, we walked to the main market to buy some fruit. Kurt asked the vendor that sold us some granadillas where to find the best almuerzo. He was both enthusiastic and kind enough to walk us through back aisles to a small restaurant where he yelled to a waitress to get us a table and attempted to order for us. The friendly waitress advised us on what was the best typical Costa Rican plate. I noticed a dumb-waiter being used to bring food down from the kitchen upstairs. Both the food and drink were amazing, maybe the best simple market meal I had eaten during our entire trip. Gallo Pinto, black beans and rice cooked together, is a staple in this region and it quickly became one of my favorites. Served with a chunk of pungent cheese and a fresh tortilla, it was heaven for this pescatarian. For dessert, we had the famous cinnamon ice cream from La Sorbetera de Lolo Mora. It’s been made the same way by the same family in same place in the market since 1901. In the afternoon, we found our way to another terminal to catch a bus to the border with Nicaragua. I really like jungles and don’t care much for the backpacker trail so I suggested that we avoid the west coast region of Nicaragua for now. Thus, we decided to enter the country on the east side of Lake Nicaragua near Los Chiles, Costa Rica. The bus was crowded but luckily we had our own seats. I enjoyed passing through the beautiful landscapes. It was nice to at least see the Costa Rican countryside through a window. I hope to return in the future to see more. The ride was much longer than expected because so many people were picked up and dropped off at many different places. Arriving in Los Chiles after dark, we asked the bus driver for a hotel recommendation. He told us to stay on the bus and he would take us there. This bus also delivered packages and the hotel was their last stop. The room was decent enough for one night so we took it then sought more gallo pinto at a restaurant nearby in this small border town. The next day, we would head for Nicaragua.
Day 12: Los Chiles, Costa Rica to San Carlos, Nicaragua
We got up early in Los Chiles and immediately found a bus leaving for the border with Nicaragua. I was getting sick of all of the border crossings we were making in this short period of time. While waiting to have our temperature taken on the Nicaraguan side, we found a brochure for a river lodge which happened to be the same one Kurt had found while researching this region on Wikitravel. We paid our necessary Nicaraguan immigration entrance fees and hopped in a van to the city of San Carlos. We endured an annoying ordeal trying to get Nicaraguan sim cards for our phones. Note to self: always stick with Movistar even if Claro has a better reputation in a country. By this time, we were starving. We had some lunch, found a German bakery, and bought tickets for the 3pm boat that would drop us at Grand River Lodge. The boat was narrow and long and operated like a bus on the water. I enjoyed the cool breeze on my face as we made our way through the romantic jungle. We landed on a long dock and walked at least five minutes over a suspended wooden boardwalk similar to one we walked on in San Francisco de Yarinacocha, Peru. A cabin was being prepared for us when we arrived. Exotic flowers arranged in the shape of a heart were left on our bed. When we settled in, I noticed there were five or six bats living in our cabin, which I have now come to see as a good sign. We dined on home-cooked Gallo Pinto and avocado and talked with a couple from France. That night, the four of us took a guided tour of the swamps on the property to see baby caymans. Their eyes glowed in the dark. I was so thankful when falling asleep that we made it to Nicaragua and now could travel more slowly like we normally do.