The first day after our arrival at Nuevo Arenal we drove to Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges, about a 45 minute drive from our B & B along the shores of Lake Arenal.
Located in the Arenal Volcano foothills, the park dates back to the early 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st century over a period of 12 years the hanging bridges and trails were developed through the tropical rainforest in front of the majestic Arenal volcano.
The hanging bridges and hiking are located in 250 hectares of forest reserve and encompasses the interaction of highland flora with lowland rainforest. The hiking was easy and there were 16 suspension bridges of varying length and height where you could view the flora (there wasn’t much fauna) from high in the tree tops.
There are many hot springs in the relative area and as far as we could tell, all have been developed into attractions at the many resorts that exist in the area and all charge different prices for the opportunity to sit in up to 40 degree Celsius water for a few minutes, jump in a cooling pond, repeat the heat and then feel drained for the rest of the day.
Some have more beautiful settings than others with Tabacon boasting springs and pools that wind like a river through a luscious garden in the heart of the jungle. For a cool $89 USD including lunch you can go and cook yourself for a few minutes and wonder how all of your money just evaporated.
The next day we decided to splurge $17 USD each and drove to Los Lagos Resort, about one hour away from our B & B.
It was a very nice resort and the entrance fee included lockers and showers and full use of all the facilities.
We got changed and headed up to the highest pools (we were told they were the hottest at 37 deg. C) and proceeded to boil ourselves for a very short time. Who knew that our body temperature was so hot?
While we were cooling down we had the great surprise of seeing a three toed sloth close by in the trees. We spent $200 USD for a guide to see this in Manuel Antonio NP and didn’t even get close to seeing a sloth as close as this one was!
We hung around a nice natural cool water pool for awhile and then drove to a nearby soda and had a $10 USD lunch.
The moral of the story is you don’t have to pay big bucks to scorch the skin off of your body and feel like a lobster for most of the remaining day.
Our drive from Jaco to Nuevo Arenal took about 3 1/2 hours on good roads and didn’t cost us a penny. Well, actually there was one inexpensive toll but our journey almost cost us $600 USD!
The roads in may areas were winding and the speed limits varied from 40- 60 km/hr and there are no passing lanes so long lines formed behind slow vehicles and slowly cars would pass the slow poke, usually on double yellow lines and occasionally legally on passing lines. We were very patient.
After a while when you are doing 25 km/hr in a 60 or even 80 zone you can tend to get a little anxious but we were in no rush so we were actually quite relaxed.
One after another the long parade of cars ahead of us took their turn and passed the truck that was in no rush and then our turn came to be ready to pass.
One curve in the road and then another. A straight away ahead? Nope. Another turn, slow to 15 kms/hr, speed up to 25 and then another curve and then, okay, my eye caught a sign that indicated an intersection ahead but the road was long and straight and clear and had double yellow NO PASSING lines.
There were no cars coming from the opposite direction. I made an executive decision (these often don’t turn out well), pulled out onto the oncoming lane, stepped on the gas and then nearly had a heart attack when a traffic policeman stepped out onto the highway and directed us to pull over.
We were warned that traffic tickers were expensive in Costa Rica.
The traffic cop meandered over to my window, smiled, I smiled back, and without asking, I pleaded guilty. I know what I did was wrong and just because everyone else can get away with it doesn’t make it right and I have never had a ticket before and I blah blah blah. So he tells us that the fine for this offence, passing on a double yellow line and with an intersection thrown in to boot, is $600 USD payable at any bank and can I have your passport, registration and drivers license please.
I hand over the required documents while Joyce pleads to reduce the fine amount and I suggest a warning would be appropriate and, sorry, what did you say? Do you live in Costa Rica? No, why do you ask? Is it our 17 year old rental that might suggest we do?
I didn’t actually say that but in fact our rental is a 2006 model so it would seem quite likely that we lived here because who in their right mind would rent such an old vehicle?
I think it was pity that I saw in his eyes when he said he can help us out. We were elated by his comment. Help us out! Yay! But in the back of our minds we were wondering. Do we have to figure out a nice way to bribe this guy?
He meandered over to his motorcycle, pulled out a small remote printer terminal and printed out a very long traffic ticket. He then wandered back, handed me the printout, explained there was nothing on the printout of any import and that nothing was registered back at HQ and he disabled the video camera that was monitoring this whole sordid mess. We were off the hook!
We thanked him profusely and he seemed to linger just a little, was he waiting for a monetary thank you? We don’t think so and we think if we did offer some sort of gift this could very well have offended him and caused us some serious crapolla.
We both waved and smiled as we pulled out into traffic. Joyce with her hand over her heart and me wondering if our smiling and waving was caught on his video camera.
We had three nights booked in Nuevo Arenal and stayed at a really nice B & B, Casa Donna Rosa which was operated by two extremely friendly and helpful gentlemen named Werner and Carlos. The house was originally owned by Carlos’ mother and was completely renovated into a four suite B & B, not including the owners main suite.
Carlos was the cook of the household and every morning he prepared an excellent breakfast that included the freshest fruit we have ever tasted. The room we had was large and comfortable with an outside terrace overlooking lake Arenal.
The B & B was quite close to a few good restaurants and Sodas. Having arrived into NA just after noon we had plenty of time to wander down to the village and have some excellent lunch at a local soda. I had a traditional Casados which is Costa Rica’s signature plate and is served with rice, beans, fried ripe plantain, fried egg, salad and your selection of protein. Joyce had the chicken tacos and both were delicious!
Two nights of our three night stay we ate at a really good local Italian restaurant owned by an Italian women with a very interesting sense of humor. The name of the restaurant was “Eatalien Food, UFO Zone Restaurant”. The food was excellent and the owner was a wonderful lady.
Overall it was an excellent place and location to stay and use as our base for a couple of days where we planned on visiting Mistico Arenal Hanging Bridges and Los Lagos Hot Springs over the next couple of days.
According to Google Maps the drive to Uvita should take about 3 1/2 hours under normal driving conditions. Just over 5 hours later we arrived at our Airbnb cabin in the woods. It was 350 degrees outside with 10,000% humidity and a haze of dust hanging in the air from the the cars flying down the nearby gravel road.
Just before arriving at our cabin we had stopped at a nearby Super Mercado and bought some yogurt, granola, 250 grams of ground coffee, a few cans of beer, a bottle of wine and some peanuts. We walked out $75.00 CAD lighter in our pockets!
On our way to our cabin we noticed a Bar/Restaurant so after getting organized we made a b-line to several cold cerveza’s, some buffalo wings and then some chicken fingers because they mistook fajitas for fingers.
It was a local Soda (restaurant), the music was good and the people were friendly so I knew I had a spot to sit and contemplate life and work on the blog and daydream after my late afternoon showers while Joyce would relax and read.
Uvita de Osa is on the coastline known as Bahia Ballena and is home to Marino Ballena National Park and a beach that seems to go on forever and is famous for the “Whale Tail”, a giant rock and sand formation that forms a perfect whale tail during low tide in an area where humpback whales congregate.
We spent three nights in our cabin so this gave us two full days to explore the park area, the beach and whale tail and the small tourist village near the entrance to the park.
All of the the exploration to be had around the area was in Marino Ballena National Park. The park is the first Costa Rican protected wilderness area created esclusively for it’s marine resources. Our first day was spent wandering the beach and walking between the tail of fhe whale while the tide was low. It was extremely hot and humid so we made sure to go to the park early and leave the park early.
The park is a tropical rainforest and although we were there during the dry season and animal sightings can be limited our hike the next day through the forest was still filled with some of the smaller amazing ant goings on and a small Boa constrictor in a tree. However just being in the forest and slowly wandering the path through the palms and tropical flora was relaxing and rejuvenating.
Quepos was a relatively short drive from Uvita and is generally the town where one stays when visiting Manuel Antonio National Park, the most visited national park in Costa Rica. The area also hosts some nice beaches.
We stayed at a nice hotel, Tres Banderas, which was located about 6 km away from the park and had a nice swimming pool, restaurant and bar. We booked two nights and arrived early afternoon so we had all of the next day to explore the park. We had a later lunch and then hung around the pool for awhile, had the obligatory mid-afternoon snooze and then enjoyed some bevies and a nice dinner before hitting the hay early to be prepared for a 7:15 am pick up to take us to the park for a private guided tour.
We were quoted $57 USD each for a ride to the park, admission to the park and then a ride back to our hotel. For $90 USD each we could have all of that AND a private guide which we were told was the best way to go because you will get to see all of the creatures great and small that your average unguided person will miss.
If we had decided to just go ourselves, pay about $20 USD return for a taxi from our hotel and $36 USD for two for entrance fees to the park it would have cost us $56 USD.
Instead, we went the private guide route, spent $180 USD plus a $20 USD tip for a grand total of $200 USD for what turned out to be a complete waste of money.
According to our guide, and we hope he was accurate because we paid enough money for his expertise, before Covid the park would allow up to 5,000 visitors per day. This seemed high to us. After Covid, they reduced the numbers to 2,000 per day and tickets had to be purchased on-line so the daily numbers could be controlled. So, the tour companies stated buying up all of the tickets which affected anyone who wanted to go to the park without a tour company. So, they upped the numbers to 3,000 per day and when we approached the main entrance the huge crowds of people became apparent.
For not much more than two hours us, our guide and literally hundreds of other wandered along a wide gravel road. Every few metres crowds huddled around their guides viewing scope, squinting into the lens to try to see some tiny lizard or frog. Others would of course stop and congregate because there must be something great to see so huge people-log-jams would happen.
Our guide would stop, speak to the other guide(s), look around, set up his scope and then show us a tiny undiscernible life form that required the vision of a 20 year old to see. This is how our time was spent. It was awful and we seriously would not recommend this park, at least for the time of year we were there which was dry season in February.
We saw, through our guides scope, a small frog, a lizard, an iguana, a hermit crab, a couple of bats and a sloth way in the distance.
Think twice before hiring a guide.
Jaco was also a fairly short drive and we arrived early to an Airbnb that we booked on-line. This was our third ever Airbnb and most likely our last. We don’t know but somehow they just never live up to their descriptions.
There really isn’t any point in getting into the drama with this place but we will say one thing. When the host tells you that you can use the bathroom sink to wash your dishes and they don’t even supply dish soap or a wash cloth then something really isn’t right about this.
Jaco came across as a little rough around the edges. More people asked if you wanted to buy weed and there seemed to be a larger contingent of women who had shall we say, revealing outfits that you might see in some south east Asian countries.
We spent a few hours the second day on the beach. We didn’t want to pay $20 USD for beach chairs but we did. The beach was okay, we didn’t take any pictures and the next day we headed off to Nuevo Arenal.
We arrived into San Jose from Panama City with four nights hotel booked and no concrete plans for our next three, four, five week or whatever the length would be of our journey through Costa Rica. We are winging it alright.
We stayed at Urban Green Hotel located one block from the 2 kilometre long pedestrian mall running east/west along Avenida Central so the location was good but only during the day time. At night the area became deserted and vagrant filled and it took on a really seedy unsafe vibe.
We were actually quite surprised with what we saw.
The city was run down and in need of some TLC. There are nice areas of course, more affluent, but the face of San Jose, the down town where several museums and theatres were located was actually a little on the seedy side. The pedestrian mall was lined with a huge amount of shoe stores and others of course, a McDonald’s every two blocks with KFC’s thrown in in-between and people selling whatever from blankets strewn on the sidewalks. Somehow we had come here with a different picture in our minds. We know many Central American countries are still considered as developing but Costa Rica we thought had been a few steps ahead of the other countries. We know they are when it comes to health care and education but it didn’t look like it to us when poverty seemed to be on so many faces.
What really surprised us, and we new prices in Costa Rica would be higher than other other Central American countries (except Panama) was the cost of living here. Many items including restaurant meals were as expensive or more expensive than back home in Canada. Beer was cheaper but beer is cheaper everywhere compared to Canada!
We planned on renting a car for two or three weeks however panic set in when the only available rentals were private and they wanted payment in cash. US cash. That was not an option for us so we kept searching and finally by chance, we found a rental company with an older model Nissan 4×4 and we could use our credit card which is important because it covers any damage costs.
With the car hassle out of the way we could relax a little and spend time seeing a little bit of the city and planning our next few weeks.
Above from left to right. Panama (for perspective). The cross country route we took through dense tropical jungle to the Caribbean coast and our 5 boat trips to/from two islands and the mainland.
This is a long story but we hope it will give you some insight into the trials and tribulations (well ours anyway) of travelling to these beautiful islands.
San Blas is an island archipelago in an autonomous Kuna indigenous region consisting of over 365 islands of which about 49 are inhabited. The Kuna people administer the islands and control the overall level of tourism that is allowed.
We stayed on two islands over six nights. Narasgandup Bipi Island and Icodub Island.
Picture sun soaked islands no bigger than a city block ringed with white sand beaches, thick coconut palms and clear azure waters surrounded by breaking waves crashing over the reefs that protect these idyllic islands in the Caribbean off the east coast of Panama.
Throw in rest and relaxation, sun tanning, swimming in crystal clear waters, fresh seafood for lunch and dinner, cheap cold beer and you have all the fixings for a perfect 6 night 7 day getaway.
Now meet “Remy”, our San Blas Island Travel “Specialist” from San Blas Wild Travel who’s favorite line is “trust me” and who’s wife worked at reception at our hotel (The Executive Hotel) in Panama City and highly recommended “this person” as someone who can definitely help us plan a great getaway.
We connected on WhatsApp with Remy on Thursday, January 26th and met at our hotel on Saturday. He seemed like a nice man, happy to meet us but kept saying “trust me” during our 1+ hour meeting. This should have tipped us off. He danced around answering questions definitively, bragged about being rated number 3 on TripAdvisor and said he knew the islands and the Kuna people inside and out. So, we trusted him.
Our senses should have warned us or at least we should have taken a one day breather before committing ourselves to use his services but we had become frustrated trying to arrange travel to the Pearl Islands and we were concerned we wouldn’t get anything planned and this seemed to just fall into our laps. We should have known better. We explained what we wanted and he said he could deliver and we trusted him.
We were organized and ready to go Sunday evening and we crashed early for our 5:00 am pick up. We were told we were to be picked up in a 4×4 with our driver and an excellent English speaking guide who was to accompany us on daily excursions if we chose to do them. We were further led to believe it would be just the two of us for the 3 hour journey across Panama to the east coast.
At around 1:00 am we woke up to an alarm going off outside our hotel. This happened a couple of times during our 5 night stay in Panama City. I rolled over and looked at my night stand and noticed I had a WhatsApp message from Remy sent at 10:30 pm. “So sorry Mr. Robert. The island you were supposed to stay on tomorrow is having a medical inspection so I have to send you to a different island”.
Here we go.
I sent a “what the hell is going on” reply and then later sent another stating that as long as our accommodation has a private bathroom and the island is nice then we will let this ride. “Yes indeed it does and here is a video” he replied. “Trust me”.
The video was a short clip of a nice over water bungalow with a terrace overlooking the water, a lower deck to enter the water and a quick view of a similar bungalow beside it. Wow, it looks nice!
Five in the morning arrives and we have a driver and another passenger from the hotel and two more people already sitting in the back seats of a large 4×4 SUV. There is no English speaking guide and already three people over the limit of a “private vehicle” and we still had one more person to pick up who ends up cramming himself between us in the middle of a two seater.
We proceeded on a three hour journey, two of which was paved highway and the remaining hour on a pot holed winding mountainous road through the rainforest crammed together and extremely uncomfortable. There was next to no space to store bags or luggage so the poor guy stuck in the middle between us had to balance a large pack on his lap the whole 3 hour journey while Joyce got squashed every time we hit sharp bends in the road. The scenery however was beautiful.
We arrived at the port at 8:30 sharp and were directed to our boat and headed out into heavy seas. It was close to a one hour, very rough journey to Narasgandup Bipi Island. We got drenched from head to toe and looked like drowned rats when we finally arrived. We expected this could happen so it was no big deal really. Part of the adventure. We wish we had a Go Pro or something mounted to our heads. The video would have been great.
We struggled out of the boat and were shown our bungalow.
Hmmm, we didn’t see this bungalow in the video. It was nice and located at the edge of the water and had a private bathroom but wasn’t over the water and had no terrace or outdoor sitting area. We agreed to take it, we didn’t really have a choice as the two others that did have outdoor terraces were booked. We dried off, organized our stuff a little and proceeded to explore a bit of the island.
The Island was beautiful.
Right beside our bungalow was the entrance to a small Kuna pueblo of thatched huts neatly arranged along sandy path ways. These are the people who have lived here for generations and administer the island.
Further on was a beautiful sandy beach and several small sand floor bungalows for rent, a little restaurant/bar and more pathways through thick coconut palm groves through the middle to the other side and to the opposite end of the island from where we were.
We had a very nice lunch of fresh fish, salad and plantain and then headed to the beach for a while then back to our bungalow for a shower after which we went to the restaurant right beside us, had several beers and then an amazing feast of fresh crab. Things were looking up.
Bedtime came early.
We had a long day and we both had one of the best sleeps we’ve had in a long time. No air conditioning, just the wind blowing through the bungalow and the waves lapping/sort of crashing along the shore. We knew we had to leave early the next morning but we also figured that our next island would probably be just as nice as this one.
In the morning we had an 8:00 am departure and another bone bashing soaking wet boat ride to Icodub Island. On our way we passed several idyllic looking islands and then not far off in the distance a rather barren looking island with a nice looking beach. The island was maybe the size of 1 1/2 – 2 football fields and sparsely dotted with palms and looking like well, a football field with some palm trees. We asked the boat driver if this is our island and he says…….YES and we said NFW!
We were not happy campers.
There is no way in hell that we would have agreed to spend 6 nights on this island, 5 nights now but even 5 nights was 5 nights too many.
We got off the boat and carried our bags to the reception area where we were met with some puzzlement. “Who are you? Hmmm. We don’t have your names in our little book here. Remy? Hmmm. Are you paying for the accommodation?”
We are now seriously pissed off campers.
The people behind the reception counter made a couple of calls. I asked if it was Remy they were talking to but only got smiles and nods. They then showed us a picture of a guy on their cell phone and asked if this was Remy. We replied it looks like a guy in a dark closet and it’s impossible to tell. That’s fine, we have a bungalow with private bath and it will be ready in a few minutes. Progress.
During this time I sent a WhatsApp to Remy demanding he call me and telling him this island was completely unacceptable and we really really really aren’t happy. He didn’t call us but he did say he would get back to us with some options.
After an incredible amount of back-and-forth Remy suggested two options. Number 1 was we should stay where we were because they have fewer visits. We are sure option number 1 was his easiest and cheapest way out of this mess. Option number 2 was to return to the first island, Natasgandup Bipi Island, the beautiful tropical island straight out of the post cards. The choice was obvious. We replied we wanted option number 2. What time do we leave tomorrow morning? 3:00 pm he responded because the seas are calmer. We call Bullshit!
We spent the night in a nice bungalow right on the waters edge and only 50 metres from a reef with giant crashing waves. Don’t get us wrong. The location was beautiful but unfortunately the wind howled all night through our slatted walls and the crashing waves made it feel like we could be swept away at any moment. It had a nice front porch but you had to practically tie yourself down so you wouldn’t blow away!
We had most of the day to kill before our boat trip so we lathered up with SPF and headed over to the beach. It was a nice beach.
There were white cheap plastic lounging chairs scattered about and a fresh boatload of day trippers. The problem was most of the lounging chairs were broken and the ones that weren’t were taken by the day trippers! This really sucks! And they played really loud sucky music too. And the picnic tables in the middle of the field looked like leftovers from an old Russian/Soviet hotel in Cuba.
Morning arrived and we had our included breakfast of scrambled eggs and some mashed plantain patties or something. We are not complaining. This was a typical breakfast. sometimes it came with a sausage. A hot dog wiener actually. We wished we had a bit of fruit but the coffee was fresh brewed and not bad. The night before we had the usual choice of fish or chicken. The fish was grilled whole and was dry but okay and the chicken was good. Almost like KFC.
We found one unbroken lounger so ended up using our beach blanket on the sand and enjoyed the sunshine, the beach and the beautiful Caribbean waters. And the blowing fine sand that infiltrated every pore of our bodies.
Check out time is 9:00 am. Will we have a problem because we check out at 3:00 pm? Well how about that. No problem.
At this point we have to give a very big thank you to Alex. Alex was a real gentleman and the men and one of the older women of the Kuna Yala who live on this island were extremely friendly. Interestingly the three young girls who worked in the restaurant were just like the young people we see everywhere today working in the hospitality industry. Uninterested, unfriendly and disconnected. The world is a small place.
Our boat arrives at about 3:15. We hop on and then start heading in the wrong direction.
Here we go again. Let the fun begin!
The seas are very heavy and in between crashing waves I get the attention of the guy who stands in the front of the boat.
The island is that way I yell. Yes it is he replies but we are taking you to the the port where you will change boats and then proceed to your idyllic island in the sun.
I don’t think I’ve said NFW as many times in my life within such a short period of time.
I demand they stop the boat and get Remy on the phone. We are so effing pissed off now that once I have Remy on the line I yell at him and try to make him understand how he has ruined what we hoped would be a tranquillo vacation. And I called him many names from the book of very pissed off phrases and names to use when you are very pissed off!
The boat stops dead in the water. We bob and float while the boat operators decide what to do. After my very vocal tirade a decision is made. It turns out they didn’t have enough gas to take us back to island number one so we proceed to a Kuna village on a nearby island where we can get gas and then proceed to our destination.
The boat ride was the worse so far. The boat slammed hard wave after wave and again we we got completely soaked. We arrived back at island # 1 at around 4:30.
We were welcomed back with open arms by a couple of the locals and then had our euphoria, based on the belief that we would spend the rest of our time here, four nights, crushed and destroyed. They had an over water bungalow available but only for two nights. The remainder of the nights were sold out!
Now it seems to us that if returning to this island was an option, you would think the person presenting this option would know the status of the accommodation he is offering us. You would think that he had realised how upset we were and how much he had screwed up. You would think that maybe, just maybe he might have a slight idea of how to run a tourist business. You would think.
It is difficult to explain how we felt. Very upset. Extremely pissed off. Ready to throw the towel in, stay the two nights and then head back to Panama City.
That is what we originally told Remy after we found out our situation but then decided it was probably better to lay around a beach on a crappy island than hang around Panama City for two days before we departed to Costa Rica.
It was 5:30 before we had moved into our bungalow. We showered off the salt water and headed over to the restaurant located beside our bungalow and also over water and consisted of one table and several local children. The beer were cold and around 7:30 we were treated to another fantastic dinner. This time lobster and plantain with tomato, cucumber and cabbage. It was delicious and we shared at least three lobster between us.
We took advantage of our stay and enjoyed the beach, the island and the people and we think we made a new friend or two.
Our boat ride back to Iacadu island was the first smooth ride we had. We were met with smiles from a couple of the local men (as mentioned they always seemed to be much friendlier than the women) and were shown to another bungalow (one of about six). It was nice and it would do for the last two nights we had to spend before heading back to the mainland and city.
We have no complaints about our accommodation on this island. It was comfortable, we had a toilet and the shower worked in an island kind of way but the last breakfast was just cappy.
An 8:00 am pick up took us back on a smooth dry boat trip back to the mainland where were met with a private SUV and driver and our 3 hour journey back to Panama City.
What we thought was going to be an amazing six night journey into the Kuna Yala Islands turned into a quagmire nightmare of back and forth from one island to the other and then back again. We did a total of five boat trips, four between the islands and one back to the port. All the enjoyment was lost when we had to continuously pack up and ride in heavy seas, get drenched and then have surprises at the other end.
So, the bottom line is this. Do your homework when travelling to the islands, try to connect directly with the specific island administrators, be prepared for some plan changes but by all means:
DO NOT USE SAN BLAS WILD TRAVEL. DO NOT DEAL WITH ANYONE NAMED REMY AND IF YOU STAY AT THE EXECUTIVE HOTEL IN PANAMA CITY DO NOT ASK FOR HELP ORGANIZING A TRIP BECAUSE REMY’S WIFE WORKS AT THE FRONT DESK! IN FACT, DON’T EVEN STAY THERE.
We spent four nights in Cartagena and decided it was time for some well deserved beach time. I know, woe is us!
We hopped a taxi to Muelle de la Bodeguita Harbor, the main staging area in Cartagena for boat tours and cruises to the nearby Rosario Islands. Many hundreds of people congregate in the morning to hop onto 50 passenger speed boats to do day trips to the resorts scattered throughout the islands. Our boat was booked specifically to take us to our resort and we had probably 25 people, maybe 6 of which were staying at the resort and the remainder just day trippers going to to the resort to hang out at the pool, have lunch and then head back to the mainland. There were good city views from the boat heading out of the harbour.
We were originally going to book 10 nights but decided on 7 and this turned out to be very good decision.
Our accommodation, Cocoliso Eco Luxury Resort was a worn out resort with the only semi-redeeming feature being a nice pool. The rooms were okay aside from the mould around the bathroom sink and literally no water pressure in the shower and no hot water. Zero hot water. The grounds were nice but that was probably the only thing that keeps this place occupied.
There were no English menus in the restaurant so we relied on Google Lens. The food choice was seriously limited and the prices for the some of the worst food we had were outrageous. Breakfast was included and it was cold and the coffee was cold and weak until we finally asked for cafe fuerte, strong coffee which was brewed for another guest because they couldn’t stand the wash water that was served.
Finally, and we’re not sure why but it seemed anything that could be stored in a fridge such as bread, fruit, or anything porous had a taste of burned plastic or electrical. The food really sucked!
And there was no beach! The photos of the “resort” had definitely been embellished.
We were seriously thinking about leaving after 5 nights and eating the $400 + cost but lo and behold, not more than a 7 minute walk from our place was a nice resort with not one but two beaches, a good selection of food and an ENGLISH menu! Suffice to say we spent our days there, had nice lunches and then headed back to our hotel where we would have a few drinks and then dread ordering a dinner entree of something they called food.
At least we got a sun tan and we didn’t we get sick. Well until day 5 when Joyce met me for a drink at our hotel bar, had one sip and immediately started to feel nauseous. She spent the evening and night in the bathroom and and all the next day in bed unable to keep anything down and also suffering from a massive migraine.
Fortunately she felt better the day of our departure because the ride back in the boat was extremely rough. She was a little wobbly when we got off the boat and hopped into a cab and then proceeded to get really nauseous from the overwhelming smell of aftershave or car cleaner or something. I was staring to feel sick too and both of us nearly passed out before arriving at our hotel. Joyce felt worse after the taxi ride than after the crazy boat ride. Oh well c’est la vie.
Panama City is a large metropolis strewn with skyscrapers and on weekdays is clogged to the hilt with terrible traffic. It has a history dating back to 1519 where non other than Spanish conquistador Pedro Arias Davila founded the city on August 15th. The city was the starting point for expeditions that conquered the Inca Empire in Peru.
Obviously much has changed but nothing brought more change and benefit to the country than the construction of the Panama Canal.
Over the years since the building of the canal but also much more recently, in the past few decades or so, building and growth outweighed environmental concerns so today there are no real beaches that are swimmable with many areas polluted by untreated sewage. We’re told recently great effort has been put into sewage treatment but the people are resigned to the fact that it was too little too late. This according our driver who took us on a drive and tour of the Panama Canal.
There isn’t much to really see and do in the city other than to visit the Miraflores lock on the canal, watch a good Imax presentation on the history and construction of the canal, visit the Bridge of the Americas (one of three that cross the canal) and check out old town Casco Viejo.
Casco Viajo, Old Town Panama
We booked five nights in the city which was a little too long. We found it to be very expensive to eat out as everything is priced in USD. We also found again that the vast majority of restaurants do not cater to English speaking tourists. They do not have English menus and rarely anyone on staff speaks English and on several occasions we were treated like they would rather not have to serve us. And this in a city that boast itself as a major tourist destination. Again, we do not expect people to speak English just because we do but in an international financial hub and staying in the main hotel zone one would think there might be at a little effort shown towards us non Spanish speaking peons. We did howeve have some pretty good food.
In our opinion, spend as little time as possible in Panama City, have a plan to visit the San Blas Islands (more on this later), the Pearl Islands, Bocas del Toro or whatever you want to visit but for us at least, the city didn’t offer much of interest to us.
Our flight out of Cartagena departed at 9:36 am, so we arrived the required three hours in advance and proceeded to the BC check in line. We were flying Copa Airlines and they had a promotion where we could bid on a Business Class upgrade and if successful we would get the upgrade for the price we bid. We were successful so we were looking forward to breakfast in the BC lounge and maybe a further snack on our flight. We bypassed all the Economy lines and proceeded to check in except we couldn’t check in (they did not allow us to) because we did not have proof of an onward flight out of Panama.
This is only the second time this has ever happened to us ever in all of our travels and no matter how hard we pleaded to just check us the in and we’ll deal with it at the other end if need be, they wouldn’t.
So now we’re scrambling but fortunately we arrived early so we had time to feverishly find a flight, make sure it could be cancelled within 24 hours, pay and then wait to receive the email confirmation with our etickets. “You have mail!” Yes, our etickets arrived within seconds. All set.
We proceeded back to the check in counter. When the agent asked for proof of onward travel we showed her our flights. She didn’t ask to see who the passengers were or anything other than the most basic information. We could have taken a frigging screen shot of any itinerary and it seems this would have sufficed. This kind of BS really ticks us off!
So now we’re looking forward to the business class lounge where we can unwind a little so we proceed through customs and immigration and security only to find out on the other end that there is no Copa Airlines Business Class Lounge in Cartagena International Airpot! We doubt there was one in Medellin so our guess is the only lounge they have is in Bogota International.
We’re starving by this point so we patiently wait in line at a tiny food kiosk stuck in the corner by the entrance to the public washrooms and purchase two cafe Americana and two ham and cheese sandwiches lightly toasted in some sort of moisture removing apparatus resulting in a warm and very dry ham and cheese delight.
We did get to board before most of the other passengers but all that meant was we had to wait in the hot sun on the tarmac for 10 minutes longer than all the other suckers while waiting for the cleaning crew to finish their business.
The seats on our flight were comfortable, the cheesy or some other kind of flavoured crispy twists were superb and the coffee and orange juice, “naranka!” I was told is the correct pronunciation, were divine.
We had four nights/three days in Cartagena so we explored old town, checked out Playa de Bocagrande, the main beach in Cartagena and not worth the visit and then made a day trip to San Basilio de Palenque, the first “free town” for Africans in the Americas.
The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Columbia achieved independence from Spain. To this day their culture and traditions have remained intact which is why UNESCO declared Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
The exact date of the foundation of the town is not known but it is immortalized by the statue of Benkos Bioho, a West African slave who escaped from Cartagena and with other escapees established their own settlement and were eventually given the right for freedom in a decree signed by the Spanish Crown.
We hired a driver in Cartagena and his fee included a guide in Palenque. It was extremely hot outside and we wandered around dog poop littered roads hearing about the history of this town of 4,000 people.
Many of the cultural practices from music, medicine, social and religeous beliefs have direct African roots that have thrived for centuries. Several walls throughout the village have colorful Bantu/Palenquero words painted on walls. Bantu, an African language has been mixed with Spanish to create the Palenquero language, one of 68 languages found in Columbia and the goal of the the painted walls of words is to keep the language alive and maintain it’s African roots.
Further along our walk through the village we stopped at an old house which was representative of the homes from about 100 years ago. One of the fascinating things we learned had to do with the braiding or cornrows that black women would do to each others hair. What appeared to be just braids served as maps and escape routes and tools of resistance. Benkos Bioho came up with the idea and no one would question or think that one could hide entire maps in their hairstyle so it was easy to to circulate them without anyone finding out about them.
We made a short stop at the local Shamans hut where we were told the village did not experience any Covid cases because all were given a drink concoction of eye of newt, no sorry, of natural herbs and spices grown locally. Like any shamans place there were mixtures and tinctures and drinks and powders for whatever ailed the human condition.
Our last stop was a small monument dedicated to a local boxer, Antonio Cervantes, aka Kid Pambele, a boxing world Jr. Welterweight champion in 1973 and 1976 born and raised in Palenque. A pride of his village and one of three well known boxers to have originated in this town.
We arrived in Cartagena on the morning of January 12th after a short flight from Medellin. We were instantly hit with a + 10 degree temperature difference. Welcome to Caribbean Columbia!
We stayed at a small converted mansion, Casa Abril II located within the walls of old town Cartagena (Cartagena de Indias) which is a UNESCO designated world heritage site.
The colonial architecture in the old town is outstanding, built by the Spanish from the mid-16th century. Strolling through the streets we were met by beautiful huge vines of buganvilias that spilled over the terraces eliciting a sense of well being and beauty.
And then came the non-stop harassment from the multitude of vendors and street sellers and wanna be rap hip hop singers who forced their way into your face and royally pissed us off. And if there happened to be a billion (5,000) passenger cruise ship in town then all bets were off. Old Cartagena with all of it’s colonial beauty is not a place we would visit again and is probably worth only a day or two of your time.. The harassment was never ending. Por favor deja de molestarnos, please stop bothering us.
On a more positive note, the restaurants we visited were all top notch and the food was delicious however being in a main tourist attraction, the prices were also way up there. Not much different than the prices in our home town of Vancouver.
Just outside the walls of Old Cartagena is the large and imposing Castillo de San Felipe, the largest military building constructed by the Spanish Crown in the Americas. The castle was built in 1536 and is located on the Hill of San Lazaro which gives it an excellent vantage point and strategic location to view the approaches to the city by land or sea. Our impression was this was more of a fort than a castle because there were very few inner passages you could explore and none seemed to lead to rooms or sleeping quarters however this may be because these aren’t open to the public if they do indeed exist.