Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Land on the horizon

After our night of stormy and hellish waters, within a couple of hours of the sun coming up, the water was calm as a lake and the sun was shining again.

We were even able to move about freely without being tossed all over. Hooray! So for the last couple of hours, I squeezed in some more sun tanning on deck, looking finally at land on the horizon, before we anchored in Cartagena.

It was a miracle, but we had made it through and no one on the boat was seasick at all (I think the captain was secretly hoping the storm would beat us)!

But the storm had taken it's toll on the boat and the main sail was completely ripped to shreds.

I left the boat covered head to toe in bruises, but with a very good story to tell!


P.s. Check out the photo of the first boat we saw pulling into the harbour... A full on pirate ship and confirmed we were definitely in Colombia!!

Monday, 30 January 2012

"Baton down the hatches!"

After dinner on our 3rd day of the trip, it was time for us to head out to sea and we treated dinner as a sort of last supper because we knew the weather would be too bad to eat from then on!

We prepped the boat to set sail and prepped ourselves for the hell we were about to encounter, knowing that with the storm, the winds were likely to reach up to 80 knots (which they did!).

Within only a few minutes of sailing, waves were completely covering the whole deck of the boat and leaving the
cock pit would have certainly meant being thrown overboard.

You couldn't even stand up for longer than 5 seconds without falling over and trying to do things like cleaning my teeth were a challenge to say the least!

From then on, almost everyone on board, except the captain, spent 36 hours laying horizontally. This was to avoid having to always balance yourself and therefore counter act the poisoning effect on your brain. Luckily I could still read without feeling sick and got completely engrossed in my book (Marching Powder), which I finished by the time we crossed the Colombian border!

On the 2nd night, the wind and the storm got even worse and to even stay in the beds, we were all having to hold on so tight that our knuckles were white. At one point we got caught by a massive wave and the whole boat was tipped fully to one side. Everything in the kitchen (even though it was locked into place) flew and smashed into the other wall, I was lifted fully off the bed and landed on top of Pam with alot of force! Even the beds collapsed! At this point everyone was thinking the same but never voiced it - 'are we actually gonna make it through this?!'... It sounds extreme now, but the conditions were so bad at the time!

The captain, (who hadn't really slept for 2 days) kept coming to check on us and help put the interior of the boat back together. But he was a little wide eyed and said the weather was messing with his head! He later admitted that it was was the worst weather he has ever sailed in!


Amazing Food

The food that we ate on the boat was soooo good that it deserves a post of it's own!

Our captain Sym was a really good cook and we ate so much better than we had been for the few weeks before! Everything was super fresh and delicious and was full of fruit and veggies!

We also even had a few starters that we caught ourselves, like crab which was yummy!

Everyone ate a ridiculous amount over the first 3 days in preparation for eating nothing but cereal for the last 2 days when we were at sea!


After sunset!

Our after sunset antics were somewhat different to our lovely calm and relaxing days we had spent at the islands!

In the first 2 nights, we drank the boat dry and the only reason we stopped partying on the Saturday night was because there was not 1 drop of alcohol left!

The cockpit became a dancefloor, complete with homemade disco lighting - a huge flash light! The sound system was on full and i'm sure the other boats anchored near us must have either hated us, or wanted to join the party!

Everyone got involved (including Sym, the captain) and we played drinking games, jumped in the sea, went on high speed dingy rides in the pitch black and raved - quite the nautical adventure!

Sym, slightly worried about his rep just kept saying 'this is meant to be a family friendly boat'. Normally his wife and little girl travelled with him on the trips but he was alone for this one and making the most of it - ha!

On the second night we even went over to the nearest island for a few hours to explore and make a huge beach fire, which was amazing!


A few days in paradise

The San Blas/ Kuna Yana islands sit outside the Panamanian laws and are one of the only indigenous people left to govern their own islands, although the whole group of islands is still classed at Panama.

This means that they are protective over their land and have rules that you need to know before going there. E.g. All coconuts belong to someone if they are found on an island and it is stealing to remove them! So even if the island is unhabited, which most of them are, the owner still has rights to every coconut unless it floats out to sea!

Another aspect is that there is 1 shop on 1 of the islands throughout the whole region, so your boat needs to be fully stocked beforehand. Luckily, the fresh produce aisle can be delivered direct to the boat by locals who bring everything from fresh fish to fruits and veg.

So for the first few days, we were in complete paradise and spent time travelling between the islands, tanning on deck and anchoring when we wanted to snorkel, fish or swim.

Whilst sailing, there were always islands dotted on the horizon in the crystal clear waters.

We actually saw quite a few shipwrecks en route too, which was a little daunting! We did manage to snorkel one though at Dog island, which was just below the surface and had some good reef and sealife.

San Blas were just Incredible and probably my favourite places of the trip so far....


Gypsy Moth

So after booking our boat trip on our first day in the city, it was finally the day we were setting off and we were all super excited and looking forward to the trip. Especially as so many people throughout my travels had said it was one of the best thing they did!

To get to Colombia from Central America, there aren't too many other options apart from flying, which for a 1 hour flight costs $450 or you can walk the Derian Gap which is likely that you won't live to tell the tail.

So the boat trip was to last 5 days in total - the first 3 spent sailing and relaxing at the San Blas islands, then 2 days at sea straight sailing to Cartagena.

We had been told that the weather was pretty bad this time of year and all to be prepared... which we did by buying lots of alcohol, dramamine, pirate fancy dress kits and I went all out with a sailor top (that I found for $2 in a second hand clothes shop)!

Our boat was amazing and was a 54ft sail boat called 'Gypsy Moth' which is run by a lovely English couple Amy & Sim.

The jeep picked us up at 5am and it was about 4-5 hours drive up to the coast where you meet the boat and enter into the Kuna Yala region. And to really get into the sailing spirit, we started drinking at 8.30am - cheers!


Thursday, 26 January 2012

Panama Canal

The next day, we decided to do something a little more touristy and headed for the Panama Canal, which is just outside the city.

Boats only go through the locks for a few hours in the morning and a few in the afternoon and this depends on which direction the boat is travelling through the canal - I.e to the Pacific or the Caribbean.

As we arrived we watched the last few giant cargo boats going through the locks. The place is completely set up for tourists with viewing platforms and overhead commentary on what's happening, so I soon understood what was going on! You can actually go on a boat tour through 1 of the locks and experience it that way, which sounds pretty good, but it's costs about $500 for the privilege!

There is also a museum on site and it was actually really interesting to learn all about the history and how it was made.

At the moment they are working on building a second canal that will fit boats through that are 10 - 20x bigger (can't remember exactly) than what can already be accommodated, so its a massive task. They are spending something like 6 million/billion on completing it by 2014 (100 years to the day after the original canal opened). Panamains are pretty proud of the canal and when we chatted to any locals, (no matter who it was, taxi drivers etc), they would get really patriotic and tell you that it was an amazing source of income for the country - which obvs it is!


Casco Viejo - Old Panama City

After watching the sunrise, we sorted somewhere to stay in Casco Viejo which is the oldest part and across the water from the rest of the city. It is currently undergoing a major redevelopment project to regain its grandeur. So it's a strange mix of completely derelict buildings and right next door there are renewed buildings keeping their old architecture but revitalised and freshly painted.

This part of the city felt very European with central squares every few blocks busting with restaurants and people overflowing into the streets under canopy umbrellas.

As it is over the water, Casco Viejo had brilliant views of the business district, the new part of the city and the skyline. Although it was nice, it was very similar to other major cities, you could have almost been in Hong Kong looking at the same thing. It was definitely nothing compared to London, which really is one of my favourite places!

Some of the ladies here were wearing traditional dress, however it was different from what we had seen in Boquete as it was much more intricate with things like shin length anklets and clashing patterns.

Just a short few minutes walk along the water front was the local fish market, which was always heaving with crowded boats, fisherman shouting at each other and birds circling overhead. There were even loads of vultures milling around searching out their next snack - gross.


Big City Time

Throughout the rest of Central America, I had avoided all the other capitals as they are pretty dangerous (some more so than others). So I was half excited to get a taste for city life again and half apprehensive to be visiting Panama City, even though it is known to be considerably safer. Actually the laws and police presence throughout Panama are more strike than elsewhere e.g. Taxis wont pile in 9 people and you cannot ride on the back of any trucks.

Regardless, the stop was a necessity on our route to South America as we had to arrange our sail boat trip over to Cartagena in Colombia.

We actually even managed to get a night bus from David to Panama City, whereas in the rest of central (apart from Mexico) night buses either don't exist or are a very bad idea!

We left Boquete for David at 7pm on Sunday evening, the last service of the night. The chicken bus was named the 'special bus' and had this painted on the side, along with a giant transfer of the drivers baby taking up most of the back! It was completely pimped out including black patent padding and disco lights! We even think there was a karaoke machine and the driver was singing the whole way to David!

What really topped off the bus was that one of the passengers was carrying a crate of chickens - our first chicken bus with actual chickens inside!

After a few hours wait in David, we successfully got on the night bus and arrived in Panama City by 6am, just in time for sunrise.


Wednesday, 25 January 2012

Wandering in Boquete Town

For our second day in Boquete, we wanted to properly explore so we walked 45 minutes up to the start of town to take in the stunning views.

We then spent the rest of the day wandering in Boquete making the most of the beautiful river, landscape and flowers that were all around us.

The altitude means that the afternoons often mist over but still with brilliant sunshine - which means only one thing, a rainbow!

We also got to see the women's traditional dress, our first glimpse since arriving in Panama as the Bocos Islands were more Americanised and catered for tourists.


Oh and apparently Brad & Angelina were in town on holiday - if it's good enough for them....!