Archive for June, 2009


bocagrande playa

Across the city from the old town is the fashionable seaside resort district of Bocagrande.  Part of the fun of spending a day on the beach in Cartagena is watching the endless parade of people who walk up and down the beach selling all types of goods and services.  Some of them can be quite persistent and replying to all of them with a polite “no gracias” gets exhausting.  But it’s fun just the same and convienient when someone passes by with something you actually want. 

meCartagena beach

Cartagena de Indias


Founded in 1533, Cartagena de Indias was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast and the gateway to the north of the continent.  As a result of the city’s location, frequent pirate attacks prompted the construction of elaborate walls encircling the town.Cartagena street  Today, Cartagena’s old walled town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, is its principal attraction, particularly the inner walled town.  It’s a showcase of 16th and 17th century Spanish architecture, much of it beautifully restored, with narrow winding cobbled streets, massive churches overlooking wide plazas and large mansions, all with balconies.  There are tourists too, though not nearly as many as we are used to seeing and far fewer foreign owned bars, restaurants and hostels, even despite the fact that Frommers has named Cartagena one of the top 12 world destinations to visit in 2009. 

As it turns out, we managed to avoid any run-ins with guerrillas, paramilitaries or drug traffickers during our time in Colombia.  Instead, I’ve spent most of the week trying to decide which part of the historic old town I prefer – the clean, perfectly restored and heavily police patrolled inner walled town or the dirtier, more chaotic outer walled town with its street markets, food carts and interesting cast of characters – and I still haven’t been able to decide.  Either way, we couldn’t have hoped for a better introduction to South America.  And, it appears, word is getting out.  In recent years Colombia’s tourism industry has been experiencing rapid growth.  Along with improvements in safety, the country’s reputation among travelers is improving and it likely won’t be long before previously forbidden travel routes open up making the country an even more attractive destination.  We love that we got to see it now!


cartagena co

We weren’t sure exactly what to expect when our flight from Panama City touched down in Cartagena.  Colombia’s poor reputation as a country known for its frequent kidnappings, drug trafficking and dangerous civil conflict; a triangular war between guerrilla insurgents, right-wing paramilitaries and government forces has caused it to remain one of the less frequented stops along the so-called ‘gringo trail’.  But we had also heard some really good things about traveling to Colombia, particularly the Caribbean coastal city of Cartagena.  In fact, Colombia is hard at work trying to change its image amoung travelers, so much so that the country’s tourism board‘s most recent advertising slogan reads “Colombia, the only risk is wanting to stay.” 

Currently getting from Panama to Colombia, or any country in South America, is a little tricky.  There is no safe overland route across Panama’s Darién Gap and most people either fly or sail between the two countries.  Five days aboard a sailboat sounded like too much so we decided to make the journey by air, flying in and out of Cartagena on our way south to Quito, Ecuador.

Isla Taboga


We visited Isla Taboga on a day trip from Panama City.  Popular with wealthy Panamanians who anchor their boats just offshore and day-tripping residents and tourists, it’s a small place with only one road and no traffic.  The beautiful beaches stretching around the island are a welcome escape from the noise and congestion of Panama City.  Isla Taboga is only reachable by boat or ferry.  Public ferries depart from the causeway located 7km outside of the city center, thus helping to maintain the island’s exclusivity.  Lodging on the island is beginning to go up-market and there is talk of construction beginning on a high-end resort.  In the meantime however, Isla Taboga remains a laid-back, affordable destination; assuming of course, that you hold out for a driver willing to offer a reasonable taxi fare down to the causeway. 

Aside from visits to Isla Taboga and the canal there’s not much else to do in Panama City.  We spent our time catching up on the lastest new releases, eating fast food and visiting the mall.

Panama Canal

Panama canal

Our visit to one of the world’s greatest engineering marvels, the Panama Canal, turned out to be the highlight of my time in Panama City.  From the visitor’s center overlooking the first set of locks at Miraflores we were able to view several big liners passing through the canal.  Stretching for 48 miles from Panama City on the Pacific side to Colón on the Caribbean side, the canal consists of three sets of double locks at Miraflores, Pedro Miguel and Gatún.  The locks operate as elevators that raise and lower the ships through the canal from the Atlantic to the Pacific and vice versa, thus eliminating the need to travel an additional 8000 miles around Cape Horn (the southern point of South America).  Opened in 1914, the canal continues to play an ever increasing role in shipping and expansion plans – recently approved by a majority vote of Panamanian citizens – are currently underway to increase the capacity of the Panama Canal.  While in Panama City we also explored the city’s Casco Viejo neighborhood, a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2003.  When construction began on the canal in 1904 all of Panama City existed where Casco Viejo stands today.

Snorkeling in Bocas del Toro


Check out the rest of our underwater photos on flickr!



We came to Boquete in search of a good cup of Panamanian coffee and a littlle relief from the heat.  We found both in one of Panama’s top destinations for outdoor lovers.  Other than strolls along the river there wasn’t much else on our itinerary, which worked out to our advantage since it rained nearly the entire time we were in town.  At least the weather cooperated while we were in  Bocas, though we’re quickly discovering that travel during the rainy season can be challenging with entire days lost to heavy downpours and cloudy skies.  Not to mention some scary bus rides through the rain storms.    

Our time in Boquete turned out pretty much as we had hoped it would with ample time for rest and relaxation.  A small, mountain-valley town set on the banks of the Rio Caldera and located several kilometers from Volcán Barú, the highest point in all of Panama, Boquete is known for its cool climate and natural setting.  Named one of the top places in the world to retire by the AARP in 2001, today the town’s expat population is on the rise.  Gated communities dot the hillside, construction on new  developments is on-going and foreign retirees are quickly snatching up plots of land along the river.

Starfish Beach

starfish beach

Located on the western side of Isla Colón, Boca del Drago is famed for its huge numbers of starfish.  Reachable by boat or collectivo from Bocas town, the beaches at Boca del Drago are almost entirely undeveloped.  Lacking restaurants and hotels, it’s not unusual to have long stretches of beach all to yourself.  The water is calm and clear, with large stretches of shallow pools that abruptly drop off into deeper waters.  With very few waves, they’re perfect for swimming and the palm-fringed, wilderness setting of the beaches combined with the hundreds of starfish along the coast is stunning. 


Red Frog Beach

red frog

Located on Isla Bastimentos, Red Frog Beach is home to the strawberry poison dart frog, a small red spotted frog that the local boys carry around frogand show to tourists in exchange for a quarter.  A 10-minute boat ride from Isla Colón, Isla Bastimentos is made up of mostly wilderness beaches.  The island’s southern coast falls within the boundaries of the Parque Nacional Marina Isla Bastimentos.  Nearly all of the island’s beaches remain virtually abandoned, though this is expected to change due to the fact that, despite local opposition, construction of a massive residential development project on the island is well underway.

Isla Colón, Bocas del Toro

Isla Colón

After brief stops in the towns of Cahuita and Puerto Viejo de Talamanca on Costa Rica’s southern Caribbean coast, we headed across the Costa Rica/ Panama border to the Archipiélago de Bocas del Toro, a group of six densely forested islands, scores of uninhabited islets and the oldest marine park in Panama.  Arriving at Isla Colón, the largest and most developed of the islands and Panama’s most popular tourist destination, we found that tourism in Panama, though in the midst of a major development boom, remains far less developed than in neighboring Costa Rica.  Instead, low-key development and the absence of mega-hotels and resorts have helped to preserve the unspoiled beauty of the archipelago.

Sharing the same name as the province and archipelago, the town of Bocas del Toro on the southern tip of Isla Colón has been our base for exploring the region.  A colorful town of wooden houses built by the United Fruit Company in the early 20th century, Bocas’ small-town charm, laid-back Caribbean vibe and spectacular natural setting are incredibly appealing.  We spent our first day in Bocas spotting dolphins and snorkeling along the archipelago’s extensive coral reef ecosystem before heading out to explore several of the other islands and beaches.  It hasn’t taken long for Bocas del Toro to become one of my favorite spots in all of Central America.