Archive for June, 2009

Bocagrande

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

Cartagena

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!

Colombia

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

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

snorkeling

Check out the rest of our underwater photos on flickr!

Boquete

boquete

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.