Panama City is one of the most interesting cities that I have been to on any of my travels but one place I couldn´t help but compare it to was the city of Singapore. For those of you who weren´t aware, I used to live in Singapore while attending the National University of Singapore (NUS) so I became very familiar with it. Singapore is this brand new city that has some of the tallest buildings in the world and relies heavily on their strategic location for shipping. Panama City had a similar vibe having two completely unique areas given the very original names Old Town and New Town. A few of us from the hostel decided to hike up to the top of Cerro Aton in order to get a birds eye view of the city. Looking out to your right was like looking into the past as all of the buildings are colonial and gorgeous. Then when you looked to your right you were staring into the future. Unique skyscrapers (such as one that looks like a tornado) dominate the skyline. The two parts could not be any more opposite and the nicest thing about it is all right on the coast.
After searching for hostels at way too late of an hour in Panama City I ended up finding a sketchy little hostel in the middle of the Old Town known as the White Lion. It was quite an experience being at this hostel. First of all when I walked into my dorm room one of the owners was in the middle of sniffing a big line of cocaine. After chatting with this man for a while he ended up telling me it is best to put my valuables in one of the lockers downstairs. I went back down to reception where possibly the most stupid girl in the world worked (and that is putting it nicely) and asked to have a key for a locker. the women at reception gave me the key to someone elses locker filled with all of their valuables so I decided I will just keep them in my backpack for the night. I ended up meeting a couple from Switserland and a Dutch guy so we all worked together at laughing off the uncomfortable vibe surrounding the White Lion Hotel.
The next day I packed up my bags and moved to Mamallena (Full Mama) where I had made a reservation the night before. After asking the taxista if he knew where Mamallena was and agreeing on a price, I hopped into the taxi. The first question the taxista asked me was ¨Do you have a map?¨. Hilarious. This guy agreed to drive me to Mamallena for $3.00 before he had any idea where it was. We drove quite a ways through the city in order to get to a friend of the taxi drivers house where we went to the door and asked him for directions. Luckily he knew so once agai nwe were on our way. We had created quite a comraderie on our journey and after awhile we were pumping Avicci and every electronic remix of Black Eyed Peas that was possible. All of the sudden the car began tilting on the highway and a stop was in order. We hopped out to find that three metal pieces had punctured the tire so out came the kit. We made a great team on the side of the road one hour after I left my first hostel and still was only paying $3.00 for my ride to Mamallena.
Mamallena Hostel had an incredible vibe with amazing graffiti all over the walls, hammocks galore, as well as comfy beanbag chairs all throughout the hostel. The Welsh owner, Will, is a gem and he runs an awesome hostel. The location is random but it´s only $1.50 in a taxi to get to Casco Viejo or the Fish Market. After throwing my bags in a room I ended up hopping back into ¨our¨ taxi and went to pick up our other friends from the hostel. Once we gathered the crew we took off towards the number 1 thing to do in Panama. Go and see the Panama Canal.
What a site the Canal was. I never put too much thought into it before but this was a huge accomplishment as the Canal runs for over 12 kms right through the middle of a country. We went to Miraflores Locks in order to watch a few massive ships make there way through as they moved endless amounts of cargo around the world. Even one ship had the name Singapore written on it helping me further relate the two cities.
The rest of my time in Panama City consisted of loads of Ceviche at the Fish Market and walks throughout the stunning city. Mamallena had a total family vibe and I met some incredible people there but especially I have to give a shout out to Alejandra, Kim, Tara, Cedric, and Kelly. Alejandra and I began hanging out a lot as others left because she was from Colombia and was excited to tell me what I could do when I arrived. After hanging out with Alejandra for a few days I knew that I was going to love the people down in Colombia if they were even half as nice as she was!
Panama City treated me very well and I wasn´t ready to leave Central America as I made my way 30 minutes out of the city to the airport. Next stop Colombia. After a 1 hour and 5 minute flight for $347.00 I arrived in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia. Upon first arrival I knew I was going to like the place. Even as I passed through immigration I was teased for studying my Spanish in Nicaragua and not in Colombia. They sure do a great job at making you feel welcome in this country. After planning next to nothing with Will Lees it turned out his flight from New York only landed an hour after mine and on the same day! You just gotta love that. So I sat with a Colombian family for an hour who were also waiting for their friends to arrive from New York and was given some nice tips. The most important tip was how much a taxi should cost you in order to get into downtown Cartagena.
As people began to file past immigration and make their way into Colombia I finally saw the gigantic Gringo that was Will Lees push through the doors of security. Later he told me how funny it was to see this little Canadian guy jumping up and down with his big backpack on and waving his arms while surrounded by a sea of Colombianos. He also claimed it was quite a relief because who the hell knows when we would have seen each other if I hadn´t waited for him at the airport. On the way in we had an awesome taxi driver who even would double as a drug dealer if we would like. We declined politely and ended the journey with high fives and Sergio´s number in case we needed another taxi. I´m still not fully grasping the concept that it is the high season for backpackers so finding a hostel in Cartagena was a little difficult. We ended up putting our names down at the Mamallena that had recently opened in Cartagena and made our way to Casa Viena for the night.
Cartagena was such a beautiful city filled with so much colonial splendour that it was absolutely mesmerizing. The entire time I explored the city it was like walking around in a museum. A giant wall surrounds all of the city and there is even another fortress inside of the larger one. The vibe was good as well and we ended up meeting a ton of great people in Cartagena. We made sure to go out with one of Will´s local friends in order to get some of the culture into our blood but also made lots of time for other travellers. We ended up spending most of our time with two different groups of Chilean girls and even found some fun parties around town.
We then moved on to Tagenga and Santa Marta which are right beside each other but have very different feels. Santa Marta is the city with tons of markets and a beautiful boardwalk. Teganga is more a tiny little beach town that only really runs because of tourist money. The nice thing is that this doesn´t take away from it at all and the vibe was super positive. We stayed in Tagenga for 2 nights and just soaked in as much sun as possible. I´m doing my best to fight against my genes and become darker than some of the tribes in South Sudan. So far I think I am off to a very good start.
With no idea where we wanted to go after Tagenga we heard about some sort of ´tubing´ that was possible in a little town called Palomino. The two Dutch people that told us about this town also had no idea what it was about but decided to try their luck. We tried asking around with the locals and other tourists but no one knew anything about it. That was when we did the responsible thing and hopped onto a bus heading through Tayrona National Park and passing through Palomino. We had no idea what to excpect and ended up beign dropped off on the side of the highway and told to walk down some dirt road towards the ocean. After a kilometre and a half Will, myself and our new Swiss friend Bjorn popped out on one of the most beautiful beaches I had ever seen. There were about three hostels to pick from and one was even full! We reserved a spot at the full hostal for the next night and secured a few beds in some ladies house for the night with some nice older Argentinian women as well. Once we had our bags in our room we threw on our shorts and headed right into the nice powerful waves. Surrounded by coconut trees and beautiful Latin women it was hard to call Palamino anything less than paradise.
The next day we found a spot to rent tubes and headed out about an hour and a half up a hill and into the forest in search of the Rio Palomino. As we reached the top of the hill we were all as sweaty as possible and could hardly believe what we were looking at. The trees cleared created a small gap for our eyes and we were left standing there speechless over looking the Rio Palomino and the dense forest surrounding it. I did not know that places liek this existed on our planet. The best part of it all was that I knew that the whole adventure back to town was going to sonsist of me laying in a tube surrounding by clear and refreshing water. The ride took about 2 hours and may be my favourite experience so far on my travels.Even though the river hardly had any rapids, Will did an excellent job in finding the one spot with a tree sticking out of the water and flipped his tube within 30 seconds of entering the river. We went down with a group of 6 and shared many laughs.
That night we met a large group of Argentinians whom, contrary to popular belief, were actually really nice. Electricity hardly exists in this town so we mainly played cards using flashlights and made our way up to the highway to buy dinner. The town even had a few indigenous people in it as we first went to explore what kind of food they served. These indegenous people were no taller than 4´11¨ and were wearing poncho like rags as their clothing, no shoes. They were so natural that it was hard not to stare. They claimed to only have come into town to trade with the locals. The walk is through the jungle for about two hours. One of the workers at our hostel had traded with them for indigenous hot chocolate and I even got to try some. I doubt I will ever have hot chocolate that tasty again.
We made our way back to Santa Marta yesterday and even met up with our Chiliean friends from Mamallena in Cartagena for the night in Tagenga. The bus to Teganga last night could not have been more fun as all the locals joked around with Will and I as we hardly squeezed into the last possible spots in the bus. Upon arrival in Tagenga we hopped out with a few locals only to see that the electricity was out. The locals who had become quite close with us in the short 20 minute bus ride walked us the whole way to the hostel that we were searching for. We met up with our friends and after sharing a bottle of Aguardiente (the Colombian version of Sambuca) we made our way to a discoteca that looks over all of Teganga. The vibe was local and the music was Salsa, Reggaeton and Electronic or in other words the music was EPIC.
Today is a well needed rest day so that I can update the blog but tonight we are going to make a plan for Barranquilla. What is our draw to the city of Barranquilla you may ask? It is the location of the second largest Carnaval in the world after Rio de Janeiro. What is even better is that the party starts in exactly one week from now. I´ll keep you posted on whether we find accomodation or just buy hammocks to sleep in the alleys. There is no way we are going to miss this party!