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cartagena, a la orden

When we got off of the boat from the San Blas islands we felt like we were taking Cartagena by storm, with our new team. Saddling up at Friends to Be hostel, all the boys and Meg had a room to themselves prime for continuing the shenanigans. After much needed showers and wifi time, we took our wobbly sea legs to the streets of Cartagena. Seriously, when you are in a confined space after 5 days at sea, your body thinks that you are continuously 5 beers deep. Our hostel was located just outside the walled city in a little neighborhood called Getsemaní, where graffiti decorated the walls and hopscotches the narrow streets.

Plaza de la Trinidad was where Cartagena’s vagabond street musicians, bracelet-braiding argentines, party-hunting Australians, and well-dressed Colombian travelers alike met to exchange cultures and drinks. Grabbing a seat img_3901on the curb with a 2 litre of Aguila you paid tribute to why travelers travel. Overhearing conversations in every language, warmhearted sing-a-longs, smells of local cuisines and fried foods, break dancing crews hitting the streets hard (even Michael Jackson occasionally), gifts exchanging hands for friends at home all happening under a slightly dimmed plaza. Bars and other promoted social gathering events are a incomparable to the blithe feeling of camaraderie that you get when you are a part of a plaza fiesta.

img_4027We all went out to dinner that night to reclaim our passports, one last meal as a family. Captain Carmello and Chef Francia, introduced us to our first Colombian salsa bar where the Aguila flowed and English Rosie promptly fell in love with the beautiful Colombian bartender.  The boys and Meg were quickly introduced to Colombian nightlife where rum is cheap and the dim clubs bump until the morning light.

img_4035Walking the streets of the old walled city is animg_3888 incredible view into the past. Bougainvillea and vines hang from the balconies of beautiful colonial buildings and Colombian flags arch proudly over narrow streets. Also lining the streets are hundred of vendors proclaiming “A la orden” as you pass. We eventually learned this means something similar to “At your service” and is WIDELY used by vendors all over the country. We sidewalk shopped taking in authentic paintings and handmade jewelry and some not so authentic light sabers and other made-in-china toys. We found a line of locals streaming out of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant and found empanadas as big as our faces full of caramelized onions and it quickly became our go-to lunch spot.

Bellies full we meandered the streets looking for the tattoo parlor. A few hours later and we were rocking img_3887matching Colombian tattoos! …just kidding moms. But we were spectators to Jak, Orbit, and Andy getting their first tattoos to commemorate their roadie in norma, the van, from Maine to Panama. I figured there are already plenty of pics of your bums on the internet, boys, so what’s one more. We even ran into the tattoo artist the night before at the bar, but he was off the sauce by mid-day when the ink hit the bum.

img_3990Walking the wall for sunsets is a must do. With your eyes gazing over the Caribbean sea, the sun slips behind the crashing waves on the jetties protecting the city. Take the money shot picture with the Colombian flag in the background as the sun goes down will surely get you a spot in the family photo album.

We learned fast what Colombian culture is. The Colombians live a life of fulfillment and giving. There is no time to be shy or timid. If you want to have an Arepa with a million calories on it, go for it. If you want to wear a bathing suit that doesn’t quite fit properly but you feel good in img_3911it, beautiful. If you want to try to dance salsa even though you are tone deaf, who cares. Walking in the streets of Cartagena the Caribbean onda is palpable, good vibes that bounce from one person to another. Old men laugh sharing sugary coffee and apparently very funny stories on the sidewalks. The colors, the flowers, the sunshine, the arepas, the dancing, the PEOPLE, everything about Cartagena encourages joy. We get why so many people fall in love with Colombia and come back from their travels a changed person.

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Gracias, Cartagena – nos vemos pronto!

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san blas: the family we found at sea

Boat name: Nacar 2IMG_3879.JPG

Captain: Carmelo

Mates: Mono and Francia

Dude hitching a ride: Juan Carlos

Passengers: Rosie, Carolina, Mona, Alex, James, Andy, Jack, Dave, Shlomie, John, Meg and Luke. dsc00186

Arriving in Puerto Lindo we had the same feelings that we experienced when we had first started our trip: nerves, excitement, anticipation. You see, there’s no bus you can take from Panama to Colombia. In fact there’s no road at all. It’s either fly or sail – both were out of our budget so we figured we’d have some fun and treat ourselves to some caribbean paradise.  We were about to embark on a sailing voyage from Panama to Colombia with 10 other passengers that would soon become lifetime friends. dsc00161

The meet and greet could not of been more priceless. The Aussies and the Kiwi had driven from Maine to this little port town in Panama (shout out to Norma) where they sold the car to our boat captain. epic. The colectivo from Panama City dropped off a mixed bag of nationalities that were still sharing stories of the night before (some reeking of booze too!). And then there was us, who obviously took the public transportation from Panama City. Budget.

img_3724Approaching the San Blas islands was a bit surreal. The white sand, low hanging palm trees and clear turquoise water was something straight out of a postcard. Truly something you have to see to believe really exists. We took a photo from a mile out then 500 meters then 100 meters, as we realized the closer we got the better the photo op was. It was simply the most picturesque place we have ever been.

The mother bear of the boat and handler of all our meals was img_3761our legendary French chef Francia.  What she did with the most simple ingredients in a confined kitchen on the sailboat was pure wizardry. The cuisine was comparable to what a five star chef would cook up and there was heaps of it. The food even got Biggie in the mood to use a large wooden

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cooking spoon to fight off Orbit when he was getting greedy.  To get your mouth watering
here are some items Francia served up: grilled Caribbean lobster smothered in garlic and butter, spaghetti bolognese, vegetarian curry, and fresh caught Barracuda. If you have ever been on a sailboat before and know the size of the kitchen, then you understand the magic behind these meals.

Bar Orbits: hey Shlomie do us all a solid huh? img_3767Grab us another cold one? To the naked eye Bar Orbits was simply a surfboard with its leash attached to the boat ladder. To us it was so much more. It had joined the boys on the long journey from Maine and made its home as the floating happy hour bar that trailed the Nacar 2. Bar Orbits was perfect for catching a buzz at happy hour, sharing stories of where we have been and where we are going or performing special op missions to spy on yogis! The name came from the king of the Caribbean (still don’t know his
real name but that’s what he went by) who dsc00226drunkenly shared with us stories of sailing around the world, real people, and real love, before we set sail. The man was in his 50 or 60’s, had patches of hair and a mustache, seemed to love the drink, and didn’t mind lifting up his T-shirt over his belly to catch some fresh air. With all of the laughs that he brought us we decided to name the bar Orbits after him because of all of his stories of traveling the world. It was probably the least we could do, after all Alex did commit a robbery of a trade and got Orbits favorite fedora for his very worn flat bill.

The days passed all to quickly, filled with the img_3698best snorkeling we had ever done, white sand beaches, and tiny pristine islands fit to abandon Jack Sparrow (where you hiding the rum Jack). Hours were spent on the boat nets, starting, finishing, and swapping books with new friends. Once we deemed it an acceptable hour to dive into the rum, the games would begin, the stories would flow, and img_3721cultures were shared. We ate swiss chocolate, talked Israeli politics, acquired aussie vernacular, talked South African cricket, Irish rugby and even witnessed live our first Kiwi Hakka. Thanks guys for being the best shipmates, and world class people – you will always have a home in the U.S.

Approaching Cartagena was bitter sweet, so bummed for our sailing paradise to end but so excited for all Colombia would hold. We sat on the bow taking in the view of Cartagena: tall apartment skyscrapers to one side, an industrial port to the other and beautiful colonial churches and domes straight ahead. We were going to love this place.

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…they say it’s about the journey

Getting to Panama City was an eye-opening experience to say the least. We took the overnight bus that left from David, a town that may have once felt safe (at least that is what a fellow travelers mother had said about the early 90’s) but no longer felt that way. We had 6 hours to kill in David before our midnight bus left, so we decided to leave the bus station and look for a place to grab some balboas and food. Turns out that no restaurant in David sells both beer and food, really not off to a good start. We had drifted pretty far from the bus station at this point and had felt that we were now a part of the Hunger Games, all of our belongings in hand and being hunted. Ending up close to a Casino, we
img_3600decided to go into the bar across the street. Not our best. It felt like we had walked into a trap. A college bar with the lights turned on (think back to where you went for those dollar beers in college and then turn on the lights… that), weird spanish rap music playing so loudly that the only way to say SOS to the person next to you was by morris code, and a back room that almost felt like male prostitution center but lets fast forward from this thought. Instead we can talk about the waiter that greeted us. Wearing more bling than Little John he whispered sweet nothings in Spanish to the boys trying to pick them up and constantly with a hand on their shoulders. Lets drink these beers as fast as we can and get the hell out of there we all thought. Our waiter was depressed when we left but we had felt like we had survived an encounter we wouldn’t tell our mothers about.

But we still had to survive the arctic img_3595temperatures of the overnight bus. Attention bus companies: please be aware that blasting AC to below freezing levels IS NOT COMFORTABLE for any human being on this planet. We had to dress like we were hiking Everest meanwhile we were just hoping on the bus to Panama City. As sleeping upright is a talent of none, it proved to be a sleepless bus ride. But we had made it to Panama City, and a part of us was just happy to make it out of David.

IMG_3629.JPGFinally, Panama City – a place with a stunning amount of banks (to hide your money?), the panama canal with all of its history, an awesome fish market, and the old city where the presidential palace is. We were ready for Panama City to be the epitome of “americanization” with KFC on every corner and men with toupes and tiny hands in every bank. Sure we saw a KFC or six but it was so much more than all that. Panama City definitely had a modern, western vibe to it but also a crispy clean, an amazing waterfront, and a skyline & old city vibe that was picturesque.

IMG_3620.JPGThe Panama Canal is something that everyone who visits should do. There’s not much to it: just ginormous cargo ships going through genius human engineering, no biggie. But there is a ton of history that deserves to be knowledge shared. With around 15 ships going through the canal a day Panama gets roughly around 500,000 USD for every ship; no wonder Panama wanted this thing back from the U.S. Beside the numbers which I found more interesting then Meg (the U.S. actually operated at a net zero but obviously they were in it for the economic chokehold point) we learned that there were many different ethnicities that came together and found work building the canal during both the French and U.S. operations.

On the way from the financial district to the old city you will walk through Panama City’s fish market. Blood stained floors with fish guts being sprayed into gutters by men in white img_3619rubber boots flooded this area and made us have a second of remorse for the fish in the world. …then we enjoyed some great ceviche at one of the many vendors in the market. In the old city we found cobble stone streets winding through government buildings, trees growing in vacant haciendas and Panama hat sellers on every street corner. While we love beach life and mountain air, it was a treat to get back into the hustle and bustle of city life.

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cool detoxifying mountain air

We headed away from Bocas in dire need of some cool, detoxifying, mountain air and headed to explore inland Panama. We were a Teva light as we had awaken to find someone had stolen one lone Teva in the middle of the night. We believe the one-legged pirate to be the most likely culprit. Teva Corporation or the Red Cross, if you have a heart and are DCIM101GOPROreading this please send Luke a new pair, he is really bitter about the situation. Winding through the green hills we were doubly certain Panama was the gem we now thought it to be. With Casey in tow, we made our way to a little place called “Lost and Found”, a mountain hostel we had only heard about through word of mouth. We got off our bus on the side of a mountain road where only a small fruit stand stood. Hidden next to it was a trail we followed up. This turned out to be an arduous task with our big packs and wet slippery rock. We reached the charming and encouraging “You’re half-way there!” sign and crumbled, taking a break wondering how the hell we were still only half way up and warning that this place better be all it’s cracked up to be. Does this place have Balboa beer coming out of the faucets?

IMG_0954.jpgWe weren’t disappointed. The clouds had dispersed leaving us with a stunning view of the greenest mountain valley, and the feeling you were the only civilization in sight. No beer faucets, but drinkable tap water is always a perk! We have come to love our hostel “family dinners” that many mountain hostels offer. There is one thing for dinner and everyone sits down at long tables and eats together. Forced socializing – great stuff.

Possibly the most special thing GOPR2319.JPGabout this place (second only to its view) are the scavenger hunts. We laced up for a day of hiking, which we love, but love even more when it includes brain-teasers, healthy competition, prizes and even a treasure map. Our clues led us all over an empty mountain we seemed to have to ourselves: up to lookout points, ancient trees, beautiful rivers, and tiny caves. A scroll with a clue hidden in each place. This was meg’s kind of hiking, a purpose, a team, riddles, and incredible landscapes, so much more fun than an average aimless, muddy, steep mountain climb.

Our final task was to decipher a set of ancient petroglyphs found on the mountain that tells the story of a local fable. With our new-found hostel friends, we decoded a story of DCIM102GOPROsun gods, moon gods, karma, and revenge. Peeking around the bar for clues, Luke stumbled upon the answers but still let everyone struggle to figure out the riddle and then graded our work like a spelling bee. With a snack was on the line, Luke wasn’t leaving anything to chance. Free stuff is great when traveling, especially food.

Not ready to bid our new brother Casey goodbye, we spent the day canyoning in a nearby town. We hesitantly scoped out the river as small local kids dove head first, fearlessly, into the water. These master divers even jumped in holding boulders sinking DCIM101GOPROthemselves to the bottom. Genius idea on their part, sign us up! (don’t try without local preteen
supervision) Once assured of its safety after a full on water show from the kids, we jumped in ourselves, falling 15 feet then floating to a calm pool. For hours. On repeat. We could see why these kids spent their days here.

From here we embarked on our first overnight bus experience, and it proved to be just that: an experience…

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“don’t go to panama,” they said.

“Don’t go to Panama,” they said, “Don’t even bother.” We’d heard the worst: that everything was completely built up, Americanized, and overpriced. I’m starting to think everyone was in on some joke to deter more tourists from coming to Panama because they wanted to save it for themselves. Couldn’t fool us. We could not have been more pleasantly surprised by our first stop in Panama. An unpleasant border experience (buying img_3470exit plane tickets two minutes before crossing for confirmation and then immediately canceling them: thank you Orbitz for your 24 hour cancellation policy) was overshadowed by a duty free store selling the cheapest rum we’d seen yet, and air conditioned shuttle buses with wifi we didn’t bother to use because we couldn’t take our eyes off the beautiful green of the rolling hills.

A water taxi led us from the main land through islands and as the water turned bluer and clearer, the smiles we exchanged grew bigger and brighter. We dropped our bags in our air-conditioned, hot shower, spotless hostel and headed straight to the bar deck where swings swayed over starfish-filled waters. We may finally truly understand the pull of the Caribbean.

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Bocas del Toro is home to a never-ending spring break for the backpackers of Central America, taking a week off traveling before they continue their cultural education in South America. With the cheap rum that we stashed from the duty free store, we were ready to get rowdy. Hitting up the usual suspects of Bocas, img_3523we made our way to Salinas Hostel to party with bachelors, paid a ridiculous cover ($5) to get into a subpar Aqua Lounge and discovered an obsession with starfish at starfish beach. Yet again, the traveling circuit seemed a little bit smaller here running into our friend Casey (again!) sitting poolside at our hostel. As to not tempt fate any further, we decided to just travel together from here on out.

With our new Montana brother and other travel buddies we hit the streets to barter with dingy boat drivers to take us to Starfish Beach. We found our local to take us at our asking img_3501price plus additional two-spots to snorkel at. Win. The clear blue skies created a serene atmosphere, allowing us to gaze through the clear turquoise waters into the life of a starfish. On the white sand beaches of Starfish Beach we amused ourselves over the biology of starfish. ‘They must mate. How else would they reproduce?” We even set up a tinder account for one of the Starfish and set him/her up on a blind date. It ended dramatically with her spilling her drink on him and running to the nearest coral. We later found out that most starfish are hermaphrodites and reproduce asexually, duh.

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Taking a break from the Real World Bocas Del Toro we headed to the relaxed island of Bastimentos. Offering a honeymoon vibe we settled in at the Palmar Eco Lodge at Red Frog Beach by playing endless games of Uno, warranted beach time, and being friendly with the locals and staff. We especially img_3507want to give a shout out to the two boys on the beach that were trying to sell us coconut oil. Their elevator speech about this oil was impeccable. They made it sound like an everyday vitamin. “You can use it to clean your hair (looking at Meg), grow chest hair (looking at Luke) cooking, scars, lotion, etc.” But we didn’t fold even with the relentless taunts and Luke’s new nickname “malo”. Instead we taught them how to play Uno and learned how to say the different suits and face cards in Spanish, not a bad tradeoff. We left Bastimentos and Bocas Del Toro relaxed and ready to get back to the travelers grind (grind being code for some free spirit living).

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barefoot dreadlocked and anklet-clad

With our first trip to the Caribbean coast we could instantly tell that Puerto Viejo was going to be much different than the Pacific, where we have spent most of our time thus far. Our Puerto Viejo adventure brought to us a lot of firsts: sleeping in hammocks, bicycle beach crawl, as well as sunrise swims to islandsimg_0808_2 off the coast. Locals still shouted at you as you passed, this time bypassing the niceties of trying to sell you a tour and going straight to the drugs, and if you weren’t interested in that they always had a taxi ride available. “Weed? Pizza? Taxi?” But this was different; the streets were full of life. Barefoot, dreadlocked, anklet-clad tourists and expats roamed the town and its connecting streets making new friends, dancing salsa, and watching fire shows.

If you don’t wear bug spray, you’re going to have a bad time. Sleeping in hammocks is a science not an art. You have to perfect it or the mosquitos will unmercifully torture you. You’d think humans were always meant to sleep in hammocks. The hammock hugging your body, swaying you to sleep, the waves pounding in the background. Your great night sleep can only interrupted by (warranted) paranoia and dreams of death-eating mosquitos.  

After the mosquito massacre of 2016 that took place on the first night, precautions were taken: spray every inch of your body with bug spray (remembering not to spray directly onto face), spray the hammock, wear a light hooded shirt with the hood on, sleep in your sleeping sheets and mummy up as best you can, think about something other than mosquitos, and wine, lots of wine.

img_0812_2Instead of having a bar crawl down the Puerto Viejo streets, we decided to do it the tourist way with a beach crawl. We romantically rented beach cruisers and set out for our three-beach crawl that spanned roughly thirteen miles. Not a bad idea: Bike to sweat out last night’s toxins, bike for some breeze from the heat, bike for some exercise and now time for a candid picture. The tree covered streets made for the perfect cruise with the perfect lady hiding from the Caribbean sun. As we got further and further from the town, the beaches started to become more and more remote. Hidden behind tall palm trees and stone tables where old men would sit and play chess, was the deserted beach of playa grande. We were in our own world in awe over the transparency of the Caribbean.img_3434

Puerto Viejo is a traveler’s town. Walking down the streets we haphazardly ran into Meg’s good friend from high school, with whom we began the night jamming on the guitar and listening to odes to Puerto Viejo (hi devo!), we drank birthday drinks with our refound friend from Playa Samara (hi casey!) and danced the night away with our new barefoot, overall/vest wearing friends (hi Kjell & Katie!). We felt almost popular bopping around this town waving to travelers we had met and seen in other places on the central american traveler’s circuit. We really felt like we were part of a nomadic backpacking family. Puerto Viejo was a great ending to our Costa Rican adventure, leaving our wallets light but our hearts full of positive vibes.  img_0810_2

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manuel antonio, you perezoso

Having gone without wifi for many days, we arrived in Manuel Antonio with no hostel, no idea where we were, and no expectations except for Meg’s memories of an incredible vacation as a 10-year-old. We arrived and immediately took to the beaches, walking the length of the beach admiring the untouched islands that speckled the near coastline. img_0752We paused at every river that ran into the ocean hoping/dreading to catch sight of one of the many pacific crocodiles that allegedly dwell in these waters. Within minutes of finding a shady spot to sit, we were welcomed by a pack of spider monkeys wrestling where the trees meet the sand. This place was crawling with wildlife. Or should I say slithering; moments later a 5-year-old costa rican boy was dragging Luke by the hand to see a 7 ft snake slithering up a grassy knoll. We then continued to have a playdate with this boy. Throwing the frisbee with him until he

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Christian and Luke having a tussle.

eventually lost it in the white wash of the ocean (20 dollars well spent) and taking a dip in the ocean. In the water the boy started some conversation by asking Luke, “Do you have a mother?” Luke looked at Meg to decrypted the message the boy was trying to convey. We later chatted about being from the United States and then the boy blurted out, “That’s where all the Gringo’s live!” Almost drowning ourselves in the water, we couldn’t control our laughter.

Our walk the next morning took us south on the beach, closer to town. The beach wasn’t nearly as nice, with vendors shouting at you in accented English, attempting to sell you a slice of beach and an Imperial umbrella, or an overpriced 15 minute parasailing experience, or maybe just some marijuana. After being so immersed in culture in Montevideo and the Finca, the tourist-ridden, atmosphere-lacking strip of town was a bit of a let down.

img_3340What it lacked in ambiance was made up for in its national park, the real reason you come to Manuel Antonio. We stopped for (long) moments at a time to watch sloths slowly and carefully make their way up branches, finding new spots for fall right back asleep. They don’t call them perezosos (lazys) for no reason!

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We hiked up hills that would lead to lookouts over pristine beaches. Before entering the park, you will encounter hyenas acting as tour guides who will try to sell you on their skills of spotting prey to take photos of. Don’t fall into this trap. Your plain eye is just as powerful as their telescope. We learned the hard way that Luke is no George of the Jungle with monkey friends screaming and swatting him away, almost pushing him down stairs (Hopefully insurance really does cover international injuries).img_3413

The monkeys were fun, the sloths adorable, and the beaches nice, but it just didn’t quite live up to 10-year-old-Meg’s dream vacation. Turns out a place can change a lot in 15 years (yikes we’re old!). Leaving behind new monkey friends we headed across the country for our last stop in Costa Rica!

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