Hello! This blog post is the first one by me, Tom McLaughlin, a graduating medical student about to start my specialty training in paediatrics at the hospital for sick children in toronto. Before diving headlong into the diapers, lollipops, and wailing children/parents that will await me for the next 30-40 years of my career, I figured I’d have a nice long holiday through South and Central America with the lovely Alastair, Josh, and Peter. I joined up in Bogota and will be staying until San Jose, Costa Rica.
After a couple of wonderful days in Bogota, involving awesome views, excellent coffee, and a national World Cup qualifier soccer match that totally shut the city down in celebration (Gooooooooo-(breath)-oooooooooooal!!!!), we flew to Cartagena on June 12. Cartagena is a port city of almost a million people on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, just about due south from Jamaica on the rounded Northern top part of South America. Originally founded in 1533 by the Spanish in order to act as a trading port and base from which to plunder the gold of the local Sinu culture, it’s had a storied colonial history, including invasions by Sir Francis Drake, the British, the Americans, and the Spanish. It’s the setting for “Love in the time of Cholera”. It’s now a thriving modern port town that divides its time and economy between shipping and tourism. There’s an old town that includes a lot of historical sites, as well as a newer area that includes lots of modern condo buildings. We never actually went to the newer area, but as far as I can tell it supports lots of super nice hotels and expats.
Since it was the first time on the trip that we’d made it to the coast, we quickly made our way to the beach after settling in at the hostel. We had heard that the beaches near the downtown/oldtown were dirty and crime-ridden, so we made our way by taxi out to the Boquilla beach area. Our taxi driver drove us out of town and then, unexpectedly, right onto a beach. To the sound of blaring latin dance music from the taxi’s sound system (it always seems like the craziness of the situation is directly correlated with the loudness of the salsa music), we were then surrounded by a group of locals running beside/in front of the cab, banging on the windows/hood, yelling at us to stop. This was the only time on the trip so far when I genuinely thought we were going to be robbed. The cab driver didn’t seem to be too concerned, and indeed stopped the car to allow us to be swarmed by a group of what seemed like brigands. It turned out that they were just aggressive fish salesmen, and so we spent the next 20 minutes bartering over an appropriate price for a fish lunch for the four of us. Eschewing menus, the salesmen preferred to wave actual fish in front of us with their bare hands. In the end we didn’t get robbed and instead enjoyed delicious pescado fresco.
Over the same beach excursion, we were also approached by roaming masseuses, boys selling luke-warm ceviche, and men selling us chairs/umbrellas. This highlighted for me the ever-present entrepreneurial salespeople we found throughout the trip. At any given point, from the beach to the plaza to the street corner to the interior of the hostel, there was always someone trying to sell us something. The positive of this is that any time we felt like we needed something (eg at the beach “we forgot water!”), there would be someone selling you exactly what you needed. The negative is that we were constantly negotiating in broken Spanish, often for things we didn’t really want.
Aside from the beach, and going for Latin karaoke one night (highlights: los hombres de Backstreet, Enrique Iglesias’ “Hero”, and Alastair’s rendition of “Butterfly Kisses”), we spent a lot of our time planning the next phase of our trip. The Eastern part Panama and the adjacent part of Colombia are malaria zones, and are also areas where drug cartels are active, so we decided to avoid a bus through this region and instead take a boat from Cartagena to Panama. We had also heard that the San Blas Islands on the Caribbean side of Panama are beautiful. We had left booking boats to the last minute, so our choices were fairly limited. Ultimately, we decided to book a 5-day adventure with El Capitan Hernando, owner of the “Victory”. Hernando somewhat resembled a middle-aged Colombian version of the sea-god Neptune, and promised us a trip filled with fun and sun.
We set sail with Hernando on Friday, June 14, for a 6-day voyage thought the high seas that can only be described as unforgettable (see next blog post)…