If you hadn’t already noticed we love boats. During our journey around South America we caught a whopping sixteen, six of which were long distance. It would be no surprise then that when we realized we were venturing to Panama we would jump on the opportunity to watch ginormous hulks of floating steel navigate their way through a very narrow canal. The Panama Canal is one of the world’s most enduring engineering feats. Masses of earth were exhumed from the jungle to form this 80km transit channel linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. There is more concrete and steel in this thing than you can begin to imagine, and the logistics that are required to run this operation are astounding. And what made our visit to the Canal even more exciting was that Mickey and Minnie Mouse were there!
A seed had been sown in our brains many months back to sail between the South American and North American continents through the Caribbean Sea from Cartagena in Colombia to Portobelo in Panama, stopping at picture-postcard islands along the way. An opportunity we just could not pass up. Our trip was to be made on the majestic Mintaka, a German sailing yacht. The Mintaka set sail from it’s homeland of Germany 21 years ago and has been sailing the oceans ever since. The owners of the yacht, Manfred and Petra, were to be our Captain, crew and guides for the next four days of sailing through paradise. As we hoisted the main sheet and rolled out the jib, our last sight of South America slipped out of view with the flickering lights of Cartagena fading in the distance in the dark of night.
After 216 days of travelling over 40,000km through 10 countries, on 62 buses, 15 boats and 1 plane we had reached our final destination on our colossal trip around South America. We had arrived in the most beautiful and vibrant city in Colombia, Cartagena. Tucked neatly inside an impressive network of archaic walls, the cobblestone streets of this charming city will romance you in everyway. If colonial architecture, drinking beers in lively plazas or meandering through the colourful streets doesn’t interest you, than a visit to the scintillating tropical beaches of Playa Blanca or the mysterious mound of mud at Totumo Volcano will surely entice your senses.
Who would have thought that at the very tip of South America on the shores of the Caribbean lays a great desert? Endless plains of dust, shrubs, dried up lagoons, and mountains made of dirt sprinkle the northernmost province of South America the Guajira Peninsula, a stark and desolate region we find hard to picture in the tropical north. Back in December we made it to the nearly-southernmost point of South America Ushuaia, so we thought it would be fitting then to venture to the nearly-northernmost point to Cabo de la Vela, an isolated fishing village where tumbleweed rolls freely and there are more goats than people.
Finally we made it to the Caribbean. To the glistening turquoise water, sparkling sand and swaying palm trees on the north coast of Colombia. There is an abundance of stunning beaches to throw your sarong down and relax in the sun, or the Sierra Nevada mountain range where you can stretch your legs and breath in the fresh mountain air. After a very long, frightening bus ride from Medellin – we have decided Colombian bus drivers are the worst in South America – we were ready to hit the mountains and bask in the sun by the sea in the famous Tayrona National Park, the beachside towns of Palomino and Cabo de la Vela and the picturesque mountain village of Minca. We had landed in paradise.
Drugs, guns, and guerrillas. These are the words that come to mind when you think of Colombia and the infamous city of Medellin, once the Cocaine capital of the world. Today, this couldn’t be any further from the truth. At the height of the Medellin Cartels success they were earning $60 million a day creating vast realms of wealth all from the export of Cocaine, helping the Medellin Cartel and Señor Pablo Escobar to become more powerful than the government of Colombia. The 1980s and 1990s saw the world’s bloodiest gang wars in this city that included multiple car bombings, the murdering of thousands, including the presidential candidate of the time Luis Carlos Galan. The peak of this violence in 1991 saw over 6000 recorded killings, double the number of the worlds current murder capital San Pedro Sula in Honduras. The ferocious violence culminated in a military assault on the city with tanks reclaiming the streets for government forces in early 1993. There is a lot more to Colombia than this prolific history, a fact we try very hard to convince our worrying mothers of. Colombia is quickly transforming into a safe and liveable country, most evident in the streets of Medellin, a fascinating city that is thriving off the recent successes of innovative urban regeneration projects. Drugs, guns and guerrillas no more!
We think it is pretty safe to say that about 90% of you can’t live without coffee; the little beans that are roasted, brewed and poured into a cup with perfectly frothed milk for you every day. Coffee is the worlds second most traded commodity after crude oil and the only one in the top ten that is grown purely for the enjoyment of humans. We don’t need it to survive, we want it. We want to feel that kick as the caffeine sets in, lick the foamy froth off the top, and feel the satisfaction and taste of a well made “cuppa” – we live for it. Ever since coffee became such a vital ingredient in the day to day running of our lives it has become the lifeblood of hillside communities throughout the world, communities where this little bean is like gold. Their livelihood relies on it. We visited the Zona Cafetera in Colombia to learn about the beans, and discover a beautiful region of the country that lives and thrives off its cultivation.
The Andes is a magical place. With striking landscapes and traditional communities that live and thrive here, it is the heart of indigenous South America. Nowhere quite compares to the mountain villages nestled between the looming volcanoes in Ecuador and the picturesque town of Otavalo, home to one of the largest handicraft markets and the most beautifully dressed locals on the continent. Our last visit to the Andes was at the tip of South America in Argentina, and the last time we had experienced such colourful cultural customs was in Bolivia and Peru back in October 2012. It was a refreshing change of scenery to arrive back in the Andes. We were so excited to be a part of this world all over again.
Although being geographical neighbors, the Andes and the Amazon couldn’t be any further removed from one another; two extremely different environments where the jungle lowlands push upwards to the dry plains of the high altitude Altiplano. The animals, plants and people couldn’t be any more diverse. The stark contrast between these two worlds was a shock to our system after landing in Bogotá some 2600 metres above sea level from Leticia, in the heart of the Amazon, at an elevation of only 90m. The air was cold and fresh, we felt like we had landed on another planet, with barren jagged mountains peering around the imposing skyscrapers of this unusually placed city, the capital of the provocative country of Colombia.
Deep within the South American continent lays one of the worlds most fascinating and enigmatic environments, the Amazon Jungle. Bizarre creatures roam the dense impenetrable forest with alien-like limbs and fluoro skin full of poison, alongside uncontacted tribes of primitive Indians. The Amazon is like an ecological war zone with every animal, plant, insect and organism defending itself against one another, battling for air, sun, water and a precarious place in this untamed wilderness. We survived twelve days travelling slowly along the Amazon River, now that we had hit dry land we were eager to launch ourselves into the depths of the unknown to learn how this fascinating ecosystem thrives.