Landing safely on the tarmac at Toronto Airport in Canada, we breathed a big sigh of relief. We had made it to the western world, no injuries, nothing lost, our bodies and bags intact. Finally we could drop our guard, turn off our radars that were keeping us alert to danger and thieves constantly during the 248 days we spent travelling through South America. Not only were we excited to be catching up with Treeny’s excitable MammaLou , her wonderful grandad Brian (Pops), and his adorable partner Annie, we were thrilled at the prospect of eating some normal food, no more rice and beans, hurrah! Canada is a ginormous and diverse country requiring months of travel to grasp it, instead with our two weeks we concentrated our time in the state where it all happens, Ontario, home to Pops and Annie in Prince Edward County, the countries capital Ottawa, the state capital of Toronto and the mightiest waterfall in North America, Niagara Falls.
With a fascinating history, provocative architecture, dazzling beaches, tropical landscapes, a colourful culture and impassioned people, Cuba is one of those exotic countries that has all the vital ingredients for exciting travel. Throw in some Spanish colonial charm and some cool 1950’s cars and you have one very alluring destination. There is so much to see on this Caribbean island you would need months to really engross yourself in it. We only had three weeks to explore after Havana and made the most of it by visiting a combination of towns, beaches and rural areas to understand the essence of the real Cuba.
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.
Volcanos are mysterious monsters of nature that conjure up images of bubbling molten rock and conical snow-capped mountains. Ecuador has one of the highest concentrations of volcanos in the world. The majority are extinct or dormant with a large number of active volcanoes resting worryingly close to Quito, the sprawling capital city of Ecuador. The most famous, and second highest active volcano in the world is Cotopaxi, the colossal giant just 28km south of Quito. At the top of our South American hit list was climbing this monster to reach the top of the world, the summit at 5987m above sea level. A challenging climb testing our strength and endurance.