Cartagena’s Walled City

Note: We’ve decided to continue blogging while working on our backlog of posts. This is one of the backlogged posts – we were in Cartagena 2016/11/30-2016/12/05.

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A youth performs as part of a dance group in a plaza of Cartagena’s Walled City.

The sprawling port city of Cartagena serves as a first taste of what Colombia has to offer for many tourists. Located on the Caribbean side of the Panama Isthmus, it covers 572 sq kilometers and is home to nearly 1 million people. But by far the most popular destinations for tourists lie within the Walled City of Cartagena, a 1 sq km “island” in the northwest part of the city. Built by the Spaniards in the 16th century, the Walled City offers narrow stone streets ablaze with brightly colored colonial houses and buildings. These buildings originally housed the administration of Spain’s colony in Colombia, as well as laborers and slaves. During the height of the Colombian drug conflict in the 1980’s and 90’s, when Colombia was considered by many as too dangerous to visit because of the drug trade, Cartagena and the Walled City were considered immune until a series of bombings in 1990 that ground tourism to a halt. But today tourism is booming, with the Walled City a declared UNESCO world heritage site. That comes with good and bad; there’s lots to see, but expect a definite tourist vibe and price premiums as a foreigner. Despite this, Cartagena carries Colombia’s singular character of warmth and positivity. People are happy to talk with you and overwhelmingly willing to help.

Do:

  • Get your laundry done at Beer and Laundry: The name says it all—enjoy a frosty beer and pizza if you’d like while your laundry gets washed for you. Laundry is a fixed price of 30,000 pesos for 4kg, and laundress/chef Liliana can answer any questions you have about Cartagena or her home city of Medellin. Oh, and there’s also fantastic WiFi. This was our first chance to do laundry in more than a month, and it was paradise.

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  • Wander the city and admire the architecture: It’s easy to spend hours wandering around and admiring the colonial architecture painted in effervescent yellows, reds, and blues. Because of the tropical heat, city walks are most feasible from 6 am to 12 pm and then again starting at 4 pm. I’ve heard people accuse countries with midday siestas as lazy, but the heat can get almost unbearable so there’s nothing better to do than sleep and move as little as possible. We preferred the evenings, when the city bustled with people late into the night:

 

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    • Buy local wares and get your haggling practice: There are endless street vendors and shops selling sweets, hats, jewelry, bags, and handicrafts. We found many things to be overpriced, so haggling with these folks is the norm and don’t be too worried about walking away – few vendors offer truly unique things. Another local specialty is emeralds, and there are a ton of jewelry stores in the Walled City where you can buy emerald and diamond pieces, or if you’re us, walk around admiring them in the windows.

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    • Drink: The walled city is party central, especially on weekends. There are tons of bars in the central part of the city, where beers can run as cheap as 3000 pesos ($1) or less. Also be on the lookout for “chivas”, brightly-colored party buses that take you bar hopping and provide drinks between the bars.

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Eat:  Whoo, this was the city that gave us the infamous food poisoning of a few posts ago, so we haven’t got much in the way of beautiful food pictures or recommendations. Avoid: The street vendor mango unless the seller looks like s/he has good hygiene. This is suspect #1 for us in the great food poisoning debacle. Similarly, be wary of street vendor sausage—on more than one occasion we saw the vendor cutting raw sausages, then cooked sausages that he handed to us. Ironically, none of these incidents ever led to illness. It probably won’t kill you, but unless you have an iron stomach bring along some loperamide (Immodium in English, Dilostop in Spanish) and bismuth subsalicylate (Pepto Bismol in English, Bis-Bacter in Spanish).

On a more positive note, the best meal we had (outside of the restaurant chains Don Jediondo and Crepes and Waffles) was at Quero Arepa, located on the corner of Calle 37 and Carrera 10.

Stay: For cheaper accommodations, stay just outside the walled city, as anything within the city’s walls commands a price premium. As an example, inside the city we paid USD $22 for a tiny room (it barely fit the bed, let alone us and our bags in addition) with no hot water at Hostal Marlin. Our room at the hostel also had “decorative” holes near the ceiling that let in mosquitoes and the staff didn’t seem to understand our questions or requests when we spoke to them in English or Spanish. In contrast, for the same price we got a room 10 minutes’ walk from the Walled City at Hotel Casa Salome. This room was much larger, and came with air conditioning, a TV, hot water, and a far better bathroom. The staff here was sharp and understood our Spanish, and they let us extend our stay day-by-day. As an added bonus, we were also only 5 minutes from the Cartagena Castillo and an air-conditioned mall that featured prominently in our recovery from food poisoning.

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As an added bonus, the area outside the city provides a view into normal life in Cartagena. Here two men fish in the waterway between the Walled City and the mainland.

 

 

Leave:

We went on to Santa Marta by taking the MarSol Bus, whose station is located 15 minutes outside of the Walled City. Bus tickets cost 40,000 pesos (~ $13.33 USD) for a 4-5 hour trip, and the small 15-person shuttle buses are comfortable and air-conditioned. You can arrange to have them pick you up at your hotel or hostel in advance for a little extra as well. The only downside of these buses is that they have little room to store luggage, so be prepared to really cram any large bags or suitcases into the trunk of the bus.

Beyond the bus to Santa Marta, you can also catch buses to other cities in Colombia, including Medellin and Bogota, but be aware the bus rides are SUPER long (>10 hours) and can wind through pretty mountainous terrain. While tickets can run fairly cheap (~ $30-40 USD), flights to these same places with the homegrown budget airline VivaColombia can dip as low as USD $50 and take only a couple of hours, so it’s worth checking flight options before booking a bus. There are also multiple cities with the same name in Colombia (and in general in Central/South America), so double check both the city and the province name before booking!

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Overnight Interim in Lima

Today’s post is brought to you by an overnight layover in Lima’s Jorge Chávez International Airport. We’ve left the Galapagos and our luxury cruise with more comfort and relaxation than we imagined, and it’s onward to Cusco.
Right now we’re trapped outside of security, waiting for clearance to enter which is given to people on domestic flights starting at 1:30 am. This airport is unique in that it was clearly designed to host far fewer flights than it currently does, and perhaps originally only domestic flights, because the airport layout makes no sense and it’s all one loopy terminal. Layer on the problem that all flights to Cusco are in the early morning and the airport staff have this odd insistence at cleaning the airport section by section at 11 pm, and you get a whole lot of nomadic overnighters with nowhere to go. Gaze upon us, the unwashed masses!

Update: 

It’s now 7:11 am. We made it past security to get a few hours of sleep in the domestic airport lounge. Thank goodness we have Priority Pass membership through our magic credit card. Boarding in T minus 44 minutes, so see you in Cusco.

Happy Holidays!

(This post is a bit out of order, but is too good to not do for Christmas.)

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A giant illuminated Christmas ornament

A belated happy holidays post from the two of us to everyone out there! While we were in transit to Quito for most of Christmas Eve and Day, here are a couple of amazing shots from the pre-Christmas celebrations of Parque Norte in Medellín. This city in Colombia goes absolutely crazy for Christmas, decking out major streets and parks with lights and larger-than life figures known collectively as “Los Alumbradores”.

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Crowds on a park path lined with figures of giant illuminated flowers. One of the three kings from the Nativity story looms in the background.

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Children gather around a larger-than-life kitchen table in one of the Los Alumbradores figures.

For the week or two leading up to Christmas, families visit major parks and admire the lights, taking pictures, eating festival food, and generally being merry. People also dress up as clowns, Santa Claus, superheroes, and comical characters for circuis performances and pictures with children. They’ll also poke fun at adults, so as a foreigner be ready to be the butt of a few good-natured jokes. They didn’t seem to be there to busk or make tips though, so you don’t need to give them money.

 

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A Christmas “elf” catches sight of us. What followed was a 5 minute fictional interview of where we were from, a couple of jokes, and a “Merry Christmas!” 

If you’re looking for a place to merrily spend the holidays, Medellín is probably one of the best. The celebration is huge and you’ll meet all sorts of wonderful people. Los Alumbradores really brings everyone from the city out for the evening.

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A huddle of nuns out to view Los Alumbradores

And because Parque Norte is also an amusement park with rides, it led to this unintentionally hilarious and creepy picture of the Nativity:

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Yeah, this pretty much sums up how I feel about the year 2016.

So once again, Happy Holidays! Whomever you are and whatever you celebrate, do it with a full heart and gusto as we bid farewell to 2016.

Don Jediondo

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The Don Jediondo that nourished us while we recovered from food poisoning.

After our food poisoning ordeal, we thought we’d lay off the street food for a while and needed a safe alternative. Thankfully, we had just moved rooms to Hotel Casa Salome, which was located near the Pepe Ganga C.C. Mall Plaza El Castillo (i.e. a mall). And in the mall was a food court. And that food court had a Don Jediondo, probably the most saintly restaurant I’ll ever have been blessed to encounter. This was partly the food poisoning speaking. But for a chain restaurant, its food was also REALLY GOOD.

The food at Don Jediondo broke down into two categories: grilled meats and soups. We could get fresh, high-quality chicken, pork, sausage or beef along with fries. Or for soup, we could get a massive bowl of soup that came with rice, an arepa, and a huge slice of avocado. Regardless of what we got, any entrée was a 2-person meal and cost only 15,000-30,000 Colombian pesos ($5-10 USD). Knowing our stomachs were sensitive, we mostly stuck to the soups and found this particular gem: Cuchuco, a rich beef and bean stew that came with a massive slab of tender stewed beef:

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This was the only time we ever ordered two entrees. The food lasted for three meals.

Also, their drink cups tell you random facts! Did you know that a chorizo sausage went to space in 1995?

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Other facts include the length of the longest sausage in the world, the psychological effects of anger on hunger, and the water-starch composition of a potato. 

Don Jediondo, the namesake of the restaurant, is actually a character created by Colombian comedian Pedro González, who partly owns the Don Jediondo Restaurant Franchise. It’s been around for 10 years now and has over 50 restaurants throughout Colombia. Although they haven’t made the international jump yet, here’s to hoping it appears in the U.S. soon. Until then, I’ll just have to make my own Cuchoco. I’ve already got recipes to try lined up here and here. For those of you weathering the cold winter, want to give it a try and let me know how it goes?

– Natalie

Visiting a Colombian Hospital

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We don’t have any pictures of this experience, and you wouldn’t want them anyway. Instead, here’s a nice picture of Cartagena.

It’s a great injustice to the world that we made it all the way to Cartagena and our first post is about visiting the hospital. But on day 3 of our Cartagena adventure, we got the most wicked food poisoning that either of us have ever had. I’ll spare you the gory details, but the standard symptoms were accompanied by joint pain and rash, which worried us a bit because these symptoms overlap with Chikungaya, Dengue, and Zika, a trio of mosquito-borne viruses in the family Flaviviridae. After consulting a friend who’s a doctor-in-training (HI ADRIAN!), we decided it would be safest to go to the hospital and took a taxi to Hospital Universitario de Cartagena. We learned the following fun facts about Colombian hospitals:

  • Public ones treat anyone and everyone for free, for 24 hours. If you choose to stay longer you start incurring costs, but that first 24 hours is free no matter who you are.
  • The facilities in urgent care were shabby. There were almost enough chairs and beds, but some people still lay on the floor or sat on the ground in some places. There was a toilet with no seat, and no running sink water nor drinking water in our waiting room. This likely led to the next revelation, which was…
  • Their solution to everything is an IV of saline. Yes, it made sense in our case, since we were probably dehydrated from vomiting and diarrhea. It probably also made sense for other people who had fevers. But a girl with a broken arm? IV. Or the guy with an open leg wound? IV. Or even the guy who was almost decidedly mentally ill and homeless? IV of saline was what the doctor ordered. Every time.
  • Once you check in, you’re a patient there until they allow you to leave. We may not have understood this one correctly, but once we checked in and they drew blood for tests, we were told by the guard we couldn’t leave until we were cleared to by the doctor. The doctor was waiting for our test results. Those ended up taking 6 hours.

Despite everything the doctors and nurses were wonderful and listened to us stumble through our symptoms with broken Spanish. After IVs—alright, full disclosure here, they failed to peg me twice with an IV and after that I was done—and waiting for test results, the doctor came by to let us know we were suffering most likely from food poisoning  and not some mosquito-borne virus, gave us prescriptions, and sent us on our way. It was exhausting, but we had answers. And even though we have travel medical insurance, it was still a huge relief to know that we wouldn’t have to worry about some kind of medical bill. Thank you, Colombian medical system. You did a great job.

– Natalie

To Panama City and the Panama Canal

The overnight bus

After our 24 hours in David, it was time to move on to Panama City so we could catch our flight to Colombia. We took the 8:00 pm overnight bus for $15 USD. Through some mix-up at the ticket booth, we actually got tickets for the 7:45 pm bus, but thought it was for the 8:00. The attendants helped us find seats on the 8:00 bus, but lesson learned, check your tickets to make sure they’re what you intended to buy.

Though we managed to change clothes, most of our gear was still damp from the excursion to Caldera, so the overnight ride was spent surrounded cramped by thing we were trying to dry on and around us. We drifted in and out of sleep, and the ride was uneventful except for once, when a uniformed officer stopped the bus and checked our passports. This is apparently how they catch expats overstaying their visas.

After an 8 hour ride, we pulled into the Albrook Bus Terminal in southwest Panama City at 4:00 am. At this hour it was desolate, but no one bothered us so we sat around in the terminal for an hour until the citywide buses started running at 5:00 am. Since we were here for only 24 hours, our goal was to see the Panama Canal and then head to the airport.

The Panama Canal

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A map of the Panama Canal showing the Pacific and Atlantic locks.

Let’s take a step back and cover the anatomy of the Panama Canal. It’s a massive artificial waterway that connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, so there are technically many points at which you can see the canal. But when people say “see the Panama Canal”, they’re usually referring to visiting one of the three locks of the Panama Canal to watch it in operation. These locks raise ships 26 meters above sea level to traverse the canal channel and Lake Gatún, then lower them back to sea level on the other side.

There is one set of locks (Gatún) located in the north on the Atlantic side at Colón. The other two sets of locks (Miraflores and Pedro Miguel) are located on the Pacific side near Panama City, so these were the easiest ones for us to visit.

Sunrise over Pedro Miguel Locks

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The bulk carrier Northern Lights passes through the Pedro Miguel Locks near dawn.

Since Miraflores didn’t open until 9:00 am, we decided to head for the Pedro Miguel Locks first. These locks are unique in that they aren’t set up for tourists in any way. There’s literally just a parking lot behind a chain-link fence. We caught the bus line Albrook Forestal Chagres and rode 10 stops to Bomberos Pedro Miguel. From there, we took a 20 minute walk to reach the parking lot.

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The vehicles carrier Arabian Sea passes through Pedro Miguel locks, towed by “mules” (small vehicles in the foreground). The mules must tow ships because the channels are too narrow to navigate using the ship’s own propulsion.

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The full size of the vehicls carrier Arabian Sea.

Watching the Pedro Miguel locks operate isn’t glamorous, but there’s something wonderful about the business-as-usual aspect of it. Employees here walk around doing their jobs, and there’s not a hint of tourism in the air. As each ship came up, we looked up the ship’s name on Google to find its type, origin, and destination. It turns out most large ships are registered and searchable on websites like http://www.marinetraffic.com/, so we were able to do our own personal tour. We sat there for more than an hour, watching the ships slowly slip through the locks, pulled by small locomotives called “mules”, and then sailing under the Centennial Bridge of the Pan-American Highway toward the Pacific.

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The LNG tanker Pazifik travels on toward the Centennial Bridge.

We watched the sun rise, turning the sky pink and then blue. And we watched some poor guy doing his daily commute get into a fender-bender accident, watched as the police came, and watched as the traffic like molasses in response to the drama. It was slow. It was nice after a night of almost no sleep.

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Drama unfolds in our parking lot-turned-observation-deck.

Miraflores Locks

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A mule at Miraflores Locks at work pulling a ship.

We figured we might as well also pay the $15 per-person fee and see the more touristy Miraflores Locks. Located 10 minutes and 2 bus stops south of Pedro Miguel, Miraflores is the Disneyland version of the locks, if Disneyland had to arbitrarily close down its main attractions for two hours in the middle of the day. No, seriously, this is a problem at Miraflores. It’s open from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm. But from 10:00 am to 12:00 pm, no ships pass through the locks because they change the direction in which ships pass through from Atlantic-> Pacific to Pacific->Atlantic. We arrived around 10:00 am, so we went for an early lunch and nap in the nearby city of Ciudad Saber.

We arrived at Miraflores around 1:00 pm to sample its three attractions: a short film, the museum, and the canal itself. The staff informed us that there was a delay, so no ships were passing through the canal and we could instead start with the film. The 15 minute show introduces the canal’s history and serves up a ton of Panamanian national pride. The short of it is that when the United States built the canal (completed in 1914), it used a treaty to claim lease in perpetuity of the land and the canal itself. Panamanians saw this as a violation of their sovereignty, and in 1964 a series of unfortunate events (initiated by the assassination of Kennedy, then fueled by U.S. nationalism and the desire to hang our flag ALL THE PLACES) culminated in a week of violent protests. This led the U.S. to renegotiate the treaty with Panama, resulting in turnover of the canal to Panama in 1999. Panama now runs the canal for profit, which helped finance a recent expansion of the canal that opened this year. The second half of the video is almost entirely about how awesome of a job the Panamanians are doing at running the canal. So the U.S. isn’t the only country guilty of ridiculous nationalism here.

After the video, the staff informed us that there was still a delay and ships would not be passing through until 3:00 pm, so we wandered through the museum, which tells of the canal’s history and technical aspects in greater detail. Exhibits include the equipment used to build the canal back in the early 1900’s:

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A ship used to dredge sediment from the canal bottom.

And a visualization of what it feels like to go through the canal:

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It’s a replica of a tanker bridge, complete with video simulations of the canal.

And some fairly creepy mannequins:

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This one is starting to show his age…

We finished at 4:00 pm, only an hour before Miraflores closed and STILL there were no ships passing through. Finally, around 4:30 pm the first ships, a tourist boat and tanker, entered the locks:

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A small tourist ship (upper left) and the bulk carrier Ionic Halo in the second half of Miraflores Locks.

We were able to watch as the boats were lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean:

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The ships are lowered to the level of the Pacific Ocean.

And then as they were released to continue their journey:

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Be free, little tourist boat! The Ionic Halo had to be pulled by mules.

Miraflores was tons of fun, but if you want to go and see ships, I’d recommend getting there when it opens, seeing the ships pass through, and then doing the rest of the museum.

To the airport

We made it back to the Albrook Bus Terminal and caught the Albrook Corredor Sur Estacion La Siesta line, which is a cross-city bus to the Tocumen International Aiprot; be warned, this line is more expensive than the standard bus lines, so if you’re taking it inquire about cost and ensure your metro card has enough. When we got to the airport, by some magic it had an airport lounge that accepted Priority Pass, which we have free membership to through our credit card. We spent a relatively peaceful night at the lounge and had snacks and juice for breakfast. Then it was onward to our flight into Cartagna, Colombia.

Old Reef Farm, or TRY ALL the tropical fruits!

A few kilometers from Cahuita is a farm where over a hundred different fruits grow, nurtured by the warmth of the tropical environment and the caring hands of the family that owns the land. Old Reef Farm has been around for a long time, but a few years ago Ramón came to the premises with the interest of collecting as many different fruits as possible. He now runs tours of the farm, where you can try fruits both familiar and foreign and pick as much as you can carry for 10,000 colones (~$18 USD). What you’ll find at the farm will vary by season, but here’s a sampling of what we had when we visited in November:

Achacha, yellow mangosteen – A tangy, golf-ball sized fruit common in South America that tastes like a cross between a tangerine and a pineapple. The rind itself is bitter, but when pulled off reveals a sweet white pulp that surrounds a large seed. Discarded rinds can be pureed with water and sugar to make a refreshing summer drink.

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The achacha fruit

Ackee – The national fruit of Jamaica and a mainstay in the Caribbean, Ackee is a relative of the lychee. The edible portion of the fruit is the cream-colored bit attached to the black seeds in the pods, which tastes somewhat like a walnut. The immature, closed fruit is highly toxic due to presence of hypoglycin, which is converted in the body to metabolites that inhibit amino acid biosynthesis; fruit must be left to ripen on the tree until it opens, when hypoglycin levels have dropped and it is safe to eat.

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Ripe and unripe ackee fruit on a tree. The shiny black things are the seeds in the open pods

Ylang-ylang – This is actually a flower and not a fruit, but it’s too cool to not mention. The ylang-ylang flower is the source of scent prized by many perfumers and is the floral scent of Chanel No. 5. The smell of the flower is intense, but the trees grow only in tropical climates so if you want your own plant get that greenhouse ready.

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The ylang-ylang flower

Biriba – A spiky green tropical fruit that in maturity is roughly the size of a grapefruit, it reportedly tastes like lemon merengue pie. This specimen was unripe so we were unable to verify this, so we’ll have to look elsewhere to find some. Because the flesh of the ripe fruit bruises and blackens easily and has a shelf life of only a week, this fruit is hard to get outside of the tropics.

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Unripe biriba fruit

Teak, Lipstick Tree – This is a tree more commonly prized for its high-quality wood, but Ramón showed us that the young leaves released a brilliant red dye when rubbed. This dye has long been used to make light red and brown dyes in cotton and as makeup, leading to its common name the “lipstick tree”.

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My hand stained with teak. It, uh, went away eventually.

Pitanga – This tropical fruit looks like a wrinkled cherry, and tastes pretty similar! This pair of fruits has a little friend (a salticid).

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Pitanga fruits with a tiny jumping spider

Canistel, eggfruit – This bizarre little fruit is both delicious and confusing. It tastes incredibly sweet, almost like the filling of an egg tart, with dry and crumbly texture of egg yolk (hence the name). Each fruit comes with tons of edible “pulp” around a single shiny brown seed. It decays quickly upon maturity, meaning it’s shelf life is short and it’s hard to get outside the tropics.

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The eggfruit has both the look and texture of eggfruit, and the taste of egg custard.

Cacao – The undisputed king of all tropical fruits that we tried, cacao is the source of the wonderful substance known as chocolate. The beans that come out of the pod taste NOTHING like chocolate, as cacao goes through a fermenting and roasting process similar to coffee (more on that in another post) to make it not taste awful and astringent.

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The cacao pod. This one is likely a forastero strain.

Housed inside this little pod is another treasure, though: the cacao fruit. It exists in a thin layer surrounding each cacao bean, and tastes like a cross between citrus, mango, and pineapple – the ultimate refreshment after a long hike in the tropics. Like an avocado, the cacao fruit discolors soon after the pod is opened, meaning that the fruit can’t travel far and is usually discarded. However, in some places farmers ferment a liquor out of cacao fruit called Solbeso, so if you want to try the flavor and can’t find cacao pods try looking for that.

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An opened cacao pod, exposing the beans surrounded by fruit.

That’s all for now! See you later.

– Natalie

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The aptly named green-and-black poison dart frog, Dendrobates auratus. Unlike the fruit, don’t put this one in your face.

Cahuita, Costa Rica’s laid-back chill-out Caribbean beach town

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Air plants grow on telephone wires in Cahuita

We never intended to go to Cahuita, but traveling is filled with happy coincidences and hastily-changed plans. After leaving Montezuma, our original plan was to head to Puerto Viejo on the east coast for a few days, then move on to Bocas Del Toro in Panama. But two things changed our plans: a hurricane named Otto and a guy named Cameron. We heard about the hurricane, at that point a tropical storm, while we were returning from Montezuma on the ferry. For a while we considered staying in San Jose but decided we’d check with the locals first, since they were more likely to know how dangerous the situation was. After arriving at the San José bus stop, we went to see how many people were waiting for the Puerto Viejo bus. There were loads of people, none of whom were concerned about the hurricane. Relieved, we bought our tickets and got on the bus with the locals, a group of hostel-hoppers, and one guy who didn’t seem like either—Cameron.

Cameron moved to Cahuita from the U.S. a few years ago and has become sort of a focal point in the community. He loves Cahuita and told us about how amazing it is, with great jungle hikes, beautiful beaches, and a national park. By the end of a six hour bus journey we were convinced that we should get off the bus with him instead of travelling on to Puerto Viejo. So we hopped off early and spent more than a week in this lovely seaside town.  This wasn’t intentional—we were planning to move on after a few days. But then tropical storm Otto became hurricane Otto, flooded parts of Panama and Costa Rica, and then moved northward and landward to hit Nicaragua. We figured we should stay put until things settled down.

For the family and friends, here’s the usual photo gallery. We are safe and sound (beacuse now we’re in Colombia and I’m two weeks behind on posts–see? Everything is normal).

For those of you travelling to Cahuita, or to Costa Rica’s east coast in general: don’t be deterred or freaked out if Costa Ricans warn you away from the east coast. It’s perceived as more dangerous than the rest of Costa Rica while actually being about the safe as the rest of the country. From talking with people, this perception seems to stem from racial-socioeconomic prejudices. But as usual, crimes of opportunity are the most prevalent, so don’t leave valuables exposed or unattended and use your common sense.

Cahuita Layout
Cahuita is a quiet, relaxed seaside town with a slow pace and wonderful people. It’s not the party-hearty destination that Puerto Viejo is, so if you’re looking for someplace away from the drink-till-dawn folks Cahuita is probably your place. The whole town is 5 streets that run towards the beach intersected by 3 streets running perpendicular, with roughly 20 restaurants and more than a dozen accommodation options. There are two main hubs of activity: the street leading into the national park and the Cahuita Bus Terminal. The street leading into the national park is where you can find most of the restaurants in the town, as well as tour guides and souvenir sellers. Cahuita Bus Terminal is where you’ll find buses to take you to other places, a bank and ATM, a post office, the cheapest grocery store in town, and the best fruit store in town.

Stay

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Hakuna Matata Hostel

We stayed at Hakuna Matata Hostel, located right next to the Cahuita Bus Terminal (but is surprisingly quiet). The owner is this old Italian guy, but he seems to have ceded the day-to-day of running the hostel to two younger Italian guys, Davide and Luciano. They were super chill and great to talk to. We got a private room for $30, which included use of a kitchen (which we used a LOT), a swimming pool (perfect for a midday dip), and all the hammocks we could want. There’s a ton of wildlife that hangs around the hostel, including birds and this little friend I found one morning in my boot:

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Look, buddy, if you’re going to stay, could you at least cough up a few hundred colones for the room?

Getting Around
We walked everywhere, although I think you can rent bikes at one place in town. There aren’t a lot of places you can’t get on foot. There’s also a lone guy who acts as a taxi—you’ll usually find him outside of the Bus Terminal, saying “taxi? Taxi?”

Do
Despite its size, there are tons of things to do in Cahuita! We couldn’t have been hurricane-stranded in a better place. Here are the highlights of what we did:

Old Reef Farm – This farm has over a hundred varieties of fruits growing on its grounds. Ramon, one of the co-owners, will show you around and let you have all the fruit you can carry for 10,000 colones.

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Tangerines at Old Reef Fruit Farm

Playa Negra – This local beach is a great place to jump in the waves and build castles in the black sand. It’s also where we passed most of the day of the hurricane, leading to some beautiful stormy shots.

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Hurricane weather at Playa Negra

Cahuita National Park – A huge national park that runs along the coast from Cahuita to Puerto Viejo, where you can see toucans, sloths, snakes, monkeys, and other wildlife. The hike is pretty intense, especially during high tide where it requires you to wade through a 3 ft deep river. Bring flip flops, as the paths are full of leafcutter ants that will bite you.

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Leafcutter ants struggle against the wind to reach their nest in Cahuita National Park

Jungle hikes – There are a few hikes that you can do around Cahuita that aren’t in the National Park, including one that goes to a waterfall. Contact Cameron or Ramón about these, as they’re hard to find on your own.

Send postcards – This is one of the few places we found a post office, so we seized the chance to send back our postcards. A fun fact we learned from Cameron: there are no addresses in Costa Rica! There aren’t even street names in most towns! Madness! Chaos! San Jose just got street names recently, which is why all of the streets are named by numbers (Calle 11, Avenida 7, etc.).

Eat
Our favorite soda (Costa Rican for diner/restaurant) in town was Soda Kawe, two intersections down from the national park entrance. The ladies running the soda are lovely, they have the best prices in town (2500-3500 colones per meal), and the food is excellent. The best thing to get the pollo casado – the pollo is a chicken perfectly marinated in Caribbean spices, and casado is the word for a standard lunch/dinner meal, which comes with rice, beans, and potatoes. Ask for it with “frycake” to get a tasty fried bread which you can use to soak up the tasty chicken juices:

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Comida tipica

If you happen to be there in town on a Sunday, you’re also in for a special treat. This is the only day of the week in which DelRita Patty has patties, which are a Jamaican specialty of flaky spiced dough wrapped around braised ground beef filling. They also have dessert patties, filled with baked banana or pineapple filling.

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The plantain patty

To find them, look for this sign: IMG_2052

…and this storefront:
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Lastly, if you’re travelling on the cheap like us, you’ll be eating most of your meals in the hostel kitchen. The cheapest grocery store is at the Cahuita Bus Terminal, where you can get bags of dried beans and dried rice for 600-900 colones each. Then pop over to the fruit store across the hall to grab some plantains and onions, and you’ve got almost everything you need to make comida típica (you can find our recipe for comida típica here).

In summary, Cahuita is a great place to spend a week relaxing in the sun, jumping in the ocean, and catching glimpses of animals in the jungle. If you go, say hi to Cameron for us!

Taking the bus between San José and Montezuma in Costa Rica

When we were looking to get from Juan Santamaria International Airport (SJO) to Luz en Cielo in Montezuma, we found a few guides for getting there but none with pictures, so I’m writing up our experience below. The most important thing to note is that if you’re going directly from SJO to the Nicoya Peninsula, including Montezuma, you do not need to go into the city itself to catch the bus! There’s a bus stop for the Nicoya Peninsula buses in Alajuela, 3 km from the airport, where the bus stops after it departs San José (between 6:15 and 6:40, and between 14:15 and 14:40). The bus stop is located here:

Prep

It’s a long journey, especially if you’re planning on staying the night like we did in SJO. For the overnight stay, I’d recommend some earplugs and warm clothes/blankets. For the whole journey, I’d recommend packing snacks. There are a couple of chances to buy food on the journey, but they aren’t always cheap or the best.

Staying in SJO

If you’re coming in late, you can totally spend the night in SJO and go to the bus stop in the morning! Since we got in at 23:00 and there were no hostels nearby, we thought it was silly to head into the city just to sleep and we spent the night in SJO arrivals. It wasn’t bad as there were outlets and out of the way places to sleep, but there were ridiculously loud announcements every 15 minutes and temperature was frigid, so we were incredibly grateful to have ear plugs and our sleeping bags. We took advantage of our camping gear, including air mattresses and inflatable pillows, and had a pretty good rest.

The bus to Montezuma

In the morning, our two goals were to find the bus stop and then find the bus to Montezuma. At 5:00 am, we decamped from the floor of Arrivals at SJO and went in search of the bus stop. We had two options: walking along the highway to the stop or catching a cab. Although I have walked out of airports in the past, we decided it might be a bit harder with our packs and opted for the cab, which took about 15 minutes and cost 2400 colones (roughly $4.50). The bus stop is located right after an overpass and has some benches and eaves to keep the rain off:

 

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Waiting at the bus stop

 

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The view from the bus stop

 

 

To find the correct bus, we relied on looking at the placards at the front (for Montezuma/Nicoya) and asking the people around us, who were more than happy to help. We waited there as 6:00, 6:20, and then 6:40 passed, along with a slew of buses. We were beginning to worry we had somehow missed it, when around 6:45 a bus with a Montezuma sign pulled up. We paid the 7,000 colones/person (~$13) and got on. When you get your bus ticket, check your change (we got shorted several times in Costa Rica and had to ask for correct change), and keep your bus receipt! You’ll need it for the rest of the journey. Here’s a picture of the bus you’re looking for:

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An aerial view of your bus

The trip to Montezuma

The trip itself is divided into 4 legs: the bus ride to Punta Arenas, the ferry ride across the Gulf of Nicoya, the bus ride Cobano, and a final bus ride from Cobano to Montezuma. The first leg of the journey took us through city and jungle and takes about 2.5 hours. At Punta Arenas, we disembarked and got ferry tickets from the bus driver. Take anything on the bus with you, but don’t be alarmed if they don’t let you get your luggage from below, as this will stay on the bus all the way until Cobano. Punta Arenas is a good place to grab snacks before getting on the ferry (there’s usually about 10-15 minutes), but don’t pay to use the bathrooms because the bathrooms on the ferry are free. After taking a short look around, we walked over to the ferry and got on. The ferry ride took about an hour and was a great chance to walk around for a bit before getting back on the bus. There are free restrooms and a cafeteria, although the prices and quality of food are comparable to a ferry ride in the U.S. We spent most of our time outside, enjoying the scenery:

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Island in the Gulf of Nicoya

Once off the ferry in Tambor, we waited for the bus to disembark and looked around the food stalls. This is another 10-15 minute chance to buy snacks, though keep an eye out for your bus as you don’t want to miss it. Show them your receipt to get back on the bus, and then it’s another 2 hour ride to the town of Cobano, where you’ll disembark and collect your luggage, then catch a smaller bus to Montezuma.

Once you’ve got your belongings, cross the street to the bus stop and ask the next bus whether it’s going to Montezuma (it probably is). Again, show them your bus ticket receipt, and they should let you on for free. This last ride should take 20-30 minutes, and drops you off at the Montezuma bus stop, just west of the town’s center.

Getting Back

To take the bus from Montezuma back to San José (SJO or the city center), take these steps in reverse. You can catch the bus back at either 6:20 or 14:20 at Montezuma bus stop, where you shouldn’t have to pay the fare if you explain you’re returning to San José. Once in Cobano, buy a ticket at the building across the street – it’s where you were dropped off by the big bus on the way in. Then you’ll bus-ferry-bus your way back to San José.

Montezuma – five days in paradise

Before our adventures began, we attended the wedding of some awesome friends. And, as luck would have it, the cousin of the groom (Abbie) happens to run a Hostel/Bed & Breakfast in Montezuma, Costa Rica. Abbie came down to Costa Rica years ago and fell in love with the place, and built the hostel Luz en Cielo from nothing into a business she now runs full time. When I shared our plans for a year of travel, Abbie generously offered to give us a place at Luz en Cielo at a discounted rate. Travel can make for weary work, especially when you’ve been camping in a tiny tent together on the beach. So as we bade farewell to the Yucatan and flew on to San José, we were looking forward to a little more privacy and quiet. Montezuma was perfect to both, and below I’ll share the information on hikes we did, where we stayed, and a recipe for our version of “comida tipica” that we ate for lunch and dinner.

For a visual tour of our stay, here’s the photo album.

The Town of Montezuma

Located on the west coast of Costa Rica on the Nicoya Peninsula, Montezuma is a hip little beach town halfway between Cobano and Cabuya. It consists of the main road and one cross-street that leads to a smaller local road along the beach. To give you an idea of how small it is, it has two markets that sell food and around six restaurants. Yep, it’s tiny. But that’s exactly what makes it perfect: it’s so small that it’s hardly registered by the jungle, as monkeys greet you in the morning, birds flock in the trees, and butterflies flutter from flower to flower.

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Mushrooms growing on wood

Hikes

We managed to do three hikes while we were there: Montezuma Falls, Rio Lajas, and a beach hike. Montezuma falls is the closest and shortest, leading to massive waterfalls and swimming holes. To get there, we walked past the bus stop (along the road toward Cabuya), then turned right after the first bridge. The first waterfall is the most impressive, and you’ll often see Blue Morphos butterflies flying around near the base.

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The Montezuma Falls

There are two more waterfalls above this, but a private tour company owns the trail and charges 1,000 colonies/person ($2 USD) for use. We hiked up and weren’t that impressed with the subsequent waterfalls, although there is a waterfall that you can jump off up there.

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Fishing spiders, which can be found near water

The second hike we did was Rio Lajas, which starts about 7 km from Montezuma on the road to Cobano and leads to Rio Lajas falls. We did this hike in somewhat crazy conditions—because it was the end of the rainy season, the water was cloudy and in many places we couldn’t tell how deep the water was or where to put our feet. The river is the trail, so most of the time you’re walking in this:

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Stoytcho crossing Rio Lajas

We just knew that we should hike for about 2 hours, then take the right fork of the river. After two hours and 20 minutes of hiking, we came to a small tributary that could be a fork. We took it and found some falls.

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Some kind of waterfall at Rio Lajas

They were lovely and secluded, although looking at pictures of Rio Lajas falls now, we don’t think these are the Rio Lajas Falls. We’ll have to come back another time, hopefully in the dry season when the water is clear and the hike is much easier. There’s a bus to the falls that leaves Montezuma at 8:30 am, and a return bus that will pick you up at the bridge over Rio Lajas at 3:30 pm, costing 700 colones each way.

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The beach hike from Montezuma

The last hike we did was the beach hike to El Chorro falls, although we didn’t make it all the way to the end. This trail runs along the beach, through part of a national park. While these aren’t the azure blue beaches of the Caribbean, they have their own charm and are great for beachcombing, although don’t collect in the national park. We walked for about 2 hours on this, enjoying the beach and picking up seashells (that we threw back into the ocean later):

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Cowrys, cones, limpets, olivines, turbans, seaglass…the beachcombing hear is awesome!

 

Staying

We stayed in Luz en Cielo’s vacation rental, which was a huge break from shared rooms and our tent. We had a bedroom, bathroom, living room, kitchen, and outdoor patio all to ourselves. Abbie, being the ever gracious host, includes breakfast with your accommodation – This isn’t your standard toast with butter and some fruit, but a full hot meal with fruit, toast, rice & beans, and scrambled eggs. And throughout the day, monkeys, coatis, and various beautiful insects of the tropics would come wandering by:

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A white-faced capuchin

 

Eating + our recipe for comida tipica

Since eating out cost $7-10 USD per person, we couldn’t afford to do much of it. Instead, we cooked most of our meals in the vacation rental. Here’s our version of comida tipica, which is pretty much every meal you’ll eat in Central America:

  • Ingredients:
    • Package of dry beans (can use canned)
    • Package of dry white rice
    • 1 plantain
    • 2-3 eggs
    • 2 onions
    • 5 cloves garlic
    • Salt
    • Cooking oil
  • Meal prep:
    • Prep beans: Rinse dry beans (about 400 g) and leave to soak for 6-8 hours in a pot with at least 2” of water on top. At end of soak, mince 3 cloves garlic and 1 onion and add to pot. Add ½ tsp salt as well. Turn on heat to high, and bring to boil, then reduce heat and simmer for 2-4 hours until beans are slightly chewy. If beans get low on water (any are exposed) before they’re done, just add some more water. When done, add additional salt to taste. If you have canned beans, skip the soaking step and just dump whole can contents (beans+liquid) into pot with diced onions and minced garlic. Simmer for 15-20 minutes. This kept in our fridge all week.
    • Prep rice: steam rice using your recipe of choice.
    • Making plantains: Heat 2-4 cm of oil in a deep pot over medium heat. Slice open the plantain and remove the skin, then slice the plantain into medallions at most 1.5 cm thick. They don’t have to be even, but the more evenly sized they are, the more evenly they will fry. Add one small end to the pot. When the small end begins to fry vigorously, add the remaining plantain medallions. Fry for 5 minutes on each side, or until as brown as you like. Remove from oil onto a serving plate.
    • Making the fried rice: (note, this is the reverse of my dad’s standard recipe, which results in fluffier egg and toastier/chewier rice). Heat oil in a pan over medium heat, and add garlic, onions, and rice to fry for 4-5 minutes with stirring every minute or so. When onions look translucent, push rice mix to the side and add more oil, then crack 2-3 eggs into the pan and scramble them. Mix rice and eggs, then remove from heat and serve.
    • Refrying beans: Done in the same pan we made rice in. Dump ½ to 1 cup of prepared beans into skillet and add ¼ cup water. Bring water to a boil, and while the water cooks off mash the beans with the back of a wooden spoon until it forms a paste. Remove from heat and serve.

– Natalie