2019 March. Panama, Colombia & Brazil

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It’s Sunday night and I’m standing in the queue fidgeting. I am about to sit in the one spot for fourteen hours on my way to Santiago then immediately another flight to Rio, Brazil. Around me nervous passengers clutch monster suitcases full of a millions of possessions they will never need. I hope the plane can carry all this insecurity high into the air.
Finally at the counter and I hand over my passport. Can I have a copy of your Brazil visa please ? Pardon I reply my head tilting to one side like I’m not sure I heard quite right ? No there’s a mistake, Australians don’t need a visa for Brazil… Yes they do, she replies with a smile that was neither smug nor caring. I’m sure I start to sweat as my mouth opens and closes like a goldfish without emitting a single word. I finally shake myself and begin speaking rapidly to her supervisor. Thinking on my feet and becoming restless as one door after another closes.
Soon I find the e-visa application on my phone and frantically begin to fill it in. Meanwhile the supervisor is checking with someone a million miles away. I come unstuck at the passport photo then race over to stand against a white column for neutral background. I try not to smile for the visa photo, truth is I simply want to cry. The application uploads but there is still an issue and my e-visa sits at 98% complete it might as well be 0%. Eventually I nail the visa application. Another hurdle. The fine print on the application says it then takes five business days to process. Aghh.
I have a last thought and race through the terminal to Qantas sales. A last-ditch attempt to have my ticket adjusted. Even if I can get to Santiago, Chile my first stop I can go overland for a few days. I plead knowing no visa is required for Chile. By the time they agree to my reduced journey the code shared flight with Latam has closed.
My vision of walking on the exotic Copacabana beach, Rio de Janeiro looking up at Christ the Redeemer high on the nearby hill has evaporates before my eyes.

I manage to salvage a flight a few days later not to Rio where my hotel room sits bare and paid for but to Santiago, Chile. My sequined costume / mankini for carnival will never see light of day. From Santiago I will catch a flight to Panama City and get back on my original route.
I ring to get a lift home and go and sit out in the airport drop off zone my heart still thumping. I simply cannot believing what has just occurred. It’s a quiet drive home, I stare straight ahead not wanting to show the pain, a million thoughts race through my overworked mind. I’ve really stuffed up this time and have no one to blame for not checking but myself. Lesson hopefully learnt.
I have some totally free days at home to re-book accommodation, lick my wounds and realign. In quiet moments when all alone I simply shake my head and my dog looks at me knowingly. Sunday night’s hasty visa application was approved by the Brazilian Government on Thursday and printed. I can now leave today, Friday with a shortened itinerary.

To add insult to injury, one week later Australia and Brazil jointly agree to do away with the visa. Grrrr.

I arrive at dawn into a steamy Panama City. I’ve lost five days in Rio de Janeiro but am back on track in Panama. Things are still not going to plan maybe that’s Central America ? My eagerly anticipated trip on Al Capone’s rum smuggling boat, the Isla Morada was scuttled on arrival with a simple shrug of the shoulders. No pleading nor showing my email booking would change his mind. Images of me standing on the bow watching each lock on the canal open are replaced with being driven by a Venezuelan taxi driver across town to Miraflores and the canal locks.

Land tugs pull the ships through the locks.

I watch from the sidelines as giant tankers are majestically pulled along. Millions of litres of fresh water and the help of an army of diesel trains on the canal shoulder help to draw these ships through the locks. It was intriguing that the canal can step up a hill to a series of lakes nearly 30m above the Atlantic and Pacific oceans using the lock system. Where does all the water come from I asked ? Seven months of very steady rain was his reply. Which is probably why they rip off the tourists for the other five dry months ! I head to the city bus terminal early the next morning nursing a hangover thanks to an Irishman in a bar near my hotel. Luckily a clear thinking young French guy who speaks fluent Spanish helps me navigate the transport system buying bus tickets, platform access tickets ? and a seat towards David. The buses are the country’s lifeline, every one of them packed to overflowing. Each local passenger has a bag the size of a small car loaded with bargains from Panama City. That is the way it is. My French man hops off the bus in the middle of nowhere hoping to get transport to the coast. He plans two weeks of fishing at Boca Chica but he looks a long way from France standing in a swirling cloud of dust as the bus pulls away. “

Surrounded by my new squishy friends.

I am unloaded into David late Sunday afternoon and trudge to Gran hotel Nacional a tired old queen of a hotel. The town comes alive once the sun disappears and the heat finally subsides. I find myself sipping local beers, nervous to order a steak described as tres pimientos and another full day on a bus tomorrow. Google translate please don’t mess this up I’m sure it’s ? ?? !

Gran Hotel National, David, Panama

I make my way back to the bus terminal the following morning bound for Almirante near the border of Costa Rica. Today’s bus is a twenty seater with over thirty staring at me as I take my seat. A drain pipe skinny bus jockey is riding shotgun for the owner. He scampers up the side of the bus to load our luggage onto the roof. The driver, a snack food munching, couch potato jams himself behind the wheel preparing for takeoff. He rotated between steering, taking calls on his mobile and fingering a thick wad of US dollars in his bear-size mitt. “

Still clutching those American dollars.

It’s dry and hot as we leave David. Slowly we wind our way over the spine of the steep Chiriqui mountains towards the Atlantic Ocean. It becomes progressively windier then defiant with clinging cloud and finally slapping rain. The windscreen wipers are certified as completely useless. If I was a local Catholic I’d be clutching something gold around my neck instead I look at the floor and wish it over.

Almirante is a muddy provincial town near the Costa Rica border and the major overland stepping off place for the Caribbean islands of Bocas Del Toro. From Almirante waterfront it is a six buck, bum jarring, half hour water taxi ride over choppy seas to my hotel alongside the jetty. “

Hotel Bocas Del Toro…we supply free earplugs.

My hotel is next door to the water taxis and near to most of the restaurants and nightclubs. I enter my close steamy room and turn on the air conditioner, it almost jumps out of the wall and is turbo charged. You could not sleep with it on but you have no choice it’s too damn hot. Two pairs of earplugs hang on a wire in the bathroom, they say it all… don’t bother complaining at reception just suck it up Jeff.

I wake lethargic and disoriented from the earplugs yet happy to be stationary after four days of steady movement. Breakfast was a deconstructed muesli ? What is going on in the modern world ? Yoghurt in a glass bowl, grains in another, honey ditto and some tropical fruit arranged on a plate yet all diligently consumed and finally arranged in my stomach. I gathered strength to face the day. Actually the kick-start was the thick dusty coffee.

I wander around town to get my bearings and get myself a surfer type cruiser bike with fat tyres and a chance to explore. I ride till I ran out of bitumen then the dirt road turns to narrow tracks and finally sand over broken coral. I felt like Robinson Crusoe with not a mark on the sand in front of me. I stopped to take it all in when up rode two young German backpackers. I joked that only Germans had the no-nonsense drive to keep going when the track ran out. They said that to us in Peru they replied. We laughed but neither disputed this then we all turned and kept pressing on. Falling off when the sand finally got too soft only meant walking the bikes. We stopped at an old ruin said to have been a hideaway for the illegal goods of Pablo Escobar, the Colombian drug lord. Evidently it was bombed by the Americans during their war on his massive drug empire.

I left the girls carrying their bikes over fallen trees and headed back to town. In all I did 35 klms and felt truly alive. The pure joy of setting out with little plan other than curiosity is such an emotional high. I drew deep breaths of clean sea air and rode all the way into town with a big, broad smile.

I’m on the dock with another ten punters promised the best day of our lives by over enthusiastic touts flogging island day tours along the Main Street. I’m soon underwhelmed being one of six boats slowly chasing duck-diving dolphins across a remote bay. An hour later we are snorkelling above coral bleached to a vanilla colour feeling sorry for the remaining tropical fish darting about with nowhere to hide. Things lift a whole lot when we spend a few hours on Zapatilla island. As an Australian I shouldn’t get excited by a beach but this was a shoreline of palms nestled in fine sand and warm turquoise waters whispering your name. A true slice of heaven. “

The perfect beach, Zapatilla Island.

My personal highlight came late in the day as we returned to our base on Colon island. The boat darted off course and slipped in amongst the thick mangroves on a remote island. As the boats nose dog to the mud the captain was pointing up and whispered…. sloths. True enough, up above, slow-moving hairy critters the likes of which I had never seen crawled about. Being crazy hairy, painfully slow-moving with big clawed hands they were almost invisible amongst the tree branches. It was almost impossible to capture a sharp photo as the boat rocked and the trees swayed. I like that it keeps our curiosity for this weird creature alive and them safe from humans.”


Cartagena, Colombia is a coastal town important to the Spaniards in the 16th and 17th centuries as it had a deep harbour for their ships. It needed to be deep for the vast convoys of ships loaded to the gunnels with pillaged gold and silver sailing back to Spain. Well that’s the history bit out-of-the-way but today Cartagena is a walled city perfect for containing thousands of unsuspecting tourists into buying trinkets, cocktails and getting a little loose with the locals.

I’ve watched the throng shop all day at the colourful markets and street stalls but it’s not till I venture to the edge of the fort wall facing the Pacific at sunset that I see why everyone is here. It’s showtime and the beautiful local women mixed with selfie addicted tourists are sipping lavish cocktails and crunching on plantain chips. There is much preening and sideways glancing going on with the young party-set. A DJ has set home self up and is bouncing his beat off the old stone walls. The steady bass beats like the sun then slips gently away for another day. I leave the young to it as night takes over.

Sunset at Cartagena. Let the party begin.

I head toward the local women’s prison clutching a tatty city map fearful of a wrong turn. I’m soon in quiet back streets the small homes seemingly caged with their heavily barred windows. Televisions flickers inside but most are out in the street on chairs enjoying the sea breeze. I find restaurant ‘Interno’ tucked away next to a big white building which is the main women’s prison. I step through the heavy steel doors to a room of waitresses all neatly dressed in red. Behind them is a wall of steel bars and a slot at waist height where female cooks slip plates of food to be delivered. It’s hard not to stare at the woman serving you, wondering her crime.

I look about everyone is more interested in the surrounds than what they are ordering. Could you really complain that the steak was tough then watch the waitress scowl as she inspects the edge of your knife ? I dare you. Overall the meal is good without being great. It’s the chance for these woman to gain some self-esteem and earn money for their families whilst inside which is virtuous. So do you leave a large tip, tell them not to get caught next time or slip them a key when no one is looking. Money talks.

It’s too early to go home beside I need to walk off that prison food. Near my hotel I hear music pumping and the sky lit up. I venture towards it like a moth. On the steps of an old closed church are four Zumba instructors pumping their arms, swinging them hips, evidently it happens every Sunday. Facing out in front of them 300 disciples mimic their actions glowing in warm sweat and smiling wildly. Around the edges food carts replenish the starving, it is like a mini carnival. Each song a new set of instructors glide onto the stage determined to send the crowd wild. It is intoxicating and mesmerizing I can’t leave, the vibe is so compelling. I finally move away sip a beer then head home. It would never happen in my home town.

Zumba takes over Cartagena every Sunday night.

For the next nine days I’ve joined an Intrepid tour, hopefully some company and stress-free organised transport between some of Colombia’s various highlights. It’s an early start today we are heading up the coast to the Tayrona National Park but first breakfast. I stare mindlessly up at the flickering screen in the hotel breakfast room. Rinaldo has just scored for Juventus and is on his knees in his trademark pose. It suddenly dawns on me that every meal has been accompanied by a flickering screen televising the world game somewhere on the planet ? It’s always there, right alongside the salt and pepper shakers. Subconsciously absorbed, some of it digested or at least picked at like the complimentary green salad.

Today is a walk into the Tayrona National Park. I’m sweating at 7am as we jostle to be at the Park entrance right on opening. It’s a slow, rough 7 klm walk over rocks, sand and boardwalks to the jungle beaches and we are not alone. We walk in well treaded runners whilst the Bohemia’s young are as happy in a pair of rubber thongs, a barely there g-string and a bottle of water. From behind it’s difficult to ascertain whether the girls are in fact wearing anything at all ?

Tayrona National Park beach

I look down to find a conga line of large ants carrying purple flowers back to their base camp. Alongside of me humans are carrying equal quantities of stuff for camping at the various National Park beach campsites. We all throw ourselves into the sea to cool down on arrival, it’s cool and refreshing. The gritty sand massages your feet as you try to stay upright in the swirling surf. Late afternoon finds us sweating as we head in the opposite direction out of the park. We arrive back at our hotel at dusk sticky and in desperate need of a few beers to go with the whole fried fish staring blindly back on a white plate.”

Ants carry purple flowers back to their nest.

We are constantly moving, that’s how it feels. Early morning and I’m bouncing around on another bus. We ease our way over another set of rumble strips. It’s an opportunity for traders. I watch young girls holding paper cups in one hand, a pot of coffee in the other at each set of these speed restrictions. We jiggle as the bus works it’s way over the last bump then rebuild speed. There are two small plane trips today I fill in the time staring just beyond the airport fence. A team of fishermen on the shore pull strenuously on a long nylon rope out at sea. My eyes spot a white float bobbing way out which signals the start of their net and the luck of the day’s catch. They pull for an hour, my plane leaves before a single fish has wriggled on the beach.

Today is a five klm stroll between two country towns, Barichara to Guane. There are roads but its better to snap your ankle on a roughly cobbled track between the villages. We plod along early before the sun has a chance to fry us. Away from the cars and trucks the sounds of birds fill the air. The birds in Colombia are so colourful and chirpy and we stop to admire them and stupidly attempt to photograph them. I focus, they move and so it goes. By lunchtime like most days in Colombia you are wet and sticky and looking to shower again and hide till the cool of evening.

Lazy morning wandering around Barichara. The afternoon has been sold to us as a cooking class in big ass ants. We wash our hands before milling around a stainless steel cauldron of large ants with long silvery wings like monster blowflies. Margarita the instructor shows us how to pull the heads off followed by the wings and finally their thin hairy legs. We are left with not much a small body and a big ass. Some of my travelling buddies already seem to know how to pull the wings off flies. I take notes. “

Big Ass ants…. who ate the first one ?

A pan is heated, salt added and they are lightly fried. We taste a few. More salt, we all agree trying to get the texture of mud and shell out of our teeth. Not till they are completely nuked do we agree that they maybe taste ok ? I’ve tasted something like this before, when I’ve been cycling in Summer with my mouth open. I hungrily eye off the bowl of discarded wings for tomorrow’s breakfast. Yuck…

A day is lost being tossed and turned over 300 klms into Bogotá. We arrive worse for wear and stumble to our rooms a little shell-shocked. Bogotá is a big city some 8 million people and few rules it seems. The next morning three taxi drivers tried to convert us to religion with their crazed driving They raced each other often through Siunday morning red lights on the winding road up to the Montserrat, high above the city. We got out and blessed the ground. The vista down on the waking city was impressive or was it that we were struggling to focus in the thin air at 3100m. We join a growing queue for the venicular and a chance to admire another Catholic Church on the highest piece of real estate in the city.

A visit to the Peace art exhibition in Bogotá called ‘Fragments’ identifies women raped and abused by soldiers during the guerrilla war with the Colombia government. It is a chilling and stark reminder of the at civilian casualties of war.

Victims of the guerilla war make moulds for the gun-metal flooring.

The guerilla’s fought the government from the mid 70s till 2016. After peace was finally agreed an amnesty on guns had massive numbers handed in. These guns were melted down in a foundry by the Colombian army. The metal was used to mould metal tiles for the art centre floor. The absolute futility and vicious circle of bloodshed has plagued the Colombian people for fifty years.

Guns melted to produce the metal flooring

Finally they seem to be coming out of a period of drug lords and terrorism although I’ve been told that although it’s better, terrorism still happens especially near the Southern coast. During the conflict 220,000 mainly civilians were murdered, 5 million people were removed from their land. People simply disappearing without question held for ransom or murdered. The presentation was a rather sobering experience for me and obviously has had a major effect on a big proportion of this country.The images stayed with me for days.

Of course no city tour would be complete without a bike tour. Bogotá has a world-famous ‘ Sunday ciclovías’ when hundreds of city streets are turned over to pedestrians and cars are banished. It’s like one giant street party in this heavily populated city. I missed the Sunday ride but the Monday was a Public holiday so I still got to enjoy car free riding. The streets and footpaths are all pretty rugged with little repair so I wasn’t surprised when we were given mountain bikes. It was a great way to see the city and finally sample the legendary Colombian coffee after roasting.

Colombia’s beer drinking sport of Tejo

We saw plenty of graffiti which more often than not had some politic overtone or message. We played a local game called ‘tejo’ where you throw rocks at a target on clay. The paper targets contain gun powder so there was ear-piercing bangs and much beer drunk ? The first explosion was a shock and I’m thinking Colombia, holy hell gunfire ! Ha…

I spend my final day in Bogotá travelling back North if the city to the small town of Zipaquira. Nearby there is a massive mountain which has been mined for salt for over one hundred years. The workers spent some time after a day’s toil to progressively build a salt cathedral deep underground. It is commanding and breathtaking. The salt in the air is a constant and evidently good for you. The first mine anywhere that the air is actually good for you ? As impressed as I was with the church I am still neither religious nor a potential miner.”

Salt Cathedral, Zipaquira, Colombia.

It’s time to head home but not straight home. I have a day to squeeze in my missed Rio de Janeiro experience. I’ve hired Claudio, a local guide to get the most out of my day. I fly in at 5am and head to the downtown port area. I walk for two hours amongst the Brazilian navy out doing a sweaty morning run in already hot clammy conditions. Homeless are on most park benches and I see first hand the wide gap in society here when one wanders where he is not welcome. The navy police immediately surround the guy and pull their batons. The guy turns to see he is about to cop a beating and just finds enough speed to outrun them, but only just.

Street art along the Rio waterfront.

I meet Claudio and we walk the same route into the old downtown as he tells stories of Rio’s history. We walk past the last slave port. The Portuguese were still importing African slaves here until 1888. Timber, sugar cane and then gold meant it was a profitable outpost. The moment slavery ceased the Portuguese colony gained independence.

We walked through some early favelas. Shanties squeezed cheek to jowl and added to as families grew, money tight. They are infamous here and for many their only option. In some ways these community ties are extended family looking out for each other when the outside world would prefer they were gone. Governments here have done little to improve public housing even when the spotlight was on the city during the Olympic Games. Rio is evidently still suffering a financial hangover from the games. They know about hangovers they party hard here.

I catch the gondola to the top of Sugarloaf mountain and peer down on the iconic view. Famous party beaches like Copacabana and Ipanema shine in the distance. The distinctive Rio mountains tight to the coast with Christ the Redeemer looking down approvingly. The not so glitzy favelas clinging precariously yet defiantly to the sides of the surrounding hills, not going anywhere real soon.

The vista from Sugarloaf mountain towards Copacabana beach

Claudio and I finish the day staring at the pounding surf break at Ipanema sipping local beer. We watch people wearing little watch other people wearing even a little less. Time to head back to the airport as daylight fades away. I’m heading home.