Bogota, Colombia

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Colombia | Comments Off on Bogota, Colombia

New website, new conviction: My goal is to kick this nasty procrastination habit and write journal entries right away— I am driving myself insane by putting it off for weeks and then trying to remember details! So bear with me while I catch up and then prepare yourself for (almost) instant updates!

Now, back to Colombia…

Because we were used to traveling through relatively tiny countries in Central America, we did not think to allocate enough time for Colombia. The sheer size of it makes it impossible to cover in three weeks, as we had planned, so we had so skip some great places—Medellin, the Coffee Zone, etc. Guess that’s just one more reason to go back!

Our friends from San Diego, Richard and Mark, were meeting us in Bogota for a week’s vacation on March 22nd. We found an airline that offers insanely cheap domestic flights, so we flew there directly from Santa Marta and avoided another miserable bus ride. We then took a taxi straight to the neighborhood in which the boys had booked a hotel and began the scavenger hunt of finding a place to stay.

IMG_6148We decided, since we would be living in the city for a while, that renting an apartment would be much more economical (not to mention comfortable) than staying in a hostel or splurging on hotel rooms. On airbnb we found a wonderful place just two blocks from their hotel—3 bedrooms, 3 bathrooms, kitchen, terrace, living room, fireplace, washing machine and 24/7 security—all for $90 a night! It was a fabulous no-brainer and gave us a new perspective on how to travel. With 3-4 people, an apartment is not only the same cost as (or often less expensive than) staying in hostels, but by buying groceries and cooking rather than eating out all the time we were able spend less money as well as eat healthier.  We also appreciate having enough space to move around, entertain, and get some quality alone time.

Bogota is roughly 8600ft in elevation, which means it’s cold there and difficult to breathe. Just walking up the stairs to our apartment would leave us clutching our chests and gasping for air. In retrospect, it was a clever precursor to Machu Picchu, but that’s not quite what we were thinking at the time.

Back when we were in El Salvador we met a lovely girl named Vicki, who we instantly fell in love with. Vicki is originally from England but has been living in Bogota for three years now. She is also a freelance writer with a fantastic blog—— and she was very sweet about making time to meet up with us and show us her city.

IMG_6150One of the first nights we were in Bogota, we had everyone over to our apartment: Richard, Mark, Doug, Vicki, Ben and Bianca. After a glass of wine and a few of Meghan’s stuffed mushroom appetizers, we all loaded into two vans and went 45 minutes outside the city limits to the famous restaurant/bar Andres Carne de Res. We had heard from many separate sources that this place was hands down the best in the Bogota area and we couldn’t miss it…

Without knowing what to expect, we arrived at what looked like a neon carnival in the middle of nowhere. The place was packed and overflowing into the street. Once inside we tried to register our surroundings while two women dressed like Marie Antoinette handed us shots of Agua Diente in lime shells. The place looks like it was decorated by a dumpster diver on crystal meth and made us feel as if we’d fallen down the rabbit hole—knickknacks and random debris hanging from the ceiling, sporadic parades of costumed fanatics and random downpours of glitter and confetti! I think it’s fair to say it’s the most aesthetically stimulating place I’ve been in a long time.

IMG_6169We did our best to order from the 50-page menu and were soon presented with an array of appetizer platters, steaks and exotic cocktails. As soon as we finished eating we all set out to explore the scene—there are multiple bars and dance floors and a million different props to entertain us until the wee hours of the morning.

The next day was pretty brutal and we were, again, grateful for a living room in which we could all lounge and suffer together. The recovery process took all day, but that night Kyle, Meghan, Doug, Richard and Mark bounced right back and got dolled up before heading out to Theatron—Bogota’s gay discoteca. I stayed in and missed out on the fun, but I heard all the wild stories over a champagne brunch the next morning.

Kyle, Richard and Mark went crazy in the shopping district, Zona T. Each day they would venture out and return hours later, laden with bags from Diesel and Prada.

On one of our shopping trips, Kyle accidentally left his iPhone in a taxi and we were unable to catch up with the car to recover it. With the GPS locator app, he tracked it to a neighborhood in the shadiest area of south side Bogota. Even though it was a Hail Mary, he and Doug went out there in a taxi to try and get it back. Unfortunately the phone was inside an apartment building with many different units, so he came home empty-handed; however, while he was in the dodgy section he got a tip about an underground cockfight… We were so excited to learn about the risky adventure!

We called Vicki to join us and found two cabs willing to take us to the secret location. The cars caravanned in circles around a sketchy residential neighborhood and I was instructed to keep my hood up to hide my blonde hair. After several phone conversations, our drivers deliberated and finally delivered the bad news: the cockfight location got changed at the last minute to a part of town to which they were unwilling to drive us. Apparently it was way too dangerous and they were afraid we would be kidnapped or murdered out there so, reluctantly, we turned around and drove back to our side of town. We were extremely disappointed—especially Kyle—but we got ice cream and martinis in Zona T to cheer ourselves up.

IMG_6200Our last main outing in Bogota was the Montserrate Cable Car—one of the main tourist attractions. From watching Mark lovingly hug a llama to cramming way too many people into the tiny carriage, our final hurrah was unforgettable. We chose to take this trip on a Sunday, so obviously the place was packed with tourists and locals alike, all taking advantage of the atypical sunshine and warm weather. We could have hiked up the mountain but decided to take the overcrowded and shaky five minute transit instead. Once at the top we had a beautiful panoramic view of the entire city as well as the mountains beyond. After a quick tour of the church we wandered through the markets before riding back down.

That’s it for Colombia! Many thanks to our amazing friends who came down to temporarily join the Juicebox Journey and help us make extraordinary memories! If anyone is craving a South American vacation please let us know, we’d love to meet up and share this magical experience with you, too!.

Tayrona National Park, Colombia

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Tayrona National Park sits on Colombia’s Caribbean coastline, 45 minutes north of Santa Marta. Kyle and Meghan had a lot of work to catch up on, so they decided to stay home for the day while Doug and I ventured out. Unfortunately we got a late start, despite all the advice we got from locals about arriving early and spending a full day hiking and enjoying the beaches. Nevertheless, we had a great time!

We arrived around 1PM and immediately started hiking the trail. Doug and I both are easily distracted in nature, so we began at a snail’s pace, stopping often to observe a line of ants or listen for monkeys in the trees overhead. The park offers a wide variety of flora and fauna and there is a lot to take in! We spotted many lizards of myriad colors and sizes—we even accidentally discovered an iguana when Doug pulled a vine and knocked the poor guy from the branch on which he was napping! We spotted butterflies bigger than our hands, which camouflaged themselves perfectly against the dirt and trees until they spread their wings to display a beautiful electric blue on their backs. There were purple and yellow crabs everywhere in the muddy areas that would only creep out of their holes if we stood completely still—any peripheral movement and they would instantly disappear underground.

IMG_6079The most interesting aspect of Tayrona, in my opinion, was the perpetual fluctuation of the ecosystems. Every ten minutes or so the environment would subtly evolve into a completely new aesthetic like the rainbow horse in the Wizard of Oz—from jungle to beach to swamp and back again! One minute we would be climbing up rocks through dense thickets and the next minute we were walking barefoot on white sand along the shore.

Because of our tardiness we didn’t even get to see half of the National Park—apparently the nicest areas were are much further than we were able to trek. Most people who visit Tayrona end up camping out for a few nights or staying at one of the upscale hotels on the grounds. Tayrona also offers a spa, several restaurants and snorkeling (among other activities.) If I could do it again, I would sleep overnight in one of the cozy hammocks and take my time discovering everything the park has to offer.

We sat down for a late lunch in Arrecifes around 4PM, but when we told the staff that we weren’t actually staying the night they looked at us like we were crazy and said we should probably head home soon so we wouldn’t have to hike in the dark. Just then we looked up and saw several horses all saddled up and ready to take passengers back down to the park entrance. We decided it would be a lot of fun to ride them back down through the jungle—and it sure was! I hadn’t been horseback riding in years, but just like a bicycle, it came right back to me. I got the sweetest chestnut horse and before I knew it we were galloping down dirt roads and through grassy fields. Doug was a little less graceful as it was his first time riding a horse—but he did great and we laughed and smiled the entire time! There were several nerve-racking instances when the horses had to climb down steep, slippery rocks and we were both impressed by their strength and balance. The whole experience definitely made me want to pursue more opportunities to ride down here!.

Taganga, Colombia

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Of all the places we’ve been so far, I have to say that Colombia hosts the worst drivers—which is saying a lot since there has been some stiff competition for the title. Someone told us that there are no required driver training courses, so most locals (especially the cab drivers it seemed,) literally do not know how to drive. They swerve through traffic regardless of signs or lanes, barely avoiding scooters, pedestrians and oncoming cars. Like Guatemala, the sound of the car horn is ubiquitous in Colombia and is translated to a slew of varied intentions: hello, move over, you’re pretty, thank you, goodbye, etc. Each trip felt like Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride!

Several of our friends from the sailboat headed to the small fishing town, Taganga, directly after Cartagena. Taganga is only 15 minutes by taxi from Santa Marta, so it was cheap and easy—although somewhat scary—to get over there for a visit. The journeys to and from Taganga were most alarming as the route winds up and down the edge of a steep mountain and tiny cars stuffed over capacity carelessly zoom past each other on the narrow two-lane road. Kyle, Meghan and I were at least somewhat used to the risky moves, but Doug was visibly agitated by the perilous maneuvering, scolding the drivers in English regardless of the blatant language barrier. There is nothing you can do to control the situation, so all you can do is let go and trust in the system. I think Doug learned to embrace the risk by the end of his vacation, but it was pretty funny to watch him freak out in the beginning!

IMG_5992Regardless of the scary drive, our day trips to Taganga were a lot of fun. The main area is a backpacker’s haven, with typical displays of homemade jewelry, street food carts and doppelgängers of the scraggly chillers we’ve consistently encountered throughout our journey thus far.  There were many modest set-plate lunch spots where you could handpick your own fresh fish for the cook to prepare in the style of your choosing.

Our friends were staying at a hostel a bit up the road, which from the outside didn’t look like much, but felt like an upscale hotel once you passed through the entryway. It was nice to relax by the swimming pool and play billiards in the shade with our buddies. As the day started to fade, a few of us went up to the roof and witnessed a spectacular array of shockingly bright colors as the fiery sun slipped below the horizon. The view was impossible to capture with a camera but it was a brilliant moment to share with each other.

IMG_5998That night we organized a private fishing trip for the next morning and returned to Taganga at 8AM to find several disheveled Colombians loading gear into a rusty motorboat on the beach. Without knowing what to expect, we had packed snacks, beers, cameras, and towels—definitely setting the bar too high, we just didn’t know it yet. The weather was beautiful as we climbed aboard the tiny boat and kicked back for what we expected to be a leisurely cruise.

The two fishermen guides spoke no English at all and weren’t taking any extra measures to make us feel comfortable. Within ten minutes of our voyage we looked ahead and realized we were heading straight into a churning vortex of angry water. We stared at each other in disbelief and each gripped our fishing lines with one hand and the side of the boat with the other. Before we could even voice our concerns, giant waves crashed around us, threatening to flip our tiny vessel. We were instantly soaked in salt water, our snack bag was sopping wet and several pairs of sunglasses flew overboard. Just as I began to think our guides were actually insane, multiple lines snapped taut and foot-long tuna fish rained into our boat from every direction. It was all we could do to wrench the hooks out of their mouths, toss them on the floor and get our lines back into the water for more—all the while trying to balance and keep from capsizing as warm fish blood pooled in the bottom of the boat and splashed all over our legs.

The image of our friend Mark standing at the back of the boat, drenched from head to toe, protecting our backpacks like a mother hen will be forever engrained into my mind. What a trooper! We relearned an important lesson: never take anything fishing that you don’t want to get wet (duh!)

IMG_6018After a few rounds in the gauntlet we relocated to a much calmer area where we were able to relax our clenched muscles and use drop lines to catch smaller fish. We also got to anchor the boat in a hidden cove and snorkel for an hour or so. We saw many squid, puffer fish, needlefish and the usual brightly colored suspects.

We gave most of our catch to the fishermen, but we kept a few to cook up. That fish fed us for two days! First, we brought it all back to the hostel in Taganga and prepared a feast for all our friends. Meghan made a soy ginger pineapple marinade for the large tuna and coconut rice from scratch, along with a big salad, plantains, and other little treats. It was a bit melancholy because it was to be our last foreseeable night with our good friends Steph, Olivia, and Mark. It’s amazing how close we grew over the few weeks we spent together in Colombia—it seriously felt as if we’d all known each other for years! I am confident that we’ll all keep in touch and most likely meet up again somewhere in South America soon!.

Santa Marta, Colombia

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Santa Marta is a charming beach town located just five hours from Cartagena. The main streets are constantly abuzz with vendors hawking cell phone cases, fresh limeade and yellow soccer jerseys; the side roads are narrow, old-fashioned and (thankfully) easy to navigate. Siesta time is taken seriously in Santa Marta—most businesses are closed from 12-2PM and restaurants shut down from 3-6PM—we quickly learned to run errands and eat lunch early in the day to avoid wandering through a ghost town with an empty stomach or an unworkable to-do list.

IMG_5960We stayed at a lovely hostel, Aluna, in the center of town. Everything was within walking distance and each day we took advantage of the closeness by strolling down to the boardwalk for sunset and dining at the various local eateries.

Doug’s voracious appetite, paired with his taste for fine dining, led us to continue our weeklong restaurant crawl through Santa Marta and beyond. We sampled numerous cuisines—some delicious, some barely edible—and probably each put on five pounds!

IMG_5976After one delectable waterfront dinner on a Friday we decided to walk through the main plaza and scope the weekend nightlife scene. All the young kids were hanging out in the square, dressed to the nines. At first we felt as if we’d crashed their prom, but once we broke through the adolescent crowds, we came across an antique alleyway bustling with live music and colorful restaurants, bordered with outdoor bistro sets. We sat at a creative table with legs made of old books and enjoyed the cultural songs of the local performers over a glass of wine. Couples danced to Latin rhythms under the dim bulbs strung up overhead and we savored the deliciously authentic ambiance.

We felt at home in Santa Marta, and it was close to several neighboring attractions so we were able to take day trips to places like Taganga and Tayrona. Twice we took taxis to Rodadero, another beach area nearby. In the daytime there we rented a small cabana space on the beach and got foot massages from ladies with buckets of sea water and a few missing teeth. We ordered shrimp ceviche made fresh in front of us by a weathered-looking man with a Styrofoam cooler full of seafood, lime and mayonnaise.

IMG_6092At night, we went to a beautiful restaurant, Burukuka, up on the side of the hill overlooking the town. The atmosphere was incredible as we sat on the patio and watched the skyscrapers twinkle up as the sky faded from orange to purple and we indulged ourselves with steak, lobster and martinis.

After eating and walking around the downtown area, we were getting sleepy and ready to head back to Aluna. As Kyle and Doug negotiated the price of a cab ride home, the driver of another taxi was so blatantly staring at me and Meghan he rammed straight into the back of the first car—we literally caused an accident! It was so awkward when everyone started freaking out, so we immediately sneaked away to avoid any involvement and laughed about the incident the whole way home..

Cartagena, Colombia

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We spent our first two days in Cartagena catching up on work and sleep in the Mamallena Hostel with the rest of our shipmates from the Jacqueline. After spending five days together on the boat—laughing, talking, vomiting—we were as close as family, and it felt especially comfortable to have a home base in a new city.

statue booty

Aesthetically, Cartagena somehow manages to maintain the perfect balance of historical ruins and chic modernity within its city walls. Walking through the cobblestoned streets in any given neighborhood it’s impossible to ignore the placement of derelict buildings with peeling yellow paint and boarded-up windows right next to posh new shops and restaurants with glossy windows, neat displays and air conditioning billowing out into the clammy afternoons. By the same token, the foot traffic flaunts a curious diversity— barefoot ragamuffins, stylish aristocrats, toothless street performers and tourists alike join together in the hustle and bustle, forming a colorful herd of determined street-walkers.

The best part of Cartagena is without a doubt the old town area. Tucked away behind a wall of nondescript buildings, the neighborhood is a beautiful maze of small alleyways woven with boutique stores, churches, eateries and museums. Fernando Botero’s art is everywhere and there are several plazas dotted with bistro tables where, drinking a cappuccino over a red tablecloth, I felt like I was back in Italy.

Cartagena is surrounded by a colossal stone wall, which is a constant reminder of the city’s perilous past. Built in the 16th century after the devastating attack of Francis Drake, the wall stands strong today, peppered with ancient cannons and fortresses that were once meant protect the people from ruthless pirate invasions.

602126_4784734211143_452804885_nAbout an hour outside the city sits Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. It’s a relatively small mound—about 50ft high—full to the brim with thick gray mud. According to local legend, El Totumo was once quite an active volcano, but a priest believed that lava was from the devil, so he used holy water to turn the magma to clay. Today, El Totumo is a popular tourist destination and so of course we had to check it out. I went with a few friends from the boat early one morning, (Kyle and Meghan went the next day.) Once we arrived we were immediately instructed to strip down to our bathing suits and climb the rickety staircase up to the top. Once we got up there and looked into the pit of mud monsters we couldn’t stop laughing. It was hilariously creepy but strangely beautiful at the same time. There was nothing to do but embrace the weirdness, so I climbed down into the crater and let the warm sludge encompass me.

The mud is so dense that you float on the surface despite the volcano’s depth—once you descend, the locals cover your exposed skin and hair (saying “Shampoo! Shampoo!” while they pour sludge over your head.) As soon as you are completely caked with mud, they push you through the pit to an available massage station, where someone will rub you down for $3. It was a hysterical system that reminded me of rolling dead bodies on carts into their cubbies in a morgue. I have to say, the massage was actually quite nice, and I quickly grew to enjoy the feeling of the clay soaking into my skin. Once the massage ends you’re allowed to sit in the mud for as long as you like. It’s really difficult to control your movements due to the thickness of the mud; in order to get from one area to another you have to push off something or be pulled, and if your knees somehow come up to the surface you need someone to help you get back upright. The five of us awkwardly congregated in the middle of the pit, bobbing around and laughing uncontrollably, submerging each other and cracking up like twelve year olds as the murky bubbles erupted around us from within the volcano.

Once we got out of the mud and walked down the steps of the hill we were instantly seized by a cluster of tiny Colombian women and marched down to the river. Without much of a choice we walked straight to the water and each woman escorted one of us further in and proceeded to pour water all over us and scrub the dried clay off our bodies. They took off all our bathing suits and thoroughly washed us before giving our clothes back and walking us back to the entrance. There was nothing to do but laugh and pay another three dollars for the odd bathing ritual.

As I sit here trying to narrate the events of that morning, I cannot stop laughing or find accurate wording to explain how amusing the whole thing was for us.

Our friend Doug arrived in Cartagena the next morning and it was so nice to see a friend from home! We spent the afternoon walking around the old town area, doing a bit of shopping and sampling the street food along the way. Doug was fiercely determined to eat as much as he possibly could throughout his vacation and he surely succeeded. Every day he sought out meals of shrimp, lobster, steak, and whatever other sundry food options presented themselves. I feel like we sampled more restaurants in his ten-day stay than the three of us have in the entire four months we’ve been traveling! It was fun to indulge ourselves for a bit and Doug was very generous, always trying to treat us backpackers to little tastes of luxury like fine dining and hostels with hot showers..

Jacqueline Sailboat

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March 6th was like Christmas Eve. After running around all day—shopping, prepping, packing—we were all tuckered out but still couldn’t sleep because of our “exciety” (which is the word we made up for excited anxiety.) After what felt like a five-minute snooze, our 4:30AM alarm went off and we bounced out of bed to begin the adventure.


A band of 4x4s was parked outside our hostel and from the shadows of the pitch black morning emerged handfuls of bleary-eyed boat-bound travelers. We squeezed into the back of one of the Jeeps and zoned out for the long and rugged drive—it was still too early to talk to any of the other passengers. We definitely needed the all-wheel drive trucks to get out to the dock, as the muddy roads were speckled with countless potholes, boulders, and unrelenting twists and turns. If we weren’t so out of it we probably would have been scared, but instead we calmly enjoyed the natural roller coaster.

A water taxi shepherded us our to our 56-foot sailboat, The Jacqueline, which was set up to welcome us with breakfast—fresh-baked German brown bread, sliced cheese and tomatoes, coffee, tea and fruit. There were 16 of us passengers and we introduced ourselves over small talk as we sized each other up, individually imagining how the next five days would take place without having any idea what to expect.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 7.36.46 PMOur captain, Fritz, had to be one of the most epic aspects of the entire escapade. I’ve never met anyone who reminded me more of a cartoon character, it’s almost too difficult to explain. He is a 62-year-old German man who has been living on the boat with his girlfriend for years. He is loud, often shockingly honest, innocently perverted and absolutely hilarious. He made us very comfortable aboard his vessel and fostered an environment of safety and fun. One of the best phrases we picked up from him (and have been using in various situations since) is “If you like it, it’s okay. If you don’t like it, bad luck!”

We all gathered in the cockpit as Fritz explained the basic rules of the boat—what to do in a man overboard situation, how to flush the toilets, where to find the snorkel gear, etc. He then showed us to our accommodations, which were… interesting. There were a couple rooms in the pontoons of the boat, four cubbyholes with beds in them, and a couple lounge/couches in the main cabin. Surprisingly it didn’t feel cramped even though space was tight and there were quite a few of us.

I was assigned a bed in one of the top shelf cubbies, but within the first five minutes of laying down in there I got an extraordinary wave of claustrophobia and had to evacuate immediately. My “room” turned into a storage area for Juicebox belongings and I ended up sleeping outside on the nights we were anchored, which was nice and spacious also had the benefit of a soothing breeze to keep me cool.

149142_10200312748755064_1039270860_nAfter a brief nap, we cruised for a bit and got to know one another. Everyone on our boat was fantastic! It was such an unexpected treat to have that many random people—all different ages and backgrounds—that got along so well together. Everybody had a great attitude, was happy to help out and positively contributed to the entire experience.

We spent the first three days of the trip exploring some of the San Blas islands. Right off the coast of Panama, there are dozens of tiny islets with copious palm trees and scattered members of the indigenous Kuna tribe. Every time we anchored The Jacqueline, we were able to swim through the cerulean water to any of the nearby islands and explore. Often the local men would ask for two bucks as a tourist tax, or they would sell coconuts for a dollar. It was fun watching the locals scurry up the trees to shake out the fruit and then use their rusty machetes to break open the husks for us. A couple of us tried to shimmy up one of the coconut trees but found out it’s much harder than it looks!

429634_10200312747115023_1469200211_nThe San Blas islands are encircled by beautiful and cool water—perfect for swimming and snorkeling. We passed the days jumping off the boat, paddling around on our pool floats, stalking the marine life around the nearby reefs and exploring the various mini landmasses. One day the current was exceptionally strong and a few of us decided to swim against it in order to get to one of the islands, which was a good workout but well worth the struggle. On the way back we didn’t have to do anything but keep our snorkel masks in the water and watch the sea life beneath us as the flow carried us gently back to the boat. We found tons of conch shells, a giant stingray, pretty little reef fish and much more.

Going into the trip, we weren’t expecting much in the way of food quality. We came prepared with some granola bars, peanut butter, jelly and bread and imagined a few meals based around spaghetti. It came as a pleasant surprise when Fritz and his deck hands whipped up fresh servings of chili, roast beef, omelets and crepes from the tiny kitchen in the boat. Every meal came with a thoughtful vegetarian option for Meghan and me. They baked fresh brown bread every morning and had an endless supply of fresh fruit hanging above the cockpit for our casual enjoyment. We definitely didn’t starve!

554874_10200312451147624_1819221377_nEvery once in a while when we were docked in San Blas, a hollowed out canoe would pull up and a Kunu family would present us with their homemade crafts for sale. Many of us bought headbands and bracelets, which were colorful and cute and helped to support the local tribes.

Because we spent most of the first three days pretty stationary, we were able to chill out and party. Fritz encouraged us to drink all the booze we brought during this timeframe, as he predicted the open water sailing would be rough and we wouldn’t even want alcohol then (not to mention the safety hazards.) We definitely took advantage of the party time, cracking beers in the morning, playing drinking games around the dinner table, and sharing hilarious stories that kept us all in stitches well into the night.

The stars are unbelievable out there in the middle of the sea. It was truly an amazing feeling to lay out on the deck at night, surrounded by wonderful new friends somewhere in between Panama and Colombia and look up at the clearest, brightest canvas of stars.

Screen shot 2013-03-17 at 7.36.22 PMOn the afternoon of the third day, we had our “Last Supper” meal and prepared to set sail in unprotected water. We left San Blas around 5PM and at first we all gathered at the front of the boat, laughing as the waves crashed up underneath us and clutching to whatever rope or bar we could hold onto. The water was especially “confused,” as Fritz put it. There was no rhyme or reason to the powerful waves—they were short but steep and came at us from every direction. Everyone seemed okay until we had to relocate to the back of the boat, where you could really feel the impact. Instantly Kyle and a few other passengers started feeling nauseous and it was only a matter of time before we started dropping like flies.

I went down to my “closet” to grab something from my bag and as soon as I stepped foot below my pesky vertigo made an epic comeback and I instantly realized that whatever I needed down there was going to stay put until we stopped moving; I’d be wearing the same dress I had on for the next 40 hours. Some people were miraculously able to sleep downstairs but I could barely force myself to walk down the steps to use the bathroom. I didn’t expect to get seasick and I hung in there for the first couple hours, but once dinner was served and a got a whiff of food, I could feel my stomach turning. After vomiting once I had had enough of sailor life and pretty much put myself into a coma with constant doses of Dramamine for the remainder. Meghan, Kyle and I slept on the big couch in the main area in a cuddle puddle for about 30 straight hours.

45687_10200312745354979_1502706774_nFritz had recently hired two new deckhands and this trip was their training. They were so helpful and really nice, but apparently they, too, were not meant for a life at sea. They got just as seasick as the rest of us, and we all felt awful when we saw them trying to work and cook while they were so ill. When the seas got especially brutal, one of them was lying on the floor of the kitchen, peeling potatoes and crying. I only found out about this a couple days later and I am so happy I didn’t see it—it broke my heart just hearing about it.

Everyone was overjoyed when we finally made it to Cartagena! Even though we were dirty, tired and wobbly, we were in great spirits going through customs. The sailing trip was absolutely unforgettable and I wouldn’t trade that experience for everything? I don’t think I’ll pursue any boat trips in rough water for a long time, but the journey was a highlight of my travels so far. Anyone who needs to go from Panama to Colombia (or vice versa) needs to go with Fritz!.

Bocas del Toro & Panama City, Panama

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Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 4.39.19 PMI think our mediocre experience in Costa Rica set us off on the wrong foot for Panama. The journey there was easy enough—Puerto Viejo is only 32km north of the border, so for once the drive was a breeze, and crossing the bridge from one country to the other was exciting! The bridge is old and run down and we had to walk across wooden planks wearing our heavy backpacks, trying not to slip on the wet wood or step between the cracks.

To get to Bocas del Toro, we had to take a 25-minute water taxi from the mainland, and the seas were turbulent due to the rough weather. Our boat was packed to capacity, and several individuals donned life vests before we even left the dock. Kyle, Meghan and I laughed and exchanged wide-eyed glances every time we were abruptly hurled side to side, but the other passengers (mostly locals) looked panicked—the teenage girl next to me started crying halfway through the voyage!

When we finally arrived, white-knuckled and queasy, we immediately felt that the expedition was not worth the destination. Bocas del Toro is a cluster of island towns that are said to be vivacious and happening… When the sun is out (which it normally is.) Unfortunately for us, the dismal weather followed us down from Costa Rica. The streets were deserted, the skies were dreary, and most of the good hostels were full. We checked into the International Hotel, which was bland both aesthetically and in terms of activity. We walked the main streets, looking for a good place to grab some food and ended up at an inferior pizza parlor. By the time we got back to our room, the three of us were so uninspired we didn’t even want to talk to one another, so we read our books in silence and went to sleep. The Israeli travelers staying in the room next to us blaredhorrific music all night and even started it up again at 6AM!


I don’t mean to knock Bocas, because from all the reviews online and other people’s anecdotes, it sounds like a wonderful place—we just had bad timing and so decided to get on the next bus out of there and considered ourselves lucky to get the last three tickets on the overnight bus to Panama City.

This bus ride was the icing on the cake. The last three tickets also meant the last three seats, which were crammed all the way in the back next to the bathroom. The AC was cranked up to a level that was surely below zero. But even though we were freezing and cramped right off the bat, we weren’t complaining… However, within the first five minutes of the ride, a child several rows ahead of us projectile vomited all over the aisle. The stench engulfed the bus like a gas chamber, and the “clean up” that ensued consisted of smearing the puke around with a few paper towels in a half-assed manner and then casually tossing the soggy rags in a bin directly next to our seats without even closing the lid. The next ten hours were a true test of our limits. I tried as best I could to cover myself from head to toe with the few articles of clothing I brought on board to protect against the cold and the stink, but nothing could block out the sickening atmosphere.

We couldn’t get off the bus fast enough when we arrived in Panama City at 5AM.

Our next hostel, Mamallena, was a welcome upgrade and the weather in Panama City was warm again. Many other guests at our accommodation were also about to embark on the five-day sailing trip to Cartagena, so it was fun to spend some time getting to know our shipmates and preparing for the voyage.

image_10We went to check out the Panama Canal with a couple friends and we were… What’s the word? Let’s call it “whelmed”. Not overwhelmed or underwhelmed, somewhere in the middle. I was more impressed by the history and engineering than the actual structure. I don’t know why, I guess I expected it to be much bigger. To be fair, the passage is huge, and we got to watch an enormous cargo vessel go through the locks, which was pretty fascinating. We enjoyed the museums and the 3D movie presentation and, overall, we really did enjoy our little educational field trip. What I found most interesting about the whole thing was the amount of time and distance saved by cutting through the Canal. The Panama Canal made (and still makes) a colossal impact on the efficiency of trade, industry and transportation.

We spent the rest of the afternoon preparing to set sail—buying snacks, booze, pool floaties and Dramamine and trying to get a little sleep before our 4AM wake up call the next morning…


Costa Rica

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Costa Rica | Comments Off on Costa Rica

bikeIt’s hard to say much about Costa Rica because we literally blew through the country like the Tasmanian Devil from Looney Tunes. Costa Rica definitely has a lot to offer—beautiful beaches, laidback lifestyle and peaceful democracy—but it has also become expensive and Americanized over the past few years, making it a less than ideal location for budget-conscious explorers like us. We figured it was a place we could always come back to for a vacation in later years when we have time to relax and money to spend.

We literally had 4 days to get from Nicaragua to Panama, including the two long bus rides, so we could only really choose one town to check out. Based on reviews from other backpackers, we chose Puerto Viejo as our ultimate destination.

Because of the bus schedule, we were forced to spend one night in the capital, San Jose. We typically try to avoid big cities down here, as they tend to be hectic, dirty, and sometimes dangerous— but we had no choice, so we figured we’d stick it out for 12 hours and leave first thing the next morning. We arrived in the evening and asked the taxi driver to take us straight to the nicest hostel close to the bus station. He dropped us off at Aldea, and we were actually impressed! The hostel was clean, lively and in a safe neighborhood (bonus points for the pool table.) We ventured out for dinner and found that the area reminded us of a European university city (as opposed to other Central American capitals, which feel more like Tijuana.)

photo-21The next morning we set out for another bus journey through a tunnel of rich greenery to the Caribbean beach town of Puerto Viejo. It isn’t technically the rainy season yet but the weather was gray and wet nonetheless. We walked through puddles to our hostel on the outskirts and stopped along the way to admire the waves. I have never before seen the ocean so confused—the riptide looked fierce and the waves were crashing down from multiple directions. There were a few brave surfers in the water and we were in awe of their ability to successfully surf the tumultuous waves. We later learned that the locals are as protective of this break as most Hawaiians, so gringos rarely paddle out.

Our first night in Puerto Viejo was the closest I’ve ever experienced to a monsoon. Our room was roofed with a slab of tin, and around midnight the three of us woke up to what felt like a mild earthquake and sounded like aluminum baseball bats smashing against metal. Usually sleeping in a rainstorm is peaceful, but it was so loud and invasive that rest was impossible—the noise drowned out the music I had on full blast in my headphones!

tandemThe next day we rented bikes to ride around and explore the area. It was still sprinkling as we peddled along the main road. Kyle and Meghan went for the two-person tandem bicycle, and just watching them try to stay straight or slow down kept me in stitches from behind. We biked far past the town along the main road and came across some fascinating curiosities—giant furry centipedes, toucans, and a purple plant that looked exactly like the man-eating flower in Jumangi. We found the local banana factory and spent twenty minutes watching the workers, speculating what it would be like to spend a day in their shoes. All along the road the telephone wires were laced with fine webs, and countless spiders as big as my palm were perched overhead. It was disturbing for both me and Kyle as we are definitely not bug people.

That night was rather uneventful for us—we went out to a mediocre dinner and came back early. It was the owner of our hostel’s 43rd birthday and there was a massive party at the homestead. I know it’s beyond nerdy to actually blog about the noise level of a hostel party, but it seriously sounded like a riot outside our room—and it didn’t end until 4AM! It felt like 2011 in the Juicebox apartment; had I thought it would have made a difference I would have marched out there Mabel-style and made a fuss!

Sleep-deprived and soaked to the bone, we were ready to leave Costa Rica. As I said, it’s a lovely country and I’m sure I’ll return one day, but for the Juicebox Journey it was just a quick stopping point on our route to Panama..


Posted on by Erica Duncan in Nicaragua | Comments Off on Nicaragua

Unfortunately due to our extended stint in Tunco, we had limited time to spend exploring Nicaragua. In the beginning of our great adventure, and without knowing how long we would want to stay in each country, we scheduled some plans that at the time seemed extremely far off but are now quickly creeping up on us. Although we have incredible arrangements to look forward to (Lauren and Doug’s visit, hiking Machu Picchu with the Slapjacks, volunteering at the children’s hospital, etc.) we are all a bit frustrated with the inevitable quickened pace we are now dealing with. We had to cut out two of our four intended stops in Nicaragua—Somoto Canyon and Ometepe—both of which we were really excited about. Regardless, we made the most of our time in Leon and San Juan del Sur!

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.25.45 PMWe took a microbus from Tunco to Leon—10 hours total, which sounds like an eternity but now seems like a typical travel day (easy, in fact, because we were able to stay on only one shuttle the whole time.) We pulled up in front of Big Foot Hostel which was evidently the party spot— we heard loud music and shouting from the street. We checked in and were immediately recruited to rowdy flip cup teams.

Leon is known for volcano boarding—a unique activity that has recently become quite popular among thrill-seeking travelers. The idea is that you hike to the top of Cerro Negro, a local volcano and also the most active in Central America, and then slide down the side at high speed… There was no way we were going to skip such an adventure! In the morning we grabbed a cup of coffee and signed up for the afternoon escapade.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.30.21 PMWe had already heard several horror stories about people getting injured while volcano boarding—broken bones, dislocated shoulders, etc.—but signed the waiver without hesitation. When 1PM rolled around, we exited the hostel with our group and literally piled into a gigantic truck with an open back and two long benches. We were packed in tightly and not everyone could sit down so I, and a few other people, had to stand up for the drive there. Within the first five minutes we turned off the street and gunned it down the bounciest back roads I could ever imagine. Everyone was laughing as we clutched whatever metal railing we could hold onto. It was definitely a work out— when we finally arrived my arms felt like spaghetti!

Each person received a kit that included a “board” (basically a 2×4 with a short rope attached,) a pair of scuffed up thin green goggles, and an orange jumpsuit before we began the hike up. Climbing a volcano is interesting for several reasons. One, it’s extremely hot as there is no shade (or any vegetation for that matter) and the black rock underfoot has been roasting in the sun all day. Two, the crunchy sensation of walking on porous volcanic rock feels similar to how your teeth crunch merengue. Three, as you get up that high, the wind picks up tenfold and it takes all your strength and balance to hold onto your board and walk in a straight line.

The view from the top is pretty astonishing, not because you can see so much of the countryside, but because you can see a defined border between where the lava has blackened the earth and the normal green landscape. We took some time for photos at the top and even made a group video in the theme of a recent Facebook fad (see: Harlem Shake Video.) We donned our full-body suits, received instructions on how to avoid getting hurt, and lined up. It seemed easy enough as we deliberated do’s and don’ts while watching everyone in front of us slide down. Finally it was my turn and I decided that the best thing to do was nothing—no brakes, no steering. I leaned back and flew down! I actually started strong, kept in a straight line and picked up some speed. About half way down, the decline slopes to 45 degrees and a few seconds into that section I flew off my board and got a mouthful of rocks. It actually didn’t hurt at all and I got right back on, but by then I’d lost momentum so when they measured my speed with a radar gun I only clocked in at 41 kph. Meghan and Kyle must have gotten some second-rate boards because for some reason neither of them could stay straight nor gain any speed. As they leisurely came down the mountain they both looked a bit disappointed.

Nobody in our group was injured although a couple people took pretty big spills. The best part of the day was the ride back to Big Foot—our tour guide had a secret cooler full of beers for everyone and, now bonded from our adventure, we drank and laughed and fell on top of each other as the driver took off again on the same rough dirt paths.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.26.30 PMThe next day we set out to check out the Surfing Turtle Lodge. Meghan originally discovered the hostel online while doing research about different places to visit in Nicaragua and we made a note to go there, if possible. The first day we arrived in El Salvador we met a guy, Pedro, who turned out to be the owner of the place! It’s on a tiny island off Poneloya Beach near Leon, and as we were getting ready to head that way, who did we run into on the street? Pedro! He was taking a crew out to repair the solar panels and told us to hop in the back of their pick up truck.

The Surfing Turtle is an eco-friendly hostel that doubles as a turtle hatchery. In Nicaragua many locals eat turtle eggs, so people will find them on the beach and sell them to restaurants. As a result, many turtles aren’t being born and the species is suffering because of it. A few years ago, Pedro found out about this and wanted to help protect the babies, so now the Surfing Turtle staff buy the eggs from poachers at market value (about $1.50 for 10 eggs if I remember correctly) and take care of them until they are big enough to try their luck in the ocean. Luckily for us, 5 babies hatched the morning of the day we arrived, so we got to participate in their release.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.26.41 PMThe newborn turtles were Olive Ridleys—tiny black babies that fit in the palm of your hand. At sunset when the tide was coming up, we set them down about 20 feet from the water and watched as they crawled toward the big blue. I named mine Polka Dot and felt like a proud parent as I watched her march confidently in a straight line while the others crawled in circles or stood still. After about 45 minutes (and much goading,) all the turtles successfully made it to the ocean. Their chance of survival is slim, but I’m sure Polka Dot is alive and well today!

The Surfing Turtle is really laid back, but after a couple days of playing with the pigs and newborn kittens, shooting hoops and playing the only two card games we know, we were ready for a little more action (plus we had to get a move on anyway.) We bussed it down to San Juan del Sur, a surfer town in the south of Nicaragua. We arrived at night and couldn’t see much of the area, but we went for dinner at Barrio Café and were blown away by the food. It was a bit pricey for our meager standards but we dined on black spaghetti with fish, Gorgonzola salad and a chicken sandwich, which were all delicious! We ended up going back to eat there two more times during our stay in San Juan.

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.24.59 PMBy day the town is bright and energetic with numerous surf shops and small local eateries. Kyle discovered a French fries shop with a varied range of sauce selections that he quickly became addicted to. There is a coffee shop and bookstore, El Gato Negro, where we went every morning to start our days. We took a lot of relaxing walks around the bay and hiked up to the gigantic statue of Jesus at the top of a mountain nearby.

We arrived on a Friday and found out that the next day there was a Quicksilver surf competition and outdoor concert (Pitaya Festival) at Hermosa Beach. Harold wasn’t feeling too frisky so Megs and I left him at home and set out on a girls adventure. We waited on the beach shuttle for over an hour and it never came. As we were standing around chatting we made friends with a few people and decided to each pay $3 to jump in a truck for a ride instead of spending the whole afternoon in line. We rode to the beach in the back of the pick up and watched as monkeys flew from tree to tree overhead.

The surfing was a bit anticlimactic since the waves were terrible and closing out almost instantly. We watched the 16s, 18s and Pros, but were only impressed by the last couple surfers. The music festival, on the other hand, was much livelier! The place was packed and the bands were eclectic, ranging from reggae to disco soul, electronic DJs to bluegrass. We met and danced with a lot of interesting people from all over the world (one guy I met even went to the same high school as I did in San Francisco!)

Screen shot 2013-03-13 at 1.25.13 PMThe only downside of the event was that our backpack was stolen on the beach. Luckily everything was replaceable but we learned a valuable lesson about being careful with our stuff and what to leave at home (iPhone, debit card, etc.) The main problem was that, after the theft, none of us had debit cards or any access to money! Our banks would not allow us to wire money to ourselves and we couldn’t make the necessary changes without going to a branch in person. We had to have my parents Western Union transfer money to us, which we couldn’t even get for a couple days (we had to go to five different locations!)

We felt like we were being held hostage in the town. We wanted to leave but couldn’t pay our hostel bill or even buy bus tickets. It was challenging to really enjoy our last couple days in San Juan del Sur because we couldn’t afford to go anywhere or do anything. Several times the water and electricity went out at our hostel and there was nothing to do but laugh about our predicament. When we finally received the money we bought the first tickets out of there and packed up for Costa Rica. Despite our minor setback, we loved the area and had a blast in San Juan del Sur!.

Tunco Beach, El Salvador

Posted on by Erica Duncan in El Salvador | Comments Off on Tunco Beach, El Salvador

Beach day or pool day? That was the most difficult daily decision for the past three weeks of my life. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 10.10.01 AMLet me start by saying that we never meant to go to El Salvador. Our original plan was actually to bus straight through Honduras en route to Costa Rica, but Alex and Jeremy (our friends from Guatemala,) said we should check out one beach town in El Salvador called El Tunco, and since it only has two streets we wouldn’t want to stay very long. Without much more information, we bought our bus tickets and headed that direction. It’s such a wonderful feeling to be able to travel to an unintended country on a moment’s notice.

The drive was beautiful. As soon as we crossed the border, rays of sun illuminated pink and purple wildflowers lining the highway and we were able to steal glances of the ocean through breaks in the trees. At first I couldn’t figure out why everything seemed so much brighter, and then I realized—grass! I didn’t even notice the entire time in Guatemala there was no grass until I spotted the emerald carpets of El Salvador.

All three of us were visibly delighted to be close to the beach again. We checked into a private room at the Papaya Lodge, pushed our beds together to make a giant love nest, and walked down towards the shore to grab some lunch. As content as we were, we still only planned to stay one or two nights…

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Luckily, Papaya Lodge has a cable TV so on the night of the Super Bowl (one of our first nights in town,) we initiated a big party. Close to 30 people gathered in the tiny sitting area to watch the Ravens and the 49ers duke it out. We had a pool going with $0.25 betting squares— it was a great way to get to know everyone (although the night would have been MUCH better if San Francisco won the game.)

Every single person we met in Tunco was amazing and we grew as close as family with the other Papaya guests.  Each day at 2PM strangers would check in at the hostel and by the time they checked out days later, we’d all have separation anxiety.

We felt incredibly comfortable and settled into somewhat of a routine. Every morning we would wake up leisurely as soon as it was too hot to stay inside and walk down the main road for a cup of coffee and a fresh fruit smoothie. Some days we would hang by the pool at the hostel and read, others we’d rent surfboards and go play in the waves. I’m definitely not a pro surfer girl yet, but by now I’m a damn good paddler.

Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 10.10.52 AM

One day we went with a group of people on a hike to see the nearby waterfalls. It was scorching hot outside and the trek was a bit of a challenge but the cool water at the end was rewarding and we all jumped into the pools from rocks ranging 10 – 50ft in height. Some daredevils in the group actually jumped from the top of the cascade, which seemed completely slippery and unsafe—they said that when they jumped, their feet hit the bottom!

Our waterfall tour guide turned out to have a bit of a crush on me and he quickly escalated to stalker status. I feel bad even writing about the situation but Kyle says it’s too funny to leave out. At first it was innocent enough, but then he started lurking around and knocking on our door several times a night after we’d said we were going to sleep. I’m sure he meant well, but it got to be way too much when he would demand to know who I was dating and why we couldn’t be together. The poor guy didn’t speak English, so imagine how difficult it was for me to break up with someone—in Spanish– who I was never dating on at LEAST 5 separate occasions. If I ever do have a Latin boyfriend and need to end things, I have the verbiage down pat.

Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 10.10.29 AMSan Salvador is located about 45 minutes away from Tunco, so we decided to take a day trip and check out the capital. We were all surprised at how clean and modern it was. From what we’ve seen of the main cities in Central America, most are comparable to Tijuana, but in San Salvador the roads and buildings are neat and attractive; we felt safe and visited several upscale shopping centers.

Kyle had to go back to San Diego for a couple days and we didn’t mind waiting for him in Tunco where we felt relaxed and looked-after. It was a rather uneventful week, though we had a lot of fun just hanging out. We each read 2-3 books and got to spend quality time with our Papaya crew.

Screen shot 2013-02-26 at 10.11.24 AMWe got to know the bus schedule pretty well and Meghan and I would often ride into La Libertad, the closest town, and load up on fresh produce and groceries to cook with. We had a great time whipping up creative salads and fresh seafood dishes. We would also bake desserts and sell some on the side! People started to take notice of our culinary creations and one day several friends approached us, asking if we’d consider cooking for other people. We thought it was a great idea so we planned a menu and headed toward the markets. For only $5 per person, we cooked up a fabulous meal consisting of a 9lb Red Snapper, marinated for hours in pineapple juice with ginger, jalapeno and garlic; fried plantains, rice and beans, tuna cakes, salad, and homemade garlic bread. We had a blast and everyone was full and happy.

What else? It seems funny that there isn’t more to write about after three weeks but to be honest we spent most of our time just chilling out. We had a few crazy nights out and Megs and I spent a lovely Valentine’s Day together. We went into San Salvador again to check out the Body Exhibit, which was really interesting and a lot of fun. We did some shopping and even decided to stick around and see a movie before catching the last bus home.

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It was extremely bittersweet when Kyle came back and it was time to move on. I felt strong pangs of nostalgia when the reality of leaving our new friends and temporary home hit me, but I know we will all keep in touch (and I’m sure many are on the same southbound journey!) I would love to post photos to accompany this blog post, but my phone was stolen last Saturday night… But that’s another story for another time!.