Tuesday, January 21, 2014

3 days into Cycling through Colombia

I feel compelled to write a blog entry after 3 days of cycling in Colombia.  It's Tuesday, 1/21/14, and I'm writing this from the house of a very generous Colombian men, named Julio, in the town of Honda in the beautiful Magdalena River Valley.

Before taking off from Bogotá to cycle to Argentina, I spent 2 days riding around the city to get my legs warmed up and sort out how my stuff would be attached.  It's probably no big surprise that 2 days of training does very little when you're starting 7500 ft (2500 m) abovd sea level and going up/down through the Andes.  Needless to say, after 2 days of riding from Bogota, I've gotten pretty good at cursing the mountains as I walk my bike up them.

Here's a graph of the altitude change.  I've learned it fails to portray some 1,000 meter inclines while going down in altitude from Bogota:

My legs, lower back & butt are quite sore, BUT I've had an absolute blast.  I feel like a kid first learning how to ride a bike...with an 8,000 ft. tall mountain in my backyard.  The thrill of soaring down these mountains amidst motorcycles, cars & trucks is indescribable.  You've just got to try it yourself!

The first day I rode 90 km from Bogota to Villeta.  Why Villeta? Because it was the town I ended up in.  That's one cool thing about cycling - you end up in towns you would never think to visit.  I would have never attempted 90 km my first day but with the gracious altitude drop of almost 7500 ft, I made it.  I was absolutely spent when I finally got a hotel room & took a shower.  I laid on the bed for 2 hours just staring at the ceiling thinking, "What in god's name have I gotten myself into?  I love it."

I spent the next day resting in Villeta because I was having trouble walking straight and felt the need for my body to recuperate.  The following morning I took off early and thought I was ready to start off with a 1000m uphill ride, fresh at 6:45 in the morning.  About 20 mins into this ride, I was on the side of the road debating what to do when a couple from Seattle comes slowly but steadily making their way up the mountain like it's no big deal.  I'm thinking, "You're also doing this at this hour...here in Colombia??"

I managed to go 67 km that day, from Villeta to Honda.  For that initial climb, I did throw my bike in the bag of a truck and ride about 12 km up (passing the couple from Seattle who still managed to pass me again about 1 hour after that).  I was welcomed very warmly in Honda with the use of www.warmshowers.org.  This is a site for cyclists to post in forums and find hosts who are offering free accommodation/hospitality.

This is my first time using the site and I couldn't be happier.  My gracious host, Julio, who is also an avid cyclist, gave me a guest bedroom, clean sheets & towel & a delicious dinner of brown rice & beef tongue (it was actually very tasty!).  His friend, Carlos, met me in the town square when I arrived, took me to a great local place for lunch & let me into Julio's house before he got home.  Talk about hospitality from complete strangers!

Tomorrow I will be www.couchsurfing.org with a 33 yr old Colombian guy in La Dorada, then staying with another host from warmshowers in Medellin.  The world is full of such gracious people.  Thank you all.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Sailing from Panama to Colombia

When traveling south from Panama to Colombia, you must choose a method to get past the Darian Gap.

If you are driving and need to ship your vehicle, you simply need to send an email to Tea Kalmbach @ tea.kalmbach@gmail.com.  She is incredibly helpful, friendly & quick to respond.  She will also find a shipping partner for you to share a container with.  It will cost you around $1200 to share a container with another vehicle.

Per Wikipedia, "The Darién Gap is a break in the Pan-American Highway consisting of a large swath of undeveloped swampland and forest within Panama's Darién Province in Central America and the northern portion of Colombia's Chocó Department of South America.  It measures just over 160 km (99 mi) long and about 50 km (31 mi) wide."

Though people have successfully crossed through the gap by foot & vehicle, it's not something you just do.  If interested, here's a crazy story of 2 Range Rovers making it through this intense jungle in 1972:


Us more sane people must choose another method of travel:

1. Take a flight - unexpectedly expensive, other travelers I met paying in the ballpark of $330-$380 for one-way from Panama City to Cartagena or Bogota.

2. Take a speed boat or ride in a shipping container - one of the cheaper options I heard, more in the ballpark of $50- $100.  If you get dropped off right at the border, you will have to take another boat to make your way past the Darien Gap.  I never met anyone who actually did this but have spoken to travelers who tell me it's possible.

3. Take a speed boat with a stop in the San Blas Islands (4 days; 3 nights total).  The company is San Blas Adventures ( http://sanblasadventures.com) and you sleep on the islands in hammocks at night.  Please note with this option you are dropped right at the Panama/Colombia border and walk into Colombia.  You then say at a hostel the owner of the company runs on the Colombian side that night.  Price was $350 but you then have to take another boat and buses to get to Cartagena or the other main cities, which could run another $80-100 in costs plus a few days travel.

4. Take a ferry - I finally heard of a ferry actually running while I was in Panama City.  It's $250/person & takes 24 hours.  You can take bicycles, motorcycles & cars on this ferry as well.  All the info can be found at www.sanblasferry.com.

5. Take a chartered sailboat - A more expensive option with most charging $550 for 5 days/4 nights (food included) though a few were $500 or $530.  The plus to this option is that you get to spend a few days in the San Blas Islands of Panama and all food/accommodation is included.  (You can get it cheaper if you contact the captain of the boat directly!  See below!)

I went with option 5 because I wanted to experience sailing on the open sea and visit the incredible San Blas Islands (Kuna Yala).  Now, choosing this option opens brings up another big question - which boat?

I was given a binder of 30+ sailboats when I asked the owner of my hostel for a recommendation.  While hanging in Panama City, I heard stories of boats sinking, some captain getting drunk while sailing, some boats with great food, some with dorm-style beds, others with private rooms.  You ask everyone - but which is the BEST???  You can find a few reviews from past travelers, but there is no one stop shop website to make this decision.

By recommendation of my hostel (Villa Vento Surf Hostel), I ended up emailing a girl named Stef, owner of I Travel By Boat (Estefanía Gamarra, www.itravelbyboat.com
+507 6088-4815) in Panama City, Panama who provided me a calendar of all the boats leaving Panama that month:

Sailboat schedule from October & November 2013

The way it works for Stef as an "agent" is that she gets $50 of the $550 you pay (Some agents take $100 of the $550).  PLEASE NOTE YOU CAN SAVE MONEY BY EMAILING THE CAPTAIN DIRECTLY.  MY CAPTAIN SAID HE WOULD HAVE DONE IT FOR $450 IF I EMAILED HIM DIRECTLY (SEE BELOW FOR HIS CONTACT INFO)  I asked her what boats she recommended leaving in the next few days.  Here was her email response:

"Hey!  Swala on the 28th is a great catamaran.  French captain Bernard is super experienced and is a really really nice guy. He has endless stories of the many lives he's lived all over the world.  He departs from Portobelo and the trip costs $550. He'll take up to 10 guests. It costs $5 to get to Portobelo by bus.

On the 29th you have Corto sailboat, I also like it a lot because the captain is young (27) and super nice. He has his dog onboard and the ambiance is always cool and chill.  His boat is a monohull and he takes 8 guests. He charges $550 and departs from El Porvenir which costs $47 to get to.

These are my two best recommendations for departures before the 30th!!"

I went with Swala and had a phenomenal experience.  There were only 5 passengers so we each had our own bedroom, which is unheard of on these sailboats since most have 8-15 passengers.  You can contact the captain of my boat, Bernard, through his website:


Or by searching "SWALA sailing" on Facebook.

For more information and pictures of the sailing trip, please visit the San Blas sailing on my blog, coming soon...