Category Archives: colombia
The following is meant as a practical guide for folks wanting to go from Colombia to Panamá (or vice versa) without the time or money for a five-day, $275 sailboat trip from Cartagena to Colón or a direct flight. Much has been written about this topic, particularly on the Lonely Planet Thorn Tree, but although we read it all many times before making the trip, we still encountered a few surpises.
1. Take a bus to Turbo. Direct buses from Medellín’s Terminal Caribe leave every hour and take at least nine hours. The only thing unsafe about this trip, even at night, is the potential for landslides. Nevertheless, these are more likely to cause delays of one or several hours than injury or death. Generally, there is nothing particularly dangerous about Colombia. The price is 49,000 Colombian pesos ($25). Buses from Cartagena involve a change.
2. Take the three-hour ferry from Turbo to Capurganá (the last Colombian town). The schedule posted at the port says 8:30 a.m., but the man with the glasses will write 9 a.m. on the ticket, and you can be sure the boat won’t leave before then. The cost is 44,000 plus 1000 for port tax ($23 total). Sign up for the ferry the day before or beginning at 7 a.m. the day you travel to guarantee a seat. Theoretically, if 15 passengers want to go later in the day, there could be another boat, but this is a reach, at best. This is an astoundingly beautiful boat ride, past thick jungle tumbling right down into the Caribbean, as impressive as any landscape to be found in South America. You can pay a guy at the dock 1000 per giant black garbage bag to keep your luggage protected from rainstorms.
3. Get an exit stamp from the Colombian DAS office near the Capurganá port. This is free of charge, and handled by good people who can’t be bothered to wear uniforms.
4. Have someone show you to the Panamanian Consulate, which is otherwise impossible to find. More than likely, the owner of the launch that you will want to take across the border will be waiting for any potential passengers to get off the ferry from Turbo, and lead you to the Panamanian joint himself. There, you will be told that there are no Tourist Cards available, and that there have not been for seven years. The only thing that is available is Visas. The bummer is that Visas cost $30, while Tourist Cards cost $5. After keeping up a healthy argument, we paid the $30 ($30).
3. Take a small launch from Capurganá to Puerto Obaldía (the first Panamanian town), about a half-hour ride. The captain will probably find you before you find him. The cost is 25,000 Colombian pesos per person ($13). Don’t worry about missing this boat, as it will leave only when the captain is good and ready, and has scoured the town several times for potential passengers.
4. Follow the soldiers’ instructions and go to the army base first. Endure seemingly pointless questions and exaggerated waiting times. Then go to the immigration office, several doors down the street from the army office. If you’re lucky, it’ll be open. Otherwise, wait another indeterminate period until the officials become free. The older one with the glasses speaks very good English. This part goes fairly smoothly. If you get fed up with waiting, go sign up for a room and meal at the only place to stay/eat in town ($5 per person per night, plus $3 dinners and $2 breakfasts), a few doors down from immigration.
5. Take the Wednesday or Sunday 11:30 a.m. Aeroperlas flight from Puerto Obaldía to Panama City ($69). I highly recommend booking online ahead of time if possible to save energy, uncertainty and a potential three- or four-day wait in a town where there is, quite literally, nothing to do.
6. Suffer another several hours of immigration, customs and police checks at the airport in Panama City. Panamá is by far the worst country we’ve ever seen for immigration.
The total transportation costs of such a trip are about $130, plus a possible $30 visa to get into Panamá, a night in Puerto Obaldía and maybe a night in Turbo. It’s possible to do the trip in two days, leaving Medellín or Cartagena on a Monday night, arriving in Turbo very early Tuesday morning to take the 9 a.m. ferry to Capurganá and a later launch to Puerto Obaldía, with a Wednesday morning flight to Panama City. But road conditions to Turbo are unpredictable, so best to allow yourself an extra day, which you can spend very pleasantly in Capurganá, and tolerably in Puerto Obaldía.
If you find this information useful, or if it sounds like horseshit, please leave a comment and let us know.
“Do you really serve breakfast until 10:30 p.m.?”
“No, of course not. 10:30 a.m.”
“I thought not, but I thought I´d ask anyway because on your menu it says Breakfast 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m.”
“Well, see, that could be referring to the hours we´re open…”
“But no, it´s not. It´s referring to breakfast, and you should change it. See, there are other 90-minute windows for other meals, but breakfast says all day.
“Look, you can´t dodge this. It´s wrong and you should fix it. Ni modo. Since there´s no breakfast, can I have a mushroom and cheese crepe?”
“Crepes are only after 4 p.m.”
That really just happened, so what you´re getting now is some “live writing”, something I promised myself I´d do more of. We´ve just eaten a tasty lunch of soup, salad, grilled beef, rice, beans, fried banana and juice for $3.25. That was in a casual restaurant, where the food can´t be expected to be any better than in a dive, but that extra $1.50 you pay per plate goes, theoretically, toward the cost of the joint providing you with the luxury of reading a printed menu.
And that´s pretty much the way things have been going lately. Everything Clare says about the incessant and exhausting fighting is true. “But how?”, some of you will say, while others of you are saying “I knew it”. The truth is, we are both much, much worse people that any of you friends and family reading this gives us credit for, capable of being insanely cruel, especially to each other. But mostly, we´ve been arguing, and it´s led to my finding myself arguing with just about anyone who crosses my path. In the two days we´ve been in Armenia, I´ve argued with someone in every sector of tourism in this coffee belt town.
Getting off the bus in at 9 pm with no hotel reservation doesn´t bother me like it bothers Clare. I don´t masturbate to it, as she accuses me of doing from time to time when we fight, but it doesn´t bother me. So when we arrived in Armenia in just that situation, I went to the taxi stand to ask the woman where I could find a suitable hotel. She said the Jerónimo, where they´d charge 45,000 Colombian pesos per night. I said great, have your best man take me there, which she did. Except we arrived at the San Jerónimo, the saintlier, more expensive brother of the plain old Jerónimo. There we learned a room would set us back 75,000. Initially, I was simply defeated. Oh well, to look for another hotel. But the manager who attended us had nothing better to do than inform us of the more “economical” Jerónimo, where they´d charge 45,000. This was a big help, and only when I´d turned around and started walking back to the taxi did it occur to me that there was an argument to be had here, justified or no. Thirteen blocks later, we were at the Jerónimo. I explained all of the above to the taxi driver and suggested he take up the issue of the fare from the San Jerónimo to the plain old Jerónimo with the woman at the taxi stand who, after all, had given the two of us the wrong address/hotel. She had said Jerónimo, but she had given us the address for the Sanny. He, on the other hand, and quite predictably, maintained that I should pay him the otherwise appropriate sum 2000 for the short additional trip. I reiterated my position, which he said was bad luck.
“That´s right, I said. Bad luck for everyone. Now you won´t get paid for this extra trip, even though it was only 13 blocks, and I can never recover the 15 minutes spent going to the wrong place and arguing with you.”
“No, no, no,” he said. “Bad luck for you, because you have to give me 2000. I´m going to have to pay for the gas for this trip we just took.”
“That´s a good point, and very fair. You´re absolutely right. I forgot about the gas. How much does a gallon of gas cost?”
The driver answered quickly, but his confidence wavered just as quickly, no doubt either because he sensed a calculation coming that would yield him a good bit less than the 2000 he was wanting or because his years of driving had taught him to tread lightly around gringos who know that gas in Colombia is sold by the gallon and not by the liter, as in Mexico, Argentina, and various other South American countries. I figured 500 Colombian pesos ought to buy gas for a 13-block journey in a modern compact car, and was an equitable solution to our problem, and told him so. Needless to say, he disagreed, and ought of pride or machismo declined to take the 500 coin I tried to give him, but it was no longer any of our concern. We checked into the hotel – a convoluted process that took ten minutes and after which the taxi driver was still to be found sitting in his vehicle outside the Jerónimo.
I´ll be the first to admit that I was wrong to argue, but I absolutely stand by the argument. That´s how arguing goes. Every argument I´ve had with Clare on this trip has been the same way, and I´d bet she´d say the same thing. It´s the arguing that´s regrettable and that ruins your day or your hamburger.
When it came time to check out of the hotel today, the young dragon behind the counter was eager to charge us 60,000 for the first night and 45,000 for the second night, on account of my having admitted yesterday to having mussed the sheets in the second bed in our room while taking a half-hour nap there on the first morning. She reminded me that the deal was that we would only use one of the two beds in the room. I said sure, but 15,000 seems like an awful lot just for dirtying one more set of bedsheets. It´s not about the cleaning, she said, but the fact that using both beds costs 60,000, whereas using two beds costs 45,000. This would make the Jerónimo was the only hotel I´ve seen on five continents that charged by the bed and not by the person. Indeed, the classic case is the budget hotel in which a couple or single traveler pays the expected rate for a room with five beds. She said again that a room with two beds costs 60,000. Since I had told her I would be sure not to use the second bed a second time, she was only charging us for one two-bed night. I maintained that 15,000 extra seemed excessive, and that had the fellow who checked us in warned us what the price difference would be, I would have taken my nap on the floor.
“He said he was giving you the one-bed price,” she said, “and I know because I was standing right here the whole time.”
“You´re too busy yelling at me to let me finish,” I said (she was yelling). “I don´t dispute that he said we were only supposed to use one bed. I´m saying that he never told us how much a half-hour nap in Bed #2 would cost. If he had said 15,000 for a couple ZZs in Bed Dos, I would have just taken a longer shower, or something. But he didn´t say how much more it would be.”
“He said he was giving you the one-bed price!”
“You can´t sell somebody something without telling them how much it costs! It´s impossible. It can´t be done. You know the little wannabe mini-bar you guys have in the room, well all those things have prices on them! We were never told how much it would cost to use the second bed, and that´s what we´re objecting to.”
“You signed for the one-bed room. It´s your responsibility to ask how much using the second bed might cost.”
“On the contrary, it´s your responsibility. It´s your hotel. How do you expect to try and get people to pay for their rooms if not by telling them ahead of time how much they´re going to cost?”
“I´m not poor. Give me the 90,000.”
So she got her 90,000, and we, though a healthy argument, saved 15,000 (albeit from a bogus charge), or $7.50. Adding that to the $1 that arguing with the taxi driver saved, and getting into verbal fights with the Colombians has kept another $8.50 in my pocket. Arguing with the stupid woman at the restaurant didn´t get us anywhere though, and I much would have rather had English breakfast than the admittedly tasty lunch that I ate. I guess we can use that $8.50 the next time we´re too tired or too happy to argue with a local merchant, but I still do distinctly remember the arguing having ruined five minutes of my life in all three instances.
Now, imagine arguing for three or four hours with the person you´re sitting beside on a cramped bus with no bathroom. It ruins lives, arguing, and I´ve resolved not to do it anymore, at least not with Clare on this trip.
When I was growing up, hamburgers were always such a happy sort of thing. If you think about it, the hamburger is the food equivalent of a big, warm hug. A meaty patty enveloped in warm, doughy goodness covered with all sorts of leafy veggies and salacious sauces. It’s a giant, oral hug. Children, of all ages, beg and whine for hamburgers as their superfood. They pray to the god of McDonald’s where the hamburger is king. They call it a Happy Meal for a reason and afterwards your belly feels like it’s had a giant hug. And often for sometime after.This is why it’s such a wonder to me that, lately, the hamburger has become the loneliest food in the world. I very rarely eat hamburgers. I think I have had 3 or 4 since we left Buenos Aires over 3 months ago. But when I eat one, I eat it slowly, alone, with tears in my eyes. I never finish it. I sometimes vomit afterwards. The hamburger, until future notice, is the food of the brokenhearted.
After months on the road, bouts of sadness hit like bowling balls instead of pellets. It’s inevitable and it happens to everyone that travels together: you begin the quickening and painful process of hating each other. It begins with little cat-fights over bus tickets and where to put things and who is being more cranky and why are we going here. It runs the gamut until the sight of your travel partner’s face makes you want to punch them, or a wall, or someone close by. Every word out of their mouth makes you sick to your stomach. Every word that comes out of your mouth is intended to hurt them and vice-versa. Eventually, all you are left with is a whole bunch of hurt and a stomach that is so in knots it can’t handle deciding what to eat for dinner – so you go for the hamburger. Easy.
People often ask me if Paul and I fight on the road when we travel together. I hope this answers the question beyond a shadow of a doubt. All of the emotions of these crazed fights are amplified when your travel partner is your fiance, lover, best friend, and roommate and you are in the middle of Colombia trying to cross to Panama, maybe the only place on the map where you might feel a bit nervous (however unnecessarily) about going it alone however tough you might be.
But everything about Colombia makes me feel closer to home, like it is the gateway to Central America, the gateway to North America. The jeans have become more designer, the malls more gigantic, the streets cleaner, the Spanish more Mexican-sounding, the blond streaks in the hair more frequent, and the prices higher. Last night we went to a MultiPlex to watch a Nicholas Cage film. I mean, really. It’s just yankee sometimes.
It is true that prior to this came weeks of increasing fighting. Mostly my fault, I will admit. I hate the bus and we are traveling over land to California. The design of this trip and my penchant for claustrophobia and attacks of hysteria are not a great match. 4-6 hours into any bus trip, I lose my shit completely. I start getting a panic attack (for which I have medication, which doesn’t calm me) and feeling like I can’t get out. I think the people on the bus are going to kill me, I think we are going to crash, I think I am going to suffocate, I can’t breathe. I work myself into a frenzy and the only thing that helps sometimes is to scream and fight with someone. Someone, in this and every case, being Paul. So we have been fighting. In our hurry to get to Nicaragua on time we have been taking buses all day long. 3 hours in the morning, followed by a taxi, followed by 8 hours in evening. I know it’s not the end of the world but by the end of it, I feel I’d rather roll around in broken glass and then take a lemonade bath than take another bus again in my life. We arrive in hick towns with no hotel destination after dark. I arrive drugged, confused, scared, and reeling from 3 hours of fighting. These are the moments that are unpleasant.
The last (and worst) of these cases was coming here, to Armenia, Colombia where Paul and I spent a couple of days doing things completely separately and not talking before trying carefully to make friends again and keep the peace until we meet up with Julie in Nicaragua. Paul went to the Parque Nacional del Cafe, I went to the Casino and hit the jackpot on video poker.
After my video poker adventure, I got ravenously hungry. Anyone who has ever watched Sex and the City or been a woman knows that eating alone is a sort of female rite of passage for a woman. It is typically done in stages but I am passed that. No sunglasses, no book, no postcards, no journal, no hat, I stroll into a cafe and order a giant hamburger. I eat it slowly, sadly, feeling the weight of the empty chair beside me, wondering if Paul is having a nice time at the Coffee Park. I have good days when I spend them alone, I chat with crazy, toothless video poker addicts at the casinos, I take the best pictures of my life, I eat every nasty thing they sell in the street, and I smile and sing to myself. But my hamburger is sad. Each time I have had a meal alone after a major blow up, it’s been a melancholy hamburger and each time it has ended in tears.
It’s hard to spend all day, every day with anyone. It’s harder still with someone as fiercely independent as Paul to schlep around a girl who at times is no more than a pile of nerves and an over-sized backpack. Between travel partners there are always fights. People say things they don’t mean. Worse still, they say things they do mean. Then they make up and wonder if they should take them back or if it’s better that these things were said but if they can live under the cloud of them.
I don’t know how The Big Schlep will end. Or if it will. Paul has said that if we split up, our joint Schlep writing project will end for him. In the meantime it continues with good days and bad days. Maybe the Caribbean will be the magic bean that we have been needing to make me less nervous, more happy, and make Paul my partner again and not my psychiatrist. I still laugh and cry every day. That is how these adventures should be, I believe. Fighting, laughing, loving, hurling insults, hating, hugging, feeling terrified, eating, and, very occasionally, hitting the jackpot.