Category: Places

Last Tango in Colombia

Last Tango in Colombia

We didn’t actually dance. Thought about it, though.

Salento

Our first stop after our two and half month stint in Jardin.

Salento is the rich man’s Jardin, in that it will cost you more for less of an experience. It’s discovered. Gringos roam the streets like the bulls of Pamplona. It’s touristy. Hawkers hound you on every corner. It’s costly. Lodging and food are fifty if not one-hundred percent more than other areas of Colombia. And it’s colonial-esque. A smattering of modern buildings have inserted themselves amongst the old buildings.

Salento is fetching, though, it’s just not Jardin fetching. But we’re biased. Nostalgic. Jardin was the only stop thus far on this trip that felt like “home”. A temporary one albeit. (On that note, if anyone is interested in diversifying their international real estate portfolio, shoot me a message. Jardin gots potential….)

Valle de Cocora

Despite what’s written above, Salento is worth a visit, if only as a leaping-off point for the marvelous Valle de Cocora just thirty minutes down the calle.

The Valle de Cocora is famoso for its wax palms, the tallest palm trees in the world, often shooting two hundred feet into the sky. Once in danger of being endangered — locals chopped ’em down for Palm Sunday — the wax palms are now back on the up-and-up (quite literally) thanks to a concerted conservation effort.

Part of what makes the wax palms so fascinating is their seemingly incongruous relationship to the mountains from which they grown. They’re Dr. Seuss-ian. Cartoonishly tall palm trees jutting from granite cliffs. No beach or tropics in site.

The Hike

The hike around the Valle de Cocora is fairly steep (you climb nearly two thousand feet), rocky (good hiking boots are a must), and adventurous (you cross multiple streams and rivers, often on hastily fashioned bridges; see videos below). But, of course, you’re rewarded for your efforts. Sweeping vistas around every bend. Gorgeous flora and fauna.

The loop takes about five hours, six if you detour to visit the Acaime, a hummingbird house recessed deep in the mountains — where for 5,000 pesos (about a buck and a half) you get to watch hummingbirds whiz past your face while sipping muy rico hot chocolate.

Love Motels

Love motels — identified by overtly romantic names, like Love Stop, Casa de Amor, Mi Corazón, Place to Discover STDs — have been sprinkled alongside highways throughout Latin America. From what Andrea and I can decipher, locals use these motels to, sort of, speed date. Or wrestle. Or perhaps both. We’ve never actually stopped. But we have witnessed that most are concealed behind walls and offer hourly rates and drive-in convenience. You can park right in your room. Pretty sure there’s a dirty joke in there somewhere.

Popayán

Our last stop, besides the border of course.

Popayán is a white-washed Spanish colonial city, famed then for its strategic halfway location between Quito, Ecuador and Cartagena, Colombia. Famed now for its gastronomy — it was declared by UNESCO as a world heritage food city, or something like that, for its rich culinary history — and for its University — The University of Cauca is one of Colombia’s oldest and most distinguished.

Popayán reminded us both of Patzcuaro, Mexico, mostly because of its homogeneously white colonial structures, and Guanajuato, Mexico, mostly because of its university carisma. In fact, while we were there, students were having some sort of hissy fit. They’d blocked off a block to yell stuff. Also shot up the whiteness with variegated paintball guns and spray paint (see photo above). College students, amiright?

Biking

Colombians love biking. It’s become, second to soccer, their national pastime. Road bikers are everywhere. Always. Everett’s best buddy in Jardin, Juan Antonio, practiced twice per week and raced on the weekends. Colombians are starting to dominate the equivalent of the Tour de France in South America — and they think they’ll start dominating the actual Tour de France here soon too.

Mountain biking is also popular, though less so than road biking. Salento offered downhill and guided tours that looked amazing. Jardin doesn’t offer tours. Yet. Nor does Jardin have much (if any) singletrack. It does have some excellent Jeep trails. I rented a bike one day to explore them and was both shocked how quickly I’d fallen out of shape and about how much potential Jardin has to become a mountain biking mecca. (On that note, if anyone is interested in diversifying their international mountain biking portfolio, shoot me a message. Jardin gots potential….)

The Border

Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of Venezuelans were stopped at the Colombia/Ecuador border, attempting to cross in either direction. The Red Cross had setup gigantic tents to both screen and shelter them. It’s a crisis. Maduro gotta go.

Farewell

Fond farewell Colombia! We’ll miss you. Our favorite country we’ve visited on this trip to date.

Fun Jardin Quirks #3

Fun Jardin Quirks #3

Because two is never enough.

Halloween

American arrogance. Misguided exceptionalism. I figured that no country, at least no country without a mammoth commercial-holiday-industrial complex where candy corns and costumes and bric-a-braces are hawked for weeks often months before the holiday, could outperform the Untied States. But I figured wrong. Colombia puts on a show.

The kids actually had school the day of — which was surprising, seeing as they’ve gotten off school for events as minor as centigrade decrease in temperature — and weren’t permitted to wear their costumes. But as soon as school got out, every kid in town sprinted home to change. Halloween started at 2pm.

Well, closer to 3pm. 2pm Colombian time. Colombians aren’t punctual. In fact, our Spanish maestra taught us that here ‘ahora’, which translates to ‘now’ and means ‘now’ in every other Spanish-speaking country we’ve ventured through, means ‘in the near future’. ‘Ahorita’ means in the next few minutes. I’m not sure they have a word that means ‘immediately’.

Thus, Andrea and I sweated off a few pounds in the increasingly hot Colombian sun (Colombia is heading into summer) while biding nearly an hour for the niños-only parade to start. And it started with a bang. Quite literally. Someone fired a pistol. Then, led by a marching band and various dance troupes, a costumed entanglement of prepubescents and a handful of hardly costumed post-pubescents marched into town to claim their stake of candy.

The businesses, not the houses, hand out the candy. This is, however, an area where Colombia gravely lacks. Candy here is crap. Like worse than those hard orange candies with the shiny orange wrappers. For the first time since the inception of Everett, I haven’t felt compelled to steal our kids’ candy.

The niños-only parade ended around 6pm. Then everyone rushed home to get changed for the adults parade, which was slated to start at 8pm Colombian time, so closer to 9pm.

We’d rented costumes from our neighbor, Jessica. Andrea and I went as the Queen of Hearts and the Madhatter. Our friends Tyler and Meghan from Colorado went as a witch and wizard. Our friends Martin and Luli from Argentina went as a 70s couple. We looked awesome, as I did say so myself. But we were still a bit underdressed and underprepared — most of the adults, seemingly, had some sort of dance routine prepared — in comparison to the locals.

Liquid candy awaited the parade participants. Also served by the businesses. As did a slew of food carts. We quaffed beers, laughed, slammed patacones, and ogled the spectacle. It was a riot. Wickedly fun.

Halloween bled into the following week. The next day, the local bike clubs — biking seems to be the the national pastime of Colombia — held parades. The following Friday, an adults-only affair was hosted at a haunted hacienda in the mountains.

Colombia does Halloween right.

Cueva Del Esplendor

Waterfalls are common in Colombia. We’ve seen dozens on various hikes. Therefore, for the longest time, we avoided falling into the local tourist trap, the Cueva Del Esplendor. Then our buddies from Argentina convinced us to join them.

Jeep Willies cuatro-por-cuatro-ed us up a windy and bumpy road to visit the cave, dropping us at the top of one the many peaks overlooking Jardin. From there, we hiked several miles through mountainous farmland, scaled the side of a cliff, and hiked across a river (see video of Paheli on our guide’s back below) to the cave.

Meters before the Cueva, streams babbled down moss-encrusted cliffs, creating the most relaxing sound I’ve ever heard. Then, just outside the Cueva, a small waterfall falls from the sun. Then, inside, a massive waterfall juts through a hole in the Cueva, deafening the senses. It’s transfixing. It’s marvelous.

I kinda feel like they should film the next Goonies movie in this cave…. See some photos here.

Old Lady Mafia

Like bosses, clucks of old women cluster around tables in the main square and drink coffee and Aguardiente (a local, anise-flavored liquor) and discuss how to maintain their grasp on Jardin’s social, political, and economic structures. Or perhaps cooking and crochet. I can’t be sure. They’ve never invited me to join. Andrea is determined to join or create a cluck when she becomes an old lady, however.

Christmas

Colombian’s don’t celebrate Thanksgiving. Thus there’s no major holiday between Halloween and Christmas. And thus — and some think it’s bad in the US — they start celebrating Christmas a few days after Halloween. We, of course, don’t mind. We love Christmas. Plus it gives me an excellent excuse to start playing Christmas music earlier than normal….

Temporary Pets

We’ve housed a few strays, temporarily, on this trip. Notably a pair of puppies in Pátzcuaro. For a couple days in Jardin, we hosted a stray, what looked like, Collie St. Bernard mix in our apartment. She was a sweetie. But she eventually left us for another home. (On that, Colombians are particularly kind to strays, and as such, strays are particularly kind.)

Fond Farewell

Home is where you make it. Our van has been our home most of the this trip. The four of us, occasionally five or six if you tally the stray dogs we’ve temporarily adopted in route, have made it such. But a few times on this trip we’ve made home elsewhere. Like here in Jardin.

We depart in a week. And we’re going miss Jardin and the people — some of the friendliest we’ve ever met — and the friends we’ve made. It’s been our favorite stop to date. We’re contemplating returning here one day. Making it even more of a home. But for now, we’re heading to Ecuador and then flying back to Idaho, our original home, for Christmas. We hope to see most of you then.

Fun Jardin Quirks #2

Fun Jardin Quirks #2

Because one is never enough.

The Jardin Horse Gait

Here’s a video of a horse performing, what I’m calling, The Jardin Horse Gait (described in the first Fun Jardin Quirks).

Parades

This town has a disproportionate number of parades. I feel like most towns average one or two per year. Three seems extreme. Jardin averages one or two per month. We’ve already seen four in our short time here. Thus, if I’m doing my math right, which I’m probably not, Jardin averages between unnecessary and overkill parades per year. Everett and Paheli have already been in two. See video of one below.

Will They or Won’t They

The school district here decides the day before what hours they will be open the next day. Or if they will be open at all. It’s written daily in the kids’ notebooks. If we don’t check the notebooks, we don’t know the hours. In addition, seemingly, there’s no such thing (or gig) as a substitute teacher here. If a teacher is out, class is out. Our kids haven’t completed a full week of school yet.

We don’t understand the rhyme or reason of the school schedule. If there is one. We also don’t understand how parent(s) can work with an ever-rotating school schedule. But perhaps that’s just the United Staters in us. The locals don’t seem to mind.

Non-Chicken Chicken Buses

Does that make them tofu? Jokes.

Chicken busses, named because, at least back in the day, folks brought their chickens on the busses to sell at various markets, are bright and brash and brazen reconstructed school busses that drive at the speed of sound throughout Central America. We’ve almost lost our lives to several in route to South America.

They call ’em “Chivas” in Colombia. Chivas are much like their Central American counterparts, with two notable differences: One, they’re open air, and two, they’re incontrovertibly more annoying. It’s almost as if they thought: “You know what? Those horns on those chicken buses in Central America aren’t annoying enough. We can do better!” See video below.

Caballo-Friendly Restaurants

Forget bringing your dog to the pub. Bring your horse!

Instagram Photos

I’ve decided to combine Instagram accounts. I’m too lazy to manage both. I also suppose I want to share more than just photos of vintages cars and birds. Here’s the new account: @blindbalakay. Follow along at your peril.

Fun Jardin Quirks

Fun Jardin Quirks

Jardin has some fun quirks. Thought I’d quickly share a few.

Just Leanin’ Around

The town, like many colonial-style towns, is built around the main square. The Basilica de la Inmaculada Concepcion (Minor Basilica of the Immaculate Conception) new-gothic cathedral casts a shadow over the square, likely judging all those vendors hawking knockoff Western sneakers.

Most of the business happens in the square, especially on Sundays when the smaller villages surrounding Jardin come into town to sell their products and do their business (both kinds, seemingly). And as business is conducted, everyone else not conducting, is sipping coffee, rum, cervezas, or often a combo of all three, and ogling the spectacle while leaning back in chairs against the colonial buildings surrouding the square.

This is, partly I posit, because the chairs, straight-angled and wood-framed and wrapped in leather, aren’t comfortable. Leaning takes off the edge, quite literally in this sense. I find myself wanting to lean, not only for comfort but also to posture that I understand the local customs. We are living here for nearly three months after all (that’s the sarcasm italic).

Free Range Horses

Three horses live in town. I’ve never seen their owner. And they free range wherever they darn well please. Perhaps they’re on the city’s payroll. They do a remarkable job keeping the grass lining the roads trimmed.

Posterizing Horses

Horses don’t walk here. Or trot. Or gallop, cantor, or lope really. Their gait is unique — though a quick internet search revealed it may be called the Classic Fino Paso Fino (or some different combo of those words) gait. It’s basically a rapid-fire march. Sounds like ten not one horse marching up the street. And since the steps are short and staccato, it takes the horse a minute to travel a block.

How the caballeros riding the caballos don’t suffer perpetual and permanent back pain, I’m not sure. But they clearly enjoy the attention, as do the horses, both marching with the bravado of Sven in front of his new sleigh in Frozen (one of three kids movies we have downloaded on our iPad — probably should’ve downloaded more).

On the weekend, they step up and swagger and have a, sort of, Pitch Perfect (another downloaded movie) march-off on one side of the square. Horses Classic Fino Paso Fino gait sideways, backwards, and forwards, occasionally pausing to posture. Everyone slops it up. An ever-present dance circle of spectators envelop the spectacle.

I’ll video a clip of the gait and add it later.

Kid Horses

The first weekend we arrived, seemingly every kid road into town on a stick toy horse. A festival of unbeknownst origins (to us). Was cool to witness nevertheless.

Beethoven

We live across the street from Pahel’s school — Everett’s school is a few blocks down the street. We are indeed lazy parents, but this wasn’t intentional. Just happened to the apartment we found. Fortune favors the loafers.

Jardin’s high school is also kitty corner from the apartment. Every morning, as the procession of kids parade through the streets to the school, they blast Beethoven’s Symphony No. 5 in C-Minor. Can be heard for blocks. This is the famous “done done done done” number.

Part of this piece is kinda energizing, like Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyers”, but other parts are kinda enervating. Daunting really. I can’t quite get what the Director of the school — whom we’ve had the pleasure of meeting; an affable dude — is going for. Excite them. Scare them. Intimidate them? All seem covered in this symphony.

Some Cock-of-the-Rocks

Some Cock-of-the-Rocks

Caught a few of these Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks just outside Jardin, Colombia. Beautiful, crazy birds.

The males, as you can see, have disk-like mohawks and brilliant blood-orange plumage. They head-bang and squeal (kinda sound like pigs; see video below) when courting females. We didn’t actually see any females, however. At least we don’t think we did. Andean Cock-of-the-Rocks, like many birds, exhibit sexual dimorphism: the females are much smaller and duller than the males.

Jardin

Speaking of Jardin, we’ve decided to stay here for a month. It’s a gorgeous pueblo, and we fell in love with it the moment we arrived. We even got the kids enrolled in the local schools and Everett’s joined a soccer team and Paheli’s taking ballet. I’ll update the blog with more stories as we further explore the city and surrounding countryside.

Medellin, Colombia

Medellin, Colombia

They have some great, um, pastries here.

The Road

We’ve hit some bad roads. Namely this one. The road from Cartagena to Medellin is near the top. Countless potholes. Ceaseless construction. Cluttered with semis. All while climbing nearly nearly five thousand feet up a windy, single-lane carretera sin shoulders. My life flashed before my windshield on several occasions. I may have even weed in my trousers at one point.

Bricks

City planners here are consistent. It seems, based on a somewhat cursory observation, that the exterior of every residential structure must be constructed by at least fifty percent red bricks. It gives the city — the entire metro area really — a warm and uniform look. A sea of red parting green mountains.

Sabaneta

We stayed in a suburb for a couple reasons: one, we couldn’t find any camping spots in or near the city, and two, it was the first spot we found on AirBnB (we literally booked it in the van in route).

When we arrived, Sabaneta was having a street fair. I didn’t and don’t like driving our big ol’ North American van through Central and South American cities — the streets are narrow — thus when I saw the thousands of people roaming those narrow streets, I felt a bit like a bull in the streets of Pamplona. Fortunately we didn’t hook anyone.

We eventually — third time was the charm — found a parking lot that could fit our van. Then we scampered, Patagonia backpacks in tow, through the madness to our apartment, a clean, modern two-bedroom in a bricked high-rise that overlooks Sabaneta square and the fair. The kids rode the Ferris wheel, which looked a loose screw or two away from rolling off its axis, the first night.

Portland with Palm Trees

Medellin has a district, Poblado, similar to Portland’s Northwest District (or Alphabet District). Beautiful, old residences intermixed amongst eclectic, modern residences. Ample breweries, restaurants, and bars. Local, boutique shops galore. It’s Portland with palm trees. Or I suppose, since Medellin (1616) was founded long before Portland (1845), Portland is Medellin sans palm trees.

Parque Explora

What the Discovery Center in Boise would be if was exposed to gamma rays (think Hulk). Three floors spread over three city blocks. Even features a playground and an aquarium.

It’s one of the more impressive museums we’ve ever seen — well planned and organized — and the exhibits were muy interesante and informativo. Everett spent an hour or so just constructing (or making inventions, as he calls it) a ball maze from channels, brackets, and levers. Paheli spent almost an hour rock climbing.

A must stop if you’re in Medellin.

Cartagena, Columbia

Cartagena, Columbia

Colonial meets Caribbean.

Bureau-crazy!

Fortunately, I had the pleasure of sharing this pain with our new best buds and fellow overlanders, Wendo, Chris, and Tyler. For two full days (8am to 5pm), in long pants and closed-toed shoes — not allowed inside government offices without them — we trekked across Cartagena through swampy heat, sweating pit stains the size of basketballs, to fill out papers and wait for God-knows-what. Our van eventually emerged from its container. No worse for wear.

The Walled City

The more prominent, more touristy area of the city is behind a doubly fortified wall built by the Spanish, as are most of the churches and colonial structures. It’s gorgeous and quaint inside. Worlds and (literally) miles away from the stark white, Miami-like towers flanking the walls. In this way, and in many other ways, Cartagena reminds me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish, despite their faults, at least built sweet cities.

Fun fact: Just ten to fifteen years ago, the walled part of the city, the old town if you will, was nearly in ruins. Due to crime and lack of tourism. You could buy a colonial house for as little as fifteen thousand dollars. That same house today will cost you over a million. Man, if only we’d had the foresight….

Blue-and-yellow Macaw

Caught this guy (or gal?) munching on berries during one of the many boring, bureaucratic waits. Didn’t have my fancy camera at the time.

The Most Interesting Conversation(s)

Before we left Idaho, Everett’s kindergarten teacher passed along her sister’s contact information in Colombia. We reached out to her in Panama.

Andrea and the kids were able to lunch with her, Patti, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, James, a nearly retired DEA agent during one of the two days I spent filling out forms I didn’t understand.

Andrea WhatsApped me as soon as she finished, still beaming from the conversation. I was jealous. Then she told me that James, current Assistant Regional Director for the DEA Andean Region — the cocaine capital of the world! — wanted to meet with me — the current Cheetos cheese puff champion of the world — for drinks. I was stoked.

The Meet And Drink

It did not disappoint. I, with the confidence inspired by a Club Colombia Negra, brazenly asked every question that I’ve ever wanted to know about drug trafficking. And James, with the confidence inspired by career-long civil service, answered the questions he was allowed to answer. Here are a few of the highlights from the conversation:

  • Colombia is still the biggest trafficker of cocaine in the world, even more so than the Pablo Escobar era. It’s just not as reported because (thankfully) the crime has significantly decreased.
  • The drug cartels in Mexico are controlling most of the drug trade in the Americas. And they’re bad bad dudes. Make the Cali and Medellin cartels look like ninnys.
  • One of his agents caught like four tons of coke while we drank our two beers.
  • Do this math: Cartagena has had five mayors in the last seven years. All jailed for corruption.
  • Bushels of coke are grown in Bolivia and Peru as well.
  • Speedboats and semisubmersible submarines smuggle drogas from southern Colombia to Central America.
  • The Ecuador / Colombia boarder on the Pacific is ground zero for cocaine distribution from South to Central and North America.

Then, just five minutes after this conversation, I got offered (didn’t buy Mom and Dad!) coke on the street. What a world.

Islas de San Blas, Panama

Islas de San Blas, Panama

Find your beach….

Sailing to Panama

I’m fascinated by sailing. Partly because I have a healthy fear of the ocean. And it’s healthy to confront your fears…right….right?! Part of that’s because it feels primordial. Sailboats were constructed as early as 4000 BC. And part of that’s because of the romance. Finding that hidden white-sand beach. For these reasons, I got my sailing license this year.

Also for these reasons, we decided (or I forced us) to sail versus fly from Panama to Colombia. We arranged a private sail with six other overlands.

The Experience

The experience was incredible, not only because of the sailing and the islands but also because of the people. Despite being the definition of close quarters — thirteen humans, one boat — we all quickly became best o’ buds. The other overlanders — Wenbo and Xi, a couple from China traveling in a Jeep Compass, Chris and Mark, brothers from Colorado traveling in a vintage Landcruiser, and Tyler and Meghan, a couple from Colorado traveling in a diesel Ford 150 and truck camper — tolerated us just enough that, even after the five-day sail, we rented an apartment in Cartagena for four nights. It took us that long to get our vehicles out of their shipping containers.

The crew — full-time captain Ayelen from Argentina, former nurse and current explorer and first mate Thomas from France, and sabbatical-ed medical doctor and aspiring gelato entrepreneur and current deckhand Sergio from Italy — was experienced and uber-friendly. They comforted us on our extremely uncomfortable sailboat, a 44-ft regatta-style monohull se llama Victory. We hit two epic storms in route, the first and second to last nights. Thanks to a good crew and good drugs, none of us vomited. Though few slept. We were certainly wet for wear. Every cabin leaked. Victory isn’t watertight.

The crew also prepared amazing meals in a kitchen about the size of a washing machine. All of us were amazed how fresh and funky and fantastic everything was, despite at times being in the middle of the ocean. One night they even arranged for twenty lobsters to be caught and cooked by some of the indigenous Kuna Indians on one of the islands. That meal alone would’ve been a fifty spot in the US.

A Swallow on a Winch

This guy rode along for a few hours.

(Photo courtesy of Colorado Chris.)

Beach Score: 9.5 out of 10

This is where they film the Corona commercials (seemingly). It’s like one Corona beach after another. You can truly find your beach here. There’s one for every day of the year.

We visited four islands in total (saw many more) — can’t remember any names, though I suspect many don’t have them — the last two were the most idyllic. The last one also had a reef encompassing one side of the island that was more scenic than anything I’ve seen thus far on this trip. Spectacular snorkeling.

Wild Night

Parenting is challenging. Especially when you’re around your kids twenty-four hours per day seven days per week and for the last (almost) three hundred and sixty-five days. Occasionally, however and of course, your kids give you these insane bursts of joy, insane bursts of pride. Paheli did that on one of the islands one night.

We’d been sailing, snorkeling, and swimming most of the day. Most of us were pooped. But we decided to burn the night away anyway. We made a massive bonfire from fallen palm branches.

A dozen songs later, Everett and Andrea retreated to Victory. Paheli wanted to stay. Despite my eyelashes feeling like miniature dumbbells were attached, I agreed. And I’m stoked I did. Paheli stole the show! She danced, she sang, she danced more. She got other people to dance, culling folks one at a time or all together — she was very specific about whom could dance and when — into her electric dance vortex. A legendary performance.

(Photo courtesy of Colorado Chris.)

Panama City

Panama City

As alluded to in the previous posts, we’d reached a beach / heat / humidity / questioning whether that smell is coming off us or from the sewer by this point in the trip. We needed AC. And comfy beds. So we crashed in a Radisson.

Radisson Panama Canal

It was our first stay in a hotel since we left Idaho — we have, however crashed in several AirBnBs. And it was glorious. I shed, mas or menos, five pounds of sweat that had caked to my body. I showered, mas or menos, every other day. I even shaved, mas or menos, twice. The grunge was gone. At least on the outside.

Other than visiting the Panama Canal and scurrying around town to wait in lines, fill out paperwork, and complete a barrage of seemingly unnecessary bureaucratic steps in order to ship our van, we mainly just lounged. Watched shows. Ordered room service. One afternoon I sat by the pool, drank a local Ley Seca Pale Ale, and watched the tankers line up in the canal — oh, and ensured my children didn’t drown. It was blissful. But short. I retreated back to AC at the first spec of sweat.

If you find yourself in Panama City, the Radisson Panama Canal is a good stay. It’s slightly upscale, recently renovated, features granite and tile and exotic woods on nearly every surface, and has a gorgeous pool overlooking the entrance to the canal. All for about $70 USD per night.

Panama Canal

It’s true: travel does made you intelligenter.

The Panama Canal is a marvel of history and politics and engineering. I had little knowledge of any of it — Andrea and the kids, who had studied it in homeschool before arrived, were much better edumacated. I’d simply, naively thought, in yonder years, the Americas helped dig a deep trench through the skinniest part of Panama. And that ships passed through that trench. I had no idea the French first attempted (and failed) to construct it. That over 30,000 people died building it. And that it’s not a single, continuous canal: it’s a series of manmade locks interconnecting various rivers and lakes. But I’m not the sharpest crayon in the box.

The locks were the most interesting part. To me at least. Basically, a ship is pulled by a train on the side of the canal into a lock — an enclosed chamber, kinda like a pool, in the canal — and water is either added or removed, thus raising or lowering the ship to the level of the next body of water. Gigantic tankers do this. In a matter of minutes. And they must enter three sets of locks to part the land. Cuts thousands of nautical miles. But costs hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Las Lajas, Panama

Las Lajas, Panama

We spent five nights here waiting to confirm our shipping arrangements from Panama to Colombia.

Beach Score: 7 out of 10

We were (and are) beached-out by this point. Thus I’m not convinced any beach of any brilliance could’ve satisfied us. Appeased us even. Nevertheless, this is a nice beach. A fútbol-playing beach. Long, wide, and flat (see video below). You can seemingly walk pitches into the ocean before the water even hits your knees. As such, the tide marches great distances. At low tide, I had to use binoculars to see if it was our kids that were screaming and throwing sand on the other kids.

The End of the Road

Panama’s beaches and sites likely get overlooked, at least for those of us traveling down the Americas, because it’s the end of the road. Literally. You can’t cross the Darian Gap between Panama and Colombia on land. Thus, after trekking through the tropics for months in the past, and knowing the complications of shipping our van between continents in the future, we didn’t see much of the country. Just this beach, Panama City, some ports on the Caribbean side, and a few islands in route to Colombia.

A Bird on a Wire

Cue Rogue Wave song in your mind.

Servicio Extraordinario

The owner of the restaurant and cabins at the Las Lajas Beach Cabins, and the cousin of the landowner, Roy, was one of the most friendly and accommodating hosts we’ve met on this trip. He made us double batches of coffee every morning, let our kids volunteer in the kitchen (though I suppose that’s, sort of, child labor), and regaled us with stories of traveling the world as an engineer on some of the world’s most expensive yachts. He just took over the operation a year or so ago, after many years of neglect. Which shows. Using minimal resources and maximum elbow grease, he plans to turn it around. Given his enthusiasm and gumption, I’m sure he will.

Suntanning Iguana

Warming up that cold blood.