Tag: Beaches

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.)

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.

Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Playa Dominical, Costa Rica

Our last stop in Costa Rica.

Beach Score: 6 out of 10

Not the most scenic beach. Though it’s probably because it looks like many of the other surf beaches we visited — namely Playa Grande, Playa Guiones, and Playa Santa Teresa — and thus its score suffers from redundancy. The sand isn’t whiter. The views aren’t prettier. It did, however, seem to have some good waves. If that’s your thing (as it was with my father-in-law, who caught several).

Craft Brew Score: 7 out of 10

We ate comida and imbibed cervezas one night at El Fuego Brew Co. The design of this place is awesome. Completely open floor plan overlooking the jungle and with filtered views of the sea. Modern yet tropically rustic. A rainstorm plummeted the brewery while we ate, drank, and were merry, firing smells and slights and sounds down from El Fuego’s metal roof and making the merry that much merrier.

The beer was tasty albeit flat. As has most of the craft beer we’ve tried thus far in Central and South America. Perhaps it’s just a Northern hemisphere thing. Northern hemisphere temperament. US and European beers have a more carbonated kick. And proper carbonation — and temperature, on the frontier of freezing — seems necessary in tropical climates. Drinking flat, warm beer near the equator is the equivalent of drinking a slushy near the Poles.

Whale Tour Score: 8 out of 10

Spent one day spotting humpbacks in the waters outside of the Parque Nacional Marino Ballena. While we didn’t see as many whales as when we visited Bahia De Magdalena in Mexico, it was a fun and scenic (where the picture above was taken) tour nonetheless. See video of a mom and her calf below.

Cafe Score: 9 out of 10

Unfortunately we discovered this place after we dropped Andrea’s dad and sister off at the airport. Cafe Mono Congo. Perched just up the mouth — would that make it down the throat? — of the Rio Baru and Pacific Ocean. The coffee and tea, brewed through a traditional chorreador, a wood stand holding a cloth bag, was exceptional. The breakfast burritos were the best we had in Central America. The service impecable. The vistas incredible. We saw Fiery-billed Aracaris, Cherrie’s Tanagers, Bluegray Tanagers, and Yellow-Throated Toucans in our short visit.

Bird Score: 10 out of 10

These Yellow-Throated Toucans were having a good time in this mango tree. Managed to catch one catching a piece of mango.

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica

This may be the most visited area in Costa Rica. Tried to find a stat to prove that, but failed. Sure felt like it, however.

Leaky Hose

During the epic rainstorm and on the disastrous road to Playa Santa Teresa, the van flexed enough to cause a pin on a steering rod to slice our radiator hose. Because of the rain, and inertia at the AirBnB we rented, we didn’t notice the leak for several days.

It wasn’t until we attempted to visit Playa Mal Pais one afternoon that I heard what sounded like a fountain firework beneath the car. At first, I thought it was our transfer case, which made me panic. Then my more mechanically-inclined father-in-law informed me it was the hose. And thanks to good ol’ duct tape and stinky man sweat, we were able to temporarily repair the hose to get us to the nearest town with a radiator mechanic.

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio

The world’s first national park. And one of it’s most beautiful. While it’s a miniature park, especially compared to ones in the US, its massive in biodiversity. Over a hundred species of mammals and nearly two hundred species of birds exist in less than three square miles. We saw a few brown-throated three-toed sloths just, you guessed it, hanging out. I hummed Everett’s sloth song (heard here) nearly the entire hike.

Beach Score: 8.5 out 10

Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio has four beaches within the park. The locals, and seemingly the park rangers, refer to the beaches as Playa 1, 2, 3, and 4. Wikipedia calls them Manuel Antonio, Espadilla Sur, Teloro, and Playita.

Playa Manuel Antonio, the most scenic and visited beach in the park, is throned Costa Rica’s best. It deserves its accolades. And crowds. It’s the most scenic beach we’ve seen in Central America. Picture postcard perfect. A cozy cove on a jungle peninsula, replete with silken, cream-colored sand.

This beach could easily be a 9, even a 9.5, if not for the fact that you have to pay ($15 USD for foreigners) to access it and then fight the crowds. (I’m reserving a 10 score for something that challenges my favorite beach, Maho Bay on St. John.)

Espalda Beach Score: 8.5 out of 10

We also spent two afternoons on the public beach just outside of el Parque, Playa Espadilla.

This beach has all the looks — gorgeous bay, whitish sand, lush rainforest, a few picturesque islands in the distance — for all the folks — surfers, loungers, partiers, and adventures. Andrea and her sister parasailed. Andrea’s dad surfed. The kids boogie-boarded. I lounged while testing the fortitude of my gut on beach vendor ceviche.

If this beach had Playa Manual Antonio’s visual quaintness — it’s much longer and wider — I’d rate it higher. Of course, if it was quaint, the crowds would be condensed and then much of its appeal would be lost, but let’s not bother with facts.

Playa Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Playa Santa Teresa, Costa Rica

Whoa there Mother Nature.

The Road

The post-apocalyptic novel by Cormac McCarthy with the same title is one of my favorites. The road off the highway to Playa Santa Teresa could have been featured in — even inspired by — the novel. It was the worst road we traversed in Costa Rica. Topped by the worst weather. You’d have to change your shocks and suspension every other month if you drove this road often.

Beach Score: NA

I was beached-out when we arrived — that, and/or still recovering from the drive. Besides some errant glances, I didn’t actually visit the beach. Step foot in the sand. Andrea and the kids did one afternoon, however. They described it as: “Another surf beach. Not very calm.” It rained most of the time we were there anyway.

Habanero Mex-Grill

On one clear night, perhaps the only clear night, we splurged and hiked down to a local Mexican restaurant recommend by our AirBnb host. The Grill, nestled beneath palm trees on cozy sand and between a resort and an ocean, was the best Mexican food we’ve had outside of Mexico on this trip. Perhaps the best overall meal outside of Mexico. Also, perhaps, our most expensive. I’m still calculating the cost benefit analysis. But I think it was worth it. I think.

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica

Playa Carrillo, Costa Rica

We stopped here with my parents in route from the cloud forests to Playa Ocotal.

Beach Score: 8.5 of out 10

This may be the perfect day beach. If you lived anywhere within a three-hour radius, you’d wanna make this your home beach. Just slap on your swimsuits and caper to the car. Park right on the beach under the palm trees. Concrete picnic tables and grills are provided. All you need to do is enjoy.

It may also be the perfect family beach. In addition to being easily accessible, easily accommodating, the beach is soft and splay and the waves are small and sweet. Your kids will most likely remain alive while you take a nap.

It may also also be the prefect sized and shaped beach (see the Google Map image below). Just big enough so everyone can spread out. Just intimate enough to feel private. And one of the most perfect crescent shapes we’ve seen.

Hostess With The Mostest

Carrillo doesn’t have much in terms of lodging, so we vanned to and crashed in the neighboring town/beach of Samara.

We shopped around a bit. Checked the rates and digs of a half dozen hotels. Eventually settled on Pension Playa Samara, not only because it’s (relatively) inexpensive and has a pristine pool and functional foosball table, but also because the German lady that runs and/or owns it is incredibly, magnetically friendly. Some of the best customer service we’ve experienced in Central America. While my parents stayed inside, she allowed us to camp outside. Even gave us coffee (one of the easiest ways to our hearts) and breakfast in the morning.

The Troop

We were drinking our fourth or fifth cup of coffee during the second half of the World Cup final when we heard the howlers. First in a few trees a few blocks away. Then in trees near the pool. Then above the restaurant! Eventually, they climbed across power lines to a mango tree across the street (see video below). It was the closest we’ve been to monkeys. We also got pretty close the iguana above.

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica

Playa Guiones, Costa Rica

We drove through five or six streams and one river to get here. One of the more adventurous roads we’ve taken. Of course, we could’ve taken a slightly longer route on a paved road…. But, well, we didn’t. Andrea and I broke up and got back together twice in route.

Beach Score: 7 out of 10

Much like Playa Grande, this is a surf beach. Big waves. Riptides. Strong currents. I was tackled by a couple waves. Nearly lost my shorts on one. We couldn’t let the kids swim past their knees.

The beach is, however, sightly. Like Playa Grande, most (if not all) the structures are a block or so off the beach. Thus, when relaxing, molding into that honey sand, you’re not distracted by commerce. You and surfers have the waves and views to yourself.

La Negra Surf Hotel

Every hotel in Guiones was a surf hotel. Seemingly. What separates a surf from a regular hotel? A bunch of surf boards in a cage. And a bunch of bros (and whatever the female word is for ‘bros’) talking about things that don’t make sense to us non-surfers. Seemingly.

La Negra was nice enough to let us camp in their parking lot (mostly because Andrea’s dad rented a room). La Negra’s design is simple and beautiful. Beautiful in its simplicity. Reminds one that you don’t need much — space, decor, amenities — to experience amazing locales. Just a roof. And preferably AC and wifi.

Golden Shower

Andrea’s dad bought and brought for us a superzoom camera, mainly to assuage my burgeoning birdie addiction. I was snapping some Rufous-napes Wrens with said camera when I felt rain. I glanced up at the cloudless sky. Then saw a howler money.

E Surf

Everett went to bed one night as motivated as I’ve ever seen him. Said he wanted to wake at the butt-crack of dawn (didn’t use that exact phrasing) to go surfing. I told him I’d take him, figuring his enthusiasm would wane by the morning. I was wrong. As soon as the sun rose, we hit the beach. Everett spent an hour practicing, without help or instruction (not that I’m capable of giving either). Caught a few waves. Then exited and told me he’s going to need a better surfboard.

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Costa Rica

We spent the last four weeks touring surf beaches with Andrea’s pop (excellent surfer) and sister (occasional surfer). We, The Lingles, aren’t surfers — though Everett is learning! — so we can’t comment much on the surf, but we can on the beach.

No Beer for You!

I’ve commented, ad nauseam, about the piss-quality beer in Central America. Hence when I saw the Delirium signs — one of my favorite Belgian breweries — outside the restaurant next to our hotel, I was excited. Darn near dumfounded.

I marched inside, flashing clumps of colones (Costa Rica’s currency). A scraggy, sweaty hombre sat behind the bar and a laptop. A joint sizzled from an ashtray next to him. Two kids played iPads on a nearby couch. I immediately asked, in Spanish, if I could procure the sweet sweet nectar. May have even claimed it was necessary for medical reasons. I was told, with the tone of a methed-up prostitute, that they don’t sell that beer. Then I asked him why they had the beer signs. Then I was showed the exit.

Beach Score: 7 out of 10

Can a beach be too big? Yes. In my opinion. I prefer bays. Coves. Bights even. More intimate beaches. Where I can see land — preferably verdant land — in my periphery.

Playa Grande is, well, grand. But not too big. Hills are just visible, on a clear day, on either end of the beach. The length lacks intimacy. However, since a strip of protected rainforest (to protect leatherback turtle procreation) gallops between the beach and civilization, the width feels intimate. You don’t see hotels, restaurants, houses, any permanent structures really. Just a few surf shacks, miles of mangroves and palms, and a smattering of sun-dyed surfers.

Dems Da Breaks

The beach drops precipitously a few meters into the ocean. Great for surfers — there’s a break, seemingly, for every skill of surfer — not so much for swimmers. But the golden, pillowy sand is excellent for relaxing and spectating. Andrea’s dad caught a few epic waves here.

(Photos courtesy of Isabella Ossiander, Andrea’s sister)

Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica

Playa Flamingo, Costa Rica

The road to the beach tells you much about the beach itself. Rough and potholed: probably an underdeveloped, lonesome beach. Smooth and paved: developed and crowded. Thus as our van purred closer the beach on perfect asphalt while high-end condos, villas, and resorts peekabooed through the jungle canopy, I figured we’d pay for it. Parking, food, drinks, our general comfort level, whatever. But I was wrong.

Theft

Theft is rampant, nearly omnipresent in Costa Rica. Everyone has warned us about it at every stop. Our paranoia has become palatable. We’ve also secondhand experienced it: our former traveling buddy Steve had cash and clothing stolen, a German couple we camped near on the Caribbean had their electronics and passports stolen, and we met a Swiss couple that had everything except their passports (thankfully!) stolen.

Thus, as we’ve learned and been instructed, you either need to pay for parking or park right on the beach (and keep vigilant eyes on your stuff). Some folks take everything out of the car and just leave the car open, to avoid having it broken into. Fortunately at Playa Flamingo, you can park right on the beach.

Beach Score: 7.5 out of 10

If your teacher asked you to draw a beach, it’d end up looking like Flamingo: crescent-shaped, verdant hills, and whitish sand. If your family asked you to pick kid-friendly beach, it’d end up being like Flamingo: wide, long, and flat with Tempurpedic-like sand, few rocks, and gentle waves. Perfect beach to kick a soccer ball. Toss a football. Or play that one paddle game that I see everywhere but can’t seem to buy anywhere.

Flamingo has most of what makes an awesome beach. Most. What it doesn’t have is funky, inexpensive lodgings and restaurants — what have become our preference on this trip — and snorkeling. Besides one hopped-up stingray, that kept hopping through the waves near us, the only unusual sea-life I saw was a plethora, a virtual sea forest, of sand worms jutting from the sea floor on the north end of the beach. They grossed me out enough to get out of the water.

Finally, despite the luxury looking down at us from the hills above, Flamingo never felt snooty. We never felt underdressed in other words — despite, quite literally, being underdressed; all our swimsuits are a thread or two away from being nude suits. It also never felt crowded. I suspect, most times of the year and days of the week, you’d have plenty of space to yourselves on this near perfect family beach. Just park your car nearby.

Pink Sand

Flamingo’s cream-colored sand has a pinkish hue. Or at least I think it does. I’d read that, certain times during the year, the sand gets pink. Hence the name. However, it’s quite possibly, quite probably actually, that after reading that before arriving, my feeble, easily-influenced mind projected pink into the sand. Preconceived notions and all that.

(Photos courtesy of my parents)