Monday, July 27, 2009

To Travel is Better Than to Arrive

Well, I stole the quote from Robert Pirsig, "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance," but I did read the book while traveling, mostly somewhere in Western Brazil, and it definitely fits. Now, I've arrived, for the time being anyway. I've, in fact, been arrived for over a week already, and, obviously, it's less interesting than traveling.

Some people feel depression coming on when they are done traveling... somehow I don't think I'm really allowed to go that way, seeing how I had consciously chosen to cut my trip short by a good couple of months, but I'm definitely starting to miss some things - among them:
- having a new place to go to every couple of days
- having the latitude to decide what that new place is going to be at the very last second. Then changing your mind a few times
- being able to afford all of the above - I've been looking at travel within the US, it's absurdly expensive!
- meeting new people from all over the world along the way
- speaking Spanish. Yes, after 6 months in Latin America, I had actually come to enjoy the Spanish learning. Well, less so when the Colombians and Panamanians would slur things at light speed perhaps...

As I've been going through a lot of my pictures recently, some fun facts to wrap up the voyage:
- I left on December 24, 2007
- I landed back in the US on July 17, 2009. But I had been back to the States on three separate occasions earlier in the trip, so it's not quite 18 months purely on the road.
- I'll officially write the trip off as being concluded when I make it back to Seattle, as I am planning on more sightseeing making my way up North slowly, by train, via California and Oregon. Unless I change my mind... I could always go to Darfur...
- speaking of Darfur, I've been to six continents over the 18 months - that's all but one. The one being Africa. Yes, I made it to Antarctica before Africa. I have been to Tenerife in the Canary Islands, which is right off the coast of Africa, but it doesn't count. I won't actually go to Darfur when I do go to Africa, mom!
- I've been to 54 countries (and territories) over the journey. It's fun, for me anyway, to list these things:
- Thailand (4), Sri Lanka, India, Nepal, Cambodia
- Fiji, New Zealand, Australia, Indonesia, Malaysia (2), Singapore, Laos, Vietnam, China (3), Macau
- Mongolia (2), Russia (4), Germany (2), France (4), Belgium (2), Holland, England, Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro, Albania, Kosovo, Macedonia, Greece, Turkey, Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia (2), Spain, Poland, Ukraine, Kazakhstan (2), Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Japan, Canada
- Costa Rica, Uruguay, Argentina (3), Brazil (2), Chile, Peru, Bolivia (2), Colombia, Panama, USA

I've technically been to Taiwan (airport only), Bosnia, and Moldova too, but not long enough for any of them to count. And I had some severe issues with Moldova... USA will only start to count when I actually see some new places here - Seattle and San Diego hardly qualify. I don't know how to qualify Antarctica since it isn't actually a country, and I officially didn't even leave Argentina when I went... but I did get a couple of Antarctica stamps in my passport! Anyway, it's not on the list. After some internal debate, my five favoritest has come down to:
1. Thailand
2. Argentina
3. Nepal
4. Laos
5. New Zealand

honorable mention: Bolivia and Slovenia

There weren't a lot of places I didn't enjoy, but if pressed for a 'dislike' list, it would probably include Vietnam, Turkmenistan, Kosovo, and Moldova in some order. And having to deal with La Prefecture in France - I still remember you, lady in yellow! Moral of the story - I'll totally smite via my blogging powers for messing with me!

Finally, because a post deserves some pictures, my mother got me thinking about the five (or so) places/experiences I enjoyed the most over this last leg of the trip - I think she likes lists, so here's what I've come up with so far:

1. Antarctica. Except for the costs, but it's absolutely spectacular... and amazing!

2. Iguazu Falls, Brazil/Argentina - probably the most awesome display of natural power I've seen yet

3. the Salt Flats in Bolivia - they are just so... weird!

4. Carnaval in Rio - pure, utter insanity packed into one, mostly sleepless, week

5. San Blas Archipelago, Panama - this is what 'island paradise' refers to

6. Machu Picchu - no, I don't think it's the #1 attraction in South America as it's so often claimed, but definitely a must see if you are down there.

7. San Pedro and the Atacama desert in Chile - not a cloud in the sky (ever!), but lots of crazy salt formations, flamingos, hot geysers at sunrise, sandboarding

8. The Amazon. Nothing like it...

9. Things to love about Argentina:
- the buses. They serve steak and red wine, and the seat actually reclines into a comfortable bed...
- the wine. And the culture of constantly drinking really, really good red wine
- the steak! Even when not in Argentina - Andre Carne de Res, outside of Bogota, Colombia may have been the best meal I had on the trip. Ceviche definitely comes a close second on the food scale. Cuy (guinea pig - a Cuzco specialty) does not.

Nothing specifically from Buenos Aires even made the list, and yet it was certainly my favorite city in South America.

Yes, it's true all the pictures above were just recycled from previous posts. You are in luck if you want to see more though - I've just uploaded an album of my favorite shots from the six months in Latin America: clicky here

And where do we go from here? Well, I'm thinking San Francisco and Northern California in a few days, followed by an eventual arrival back in Seattle in another couple of weeks, where I think I'll have to, gasp, go to work for a living again!

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Island Paradise

Meet Captain Ron!

Well, that was actually Captain Bruno, but he did remind me of Captain Ron quite a bit... I suppose, I should hope that none of us reminded Bruno of Martin Short. So, after 10 days in Cartagena, I was finally set to depart for Panama, via the San Blas archipelago, on board the good ship Invicta, flying a Canary Islands flag(!) - Bruno and Ingrid, our crew, hail from Tenerife. The passengers were seven other backpacker types and me.

The Invicta (actually registered in Florida, as Bruno had just recently purchased it), sitting in the Cartagena harbor

My last sunset in South America... If I ever needed any extra motivation to want to come back...

The eight passengers were an eclectic group: Sam, from Sydney, Australia. Irina and I had met him a few days ago in Playa Blanca. 1st language: English. Flo, Antoine, Cedric, and Hugo - all French, first language: French. Except for Flo, who also speaks perfectly accentless German and English... well, if you can consider the version of the language spoken in London to be accentless anyway. Cedric's girlfriend, Carolina, was from Bogota, Colombia, so Spanish, and Bruno and Ingrid were from Spain's Canary Islands - Spanish. So, lingua franca on board? Well, everyone spoke some Spanish and some English. And you got to hear plenty of French and German. Most of your random backpacking groups end up comprised of mostly English speakers - Brits, Irish, Australians, New Zealanders, Americans, Canadians... Or the Dutch, Swedes and Israelis, who speak English better than the Brits... we were a weird group indeed!

We got off to a somewhat ominous start - around 7 o'clock, all the supplies were on board and we set off. And sailed for all of 15 minutes before a police patrol boat came up to us and announced that the channel was closed at the moment - they'd let us know when it was open again in an hour or so. Something about the President passing through at the time. So, we settled down to have dinner and watch the electrical storm rage on in a distance (Spanish word for storm? Tormenta! I kinda like it). Soon enough, we were done, and the channel was open to traffic again and ... we weren't going anywhere still - Cedric and Carolina were feeling ill, presumably from something eaten the night before, and Ingrid volunteered to perform rijki, or something along those lines. Some sort of an energy transfer healing technique, that I viewed with a bit of skepticism, while it was keeping us at bay. To Ingrid's credit, Cedric and Carolina did seem to feel somewhat better, while Ingrid herself seemed to experience some sort of a stomach discomfort over the next two days, so maybe she did succeed in transferring whatever was bothering them... We set off well after 10, finally departing Cartagena harbor, and the lines of underwater walls guarding it, around midnight, at which point I promptly went to sleep.

Day 2: fish... dolphins are hereby classified as fish!
The following morning, I was up fairly early - 10 people onboard a sailboat for a comfortable sleep does not make. Coming outside I found neither Bruno nor Ingrid nowhere near the steering or any of the controls... right, we've got an auto-pilot system. Bruno and Ingrid were hanging further upfront, directing us at the bunch of dolphins swimming alongside the boat. Dolphins are carefree and entertaining little creatures, who apparently find boats fairly interesting, so they tend to swim along for a while... just hanging out. I was reminded of paying for a dolphin cruise on the North Island of New Zealand, where we saw exactly one dolphin... from a distance.

They will just leap out of the water fairly frequently. If only they'd give a warning, so we could get a better shot...

After the dolphins had left, it was time to settle in for a day's worth of open seas. Shower? Sure, Bruno will pour a bucket of Caribbean water over your head any time you want it! Quite refreshing, actually. Around lunch time, boredom was starting to set it - I wasn't feeling outright sick, like, say, in the Drake Passage... but I was feeling sick enough where I didn't want to read my books, or have very much of my lunch. Fortunately, the seas chose to provide some excitement, when the line that Bruno had been trailing every since we had left Cartagena, suddenly started to make a racket, announcing that we had caught a fish. The fish turned out to be a perfect tuna, meat, appropriately enough, the nice purple color of the freshest tuna sushi I had had in Japan. This was my signal to give in to better living through chemistry (as per the doctor aboard the Akademik Ioffe in Antarctica), take one of Bruno's sea-sickness pills, and 20 minutes later enjoy the tuna - sashimi first, then lightly grilled. Andres, professionally, is a chef, so no complaints about this tuna!

Bruno, reeling in the catch

Hugo enjoying the evening on board

Day 3: Land ahoy!
Day Three started off much the same as Day 2 - dolphins and auto pilot. The dolphins would, in fact, come back twice more during the day, enjoying our company long enough at one point to have Bruno comment that he'd never seen the passengers get bored watching the dolphins before the dolphins got bored of the boat! Being in the open sea, you barely ever so much as see another boat, so auto pilot had very much become an every day fact of life... of course, that evening we met the other sailboat that had left Cartagena the same day as us - they had been running on autopilot the night before... and had run right into the side of a bigger boat. Losing some scaffolding and an anchor in the process. Their captain hadn't woken up even on impact... Bruno and Ingrid were taking shifts staying awake through the night on the Invicta - I silently patted myself on the back for picking the right boat for the voyage.

Later the same day, we snagged another fish - a marlin, larger than the tuna this time, but sadly he managed to get away just as Bruno was pulling him in. Adding to the excitement, around noon we started to see land in the distance! I have to admit a fair bit of excitement at the site after just over 36 hours on board, so I did have to wonder what it must've been like to spot land for the first time on the maiden voyages across the Atlantic... how about the Pacific!? Or what it would be like, if I were to catch a sailboat from Panama City to the Galapagos (~7-10 days at sea). Philospohizing aside, in the late afternoon, we got up to the first of the San Blas islands!

Most of the islands aren't any more than 100 meters in diameter and are the idyllic combination of palm trees and perfect strips of white sand.

Some islands are even smaller yet!

Life in the archipelago - boats and islands dotting the horizon

To add a bit of sobering reality to the scene - a wreck of a container ship on a nearby reef. It's been there for five years, I don't think anybody's in a hurry to move it

Diving in! We were pretty excited to get in the water. And to swim to dry land for a bit!

Flo on the beach - lots of starfish in the water

Day 4: officialdom
I had been hoping we might get to camp on the island overnight (there were tents aboard), but we arrived rather late, and by the time we had had dinner, it was pitch black, so setting up camp seemed impractical. Besides, Bruno warned we'd have to leave the island before 7 before the locals showed up and asked us to pay. So, we instead settled in with a few drinks on the Invicta.

The morning rolled around, and we summarily proceeded to the little island next to us. The plan for the day was something a little bit vague about going to the immigration office to get all of our Panama entry stamps, but nobody seemed to know when we were set to leave, so instead we settled into a comfortable routine of sitting under the palm trees, snorkeling, and taking an occasional trip across the island (~15 minutes to circle the entire spec of land and sand on foot). Shortly after 2, Ingrid finally came by to shake us out of the tropical paradise trance, so we could head to Porvenir - the island with the immigration office.

Andres at the wheel... Bruno trusts us!

The rest of the day wasn't particularly exciting.

Day 5: departures
Tuesday started earlier for some than others - Flo and Antoine were up before 7 to catch a motor boat to the mainland and board a 4x4 for the ride to Panama City - they had a flight to catch the following day. The rest of us slept in, in the relative comfort that a 40ft sailboat can offer 10 people. Around noon, Cedric and Carolina also departed, to be met on the mainland by Carolina's cousins, the rest of us set off further along the coast to yet another beautiful island.

These islands were actually inhabited - I've read that nobody actually lives on the islands full time, however the Kuna (the indigenous people of the autonomous San Blas region) harvest the coconuts as a primary business enterprise (the books warn you - each and every coconut you see on the islands, on a tree or on the ground, has an owner! An owner who does not appreciate your taking of the said coconut!), so people come to live on the islands for about three months at a time to collect the coconuts and generally keep an eye on things. They also sell things to the tourists, so as soon as we arrived, we started getting local canoes pulling up to the Invicta, first offering souvenirs - bracelets, embroided blankets, other trinkets. The moving on to fresh (still alive actually) seafood. The fish, crab, and lobster seemed awfully exciting, what especially with a professional chef amongst us. The seafood prices are nothing short of astounding as well: small lobster - $1 each; larger lobster - $2, large king crab - $2. Fish - negligible. And these are all literally alive when you buy then, mind you! So, we stocked up and prepared for a seafood feast to last the entire afternoon and evening

King Crab

Well, I'd never killed my own food before - first time for everything. Lobsters put up a bit of a fight, btw.

Canoe construction going on onshore

We weren't the only ones in the mood for king crab - watched a plane land in Porvenir that morning just to pick up some crabs and take them back to the mainland

Bruno spent the better part of the afternoon sleeping in his hammock on the island - we slowly cycled through the seafood that we had spent a grand total of $15 acquiring. At some point, Bruno came back aboard in an apparently foul mood - our guesses varied between just fatigue from lack of sleep on the way here and some strange feeling of usurping his authority in that we were cooking ourselves. Not being overly concerned (paying passengers and all), we simply proceeded ashore, along with Bernald (or el Presidente as we took to calling him) to enjoy the rest of our seafood, along with a few beverages that the islanders were more than happy to provide (read: sell - a beer is also $1, same as a whole live lobster, albeit a smallish one...).

Celebrating into the night with El Presidente. He didn't want any of our seafood. Now, if we only had some pork... Life on the islands makes for some different delicacies

Hugo and Andres ended up camping on the island; I caught a ride back to our boat with El Presidente. Sam hung around ashore for a couple more hours, then swam back to the boat in the middle of the night. The Australians are insane. With only four of us onboard that night, it was the most comfortable sleep I had had since leaving Cartagena.

Day 6 - let's get civilized
The night before, after a few drinks, we were discussing with Bernald spending another day on the islands - he was offering free food and accommodation, and you can catch a boat to the mainland relatively cheaply. Considering our surroundings, the idea sounded pretty appealing. However, the following morning greeted us with sobriety and this view outside:

It had rained a little every day since Cartagena, but this was the strongest, longest lasting downpour we had experienced yet

Combining the unmistakable signs the weather was sending our way and an intense desire for a real, fresh-water shower and a decent bed, we quickly packed up and sailed off towards Miramar - another 6 hours away by boat. The town of Miramar is remarkably unremarkable. And tiny. Really, it's only distinction is being the farthest point along the coast that's connected with the rest of Panama by bus, so that was where Bruno was dropping us off.

Around three in the afternoon, we arrived, sailed through the gorgeous natural harbor that surrounds Miramar, said our thank you's and good bye's to Bruno and Ingrid and headed off to town. Naturally, the last bus had left around 2. A kind, slightly bearded lady ran a hotel in town, where she was willing to give us a deal - $8 each, to sleep in some creaky beds, two to a bed. We had a drink to plan and caught a ride out of Miramar with four of us stuffed into the back of a pickup truck for about the same price. Minus the creaky beds.

I reflected that over 18+ months of traveling, this was only the second time I had traveled in the back of a pickup truck. The first being Cambodia some 16 months ago...

Andres and Hugo decided to spend the night in the next town - Portobelo (yes, just like the mushroom), waiting for the morning bus onwards, while Sam and I caught a taxi to the main road for Panama City, getting on a bus there and arriving in the lights, civilization, and ATM's(!) of Panama's capital around 9 that night. At which point I promptly moved on to seeing the Panama Canal and planning my escape from Latin America, while Sam moved on to Bocas del Toro - another set of beautiful islands off the Caribbean coast of Panama. I hear it was raining there too...

Saturday, July 18, 2009

And the clock strikes midnight

"I've fallen in love, it's true love!"
"It's not love, but she's pregnant..."
"No love at all, it's a multi-million job offer"
"I'm going to work for the CIA"
"I've got a favor to do for my new Colombian 'friends'"
"It's just sun stroke - don't judge me!"
"I'm going to the moon!"

It was explained, in no uncertain terms, to me that there just had to be a reason why I was choosing to come back early - just saying 'I'll be home tomorrow,' apparently didn't suffice, so I figured the best I could do for my concerned parents was to come up with some reasons... So they got the above and I got a new way to start a blog post about coming home.

It had really all started back on board the Invicta, the sail boat that was taking me from Cartagena to Panama. Flo was complaining that she'd be going back home soon, but she felt there was an upside to it - getting back to your routine. Routine? Routine!? As in getting up in the morning and going to work? I certainly don't miss any routine... But she really meant the routine of seeing your friends and having a chance to do the things you used to always do with them. I still refused to refer this as a routine, but the thought stuck.

Four days later, after sailing through the picturesque San Blas archipelago on Panama's Caribbean coast, my brain was still refusing to abandon the thought.

The pristine palm tree covered, sandy beaches of the San Blas islands. Absolutely in no way contributing to wanting to go home... More on the sail here in a later post

Panama City confirmed that getting down to Ecuador, as I had originally hoped, was difficult by boat (Pacific storm season coming on) or expensive by plane. And the flights to LA were not expensive. And it had now been 19 months since I had started... and it was getting a bit less exciting... So by Thursday afternoon, I had a Friday morning flight booked to LA.

Being on the plane feels strange. Panama speaks a lot of English, but on the plane, nearly all the passengers are speaking English. The announcements are in English, then somewhat reluctantly repeated in Spanish. In front of me, there's a guy wearing a hunting t-shirt... Behind me, is three guys, probably brothers, dressed in fishing-themed apparel. I hear one of them state somewhat apologetically to another passenger that "we are loud." I have some suggestions on the matter in the back of my head, but it seems far better to keep them to myself. Welcome to American... Texan culture - my Continental flight to LA goes through Houston. I wonder if there are any Europeans on the plane, for whom Texas will be the first port of call in the US?

In spite the nagging feeling in the back of my mind of 'why the hell are you doing this,' I arrived in LA by the end of the day. My bag arrived on the next flight a couple of hours later - better late than never, I suppose... And after nearly 19 months of traveling (well, including three brief trips home in the process), 53 different countries visited, and an inordinate number of fascinating places seen and interesting people met, I was back home in the States, without any immediate plans to be leaving again. Well, maybe at the end of the year... definitely still needing to get to Africa, the Galapagos, and Easter Island!

Let's not leave you here without a few pictures, first off, Panama City:

The Cathedral, but of course

Around Plaza Catedral

The new look of Panama City

The old and the new mixing together

And this statue just confounded me, so, naturally, I took a picture

But the biggest attraction of Panama is undoubtedly the Canal, so headed off to the visitor center at the Miraflores locks 20 minutes outside of town. Getting there onboard a crowded, psychedelically painted former American school bus. Ever wanted to know where school buses go to die? Central America!

The Miraflores locks

It's one of the three sets of locks on the Canal, allowing safe passage between the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean

Over 30 ships transit the Canal daily, spending about 30 minutes in the locks, which help equalize the water levels.

And then it was on to San Diego, which, actually, was every bit as picturesque as a lot of the places I had just seen... and I had friends along up here:

Irina, myself, and Nata at the end of a pier in Pacific Beach

San Diego's Pacific Beach

Looking out onto the ocean from Pacific Beach. I'd point out the odd lack of guys trying to sell crap to all the tourists on the beach - it's so no Cartagena!

The sunsets are beautiful here too though!

So, what happens now, you might wonder? Well, I haven't entirely decided yet. Even though I'm counting December 24, 2007 as the official start of the trip - the day when I left Los Angeles, I'm not holding it officially over until I get back to Seattle, which will probably be in a few weeks. And I'm sure there'll be blog-worthy shenanigans along the way. And once there, the blog will certainly still live on, while I figure out what I want to do with myself, while trying to figure out ways to get to Africa, the Galapagos, and beyond!

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Swimming on the beach, swimming in the mud

You can only appreciate the architecture and the windy streets of Cartagena for so long - when you're here for a week, you eventually need to get out for a bit and find a place to cool off from the oppressive heat and humidity. So, after 3 days of being proper tourists in the old city, we watched Cartagena sail away as we headed for the Rosario Archipelago and Playa Blanca.

We'll see you again soon, Old Town!

Rosario comes highly recommended - by the guide books, by the hotels, by Colombians... It's an archipelago consisting of about 30 little volcanic islands some one or two hours sail away from Cartagena, depending on how fast of a boat you paid for. Don't believe the hype - there's nothing to see but other tourists there! In spite of the entire archipelago being a National Park, most of the tiny islands are covered with houses. I don't know if they are vacation properties for rich Bogotans or just expensive weekend get away destinations, but the place doesn't so much look like a national park anymore. Our boat delivered us to Isla del Pirata, which no longer has any pirates, but has an aquarium. I don't think it's going to rival SeaWorld, so we skipped the aquarium (and the crowd) and just hung out by the water for an hour, which was admittedly, quite pleasant.

You call this a National Park!?

Playa Blanca, on the island of Barú, which lies on the way to Rosario from Cartagena, is somewhat of a different story. During the day, it's just as much of a tourist trap as, really, most everything else in and around Cartagena - the beach is filled with day trippers delivered there in the morning from Cartagena, and the boats that delivered them, are buzzing just off shore, helping add some oil and gas to the beautiful Caribbean waters. And of course, on shore and off, there are hundreds of local entrepreneurs prowling the streets offering a massage, a drink, a snack, a souvenir, a boat ride...

They are quite good at carrying things on their heads though...

But, with Playa Blanca, there's hope! The day trippers are all back to their Bocagrande hotels by 4, only coming back around 11 the following morning, so spending the night, you get the beach just about all to yourself for the entire evening and the morning to follow. And it's a nice beach, mind you - proper white sand, palm trees, and the warmest water I've ever swum in:

Looks idyllic when it's empty!

Your sleeping options include a hammock, a tent, or a ricketty hut. We went with a tent.

Fun in the sun

Playing around in the water - in the background, the tourists are starting to invade on our little paradise!

Overall, I'd estimate, there's a few thousand tourists on Playa Blanca every afternoon. And maybe a few dozen that spend the night. There's also several hundred salesmen (and women), who come from a nearby village to try and make money off the tourists, but they, too, all disappear before the sun sets. Naturally, we stayed for the night, camping at Hugo's, along with some 10 other gringos. Hugo's a funny guy, and he's got places to sleep, as well as food, drinks, music, chairs to lounge in while staring at the sea, gazebos to keep you from burning too badly while lounging, and a chicken on a string which may or may not had become part of our dinner. Word of the day at Hugo's: 'Tranquilo!'

Hugo's Place, bar and restaurant. And hotel, and kayak rental, and, well, Hugo's a problem solver - most of the gringos seem to stay here.

Nearby on the empty beach in the morning... Hugo can rent you a boat too, by the way.

For a bit more about life on the island of Barú - I came across this blog post from someone else who had been to Playa Blanca fairly recently. It's quite well written (and agreeably short), and gives some nice perspective on the goings on of the world of Playa Blanca as far as the locals are concerned... An interesting read, if you've got a minute.

In the morning, we wondered up and down the beach a bit - in a somewhat surprising discovery, there's plenty of other nice parts of the beach that aren't as crowded, but the day trip boats still take everybody to the heart of Playa Blanca building the huge crowd there. Maybe they are just making life easier for the people selling crap. Or maybe, it's the old 3rd world attitude of do the least you can get away to take the tourists' money...

Spending a second night on the beach was tempting, but the tent wasn't all that comfortable, and Hugo's cat seemed pretty convinced that our tent really belonged to him (which led to some disagreement between me and said cat in the middle of the night), so in the afternoon we joined back in with the crowds and boarded our slow boat to head back to Cartagena. Most of the other passengers on board were Colombian tourists, and seeing them led to a a new and interesting revelation - the local salespeople are always hunting for gringos, because light skin clearly and obviously means that you have an overabundance of money, and better yet, don't know what to do with it. However, in reality, the gringos are relatively reserved, it's the local tourists that seem to buy absolutely everything - ice cream, souvenirs, massage... I could probably try to extract some meaning out of this, but I just found it amusing.

On the way back, we were entertained by more dance performances on board and a nice red sunset behind Bocagrande's high rises.

So, this was the beach excursion, but that's not it for going swimming in Cartagena. You can go to depressingly gray beaches in Bocagrande, but better yet, you can head out to the Mud Volcano of Totumo. What exactly is a mud volcano, you may be wondering? Well, it's a big (natural) mound sticking out of the ground:

With people crawling up the side of it

At the top, you have the crater, which supposedly extends some 900m into the Earth's surface, but it's filled with warm, bubbly, and viscous mud, that you float in. And while disgusting, it's supposedly good for your skin... and it just seemed interesting, so in we went (by this time, Irina was back at work home in the States, so I was with a group from my hostel)

Diving in!

It just isn't a complete experience until you dunk your head in the water... uhmm, I mean, mud... Mud doesn't taste good!

And after about 15 minutes of sharing the very limited confines of the mud crater with some 25 people, who are now some of your closest (in a very literal sort of sense) friends, you crawl back out and head down to the lagoon to wash off. Well, actually, a friendly Colombian lady very expertly, and very thoroughly washes you off, then sends you on the way back to the bus, so you can retrieve your wallet, then give her a tip...

And then back to Cartagena, back to the hostel, where you can finish washing off in a shower, or just take a quick dip in our swimming pool.