Colombia

Even on a long journey like mine, my time in the different countries was limited. I based my visit to Colombia in three cities: Bogota, Cartagena, and Pereira. Had I known better, I might have chosen Medellin instead of Bogota. The weather would have more clement. No matter, I did what I did, and here are the results.

Sunday, February 4. Scheduled to pick me up at 8, my driver, Jorge, showed up an hour early and had to wait until I came down at 7:45. Strange guy. Learning I was going to Colombia, he slyly kept repeating “chicas lindas.” He got me to the airport early, which was a good thing because when I went to check in for my Copa flight to Bogota, I was told that I had to have an exit ticket in order to fly to Peru later in the month, a thing that was not listed on its immigration website. What to do?

The airline that flies direct from Colombia to Peru is Avianca, the one I had problems with earlier. Nevertheless, I pulled my suitcase to the airport shuttle and went to Terminal 1 to buy a ticket. Arriving in the vast check-in hall, I saw a group of people clustered around the Avianca counters. The problem was that there was not a single agent on duty. As I stood with the group, looking bewildered, a couple who spoke English asked me what I was looking for. I explained my problem and was told I probably needed to buy the ticket on Avianca’s website. I could have done that the day before at the hotel, but at the airport I had no Wi-Fi access. An angel appeared in the form of a young woman who offered to buy the ticket using her phone. She was wonderfully competent and typed in the information I fed her as fast as could be. Using my credit card info, I soon had my ticket from Bogota to Lima bought and confirmed. My angel rushed off before I could thank her.

Not knowing what Bogota was like, I had chosen a hotel that sounded interesting from my guidebook. The Click Clack in the city’s Chico Norte neighborhood describes itself as an art and design hotel “renowned for sharing ideas through sensory, immersive and scenographic experiences.” I was not quite prepared for all that. My immediate impression was of extremely loud music from the restaurant below. Each Saturday and Sunday the hotel offers a ‘Brunchaholic’ that includes the music. It ends at 4 o’clock, and I was happy that I would not be subjected to it during my stay.

Because it was mid-afternoon and I hadn’t eaten, I went out looking at the local restaurants. Compared to the neighborhood of the Ojos del Rio where I stayed in Panama City, Chico Norte is heaven. I settled on an upscale fish restaurant called Pesquera Jaramillo and unintentionally overordered. My lobster bisque was rich, good, and contained large pieces of lobster. It would have been enough. However, I also ordered a plate of snook done “Basque style” with vegetables and an order of mash potatoes covered with cheese on the side. I drank two glasses of white wine. The bill was much higher than I would have liked. C’est la vie.

Altar statue of the Señor Caido

Sunday’s weather was overcast and Monday’s was even worse. It looked like rain, so when I left the hotel to visit the highly touted Cerro De Monserrate, the mountain peak where a pilgrim church contains an altar statue of the Señor Caido (Fallen Christ), to which miracles have been attributed, I wore my rain jacket and carried my camera in its case.

The hotel staff called a taxi that took me on a forty-minute ride up-hill to a point where I could board a téléferique to take me to the top. On the drive, I began to realize that Bogota is a city of hills with roads that curve around them. Traffic was heavy.

Santuario de Monserrate

Stepping out of the gondola at the top with a couple dozen others, I saw the church further uphill in front of me. Climbing the steps to reach it, I immediately felt the effects of the altitude. I was more than 10,000 feet above sea level and the air was thinner. I climbed slowly, realizing that when I go to spots in South America that are even higher, I would have to give myself time to avoid altitude sickness.

There was a mass in progress as I entered the open door of the church and sat on a pew. I rested, listening to the priest’s homily in Spanish that I couldn’t understand.

Outside, I walked around, climbing even higher along a street selling the typical kinds of tourist souvenirs. There were stands selling food, as well. At one of these I tasted a small bit of fried something that I learned was cow’s intestine. I had had a full breakfast at the hotel and wasn’t hungry.

I didn’t stay long on that mountain top. The atmosphere was such that I couldn’t see anything below. I had hoped for an overview of the city and was thwarted.

The historic center of Bogota is called La Candelaria. In a complex of four museums the largest is the Museo de Arte Miguel Urrutia known as MAMU. There, I took in a temporary exhibition featuring one of Colombia’s indigenous peoples. To enter, I passed under a long archway made of bamboo that seemed to symbolize my entry into the world of the tribe. Inside, the walls were covered with dozens of tiny, framed black-and-white historical photos of individuals — men, women, children — as they lived once and may still do. The women were all bare breasted and the men wore loin cloths. Some carried game or fish they had caught. There were also paintings and sculptures relating to the show’s theme. Although I couldn’t get much from the large information panels in Spanish, I found the exhibition to be quite interesting and spent a lot of time with it.

I liked my taxi driver and made a deal for him drive me to and from La Candelaria and wait while I was in the museum. It really was the best thing to do since I didn’t know how to instruct another taxi driver how to find my hotel.

Back at the hotel, I waited at the reception desk while a young man bought me a ticket to fly to Cartagena on Thursday, the 8th. The transaction took time because the first time we tried, the airline performed a security check on my credit card and found that Kay’s phone number was attached to it. They sent a code to her phone, and, as it was after midnight in Istanbul, I didn’t want to wake her up to give it to me. I called the UBS card service and spoke to a woman who said she could help me but put me on hold so long that I gave up, and we started the process again. Finally, I had my ticket and went down to the bar for a drink and the restaurant for a bacon cheeseburger before going to my room to read and sleep.

The following morning, the sun shone and looked like it would be a nice day. I learned that Bogota has a symphony orchestra and at least one good legitimate theatre downtown. It struck me as strange that a city of eight or ten million doesn’t have more of what I think of as a high cultural presence.

Mask in the Gold Museum

The city does boast museums, and this afternoon I visited the most famous, the Museo del Oro or Gold Museum. It’s located in La Candelaria, which meant another longish drive from where I was staying. Its collection is extraordinary, and I wish I had more photos to show you than these couple I took before I was told to stop.

Golden artifact used by shamans

What the museum does well is explain how metallurgy developed during pre-Columbian centuries and its importance to the societies that developed it. The exhibition begins by showing in Spanish and English, and with excellent examples, of how gold, copper, and even platinum were treated and worked to fashion many kinds of religious and luxury items that conferred prestige on those who used or wore them. The skills of goldsmiths were very high. I looked at masks, necklaces, bracelets, statuettes, etc., some thousands of years old. By learning their various uses, I got a sense of what their cultures were like. Gold held great symbolic value. It represented the power of the sun. The elite used it to publicaly assert their rank in life and death. Shamans afforded to gold objects important cosmological powers.

Pescado ceviche at Aracataca

I spent more than an hour looking and reading the explanations before going into Aracataca, the museum’s elegant restaurant for lunch. I was given a choice table and ordered a bowl of pescado ceviche, a glass of Chilean Chardonnay, and a bottle of water. The ceviche flavored with onion, bits of pepper, strips of coconut, and cilantro was delicious. It came with thin slices of fried patacones or green plantain. It was one of the best meals of the trip.

On Wednesday, February 7, I breakfasted in the hotel, as usual. The wait staff all wear brown jump suits with the letters K K on the back. The slim workers looked fine in them while those who were  heavier looked like sausages.

Stayed around the hotel and its neighborhood today. The weather was the best since I arrived, but I didn’t want to make the long drive downtown again.

I walked about with my camera and took a few photos in the nearby park. At one point, I was approacehed by a small group of architecture students doing a survey. They asked me how I liked the park and whether I felt anything was missing. I answered, “old people.” It’s true; I saw very few elderly on the street.

Near the hotel is a McDonalds where I went for a sundae. It was the best run McDonalds I had ever seen. The manager greeted me as I entered.

In the evening I went to the bar and ordered a glass of Spanish Malbec that I sipped while I read. I ordered a second glass to accompany my plate of mushroom risotto. I would be taken to the airport up at 5:30 in the morning.

Cartagena Old Town

Weatherwise, Cartagena, on the Caribbean Coast was a big change from Bogota. Going from a cool, rainy climate to an exceptionally hot and humid one was a shock. Another difference was that Bogota is Colombia’s capital and largest city, whereas Cartagena, or at least the old city by the sea is a former Colonial port whose squares, cobblestone streets, and colorful buildings have been carefully preserved.

As such, it is mecca for tourists. Easy accessibility from the United States means that there were many fellow Americans roaming the town. With its narrow sidewalks, oppressive heat, and hawkers everywhere, I found navigating Cartagena on foot to be tiring.

On that first day, not being able to check in to my hotel until 3 in the afternoon, I went out to explore. I hadn’t eaten breakfast, and passing a restaurant that offered a daily menu for 20 pesos, I went in and ordered a fish fillet that came as a big meal. There was soup, coco rice, a panacone, a bit of salad, and a small bowl of pasta. I was given a fruit drink called a Lora.

Walking some more, I got hot and tired and returned to the hotel to sit in a courtyard and call Kay. Once in my room, I wrote her a short description of it.

Courtyard from my hotel balcony

Small but with a large balcony, I could look down into a leafy courtyard with a small swimming pool. I had A-C, and a bathroom with a good-sized shower stall, and there was room for my stuff. No hotel room is perfect, though. Since I had no desk, I wrote this on a table in the downstairs patio. Good enough.

I napped in the afternoon before going out with my camera just before 6. It’s funny, but of the hundreds of people I came across, I was the only one with a real camera. Nowadays, everyone takes pictures with their phones.

Watching the sunset over an ancient wall

At the end of my street was a wide space atop the walls that surround the old city. At a large outdoor bar/restaurant called the Café del Mar, all the tables were filled and there were literally hundreds of people lining the parapets and milling around as the sun set. It was a sight to behold.

I walked around awhile and took some photos before leaving and walking back toward the hotel by another street. I came across a plaza, sat at a table and ordered a beer. Suddenly, I felt terribly tired, as though I might be coming down with something. Back in my room at 7, I went to bed and slept through the night, getting up only a couple times. I was so stiff and sore I could hardly get out of bed in the morning. I didn’t believe I was ill, just tired. I had been going strong for a month, visiting country after country, and I was running out of gas.

The following morning, my task was to get my laundry done. Looking at the hotel’s price list made me want to find an outside lavandería. Nestor at reception told me of one a few blocks away so I carried my bag to where he said it was. I understood that there had been a laundry at that spot, but that it was long gone. Carrying my bag of dirties back to the hotel, Nestor apologized and searched his computer for another one. What he found was one a further walk away but that still existed. Although the posted hours said it was open, the door was locked, and my heart sank. A policewoman who knew the owner said she was having a late breakfast and was able to reach her by phone. She came along presently, and I left my laundry to be picked up a few hours later.

Cathedral Santa Catalina

For the rest of the morning. I sat in the city’s cathedral, a large basilica whose simple decoration was soothing.

It has a splendid three-story altarpiece made of carved wood that is architecturally beautiful. I sat for a long time watching various tourists come and go. These were mostly older couples from Western countries. I spoke to a man from England about his country’s great churches. He and his wife live near Lincoln Cathedral that I recalled pleasantly from our visit to Lincoln a few years ago.

I also sat for a while on a shady bench on Plaza Bolivar, adjacent to the cathedral. I had to deal continually with sellers of almost anything that could be pushed or carried. There were men with twenty hats stacked on their heads. Women carried styrofoam coolers selling cold water, coke, and beer. Ice cream peddlers pushed small carts. Several of the men offered cigars in small packages. There were others selling t-shirts and leather belts. Eventually, I walked back to the hotel and napped after calling Kay from my room. When I awoke, I felt better. Whatever had been bothering me had passed.

Dinner was a bust. The attractive restaurant I had earlier identified was closed for a private function, and I ate a poor meal elsewhere.

View from My Balcony

 

Saturday, February 10th, a month since I had left home. The best part of this hotel is my balcony and the small courtyard below with its tiny swimming pool. It is lush with greenery of many kinds. The tall wall opposite my window is piebald with large black sections caused by fungus. Four long-necked birds soared past with their large wings spread. They flew side-by-side, and I only glimpsed them as they passed, but what a sight!

That day, my main task was to decide where in Colombia I would go to spend the few remaining days before leaving for Lima on the 17th.

Talking with Nestor at reception, I learned about a place called Eje Cafetaro near the city of Pereira that attracts fewer tourists. Nestor extolled its climate and the beauty of its landscapes to the point that made me want to go. It would make a nice change from the Coast that it so hot and humid. I bought a ticket.

I had read about a bookstore named Ábaco that happened to be very close to my hotel. I went in and was delighted to find a small, serious store full of seated people reading books and working on computers.

ábaco bookstore

I had in mind to buy a copy of Gabriel Maria Marquez’s Chronicle of a Death Foretold. On a rack of Marquez’s novels, that title in English translation practically jumped out at me.

I had eaten a light breakfast at the hotel so for a late lunch, I chose a restaurant out of my guidebook. The Café Lunática is in an area of the old town known as Getsemani. If the day had been cooler, I might have walked the distance, but with the afternoon heat as it was, I took a taxi.

Yucca Gnocchi

The restaurant had an interesting menu that I studied a long time before ordering. My waiter brought a small basket with two house-made bread rolls and some mango butter that was delicious. I chose a dish of ­­­­­­­­­­yucca gnocchi with roasted tomato sauce and three balls of mozzarella. I drank a bottle of a beer called Club Colombia.

In need of cash, I was directed to a nearby ATM in a Drougeria or drug store. I put in my credit card and all the required information but received no cash. The machine seemed to be working but was empty.

Palace of the Inquisition

Walking back to the hotel, I went by Plaza Bolivar and into the building that had housed the Spanish Inquisition for two-hundred years. I was disappointed in its museum that had hardly any information in English. I was able to read some of the Spanish with difficulty and felt the museum was poorly conceived and designed.

Out on the square, I watched a group of dancers. Four men beat drums while six women in costume danced to the rhythm.

It was loud and the women were wildly animated. At one point, two young men joined them and performed acrobatically.

Back at the hotel I went to my room and stayed there, drinking a beer on the balcony and reading the novel I had bought that morning. My routine on this trip is to stay in evenings and sleep early. I can eat only one real meal a day, and there isn’t anything I know to do in the evenings other than go to a bar where I would probably drink too much. Had I been traveling with a friend, I might have felt differently.

Another day began with remorseless sun and a cloudless blue sky. My task was to find an ATM that worked. At reception, I asked where I could find a bank and was sent to Aduana Square where I hadn’t yet been. There, I found what I needed and withdrew 600,000 Colombian Pesos.

I had my camera with me and took photos of the large square and what is called the Puerta del Reloj . . .

Puerta del Reloj

 because of what looked like a yellow church steeple with a clock face. This “puerta” or gate was once the main entry into the old town.

Convento de San Pedro Clever

Walking back toward the hotel, I came across another site to visit. The former Convento de San Pedro Clever is now a museum dedicated to the memory of the Spanish Jesuit Priest (1580- 1654) who lived and died there. Called “the Apostle of the Blacks,” San Pedro spent his life ministering to the enslaved West Indians. A series of illustrations depicted the main aspects of his life.

I got very warm and sweaty walking the streets. At the hotel I took off my wet clothes and lay on my bed in my air-conditioned room. Later, I sat on my balcony reading Ken Follet and listening to four people in the courtyard below playing a card game and talking loudly. My surprise, when I listened closely was that they were speaking French but in a way and with an accent I couldn’t place.

Aduana Square

That evening, I wanted to go out for dinner and Nestor recommended a place called San Pedro, a large restaurant back on Aduana Square where I had been in the morning. It was crowded, and I was given a table and ignored until a short, aging waiter brought me a menu. I wanted a cocktail and discovered Pisco Sour on the drinks’ list. I had a memory of drinking one years before in New York or Chicago and looked forward to having more of them in South America. It a simple drink of Pisco liquor, lime juice and sugar. Very tasty!

Across from where I sat was a table of two middle-aged women who noticed me sitting alone. One came over and asking if I spoke English, invited me to join them. What began as a lonely dinner turned out to be quite interesting. Both lived in Ontario, though one was from the United States, married to a mining engineer and living in the north of the province. The other lived in Sudbury, which prompted my memory of a visit years ago to that city, so desolated by nickel smelting that it had been a training ground for astronauts. Heather said that its appearance has changed for the better since then.

I ordered a steak that turned out to be filet mignon cooked medium rare as I had ordered. It came on a bed of mashed potatoes and nothing else which pleased me. With it, I drank a glass of Chilean Cabernet. It was lovely to have had these dinner companions on my last night in Cartagena.

Pereira, Colombia

It was on February 12 that I left Cartagena for Pareria on a smooth Avianca afternoon flight. At the Pereira airport, I quickly found a taxi and gave the driver a wrong hotel name. I mistakenly gave him the name of the hotel in Bogota where I would spend my last night in Colombia on the 16th. He was mystified, as we both searched for the address of a hotel that didn’t exist. It took me several minutes to figure out what was wrong.

View from My room on the 70th Floor

The Movich Hotel where I had a room on the seventeenth floor was like a downtown business-class hotel. Check in was slow and annoying, but once in my room and settled I felt better. The hotel had a large pool, and a exercise facility as well as a large restaurant where at 7:30 in the evening I was nearly the only customer. As I ate, a few more diners showed up.

The captain suggested what he called the most popular dish, a piece of salmon, baked with a cheesy cover and served with potatoes, strings of roasted onions, and a couple spears of asparagus. I began the meal with a margarita that wasn’t very good. The dinner was only so-so, the best part being the onion strings and the bread and butter that came first.

About restaurants, I have to say that in the days when I traveled for work with film crews, it was axiomatic that we never dined in the restaurants of the hotels where we stayed. Of course, we had vehicles that easily transported us to local restaurants recommended to us. On this Latin American voyage, I didn’t have that luxury, and I was often too tired to make a reservation, call a taxi, and venture out in the evening. It was so much easier to eat in the hotel where I was. As a result, I ate too many mediocre meals because hotel restaurants everywhere are usually not very good.

The next morning, I was relaxed as I ate breakfast, read the news on my phone, and watched the mix of morning people in the dining room. I thought the Movich was a business-class hotel and expected to see people dressed to attend meetings. That didn’t seem to be the case. Maybe no one except politicians wears suits and ties these days.

Determined to take a couple of tours while in Pereira, I spoke to the front desk and learned that Living Trips Tours that usually does business on the internet, had an office in the city, and I wanted to discuss tours face to face with someone. The hotel arranged for one of its taxis to drive me to the office and wait to drive me back. A woman named Laura outlined some of what was on offer. All the descriptions on the company’s website were in Spanish.

Cocora Valley

I settled on a half-day tour of a coffee plantation and a full-day nature tour of what promised to be a beautiful valley. These were expensive private tours conducted by an English-speaking guide.

I read information about Peru and Chile in my guidebook, thinking ahead to having a date and destination for leaving Peru. I chose the date of March 15th and Chile’s capital of Santiago. A man at reception connected me with a ticket seller somewhere. From the sound of his voice and his manner of speaking, he might have been somewhere in India. I gave him all the usual information over the phone, and he quoted me the ticket price. There were long waits in the process, which for me was evidence that the man, who called himself Jack Smith, was dealing long distance with the airline. In fact, because the ticket confirmation he promised was not forthcoming, I became sure that was the case. Surprised that I hadn’t received my confirmation, he learned that there was an issue with my suitcase and that I would have to pay for it separately at the airport at check-in. All of this business took a couple of hours in the afternoon, so I was glad to be in my comfortable room where I could read and nap while I waited for things to get sorted out.

Going to the hotel’s darkly-lit bar called Tipsy for a drink, I was put off by the loud music videos on three screens. I ordered a glass of red wine and sat listening for a while. I have to say, I couldn’t remember hearing a playlist as boring as this one. Generally speaking, the music I heard randomly in Colombia was not to my taste. I often heard love songs in English but sung by voices I had no clue of. Where does this stuff come from?

Leaving the bar, I sat at one of the smaller restaurant tables and ordered what turned out to be a fancy shrimp cocktail. I paired it with a glass of white wine. As I studied the diners around me, I heard a couple at the table near me speaking French. Because they seemed interesting, I introduced myself and we had a very nice half-hour’s conversation. Sylvie and Étienne lived in Rouen and were in Colombia for a month’s holiday. They ended up in Pereira for the night while changing planes.

They were surprised that I spoke French as well as I did and that I was making this grand tour of South America alone. They were curious about our lives in Istanbul and some of our friends. We talked about books, especially Fitzgerald. Étienne is fond of John Irving. It was a pleasant encounter.

Bob Edwards

On Valentine’s Day, I received a lovely card from Kay. We learned that Bob Edwards of National Public Radio had died in his 70s. During our early days in New York, Kay and I would lay in bed in the mornings, listening to Edwards’ Morning Edition and his entertaining interviews with sports commentator Red Barber. We also learned of the serious health conditions of two close friends.

In Pereira, I found myself in the heart of Colombia’s coffee-growing region. I had not visited a coffee plantation before, so my tour of the Finca del Cafe in the Caldas Region was a new experience. My guide’s name was Alex, and though Colombian, he was raised in Hollywood, Florida and spoke excellent English. Alex came with a driver named Luis.

Alex, Robin & Luis

We left the city by a modern suspension bridge, which according to Alex, was named after the region’s most corrupt governor. It took us more than half an hour to reach the Finca where we waited for Robin, a second guide who worked there. While we waited, Alex identified the region’s fauna for me using an illustrated wall poster.

I was issued a wide-brim hat and a cloth that I wore over my right shoulder in a traditional fashion. All of us were similarly attired. Alex demonstrated the use of the cloth to protect my face in the event of a dust storm. I was also equipped with a small basket that hung around my waist. It was to hold the coffee beans that I would gather during the tour.

Coffee Plant

While Pereira’s elevation is 1700 hundred meters (5,577 feet), the Finca’s is more than 2100 (6889 feet). Coffee can be grown at different elevations, but the best is grown at the higher ones.

Coffee Beans Drying at Honey Stage

Starting our walk, we entered a kind of green house where large trays of coffee beans, at different stages of drying, were lying on tables. In the first stage, the beans are as just picked. Then washed, they enter a stage called honey and taste sweet, finally they look and taste like what we think of as coffee beans. That stage produces the highest quality coffee. Alex gave me more information, some of which I didn’t quite understand.

Picking a Few Beans

We walked down a steep hill into a valley and climbed up the far side. I was shown the different coffee plants and told how after five years they would be cut back so that new plants could grow from the same stem and roots. A single coffee plant might live as long as fifteen years. As we walked, I would gather a few beans and toss them into my basket. Near the end of the tour, I would have a few handfuls of beans to work with.

Working the Tolva

Separating the bean to be roasted from its husk that Alex called its gasket is a job made easier by a device called a Tolva that had been invented by a German years before. I poured my stock of picked beans into its hopper and turned a crank. I watched the machine separate the beans from their gaskets.

At the top of the hill was a building that housed a cooking stove where a woman took the beans I had prepared and roasted them in a pan over an open fire.

I took those she roasted and poured them into a grinder and again turned the crank to produce ground coffee, from which the woman made us tiny cups to drink.

The tour from start to finish, including the drive, lasted three-and-a-half hours. Back at the hotel, I changed into gym shorts and worked out alone for the first time since leaving Istanbul. In the swimming pool, the water was too warm to be refreshing.

I went down early for dinner. I needed protein and ordered what turned out to be a thin, flat steak topped with chimichurri sauce that is made with chopped flat leaf parsley, minced garlic, olive oil, oregano, red pepper flakes and red wine vinegar. It came with yucca croquettes, and tasteless flat discs of plantains. There were also thin strips of avacodo that came rolled into a pleasing shape. The steak was placed on a round piece of flat bread called arepa that I think was stuffed with something, common in Colombia.

Alex was my guide again the next day and took me to a beauty spot named the Cocora Valley. It took our driver, Maurice, more than an hour to reach the parking lot at the entrance to the valley’s hiking trail.

We approached the start of the trail through an arbor covered with purple bougainvilla. Alex didn’t explain in advance exactly what we would be doing.

He mainly talked about wax palms, which are very tall trees with thin trunks and no leaves except at the top. On some, birds build nests attached to the trunks midway up. There are many of these trees in the valley; Alex pointed out the tallest, which was about 70 meters. They are called wax palms because their trunks are covered with a waxy resin that is used in candle making. It was also used by pre-Colombian goldsmiths in the loss-wax method of casting. The wax palm grows in the Andean region at high altitudes unusual for palm trees. It is Colombia’s national tree and is now a protected species.

Hiking the Cocora Valley

I had plenty of chances to admire the wax palms as we hiked uphill on a dirt path for a long time. Alex encouraged me to go at my own pace, and I stopped repeatedly to sip water. There were many younger hikers who passed us, some with guides, some without.

Replica of Condor’s Nest

At one point there was a replica of a condor’s nest, which was large enough for some to get inside and be photographed by their friends.

As we walked, I thought that I had not hiked uphill like this since the Alpine crossing in New Zealand ten years before, and it took something for me to do it. I was thankful for a breeze that cooled me somewhat. In addition to my camera, I was carrying a shoulder bag containing my notebook. The scenery was thrilling. We were surrounded by the Andes, some of whose peaks were really high.

Red Hot Poker

Before starting, I had admired a species of red flower I had never seen before. Its common name is “red hot poker.”

From the Top of the Hiking Trail

We finally reached our destination, a viewpoint hundreds of meters above where we had started. I could see tiny figures below at the entrance to the trail. We rested awhile, before descending on a different path, one that had hundreds of concrete steps positioned a few inches apart. Walking down this way used different muscles and was just as fatiguing as the climb.

In the Hand of Acaime

At one point on our descent, we passed a large fiberglass hand in whose palm I stood while Alex took my photo. It was called the Hand of Acaime who had been the chieftain of an indigenous tribe wiped out by the Spaniards.

At the bottom, I followed Alex up some stairs to a wide verandah where I could finally sit down and sip a traditional drink called Canelazo made with passion fruit and cane sugar.

My Guide Alex in the Laura Campestre Restaurant

We finally reached our driver who took us a short distance to a restaurant called Laura Campestre situated in a former colonial house. The decor that extended to the wooden ceiling was colorfully painted in greens, reds, and light blues. They are colors that Colombians particularly seem to like.

Talking with the Naturalist

Before entering the restaurant, we went on a path behind it where I was introduced to a strong fellow in late middle age who is a kind of naturalist. I was handed a tiny wax palm in a column of rich black soil and showed a hole where to plant it.

Planting a Wax Palm

I did so and filled the hole with my hands. There was a ritual attached to this moment. Words were spoken, in Spanish of course, and I was dubbed an honorary protector of Columbia’s natural world. After that, we were finally free to eat and drink.

My Meal: Trout with Garlic Sauce

Even though I had done so much exercise, I wasn’t very hungry. Mostly, I wanted a beer. Alex suggested a butterflied trout with a garlic sauce, and I accepted his suggestion. I had thought the meal was included as part of tour but learned that was not the case. No matter. I bought my lunch and Alex’s, as well.

In the course of our time together, I learned quite a bit about Alex’s circumstances. He was divorced with three young daughters living with him and cared for by a nanny while he works. I got the sense that he is not paid terribly well as a guide and has to make as much as he can during the high season that lasts through March. Afterward, he would probably drive a taxi. His life was not easy.

Salento Street Scene

Leaving the restaurant, we made our last stop of the tour in the nearby town of Salento, which Alex claimed is the second most visited town in Colombia after Cartagena. It is a pretty place with a history of being founded in 1850. Simon Bolivar had passed through there with an army of thousands in his attempt to liberate the region from Spain.

Salento Central Plaza

I took photos of the colorful streets and buildings, including the central plaza with its church and statue of Bolivar standing with a raised sword.

I said goodbye to Alex at the hotel and tipped him 50,000 pesos. Later, there was a WhatsApp from the company asking for my opinion of the tours. I gave Alex a good review.

Friday, February 16. The day went smoothly until it didn’t. I spent the morning packing and organizing myself for the next leg of my travels. A wonderful woman named Valentina at reception filled out the form that Colombia requires of tourists exiting the country. She also checked me in on-line for two flights. Bless her! I sat in the lobby reading until it was time to go to the airport. Exiting the hotel for the first time that day, I saw that it was raining. That rain slowed my drive to the airport and even closed it for more than an hour so that no planes arrived or departed. This caused my flight to Bogota to be two hours late. To complicate matters, on landing in Bogota, the plane didn’t go directly to a gate. Instead, we were loaded on a bus and driven around to another side of the large airport. All of this resulted in my getting to my airport hotel much later than planned. I had no dinner and went to bed, grabbing four hours of sleep before I had to be up, packed, and in the lobby for a 4:30 a.m. shuttle to the terminal.

 

Mexico and 3 Countries from Central America

I guess I’ve always had a traveling jones. Satisfying it in my younger years, without the means and knowledge, was often not possible. I did my best, though. My earliest forays on the road were by hitchhiking. I wish I had a better memory of those trips, some of which lasted for days. Alas, I didn’t keep a journal and take photos until later in life.

Between those early trips and today’s there has been a lifetime of travel. Many were work trips and could be fun. The best were qualified adventures, far-flung but not too dangerous or scary. Once married to Kay, I had a companion. Even during our busiest working years we never skipped a vacation. Now, in retirement and with unlimited time and comfortable resources, the world, as they say, is our oyster.

This context leads me to the subject of this travelogue: my recent four-month journey through Latin America, one that some might characterize as rash. It was that in the sense of being unplanned. If I hadn’t been alone and willing to chance the uncertainty of just winging it, I might have wanted more of a plan. Frankly, the idea of researching and planning such a long a trip through Central and South America was daunting. I figured that once in a country, even an unfamiliar one, I could find a way to explore it. And so, off I went.

I eased into my extended adventure by a visit to old friends who had relocated from New York City to San Miguel de Allende in Mexico years before. I had heard good things about San Miguel and had no concern about making it my first destination. Bill and Pam are a discriminating couple of artists and entrepreneurs, civilized people who know and enjoy the good things in life.

Skot Forman Fine Arts Gallery

 In their company, I got an overview of their city, a look at some of its art galleries,

delicious meals both at home and in their favorite restaurants,

and the chance to meet a few of their interesting friends and acquaintances.

Staying in a home they had designed and built themselves gave us a chance to reminisce about our shared past in New York and some of the people we had known there. It was a lovely way to spend my first week on the road.

No plan, though I did have a direction. I would go south with my first stop Guatemala. I had spent several hours in Querétaro Airport, peacefully reading a novel when, shortly before I was to board my Aero Mexico to Guatemala City, I was shocked to learn that I couldn’t without having filled out an on-line form that declared not only the exact date of my departure from Guatemala but also proof that I had purchased an exit ticket. By the time I was able to connect to airport Wi-Fi, it was too late, and my plane left without me. I wasn’t alone; others were in the same pickle. Perhaps because of my age and cluelessness, a gate agent took pity on me and after promising I would not tell the others, gave me hotel and meal vouchers that would see me through until I could fly the next day.

Without having a plan for Guatemala, I didn’t know how long I wanted to stay and so arbitrarily chose a date when I would fly to Costa Rica. If I had given myself a bit more time, I could have visited the extensive Mayan ruins of Tikal National Park in the north of the country. As it was, I had to pass on going there.

Street in Antigua

I had been told that the go-to city in Guatemala was Antigua, a bumpy hour’s shuttle ride from the airport.  My first impressions of Antigua were of cobblestone streets and narrow sidewalks. A glance at the map showed that its numbered streets formed a grid. Being informed of the location of the tourist office, I walked out of my hotel, forgetting to take the map. After gathering some info at the tourist office, I was directed to a nearby bookstore whereby speaking to an educated American customer, I was able to find and buy a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to Central America. What luck! I spent some time walking around the large Plaza Meyor that was full of people and interesting sights.

Heading back to the hotel, I lost my way. Not having noted the address or taking the map, I felt like a rube. Finally, I stopped a man on the street to ask if he knew the San Pedro Hotel. He didn’t but spent five minutes with his phone to locate it and give me directions. Kindness extraordinary!

The following day, I set out to explore. Distances between the city’s ruins and monuments are not great, but walking was not always simple. Streets are paved with cobblestones and the sidewalks are narrow with pedestrians passing in both directions.

On my way to sit in the Parque Central I went into the adjacent ruins of what had once been a large cathedral. The Cathedral de Santiago was begun in 1545 and wrecked by an earthquake in 1773. Its ruins are grandiose.

In the Parque Central I sat on a shady bench next to a young couple of westerners from Greece. While we sat, we were approached by several locals hawking stuff. A woman with a pile of at least twenty hats on her head and a bundle of scarves and other products sat next to us trying to make a sale. Then a man, complaining that he was ill and in pain came by wanting something. I was learning that, as a gringo, sitting in that park it was impossible to left alone.

Arco de Santa Catilina

The Arco de Santa Catilina is a wide yellow arc spanning buildings on the two sides of an avenue. It is the iconic monument of the town. It was constructed as a passageway for nuns from the adjacent convent to cross the street without being seen. It seems that all the special sites of interest stem from the period in the 17th century when the Catholic Church dominated the population.

Iglesia Merced

Not far from the Arco stands the Iglesia Merced a striking yellow church elaborately decorated with white plaster filigree. The guidebook claims it to be the most beautiful in Guatemala.

For dinner, I chose a recommended restaurant from the guidebook called Frida’s, and yes, it is named in honor of Frida Kahlo, although the three large silk screened images of the artist aren’t exactly accurate. It was a lively place with a busy, friendly staff. As I walked to it, I passed a little man in checked pants shaking a rattle in one hand and playing an instrument like a pan pipe with the other. I dropped some coins into his hat.

I was seated at a table in the dining room and soon had a party of three American women at the table beside me. Two of them were enormous. Speaking to one nearest to me, I learned that she and her partner were from Texas, living and working in Antigua. The third woman seemed to be a guest and did most of the talking in a very loud braying voice. I ate a small order of cheese quesadillas and drank a Corona.

Ruins of Convent of Santo Domingo

The next day, I walked across town to experience the church and convent of Santo Domingo, once the town’s richest and most important monastery. Three 18th-century earthquakes destroyed the complex, after which it was pillaged for building materials. I entered through the Santo Domingo Hotel lobby and walked past ruined forms interpreted by museum signs. Special features were five or six connected museums entered with a single ticket. One is a silver museum, and another is called the Colonial and houses many religious paintings and carvings. I concentrated on the ones containing contemporary art.

By Marco Augusto Quiroa.

One painter whose work struck me as very interesting is named Marco Augusto Quiroa.

After the museums, I was tired and very hungry. Fortunately, there was a restaurant that turned out to be more upscale than any I had seen in town. It is called The Refectory and is large and filled with white table clothes. The staff was first rate. I probably shouldn’t have ordered the starter of grilled asparagus with a balsamic pink sauce, topped with tiny greens and slivered almonds. It was served cold and was particularly delicious. While I was eating it and drinking limonada, my waiter deposited a covered plate containing a small loaf of house-made bread that I cut with a bread knife the size of ours at home.

My waiter asked my nationality and placed a tiny American flag on the table in front of me.

My main dish that I couldn’t finish was a plate with a medium-rare steak three times the thickness of the ones I cook at home. It was surrounded with refried black beans, refried plantains, guacamole, and some kind of cheese. It was all too much and cost the equivalent of fifty dollars, a real blowout meal.

On the morning of my departure from Guatemala, I was picked up at 4 in the morning. The silent shuttle driver took the curves of the empty highway quickly and delivered me to the crowded Guatemala City Airport in good time. I found it strange that there were so many local men and women, who didn’t seem to be travelers, crowded around the entrance. Inside, I quickly checked my case at the Avianca counter.

I went to the food court and ate a McDonald’s big breakfast, sitting with a man from Iowa and his two sons who were returning home after spending a week building shelters for some desperately poor Guatemalans in the north-west of the country. It’s an ongoing project organized by a church.

At the gate, as I tried to read a New Yorker, I was paged and informed that I couldn’t board the plane unless I had a date and ticket to depart from Costa Rica. Again! Arguments wouldn’t work, and I had no time to figure out how to go online and buy a ticket from a Panamanian Airline since Avianca doesn’t fly from Guatemala to Panama. A young woman solved the problem at the last minute by routing me on Avianca to El Salvador and from there to Panama City, I’m happy that I was able to keep my cool during those fraught minutes.

Outer wall that gives the resort it name

In Costa Rica I had chosen accommodations at a hotel named Colours, outside the center of San Jose. Although the guidebook informed me that it was LGBTIQ friendly, I hadn’t realized how friendly until I had been there for a couple of hours. As I sat at the bar, writing an email to Michigan friend Toni about the recent death of our dear friend Dolores, a man suddenly appeared in the chair next to mine and introduced himself as Ted.

Ted

His first words told me that he was American from the Deep South. Indeed, he lives south of Memphis in Tunica County of northwestern Mississippi. I would talk with Ted for several hours during the afternoon and evening and become fascinated with what I heard.

It wasn’t long into our conversation that Ted said he was gay and that he had come to Colours before to have sex. The place had just changed ownership, and what had long been known as a gay resort would now, according to Andreas the manager, be promoted as a principal welcoming LBGTIQ presence in the country. As a straight man, I was definitely in the minority.

Ted seemed to have difficulty speaking at times, and his memory was worse than mine. He told me about his life, though not sequentially. I got pieces of it almost at random so I’m not sure how it all fit together. Maybe he wasn’t either.

Selecting Colours was one of those odd choices I’ve made in my life, an unusual experience that I was enjoying.

The following day, I went into the city. Andreas called an Uber that took me to the Museo Nacional. All I had to pay the driver with was a 20,000 Colón note that he couldn’t break. I would pay him later through the resort.

My first impression of San Jose is that it is a clean city. I saw no trash or graffiti. The large museum is located within what had been the Bellavista Fortress, the army headquarters that had seen fierce fighting during the 1948 civil war. Much of what I looked at, photos and information panels mostly, had to do with that war and a coup d’état that followed. There are examples of the weapons used during the fighting that look quaint today. I looked into several tiny prison cells that had mostly held soldiers. They contained nothing except the words scratched on the walls by the prisoners. I learned that after the civil war, Costa Rica disbanded its army and has had none since.

I went to another museum located under the Plaza de la Cultura in the downtown center. From the Museo Nacional to the Plaza, I walked along a very busy urban avenue lined with fast-food restaurants and shops selling all kinds of ordinary products. Even though it was Sunday, nearly everything seemed to be open except banks and government offices. The sidewalks were thronged with locals. There was loud music and many children running around.

Underneath the concrete Plaza were several museums. I spent some time in one titled Museo de Oro Precolombino y Numismática that contained many pieces of pre-Colombian gold and examples of currency. A temporary exhibition entitled From Real to Colón showed the evolution of Costa Rican money from when there were gold coins called escudosand ones of silver called reals. The colón arrived at the end of the 19th century and is named after Christopher Columbus.

A taxi took me back to Colours. The driver had no idea where it was and couldn’t figure out the address from my guide book. It wasn’t until I said the name of district Rohrmoser that he knew where I wanted to go. Still when we arrived in the area, we couldn’t find the resort immediately. Finally, I spotted it by accident. The taxi cost almost twice as much as did the Uber.

On my last day at Colours I spent much of the morning with Andreas in his office planning my next steps. We talked about Tontuguero, a village on the northern Caribbean Coast where I had tentatively chosen to spend the rest of my days in the country. Andreas encouraged me in my choice and set me up with an outfit called Exploradores who would pick me up at 5:30 the next morning and drive me north.

Driving out William Walker

That afternoon, I returned to the center of the city and to the Parque National, a large expanse of trees and paths with many benches. In its center is a large, sculptured monument depicting the Central American nations driving out the North American filibuster William Walker who had planned to conquer all of Central America and turn it into a slave state. Other busts in the park honor Latin American historical figures like Jose Marti.

Teatro Nacional

A taxi took me to the Teatro National that my guidebook says is San Jose’s most revered building. Constructed in 1897 in a Neo-classical style, it looked like nothing else I’d seen in the city.

Its facade holds full-length statues of Beethoven and Spanish dramatist Calderón de la Barca.

Teatro Cafe

The theatre was open and, in its café, decorated by large black-and-white photographs of classical sculptures, I ordered a limonada to go with a crepe filled with mushrooms and topped with a layer of melted cheese. It was absolutely delicious. I finished my meal with a piece of apple pie, consisting of large pieces of apple mixed with raisins, and a cup of coffee.

Another taxi took me to the Plaza Mayor in Rohrmoser where I found a Libreria International that had an odd selection of English-language books. I bought a novel called The Secret History by Donna Tartt, an author I had known only by name.

Next morning, a large passenger van picked me up shortly after 5:30, and I was surprised to find another couple within. The driver and a young guide picked up another couple and a single young woman before heading north.

We drove for a long time on good roads to a spot where there were many others waiting under a large shed. Eventually, we served ourselves a breakfast of scrambled eggs and rice with black beans and a piece of toast. The coffee tasted good. Many of the others were there to go rafting on the nearby Pacuare River that looked too shallow to be much fun.

In a larger bus, a large black woman with a large personality named Clara accompanied us further northeast to another staging area near another river. While the bus rattled over rough stone roads, our guide explained in detail how the bananas we were passing are cut and harvested on the backs of workers ten hours a day, six days a week. Only young, strong men can do the work. Women worked categorizing and labeling the bananas.

At one point, the driver stopped the bus and we exited to look at a sloth feeding upside down in a tree.

I sat next to a man named Jeff who was traveling with his long-term partner and, like me, going to Tortuguero. He was very open and friendly, fun to talk to. He comes from California and lives in the San Francisco area. As a boy, he was passionate about snakes and spent his free time searching for them. He showed me a recent photo of a rattlesnake he spotted during a mountain hike. Jeff is retired after forty years as a licensed electrician. He has a grown daughter whom he described as a dumpster fire. He had put her through five years of university in Boulder, Colorado without her graduating. We talked about our various health issues and the challenges of growing older.

Tortuguero cannot be reached by road so at the final staging area, our group loaded our stuff into one of many boats and, with Carla as our guide, spent nearly two hours on the water. We stopped once to look at a crocodile. On the water, because we were traveling fast, I was not too hot, but by the time I debarked at Tortuguero, I was dripping with sweat.

Pool at La Casona

Andreas had told me not to book a hotel in advance, and I hadn’t; however, it might have been better if I had. Anyway, I’ve ended up at one called La Casona next to a soccer field. I ate a poor meal in the hotel restaurant and went into the shallow swimming pool.

Iguana at La Casona

Each day, alongside the pool I watched a large iguana that lived in a tree.

It was dark by 6 o’clock, and kids on the soccer field went home. I ordered a signature cocktail in the dining room and waited, hoping to see Jeff again. Finally, I went to the room, which is very simple but with an air conditioner and, lo and behold, a bright ceiling light. I sat up in bed reading about Panama until I got sleepy.

The following day, January 24th, I explored my surroundings. Tortuguero is a tiny village on the Caribbean Coast. It can be reached only by water or air. There are no cars there. The village has one main street lined with restaurants, tour companies, and a few shops selling meat, produce, and groceries. I had chosen it, expecting to find fewer tourists than at the popular watering holes on the Pacific Coast. In that, I didn’t know if I had succeeded as there seemed to be plenty around.

I was surprised by how much I liked Donna Tartt’s novel. I was lucky to have it because there really was nothing much to do there beyond the tours arranged by the hotels. I signed up for the most popular, a three-hour guided ride through the canals of the adjacent national park in a boat powered by a small, electric outboard motor.

Most tourists who come to Tortuguero come for a tour and stay only one night. Jeff Camp and his partner left this morning. I was sorry to see then go. I had a nice talk with another couple of Canadians who left also. Not having anyone to talk to, it was great having the novel for company.

That evening, when I went to find the spot where I would meet for tomorrow’s tour, I met a short, intelligent woman named Andria who helps run the company, Roots. As we conversed, I asked her what opportunities young people had in this isolated village. She said there weren’t many. The education system was poor, and no one seemed to care. To get a job, a young person had to relocate to another, larger town. It’s a familiar story.

At 5:30 the next morning, I gathered with others for the canoe tour. We were divided into two groups according to whether our tour would be in Spanish or English. We were given a cup of coffee, encouraged to use the toilet, and given life jackets to wear in the boats. My group numbered seven. We were German, Italian, and Belgian couples and me. I stepped in the fiberglass boat with its blue painted bottom and sat closest to the stern in front of the guide whom I could hear well.

The tour lasted three hours. I had been warned that it would possibly rain, and it did so on and off. During the heaviest shower, our guide protected us under a canopy of foliage to keep us dry.

The point of the tour was to navigate some of the canals of the national park and spot birds and other creatures. Each of us was issued a pair of binoculars. Our guide was experienced and able to spot creatures that we would have missed. Our first sightings were of indigenous birds whose names I didn’t recognize and can’t remember. Twice, we spotted orange male iguanas on tree branches.

To our right and left in the narrow canals, there was jungle, a great variety of plants surrounded some large trees. One of these was called Sangaria because its sap is the color of blood. Another was a tall almond tree.

I had expected to be assaulted by mosquitoes and had brought insect repellent with me; however, I didn’t see a single one.

Costa Rica is known for its howler monkeys, and we did see one hanging upside down by its prehensile tail.

In the shallow water, we did spot a couple of caimans, related to the crocodile. They were small and tan colored.

I had been moved to another room at the hotel. It was larger than the first, with an extra bed and a rack to hold my suitcase and backpack. Otherwise, it was just as simple with no television and only top and bottom sheets on the bed. I had no sooner settled in than it began to rain heavily and kept up showering until mid- afternoon. It was perfect weather for a nap.

I enjoyed calling Kay, hearing her voice and getting the news from home.

I was hungry when I finally went upstairs for a quesadilla and ginger ale. Until it got too dark to write, I brought my journal up to date.

A nice thing about Tortuguero was that it was fairly easy to meet and talk to people. A couple named David and Judy lived in Alaska and had come down to Latin America quite often over the years. I spoke mostly with David who told me the story of his youth when he dropped out of high school for a while and later went on to college and became a lawyer. He was retired now but spent years defending the poor against the State of Alaska.

Both he and his wife seemed widely traveled. We spoke about New York where he lived as a young man in the late 1960s and early 1970s. It was a great time to be there. He spoke of Max’s Kansas City and seeing Andy Warhol and other legendary characters.

I met Carol, who was traveling with them and her husband Carlos, a retired Economics professor who had taught widely in Central and South America. These were interesting people to spend time with.

At an early lunch on Main Street, in an eatery called The Coffee House, I sat overlooking the water traffic on the broad canal and enjoyed a whole fish, described as some kind of bass, that had been fried. Its skin was crusty and the meat under it, delicious. It was one of the best meals I had had so far.

On my penultimate morning in Tortuguero, an email from Samsa Airlines informed me that my flight back to San Jose was cancelled. I had been counting on it to spare me the difficulty of retracing my steps by water and land, and I was seriously pissed off at the airline.

Surf on the Caribbean

I walked to the beach and watched the heavy surf roll in. It was more powerful here than at any other place I’ve ever been on the Caribbean.

Then, I walked to what is locally called the Museo. It was a bit of hike from La Casona on a dirt path parallel to the sea. If I had gone there earlier, I would have had a revised notion of Tortuguero, which means “place of turtles.”

For as long as anyone knows, the beach here has been a nesting ground for green sea turtles, whose females come every two years and by night dig a nest with their flippers and deposit as many as one hundred eggs. They cover the nest with sand and leave. Sixty days later, the eggs hatch and the tiny turtles break out of their shells and climb out of the nest, making for the sea immediately to swim away. That amazes me. The museum is part of a big conservation effort to protect and save the sea turtle population that had been decimated in the past by commercial interests. The museum showed an excellent video and had many information panels.

Researching Panama on the internet, I learned that like Costa Rica I would need to have an exit date and a ticket to leave before I arrive. I booked a hotel in Panama City and read more of my novel.

To leave Tortuguero, I dragged my case to the main dock to take the public boat to the transit point of La Pavona. The leg by boat lasted an hour and I was annoyed by two obnoxious women directly behind me who spoke French loudly and non-stop. It rained most of the way. The boat’s captain did a good job of navigating the obstacles, mostly downed trees, in the narrow canals.

Under the metal roof of a large shed called Rancho La Pavona, I waited for two hours until the bus for the city of Cariari arrived. I used some of the time to have breakfast. Dozens of small birds roosted on the trusses under the roof and created a non-stop racket.

The bus to Cariari was old and a real rattletrap until it finally hit some smooth pavement. The bus stopped many times to take on passengers. These were country people going to Cariari. What had been an almost empty bus became so full that a couple of people had to stand in the aisle. I spoke to Kay on the way using a portable Wi-Fi modem I carried with me.

I had another wait in Cariari for at least an hour before boarding another and better bus for the final ride into San Jose. Even though that leg lasted less than two hours, it seemed longer because we had to cross one of the mountains that surround the capital. Heavy trucks had to climb in low gear which caused pile ups of vehicles behind it. At the top of the mountain, we passed through dense fog.

At last, we arrived at the main San Jose bus terminal where I found a taxi to take me to the Fairfield Hotel not far from the airport. I had to direct the taxi driver and point out the hotel to him. It was a huge relief to check in to that nice business-class hotel with all the usual amenities. I ate a late lunch of Caesar Salad with chicken and a couple glasses of wine before relaxing in my room.

On Monday, January 29th, what should have been a pleasant day, turned out to be awful. At the San Jose airport I learned that my flight to El Salvador’s airport was delayed. I sat and read my guidebook about Panama and each time I checked, the delay was extended until it became obvious that I would miss my connection to Panama.

The Avianca flight took off after noon. I was in a seat at the rear of the plane surrounded by families with children. Although it was short flight lasting a little over an hour, the kids couldn’t sit still or stop making noise.

The worst part of the day was still to come. I and three others had to wait at a quiet end of the airport almost two hours for an agent to show up and handle our situation. Outside it was 95 degrees while inside it was about 60. I became very cold and uncomfortable. My fleece and sweater were in my suitcase. What kind of an airline does this to passengers who have already been seriously inconvenienced? It was a case of adding insult to injury. Finally, when a man did arrive, he moved so slowly it was excruciating. The afternoon was almost over when I finally received a boarding pass for the next day’s flight and a hotel, meal, and transportation vouchers. I passed through immigration, retrieved my suitcase, and took a taxi to the nearby Quality Hotel, a low building surrounded by royal palms

The flight to Panama was crowded, and I had a window seat this time near the rear. I’m glad I did because approaching Panama City, I had a wonderful view of its layout between the Caribbean and the Pacific. Its center is filled with high-rise buildings, very different from the other Central American countries, I think.

Going through the formalities, I finally got to Customs where passengers had to fill out a long form and then put our bags through a scanner. It took nearly half an hour and $30.00 for a taxi to take me to the Ojos del Rio Hotel in the district of Belle Vista. It doesn’t cost much to stay there, but the man at reception spoke almost no English, and we used a translation app to communicate.

Once settled in, I exchanged WhatsApp messages with an outfit called Yenni and booked a six-hour tour of Panama City highlights for the next day. Going out on the street, I realized that what I thought was flat terrain was actually quite hilly.

On the last day of January, I had a lot to write about. First, I was caught unaware that from Costa Rica to Panama there was a time change and that it was one hour later than I had thought. I had to skip breakfast to be ready for my tour.

When I opened the door of the hotel shortly before 8 o’clock, I saw an old Kia sedan driven by a grizzled, elderly-looking man who introduced himself as Isaac. He had long dirty fingernails and was wearing a pair of blue jeans that had not been hemmed and were ragged at the bottom. He would be my guide, and we would spend the next few hours together. Isaac spoke English but not terribly well so that when he was making a point that I really wanted to understand, I asked him to repeat and speak more clearly.

Downtown Panama City

Isaac drove us first through the modern sections of the city of skyscrapers, some of which are architecturally significant. Many are office buildings while others contain apartments and condos for the wealthier Panamanians. Like everywhere, the poorer population lives on the periphery and commutes into the center. Isaac says there are one million cars for a population of four million, meaning that there is congestion and frequent traffic jams.

Old Panama

The historic section known as Old Panama is a large plain containing the ruins of what had once been religious orders.

This place on the Pacific side of the isthmus had been the original Spanish settlement dating back to 1515. Its downfall came at the hand of privateer Henry Morgan, authorized by the King of England to attack Spanish settlements while England was at war with Spain in the 17th century. In 1671, Morgan led a force of 1,200 pirates who crossed the isthmus from the Caribbean side and, overwhelming the Spanish garrison, took the town by force. Morgan was savage. He and his men looted everything of value, torturing and killing half the population and completely destroying the town.

Ruined Cathedral Tower

The only structure standing from that time is the tower of the cathedral on what is called the Plaza Mayor.

Museum

 

From where Isaac parked, we walked at least a kilometer to that Plaza where we entered what is the nicely designed Museum de Sitio which describes and illustrates the life and history of Panama Viejo.

It was good that we made Old Panama our first stop while the weather was still relatively cool.

Next, we went to what is known as Casco Viejo, an interesting neighborhood located at the end of a peninsula surrounded on three sides by what were that day mud flats while the tide was out. It was where the survivors of Morgan’s attack went to build a new, compact town. I found this to be the most interesting part of the city.

Casco Viejo

Many of its historic buildings, one in serious disrepair and occupied by the poorest Panamanians, have been gentrified, restored and are now quite beautiful. There are shops and restaurants galore. The streets are quite narrow and there is nowhere to park.

Cathedral in Casco Viejo

Isaac drove around while I got out of the car and explored the Plaza Independencia that is anchored by a cathedral whose facade is made partly of volcanic stone.

Inside, everything was in good condition and been well cared for.

Back in the car, I asked Isaac to drive by the National Theatre. As we drove, we came upon a small park dedicated to the French who were the ones that failed to build the Panama Canal.

Balboa

Elsewhere, we stopped to see a large statue of Balboa, the Spaniard who first saw the Pacific. It’s appropriate that the figure faces the ocean he discovered not far away.

From the Causeway

Isaac drove us out along a two-kilometer-long causeway that connects four small islands. It’s a pretty drive with flower beds and benches along both sides. It’s a favorite for walkers, runners, and cyclists that use the paths next to the roadway. We saw none of that activity since, by the time we arrived, it was too hot to exercise. The views of the city from the causeway are splendid.

I tried to get dollars from ATMs. There are banks galore in Panama City and the currency there is the U.S. dollar, so I thought it would be easy. Not so. The first bank accepted my Visa card but had no cash. Isaac said that it was payday, which might have drained the machine. Two other bank ATMs said they could not read my card, and a fourth read it but said that my transaction could not be made.

Lunch was on me, and Isaac took us to a Chinese buffet restaurant he likes that is inexpensive. It is a place where we paid first before serving ourselves. Price depended on how many “meats” (1, 2, or 3) we wanted. I chose two and Isaac three. “Meats” meant chicken, pork, beef, or fish. I chose a plate with fried rice, sweet-and -sour pork and some kind of beef in gravy. At each station, I had to say, “no mas,” meaning enough. At the end of the line, I took some cole slaw. My plate looked reasonable but no more. I could hardly believe Isaac’s. It was so overloaded there seemed to be enough for three people. We both drank Canada Dry ginger ale.

Finishing lunch, it was time for the big moment of the day, our visit to the Pacific end of the Panama Canal. The fascinating story of the building of the canal is one of failure and then success. The failure was on the part of the French who began it. The engineer was he who had directed the building the Suez Canal in Egypt and attempted the same approach in Panama in 1904. He failed due to the climate, disease, a turbulent river, and his attempt to remove millions of tons of rock in order to connect the canal directly to the oceans on either end, eighty kilometers apart. It was during the French attempt that 20,000 workers died of malaria and Yellow Fever. The French attempt ended in bankruptcy.

Panama Canal

Teddy Roosevelt saw building the canal as an important political goal. The engineer in charge took a different approach from the French. Instead of fighting the river, he dammed it, creating a lake whose water supplies the canal to this day. The lake meant that there would have to be less canal to dig since the ships would float across it. Also, the canal would exist above the oceans it connected.

Lock on the Panama Canal

A series of locks at each end would raise and lower the ships from the sea to the canal whose water came from the lake above by gravity. It was a successful approach, and the canal opened in 1914, the day World War I began. Since then, a million ships have passed through. The U.S. owned the canal and swatches of land eight kilometers wide on each side known as the Canal Zone. It was President Jimmy Carter who gave the canal to the Panamanians.

To see the canal for myself meant going to the Miraflores Visitor Center where our tickets allowed us to climb stairs to viewing platforms. Where we stood halfway up, I had a good view of the canal where two ships were in the second of two locks. The first was a tourist boat dwarfed by a large tanker.

We saw the ships sink as the water was let out of the lock until it was level with the sea outside. The giant lock gates opened, and the ships passed through. Ships at each end of canal are steered by special “locomotives” on rails with cables attached to the ship on both sides. Their purpose is to keep the ships centered in the canal. They don’t pull the ships, which move under their own power. On the stairs and platform above us, it was a mob scene. So many people were paying to watch the activity.

The next day, February 1st, I had practical things to do. I’ve been using Isaac as my driver; he’s less expensive than multiple taxi rides and can locate things that I need. My problems charging my camera batteries are on-going, and I went to a store name Panavideo for a special adaptor/charger. I went to an ATM and a bookstore.

All this running around was incidental to the highlight of the day, which was a visit to the BioMuseo, a splendid museum whose building in many colors was designed by Frank Gehry. It occupies a wonderful site surrounded by water away from the central city. Its purpose is to show and explain how Panama was formed over the eons by volcanic activity and to showcase the isthmus’ extraordinary biodiversity, including plants, animals, birds, fish, etc.

 

I saw examples of how animals evolved from prehistoric times when saber tooth tigers, giant sloths, and other large animals and predatory birds existed. There was also lot about the early humans that lived in what is today Panama. The extraordinary thing about the museum is its use of technology to bring it all to life.

From the terrace of the BioMuseo

I paid for Isaac to join me in the museum where we spent a good amount of time. In the museum cafe where we relaxed at the end of our visit, we had an extraordinary view of the water leading to the canal and of the hills on the other side. It was as a near perfect scene as I could imagine. While we sipped our drinks, a container ship moved through on its way to the canal. I loved it.

Tomorrow will be my last day, and I was thinking I would take the train across Panama from the city to Colon on the Caribbean Side at the other end of the canal. It’s supposed to be a pleasant thing to do. Isaac explained that the train would not run on this Friday because the government had declared a holiday as a memorial for something or someone. This explains the fireworks that occurred last evening while I was having my margarita on the hotel restaurant’s balcony. Instead, he and I will visit the lake above the city whose water fills the canal. There is a spot called monkey island that we will visit.

Isaac picked me up at 8 o’clock. I knew where we were going but I wasn’t clear what it would entail. I also didn’t know that we would have a third companion. He is the same Sikh whom I had met yesterday. It turns out that this man is what we might call a secular Sikh, in that today he wasn’t wearing his turban, and his hair was cut short.

On Lake Gatún

An hour’s drive brought us to a place named Gamboa on the large artificial lake whose water fills the Panama Canal. There we climbed into a fiberglass boat powered by a powerful Suzuki outboard motor that sped us along the lake past a large container ship that was either entering or leaving the canal. Our goal was a spot on an island colonized by white-faced Capuchin monkeys.

Monkey Island

We were one of three boats wedged at the island’s shore. Men in the other boats held out food, mainly a mix of banana and grapes to attract the monkeys that eventually came and claimed it.

I was able to get a couple of good shots of the monkeys in the trees ahead of us.

Gamboa Rainforest Hotel

Back on shore, Isaac drove us to the very upscale Gamboa Rainforest Hotel set on high ground above the lake. We used the toilets, and each ate a large bowl of chicken soup filled with vegetables.

Hummingbird at the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center

Next, Isaac drove us very slowly on a stony road into the Parque National Soberania and to a spot called the Panama Rainforest Discovery Center. We parked and Isaac and I walked ten or fifteen minutes to a spot where containers with sugared water attract fifteen different species of hummingbirds. These are tiny, smaller than the ones I’m familiar with in California; nevertheless, they were fun to watch.

Back in the city, it was time to say goodbye to Isaac. I was hot and tired and because I had not had a proper lunch, I walked around my neighborhood until I found a Subway where I ate a sandwich and drank ginger ale. I’m happy to learn that ginger ale is a favorite in Panama.

 

 

Aachen

The Trials of October, 2022

Some months are good; some are bad, and some are mixed. For Kay and me October, 2022 falls in the third category. On the first day of the month, sitting on a plane from Istanbul, I experienced malaise and a scatchy throat, the beginning cold symptoms I knew only too well. By the time our plane touched down in Cologne, I was ill.

Continue reading Aachen

Georgia On My Mind

A recurring memory from a recent trip that Kay and I took to the Republic of Georgia is of a large pig running freely alongside our bus as it slowly edged around the large, linked potholes that make up many of Georgia’s secondary roads. A free-range pig, unpenned and unsupervised, is not something I believe I’ve ever seen before, yet it wasn’t the most unusual sight we experienced during our four days in this seldom-visited country. Continue reading Georgia On My Mind

Dreams of Zanzibar Fulfilled

I didn’t quite know what to expect upon landing on Zanzibar Island, even though I had read its entries in our Lonely Planet guide. I had long dreamed of visiting this romantic-sounding place with its exotic name. And Stone Town, the historic part of the island, sounded appealing, too. I was to learn that that name was not historic at all, having been suggested by the World Bank in 2006 to appeal to tourists. Continue reading Dreams of Zanzibar Fulfilled

Tunisia at Last

 

“Curiosity killed the cat, but satisfaction brought him back.” Proverb

The land of Tunisia, on the North African Coast, sandwiched between the giants of Libya and Algeria has long been on my bucket list of countries to visit. Why? Because of what I’ve read of its history and heard of its culture. I have friends who have spoken glowingly of the weeks and months they’ve spent there. And the fact that of all the countries that experienced the Arab Spring, Tunisia is the only one seeking political change that has at least partially achieved it.

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See the USA in a Dodge Van, Part 1

As you probably know, but may have forgotten, Kay and I are no strangers to long road trips. Our last in the U.S. was in 2012 in a motorhome that we nicknamed The Beast. That experience taught us a lesson; we won’t do it that way again. This time we are traveling in a brand new Grand Caravan by Dodge, so loaded with features that we don’t even have to open the two side doors or the hatchback manually. Just give them a nudge and they open automatically. For us old-timers, technology has changed our world in unrecognizable ways, hasn’t it?

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Innocents Abroad in Japan, Part 3

“Wearing kimono and walking in Kyoto”

Sign for a kimono rental service

From the window of a speeding Shinkansen on a sunny day, the impressions pile up quickly. There nearly always seem to be mountains in the distance. In the foreground, every bit of land seems precious. All the arable fields are under cultivation, and in settlements, the two-and-three-storey residential buildings are grouped so close together that it seems it would be difficult to drive a car among them. As for passenger cars in Japan, many are smaller and boxier that the larger, aerodynamic styling we associate with the Toyotas and Nissans in North America.

Continue reading Innocents Abroad in Japan, Part 3

Discoveries in Uzbekistan

It is after 7 a.m. in Tashkent where I had arrived with others only four hours before in the middle of the night. I go into the hotel’s currency exchange office and lay a hundred-dollar bill on the counter. The woman in charge goes to a cabinet in the rear of the room and returns with a brick-size bundle of local currency. There are eight packets of one thousand Uzbek som notes, one hundred notes to a packet. With eight thousand som to the dollar, I now have eight hundred thousand som, which, other than for a few major purchases, will see me through the next eight days. “Salem Alaykom.” Welcome to Uzbekistan!

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