Monday, July 13, 2009

The real continental divide.

not the view from the plane but we flew over this

Before we left on The Big Trip™ we had planned to fly from Panama City to Quito Ecuador. But almost every person going north as we were heading south, insisted that we head to Colombia first. There was one problem – we knew nothing about Colombia and our 5+ year old guidebook could only tell us how dangerous it was. No specifics were ever given; it was just amazing. So But we knew that Colombia had changed a lot in those last years and was now figuring higher and higher on the backpacker trail. Crime was way down and traveller’s choices were way up. we decided to give it a go, especially when I discovered that the flights to Cartagena were a ¼ of the price of flights to Quito. But why weren’t we just taking the bus to the next country? A little something called the Darien Gap. It’s that skinny bit where Panama and Colombia meet. It’s almost all impenetrable jungle and home to at least three types of guerrillas and their heavily guarded drug laboratories. So we were definitely flying.

When I had booked our flight with Aires before we left, I thought we were leaving at 10am but when our e-tickets arrived via mail, I realized it was for 10pm. That left us with another whole day in Panama City. We could have gone out exploring the new city but instead we spent the day in the hostel. Adrian did the laundry. We both played with the puppy and kitten running around the building. And I did some stuff on the computer, like finding us a place to stay and figuring out what there was to do in Cartagena. Although it was a lazy day, it was a busy one. And our prebooked taxi arrived just after 7 to take us out to the airport.

We were leaving early because we had high hopes for the Panama City airport – supposedly it was a free trade zone and Adrian was anxious to check out PSP games and I wanted to see if there were any good camera deals. Check in was easy although we had to pay $10 for our slightly overweight luggage. The allowance was only 20kg and with all the books we were carrying around still hoping for a book exchange I wasn’t surprised we were a bit over. However, at security I ran into a little snafu. Something in my bag had caught the attention of the guard. I scratched my head and then figured it was a small jar of hand sanitizer or maybe the plethora of electronics I was carrying. But no it was my blessed multitool which I had completely forgotten about. The unsympathetic, dare I say sadistic guard pulled it out and smirked as he dropped it into the bin of forbidden items. I’ll miss that thing. Then their attention turned to my computer. It hadn’t shut down when I put it away and as a result was burning hot from being on in the insulated sleeve. I shut it down and assured them it was fine although I’m sure if they believed me. At immigration check out they didn’t want our tourist cards that we fought for at the Costa Rican border. And they didn’t want them at the airline desk either. It made me think they’re a bit of a scam and reading the instructions on the back, they’re only necessary if you want to stay in Panama longer than 30 days. which makes me think they’re a big scam.

Now it was time to check out the mall. Except there wasn’t one. There were only three types of store in the airport: electronics, candy, and your typical duty free. And none of the prices were any good. In fact they seemed to be more expensive than normal. It was a big disappointment. I guess the free trade zone is only for cruise ship passengers docking in Colon. Oh well, at least we had plenty of time for dinner. Except there was nowhere to eat. We found 1 bar and a hot dog stand. So hot dogs it was which brought back memories of Nicaragua. Had big hopes for Panama City airport. Because of the free trade tax free zone near the canal I assumed the airport would be a big mall full of good deals – not that I needed to buy anything Well maybe a new multitool but those aren’t available in airlines. Big disappointment lots of electronic stores but no real savings. One restaurant. And two hot dog stands. So hot dogs it was, aw memories of Nicaragua.

The one good thing about the Panama airport was the free wifi. Yes free. Did you hear that North American airports? Free wifi. And with some time to kill, it gave me a chance to get online and check my computer out. But as soon as I got online, the flight was called. Apparently everyone had checked in so they were going to leave early. Wow two things unlike any other airport I've been too.

The plane was a small propeller plane kinda like Porter uses. And like Porter, we also got a small meal despite the short flight. At sometime around Small propeller plane but comfy and nice. Even got a light meal. Somewhere around 10:15am we crossed into our next content over the pitch black of either the Caribbean or the Darien Gap, jumping ahead a time zone in the meantime.

We landed in Cartagena just before 11pm at an empty airport which meant we zoomed through immigration not even having to pay an entry tax/fee/price. It was a good thing we didn’t have to pay because we had no Colombian pesos. And the empty airport also meant no currency exchanges were open, actually nothing was open. While I negotiated the price for the taxi, Adrian went off in search of an ATM. The negotiations weren’t easy not because the driver was playing hardball but because his accent made his Spanish almost undecipherable. Instead of catching every other word I was lucky if I caught every tenth word. Regardless, we agreed on a price and Adrian returned – empty handed. Apparently the only ATM in the airport was out of service. Luckily we still had plenty of US$ left over from Panama which the taxi driver said he’d take. With that we were quickly whisked off down the coastal road into the old city of Cartagena.

The city looked beautiful with the old walls lit up as well as many of the gorgeous multicoloured colonial buildings behind it. That sense of awe came crashing to a halt when our driver turned into the part of the city our hostal was located. The beauty was a little bit harder to spot here with many of the colonial buildings in states of disrepair. But the hostel wasn’t one of them. Phew. We were greeted by the night guy. He spoke English which meant I didn’t have to try to figure out this new funky Spanish accent just yet. And good thing because I had to explain that we had no money to pay for the room at the moment. Despite the incredible mugginess of Cartagena, we checked into a cheap non-air conditioned room hoping to recoup the cost of the airplane tickets one room at a time.


Ayngelina said...

Ooh I'm so looking forward to your Colombia posts. I've watched a few travel shows and an Anthony Bourdain No reservations on it and it looks amazing.

liz and adrian said...

I'll give you a sneak peak: Colombia was well worth it. In fact I'd suggest skipping some of Central America (ahem Costa Rica) in favour of it.