Archive for Oktober, 2011

San Agustín, Colombia – Horses and a sore bum

Montag, Oktober 31st, 2011

Pacho is a lucky man, because Pacho has got everything: a lovable personality, patience, a knack for horses, and a lot of knowledge about nature and culture. In spite of our “guide allergy” we couldn’t resist Pacho when he offered us a horse ride into the surrounding mountains and to other archaeological finds. The price of 50,000 Peso (27.50 $) seems to be reasonable, and finally we are four and a half hours on the way. The tour brings us to some minor important, nonetheless worth seeing excavations that are only accessible by horse: La Pelota and El Purutal where at the most beautiful statues still remaining colours in red, yellow, black and white can be seen. In the grove above there are trees producing yellow and red resin that might have served as paint. More likely is the theory that minerals were used for tinting. La Chaquira and El Tablon are other interesting spots.

The horses that Pacho gives us are excellently educated. They follow even the possibly not perfect commands of complete greenhorns. Pacho lets us ride in front and determine the speed. Trotting and galloping are no problem as long as the horses go along with it and terrain allows. Pacho speaks only Spanish (slow and clear), but everybody seems to understand him, even without language knowledge. He can be contacted via Finca El Maco. We highly recommend him, but everybody has to cope with consequences for his bottom on his own.

San Agustín, Colombia – Jaguar men and snake eating owls

Sonntag, Oktober 30th, 2011

San Agustín is an important archaeological site of an early Indigene advanced culture. The area was perhaps populated from 6000 BC on, today’s leftovers origin mainly from 200 BC to 700 AD: statues from lava stone and basalt, burial sites, earth embankments, and aqueducts. Since the San-Agustín-culture didn’t use characters not much is known about them, speculations are predominant. The amount of impressive statues show jaguar men, armed guards, women with babies, and a lot of animal symbolism like owls, eagles, and snakes. The culture carried out human sacrifice and maybe cannibalistic rites.

Most important place for findings is Parque Archeológico de San Agustín, not far from town. Here most statues and graves are located, and a ceremonial bathing place in the rocky part of a river bed. The mysterious civilisation chiselled three bathtubs and symbolic figures like snails, snakes, frogs or faces into the rock, and the water runs through the contours. Access to the park (half day is required) costs 10,000 COP per person for one day, the combined ticket 16,000 (5.50 resp. 9 $). The latter is valid for two consecutive days and for other archaeological sites in the surroundings, which can be reached with a jeep tour or own vehicle.

Camping is easily possible. We decide for Finca El Maco that belongs to Swiss René Suter. There are only two sloping lots for vehicles, but there are enough stones to level them. The shower is hot, the staff friendly, and internet complimentary. For Swiss food on the menu (except Rosti, Swiss sliced fried potatoes) we look in vain. We pay 8,000 Peso pp (4.50 $) per night. In the end of town heading to the archaeological park turn right following the sings to Hotel Yalconia / Piscina / El Maco. Shortly before reaching the swimming-pool a trail turns off to the right to Camping San Agustín (N 01°53’19.6’’ W 76°16’46.3’’), another option. A bit further uphill El Maco follows on the right side (N 01°53’31.4’’ W 76°16’47.8’’).

Desierto de la Tatacoa, Colombia – The green desert

Freitag, Oktober 28th, 2011

The Tatacoa desert is a geological and climatic oddity. Surrounded by lush-green fields and a land that consists in great parts of rain, rivers and swamps a 330 km2 / 130 mi2 big dry savannah is situated, which is a bit euphorically called desert. In the dry period temperatures at lunch time can reach 50° C / 120° F, during the short rainy seasons in spring and autumn it is pleasant. On the green steppe grass cattle, horses, goats and sheep graze – like now. In-between cacti, brush and even trees grow. Where the earth is eroded red and light grey sand hills, dunes, and bizarre rock shapes appear. A landscape that looks like the Badlands in South Dakota or the Painted Desert in Arizona – only in mini format.

The observatory that is most of the time closed during rainy periods due to overcast, and its astronomer Javier have a good reputation. Although the proximity to the city of Neiva and the herewith associated light pollution is disturbing, the mostly dry and for Colombia clear air seems to be unique in Colombia. For those who haven’t seen a desert yet Desierto de la Tatacoa is a beautiful experience. For desert experts it is still a pretty landscape and moreover free of charge. Organised camping is offered in different places, free camping is generally possible. Free and guarded is the area around the observatory (bathrooms and cold showers for a small fee): N 03°14’02.2’’ W 75°10’13.5’’.

Valle de Cocora, Colombia – Switzerland with palm trees

Mittwoch, Oktober 26th, 2011

It is a landscape like in the summerly Swiss Alps (perhaps like the Tetons?): high mountains, forest covered flanks and fertile willows where black-and-white and brown cattle stuffs. But stop, something’s wrong in this picture – palm trees. Up to 60 m high wax palms, the palmas de cera, grow with their skinny stems from 2500 m / 8200 ft elevation on. Their delicate tops are often caressed by clouds. That’s why we can’t see but only hear the squawking parrot swarms that help themselves freely to the hanging fruits. The wax palm belongs to the world’s highest palms. Colombia’s national tree isn’t found anywhere else in higher concentration.

Between Pereira and Armenia the town Salento is located. To the hamlet Cocora it is another 13 km / 8 mi up onto the mountain on a narrow paved road. From here guided tours on foot or horse start, but it’s easy to scout out the palm slopes under your own steam (no entrance fee). Several steep and arduous trails start uphill on the right side of the road. Ask locals or just follow the horses’ paths. Don’t miss the trout farming truchera. A visit would cost you 2,000 Peso what might be interesting or not, but trout fillets are sold for 12,000 COP per kilo / 3 $ per lb, four whole trout for 5,000 COP (2.75 $).

Camping is possible in Cocora at the restaurants for 8,000 Peso pp, our pick is the Bosques de Cocora (N 04°38’18.2’’ W 75°29’16.7’’). Who wants to take a closer view to the village Salento can park at the hostel The Plantation House for 18,000 COP in front of the door beside the street, including use of bathrooms, kitchen, and Wi-Fi. (Coming from the west turn right in the beginning of town at the fire station bomberos, turn right into the next lane, then it is after 100 m / yards on the left side. Not very convenient to park at the street, but the town centre is within walking distance.) Another camping option presents itself at RV-Park Monteroca near the main road Pereira-Armenia, 4 km / 2.5 mi in front of Salento, 17 km / 11 mi from Cocora. There are maximum two lots, the access height looks o.k. for at least 3.5 m / 11.5 ft. There are nice pick-nick tables at the river. Incl. bathrooms, hot outside showers and use of kitchen 15,000 COP pp are due (N 04°38’36.5’’ W 75°35’01.8’’).

Guayabal, Colombia – Coffee: the long way from the bean into the mug

Sonntag, Oktober 23rd, 2011

Coffee is, after petroleum, the world’s second most important export product. Who expected this? And Colombia is one of the largest exporters of this much in demand and sensible product. All coffee from this country belongs to the high quality sort Arabica and is from exquisite quality. There is also coffee that doesn’t meet the export demands: immature or overripe beans and those that are infested by a bug. These beans are picked out during processing, but not thrown away, because they have purchasers as well. They are either roasted and drunk in their own country or sold to the Nescafé Company that produces instant coffee from them. How delicious.

That’s not all we learn about the noble beverage today. Cultivating the seedling is a science in itself, the bushes need a lot of care and have a limited life of about 21 years. Coffee is harvested between September and May with two main harvests in October/November and March/April. The plants only grow in elevations between 1300 and 2000 m / 4200 and 6600 ft, the higher the better is the quality. They need a balanced climate of sun and rain. Right now harvest is bad due to too much rain and missing sun hours. Coffee harvest is manual labour: only the red and yellow mature fruits are allowed in the baskets. Mobile pickers that also work in different plantations like banana, cotton, tobacco or sugar cane can harvest 100 kg / 220 lb coffee beans per day and get 20 cents per kilo / 9 cents per pound.

During processing the outer skin is peeled by machine, composted and later on used for fertilizing the plantation. In several washings the sweet coating of the pip has to be removed, some haciendas make wine of it. Again and again faulty fruits are sorted out. Finally the beans are dried and transported to the fabric of the coffee federation where they are weighed and their quality is reviewed. Only there the second peeling takes part where the parchment skin is removed and the coffee is packed for exporting. The skins are sold back to the coffee farmers for a small amount of money, who use them to heat the drying oven. The parchment as fuel is resource-saving, cheaper and more odourless than charcoal or propane.

The coffee bean is during the whole process of growing and production extremely sensitive to outer influences that could ruin smell and flavour. Fertilizers and insecticides can only be used thriftily. The beans have to be packed airtight for their transport to the United States or Europe where they are roasted, mixed and possibly ground. It remains a mystery to me – now more than ever – how a pound of this plush brew can be sold for a couple of dollars in supermarkets. The winners of this business must be the big coffee companies, the losers the harvest hands and the coffee farmers. The highly interesting tour at Hacienda Guayabal costs 20,000 Pesos per person in Spanish, 25,000 in English (11 / 14 $). It took us 2.5 hours. Of course a coffee tasting is part of it.

Guayabal, Colombia – Mountains over mountains

Samstag, Oktober 22nd, 2011

Colombia is mountains. Mountains over mountains. Our today’s driving comprises 442 km / 280 mi. This doesn’t sound much for the moment. But with over 5,000 curves and more than 8,000 m / 26,000 ft metres of elevation this is a real task. We start at the “sugarloaf” at 2000 m / 6600 ft, then descend into the valley at 200 m / 660 ft until we cross the Central Cordillera at 3700 m / 12,000 ft (with some more ups and downs of course). While heading down to the 1400 m / 4600 ft high Manizales we are lucky: The dramatic rainfalls of the last nights that partially spared us, partially not, made a whole mountain slipping down. In the meantime the lane is ploughed, but the city is without water for days. We see people on foot, with mopeds and cars to fill water into canisters where it runs. If we’d have come earlier the road would have been closed.

Without a certain place to sleep we wouldn’t have undertaken this ride, but we are expected. Hacienda Guayabal is situated in the heart of Eje Cafetero, the Colombian coffee triangle, close to the town of Chinchiná. The coffee finca offers accommodation in different classes, but camping as well for 10,000 COP (5.50 $) per person with bathroom, hot shower, day room with electricity, and a lot of coffee and some titbits during the day. Heiress Doña Maria Theresa has everything under control; her adult son speaks some English. He calls us many times on the way, concerned where we are. In Chinchiná he even organises that we are picked up by a car to be guided to the hacienda. That wasn’t the worst idea, it is a bit complicated to get there. Their cuisine is well-known (18,000 COP for a rich 3-course menu). Tourism is developing slowly in Colombia. Hacienda Guayabal is one of the not too many coffee producers who offer tours. But that’s for tomorrow.

Hacienda Guayabal, N 04°57’25.2’’ W 75°36’24.3’’,

Peñol-Guatapé, Colombia – Colombian sugarloaf

Freitag, Oktober 21st, 2011

A reservoir for the supply of energy of the big city – this is Embalse del Peñol-Guatapé, 50 km / 30 mi west of Medellin, but even more. Recreational and water sports pleasures of different kinds are offered. The Peñon de Guatapé or Piedra del Peñol as it is also called is accordingly commercialized, but worth visiting on quieter weekdays. The 220 m / 720 ft high monolith that reminds of Rio de Janeiro’s sugarloaf peaks visibly out. In a cliff fold a stairway with 679 steps was built to climb the mountain of granite, quartz and feldspar. From down the stairs seems awe-inspiring, especially since we are above 2,000 m / 6,600 ft. In the end we are faster on the top than expected, from where we have a marvellous view to the model railway landscape with the odd reservoir where hundreds of islands look out. Most visitors don’t ascend but are contended with visiting the souvenir shops and restaurants where they can take to the floor with local music. Spending the night is unlike the past years unfortunately not possible any more (N 06°13’18.9’’ W 75°10’44.5’’, parking 4.000 COP, mountain climb 8.000 COP pp).

There are some more spots in town where we aren’t welcome to camp – an experience that seems to by kind of typical for this country. People who know the place well send us to the other end of Guatapé where a camping area is located. The town itself is very pretty in paisa style. The houses especially along the lakeside promenade malecón have shaped painted plinths with flower, animal, or toy themes. The tradition of the colourful designed houses originally should keep hens from picking at the base courses and kids from scribbling them. A street to the right just behind the bridge that adjoins the malecón leads to the small campground where tenting is intended. But we fit in, pay 10.000 Peso (5,50 $) and get a beautiful view to the lake and Peñon de Guatapé (N 06°14’06.7’’ W 75°09’13.5’’).

Medellín, Colombia – Hovering above the brick city

Donnerstag, Oktober 20th, 2011

Most towns with over a million inhabitants in the New World aren’t excessively worth seeing. This is actually true for Medellin as well, but there is an interesting way of sightseeing: cable railways and a 30 km / 20 mi long metro built on pillars. From Parque Arví, a recreational area for locals where we camp, a 4.4 km / 3 mi long cable railway hovers over the forest and than steep into the valley (one-way ticket 3,500 Peso = 2 $). Then we have to change into the “regular” public traffic network where we can travel back and forth as long as we want and we don’t leave the station (1,700 COP = 1 $). Another cable car lets us fly above the uniform russet city: red brick buildings and just as red roofs set the tone for the scene.

We leave the metro at Parque Berrio to admire Plaza Botero in front of Casa de la Cultura. Here stand 23 monumental sculptures of the Colombian sculptor Fernando Boteros – the world’s best paid artist. All statues from black bronze are voluptuous, carnal, and corpulent. If cat or horse, Roman soldier or woman – the unconventional masterpieces contain a high recognition factor. Back to Parque Arví we may hope for another cool night in 2,400 m / 7,900 ft, during Medellin is located at 1,500 m / 5,000 ft. At Ecoparque Piedras Blancas (N 06°17’41.5’’ W 75°30’00.8’’), a part of the Arví park, we are offered the night for 14.400 Pesos (8 $) per person on the lopsided gravel parking, but the choices for camping are little in Medellin. For just 1,000 Pesos (55 cents) a bus brings us to the cable car station respectively back. Medellin has also a conveniently situated Carrefour (N 06°19’03.1’’ W 75°33’25.2’’). The multi-storey car park problem with the low entrance height is solved by the market-own gas station where we can stay at the side after asking the manager kindly. The fuel is reasonable in addition.

Taraza, Colombia – Guerrillas, paramilitary and drug cartels

Dienstag, Oktober 18th, 2011

The blighter that is the night guard of the lunch snack bar would have earned a tip. But there it is again, the incorrigible greed that leads to get nothing. Before we even can take our wallet in our hand he claims that his boss wants 50,000 COP camping fee. Again impudent 27.50 $. I point out that this isn’t quite in accordance with the facts and simply refuse. Without contradiction he opens the gate. Right now, the North Colombians don’t maintain their image too much.

The Pan Am takes us further south. With many potholes, cruel flooding, road blocks, and many toll stations. Hopefully the money is at least used to improve the roads. Large sections of the country are under water, bridges and roads are washed away. We see poor people whose even poorer huts are flooded half-way. And something else characterizes the Pan Americana: police and military. They don’t only accompany the road, at many truck stops stand up to three tanks. This shall establish security at least along this main road. The situation in Colombia has improved a lot during the last years, and it can be considered a mainly safe country for travellers, but there are still left-wing oriented guerrillas, right-wing paramilitary and financially interested drug cartels that fight together or against each other. It might be recommended to sleep in guarded zones like the truck stop in Taraza. There is a nice and quiet lawn behind the gas station at a river, and free of charge into the bargain: N 07°35’15.0’’ W 75°23’41.9’’.

Turbaco, Colombia – Disproportions

Montag, Oktober 17th, 2011

It might be not ideal to visit a local tourist attraction on a holiday. The mud volcano 50 km northeast of Cartagena rises 20 m above its surroundings. A wooden stairs leads up to the five meters wide mud hole where you can take a healthy plunge. Emerging from the bath as grey zombie you’d have to walk down to the fresh water lagoon to regain a healthy complexion. The resident fast food stall staff had a couple of too many sips from their own beer look askance at us. From an open trunk ear-splitting music blares. We find the entire ambience such unpleasant that we quickly decide to head south. But the day will give us some other experiences: In each village the music bawls as loud as at the volcano. Are we already to old to understand that? Or is the enormous volume a forced funtainment for inhabitants and by-passers? Side roads aren’t paved, what wouldn’t be bad, but in catastrophic condition.

As soon as a road is at least mainly paved we have to pay toll. Not much, sometimes two or three dollars, but if cleaned up every couple of dozens of kilometres, it accumulates. But the high point is the search for an overnight place: Most parks and touristic attractions close early, their parking lots are locked. We ask in a restaurant with a small lake in front of their door. After letting us wait for a whole quarter of an hour, we receive a positive reply, but they want 50,000 COP – 27.50 $! For nothing than parking, there is no bathroom, water, electricity or other luxury. We keep going, although it is getting dark. Behind the village Turbaco at the Pan Am we find a lunch snack bar where they are friendlier: N 10°18’13.5’’ W 75°23’33.8’’ (but check price for overnight carefully in advance).

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Pearl with dirt rim

Sonntag, Oktober 16th, 2011

People tend to call Cartagena “Colombia’s Paris”. That seems to be a bit exaggerated, but the old town El Centro is really beautiful and the term “Caribbean Pearl” seems to be more appropriate (although the sea is brown). Colourful palaces with archways, wooden balconies and inner courtyards covered with greenery alternate with colonial churches and cloisters, souvenir shops and designer boutiques. El Centro and some other districts are surrounded by the historic town wall. It is 11 km / 7 mi long, not very high but wide, solidly constructed and partially walkable. Cartagena de Indias, as it is named correctly, was the place of transshipment for gold and silver from the South American colonies to the Spanish mother country, and therefore again and again stroke by pirates’ attacks. After the devasting assault of Sir Francis Drake in 1586 the building of the massive construction began, but was finished only in the end of the 18th century.

Ironically the Spanish conquerors had to storm their own, nearly perfect defence fortification only 20 years later. Cartagena had then announced independence, but the Spanish royal house sent a fleet to recapture the city. After four months siege when thousands of people had starved to death or died due to illness Cartagena had to surrender. A stark contrast to the historic appearance on the town wall is the super modern peninsula Bocagrande that can bee seen from there. Surrounded by kilometres long sandy beaches very modern skyscrapers, hotels, and glass palaces in Miami style rise up. People here tell a joke: The only difference between Bocagrande and Miami is, that in Bocagrande English is spoken…

But outside of the areas interesting for tourists Cartagena is little attractive and in many parts dangerous, especially at night. Cartagena is so to speak an expensive pearl with dirt rim, as most visited city in Columbia still a must.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Light-fingered

Samstag, Oktober 15th, 2011

Local third-party insurance is mandatory in Colombia. Luis helps with one as well. Yesterday night everything was closed, and most offices don’t open Saturdays. Gas stations offer insurances, but they run for a year, that’s expensive. We find an office in the old town that sells a so-called SOAT (HBL Seguros, Centro, Pasaje la Moneda, Tel. 660 2005). Minimum term is three months. The quote is calculated according to the cubic capacity, about 80 $ for a 3-liters-engine.

According to other travellers there is only one filling station for propane in Cartagena. (Gas tanks have to be emptied for the ferry transfer.) We ask at a gas station, but they send us to Cartagas 20 km out of town as well (N 10°19’11.3’’ W 75°30’06.7’’). On the way there we pass the mall Caribe Plaza where a Carrefour settled, a good spot to take food. The mall has a multi-storey car park with an entrance height of max. 2.4 m. At the “back entrance” there is a small parking lot subject to charge, which seems to be suitable for most vehicle sizes (N 10°24’56.7’’ W 75°31’43.7’’).

In the afternoon when we move all our stuff back into the driver’s cabin that we have completely emptied for the RoRo ride, we have to realize small losses. An electrical thermometer that didn’t even work due to empty batteries is gone including the outside sensor that was cut from the cable. Later we realize that also our very practical movement sensor lamp at the ladder was also stolen. RoRo or LoLo, ship and harbour personnel are known for being nimble-fingered, but the route Colón-Cartagena is especially infamous.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Harbour needs nerves of steel

Freitag, Oktober 14th, 2011

The day seems to be endless. At 8 a.m. we head to our colombian angent Luis Ernesto La Rota from Enlace Caríbe (,, Luis speaks English), at 8:30 p.m. we get Arminius out of the port. Then we have to get our luggage from the hotel, go to Luis to pay and receive all the papers and to the next hotel that offers camping on its parking lot. They are so friendly there to prepare some food for us right before midnight. In the meanwhile we are shoved by Luis, his wife, or one of his three co-working sons from one office to the other, again and again to the customs, showing the passport, getting a visitor’s permit, and waiting, waiting, waiting. The customs officer is decisive, he decides when he wants to inspect the vehicle (it’s just about license plate and VIN number), but it could happen that he’s not there anyway. Parallel Luis’ family members complete other formalities for which we don’t have to be present.

Our agent Evelyn in Panama has warned us: The port and customs formalities in Cartagena are feasible alone, but not in one day. She was so right. Luis was recommended by her and by other travellers, and we would like to forward this recommendation. Despite his not little fees he saves time, nerves, and money as well, because every night in a hotel costs. Instead of paying a taxi all the time he drives us around in a company car. Luis flat rate is 170 $. Jo and Ray, a Dutch couple from Germany, has its camper on the same ship and join us. Thus we save a lot of money since Luis only takes 10 $ more for the second party and we can share the fee. Additional we have to pay the final Bill of Lading and harbour fees, each around 100 $.

Necessary papers are the passport, the temporary and then the final Bill of Lading. In the end we receive the important customs paper for the vehicle. For the harbour (only vehicle owner) it is highly recommended to wear long pants and closed shoes, otherwise access could be denied. Further a proof of a health insurance is mandatory – it might be checked or not. Under normal circumstances we wouldn’t have got Arminius on a Friday so late. But Monday is a local holiday and so the customs tries to finish as much as they can.

Hotel Bellavista in the Marbella district at the Caribbean shore offers besides simple rooms (double 70,000 COP with van, 80,000 with AC, breakfast 8.000) camping in its walled parking lot. There is no view to the sea, but a shady parking option close to the city. The 30,000 Peso without respectively 40,000 with electrical hook-up seem to be excessive, since we are tightly surrounded by other parking cars and the whole thing has not too much to do with camping. It is the location that has to be paid. The beach is right in front. Water for the tank is available, the shower (cold water only) and especially the loo are in questionable condition, but staff is friendly. Advance notice is highly recommended due to limited space ( GPS: N 10°26’05.8’’ W 75°32’18.1’’.

Colón, Panama – Colón: city of misery and violence

Dienstag, Oktober 11th, 2011

Colón is an island. An island made from poverty and misery, hopelessness and decay. Colón is eight by 16 streets large. Eight by 16 streets unworthiness and dirt, crime and violence. It isn’t a slum in a city, the city IS a slum. The island is surrounded by outrageous wealth, which doesn’t allow any drop to seep through the guarded fences. First, there is the Panama Canal that washes riches worth billions into the pockets of the already rich ones. Altogether four harbours belong to the big goods turnover sites on this planet. And the free zone lures businessmen and profiteers from all over the world. Only few of Colón’s 65,000 inhabitants have the opportunity to get a poorly paid job in one of these economic areas. The other employees come from better areas around Colón or commute from Panama City. The unemployment rate in Colón is estimated at 60 %, which inevitably leads to prostitution, drug problems, and crime of violence.

The population is mainly black, mixed with some Indians and inhabitants of Chinese origin. For the railway and later the canal construction Afro-Caribs were hired as cheap workers who had hoped for making some money to return to their home countries as made men. Therefore they didn’t integrate culturally and most of them didn’t even learn Spanish. Later the same fate overtook Chinese guest workers. After they weren’t needed any more they were left to their own devices. Without money to return to their homes, without education and income, they stranded in Colón. The government, which colour it might have, shoes few interest in changing the city’s highly explosive situation. To be fair one must admit that this is valid for most inhabitants as well. They don’t take efforts to improve their situation. Resignation spreads through generations, and school, education and improvement of the personal prospects stand in the end of their list of priorities.

Today we arrive in Colón by train. There is one passenger train in the morning from Panama to the north and another to return in the evening. Commuters use it as tourists do. The single ticket is 22 $ pp. Expensive though, but those views aren’t available from the road: Several times we get close to the Panama Canal and the shipping, we go right through the green jungle, and we cross Lake Gatun on a dam. After one hour we reach Colón.

There’s a ray of hope in the spiral of misery: the Sisters of Mercy. We immediately recognize them as they pick us up form the train station with their car, despite they don’t wear nun’s habit. A practical jeans skirt, a simple polo shirt and open-toed sandals replace the warm and impractical uniform. There is no headgear. Sister Barbara and Sister Dina are the only nuns that care for the house called MUCEC, founded by Barb, how she calls herself. Both of them dedicated their life to children and women, to the poor and the poorest of Colón. Who now imagines sanctimonious church types who kindly and graciously distribute alms, is completely mistaken. They are sympathetic, and generous with their love. Otherwise Barb and Dina are a resolute, well coordinated manager team in their daily fight for financing the project.

The social organisation wasn’t always located in such a big modern house. The new one exists only for ten years. Principal concern of the Sisters of Mercy is the promotion of neglected, abandoned or undernourished infants in early childhood who otherwise might end up on the street. So some small geniuses are discovered, and retarded girls and boys can be specifically treated. The kindergarten looks after different age groups. If the joy of learning is aroused, there is a good chance that the kids finish their school education, and maybe even visit a university later on. The complete education system in Panama is free, in case of need the facility supports with school uniforms.

The sisters look for neglected children in town, follow hints and try to convince the mothers to leave their offspring in the home’s care during the day. Mothers who bring their kids on their own accord are never refused. When the children go to school later they may still come for homework tutoring. Whether kindergarten moppet or student, the Sisters of Mercy make the distribution of food their main job. Each kid gets two meals per day, and often enough these are the only two meals of the day.

Panamanian structure of society causes that fathers – except upper class – rarely feel responsible for their offspring. Even most married men have one or more mistresses with whom they also father children. Without mistress a man isn’t a terrific bloke. The divorce rate is high. So the majority of Panamanian children just have one, the female parent. The problem of Colón’s mothers is that they grow up without education and self-esteem. To nourish their kids is their daily challenge. And so MUCEC also attend to the mothers, tries to convey self-confidence, to be able to learn something and to use it later on. They teach the women sewing, knitting and other craftwork that they can sell if they want. A lecture every Friday is about themes that could interest the mothers: health and hygiene, education, yoga and other fitness training, or it might be a Christian topic as well.

After we visited all care centre groups we go outside. Sister Barbara shows us “her” world. There are three Kuna women sitting in front of the door, sewing and selling molas, knitted pictures with geometrical forms. The Caribbean Indians proudly wear their coloured traditional costume: a blouse that’s decorated with molas, a short tight skirt that’s just a cloth wrapped around, as well as uncounted rows of thin bead chains at their underarms and calves. Their short uniform haircut is a bit requiring getting used to, sometimes they throw on a headscarf as sun protection.

Only few metres further the entire misery of this city opens. Half collapsed houses are still inhabited, even if the floor already shows a dangerous hole. There is nearly no house in a better state. Each flat consists of one tiny room where the whole family cooks, eats, and sleeps. Partially simplest wood sheds were built that fulfil the same purpose. They don’t have bathrooms. For each 50 to 60 inhabitants there are two or three common loos and the same amount of showers, which don’t work. People here never learnt what a flush is good for. Running water is an occasion. Immediately bathrooms are stormed to wash kids and clothes. Despite of all the dirt the people wear astonishingly clean clothes.

Sister Barbara introduces us to the people of Colón as family members. Not to protect us, that isn’t necessary in her company. But thus we receive more respect, we may take some photos, and one or the other door opens to have a glimpse. Who can afford it puts a bunk bed into the room; the others sleep on the floor. There is little furniture only, at best some mats and a gas cooker. The people might not have money for food, but who can make it possible buys or pinches a television, plus there’s a satellite dish. Electricity that’s very expensive in Panama, is scrounged somewhere illegally. Most inhabitants don’t pay rent.

Barbara speaks to a very young woman. She has two children and prostitutes herself. “What shall I do”, she says, “how shall I feed my babies?” “Very simple”, says Barb, “don’t get babies.” This came from a Catholic nun! An elderly woman sits smoking on a plastic chair on the sidewalk. Exactly this woman begged from Barbara some clothes a couple of days ago, she couldn’t afford them. The Sisters run a thrift shop in their house where they sell donated clothes for a symbolic price. But they never give it; the chance of exploitation would be too high. Those who can’t even pay 25 cents clean the stairs or wipe the floor. Barbara conceals her indignation and talks to the old woman whom it is obviously embarrassed to be caught smoking. To spend money for luxury items instead of buying essential fool happens frequently. Another woman known as destitute crosses our way. Red coloured braids peep from her headscarf. There is honestly earned money as well. A man sells produce for very low price. A woman rented a ground floor room, cooks soup, and sells it for 50 cents the plate. A family breeds chicken. They are slaughtering the cock that was run over by a car.

Sister Barbara came as young nun first in 1964 from Brooklyn to Panama. In 1971 she went to Chiriqui. The Indians that live there asked her to teach them reading. Consequently they realized that benefits for overtime or Sunday working as pickers that they are lawfully entitled to get were not paid out to them. Their foreman withheld the bonuses. The big landowner held Barb responsible for the resulting riots and complained to the bishop. She didn’t make really friends there, but she didn’t consider returning to the United States. The chance she got was 1985 in violent Colón. Appalled by the misery of an entire city – that became worse after the withdrawal of the Americans – she began immediately setting up the MUCEC project, her life’s work. Still today she puts all her energy into the daily fight for financing and hence survival of the home. Sister Dina is a child of Colón. The psychologist joined Barbara many years ago. Both of her parents volunteer in the project as many other socially committed citizens do.

Who wants to contribute something to support these two incredible women and their work, even if it is very little, finds our e-mail address on our website. We will forward the centre’s email address with pleasure.

Colón, Panama – Arminius is travelling

Montag, Oktober 10th, 2011

On this bad day we have to temporarily say good-bye to Arminius. We bring him into the harbour of Colón, to Manzanillo to be correct, where our agent awaits us. He takes us to all offices, we have to pay 48 $ harbour and disinfection fees, and the customs bring a drug dog to sniff at our truck. The whole story takes three hours. The agent takes us to the bus terminal where we immediately can enter the express bus back to Panama City. It isn’t recommended to hang around at the bus station, the area isn’t too trustworthy. The icy air-conditioned bus takes 3.15 $ pp, but needs two hours for the 70 km / 45 mi in the evening traffic. An entertaining horror movie is on that stands out due to be especially bloodthirsty. Since the volume is loud it is difficult to evade the horror. Fortunately, there are no kids on board.

Our hosts Sue and Lew were so kind to offer us one of their rooms so that we can save the hotel costs in Panama City.

Panama City, Panama – A Panama Canal tugboat in action

Sonntag, Oktober 9th, 2011

Our host Lew returned from his journey. Today he fulfils our long-cherished hope to get a ride on a tug boat on the Panama Canal. He has late shift and no passengers are allowed at dark. But he arranges to get on his boat, the Cacique, during his off-time for a couple of hours. The task of a tugboat on the Canal isn’t usually towing. All freighters, passenger and warships go under own power through the passage, into the locks, and out. Because everything has to proceed as fast as possible there is not enough room especially for the big Panamax ships to manoeuvre. It is the job of the tugboats to support the big tubs in getting into the right direction. They might pull with ropes if connected or simply by shoving them from the stern or side. For protection the tugboats have a thick rubber bumper around.

The pilot who is present on every boat crossing the Canal coordinates everything and gives order to the tugboat captains as well as the train drivers in the locks. He knows the special physical performance of the Panama Canal. It must be globally unique that the pilot doesn’t advice the captain how to manoeuvre but overtakes supreme command for ship and crew and gives order (and accepts responsibility).

From the south end of the Panama Canal we bring a Panamax container freighter to the Miraflores Locks and hurry back. The tanker now is shorter, so both tugboats – two always work together – fit with it into the locks and we can experience this locking process once more from “ship perspective”. Afterwards the tugs assist the tanker to park between the mooring buoys on Miraflores Lake where it has to wait for the evening to continue, because in the meantime direction of travel on the one-lane canal has changed like always at noon. Our Cacique berths now as well at the quay and has an hour for maintenance until the traffic from the opposite direction arrives and the tug has to start working with the ships again. We take the chance to leave the ship.

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Flight to a new continent

Samstag, Oktober 8th, 2011

We fly to Colombia. RoRo ferries don’t take passengers due to insurance reasons. Best price offers COPA Air by internet booking (around 30 $ less expensive than at the counters in many malls), the second supplier Avianca is most of the time more expensive. Prices change, a one-way-ticket is around 350 US$. We fly via Bogotá what extends travel and flight time, but is a bit cheaper. We fly over the Darién Gap and know now that we definitely don’t want to drive there, in the rainy season it’s quite impossible. The hilly jungle landscape is criss-crossed by uncountable meandering rivers; larger and deeper areas transformed into swamps.

At the ATM machine in Bogotá I withdraw 1,000,000 Peso or COP and become millionaire. That corresponds to about 550 US$ – too many zeros for my concept. Another possibility to get from Panama to Colombia is a mini-cruise with a sailing boat through the San Blas archipelago. These Caribbean islands belong to the autonomous precinct of the Kuna Indians and are relatively untapped by touristic means. The sailing ship Stahlratte seems to be recommended by many travellers (, they transport motorcycles and bikes as well. Unfortunately there is no suitable cruise for us.

We take a room in the hotel Oceano that has bearable prices and a convenient location somewhat close to the harbour. Rooms are simple, modern and very clean with TV and air-con. Despite price-fixing arrangement via our agent in Cartagena the administration asks for more than double the price, but this can be solved quickly. We get the double room including breakfast and taxes for 57 $. Rooms to the main road have a balcony; at the back without balcony it is quieter. The restaurant is acceptable.

Panama City, Panama – Robbery at police parking lot

Freitag, Oktober 7th, 2011

We have to be at 10 a.m. at the police station to get our number plate and VIN number checked, what is necessary for exporting the vehicle by ship from Panama. Afterwards Interpol allegedly checks if the vehicle was involved in any criminal act in Central America. We will receive the result respectively the export permit in the afternoon. One of the officers insists for an unknown reason that we park in the end of the lot – later on this won’t be without consequences. Because here is a passage to the road behind the parking where on the opposite side one of Panama’s very bad slum areas begin. At any time after 10 o’clock the officers of start to inspect the vehicles, ours is the last one. It doesn’t take long time, and I already want to get into our truck.

That’s why I don’t pay full attention to my surroundings and I don’t notice two Afro-Americans approaching me rapidly. Suddenly one of them tugs at my purse and tries to snatch it away. Idiot! That doesn’t work, the bag is tightly attached to me and has one strap across my body and another around my hip. He would have to take me as well, but for sure that’s not in his plan. I found this special “handbag” in an army surplus store in the States. If the thief had paid attention he could have seen at least the diagonal strap so he would have known that’s impossible to just pull away the bag. Even cutting the straps is difficult since they are made from very stable Cordura – and it’s two.

Everything happens very fast: Joerg shoves away the second attacker and throws himself between the first one and me. After the first moment of shock is gone we begin to counterattack and turn the tables. We try to catch the unsuccessful purse robbers, roar loudly and pursue them. The two fellows bellow as well, now by fear, and run off like rabbits. They are smart and split up. Joerg is fast, but he chooses the wrong one who’s faster. The other one falls over a parked car and falls onto the street. But I am too slow with my nice sandals that I specially took for the police visit (they are very particular regarding clothes). Both young men disappear in a pathway opposite of the entrance to the police parking lot. We don’t intend to follow them into the slums! Well, at least we gave them a fright.

But what about the officers who checked the cars and stand only meters away on the parking lot? Quite a while after we returned to Arminius, they stroll along really calmly. They waited long enough to make sure not to be involved. They ask us uninterestedly what happened. Then they order us to leave immediately, because this wasn’t a safe place. Ah? A: We just WANTED to leave and B: why am I forced to come to a site that’s not safe? There’s no answer, of course. In view of the fact that the robbery took place in broad daylight in the parking lot of the National Police and the officers had an amazing knack of not being involved into the occurrence, there is a legal question: Does the police collaborate with the bad boys? Hard to say, but a least there must be a certain tolerance to occurrences of this kind, otherwise they would have reacted faster. Of course it is always awkward to have a purse but for the police visit we needed passports and some other papers what makes a bag somehow necessary. In any case this is a warning for other travellers to park in this lot in the very beginning whatever the police say, to keep the doors locked and to safeguard valuables.

At half past two we have to be in another police station, the Secretaría General, on the opposite side of the place of crime. Men have to wear long pants and closed shoes to enter the office (ladies should be well-groomed, can wear a skirt, and nice sandals are o.k.). The strictly looking lady is known for being able to delay the procedure, but today is Friday, she wants to go home at three o’clock, and so she works speedily. We receive the necessary confirmation that we aren’t villains and that we are allowed to export the vehicle within eight days.

Panama City, Panama – A perfect Evelyn

Donnerstag, Oktober 6th, 2011

Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard doesn’t disappoint us. She is prepared, has an answer to each question in form of a mostly already printed form. We receive city maps, GPS data for the most important offices, a written and additional oral instruction in which sequence we have to go where. She prepares all necessary copy sets and helps with any other request. Besides, she is just likeable – that’s nearly too much for a not too pampered Central-America-traveller.

San Carlos, Panama – Ferry misdemeanours

Montag, Oktober 3rd, 2011

It’s not really fun what we get to know today: The ferry was again delayed, now to the12th of October. But there’s one good thing – we decide to ask for another shipping offer. The unbelievable happens, the new offer is 500 $ less. Plus, we now deal with the agent whose professionalism is praised by all travellers: Evelyn Batista from Wilhelmsen Ship Service / Barwil Agencies in Howard close to Panama City ( Ironically our first inquiry was sent to Evelyn but was answered by another colleague who made us one of the more expensive offers. RoRo shipping Colón-Cartagena is right now around US$ 61.50 per cubic meter including bunker. Less expensive offers might not include bunker. Prices change all the time depending on the petrol price.

El Valle, Panama – Sunday market in El Valle

Sonntag, Oktober 2nd, 2011

El Valle de Antón is a mountain village around 25 km / 15 mi from San Carlos. Most Panamanians go into raptures over it. It is nice, many prosperous American retirees settled here and nowhere else the Porsche-Cayenne-density is as high as here. But generally I would say the village is overrated. The landscape is pretty, thanks to the cooler climate many plants, fruits and vegetables grow here that don’t flourish in other parts of. Sundays a small but famous market takes part where some fruits and handcrafts are sold. Mainly it is international tourist kitsch, but there are some high quality artesanías as well. Most of them are more inexpensive than in Panama, at least not pricier.

San Carlos, Panama – The beach house

Samstag, Oktober 1st, 2011

Our hosts Lew and Sue own a beach house an hour west of Panama City. They use it rarely, but Robin lives here who returned to Panama after some years of retirement in Texas. Chance would have it that he also worked in the past together with our friend Wallace from Washington State. Robin takes care that the caretaker of the house does his job. He seems to be happy to have some company. The stony Pacific beach is only five minutes away, and there is a chilly pool in the garden. The temperatures here are more bearable than in the city where it is really hot right now.