Our time in Colombia got cut way short because of the coronavirus and we were gutted. For months, we had heard rave reviews from other tourists boasting how amazing their time in Colombia was and proclaiming it to be their favorite of all South American countries and we were looking forward to ending our expedition with a bang. It sure did end with a bang alright, just not the kind we were expecting! After spending a week on the Amazon (a ferry from Manaus to Tabatinga), we arrived to Tres Fronteras, a name given to the area of Amazon Rainforest in the upper Amazon region bordered by Brazil, Peru and Colombia. After dropping off our luggage at the hostel, we walked to the Brazilian border in Tabatinga to get stamped out and then hiked over to the Leticia, Colombia border crossing which was on a boat. First time we have ever been stamped into a country on a boat! There were signs up for coronavirus everywhere, along with a list of countries prohibited from entry (those considered “coronavirus hot spots”). Our passports were heavily scrutinized for travel during the past 2 weeks and after determining that we had arrived from the relatively safe countries of Brazil and Guyana, we were stamped into Colombia. From Leticia, we took a 2 night trip to Resguardo Indigena Macedonia, where an indigenous community with Ticuna ethnicity resides. Our home-stay was at the simple Hospedaje Reina Arriera, where we were introduced to Amazon freshwater fish for our meals. The highlight here was a visit to “Isla de Los Micos” or Monkey Island where we got to play with mischievous squirrel monkeys! So much fun having cheeky monkeys poking, prodding and pulling at us for an hour. Upon our return to Leticia, we visited an ethnographic museum to learn more about the indigenous communities living in the Amazon region and climbed a church tower to witness thousands of parakeets return to roost just before sunset…what a noisy spectacle! From Leticia, we flew to Bogota and onward to Cartagena. Our month long Colombia itinerary was supposed to include visits to Cartagena, Santa Marta, Tayrona Park, San Gil, Medellin, Cafe Hacienda Venecia (in Zona Cafetera), Salento, Bogota, Tatacoa Desert, San Augustin, Popayan, Cali, and Ipiales. Little did we know that our tour was about to end 34 days early due to the coronavirus and Cartagena was going to be the furthest we would get on our Trans South America expedition! What we did experience of Cartagena was lovely – phenomenal street art, gorgeous colonial architecture complete with a myriad of unique door knockers, and excellent nightlife (good food plus happy hour cocktails). And there was wildlife too! We managed to spot a total of four sloths and four cotton-top tamarins at Centenario Park which is nestled in the middle of a bustling city…so freaking cool. However, our time in Cartagena was cut short as we were unceremoniously booted out of country over growing concerns over the spread of coronavirus. Sigh…Colombia still beckons and we will be back. But for now, we’ll have to be satisfied with a small taste of what this amazing country has to offer!
09 Mar – Tabatinga, Brazil – Santa Rosa, Peru – Leticia, Colombia
From Tabatinga, we had to backtrack to Leticia to the migration office near the Leticia ferry terminal. This was the first time we have ever been on a boat for a border control! It was a bit surreal rocking back and forth as we waited to get stamped into Colombia. The immigration official was being strict with two gringos ahead of us, forcing them to exit the line to find out the name of their hostel when they forgot where they were staying. He questioned all of us on all countries visited the past 14 days and was especially confused about Rob’s French Guiana stamp. It looked like Rob had been to France and the border official wasn’t having it. As he placed a call to his supervisor, Becky intervened and told him in Spanish that French Guiana is in South America and was next to Suriname. He finally realized that Rob wasn’t a potential health crisis and allowed him to enter Colombia! With coronavirus fears looming large, this will become more and more of an issue as more countries are put on the high risk list. After all of us were stamped into Colombia, our next order of business was exchanging our leftover Brazilian Reals to Colombian Pesos. The exchange rate was OK, we only lost $3 on the transaction. At the hostel, Danny told us we could go up directly to our room which we immediately discovered had no working AC. The staff went to find us an extra fan so in the interim, we went to search for food along with Amanda and Cat. A nearby restaurant appeared to have a decent selection of food with decent prices but we were tricked! The food looked nothing like the photos and tasted just OK which was a big disappointment after a week of ferry food because we were craving something delicious. Oh well, you win some and you lose some. Back in our room, we sweltered while waiting for 2 pm. The staff had inexplicably taken away our fan and given it to another room so we had to ask for another because it was unbearably hot in our room. The second fan they brought was broken but the third one was OK. Danny had suggested a 3 country cocktail challenge and Peru was first on our list. We walked down to catch a boat ride to Isla Santa Rosa for 2000 Pesos each. Harry from the ferry was supposed to join us but after waiting 10 minutes for him, we decided to take off. Once in Peru, we went to Hospedaje Gamboa which was reputedly the best bar in town. Amazingly, it only served beer and soft drinks. So Amanda invented the Inca Shandy which tasted as good as it sounds. Harry found us at the bar and joined us as we returned back across the river to Brazil. At a popular bar in Tabatinga, we enjoyed caipirinhas for 7000 Pesos each. The first batch was delicious and the second batch was ok. From Brazil, we walked back into Colombia to the Büetaré Restaurant where we finished off the night with caipirfrutas, aguadente and beer plus dinner. By 9 pm, the party was over after a quick shower to cool down. Robby managed to find a 3rd fan for our room which helped immensely. It was a hot and sticky night until it started to rain in the morning which cooled things down considerably.
10 Mar – Leticia – Resguardo Indigena Macedonia
Once it started raining, the temperature finally dropped and became bearable in the room. Breakfast was included in our stay so we had fruit with yogurt, omelette and a pastry. Then we killed some time until check out at 11. Apparently the situation with Keith being a nasty loser drunk all the time got elevated to Oasis Headquarters and he has been served with a final warning letter. Next strike and he is off the trip, period. We think he should be kicked off already and won’t be sad to see him go. Let’s see if he can behave himself for the duration of the trip, doubtful since he has never gone more than a week off the wagon! At 11, we joined Amanda and Cat in search of a SIM card and an ATM. The nearby BBVA allows 300,000 Pesos per withdrawal, up to 3 withdrawals per day so we stocked up on Pesos since we will be in Colombia for nearly a month. Amanda and Cat were able to get their Claro SIM cards as well as data for 45000 Pesos, valid for one month. For lunch, we ate at Tierras Amazonicas, which had a nice decor and delicious food. At 1 pm, we were back at the hostel where all of us grabbed our overnight bags for the 2 night village visit at Resguardo Indigena Macedonia. Our boat showed up at 2 pm and it was packed full…no spare seats on this journey. Danny and Becky chose the two worst seats and got completely soaked but the journey only took an hour. We were met by a representative from Hospedaje Reina Arriera and were shown our rooms, two to a room. Cat joined us on a walk around the village which was a muddy mess due to all the rain. Our flip flops were probably not the best foot wear for the sticky mud! The village took an hour to discover and then we were back in our room, twiddling our thumbs until dinner at 6 pm. Our group was split into two for dinner and we ate upstairs with Rob, Lisa, Cat, Amanda and Izzy. Grilled sucker fish was on the menu for dinner, freshly speared this afternoon. The bony fish had an armor like scaly exterior that seemed indestructible. It didn’t have a strong fishy taste and while everyone that ate it seemed to enjoy it, no one wanted seconds. We escaped the mosquitoes immediately after dinner and took quick showers before watching Derry Girls.
11 Mar – Resguardo Indigena Macedonia – Isla de los Micos
A rooster started crowing at 4:30 am. We wished we had eaten it for dinner last night! Breakfast wasn’t until 8 am so we had plenty of time to sleep in. When neither of us could doze any longer, we watched two episodes of Derry Girls. We joined Danny and Leo for breakfast in the downstairs dining room and had a massive meal of scrambled eggs, fried bread, lemon grass tea, cinnamon oatmeal drink, and banana/papaya. Our homestay hosts did not want us to go hungry! After breakfast, we had 10 minutes to get ready for Monkey Island (Isla de los Micos). Our host told Danny we would take the slow boat but assured us that it had a sun cover/rain tarp so we would be protected from the elements. It took almost 2 hours to reach the island at a distance of 30 km away! Yesterday it took 30 minutes to cover the same distance in the speed boat so we were slightly annoyed but all that went away as soon as we arrived to the island. There were 6 other boats of tourists there already much to our chagrin. We were given a quick briefing and paid an entrance fee of 37000 Pesos ($10). Then we were led through the jungle to a clearing where all the other tourists were. Squirrel monkeys were everywhere and they were jumping on top of everyone. We had been warned not to wear sunglasses or earrings because they would rip them off but we found the monkeys to be quite gentle. They would hop on top of us and were quite playful. Becky had a bag of leftover bananas and papaya from breakfast this morning and the monkeys loved that. The other groups left shortly after we arrived so we had as much time as we wanted to play with the monkeys. They particularly enjoyed playing with Becky’s hair and were quite reluctant to leave her alone. After an hour, we started making our way back to the homestay, with a quick pit stop to use the facilities. Thank goodness for hand soap and disinfectant because the monkeys made us quite dirty! Lunch was served as soon as we got back just after 1. Fish cooked in leaves served with salad, rice and cassava, plus some unique fruits of the Amazon. It was too hot to relax in the room so we hung out on the hammocks. At 4, we took cold water showers which helped to cool down as today felt much warmer than yesterday. Dinner at 6:30 was fried fish served with mashed cassava plus a mini banana for dessert. We started watching Sex Education, which seems like it will be a good show. It started raining just after 8 and the temperature cooled down slightly. Everyone was tucked into their mosquito nets after dinner. We are ready to head back to Leticia and onward to Cartagena! This should be our last taste of the Amazon for a while and we feel that we have gotten a good dose of it on this trip.
12 Mar – Resguardo Indigena Macedonia – Leticia
Up at 6 and unable to sleep in, we had two hours to kill before breakfast. So we watched Sex Education until 8. Breakfast was a simple affair compared to yesterday…scrambled eggs and fried plantains. We paid up for yesterday’s tour to Monkey Island and went to the boat terminal early since Danny had been told to get there 30 minutes before our scheduled pick up time. 10 am came and went and still no boat but there were a lot of invisible gnats biting away. Our boat finally arrived at 10:30 and we sat near the front of the boat. Lesson learned after getting soaked at the rear of the boat last time! It was a fast ride back to Leticia with a stop at Monkey Island to pick up 2 more passengers. Once in Leticia, we hurried back to the hostel to see what room we would get. Danny said the rooms were a 4 bed dorm and a 6 bed dorm. He suggested that we (plus Amanda and Cat) take the 4 bed dorm upstairs because it had AC since we didn’t have it last time. However, we found out we were back in the sweat box because the AC room was already occupied. At least we had fans to help with the heat! Lunch at the hostel was included in local payment and Danny knew we didn’t want fish after 2 days of eating it for lunch and dinner so we had beef fried rice instead which was a nice change. After lunch, Becky discovered the AC room was being cleaned after the guests had checked out. So she immediately started investigating how we could switch rooms. After talking to 4 different hostel staff, she finally got the go ahead and the four of us were quite happy with the room swap because the AC made such a big difference. We went out briefly in search of Doritos and diet coke but struck out on both. At 4, we joined Cat and Amanda in a visit to the nearby indigenous ethnography museum which was free. The most interesting thing from the museum was learning about the Ticunas tribe performing a ritual called “pelazon”. When a girl gets her first menstruation, she is kept out of sight in isolation. At the end of the isolation period (which can last several months), a big “party” is held where the women of the tribe rip out all the hair of the poor girl! Talk about traumatic…who the hell wants a party like that!? After the museum, we wandered over to Santander Park for the daily bird show. Our plan was to grab a quick drink but the bars weren’t open for business yet. We met 3 soldiers and one clown who were raising awareness about protecting the environment. They were keen on taking photos with us and we understood only a fraction of what they were saying. Small trinkets were for sale to help raise money for their cause and Amanda and Becky ended up buying an anklet and bracelet which seemed to make everyone happy. The senior soldier ran after us and told us to be sure to climb the nearby church tower at 5:30 to watch the “show” once the parakeets decided to roost for the night. Apparently it is quite a commotion of sight and sound. Tickets for the tower were 3000 Pesos each and what a spectacle. Thousands of birds swooped in and out of the park and they were super noisy. We had a lovely sunset and then headed over for happy hour and dinner at Büetaré Restaurant. 2 for 1 drinks were on offer even though we missed happy hour and our dinner meals were good. Becky’s second cocktail took forever to arrive so we decided to head over to the Tierras Amazonicas for more drinks. Better service here and the cocktails were lovely, especially the camu camu, made with rum, guavaberry, triple sec, and martini. Since tonight was Leo’s last night with the group, we wanted to spend some time with him so we hunted down the other group which was Danny, Leo, Lisa and Rob. Lisa stubbed her toe on the way to the next bar so she needed minor surgery. Danny popped into a pharmacy and had her toe all sorted with ointment and a bandage in no time. We had cheap cocktails at the last bar and decided to call it a night at midnight. Leo is going to be missed but we will see him again in Quito.
13 Mar – Leticia – Cartagena
Everyone slept comfortably in the AC room. We woke at 7:30 and started packing before grabbing breakfast. Since there were two flights today, we had to condense everything into two bags, one for check in and one for carry on. Danny had us go three in a taxi to the airport and we were able to check in shortly afterwards. Amazingly, the airport had free WiFi so we were able to surf the internet while waiting for our departure at 11 am. During the baggage screening process, Robby realized he still had a massive bottle of sunscreen and bug repellent and we were surprised that he was allowed to keep both! What a lucky break. We managed to squeeze in one episode of Sex Education before boarding started. The flight to Bogota was uneventful but once we landed, we had to rush to catch our tight onward connection to Cartagena. Poor Leo – none of us gave him a proper goodbye hug but we’ll be seeing him in Quito hopefully! We had less than 30 minutes in Bogota but it was enough time to find some food (chicken and mushroom pastries which would have been good but they were cold in the middle). There was a dunkin donuts but it only had a small variety of donuts on offer so we passed. Our second flight was equally uneventful and we landed in Cartagena around 5 pm. Izzy’s luggage was the only one that didn’t make the connection but hopefully it will be on the later flight tonight. We hopped into a taxi to the old town and were quite surprised when the driver demanded payment of 14000 Pesos because Danny had given us a receipt so we assumed he had paid for it already. And the hostel had changed…we were originally told we were staying at Hostel Mamallena, but apparently the booking changed and we were moved to San Roque Hotel. Good thing Cat was in the taxi with us and had data because we would have been very frustrated otherwise! Robby paid for the taxi and decided to sort it out with Danny afterwards. The San Roque Hotel was very nice, and we were given a room on the top floor along with Cat and Amanda who were our neighbors. Ensuite bathroom, AC, fridge and memory foam king sized bed…we are very happy to have 4 nights here! Becky had been feeling slightly hungover from the excessive drinks last night so she wanted to eat and relax for the rest of the night so our first priority was finding food. A nearby Italian restaurant, Casa della Pasta, seemed like it would be perfect for our pasta cravings and we enjoyed our lasagna and 4 cheese gnocchi even though it was a bit pricey. Finding a supermarket at 7:30 pm proved impossible as everything was shuttered up but we did find a convenience store to stock up on cold drinks. Back at the hostel, some locals decided to have a party on the balcony right outside room but at least the music sounded nice! We stayed up late watching Hotel Mumbai, which was about the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. The party stopped at midnight and we slept great after that.
14 Mar – Cartagena
Great day today! Even though we had been to Cartagena briefly on a cruise ship stop, we were excited to revisit this lovely city again. Breakfast at the hotel was surprisingly nice – granola with yogurt, juice, fruit, and a ham and cheese toastie sandwich. Our plan for today was a do it yourself street art tour. Danny had mentioned the street art here is amazing and he wasn’t wrong! We were very impressed with the colorful murals painted on the sides of buildings and walls…definitely added to the charm of Cartagena. For lunch, we decided on a local joint (Restaurante Coroncoro) for the menu of the day where we got a delicious beef stew for a starter, followed by fish, chicken or beef accompanied with rice, beans, plantains and salad plus juice. All that and it was only 10000 Pesos ($2.45)…bargain! And tasty too. After that, we decided to take in the sights of the old city which was definitely more crowded with tourists but not too bad considering all cruise ships were banned from visiting because of coronavirus. The Emerald museum allowed us to take photos (unlike the one in Bogota). By early afternoon, we were done and had a bit of a rest in the room before seeing Danny’s invitation to join him for drinks at the famous (and overpriced) sunset bar. We opted to take our own drinks to drink on the old city walls and joined Amanda and Cat for a fun evening drinking as the sun set and getting nice happy hour cocktails on a rooftop bar afterwards. Those two have been our saviors in the entire Keith drama. We hate being anywhere in his vicinity and so it was nice to still be sociable without having to see his face. For dinner, we went to Basilica Pizzeria Cafe which was on a tiny square with live entertainment. First we were serenaded by two singers, then a super fit group of guys did some amazing and athletic dance moves, followed by a guy with a guitar singing songs, and on and on. We quickly ran out of our small change and had to sadly tell the performers we had nothing more to give so definitely go here with lots of small change! Our pizzas were delicious and the company was fun. Just a perfect way to end a wonderful day. On our way back to the hotel, we stumbled into Danny, Lisa and Rob drinking 2 for 1 cocktails at the Mamallena hostel bar. We wanted to join them for drinks but were feeling wiped out from the day so we chatted for a while and left Cat to enjoy a night of drinking and dancing with Danny. Back in the room, we barely managed to watch a partial episode of Homeland before drifting off to sleep in our comfortable bed.
15 Mar – Cartagena
Today felt like we were living in the twilight zone. The majority of the day was absolutely brilliant, but during the evening things deteriorated rapidly and we were left stunned and in shock. But first, let’s backtrack. Our day started bright and early – we were up for breakfast before anyone else because our plan was to hit the streets to explore the old historical center sans tourists and traffic. We were specifically interested in the door knockers of Cartagena. There must have been over a dozen different types of door knockers and we got a kick out of finding a new and unique one. Parts of old Cartagena were so beautiful they took our breath away…the Caribbean colors combined with the brilliant Spanish colonial architecture, just stunning! After exploring to our hearts content, we went over to the Centenario Park which was rumored to house cotton-top tamarins, sloths and iguanas. Boy were we in luck…Robby was able to spot a total of 3 sloths (a mom with her baby, and a solitary male) as well as a female cotton-top tamarin carrying two babies on her back! And several iguanas chilling in the trees! It was a brilliant morning, only soured by a local guy who seemed upset that Becky was taking photos and tried his best to scare the monkeys away. He was trying to sell tours which we weren’t interested in buying, but it was very bizarre that he was so incredibly rude when everyone else in the city was super friendly and welcoming. It was nearly 1 pm when we finally returned back to the hotel for a little siesta and welcome break from the sun and heat. By 4 pm, we emerged from the room to get money out of an ATM machine and do a little bit of shopping at the nearby Exito Matuna supermarket. We grabbed some drinks and snacks for the next few days and then returned to the hotel for a bit. For dinner, we were keen on trying hot wings advertised at the nearby Monalisa Pub. On our way there, we ran into Danny and Cat having happy hour cocktails after their afternoon bike ride through the city. We joined them for a Cuba Libre and the hostel manager came out to give Danny the bad news – Cartagena was about to enforce a strict lock down to combat the growing number of coronavirus cases in Colombia. This would entail restaurants and hotels shutting down, road closures, and all museums and sights closed for business. Essentially the end of our trip. We sat there stunned and in disbelief. Everything seemed so fine and normal here and we have been in such a bubble in South America these past few months but now the virus had caught up to us and our trip was over. Done, just like that. We didn’t want to face reality and decided to wait until Oasis put out some guidance on what was to happen. Perhaps we could wait out the lock down here in pretty Cartagena? Who knows…we ran into Amanda on the way back from our hot wings and ribs dinner and brainstormed quickly on some viable options but didn’t really come to any firm conclusions on what to do or what to expect. What a sudden turn of events! One minute we are enjoying all the charms that Cartagena has to offer and the next, bam! The trip is over.
16 Mar – Cartagena
It was a horrible night’s sleep! Becky was up until 3 am trying to book a flight out of Cartagena after seeing that everyone else was getting ready to fly out as well. It felt surreal…one minute we were having the time of our lives in beautiful Cartagena and the next minute, everyone was flying home abruptly…our brains barely had time to process what was happening. Amanda was leaving at 7:30 for the airport so we got up early to give her a goodbye hug and have breakfast with her. It felt sad and sudden. Last night we were discussing the possibility of Oasis getting an Airbnb for all of us and this morning, she was already booked on a flight to Bogota and then to London. Lisa and Rob joined us for breakfast and they also seemed to be in a shell shocked state. Both of them had been anticipating having one more month together and this sudden countrywide lock down was a nasty surprise. We discussed options of where we wanted to go and eventually decided on going to Boston to grab our campervan and then driving down south to warmer weather. Boston was 0 degrees celcius and we were not keen on freezing our butts off during a self imposed quarantine! The internet at the hostel was pure shit and we tried to use Hostel Mamallena’s WiFi but it wasn’t much better. So we decided to bite the bullet and hop in a taxi to the airport to sort this all out with Copa directly. But first a quick load of laundry which we were promised would be back by 9 pm tonight. The taxi drivers on the street tried to charge us 20000 Pesos to the airport but the hotel receptionist just called one up for us and he charged us 15000 Pesos instead which was more reasonable. At the airport, it was pure mayhem. Avianca had canceled an earlier flight (which resulted in Amanda not being able to make her original flight to London…she was rescheduled to fly on Saturday instead) so they had long queues and Copa had a shorter line but only one attendant. We waited patiently for nearly 3 hours and finally were able to sort out a flight to Boston via Panama on a guaranteed flight. Apparently, there were several other flights from Cartagena to Panama listed online with Copa but all of them except our 09:30 am flight would be cancelled tomorrow so we were lucky we actually talked to someone who could assist us. We were told to be at the airport no later than 06:30 am because with the other flights being cancelled, our seats would not be held for us if we were late showing up to the airport! With flights finally sorted, we hopped in a cab back to the hotel and told Danny of our plans. At around 5 pm, we joined Cat, Amanda and Danny up on the terrace for pizza and drinks. Izzy joined us and we all had a nice chat as we witnessed our last gorgeous sunset over South America. It was such a bittersweet moment. We have had the time of our lives on this trip and it feels so sad and wrong to be leaving early, but we know it is for the best. Good thing we live next door in Ecuador as we absolutely must come back to revisit Colombia! Since we still had to pick up laundry, we hugged everyone goodbye and took off to take care of sorting and packing our gear for the onward journey back to the States. We will miss almost everyone who traveled with us on this crazy little adventure!
17 Mar – Cartagena – Panama – Boston
All checked in and ready to fly to Boston! With the streets of Cartagena heavily patrolled by police blocking off several intersections, our insane taxi driver managed to drive like a speed racer and get us to the airport in about 5 minutes, door to door! We were the first in line for Copa and were checked in and through money exchange, passport control, baggage screening and duty free in less than 30 minutes. It is still hard to believe our trip is unexpectedly over even though we have now had 36 hours to process it. Goodbye South America! You have been a blast and we can’t wait to come back.