HATS OFF TO PANAMÁ! …MORE THAN JUST A CANAL.

“Panamá, Panamá, where for art thou IS PANAMÁ“? I utilise parts of this famous Shakespearean phrase to describe this Central American country because hardly anyone I come across knows where it is! Do YOU?

Basically, Panamá is the long strip of country which links North America to South America, separates the Caribbean Sea from the Pacific Ocean, is well known for its white, wide brimmed straw hats, the famous man made canal used for its bustling import/export sea trade and, more recently, the movie Laundromat starring Meryl Streep and Antonio Banderas!

In 2019, I travelled to Panamá eight times from Brisbane, Australia! I know right, I should be a local by now! But in all honesty, I didn’t really stay there as it was more of a passageway for MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I (like the ships) to travel onto further South American destinations (refer to my blogs under South America) as he had been stationed for work in a far flung town called Penonomé, a small province 4 hours drive from Panama City (Ciudad de Panamá). I know a girl who actually lived there full time for that year and she would probably be the best person to write this blog, BUT I will give it my best shot, as we did see quite a lot of the city during these short times and experienced some lovely moments in and around this intriguing country!

Panama City is predominately made up of two parts – the Old Town (Casco Viejo) and the New Town. The New Town is an ultra modern area decorated with skyscrapers lining the main Pacific Ocean road, Avenida Balboa, and is a shiny glitzy playground boasting world class hotels, casinos, huge shopping malls featuring all the luxe brands and more, night-clubs, bars and restaurants! Sort of like a small scale, Spanish speaking Abu Dhabi or Dubai but without the 52˚c heat and sand! It is huge and sprawling and the traffic is ridiculous (as is the case in most major cities). MB and I explored most of the main areas on foot or by taxi as it’s the easiest way. We hired a car once, as we were driving to Bocas del Toro (a trendy beach area on the boarder of Costa Rica and Panamá) the next day and basically spent most of the time getting lost on the badly signed highways, having many near misses or major car pile ups and stuck in traffic jams! It was very stressful if not slightly hysterical at times and I would only recommend driving here if you have: (a) nerves of steel behind the wheel or (b) are a Parisian!

On my very first trip to Panama City, alone, exhausted and with zero Spanish, I was lured by the comforts of home and opted for the “safe option” –  booking a room in the highly acclaimed, 5 star Hilton Panama situated on Avenida Balboa, the main road near the water.  It was a perfect choice of hotel for two days; affordable, luxurious AND in the best location. With views over the pacific, the city and the 3.5 km long avenue snaking its way towards Casco Viejo, it had everything! With enormous rooms, a rooftop pool alongside a fantastic restaurant, lovely staff and easy access to the long walking/cycling path opposite, I was very surprised just how at ease I immediately felt upon arrival. Even though it was all enclosed and ‘fishbowl’ like, I managed to find my way to little supermarkets nearby and take in a stroll along the waters edge to de-puff my aeroplane legs and visit the cheeky resident Panamanian racoons that hide in the rocks! 

Strangely enough, neither MB or myself ever stayed in this hotel again, as we dedicated ourselves, thereafter, to staying in AirB&B’s in Casco Viejo as it was much more our groove! However (and this is a great tip), we utilised the rooftop pool many times during the year! Anyone can go and ‘pool crash’ here and you don’t even need to eat or buy a drink! No one seems to care so feel free to grab a towel and go crazy! We did dine several times at the poolside bistro Saquella which was fabulous (a big call as we don’t do hotels or ever eat at their restaurants) and made a good connection with one of the waiters from day one. I highly recommend this particular Hilton (as there are a few different ones in town).

Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo (Old Town) is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is a leisurely 30 minute walk from the Hilton Panamá and is lovely.  The perfectly paved streets are lined with colourful heritage buildings, many of which have been beautifully renovated or are in the throws of major renovation and it is also the site for the Presidential Palace (of course) two enormous Cathedrals and the French Embassy! Voilà! Security is extra tight around this neighbourhood because of the Palace and safety at night or anytime is never an issue! It is strangely ultra clean and tidy too, unfortunately giving the area a slightly sterile and ‘Hollywood movie set’ appearance. This was all done though, of course, to attract the tourists which indeed it has. The major hotel here is the American Trade Hotel, a huge, Spanish colonial style structure built in 1917 which looks onto the plaza. It is stunning and staying there costs the same as a small country, but it is also the best landmark to find your bearings when you get lost in the labyrinth of streets! Casco (as the locals call it)  is also extremely popular after dark due to its multitude of fantastic rooftop bars, (I think we visited them all at least once and some many times) and loads of lovely little intimate bistros and bars offering anything from French cuisine to Spanish tapas, Peruvian delicacies and Italian. It is THE HAPPENING AREA for both locals and expats to drop their slacks and relax over a glass of vino tinto or twelve when the sun goes down.

Be warned though…this pretty, sleepy little place during the day metamorphoses into a loud, throbbing, twinkling nightspot after 6pm everynight, so be sure to join them ‘cause you cannot beat them! Depending where you stay, you can’t always here the noise, so choose wisely and try to keep clear of the major bars or ‘party hotels’. Find somewhere on a quiet street, opposite the water or on the boarder of the residential area of the Old Town where the everyday Panamanians still live. Saying this, however, the constant beeping of cars due to the traffic jams caused by the narrow one way streets and the racket on bin collection day, ie: everyday, takes its toll a bit after a while as there is never any peace unless it’s between 4 and 7am! But hey, that’s Latino Land for you! 

Thankfully, the numerous AirB&B’s we chose throughout the year rarely disappointed. (Apart from the one with sex toys in the drawer or the one where you weren’t allowed to sit or smoke on the balcony but we did both anyway! However, that’s a WHOLE different blog)! All were housed in perfectly renovated buildings and gorgeous inside, most with original exposed brick walls and Spanish tiles, many of them furnished with state of the art appliances and all with balconies overlooking the street or with views to the water or the new town! We could never stay in a hotel again after being this spoilt and we thoroughly enjoyed our nights of animated bliss, cocooned within the bosom of perfectly renovated ruins… could you? Also the freedom of being able to walk to dinner or for drinks on the rooftops and wobble home was just an added bonus!

Casco Viejo or Casco Antiguo (some of the signs say both just to confuse you, but it’s the same place) also has an unrenovated area which is home to many locals and businesses. A bit like Havana in Cuba, it is grungy and full of life and also very colourful, as it has many walls dedicated to magnificent street art. MB and I visited this area every time we were in Panamá, as it has a very huge, modern local supermarket that was so damn cold you nearly froze to death (but it was lovely in summer), a long pedestrian street and many quirky little shops. It is the place to go if you need mobile phone accessories, cheap shoes or electronics and we even stumbled across a major outlet for Tommy Hilfiger… go figure! 

Panamá uses $USD notes but local coins in the currency of the Balboa. Yes, I bet you’re thinking of Rocky and Sylvester Stallone right now! Whatever makes it easy to remember! The coins took a bit of getting used to and I never really mastered anything other than the one Balboa, which is equivalent to $1USD. To be honest, I found Panamá quite expensive, coming from Australia, as most of the prices were about the same as I would pay back in Oz, but not always for top shelf food or clothing. Believe me, if there were bargains, I would have found them!

Keeping occupied in Casco Viejo is easy, as just wandering the streets and admiring the buildings is enough for some! Take in the beauty of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Mary, the rooster overlooking Plaza de Francia (France Square) or just indulge in the numerous photo opportunities which represent themselves at every turn! Check out the open air market (on a Sunday) or the Artisanal Marketplace (above Plaza de Francia) where you can buy traditional mola (embroidered cloth) made by the indigenous Kuna women of Panamá. Whilst you’re fishing around, go over the road to the largest seafood market and open air ceviche restaurant in Panama City! A very popular spot for the locals, be brave and try some Panamanian ceviche (refer to blog on ceviche for more info) from one the many kiosks, open day and night or just drool at the mountains of different varieties of ultra fresh fish and seafood for sale which have come straight from the boats! My ultimate pick, however, would be to expand your knowledge and visit the very interesting Panamá Canal Museum…

The Panama Canal Museum is housed in a historic building that was the original headquarters for the French and American companies involved in the construction of the canal. It is a surprisingly fascinating tour and even if you’re not a history buff or have any interest in anything remotely nautical, we were immediately enraptured by the sheer enormity of the scale and complexity of this mission! I’ll refrain from going into too much detail about this accomplishment, but let’s just say that it was and still is ‘one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken’. It first began being constructed by the French in 1881, to open a shorter and more direct line of transport for ships from the Pacific to the Atlantic ocean, but, due to many problems, was later was taken over and finished by the Americans, finally opening in 1914. Many years, many dollars and many lives were spent to make this wonder happen and today it is still the most used and necessary route for maritime transportation known to man. To really take in the canal, take a drive over it or go and see the locks, if that’s your thing, as you get to see and hear the enormous cargo ships as they pass through. Remarkable! FYI: Cameras are not allowed in the museum, so unfortunately there are no photos to show you.. sorry!

Shopping in Panamá isn’t overly thrilling as huge malls and multileveled department stores don’t really excite me in any way, no matter what city I’m visiting! I don’t even visit them in my own country! I’m much more of a ‘little boutique down a side street’ or local market kind of gal, however, if malls are your thing, there are plenty here just for you! – Multiplaza being one of largest and most popular.

But hunting for the ultimate souvenir, a Panama hat or Sombrero de papa toquilla, is fun and will take up a big chunk of your time, as there are many stores that specialise in them! Panama hats are actually hand made in Ecuador from the straw of the toquilla palm and cloned their name when they were shipped through Panamá to be on sold to other countries. They finally became famous when the residing US President Theodore Roosevelt was spotted jauntily wearing one during his visit to the Panama Canal and the rage took off! Who would have imagined an American president being a fashion icon! To choose a good one, the straw must be finely woven and soft and experts say that the best ultra fine ones (and indeed the most expensive) should be able to pass through a wedding ring when folded! All you have to do is personalise this expedition by finding the best one in size, colour, quality, style and, of course, price!

 

FYI: I bought quite a few for family and friends over the year (not the ultimate quality ones but lovely enough to the job) and payed between $40-60USD. I found the ‘large man’ in the boutique on the corner just near the Capitol Bistro and Bar to be friendly and reasonable… Hola!

If walking or any form of general exertion is for you, then the long 3.5km path running along the seafront is a fantastic way to escape the general pandemonium of Panamá! Lush green lawns, numerous trees, shady rest spots, sculptures, basketball courts and outside gyms are all available to be enjoyed by all. The walkway or Malecón can be accessed from the new town (via overpasses) all the way to Casco Viejo and even wraps around to join the highway crossing the sea that joins you to the Panama Canal. It’s a wonderful invention and highly used by everyone. Even little drink and food stalls are set up here everyday/night for when dehydration or hunger strikes! It is SO CLEAN AND TIDY it’s ridiculous and there is always someone gardening or fixing/painting something and collecting rubbish. Even the local police utilise this pathway, riding up and down here all day on their top of the range motor bikes, whizzing past the panting joggers, sweaty tourists and numerous dog walkers. MB and I did this promenade many times over the year (mostly to go into the new town to buy croissants from Paul Patisserie in the W Hotel or to ‘pool crash’ at the Hilton) and it’s a very relaxing and enjoyable way to simultaneously burn calories and breathe in some fresh sea air! Be aware though that the tides here are extreme and when it is high it’s lovely, but when it is low, the place can resemble a backwater swamp with the smell and the marooned boats stuck in the mud. Not very pretty, but that’s a city on the water for you!  

Traditions are still very much alive and kicking here in Panamá  as well, as the boisterous latino subculture and the gentle indigenous tribes rub shoulders everyday with tourists and the large American expat community. There is always a festival, Saints Day or enthusiastic parade occurring in Casco Viejo and we were fortunate enough to witness many of these from the comfort of our balcony or even to join in as they danced down the streets. The beautiful, colourful Pollera dresses of the Panamanian women are magnificent in all their intricate detail and the men are handsome and proud in their black and white straw Montuno hats. (And, yes, of course I bought one!) The indigenous Kuna tribesmen and women from the islands of San Blas are everywhere in Panamá too, easily identifiable by their tiny stature, beautifully beaded arms and legs and geometrically patterned clothes. They sell many of their wares at stalls along the Malecón and at the market or are just going about their daily routines in and around all areas of Panamá. It’s marvellous! 

Speaking of old towns, the original Old Town of Panamá, Panamá Viejo, is just outside the main city centre. Its ruins and tower are still standing today and is accessible to tourists. Unfortunately MB and I never ended up going there to have a look (which is embarrassing) as we never even knew it existed since we didn’t go to this area except on our way to the airport! It was only the taxi driver who, one day, took us the long way round and pointed it out! We felt slightly ashamed that this historical area was left unacknowledged by us for so long but I hope you can visit it for us one day maybe!

If you’re searching for a bit of paradise and a dose of sun, sand and sea, Panamá also has an archipelago, the Pearl Islands or Isla de las Perlas which lie in the gulf just off the coast. Consisting of Taboga, Contadora, Saboga, Bolaños, Viveros and Flamenco, they are the closest islands to the city (Taboga Island being a mere 30 minutes express ferry ride through the beginning of the canal) and are popular for day trippers or ‘mini breakers’. 

One time MB and I needed to escape Panama City immediately as our poor choice of accommodation in Casco Viejo had us unknowingly booked into a room at the ‘party hotel’ Gatto Blanco. IT WAS AWFUL as we were kept awake till 4am every day due to the constant doof doof of house music! We craved for some R&R and to lie on a beach and hear waves, so crying (or maybe that was just me) we practically sprinted to the ferry terminal with our bags and threw ourselves on the first boat outta there! We chose Taboga Island, as it was the closest and only stayed one night, but even that was lovely enough, leaving us with the feeling that we had visited some unknown exotic island in the sea! Luck was on our side and we managed to score a beautiful room in an old hacienda, The Vereda Tropical Hotel with Juliet balconies and views over the water. It was marvellous! Calm and serene and with not a note of house music to be heard anywhere!

Taboga is small but interesting enough, with some lovely beaches, a smattering of restaurants and a very laid back vibe. It is known as the Island of Flowers and is extremely pretty, with little sculptures and streets to explore. Another popular choice for a weekend getaway and to have a brush with fame is Contadora Island otherwise known as John Wayne Island as it was once a playground for the famous actor and some of his counterparts! Who knew?

The Islands of San Blas are the most well known archipelago near Panamá for those in search of the white sand and turquoise waters of the Caribbean. They are much further away, harder to access and are very primitive in their lodgings, but are extremely beautiful I’m told. MB and I looked into spending a week there exploring her lush surrounds, but the prices for accommodation were ridiculous and we had already been spoilt with Caribbean Island life when we visited his family in Guadeloupe (see blog). We had also lived in Madagascar for 4 years and visited the islands off the coast there, which are very similar to San Blas and with little grass huts, so we decided to forgo this area and explore some of the regions further out of Panama City like Bocas del Toro (see blog), for our beach getaway and to discover more adventures!

As the title of this blog suggests, Panamá is so much more than just a latino country with a famous canal and fashionable headwear. It offers its visitors a safe, modern city with a historical twist; a place to be calm whilst living amongst chaos. It has lovely people and an edgy urban spirit which shines through if you look past the obvious modern day mayhem. I thoroughly enjoyed my short bursts of time here, fell in love with her old town and came to appreciate all of Panamá’s beauty, as I think there is a little bit of magic here for everyone. Gracias y adiós!

FYI:  Below is my list of the best restaurants and bars in Panamá that we frequented:

THE OLD TOWN (CASCO VIEJO):

CasaCasco (THE BEST rooftop bar);  The Strangers Club (a very pretty little bistro serving modern South American cuisine);  Capital Bistro ( has great views over the water and to the new town and a good menu);  Caliope (a five star, modern restaurant in an old theatre);  Lessep’s Bistro ( THE BEST French restaurant in Panamá);  Salveje Restaurante and Bar (funky multi story building with three restaurants and a rooftop bar serving modern asian/latino fusion);  Santa Rita (five star bistro with awesome decor and THE BEST CEVICHE in town);  Cascomar (our very favourite tapas bar with an outdoor terrace, which is rare in Panamá for some odd reason!);  Barrio’s Pizza (great pizza to take away if you just want a quiet night at home on your balcony).

 

THE NEW TOWN: 

Gaucho’s Steakhouse (cute little white stucco house with fantastic steak choices and a real local vibe);  Petit Paris (a French couple run this bistro and patisserie not far from the Hilton and was our ‘go to’ when in town); and finally…Saquella (the pool restaurant at the Hilton).

TABOGA ISLAND:

Los Ranchitos de Playa Honda  (the cutest little beach bistro on the island with excellent service and local delicacies served with a smile).

…”A man, a plan, a canal: Panamá!”…Leigh Mercer 1948

 

When you think of Colombia, what immediately springs to mind? Cocaine, crime and drug cartels? Me too! So it was with slight trepidation that MB (Monsieur Bleu) and myself headed off on our final South American Sojourn to see for ourselves just what all the fuss was about!  

Notorious for its ‘disreputable reputation as the mothership for all things unscrupulous, this country was not high on the bucket list I can assure you, but nonetheless, peaked our unconventional curiosity somewhere!

CARTAGENA:  Deciding to give the capital Bogata a swerve as the altitude, pollution, population and cold temperatures didn’t float our holiday boat, we headed to the next most popular destination and undoubtedly the prettiest by far – Cartagena!

A short but expensive 45 minute flight from Panama, Cartagena, Colombia’s bohemian capital, is an amazing sight, with a long public beach, large imposing fortress and a huge fortified wall, making the split between the Old and New Towns very apparent! A quick 25 minute drive from the airport, and known as the  ‘Jewel of the Indies’, this port town that sits on the Caribbean coast, is famous for her selfie inspired instagrammable calles (streets) of colours, warm climate and the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters of the nearby Rosario Islands, which are only accessible by boat.

 

The modern new town with her towers of concrete condominiums built on the seafront is attractive, (from afar), conjuring images of similar towns like Panama, Dubai and Singapore but nothing to rave about! You come to this picturesque place to marvel at her past, the Centro Historico de Cartagena de Indias resplendent in her narrow paved streets lined with tiny houses and shopfronts painted in all the colours of the rainbow, many strewn with flags and umbrellas to accentuate their spectacular beauty. 

We stayed in a tastefully renovated cobalt blue painted local casa (airB&B as usual) complete with our own interior plunge pool, muchas gracias, in one of the quieter streets in the San Diego district of the old town which is located just inside the wall. This area is popular due to its accessibility to all the main restaurant and shopping areas as walking was the transport mode del momento most of the time. Cars, electric scooters and taxis are allowed, as are large and ornate Spanish style carriages (with horses attached), which clip clop up and down the streets all day and night ferrying around hot, tired tourists or romantically challenged couples! Poor little ponies! We hired a car to drive to Playa Blanca and Santa Marta and had to leave it in a large, safe and reasonably priced open air carpark just outside the wall as street parking inside was not an option.

Cartagena is pretty manic most of the time I must inform you! Being one of the most vivid and visited cities in Colombia, the crowds in the old town are brutal, as are the hundreds of hawkers, street vendors, tour sellers and calle performers who ambush you from every angle, every minute of every day! No exaggeration! “No! Gracias!” was the most used Spanish phrase we uttered about three thousand times a day whilst on this trip and if another bloody hat salesman offered us hats WHEN WE WERE ALREADY WEARING THEM, I was going to shove his damn sombrero where the sun didn’t shine! 

Thank heavens for our little plunge-pooled oasis in the ‘burbs’ for if it wasn’t for this, having to endure the heat, crowds and constant barrage of people, would not have made the holiday endurable! We made the grave mistake of arriving there on a long weekend… so, it seemed, did half of Bogata (did I mention that we had avoided Bogata because of the crowds…mmmm)! The big city dwellers and others from surrounding towns all decided to descend upon this colourful city in droves and also onto the beaches…

Playa Blanca: (Warning, this will be a bit of a rant but bare with me)… Is the most sought after and popular beach area in Cartagena and the tourist agencies push this holiday haven down your throat at every opportunity. The photos were gorgeous and the promise and lure of kilometres of pristine sand, perfect water and much needed respite, was only about a one and a half hour drive from the Centro Historico. “Let’s give it a go!” we mused. BAD IDEA!

It was also Sunday and that wasn’t helping the situation, but little did we know what we were about to experience. Driving there was bad enough, through some very impoverished suburbs where if you stopped at any traffic light you were bombarded by aggressive windscreen cleaners and/ or destitute Venezuelan refugees demanding money or food. Not fun and a little frightening too I can assure you. I understand that Colombia has very poor areas and that the recent economic war crisis in Venezuela has forced many of its inhabitants to flee to greener pastures and fend for themselves and their families, but the magnitude of this was completely unnerving and unsettling as it was literally in your face at every turn. It was both sad and terrifying all at once and we don’t get rattled easily.

Finally arriving at the long and potholed road that leads to Playa Blanca’s makeshift carpark area, we were besieged and harassed continually once again by gangs of young locals screaming at us and banging on the windows of the car in the fight to be our guide and carpark attendant or to tout for business for their restaurant or beach club area. IT. WAS. AWFUL. Beyond this initial Nightmare @ Playa Blanca, came the realisation that we were not alone. I think the whole of Colombia and their dogs had decided to come to the beach this hot and sunny Sunday in October and we were the only non-locals descending upon it too. Finding a park amongst a swarm of mosquitos and having 3-4 ‘guides’ following us and yelling at where to go and what to do was just too much. We both took one look at the beach, covered in bodies with not a grain of sand left on which to lay your sarong and the turquoise water awash with even more bodies and jet ski’s and we hot footed it outta there and back to our car without a moments hesitation. More arguments ensued with the ‘guides’ as they were angry we didn’t stay, pay or want/need them and let’s just say that the entire episode ended nastily with me having panic attack in the car and MB verbally fighting off a gang of persistent 18yr old boys. 

Moral of the story: Don’t visit Playa Blanca on a weekend, but if you do want or need to see it, go on a weekday and arrive by boat with a return ticket to get the hell out when the going gets tough…and it will!

Having still not experienced the beach bliss we were desperately craving, MB and I took the toro by the horns and decided to go all out and rent our very own private boat to take us to the much revered archipelago of the Rosario Islands ( Islas del Rosario) which are a stones throw away from Cartagena centre. Hired from Boats4U at the marina, it was $500 USD for the whole day with a captain and a driver. It was not the budget option by far (as you can purchase individual seats on a packed speedboat for a reasonable price, but are marooned with the masses for hours), but at this point we didn’t give a flying fig! Comfort, security and sanity were our prerequisites on this day and hopefully a swim in the Caribbean and a snooze on the beach after a well deserved Piña Colada and a satisfying lunch! I’m happy to report that all the above was achieved! Gracias a Dios!

 

Our boat trip lasted around six hours all up from departure to arrival back at the marina and was very pleasant. We visited the three main islands (there are 28 in total but we sailed past most of them) had a fantastic lunch on Isla Cholon (bring on the fish and mango curry), had a swim and met the macaws in Playa Azul and dove from the boat into crystal clear waters near Playa Grande. The highlight however, was sailing past Pablo Escobar’s imposing but now defunct ‘party house’. The huge white mansion is now a squatters paradise (use your imagination as to what hedonistic activities went on there back in its heyday) and even one of his drug carrier seaplanes lays to rest at the bottom of the ocean just off the beach! So exciting and intriguing! With not a hat seller in sight or a guide to be fought off, the day was just as relaxing as we had envisioned and calm descended upon us as did a thunderstorm upon our return. We didn’t care…we were content and happy at last!

Back on the mainland for a few more days before heading north to Santa Marta, we moved house, securing a spacious and luxurious top floor apartment (with a pool in the complex of course) in the very hip neighbourhood of Getsemani (pronounced: get..some..money)! Now this funky area is outside the wall and our place was right opposite the central park where sloths, red squirrels and tiny tamarin monkeys live side by side in peaceful harmony. The area is renowned for its relaxed, low key vibe and calles dedicated to street art, where some wonderfully painted wall murals steal the limelight from the already beautiful coloured streets and where photographers jostle each other for the perfect shot.

 

We entertained ourselves by merrily eating and drinking each day and night at a range of wonderful restaurants dotted around town, thoughtfully recommended by our lovely French airB&B hostess. The range and quality of eating places available in Cartagena’s old town is phenomenal and of course we only scratched the surface, but where we did try never disappointed and that’s a huge plus in our cookbook!

We celebrated our 10th anniversary sitting inside at the bar (as we hadn’t reserved a table) at a wonderful restaurant called Carmen, in San Diego which was literally 100 metres from our first house. FYI: No bookings are needed for the bar area and it offers the same menu as the main restaurant. Feasting on a fantastic dinner and sipping champagne amongst the elegant and trendy Colombian crowd, we enjoyed the floorshow, watching the waiters mix and throw flamboyant cocktails! Another must visit is Caffé Lunatico in Getsemani. Tucked away in a quiet local street and conveniently located next door to our other favourite Celele, it offers modern bistro food with a Spanish twist in a simple setting, is open day and night and has footpath dining! The owner is kind and cheeky and the value for money outstanding. We went for lunch and dinner and were blown away by the food quality and efficient service. The third classic place is Celele, which is right next door and one of the top restaurants in Cartagena. Serving Caribbean classics with a modern edge, it was interesting and innovative highlighted by knowledgeable staff and designer plates and stemware. A must visit for all three!

 

Lunch at the acclaimed La Cervicheria in the centre of the old town, with its bright blue chairs and fresh seafood was another great find on a hot day. Sitting outside and watching the world go by whilst being serenaded by a violinist was lovey, apart from the hat sellers who were everywhere as usual and were annoying. “Por favor, Señor”…PLEASE just leave us alone! A night-cap or a sundowner at Bahia de Las Animas, an area on the waterfront that hosts food trucks every night, is a great idea to escape the hordes. Also check out Cafe del Mar on top of the wall overlooking the sea for a cheeky cocktail, but don’t expect quick service!

 

There are plenty of little plaza’s dotted around Cartagena’s old town, most full of little bars where you can rest and recuperate, but you are ALWAYS approached by street vendors and/or drug dealers (don’t be scared, they don’t harass you if you refuse) so be warned. It’s a real shame as you always feel the urge to just get up and leave as there is no escape, unless you are inside a restaurant or at home.

For some cultural enlightenment, we visited the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas one overcast afternoon. The castle /fortress, built in 1536 and named in honour of Prince Philip IV of Spain, is a mammoth stone structure which has been attacked and repaired numerous times over its lifespan but still stands proud near the entrance of the great wall. At $15USD for two people, it is worth a visit and the strenuous climb to her summit for the magnificent 360 degree view of Cartagena…and yes, there are hat sellers there too! Another good exercise option is to walk the entire length of the wall, taking a birds eye view of the water and the city. We did this marathon twice and also, I think, trekked down every street in the old town at least once! We racked up so many kilometres on foot we knew that damn place inside and out by our final day!

 

Shopping! Of course I couldn’t write a blog without mentioning retail therapy, and Cartagena has it in spades! Being the tourist mecca it is, the place is packed with boutiques selling anything and everything for any budget. Emeralds and gold are the main attraction for those with endless supplies of peso’s and you are not without choice for jewellery stores offering tempting window displays of the glittering gems! I acquired some beautiful and unusual rings at Elia Jewellery, a tiny corner boutique in the San Diego district, but reluctantly boycotted the green goddess of the gemstone world! To be honest, I bought most of my wares from Santa Marta where the shopping was simpler and street stalls and markets were cheaper and more accessible. Much more my style! 

SANTA MARTA:  Having exhausted our resources in Cartagena, MB gallantly suggested we take a road trip and drive to the oldest town in Colombia, Santa Marta. This legendary city is the laidback  ‘mini me’ of Cartagena but with more Dutch backpackers and is the final resting place of the famous Venezuelan president and liberator Simón Bolívar. To reach this historic town, one must drive for about 4 hours through dilapidated shanty towns and villages of abysmal poverty where the rubbish tip and toilet is the street. It was an interesting journey…

The next main town out of Cartagena is Barranquilla, which is huge in itself and a bit industrial,  but we didn’t stop there as we had the sea and sun in our sights. Having not planned this four day sideline excursion, we were excited at the prospect of spontaneity in this part of the world, but slightly hesitant as well due to recent events! Hence our hurry to speed onwards to our destination and book somewhere to stay. 

Arriving into Santa Marta was simple, as the township is small and condensed with a palm tree fringed beach, a little marina, another colourful old town AND high-rises, all surrounded by the beautiful mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta.  We managed to secure a very modern apartment for two nights (with a communal roof top pool) courtesy of airB&B as usual, and a penthouse apartment with its own plunge pool and bbq for the last two days! Both were in the old town, which was in walking distance to everything local. Car parking is bizarre here as you have to park in the street and a little man covers the car with cardboard to protect it from the sun’s harsh rays and you pay him a tip upon collection! Simple but effective! 

 

There is a lot of history in Santa Marta and we spent a great deal of time doing tourist trips around the area for a bit of a culture hit in between trips to the beach, shopping, eating and lazing by the pool. The best was visiting the final resting place of Simón Bolívar or Simón José Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolíver y Palacios Ponte-Andrade y Blanco (serioulsy!)… or just SíBo for short, which was in a beautiful Spanish hacienda called Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino on the outskirts of Santa Marta. Good luck pronouncing all these names!

Good old SíBo, (as I affectionally referred to him) was known as ‘El Libertador’ and born on the same day as me but a few hundred years earlier! I have now claimed him as my distant astrological relative! Being an influential man and leader, Colombia and a great deal many other South American countries, dedicate nearly everything to him and R.E.S.P.C.T is given and seen throughout. Sadly, he died of TB in 1830 at the young age of 47, just as he was preparing to return to Europe. Many of his writings and artefacts have been preserved and are stationed here in this museum and are for public viewing. His body was buried in the Cathedral of Santa Marta but later exhumed and returned to his birth place in Caracas.

 

Still on the museum theme, we also took time to visit the Museo del Oro Tairona-Casa de la Aduana. Entrance is free and it’s smack bang in the middle of town, so there’s really no excuse! Being the original customs house of this area, it is now dedicated to the stories and history of Gran Colombia and its native people, gold era and, of course, SíBo. The walk around this old casa is interesting in itself, as most of the original house is still in great condition. Even just looking out over the plaza to the sea from the wooden balconies instills a sense of peace and calm.

There is a large section dedicated solely to the four tribes of the Sierra Indians of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Living a simple life on the sides of this pyramid shaped mountain on the northern tip of the Andes, which to them is the heart of the world (sometimes they come into the city to see how the modern world is progressing or regressing), ‘the older brothers’ as they refer to themselves, believe they have greater wisdom and a higher understanding of the universe than those of us who are the ‘younger brothers’, ie: everyone else! The beliefs and customs of these gentle folk are a testament to how we maybe all should live and think and reading about their story was enlightening and humbling. Sadly, their numbers and territory is in jeopardy due to ongoing conflict with the drug cartels and the growing of coca. This plant is used by the Sierra Indians as part of their culture and everyday life, but used and abused by the cartels as it is a main ingredient for the manufacture of the addictive white marching powder (cocaine).

 

On a lighter note, we managed a couple of hours on the local beach, Playa Rodadero. 

Yet again our world was bombarded with street vendors pushing their wares at you every five seconds and, of course, the HAT MEN were there in droves! It was deserted compared with Playa Blanca and the beach is quite nice, not white sand but clean, and the water is cool, calm and clear. There are some local restaurants which are ok but we settled for BYO sandwiches and were happy! Worth a trip for a refreshing dip after all that intellectual info!

 

Santa Marta is a popular destination for those outdoorsy, hiking types (hence it’s a drawcard for European backpackers), as treks to the Tayrona National Park to check out the ruins left by the Tayrona civilisation or Sierra Nevada Mountain to visit the Indians, can be arranged from any tourist office. Both of these require a few days travel and I’m sure are very interesting, but we did not have the time or the inclination for these exploratory experiences!

Instead, MB and I drove around the towns, both new and old and found little places to eat like our favourite restaurant Ouzo. Located right in the middle of the plaza opposite our second rental, it offered Greek/Colombian fusion cuisine, which was both tasty and visually appealing! We loved it so much we dined there twice and met many other interesting tourists. We also indulged one night in cooking our own BBQ at home on our rooftop terrace by the plunge pool, enjoying the nighttime scenery and bustling city from the comfort of our own space! It also gave us an excuse to check out the local supermarkets and order from the butcher in Spanish that was as massacred as his meat!

 

As I hadn’t yet indulged my obsession with bags and shoes, finding and purchasing both was another fun filled morning had by all! The Indians of Sierra Nevada hand make wonderful fabric bags of all different colours and designs as each tribe has their own style. I bought a few as gifts and also as collectors items as this is the only area they can be purchased straight from the source. Unbeatable! I also nabbed a fine pair of colourful leather sandals, handmade with care and attention, from a local cobbler and for sale for a steal from the side of the road! A mega bulk coffee purchase in the caffeine boutique and our time here in ‘loca’ Colombia was finally complete!

 

Our intense trip was fraught with times of anxiety and unpleasantness, but also sprinkled with loads of fun, whacky encounters and, most importantly, lots of laughter! Regardless of all of this, we had a blast and were so glad we went and experienced it for ourselves. Even the HAT MEN made such an impression in the end that I eventually succumbed and purchased one just keep the peace! So now we know that persuasive perseverance does win in the end and I tip my new hat to you feisty fellas! Adios amigos! 

”Nations march to greatness at the same pace as their education progresses”…Simón Bolívar      

 

  

  

 

  

  

 

Hola Amigos! This is the local catch phrase throughout sunny Mexico and one we would hear many times during our trip to this ancient land of the Aztecs and the Mayans. Wanting to visit both the land and the sea areas of this huge country, MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I decided to start our journey in vibrant MEXICO CITY, home to Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, amber cerveza, corn cobs and brightly coloured calaveras (skulls) and where street vendors pumped out plates of hot, delicious overfilled flour tortillas from dawn till dusk!

MEXICO CITY: What can I say? Home to over 21 million people, it is bloody enormous and you need a week, I think, to truly appreciate it. We had two days…? ! As usual, our time was limited and we really only wanted to see the major sites of the city, visit Frida’s azure blue home and the Aztec ruins in Teotihuacán, indulge in a taco or two and then mariachi our way to the famous beach areas of Los Cabos and Puerto Vallarta where we would, hopefully, relax!

Days start late here, as the bustling, never ending night life for which this city is also famous, sends the masses into a constant state of hungover, weary bliss! Awaking on Saturday morning in our rented 1920’s brownstone apartment (conveniently located above the best bakery or panaderia/pasteleria in town) in the bohemian district of Roma, gave us the sugar sweet kickstart we needed after a bizarre first night dinner at a Mexican steakhouse called Angus which turned out to be a slightly glamorous version of a girly bar/hostess joint and where I was the only woman not sitting on the laps of suited men or singing in the band!

Setting off to tackle our frenetic first day in Mexico City and wanting to explore the sights of the old town centre, or Centro Histórico, we decided to take in the sun and stroll like locals through the streets around our neighbourhood, leisurely making the colourful one hour walk to our destination past street stalls, shop vendors and copious food stands already nourishing both tourists and locals with their first spicy feed of the day.

Centro Histórico is a maze of wide avenues and paved pedestrian walking streets and where the main plaza or zòcalo (the largest in Latin America) is surrounded by enormous and ancient hispanic buildings and throbbing with people from all walks of life. Huge stores like Zara and HMV occupy 18th century shopfronts whilst beggars, hawkers, street performers and musicians are frantically vying for your attention at every step. Maybe it was because it was Saturday or maybe it was always this busy, but we found the constant sea of human life bombarding us from every angle annoying and suffocating, and couldn’t truly appreciate the majestic beauty of the town due to having to hastily change direction all the time to avoid the constant barrage!

Beautiful shopfronts
Busy streets in Mexico City

Falling upon the huge open marketplace in the zócalo, filled with traditional Mexican fare touting everything from delicately embroidered clothing and handmade leather shoes to exotic food stuffs of all varieties, gave us the fleeting respite we craved as we inspected the shop owners wares. Leaving the market behind and venturing once again into the throng of the inner city centre, we stopped to take photos of the Catedral Metropolitana (Metropolitan Cathedral) and other various beautiful buildings which make up her heart. The large ruin site of Temple Mayor sits just near the cathedral and is a mammoth testament to the God of Rain and the God of War. Witnessing various “smudging” rituals performed on locals along with Aztec dances by bizarre winged and masked characters (the TV series The Masked Singer would go down well here) made for an interesting walk towards the more local side of town.

Temple Mayor Site
Metropolitan Cathedral

Finding a crudely set up massage stall run by a group of white cloaked folk, MB and I ran the risk of permanent spine damage and had a very good twenty minute rub down all whilst listening to jaunty mariachi music and becoming somewhat street performers ourselves (MB had his shirt off for a bit, I, thankfully, did not) all for the bargain price of $100 pesos ($5 USD)! Seriously needing food and a sit down, we trudged our way down street upon street of haphazardly built stalls selling everything and anything to everybody before we finally found a taco bistro. Strange but true, locating somewhere to eat for lunch was not an easy feat in this town or maybe we just were in the wrong area, but we searched high and low for a place that wasn’t an ice cream shop, closed till 5pm, asian cuisine or an expensive enclosed fishbowl style place with no atmosphere! Packed with a younger crowd of locals and with tiny tables spilling onto the street all featuring bowls of delicious, vibrant green guacamole with tostadas and bottles of refreshing cerveza, helped our childish needs to “feel Mexican” come to life!

Handmade clothes at the Market

After taco time, delicious as it all was, we made the ridiculous decision to attempt to visit the home of Frida Kahlo with no pre booked tickets. Wrong move! We chose to hire an UBER (excellent choice of transport here in Mexico City as it’s very cheap and reliable and would highly recommend it at all times) to drive us the 30 minutes to the other side of town. La Casa Azul, or The Blue House, the Frida Kahlo Museum is in the chic upmarket neighbourhood of Cayoacán. Open from 11am-530pm (closed Monday), a kilometre of people snaked around the cobalt blue walls, all waiting to hopefully snatch up tickets before closing time. We reluctantly joined the queue sweltering in the afternoon sun and managed to score some overpriced tickets online for the next day at 430pm via tripadavisor. (Only to discover when we came back the following day, that the tickets were indeed a scam and we never received them! More on that later…)!

Having, apparently, bought tickets for Sunday, we breathed a sigh of relief and jointly decided to walk back to our funky Roma neighbourhood, a mere 2.5 hrs, so we could take in some of the lesser explored areas this vast city had to offer and see how the locals lived. Visiting churches and taking photos of every monument ever constructed isn’t really our style, so no, we didn’t see all the popular sites of Mexico City, but we had a lovely time checking out odd little shops and family run cafes down side streets and indulging in fresh, warm churros from the side of the road. Life is better this way!

Reaching our home just as the heavens opened, but spying a lovely street about five minutes walk from our place along the way lined with many upmarket restaurants and bars (fabulous), we hoped our second night in this city would redeem itself and offer us a more low key dinner date than the first! We were not disappointed and managed somehow to secure an outside table at the famous Rosetta Restaurant on the fly…something which just isn’t done here as this particular restaurant is normally booked out months ahead! Gracias for low season! Set in an old, Spanish mansion, it has been voted one of the most romantic and culinary forward restaurants in Latin America! Little did we know…we just thought it was pretty!

Me at Rosetta Restaurant

A gorgeous Italian/Mexican fusion dinner ensued, all washed down with very fruity Mexican pinot noir and with a lovely waiter and happy staff, we would definitely recommend this place. Overtired legs and overall weariness from our huge day made us crawl off to bed just before midnight as the next and final day of our quick trip here was to begin early… we were off to the Pyramids! But only after, of course, a couple of much needed, legendary Mexican Margaritas! Olé!

Our new best friend UBER once again came to the rescue that sunny Sunday in August, as the thought of partaking in an expensive three hour guided tour by bus to the ancient Pyramids of Teotithuacán didn’t excite! About 1.5 hrs or approximately 50 kms out of the city, our very patient UBER driver drove us there and back for a bargain price of $1000 pesos ($55USD)…a much better and comfortable option by far! Birthplace of the Pyramid of the Sun, the third largest after Giza, and the Pyramid of the Moon, separated by the long Avenue of the Dead, the “place where gods were created” was said to have been constructed approximately 2000 years ago, but by whom, is still a mystery.

To climb these gargantuan Aztec structures, requires both brute strength and lungs of steel…the line up to climb the Pyramid of the Sun was so long, I think they are still there, ironically sweating buckets in the blaring sun and irrepressible heat! We conquered the smaller of the two, Moon Pyramid, out of sheer determination and for the photo opportunity alone, both of us nearly keeling over in the process! The experience is one of awe and wonder and the ancient murals and history of this mystical place was well worth the visit and the near cardiac arrest! Do your research (we didn’t) and please go if you can…it’s better than visiting a church any day!

We made it to the top!!
Pyramid of the Sun
Teotihuacán

Our pre reserved 430pm rendezvous back at Frida Kahlo’s crib urged us to quick step it back into the city, allowing us to feast on yet more strange taco concoctions for lunch in the bustling beer and bar area of Roma. Another UBER had us once again lined up outside the famous blue walls of La Casa Azure, only to be turned away due to the “no ticket issue” making us buy yet another two tickets at the final hour! Not a fun time at all! Anyway, we managed to get in and see this famous landmark (I wasn’t leaving Mexico City without this experience) and take a walk through Frida’s beautiful home, feasting our eyes on those magnificent paintings and witnessing first hand the turbulent life and times of this revered, tortured Mexican artist and icon. Another must see if you are in this part of the world and keen on art or just the amazing woman herself.

Yet another summer storm approached as we left at closing time and back to the brownstone we went, via UBER of course! Sundays are not big restaurant days here and most of the top notch ones we had spied the day/night before were closed till Monday. However, we just happened to be living opposite a very cool Italian pizzeria that was miraculously open and wined and dined ourselves there, amongst its stone walls, till fatigue crept her way into our bones. We left early the next morning to catch our flight to Los Cabos on the Baja Peninsula, our next latin adventure, to experience a different side of Mexico, both historically and visually. We enjoyed our trip to this huge city but don’t feel the urge to revisit as we saw and conquered what we needed and another bucket list box has been ticked!

Finally at Frida's House!
Us as Frida & Diego!

LOS CABOS: Meaning ‘the capes’, it is surrounded by the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Cortez and made up of four main areas (La Paz being the State Capital): Todos Santos, East Cape and the two most popular, San José – San José del Cabo, and its more lively and popular counterpart 30 minutes down the road, Cabo – Cabo San Lucas. The latter is the more well known part, being the seaside playground for wealthy Californians and the rich and famous, with all-inclusive resorts and hotels lining the coast and a time share haven for many US residents. MB and I decided to give both of these areas a good go and reserved Air B&B spaces at each, giving us a total of six days here in the sunny, southern most tip of the State of Baja California Sur.

“On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair…” thanks to the classic hit song by the Eagles, driving into San José del Cabo, was just like this: a dirt highway, flanked either side by huge, western movie style forked cacti, and a severe lack of street lighting. With the windows down and my head sticking out like an overexcited armadillo, after being cooped up in the city, I wanted to fully embrace this arid, dusty land!

Main surf beach in San José

San José is a much more relaxed area, with a long, golden sand surf beach stretching for miles, and in her heart centre, a small, quaint old town filled with pretty, colourful colonial style buildings and cobblestone streets. Art galleries, little boutiques selling silver, Mexican earthenware and leather goods and a smattering of quirky restaurants and tiny bars, all surround the main square. We stayed in a studio attached to a house in Gringo Hill, a hilltop area overlooking the main highway and beach, home to retired Americans and dotted with Spanish, hacienda style houses. Our Air B&B there was ok but not that great (highway view and too claustrophobic) so we pulled the plug on that one early and moved to our rental in Cabo.

In Cabo, we had rented the “poorest house in the best street” which was a little blue and white studio home with a huge deck and a garage in a hilly, prestigious gated community called Pedregal. This neighbourhood is known for its enormous villas perched on the side of the cliffs with views over the marina and the bay. Our place was lovely and just perfect for what we needed – spacious, quiet and private! We even had a BBQ which we fired up on the first night and enjoyed a home cooked steak dinner, washed down with some good Californian vino tinto, all with million dollar views!

View from our deck in Pedregal Estate

Regardless of where you choose to stay, the best public beaches are in between the two areas anyway and frequented by everyone from Cabo and San José, so living in either makes no difference in the end (as long as you have a rental car) apart from the nightlife! San José nightlife is much more subtle and intimate, being so small, and being there in low season made it even more so, to the point of dull unfortunately. Cabo nightlife is a complete 360 degree change and is over the top…huge clubs bashing out doof doof techno music on every corner, or pubs and crass Mexican food joints touting free tequila and two for one beers, louring drunk teens and biker types into their lairs! Basically a Spanish speaking version of Bali or Phuket! Take your pick!

BUT, saying this, we did eat at some lovely little restaurants in San José. Two in the old town, Restaurant Jasmine for a full Mexican experience and Casa Dom Rodrigo, another Mexican, yet more upmarket and near the zòcalo. Our favourite bistro though was Zippers! We frequented this very casual but lovely little beachside restaurant (literally across the highway from our first rental) three times even when we were in staying in Cabo. It was cheap and cheerful with a perfect view of the roaring ocean and the surfers, open all day and night AND wasn’t too far from the popular beaches! With lovely staff, live music and (another) typical Mexican menu, I had my first taste of lobster tacos here and was hooked!

Restaurant Jasmine
Casa Dom Rodrigo Restaurant
Lobster and fish tacos @ Zippers

Still on food (of course), in Cabo, we actually found some great restaurants slightly out of the way from the main party scene. For a homemade pasta injection, try Restaurant Doc, a small Italian wine bar and restaurant on the quieter side of town and not too far from our gated community. Run by an expat from Milan, it was cute and cozy and had kerbside dining so you could watch the world go by. For a more romantic rendezvous, on our final night, we frocked up and scored (yet again) the best table in the house at SUR, a fine dining restaurant on the main beach of El Médano serving Mexican fusion cuisine. With twinkling candles on the tables, attentive waitstaff and the sound of the waves…it was beautiful.

The main beach in Cabo is Playa El Médano. It stretches for miles, has restaurants and day clubs lining the shore and also sun loungers and umbrellas to rent. It faces Land’s End and El Arco for which Cabo is famous, and the turquoise water is lovely, BUT be warned … it is VERY BUSY! Unfortunately, you never have a moment of peace where you are not hassled by souvenir vendors or fishing/boating trip sellers, and the cacophony of club music at all hours was not relaxing. MB and I found this heady combination very invasive and irritating, so we only swam here once, but we did, however, indulge in a great lunch of grilled octopus at one of the beach restaurants to compensate!

However…the two best public beaches in between both Cabo and San Lucas and totally free from vendors, house music, tequila tourists and other irksome details, are Playa Chileno and Playa Santa Maria. Both are easy to access, have amazing water, gorgeous golden sand, rocks to snorkel around and modern bathroom facilities near the parking area. FYI: There are no restaurants or kiosks at either, so make sure you pack a picnic and a beach brolly (you can honestly buy everything from one of the excellent supermarkets nearby and is not an expensive option) if you’re going to make a day of it … we did and it was one of the best times of our holiday!

Playa Santa Maria
Old Town in San José

If you are keen for a day trip or to just escape the rat race, we recommend taking a journey to the nearby picturesque town of Todos Santos, about one hour drive from Cabo and home to many surfers and arty types. Check out its famous Hotel California (nothing to do with the song we discovered) and the colourful buildings and little boutiques. We went on a day where it was raining so hard (a mini hurricane apparently) we couldn’t see the road let alone the town and were basically floating down the street! Unfortunately we didn’t get to enjoy the experience but hopefully you will have better luck! Another hour or so up the road and you get to La Paz, the capital of the State of Baja California Sur. Deemed the ‘safest town in Mexico’ it is where you can take the boats to go whale watching or deep sea diving. Even the famous French plongeur and marine conservationist Jaques Cousteau was a big fan and there’s even a monument dedicated to him on the seafront. Take a stroll along the malecón (waterfront boardwalk) for a bit of R&R, have a look around the little town centre or just sip a margarita in one of the bistros, watch the locals and take a breath before driving back to the hordes in the hub.

MB with Jaques Cousteau

On the morning of our final day, MB and I decided to hire a boat from one of the guys setting up his station on Playa El Médano to do the popular tour of the rock formations that make up the Arch of Cabo San Lucas or El Arco, where the Pacific Ocean becomes the Gulf of California. It is one of the ‘must-do’ trips when you are in this part of the world, so we couldn’t leave without the experience (much like the Frida Kahlo ‘Museum Moment’)! The private and quick 45 minute tour of the El Arco and Land’s End cost $30USD for two and it was well worth it. Having lost two days due to the mini hurricane, unfortunately this was the only time we could do this trip, but better late than never! FYI: You can also buy tickets from the many vendors bombarding you at the Marina if you prefer, all costs are the same.

The boat takes you for a comfortable and scenic ride around these breathtaking natural sculptures with Lovers Beach on the calm Sea of Cortez side (where, on other tours, you can snorkel and swim to shore) and over to the pacific side to see Divorce Beach, (aptly named as it is a turbulent, non swimmable area due to the dangerous pounding waves of doom)! If you’re lucky, spend some time feeding tortillas to escuelas of fish and get up close and personal with the huge local sea lions. It was great fun and amazing!

El Arco
Lovers Beach

Adios Los Cabos and thanks for the experience! To be honest, we wouldn’t go back there as it was too commercial for us, but we were grateful for the opportunity. Everyone is different and some people I have spoken to adore it there, so it’s a matter of opinion. Very beautiful of course, but lacking in authenticity. Our next stop on the agenda was back over to the mainland to dunk ourselves in the Bay of Banderas, Puerto Vallarta for our final Mexican fix!

PUERTO VALLARTA: Now this was our type of town! Straight up, we fell in love with it, as any place which boasts a Zona Romántica (romantic area) tops the charts! Comprising of four main zones: Zona Romátinca, Zona Hotelera, Nuevo Vallarta and South Zone, it is located along the Pacific coast in the heart of Banderas Bay (the largest in Mexico). Puerto Vallarta seems to have it all, combining traditional architecture and cobblestones streets with history, modernism, beaches and a tropical rainforest. MB and I only had three days here unfortunately and in hindsight, if we had known it was so sweet, we would have arrived earlier, as there were many inviting restaurants and hidden beaches that we didn’t get to experience.

Typical house in Puerto Vallarta
Puerto Vallarta

We stayed right in the centre of Zona Romántica (about 30 minutes drive from the airport) where beautiful white washed and red roofed Spanish houses perch precariously on the side of near vertical streets. Trust me…high heels are not your friend here, plus your thigh muscles and heart get a free workout at least twice a day which was welcome after all those tacos I had inhaled! Our little place was lovely and central and provided us with breathtaking sunset views from our balcony every night and apart from the mishap of getting slightly electrocuted by the shower head, it was perfect!

Steep streets!
View from our balcony

Downtown Zona Romátinca is home to a long seafront boulevard or malécon which is perfect for a stroll day or night to check out the many restaurants, bars, clubs, tourist shops and outdoor sculptures or to just sit and watch the deep orange sun set over the bay. The famous Church of Our Lady of Guadeloupe is just around the corner from the main square and a drawcard for tourists as is the large open air market which sells all sorts of Mexican handmade crafts. The LGBTTTI ? community is also especially well catered for here, with speciality shops (MB bought a fabulous pair of sexy, hot pink swimming trunks), bars, massage outlets and exclusive hotels on the waterfront.

Having hired a large jeep 4WD (for which we were eternally grateful after tackling the slippery vertical streets) allowed us the freedom to drive everywhere with ease and discover! There are many beaches along the coast, most of them being only accessible by boat, but Playa Mismaloya, a fisherman’s village just down from Puerto Vallarta’s very own Los Arcos rock formation, is famous for being the setting for the 1964 movie “The Night of the Iguana” starring Richard Burton and Ava Gardner! The glamour, though, has now been tarnished (courtesy of the many pushy boat trip sellers) as it is mostly used as a gateway to ferry tourists and locals to hidden coves and beaches.

Our Lady of Guadeloupe
Sunset on the Malecón

We spent our first day lunching and swimming on the main beach of Los Muertos, where there are plenty of lovely upmarket restaurants in the sand and luxurious, cushioned sun loungers. The souvenir vendors were out in force again here and bombarded us every minute which detracted from the beauty of the spot. More tacos and some lovely local vino blanco helped ease the pain as we tried to relax on our chairs opposite the new Los Muertos Pier (which reminded us of a small version of the Burj Al Arab in Dubai)! The beach of El Holi, a long stretch of shimmering sand and surf, is the play ground for most of the big all-inclusive resorts and hotels. It is fine for swimming but there is NOTHING else there! BYO everything if you are spending the day!

A favourite spot we discovered was a lovely little laid back beach area called Bucerias (a one hour drive from PV). Meaning “place of divers” it is a very cute little village in Nayarit, with loads of typical Mexican restaurants along its shore and some very reasonably priced markets (which I raided) in its centre. Whilst sipping on a tangy margarita that was bigger than my head, and chowing down on coconut prawns, I purchased some lovely pieces of silver jewellery, all of which would have been double the price if I had bought them in Los Cabos or Puerto Vallarta town! Who said tequila doesn’t help you make good choices? A further drive north takes you to Punta de Mita where you can hire a boat over to Islas Marietas to visit gorgeous Playa de Amor or Hidden Beach (a beach in the middle of a huge rock) but, unfortunately, the onset of bad weather and time constraints didn’t allow us to do the trip. Story of our lives!

Hidden Beach
Bucerías

We drove around Zona Hotelera and Nuevo Vallarta, but found them too modern and ugly, due to many high-rise condominiums and popular hotel chains, and the beach seemed to be inaccessible unless you are were a resident! No problem for us though, as our charming little old town area had more than enough to keep us excited, enchanted and occupied! Having indulged our latino inspired appetites during daylight hours, we opted for some more international cuisine after sunset, enjoying meals in some cosy and romantic restaurants dotted around our aptly named Zona! The best was at Café des Artistes, a modern, French themed bistro (of course), literally around the corner from our rental apartment, where we savoured a memorable meal to celebrate MB’s anniversaire and our final evening in magnetic Mexico.

Our whirlwind trip to this area of Northern America finally came to a close, but not without an interesting story or two! With a silver sombrero dangling from my wrist and a colourful calavera adorning our home, our memories of Mexico will never be forgotten.

…”Feet, what do I need you for when I have wings to fly?”…Frida Kahlo

The decision to spend four days in the nearby mediterranean island of Corsica whilst on our annual sojourn to the motherland of France was an easy one, as getting there is as simple as buying a ferry ticket and boarding the boat! Whether you are a walk on passenger or a traveller with a car, caravan or any two wheeled variety of vehicle, it is worth it! To be perfectly honest, MB (Monsieur Bleu) et Moi did not go for an injection of culture rich experiences or to marvel at every church or ancient site, but to simply ENJOY the place, with her abundance of beaches, snaking mountain roads and French/Italian medieval charm! Four days and on a motorbike will do that to you… stop when you want and if you want and just take delight in the areas as you pass through.

Lying between France and Sardinia, Corsica is a land rich in diversity. Shaped like a hand subtly giving its forebears the finger, it is referred to as the ‘rock in the sea’ with its rugged mountains and craggy cliffs, pockets of secluded beaches and bays, sleepy villages, vineyards, olive groves and dry barren hills. Its people are as robust and strong as their wine and local cheese, as temperamental as their savage swines and as proud of their culture and famous leader as any nation. The language is French but the Corsican dialect is mostly related to Italian (having being ruled by the republic of Genoa since 1284 before being handed over to Louis XV) and this hot, passionate combination is the driving force behind the land and its people. Even many of the street signs have their French translations smeared with black paint in the hope of maintaining and reminding visitors that Corsica is a land in her own right and a force to be reckoned with.

Our loose plan was to arrive in Bastia (at the top of Corsica) from Nice (refer to the blog Nice is Nice for more info) and then gradually work our way across and down to Ajaccio, swimming in as many beaches as possible along the way and spending a night here and there in some of the major towns, where then we would take the return ferry to France.

View on the way from Bastia to Calvi

First of all, I must give a big round of applause to Corsica Ferries! We affectionately renamed them The Love Boats as most of the Italian male staff seemed to be constantly on heat! At 30 euro p/p return with a motorbike and a recliner chair if you wanted to sit inside (we never did) it was a bargain! A leisurely 6.5hr sail from Nice, the crew was lovely and everything was super organised and on time. More like a mini cruise ship than a simple ferry, our boat came fully equipped and could give the Titanic a good run for its money! In addition to a range of (pre booked) sleeping quarters to choose from, there were plush carpeted and brass railed staircases and softly piped classical music! It also had two upmarket restaurants, an inside bar, a cafe, a souvenir shop AND a pool deck complete with its own bar, with funky tunes blaring and striped 1930’s style deck chairs haphazardly positioned around the small, circular plunge pool! Everything was super clean and the top deck was spacious and comfortable. We chatted to a few of the staff and had a swim, a snack and snooze in the sun whilst pods of dolphins followed us and played in the ships wake.

Pool deck on the ferry
Corsica ferry

Arriving into Bastia at 7.30pm, we quickly located our basic little hotel, aptly named The Hotel Bonaparte, that was to be our home for one night and subsequently partook in a room black out in the middle of shower time! Note: I was not the culprit and didn’t even touch the barbie doll sized hairdryer with not even enough puff to blow out a candle, that is usually the cause of bizarre electric surges in out of the way European lodgings! By 8.30pm we were walking along the small stunning marina, crammed with bustling restaurants with a backdrop of ochre coloured buildings. Not too long after, we joined the masses and were soon indulging in heavenly bowls of steaming mussels in local white wine, laughing with the cheeky waiters and relaxing into our first night in true Corsican style.

Sunset in Bastia

The following morning, our plan was to ride to the medieval town of Calvi, approximately 3hrs from Bastia, passing through the gorgeous L’lle-Rousse on the way. So after a quick le petit déjeuner in the square and an attempt to covet a gorgeous red Piaggio Ape van, we sped off into the sunshine and through the mountains on the first leg of our journey. Breathtaking views, twisty roads and a quick coffee in the gorgeous seaside town of St Florent made for a lovely start. FYI: St Florent looked amazing and if we could, we would have spent a night there just for the hell of it! The restaurants and tiny boutiques alone were an instant drawcard and its tiny golden beach with little bobbing boats looked inviting!

The dangerous combination of heat and constant winding roads eventually took its toll on my delicate system and by the time we reached the postcard beach of Plage de Lozari, I was ready to faint, throw up, have a coronary, die of heat stroke or all of the above! Trés glamorous…lucky MB! Trekking down the white sand to the sea edge and diving into the heart stopping cool azure water was the only medicine required to re align our dehydrating corps and help us ‘keep calm and carry on’!

Gorgeous Piaggio Van in Bastia
Beach on the way to Calvi

The lure of lunch in L’lle-Rousse (meaning redhead), a picturesque area not far from Calvi kept us going for another half an hour and certainly did not disappoint! An old village, similar looking to Menton in the south of France, with beaches, a marina and an old centre was another place we could have easily stayed in if the promise of encountering Calvi hadn’t beckoned the intrepid travellers within us! Dining al fresco on salmon tartare and sipping apricot coloured Corsican rosé in a local brasserie was a day made in heaven. Full and satisfied, it was back on the bike after a quick walk around and we were off to Calvi for the night…

Lunch in L'lle Rousse
1920's Calvi Plage poster

A final dip in the sea after lunch at a secluded beach near Algajola (yet another ridiculously pretty little village not far from L’lle Rousse) and we rode our weary bodies into the big smoke of Calvi. Larger and more populated than I expected and with an enormous citadel looming over her majestic marina, we took a quick spin around the main town centre, fruitlessly looking for accommodation. Nothing was available, so with panic beginning to set in, we eventually made our way further afield and lucked upon a quaint little three star gem of a hotel called Aria Marina. Merci! Complete with sea views and a huge balcony, the 60 euro a night price tag was laughable! After a quick refresh we were settled in and ready for our reconnaissance mission in town. We opted for a walk around the citadel to stretch our cramping bike legs, to marvel at the views over the bay and meander around her cobbled streets, spying a very Italian outdoor pizzeria that had our name on it for dinner along the way!

View of Calvi marina from the citadel
Our little hotel in Calvi

Our pizza dinner at A piazzettta was scrumptious of course and the wine and waitstaff were equally fantastic! Just right for a relaxed meal after a somewhat arduous day! The ride home was the highlight of the night as we had to stop the bike to allow one of the famous wild boars to trot cross the road! Only in Corsica! I thought this was very cool as MB and I had just been talking about maybe sighting one and then voilà, just like that…there it was! Eerie stuff…

La Piazzetta

The next leg on the trip was the longest as we needed to ride from Calvi all the way to Bonifacio (approximately 5hrs as we were doing the scenic drive), stopping for lunch at famous Porto Vecchio. The first leg of the journey was interesting as we seemed to be on the road kill trail as we passed not one but two dead foxes, two squashed hedgehogs and a live snake! We were also swooped by an enormous eagle as she attempted to feast on the one of the freshly flattened carcasses! Must have been the season for a Corsican carnage wildlife safari! It was all a bit exciting in a warped way!

Don’t be fooled…riding in a European heatwave is fun but not for the fainthearted! With the hot, burning June sun blaring down combined with our itchy and sweaty helmet heads, many water stops were required, but the endless beauty of craggy grey mountains, rows of olives trees and the pungent aroma of hot gravel mingled with pine trees was never lost on us. It was a beautiful and peaceful journey and we felt as if this area of Corsica was just for us as, at times, we were the only ones on the road!

On the road

After what appeared to be forever, we finally puttered into Porto Vecchio and after a mild ‘lovers tiff’ with MB who wanted to re discover a restaurant he had visited a thousand years ago when he was 21 and couldn’t find, we eventually staggered… parched, grumpy, hungry, fangry and hot into a cozy little bistro near (yet another) marina, finding solace under the cool shade of the striped umbrellas! More blushing Corsican rosé and local goat’s cheese salads had us both smiling again and after a quick ride through the old town (which was quite deserted as many businesses were closed for the siesta period), we planted our nearly numb bums back on the bike and headed for Bonifacio…the jewel in Corsica’s crown.

Keep it moving and keep it real! With the heat knocking us for six, we made time for a swim, locating the very popular beach Santa Giulia after a few dead end turns! Packed to the rafters but with an unfortunate seaweed issue, the beach was ok, and the water magnificent when you eventually waded far enough. It did the job, but time was pressing and we knew we had to find overnight accommodation quickly as this next famous medieval town at the southern most tip of Corsica is small, busy and popular with tourists. Riding into belle Bonifacio is marvellous as huge, jagged limestone cliffs and an enormous citadel loom out of nowhere! Yes, yet ANOTHER citadel…this is France people… the whole place is just one giant frigging fortress!

Bonifacio town
Me in the streets of Bonifacio

Parking at the top of the old town, my brilliantly clever MB came up with the bright idea of easing our accommodation woes by going straight to the source…ie: the tourist office. Here they have all the hotels on speed dial and which ones have vacancies! I never knew this kind of service existed and was relieved to have all the footwork taken out of this sometimes, exasperating mission. The kids (they were literally just out of school) in the Office de Tourisme were marvellous! They phoned EVERY hotel in Bonifacio and around and found us THE ONLY ROOM LEFT in the entire town! (Apart from a top floor, 5 bedroom penthouse suite that was going for a steal at 800 euros per night!)

Hôtel Colomba was just around the corner from where we had parked in the old town and was a picture perfect, classical, cream coloured medieval building! It also came with a carpark but, alas, no balcony. At 125 euros a night, it wasn’t cheap but it was either that, taking out a loan for the penthouse or camp next to the bike! The room was lovely and the little window looked over the street and the bustling restaurants below. Throwing our bags down, we decided to go for a whizz around the town and a take a stroll along the Quai Comparetti at the port, jealously watching the glamorous groups cavorting on their super yachts and window shopping, drooling at the designer boutiques where nothing is under a thousand euros! Restaurants, bars and shops all line the main strip of the docking area and lots of gorgeous people were clinking glasses, enjoying the last magnificent rays of warm sunshine.

Hotel Colomba
View of Bay from top of Bonifacio old town

It was high time to be doing a bit of ‘glass clinking’ ourselves, so after MB had bought some posh threads at the marine boutique, we swiftly rode along the Quai Nord and then back to our hotel as it was nearly 9pm and we hadn’t even showered let alone found a restaurant for dinner! We kept losing time… all the time! A hot turn, quick change later, we found ourselves eventually settled in a corner table near the cathedral in an authentic Corsican wine bar and bistro, L’Auberge Corse. With Methuselah sized wine bottles as the wine list and ultra cool, laid back tattooed waiters, we were in like locals after ordering a bottle of the local grape and typical Corsican dishes of tripe and slow-cooked wild boar. After a few complimentary glasses of Myrtle
Liqueur (a staple on the tables in this region and delicious, like a dark coloured limoncello mixed with juniper and rosemary), it was time for lights out as tomorrow was the final leg of our trip…

Dinner at L'Auberge Corse

We took advantage of the slow pace of early mornings in Bonifacio to have a lovely walk around this small but beautiful town, stopping for coffee and baguettes in a tiny cafe within the walls of the citadel and snapping some lovely shots of the tranquil bays and in the distance, the hazy dark mound of Sardinia. In hindsight, we should have spent more time here as there are so many lovely beaches to visit and even the town itself is referred to as an ‘open air museum’. Famous for the King of Aragon Staircase, with its treacherous 187 steps built into the limestone cliffs which leads down to the waters edge, the Grain de sable (rock formation in the sea) and the Maritime cemetery. But with no more time to lose, it was time to bid a reluctant au revoir and hop back on the bike for the final ride to Ajaccio.

Grain de Sable
King of Argon Staircase
Steps down to the Marina in Bonifacio

Being slightly more organised, we knew this final leg of our journey was a shorter one which allowed us to take the more scenic route, flying past vineyards, more olive groves and rocky goat trails and discovering the lovely hilltop village of Sartène, where even more majestic medieval monuments ensued! Had we known in advance that the Prehistoric Village of Filitosa in Sollacaro existed, we could have titillated some brain cells and visited instead of lazing the day away on the beach in the nearby, family friendly town of Propriano! Alas…we did not and a swim in the brilliant blue water and a relaxing lunch in a rustic bistro with our feet in the sand prevailed! A quick stop in the isolated and somewhat abandoned mountain village of Pietrosella to refill our water bottles from a natural source outlet in the mountain and to change into city clothes, we FINALLY loped into Ajaccio, the birthplace of Napoleon Bonaparte and the capital of Queen Corsica!

Sartene
The clear water of Propriano beach

Déjà vu hit us immediately, as we had visited Ajaccio many years ago. The last time, however, we stayed in a bizarre little hole in the wall hotel in a grimy back street, but this time and for our final night, we found a seafront room complete with balcony at the Hotel Du Golfe. Musk pink and slightly OTT it was wonderfully kitsch and cheap! Why? We have no idea, but we didn’t argue! With wine, sausage, cheese and other Corsican treats to procure, our next important mission was to find a local charcuterie/épicerie that was up to the job! Discovering a lovely old dark one, set in a stone building down a side alleyway, we found our tasty treasures with help from the friendly, super model owner inside!

Hotel du Golfe
Corsican wild boar deli

The shops were closing for the day and the Friday night traffic jam had hit as we made our way back to the pink palace with our contraband! After packing our bags in readiness for the early morning start and the ferry ride back to Nice, we put on our best outfits and walked to the seafront for a much deserved Apérol Spritz, whilst enjoying throbbing beats spun by a Dj in a nearby bar and people watching. Craving a light tapas/charcuterie style dinner, we finally agreed upon a very busy little place called Caliente, conveniently located in Rue Bonaparte and just around the corner from the actual home of Napoleon Bonaparte! Location, location, location!

A typical Spanish tapas bar but with an off hand waiter and people constantly walking through the restaurant to avoid the street, it was still a lovely evening. After dinner, we checked out good old Napoleon’s crib, which is also open as a museum during the day. Damn…we missed that one again! (Napoleon Bonaparte was born on August 15, 1769 to Italian parents and is to be considered “one of the greatest commanders and controversial leaders in human history”. His legacy and importance in both French and Corsican culture is second to none and just being able to touch the door of his family home and be present in his county of birth was very special indeed). Weary, sore, tired but happy, we made our way home and after a final night cap at a bar beneath our hotel, we crawled into bed.

Napoleon's House in Ajaccio
Ajaccio
Slow cooked Wild boar ragout

Up at dawn to witness a breathtaking sunrise and to meet the ferry, it was with a heavy heart that we said ciao to Corsica. Such a vibrant and amazing place and a fast paced but totally fun journey, MB and I will definitely be back! We will re visit Bonifacio for sure to discover those secret beaches and maybe… one day… rent a villa near the sea and stay for a few months! In my dreams!

Sunrise over Ajaccio
Ciao and au revoir Corsica

…”He who goes slowly, goes surely; and he who goes surely goes far”…Corsican Proverb