A Travellerspoint blog

Iguazu Falls

Having already seen one of the worlds most spectacular waterfalls when I visited Niagara, I thought it would be rude not to pay a visit to Iguazu seeing as Val and I were in the area. So we made a quick ovenight trip up to the Argentina/Brazil border to see what the falls were all about. Turns out they're kind of a big deal.
The river is the border between the two countries and you can view the falls from either side, with very different perspectives. We started on day 1 with the Argentinian side, as we were there already.

First thing we noticed was all the wildlife. It's jungle territory up here and there were millions of amazing butterflies flitting about, vultures flyng overhead and all these litle racoon type things knocking about - which I later learned were coatis. They kept trying to nick everyone's food.

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I don't really know how to describe the falls. Niagara was incredibly impressive, and the first view we had of Iguazu was equally spectacular. We'd followed a system of boardwalks over large parts of the river until we came to something known as "The Devils Throat" (or rather "La Garganta Del Diablo"). The biggest single cascade at Iguazu was awe inspiring and you can get right up close from the boardwalks, although you get soaked from the masses spray well before you get there. That part is probably comparable to Niagara (although with major differences like Iguazu is in the middle of the jungle and was 30 degrees, whereas Niagara is in the middle of the Canadian equivalent of Vegas and was covered in ice). However - that was just the start of Iguazu. As we followed the other trails here we realised that the Devils Throat is just one of absolutely tons of separate, massive waterfalls. They go on for literally miles, with cascade after cascade shooting over the cliffs. The scale is just indescribable, so I won't bother trying. From the Brazilian side (which we went to on day 2) you get a very different viewpoint, as you're seeing most of it from the other side of the river, and from a distance. You really get to see the big picture.
As I can't really put into words how awesome this place was, I'll just stick a load of the pictures in here. It was truly magnificent.

La Garganta Del Diablo:

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Some of the other falls:

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And another:

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And here's some views from Brazil (Note that none of these are showing the same falls!):

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And here's a quick vid of the Devil's Throat, just because I did one for Niagara and I like to be fair!

Posted by Matt Cocken 20:09 Archived in Argentina Tagged argentina iguazu Comments (0)

Chile and Argentina

Santiago, Mendoza and Buenos Aires

When buying my 4 leg plane ticket from Peru to Patagonia I'd been forced to buy a return, as it was half the price of a single. The problem was I didn't want to return to Peru. So, when we reached Santiago to change planes (on the noticably not-cancelled return leg) I ignored the "Transit" signs and legged it for the exit. I'm not quite sure about the legalities of doing this, although it's definitely against airline policies, but given that I was only staying in the country a few more days I thought I'd take my chances. I haven't been arrested yet.
In Santiago I met Val again (we'd planned it, it wasn't just some kind of massive coincidence) and we relaxed for a few days and went to some pretty good restaurants - highlight being one of the many seafood joints surrounding the massive fish market in town. Amazing fresh cerviche! Although a nice place there's wasn't an awful lot going on in Santiago, so we took a day trip over to nearby Valparaiso. The old town was at one time the most important port in South America, but had fallen into decline until a recent flood of artists and hippie types descended on the place in recent years. Now the place is riddled with cool markets and amazing murals. I've never seen street art/graffiti (depending on your age) like it.
Wandering about the town and travelling on the unfathomably short and therefore quite pointless cable cars we saw street after street covered in bright colours and crazy designs. We also stopped to sample some recommended local empanadas (pasty type things) which were nice, but were notihng on Greggs.

Pointless cable car and street art:
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The next day we took the first long range bus through the Andes to Mendoza, Argentina. Was a pretty interesting ride travelling through the desolate mountains, that were bare except for where they were criss crossed with chair lifts. Apparently this is a ski resort in winter, although the lifts were the only real evidence of it.
Mendoza is the capital of Argentinas wine growing region so Val and I hired some bikes and headed off to some vineyards to sample the local produce at source. What an amazing day! Perfect weather for it (high 20's and sunny), gorgeous scenery and some ridiculously good wines at super low prices. Absolutely amazing stuff at £7 ish a bottle, and when we splashed out on samples of some of the vineyards top end signature vintages they were the best wines I've tasted in my life, still for the price of a cheap bottle in a restaurant back home.

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In a restaurant that night we wasted no time in getting into Argentinas other speciality - a couple of big fat steaks. Both the prices and quality were pretty special, and we both decided on the spot to eat as much steak as possible before we left the country.

The next bus leg was to Buenos Aires, a 13 hour slog which might have been tedious if it wasn't for the amazing South American buses. Think first class seats with a decent airline. Fully lie flat leather beds, TVs, a waitress bringing you meals etc. Well good fun! It was an overnight journey anyway so after polishing off the vineyards souvenirs I'd brought we slept most of the way.
In Buenos Aires we realised for the first time the madness of the Argentinian economy at the moment. So far the prices we'd paid for stuff had been pretty reasonable, but not all THAT cheap. Then we discovered the concept of the "Blue Dollar" market. So, the government here sets the exchange rate for dollars apparently, and it's currently at around 9 pesos/dollar. However, they severely restrict the amount of dollars that can be officially exchanged. That means there's a booming black maket (or blue market in this case, don't know why) in money exchange. On the "Blue" market (which is technically illegal but so common that everybody uses it) you can get 12.5 pesos for your dollar, if you have cash. Fortunately I had a reasonable amount of "emergency" dollars (which this clearly was...) so Argentina suddenly got a whole lot cheaper!

Buenos Aires is a pretty great place with loads of beautiful architecture and culture. We took a city bus tour and went in search of Evitas grave, which we found in a cemetary that makes even the ones in New Orleans look understated. Also took in a fancy Tango show that whilst a bit touristy was still very impressive. The real Tango highlight though was when we hung around after a local market had closed for the night and they had a Merengue in the piazza after all the stalls had been cleared away. This was local people dancing for the love of it in the square. A real treat to watch.

Graveyard, Beers at the market and the Tango afterwards:

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Now, back to those steaks. I've never had steak as good as this in a restaurant anywhere, and with wine lists that had pages of great wines for less than a tenner, you could actually pick the one you wanted most, rather than having to pick one that wasn't too expensive. It was awesome. In our 7 nights in Argentina we'd managed 11 steaks between us, but I ruined it one night by ordering a massive rack of beef ribs and on another we ordered a huge mixed grill. Although that did include steak. On our last night i spotted something intriguing on the menu amongst the rib eyes and chorizos.

"What's the speciality steak?" I asked.
"Just order it!" Was the waiters response!

15 mins later when the most tender and delicious half a cow arrived on my plate, I was very glad I did.

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Posted by Matt Cocken 10:09 Archived in Chile Tagged chile argentina santiago wine buenos aires mendoza valparaiso steak Comments (0)

MMH - Patagonia Special part 2!

Tierra Del Fuego - Penguins!

After my trek in the TDP I had a couple more nights in Punta Arenas before flying North, and decided to take a day tour to the Tierra Del Fuego (Land of Fires), where you could see some penguin colonies. All the large Magellan Penguin colonies had headed off for the winter (not sure where - out to sea maybe?) but there was one colony of King Penguins that were resident all year round.

The tour started by heading even further South on a 2 hour ferry, to the Island at the very tip of South America. The main thing that struck me on the 3 hour drive to the colony was - for the southernmost place outside Antarctica it's really quite boring here. I don't know why but I'd expected the romatically named Tierra Del Fuego to be a bit more exciting. It turns out the name simply comes from the fact that early explorers saw "mysterious" fires on the Island here from their boats, but actually the fires were nothing more than local shepherds keeping warm. I think they must have been at the rum.
Gone was the dramatic scenery of the Torres Del Paine, and instead we just had mile after mile of flat moorland. Still - we stopped for a while to watch Dolphins hunting fish in the kelp near the shore which was pretty cool, and there were plenty of vicunas (a wild and rarer cousin of the llama) about to keep us company.

When we finally arrived at the colony the penguins weren't doing much, but hey, how many chances do you have to see penguins in the wild? They're pretty cool creatures.

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Back in Punta Arenas that night I headed out to a local restaurant to try some of the local seafood speciality - baked centolla (King Crab). As I was tucking into the delicious food I got talking to some locals, who were alarmed to find out I was planning on flying out the next day.

"Haven't you heard? The volcano has erupted again, and all flights were cancelled today! We don't know when they'll start again."
They were a bit surprised by my lack of reaction.
""You don't seem too worried?"
"Nah" I said. There are only so many times you can panic about these things.
"I'm sure it'll all be fine".

Posted by Matt Cocken 11:48 Archived in Chile Tagged chile patagonia penguins tierra_del_fuego Comments (0)

MMH - Patagonia Special part 1!

Trekking the Torres Del Paine

Fresh off the back of my first narrowly avoided disaster in getting to Iquitos, more fun was to come in getting to my next stop. I'd just received a text from Val, asking if my flights the following day (any of the 4 of them that I'd need to get to Patagonia) went near the volcano. Volcano? What volcano? I'd been in the jungle for 4 days and hadn't seen any news. A quick google revealed that there'd been a pretty serious eruption in Chile, and a small town called Puerto Montt was covered in about 2 inches of ash and had been evacuated. Hmm. That name seemed a bit familiar so I checked my flight itinerary. Legs 3 and 4 of the trip were Santiago to Punta Arenas... yep, via Puerto Montt. Shit.
The LAN airlines office in town wasn't particularly helpful and couldn't give me any information about the flights the next day, they just said all flights in and out of Puerto Montt had been cancelled for today. Well, I figured it'd be better to be stuck in Lima than Iquitos, so what the hell. I went to the airport and got my first plane, feeling pretty aprehensive.
In Lima they were equally helpful, and said they had no idea what was going on with my other flights, but there were no problems with my next leg to the Chilean capital. Well, I figured I may as well be stuck in Santiago as in Lima, so what the hell. I got the next plane, feeling really worried now.
In Santiago I was amazed to find out that apart from a short delay, I'd still be able to take my flights into and out of Puerto Mont as planned! Absolute result! I got right on that plane, feeling a whole lot better!
As we arrived in Punta Arenas I was reminded of the reasons I'd wanted to come to Patagonia. One was that it's pretty much as far South as you can get without heading to Antarctica; really at the end of the Earth. The problem with places at the end of the earth is that they're bloody miles away, and generally a real bugger to get to. From Punta Arenas I had to catch a 5 hour bus to a town called Puerto Natales, from where in the morning I'd be able to take another 3 hour bus to the Torres Del Paine national park - the location for my 5 day trek. As our bus to Puerto Natales arrived me and the group of TDP trekkers I'd met on the plane came accross our next problem - the bus was full. Annoyingly they won't let you pre-book the buses apart from at the bus station (which was 3 stops and 20k's away) from which they depart, so we waited for the next one. It was also full.
This was another potential disaster, as if I didn't make it to Puerto Natales that night I wouldn't have time to complete my trek. Then we came up with a bright idea.
After a ludicrously expensive airport minibus ride my fellow trekkers and I arrived at the origin station for the bus, just in time for the next one to pull in. We bought tickets and breathed a sigh of relief! Some people returning from the park stopped for a chat and we asked them how the trek had been.
"Well, what we saw was good, and I think the park should re-open in a few days."
Re-open? What? Another probem with the ends of the earth is that they don't generally have that much contact with the rest of the world. Hence all of the arriving trekkers, myself included, were unaware that the park had been closed due to torrential rains for the last 2 days. Oh for God's sake.
Well, I figured... again. I may as well be stuck at the entrance to the park as in Punta Arenas. We got on the bus.

The next day we arrived at the park entrance a few hours late due to a road being washed away. At our chalet/hostel type place (called a refugio) we were told that the trails were closed, but would reopen tomorrow. This was good news, but not great, as I only had today to see the sight the park was named for - the Torres Del Paine. We quickly worked out that although "closed", many people were still trekking the trails, and that we could actually try to make the hike to the towers (a 750m climb away) that day if we wanted.
Apparently it normally takes about 9 hours to do the trek, and after our delayed journey we only had about 6 hours of daylight left. Given the state of the paths and that some of them were apparently like little rivers now, we realised the only sensible thing to do would be to forget about the towers and get on with the rest of the trek tomorrow.
...Or we could leg it double quick and hope for the best.
On the trek up the mountain the sceneray was pretty spectacular, yet surprisingly similar to Scotland I thought, for somewhere on the opposite side of the planet. As we reached the towers in 2/3 of the quoted time our perseverence and determination was rewarded with amazing views - of the fog and clouds surrounding the towers. Oh well, I guess you can't win them all!

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For the remaining 4 days of the trek the weather was glorious. Despite being unexpectedly cold the next morning (when I slipped on some sheet ice on a bridge and fell off into a river) the sun was out most of the day, the scenery was breathtaking, and the log cabin style refugios were beautifully rustic and romantic. The Grey Glacier that we trekked to on day 5 before catching a ferry back to the park entrace was a fittingly dramatic end to the expedition. At several points on the journey here I had thought I wasn't going to make this trek, or at least not all of it, but for it all to have come good and to be here was pretty special. This really was the other side of the world.

Here are a few pics of Las Torres in the morning, a couple of the Refugios, Glacier Grey and the views around the park.

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Posted by Matt Cocken 06:11 Archived in Chile Tagged trek chile torres_del_paine tdp Comments (0)

In the Jungle!

Amazonia - Iquitos, Peru

From Cartagena I took a flight to Laeticia, on the Colombian border with Peru (and Brazil), on the banks of the Amazon. My plan was to book a ticket for the following day on "El Rapido" - the speed boat that would make the 10 hour, 300 odd mile trip to Iquitos in Peru.
Cue the first major problem of the trip. I took a taxi boat out onto an island in the river where they sold the boat tickets. Unfortunately there were no tickets available for the next day. Or the day after. My schedule could just about cope with a day of delay, but not two. This was a major problem.

I had a desperate chat with my boat taxi driver in broken English and very broken Spanish. I tried to explain that I HAD to get to Iquitos, and were there any other options? His advice was not to take a boat but fly. I explained that this wasn't an option, I'd checked all the websites and there were no flights the next day, and the day after they were far too expensive (£500 ish). Then I got an unexpected answer.

"No, no no. Plane tonight. No internet. Jungle Plane!"

What the hell?
Turns out there's a locally operated "Jungle Plane" direct to Iquitos that was leaving that night, and didn't appear on any websites. If I was quick I could make it. The cost? A Whopping $90. The boat would have been $70! Sign me up!
I bought a ticket from a shed somewhere and got a hand written ticket. After a big kerfuffle where they were trying to work out what entry and exit stamps I needed in my passport (immigrations are handled by another shed by the river) and concluding that I needed nothing, I rushed back to my hostel and surprised them a little by checking out 2 hours after I'd checked in. Got to the airport and boarded the "Jungle Plane", the smallest plane I've ever been on - a little prop plane with just 8 rows of seats!

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After a slightly more bumby than normal flight, I arrived an hour later and a day early in Iquitos. Disaster averted!
Iquitos is an odd place - in the jungle and on the banks of the Amazon it's part Amazonian and part industrial, having been built on a booming rubber trade. It's the largest city in the world that isn't connected to anywhere else by road, the only way in or out is by plane, or boat. I had a wander around the market there, which to be honest wasn't a very pleasant place - but there were lots of interesting and disgusting smelling exotic meats on sale. The oddest thing for me though were the local pests

See those birds dotted about everywhere like pigeons back home? They're Black Vultures!

See those birds dotted about everywhere like pigeons back home? They're Black Vultures!

The vultures were everywhere - and a bit more intimidating than a flock of pigeons!

After a day in Iquitos I booked a "Jungle Tour" where I'd be staying for a few nights out in the Amazon rainforest. I'd paid extra for an English speaking guide who would be my companion for the 4 days in the jungle, and whom I met the next day.

"Hola! Me llamo Enrique!"
"Hi Enrique. Me llamo Matt. Habla Inglese?"
"Si si! Matt"
"Ok great! What time are we leaving?"
"Si! Matt!".

Right.
Turns out Enrique's grasp of English went as far as to say my name. Even this skill left him after about 2 hours, when I became Max, or "Machs". After correcting him 3 times I stopped bothering. I could be "Machs" for a few days I guess.
Our Jungle tour started off with a bonus surprise - a trip to meet a local Amazonian tribe. They did a dance for us, then got us to join in, and then tried to sell us loads of tat made from Anaconda skin and stuff.

Topless Amazonians. It's not Vegas, but they tried.

Topless Amazonians. It's not Vegas, but they tried.

After this is it was out onto the open river, and I mean open. I can not believe how big this river is. We're 2 thousand miles from the coast here, I was expecting something relatively small. As it turns out I can barely see the other side.

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We travelled down the river for an hour or so before turning up a tiny tributary and arriving at my jungle lodge. What a place! Built on stilts out of the river (which had flooded the forest for about a mile in every direction) and right in the middle of the rainforest.

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A small tributary and my house for the next few nights.

After getting settled in the lodge Enrique took me out exploring the Jungle. This was pretty amazing, paddling round in a dugout in the flooded rainforest. It was also pretty fascinating to see how the amazonian people live, with their villages being completely flooded for half the year. It was odd seeing houses and schools on stilts, and football goals sticking up at either end of a clear patch of 3 foot deep water!

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Enrique showed his skills as a guide as he picked some fruit that looked a bit like a banana from the outside, but was split into juicy segments inside. "Monkey fruit! Nombre es Monkey fruit!" he exclaimed, showing that his English vocabulary was infinitely larger than I had thought, and I was pleased to learn the name of something new. An hour or so later, we found some more fruit, that vaguely resembled an orange. "Monkey fruit, nombre Monkey fruit!" Enrique exclaimed delightedly. Right. thanks.

Enrique's lack of language skills were however made up for with his sharp sightedness. I don't know but he could spot an Iguana in a tree from 50m away, but he regularly did. If only his directions were as good.

"Machs, Machs! Iguana, Iguana!"
"Where? Where? Err.. Donde?"
"Mirar! Mirar! Machs, mirar!"
"Yes, I'm looking! Where? Donde?"
"Mirar! Mirar! Machs!"
"SI! DONDE?"
"En arbol! En arbol!"

Well I could have guessed it was in the tree - we were in the middle of a flooded bloody jungle. Where the hell else would it be? We got there in the end though, and also eventually got there with the same directions when we saw more iguanas, chameleons, and even a couple of sloths. The only thing close enough to get a good photo of though were these tiny little monkeys. So cute!

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The next day we visited another part of the flooded forest - an animal "sanctuary" where they were apparently helping injured animals. I'm not sure how much of this was true, but the animals were free to roam about the forest even though they were clearly pretty domesticated. Still, it was cool getting so close to macaws like this, and the furry monkeys were fun, if a little over friendly!

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The final night of the jungle tour was a visit to a jungle shamen for an ayahuasca ceremony. This is some kind of cleansing ceremony where the ayahuasca spirit is supposed to help you cleanse your body and mind and sort out any issues in your life. It involved going to a different lodge, in an incredible setting. Built over a lagoon full of fish and giant waterlilies, the first phase of the ceremony was meditation - ie. being left on my own, lying in a hammock watching the wildlife. Enrique and the shaman dissappeared for a few hours, and as I led in the hammock more monkeys came to play in the trees, and a hummingbird flitted into the lodge for a look around. Pretty special.
I was feeling very relaxed and happy as it went dark, until Enrique came back for the night.

"Machs, Machs! Mirrar! Tarantula!"

In the light of a torch we could see a spider the size of my hand climbing one of the stilts of the lodge - right below where I was going to be sleeping. Nice. Then the thunder and lighning started. This all made the night pretty exciting, but unfortunately the ayahuasca spirit never showed up. I guess he thought I was being a cheeky bugger asking for help with any issues, given that I was chilling out in the Amazon rainforest and would be on the holiday of a lifetime for another 3 months!

Posted by Matt Cocken 10:34 Archived in Peru Tagged peru jungle amazon iquitos Comments (0)

Sailing to South America

San Blas Islands and Cartagena

The next leg of my trip couldn't have been further removed from the rush of New York. I took a flight down to Panama, and from there met up with my accommodation for the next 5 days - Corta 2, a 43 ft yacht. The idea was to have a few days relaxing around the San Blas Islands before heading off on the 2 day open water trip to Cartagena, Columbia.

Following the fairly hectic and tiring schedule of the road trip, a bit of R&R was due, and what a place to do it in! I'd never heard of San Blas before, probably because the little semi-autonomous island nation of the Kuna people is largely untouched by the western world. We sailed around perfect tropical Island after perfect tropical island, with no buildings, hotels or resorts. This is the caribbean before it became a holiday destination. The only other people we met were local Kuna in their small wooden boats, and a few other yachts like ourselves.

90_Corto.jpgCorto and an island

Corto and an island

Had a fantastic time with the Corta crew, sailing around, drinking rum, swimming and trying to decide which beach to lie on. The Islands and water were simply stunning, and with the locals paddling up in their boats to sell us the freshest seafood possible, the food was pretty good too!

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We were also introduced to a new hobby - drift snorkelling. The gorgeous seas surrounding these islands can have surprisingly strong currents, and in certain places this coincides with gorgeous coral reefs. As if foating around snorkelling was too much effort, having to move yourself around and all, we spent hours "drift snorkelling", where Corta would anchor up down-current of a reef and we'd be ferried a few hundred metres up-current in the little tender. There we'd jump out and simply lie there and let the current drift us over the reef, back to the yacht. This did have the added bonus of meaning we could be pretty still, which seemed to scare the fish less, and we saw loads of reef fish, corals, rays and even a couple of small sharks.

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3 days of doing nothing flew by, and I could have more than happily stayed here for another 3, but there was a few hundred miles of open water between us and Columbia that needed crossing. We'd been warned about the open water in a relatively small yacht, and I'd heavily stocked up on sea-sickness pills. As we got underway, everyone was enjoying the trip, and the conditions were relatively calm. Relatively calm on open water however, means swells of "only" a couple of meters, which after a few hours was more than enough to seriously sicken half the people onboard. I was really enjoying this, and when we got a decent bit of wind and got both sails out Corta really came to life. Unfortunately, as I wasn't feeling too bad, I felt obliged to take the forward cabin that night. The aft and middle of the yacht are far wider than the bows, so basically any movements of the yacht as a whole get amplified in the front cabin. This meant that my night in the cabin was like trying to sleep on the Big Dipper, with the bows being constantly thrown up in the air then crashing down on the waves again. Pretty good fun for half an hour. A bit tedious after 8.

Other than the lack of sleep the crossing was enjoyable and largely uneventful, save for an hour where a pod of dolphins decided to come and play with us. I love seeing dolphins, although they never stay still for a good photo! This was the first open water crossing I've done in a yacht, but I'll definitely be doing more.

Dolphins.jpgDolphins - like trying to photograph a bunch of hyperactive toddles on skittles.

Dolphins - like trying to photograph a bunch of hyperactive toddles on skittles.

After two days without seing another thing (save the dolphns) we arrived in Cartagena. What a beautiful city! Spent a couple of days here wandering the streets and admiring the architecture.

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Had a night in a Salsa club where the locals were far too good dancers for us to consider trying to join in, but it was a great experience just watching. The next night after a few drinks we met up again with the Corta skipper Sebastian who took us to a more casual Salsa bar, where we tried out a few steps. I'm not sure the locals were impressed, but we had a great time!

Posted by Matt Cocken 05:27 Archived in Colombia Tagged sailing cartagena san_blas Comments (0)

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