A Travellerspoint blog

February 2014

Colombia: Our First 2 Weeks in a Coconut Shell



Well, it has been around six years in the making, but Emma and I finally descended to South America, our budget flight touching down a little after eight at night, 12 February in Cartagena, Colombia. Now, coming from personal experience, I can say Cartagena, Colombia, is a good place to start one’s exploration of the big mass of land down below.

But, this blog isn’t about all that. I can wrap the highlights quickly: Cartagena is stunning, an old colonial port town that was so often ransacked by pirates (England’s Sir Frances Drake included) that it now has a 300-plus year old stone wall surrounding the oldest part of the city. Oh, yes, it overlooks the Caribbean, the airport transfer took less than ten minutes, and the streets downtown were safe to wander.

You may remember the city’s cameo at the end of the 80s classic, Romancing the Stone. It's worth a view, if only as a reminder of how hot Kathleen Turner once was.

What I really want to note, though, are the specific happenings of our trip thus far, how we ate patacones, coconut cookies, and passion fruit snow cones from street vendors. And, how we posed with the army for a promotional photo of them informing us about the threat of kidnappings—Emma says, “Does that really happen here?” and without missing a beat, the boyish soldier bellows, “Noooo.”


The next stop, Santa Marta, moved us further north along the coast, to a land of beaches and ex-cartel homes, one of which we stayed in: (now under Australian direction) Drop Bear Hostel. Not only was there a pool, free coffee all day, hammock alley, and Ping-Pong, but Sunday evenings the owner offers a complete rundown of the cartel history and a free tour of the place, which was frequented by Pablo Escobar.

Our house was built with marijuana money in the 70s, before cocaine hit. It was still fancy, though, but a funny fact was that the cartel members—from the rural Colombia—still slept in hammocks as opposed to beds.

In Santa Marta, we lazed. We enjoyed the cartel life, the hammocks and pool, the nearby supermarket and kitchen, and we even managed a trip out to the beach. But, to be honest, it was one of those times when the hostel overshadows the surroundings. The nearby coast was beautiful but without shade, and the big house was just fun. So, Santa Marta—no apologies, no regrets, it was great.

When we left, we headed to Paso del Mango, a little mountain spot so remote no one in the hostel had heard of it, not even the local staff. But, it was less than an hour away, and Finca Carpe Diem was one of the main reasons we ended up on the Caribbean coast as opposed to Bogota (a wise choice). Five minutes before we arrived (free shuttle service), Nele stopped her jeep to tell us the hill was too step, so could we walk the last five minutes? Then, she left us in her dust.


The surroundings had significantly improved. Washed in nature, mountain streams crisscrossed the land creating a multitude of waterfalls, the forest is interspersed with farms and nature reserves, and ancient stairways create trails to millennia-old ruins. We swam in every pool we came across, the Pool of Love being the most talked about on the Finca (we made a great group of friends). We hiked here and there, discovering beautiful vistas, endless cascades, and Pre-Colombian structures. We were one with nature.

Perhaps the weirdest thing we saw was a school of Amazonian fish, Arapaima (they even made it onto River Monsters), that look massively prehistoric and somehow came to live in a pond in the Sierra Nevada Mountains of Colombia.

The visit also proved to be our first time using the tiny tent Emma has been lugging around since our visa run to Mexico last year. It worked well despite our lack of bedding—a borrowed comforter made the last night much more comfy, you might say. And, what’s more, it was a great test run for the next adventure: We were off to Tayrona National Park, where camping would be required and the beaches promised to be exquisite.


We’ve been such lazy planners for the touristic side of this adventure (we are all about the farms these days) that we’d not even heard of Tayrona, a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1979, until after we’d arrived. The point here, perhaps, is that we still made it. Despite no guidebook, we managed to sniff out what’s what and even find out which spot offered the best deals for budget backpackers. Note to self: Remember that lesson.

Our campsite at Tayrona required entering the park, taking a short shuttle ride towards the coast, and then hiking another hour. We also knew this but still managed to carry about fifty pounds of groceries with us (Buying food inside the park is expensive, and vegan options do not abound). Still, it was worth it. We pitched our little tent beneath a mango tree, had a quick bite, and set off exploring.

Another thing to add to the least of oddities: For some reason, there were two turkeys, a male and a female, roaming the area around our tent. The male was hideous but not deterred in its pursuit of the uninterested female. The gobble echoed us awake in the mornings.

The beaches just got more and more stunning, tiny coves fighting off the big surf blowing in from the north, the water the more refreshing shades of blue. We saw beautiful birds. We clambered over rocks. We even saw the odd unusually large rodent. Coconut trees were everywhere, and we swiped a couple of fallen fruits each day for a late afternoon snack. And, by the end, via consensus effort, we managed to eat nearly all the food we’d brought.


Hiking back out of the jungle proved much easier and full of wildlife. We saw quite a few agoutis scampering along the forest floor, and just as we neared the end of the trail, there were several titi monkeys. It was a fitting end, and pretty much put an exclamation point on our first two weeks in Colombia and South America. We were set to catch the overnight bus to Bogota that evening and ready start volunteering on a new farm, which I will tell you about next time.

A last, perhaps lasting, image to leave you with: One downside to Tayrona was that I suddenly became a tick magnet. The first we spotted on my ribs, there was another on my arm, and later on my thigh, but the worst was when I found one while showering. It seemed to be getting romantic with me. What a moment it was when Emma followed me into the bathroom with some tweezers from my Swiss Army knife. Sweet dreams to all.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:49 Archived in Colombia Tagged waterfalls beaches travel backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Permaculture: Not Just about 80’s Hairstyles

The Magic Circle: Not Just a Secret Hand-shaking Group of Magicians



If permaculture is not a reference to 80’s fashion, then what exactly is it and why should you give a follicle? Well, the short and curly of it all is that, before Emma and I cast ourselves into the organic farming circles of backpackerdom, permaculture was just a word we’d heard thrown around with no real pin in its exact meaning. It seemed like a good idea, but what was it? It seemed like the latest farming trend, but who was doing it—really? The answers eluded us.

Then, as we got into our roles as the foreign farming duo of Glenaven on the Lake, Panama’s most welcoming work-exchange, Emma began investigating what new projects we could do, and she discovered—gasp for air, hold it, anticipate—the “magic circle”. And, being a Harry Potter aficionado and former fan of Wicca, being a current farmer and innovative plant-smith, she just couldn’t resist.

First of all, though, permaculture.


In essence, permaculture is pretty much as simple as being a cool, seemingly logical way of doing things ecologically, from using natural construction techniques to promoting biodiversity to harvesting rainwater. The idea is to be good to nature and nature will be good to you.

You may be asking yourself why this is any different than organic farming. Well, in actuality, in practice, organic farming can be rough on the earth as well. Fields and fields of organically grown stuff can still make a great big mono-crop landscape. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean machine-free or concerned with local wildlife. It simple means no chemicals (or if you really read the labels, possibly some), but in no way does it mean that the farming is necessarily ecologically designed. Rather, organic farming at its best resembles (or is) of permaculture’s tenants, but…

Permaculture is actually more of a cultural, in which all things focus on what works best for nature and what makes nature work best for you. Biological options should be explored before turning to technological methods. Designs of all things—roofs, fences, and wood piles—should be thought through to harness their usefulness, like collecting water, blocking winds, or creating micro-climates, respectively. The things around, from garbage to fresh tomatoes, all have a purpose and should get to realize it. Then, it gets into economics, politics, and education, i.e. all aspects of culture.

An example: The Magic Circle


There are several beautiful ideas wrapped by the magic circle. One, it’s a place for organic waste to go, including not just food scraps but also paper and cardboard. Instead of wasting this waste by sending it to a landfill, it feeds something. Two, it is low maintenance. Essentially, you set the thing up, dig a big hole, and let nature do what it does, tossing it a little garbage every now and again. Three, it is really productive. We spend our time building compost bins, turning them, and waiting ages to finally distribute the nutrients, but the magic circle has it’s own built-in composting system, no turning required.

Emma and I built our first one about a week ago. It starts with a hole. Ours was about six feet across and eighteen inches deep (as suggested by the Lazy Farmer). As we dug, we piled the soil around the edge of the circle, creating something similar to a row found in a normal garden, only circular. The soil was soft and primed for fresh roots to grow. In the middle, we took a pile of leaves and cardboard boxes that had been collected for a burn pile (a Panamanian tradition, it seems) and started a massive compost heap. The great thing is that, as this compost breaks down, the nutrients immediately go to the plants surrounding it. Freaking magic.

Now, the other aspect to the project, of course, was actually growing something around the composting hole. Bananas seem to be the norm here, so we followed suit for this first one. A neighbor gave us a dozen plants, about five different varieties, to start with (that’s enough for this size circle). The cool thing about using banana plants is that the shade produced by the leaves means no weeds will grow, which means less work for the farmer. In between them, we planted some sweet potatoes—a good pairing with bananas—another neighbor gave us. Circle complete.

The output is supposed to put normal methods of banana farming to shame. At the risk of sounding cultivatingly uncool, I’m excited to find out. We hope to do some more magic circles when we return to Glenaven on the Lake in mid-April (we’ll be hanging out for six months, developing the farm, seeing to volunteers, and taking care of things—Find us on all HelpX if you are interested). I personally hope to try it with some different crop combinations, maybe some berries, some coconut (a proven crop that combines well with peppers and/or vanilla), and, ah, the possibilities.

The Future with Permaculture


Just a final few thoughts: The magic circle has been one of the most enjoyable projects I’ve undertaken on our tour de fincas. Beyond building more magic circles, Emma and I hope to explore more permaculture techniques this year. Our next prospective project has a horrible name but seems very well suited for those times when there are a lot of branches or stumps lying about (which Glenaven has): Hugelkultur uses large pieces of rotting wood to create long rows of fertile landscape.

As for you, dear reader, I want to suggest that those of you with small bits of land at your disposal give it a go. I’ve encouraged composting in the past, and this is a way to do it with even less work. Not to mention, you get some delicious fruit (or what have you) from the afternoon of effort. I’d also say that the magic circle is an awesome project to do with the kids as they’ll learn a bit about how food grows, they’ll get to enjoy being part of the process, and they’ll get to eat their own crops (without the hassle of having to maintain a garden).

Until next time.

Posted by jonathonengels 07:07 Archived in Panama Tagged landscapes trees food travel farm backpacking environment expat Comments (0)

Chicken Run Dos-Punto-Huevo: Trapped in Panama

New Musings from an Old Backpacker



The stench was awful. Piles of feces coated the floor of their tiny enclosure. It was better than what they’d get in a factory farm but still appalling--concrete and steel, a diet of corn, and no nests. Their feathers were falling out. Great eruptions of squawking and flapping ensued followed by fierce banging into the sides of the cage. We knew it from day one: Something needed to change and fast.

Alan and Angelika, proprietors of Glenaven, our current farm of the month (January), are essentially snow-birders. Residents of Vancouver for most of the year, they own a 2-acre winter spread in Panama beside Lake Gatun, formed by the Canal. They returned this year to discover the groundskeeper had acquired six chickens and a rooster and stuffed them all into this cage. His plans beyond that were unclear.

So, why didn’t that just demand they were set free? The other problem: Also the owners of three sisters, puppies barely scratching at a year, team Double-A faced the challenge of Bella. Bella, the largest and most needy of the canine clan, had somehow located her instincts since last Alan and Angelika had been in Panama. She was a chicken’s worst nightmare, even worse than a tiny enclosure.

The situation was problematic but not completely out of the realm of things Emma and I have tackled before. In fact, just a couple of months back, we’d teamed to construct of chicken hotel/roosting house on Totoco Farm. That one, however, was for chickens free to roam during the day and put away for—literally—safe-keeping at night. The Glenaven flock wasn’t afforded the luxury of safe passage, so we immediately started vying for a larger space for them.


Lord and Lady A weren’t hard to get on board. Within our first week here, construction began. We were fencing in a roughly the size of a basketball court. It was a lovely plot scattered with plantain trees, yucca crop, papaya trees, and rosa de Jamaica—plenty of things to attract bugs for the chickens, plants that would reap the benefits of the highly fertilizing crap that came next. We’d include a shelter for them so that human residents might get a little egg trade-off from the situation, too.

Of course, the chickens didn’t belong to any of us, except maybe in that animals belong to the world, hippie sense we sometimes use. Regardless, Oscar said he could care less, as long as his chickens didn’t become something’s lunch as opposed to his. His stance, which couldn’t be discredited, was that Bella would make short ribs out of these birds. She was already after the neighbor’s on a daily basis. His advice was to get rid of Bella, which was not going to happen. Option #2, a fence had to be erected to keep her away.

All things in order, I began working, the unfortunate aspect being that building a fence around a basketball court takes a lot of post holes, roughly 30, and the soil here is dense, packed clay. Those days of digging wrecked my hands. Seriously. I was having trouble sleeping because they would go numb, feel like two balloons (as Pink Floyd would say), and just plain hurt. Unlike shovels, posthole diggers are all upper-body and rely greatly on a strong grip. While I recognize the benefits, I have grown to hate posthole diggers (the tool not workers).

What’s more, the reason those lovely shade-producing plantain trees were in the area is because it’s a full-sun spot. Less than an hour in and I’d be dripping, my shirt sodden and stinking, the parts of my face not covered by beard glowing vibrant red. I’d have to change clothes just to eat lunch. Meanwhile, every morning, I’d have to walk by the cage on my way to work and by it again on my way for an afternoon swim. It just wasn’t fair.


As I put in the posts, a new volunteer arrived and began work on the roosting box. Mirco, a knotty-haired German, pursued his assignment with passion, and what started as a simple roosting box turned into an eccentric work of art. Hand-cut boards twisted into a great twizzle stick of nesting boxes as he swung away with the hammer, sometimes free-style rapping along with his iPod and sometimes shouting at the stubborn nails in German.

Within a week of work, it all started coming together. The posts were set, the roosting house was poised to be roosted in, and laundry days seem to get a little more frequent. The only problem was that our chicken wire did not show up with the material delivery, and with no chicken wire there could be no fence, and with no fence there could be no free-wheeling chickens.

It wasn’t until the following Wednesday that we could begin. Ironically, the rooster got out of the cage that evening. I told Alan I didn’t think it would have any problem fending off Bella. Later that night, an explosion of noise broke through our evening dinner music, and a few minutes later, Alan was offering up their best bottle of wine to the person who could detain the cockerel. The mission was a success—the wine shared by all—but the incident only served to reinvigorate everyone’s resolve.

The next day, Mirco worked on getting the roosting box up and equipped with entry ramps while Emma and I struggled to pull the chicken wire tight between the fence posts. I would pull, ripping at my damaged fingers while she hammered. Or, she would pull, damaging her own fingers, while I fiddled with pliers and tie-wire. Two days down in the gully (that’s what the area is referred to by insiders), and by Thursday evening, we were ready to deliver some poultry.


Now, a funny thing about us chicken-lovers was that none of us had actually captured and held a chicken before. Mirco tried first with laughable results: he moved around stiff as the birds erupted into fits of flapping every time he neared. Then, Emma took over. I’d seen Emma grab birds before, not to mention crabs and nearly snakes, and knew she was quite fearless with animals. She looked like Rocky after six weeks of training. Old Mother Hen had nothing on her.

After Emma’s success—the chickens calmed right down after being caught—the sailing went smooth. I went next and got one quickly enough to maintain my manly demure, and from there, we all went in a line, Angelika taking pictures of us as we released them into the gully. The chickens immediately began scratching the ground in search of bugs. They were safe and happy and as chickens should be.

None of us could stop watching them after that. We’d count them every time we passed. We’d sit at the top of the hill, peering down, hoping they’d go into their roosting box (Mirco, the creator, especially). We put into action a fruit and veg composting (and natural insect hunting) plan to replace their crappy corn diet. Even though the project left us Emma and I a little worse for wear, it’s an incredible feeling to see a problem, literally create a solution, and watch some happy chickens.


Other mentionables of the tale:

• Emma and I constructed our first palm thatch roof, complete with a lesson from local builders, for the chicken’s sheltered area.

• The chickens eventually did start using their roosting box, though there are no eggs to show for it yet.

• There were a couple chicken dashes before we put and the roof (then reinforced a couple of areas). Even so, once the chickens had flown the coop, they seemed oddly easy to catch to put back in. Almost like it had been a lesson learned.

• During construction, Oscar actually relinquished his post as groundskeeper of Glenaven, essentially leaving the birds to live out there lives in the gully—almost as if they were in a cartoon.

• My hands. Our hands. They remained troublesome, and Emma finally looked up the symptoms, only to find out we were showing signs of carpal tunnel and another ailment called “trigger finger”. We now do special exercises every night to combat further deterioration and suffering. All for the chickens, my friends, all for the chickens. Live well.

Posted by jonathonengels 10:51 Archived in Panama Tagged animals travel farm backpacking humor environment expat Comments (0)

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