A day at the beach, Cayo Jutias

Cuba and beaches go hand-in-hand. Exquisite stretches of fine white sand grace every tourist brochure about the country. Most of those beaches are home to large resorts full of Canadians and Europeans fleeing winter, but an hour’s drive north of Viñales is an altogether more low-key and tranquil stretch of sand: Cayo Jutias.

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

The glorious 3km of beaches on Cayo Jutias can’t be described as ‘undiscovered’, but the drive, on winding roads through rolling hills and along a 9km causeway, to reach this blissful mangrove-covered key gives it an isolated feel. There were only a handful of tourists and Cubans the day we visited, the sun shone and the water was perfect. Plunging into the sea provides great relief from Cuba’s humidity.

Most people stay on the beach near the only buildings along this coast: a palm leaf-covered bar and restaurant. You can walk down the beach and through the mangroves to discover the many small, empty beaches that are dotted along the coast. Although, if you’re walking through the mangroves, it’s worth remembering that they’re home to plenty of biting insects. A lesson learned the hard way.

There’s no accommodation anywhere on the key, explaining its relative tranquility and making a day trip the only option. It’s well worth the journey. The white sand, bleached mangroves and glorious azure waters make Cayo Jutias a picturesque place. There are loungers for rent, a dive shop providing snorkelling and diving trips to the nearby reef, and you can take a boat out to a small islet just off the coast.

Like most people we drove from Viñales. There are plenty of taxistas willing to take you for a standard fee, wait for you at the beach and drive you home again. We had a 1950s Chevrolet to add a touch of nostalgia to the trip. The journey was fascinating, leaving the Valle de Viñales we drove over forested hills and passed through several villages, including Minas de Matahambre, a former copper mining town.

Lighthouse on Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Lighthouse on Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Everywhere you go in Cuba there are people by the side of the road (often waving money) trying to travel. There seems to be a transport crisis in most parts of the country, and it feels weird to have empty seats in your taxi while so many people need a lift. We gave a lift to a woman who turned out to work at the restaurant on the beach. We were rewarded with a free drink and lots of conversation.

Cayo Jutias is clearly going to become more popular as tourism booms in the country. For the time-being it remains sleepy and relaxed, fully deserving its reputation as an independent traveller’s alternative to the all-inclusive resorts elsewhere in Cuba. I just hope its growing popularity doesn’t attract the developers. It would be a terrible shame if the mangroves were replaced by concrete.

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Cayo Jutias, Cuba

Latin America…14 months in 14 photographs

Its almost impossible to sum up our experiences in fourteen photographs, but these represent some of our favourite places and events from our time in Latin America.

Bolivia’s most colourful and unusual fiesta in San Ignacio de Moxos

San Ignacio is a small town, little more than a village really, in the Bolivian Amazon. Today it is a sleepy place, largely inaccessible during the rains, which acts as a hub for cattle ranches in the surrounding countryside. Its Amazonian history plays an important part in the fiesta, and combines traditional Amazonian beliefs and dress with Catholic beliefs. One of the more extraordinary elements of the fiesta are characters known as Achus who bring mayhem to the village during the fiesta. One trick they play is to attach fireworks to their hats and then run wildly through the crowds. This photo is of an Achus doing just that.

The Bolivian South West

Its almost impossible to imagine the raw beauty of this region in the south west corner of Bolivia. High mountains streaked with colour are reflected in lakes, that themselves range from turquoise to blood red, where flamingos make their home and Andean foxes roam. Set at altitudes that rarely drop below 4000 metres, it is a region that leaves you breathless. In the north lies the vast salt flats of Uyuni, and in the south, Laguna Verde, tinged blue-green by chemical reaction. In-between lie hundreds of kilometres of the most dazzling landscape. It has to be seen to be believed.

Parque Nacional Sajama, Bolivia

Bolivia’s oldest national park is home to herds of llama, alpaca and vicuna, which roam this barren region and have provided a livelihood for generations of people living here. The park is also home to several volcanoes, including the highest mountain in Bolivia, Vulcan Sajama, which can be climbed during the dry season. It is also home to some amazing colonial-era adobe churches and numerous chulpas, pre-hispanic funerary towers that are fascinating in their own right.

The Virgen de Guadalupe festival, Sucre, Bolivia

Three days and nights of dancing, singing, music and costumed parades…not to mention delicious street food and drinking with wild abandon. The Fiesta de la Virgen de Guadalupe is one of Bolivia’s most important. It winds its way around the streets of Sucre from early morning to late night. Performers spend several hours dancing their way towards the city centre before the dance troupe routines come to a climax in the Plaza 25 de Mayo. The culmination of festivities is at the cathedral where the statue of the Virgen de la Guadalupe, resplendent in silver and semi-precious stones, awaits the tired performers.

Trekking in the Corillera Real, Bolivia

A multi-day trek through this vast Andean wilderness, passing glacier fed lakes and tiny llama farming villages, all the time overshadowed by giant, snow-capped mountains, is an extraordinary experience. At the end of a hard day’s walking, wrapping up warm and watching the galaxies appear in a night sky untouched by neon makes all the effort worth it. You’re more likely to see llamas than other human beings, but that’s what wilderness trekking is all about.

Watching the sun rise from the summit of Huyana Potosi, Bolivia

At 6088 metres in altitude, Huyana Potosi is considered to be one of the easiest 6000m mountains in the world to climb. ‘Easy’ is a relative word when it comes to mountains, and reaching the summit of Huyana Potosi was an endurance test like none I’ve experienced before, particularly since the last 300m of the climb is along a narrow ice ledge with sheer drops off both sides. The exhausting climb and freezing temperatures were rewarded with absolutely stunning views over the Cordillera Real as the sun rose to illuminate a world wreathed in snow and mist.

Driving through the Atacama Desert in Northern Chile

Without really understanding the immensity of the Atacama Desert, we decided to hire a car and drive ourselves around this amazing region. The photograph is of the Mano del Desierto, a sculpture that suddenly appears in the midst of the sun-bleached desert like a beacon of hope to weary drivers. The Atacama is the driest place on earth, some areas haven’t received rain in thousands of years, yet humans have also eked out an existence in this region for millennia. Today that tradition continues with miners working in some of the most inhospitable conditions known to humankind.

Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, Chile

Northern Chile is dominated by the Atacama Desert, yet dotted throughout it are desert oases, abandoned nitrate towns, cosmopolitan ocean-side cities and pristine beaches formed along the mighty Pacific Ocean. Head away from the ocean and you suddenly find yourself climbing into a high altitude world where mountains and lakes are brightly coloured by chemicals in the soil. It is here you’ll find the Parque Nacional Nevado de Tres Cruces, a place of exceptional beauty, and the chances are that you’ll have it to yourselves – hardly anyone makes the journey to reach this remote area.

Machu Picchu, Peru

Perhaps the best known archeological site in the world, I was worried Machu Picchu would be something of a disappointment. I needn’t have feared. Set high on a plateau and overlooked by towering mountains, this lost city of the Inca is a magical place. The photo below is taken from the Sun Gate which forms part of the Inca Trail. Even if you can’t do the trail itself, its worth walking to the Sun Gate to get the view most Incas would have had as they approached the city.

Nazca cemetery, Nazca, Peru

Nazca is known for its monumental pre-Hispanic lines in the desert, yet they form only one (albeit stunning) remnant of the former civilisation that lived in this inhospitable region for thousands of years prior to the emergence of the Inca empire. Drive south of Nazca into the desert and you will come to a huge site where the Nazca culture buried their dead. What makes the cemetery so poignant and moving, is that the remains of the dead are so well preserved and yet surrounded by nothing but desolate desert.

The San Blas Islands, Panama

Picture perfect islands floating in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean. There has been little development on the islands because they are controlled and governed by the indigenous peoples who inhabit them. Don’t expect luxury hotels and all-inclusive spa packages, do expect peace and quiet, good seafood, white sand beaches without anyone else and bathwater warm sea in which to swim and snorkel. A small slice of paradise.

Cartagena des Indias, Colombia

It is difficult to describe just how lovely Cartagena des Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia is, but after a few hours of strolling around the city it had captured our hearts. Cartagena is an extraordinarily well preserved colonial city, with a history as long as Europeans have been involved in the Americas. It has been the scene of pirate attacks, terrible torture under the Spanish Inquisition and suffered at the hands of colonial Spain for declaring its independence long before the rest of Colombia. Walk its beautiful streets, day and night, and absorb the atmosphere and history as you go.

Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

We fell in love with Nicaragua, and if we could spend a year abroad again I suspect Nicaragua would be very high on the list of places we wanted to go. We visited the delightful colonial city of Granada, perched on Lago Nicaragua; time stopped and so did we in Pearl Lagoon; El Castillo and the Reserva Biologico Indio-Maiz were wonderful places to spend time. In the end though, Little Corn Island was paradise itself – delicious fresh seafood, incredible beaches, relaxed locals and, best of all, not a single motor vehicle anywhere.

The Uyuni Salt Flats, Bolivia

I agonised over having another photo from Nicaragua, but in the end you can’t leave out one of the natural wonders of the world. The Uyuni salt flats are simply amazing. A vast salt pan burned white under the intense Andean sun, it scorches your eyes just to look at it. It is impossible to truly imagine what the salt flats look like unless you’ve been there, an endless alien landscape that is like nothing else on earth.

Little Corn Island, another Nicaraguan paradise in the Caribbean

After our time in Pearl Lagoon and on the Pearl Keys, its seemed unlikely that Nicaragua’s much-heralded Corn Islands would live up to their billing as some of the Caribbean’s finest islands only recently on the international travel map. We skipped the more developed Big Corn Island and headed straight to Little Corn Island, where I discovered just how wrong I was.

Little Corn Island demands superlatives. It’s beautiful, the ocean is all sparkling blues and turquoises, the seafood and rum are delicious and, perhaps best of all, there isn’t a single motor vehicle on the island. The only wheeled transport is by wheelbarrow or handcart.

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The port of El Bluff en route to the Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Big Corn Island from the ocean, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Pangas on Big Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

You can walk all around Little Corn on dirt tracks that criss-cross the forested interior en route to the ocean and not hear a sound other than birds, the wind and the waves. Its a rare experience these days to be unable to hear the ‘world’, and it creates a seductive tranquility. We stayed in a wooden cabana with refreshing sea breezes, a few steps from the warm waters of the Caribbean – from the veranda we watched sunrises to end all sunrises.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Dirt Tracks through the interior, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

The island fun starts with the transport options to get there. You can fly directly to Big Corn Island, but we decided that taking one of the slow boats that make the five or six hour trip from Bluefields a couple of times a week would be more interesting. Once you arrive on Big Corn a panga, a small motorboat, will speed and jolt you across the 30km that separates Big Corn from Little Corn.

The panga we took normally holds twenty six; our panga was crammed to sinking-point with forty one passengers, nine of whom were standing. Regardless, our boat went at top speed across the water, crashing into fairly sizeable waves. While I was concentrating on trying to keep my spine intact, I didn’t notice the back half of the boat getting soaking wet. When we finally reached Little Corn a dozen people looked half drowned.

Welcome to the Caribbean…luckily, we arrived on Little Corn just in time to watch the sun set over the Caribbean.

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Sunset, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

70km from the mainland, the Corn Islands’ history reflects the history of this whole coast. The population are predominately English-Creole speakers of Afro-Caribbean descent, originally brought as slaves to grow corn (in Spanish the islands are called the Islas del Maiz). Despite early Spanish interest (Christopher Columbus stopped by in 1502), British pirates frequented these waters and made the islands their base. They became a British protectorate until 1894.

The culture of the islands reflects this history but, thanks to the current boom in tourism, this unique culture has changed in recent years with an influx of Spanish speakers from the mainland.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island is a small piece of paradise. Fresh seafood abounds, coconuts and pineapples grow and there is a natural aquifer providing fresh water – something seafarers from 1502 onwards appreciated. Tourism is putting pressure on fresh water resources, and Little Corn’s future may depend upon the island’s population being able to balance the needs of the environment against the need to develop the economy.

Many of the inhabitants of Little Corn are poor and live in small wooden houses or tin shacks. Take a walk in the right direction, away from the beaches and restaurants, and you can see the challenges facing many people and how tourism could easily become a divisive business if people don’t see any benefit from the predicable flood of tourists to the island in the next few years.

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Houses, Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

For the time being though, and hopefully for a long time to come, Little Corn Island is a wonderful place to spend a few days living out the Caribbean fantasy.

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Little Corn Island, Corn Islands, Nicaragua

Paradise found (again), Nicaragua’s spectacular Pearl Keys

The Pearl Keys are sublime, like being in a dream: perfect crescents of white sand, backed by swaying palms and coconut trees, hammocks slung between them; warm turquoise waters to snorkel and swim in while your boat driver cooks up the traditional seafood stew of Rondon on the beach for lunch. Thankfully, this is no dream this is the perfect Pearl Keys, an hour by boat from Pearl Lagoon off the Caribbean coast of Nicaragua.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

As we motored through the calm waters of Pearl Lagoon towards the open waters of the Caribbean the weather looked like it might spoil our Caribbean fantasy. Large rain clouds gathered in the distance and at one point we got soaking wet as we passed through a torrential downpour in the middle of the ocean. Thankfully, on the other side the sun was shining bright and clear and we spotted the Pearl Keys dotted in the ocean.

We were lucky enough to see turtles swimming past our boat as we made our way east. This area is critically important as both a nesting site for several types of turtle, including a couple of highly endangered species, and as a prime feeding ground for them as well.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Passing a couple of the larger Keys we were headed to Crawl Key, so absolutely perfect with its crescent beach and turquoise waters that it beggars belief. So few tourists make it to this part of Nicaragua that we had Crawl Key to ourselves – just us and our boat’s captain, a lobster fisherman during the season and a tour guide in the off season. Called Dane, he was also an excellent cook and knew everything there was to know about the Pearl Keys and this region.

There’s a reef off one end of Crawl Key, which has been badly damaged by rising sea levels and increased destruction from stormy weather. It still retains patches of living coral and its possible to snorkel out and spot quite a lot of fish, anemones and starfish, but it does leave you wondering what the reef might have looked like before the destruction.

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Palm tree shadow, Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Other than snorkelling and swimming, Crawl Key offers little but swinging in the hammock while waiting for the Rondon to be cooked. Part stew, part soup, Rondon, or Rundown as it is sometimes known, is a speciality of the region. Slow cooked fish, prawns, crab and (in season) lobster, mixed with vegetables and steamed with coconut milk. Its absolutely delicious, especially eaten overlooking the magical turquoise waters of the Pearl Keys.

Like several of the Pearl Keys, Crawl Key has been bought under circumstances locals claim as suspicious by a wealthy American, who has started construction of a monstrously ugly house overlooking a beach that was an important Hawksbill Turtle nesting site. Community pressure seems to have ended the construction and the house is slowly decaying hidden from sight by the towering palm trees.

At least the owner allows people to spend time on the island, two others owned by British people are completely out-of-bounds.

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Crawl Key, Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

The indigenous Miskitos communities of this region are trying to wrest control of the Pearl Keys back for use by the community, but it may be some time before they are successful. Until then some of the most spectacular islands in the Caribbean will be off limits to both them and any travellers who make it this far.

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Sunset returning from the Pearl Keys, Caribbean, Nicaragua

Parque Nacional Cahuita, small but perfectly formed

It is probably one of the smallest national parks I’ve ever visited but it has a level of biodiversity that would make many larger parks weep…and Parque Nacional Cahuita is only a short stroll from Cahuita village making it one of the most accessible.

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Capuchin monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is divided between the ocean, which contains one of costa Rica’s few remaining living reefs, and tropical forest lined with white sand beaches, which hosts a wide variety of birds, reptiles, insects, crustaceans and mammals. Thanks to a high and rough tide we didn’t go snorkelling on the reef, but we hired a local guide and spent four leisurely hours walking the well-marked trails in the park.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crocodile, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguana, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Iguanas, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Great Kiskadee, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Bird, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Acorn Woodpeker, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

I have never been so grateful to have a guide; within thirty minutes of entering the park we’d seen more biodiversity than we’d seen since being in the Amazon several months earlier: monkeys, sloths, agouti, snakes, crocodiles, birds and iguanas all made it onto our ‘spotted’ list. It costs US$20 for a guide, yet we met several people without guides who hadn’t seen a single animal.

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Howler Monkey, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Crab, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Sloth, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Perhaps the highlight of the visit, if it can be described as that, was spotting the small but deadly snake, the Yellow Eyelash Viper – if you get bitten you have 2 – 3 hours to get to medical assistance before death. We would never have spotted this colourful and deadly bundle of fun, which is all the more reason never to go into the jungle without a guide, but once spotted it is hard to look away.

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Yellow Eyelash Viper, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

The park is also packed full of plants and insects. I saw a very pleased looking squirrel munching on a fresh almond plucked right off the tree. There are literally millions of leaf-cutter ants and, my old friends, mosquitoes. It was a brilliant experience, the park is free to enter (donations welcome) and you can use the beach and swim in the ocean after you’ve finished looking for wildlife.

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Agouti, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Flower, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

Leaf-cutter ants, Parque Nacional Cahuita, Costa Rica

A taste of the Pura Vida, sampling the culture of Costa Rica

The phrase Pura Vida has been adopted wholesale in Costa Rica and you can see it spray-painted onto walls, adorning t-shirts and in advertising campaigns on TV. It literally means pure life, but could perhaps be more accurately translated as living the good life, something we thought we should investigate while in Costa Rica.

That said, our first experience of Costa Rica wasn’t exactly encouraging. Standing in a queue at Panamanian immigration at the Guabito border crossing we looked in slight disbelief at the rickety bridge over a wide river leading towards Costa Rica and had to double check that this was the official border crossing. Once across the bridge we queued again at Costa Rican immigration before being whisked off in a minibus towards Cahuita.

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

Bridge over the border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

The border between Panama and Costa Rica

If you’re looking for a relaxed Caribbean village to spend a few days without purpose, Cahuita is the place for you. This is Afro-Caribbean Costa Rica, with wild beaches backed by tropical forest stretching for several kilometres, great snorkelling, a national park full of wildlife and Caribbean cooking to help wile away the time.

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Main street in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Food stall, Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

House in Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Tree, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Jungle fights back, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Caribbean food, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Booze advert, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The history of this part of Costa Rica isn’t without controversy. While slavery brought the first Afro-Caribbeans to Costa Rica, much larger numbers, particularly Jamaicans, came to work on the railway and banana plantations operated by the infamous United Fruit (banana plantations still cover the region today). These settlers had few rights, they weren’t allowed to become Costa Rican citizens, yet as outsiders their presence and cultural differences led to racial tensions.

This racism was given legal status by the Costa Rican government who introduced a form of apartheid preventing Afro-Caribbeans from leaving the Caribbean coastal area and settling elsewhere in Costa Rica. This situation ending in 1949, but the Caribbean region has historically been underdeveloped and more deprived than other areas of the country. Today the vast majority of black Costa Ricans still live in the Caribbean region.

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Negra, Cahuita, Costa Rica

If there is one positive to this discrimination it was that it allowed a strong cultural identity to develop without interference from outside. It is that unique Caribbean culture – the food, the language, religion and the music – that draws tourists to Cahuita today. Well, that and the lovely wild beaches and fascinating wildlife of Parque Nacional Cahuita located at the edge of the village.

The whole feel in Cahuita is relaxed, friendly and peaceful. We stayed in a cabana at the far end of Playa Negra, a wild black-sand beach stretching a couple of kilometres away from the village. Walking along the beach or dirt road day or night we’d be greeted by just about everyone we passed. How long it will be before tourism and development start to change this dynamic is anyone’s guess, but it doesn’t feel like it is going to happen soon.

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

Playa Grande, Cahuita, Costa Rica

The several faces of Bocas del Toro

Bocas del Toro is a magnet for tourists from all over the world, their popularity is obvious: beautiful palm fringed beaches, an easy-going vibe that is part-Caribbean, part-Central America and delicious sea food. We arrived just before Semana Santa, which is a huge holiday for Panamanians, and the crowds were packing into the archipelago for the long weekend.

We’d been told that all the islands have different personalities, attracting different crowds, so after spending three days lounging on Isla de San Cristobal we decided to go and explore a little more of the archipelago. First up was the transport hub (i.e. water taxis) of Bocas Town on the largest island, Isla Colon. Bocas Town is backpacking party central in this part of Panama, with rapid and barely controlled development taking its toll on the area.

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Bocas Town from the water, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Main street, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sign, Bocas Town, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a little shopping and arranging onward travel to Costa Rica we decided Bocas Town had little to offer and took a water taxi to Isla Bastimentos. We had two very good reasons for visiting Isla Bastimentos: it has a couple of excellent beaches and the Firefly, a lovely three-bedroom B&B on the island run by friends-of-a-friend, Lauren and Ryan. The Firefly has a great waterfront location and serves delicious food – we arrived just in time for lunch!

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Water taxi, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Ocean front outside the Firefly, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Isla Bastimentos is also home to a large Afro-Caribbean population, mostly from Jamaica, and it has a much more Caribbean feel than the other islands. In Bastimentos’s only ‘town’, Old Bank, people greet you in English rather than Spanish. Its a very different experience to Bocas Town.

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Old Bank, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

After a couple of cold beers and some excellent home-cooking at the Firefly we took a water taxi to Red Frog Beach. Red Frog is a pristine stretch of sand that has been turned into a high-end but low-key resort and you have to pay US$3 for the privilage of using the beach. It was Easter and the beach was packed, but we’d been giving some local advice and walked the short distance to Turtle Beach, which we had to ourselves.

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Turtle Beach, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro, Panama

This was our last day in Bocas del Toro and as we arrived back on Isla de San Cristobal we were treated to a beautiful and dramatic sunset.

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset, Isla de San Cristobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Sunset from Isla de San Critobal, Bocas del Toro, Panama

Boat to paradise, the San Blas Islands

We spent four days in the San Blas Islands, although after the first few hours it felt like we’d been away from civilisation for several months. After an arduous morning of relaxing on Coco Blanco caye where we were staying, we’d hop in a boat and sail towards another island somewhere in the distance where we would be left for the afternoon.

Each day we’d thread our way past inhabited and uninhabited islands, skirting around coral reefs and passing dugout canoes paddled by local Kuna people. The physical beauty of the islands is extraordinary, they are picture-postcard perfect dots of sand in the ocean, yet the Kuna tend to inhabit only a few islands and these can be densely populated creating a stark contrast with the uninhabited islands.

There are reefs throughout the islands and a few sunken boats offering good snorkelling, particularly near the Isla del Perro. Other than that the only things to do are eat fresh fish and acquaint yourself with Panamanian rum. I could have stayed in the San Blas Islands for a long time, I hope these photos explain why…

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

Large Kuna settlement, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Starfish, San Blas Islands, Panama

Starfish, San Blas Islands, Panama

Fishing boat, San Blas Islands, Panama

Fishing boat, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe with sail, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe with sail, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

Kuna canoe, San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

San Blas Islands, Panama

Paradise found, the spellbinding San Blas Islands

It is almost impossible to describe the overwhelming beauty of the San Blas Islands. They are everything a tropical paradise should be: white sand beaches floating in turquoise waters, coconut palms swaying in the Caribbean breeze, rustic cabanas with palm leaf roofs and not a single motor vehicle to disturb the lethargy inducing peace.

Even by Caribbean standards, the San Blas archipelago has to be one of the most blissfully tranquil places to wash up. There is little else to do but swim, snorkel, read and eat. We stayed on Coco Blanco caye, but our daily routine involved heading out on a boat to another island amongst the Cayos Holandeses where we’d be dropped for the afternoon in splendid isolation to swim, snorkel, read and eat some more.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Back on Coco Blanco in time to pour a glass of rum and watch the sun set over the Caribbean, there was little else to do but look at the stars and relax. There are no mosquitos on Coco Blanco, which combined with a cool night breeze and the sound of the lapping waves lulled us to sleep in our little cabana every night. There are nasty biting midges, no-see-ums as they are known, which got us before we applied 100% DEET. Paradise does have a downside apparently.

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Sunset, Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

The 378 islands and cayes that make up the San Blas Islands are dotted along the Caribbean coast of Panama, and although many of them are within sight of the mainland only a handful are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna Indians. Traditional industries such as fishing and farming are being overtaken by tourism, but for the time-being tourism is still low key and island accommodations are pretty basic.

Despite the encroachment of the modern world and the increasing pressure of tourism, the Kuna have resisted the temptation to sell out and continue to maintain their traditional way of life. You won’t find a single upscale resort in the San Blas, but you’ll see plenty of dugout canoes with people fishing from them and you’ll sail past dozens of islands with just a couple of wooden huts nestling under the palm trees.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco caye, San Blas Islands, Panama

The Comarca de Kuna Yala is a semi-autonomous region of Panama, and the Kuna have a degree of autonomy that few indigenous groups have in Latin America. An autonomy that they have fought hard for and of which they are rightly proud. Kuna society is still organised on traditional grounds. Every four years regional chiefs are appointed who establish the laws that govern the Comarca de Kuna Yala, free of interference from Panama.

The Kuna have passed a number of laws that ensure their island paradise remains theirs and that they retain control over the way the islands are developed for tourism. Foreigners, including Panamanians, aren’t allowed to own property or businesses on the islands which means the exploitation of indigenous communities seen in other parts of the world doesn’t happen here.

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

Coco Blanco cay, San Blas Islands, Panama

It all makes for a fascinating and wonderful experience. There is nothing better than flopping into crystal clear waters first thing in the morning before heading to the hammock for a well deserved rest…and yes, it is still snowing in Britain.

Santa Marta, the oldest European city in the Americas

While Cartagena may receive all the attention as the most cosmopolitan and best preserved of Colombia’s colonial Caribbean cities, it is Santa Marta that can lay claim to being the oldest. Founded in 1525, a whole eight years before Cartagena, it soon found its importance slipping as Cartagena became the main Spanish centre in the region.

Today, Santa Marta still plays second fiddle to Cartagena. While it can’t match the sheer colonial majesty of Cartagena, and it receives only a fraction of the international visitors, Santa Marta is a nice place to break the journey between the beaches to the east and Cartagena to the west. It has a scenic waterfront with bars and restaurants, some pleasant plazas, great food and it even has a smaller version of Cartagena’s gold museum (also free and air conditioned).

Caribbean seafront at Santa Marta, Colombia

Caribbean seafront at Santa Marta, Colombia

Caribbean sea at Santa Marta, Colombia

Caribbean sea at Santa Marta, Colombia

Today, Santa Marta makes much of the fact that it was home to Latin American independence hero Simon Bolivar during his final years. Bolivar died at a hacienda on the outskirts of the city and was buried in the city’s cathedral for eight years – or to be precise, eight years, seven months and nine days – before his remains were transferred to his home town of Caracas in modern-day Venezuela.

Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Inscribed flagstone over Bolivar's tomb, Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Inscribed flagstone over Bolivar’s tomb, Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Plaque commemorating Simon Bolivar, Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Plaque commemorating Simon Bolivar, Cathedral, Santa Marta, Colombia

Santa Marta is also a convenient start point for the four or five day trek to the ‘lost’ city of Ciudad Perdida, an ancient city of the Tayrona civilisation which inhabited the mountains that lay behind the coast. We didn’t have time to do the trek – although it is on my ever growing list – but a visit to the Museo de Oro in Santa Marta sheds a lot of light on the Tayrona culture and has numerous original artefacts on display. It also has an excellent scale model of Ciudad Perdida.

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia

Museo de Oro, Santa Marta, Colombia