The allure of South America has never escaped me. I’ve travelled to South America twice before — the first time was in 2007 to Argentina, Brazil and Peru and the second time in 2012 to Chile, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina. If there was a country that I hadn’t been to that I still wanted to go to, it was Colombia.
Our decision to travel to Colombia as part of our world trip came out of circumstance rather than an intention to return to South America. We booked flights out of London to New York before my UK visa would at the end of January, but our Iceland / Greenland tour didn’t start until the end of February. It occurred to us that perhaps a month in New York City would make a significant dent in our travel budget so Cam had the idea of spending part of that month in a place with a much lower daily spend. A place where it wouldn’t be too far to travel from USA, perhaps with some sunshine (which we had missed so much by that stage), and perhaps where there would be something interesting happening in the month of February?
So without much more planning than asking our Colombian friends, as well as those who had already been there, we formulated a loose itinerary for two weeks of sunshine on the Caribbean coast. First stop, Cartagena then Santa Marta and surrounds (particularly Tayrona National Park), Barranquilla (for carnival) and then back to Cartagena for our flight back to New York City.
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in Barrio Getsemani, an ‘up and coming’ neighbourhood just outside the walls of the historic Old City of Cartagena. Upon arrival at the apartment, Cam and I were greeted by our host, Jose, who promptly invited us to join him for lunch. At the dining table there was a lady with a baby as well as a guy who appeared to be our age. All were conversing in Spanish and judging by the scene, it looked as though we had just been invited to Jose’s family lunch. Upon introductions, we realised they were not family at all, but other Airbnb guests. Mike had actually been on the same flight from New York City as Cam and I; and Katarina and her six month old son Gabriel had arrived just four days prior. Over lunch conversation, we realised Mike had a similar itinerary to us, though his was well-thought out and researched, whereas ours by comparison was at best vague. Mike told us about his plans to go to Islas de Rosarios, Palomino and Minca, all places that appealed to us, and was most welcoming for us to join him and his high-school friend Aaron, who was due to arrive the following day. It is always a blessing to meet like-minded travellers, and if it wasn’t for Mike, we probably wouldn’t have done as much as we did on our Colombian leg.
Barrio Getsemani is characterised by low to mid-rise Spanish colonial buildings of different colours with balconies often strewn with flowering bougainvillaea vines. The streets are compact, one way carriageways with very narrow footpaths barely wide enough for two people to pass each other. The ground floor is lined with restaurants, bars, cafes, hotel entrances, internet cafes, money exchanges, ‘tiendas’ (shops) and the like. You might glance through an open door into someone’s living room to find a shirtless man with his belly hanging out enjoying the cool air from the street, or an old lady her rocking chair watching soap operas. What brings this area to life are the street vendors selling fresh slices of fruit or arepas (fried or grilled fritters made of cornmeal) or grilled kebabs or ice cream; the street art; honking taxis; hostel representative hustling you to stay at their hostel; loud music blasting from inside shops and inside cars; stray dogs; and locals and gringos negotiating the narrow footpaths.
Plaza de la Trinidad is a great place to people watch, especially at night. Locals, tourists, lovers, groups of friends, beggars, entrepreneurs, street performers and police on patrol are all here. We first stopped for a drink at Demente, a tapas bar, just off the plaza. The bar has a very cool and relaxed atmosphere, with great music, rocking chairs and a bulldog who lazily mans the entrance and sniffs about for leftover tapas.
One of the most popular things to do in Cartagena is to take a boat tour to Isla de Rosarios, a chain of islands situated west off Cartagena. Our tour included a tour of the islands, with the option to go either to an Oceanarium or snorkelling, followed by a lunch stop at Playa Blanca. The islands are varied in size; some appear to have dwellings or provide for tourist accommodation and some are perhaps only inhabited by wildlife.
The waters are a beautiful crystal clear blue and there is plenty of underwater life to see. Isla de Rosarios is definitely worth a visit, and like all places worth a visit, is also a major tourist trap. It came as a surprise to us that the boat tours were not all inclusive — we had to pay additional fees at the port and to go snorkelling (even though we had our own gear). The return boat ride itself was fun in that with the boat cut and bounced through waves, launching into the air and crashing back into the water, drenching the passengers sitting at the back and making the adults on board squeal and giggle like children on a roller coaster.
Our last night in Cartagena was spent at Club Havana, a popular night club/salsa bar offering live music, dancing and of course mojitos. When we got there, the bar was packed and the band was in full swing, making for a great atmosphere. I was reminded at how wonderful it is to watch locals salsa dance so naturally and carefree.
Tayrona National Park
Tayrona National Park, about 4 hours east of Cartagena, offers some beautiful beaches, hiking and camping. From the entrance to the park, we hiked for approximately 2 hours through jungle and mangroves before reaching the beautiful coastline and its many beaches.
On the way, Mike led us to a bakery in Arrecifes which was recommended by a friend of his. The bakery offered a delicious assortment of freshly baked stuffed breads – chocolate bread, arequipe (dulche de leche) bread, ham and cheese bread…so rich and dense we were in food comas afterwards.
We settled ourselves at La Piscina beach, where we took in some sun and did some amazing snorkelling. Unfortunately, my camera had died by the time we reached the beach (turns out saltwater from Isla de Rosarios had leaked into the charging port) so I haven’t got any photos to show for our snorkel. Cam and I saw a lone barracuda as well as other tropical fish such as cowfish, groupers, parrotfish and angelfish. Cam spotted a turtle, and saw even more fish when he and Mike went out along the rocks.
Rather than returning to our hostel in Santa Marta town, we decided to camp for the night and ended up at a camp site in Arrecifes, which was next to the bakery. The highlight was sitting on the beach in the moonlight, looking up at the stars to Orian’s Belt and the North Star. The lowlight was definitely the camping facilities — our tents, including the mattress and cover sheet, were damp with humidity (and maybe other things?) to the point where it felt like, in Aaron’s words, “the tent was sweating on us; not us sweating into the tent”. Lesson learned – if camping, always plan ahead and bring your own gear so you can be sure about the hygiene, quality and comfort. We were all up by around 4am and made an executive decision to head to the beach to watch the sunrise and then hike back to the entrance to catch a bus to Palomino. Along the way, were fortunate enough to see a howler monkey up in the trees (it was too quick for us to take photos of).
Upon arrival in Palomino, about 45 minutes east of Tayrona National Park, we were accosted by what seemed like a gang of youths on motorbikes, offering us rides to our chosen hostel by the beach. It would have otherwise been a 20-30 minute walk and since we were exhausted from the night before, we decided with much persuasion by our young bikie friends to hop on. We arrived at Finca Escondida, a beachside lodging with dorms, cabins, camping sites and a restaurant. After such a sweaty night in the jungle, it was nice be staying somewhere clean and dry and on the beach (even though the surf looked too rough for me to swim).
River tubing was the highlight of our stay in Palomino — from our hostel, we were picked up by a different pack of youths on motorbikes and after picking up some beers for our tubing experience, we precariously rode to the drop off point — Aaron and I had to double up with one driver whilst holding onto our tubes (and dear life), whilst Cam held two tubes and once and Mike carried our beers and his own tube. Nobody told us it would be a 45 minute hike up a mountain before we would be able to start our tubing journey. But once in our tubes, beers in hand, floating in pure tranquility, we were reminded again just how good life could be. I would say tubing in Palomino was one of my top experiences in Colombia. Unfortunately, we didn’t take any photos — so you’ll just have to believe me, or even better got there and do it yourself.
From jungle, to beach and now to mountains, we set off for Minca after a comfortable and restful night in our hostel in Santa Marta town. Minca is a small village about 45 minutes south-west of Santa Marta up in the Sierra Nevada mountain range and is known for its waterfalls, coffee plantations and birdlife. We swam and watched kids jump off the waterfalls at Pozo Azul, we had a refreshing dip at Marinka Waterfalls and saw the nearby coffee plantation, and saw many birds but unfortunately no toucans (as Mike had dearly hoped for). We stayed at Casa Loma, a very relaxed, chilled out, mountain-top hostel with amazing views out to the Sierra Nevada. Cam and I opted for the hammocks, however I did not find them to be comfortable at all — primarily because mine felt lopsided so I was afraid I’d slip out, and also because the cool night air crept through even though I was wrapped in blankets. We are twice The Lazy Cat, which offers relatively healthy (i.e. decent servings of vegetables) and satisfying meals and was a great place to enjoy happy hour caipirinhas and mojitos after a day of swimming and hiking.
Barranquilla Carnival 2015
One of the main reasons why we decided to to Colombia was to experience Barranquilla Carnival, Colombia’s largest festival which takes place over 3 days and includes parades, concerts and street parties. Our friend Sophia, who we met in Dubrovnik on our Sail Croatia tour in June 2014 (and who is also half-Colombian), joined us. It was a surreal feeling to meet up with her once again, and based on the time we had in Croatia, we were so glad to be sharing our Colombian experience with her.
We stayed in an Airbnb apartment in El Prado, one of Barranquilla’s nicest neighbourhoods which is characterised by wide avenues, green spaces and ‘republican architecture’. The road layout is organised such that streets are numbered and a ‘Calle’ is a north-south street while a ‘Carrera’ is an east-west running street, making for easy navigation. We felt perfectly safe walking around at night and stumbling upon street parties on large avenues including Calle 72 and Carrera 54 and smaller ones dotted around the surrounding neighbourhoods.
Our carnival experience turned out to be more about enjoying time with our friends, hopping from street party to street party than it was about watching the parade on Via 40 and concerts. We had a great crew – myself, Cam, Sophia, Mike, Aaron and Sophia’s friends Malihah and Lee. We also met a couple of local girls, Katarina and Malka, who showed great hospitality. Of the parades, we only saw the Traditional Parade, and my guess was that we stayed for 45mins maximum, before walking back into the neighbourhoods to look for a street party.
The street parties varied in size and formality — some were set up with live music, a dancefloor area and a stand for people to sit and watch; other parties were less formal and focused around a little tienda, with its own blaring sound system and a little barbeque. Across all street parties there would be people of all ages — families with young children, young couples, old couples, groups of teenagers — dancing salsa and merengue, throwing flour and spraying foam on unsuspecting vicitms (including us), eating, drinking and passing out. Young kids (mainly boys) would dress up in strange costumes and point a fake weapon at us and demand loose change.
We also ventured to La Troja, at the corner of Calle 44 and Carrera 58, which is an institution for live music and dancing in Barranquilla. Something between a bar, a nightclub and a street party, and it has free entry and cheap drinks and well worth a visit to get a proper taste of Barranquilla night life. Across the road there are several food stands, offering all sorts of grilled ‘meats’ and arepas as well as cans of beer etc. As we were there during carnival, La Troja was far too packed for us to get anywhere near inside the venue, so we continued the party on the street along with hundreds of other people while buses, taxis and cars scraped by.
Our time in Barranquilla ended with our Airbnb hosts taking Cam, Sophia and I to El Totumo, a small, dormant volcano popular for mud bathing, located between Barranquilla and Cartagena.
What a unique experience! Upon arrival, we were ushered into a carparking space and after changing into our swimming suits, we were asked to hand over our thongs (flip flops) and also our mobile phones so that someone could take photos of us whilst we were bathing. As we descended into the volcano, there was man waiting at the bottom of the ladder who, once we were in the mud, ushered us into a space (the mud volcano can fit around 10-15 people at a time) and then proceeded to massage our legs, arms, back, torso and feet.
The mud is thick, smooth, slippery, and is so very deep I had a feeling of complete suspension. I found it almost impossible to control my buoyancy and movement, so I had to hang onto the wooden posts that structurally support the mouth of the volcano to prevent myself from tumbling and bobbing up and down uncontrollably (as happened a few times). After 20-30mins of floating and relaxation, we exited mud using a different ladder, where another guy scraped the mud off my limbs with his hands. Once out of the volcano, another guy came with our thongs and directed us to the nearby river where we were to rinse off. At the river was a line of ladies, waiting to wash us. Sophia had been here before and told me about how the ladies are there to wash you like a baby. At first I thought it would give it a go but after being man-handled in the mud, I wasn’t so keen any more. I tried to opt out of being washed but as soon as I was knee deep in the water, I saw Sophia being taken by an old lady and dunked into the water as they pulled her bikini top off and before I knew it, I felt my bikini top being taken off and then all of a sudden a bucket of water was splashed over my head. There was no spot unturned – she cleaned out my ears and behind my ears, armpits, entire chest, legs…the only spot she left me to do on my own was my privates (thankfully)! I was very much relieved when I was finally released to join Sophia, Cam and our Airbnb hosts further down the river and laugh about what just happened. After we dried off and had some lunch (typical dish of fried fish, coconut rice, platacones and salad), we returned to the car to be ambushed by the cast of thousands who had provided us with their services now asking us for their ‘tip’ — the photographer, the massager, the mud cleaner, the guy minding our shoes and the ladies who cleaned us. Of course throughout our experience we didn’t really ask to have these things done to us, but in the grand scheme of things we weren’t paying more than $2 for each person, so we paid them off promptly and went on our way. Despite the annoyances of being given services that were not requested and then being hounded for tips afterwards, our experience at Mount Totumo was a lot of fun and a great way to end our stay in Barranquilla. I would recommended a visit, that is, if you’re not too fussed about being manhandled!
Back to Cartagena
By this stage, Cam and I were pretty tired, so we spent our last day and night just chilling out in Cartagena. This time we didn’t stay at Jose’s Airbnb apartment, but at Casa Venecia, which was ok for a night and not as comfortable as Jose’s. The highlight of our last days was discovering the pizzas at Pavia, beautifully light and crisp base with the perfect combination and amount of toppings. We haven’t been to Italy yet, but the pizza at Pavia was by the far the best we have had on our trip. It was so good that Cam ordered a second pizza! Our waiter was a young local boy, perhaps about 14 years old, who was intrigued as to what country we came from. When we responded “Australia” he was stumped and said “No, you’re Japanese!” and proceeded to speak to us in the very few Japanese phrases he knew. It was quite awkward but endearing at the same time. We attempted to return to Pavio for lunch the following day before our flight back to New York City, but unfortunately it was closed.
Like Something out of ‘Banged Up Abroad’
If there is one thing I can say that Colombia, it is that is making great efforts to stamp out drug trafficking. At Cartagena Airport, before receiving our boarding passes, there was a JetBlue (the airline we were flying with) representative who asked us questions, many of which were designed to suss out the possibilities of drug smuggling, whether intentional or non-intentional. ‘Have you ever left your baggage unattended?’, ‘Have you had anything repaired, by anyone?’, ‘Have you received anything from anyone to take on this flight?’…and questions of that nature. At customs, after our passports had been stamped for departure, a police officer approached us and asked us where we had stayed throughout our holiday, and after we mentioned Santa Marta and Barranquilla, we saw him discreetly nod to the police on the other side of the security scanner. It came to no surprise that after passing through the security scanner, we were asked to go through a manual bag check, where officers riffled through out densely packed bags. Once cleared, we thought we had made it to the finish line and proceeded to wait at the departure gate. Then we heard a list of names being called over the speaker system, including Cam’s. It turned out that the names were for people chosen at random for a second security check. As part of this process, Cam was asked to give his boarding pass to the airline staff and to wait for his name to be called. Only after the check would the airline return his boarding pass. When the airline announced that boarding would commence, and still hadn’t called his name, we started to get anxious and approached the boarding desk to enquire about Cam’s second check. There appeared to be a few people who hadn’t been checked yet and like Cam were also sans boarding pass. Finally, as the last handful of passengers went through the boarding gate, the officer called in Cam for his check. I had asked the airline staff if I could possibly wait for him, but they did not allow for it and ushered me through the boarding gate. I was extremely nervous, given that I had no idea what has happening with Cam. Even though we were totally innocent and had nothing to worry about, stories about corrupt policemen planting drugs on innocent victims started playing in my mind. Between the boarding gate and the tarmac, I slowed my pace to hopefully catch Cam on his way out but again, was ushered onto the plane. I explained to the ground staff that I was waiting for Cam, and they said not to worry that he would be getting on the plane but then asked me “Did you or him receive anything from anyone?”. This question made me worry as it made me feel as though Cam was being victimised for possibly carrying drugs. I boarded the plane and again, mentioned to the cabin crew leader that I was still waiting for my boyfriend to board the plane. I noticed another girl looking anxious too, and when the cabin crew leader announced “Boarding finalised, cabin crew please lock the back door” (or whatever it is they say) I almost flipped out because there was still no sign of Cam. Both me and the other girl rushed to the front to the cabin crew leader to ask about our boyfriends, who were both held up at the security check. I was a little relieved to know that I wasn’t the only one going through this. All other passengers had their seat belts securely fastened, while the two of us were out of our seats, waiting anxiously. I started imagining perhaps that Cam would be stuck in Colombia without me as I was flying back to New York City. Finally, Cam arrived at the very last minute…boy was I relieved! Apparently, the officer had started checking every single item in his luggage and had to call an additional two officers to speed up the process as they were delaying take off. All of Cam’s carefully and densely packed belongings had been strewn all over the checking table and he was not allowed to repack his bags; the officers had great difficulty getting everything back in and it was a mad rush for him to gather his things and make it to the plane. It was a extremely intimidating and stressful experience, especially faced with the prospect of being separated from each other at the airport for no good reason. It was not a pleasant way to end our trip at all, but for a country that has been crippled by drug trafficking and associated violence, it is not difficult to see why the police would go to such lengths to thwart any sort of trafficking. It may have left us tourists shaken up, but its for the betterment and security of the country, which is of greatest importance at this point in time.
Still More To See…
Our trip to the Caribbean coast of Colombia was the perfect break from the New York City cold. However, having just had a taste of the coast, I would love to return to visit the more inland cities including Bogota, Medellin and Cali. It’s just a matter of time…