When you think of Colombia, what immediately springs to mind? Cocaine, crime and drug cartels? Me too! So it was with slight trepidation that MB (Monsieur Bleu) and myself headed off on our final South American Sojourn to see for ourselves just what all the fuss was about!
Notorious for its ‘disreputable reputation’ as the mothership for all things unscrupulous, this country was not high on the bucket list I can assure you, but nonetheless, peaked our unconventional curiosity somewhere!
CARTAGENA: Deciding to give the capital Bogata a swerve as the altitude, pollution, population and cold temperatures didn’t float our holiday boat, we headed to the next most popular destination and undoubtedly the prettiest by far – Cartagena!
A short but expensive 45 minute flight from Panama, Cartagena, Colombia’s bohemian capital, is an amazing sight, with a long public beach, large imposing fortress and a huge fortified wall, making the split between the Old and New Towns very apparent! A quick 25 minute drive from the airport, and known as the ‘Jewel of the Indies’, this port town that sits on the Caribbean coast, is famous for her selfie inspired instagrammable calles (streets) of colours, warm climate and the white sandy beaches and turquoise waters of the nearby Rosario Islands, which are only accessible by boat.
The modern new town with her towers of concrete condominiums built on the seafront is attractive, (from afar), conjuring images of similar towns like Panama, Dubai and Singapore but nothing to rave about! You come to this picturesque place to marvel at her past, the Centro Historico de Cartagena de Indias resplendent in her narrow paved streets lined with tiny houses and shopfronts painted in all the colours of the rainbow, many strewn with flags and umbrellas to accentuate their spectacular beauty.
We stayed in a tastefully renovated cobalt blue painted local casa (airB&B as usual) complete with our own interior plunge pool, muchas gracias, in one of the quieter streets in the San Diego district of the old town which is located just inside the wall. This area is popular due to its accessibility to all the main restaurant and shopping areas as walking was the transport mode del momento most of the time. Cars, electric scooters and taxis are allowed, as are large and ornate Spanish style carriages (with horses attached), which clip clop up and down the streets all day and night ferrying around hot, tired tourists or romantically challenged couples! Poor little ponies! We hired a car to drive to Playa Blanca and Santa Marta and had to leave it in a large, safe and reasonably priced open air carpark just outside the wall as street parking inside was not an option.
Cartagena is pretty manic most of the time I must inform you! Being one of the most vivid and visited cities in Colombia, the crowds in the old town are brutal, as are the hundreds of hawkers, street vendors, tour sellers and calle performers who ambush you from every angle, every minute of every day! No exaggeration! “No! Gracias!” was the most used Spanish phrase we uttered about three thousand times a day whilst on this trip and if another bloody hat salesman offered us hats WHEN WE WERE ALREADY WEARING THEM, I was going to shove his damn sombrero where the sun didn’t shine!
Thank heavens for our little plunge-pooled oasis in the ‘burbs’ for if it wasn’t for this, having to endure the heat, crowds and constant barrage of people, would not have made the holiday endurable! We made the grave mistake of arriving there on a long weekend… so, it seemed, did half of Bogata (did I mention that we had avoided Bogata because of the crowds…mmmm)! The big city dwellers and others from surrounding towns all decided to descend upon this colourful city in droves and also onto the beaches…
Playa Blanca: (Warning, this will be a bit of a rant but bare with me)… Is the most sought after and popular beach area in Cartagena and the tourist agencies push this holiday haven down your throat at every opportunity. The photos were gorgeous and the promise and lure of kilometres of pristine sand, perfect water and much needed respite, was only about a one and a half hour drive from the Centro Historico. “Let’s give it a go!” we mused. BAD IDEA!
It was also Sunday and that wasn’t helping the situation, but little did we know what we were about to experience. Driving there was bad enough, through some very impoverished suburbs where if you stopped at any traffic light you were bombarded by aggressive windscreen cleaners and/ or destitute Venezuelan refugees demanding money or food. Not fun and a little frightening too I can assure you. I understand that Colombia has very poor areas and that the recent economic war crisis in Venezuela has forced many of its inhabitants to flee to greener pastures and fend for themselves and their families, but the magnitude of this was completely unnerving and unsettling as it was literally in your face at every turn. It was both sad and terrifying all at once and we don’t get rattled easily.
Finally arriving at the long and potholed road that leads to Playa Blanca’s makeshift carpark area, we were besieged and harassed continually once again by gangs of young locals screaming at us and banging on the windows of the car in the fight to be our guide and carpark attendant or to tout for business for their restaurant or beach club area. IT. WAS. AWFUL. Beyond this initial Nightmare @ Playa Blanca, came the realisation that we were not alone. I think the whole of Colombia and their dogs had decided to come to the beach this hot and sunny Sunday in October and we were the only non-locals descending upon it too. Finding a park amongst a swarm of mosquitos and having 3-4 ‘guides’ following us and yelling at where to go and what to do was just too much. We both took one look at the beach, covered in bodies with not a grain of sand left on which to lay your sarong and the turquoise water awash with even more bodies and jet ski’s and we hot footed it outta there and back to our car without a moments hesitation. More arguments ensued with the ‘guides’ as they were angry we didn’t stay, pay or want/need them and let’s just say that the entire episode ended nastily with me having panic attack in the car and MB verbally fighting off a gang of persistent 18yr old boys.
Moral of the story: Don’t visit Playa Blanca on a weekend, but if you do want or need to see it, go on a weekday and arrive by boat with a return ticket to get the hell out when the going gets tough…and it will!
Having still not experienced the beach bliss we were desperately craving, MB and I took the toro by the horns and decided to go all out and rent our very own private boat to take us to the much revered archipelago of the Rosario Islands ( Islas del Rosario) which are a stones throw away from Cartagena centre. Hired from Boats4U at the marina, it was $500 USD for the whole day with a captain and a driver. It was not the budget option by far (as you can purchase individual seats on a packed speedboat for a reasonable price, but are marooned with the masses for hours), but at this point we didn’t give a flying fig! Comfort, security and sanity were our prerequisites on this day and hopefully a swim in the Caribbean and a snooze on the beach after a well deserved Piña Colada and a satisfying lunch! I’m happy to report that all the above was achieved! Gracias a Dios!
Our boat trip lasted around six hours all up from departure to arrival back at the marina and was very pleasant. We visited the three main islands (there are 28 in total but we sailed past most of them) had a fantastic lunch on Isla Cholon (bring on the fish and mango curry), had a swim and met the macaws in Playa Azul and dove from the boat into crystal clear waters near Playa Grande. The highlight however, was sailing past Pablo Escobar’s imposing but now defunct ‘party house’. The huge white mansion is now a squatters paradise (use your imagination as to what hedonistic activities went on there back in its heyday) and even one of his drug carrier seaplanes lays to rest at the bottom of the ocean just off the beach! So exciting and intriguing! With not a hat seller in sight or a guide to be fought off, the day was just as relaxing as we had envisioned and calm descended upon us as did a thunderstorm upon our return. We didn’t care…we were content and happy at last!
Back on the mainland for a few more days before heading north to Santa Marta, we moved house, securing a spacious and luxurious top floor apartment (with a pool in the complex of course) in the very hip neighbourhood of Getsemani (pronounced: get..some..money)! Now this funky area is outside the wall and our place was right opposite the central park where sloths, red squirrels and tiny tamarin monkeys live side by side in peaceful harmony. The area is renowned for its relaxed, low key vibe and calles dedicated to street art, where some wonderfully painted wall murals steal the limelight from the already beautiful coloured streets and where photographers jostle each other for the perfect shot.
We entertained ourselves by merrily eating and drinking each day and night at a range of wonderful restaurants dotted around town, thoughtfully recommended by our lovely French airB&B hostess. The range and quality of eating places available in Cartagena’s old town is phenomenal and of course we only scratched the surface, but where we did try never disappointed and that’s a huge plus in our cookbook!
We celebrated our 10th anniversary sitting inside at the bar (as we hadn’t reserved a table) at a wonderful restaurant called Carmen, in San Diego which was literally 100 metres from our first house. FYI: No bookings are needed for the bar area and it offers the same menu as the main restaurant. Feasting on a fantastic dinner and sipping champagne amongst the elegant and trendy Colombian crowd, we enjoyed the floorshow, watching the waiters mix and throw flamboyant cocktails! Another must visit is Caffé Lunatico in Getsemani. Tucked away in a quiet local street and conveniently located next door to our other favourite Celele, it offers modern bistro food with a Spanish twist in a simple setting, is open day and night and has footpath dining! The owner is kind and cheeky and the value for money outstanding. We went for lunch and dinner and were blown away by the food quality and efficient service. The third classic place is Celele, which is right next door and one of the top restaurants in Cartagena. Serving Caribbean classics with a modern edge, it was interesting and innovative highlighted by knowledgeable staff and designer plates and stemware. A must visit for all three!
Lunch at the acclaimed La Cervicheria in the centre of the old town, with its bright blue chairs and fresh seafood was another great find on a hot day. Sitting outside and watching the world go by whilst being serenaded by a violinist was lovey, apart from the hat sellers who were everywhere as usual and were annoying. “Por favor, Señor”…PLEASE just leave us alone! A night-cap or a sundowner at Bahia de Las Animas, an area on the waterfront that hosts food trucks every night, is a great idea to escape the hordes. Also check out Cafe del Mar on top of the wall overlooking the sea for a cheeky cocktail, but don’t expect quick service!
There are plenty of little plaza’s dotted around Cartagena’s old town, most full of little bars where you can rest and recuperate, but you are ALWAYS approached by street vendors and/or drug dealers (don’t be scared, they don’t harass you if you refuse) so be warned. It’s a real shame as you always feel the urge to just get up and leave as there is no escape, unless you are inside a restaurant or at home.
For some cultural enlightenment, we visited the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas one overcast afternoon. The castle /fortress, built in 1536 and named in honour of Prince Philip IV of Spain, is a mammoth stone structure which has been attacked and repaired numerous times over its lifespan but still stands proud near the entrance of the great wall. At $15USD for two people, it is worth a visit and the strenuous climb to her summit for the magnificent 360 degree view of Cartagena…and yes, there are hat sellers there too! Another good exercise option is to walk the entire length of the wall, taking a birds eye view of the water and the city. We did this marathon twice and also, I think, trekked down every street in the old town at least once! We racked up so many kilometres on foot we knew that damn place inside and out by our final day!
Shopping! Of course I couldn’t write a blog without mentioning retail therapy, and Cartagena has it in spades! Being the tourist mecca it is, the place is packed with boutiques selling anything and everything for any budget. Emeralds and gold are the main attraction for those with endless supplies of peso’s and you are not without choice for jewellery stores offering tempting window displays of the glittering gems! I acquired some beautiful and unusual rings at Elia Jewellery, a tiny corner boutique in the San Diego district, but reluctantly boycotted the green goddess of the gemstone world! To be honest, I bought most of my wares from Santa Marta where the shopping was simpler and street stalls and markets were cheaper and more accessible. Much more my style!
SANTA MARTA: Having exhausted our resources in Cartagena, MB gallantly suggested we take a road trip and drive to the oldest town in Colombia, Santa Marta. This legendary city is the laidback ‘mini me’ of Cartagena but with more Dutch backpackers and is the final resting place of the famous Venezuelan president and liberator Simón Bolívar. To reach this historic town, one must drive for about 4 hours through dilapidated shanty towns and villages of abysmal poverty where the rubbish tip and toilet is the street. It was an interesting journey…
The next main town out of Cartagena is Barranquilla, which is huge in itself and a bit industrial, but we didn’t stop there as we had the sea and sun in our sights. Having not planned this four day sideline excursion, we were excited at the prospect of spontaneity in this part of the world, but slightly hesitant as well due to recent events! Hence our hurry to speed onwards to our destination and book somewhere to stay.
Arriving into Santa Marta was simple, as the township is small and condensed with a palm tree fringed beach, a little marina, another colourful old town AND high-rises, all surrounded by the beautiful mountains of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. We managed to secure a very modern apartment for two nights (with a communal roof top pool) courtesy of airB&B as usual, and a penthouse apartment with its own plunge pool and bbq for the last two days! Both were in the old town, which was in walking distance to everything local. Car parking is bizarre here as you have to park in the street and a little man covers the car with cardboard to protect it from the sun’s harsh rays and you pay him a tip upon collection! Simple but effective!
There is a lot of history in Santa Marta and we spent a great deal of time doing tourist trips around the area for a bit of a culture hit in between trips to the beach, shopping, eating and lazing by the pool. The best was visiting the final resting place of Simón Bolívar or Simón José Antonio de la Santisima Trinidad Bolíver y Palacios Ponte-Andrade y Blanco (serioulsy!)… or just SíBo for short, which was in a beautiful Spanish hacienda called Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino on the outskirts of Santa Marta. Good luck pronouncing all these names!
Good old SíBo, (as I affectionally referred to him) was known as ‘El Libertador’ and born on the same day as me but a few hundred years earlier! I have now claimed him as my distant astrological relative! Being an influential man and leader, Colombia and a great deal many other South American countries, dedicate nearly everything to him and R.E.S.P.C.T is given and seen throughout. Sadly, he died of TB in 1830 at the young age of 47, just as he was preparing to return to Europe. Many of his writings and artefacts have been preserved and are stationed here in this museum and are for public viewing. His body was buried in the Cathedral of Santa Marta but later exhumed and returned to his birth place in Caracas.
Still on the museum theme, we also took time to visit the Museo del Oro Tairona-Casa de la Aduana. Entrance is free and it’s smack bang in the middle of town, so there’s really no excuse! Being the original customs house of this area, it is now dedicated to the stories and history of Gran Colombia and its native people, gold era and, of course, SíBo. The walk around this old casa is interesting in itself, as most of the original house is still in great condition. Even just looking out over the plaza to the sea from the wooden balconies instills a sense of peace and calm.
There is a large section dedicated solely to the four tribes of the Sierra Indians of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. Living a simple life on the sides of this pyramid shaped mountain on the northern tip of the Andes, which to them is the heart of the world (sometimes they come into the city to see how the modern world is progressing or regressing), ‘the older brothers’ as they refer to themselves, believe they have greater wisdom and a higher understanding of the universe than those of us who are the ‘younger brothers’, ie: everyone else! The beliefs and customs of these gentle folk are a testament to how we maybe all should live and think and reading about their story was enlightening and humbling. Sadly, their numbers and territory is in jeopardy due to ongoing conflict with the drug cartels and the growing of coca. This plant is used by the Sierra Indians as part of their culture and everyday life, but used and abused by the cartels as it is a main ingredient for the manufacture of the addictive white marching powder (cocaine).
On a lighter note, we managed a couple of hours on the local beach, Playa Rodadero.
Yet again our world was bombarded with street vendors pushing their wares at you every five seconds and, of course, the HAT MEN were there in droves! It was deserted compared with Playa Blanca and the beach is quite nice, not white sand but clean, and the water is cool, calm and clear. There are some local restaurants which are ok but we settled for BYO sandwiches and were happy! Worth a trip for a refreshing dip after all that intellectual info!
Santa Marta is a popular destination for those outdoorsy, hiking types (hence it’s a drawcard for European backpackers), as treks to the Tayrona National Park to check out the ruins left by the Tayrona civilisation or Sierra Nevada Mountain to visit the Indians, can be arranged from any tourist office. Both of these require a few days travel and I’m sure are very interesting, but we did not have the time or the inclination for these exploratory experiences!
Instead, MB and I drove around the towns, both new and old and found little places to eat like our favourite restaurant Ouzo. Located right in the middle of the plaza opposite our second rental, it offered Greek/Colombian fusion cuisine, which was both tasty and visually appealing! We loved it so much we dined there twice and met many other interesting tourists. We also indulged one night in cooking our own BBQ at home on our rooftop terrace by the plunge pool, enjoying the nighttime scenery and bustling city from the comfort of our own space! It also gave us an excuse to check out the local supermarkets and order from the butcher in Spanish that was as massacred as his meat!
As I hadn’t yet indulged my obsession with bags and shoes, finding and purchasing both was another fun filled morning had by all! The Indians of Sierra Nevada hand make wonderful fabric bags of all different colours and designs as each tribe has their own style. I bought a few as gifts and also as collectors items as this is the only area they can be purchased straight from the source. Unbeatable! I also nabbed a fine pair of colourful leather sandals, handmade with care and attention, from a local cobbler and for sale for a steal from the side of the road! A mega bulk coffee purchase in the caffeine boutique and our time here in ‘loca’ Colombia was finally complete!
Our intense trip was fraught with times of anxiety and unpleasantness, but also sprinkled with loads of fun, whacky encounters and, most importantly, lots of laughter! Regardless of all of this, we had a blast and were so glad we went and experienced it for ourselves. Even the HAT MEN made such an impression in the end that I eventually succumbed and purchased one just keep the peace! So now we know that persuasive perseverance does win in the end and I tip my new hat to you feisty fellas! Adios amigos!
…”Nations march to greatness at the same pace as their education progresses”…Simón Bolívar