We descended from the clouds, in a plane full of first-time flying Colombians, snapping cameras and eskys full of beer on Viva Colombia. Viva Colombia has introduced budget airfares to Colombia, basing themselves out of Medellin. Our fare cost us some $50 or so bucks. We could have spent $40 dollars and 15 or so hours on a bus but for what?
On the ground, the overwhelming humidity smacked us square in the face like a bucket of water; once we had our bags and were en route to the hostel we could see a huge and sudden increase in afro-american representation. And it was picture perfect Caribbean style; how you imaged it. Striped short sleeved shirts or pastel colours open half way down. Panama hats and Ray Bans with white chinos and black belts. There’s women and men wheeling carts full of mangoes or pineapples around, and the typical motorbikes and crazy traffic. Cartagena has in older times been a silver and gold trading port and is now most notable for it’s World Heritage declared walled old city built by the Spanish in the 1500’s. During it’s history the city has endured attacks from pirates, The English and the French; however by the early 1700’s the Spaniards had recovered most of the city and not a lot has changed since then.
Like all good port cities, there’s a red light district right off the wharf and it’s there where we’d planned to stay. Getsemani has been notorious for it’s prostitutes and associated trades since the early days and they still exist! Crumbled facades of colonial buildings, tarnished by pollution and ill-repair but beautified by bougainvillea coiled around the upper balconies that lead back to eroding shutter doors. Off the main streets, colonial buildings mix with the one story concrete, barred windowed block houses and coil the way around the district, occasionally converging in plazas with a small church or chapel and a gathering of locals, just chilling, or kicking a soccer ball or something else. It’s a bit dodgy but no-ones all that interested in us. We don’t really attract much attention despite our obvious foreign appearance. Besides, there’s plenty of great cafes and restaurants to hang out in. Gato Negro serves up a great breakfast in an open aired restaurant with huge cathedral ceilings from which hang fast moving fans. The iconic black cat here wrestles frequently with an over-excited terrier of some kind. And all along the street vendors call out or neighbors conduct conversations from opposite ends of the street.
A short walk away are the gates of the old town. A prominent pastel yellow clock tower from under which are two arched entrances; walk through these to the Plaza de los Conches, once used as a slave market. Even before you’ve had a chance to take it in, there’s touts offering everything from transport to tours to directions. Scoot past all these blokes and you’re suddenly engulfed by the narrow streets enclosed by beautiful colonial era buildings, in rich pastel oranges and yellows. Double stories of high ceilings. Narrow wooden balconies and shutters. The main commercial areas have your typical boutique fashion and souvenir shops eloquently integrated into the historical edifices but it’s not until you reach the outer streets, past the traffic and the urban tourist chaos before you see the delights of Cartagena really flourish.
All throughout Colombia we’ve seen the urban home resemble a modern fortress with razor wire and electrified fences; and bars on the windows everywhere. In the old town there’s more a subtle gentle touch and you’ll find the family home has instead installed old fashioned wooden ‘bars’.. and just to make it more intimidating there’s a web of brightly coloured pink bougainvillea intertwined throughout them. But then if that’s not enough to wet the visual appetite, turn a corner and see a Carmen Miranda-esque woman on a corner, with a cart full of mangoes. Or walk a bit further and the streets open up to a plaza with a beautiful colonial era church looming at one end.
Approach the perimeter of the old town and you can usually climb the enclosing walls and walk along, gazing down at the old town on one size, or the Caribbean sea on the other. All the while, the colours of the Caribbean are reflected in the pastels of the buildings; we came across a beautiful section of yellow pastel archways and later discovered the shopfronts and boutiques that now reside there were once a sequence of dungeons. But it’s not long before the overbearing heat and 90% something humidity takes it’s toll and the inviting air conditioned retail spaces and coffee shops selling frappacinos call you from across the way.
There’s fat else to do in Cartagena aside from wander the old town and take in it’s layers of history and atmosphere. One of the big ‘fat elses’ to do is take a day trip to nearby Baru island with it’s famed Playa Blanca beach. True to it’s name, it’s reputed to be fine white sand and turquoise waters, a taste of Caribbean paradise. To get there, you book a ticket, which is exchanged at one of the many touting travel agencies at the port for a boat ticket. It was absolute chaos when we arrived with touts waving tickets and clipboards full of names around. We quickly exchanged our ticket, got our names on a list, took a little square of paper as a lunch voucher and were instructed to wait for the next departing boat.. well until our name was called. Inside, waiting in the partial sun/shade it suddenly occurred to us that it may be important to indicate to the tour company that we had planned to spend 2 – 3 nights on the beach and would not be on the return trip that afternoon. I ran around asking people with clipboards if they had our name, all in vein; until I managed to find the tout outside, explain our predicament and was told in no matter of words that it was fine, we’d simply need to let the captain know and pay a return fare on the day we wanted to return. Ok cool.
So on the boat, packed like sardines and exposed to the ripping heat we set off out of the port, and as soon as we were clear, engaged hyperdrive, blasting us across the water at a ridiculous speed, slamming into every wave and swell. We had to make up some 40 kilometers to the island.. it took maybe 50 minutes, including a stop to drop off some blokes lunch or something at a local township. Scary thing was; while we bobbed in the water, some local kids frantically paddled over in canoes, a glare in their eye and a desperation in their voice. Our boat captain made circles to avoid them and we never quite figured out what they wanted but it was unsettling none-the-less.. even more so they did the same thing on the return journey later.
Right off the boat at Playa Blanca we had all sorts of offers from the beach touts.. buckets of oysters and lime, fresh crabs and lobsters, massage ladies grabbing our necks with their oily fingers and giving us a ‘sample’ of their wares. No thanks we said and pushed passed. It was a couple of hundred meters or so, past the lines of tarps and plastic chairs setup as sunshades and behind them, their associated restaurants, before we got a sense of the beauty of the place. It was true, the sand was powder white and the water a lazy turquoise blue. And somewhere behind all the knock-about beach shacks was just jungle.
We had planned to stay here, prepared to do without electricity and running water for a night or two, and so we trudged up to some of the shacks offering cabanas and asked a few questions. The other options here would be camping, either BYO tent or rent one; or hammocks. Sleep in a hammock, with an advertised guard dog, provided free-of-charge. Cabanas was more our style, which in hindsight, is not really our style at all. Regardless, we asked inspected a few shacks with sand floors, mosquito nets and little ventilation, until we found one at ‘Wizard’ which was sli
ghtly elevated, with more chance of a night-time breeze. It was basically a free standing treehouse, with a mattress and mosquito net. Seemed fine on first inspection. It was currently leased by some Argentine girls but they were due to leave at 3pm.
So we had the whole day on the beach, sunning our furiously white bodies, and inevitably getting horribly burned. Regardless, before we knew that, we could thoroughly enjoy the 28 degree crystal clear blue water, and look back to shore, admiring jungle and the serenity of the this particular end of the beach.
Reality kind of set in when all the day-trippers left. Our hosts don’t make a habit of changing any of the bedding so we had to find other means of maintaining a degree of hygiene. We went out and bought some sarongs. First problem solved. Sunset was absolutely beautiful and a nice onshore breeze had set in, which was fine if you were outside. Absolutely none of it was getting into our cabana, which was still seething with the heat of the day. By nightfall we were in absolute darkness. We fumbled around for our nifty LED torches and made a trip up the beach to the only open restaurant on a Sunday night ‘Donde la chocolate’ or something. The fried fish we had there was absolutely superb and we were entertained by the proprietors kid who made it his business to smash a surprisingly robust balloon on every available surface. Cats, trees, chairs…us.
By the time we’d made it back it was 8pm or something and most people were in bed. Dunno why, there was a beautiful electrical storm happening and a lovely cool breeze blowing across the beach, we stayed up, in plastic chairs and watched it for a couple of hours. Exclaimed by the constant whiffs of pot blowing across from the ‘Wizard’s’ hut. When we could push ‘staying up’ as far as we could it was 10 something. We climbed the ladder to our hut and found it still seeringly hot. Zero air-flow. Sleep would be challenging. I pilfered a fan from the hammock area in the middle of night and plugged it in.. discovering a small bag of weed at the top of the mattress. Guess it was there version of a hotels mini-bar. We turfed it. Given they had only a tiny generator, the blades rotated at an agonizingly slow pace. We would have take the mosquito net down had there been no dengue in the area, but we needed it, despite the fact it further blocked airflow. Not thinking about the saturation of the mattress below us, we endeavored to sleep however impossible it seemed. I managed to get a few hours here and there but I awoke at sun-up to find Rebecca sitting in the doorway of the cabana, nursing a new friend; heat-rash.
We ran down to the water, through a pungent sulfuric stench and took in an amazing pre-dawn swim in the flattest, calmest water you’d know. We agreed another night wouldn’t be any fun, nor would the sleep deprivation be healthy so we arranged to get ourselves on a 3pm boat ride outta there. And we did.
We’d met up with Rich and Jenny, a U.K/Australian fusion couple we’d originally met in Ecuador. We had some great nights out at a Getsemani rooftop bar, and a local surprisingly authentic Indian restaurant. They were due to take the trip from Cartagena to Panama, through the magical San Blas islands. So it was weird to see them the next day, by which time they should have long departed. Their U.S captain had been prevented launch by Colombian authorities citing paperwork issues, so they’d managed to get themselves on an Argentine boat launching the next day. Even that was delayed. Given the trip is incredibly popular and takes in some absolutely stunning scenery we were somewhat displeased by our prior decision to fly to Panama city instead. Given that we’ve arranged to meet our good friend Belinda on the 11th of October we really couldn’t afford those sort of delays, so we took some resolution in that idea and wished them Bon Voyage.
We would leave Cartagena a few days later to Taganga, a once quiet fishing village with a reputation now as a mecca for divers. We were excited!