The minibus from Tayrona to Cartagena was actually quite pleasant. There was good air conditioning, I managed to nab a single seat to the right of the bus so I had a window seat with diverse views as we passed the national park and the streets of Santa Marta; chuckling to myself as I witnessed a male throw a football for it to bounce off the face of a woman whom I can only imagine was his mother, being enchanted by the colourful areas along the way (rough around the edges but with wonderful character and locals working) and then heading into nighttime where I could listen to music and zone out.
We arrived into Cartagena at around 10pm so I checked into Mama Waldy’s in the area of Getsemani, costing 35,000 pesos (£11.50) a night; the most expensive so far in Colombia. I will say now that while it was a lovely hostel and the staff went out their way to help me, I found it difficult being there in terms of integrating with others. It seems everyone else speaks much better Spanish than me, especially the Germans and there were a lot of Germans here, so pretty much everyone was conversing in Spanish so I felt a bit isolated from conversations, unable to understand properly or join in. I flitted between being annoyed at myself for not learning more beforehand and not being good at picking up languages to trying not to berate myself too much. But of course it is not the fault of the hostel but of mine.
Right outside my hostel – Mama Waldy’s – in Getsemani
Anyway, I was really tired but decided to wander down to Plaza Trinidad just to explore the immediate area a bit – minus my phone and with only the bare minimum cash as a guy in my dorm had just had an attempted mugging at knife point. I stayed out for about an hour, absorbing the early-evening energy of food stalls, groups of people sitting around eating and drinking, plus ad hoc music by locals.
The following morning I had the hostel breakfast – fruit and toast – before heading out to explore the historical centre (the old town) which is surrounded by Las Murallas, the thick walls built to protect it. It took two centuries to complete the walls, starting at end of 16th century, and bares the resemblance of a dot-to-dot drawing from a birds-eye view rather than a neat square, with a section of the wall running from the port and then parallel to the water that you can walk along; it was a ridiculously hot and dry day so the cool sea breeze was a welcome respite.
Anyway, alongside sections of the wall and inside the periphery itself are many Iglesias (churches), museums, old buildings and coloured restaurants with balconies, all running down narrow streets or found in the middle of the numerous plazas. It is a busy area, with tourists, locals and street vendors, yet I somehow managed to run straight into an American – Jason – whom I’d had a conversation with in Tayrona National Park.
During my time exploring the old town – enjoying wandering the streets freely and discovering buildings and plazas rather than spending too much time with my head in a map – I picked up freshly squeezed and chilled lime juice from a stall for 2,000 pesos (70p) and bought a can of Cola y Pola from a shop for 1,800 pesos. Cola y Pola is a low alcohol (2%) drink made with cerveza and, I think, Colombiana, which is a Colombian sugary drink similar in taste to Iron Brew. It wasn’t bad actually, but very sweet.
I ended up in the area of San Diego, which I was really enchanted by. More “modern” than the old town (or, rather, more new) and very colourful, with every other house and building painted a different colour, lining narrow cobbled streets with plants and flowers hanging out if buildings or arching over the beginning of a street. It was bright and pretty and I loved just wandering around.
I then made my way back to Plaza Trinidad in Getsemani where I ordered Arepa de Huevo – a crispy, thin pouch made if maiz (corn) stuffed with a cooked egg) for 2,500 pesos (80p). While I waited I ended up chatting to Simon – a Canadian who was waiting on empanadas from the same stall – and sharing my travel stories, with him telling me about recently moving to Colombia.
At around 4pm I made the 15 minute walk from my hostel to Castillo de San Felipe; the greatest fortress constructed by the Spanish in any of their colonies, located on hill of San Lazaro. The entrance fee was 25,000 pesos (£7.50) and I opted to not pay double for a guide, and it was full if tourists. Plus I was really hot and tired so, other than enjoying meandering through the complex system of tunnels, I found a solitary spot to sit and watch the view, with the sunlight reflecting on the water in the late afternoon sun.
I spent an hour there in total including the time to walk up and back down, before wandering to a bar just along the Las Murallas wall, Casa de la Cerveza. It wasn’t cheap, paying 12,000 pesos (£4) for a bottle of Redd (beer with a lime twist, similar to Bud Lime) but the comfy seats, relaxing music and top-notch views of Castillo de San Felipe to one side and the sun setting over the water to the other made it a more enjoyable experience for me than visiting the fortress.
I headed back to the hostel to spend a couple of hours engrossed in travel admin before spontaneously meeting up with Simon at a Plaza Trinidad at around 9:30. There we bought food from a street stall, nothing paying 12,000 pesos (£4) for Patacones, which in this instance was grilled meat, chicken, chorizo and sausage mixed with lettuce and placed on top of grilled, smoothed plantain, with that then topped with crispy fried bits of potato and mayonnaise.
We found a spot to sit in the Plaza to demolish our food (so so tasty) and washed it down with a couple of bottles of Redd from a nearby shop. We were then provided entertainment by a salsa couple performing in the street followed by a male Shakira “impersonator”. We randomly bumped into April – a woman from China living in Colombia that Simon knew – and her friends Alfonso, Dominique and Tiffany so we joined them to go to Leblon; a “disco club”, as it is named, that plays salsa music as well as other types.
It was free to enter, beer was around 7,000 pesos (£6) and both Simon and Dominique both kindly taught me very basic salsa steps. It was so much fun dancing to salsa music but I’m not very good when it comes to “rules” with dancing and having to stick to certain steps, preferring to be able to freestyle and throw my body all over the place. As it quietened down we then walked to Taboo; a “crossover club” that also played salsa music amongst various commercial music (including Shaggy’s “It Wasn’t Me”, which was also played in El Candelario in Bogota so it must be a popular song in Colombia). Dominique continued to teach me to dance salsa as a couple and I think I improved, although when I also danced with Simon it became clear once again that I’m not good at letting other people take the lead and me letting go of control. In dance as in life, eh.
We left just after 2pm but I somehow didn’t make it back to my hostel, just down the road, until 3am, and I stupidly didn’t go to sleep until 4am; I had my 4 bedroom dorm to myself that night so decided it was the appropriate time to sit on my iPad. I woke at around 9 the following morning to have breakfast and then to check out of the hostel, leaving my bags in storage, before walking to Playa Hollywood. This is the last beach at the end of Bocagrande, which basically has long but narrow sand lining the sea and is predominantly visited by locals. It took me about 40 minutes to get to the end to then head back slightly to find a spot I liked, paying 10,000 pesos (£3) for a sun lounger. I then basically spent the best part of 5 hours laying in the sun, reading my book and listening to music, plus occasionally dipping in the sea to cool off.
That, and be hassled regularly by beach vendors. You have locals with food carts trundling past you, selling seafood cocktails and ceviche, blokes carrying cooler boxes filled with water, cerveza and coke, various people carrying bags filled with pre-packaged almuerzos (lunches), women and mean selling jewellery, sunglasses and hats,plus women wandering around with a bucket of water and a bottle of lotion offering massages. I paid 7,000 pesos (£2) for a gorgeous pescado almuerzo of rice, pasta, salad, plantain and fish, plus 10,000 (£3) for a 10 minute massage that lasted for only about 5 minutes. But it’s hilarious as you’re just laying there, sunbathing and minding your own business, and these women will just come up to you and pour the water from their bucket over your feet to rid the sand, apply the lotion and start massaging your feet – almost massage entrapment. You tell them you gave no money but they carry on, until you insist over and over again – even having to say you have no card on you when they reference the bank and that your hostel is an hour walk away when they suggest you go back there for money – and they eventually get up and go, leaving one foot still covered in lotion with the other covered in sand.
Once they know you’re not paying they just abandon ship, leaving you in a more annoying state than before they arrived. And this happened twice after I had originally succumbed to a shoulder massage – once with my foot and once with my back, having to then awkwardly scrape of the lotion she had abandoned, the lotion I hadn’t even asked for, once she discovered I wasn’t going to pay.
Anyway, I had a lovely, albeit slightly sun-kissed, afternoon and picked up an Arepas con Queso for dinner; cheese-stuffed corn cakes (similar texture to mashed potato), which are grilled so have a slightly crispy exterior and a wonderfully gooey interior, for 2,000 pesos (70p). Rich but darn good.
At around 8:30pm my hostel drove me to the airport in Cartagena (Rafael Núñez International Airport) for 12,000 pesos (£4) as I had a flight to Medellin at 11pm. The flight with VivaColombia, including baggage, cost me 105,000 pesos (£31,50) whereas the overnight bus would have cost me 112,000 pesos. I hadn’t booked a hostel for that night as I would arrive at the airport just after midnight and then by the time I got to the centre it would be almost 2am, so my plan was to spend the night at Medellin airport. The perfect way to be introduced to a city, no??