Cartagena Travel Blog

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First off, you may be wondering what possessed us to go to Colombia.  If you remember, we are the same people who visited Iceland in January.  All right, so I know that with Colombia it´s our safety rather than our sanity that you question.  Colombia wasn´t originally at the top of our list, but our guidebooks absolutely raved about it.  They described it as a beautiful, romantic, and safe old city that kept off the beaten track because of Colombia´s dangerous reputation.  After visiting I can say that this is partly true.  It is a beautiful, romantic old city, and I never felt unsafe, but it is only off the beaten track as far as Americans are concerned.  Cartagena -- at least the old city -- is still overrun by tourists, it´s just that they´re Latin Americans.

Cartagena lies on the Caribbean coast about 200 miles northeast of the place where Colombian-Panamanian border.  It was an important colonial port, and because it was subject to frequent pirates attacks, centuries ago a wall was built around the city to protect it.  Today more than a million people live in Cartagena, and the modern city sprawls far beyond the original wall.  From what we could tell, most of the modern city is nothing special, but the part inside the walls is well preserved from colonial days.  Its narrow streets are lined with brightly colored buildings, flowers flowing over their balconies, and pretty plazas are scattered every few blocks.  It lures tourists for good cause. 

We got into town on Monday the 6th late in the afternoon.  Cartagena´s time zone is only an hour earlier the East Coast, but we´d been up all night traveling, so we might as well have been jet lagged.  We took a taxi to our hotel in the center of the walled city.  The hotel was basic but clean.  It had a ceiling fan and an a/c unit, which was critical to our comfort in the tropical climate.  It didn´t have hot water, but this wasn´t a big deal as water in Cartagena never gets very cold.

After settling in, we ventured out to a restaurant listed in Nick´s travel book.  We have since come to realize that just because a restaurant is listed does not mean it has received the designation “recommended.”  We were drawn to this particular place because the book said it had “a surly monkey and parrot on the patio,” though sadly we saw neither.  We were the only people in the place when we arrived, maybe around 7:30.  I asked our exceedingly attentive waiter when Colombians eat dinner.  He said 6 o´clock, though I am not convinced that this was the reason the restaurant was empty.  We both ordered the chicken “al fagon,” which the waiter said meant “in the special style of the restaurant” (which was called something “al fagon”), but this turned out to mean “covered in cheese.”  I was able to scrape it off, though.

After a wonderfully long rest, we set out the next day to explore the city.  Unfortunately, it was a national holiday and the entire country was closed.  We spent a long time searching for a place to eat (this was to become a theme of the day) and finally settled on coffee and cinnamon rolls at Juan Valdez, the Colombian equivalent of a Starbucks.  I know, I know, but what can you do?

We strolled around for a while and found that luckily a few of the museums were open despite the holiday.  Museums aren´t the reason you go to Cartagena, but we took what we could get.  We visited the Museum of the Inquisition and its roomfuls of replicas of torture instruments (cheery!).   Then we spent some time browsing an exhibit on Cartagena´s history.  I remarked that some of the exhibits looked like they had been made for somebody´s history class project -– and then we noticed the “first prize” signs.

After the museum, we bought a couple of coconuts on the street for the coco water (the vendor cuts off the top and sticks in a straw for you) and began our quest for lunch.  We walked for quite a while, and the coconuts began to feel very heavy.  It was at this point that we noticed that Cartagena has virtually no public trash cans.  Still, it´s not a trashy city, so I guess people are just conscientious.   (They could teach Naples a thing or two).  We eventually came across a place that advertised lunch, so we went in, took advantage of their trash can for the coconuts, and were about to sit down when we noticed the apparent owner staring at us.  “There´s no lunch,” he said.  Oh, of course.  An open restaurant at lunchtime, I don´t know what we were thinking!  Well at least we got rid of the coconuts.

Finally we found a nice place (recommended by Lonely Planet even) and had a soup, fish, yucca croquetas, and salad.  Nearly every meal we had in Cartagena was served with salad, but we never ate it, because that´s a good way to get sick and neither of us likes salad enough to run the risk.  For better things, such as fruit shakes, we take our chances.  We retreated to our room for the hottest part of the afternoon and then hit one of the plazas for dinner.  We both tried the ubiquitous Colombian beer Aguila, slogan “Aguila is Colombia.  It refreshes our passion.”  It´s a pale beer, a Pilsner I think; I thought it was decent, but my taste in beer changes in hot humid climates.  (Beer Lao, I will never forget you).  We then went for a drink at the elegant Santa Clara Hotel, where wealthy Latin American tourists stay.  President Clinton had lunch there once.  The lounge that we sat in had dark wood walls and plush white couches and was decorated like an old library (but trendier).  We drank more Aguila, which did not fit the atmosphere, but it was what we could afford.

On Wednesday, Colombia reopened.  We woke up early to take a tour to the mud volcano, a couple hours up the coast from Cartagena.  The bus picked us up at our hotel; we were the first on board, so we drove around for an hour or so picking up other passengers.  I enjoyed this because we visited parts of town outside the wall, which we otherwise would not have had occasion to see.  Even more than seeing sights, I like just getting the sense of a place.  We learned that many of the Colombian and other Latin American tourists stay in a charmless area of high rise apartments and hotels along the beach called Bocagrande.  I could understand sacrificing some atmosphere for proximity to the beach if the beach in Cartagena were nice, but the water is grey, the sand isn´t white, and it all looks a bit dirty.

The bus drove us out into a rural area along the coast.  Cows, donkeys, and goats grazed by the sides of the road.  Once in a while we´d come across billboards advertising new resort communities -– “invest in your home now!” -- but we never caught a glimpse of these advertised luxury homes.  All we saw were a few clusters of shacks here and there.  We appeared to be in the middle of nowhere, but Nick said that perhaps we did not totally understand domestic Colombian tourism.

Part of our group was going on a different tour involving a boat ride, so we took a detour along a beach road to drop them off.  Along the beach was an unending row of seafood restaurants.  These “restaurants” varied greatly in apparent permanency and solidness.  Many were little more than wooden poles stuck in the sand with a thatched covering for shade.  Not totally sure where the cooking takes place.  The place was deserted -- it was still mid morning, so this was not a surprise, but I have no idea where all the people would come from the fill all those restaurants even at mealtime.  From the invisible resort communities, apparently.  I shouldn´t say it was empty, actually –- each restaurant had its set of resident dogs.  Nick observed that although there were many different types of dogs, they were all the same size, which was medium.  Natural selection for beach dog traits?

We arrived at the mud volcano in late morning.  If you read “volcano” and pictured something of mountainous size, you would be wrong.  The mud volcano was a tall mound, well, of mud.  It was solid, dried mud on the outside, liquid mud on the inside.  We clambered up the steep and slippery steps to the top, where there was a square pool of dark grey mud maybe 10 by 12 feet.  A dozen people were already in it.  I assumed they were standing on the bottom, but when we got in, we found that there was no bottom.  The mud is so thick and buoyant that you stay suspended in it, motionless, in whatever position you stop in.  You could be lying flat on your back or standing straight up with no other support.  It was like being weightless.  After ten minutes of appreciating the weirdness of it, we got out.  A quarter inch of it covered all our skin, and it was completely opaque; we were mud people.  When we had removed as much of it as we could, we went down to the none-too-clean lagoon to wash off.  I knew the nurse at my travel clinic wouldn´t approve, but since there was no chance of being let back on the bus otherwise, we pushed from our minds all the possible diseases lurking in the waters and rinsed off.

On the way back we stopped for lunch on the beach.  We sat down at a long table next to the only other English speaking people on the tour, hoping to have our first real conversation with people other than each other since we´d arrived, but our English speaking friends were engaged in a spirited anti-American rant, so that didn´t pan out for us.  The food came out slowly.  We had both ordered the fish because we knew it was fresh.  It came out with head and tail still attached.  This, I thought, counts as our authentic Colombian meal.  It was a bony fish, and strong tasting, but it was cooked well.  It came with salad (again, untouched), coconut rice, and fried plantain cakes.  Back in town for dinner that night, we had more meat, salad, and plantain cakes, and we resolved then to eat Chinese food the next night so that we would get some vegetables in our diet.

On Thursday we didn´t have any particular plans except to see the rest of the sights in Cartagena.  This took us until noon.  First we took a cab up to a convent on a hill overlooking Cartagena.  The convent is called “Convento de la Popa,” popa relating not to the Pope but to poop -- the poop deck of a ship, that is.  The convent had beautiful views of the city and a pretty courtyard.  Slow, serious sounding music was playing in the courtyard -- I assumed them to be hymns until a choral version of “Lady in Red” came on.

After lunch we went to the Museo del Oro (Gold Museum), which was unremarkable, but it was free and air conditioned, so no complaints there.  We got lunch nearby at a food counter.  We shared empanadas and a Colombian specialty called arepas con huevo.  This won´t mean anything to most of you, but an arepa con huevo is essentially Gram´s fried mush served with an egg over hard.   I loved it!  I insisted we eat them for breakfast our remaining days in Cartagena.  We also had two tropical fruit shakes.  Mine was sapote, which is orange but comes from something that looks like an eggplant, and Nick´s was passion fruit.  Both were excellent.  Eating like local was considerably cheaper than eating like tourists (we´d known this, but with everything but tourist places closed previously, we hadn´t had much choice).  Both of our lunches together, including shakes, cost us $3.50.

Having exhausted the sights, our remaining goals for the day involved food.  We´d been trying for a couple of days to buy local sweets at the Plaza de los Dulces, but we hadn´t been able to make our windows of hunger coincide with times the sweets stalls were open.  Having nothing else to do for the rest of the afternoon, we finally managed this.  We bought a whole assortment of strange looking confections, which we sampled one by one like kids at Halloween.  Many of the sweets were coconut or nut based; for some we couldn´t identify the main ingredient.  Most were pretty good, but there were a couple we kind of wanted to spit out.

We did have Chinese food for dinner after a thorough comparison of the three Chinese restaurants in our vicinity (again, we had time to kill).  We were hoping for a good serving of cooked vegetables; though we were not lucky enough to score broccoli, we did get some green peppers and celery.  As in Spain, they served plain white bread as an appetizer -- or, I should say, they served what looked like plain white bread, except that I immediately detected in it the taste of butter (Nick, not a butter-hater, was oblivious to this).  A trip to the grocery store later confirmed that “mantequilla” is in fact a common flavor of white bread in Colombia.

On Friday, we woke up at seven to meet our tour to Isla del Rosario, a group of islands near Cartagena.  We basically just wanted a nice beach, but it appeared that to get that we had to go along for a bunch of other stuff.  The guy at our hotel who booked the tour was insistent that we be at the docks at eight am sharp, so we rushed to get there on time.  When we arrived, we asked the tour operator if there was time to buy something for breakfast, and she said, “claro, mi vida, salimos a las 9.”  (“Of course, my love, the tour leaves at 9”).   So we bought our arepas and coffee, and sat by the docks for the next hour breathing boat exhaust and sweating through our layers of sunscreen and DEET.

When our boat was ready, we boarded with the twenty or so other tourists.  After we pulled out of the harbor by Cartagena, our boat picked up speed and began to attack the small waves with a disconcerting crunching sound.  Something like whomp cruch, whomp crunch.  Amazingly no one got seasick.  After an hour or so, we arrived at a pretty white sand beach with palm trees and clear, blue-green water.  We let off a few people and then continued on.  Our next stop was an island that didn´t have a beach but did have an aquarium, though we didn´t go into it.  It didn´t look very impressive, it cost extra, and Nick´s guidebook disapproved of it because it keeps dolphins in captivity.  So we waited for an hour while the others saw it.

We got back on the boat, which then returned to the white sand beach.  Why didn´t we realize we could have skipped the whole aquarium step and had two more hours on the beach, you ask?  We had a guide who spoke only Spanish, but not just any Spanish -- a completely indecipherable Carribean dialect.    Colombian Spanish is relatively clear, and though my Spanish is rusty, I get far better than half of it.  With this guy, I was maybe at 10 percent.  All of the other tourists were native speakers, and they figured out pretty early on that we had no idea what was going on because we never laughed at the appropriate times.  One of them made the mistake of assuming that this meant we didn´t understand any Spanish.  I overheard one of them saying something about “los ingleses” (that would be us), and I looked right at her.  “Oh, you speak Spanish!” she said.  I actually had no idea what she´d said about us, because I hadn´t been listening until “los ingleses” jumped out at me, but from her look of horror, I inferred that it had not been kind.  I said, yes, I spoke some Spanish but that I didn´t understand the guide at all.  “Don´t worry, we barely do either” (she was clearly saying this to make up for the insult she imagined I had heard).  “He talks like this,” and then she made a garbled sound.  And I did feel better.

Getting off the boat at the beach, we were greeted by the usual horde of vendors.  These particular vendors were selling ceviche, necklaces, and massages.  We extricated ourselves and laid our towels out on the beach.  A few women soon followed us, offering massages.  I protested weakly (really, I did want a beach massage) and then gave in.  We both got them, side by side on the beach, two women working on each of us.  After they were finished, one of the women asked me what was wrong with Nick.  I don´t think anything is wrong, I said.  Unconvinced, she made me ask him how he was.  Fine, he said.  Is he seasick, she asked.  I relayed the question (he was not).  She said she sensed something wrong.  Maybe he was under a lot of stress.  I told her we´d both been under stress lately, and that was why we were on vacation.

We spent maybe an hour on the beach and boarded the boat around 2:30.  We were beginning to suspect that lunch was not in fact included, but our guide announced that we were heading to the “isla de almuerzo.”  Even I got that one.  A group of locals met us all at the “lunch island,” which has a real name that I didn´t catch.  They offered to tell us all about the island, which was home to some kind of fort.  We said thanks, but that we didn´t need a guide.  “Oh, we are not guides,” said our guide in English (we had quickly been assigned the one English speaker).  “Guides charge you money.  But what you give us is from the heart.”  We explained that from the heart or not, we didn´t have any money to give (this was true, as we had spent it on massages).  The guides didn´t believe this –- tourists without money? impossible! -- and continued to follow us and explain things, but there wasn´t much else we could do about it.

Lunch was -- surprise! –- fish, coconut rice, fried plantain cakes, and salad.  As we headed back to the boat, our guide gave us a speech about how he needed to buy food and clean water for his two children.   I didn´t doubt this, but as we explained again, we really didn´t have any money.  The only thing of value either of us was carrying was my camera, but I did give them our granola bars and marshmallow candies.

The next morning, after a stop at the grocery store to replenish our supply of marshmallow candies, which are adorably called mas melos in Spanish and which are far better than any marshmallows sold in the US, we headed to the airport for Quito.

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photo by: vulindlela