Destination: Cartagena, Colombia
Number of Days: 4
Times we took the: Boat/Ferry - 0 Bus/Minivan - 2 Train/Subway - 0 taxi/car - 3 Motorbike - 0
Where we stayed: Villa Colonial - ok, but for 55,000 pesos ($24US) We expected a little more than cold water and fan only, but we did get a private bathroom & wireless.
Favorite Restaurant: El Bistro - Go for their set lunches! You get a soup, salad and entree for $5-$8. The fish topped with shrimp and served over rice was fantastic! El Mulatta - Another great place for set lunches with most coming in around $4. Add a juego del dia (juice of the day) for $.50 and you have a great meal!
Best of: Beautiful walled colonial town drenched with historical significance; impromptu dance troupe performances; Simply sitting and watching the world go by in one of the many parks in the city
Worst of: Safety in the Getsemmani area was a concern at night so we took a taxi at night to stay on the safe side
Most Memorable: Drinking tinto (coffee) in the Plaza de Bolivar while watching the old men play chess and the kids dancing to the live music that filled the air
We decided after landing in Bogota that it made more sense to start at the top of Colombia and to work our way back down to Bogota rather than going back and forth via bus so as soon as we landed we booked the next flight out. Having traveled in several non English speaking countries with little difficulty prior to Colombia, we figured that even with a little knowledge of the language we should have no problems...wrong! Just by trying to book the flight to Cartagena from Bogota, we realized that we were going to have a few more problems than before. Nothing that a little patience, repeating of sentences and lots of hand gesturing can't fix but it took all that we could remember from Spanish classes in high school to get us on that plane in time!
After settling into our hotel in Cartagena, we just kept it simple the first night. We sent some quick e-mails and Skyped home just to let everyone in on where we were and that we made it ok. After "sleeping" the prior night in the Miami Airport (which is kept icy cold and keeps you up to date on the time by loudly announcing the local time every 15 minutes) all we could think about was getting a good nights rest and hitting the city hard the next day.
Pastel colored two story homes hit your senses the moment you walk through the old city walls dating back to the 16th and 17th centuries. As you enter through the main gate, you stand in the area that was home to one of Cartagena's main exports - slaves. Cartagena's importance in the past, sadly, had two main goals - exporting the gold from the Indians of South America back to Spain and the trading of slaves to America. The exportation of gold played a huge roll in how the city grew and developed over the early years. Forts, batteries and the entire city itself were surrounded in walls and fortifications to protect the city from pirates and invasion from other countries.
After our first glimpse of the city we decided to spend the rest of the day wandering throughout the historical district. Every street was worth a look but some of the highlights of our first day were the old city wall, beautifully restored houses, the Museum de Oro (free and definitely worth a look) and Iglesia Santa Domingo and plaza. We also visited the Inquisition Palace but with its limited substance and $6 entry fee it was not really worth it.
Colombia is known for its love of music and dance and Cartagena didn't disappoint in this respect. Each day we encountered groups of kids and adults setting up spontaneous shows, sometimes for the locals and sometimes for the tourists. This first day we encountered a non-profit group setting up a dance program for youth. These kids did a great job with both the music and the dancing!
The next morning we decided to tackle one of the largest sites in the area, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This massive stone fortress was the largest Spanish fort built in the entirety of the Americas (begun in 1639 and took 150 years to complete). It was built for protection of the city from pirates and other invaders. The fortress is more than just a series of walls. Its interior contains an extensive system of tunnels which were built in order to supply the fort and to evacuate it should that be necessary. In addition, the fort provided us with an amazing vantage point for the city of Cartagena!
That afternoon we wandered through the streets of old town once again, stopping by the Naval Museum, Modern Art Museum, Las Bovedas (23 dungeons turned into souvenir shops), Portal de las dulces (YES - a square dedicated to dessert) as well as several other beautiful squares. We also happened upon a crazy lady feeding pigeons (they were even on her head) and a Cartagena treasure - palenqueras. These ladies majestically carry large bowls of fruit on their heads and whip up amazing fruit salads for 3,000 pesos (about $1.30)! That night after dinner we stopped by the Plaza Bolivar once again to listen to the music and watch the dancing.
On our final day in Cartagena we decided that our visit wouldn't be complete without a visit to the "mud volcano". The Volcan de Lodo El Totumo is located about an hour from Cartagena and is truly a unique sight to experience. Imagine a 45 foot hill in the middle of nowhere with a 15 foot wide lake of lukewarm mud at the top...for a sum of $2 you too can experience a real live mud bath from a volcano that spews mud instead of ashes! How can you pass that up? Well we sure couldn't resist such a temptation, when we arrived the line at the top snaked around the volcano. Each person was allowed about a half an hour to take a soak in the mud, right along side your 15 new best friends! They sure do pile people on in but that's part of the fun! For those of you that are wondering, you don't really sink in the mud and yet you don't float (though it's difficult to move from one area to another). After soaking in the mud to your heart's content you walk down the volcano to the lagoon where you wash it all off. It all sounds really silly and very dirty but it was actually a lot of fun (thanks for the suggestion Jess)! In addition to the fun factor, it's good for you, they claim that the mud contains minerals acclaimed for their therapeutic properties. I should have bottled some and sent it back to the US for sale!
After the mud volcano we stopped at the beach for swimming and a delicious lunch of fresh fish, Colombian style (which means fried whole along with rice and plantains). That evening we strolled through the historic district one last time, listened to a concert then retired to the Plaza Bolivar for a final cup of tinto and more dancing. The next morning we headed to Taganga.