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Published: March 13th 2020
The second beach at Cabo San Juan
Colombia is an enigma. Named after a man who never set foot in the country, it contains a greater wealth of biodiversity than any other country on the planet apart from Brazil, which is seven times larger. With coastlines fronting both the Pacific Ocean and Caribbean Sea, it also boasts over a thousand kilometres of the Andes mountains (which split into three parallel ranges on the way north into Venezuela) as well as a separate mountain range in the north, the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, that rises straight out of the sea to heights of over 5700 metres – making it the highest coastal mountain range on Earth. Add to that an enormous expanse of grasslands, known as Los Llanos, and a significant portion of the Amazon rainforest, and you end up with a natural bounty that is unrivalled amongst countries of Colombia's size anywhere in the world.
On the flip-side of this lies the tragic human history that has resulted in it's inhabitants suffering from a seemingly endless cycle of violence ever since the Spanish first arrived five hundred years ago. From the greed of the conquistadors with their unquenchable thirst for gold; to the pious zeal of
Gateway to a city's historic heart
The Torre de Reloj (Clock Tower) leading to the Old Town of Cartagena
the Catholic missionaries in their attempts to pacify and 'civilise' the native peoples; and reaching it's zenith with the unspeakable barbarity of the late-nineteenth century rubber barons whose blood-lust and cruelty is almost unequalled in the history of mankind. Human rights have never figured very prominently on the agendas of the ruling elite.
With a history written in the blood of the indigenous peoples who were virtually wiped out by the Spanish – not to mention the African slaves who were then sent to take their place – it is hardly surprising then that the modern incarnation of Colombia would be just as familiar with violence. In recent times three separate forces have proceeded to wage war with one another, seemingly oblivious to the suffering of the masses who have been caught in the middle. From the military who have consistently resorted to violence to enforce the policies of a series of inept and corrupt governments; to the guerillas of the FARC (Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia) who waged a guerilla war with the army for over forty years; to the paramilitaries (private armed forces) that were formed at the behest of drug cartel bosses to fight against the
Equestrian statue of the Liberator in Cartagena's Plaza Bolivar
guerillas in order to protect their cocaine-trafficking routes, all three have been guilty of committing horrible atrocities against their own people.
Yet for all of it's natural gifts and tumultuous history, mention Colombia to most people and you'll be met by a blank stare, followed by the inevitable reference to cocaine – something that surely says more about the rest of the world's attitudes than it does about Colombians themselves. So if you strip away the cliches regarding one of the world's most misunderstood countries, what's left? I was very much hoping to find out, as I stepped off the plane in Cartagena feeling both exhausted and exhilarated, after the third and final flight of my 33-hour ordeal from Brisbane. Unfortunately the exhilaration lasted only as long as it took me to walk from the tarmac to the arrivals hall... where I discovered to my dismay that just four border officials had been assigned the task of processing a plane-load of over two hundred people!
It was well over an hour later that I finally emerged from the airport terminal, only to be set upon by a gaggle of over-zealous taxi drivers – at which point I fled
Street lined with preserved colonial buildings in Cartagena
straight back into the terminal just so they would leave me alone! Eventually I snuck out a side exit, where thankfully I was able to find a lone taxi driver who had just dropped someone off, at which point I didn't care that his asking price of $10USD to take me into the Old Town was extortionate, I just wanted to make the quickest getaway possible! It felt a lot like those times when you're at the beach and you manage to sneak a quick chip to a lone seagull while the other hundred seagulls in the vicinity all have their backs turned – sacrificing that one chip seems like a small price to pay for the satisfaction of pissing off those hundred other seagulls when they realise what has happened!
The twenty minutes that it took us to get from the airport to the nearby neighbourhood of Getsemani (just outside the walled confines of the historic Old Town) passed in a blur of split-second lane-changes and incessant horn-blowing – a soundtrack that would play on a continuous loop for the remainder of my stay in Cartagena – as far too many cars than could possibly fit on such
The austere facade of the Iglesia San Pedro Claver
constricted roads jostled endlessly for position in a slowly-moving traffic jam, at which point it became obvious that the only road rule anyone obeys here is 'survival of the fittest'... with the fittest drivers displaying their virility by hitting their horn as often as possible. By the time I made it to my hostel I had decided that Cartagena could wait for another day – all I wanted was a shower, some dinner and as much sleep as I could possibly get!
The next morning (Wednesday 4th
March) brought some comic relief as a lovely young lady working at the hostel tried to take my breakfast order entirely in Spanish, at which point I assumed she didn't speak any English at all... only to see her then switch to English to take the order of a Canadian guy at the next table! Quite why she thought I was capable of ordering breakfast (or anything else for that matter) in Spanish I have no idea, but I was happy to play along. Besides, with three options to choose from – whatever they may have been – I was bound to end up with something edible in front of me. The
Walls of Stone
Las Murallas (the city walls) facing the Caribbean Sea
same scene would play out again the next day, only for the girl in question to address me in English on my third morning at the hostel; I was so disappointed I asked her to switch back to Spanish.
Heading out into the sultry tropical air, the cacophony of car horns echoing down the streets was almost deafening, until I reached the 'relative' peace and quiet of the Old Town... where the sound of car horns was immediately replaced by the equally-annoying sound of countless men shouting “agua, cerveza, mi amigo?” Granted, Cartagena is Colombia's most established and popular tourist magnet – attracting in turn anyone crafty or persistent enough to take advantage of all those tourists – but I couldn't help cringing at the prospect of putting up with this sort of attention for the next six months! On the other hand, it was nice to know I need never go without water or beer during my stay in the city.
Cartagena's popularity stems from the city's enviable location and subsequently rich history. Built on a tear-drop-shaped piece of land almost entirely surrounded by water, the city was founded by the Spanish in 1533, making it the
Monumento de India Catalina - commemorating one of the earliest indigenous victims of the conquest
second-oldest colonial city on the continent. The fledgling city (officially called Cartagena de Indias) quickly rose to prominence as the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast, through which much of the treasures captured by the Spaniards elsewhere in Colombia were sent to Europe. This bounty of passing riches soon attracted all manner of undesirable rivals – from foreign navies to the original 'Pirates of the Caribbean' such as Francis Drake – which led the Spaniards to build the greatest set of fortifications ever seen in their overseas territories; and it's the resultant ring of imposing defensive walls encircling the Old Town, complemented by a number of virtually impregnable fortresses, that give the city so much of it's current appeal... though the nearby beaches probably don't hurt in that regard either.
While the riches that passed through Cartagena have bestowed the city with some impressive colonial buildings – from stately mansions to churches of every size and shape – it was more the overall melange of colourful buildings squeezed together haphazardly into the narrow, winding streets that made the town such a joy to walk around. From the Torre de Reloj – a bright-yellow, three-arched clock-tower that serves as
The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
the main gateway to the Old Town – to the unexpectedly low-key central Plaza Bolivar, where the statue of 'el Libertador' is surrounded by tropical trees and pigeons of every different colour, the city was an undeniably atmospheric place for an aimless wander; and if the volume of touts ever became too much to bear, the walking path atop the city's defensive walls provided a source of relative peace and isolation... though there was still no danger of anyone going thirsty.
Extending my explorations beyond the walled town on my second morning, I ventured across the inlet separating the historic centre from the rest of the city to the east, to check out the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Built atop the 40m-high San Lazaro Hill in the seventeenth century, the defensive complex was then comprehensively enlarged and fortified in the eighteenth century, to eventually become the greatest fortress the Spaniards would ever build in any of their colonies. The impregnability of the fortress came not just from it's sheer size and stout design, but also from an ingenious network of tunnels excavated from the base of the structure, that were designed to both disorient any would-be invaders
Entry to the Underworld
Entrance to the tunnel network underneath the fortress
(thanks to a seemingly infinite number of dead-end niches carved into the walls) but also to amplify the sound of any approaching enemies. Thankfully the tunnels are open to the public to explore themselves; though unfortunately for me they seemed to have been designed for hobbits, so that I found myself constantly doubled over whilst trying to negotiate the eerily-lit passages! I had to chuckle to myself when I followed one particular tunnel through perfect darkness around corner after corner – guided by the torchlight on my phone – only to discover after countless wrong turns that the only way out was back the way I had come! Small wonder the fortress was never taken by any of Spain's enemies.
Of course all of these explorations necessitated the need for nourishment, and I was only too happy to throw myself headlong into the culinary offerings of Cartagena's various dining houses and watering holes. And if the cervezas artesenales (craft beers) proved to be somewhat hit or miss, I failed dismally in my search for a bad (or even ordinary) meal, as day after day a hit parade of succulent salads, flavourful fish dishes, delicious desserts and sublime smoothies tantalised
View of Cartagena from the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
my taste buds... though admittedly one of the latter proved to be more akin to eating a green salad than drinking a fresh fruit juice.
With my sleeping patterns still somewhat off-kilter (a blackout-induced break in the air-conditioning had kept me awake for half of my second night; while I slept like a log the following night only to wake at 5:45 and find myself unable to get back to sleep) I was up much earlier than expected on the Friday morning, at which I point I decided to head further afield to check out the Convento de la Popa atop the city's highest hill, directly beyond the fortress I had visited the day before. Having been warned to take a taxi due to a combination of the steepness of the walk and the questionable safety situation in the surrounding neighbourhood, I was treated to a first-class demonstration of the 'survival of the fittest (and/or loudest)' school of driving, as my driver resorted to passing manoeuvres that wouldn't be out of place on a go-kart track, whilst keeping one hand planted almost continuously on the car's horn. The absence of working seat belts had me momentarily worried, until I
Archways and Bouganvilleas
The leafy cloister of the Convento de la Popa
realised that my companion had neglected to wear his seat belt – clearly he had as much to lose in the event of an accident as I did! Perhaps this accounted for the manner in which other cars would manage to avoid hitting ours when an accident seemed inevitable; after all, no-one wants to be responsible for a fatality.
Only when my driver crossed to the wrong side of the road in the face of oncoming traffic to pass a slower driver did I start to grip the seat a little more tightly, but soon enough we reached the top of the 170m-high hill upon which the Convento de la Popa sits, offering an incomparable panorama of the entire city spread out below; while a number of bearded vultures wheeled silently overhead without offering the slightest hint of a wing-beat, though how they see anything in the hazy atmosphere I have no idea. Having blown 20,000 pesos (about $9AUD) on a guided tour of the convent – that lasted all of about fifteen minutes – provided by a personable old fellow named Manuel, whose accent was so strong he may as well have been speaking Spanish (I might at
Cartagena from above
View from the Convento de la Popa
least have recognised some words!), I gazed out at the circling vultures and wondered if maybe they'd be eyeing off my corpse in about ten minutes' time, as I headed back to my waiting taxi for the return trip to my hostel. But while the drive itself turned out to be relatively uneventful, my return to the hostel coincided with a boy of about ten being escorted away by police – for what reason I have absolutely no idea – as the easily-excitable housekeeping ladies gathered gleefully around to watch the spectacle!
Having reached the end of my four days in Cartagena, I hopped on a minibus on Saturday morning for the 4-hour drive up the coast to Santa Marta – which, having been founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1525, is the oldest European-founded city in South America (pre-dating Cartagena by seven years). As our minibus followed the coastline east from Barranquilla (where the Rio Magdalena – Colombia's biggest and most important river – empties into the sea) we raced past mile after mile of slums built alongside the vast tidal estuary of the Cienaga Grande de Santa Marta, until at one point a cemetery appeared on the
Statue of Pedro de Heredia - founder of Santa Marta in 1525
opposite side of the highway, with gravestones and ornaments more impressive than any of the houses in which people lived across the road. If the graveyard contained the bodies of former inhabitants of these slums, then they were presumably far more comfortable in death than they ever would have been in life. This was certainly not the Colombia of tourist brochures, and a far cry from the high-rise beach-front hotels of Cartagena. It wasn't long after this that our driver abruptly slowed down, changed lanes and put his seat belt on... I needn't have been surprised when a couple of hundred metres down the road we passed a traffic police checkpoint!
With the inter-city bus terminals in most Colombian cities being located well outside the city centre – necessitating either a local bus or taxi ride at either end of the journey – I had opted for a more expensive 'door-to-door' minibus service; but while I was picked up directly outside the door of my hostel in Cartagena, the driver presumably couldn't be bothered driving all the way to my hostel in Santa Marta (which was about 5km from the city centre) so instead he unceremoniously dumped me at
Where the Mountains meet the Sea
The beautiful coastline of PNN Tayrona
a service station, where his assistant quickly hailed a taxi and paid for it to take me the rest of the way across town. All of which would have been fine with me, except that my taxi driver had not yet made it halfway to my hostel when he then made an impromptu stop at another service station, and started asking me to get out of the car! I had no idea what the guy was trying to tell me, so I grabbed my wallet and stood as close to the car as possible whilst scowling angrily at the driver (who had already hopped out), while he got an attendant to hook some strange device up to something under the car's bonnet! A couple of minutes later we were on our way again, and I was none the wiser as to why he'd made me get out of the car in the first place?!
Having spent a couple of relaxing hours checking out the semi-notable sights of Santa Marta that afternoon, I finally had the opportunity to swap culture for nature the following day, by getting up early and hopping on a passing bus to reach the PNN (Parque
The first beach at Cabo San Juan
National Natural) Tayrona, about an hour away to the east. Named for the indigenous former inhabitants of the area – who like many indigenous groups throughout South America were completely wiped out by the invading Spaniards – and protecting the lower foothills of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta where they plunge down into the beautiful blue Caribbean Sea, the park is probably second only to Cartagena on the hit parade of tourist hot spots in Colombia, and a true backpacker magnet.
Entering the national park involved lining up for twenty minutes and then being shuffled from desk 6 to register, to desk 1 to pay, and then to desk 7 to obtain my wristband. I then had to go to another desk (it didn't have a number) to purchase the 'obligatory insurance', which resulted in another wristband. If there's one thing I've discovered already, it's that Colombians love putting wristbands on you (both of my hostels thus far have done the same)! I was just glad I didn't get subjected to a backpack search by the less-than-friendly police officers at the entrance – not that there was anything out of the ordinary in my pack, but if the
Worth the walk
Atop the rocky outcrop at Cabo San Juan
look on the face of the guy who sat next to me on the park shuttle bus after being escorted to the bathrooms by one of the policeman was anything to go by, this was not an introduction to Colombian culture that I wanted to experience for myself.
Nevertheless, with my various wristbands and receipts apparently all in order, I was eventually able to enter the park and set out along a hiking trail that leads through the forest parallel to the coastline. With the vegetation constantly changing between mangroves, palm trees and some impressive tropical dry forest; and no shortage of beautiful beaches (for which the park is famous) to stop off at along the way, the trail was a visual delight – though the heat, humidity and dust combined to make it a less than comfortable one. But just when the heat was starting to get the best of me, I arrived at the park's most beautiful (and popular) beach at Cabo San Juan. Actually there are two beaches, both perfectly crescent-shaped and separated by a steep rocky outcrop which serves as a mirador (viewpoint) with an unbelievable panorama. When three cute girls in tiny bikinis asked
Leaning palm tree behind the beach
me to take their picture, only to then spin around so their ample butts were facing the camera, I was awfully tempted to whip out my own camera and snag myself a souvenir!
After a cooling swim and a much-needed feed, I was feeling much more relaxed and ready to tackle the return journey to the park entrance, which I knocked off a little more slowly than expected... though the reason for this only started to dawn on me when I suddenly passed a couple from my hostel whom I had passed earlier on the walk back. But if I'd already passed them, how could they have gotten in front of me again? And why were they walking in the opposite direction to me? Something wasn't right, so I pulled out my phone and checked my location on my off-line map... and wouldn't you know it, my 'flawless' sense of direction had let me down – I'd made it all the way back to within a hundred metres or so of the car park, only to take a wrong turn and head off on an alternative trail leading back to Cabo San Juan! God knows how long it would
Titi Monkey in the trees of Tayrona's dry forest
have taken me to realise my mistake if I'd not recognised the couple from my hostel, but thankfully no harm had been done, as I'd only been going in the wrong direction for ten minutes or so!
Now if only I could get the image of those three gorgeous butts out of my mind...
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