Colombia - Cartagena, Santa Marta, Parque Tayrona

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July 10th 2010
Published: August 10th 2010
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As our boat arrived to Cartagena harbour we were treated to a spectacular sunset against the serrated skyscraper shoreline of the new town. After one night at backpacker's favourite, Hostel Media Luna, we moved to Hostel San Blas, being significantly cheaper, quieter, and with aircon - a much better choice.

Cartagena was an important shipping hub for the transportation of gold and other plunder from the continent to Europe, often regrouping in Havana before beginning the long, treacherous Atlantic crossing. It was an affluent city with grandiose colonial architecture, picturesque parks and squares, and many similarities to Havana.

A favourite destination of wealthy holidaying Colombians, a lot of money has been pumped into the city both to restore the old city to its former glory and to provide a private police force to keep violence off the streets. Even during the worst of the conflicts against guerrillas and drugs cartels, Cartagena remained a safe zone.

We wandered the streets of the old town lined with expensive boutiques, restaurants, bars, and manned by every type of tout and tourist botherer. Our sailing group ate delicious European food in a German owned restaurant, drank in an outside Salsa bar along the old city wall, and dancing Salsa and Meringue in an expensive bar/club along with students from all over Latin America and a smattering of travellers.

Nina and I took a taxi to La Popa monastery on a hill overlooking the city. The view was spectacular: the cranes jutting from the container and fishing port, the skyscrapers of the new town peninsula, the stadiums and malls, the sprawling ramshackle suburbs, and the old town like an oasis within its midst, against the backdrop of the Caribbean Sea.

The highlight was the trip to the mud volcano. Despite that it is only 50km from Cartagena, it took at least three hours to get there. An hour by bus crawling through gridlocked, rubbish lined roads punctuated by car horns to reach the terminal on the outskirts. And two hours to take the long route through dusty villages along unsealed roads. We later met two other travellers who managed the whole journey in under an hour on the direct bus along the highway. A typical case of being given the wrong information, which seems to be a theme of my time in Colombia...

The volcano is 15m high and made of mud, which emerges as viscous liquid from deep within the earth forming a cone as it dries on contact with the air. The mud is renowned for its health properties, presumably due to a high mineral content, and the crater was full of locals. We were guided in by several local teenagers who, for a small tip, massaged the mud into our backs and legs. Bathing in the mud is a surreal experience; any position we formed was supported by the mud with an unusually buoyancy making it impossible to sink. Just as well when the bottom is 100s of meters below. We were then washed in the lake by a number of old ladies.

From Cartagena I, along with the remainder of my group from the boat (Nina, Chris and Jon), travelled to Santa Marta, another attractive, safe, large city 3-4 hours to the North on the Caribbean coast. On recommendations from others we stayed at La Brisa Loca, run by a couple of American guys. It is a very nice hostel but the incredibly loud bar full of drunk and coked up Americans was a little too much. As one American girl put it - "Like being in a frat house". I tried to Couch Surf but found it difficult to find somewhere at short notice.

I spent several days in Santa Marta shopping and doing errands in the many markets and quaint streets and wandering through the squares and along the sea front.

I met up with a couple of couch surfers - Carlos and Laura. I went for coffee with Carlos, a free diving teacher, who gave me some great advice about places to visit, and a concise account of Colombian politics (more to follow). The information was especially useful as I am travelling without a guidebook. I was hoping to pick one up along the way but haven't been able to find one. I decided to travel Colombia without; although I have used other peoples' on occasion. The upside is that it's liberating without a guide book sliding its subjective lens over my travelling experiences. The downside is that it's considerably more difficult to orientate myself and to decide where to go.

I met Laura for drinks in an adjacent beach resort called El Rodadero, who had recently returned from three years living in Europe and was volunteering at a local primary school. She was buying a school bag and exercise books for one of her students. He came from a very poor family and his father had been murdered whilst driving his taxi. He carried his school books wrapped up under his jumper. I offered to pay half (about $5 (£3) or so) and, as promised, a while later Laura emailed me a picture of him with his new bag (but she asked me not to post pictures). She told me that his face lit up when he received his things and the other children were pleased for him and applauded. I was happy to be a part of it and again it struck me how easily it is for us travellers to make a difference to peoples' lives.

Many people had recommended Tayrona National Park so I went there next with two American girls, Bridget and Francesca, who happened to be heading the same way. My last visit to the Caribbean was one of the most beautiful as the pictures show. We walked for about an hour through rain forest to the first camp site and then for an hour along the beaches to reach El Cabo camp site. It wasn't quite what I expected. It was more like a holiday camp than a National Park and was full of partying Colombians, which was interesting in a different way.

I spent one restless night in a hammock accompanied by pumping music from the restaurant, and the cheers of Colombians drunk on Aguadiente. The following day I relaxed on the beach, and then made my way back to Santa Marta.

Additional photos below
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Couch Surfers in CartagenaCouch Surfers in Cartagena
Couch Surfers in Cartagena

With Yessenia and Anais

10th August 2010
El Totumo, Mud Volcano

I love this mud sculpture, it looks almost real ! LOL x
11th August 2010

Hey Luke, Nice story and I have to admit I didn't expect a skyline in Cartegena! Have fun, Sebastiaan
14th August 2010

looks amazing
the scenary looks great mate, very luscious. keep it coming

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