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Published: April 23rd 2011
So what? I had decided to go the easy way... Shame on me!
Flying from Panama City to Cartagena was not the cheapest, but it was the fastest. For $350, I would be across in less than an hour. I couldn't afford to take the extra time to do the cruise via San Blas (an extra $100 and arriving 8 days later) and I couldn't be fussed going the cheaper way, which involved a plane, 2 or 3 boats, some buses (2 I think), 2 and a half days' travel and would have saved me about $150-$200. I was feeling like I was being girly and all my talk about roughing it and going the hard way had kind of gone out of the window. But never mind...
Leaving Panama City involved a couple of buses to the (rather small) airport, no issues with border control, some free nuts on the plane and a stress free day.
When I landed in Cartagena, it was the afternoon and I got talking to an American couple who were on the same flight. We were all looking for a cash machine (which was in the departure terminal) and wondered for a minute if there
even was one. They seemed like they'd been there before from the way they were talking (they hadn't, hence why they didn't know where to find the ATM), so I asked them if they knew where I could get the bus from. The answer was no, but that they were catching a taxi into the old town and I could ride with them for free if I wanted. Result. I helped them with the taxi driver as they didn't speak much Spanish and haggled the fare for them, so everyone was a winner. We ended up getting dropped off 2 blocks away from one of the hostels I was considering, so that was the decision made for me and I headed For Makako Chill Out Backpackers Hostel. Little did I know it had only been opened for 3 weeks and I wasn't sure if it was the buzz of the new business or just the way the girls running it were, but they were brilliant: friendly, helpful, offering advice on what to do and they even offered me some lemonade when I arrived. With that and a dorm bed at 16000COP (£5.30), I was doing well.
By the time I'd
settled down, unpacked and bought some food, it was almost dark, but with Cartagena being a tourist hub, I decided to go and have a quick walk around. The city was very pretty (colonial as I like them) and very busy, with street performances and tourists everywhere. This was definitely one of the places where it was OK to walk around at night. My stroll, took me around the historic centre and I had a look at a few shops and stalls, which had very inflated prices and goods that didn't necessarily seem Colombian as much as they seemed what a wealthy visitor might want to buy. After getting lost (despite the grid system) a few times, I finally made it back to the hostel for some dinner and chat with a couple of dorm buddies.
The next morning, it was time to go and explore the city by day. I grabbed a map from the tourist office and headed for the walls. I had decided to walk around the historic centre for a view from above (well... Slightly higher than ground level). I loved the look of the place. Everything was gorgeous and well maintained, with flowers on all
The walls and Boca Grande in the background
the balconies. Not surprisingly, it was heaving with visitors and that was the only downside as far as I was concerned. I spent my morning snapping away at the pretty streets and houses, followed by having a look at the row of souvenir shops which had overtaken what used to be prison cells. After that, I returned to the walls, which I followed until the start of the red light district (which also happens to be where most hostels are located, so I guess I was lucky to have picked one in the old town). From there, I walked to the fort, a few minutes outside the city (I didn't even know it existed but spotted it from afar), but didn't go in as the $9 entry fee seemed a bit steep.
After a brief lunch break back at the hostel, I had opted to spend my afternoon walking around Boca Grande. This was one the side of town, passed the red light district and was where the beaches were located. As much as the old town looked like it had been pulled from a few centuries ago, Boca Grande looked like the Costa Del Sol. Huge towers blocks of
hotels and apartments bordering the small and rather crowded (by local standards) beaches. I wasn't particularly impressed, but that was more because this isn't my kind of scene than anything else. The buildings seemed modern and well looked after, the area was clean and everyone seemed to enjoy their day in the water even though I didn't think much of the beaches myself. Boca Grande also turned out to be a lot bigger than I anticipated and it took me a good few hours to walk around it (although I did take my time).
On the way back, I arranged to go for a boat trip the next day, taking me for some snorkelling (which I wasn't too bothered about) followed by a few hours at Playa Blanca, a “paradise island”. My haggling skills came in handy, getting the price down from 40000COP to 25000COP (but no lunch) with the 12000COP port tax on top (so about £12-£13 all together). Once I'd finished all this, I was rather tired, having walked around for about 8 hours, so I headed back to the hostel for a quiet evening.
The next morning was a reasonably early start as I had been
told to be at the pier for 8am. I had spoken to 2 other people at my hostel and when I told them the price, they decided to come on the same trip. When I got to the pier, I was informed that there had been a mistake and the price I was given was incorrect and I had to pay 35000COP because I was going on a faster boat. I wasn't having it and just refused, quite willing to not go on the trip if they weren't prepared to honour the price they had given me the previous day. In the end, the other couple from the hostel saved me as I managed to convince the boss to let me go for 25000COP if they went for the same company and paid the higher price. Deal. I felt a little guilty, but never mind!
The boat ended up leaving at about 9.30am (all that for the 8am start...) and the ride was smooth and pleasant. We first went to Playa Blanca where the people who didn't want to go snorkelling jumped off. I wasn't particularly interested in the snorkelling but thought I might get some different photo opportunities so
I stayed on the boat. Only, when we got to the spot, the pilot announced that anyone who wanted to jump in the water had to pay an extra 25000COP! When we said this wasn't the deal, he argued that we hadn't understood the explanation at the kiosk. Because I wasn't bothered (and I knew I'd got a good deal), I left it at that, but there was another couple on the boat who had each paid 40000COP (without lunch) and I was feeling sorry for them... In the end, everyone stayed on board and we headed for Playa Blanca to rejoin the rest of the group.
The island was pretty, with white sand and turquoise water, but it wasn't as gorgeous as I had been led to believe. It was no comparison with Zapatillas, where I'd been to in Panama and I was a little disappointed. The other downside was the amount of people trying to sell you crap (let's call things as they are), mainly “handmade jewellery” or massages. I don't mind the street sellers generally, but this was just too much: in your face every minute and not taking no for an answer. Between that and how
busy the place was (with backpackers there for the day trip or staying for a night or 2 in a hammock), this was definitely not my idea of a great day out. I tried to make the most of it anyway and headed away from the main beach where all the huts and tourists had settled and went for a deserted spot (amazing how different things can be if you're willing to walk for 10 more minutes) to put down my towel. The water was warm and the waves not too strong, unlike the sun, so I kept going for a quick swim every time I got dry and too hot again. It ended up being quite a relaxing afternoon, even though lying on a beach is not normally my idea of fun, and the time spent on the island was just enough for me not to get too bored.
By the time we all got back on the boat to head home, the sea had changed a little and the trip home was definitely not as smooth as the morning's ride. To be more precise, it was rough as f*ck and the pilot hadn't even put the plastic roof
on. We were all drenched within 5 minutes and holding on to anything we could to avoid getting thrown about. I had to keep my sunglasses on, not because of the sun, but to try and keep the salt water off my eyes. We also had a couple of nervous sailors on board and their faces was definitely worth a picture (not that I was going to get my camera out). To top it all up, the engine then decided to stop playing ball so we ended up stranded for a good 10 minutes until the co-pilot managed to find a fix. The fix consisted of holding 2 wires together from under the dash-board. Now, call me paranoid, but to me, holding 2 wires together while getting soaked in sea water doesn't sound like a great idea, but somehow, we managed to make it back to Cartagena without any fatalities...
Once back on the ground, I went for a quick shopping trip to buy a Colombia football shirt (to add to the ever growing collection), which – after some lengthy and desperate haggling and begging – I managed to get for 23000COP (£7.60) instead of 40000COP. Only it wasn't any
football shirt. It was printed with Valderrama 10 on the back (if you know nothing about football, he is an absolute legend from the 80s and probably the best ever Columbian footballer, with the most memorable hair-do: look it up). This marked the end of the day's activities...
The next morning was the last full day I was spending in Cartagena. I had arranged a trip to a mud volcano in the afternoon and decided to have one more look at the city in the morning. Armed with my tourist map, I headed for everything indicated on it that I hadn't seen yet. This took me all around town, just to see the odd building I'd missed out by simply strolling around, but I loved the city so I didn't mind having one more look. That morning, I also managed to finally get my Peru Inca Trail sorted. After much time wasting (on my behalf) and e-mail exchanging, I eventually found someone who still had space for the dates I wanted and for only $425 including sleeping bag and extra half porter. This is cheap, so time will tell if that was a good decision or not. The only downside
was that I had to transfer the money via Western Union, which cost me another $55 and that had to be deposited in cash, resulting in me having cold sweats while walking around Cartagena for 10 minutes with $500 in my pockets...
After a quick bite to eat at the hostel, it was time to go off to the mud volcano. I had arranged a half day tour from the hostel for 35000COP all in. I could have DYIed it myself for a lot cheaper (probably 1/3 of the price) but it would have taken all day to do it that way and I couldn't afford to spend another day in Cartagena. When I talk about a “volcano”, I know what you're imagining. Well, stop right there... It's a little mound a few metres high, so no hiking to be done, just a set of stairs to climb. Then you go into the crater which is full of warm mud (and occasionally bubbling from the gases below) and bathe for about half hour. There are locals trying to charge you to give you mud massages or to take your picture, but I managed to get another girl from the trip
to snap me before she got in, so I avoided the 2000COP price tag. We all had fun in the mud, and found it strange that we all seemed to sink until the mud got to chest height. It was a very weird feeling and moving around in the mud pool was tricky to say the least (we ended up pulling and pushing each other to get out). After the half hour beauty treatment (the mud in question is supposed to be good for your skin), we walked to the lake for a good rinse (here again, the locals are trying to wash you for another 2000COP, but nobody was having it). All in all, it was a fun afternoon. Not the most exciting thing I've ever done, but something a bit different and a good laugh...
After that sticky afternoon, I returned to the hostel to pack my bags, ready to leave the next morning. In the evening I had the strangest encounter with a guy in my dorm who was British. We started chatting and it turned out that we lived about 10 minutes away from each other and that he worked with one of my friends... Crazy
how small the world is! That was the end of my few days in Cartagena. Definitely thumbs up from me and a good start to the Colombian discovery. The next day, I was setting off for Santa Marta and the Lost City...
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