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Published: March 18th 2016
The plan was to stay in Cartagena for 3 days. We quickly learnt however that the only way to enjoy Cartagena was to live it and that sure enough was going to take longer than 3 days.
Over the last 10 months of travelling, we kept hearing whispers about Colombia. How it was untouched, how friendly the people were and what a hidden gem it was in South America.
Limiting our trip to a year however did not allow time to visit Colombia. After all we wanted to visit Peru and Bolivia first and foremost and we only had a few months left.
After arriving in Mexico, slightly exhausted and not having a real plan or an agenda, the moment we heard another mention of Colombia, a decision was made. We had to include this on our agenda.
Flying over to Cartagena, Colombia we crossed our fingers hoping we would actually like it.
After a smooth exit out of the airport we made a beeline to the cabs and were confronted with a taxi driver speaking far too fast for us to acknowledge a word he uttered. We looked at the taxi driver confused as ever.
Seeing our confused states he quickly switched on his broken English, and although slightly deflated by falling at our first Spanish speaking hurdle we were able to negotiate a good price and get to our booked hostel in the old town El Viejero. Not a great start. Maybe DIY spanish was not all we thought it would be.
Arriving in the taxi, our first impressions of the old town and Colombia was how built up it was. We passed by the sea front and noticed many young Colombian couples and families relaxing by the sea, having a picnic and typically as people do all around the world, posing for pictures. Looking out we passed by many shopfronts and many shabby looking bars playing music, all with stools on the street front with Colombian men and women sat outside happily conversing. It had a lovely atmosphere to it but at the back of our minds we could not help feel still somewhat reserved. This was one of the most dangerous countries in the world remember.
Looking away from the sea we spotted huge boulders that had been built together to create the old city walls. Stood within them and
on top of it were yet more people relaxing enjoying the views onto the sea and within the city walls. People drinking beer, deep in thought or happily conversing.
Passing through an arched gate, we were mesmerised by the colours and beautiful architecture of the old city. Our eyes were directed to the rows of buildings that lined the narrow cobblestone streets, the quaint but large wooden doors, the balconies with hanging flowers and beautiful bright colours of blues, pinks, oranges and greens. These different colours created individual distinct looks in what could have been a row of identical houses. We smiled at each other happy to be in another country, itching to see what it had to offer us. It looked more relaxed and safer than we thought.
The plan was to stay in Cartagena for 3 days. Little did we know that we would fall in love with this place and stay longer than the initial sweeping visit.
The first 3 days we had here flew by in no time. We spent our time wandering the quaint cobblestone streets that brought us to various bustling plazas, as people relaxed in some of them making the
most of the greenery here and the great social ambience.
This town clearly ran off tourism and was no longer inhabited, many houses had been converted into restaurants and shops nestled between churches that seemed to be placed at every block corner. Colombians here were clearly very religious we thought to ourselves.
As we wondered the streets we always had to keep to the sides of them to avoid the tourist laden horse carriages that trotted around every bend. What was nice about the tourism here was that it was a nice mixture of both Colombian and international tourism. Furthermore although there were many expensive boutique style shops and expensive restaurants you could always find a local eatery and clothes stores with good budget prices.
There were no fast-food chains except for one Subway - shame on you Cartagena for allowing one of these chain to find custom here. Ha
During our initial stay we took a 2 hour free walking tour of the old town. This took us across the main plazas highlighting the significance of some of the buildings, the squares, people remembered (such as Simon Boliviar) and the events that took place here.
Why did I not buy one
For instance the signing of Cartagenas independence documents. Colombia had such a rich history and we were really intrigued.
Two things that really stood out to us was Colombia’s fight for Independence and secondly was Colombia’s role in the freedom of slaves and thus this mixed make-up of ethnicities within Colombia.
Looking around us at the many Colombians, this was clearly visible we thought to ourselves. There was a whole mix of shades from light to dark and everything in between. All hair types and skin complexions varying from one person to another.
We really liked this about Colombia, it felt very diverse in culture, race, and food. It all blended together so effortlessly.
Okay so that’s one thing we liked, but what was it that changed our minds and kept us there longer than 3 days??
Well, we loved the vibrancy of the place, how alive it felt and the friendliness of the people. How we could walk around hassle free with not one person batting an eyelid at us unlike other countries we had visited.
We felt very comfortable and after a while started to believe we lived there. Also we fell
in love with the music, the rhythm to it making us want to dance. I suppose that’s all we could like; not understanding much of what was being said.
As we wondered the streets we heard varying types of music drawing us in. The deep soulful blues with voices echoing from expensive rooftop bars, the rhythmic fast stepping tunes of salsa, the make-you-want-to-gyrate reggaeton and something which sounded like a Caribbean/salsa mashup known as Champeta.
We also got a taste of the different dance styles here starting with 2 tasters classes in our hostel.
We wondered what the pre warm up to the first one was all about. We thought it was just going to be a mild mixed latin dance lesson. By the end we had sweat dripping off us both from the all over body 'work out' in the humid evening air. That whole class lasted just over an hour.
However, we enjoyed the challenge of mastering the quick steps, spins and beautiful styles of salsa to the hip flicking moves of Bachata and the slow romantic movements of Meringue as well as the knee locking and bogling of Champeta. We were left wanting
more which resulted in a search for a local dance school (crazy salsa) where we could join in on more group sessions.
Something else that left us desiring more was where we were staying. We were staying in an overpriced hostel where the staff spoke to us in English. We can't blame them our Spanish was so painstakingly slow and confusing. Plus within our hostel were many English speaking travellers and a great social travel vibe.
After having a taste of the real Colombia in dribs and drabs we wanted more than an English speaking air conditioned retreat. This hostel could have been anywhere in the world, we came to Colombia and wanted to experience more of it. This was not really possible staying here.
After 3 days we moved to a lodging just outside of the old town in Getsemani (a place many other travellers in our hostel thought was too dangerous to visit) to a Spanish speaking hostel. Although we struggled at check in with our Spanish and understanding the women behind the desk we managed to secure ourselves 2 bunk beds in an 8 bed fan cooled dorm. Before we knew it we settled
in for 3 more weeks and then some.
Side note: The weather in Cartagena is intensely humid. A lot of people struggle to leave their air-conditioned haven but we some how got used to it or at least began to put up with it. Other travellers looked at us in shock when we told them we only had a fan room haha.
This is just what we needed and we loved it. Always conversing with the many friendly women there who happily conversed with us on a day to day basis and took care of us especially when P was ill.
After travelling for so long in the quick paced style we usually adopt, we knew there would come a point where we would want to settle down a little. We had already relaxed in Mexico, but little did we know this would happen again in Colombia somewhere we never even had on our initial itinerary.
That is the beauty and freedom of long term travel without onward flights. We can't stress how free you feel travelling in this way. If you like a place, stay longer. Don't like it; move on. Bored with the agenda;
change the plan, want to be spontaneous; then what is stopping you?
This suited us and without this flexibility we would have gone home a long time ago. Our initial plan for our around the world trip turned out to be nothing like our actual trip. I guess the more we travelled the more our priorities and interests changed. Sometimes we wanted to be social and other times we wanted to have our own private space without being social.
Plus one thing you never factor into a world trip is how tired you will be. Before we travelled we researched each country in isolation. This cannot always work. For instance, the Philippines was amazing but we visited it too early in our trip when we were still in adventure mode.
The idea of limited flexibility on a future 2 week vacation is impossible to even fathom for us now. Although we were happy enough with it before, we much prefer the freedom of longer term travel. Something will need to give.
Anyway, back to Cartagena.
Like I said we wanted to experience life here more. One thing that was stopping us was our limited knowledge
of Spanish. We knew a few random useful words but this would not allow us to converse with locals. Before we left we considered taking a Spanish course somewhere in Central America but at the back of our minds we wanted to continue travelling.
Before we arrived we considered taking up a course in Medellin but enjoying our time in Cartagena too much we soon decided we would spend a week here first. However we got stuck big time. Like I said we had an initial plan of 3 days. Now one week but that soon turned into two then three until we had stayed for a whole month.
There was always an event we could not miss. We could not miss that salsa class, the community Zumba lessons in the plaza de Trinidad, the live music concert, the spanish lesson on the beach, Independence day, the Wednesday night party and then P got ill.
Plus we said to ourselves we still had not seen X,Y and Z yet. Surely you cannot leave a place and not see its main attractions. But we had not seen the main attractions in the first few weeks and still enjoyed
Either way there was always something that had us making excuses and staying longer. For us, the bottom line was that life felt very good and settled here. We had our routine of going to school in the morning, going to a dance class in the afternoon, and a beer or 2 in the evening after strolling the streets and soaking up the atmosphere. This is what we loved about Cartagena; experiencing life here as opposed to the attractions and sightseeing.
We spent our evenings wandering the old walls initially with Charlotte who we met at the first hostel (also who had fallen for the city’s charm) and then also with our classmate, Beatrice from Switzerland in search of a beer, a coffee or some delicious ice cream and sometimes our spanish teacher Margaret who joined us.
Ohh the ice cream. I'm sure that’s one thing we will miss about Cartagena. The yummy ice cream. P always went for rum and raisin, Chris a marshmallow bubble gum flavoured treat or chocolate brownie or a slice of cake with ice cream. Yumm.
Oh and the food. We mainly ate at the local restaurants and could not
believe how cheap a meal was for rice and beans with fish or chicken and plantain - 4000-5000pesos (£1.15). Plus the fruit juices were incredible here, you can't go wrong with a Mango, Pineapple or Orange Shake but to our surprise there was much more. When ordering a glass of fruit juice we always got oversized cups full of the most refreshing juices. P's favourite was Lulo, a tangy citrus like flavour with a sweet frothy pineapple texture to it. Never ate the fruit on its own but for description the closest thing that I can describe it to in appearance is a tomato. Chris's fav juice was the sweet tasting Guanabana, again we'd never ate the actual fruit. Colombia's selection of fruit and vegetables is overwhelming, fruits that don't grow anywhere else and are so affordable too. I doubt
they sell them back home (sad faces).
Cartagena second half will shortly follow.
P.s. Yes or No? Should we post a blog a day for the next 7 days so we can catch up a little? Or do you prefer them spaced out?
Arrival date: 5/11/2015
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