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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
March 18th 2016
Published: March 19th 2016
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(p2) Our Spanish was slowly progressing, we already knew a few words and phrases that we had boosted in Mexico. But during our 3 weeks in the school here we started to get our head around the grammar, mainly in present tense touching on the confusing past tenses in our last week. Whilst this was really beneficial, in hindsight due to varying levels in the class we wish we would have just booked individual classes. Our teacher was awesome in trying to meet everyone’s needs but sometimes you would be covering something you already knew. And still our conversational speaking and understanding was still low. We could just about form sentences.

The problem with Cartagena being on the Caribbean coast is that they speak Spanish with a difference, cutting off parts of the word. Like when P ordered fish and the waiter said something about "Pesc-ow", what the hell is "Pesc-ow" we ordered pescado. Or when the lady at our hostel said "Si-eh" instead of "siete" for the number 7.

It made practicing very difficult for us, plus they spoke fast. Nevertheless we still tried and being a part of a school organising different excursions helped.

With the school, we studied Spanish on the beach, played beach volleyball, toured the old town, went bowling, went for coffee, enjoyed the independence festivities and also to a local music festival.

When we weren't with the school we were soaking in the culture on our own. Strolling the streets admiring the incredible colourful graffiti on the walls. The murals of faces were our favourite. We commented on how we'd love to have a few painted on our walls at home. When we get a new home that is.

We also visited the bars near us in Getsemani. Bar hopping; a little bit of salsa practice in one, a terrible attempt at Champeta in another, reggaeton in a third or just relaxing watching life pass us by with a beer. Ha sight-seeing is hard work.

We did eventually do some sightseeing. We visited the sandy castle overlooking the colonial town outside of the city walls. Although we did not gain any insight into the castle's history (which was sadly lacking), it was interesting walking around, entering the deep dark creepy tunnels inside and then relaxing at the top afterwards (the 2 of us, Beatrice and Sophie from school).

Writing this, I think it will be one of those moments we will always remember. Sitting on the edge of the castle as we watched the sun set over the beautiful colonial town in front of us. Watching the skies change colours from an ocean blue to varying shades of red and purple before returning back to a blue, but a deeper and darker colour this time. As the skies grew darker we could only make out the outline and dull shades of what was meant to be vibrant colours from the colonial town. The colours of the Colombian flag in front of us clearly stood out as the flag moved swiftly in the breeze with a bold power as if to say, this is Colombia; like it or leave it. We sure did like it.

Another touristy attraction we took up was visiting the Mud volcano. Its not actually a real volcano, its a tall natural conical mud mound with a never-ending pool of mud inside! We were recommended to try by a few travellers. Chris, more so than P was the driving force behind this visit persuading P who was not interested in visiting this so called 'tourist trap'. However the excursion pleasantly surprised us both even if it was a little touristy. The volcano was good fun and the surrounding green lake side area was breath-taking. We almost forgot there was a whole country outside of Cartagena.

After stripping off and climbing up some slippery wooden ladders we descended into the pool of mud. The mud itself was surreal, really thick but milky in texture with a small gritty like feel inside it. As soon as we entered, almost everyone’s legs popped up. Even if you wanted to sink it was just impossible you just floated back up. On hand were several locals readily offering a cheap 10 minute massage which almost everyone took up (they were already on you before you could even consider an answer) as we covered ourselves in this gritty but thick milky mud.

Our showers afterwards consisted of a river scrub down which meant, sat in a knee deep river while a local lady proceeded to throw one bucket of water after another over our heads and scrub us down thoroughly. That mud really gets everywhere. P had to kindly ask the women bathing her to slow down as she was struggling to breath between each bucket of water and had her life flash before her. Apart from that it was an interesting experience and we are happy we went.

A highlight for us however was witnessing the festivities around 'dia de independencia'. We had heard about the big parade that dances its way down the street along with what felt like thousands of other Colombians and tourists. Excited for the show, we had bought some espuma (foam spray) in anticipation of getting involved in the espuma spraying tradition. What we were not anticipating was how everyone took part and you had no choice of participation. We were always somebody's target and before you knew it we were temporarily blinded by foam being sprayed in your face always when you least expect it. It was all good fun however. Although sadly for some of our group members the foam caused a temporary rash which took away from their enjoyment and so they went home early.

The parade itself was spectacular. Lots of rhythmic Salsa, Reggaeton, Champeta and traditional music. We happily danced along to the music as we watched the dancers pass us by. Our elevated position allowed us to take in the whole extent of the parade, the elaborate floats and the endless amount of groups and people involved. We were there for at least 4 hours and never failed to get bored of all the different groups, varying in dance form and costumes. There were explosions of colour, music, dance and happiness everywhere we looked. Espuma was being thrown up to mark these celebrations and it was an experience like we have never witnessed before.

Talk about explosives though; One thing that took us a while to get used to, especially for P, were something known as buscar pies- feet seekers. The only thing we can compare them to is fire crackers. People throw them and as they hit the ground they explode. The sound was terrible; alarming and frightening every time it went off. The idea of these things going off on our feet was horrific. Surely these things have caused accidents. Guess that’s why we don't have them in England. We spoke to some people from different European countries who said they also use them there during festivities. Not something we could easily get used to at all.

For the second half of our time at the parade we managed to get ourselves front row positions and had the opportunity to see these elaborately dressed dance troupes pass us by. Really impressive and detailed. There were also different groups of bands, and organisations involved not forgetting the Miss Cartagena, Miss Colombia and Miss World contestants wearing elaborately designed bikinis. This is when we first realised that pageants here were big buiness.

Side note: Interestingly we were in Colombia when Steve Harvey made the slip about who won Miss World 2015 and mistakenly crowned Miss Colombia first instead of Miss Philippines. It was probably the worst country it could have happened to given the amount of effort and pride they have when it comes to these competitions.

Anyway, we got speaking to a local about these pageants who pointed out that for Colombians, there is a lot of poverty and given the turbulent history, the pageant tradition brings hope and happiness. Something to aspire to and that brings people together.

In theory it sounded like a great idea...in theory. In practice however, it had a deeper darker side to it. Around town there were areas where prostitutes gathered, many of whom had breast and bum implants as apparently that what ‘tourist’ men who come here like. For them to look like one of the pageant queens. Plus more disturbingly a local informed us that many young girls from poorer areas are having their family come together financially for when she is 13 so she can get bum implants and hopefully secure a pageant place. So sad but a reality here.

Nevertheless what we will remember about Cartagena was the warmth and friendliness of all the locals there. Everyone wanted to chat. It was also so very endearing given the fact that our Spanish was really basic. We were always talking to people on the street, some Colombian guys staying at the hostel even taught us some hip and inappropriate slang words people use (all apart of the experience hey).

Even the local street corner drug dealer would also greet us in a friendly manner despite his lack of business for us. He would always shout "One love" because of a Bob Marley t-shirt Chris sported the first time we met. "I got what you need, remember that, whatever you want I got it...remember the name - 'Super Mario'"he would shout, then come over shaking our hands. After kindly declining he would talk us about the area, his life and how it all has changed. Then depending on whether he was intoxicated or not we would either continue a small chat or have the same conversation again. Several times after being there for 4 weeks he would spark a conversation with us like he has never met us before. On one occasion he must have noticed our giggles and it came flooding to him he has met us many times before ha. Very likeable character but proved a little too much for Chris who always tried to sneak past him. Ahh the friendliness here and never did we feel any hostility.

That is until P met one woman who was serving food in the popular Plaza de Trinidad. It was a busy evening and there seemed to be no order with ordering your burger from this stand. It was really crowded - not surprisingly as although these must have been some of the unhealthiest (yet tasty) burgers around with the biggest greasiest dollop of cheese, lettuce, meat and crisp like sprinkles. P was surrounded by a crowd and did not know who had ordered and who had not. While waiting politely thinking surely this woman will serve me next, P got speaking to some young Colombian girls who ordered their food and could see her waiting. They told her she just needed to shout her order and so she did.

Asking for a vegetarian hamburger in Spanish the woman abruptly replied "NO". P tried to explain she ordered the same yesterday from the other woman here (bread, cheese, veg & the little crisp sprinkles). The woman then yelled aggressively in Spanish "you can’t speak Spanish and we have no veggie food!!" Ready to walk away the local Colombin girls came to Ps defence repeating her order saying she wanted the same as the meat hamburger but without the meat patty. In the end the woman agreed but not before giving P the evil eye. P decided to wait. However the woman did not want to make this easy as she decided to serve all the people around her plus take and make new orders first. Really!!?

P stood there determined to stand her ground. Half an hour later she asked again politely in her best Spanish if the food was ready. This woman yelled even more aggressively at P (P not understanding a word this time). A French girl next to her advised “you need to back off. You’re getting her really angry”. To make thins worse after waiting like an hour for this burger, after 2 small bites it slipped out of her hands and fell to the ground. I guess you just win some and lose some. This was not P's day.

The lady on the fast food stall was either clearly not having a great day also and decided to take it out on P or clearly disliked people who were vegetarians. P thinks the latter.

Therefore if you are worried about visiting Colombia, fear not, unless you are a vegetarian and speak imperfect Spanish, then avoid the hamburger counter on the left side of Plaza de Trinidad. Ha.

Out of the 2 months during our time here that was the only hostility we ever witnessed and did not represent the amazing warm Colombians we had met throughout our stay.

For Chris, being a meat eater he was in his element with the choice offered from the food stalls. As well as the standard burgers, he'd discovered burger 'especial' which was a tower of meat and cheese. Another street food discovery was a plate with a layer of chips (fries) at the bottom and a mix of lettuce, tomato, 2 types of sausage and chicken thrown on top. He described it as "delicioso" nom.

Like we mentioned earlier Plaza de Trinidad is a highly popular place in the evening. Locals and tourists alike all gather here, joined by football kicking children, handmade jewellery sellers and jugglers. Sometimes a dj will set up a speaker and play music other times music from nearby establishments will fill the void. This is where we learned about the nations favourite drink - Aguardiente. An aniseed tasting spirit that locals seem to drink straight, from tiny plastic shot cups. We learnt that Colombians will share this with friends and newly found friends whatever the occasion, passing the plastic cups around.

The only other unfortunate experience we had was P falling ill. Twice! Extremely unlucky. The first time with the Chikungunya virus that is proving to be a big problem all over Central, South America and also the Caribbean. A mosquito borne illness, from the stripy black and white mosquitos that also carry Zika and Dengue.

For P this meant an unbearable rash that penetrated every surface of her skin and the difficulty to move her joints. Resultantly she was bed ridden for the weekend. As the women in the hostel knew immediately what it was, P got some medication to stop the itching and waited for her joints to get back to normal. We did not seek medical attention due to reading that there were no long term effects with it. Since this time however other travellers have told us otherwise, possibly scare mongering but I guess it’s best to get a full check-up when we return home.

After recovering from that P then developed an ear infection which resulted in her face swelling up with no hearing in one ear and an excruciating amount of pain. We think the previous illness may have lowered her immune system. The most annoying thing about this was her difficulty with practicing her Spanish as she could not hear properly in class or out on the streets when talking to Colombians. "I really can speak basic Spanish" she'd say. "I just can’t hear you".

Ha. Talk about a way to end our time in this amazing place we had found.

We couldn't thank the staff at our hostel enough though, especially the cleaning lady who always pottered about asking us questions in Spanish as we tried to figure out what she was saying. She normally teased Chris, as he had a clueless look on his face every time she spoke. P was able to go undetected as she usually just said "Si" pretended she understood fully.

Every weekend when the cleaner would arrive to work she'd say "Todavia??" in shock we were still there. But what was really sweet was when P was ill, she would bring breakfast and drinks to her bed for her. After a while though, the traditional breakfast of arepas and eggs was beginning to take its toll. Arepas are a staple in Colombian breakfast (and snacks) as much as rice, beans and chicken is for dinner.

Nevertheless for us as we continued to travel, all roads appeared to lead back to Colombia and there is no doubt that this has become a really special place for us.

Travel: Flight from Fort Lauderdale $126

Accommodation: El Viajero (old town) & Balcones de Venecia (Getsemani)

Date: 5th Nov 2015


Additional photos below
Photos: 59, Displayed: 33


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19th March 2016

When the party's over
Nah...never over unless you want it to be.
20th March 2016

When the party is over
Very true. We certainly partied well here!
19th March 2016
20151108_204058

Wow
An absolute incredible blog guys, really captured an incredible time and the photos are the best we have ever seen in a blog. I know you both went through a bit of hell but it sounds like you had the time of your lives, keep travelling well and keep telling us about it.
20th March 2016
20151108_204058

Wow
Thank you for such a lovely comment. We had an incredible time here. We're glad you enjoyed the read too.
20th March 2016
Pageant queen entertaining the crowds

Brilliant Cartagena!
What a perfect place to spend a month learning Spanish and enjoying two grand fiestas (fabulous photos)! Glad to hear the mud baths were worth it (I guess I'll try it). I'd thought the arepa (corn meal and cheese) were going to be a veggies' delight, but I guess one can get tired of them--that vegan meal looked great! So sorry P was ill and also that she had to deal with that angry street seller--sometimes, I've taken the food as prepared and found an appreciative street dog to relieve me of the burger. Regarding the pageants--too bad about the girls getting the implants to appeal to foreigners--sometimes in a poor country, she's the ticket for the whole family getting by, a witness to how deep is the poverty. But for a tourist and many Colombians, it seems such a wonderful country. Glad you could tell the world about this.
20th March 2016
Pageant queen entertaining the crowds

Brilliant Cartagena
It was the perfect place to recharge, try and learn the language while soaking in the country. Yes the poverty must run deep, I can't imagine given this and the turbulent history why everyone was soo happy and welcoming. A testiment to this amazing place. I did try the arepas for the first week but they were a little cheese heavy and so I found it hard to eat too many. Saying that could not eat fish too much after here either. The vegan place was perfect, the food very good (called Los girasoles). Like you, we also seemed to made a few dog friends here feeding them water. They was always so friendly often walking us home.
20th March 2016

Those evil mosquitoes!
Sorry to hear about your illness P...hope you have made a full recovery and won't have anything to worry about at your check-up back home. You guys have made Colombia a serious consideration for us (we thought about it a few years ago, but can't remember why it fell out of favour), it might be time to re-assess our list. Fabulous photos as usual!
20th March 2016

Evil
They are evil little things mosquitoes, haven't seen any long lasting side-effects apart from getting raised rashes any tine I itch. Looking forward to a health check up either way.
20th March 2016

Start writing your book
Hope your health continues on the up swing. Sounds dreadful to be sick twice in a short period of time. You are great story tellers. The ability to be informational, humorous and make us want to follow in your footsteps. Thanks again. Fantastic photos.
20th March 2016

Start writing your book
Thank you; that means a lot. Whenever we re-read them they always evoke emotions based on our experiences like horror when we were on the great wall or anticipation when arriving in a new place like Colombia as it takes us back to that place and time. Its great to hear they offer something other than being informative for our readers too. We both cannot believe we still have your interest!
5th April 2016
That yellow ball in the sky

haha
that's not a ball that's the moon.

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