Nearly two months have passed since Seth and I fled Bogotá for a weeklong vacation in Cartagena. Due to our hectic post-vacation schedule, which included a whirlwind trip to Medellín, a move out of our Bogotá apartment, and days well-spent with our friends and families in Texas, I have not had much time to write. However, while experiencing the sights, sounds, tastes, and smells of both the Caribbean Coast and the Aburrá Valley, I was able to keep a brief account of my experiences in a small notebook. Of course, much of the detail has been lost due to the lapse in time, but I will elaborate everything I can. Brace yourselves, dear readers.
DAY 1: Centro & San Diego
Our path to Cartagena was a bit of a disaster, to put it delicately. What should have been an effortless cab ride and a breezy hourlong flight not-so-miraculously turned into five Transmilenio tickets (for two trips, mind you) and one nearly missed plane. You see, Seth insisted that we force our luggage through the narrow turnstiles of Bogotá’s bus rapid transit system, which resulted in two station transfers, three denied passages, and forty-five minutes’ waste. We arrived to the airport breathless and teary-eyed, sprinted through security, and boarded our plane with mere minutes to spare.
As soon as the plane took off with us actually present, I felt instant relief. I enjoyed a small cup of Juan Valdez coffee, homemade potato chips, and a small candy as I stared out the window. Two hours, one airport iguana, and one COP$12,000 cab ride later, Seth and I found ourselves in historic Cartagena. On our ten-minute ride into town we noticed a myriad of hotels, a series of unoccupied beaches, a surprising number of people wearing pants, and too many butt implants to count. The most interesting thing that we saw, though, was the level of diversity; we even passed a large mural that read, “Chao racismo!” (“Goodbye racism!”). Upon arriving we checked into the Makako Chill House Hostel, swapped our Bogotá-appropriate jeans and boots for Cartagena-approved shorts and sandals, and walked downstairs to La Mulata for a satisfying lunch of ceviche de camarones con mango y habanero (shrimp ceviche with mango and spicy peppers) and a refreshing round of limonadas de coco (coconut limeades, also known as the best drink ever).
After lunch we spent the latter part of the afternoon touring the colonial walled city. We saw color after color and balcony after balcony; we saw street vendor after street vendor and craft after craft. By cocktail hour my hair had absorbed so much salt from the air that it was thick with waves; Seth said that the lingering smell of sulfur reminded him of the Texas Gulf Coast. We walked along the wall until we encountered a substantial bar, where we grabbed a table and sipped cocktails as the sun set.
DAY 2: Bocagrande & Getsemaní
On our first morning in Cartagena we awoke to the questionable smells of instant coffee wafting throughout the hostel. We clearly were not in the Eje Cafetero anymore.
We spent the early hours of the day booking a tour to Isla del Encanto, one of the twenty-seven Rosario Islands. The hawkers were the most aggressive that we had ever encountered, and we really had to pull our aggressive pants on in order to book the desired tour. Fun fact: Many Colombians actually prefer to take the COP$40,000 general tour, which consists of a boat ride to Isla Grande, a buffet lunch, a visit to the “aquarium” for an extra fee, a stop in Barú, and a return ride to Cartagena. Meanwhile, many American and British travelers, wanting to avoid this sort of touristy nickel-and-dime gimmick, try and fail to book a more expensive boat ride to one of the neighboring islands. Pardon me; I will come back to this topic later.
After successfully securing two of the desired tickets, Seth and I walked to Bocagrande, a godawful coastline of poorly constructed, deteriorating condominiums and brand new, luxury motor vehicles. When we heard rumblings in our tumblings, we did not hesitate to return to the walled city for lunch at La Cocina de Carmela, a shabby and inexpensive restaurant just around the corner from our hostel. Seth and I then relocated our belongings to hostel number two, the Chill House Hostel, where we paid the same price per night but gained a private bathroom. We spent the afternoon reading and sipping juices at Café Ceiba in the supposedly “hip” neighborhood of Getsemaní. (Why is “hip” in quotes, you ask? Well, many locals brag about how popular this once-gritty neighborhood has become with the rich these days. All it really means is that the sidewalks have become minuscule to make way for an extra lane of shiny new cars. Super cool, right?)
Hours past sunset and still full from lunch, we scored an unclaimed table in an open plaza and opted for a dinner replacement of Club Colombia. As we ordered our beer, we noticed that the cashier did not greet us with the labels monos or gringos. As we people-watched, we observed interracial couples walking hand-in-hand without stares or a care. Why was Cartagena so accepting, while Bogotá was so judgmental?
Seth and I spent our third day of vacation on the Isla del Encanto. The journey was easy enough; we arrived at the docks at 8:30 in the morning, departed at 9:30 (9:00 + Colombian time), and disembarked at 10. The resort staff cheerfully greeted us with ice-cold corozo juice and enumerated the island’s amenities; the chairs, hammocks, and beach beds were all for complimentary use, while cocktails, massages, and local crafts were subject to additional fees. Seth and I hurried to the beach, ordered a limonada de coco, and absorbed the sun’s rays.
For lunch Seth and I ate fried fish, penne with a creamy seafood sauce, coconut rice, and tamarind juice. We enjoyed several dips in the ocean and a lengthy swim in the resort’s outdoor pool before climbing into the boat at 3:30. Due to rough waves, the ride back to Cartagena was one of the scariest experiences of my life, but we safely docked in the city just in time for sunset. Before settling down for a cocktail, we poked our heads in a few of the local shops, and Seth bought me a beautiful beach bag made of native Colombian grass. We then found an unassuming bar-slash-restaurant owned and operated by a German expat, where we enjoyed a couple of generously poured martinis.
DAY 4: Centro, San Diego, & Bocagrande
Seth and I awoke on the fourth day ready for some quality caffeine and local gastronomy. We began the morning with a couple of iced lattes and some literature at an adorable bookstore cafe. We then migrated to one of the walled city’s meticulously planned squares, where we watched a delightful group of elderly folks sit on a nearby bench and talk about their days. It was public space at its finest; people gathered, tourists passed, and trees flourished.
After our morning full of reading and people-watching, Seth and I strolled to La Cevichería, one of Anthony Bourdain’s favorite Cartagena hangouts. We ordered two ceviches, one with octopus and another with snapper. Both were delicious and beyond filling, and it was a good thing, too; La Cevichería’s prices have skyrocketed since Sir Anthony’s visit.
Quite stuffed, we chose to swim off our calories—or, more truthfully, sleep off our food coma—with another trip to Bocagrande. We grabbed a couple of limonadas de coco and attempted to swat away the vendors while guarding our belongings. Several Chiquita Banana lookalikes attempted to coat my skin with baby oil “so that I would look just like them,” but I was having none of it. We enjoyed a quick nap and some intermittent swims before deciding to call it quits.
For dinner we ate at a seafood restaurant called Kriollos. The decor was “Rainforest Cafe meets fine dining,” which in the context of a coastal town was actually quite pleasant. While sipping on a couple glasses of white wine, we ordered a round of crab gratin with sweet corn. For our mains, Seth opted for the langosta (Caribbean lobster) with butter, thyme, and garlic, while I chose the cazuela de mariscos (seafood stew). The cazuela was nothing like the stews I had grown accustomed to eating in Bogotá; this cazuela had an herby green broth instead of a creamy orange one. I was disappointed. Seth’s dish was superb, though, and I was happy that he shared several generous bites with me.
Craving a little something sweet, Seth and I stopped for gelato at Paradiso, an adorable shop with local flavors. We sampled the flor de jamaica (hibiscus) and the mamey sapote. Both were sinfully smooth and decant.
DAY 5: Barú
The next day was by far my favorite in Cartagena. Seth and I returned to the aforementioned dock of hawkers in order to buy tickets to Barú, a peninsula near Cartagena that is easier to access by boat than by bus or car. Since we had exhaustively researched the various tour options, we knew going into our negotiation that the dreaded COP$40,000 general tour already included a built-in stop. However, we had absolutely no interest in visiting Isla Grande’s “aquarium” of nonsense. Three times—once when we purchased our tickets, once when we boarded the boat, and once when we were on the boat in the middle of the water—we had to forcefully order the captain to drop us off at Barú and only at Barú. When the boat approached the shore sans dock, Seth and I were the sole couple to disembark; all others continued toward the aquarium. We could not believe it! But then we were reminded of the thousands upon thousands of Colombians who traveled up and down those long and windy roads to the mystical coffee region only to bypass Mother Nature in favor of the godforsaken Parque de Café. (Sigh. Colombian tourists really are the absolute worst.)
On the way to the peninsula, our boat—perhaps the most informal of tourist vehicles I had ever boarded—stopped at a cluster of waterside shanties to retrieve the snorkeling masks for the general tour. At least ten ebony-skinned boys leaped into the ocean like fishes, splashed around, and climbed up the side of the boat, which caused some tourists to panic and others to laugh. It was a rather strange dichotomy; we were en route to a luxurious beach, while the kids were receiving their only source of entertainment for the day: a bunch of rich vacationers ooh-ing and ahh-ing at their antics.
Anyway, when we “docked” at the beach, Seth and I followed the advice of a few very helpful TripAdvisor travelers; we hooked an immediate left and walked along the shore for about thirty minutes. After passing vendor after vendor, we were eventually rewarded with a private beach, free shade in the form of a petite tree, and the whitest sands and bluest waters I had ever seen in real life. (They don’t call it Playa Blanca for nothin’!) I was SO incredibly happy. Seth and I spent the entire day lounging on the beach and flopping around in the ocean. We bought a fruit salad from the only vendor who dared to cross our path, and around lunch we visited a miniature hut for cervezas bien frías and fried fish. The cook who took our order was high out of his mind and disappeared for at least an hour, but Seth and I were A-ok digging our toes into the soft sand and eavesdropping on a pair of Dutch foreigners as we waited. The payoff was exponentially richer than I ever could have imagined—fish likely caught and fried while we were waiting, the most flavorful plantains I had ever tasted, and generous palm trees blocking our faces from the intense rays of the sun. All in all, it was one of the best days of my entire life, and if I could relive it over and over again I would. My only regret is not planning ahead to stay the night, where we would have surely witnessed phytoplankton light up the crystal clear water.
Sometime around mid-afternoon, our boat stopped by the island to drop off the other tourists. They had a mere forty-five minutes to enjoy the peninsula as a group, while Seth and I had the entire day to ourselves! We laughed at their lack of foresight and took one last swim before embarking on another bumpy boat ride to Cartagena. We were drunk with happiness.
Unfortunately, our captain and his mates were total douchenozzles. Not only did they resist dropping us off in Barú like we wanted, but they also refused to allow us to sit together on the way back to the city. As we ignored their strict instructions concerning “proper weight distribution,” our much heavier neighbors insisted in Spanish, “The gringos do not speak the language, so they will not move.” Seth went apeshit and demanded, in Spanish of course, that the staff allow us to sit side by side. We eventually got our way but not without stern hesitation.
Tired from all the sun, we ended our day with a glass of wine at our favorite bookstore cafe, an uneventful dinner at a corrientazo, and an early slumber.
Most of Cartagena was closed on Sunday morning, but we managed to find a touristy restaurant in the main plaza that served coffee to casual patrons on their porch. We sipped a couple of iced lattes and watched the city gradually come alive; around 12:30 it had amassed a substantial buzz. We returned to La Cevichería for lunch, this time for cooked fish in lieu of ceviche. Seth and I shared the octopus, which was served atop a mound of coconut rice, avocado, red pepper, and chopped peanuts. Afterward we embarked on a shopping spree, where I bought my second mochila, a mini bag about a quarter the size of my first. We also purchased a few crafts for friends and family back home, including a few bracelets. Seth was especially tempted to walk away with a handwoven hammock, but at COP$800,000 (US$400) and 50 pounds a piece, it was not in the cards for us at the time.
After hours of meandering through the narrow streets of the walled city, Seth and I settled down for pizza and wine at a restaurant just below our hostel. It was a low-key end to an already relaxing day.
We decided to spend our last day in Cartagena redoing all of our favorite activities one last time. We sipped coffee in the main plaza and juices at a shabby bar, and afterward we browsed the artisan markets. (Side note: Days before traveling to Cartagena, I asked my coworkers if I would uncover any unusual fruits or handmade goods that I had not yet found in Bogotá. They simply replied, “No.” Well, it turned out that my coworkers were totally and completely wrong! I sampled at least five new fruits while on the coast and spotted an astounding number of new handicrafts.) We also took one last trip to the beach; this time we found a quiet little alcove free of vendors and hawkers.
The end of our day was quite a bit more hectic than the start. We caught a ride back to the walled city in a Bogotá-style buseta driven by a Bogotá-style maniac. Other passengers were tearfully begging him to steer slowly and carefully, insisting that the speed was not worth them losing their lives. A little frazzled, Seth and I hopped off the bus early and returned to a previously-visited plaza for ice-cold Club Colombias. As we sipped, we inadvertently witnessed a threesome between street dogs gone awry; midway through the act, two of the three dogs got stuck together! Hundreds of cell phone pictures and thirty minutes later, the dogs finally straightened themselves out. The whole debacle was… disturbing, to say the least.
Before leaving hot and humid Cartagena for eternally springy Medellín, Seth and I enjoyed some Juan Valdez coffee on the balcony of our hostel. We met a nice girl from Boston who had just arrived from the city to which we were flying, so we were able to give each another helpful travel tips. A COP$10,000 cab ride and smooth airport screening later, Seth and I were climbing the stairs of our bright red Avianca plane. It was so romantically vintage, the most picturesque farewell to an already sublime tropical vacation.