Salt Water and Sun : A Week in Cartagena

Last week my husband and I took a week off from all of our looming responsibilities to drink beers on a beach in South America. The lush greenery, the fresh fruit, the deep-rooted cultural heritages, the thumping beats of cumbias– excited by

We decided on Cartagena, Colombia for a couple of reasons:

First, we wanted to be somewhere by the ocean. Though there are many beautiful places to visit in South America, we just needed a break from the land-lockedness of our home state.

Second, there was something that seemed so beautiful and unique about the old city. The walls made of coral, the markets, and quirky graffiti-covered walls of Getsemani.

Third, I have a real love of places in resurgence. Colombia was facing a drug crises that left its people in a place of danger and political unrest. Today, however, the people of Columbia are eager to return to a normal way of life, and to share their great successes with others. This type of vibrance and life is intoxicating. I had to witness the renaissance first-hand.

What a fabulous and rewarding decision! The incredibly kind people, the beautiful winding streets, and the delicious fresh food are enough to make anyone’s heart sing.

Day 1

We arrived pretty late in the day so we got comfortable and took it easy. We hailed a cab at the airport and the taxi took us to the hostel where we ended up quite relived the we has accidentally booked a room with air conditioning. Coming from one of the driest places in the states and landing smack dab in the rainforest was quite a shock to our systems and it was a real luxury to get to be weaned in. We walked around Getsemani, a small bustling area outside of the walled city. There were thumping clubs, street vendors, and swinging live bands lining the streets. Getsemani was previously a rather rough area, but it seemed to be a dreamland for a young couple looking to jump right in.

Club-Havanna-Cartagena

We ended up in Cafe Havana, a well known live music venue. The band was full of energy as they played salsa music. It is also, understandably, packed full of people. There were times I was sure I would be squished alive but we still managed to cut a little rug and have our first beer in Columbia.

Day 2

Now it was time to enter the long winding fortress that is the walled city. We spent hours walking through the markets and visiting with vendors before exploring further into the city. The entire area is surrounded by a large and winding wall made out of coral. You can see the little shells embedded in the rock faces after years of corrosion. The wall was originally erected to protect the city from invaders and pirates in the 16th century. Today, it is a reminder of the rich history of this region.

At the end of the day, we went on an epic quest to find a cevicheria I heard was top notch. It took us about an hour to find out that we had walked in a big circle to find a place that is maybe 20 minutes walking from our hostel. Here’s the kicker, we never really found the one I was looking for. We were lucky enough to stumble upon La Cevichería instead. It is located off of Carrera 7 and Calle 39 on a block that houses many of the city’s cevicherias in one area.

The food was so fresh and bright. Outside, street performers break-danced and sung as we ate our mixiado shrimp and fish ceviche and fish soup that included a full, sliced-open lobster draped across the bowl. Oh, and that  picture on the left that looks like a bowl swimming with sauce: its a thick warm slice of mozzarella cheese with guava syrup poured overtop. What an idea! The tanginess of the cheese and the sweetness of the sauce balanced each other perfectly. Delicious and bazaar, it is listed as the house dessert.

Day 3

At this point we were feeling quite comfortable getting around the city. We spent the beginning of the day exploring the winding graffitied alleyways of Getsemani. There is such a unique style about the graffiti in this area. Most of the graffiti is highly political. Many have messages about the maltreatment of afro-Columbians, or messages about the corruption in government. The words below the toothy blue smile in one of the photos below read, “no le pege a la negra.” This is reference to a popular and beautiful song, “La Rebelion” that chronicles the love between two slaves that belonged to a Spanish man. When the slave owner beat the woman, the man rebelled against the slaveowner to avenge his wife. This song is an incredibly powerful narrative which allows us a brief look into the tumultuous past and ethnic makeup of the region.

 

In the afternoon, we took a bus to Santa Marta, a town closer to the beach. The drive is about four hours and often involves being somewhat crammed into a small van. It also involves wondering about the legitimacy of the whole operation at times. The drive was very beautiful, however, and we hardly noticed the tight quarters. The landscape was so beautiful, and we were very curious to see the outskirts of the two towns. Many in this area live in homes that look pieced together, often with little more than a simple place to sleep underneath. The people, however, are all gathered joyously together on on porch, laughing and lounging in the humid heat. It is a good reminder that things do not improve our lives in the same way that a rich community does.

Day 4

We had been seeing multiple advertisements for a tour of the Lodo El Totumo, a mud volcano. Ever the apprehensive travelers, we were nervous to partake in something that seemed to be so touristy. We ended up having an incredible time. I would suggest this trip to any visitor, touristy or not, there is no other place in the world where you can feel like an astronaut covered in mud.

I am sure that the tour booked is also important as there are good and bad. Ours included a very funny and bubbly young woman as a tour guide, and included lunch at a local restaurant, and a long luxurious swim on the beach. Now, I am going to attempt to explain where exactly we booked our trip. We got information about the trip through our hostel Hostel Getsemani. They took us to a booking station up the street.

Just before Carrera 10 meets Calle 30, there is a small shop with hats hanging on one wall. There is a vending machine against the back wall of the single very small room. There you have it. The best description I can give. We realized quickly that the numbering system for the roads in Cartagena and Getsemani are the same system as in many large cities, they are simply numbered in order in a grid pattern. This makes getting around and having a sense of how close or far you are from a place very easy. Because these are mostly hopeless directions, my suggestion would be to just look for a tour that includes a meal and some time at a beach. The price will be about 50,000 mil pesos a person which comes out to just about 15 dollars.

The volcano was so incredibly cool! I cannot stress my childlike joy enough. You can even pay a person to take photos for you while you are covered in mud. I would say that to thoroughly enjoy the full experience, you have to let yourself go a bit. The town is small, the ladders can be slick, women wash you after your muddy fun. There were times at which I might have been uncomfortable if I was having the same experience at home. But, alas, I was not at home, I was neck-deep in a mud volcano, so I let myself be freer than I might otherwise.

Wondering about that little, “women wash you,” comment? Yes, you crawl down into a muddy pit, feeling like a bubbly child floating in outer space, painting muddy pictures on one-anothers’ faces. Then you get out, climb up a goopy ladder and down to a water inlet. There, four or five women stand by a large blue container of ocean water with multi-colored bowls in hand. They wave you over and the women wash the mud off of each muddy participant one-by-one.

There were times I thought I might suck water in and times that my breasts were fully out and being scrubbed clean. I expected to feel indignant after my cleansing, but then realized how hilarious and odd it was to get aggressively washed with ocean water. I took it in stride, knowing that in the same way a doctor doesn’t care about your embarrassing medical issues, these women had washed thousands of patchy pale tourists, and they were there to get me clean. Nothing more nothing less. I walked up to the shack by which our bus was parked and enjoyed a fresh coconut while we waited to move on.

Oh, and see how high up we are in the mud in the picture above? Despite being twenty feet deep, the volcano holds you there, in limbo MID AIR (or I guess technically mid mud).


Days 5 and 6

We are fully indulging in the vastly different Santa Marta. Our hostel, Playa Del Ritmo, is maybe ten steps away from the beach. There is a gate that leads directly onto a quiet and nearly private area of the beach. Cartagena’s beach is a mix between large bouldery walls, and small highly-populated eddies. Santa Marta, however, is covered in coastline.

The sand is black, and we spend most of these two days in a hammock right by the shore. The hostel sells cold beer for cheap, and rents canoes out to guests.

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We did manage to make it into town on a few occasions. There is a gold museum in downtown Santa Marta tells the story of the Tairona people. It showcases their beautiful gold works and tells the story of a heralded liberator, Simon Bolivar, who died in a room of the museum. The rooms are full of rich stories, beautiful artifacts, and stunning displays. Most of the displays are translated into English and it was free for us to enter, both things which I appreciated thoroughly.

Day 7

Our last day in Colombia. We made our way back to Cartagena in the morning, and at night celebrated seeing a new place in style. We drank like locals and then explored some of the interestingly themed bars in the city.

There is a large square that extends from the doorstep of a large church in Getsemani. There is a liquor store right on the corner by the square. It is perfectly legal to drink on the streets in Columbia, so many people simply go to the liquor store and gather in the square to more cheaply enjoy time together. We sat on the curb, each with a forty of Club Colombia, a widely distributed beer from Colombia, and melted into the hustle and bustle of young people laughing, meetings between friends, and simple relaxing fun. These are the moments that make traveling so cathartic. We are able to step outside of  our cultural norms, habits, routines, architecture. We release ourselves into the wild unknown of a new place and new faces.

After finishing out drinks, we wandered into the old city and visited a themed bar called KGB. We had walked into and immediately out of the bar a few nights prior, but I was ready to let go and let communist memorabilia be hilariously portrayed. The historical association with the Nazi party and South America is not lost on me (the reason we left the first time). But there was something very unique and charming about such blatant and brave parody. We also walked up the street and bobbed into and out of various bars, each with unique themes, and spent some time in a cigar shop where we each bought and smoked a Cuban cigar.

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There you have it. A single week in Colombia. There is more to be told: like me getting food poisoning from a street vendor, singing karaoke, the time we got lost on the wall and thought we would melt to death, the long conversation about wealth and community with a local bar owner. There is so much that happens in the periphery of each day, especially when in a new place. More stories will be told, all in good time.

Veni, Vedi, Vici

Happy exploring my friends.

 

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