By John “Mestie Boy” Mestas
Colombia (Part II)
As you step off the plane in Cartagena you immediately feel as though you’re on the Caribbean Sea. Perhaps it was because I was arriving from Bogota where the elevation is close to 2,600 meters and the weather upon departure was a cool 11 C; however, I like to think it was because Debs and Dean turned me into a ‘mule’ asking me to conceal contraband across international borders. Fortunately this was not my first time. The contraband consisted of 4kgs of Swedish Fish and Sour Patch Kids for Debs and Centrum Multivitamins (For Men Under 50, seriously) for Dean, estimated street value: approximately $50.
Immediately upon exiting baggage claim, I felt the sweat beading on my forehead as I frantically looked around for those three familiar faces who are supposed to be meeting me in what Lonely Planet describes as the ‘undisputed Queen of the Caribbean coast.’ It’s only about 10am, but the weather is already hot and humid. This summer weather was exactly what I was hoping for as fall was settling upon NYC. In the brief 45 seconds after I exited baggage claim, I failed to recognize a familiar face, which triggered instant episodes of heart palpitations. Where are they? What do I do? Where do I go? From the corner of my eye, I see two smiling / giggling faces emerge from hiding. I’m sure they were asking how long Mestas could hold out before being reduced to tears like a two year old that just had his favorite toy taken away. Sadly Daniel, Deborah’s brother, could not make the trip so our adventures were one short. No worries Daniel, we made sure to have a beer (or a few) for you ;)
We quickly greet each other and head straight to the bus stop to catch the local bus to the center of Cartagena. As we are catching up on the bus the makings of the Colombian suburbs quickly pass by as we stop every 2-minutes to pick up more passengers. I realize quickly that these are not the Swiss buses I grew up with or the New York City buses I’ve become accustomed to, translation = no air conditioning. About 35-minutes later, we arrive near Cartagena and we quickly jump off and weave through traffic, New York City style. We quickly reach the Blue House Hostel, which is located in the Old Town of Cartagena.
For those interested, Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro Heredia and was the major Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. After Sir Frances Drake sacked the city in the late 1500’s (ok ok Dean, the year was 1586) he was paid a ransom of 10.0 million pesos, which prompted the Spaniards to build up a series of fortified walls and forts around the city. The most beautiful part of Cartagena is the old town surrounded by thick walls, which protected the city from subsequent attacks. The Old Town is well preserved and well worth the visit.
After I change, we race out to explore the city and the old town. Wandering the streets, it’s quite obviously that the city is meant for tourists. The buildings are beautiful, the streets are lively and most of the folks were very friendly. We pass several plazas, churches, monasteries and palaces, all well preserved. We even pass the local ice cream shop where Debs and Dean confess they had 1-liter of ice cream, each, for dinner last night. We stop for a quick almuerzo lunch and find ourselves wondering towards the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is an incredible fort constructed in 1657, which provides unmatched panoramic views of the city. We admire the view from this fort and watch how the sunlight dances on the old town.
We make our way down from the fort and continue to wonder around the streets of Cartagena for several hours admiring the architecture. We stroll back to the Blue House Hostel before heading out for the night. Debs and Dean had arranged for us to meet up with a local Couch Surfer, William Salazar or Willy. Willy's business card describes himself as "The Cartagenian - A Host, A Guide, A Friend", in all reality he was a super nice guy. Willy was unable to host us for CouchSurfing but was up to meeting us for a drink. We planned to meet Willy at an outdoor terrace inside the walls named Donde Fidel, perfect for this kind of weather. After a few beers and 24-hour conversation (literally) about Couch Surfing we decide to grab some dinner. Willy is due to meet up with some friends so we all agree to head to a pizza place where they serve pizzas in the park where you can people watch and enjoy the good weather. We are joined by a couple and two of his female friends. We order several pizzas and some beer and chat about Cartagena, Columbia, tourism and politics. We all then head to a club to enjoy the night.
The next day, we hit the rest of the major sites in Cartagena; Plaza de Bolivar, Puerta del Reloj, Plaza de los Coches, Plaza de la Aduana to name a few, all incredible. We grabbed some ice cream and walked out the fortress wall which provides amazing panoramic views of the Caribbean Sea and the city. We head back to the hostel just before the afternoon thunderstorm and enjoy a few beers on our pseudo balcony. We follow Willy’s suggestion and head to a sushi restaurant for dinner. We make it an early night as the next morning we are scheduled to head out early to Islas Rosario, more specifically Playa Blanca.
Islas Rosario & Playa Blanca
The ferry terminal in Cartagena is hectic and chaotic, even at 8:30 AM. After about 45-minutes of waiting in the blazing sun, we finally board our boat. We head out through the bay at Cartagena and note the copious amounts of shipping vessels and containers along with the impoverished towns which blanket both sides of the bay. Once we hit clear water, it’s off to Islas Rosario.
On our way out, the boat stops several times. Dean and I take the opportunity to grab a quick lobster (or some other type of shellfish) from a fishing boat which pulled up next to our tour bus. Throwing aside that it’s only 10am we chow down and enjoy the fresh seafood. Delicious. We continue heading out, first Stop Isla del Toro. Isla del Toro is a tourist trap where they offer an aquarium visit during a 1.5-hour ‘layover’. The island is no bigger than a New York City apartment but somehow it manages to hold boatload after boatload of tourists on their way to Playa Blanca. Amazingly, 90% of the tourists are local. After seeing a local fisherman skin his fresh catch on the dock, we head back to the dock to continue our voyage to Playa Blanca.
We reach Playa Blanca within 30-minutes, the sugary sand is a delight. Despite the plethora of locals, we manage to score a seat for lunch. We make our way through the locals whom have taken over the beach and head for the opposite end were we can actually see the white sand and turquoise water. We’ve decided to stay 2-days on the island and stroll down the beach looking for a hostel. Our choices are either a hammock (with mosquito nets), tent or Cabana. I know what most of you are thinking, easy choice! Cabana = indoor plumbing, beds, fans, maybe even a mini fridge. In reality, the Cabana is no more than an elevated hut with a mattress and a straw roof, if we are lucky the mattress contains sheets and the bathroom has a door. Who cares, it’s only 10-meters from the water! Score.
We settle for a Hostel on the opposite end of the beach named Hostel Any (pronounced Annie), which we renamed Hostile Any for reasons set forth below. Hostile Any’s seems like a nice hostel, it is named after the nice lady (originally from the Dominican Republic) who runs it with her husband. The hostel consists of four Cabanas with mosquito nets, several hammocks, a restaurant, no door on the toilet, but the beers were only US $1.50 so we decide to stay. We order several dozen cold beers and quickly jump into the sea. We soak in the sun and enjoy the tasty beverages and spend a carefree afternoon on Playa Blanca. As the afternoon turns to night, we causally ask for dinner at 8 PM not realizing the sunsets close to 6:30 PM and there are no lights on the island, it’s a natural preserve.
Dinner arrives at 7:30 PM and we enjoy the fresh fish and semi-cold beer(s) under candlelight. We enjoy the evening and order more beer. We slowly realize that as we continue drinking beer, Any has been drinking as well. Around 10:30 PM, under the glimmer of a full moon, we see drunk Any stumble out of her kitchen yelling and chasing the last free cow on Playa Blanca. Needless to say, there are NO cows on Playa Blanca, but somehow a 1,200kg cow managed to find it’s way on to Playa Blanca and into Any’s kitchen charging directly towards the table where we were talking and enjoying the stars. At this point, Any is talking gibberish and no one can understand a word she is babbling.
After the excitement, we decide to head to bed. We head to the Cabanas, which we scored for about US$ 5.00 per person, and say goodnight. The cabanas are adjoined, however periodically throughout the night we wake up and hear Any talking and yelling at someone or something. This happened consistently throughout the night! Not once did we hear someone other than Any. At this point, we all have some type of fear that Any would make her way up to the Cabana and butcher the three of us. Collectively we managed about 5-hours of sleep.
We wake up the next morning and exchange the nightly experience and impending fear. We notice Any up and about despite having not slept during the night. We send Debs to order breakfast as Dean and I stay back. About 2.5 hour pass before Debs gets her morning juice, we still haven’t been served breakfast. We casually remind Any that we’d like to eat at which time she heads to the kitchen and starts berating her husband who was supposed to be cooking our meal. After a ten minute tongue lashing, the husband who was very nice to us, arrives with our breakfast. The tongue lashing continues as he heads back to the kitchen to get the third plate. After placing the third plate on the table, having enough, the husband calls Any ‘loca’ at which time her rage explodes. In an attempt to calm her down or perhaps just get her to be quiet, he clinches his fist and punches her square in the back. Bad move. Any retaliates by throwing a plastic chair at her husband and continues spewing vitriol filled language as her husband heads off. Some fifteen minutes later Any finds him down the beach, playing cards with his friends, and continues to berate him. Classic. Any was definitely off her rocker!
We watch the drama unfold while eating our omelets, we quickly decide this is our last day on Playa Blanca. Any returns and asks us to write out our bill because at this point she has had no slept and is still completely wasted! After writing our bill in the cuaderno, Any quickly utilizes the overnight influx of cash to score a few joints from the local dealer who arrived about ten minutes after we paid her! Again, classic! We make plans to take a high speed boat and to head to Santa Marta, the oldest recorded town in South America. We enjoy one last day in the fun before heading back. In short, our recommendation for Hostile Any’s is, come for the cheep beer and stay for the entertainment.
We head to Santa Marta and say goodbye to Cartagena. We arrive in Santa Marta under the cover of darkness, it’s late and we haven’t eaten. After arriving at our hostel, we head out for a quick bite. We quickly realize that Santa Marta is nothing like Cartagena. Santa Marta is dirty with packs of wild dogs roaming the streets and homeless people sleeping in doorways. This was the Colombia I was expecting, a bit dangerous. We grab food at the only place open, which served the worst hamburger I have ever had in my life. Period. After dinner we head back to the hostel for a good nights sleep (finally).
The next day we head out early to explore Santa Marta. There is not much to see, but we make the most of it. The weather in Santa Marta is hot, but much less humid than Cartagena. We quickly soak in the sights, the Cathedral, Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino, the Plaza Bolivar, Plaza de San Francisco and the waterfront. Truth be told, there is not much to see here. We had lunch at a local place, a Mexican restaurant headed by a New York City chef. Amazing and according to Dean and Debs some of the best food they have had on their entire Latin American adventure! We spend the afternoon strolling around the Quinta de San Pedro Alejandrino which is a hacienda on the outskirts of town wherein Simon Bolivar spent his last days and eventually was buried (before being moved to his home city of Caracas, Venezuela). A wonderful experience visiting Simon Bolivar’s last home and it must be said a well done memorial site to a man that defined a continent. We decide to head to the market to gather supplies for our trek to Parque Nacional Natural Tayrona. It helps that the grocery store is attached to a mall with 1. air conditioning and 2. fantastic ice cream. We head back to the hostel to pack, relax and chat.
Parque Nacional Tayrona
The next morning we catch the 8:00am local bus to Parque Tayrona and arrive at the park about an hour and a half later, and after a thorough searching we head off for our adventure. The scenery in Parque Tayrona varies greatly from sandy beaches to rain forest. At this point, we are carrying approximately 10 liters of water via two separate containers, not to mention the 3 liters we have in our back packs. For those who don't know, going on a trek with 10 lbs of water in each hand, while does appear like a lot, quickly turns heavy. We decide to take 15-minute turns. Needless to say the weather is humid. We march along the pseudo path, at times jungle, at slightly elevated walk way soaking in the scenery. We even see thousands of leaf cutter ants matching along the trial. It is quite an amazing site to see green leaves, walking along side you and up and down trees, awesome. We get to our first lookout point, Canaveral and enjoy an elevated view of a fantastic beach with upscale campgrounds. At this point, the humidity of the jungle is quite overwhelming. We enjoy a slight breeze and marvel at the coastline. We continued our trek throughout the jungle which is not staggered with beach and coastline view. While we would desperately like to plunge into the ocean, we are reminded that the current and under tow along these coasts are extremely strong and many an experienced swimmer (or synchronized swimmer…debs!) have succumbed to powerful currents. We resist and forge on. For those that are interested, over 100 tourists have died at one beach in Parque Nacional Tayrona because of the incredible under tow!
About an hour later, we reach the mid-way point, Arrecifes. Arrecifes is not much of a village, it contains a small restaurant and deluxe campgrounds, price of a cabana is $200.00/night. Wow. We use this as good rest area as Dean is tired then head off - our destination is Cabo San Juan de la Guia. We continue through the vast park and enjoy a bit of music and chatting. About and hour later, we reach our destination. After "check-in", we head to our hammocks and quickly get changed into our beach attire. It's about 1pm and we are all starving. We head to the beach where the surf is rough and jump in the water to cool off, these beaches are safe for swimming. We sit and enjoy lunch on the beach, homemade avocado/tomato/onion sandwiches and enjoy the view – so it was worth carrying the water and produce! If you pick up this years Lonely Planet, you'll see our view from Parque Nacional Tayrona on the front cover…if not, you can check out our pictures ;) The water is cool, crisp and relaxing. We enjoy an afternoon on the beach reading, swimming and sunbathing.
We leisurely head back to our hammocks in the late afternoon, after a needed fresh change of clothes we enjoy watching a local game of soccer between the local staff. We relax a bit and enjoy nightfall. The mosquitoes are out, but we are prepared and enjoy a surprising good meal at the only restaurant in the area. The restaurant is only about a third of the way full, but everyone seems in good spirits. It's only about 7pm, but everyone seems exhausted either from the hike out or a day of fun in the sun. We chat and play cards while enjoying some music courtesy of Dean's iPad. About 9:30pm the moon makes a dramatic appearance, her first of the night. We head to bed about an hour later to enjoy the first time spending the night in a hammock. All in all not too bad, although Deb had to tuck Dean and I into our respective hammocks – thanks Debs!
The next day is more of the same, we enjoy reading and relaxing on the beach and the tranquility the environment affords. Rain arrives in the afternoon but we manage to snag a shower before it arrives rinsing off several days of salt water. The night is more of the same, a good dinner with more card games and music from DJ Dingo. All in all, it’s our last night in the Nacional Parque but it's an excellent evening. The next morning, we pack, have breakfast and make our way our of Cabo San Juan de la Guia around lunch time. We had spotted several picturesque beaches along the way, we stop at the next beach down to enjoy the water and hopefully spot marine life. We head out late in the afternoon and arrive in Santa Marta a few hours later. We head back to the Mexican restaurant where we had previously enjoyed a fantastic meal. We are not disappointed. We make our way back to the hostel and pack our bags for our flight the next morning to Bogota.
Villa de Leyva
We arrive in Bogota around 1pm, the weather is a much welcomed change from Santa Marta. We head to the bus station for our 4-hour trip to Villa de Leyva, luckily Debs and Dean tell me it's a 'direct' bus. Little did I know, 'direct' in South America doesn't really mean direct. The bus ride itself is only about 175 km, however the bus makes frequent official and non-official stops picking up passengers along the way, at some points standing room only. After a bumpy ride we arrive in Villa de Leyva around 8:30pm. We are tired, hungry and seeking shelter. We manage to stumble into a hostel just a few minute walk from the bus station. Jackpot. The hostel is clean, super friendly and we score two rooms for less than the price of a Big Mac meal at McDonalds. As it is late and Dean is not feeling well, we stay in for the night to get some rest.
The next morning, we are greeted by one of the most beautiful colonial villages in Colombia. Lonely Planet calls the city 'frozen in time'. We enjoy a European style breakfast complete with croissants and fresh juice and gather energy for our tour of this beautiful town. The streets are entirely covered with cobblestones and the buildings are whitewashed, the sun is out and it’s a beautiful day. We stroll around town and soak in the scenery. The city itself is only about 10 square blocks but the city is homogenous in its appearance. New and old buildings are constructed with the same architecture which helps preserve the look and feel of the city. In the afternoon, we head to a local town, Raquira, to catch the pottery capital of Colombia. The town is in full swing and we stroll the town admiring the liveliness of it. We make our way back to Villa de Leyva and enjoy a complicated, yet humorous bus ride home. We head out to dinner and are surprised at the quality of restaurants in this small town. We settle on Italian and enjoy Colombia beer and Italian cuisine.
The following day, we head out for a morning short 2-hour hike, the destination is a half way up a mountain, nothing too strenuous. We finish the morning by strolling around the town before heading to Bogota on the afternoon bus. We stop for a coffee, but we grab an unexpected lunch which ends up being one of the best of the trip.
We leave Villa de Leyva on a mid-afternoon bus with hopes of getting to Bogota before sundown. The race against time is futile as we make stop after stop picking up passengers en-route. Debs and Dean later explain that the bus drivers often use these pickups to supplement their income. Makes sense. We arrived at the northern bus portal of part of Bogota at night and figuring there is safety in numbers the three of us jump in a cab and head for our Couchsurfing address. We arrive and make our way up to the apartment and are greeted by our host, Maria Venegas and her family. Maria is a 20-year old student who lives at home with her parents in a four bedroom apartment in La Zona Rosa. Maria and her family are super friendly - what a great couch surfing experience. Upon arrival, we are greeted by Maria and 3-other couch surfers from Belgium. Long story. In any case, we get settled in chat with everyone and share in our adventures. The 3 couch surfers from Brussels, Belgium have generously decided to make dinner and have prepared pasta for everyone. While the sentiment was nice, the execution was poor. It may seem like I am bashing here, but I assure you this was one of the worst meals I have had ever. Period. You're probably asking yourself, it's pasta, how bad can it be? That bad. We essentially had spaghetti boiled in chicken broth, but the spaghetti fused together to create one big pasta clump because they had not boiled the water first! As good guests, we finish the pasta and we assist by cleaning the table and doing the dishes. At this point our digestion systems are starting to take toll of what they have just ingested! We get some information from Maria and family about tomorrow’s events and spend time with everyone.
We start out early the next morning and head downtown in the local bus with Maria on her way to university. Maria gives us a brief overview and we head into the concrete jungle searching for breakfast and the Museo del Oro. We find a quaint place to have breakfast, the OJ is fresh and coffee is surprisingly awesome. Finally, excellent Colombian coffee. We head off to the Museo del Oro which is only a few blocks away. The Museo del Oro is wonderful and well worth the visit. The three floors hold over 55,000 exhibits which cover all the major pre-hispanic cultures in Colombia. The museum is quite a treat and we spent the morning lost in the sea of oro. As this is my only day in Bogota, we walk around the city soaking in the sites. We stroll around the Plaza de Bolivar and La Candelaria, unfortunately the Museo Botero is closed but the day is a success. We finish the afternoon by heading up to the famous mirador known as Montserrate which provides massive capital views. We are amazed how flat the city is, especially for its placement at 2,625 meters. What afternoon would be complete without a Sundae from McDonald's, at someone’s suggestion, we head to McDonald's for chocolate sundae (fudge on bottom and top) and make our way home.
We arrive back in the Zona Rosa in the very early evening. Our host, Maria, has informed us that it is Gringo Tuesday and we are heading out drinking and dancing. Our host, and the three other couch surfers have already started drinking and are on their second bottle of rum – arh actually it was a tetra pak of rum! We play some drinking games with everyone and enjoy the night. We head out to a bar and enjoy a bit of dancing and drinking and have a good night. It must be said Dingo is quite the dancer. As my flight is early in the morning, we head back around 2am, but the club is still lively with music and people. Needless to say, only one of the Belgium couch surfers makes it home, we presume the rest had a 'good night.' Five minutes after going to bed, my alarm goes off for my 6am wake up for trip crosstown to the airport. I arrive two hours in advance of my flight and I am sad. Sad to leave two great friends and an adventure.
In closing, Colombia is fantastic and quite different than what I was expecting. If you're thinking of going, I think you'll have a fantastic time. Colombia has lots to offer from Amazon Jungle to Caribbean beaches. Food is good, but not exceptional. Don't forget Hostel Any's, always good prices and entertaining (but pack your earplugs)!
Colombian Top 10
10. Dean loves taxis !
9. Despite being known for their coffee, not that impressed!
8. Debs and Dean drink massive quantities of water, serious!
7. CouchSurfing = great concept -- try it!
6. Dean talks and talks, but is a super guy!
5. Colombians were super friendly and will share a smile with you!
4. You would be shocked at the number of Korean cars (Kia and Hyundai) in Colombia. Wow.
3. 13-days in Colombia is not enough!
2. Dean can talk about couch surfing 24/7/365. Super passionate and wonderful ambassador for the community!
2a. If you had remote thoughts of joining Dingo/Fudgie on their world trip, do it!
1. After a year on the road, Dingo and Fudge are still strong. Amazing.