I made a good decision by flying to Cartagena. It’s only a 45 minute flight that cost me $70 as opposed to a 13 hour bus ride that ends at a station nearly an hour’s cab ride outside the historic center. I didn’t make a good decision, however, when it came to where I chose to spend the night.
I had followed the advice of my hostel owner in Medellin and booked an air-conditioned dorm at Mamallena’s for Wednesday and Thursday nights. I hadn’t known that 1 – It’s one of the biggest party hostels in town and 2 – that Wednesdays, for some bizarre inexplicable reason, is the hottest night out, with the entire block of hostels and bars on the street offering an all-night party, beat pumping, techno disco-drunk fest. Too late in the day to change upon my arrival, combined with the whompf of HEAT that one feels the moment you land here in the north of Colombia (writing this in San Gil, I can’t tell you how grateful I am for having escaped that triple digit 100% humidity hell) I figured it couldn’t be that bad – I had brought ear plugs after all.
I couldn’t have been more wrong. Not only did my room face the main street, my bed was the bed closest to the wall that faced the street also. I barely got any sleep that night, with my bed practically shaking with the beat of the music.
I was eager to go explore the historic center during my first evening foray for food. I met up with two girls at the hostel who were on their way to a restaurant called “Crepes and Waffles” (sounded right up my alley) incidentally one of whom was from Rushden, a town just a few miles from where I grew up in England.
I was immediately captivated by the ambience of the old city in the balmy (read: sweaty) evening. It reminded me a lot of Havana, if Cuba had the money to invest in the upkeep of their historic buildings, roads and infrastructure. Every road was a little alley promising romance and intrigue. The balconies overflowed with flowers. Couples snuggled in cozy horse-drawn carriages through plazas whose history included being one of the epicenters of the African slave trade hundreds of years ago. Churches dotted everywhere, combined with candlelit outdoor cafes and restaurants adding to the charm of the place. Live music emanated from several locations, notably from Bolivar plaza where an Afro-Caribbean dance concert was in full swing.
The prices for food and drinks soon tempered my enthusiasm temporarily. They easily compared to those in the US. But I had the most incredible meal of crab-stuffed salmon pancakes with a side of salad. It hit the spot.
My new acquaintances were two very impressive ladies, who at the tender ages of 23 had volunteered in some of the most impoverished child orphanages and slums in the world, helping to establish or facilitate education programs. I was fascinated to listen to their experiences of teaching in the slums of Mumbai. The kids who were proud to show them their homes made from rotting trash. We had a great conversation about what it might take to fight that kind of poverty in the world. I could understand by the end of our conversation just why these girls found their Cartagena assignment to be rather “tame” and South America to not really offer much in the way of challenging travel.
After four days of walking through Medellin, their idea of taking the day tomorrow to head to Playa Blanca for a day of relaxation on a pristine white beach sounded like a great idea. However, once we got there the next day, I was quite disappointed when I realized that it was a hawker infested beach. How can one relax if you’re asked if you’re interested in buying bracelets every 8 minutes? And when you say no, they each would ask us where we were from thinking that creating a false sense of intimacy was going to sell bracelets.
Additionally, the personality of the Canadian girl was beginning to grate. She did not possess an inside voice and I could hear the details of each of her conversations from several hundred feet away. On the bus ride back, when most sun-burned individuals were desperately trying to grab a quick 45 minute nap in the comfort of the air conditioned mini-van, she was loudly discussing the details of the anal sex she enjoyed with her boyfriend.
Not appropriate and TMI (even for me.)
When we got back to the hostel, I promptly showered, changed and headed out for a sunset walk along Cartagena’s city wall – its historic defense system. It was beautiful and I happily strolled for a few hours, though once again, the romance of the place was screaming for the experience to be shared, preferably with a romantic partner. Couples sat making out in the little holes in the wall that had been created for cannons, and were now providing relative privacy for the lovers.
I was very wistful.
I ended my walk in the Plaza San Diego where I’d been told the restaurant La Cevicheria served amazing ceviche. I sat down and ordered a cold mojito and the mixed ceviche and for a glorious moment, I forgot about being alone and just ate.
Having not had much sleep the night before, I couldn’t bring myself to go out that night and collapsed in bed relatively early, only to discover that there was still a party raging outside until around 2am.
Thank God for Ambien.
I was excited for the following morning because I’d booked a private walking tour of downtown with this Australian guide who’d come very highly recommended. However, she didn’t show! I waited for ½ an hour and then decided to wander the streets a bit more until it was time for me to catch my bus to Santa Marta. She later wrote and said she’d left her phone at a friends’ house. How that changed our arrangement I wasn’t sure and I felt sorely let down.
On the plus side, I managed to find a cheap new bikini (mine had fallen apart) and managed to get my camera fixed. Someone had taken a photo and the lens had failed to retract. Therefore all my pics of Cartagena were taken with my iPhone.
I highly recommend Cartagena to any traveler. But go with someone you love and share the romance, the atmosphere and the food.