Cartagena the city of humidity and beauty!
After an great flight from Medellin – quick, easy, cheap, and of course the biggest bonus, saving us from a horrific 17h bus journey, we arrived to the insufferable heat of the Caribbean coast and the UNESCO World Heritage City, Cartagena de Indias.
On exiting the plane we were hit with the heat and humidity which felt pretty darn good. We were glad to be wearing our shorts and t-shirts. After picking up our bags from baggage return and walking around the airport to find a collectivo or a bus to the centre of the city (El Centro), the humidity wasn’t so nice.
Not only was it ridiculously hot but no one would help us. We walked and walked and nothing…. All the taxis that stopped laughed in our faces when we asked for a collectivo, just like all the locals do and no one would advise us on which of the 100s of buses to take. Great first impression to city!
Eventually we cracked and returned to the official taxi rank at the airport. The centre was only 15 mins away and they were charging 4 euros! To us, the price didn’t matter, the point was that no one was willing to help us and that’s not a trait we personally like in people.
The taxi had a fix rate, agreed by the man at the desk at the airport. The road we wanted to check out for hostels was closed and our taxi driver wasn’t willing to make the extra effort and drive us round the back to get us closer. He had the cheek to say he didn’t have any change either and that the 35p extra was nothing to us tourists. I wasn’t that impressed by the locals of Cartagena before getting in that taxi and I sure wasn’t any more impressed when getting out of it. The taxi was already expensive enough and his rudeness and lack of effort infuriated me. I asked for a cheaper price if he couldn’t give me the change needed. When he said no way. We stood our ground for a short while whilst he went to get the change, not that he even tried, walking to a guy on a scooter and turning back! By the time we’d taken our bags out the back and totally fed up with him we told him to stuff the change. His rudeness continued and boy was I glad when he was out of sight and out of mind. Rant over!!
THINGS DO GET BETTER!…….Keep reading
A little luxury hotel
We arrived at Magdalena Hotel in Getsamani, an area of Cartagena just outside the historic walls and home to the cheapest hostels in town. Magdalena Hotel was recommended in a blog, a little bit of luxury but unfortunately it had a price tag of a touristy city. We still managed to bargain the price down to a reasonable price even with AC in our room.
We would normally have gone for one of the cheapest hostels in town but hearing the worst hostel stories on our travels so far about Getsamani in Cartagena we thought we’d splash out.
Bags dropped, we went in search of something to cure our hunger pains. We looked for a restaurant we’d been told about and en route we realised how many tourists and hostels there were!! A little lost we asked someone outside a restaurant where the restaurant we were searching was. She said it was just down the road but now closed. By her response we weren’t convinced and continued walking. Within 50m we arrived at the restaurant which was well and truly open. Loving the locals even more now!…… Not.
THINGS GET BETTER I PROMISE!… Just read a little bit more.
Looking at the menu it was a little out of our budget but we had two well deserved cold beers and sat in a beautifully decorated garden, acclimatising to the heat and taking a breather from the craziness on the streets. We ended the evening grabbing some food from a small stall in La Place San Antonio in Getsemani. There were people eating street food everywhere and we decided to order an enormous plate piled high with 3 different sausages, plantain, salad, pulled pork, cheeses, crispy potato things. An absolute monster of a plate with high cholesterol alert written all over it! It cost only 3 euros, tasted delicious and it went down a treat!
TIME TO EXPLORE
After a great night in our luxury hotel (well luxury for us!) we headed out early to avoid the heat and tourists and went to explore the famous fortified city. We only had one full day so it was going to be an intense one.
A little detour by Le Parque del Centenario before entering the old town, El Centro, through the doors of Torre del Reloj, we found ourselves in the heart of the city surrounded by beautifully coloured colonial buildings, characteristic of Cartagena.
Initially we were disappointed, even early in the morning the heat was exhausting and the traffic from cars and scooters ridiculously loud on the narrow cobbled streets. Add to that the beeping of car horns at every cross roads, I personally felt on edge all the time. However………. once we got used to the noise and heat and discovered quieter side streets we realised what an absolutely stunning place the city was and completely unique and different to anything we’d seen before. The buildings and monuments were in incredible condition and the city was one of the the most photogenic we’ve ever been too.
An added bonus was the best freshly squeezed COLD!!! orange juice and lime juice ever and found at almost every street corner.
We started our tour of the city in the north near the sea front along Las Murallas which followed round to the south and Plaza de San Pedro Claver. The views were beautiful but marred by the noise of traffic. Once round the outskirts of the city we decided to get lost within the small cobbled roads in the centre for a few hours. Touristville! Did we mention it’s bliming hot here!
HURRAY! WE LOVE CARTAGENA! At last……
In desperate need of some cooler conditions we headed back to the hotel for a bit of a breather before returning to the stunning old town. When we returned a second time we found our little bit of paradise in the chaotic city: San Diego, a small area in the north east of El Centro where we found the most beautifully coloured facades and of course the area with the least amount of traffic.
We found the perfect spot for people watching. Watching the locals do their day to day business and tourists lost and suffering in the heat. Comedy value! I’m sure other people have watched the two of us in the same situation at some point during the day too!
Finally we decided to take the advice of Thomas and return to the ramparts of the cities walls to watch the sunset over the Caribbean sea with a cold beer in hand. The best thing to do was find a spot just next to the famous Cafe del Mar and buy a drink from a local with a cool-box. It’s ten times cheaper than in the cafe, the view is the same and you feel you’ve helped a local in his business venture! The ambiance was great, a beautiful sunset and the view of the city in the other direction when the street and monuments now lit up was gorgeous.
Once night fell we continued our walk through Cartagena and enjoyed a different perspective of it all lit up. The vibe of the city changed. It almost came alive with live music, markets popping up everywhere, street performers and food vendors on every street corner, all of this with cooler temperatures made for an interesting walk back to the hotel.
We decided to leave it at that for Cartagena and the next morning headed for once to some beaches along the Caribbean coast. We headed in the direction of Palomino.
Colombia is just so big!
A lot of travellers might think it’s a bit bizarre we didn’t stop in Santa Marta, or even the famous National Park of Tayrona, we wish we had, especially the later two but it was a choice of time and priorities of what we wanted to see in the few weeks remaining. Instead we skipped it all and headed directly to Palomino in order to spend more time in other places. We hadn’t heard the best things about Santa Marta or Tayrona so we felt we’d made a good sacrifice.
We headed to find the bus for Santa Marta. Bags on our back, humidity sucking the energy out of us we walked from out hotel for kilometres, along main roads, through random residential areas, we asked about 10 unhelpful people before finding Berlinas, the cheapest direct bus service to Santa Marta. We only had to wait 10 minutes before the bus left on its 4 hour journey – comfortable, air conditioned, fast and it even had Wi-Fi.
The only problem we experienced was in Santa Marta because each bus company has their own individual bus terminals in the middle of nowhere, far from any connecting buses. Nothing is easy on the Caribbean coast! Again we had to walk another 30 minutes, bags on our back until we arrived behind a random market place and found our bus. Lucky for us it was just leaving and was the last bus of the day for Palomino!
The journey this time was interesting, not a straight boring road. It felt like we were in a jungle at times, particularly when passing through Tayrona. But after 10 hours of travelling, on foot and bus, we were dropped at the side of the road in pitch darkness. As usual we refused to pay for a moto taxi to take us just 800m for the same price as the last 5 hours in the bus. This didn’t seem to impress the teenage boys wanting to make a bit of money, instead we walked on foot to explore the village and find a place to stay.
Back to the fun basics – Simple living
Walking the small paths in Palomino would be difficult at night no matter what the weather. Once it rains it becomes an ice rink of mud. We walked all the way to the sea before finding the ‘main’ mud road of the village and attempted to find the hostel recommended on a blog. It was so dark and so slippery, the road felt never ending It was still hot and humid and I was getting a little ratty. Just before giving up and finding somewhere else we stumbled, literally, on the Iguana hostel. Not what we expected from a recommendation and probably the worst hostel we’d stayed in in Colombia.
Gecko poo everywhere, mosquitoes, spiders and holes in the roof, the price reflected this and it was one of the cheapest rooms in the village. It was a roof over our heads, even if it did have holes in, and we were pleased to just put our bags down.
The owner however, was very friendly, the hostel was in a quiet area and he helped us organise a morning tubing down the river for 2 hours for the next day! Our friends had done the same activity and couldn’t recommend it highly enough. All organised we popped back to the main road 30m from the hostel where we found a lovely local woman cooking on a BBQ in front of someone’s house. The food was so delicious we were excited at what she could produce for breakfast the next day!
One of the main roads in Palomino
Super motivated, we got up early the next day, ate a yummy breakfast at the same place as the night before and were raring to go for our lazy river at 10am. Most things in Palomino are ideally organised in the morning. Any time after 2pm = rain like you’ve never seen before.
Two young guys picked us up from the Iguana and took us on their scooters to the top of the jungle. Armed with our go pro and big rubber rings we tried to capture the moment. It’s not as easy to manouever with an enormous tyre on one arm, holding onto the scooter with the other trying not to fall off, whilst driving up steep dirt tracks and over continuous pot holes. 20 minutes later we arrived in the middle of nowhere, no river insight. He explained in Spanish how to get to the river by foot because they couldn’t go any further.
Follow the track, then go up, down, up, down, right, then left, then left then right and you’ll arrive at the river!!!! Mmmmm crystal clear!
Within 10 minutes we passed an organised group of fellow tubers before seeing no one except the local indigenous people all dressed in white with long black hair. The walk was longer than expected, 40 minutes in very humid conditions. It felt much longer! Finally we arrived at a small opening to the river, no one in sight. Just us and the river. The current of the river really was like the lazy river rides at water parks, slow steady and constant. We just sat and watched as we floated along for 2 hours. No noise except for the local birds enjoying their lives in the jungle and on the river shores.
Sea Snake ALERT!
Personally I am always a little scared of any sort of river due to the chances of coming face to face with my phobia of eels. The water was so clean and shallow that I felt relatively at easy. After 1h my relaxed, calm attitude turned a full 360 when about 40m away from us we saw the biggest sea snake ever (about 1.5m!!!!!) skimming the top of the water going from one side of the river to the other! Bliming disgusting and one of the most horrendous things I’ve ever come close to seeing. (Still not as bad as the experience in Moorea, French Polynesia!) Trying to think happy thought we were met with more noises of monkeys in the trees, indigenous villages along the way. It truly was incredible and we were like little kids but without the screaming. We appreciated ever second (except for that sea snake!) and we’d recommend the activity to everyone. 2 hours later we came out at the open sea and stopped at the beach.
The only problem with an activity like this is you can easily forget how powerful the sun is on the Caribbean coast when you’re sitting in cold freshwater. Even with sun-cream the UV penetrates straight though resulting in the second worst sun burn of my life and the only sunburn I experienced the whole year!!! I probably took on enough vitamin D for a lifetime. Never again! Wear a t-shirt at all times when tubing in Palomino! I didn’t have a comfortable nights sleep for 4/5 days after, and managed to use us a whole bottle of moisturiser in just a week!
Mission accomplished our first tubing session went down a treat. We left our rubber rings on the beach as instructed and took time to appreciated the stunning view. We turned around to look inland. With our feet in the Caribbean sea we had a view of the snow cap mountains of the incredible Sierra Nevada of Santa Marta surrounded by palm trees and jungle with gorgeous birds feeding along the river’s banks and no one but us. It felt like we were on deserted island! Where was everyone. Why are they missing out on this view! Another really beautiful moment whilst travelling Colombia.
For the rest of our final day we returned to our casa via the beach. It takes about 20-30 minutes to walk back to the village from the mouth of the river. After eating a yummy well needed lunch we went to check out the beach and admire the afternoon’s tropical storms. It was definitely a storm and a half. The lightning hitting the sea in the distance did not deter the locals from enjoying swimming with the tubing rings in the flat waters of the Caribbean sea. We stayed sheltered with a cold beer in hand under a metal roofed. hut, maybe not the safest place to be! Brilliant day!