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Steve and Emma's Travel Tales

Our South American Jouney Comes to an End in Cartagena

COLOMBIA | Wednesday, 28 November 2012 | Views [1884]

We lazed around sipping those lovely fresh fruit juices in Pelikan Hostal one last time before heading to Cartagena and our last port of call in Colombia.  We took a taxi to Santa Marta bus terminal for P12 000 where we jumped straight onto a Cartagena bound bus (P18 000) that left immediately.  We expected the journey to be about 4 hours and once we’d gone back past Cienaga junction we were on new roads.  However, we hadn’t factored in being stopped by the police for bags and ID search 3 times!  When the fourth policeman boarded our bus and heard the collective groan, he soon realised that we’d been checked beyond patience levels and quickly disembarked with a smile.

In the end it was 8pm by the time we were checking into Hotel Magdalena in the Getsamani district near Cartagena’s old town. www.hotellamagdalenacartagena.com Steve had found the hotel on booking.com in their smart deal offers – it certainly was at P52 000 and a saving of P15 000.  The hotel is in an old, terrace building so there are no windows but strip windows near the ceiling let in enough light.  We have a spotlessly clean room which is serviced daily, cable TV, wifi and the hotel staff are friendly and helpful.  A good deal, in quite an expensive city; where even a dorm bed in a backpackers hostel is being advertised at P23 000.  With checking in so late we didn’t want to be wandering aimlessly looking for somewhere to eat but the guy behind the counter pointed us towards a nearby street.  As luck would have it the first place we came to was an Indian, Pardesh Restaurant, where we tucked into tasty, spicy, reasonably price curries.  Yum and one of the best meals we’ve had on this continent – boy are we fed up of bland, boring food!

Getsamani is described in the Lonely Planet as a shady area but the section we’re in (only 5mins walk to the old city) is being developed as a backpackers’ area and we haven’t felt unsafe.  Plus staying here is significantly cheaper than booking into places within the old city walls.  Mind you if you want a treat there are some fabulous looking gaffs!  Cartagena is another one of those places that UNESCO has popped a label on and we have to say deservedly so.  With no set plan we first walked atop the old city walls and ramparts before zigzagging our way through the old, narrow cobbled streets from square to square.  Unbelievably this kept us occupied from 9am to 3pm so that in itself shows you how lovely Cartagena is!  We were walking amongst brightly coloured, beautifully preserved and restored buildings with a backdrop of brilliant, bright blue skies. 

I have to admit that we did have a few chores to do so that filled some of our time too; with our priority being tracking down a post office.  Lo and behold we spotted one in the old city but on walking in a waving our postcards around where greeted with shrieks of horror.  Postcards obviously indicated that we wanted to send something to a foreign land and they evidently didn’t have the stamps to cope with that.  Steve shrugged his shoulders as if to say so where on earth could we unload these holiday messages we’ve been carrying around with us for the last 6 weeks.  The lady behind the counter promptly gave us long, detailed directions to a suitable venue so Steve smiled and said; “Si, gracias.”  On turning round to look at me he declared; “Not a chance!”  Another of those priceless Carl Pilkington moments!

Playa Blanca

Do NOT, NOT, NOT take a day trip to this beach using the slow boat – I implore you; DON’T DO IT!!!!!!  Not unless your idea of a good day out is a 10 ½ hour day where you spend a mere 1 ½ hours on the beach.  So what happened to the other 9 hours?  Read on.  The walk from our hotel to the port was only 10mins so that, plus returning to our digs, only amounts to 20mins.  The included lunch was served soup kitchen / refugee camp style and we polished off the barely edible food in about quarter of an hour.  On the way to Playa Blanca we stopped off at Rosario Island which claims to be an eco-area.  In reality there’s a man-made platform that has been installed between the trees slightly below sea-level and an aquarium.  There were about 1000 people disembarking from boats simultaneously into a space clearly not big enough to accommodate everyone.  Plus, if you don’t want to pay extra for visit the aquarium (15,000) there is literally nowhere else to go; so we re-boarded the boat as soon as possible.  We were allocated an hour on this island so that’s under 2 hours catered for so far.

The other 7 hours were taken up with about 5 hours of sailing and 2 hours of simply physically getting all the passengers on and off the boat.  We’d seen pictures of the slow boat and thought it would be horribly big at about 100 passengers but the Bequia Eagle claims to have a capacity of 300.  From what we could see, the fact that ticket sales aren’t regulated and there weren’t enough seats for everyone, I would say there were closer to 400 people aboard.  To get from ship to shore we had to be ferried across on a smaller boat and this vessel needed three trips to get everyone onto Playa Blanca.  Once there it’s very difficult to find some natural shade that you’re not going to be charged to use.  Gazebos, with and without deckchairs, are spread out along the front of the beach with the soup kitchens under the trees at the back.

The boat tickets cost us P35 000 a head and down at the dock we were charged a further P12 000 each.  This latter charge was partly a tourist tax and partly for entering the national park; considering the description above you can imagine I was somewhat aggrieved.  The whole experience wasn’t enhanced by poor weather when we set off; the leaden skies rendered the Caribbean Sea slate grey once we’d left the silty, sandy consommé of the harbour waters.  Our mood wasn’t improved when a video was switched on at the usual mega-decibels with lots of yank style screaming and whooping.  The singing and clapping on the return leg didn’t lift our spirits at the end of a thoroughly horrible, pointless day.

Is there anything positive to say?  Yes – the beach is by far the best we’ve seen in Colombia with smooth, white sands.  There are places to stay at the far end of the beach and away from where all the day-trippers land.  The digs look very basic; an a-frame hut with a mattress on the floor and a piece of cloth for you door but, its all natural materials and right on the beach.  Once the crowds have buggered off back to Cartagena the place must be mercifully peaceful.  You can get there by bus, a ferry hop across the bay and a moto-taxi but even so it has to be quicker and cheaper.  To be honest if its beaches you’re after Colombia isn’t the right country.

For our last full day in Colombia we decided to take in some more of Cartagena’s sites and history starting with Castillo de San Felipe.  An easy 10min stroll brought us to the ticket booth where we parted with P17 000 and began our wander around this impressive fort.  Guides and audio-tours are available but we decided to go solo but it turned out there was very little information on display.  There was a small room outlining events leading up to and about independence but this was all in Spanish – we couldn’t find anything that simply told you about the fort.  However, we spent well over an hour exploring the ramparts and walking around the walls taking in views of the modern and old cities along with the sea-front and marina.  The underground tunnels have been restored and lit up so you can wander around a labyrinth of passageways containing many catacombs.  One narrow tunnel we found led down and round several times until it reached a dead-end; we like to think this would have been a secret, smuggling route.  We found it well worth a visit as this is our kind of museum.

From there we walked along an area of water that would have once been a lovely mangrove forest and it looks like they’re trying to replant it.  To be honest their first priority has to be to remove all the rubbish before they can think about attracting people and wildlife.  That said, there were a few water birds and we could see plenty of tiddlers for them to tuck into.  Amazingly as we walked past the park that divides Getsamani from the old city, and is currently shut for refurbishment, we spied a big, green iguana.  Today saw us exploring more of the area we’re staying in and we found it to be very pleasant.  The streets are even narrower than the UNESCO section of the old city and have an older more lived in feel to them.  Many are in the process of being restored and it wouldn’t surprise us if UNESCO has to stretch the boundaries in the future.


So here we are at the end of our time in Colombia and indeed the end of the road as far as South America is concerned.  On talking to people as we were travelling northwards we increasingly began to look forward to spending time in Colombia, despite having a great time where we were; whether that be Bolivia, Peru or Ecuador.  Fellow travellers waxed lyrical about how much they enjoyed this perceived dangerous country and indeed hoped to re-visit in the future.  I think we hoped to feel that travel would be exciting and off the beaten track but in reality it’s all been very mundane.  We must have missed something as Colombia goes firmly last on our list of favourite countries visited and we’re looking forward to moving on in the morning.  No-one thought to tell us about the high travel and accommodation costs, extortionate trip prices, difficulties finding cash points that work (and when they do they only dispense small amounts), how loud it is everywhere, how bland and dull the food is and the fact that on the whole the people are rude and unfriendly.  Added to which we’ve found it very difficult to make out what anyone is saying to us.  We’re not sure which brand of Spanish they use up here but it bears very little resemblance to the slowly spoken, clearly enunciated language we picked up in Bolivia.

That said; it hasn’t been all doom and gloom!  Salento goes down as one of the prettiest, most relaxed, friendlies and enjoyable places we’ve visited in the last 4 months. Plus, Cartagena is lovely and we’re glad we went to have a peek at the Lost City.  If we hadn’t had our onward travel booked I think we’d have skipped through Colombia in 3 weeks.  And so for the acid test; would we come back?  No is the short answer, but, there are a couple of mountainous national parks that have caught our eye.  One we’d heard was shut and the other is more remote with the infrastructure being almost non-existent.  Should these parks become accessible you never know - The Andes may just lure us back.


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