We finally arrived in a country that was once pretty much off limits, now transformed into a very up and coming place to visit with many world class attractions. Our arrival at the Romancing the Stone city of Cartagena was eagerly awaited, mostly due to the fact that we had spent the last five days at sea and needed to establish ourselves on terra firma once again. Cartagena was definitely the place we were most looking forward to visiting, even though we now have our sights set on far more cultural and naturally scenic locations.
With our arrival after dark we still had nowhere to stay, prompting a quick look at the budget accommodation in our Lonely Planet travel guide – the place we chose for two nights in the backpacker price-friendly location of Getsemani was fine, until we found out the deal two of our German sailing friends had made opposite to our place. At Casa San Roque, the room was better, the breakfast was adequate, all-day coffee was gratis and the price was almost half, just what we like!
Cartagena was first discovered in 1533 by the Spanish, and also attracted the attentions of the French and English who attempted to plunder the city on numerous occasions – the Spanish were having none of it and poured millions into the building of walls and forts, including Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, located on a hillside minutes from Getsemani.
We were located a few minutes walk from the historical walled city, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984, and a substantially pricier part of the city, full of boutique hotels and high end restaurants. This was where the street performers put on their shows, everything from exotic fruits to cocaine was for sale, with the latter slightly more discreet, and the houses were some of the most colonial we had seen. Similar to Granada in Nicaragua, the streets were full of horse drawn carts with owners offering overpriced guided tours, something which we managed to turn down on this occasion.
Fortunately for me most of the people we had sailed from Panama with were hanging around the city, and one sunny afternoon whilst Andrea was hard at work we took a trip from Cartagena to a healing mud volcano an hours drive away, known as El Totumo. According to local legend, a priest sprinkled holy water onto the once lava-spewing volcano and turned it into the relaxing mud bath that exists today! On top of the tour cost we were pretty much voluntarily forced into some added extras, including leaving our camera with one of the local guys on the edge of the crater for personalized photos, taking a five minute massage from another guy whilst inside the volcano, and finally receiving a full, and I mean full, body wash from local women in a nearby watering hole. Entrepreneurs in the making for sure. This was a total tourist trap, but also turned out to be a lot of fun.
Cartagena, within the walled city was very cruise ship touristy and around Getsemani very backpacker touristy. Both Andrea and I feel the need to move on fairly rapidly when we’re in the vicinity of too many other gringos so after four nights we had had our fill and decided it was time to head up the coast for a few days to the reputedly dodgy beach town of Taganga.
Once upon a time a small and friendly fishing village and now a favorite haunt of backpackers and cheap dive qualifications. Its reputation since tourists moved in and hostel after hostel opened their doors has gone downhill, with robberies in the hills leading to the hostels and surrounding beaches supposedly very common. We didn’t let this bother us, nor did we have any need to venture into the hills, although we did end up leaving after only four of our planned seven day stay.
Our main reason to visit Taganga was to dive, and with over half a dozen companies to chose from we would have been spoilt for choice. We stayed in Tayrona dive centers accommodation, planned out all the diving, then never actually ventured underwater, mainly due to the cost and wanting to save funds to dive in the Galapagos Islands later in our trip. We did get to swim daily in the calm, although somewhat murky, waters of the bay so that was enjoyable.
Other than lounging on the beach the only other thing we did was to take a forty minute boat ride to Playa Cristal within one of Colombia’s top tourist attractions, Tayrona National Park. The park is all about deserted tropical beaches, which incidentally we have seen many of during our travels – we both agreed that after travelling for an extended period of time it takes more to ‘wow’ us! After an extremely choppy boat ride (around November the winds arrive making the seas very rough on the Caribbean coastline) we arrived to face hundreds of other people taking a similar day trip, and even using some imagination to picture the beach deserted it probably would not make it to the top of our list. Even the snorkeling was only mediocre, making us think that maybe we should have traveled into the park by vehicle and headed to one of the more off the beaten track areas. At least the fresh fish lunch was cheap and tasty! The park entrance fee for foreigners was around $18, whether you stay for one or five days, making day trips a little pricey.
Seven days in Taganga was reduced to four and we had already scoped out Minca in the hills of Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, where we would hopefully enjoy cooler temperatures and less people for the remaining three nights.
December 9th – December 17th 2013