Cartagena is like something from a romantic fairytale. Easily the most beautiful city in Colombia, it would seem that practically everyone that spends time in the city falls in love with it. Every single cute cobbled street commands your attention, and you find yourself stopping to take countless photographs that don’t capture even a fraction of the beauty it exudes. It’s so postcard worthy, but you’d have to visit it yourself to truly understand it’s magic. Horse drawn carts clatter past balconies shrouded in bougainvillea and the grand doorways just below, beautifully built churches take centre stage in one of the many plazas; honestly, wandering around this city is nothing but a pleasure. And the colours! Why don’t we paint our buildings vivid colours in the UK?!
Of course, our first logical port of call after checking into our hostel was Exito supermarket. I bought myself a new black bra to replace one that was stolen in my laundry, along with a pair of Calvin Klein knickers. Weird, right? It’s South America, anything can happen. On the walk home we stumbled upon the sweetest little cafe called La Sandwicheria, just of Plaza Fernandez de Madrid. They do the very enjoyable sandwiches, falafel salads and the most succulent fish I think I’ve ever tasted. Prices are about 15,000- 20,000 COP. But you’re not just paying for the heavenly food…the decor, the atmosphere and the go-above-and-beyond style staff make the place so endearing that you want to return. Which we did, of course. We also enjoyed the 241 cocktails which they twisted to accommodate the 3 of us. Upon our musings in the old town we bumped into Mitch and Henry, which wasn’t the first time since Mancorá and certainly wouldn’t be the last! Just a few hours later we also spotted Sam and Sid whom we’d met 2.5 months earlier in Paraty in Brazil, and by chance briefly in The Stray Dog in Ecuador. If there is one thing travelling teaches you, it’s that the world really is very small after all. Or perhaps that we all just follow the same Gringo trail.
Founded in 1533, Cartagena quickly became the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. Many treasures were buried here, and where’s there’s treasure, there’s pirates. In the 16th century alone, the city suffered 5 separate sieges – the most well known being led by Francis Drake in 1586. By building tall walls around the town and impressive fortresses, the Spaniards made the port practically impregnable. In search of a bit of history the next morning, we headed to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which is the old fortress built in 1536. It is situated just outside of the old town walls, over the water, and takes about 15 minutes to walk there. Entry to the fort costs 17,000 COP for adults or 8000 COP for students; this costs more than suggested by online sources, but that seems to be a running theme in Colombia! However, if you are travelling on a shoestring then entrance is free on the last Sunday of every month except January, Easter and December. Just our luck to go at Easter!
Cartagena is an opulent city, and it’s apparent wealth is near impossible to miss. From beautiful boutiques and fancy high end restaurants to the equally sophisticated people that wander it’s streets, you’ll feel that air of money. Our jaws continuously dropped as we walked past the entrances to hotels with luxurious colonial courtyards and receptions that are more glamorous than Fergie said she was in 2006. You can imagine our green faces and longing hearts after three months living as trampy travellers in hostels! Cartagena has definitely been added to my ‘return here when you’re older and richer list’. Here’s the vision: in 30 years time I return with my super successful and easy-on-the-eye silver fox of a husband. I’m wearing a white linen dress, a wide brimmed floppy hat, bright red lipstick (yes, I totally plan to be that sassy in my 50’s) and oversized sunglasses, with an equally oversized cocktail in hand. Sounds good doesn’t it? A girl can dream!
We met up with Sam and Sid and introduced them to our new favourite lunch spot. Afterwards we left them in a bar to watch the footy, and headed out to do our own version of a free walking tour (minus the tips, winning) from a phone screen shot of a map we found on a advertisement. The old town is really small, and getting around to see everything won’t take long at all; so if you’re happy to read up on the history yourself, then this is a more than viable option for exploring this part of the city. The only thing that made this difficult was the heat; a beautiful breeze rolls in early evening, but otherwise the city is sticky and sweltering. Maybe I’ll have to rethink the red lipstick. Our short tour included numerous squares, churches, markets and finished up at Las Bòvedas. Located at the Northern tip of the old town and not far from the water, Las Bòvedas is a collection of dungeons built in the 18th century that now hold a host of shops selling all the normal tourist souvenirs.
We headed back to the hostel to get ready to meet the boys again, but not long before we left there was a power cut in the hostel. As we wandered across to the boys hostel we realised that this blackout actually spread across the whole district. After some persuasion we were allowed entry to their hostel and joined the boys drinking on the hostel roof terrace, lit with the lights from our iPhones, the moon and the strong nightclub lasers lighting up the sky over the main part of the city. The rum poured, along with a few little extras, which ultimately lead to a cute rooftop Wolfpack speech from Sid. We all went to a rooftop club in town and partied to reggaeton and some bizarre English mixes until the early hours of the morning. Never a dull moment with those two!
Somehow the next morning the three of us got up at 8am to head to Volcán de Lodo el Totumo. Sid, eager to join in, text me at 4.30pm to ask what time we were leaving…About 50km outside of Cartagena is a 15m high mound that looks like a miniature volcano. Story goes it used to spew lava but a local priest declared it was the work of the devil, sprinkled holy water on it and now it’s just a large pit of mud. I call bullshit. In all honesty it is one of the most underwhelming things to look at as you peer out of the bus window, pulling up in the middle of nowhere. Apparently the chemical make up of the mud has miracle healing powers for your skin too, although I’m pretty certain it just made me look more like a prepubescent spotty 13 year old. From what we read getting there was long winded, so knowing we would be hungover we opted for the ease of taking a tour. It cost us 50,000 COP, and included direct transport to the volcano, lunch, and transport to and from the beach. Even if you’re not taking a tour, you will need to dedicate the majority of the day to do this.
This was without a doubt one of the weirdest activities we have done yet, and we spent the majority of the time in fits of giggles for one reason or another. First of all, you climb the steps up the mound and join the queue of people laughing at the those enjoying, or maybe not enjoying their time inside the volcano. Sometimes it was genuinely hard to tell. If you’re brave you hand over your camera to one of the 2 or 3 locals taking photographs for a 4000 COP tip. To be fair to them, they do a pretty good job, and you’ll get a lot of photographs for your money. The gravity free sensation of the mud is impossible to explain, but it quite quickly has you rolling around and flailing like a helpless hippo. Genuinely struggling to move in the thick liquid, local men will push and pass you around by your legs or your belly. Without any notification, a local will start rubbing your body, which I think they call a massage. It’s full body – like literally, full body – and you are glamorously rolled over like a fat marshmallow skewer in a chocolate fondue. This service costs another 4000 COP and is optional, although I would urge you to let them do their thing as its all part of the weird and wonderful experience. After you get moved around by your big toe to make room for the next ‘massage’ client, you get a bit of time to chill out and relax in the muddy pit. By this point you feel like a veteran as the next awkwardly laughing newbie enters the brown pit. When you’re done, you climb the super slippery stairs out, emerging like some creature from the deep that haunts children’s nightmares. For some reason I thought it was a good idea to cover my whole head in mud, so I looked particularly slimy. Whilst the other tip based services were optional, there are no showers in the area so being washed by a local lady is a must. I believe this normally takes place in the local lagoon, but it had dried up when we were there, so we had buckets of water hurled at us from larger barrels of brown salty water. To say I was manhandled here would be something of an understatement. Amy and Andrea looked on and pissed themselves laughing as the local lady pulled my bikini bottoms down, flashing my bits to everyone, violently jiggled and slapped my muddy, wet boobs around and threw buckets of water in my flustered face. This costs another 4000 COP so make sure you take some extra cash to pay for this wonderful washing experience. Luckily we headed to a beach so I could do a better job of getting the mud out of my ears, hair, vagina etc. The brilliant day was all rounded off with a yummy beach side lunch of fish, coconut rice and ‘patacones’ (fried plantain chips). Delicious. If you’re short for time in Cartagena, then I’d probably say skip this little adventure, but otherwise why not get involved and enjoy the bizarre, hilarious and slightly awkward experience!
Our last day in Cartagena happened to be Easter Sunday and although we were 5000 miles from home, we needed our chocolate fix. Chocolate in South America is crap. Period. Ecuador is meant to produce the good stuff, but as its so heavily exported, the high quality chocolate is simply too extortionate to buy when you’re there. The closest we’ve got is a Dairy Milk imposter, and a Milky Way which actually turned out to be a Mars Bar. But, low and behold, we stumbled upon a chocolate museum in Cartagena. A tour is completely free at Choco Museo, and then you finish in the shop where you are welcomed to try absolute everything in the shop. And we did. From liqueur, to truffles, to jam and hot tea, we ate it all. And it was glorious. We were served by a wonderfully sarcastic assistant galled Gustavo who didn’t make us feel bad for sampling some things more than once. Of course the sales tactic worked and we all felt obliged to buy something small. But that was no bad thing!
Our last meal in Cartagena was a really good one, although no surprises there. We headed to a popular restaurant called Crepes & Waffles. Although you wouldn’t guess from the name, the place seemed to be quite sophisticated and we were made to feel a little unwelcome. But if our pizza experience in São Paulo is anything to go by, this wasn’t going to stop us. The menu is incredibly extensive, and I could quite happily have returned here every day for a month. Considering the quality of the food, it was also incredibly reasonably priced; I ended up having a heavenly savoury crepe and a sweet crepe with ice cream for less than 20,000 COP. But, and this is a big but, the service was on another level of terrible. Although they had more staff working than I could count, the service was painfully slow. Perhaps they just didn’t like our smiling English faces, but they were very rude and apparently incapable; I ended up locating pudding menus myself after asking 3 times in 45 minutes. If you can bare hanging about then I would totally recommend stopping here for a bite! Although we had some wonderful coffee’s in Salento, as a general rule it’s still pretty difficult to locate good coffee. If in doubt, you know you can always rely on Juan Valdez Cafes. A chain that you’ll spot everywhere, it’s Colombia’s version of Starbucks, and as well as good coffee they do a cold chai latte which is to die for. Not a bad spot for wifi neither.
As I said, Cartagena’s old town is pretty small so where you choose to stay is fairly irrelevant. We stayed in a hostel on the edge called Pachamama which I grew to despise by the end. Terribly thought out and massively overcrowded, I was left irked and frustrated most of the time. The boys stayed at Media Luna hostel which had everything going for it, so if I was to visit again I would stay there (but not in my 50’s dream, I’ll be in one of those luxurious hotels, obviously).
The bus station isn’t central at all, and can be a good 30 minute drive or double that if the traffic is bad. They cheekily removed the tariff board whilst we were there, so expect them to try and fleece you. They asked for 25,000 COP on the way there which we managed to barter down to 18,000 COP. Uber also operates in the city for a similar price so go for that if you have wifi and want a nice air conditioner car! We grabbed a bus to Santa Marta around 6pm for 30,000 COP, a few road beers in hand for good measure.
Love, Lottie xx