Have you ever fallen in love while on holiday? Yep, of course you have. Everyone has, myself included. Whether it’s with a person, a place or an idea, when you’re away from home it’s easy to get caught up in the moment, swept away with the tide into a sea of emotion.
Last year I fell in love with Cartagena, the colonial city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia.
Colombia has the best beaches I’ve ever been to (so far). I mentioned in a previous post about my love of Taganga beach, in the small, sleepy town of Santa Marta. It was at Taganga that I met another solo traveller, Eddy. He became my travel companion, meeting up again when we were both in Cartagena, and then again when we were each back in the UK (we went on quick trip to Istanbul in October, too).
Having someone to share my experience of Cartagena with definitely made it more enjoyable. But with all the fun we were having, it also made the time pass quickly, and it was soon time to leave. My six days there flew by in a blur of Mojitos, salsa and ceviche. Here are just a few of the things I got up to while exploring this beautiful city…
Jetskiing around Bocagrande.
The beach at Bocagrande is massive, and a little touristy. But if you walk the entire coastline, until you think you’re at the very end, then climb over a load of rocks, around the corner is a much quieter section of beach. There’s no hassle, no massages, no fruit juice and no knock-off sunglasses here. It’s bliss.
There are a few guys touting jetskis though. And, as I’d never been on a jetski before, I thought it a prime opportunity to tick another thing off my bucket list. These guys are desperate for business, so if you fancy a ride, play hard to get and drive a bargain if you can. I speak a little Spanish (enough to get by, anyway), so after a lot of “no gracias”, I negotiated a deal for 30 minutes on the jetski.
We jumped on, fastened our life jackets and revved the engine. Clinging on for dear life, we sped around the edge of the bay, and right around to another beach. It was great to see the shoreline from another perspective. It was great to have the wind in my hair and the spray from the sea cooling me down. I loved it.
After touring the bay (and circumnavigating a huge, rusty old oil tanker, which we joked resembled an abandoned ghost ship from a trashy 90s horror movie), we headed back. It was late and the sun was beginning to set. We sat on the roof terrace of El Muelle bar, sipping Mojito after Mojito, chatting until it got dark and chilly.
The sunset was spectacular, check out this video I made. Be warned though, it may make you instantly want to get up and salsa.
A visit to El Tutomo mud bath.
Before jetting off to Bogota in August, a friend back home said my stay in Cartagena wouldn’t be complete without a trip to El Tutomo. Intrigued by her description of this strange mud bath-esque attraction, I organised a trip with local tour company Cartagena Connections.
Just a short drive to the north of Cartagena, Volcán de Lodo El Totumo is a 50ft high mud bath renowned for its therapeutic skin cleansing properties. This isn’t just regular dirt; it’s full of calcium, magnesium and aluminum, to name a few.
Legend has it that the mound was once a real, active volcano that spewed fire. That was until a priest intervened with a vial of holy water, transforming the molten lava into a mineral-rich mud bath. I wasn’t sure how much I believed the story, but I couldn’t wait to get in there and see what it felt like…
So, what did it feel like? It’s hard to describe really, as it’s unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before (I have done a mud bath in Turkey, but this wasn’t even comparable).
The mud is thick, dense and heavy. It’s also hard to navigate in. It was quite warm, but occasionally you’d lose your footing and slip into a cold patch. At first I had an uneasy feeling about not being able to touch the bottom, until someone accidentally did touch my bottom. Cue mega apologies from the girl who was frantically trying to gain some control of her limbs, and giggles from her friends. And then I began to relax, like really relax.
The density of the mud keeps you buoyed. The weightlessness feeling keeps you suspended at the surface, like a bobbing apple. This makes for the most comfortable bed you’ll ever lie in. If you don’t mind being touched, let the local men in the pit give you a massage – it’s so soothing.
If semi-nakedness and close proximity with people you don’t know isn’t your cup of tea, El Tutomo probably isn’t for you. But I guarantee that it’s something unlike anything you’ll ever do again. I’m glad I did it. Oh, and it did make my skin soft.
A tour of the Mangrove swamp.
We also took a tour of the Mangroves, which gave an insight into some of the flora and fauna of the area. It was lovely to be away from the hustle and bustle of the walled city of Cartagena, and I felt like a real-life explorer as we got further and further away from modern civilisation.
Along with two new American friends – DeAnne and Nicole – Eddy and I sat quietly in the long, narrow hand-carved wooden kayak, listening carefully to the local guy who pushed the canoe. Speaking in Spanish, with me trying to translate, we learnt about the termites building mounds in the trees, the little red Mangrove crabs that plopped of the roots into the murky water as we navigated through the thick tunnels, and the White Ibis that stood tall and proud in the calm waters of the lake.
Once moored on the banks of an island, we were led to the Pre-Colombian Cultural Museum. The outdoor “museum” was filled with replicas of artefacts found in various tombs and sites of the Pre-Colombian indigenous groups of the region. It was a little bizarre, with the artefacts housed in a kind of chicken coop structure, but it was interesting to learn about the different groups; their religious beliefs and customs.
It got weirder still though, as we were guided through the Garden of Eroticism by a little boy, whose parents owned the land the “museums” were built on. There were crudely fashioned clay figures, showing people performing various sexual acts – we all had a giggle over these, and at the boy who was telling us what each statue meant, in graphic detail. He was very knowledgeable for a 7-year-old.
Dancing the night away in the Old Town.
If you’re looking for a good party, then head into Cartagena Old Town. It doesn’t matter what day of the week it is, there will be a party happening somewhere – just follow the sound of the “cha cha cha” being pumped out into the night, and enter the bar that looks busiest.
One night Eddy and I got caught in a tropical storm. It came down unexpectedly, hard and fast. We sought shelter under a covered walkway (along with everyone else), and watched as lightening cracked through the inky black sky. The roads quickly became rivers, and it was apparent we weren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
“Let’s get another beer.”
Easily swayed, we entered a claustrophobic bar rammed with wet writhing bodies – some had been caught in the storm like us, others were sweating up their own storm dancing the night away. They were playing my song, Marc Anthony’s Vivir mi vida. I’d heard it in Cali two weeks prior, and it’d become the soundtrack of my trip. That was it, we’d found our hangout for the night. Here’s a little video to show you what I mean.
Beer is cheap, locals are friendly and the air is hot and sweaty. I defy you not to fall in love with Cartagena while dancing a salsa with a crazy toothless guy, who spins you around repeatedly then pours you a giant shot of Aguardiente. ¡Salud!
Cold beer and salty ceviche.
Colombians don’t eat to live, they live to eat. While in Colombia I ate some of the best food of my life: homemade guacamole from avocados picked straight from the farm, greasy empañadas stuffed with beef and spices, and – my favourite – traditional ajiaco soup, brimming with chicken, potatoes and corn.
And don’t even get me started on the fruits – I’ve begrudgingly spent big bucks in UK supermarkets on granadillas, just to get my Colombian fruit fix. Damn you tasty, juicy passionfruit-esque thing.
Never have I tried so many new things in such a short space of time. But one of the standout things for me in Cartagena was the ceviche. Fresh, salty and served simply with a saltine cracker, ceviche was lunch and dinner pretty much every day for me.
I made new Brazilian friends – Thais and Fabiola – while on a trip to Isla Barú. That evening we met up for dinner, and went to the best ceviche house in Cartagena: La Cevichería. Amazing ceviche washed down with cold beer and minty Mojitos, plus great company and conversation, it was one of the tastiest meals I had in Colombia.
Exploring Isla Barú.
Every guide book tells you to take a trip to Islas del Rosario, and everyone you meet on your travels through Colombia asks whether you’ve been to Isla Barú yet. They tell you how amazing it is, they swam with turtles and ate conch and drank Mojitos. The pictures look beautiful; the sand white and the sea turquoise blue. I felt it imperative to go there. So I asked the owner of my hostel to recommend a trip…
Whatever you do, please don’t take the tour I did – I’m not gonna lie, it was pretty crap. Fortunately for me (though perhaps unfortunately for you if you’re thinking of heading to the island and want to avoid this plastic playground), I’ve forgotten the name of the company I went with.
The whole experience was just awful. The only saving grace was meeting Thais and Fabiola, whom I bonded with over over-priced coconuts and how tacky and plastic everything was. The beach was nice, once we got there – though because of boat breakdowns and other calamities, we only had an hour on it. And the sun had gone in.
But I did fall in love with these guys, and would be back on Playa Blanca in a heartbeat if I could…
When I went to Cartgena last year, I fell in love. I fell in love with laid back locals and making new friends. I fell in love with unusual juicy fruits and fresh salty seafood. I fell in love with Club Colombia beer and minty Mojitos. I fell in love with colonial architecture and colourful street art.
There was no crime or corruption, or drugs and dodgy dealings, as so many people had warned me about. For me, Colombia was a love affair that has left me wanting more.
Until next time, “te amo, Cartagena”.