Colombia overall was great. I started my trip in Cartagena, one of the most unique and beautiful cities I have been to. Every corner turned inspires a new picture opportunity. It reminded me of walking through the Plaka in Athens in a way, not based on the architecture, but based on the feeling you get walking through the city. It is as though you’ve stepped into another time and the city just feels too good to be true…almost surreal, as though it has been manufactured by some hollywood studio.
My first day in the city, I spent the morning wandering around the city just taking everything in. As I said, the city is beautiful and very colorful so I took a ton a pictures as I walked. I stopped off at the Juan Valdez cafe (which is somewhat like a Colombian version of Starbucks) and the coffee was excellent. From what I have read, it is hard to find good coffee in Colombia as most of the good coffee is exported. The same is true of Brazil as I often ordered a latte or a cappuccino and found myself drinking a sh*tty Nescafe impostor. Gross!
That afternoon, I met Germán, an Argentine staying in my hostel, and joined him and some fellow Argentines for lunch at a local restaurant. After lunch, Germán and I took a tourist bus to the Mud Volcano (Volcan de Lodo el Totumo) about an hour outside of Cartagena. The experience was certainly a unique one. The volcano is 15 meters high and legend has is that a priest poured holy water on the volcano to extinguish the flames and the devil within. The flames turned to mud and created a creamy, warm mud-filled volcano. Supposedly the mud has medicinal properties, but who knows. Regardless, I would recommend a visit to the volcano to anyone who goes to Colombia.
We climbed a shaky wooden staircase up to the top of the volcano and one by one climbed into the mud. There were about 4 or 5 locals already positioned in the mud. All of us were laughing hysterically as the locals helped us into the volcano and then proceeded to give us mud massages. Another two locals stood above the volcano and took turns with our cameras capturing the hilarity of it all.
The mud is oddly warm and is so dense that all you can do is float on top of it. Its even difficult to get your feet fully down into it as if you were standing as all your body wants to do is stay afloat. The locals said that even when it rains, the water will not mix with the mud and just stays sitting on top of it. Just being upright in the mud is an odd sensation. Unlike water, I could feel the mud from my chest to my waste, but then after that, it was as if my lower half was surrounded by nothingness or air.
One by one, the locals give you back, leg and arm massages and when your time is up, they slide you out of the way, on top of the mud, as if you were oiled up on a slip and slide.
We spent 30-45 minutes with about 15 other tourists, playing in the mud, covering each other, trying to push each other down. It was something I will likely never experience again in this lifetime and for that I am so glad that I did it.
After the mud, you take a 5 minute walk to the lagoon and rinse off. However, there are about 10 local women there to help you clean off all of the mud and take off your swimsuit to rinse out. I think I said “no gracias” about 20 times. The women were relentless. Each service is 3000 pesos, which is less than 2 dollars. However, it wasn’t the money, I just wasn’t interested in having someone bathe me. One guy we were with said, “I felt like a child.”
We headed back to Cartagena and ended up going to an amazing dinner with Ryan, an American staying at our hostel as well. (There are a ton of Americans traveling in Colombia, the only other country I have met as many Americans is in Costa Rica.) I had a really good steak and plenty of cervezas micheladas (with lime juice and salt on the edge of the glass). They are excellent.
We continued the night in the main square drinking beers and cuba libres under the stars amongst a few hundred Colombians, then finished the night dancing to latin musica at Tu Candela, a bar filled with locals, salsa dancers and a handful of prostitutes as well.
The next day, my amigos left so I wandered the city again, took a horse drawn carriage through the town, and ate dinner at Cafe del Mar, a restaurant and bar that sits atop the city wall overlooking the ocean. The entire city is surrounded by a huge concrete wall with lookout towers and canons above and small archway openings for cars (few and far between) below. Because of its location, it was a viable port at one point was frequently invaded, so the wall saved the city from multiple invasions.
Friday, I took a 4 hour mini bus ride to Taganga, a small fishing village outside of Santa Marta and Parque Tayrona. Taganga was quite a bit different from the nearby Cartagena. The town was extremely small and mostly had pousadas and hostels. There was one ATM machine, recently added, attached to the police station and only a couple of the streets were paved. The rest we’re made of dirt, rocks, forgotten pieces of concrete and who knows what. Dogs and chickens roamed free in Taganga and beers at the smaller bars and markets, which also have outdoor seating for eating and drinking, cost 1500 pesos, a little more than $0.75. I stayed at a quiet little hostel with a small pool and a rooftop bar with an ocean view, and a great little breakfast (included) for about $30 a night (Dorms cost less than $10).
My first afternoon there, I took a small boat to a neighboring beach, Playa Grande, and laid in the sun for a few hours. I met Travis, from Seattle, as well as an Austrian guy and an Australian guy. We later grabbed some beers at one of the smaller shops and had a huge steak dinner and beers for about $12. Post dinner, we drank on the beach and went dancing at Sensations, the one club in town.
The next day, I was off to Parque Tayrona, which I completely underestimated. This National Park is huge and not particularly easy to get to. Many backpackers hike in with their packs and camp or stay in hammocks for next to nothing, but after my day trip, I was glad I didn’t. What a miserable trek in that would have been with a suitcase.
The most common way of getting there is taking a bus to the entrance (about an hour from Taganga), then a mini bus in to the parking lot (10 mins), then an hour long hike to the next beach and another hour long hike along multiple beaches and trails until you get to San Juan del Cabo, the most picturesque beach in the park. If you’re doing a day trip, then you also would have to do the reverse to get out. Not wanting to spend my entire day hiking, I opted to take a boat directly from Taganga to San Juan del Cabo and quickly realized why there wasn’t more than one boating option to the main beaches in the park. I thought I was going to have a nice leisurely boat ride to Cabo. Instead it was a 90 minute ride of sheer terror, bouncing through the sea with swells of 5-6 feet high in some cases. Never have I been so terrified to be in a boat and when we were finally on the shore my forearms and hands were completely numb from gripping the sides so tight. I was amazed at the torrid landscape from my position on the water though….Huge mountains and cliffs covered with greenery jutting out into the ocean (like something out of Lost). Waves crashing along the sides. Rough seas everywhere around.
Once on land, I could see why so many people visited the park. San Juan del Cabo is definitely picturesque, with white sand, turquoise waters, and beautiful rocks lining the cape. It also had a hut built on one of the points where a lot of backpackers sleep in hammocks.
I spent my last day in the Caribbean soaking up some sun and reading my book and then took the long hike out of the park. There were several beaches along the way and a crude trail over streams, around giant boulders and muddy paths.
Later, I met up with Travis again and some of his friends from Oregon (again, muchos Americanos). We drank mojitos and ate the best pizza I had all trip.
I took a flight out the next morning and my final day in Colombia was spent wandering around Bogota. The city itself is fairly ugly with a lot of graffiti in many parts and square uninviting buildings, but La Candelaria, or Centro, is the historical part of the city and has quite a lot of charm. Although a lot of the exterior of buildings are somewhat eroded, you can still see the strong European influence. The main square, Plaza de Bolivar, has some striking resemblances to St Mark’s Square in Venice, pigeons and all.
I have heard a lot of bad things about Bogota, so I have to say, my time there wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped. As a blonde American in Colombia, everyone stares at you. A lot even try to speak to you or whistle, etc. However, looking at someone’s piercing eyes asking “why the F are you here?” is not the most pleasant experience. I spent most of the day trying to keep my wits about me, avoiding deserted streets, walking where I could see police officers with large automatic rifles (even the police officers say things to you) and making sure I wasn’t too obvious with my camera or money.
At one point, I went to hail a cab and a crusty man, who looked homeless, saw me coming about 100 feet away and started frantically flailing his arms and hailing a cab for me. Cabs almost out number cars in this city, so its not difficult to get one. However, the sight of a gringo means money and he wanted me to give him change for his services.
I saw an unbelievable amount of poverty in Colombia, some wealth too, but even more seriously poor areas…more so than I have seen in a long time. One night, in Taganga at dinner, there were several dogs sitting at our side while we tried to enjoy our meal. One really melted my heart. I didn’t want to encourage them to beg, so after the meal, I went next door to the store, bought a bag of dog food and emptied its contents in a long row on the other side of the street. Several dogs, including my friend, fought to gain territory over the food. Instantly, a man came up to me and in Spanish said, “the kids are hungry too”, then walked off, presumably offended by my act.
The few places I saw in Colombia were varied and often beautiful and the country is safer than it has been in years. Sure, you still have to be smart, as you would in any foreign or major city, but overall I met plenty of backpackers, and especially Americans, living it up in Colombia. Hopefully tourism will continue to bring money into the country, but not affect its overall beauty and sense of being, a place still real and unchanged by Westerners.
And so it’s here my journey ends…or at least this one.