Saturday, February 09, 2013

Cartagena with a View

Our lottery plane ticket with Viva Colombia worked just fine and we are now settled up on Colombia's hot, sunny, Caribbean coast! Our plane arrived without incident in Cartagena only about 45min late. After getting a price chit from the taxi booth lady we hopped in a taxi who delivered us right to our hotel's front door- for the price on the ticket! It was all much, much easier and hassel free than we expected. Its kinda been a theme in Colombia. The flight was about an hour- and saved us more than 20 hours on buses!

We were hungry so we dropped our bags in our room, cranked the air-con to high in preparation for our return and headed out into the night. Our hotel was right smack in the middle of the main backpacker street just outside the Cartagena's old city walls. The street was packed with jovial backpackers, spilling out of open air bars, munching on empanadas, and cheering... It was Super Bowl Sunday and we found ourselves in the midst of a party. We were reminded yet again that Colombia is not an undiscovered gem of a country-  there are A LOT of backpackers here. The party hostel bar had a big screen TV set up looking onto the street and when the game got boring- the volume was turned down and the salsa music was cranked transforming the street from tailgate party to a salsa club!

Fresh fish on the Playa Blanca
We made it exactly all the way across the street before we found this adorable little pizza place with a friendly, young English speaking owner. It was cheap- and very conveniently located for watching 'the show'- and I don't mean the football game- And they served pizza! What else could we want? The snack shop, which the owner says she just opened, was about 5ft wide and 15ft long. There was a tiny case with a single piece of pizza left and a small counter running the length of the shop with stools for sitting and eating. Someone sitting at the counter took up the whole width of the shop! The menu was written in coloured chalk on blackboards on the door- hamburgers, pizza and hotdogs- exactly what all those football fans would be craving.  She had a stack of small, red plastic stools in the corner. Jonathan and I each got a stool and sat them outside the shop on the sidewalk waiting for a new pizza to be cooked up.  It was the perfect place to sit and people watch. The street is a bit worn down, unlike the meticulously cared for buildings within the walls- but the old colourful buildings with peeling paint and warn shutters interspersed with the trendy hostels makes for quite the atmosphere- especially lit by the faded street lights. We walked a block south and came upon a busy square with a huge courtyard in front of a sunset yellow church. Street food carts lined the walls and locals and backpackers chowed down on snacks to a three piece drum band. The lights were low making the colourful orange, yellow and pink buildings so intense we couldn't help but linger. It was one of those moments where things are so beautiful and so different that we can't believe that we are actually here! We had been in Cartagena less than an hour and were already enamored by the 'Pearl of the Caribbean's' intoxicating charms. And we hadn't even seen the main event yet!

The next morning we headed inside the old town's stone walls and and through the time portal into another world. We were greeted by a maze of narrow streets, colourful buildings, horse-drawn carts, ornate balconies overflowig with flowers, hidden courtyards, stately government buildings, leafy plazas, fruit sellers with tropical fruit so bright it belongs on the Chiquita Banana hat and the sweet smell of  fresh bakery goodness wafting about teasingly. It was a photographers dream. Every street, every corner, every house was fascinating. It was like a 'choose your own adventure' book- with a new exciting chapter at every turn. You want to wander down every street at once but you have to choose knowing, in this maze, you may never find yourself back on this particular corner again. It's a wonderful way to spend a day!

Our next day was our "all inclusive vacation in a day." We headed out into the Caribbean on a long narrow boat with twin 200hp engines for snorkeling, lunching and swimming at the classically named 'Playa Blanca'. Even though probably every area of every island/ country in the Caribbean has a local 'Playa Blanca'- I still can't help but get caught up in the allure of the name 'The White Beach.' Sigh. Sign me up- again. It gets me every time. White beaches, rainforests, jungles... all words that my imagination has spun into magical, story-book destinations that never quite lose their exotic allure (in my head) no matter how many times I visit them. Sun, sand, salt water, swimming-its J's idea of torture- and my idea of a fantastic time. We compromise and do exactly what I want- we follow the fanny packs onto the boat, don our life jackets and speed off into the waves. Because he can't actually hate the beach and sand and sun- that much- deep down- can he? (J: I do.) Out of the harbour we stop at some mangroves just off a little oceanside village. Kids paddle up to us in dug out canoes. These canoes are so old and worn that the last I've seen anything like it was at the French River museum! These are the canoes used at the turn of the century by explorers and aboriginals. The wood is so old it no longer keeps out the water. Each canoe has 3 people- two paddling kids whose paddles look like spoons more than paddles- and a baler who is constantly removing buckets of water from the dug-out tree trunk!

We stop for snorkeling - which costs a lot extra considering all they do is stop the boat somewhere they were going to pass anyways and hand out dirty, sandy, literally chewed to bits snorkeling equipment and toss us overboard for no more than 20 min. Although I supose its a better deal for the Colombian tourists who REALLY can't swim and who get dragged around the reef by a guide clinging for dear life (literally) to a big orange life ring. I really want to feel bitter and ripped off- but I can't. The reef is pretty destroyed but the colourful glorious variety and abundance of fish steal the show and I climb back onto the boat-last- grinning ear to ear. We boat over to the Rosario Islands which are apparently a bunch of islands shaped like a rosary- from the sky anyways. There's an aquarium- which also costs extra- and we skip it. Afterwards we jet over to Playa Blanca for a fish fry lunch which is absolutely delicious. So so so delicious. I buy some sticky, chewy, carmel-y coconut treats and J and I spend the last hour of our 'all inclusive vacation' strolling the length of the beach wondering how so many women find it enjoyable to walk around all day with wedgies- or g-string bathing suits as the day long wedgies are more commonly referred to.

The ride back to the port is bumpy as the late afternoon waves have blown in. Our spray is already higher than the boat itself and as we are tossed up and down in the swells some unlucky people get a face full of sea water as a souvenir. I think its super fun- like a sea-doo/jet boat combo. The local tourists are pretty freaked out and scream every time we catch air from a wave. Life jackets are tightened and white knuckles grip the seats. You can tell they are pretty impressed that they survived when we power into the calm, protected waters of the harbour and our Captain gets a round of applause.

Where we stayed: Hotel Casa Baluarte- 92,000 COP for a room with air-con and an en-suite. Friendly staff but no English.

We used neighboring Hostel Mamallena as our auxiliary hostel because they were super backpacker friendly and had tons of info and helpful staff who spoke English.


Parentals said...

your 'all inclusive boat/ snorkel trip" sounds very much like our experience in Belize.... and Dad just as impressed as Jon. LOL
can't wait to see pictures!

John said...

Beautiful simply Beautiful!...