Cartagena and the Caribbean coast

By John H

After spending one week in Colombia I am starting to get a feel for the county. A few things that are different to my expectations are:

• It’s a bigger country than I thought with a land mass the size of Portugal, Spain & France combined and a population of 44 million (Bogota is 14 million)
• The weather is not all tropical, the rain in Bogota would match an Irish winters day
• Not many people speak English, Spanish is the only language unless you work in a hostel or have lived abroad, nevertheless
• The people are extremely friendly and helpful and will try their best to give you a hand signal to communicate what they are trying to tell you!

Being such a big county we managed to forgo the 20 hour bus journey to Cartagena and got a flight with VivaColombia, the Ryanair of the region, for €50 for two which was only slightly more expensive than a bus ticket.

Cartagena is located on the northern coast of the country, near Panama and has a Caribbean climate year round. It played an important role as Spain’s main colonial port in South America. It has a real ethnic mix of Spanish, indigenous Colombians and Africans. When we got off the plane the humidity hit us straight away. After a week in Bogota’s rain we were delighted for a bit of hot weather! The city has a fantastic colonial feel. The old town is a former fortress complete with canons along the top of the walls and must have been very intimidating for would-be invaders.

As we arrived late to the hostel, there was no one official to show us to our room except the night porter. He asked us had we booked an air-con or fan room – we said we didn’t know (we had booked a fan) so he showed us to one with both and we stayed there for the length of our stay. We definitely needed both and after a day of the heat we would have paid extra for air-con but it was great to get a deal!!!

Old Town
We stayed in Cartagena for 4 days which was a good amount of time to experience the city but you could easy spend a week here and still have not seen it all. The cobbled streets of the Old Town are lined with high end clothes shops, restaurants and craft markets. Horse drawn carriages fly past every few minutes bringing tourists to the main museums and churches. Pope John Paul II must of visited at some stage because they have a life sized bronze statue of him in one of the squares – a bit eery if you stumble upon it at night after a few drinks! The turrets and walls of the fortress have some restaurants and bars on them and it’s very nice to sit there with the cool sea evening air. From here you can see all the way down the coast. To the left towards Panama and to the right to the Caribbean coast of Colombia. The Old Town can be a bit quiet and all the action seems to happen outside the walls in the Getsemani district and Plaza de la Trinidad!

Getsemani and Plaza de la Trinidad
We stayed in the Getsemani district which is the centre for all the backpacker hostels and a short walk to the old town. It is a warren of old cobbled streets with bars, food vendors, locals and backpackers popping out of every doorway. There is always music on in the background, a mix of salsa and electronic dance music. No mater what time of the day, you can usually see small gatherings of people having a beer and cooling down in the shade.

The centre of Getsemani is Plaza de la Trinidad. This square is situated in front of a church with a big open area with benches surrounding it. We stumbled across it on a Monday night and the party was in full swing. There were locals and backpackers drinking large bottle of beer bought from the corner shop for about €1, street vendors selling tasty burgers and local children practicing their dancing. It was a hive of activity. We learned that it was Colombian Independence day the following Monday and the dancers were practicing for the parade. The Colombians love a parade and a reason to party. This is the second one we’ve seen in two weeks and we also found out that even though Independence Day is the following Monday, the celebrations start on Wednesday with a beauty pageant and street party. It was great to hang out in the square and mix with locals and backpackers. We spent time there every night we were in Cartagenia.

To add to the Independence Day celebrations, the Colombian football team were playing a World Cup qualifier on Tuesday. The Colombians are crazy for football and you know there is a match on because nearly everyone is wearing a yellow jersey. It is the uniform for everyone from office workers to fruit sellers on match day! On the evening of the match against Chile the streets were full of people. TV screens were on everywhere and big screens were put up in squares and seats positioned for the best view possible. When someone walked in front of the screen the shouts and abuse were biting even if I couldn’t understand the language! Chile went 1 up in the first half and you could hear a pin drop, everyone was devastated. But Colombia got 1 back in the second half and the crowd went wild. It finished 1-1 which seemed fair to all!

Volcán El Totumo
On the Wednesday we went to one of the attractions just outside Cartagena, El Totumo Mud Volcano. It’s a 50ft high mound hollowed out in the middle and is filled with allegedly healing mud. It was a lot of fun if not a bit embarrassing. The idea is you strip down to your swimming shorts and climb the rickety steps and get into the massive mud bath. It’s a very strange sensation as you float in the mud and cover yourself in it while the attendants look on. We had researched it a bit online beforehand so knew the deal. You give your bag to one guy, your phone to another to take picture, and tip them both at the end.

After floating for about 20 minutes, you are told to get out and marched down to the lake to be washed vigorously by one of the local aul ones. She even makes you take off your shorts for a good wash of them too!! After all is finish, everyone including the women line up for the tips about cop$3,000 which is about €1 so not too bad for a bit of fun! We even got a motorcycle trip back to the bus – myself, Alex and the driver on one bike and no helmets, health and safety be damned.

Santa Marta
After a great few days in Cartagena, we moved further up the coast to the seaside town of Santa Marta. Getting the bus out of Cartagena was a bit of an episode. The local bus to the terminal was busy and the driver wasn’t happy that we had such big bags. We practically had to jump off the moving bus at the terminal while he shouted something in Spanish at us about gringos and dineros (money). Maybe he wanted to charge us more for bags but this time our lack of Spanish helped us!

Santa Marta is further along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela. It is a seaside town where a lot of Colombians come for their holidays. The busy season starts from the school holidays at Christmas so we got there a bit before the crowds. Nevertheless, at night the town is buzzing with loads of pubs and clubs and outdoor drinking. The beaches of Santa Marta and nearby Tanganga are beautiful and great for taking a dip in the sea. The area is also known for its scuba diving which I tried to arrange on the Saturday but you’re not ment to scuba and fly within 24 hours of each other and since we had a flight on the Sunday night it was a no go – better planning needed next time!

Santa Marta has a bit of a issue with their electricity supply with the power for 10 blocks going off for more that an hour on Friday and Saturday nights. The staff at the hostel said that the power goes every week because of the extra energy used when the clubs open! Not good for business!Watch Full Movie Streaming Online and Download

After a week in the sun we headed to Santa Marta Airport which was tiny with only 4 airplane bays but had the advantage of being beside the beach. You can hear the waves as you wait to board.

Next stop

Our next stop was Medellín, a city in the South West of Colombia. The flight was a bit delayed but eventually took off at 11 pm for a 1 hour flight. When we landed, We shared a taxi (called a collectivo) with two backpacking girls, one from Australia and one from Switzerland, who were going to the same area of Medellín as us – El Poblado.


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One thought on “Cartagena and the Caribbean coast

    Thecla November 29, 2015 at 10:18 am Reply

    John, great reading the blog. You really bring the place alive! Colombia seems so diverse and so alive – pulsating with energy!

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