Welcome to the first of our stops at the Caribbean! Cartagena de Indias, better known by its shortened name of Cartagena, is Colombia’s fifth-largest city with a population close to one million people. It was named after the city of Cartagena in Spain when it was founded in 1533 and is the capital of the Bolivar Department.
Missioning it with the taxi…
Finding our way out of the Cartagena airport we were chased down by taxi drivers and unable to get ourselves together quickly enough for their eagerness to get us into their taxi. After collecting our bags, sorting out where we needed to go, and how much it should cost us, we were on our way to our hostel. At this point it is definitely worth noting how ridiculously hot Cartagena is… we’d barely been in the taxi for five minutes when there was sweat in places that it shouldn’t be!
The hostel we’d booked was only fairly new; when we’d researched about Cartagena there were many recommendations to get a room with air-conditioning. Now, coming from a relatively warm climate in Australia, the two of us weren’t too worried whether we had air-con or not, we’re Aussie right? Thankfully, we accidentally booked a room with cooling; we’d arrived saturated in sweat, with the temperature of the air-conditioning on a blissfully arctic sixteen degrees (the unit couldn’t get it below about 23 though).
All of the sweat
Not quite game to walk for long distances without the first world comfort of the air-con, but needing to get some food and money, we ventured out of the hostel toward the downtown area. The downtown area is filled with heavily Spanish influenced, colonial style houses; it also has a really nice place called ‘Beer Lovers‘… You know where this is going.
We settled in to try a few of the beers, in the shade, and the air-conditioning and organised what we were going to be doing for the week. After downing a couple of coldies and recovering slightly from the outside heat, we headed back toward our hostel to have dinner at a beautiful place called ‘Demente’. We had fried chillies, crab ravioli, beautifully grilled steak and some wine to top it all off. Definitely worth the visit but not so great on the hip pocket!
Checking out the downtown
After having some late breakfast Wednesday morning, and some brown water disguised as coffee, we got chatting to a few people in the hostel and had a few more ideas of things to do around Cartagena. We decided that Wednesday was going to be a little bit of a chill out day, and some time to acclimatise to the 96% humidity that was helping us drown in our own sweat.
We headed out to the walled part of the city, grabbing a few photos along the way, and ventured into the streets where people with menus and tours that we just “had” to go on, chased us down.
After grabbing a few prices for bits and pieces, then finding the washing place (that also sells beers for ridiculous prices) we were very happy to get out of the sun and have lunch.
Many of the guides and information on websites we had read about Cartagena suggested a tiny ceviche place on the corner of a busy road, outside the downtown area. This unassuming place is easy to find, it’s a hut with a huge sombrero plastered on the top of it and piles of plastic chairs placed around in a giant circle out the front. The man in the hut only sells one thing, ceviche in roughly ten different sizes (all in foam cups), the ceviche is made differently to the Peruvian version - the Colombians add in tomato sauce and mayonnaise to boost up the flavour. Our $5 cup was phenomenal, both of us being seafood lovers meant that we were always going to enjoy cheap prawns, however, this place definitely had some of the best ceviche either of us had ever eaten! We can both see why Ostreria Del Mar Rojo has been open for over 60 years.
For the rest of the afternoon we retired ourselves from the stifling heat into the comfort of the air-conditioning, playing a few games of cards and chatting with the other hostel guests… moving around was extremely tiring in the ridiculous heat!
Learning about the city
After being chased down by numerous people Wednesday morning, offering all sorts of “free” tours, we decided that Thursday, we might take up the offer from one of the many guides running around with their coloured umbrella and pamphlet.
We found our guide with the red umbrella, politely declining the 50 offers for boat trips, bus tours, and photos with the fruit ladies, we were also told countless times that Australia has kangaroos (who’d have thought?).
Waiting for fifteen minutes or so, it was time for us to get moving and learn a little more about the beautiful city. Unfortunately, about five minutes in, one of the girls in our group had to leave, she had gotten quite sunburnt the day before, and had quite a number of cocktails the previous night… the stifling heat, sunburn, and a hangover were not a good combination! Thankfully, it wasn’t us for a change!
As we started walking we were “lucky” to have a little reprieve from the heat with an enormous torrential downpour of rain. It rained just long enough to completely saturate us. Usually, Dee has the ponchos in her handbag, but for some reason she took them out, and it therefore rained; we have now come to realise that when she has the ponchos on her it doesn’t rain. During our walk we didn’t really learn much about the history of Cartagena, and our guide’s English was a little difficult to understand at some points. We did, however, get to see some of the beautiful architecture around the ‘Old City’ including the Iglesia San Pedro Claver Convent, the Naval Museum, the Cartagena Cathedral (Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría de Cartagena de Indias), Teatro Adolfo Mejia and, of course, a whole plaza dedicated to Simon Bolivar.
We also stopped by for a quick look in the Museo del Oro (the gold museum) and had a few photos taken with a Botero sculpture before dropping back by Beer Lovers for another taste of their 101 beers, and then onto some late lunch at a beautiful little café called Lunatico.
With the rain all cleared it hadn’t gotten any cooler outside, if anything, it was hotter than it was before, and both of us were uncomfortably covered in sweat. You may be getting the picture that it is really quite hot in Cartagena, the sunscreen doesn’t stay on long enough to soak in… it just drips straight off. Needing to cool down we went back to the hostel and had a cold shower, then sat in the air-con for a while to bring our body temperatures back down to a normal level. Most hostels we’d be very disappointed and somewhat annoyed for the lack of hot water in the showers; however in Cartagena there is absolutely no need for hot water what so ever. Given the heat situation and our exhaustion from the heat, we decided to have a quiet evening back in the hostel, with a little bit of Asian salad for dinner and some television shows.
Pirates we are not
Friday we’d decided that we wanted to go and check out a real beach. The beaches we’ve seen so far on the trip have been disappointing to say the least; most have been covered in rubbish or have really dirty water/sand. Having heard lots of good reviews about it from other hostel guests and wanting to escape from the heat for the day, we’d organised ourselves a bus to take us to Playa Blanca, a beautiful beach on the Caribbean coast.
We met a Canadian lady called Janey on the previous day, and she had coincidentally booked onto our bus to Playa Blanca as well. After the hour or so bus trip, the three of us found a nicely shaded hut a little way down the beach and chilled in the cool breeze and the crystal clear water.
The beach was definitely the best we’d seen by far in South America, in saying that, it still had many similarities to others, people selling canvas art, drinks, trinkets, massages… and when the two girls weren’t around, James was offered drugs and happy endings amongst other things. He was sensible enough not to take anyone up on the offers. We were starting to get a bit hungry, and the roving food salesmen weren’t looking that good, so we started thinking about going to one of the “restaurants” behind us. Just as we were about to get up to investigate their menus, a man came past selling a cocktail of prawns, octopus, and sea snails - and they were even kept on ice! The price was quite expensive, 20k COP for a small container the same size as we paid 10k for in the city, but we haggled and got three for 40k (around A$6 each).
After some more sun and water, we decided we needed to head back up the small hill to the car park, so we didn’t miss the bus back to Cartagena. The ride was fairly uneventful, and shortly after we were dropped back into the city. On the walk home, we stopped into Caffe Lunatico again, only for a few beers (we promise). A quick trip back to the hostel to wash off (and cool down), and we headed out for a date night. The previous day we had seen a restaurant called “Saint Roque Indonesian” just up the road from Lunatico, and it seemed fairly authentic - with Gadu Gadu and other proper Indonesian dishes. Talking with the owner out the front, he was half Indonesian and half Dutch, and he tried to make the dishes as authentic as possible. Shortly after we sat down, the power went out. Having a bit of wine to pass the time, it came back on and we were served some delicious Indonesian food - properly spicy too. Not cheap, but definitely worth it to have some actual Asian food in South America.
What’s a weekend again?
There have recently been a few memes on Facebook stating that it’s hard to be an adult (or something like an adult) when you can’t tell what day it is… The two of us are not sure if it’s May, August, Sunday or 2016. Many of the days blur into one and we need to set reminders for our travel days so that we don’t miss our busses or flights.
Our realisation that it was indeed the weekend in Cartagena was the amount of children running around, playing on the street at 6am… Most days it’s not until much later, if it all as they head to school. The hostel we stayed in wasn’t particularly old, and many hostels we’ve been don’t allow children under 18 (I think this is mostly sensible, given some of the antics we’ve seen and/or been involved in at hostels). Our hostel didn’t have this rule, so along with the shenanigans happening out on the street, one couple in the hostel had their six children running amuck through the kitchen, unsupervised. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem except the two younger ones (maybe 6) drank all of the coffee in about ten minutes, the two slightly older ones were trying to light the gas cooktop - and they appeared not to know how it worked (yes, they did receive help, eventually), and they all managed to get through three loaves of bread in one sitting. The hostel staff were in a little shock as to how much food those boys could put away in such a short time, and there were a few disgruntled guests because of the lack of brown water (“coffee”) there was.
Not quite the anticipated start for the weekend, or any day for that matter… the rest of Friday night’s sleep wasn’t much better, as a result we were two moody adults looking for coffee and more sleep. We were supposed to go on a street art walking tour that Jolanta from the hostel had suggested, however, Dee’s attitude resembled that of a 16-year-old moody teenager, and James couldn’t make a decision to save himself; this was not going to work for us. We opted, instead, to spend the day apart and do a little exploring for ourselves. Whilst neither of us saw anything particularly exciting it was good to spend some time outside of each others’ pockets.
Sunday on the other hand, we had a much greater start to the day, filled with coffee and ready to set of on the street art tour, we were raring to go. Finding the guy who ran the tour was a little bit of a mission, he was running on South American time, and we were fifteen minutes early; we found him and a fairly large group of people, and we were off. The company who runs these particular tours do everything they can to find the original artists, and get the story about the paintings… please, if there is anything you do in Cartagena you need to go on this tour - the political messages, the faces, the stories behind these paintings are intriguing and really give one much more of a sense of the real Cartagena.
During our weekend adventures, we started talking to a few more people in the hostel, and met an English couple that coincidentally have pretty much the same jobs as us. Many of the females we’ve met one the way around are also teachers, and if not a teacher a nurse. We went on a mission to get dinner and the bar we were planning to go to was closed (despite the website staying open) so we found another restaurant with beers and shared travel stories over a delicious dinner.
The king of the castle and a parliament
Looking down across Cartagena is the well-preserved, and quite large Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The castle was built in 1536 by the Spanish and over a period of time had been expanded to house more military as it fell to the French, and then the British. It’s filled with tunnels and has some fairly spectacular views over the city; though, there are the standard set of hawkers trying to sell you stuff on the way in, and the way around, and on the way back out.
After visiting the castle and getting 100 or so photos of the view, the canons, the walls, the tunnels and the hawkers, we headed back into the Old City to find parliament. We’d been hunting online for the address, and assumed, like many other places that it would be a fairly prominent and obvious building. After walking around for what seemed like forever, completely drenched in sweat, we found the parliament building: a small unassuming building on the corner… right down the road from the Beer Lovers Bar. You’d think we would have seen it on the 10 times we walked past.
For lunch we went to Stefano’s Bistro, where James had an arepa and Dee had a calamari salad, then had a few more beers out. The arepa was strange, with the South American version of sweet-and-sour meat in it with a lot of julienned capsicum. We didn’t do much for the rest of the afternoon, but headed to Café del Mar for sunset, with a few expensive cocktails, and met another Australian couple that are travelling in South America for a few months. This time not a teacher! The sunset was beautiful and definitely worth the expensive cocktails for.
For dinner, we went to Café Lunatico with Jolanta and Oren, where Dee and I both ordered the grilled octopus which was great. Jolanta had a rare steak, which was actually rare - apparently we need to order them “pink” - we’ve not faired well having stakes cooked to our liking on the way around… useful tips for the next place!
Onward and upwards, to the cooler weather
Although Cartagena has been quite nice, the heat has nearly killed both of us. James didn’t burn the back of his hands this time around; however the amount of sweat both of us had during the week was not great. Tuesday there was not reprieve from the heat, and it was time for us to do the wonderful task of packing, again. Our next stop: Bogota.
Go see all the photos from Cartagena