Going to Cartagena?

Recently I came across a story I wrote last year about my trip to Colombia. I had not published it before because it’s not really a guide or a recommendation about anything. It is just a story about one day in Playa Blanca. So here it goes.


“No more cars today”, the man at the taxi stand said before leaving. We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

We sat on a wooden bench, soaking wet. It rained hard in Playa Blanca that day, but now the sky was clear and we could hear the waves behind us.
That morning we had arrived from Cartagena after a bumpy taxi ride: we had no service, the road signs were misleading, the military stopped us and searched the car, no one we asked seemed to know where the beach was. All the while I thought of the advice people in Mexico had given me about Colombia: don’t accept help from strangers, don’t use unauthorized transport, let people know where you are. The usual precautions I would follow at home. I was uneasy, but my friends, two Austrians and a Greek, did not seem worried at all.

And it’s hard to worry in Playa Blanca. The sea is of the clearest blue even when it rains, the palm trees incline over the sea and almost touch the water. We swam and walked and ate fried fish and coconut rice. And we swam again. And now, sitting and shivering in the parking lot, we almost regretted it. Perhaps we knew we’d fight if we talked, so we didn’t. Instead, we approached three backpackers who were still at the beach and asked if they were going to Cartagena. Yes, a friend would pick them up. Could we join them? We wouldn’t fit in the car, but they could send a cab for us once they arrived in the city. We’d be fine.


But the cab never came. It was dark already when we saw a van approaching. The paint was peeling and the windshield broken. It stopped before us and a man got out. “Going to Cartagena?” he asked in English. “Did they send you to pick us up?” one of my friends asked. He looked at each one of us before saying, “Sure”. “We expected a cab.” “This is a cab. I’m Herminio.” He opened the door. We looked at each other. My friends shrugged as if saying it was better than staying there. They climbed up before I could argue, so I got in too, my heart beating fast.

Herminio didn’t talk much and only part of his forehead was visible on the rearview mirror from which hung a rosary made of yellow, blue and red beads. “I don’t think this is the way we came from, we’re going to Cartagena”, I said in Spanish, panicking. “Faster this way”, he said, and then, “Ha! Bogotá? Thought you all were foreign”. “I’m from Mexico”, I said. “Mexico! We’re hermanos, then.” He laughed. Suddenly he pulled over at a gas station and got off, saying nothing.

Should we get off, hitchhike, ask for directions somewhere? We were not yet on the highway and by the time everybody started to get nervous I was already panicking. Before we decided on anything, Herminio came back. He got in, turned back and offered me something wrapped in paper. My heartbeat was a buzz in my ears. And then he said, “pan de coco, traditional”. He was smiling. “And another gift”, he said after getting in the van again. He started playing mariachi music. I could see his smiling eyes in the rearview mirror when he said, “We are so similar, Mexico and Colombia. I know you’re scared. We’re used to being scared here too. But if we don’t trust our hermanos, where’s peace to be found?”.

Only then I realized how tense I was. More than anyone could know except for Herminio, for it was us who had grown up reading stories of violence and learning not to trust strangers. Colombia was indeed similar to Mexico, safety curfews, cities divided into safe and dangerous areas.
Herminio talked long about his town and asked of mine, we laughed at how we pronounced certain words and I forgot to worry. We arrived safe and sound in Cartagena, and wherever we went we found people that, like Herminio, thought that to trust each other is the basic act of resistance; not to deny what was wrong, but to face it. All we found were open doors and kind words in what had been once one of the most dangerous cities in Latin America.

Throwback: Colombia

One of my favorite trips ever was last Summer, when I traveled with some very special friends to the Colombian Caribbean. The trip was a perfect mix of unexpected beauty, excitement and improvisation. Just recently I went through my videos and pictures from the time and managed to put this little video together, so here it goes!

Spoiler alert, I did not know GoPros need a stabilizing stick.

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Walking El Tayrona

Last July, during our trip to Colombia, three friends and I left the touristy streets of Cartagena in the early hours of the morning, in search of a different side of the Colombian Caribbean. So far we had seen pretty, colourful streets and tasted delicious food, but everything we had read about Tayrona seemed to set it apart as an idyllic, away-from-civilisation part of the country. Pictures of Tayrona generally depict its empty beaches and wide extensions of sand, rocks and palm trees. Something like this:

And a big part of Tayrona is actually like this, but the natural park is really much more interesting. Tayrona National Natural Park is 34 kilometres away from the city of Santa Marta; it is around 150 square kilometres big, plus some 30 square kilometres of maritime area. So, it is quite big.

To get there, we booked places in a van from a company called Juan Ballena. This was supposed to be both faster and more comfortable than a bus, but it was neither. Although they picked us up at 7.00 am as agreed, we had to wait at some parking lot for other people, then they made us change to another van, and then we drove straight to Tayrona at 8.00 or 8.30. I don’t think it would have made any difference to take a normal bus, and it would have been cheaper.

Anyway, we were all carrying a backpack with our things for the night and a bathing suit and other stuff for the hike, as we’d be arriving directly there and going to Santa Marta in the afternoon. Once in the park, we did not queue for very long to get the tickets. Entrance is a bit more expensive for non-Colombians (around 40,000 COP or 14 dollars), but it is definitely worth it, specially if you think of the huge amount of land they have to take care of. Tayrona is home to 300 species of birds and around 100 species of mammals, among which there are monkeys and deer. Its marine fauna is also very rich.

We entered at El Zaíno, the main but not the only entrance, where the bus dropped us, and then took another bus to Naranjos, where the ticket booths and information centre are. You can walk there too, but it takes around an hour. Once we had our tickets we started the hike towards the beach (at noon or so, which is quite late to start).

Croquis parque Tayrona
Map of the park

There are different trails and starting points in the park. The one we took was supposed to take 2 hours from Naranjos to Cabo San Juan de Guía, but we could not finish it because of the time. If you’re not staying in the ecohabs or camping areas inside the park, you should be back by 6.00 pm because that’s when the last buses to Santa Marta leave. So we ended our hike at La Piscina, not before enjoying a delicious lunch somewhere near Arrecifes. I was expecting the same kind of food we had had so far in Cartagena and the islands, but it was a bit different here. We had some chicken rice or shrimp rice with patacones, which also tasted different here. One thing I did enjoy in Tayrona and the Santa Marta area was the variety of fruits. There’s all kinds of fruits and many juice places everywhere. If you can, try maracuyá everything.

The coast belonging to Tayrona goes from Bahía de Taganga (which, alas, we also visited) to Río Piedras. Although the sea is a bit too rough for swimming, the views are incredible. The sea has a beautiful turquoise colour only matched by some beaches in the Mexican Mayan Riviera, the sand is so white and there are not only palm trees but all kinds of tropical vegetation bringing colour to these vast extensions of beach. Huge boulders appear every now and then along the shore too, giving Tayrona a unique aesthetic.

Being July, the weather was just too hot and humid. I don’t believe I have sweated more in my life. We were all drenched in sweat just a few minutes into the hike. Water is perhaps one of the most important things to carry with you, because at the few spots where it is available, you’ll have to buy it in plastic bottles. Also, there are no places to refill your bottles, and most things you can buy inside the park come in plastic packaging. Really, Tayrona is not that remote. You’re never too far away from businesses or some kind of habitable area. Despite this, when you get to the beaches you really feel like you’re in some corner of the world; there’s nothing but sea and the rocks it crashes against in the distance. Nothing but more beach to the sides.

The trail to San Juan goes through all possible landscapes: wooden stairs, jungly corridors, extensions of sand and rock, paths through low bushes. You’ll be exposed to the sounds of many kinds of birds, and later you might even see monkeys jumping from one palm tree to another. I remember almost every other hiker we met along the way greeted us with “hola” or “buenas tardes”. Tayrona is also cool because most people there seemed to be interested in nature, it was an international crowd of hikers and explorers. It truly has a good vibe around it.

Now, I would definitely say Tayrona was my favourite part of Colombia. Once we stopped hiking and were all sweaty and tired, we got to swim a bit in the ocean, and the water was considerably colder than the water in places like Cartagena and Playa Blanca. It was just perfect. The hike back was a bit more difficult, or perhaps we were just tired. All in all, we walked around 3 hours.

Santa Marta and Taganga

Catching a bus from Tayrona to Santa Marta is pretty easy and cheap. You just have to stand in front of the entrance and wait for it. There’s no stop sign but it is righ in front of the El Zaíno entrance; there will probably be a group of people gathered there or you can ask at the restaurants. The bus was crowded and we had to stand most of the way, but there were nice views of the sunset from the windows. The bus ride also gives you an idea of how big the park is.

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Juice stand in Taganga

We booked four beds at a hostel called Fatima and it was a lovely place. The staff were really friendly, it was clean in hostel standards, there was a rooftop bar and some jacuzzis there too. And it was incredibly cheap. Unfortunately, the hostel was the best part of Santa Marta. Despite the recommendations I had been given to visit this city, I did not enjoy my stay there. We mostly walked around it at night, but there was none of the welcoming charm we had seen in Cartagena. Although there was plenty of music and people, the atmosphere was a bit hostile. The saddest part was the state in which the beach was. There was litter everywhere. I’m sure there are many charming things about Santa Marta, but we didn’t have the chance or the time to see them.

Next day we took a bus to what some websites called “the backpackers paradise” in Colombia, the small town of Taganga. This was perhaps the biggest disappointment of the trip, because it was definitely not a place I would ever describe as a paradise, and there were not many backpackers. There were barely any people there, really, and not many places to eat, sit or have coffee, which is always sad being in Colombia.

The way back to Cartagena did not go smoothly either. This time we just went to the bus station and got in the first bus that was leaving. The bus was okay, but one hour before arriving in Cartagena, the traffic stopped for like two hours. No one could explain anything and the driver just said “they had closed the road”. He was not very talkative so I did not ask again. It took us six hours to get to the Airbnb. But everything was worth it because of Tayrona. It truly is a special place. The next step for me is to visit more national parks, this time in North America.

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Made it. Sweaty and disgusting, but happy.

Have you visited Tayrona Natural National Park?

Do you have any favourite national parks? I’d love some recommendations!

Cartagena de Indias

I arrived in Cartagena with a small group of friends one afternoon in July. The weather was incredibly hot and incredibly humid. As our uber approached the AirBnB, the first look we had of the city pretty much summarized our later experience: Cartagena is a coloful, lively town filled with music, delicious food and kind people.

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A typical street in Cartagena

The Walled City

The wall that used to enclose the city during the colonial period now surrounds the historic part of the city, the neighbourhood of San Diego. Here are the oldest buildings and most famous landmarks, and the wall itself is a useful thing to be guided by. On our first day we did some walking around the wall and some exploring of the main square. You’ll find that any place you’d like to see in Cartagena can be walked to, which is amazing. At night, the best places to go to in San Diego are around the Clock Tower, an unmissable yellow building in Plaza de la Paz.

 

Still in the old town, to the north, there’s Gabriel García Márquez’s house, which is a museum now, and a bit further is the Plaza de las Bóvedas, where you can find a lot of colombian handicrafts and souvenirs, as well as the famous, colorful coffee carts that go around the city. In San Diego you’ll also see many horse-driven carriages, which I found really heartbreaking. The weather in Cartagena was around 35ºC, and to see these horses take groups of as much as six people along the winding streets, trying to avoid traffic, was just too much. Considering they’re only used by tourists, I think it’s fair to say that it’s visitors responsibility to stop this kind of abuse.

Anyway, the houses in San Diego are something to see, too. They combine some colonial architecture with the bright colours of the Colombian flag. Most balconies are filled with colorful flowers and the paint of most buildings is bright and lively. If you want to listen to some traditional music, you should go to Plaza Bolívar during the weekend, and take a look at a real “chumpeta” band. If you’re into it you could even dance, many people do. As our AirBnB was in San Diego, we pretty much walked anywhere inside the walls and to Getsemaní. No matter the hour, there was always music playing somewhere (mostly reggaetón) and some laughter can be heard in the distance.

 

 

The walled city is also where all the restaurants and shops are. On our last day we had an amazing breakfast at Mila Vargas, which is a bit expensive but delicious (Mila Vargas is, I understand, some sort of Colombian Martha Stewart, so no matter the hour, try the cakes!). Another food place I recommend is called Laguna Azul; it is not fancy at all and it’s not really in San Diego but in La Matuna. However, it has the best seafood I had in Cartagena and they fetch you any beer you want from the store next door. Try ceviche de camarón. If you’re into seafood (which I wasn’t much before going to Cartagena), you can also visit La Mulata, a very centric spot with very good food. Bear in mind though that most things are a bit expensive in the centre, as it is the most touristic area. Another thing everybody told us to do was to watch the sunset from Café del Mar (it’s not café, it’s a bar), which has tables with view to the sea. Unfortunately, July is the rainiest month there and the clouds would barely let us see the sun. It is a nice place though.

 

 

Getsemaní

Although San Diego is the “historic” neighbourhood of Cartagena (see, for example, the castle of San Felipe de Barajas which we never went to, but looks nice), the neighbourhood of Getsemaní was my favourite part of Cartagena.

 

Apparently, Getsemaní used to be one of the most dangerous areas in Cartagena. Now it is denfinitely the most popular one. If you want to take a tour with a local, be at Plaza de la Santísima Trinidad at 4.00 pm. The plaza is in front of a nice 17th century church with a bright yellow facade. Not very far from there, on Calle de San Juan, is Café del Mural, one of my favourite places in the city. If you sit outside you can have a look of the street, which is one of the most beautiful in Getsemaní. The walls are covered in steet art and there’s an art gallery nearby which hangs its paintings outside.

 

In general, Getsemaní is a wonderful place to be. You can just walk down the streets and there’s something to see, from quirky statues to majestic art on the walls, almost everywhere. It is a pretty safe neighbourhood too, and you’ll notice many people just go on about their business leaving their front doors open.

 

Playa Blanca

Although Cartagena is in the Caribbean, I was a bit disappointed to see that its beaches are not very pretty. In fact, not many people go there. The most beauiful beaches are not in the city but down south a bit, in a little peninsula that belongs to the National Park Corales del Rosario. Playa Blanca is there, but getting there was quite stressful. If I had to name the thing that I liked less about Colombia, it would be the peddlers. They’re everywhere and they insist a lot for tourist to buy their handicrafts, boat trips or whateever they’re selling.

If you approach the Muelle de los Pegasos, the port from which most small ships sail, you will be quickly surrounded by five people trying to sell you a boat trip to Islas del Rosario, a tour of the city, a ride to Playa Blanca and pretty much anything. Dealing with these people can be quite hard as they can even fight among themselves for a client. When we were there, out initial plan was to visit Islas del Rosario, but the trips offered seemed so overpriced and the people were so pushy that we called it quits.

So we decided to go to Playa Blanca instead. Taxis wanted to charge us 50 dollars, and an uber was only about 30. So we took an Uber. After all, it was just a one-hour ride. So far so good, we were all happy that our day trip wasn’t ruined. Until our Uber driver got lost. We ended up who knows where and the car could barely make it on the unpaved streets. At one point we had to get off the car for it to get out of a hole in the road. To this day I’m thankful our driver didn’t lose and just left us there.

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Cartagena to Playa Blanca, ideally

After two very stressful hours we finally made it to Playa Blanca. If the peddlers in Cartagena were extra, the ones in Playa Blanca were scary. We hadn’t even gotten out of the car when a group of five or six young men started trying to rent us hammocks, chairs, offering us lunch, drinks. The followed us for about a kilometer along the beach, which is really beautiful but filled with restaurants and a bit crowded. Finally we gave in  and rented some chairs at one of the places they offered us, we left our stuff and swam a bit and everything was okay again.

Being in the ocean was better too because peddlers could not reach you there. As soon as we were sitting, people started coming to offer us massages (which I paid for), coconuts (which I bought) and jewelry (I resisted). Soon, however, it got late and we ordered lunch. This was, no kidding, the best food I had in Colombia (probably one of the best in my life too). We had a huge, fried sierra fish for three of us, as well as patacón (some kind of small cake made out of fried banana) and coconut rice with Águila beer. It was truly amazing. Most places in the coast serve this fish-patacón-rice dish, but this was by far the best. After this we just chilled and later it started raining. We swam in the rain and left Playa Blanca at around six pm, only to find Ubers did not come this far and most people were already gone. Also, we did not have towels. It was a funny day.

 

Playa Blanca is, in short, a great place if you got some willpower against peddlers and if you have some fresh fish for lunch. It was a very exciting day and, even if this was for the wrong reasons some of the time, one of the best of our Colombia trip. The beach there is a typical Caribbean beach: clear blue waters, palm trees and white sand. And in the end we did go to Rosario Islands, just for half a day to a place called Isla del Sol. Apparently most of the islands belong to private owners and you buy some sort of all-inclusive package for a day (transport, food, hotel facilities). I prefered Playa Blanca.

 

Have you been to Cartagena?