Completing the hike in four days meant that we wouldn’t miss any time in Cartagena, so the next morning our natural body clocks woke us up early, we’d been up at 5am for the last four days. After breakfast it was time to explore the town that we knew very little about, our first real insight into Columbia.
Cartagena is the main port on the Caribbean coast and the gateway to the north, due to many attacks on the town in the 16th century, elaborate walls and a chain of forts were constructed to encircle the town to protect it from further pirate attacks. The most famous of attacks was from Francis Drake in 1586. Today Cartagena has expanded dramatically and is surrounded by vast suburbs. It is now Colombia’s largest port and an important industrial centre of 1.1 million inhabitants. Nevertheless the old walled town has changed very little. It’s a living museum of 16th and 17th century Spanish architecture with narrow winding streets, churches, plazas and large mansions.
We walked through the cobbled alleys witnessing, for the first time, the colourful buildings where enormous balconies are shrouded in flowers and massive churches cast their shadows across leafy, green plazas, it was a relaxing place to stroll around and in fact, doing so is the main attraction. It was already 11am and the sun was blazing, it is supposed to be winter, or wet season, but it was so hot and we were told it was 90% humidity so our skin was already sticky, sweaty and every so often the breeze would blow sand towards you, which would also stick to your skin.
The sightseeing city tour bus cost $45,000 (£14.50) and lasted 24 hours, you could hop on and off wherever you wanted and it seemed the best way to explore and understand the city, without having to walk in such heat, especially as we had just been on a long hike. The first stop was a short walk, outside the old town wall and on to the main beach road. On top deck, there were some fantastic views of the other suburbs across the water as well as a better view of the old town and the length and size of the wall that circulated it.
It was a very rich area, compared to Venezuela where we had just arrived from where even food was difficult to find sometimes, but also compared to the rest of Columbia, we were told. Shakira is from Cartagena and can be seen walking the streets sometimes. Large, well known stores could be found in the main shopping area and there were loads of restaurants, we decided to take the entire loop around and return here for lunch later on. Along the way we went past the marine navy base who had their own, small football stadium that had turrets in the corner flags, not sure why they were there, for decoration or to encourage the team to play better or be shot!?
Next stop was the port, there were four or five large sailing ships docked, which would explain the large number of sailors walking around the town. Huge queues lined the walkway of the port, locals waited at the entrance of the port where they were allowed onto the ships to have a look around, there must have been 300 people, families, waiting for hours to get on board. We continued in the comfort of our tour bus. Thankfully it wasn’t too busy so I was able to jump from side to side and snap away at the various buildings, all of the time being provided with information in English through our headphones.
We did jump off at the main shopping area and took a look around, had a bite to eat at a local restaurant but when we eventually asked somebody for the time, we were late for the bus. After 10 minutes sat at the stop, we decided that we should walk to another stop where we should be able to beat the bus and get back on. It looked close on the map, however, it took a lengthy speed walk for about 30 minutes down a long straight road where we could keep looking over our shoulder to see if the bus was coming towards us, but we did actually beat the bus although I think it may have been ten minutes late too! We checked the time again and realised that we had to be at the other side of the city for 3.45pm to get on a walking tour inside the town wall, so we were only sat for two minutes but we ran off the bus and took a nice walk through the town and along the beach front. The bus arrived at the exact same time and now we established that the tour wasn’t starting until the bus arrived, we could have stayed on! Oh well, nice views and good exercise.
The walking tour started at Santa Marta hotel, where the most richest of visitors stay, wondering through the streets, past the dungeons which are now little tourist shops, snapping photos of various balcony types, multicoloured streets, houses and churches whilst the guide explained the history of the town. The history itself is interesting but again, the vibe of walking these streets is really what makes it. It ended at an emerald jewellers who explained how important this industry was to the country and did a small raffle for the 15 of us, unfortunately neither of us won but the price was only a small rock with a tiny, faded emerald. I wouldn’t be saying that if we’d have won it!
We walked around the rest of the town by ourselves, to the clock tower and around the nearby squares where many paintings were available to buy. The one we wanted was a little expensive so we decided we would come back tomorrow to try and bargain. As Jezza was leaving us the next day, we all went out for a farewell meal which turned out to be really nice and also cheap. Scott tried to give a speech but ended welling up whilst shedding a little tear, Jezza was the same. That evening Chloe and I took a walk around the romantic city, lights lit up the various buildings and hots spots, including the ships at dock, it was beautiful. Horse and carts roamed the streets taking tourists around the town, we would have taken a ride but information had told us that it was expensive for very little time. Anyway, we were tired.
A mud bath, literally
Whilst we were hiking, the rest of the group had stopped at a volcano on the way and without giving too much information away, said that we should go and visit it for the experience. Fortunately the next day our hostel had a trip organised. The guide, who was very funny, explained that Volcän Del Totumbo was a natural volcano that was now inactive, but we could get into it and have a mud bath. When we arrived the first thing I thought was “natural, really?” It seems that the center fills up and mud pours over the edge to solidify and create the volcano shape, I’ll have to check that on google I think! So we got changed and walked up to the stairs to the top.
You could see straight down into the volcano and a few steps took you right into the mud. The guide had explained that there were a few people here that would offer services at a cost of $3000 (£1), the first was the camera man, so we gave him our camera. Second was the guys waiting in the mud that would massage you whilst you floated, so in we got and it felt so strange, you couldn’t touch the bottom and literally floated there. The first guy told you to lie down and pushed you over to get a massage, it was difficult to move anywhere yourself and we lay back got covered in mud and had a massage. After that we wallowed in the mud for half an hour like hippos, it was a fantastic experience and one that was apparently good on the skin, knocking years off.
The steps out were fairly difficult because they were slippery and we were covered in thick mud. The sun soon dried it up on your body and we walked to a nearby lagoon to get washed. There were women, mammas, waiting with buckets, this was the next service available, we were to get washed in the lagoon. These services weren’t really optional but we embraced it and gave it a go. They did a good job actually, although it was difficult to breathe with water being thrown on your mouth and nose constantly. Once the top half was done, the woman pointed at my shorts and said “naked, naked” so after I confirmed that she definitely wanted me to take my shorts down, I took them off. Looking at Chloe the entire time who had the same experience, I wanted to shout out to her, but words didn’t come out and the mammas washed my shorts whilst I sat there, thankfully the water was murky. It’s been a long time since mamma washed me!
On the way home we stopped at a beautiful beachside shack restaurant where we had a gorgeous fish for lunch. Once back we decided to take another walk around as it was our last day in Cartegena. That evening we went to have drinks with Larry and Lisa who were also leaving the truck at this point. They’d invited us to their hotel for drinks, we really got to see how the other half lived, a beautiful hotel with pool, spa and rooftop, where we spent a few hours, saying our goodbyes. Unfortunately we had to eat, otherwise we could have stayed there all night.
We hoped that Cartagena had given us an idea of what we should expect from Columbia, we doubt it though. Such a lovely, romantic city that would be hard to leave if we weren’t tied to a schedule.