Pigs. Scum. Filth. Epithets all befitting of the police force in Cartagena. Perhaps in a country still in in the hangover of Escobar’s reign one might expect a touch of corruption amongst the authorities but I must say I was surprised to encounter their immorality quite so in the open. Stop and searches are in effect – Gringos only! – and these are tinted with a great deal of nervousness. Who knows what they might “find” on your person. Any drugs they may “find” on you will lead to an on the spot fine, sometimes for a modest amount, say, £15, but if you are unlucky enough to find yourself at the mercy of the worst of these unpleasant people, you may be marched to an ATM to withdraw whatever you can. I don’t think I need to mention that this cash goes straight in to their pockets. Cartagena is the only place I have been to that the police are more worrisome than the criminals and that they are to be avoided wherever possible. But I am getting ahead of myself.
Cartagena is a beautiful city set on warm Caribbean waters. It is rich with history and the buildings in the old city have been immaculately maintained. As such, it has a longer history with tourism than most of Colombia, and for this reason they are markedly less friendly as a population than the other areas of the country. The touts in Cartagena are among the most persistent I have encountered, but even here a quick smile and “no gracias” is enough to dissuade them. If it doesn’t work, ignore them and they soon get the message.
There are a few things to do in the local area, with the most well advertised being the nearby beach of Playa Blanca. You must get to the harbour for eight AM to ensure a seat on one of the fast boats that will take you to and from the beach – competition is fierce, so make sure you don’t go with the first guide that approaches you or you might end up on the slow boat. Not ideal. That said, all of the rapido boats are pretty much identical and should include a lunch at the beach (good value by all accounts).
Playa Blanca is a beautiful beach that has been marred by over development. This takes the form of many ramshackle cabins and huts all vying for your business and mostly overpriced; many people get one of the sections of covered chairs mostly because there is so little shade around, and it is damn hot! Even the sea is very warm, meaning that it provides limited cooling, but this is hardly something to complain about! More annoying are the people trying to sell you shellfish from a bucket (really? Why not just carry around syringes of botulism) or give you massages. They are very pushy and the whole thing is a very touristy affair. I went on a weekday and it was busy; I can’t imagine how crowded it gets on the weekend. If you have immediate plans to visit beaches further up the coast, then you can certainly feel okay about missing this place, but if you are only here for a short time and want to hang out on a beach, then you definitely need to visit; if nothing else it is certainly nicer than the local beaches in Cartagena.
One other attraction often visited by backpackers is the local volcano of El Totumo. It takes perhaps an hour to get to from the city, but if you are unfortunate enough to be with the company we were with, it will take double that due to them not knowing their arses from their elbows. One might think of a majestic volcano a la Mount Fuji looming over them, but no, this place is a small hump. People visit not for the hump, but for what is inside the hump: mud.
It’s a fairly warm pot of mud and it is an utterly bizarre sensation to sink in to the stuff. Be aware that every extra you get costs you. You want a mud massage? 3000COP (about £1). You want someone to take your picture? 3000COP. You will get shepherded up one side of the hump, mudded, and sent back down the other side a while later, where you are walked to the lake where women will wash all the mud from you for… 3000COP. Of course there are showers, but in the other direction and they don’t tell you about them beforehand. We were a fun group who found the ridiculous nature of the whole excursion so hilarious that it was difficult to be disappointed by it. Bringing a sense of humour helps hugely. We also employed a guy to bring us all beers (highly recommended).
There is a lot more to the coast than Cartagena, so we decided to head on after a few days of partying and meeting many new people, as well as bumping in to others whom I had encountered earlier in the trip. Skipping Baranquilla, the next stop is Santa Marta. This is a city that many people visit but few enjoy. As a base for nearby activities, it is a great place and does actually possess a respectable number of good restaurants and hostels. Most people stay to book the nearby Lost City (Ciudad Perdida) Trek, something that I had decided I wasn’t wanting to do (nor did I have the time), but is also a gateway to the nearby foothills of the Sierra Nevada and for me, the very small town of Minca.
Getting to Minca is easy from the town centre: get a bus. I was dropped at a stupid part of town, so had to fend for myself. I was saved by a moto-taxi driver who offered me one word: “Minca?” Even with my full backpack and a day pack on my front, he gave me a ride all the way up to town for the princely sum of £3. His poor bike must have been all of 50cc, so it did struggle, but it got us there in the end! After the fierce heat of the coastline, being at slight altitude (not even 1000 metres) made a huge difference to the temperature; it was blessedly cool. There is not much to do in Minca: you can visit a couple of the local waterfalls which is a nice little walk, do a tour of a coffee farm or what I spent most of my time doing which is a whole lot of nothing. Nothing in a hammock. Nothing on a sofa. Nothing while watching the sunset over Santa Marta, cold beer in hand and a dog or two at my feet. Wonderful.
The other reason to stop near Santa Marta is one of the major highlights of all of Colombia, Tayrona National Park. Set on the sea, it is a near pristine section of hilly coastline containing some of the most spectacular beaches in the Caribbean. Getting there is as easy as hopping on a bus, and paying the entrance fee but be aware that you have to walk for a good hour or two before getting to wherever you plan on staying. The good news is that it is a very pleasant walk through rainforest where you may spot monkeys which is certainly worth the work! Two main areas serve most visitors to the park – Arrecifes and Cabo San Juan. The former is a long beach with a number of places to rent a hammock at differing prices whereas the latter is a smaller area of paradise with just one place to stay – at higher cost. The main disadvantage to Arrecifes is that you can’t swim there! The currents are just too dangerous and as the signs on the beach make clear, dozens of people have drowned in the turbulent waters. At Cabo, you can choose to stay on a platform above the beach with incredible views but only if you get there early. These hammocks sell out very quickly. You can easily spend days here just sunbathing and relaxing, especially if you are with friends. I wanted to spend longer but could not due to it being the last day of my stay in South America. That, and an unscrupulous policeman had palmed a chunk of my cash when he was searching my bag for drugs/alcohol. No, not even in a national park can you trust the police here. What a great shame.
Yes, my final day in South America had arrived. With the lovely people I had met and the beautiful places I had visited, leaving was becoming a more bitter-sweet prospect every day up to this point in Colombia, but leave I must. Sadly for your entertainment, my journey home was entirely uneventful so I will leave you with a single observation that I had when returning home. No one here smiles! I didn’t realise it was so different, but it’s true. Whenever you are dealing with someone in South America, from Argentina to Colombia, you nearly always get a smile for your efforts whether it be purchasing a bottle of water or asking for directions. Only one guy smiled at me the entire way home, and he was American!
This isn’t the end though – I have a couple of posts left to do regarding places to stay etc, but more than that: I have another trip still to take! Stay tuned if you want to know how I cope in Russia, Mongolia, China and South East Asia! Hasta Luego!