Departing Bogota airport, news from Australia reminds me how far I am away from home, family and friends and also reminds me how lucky I’ve been to have had good health my whole life. My love goes out to the Harrisons – thanks for sharing Marley’s journey to recovery on Facebook.
Into Santa Marta airport and away for the hour and a half drive to Playa la Roca, my home for the next three nights. We whizzed past military stops all the way there. My driver Hans (or more appropriately ‘Hands’) trying to communicate with me most of the way – unsuccessfully save my acknowledgement of the vista hermosa! Hans wasn’t able to understand, and therefore couldn’t answer, my questions about why we hadn’t been stopped through the military checkpoints we had passed.
Playa la Roca was heaven in the Carribean – right on the beach, thatched beach cabanas, hammocks in an elevated pavilion and only another couple, Germans Eastar and Jochans, as guests.
I was treated to lovely seafood meals for the day and then retired to my bure. I can’t believe I’m going to say this but the sound of the waves kept waking me up through the night.
Headed off to Tayrona National Park with Estar and Jochans early in the morning. In doing so we went through five checkpoints (for a 50 minute drive) at which our guide was asked to explain the origin of his passengers and open the car boot for inspection. Turns out we were in the narco trafficking area hence the amount of attention heading in the direction of the city.
Tayrona is a gorgeous park of tropical jungle leading right to the edge of the Carribean Sea. As expected in a jungle it was pretty humid. After a few hours walk, glimpsing the sea along the way, we arrived at a lovely beach – my first swim in Mar Carribe!
The walk in had been lovely; spotting large blue breeding crabs, gorgeously bright and patterned lizards, listening to some of Colombia’s 3000 birds and having the beautiful bright blue butterflies (with a wing span as big as my palm) flutter past.
The walk back was equally as good with the different path allowing us to sight some of the local monkeys and marsupials living in the national park.
A coconut for the drive home as I envisaged my pre dinner drinks being had from a hammock. At the only checkpoint we were asked to stop at on the way back a member of the military, who looked all of 14, waited until the boot inspection to hit the guide up for money for a soda!
Arrived back at the ‘Eco-hotel’ to find 50 teenage kids had invaded the relaxation pavilion – and were lying in all the hammocks (their beds for the night)! Deep breath. News that my Estar, Jochan and I would be dining on the beach provided some insulation from the shock of the situation.
The last day at Playa la Roca was spent visiting a nearby waterfall and rock pools early in the day. The local military officers on guard even stripped down for a dip. Must say I wasn’t so thrilled about him cleaning his gun while it was pointed in my direction….click click and it’s re engaged!
There are three indigenous tribes of the Tayrona who live in the Sierra Navada; all very short in stature and who wear all white (the men also wear a bullet shaped cloth hat). The dress between the tribes is very similar but the locals can apparently tell the difference because one of the tribes still weaves its own cloth whereas the other two make the garments from fabrics brought in. While in the parks we had been shown different plants and animals used by the tribes for food and medicine – fried worms….yum!
We left at just the right time, passing hundreds of holidaying Colombians and Argentinians heading into the waterfall (most on foot but some on donkeys). Not sure where they were all going to fit!
The kids in the hotel (from a private school in bogota) left by mid afternoon so I was back in my favourite hammock in no time.
One last chance to enjoy early morning yoga on the beach and then I was off in a minibus with locals heading back to Santa Marta.
I was thinking it strange that we hadn’t been pulled up at any of the checkpoints passed when no sooner I was cursing for even thinking about it. Not only were we stopped but we were all asked to get out while the polizia conducted a search of the van. They found a container of fuel which they accused the driver of bringing from the Venezuelan border – illegal!!!
The Polizia were threatening that all the fuel from the vehicle would need to be drained. Thankfully the matriarch of the other passengers seemed to have some relationship with one of polizia who had wandered over. She managed to get us all back into the van and on our way without a drop of fuel being lost – we even kept the extra container of fuel. Boy did she let the driver have it once we drove off, much to the delight of the passengers. Hilarious to hear in Spanish – he didn’t even try to defend himself.
I could see all were stressed about the potential for missing flights caused by the long delay. I also sensed some discussion going on about what to do with me given I was going to the bus terminal, which was in a different direction to the airport. Moments later I was shuffled out of the van and into a taxi and I was off – hoping to the bus terminal!
Arrived at the bus terminal to experience more police interaction. This time a pat down and bag search as I boarded the bus. As with Egypt, I’m not sure that I feel more or less safe with all of the military and police presence.
The trip was comfortable but quite depressing. Extreme poverty was evident as we headed out of the city as were towns that had clearly had an injection of money at some time only to disintegrate into disrepair and abandonment over time.
The trip from the Cartegena de Indias bus terminal to my accommodation was looking a little problematic with none of the drivers recognising the address of my accommodation. I was relieved to be carrying my mobile so I could get the accommodation to give directions directly to a driver!
The accommodation was lovely, another airbnb success, with one of the two pet turtles surprising me with an introduction at my feet. On arrival I also discovered that some of my Bogotá bicycle tour buddies were also staying at the accommodation.
A good nights sleep and I was off to see the city from my hop-on hop-off bus. Well if only it was that easy. I must be losing brain power while on holidays (hope you’re not reading this Trevor!) because do you think I could work out the street map and schedule of stops?!?! Finally decided to just get on and do the loop to get my bearings – good old first principles.
Cartegena is a wonderful city with the historical centre being surrounded by a fortress wall and containing lovely colonial building. Apparently the mayor gives a tax concession to those who go the extra mile to keep their balaconies nice and overflowing with flowers.
I was staying in Getsamani – an area that had housed low ranking officers during early colonial times.
There were two standout places for the first day. The first being a visit to Castillo San Felipe – the almost impenetrable fort sitting above the walled centre and the multiple surrounding waterways. I do love a good fort. This one was built in 1657 and is the largest built in America by the Spanish empire. It had four separate areas that could only be breached one after the other making it such a successful fort for so long.
The other standout was the Palacio de la Inquisición (one of the three used by the spaniards in the Americas). The instruments used to weed out the ‘witches’ (those offending the practices of the ‘holy church’) left me galled at the torture administered in the pursuit of truth by the tribunal of the holy church. Turns out that not one person tried for witchcraft during the inquisition was ever found innocent.
They had an interesting formula for working out if you were innocent – innocents were said to weigh a kilo for every centimetre over 1 metre in height. The higher the difference the more evidence of your guilt. By my calculations I would be in a little trouble! Doesn’t sound like it was based on any anthropometric data so no doubt half the population of the time would have been in trouble if questioned. The Palace is actually quite small, I expected something much more substantial.
Cartegena was the first city to establish its independence from the Spaniards; at 11am on the 11th of November in 1811 – must have taken some planning. Understandably the number 11 is considered lucky in Cartegena.
Bocagrande and the other newer beach areas were nothing to write home about. Full of cruise ship tourists and tourists staying in high rises and shopping in the worldwide chain of shops….along with hassling vendors trying to make a sale. Las Bovedas was interesting – it’s a series of tunnels below the walls in one corner of the city, which was the jail during colonial times.
After a day wandering around the lovely plazas and streets of the historic centre I headed home for dinner and to cool off in the rooftop jacuzzi! My evening was spent people watching at a local plaza before heading home in preparation for an early start to one of the islands off Cartegena.
Nice to be back out onthe open seas; not quite Bass Strait but at least I could be confident we’d be docking under motor not sail!
Okay, time for a reassessment – Playa la Roca was lovely but Isla Las Roaarios are beautiful. The archipelago of little islands are surrounded by crystal clear waters of perfect temperature and salty enough to allow you to float effortlessly. I stayed the day on Isla del Pirata. All I needed was Johnny (Captain Jack Sparrow) to arrive and I’d reclaim my apostolic beliefs and declare I was in heaven!
While lazing on my sun lounge I read about the ‘Leticia Affair’ – a petty Amazon conflict whereby the Peruvians sought to take control of the border town of Leticia. Seems it was a contributing factor in Colombia’s recovery from the world depression – nothing like a bit of military spending to pump things up a little.
Just before leaving the island I had an interesting interaction with one of the staff members. He had waited until all other visitors had left the upper level eating pavilion before clearing the plates. With his eyes firmly on the stairs leading to the pavilion he persistently tried to communicate with me. I was having no luck in understanding him, partly because he was speaking so softly. Then finally I connected the dots – a wink, a stroke of my arm and the mouthing of a kiss along with what seemed a pleading question. The guys on this island are unending in the services they offer! The guide had failed to mention that one during his briefing on arrival to the island but then again I was the only single guest on the island. Needless to say he walked away rather dejected – regardless of my response I wasn’t sure if he was offering a paid or free service!
The ride back was quite a contrast to the one over to the island, again I wondered if I’d missed a bit of the fine print in the brochure; this time informing me of the jet ride on the return journey – you know, the ones where the passengers throw their arms in the air as the boat gets air! The screams from passengers were half in excitement and half in fear. One poor woman was hysterical causing the captain to stop and allow us to bob up and down as she was calmed. I thought it was fun although my butt’s a bit sore from the landings onto the hard seats.
Back to the local Plaza, this time found a hip open air trattoria/bar camouflaged by very politically graffitied looking facades.
I managed to succeed with the hop-on hop-off bus getting to the city walking tour – introduced to all the key sites. I returned to the San Pedro Claver museum, which was a great exhibition of this priest’s work with the African slaves brought to Colombia by the Spanish. It has been kept in pretty original state from when he lived and died there.
The heat was sweltering so after I felt I’d sweated out the last two days fatty food I headed back for the jacuzzi. It was lovely to sit there with a cerveca and listen to the dulcet tunes of Nick Cave coming from the house next door – good taste. The tunes were mixed with a fusion of bells ringing in the plaza and chooks clucking somewhere nearby.
Enjoyed my last night in Caregena de Indias with some drinks at the Havana Club – an über cool Cuban themed establishment serving …. you guessed it Havana Club rum. Perfect for Cuban Mojitos!
Tomorrow I’m on my way to my final Colombian stop – Medellin. Looking forward to catching up with some of Paula’s friends during my stay but will be sad to farewell the turtles!