Day 443: Coming back to America

After one last walk around the Old City of Cartagena in 108 degree weather with what felt like 100% humidity, we were packed and ready to go to the airport. And then, we realized we forgot the water bottle in the hostel refrigerator. Seriously. Andrew insisted we turn around (even though we were halfway there) while I nervously wondered if we were going to miss our flight over a water bottle I've had since college (in other words, it's probably time it got left behind). We didn't miss the flight. We did have to pay nearly double for the taxi. We arrived in Florida safe and sound, made it through passport control with surprising ease, and then our Spirit flight to Chicago was delayed for three hours on top of our four hour layover. It wasn't the most comfortable day of travel home, but let's face it, we've been through much worse. By three in the morning, we were letting ourselves into my friends' house and shortly after that, you would have thought Santa arrived early because when Michelle heard us come in, all I heard was a whispered "YESSSS!" coming from her bedroom. A few minutes later, I was hugging one of my bestest friends for the first time in a year and a half before crawling in what was most likely the most comfortable bed we've slept in... in a year and a half.

We're back!

Day 441: Our last day on Playa Blanca

We’ve been relatively lucky throughout this trip. No serious health issues (aside from stomach bugs in India, Andrew’s leg infection in Mozambique, and my reaction(s) to malaria meds in Uganda). No crazy transportation malfunctions (not counting our bus accident in Tanzania and losing our luggage for a week in Turkey). No wild robbery stories (except someone lifting my Polaroid camera in Nepal and someone taking Andrew’s camera that was forgotten in a hotel room in Prague). You may be wondering what’s wrong with me, for thinking we were lucky. But all of our hiccoughs along the way seemed trivial compared to stories we heard from friends, or friends of friends, or even what I envisioned happening when I was feeling particularly nervous.

And then, we get on a speedboat this afternoon to go back to Cartagena, and I find myself thinking This is it… This is when our boat falls apart and we’re stranded in the water, bleeding and sharks come to get us while our passports sink to the bottom and even if we are rescued, we miss our plane and then can’t apply for passports because all of our identification is at the bottom of the Caribbean… Because I’m pretty sure it was our “captain’s” first time driving a boat, and I’m pretty sure we were going entirely too fast. Either that, or he didn’t know how to drive a boat, because it was scary. I even asked Andrew where our passports were and then contemplated securing a life-jacket around the one backpack just in case… When we magically arrived back at the dock in Cartagena, we could hear passengers on other boats clapping and thanking their captain for their safe arrival. Everyone on our boat gave a meek “gracias” and scrambled off the boat as fast as they could. Or maybe that was just me… Either way, I was grateful for our arrival.

Day 440: Playa Blanca

Ok, so the cabana wasn’t as comfortable as we would have liked (even with the electricity upgrade) but the view was unbeatable. And, whatever sleep we lacked at night, we totally made up for in the afternoon. We relocated to beach chairs and an umbrella at the bottom of the ladder (up to our cabana) and sat or slept or read or swam for the rest of the afternoon.

 

After being on the move for fifteen months, a couple days like this at the end of our trip is beyond necessary. If you’re not a fan of fresh fish and coconut rice, Playa Blanca probably isn’t for you. Luckily, I couldn’t get enough of it. For dinner, we splurged on a lobster! Life. is. good.

Day 439: Cartagena to Playa Blanca

Playa Blanca is a beautiful white sand beach on one of the Rosario Islands off the coast of Cartagena. Per everyone’s advice, we skipped the aquarium/island tour en route, and went straight from Cartagena to Playa Blanca. At least, that’s what we asked for. Multiple times when we were buying our tickets to Playa Blanca. Waiting at the harbor for the right boat was confusing, for everyone it seemed, except those walking around with clipboards and lists of names. 

Once we finally got on what we were told was the right boat (and we did see our names on the list) we discovered we were with a tour group going to the aquarium. Fortunately, after the thirty minute boat ride, we were dropped off first at Playa Blanca. Again, we heeded advice given to us and immediately began walking down the beach  (to the left of where you get dropped off) to get away from the vendors and day visitors. We settled for a cabana steps from the ocean, slipped into our suits, and pulled chairs under the umbrella and didn’t move for the rest of the afternoon.

Day 438: More salsa in Cartagena? Yes, please!

And that’s exactly what we did. More of the same from the day before. Walked around the old town. And, again, were the only two who showed up to the group lesson at Crazy Salsa. At night, we went back into the old town to a salsa club that one of the guys working at the hostel recommended. We must have showed up too early, because while there were a lot of people milling about, none were dancing. We left to walk around the old town at night, stumbled upon an outdoor concert wrapping up, and then back to the club. When we returned, there was a bit more dancing, and some older Colombians took pity on me dancing by myself next to Andrew who was trying to pay attention to all of the fancy footwork on the little dance floor. After several dances with the same two sweet Colombians, we left to catch a little sleep before our boat to Playa Blanca in the morning.

Day 437: Salsa in Cartagena

Did you know salsa (the dance) originated in both Cuba and Colombia? I didn’t. So when we nixed going to Cuba, I was pleasantly surprised that I would be able to improve my salsa skills in Colombia before the end of our trip. We signed up for a group lesson with Crazy Salsa and then bummed around the old city until our class started. I think Andrew was a little relieved when we were the only couple who showed up for the group class. I love salsa dancing. Andrew tolerates salsa dancing, but he knows I enjoy it, so he wants to learn (at least that’s what he says). He surprised me in Seoul and took a few lessons in Korea (in Korean) and didn’t fare as well as he would have liked. I was hoping our lessons would go a little more smoothly in Spanish. They did, I think, but we still need quite a bit more practice!

Day 436: Cartagena

Cartagena is hot. It’s not only hot, it’s humid. Our first stop? Giant glasses of fresh fruit juice a block away from our hostel. Another guest informed us the juice was better (and bigger) there, rather than at the hostel itself. Once we were slightly cooled off, we set off for the old city. The old city of Cartagena is a walled-in city full of beautiful colonial style buildings. All of the guide books recommend walking around Cartagena’s old city for days on end. It’s the thing to do, and as you can see below- for good reason. Every street was full of character, sitting in the park watching the birds and the children feeding (or trying to catch) the birds was entertaining, even when it rained, a rainbow popped up over the walled in city. Beautiful. No other word for it. We walked around the entire day, stopping only to cool off in an air-conditioned store or ice-cream shop.

Day 435: Getting out of Tayrona National Park

Horseback rides out of half of Tayrona National Park today was a must. Had we more time, we would have stayed an extra day to relax longer in the park, but with only a week left of the trip, we were a little anxious to get to Cartagena. We woke up to rain, and lounged early in the morning. Dozing off, reading, listening to the rain. It was lovely. Once the rain stopped, we headed for the horses and bypassed the even muddier ravines (due to the additional rain last night) by foot. I have never been so grateful to be on a horse in my life.

Instead of taking what felt like two hours the day before to cross the muddy trail, it only took about twenty minutes. While we were on horseback, a handler ran along side of us hustling the horses along. I was impressed (and jealous of his rain boots) at how fast he moved through the ravine. We trekked out the rest of the way, then hopped in a bus back to the park entrance, another bus back to Santa Marta, then a cab to El Rodadero, while we waited for yet another form of transportation; a shared taxi to Cartagena.

When our shared taxi was over an hour late, the company decided to inform us that they had canceled the trip that night. (I thought Andrew was going to lose it.) We figured out another way and once our taxi arrived to take us to a different bus station, our plans changed one more time and we decided on a third way to get to Cartagena (thanks to our taxi driver) and hopped in another shared taxi a few blocks away. Halfway to Cartagena, we stopped off the side of an expressway, were told to hop out, and ushered to another shared taxi heading all the way to Cartagena. At the beginning of this trip, this would have worried me. At this point, I’m completely unfazed. And then, not three minutes after checking into our room in Cartagena, the electricity went out on the entire block of the city. Because, at that point in the day, why wouldn’t it?

Day 434: Getting into Tayrona National Park

Tayrona National Park is one of the ‘must-see’s’ of Northern Colombia. Everyone we met who was traveling from North to South (opposite of how we were traveling) raved about the park. From the start, we had plans on visiting and spending a couple of nights in the park. It’s along the Caribbean Coast, about thirty or so kilometers from Santa Marta (close to where we were staying in El Rodadero). Tayrona National Park prohibits cars after a certain point and you can get in and out of the park by foot, by horseback, or by boat. We heard trekking in was beautiful (lots of flora and fauna) so we opted to do that. Had we known the trek in would be as muddy and difficult (thanks to the previous few days of rain) we probably would have gone in on horseback. However, who can complain at the end of the day, when you realize this is what you trekked in for:

In Tayrona, there are three main oceanfront options to stay at. Arrecifes is the first. We were told it’s nicer (and pricier) but you can’t swim at the beach there (due to the deadly riptides). La Piscina is a small swimming cove in between without sleeping options. And El Cabo is where we were headed. El Cabo provides hammocks for rent, a campground, somewhat functioning bathroom facilities, and a restaurant with better dinner options than breakfast options. (If you’re going- bring your own cereal!) The trek wasn’t difficult at first. It was hot. and very, very humid. But other than that, not exactly hard.

Once we could see the ocean, our spirits were lifted and we felt like we were almost there! But, the trail then wove in and out. And little did we know, we still had a ways to go. Sometimes we’d be walking along the water, other times we would be in a palm grove like the one below. It began getting muddier and muddier the longer we walked.

And then, it got real muddy, and real hard. I don’t mind getting dirty, at all. I actually kinda love it. When I’m expecting it. The problem with our muddy trek in today, was that we weren’t anticipating it being hard or dirty at all. So, when our feet were sticking in inches of mud and we were slipping down small ravines, I wasn’t the happiest of campers.

Once I took off my shoes, it became a little easier to skip through the muddy ravine. The only drawback was that I couldn’t decipher what was mud, and what was horse poop. As soon as we got to El Cabo, we headed straight for the water.

The beachfront was beautiful, stunning really, but the water was full of natural debris. I think, because of the rain. We stayed in until we figured we should check in and then rented out two hammocks for the night. After we got settled and ready for bed before night fell, we walked around before dinner. Stunning. The whole area was as picturesque as everyone said it would be. Despite quite a few people camping or renting out hammocks, it was all very calm and relaxing. After our walk, we took naps (or read) in our hammocks and then enjoyed a fish dinner before tucking into our hammocks for the night. They were pretty wide and long, so I found mine super comfortable. They were strung up pretty close to each other though, so whenever my neighbor or myself moved, we would often bump into each other. And then, in the middle of the night it began to rain… and then pour… again. Thankfully, we stayed dry all through the night.


Day 433: El Rodadero

El Rodadero seemed to be the least dangerous area of Santa Marta. Perhaps this is because it might be the least visited by foreigners. Once we walked around town, we realized why. It seemed to be a locals only tourist destination. When we walked down the main beach, we were amazed at how many people there were and to be frank; how dirty it was. Families upon families were camped out next to each other and garbage was everywhere. At least while we were walking along the beach there were a few garbage men picking up the trash, but still! It was rather unbelievable. I wanted (desperately) to photograph it all, but I didn’t feel comfortable whipping out my DSLR on the beach amongst a lot of locals, so I kept it tucked away in my bag (or room). We left the crowded beach and found a smaller, less crowded, and much less dirty beach a little ways down and enjoyed the water and beach there instead. It was lovely to be on a beach again, but quite different from the beaches of SouthEast Asia and it made us question what fuels the difference. 

Day 432: Medellin to Santa Marta

Despite our love of 12 hour+ bus rides (kidding), we decided to fly from Medellin to Santa Marta instead. We weren’t totally sure if it was going to be smooth sailing, as we heard multiple stories of Viva Colombia! Airlines often canceling and delaying flights. 

There was a lot of confusion within the airport itself, but we managed to land safely only about an hour later in Santa Marta. Much more convenient than a day (and night) on another bus.


Day 431: Guatape

Guatape is a small town 40-50 minutes outside of Medellin. Everyone we met suggested we go and see the town, and mentioned the big rock that was a ‘must climb.’ I was excited to get out of Medellin for the day. It’s not that I didn’t like Medellin… It’s just that I think I would have liked Medellin more if we had stayed somewhere else. I also think I would have liked Medellin more if we were within walking distance to more sights. However, Medellin isn’t exactly a small town and I’ve definitely grown to love the small Colombian towns even more than the ones in Peru and Ecuador. They are full of character and color and super friendly faces. We planned on spending the day in Guatape, but once we arrived, we wished we would have spent a night or two in the quiet, quaint little town.

I’ve been fascinated with the different religions we’ve encountered on this little trip around the world. We went from Buddhism to Hinduism to Islam with a little Judaism sprinkled in before some Catholicism, back to some Islam, then more Catholicism… It’s been interesting. Growing up Catholic, slipping into a Catholic church obviously feels the most familiar. Seeing the enthusiasm over Catholicism in South America has been new. Every small town in Colombia seems to be centered around a town square with a beautiful church on one side. In Salento, our guesthouse had a wall of small ceramic churches. In a shop in the same town, I saw the ceramic façade of the church that was in Salento’s square. Fortunately, finding another façade of Guatape’s church proved to be just as easy.

Guatape was fairly colorful, but in a different way than Salento. While Guatape also offered bright walls and doors, the siding of nearly all of the buildings also offered up little murals. Perhaps what their trade was, or a testament to their religious devotion, or even their favorite flower. Regardless, it was beautiful and I couldn’t stop taking pictures of all of the little murals as we walked through the streets surrounding the main square.

I realize the above kitchen cabinet on the sidewalk doesn’t look like much, but we got two piping hot empanadas from a couple of women making them for anyone passing by. Andrew asked if I would like one, and I almost rolled my eyes because the answer is pretty much obvious whenever we walk by a street food vendor. In case you forgot: the answer is always yes.

La Piedra (the rock) is what everyone calls the gigantic rock on the outskirts of Guatape. I’m not sure what’s more impressive about the rock. The fact that it was formed 70 million years ago, or that two thirds of the rock is actually underground! It only took roughly a half hour to climb the 650 steps to the top. It was breathtaking in more ways than one. Maybe it had something to do with the humidity, that is, until we got to the top and it started raining. It’s like Colombia kept direct tabs of what we were doing and always picked the most perfect time to open its skies on us. Somewhat used to the rain, I grabbed my umbrella and we made our way back down the rock, hopped in a tuk-tuk to get back into town with just enough time to have a quick bite of bandaja paisa before our bus back to Medellin.

Day 430: Medellin Metro-cable

The Medellin Metro-cable system was something that we were told we couldn’t leave the city without riding. The beautiful and amazing thing about this metro-cable is that it’s treated as if it’s simply another metro line in the city. You don’t have to pay anything extra to hitch an aerial ride up the side of the mountain. Pablo, our Real City tour guide was beyond proud of not only the Medellin Metro-cable, but of the entire metro system. He told us that he wasn’t the only one either. Everyone in Medellin is proud of their public transport system. So proud, that he pointed out you won’t see any graffiti on the train, trash, or anyone being disrespectful. It’s true. The metro is clean. There wasn’t one scratch to be seen. The Medellin Metro-cable was installed for the main purpose of allowing the poorer population that lives high up into the mountainside an affordable, easier method of travel. In another part of the city, free escalators have been installed for the same purpose. We went for a ride in the metro-cable to not only see the city from above, but also to check out Parque Arvi. As always, we seemed to time it perfectly and got off the last metro-cable car right as it started to rain. We didn’t stay long, and instead enjoyed a peaceful and beautiful ride back down into the city below.

Day 428: Plaza Botero in Medellin

It was rainy. Again. So we weren’t the quickest getting out of our guesthouse. When we finally left, we headed for Plaza Botero and Museo de Antioquia in the center. The plaza was bigger than I expected it to be, and despite the number of police officers milling about, it still felt a little rough around the very polished Botero edges. We walked through Plaza Botero taking each sculpture in and even stopped to chat with a very friendly local. The Museum, Museo de Antioquia has a huge (mostly donated) collection of Botero paintings. Despite being a fan, having just gone to the Botero Museum in Bogota, I was a little excited to see there was a small wing of other artists’ works on display. My favorite was this piece by Antonio Caro:

I can’t reiterate enough that I do enjoy Botero very much. However, people watching in Plaza Botero proved to be just as enjoyable. Maybe it was because the giant sculptures made such excellent backdrops to most of the interactions between vendors and tourists or children and their parents taking the picture, or even the police officers who asked us to sign a pledge that we were not doing drugs in Medellin. At least, I think that’s what we pledged!

Inside Museo de Antioquia, we headed for the Botero wing first. There were more oversized paintings, more sculptures, and lots of early works that were interesting to see. I enjoyed this pair of paintings of Marie Antoinette and King Louis. Andrew’s favorite was the sculpture of a green violin.

In another wing of the building (a beautiful old city building I might add) was a more contemporary collection. This piece below was titled “School Bad” by Colombian artist Paulo Licona. The entire piece is made of pieces of chalk. I thought it was clever. Aside from this piece, and the few pieces (below) by Antonio Caro, I think the museum’s collection of contemporary art was a little lacking.