Exploring the coast, jungle and some hidden gems along the way. Tolu, Mucura Island, Cartagena, Playa Blanca, Santa Marta
Out of all the countries I´ve been to in South America, I've found Colombia to be the most challenging. And not for any of the reasons you would expect. Colombia doesn't possess a very positive international reputation, yet the perceptions of it being a lawless country overrun by drug cartels and guerrillas must be held by people who have never visited or travelled here, or at least not within the last few years. There is no denying that Colombia has a turbulent political and social history but it's been an amazing place to travel; full of surprises and actually quite different to what I was expecting. When I informed people back at home that I was going to be travelling alone in Colombia, most people told me I was very brave and that they were worried about my safety, my parents were horrified and there were even jokes made about me being fleeced by drug gangs. Most people think Colombia and they think "coffee, cocaine and kidnapping". Well my experience is as follows...firstly the coffee. The coffee is fantastic but very upsetting for me it appears Colombia exports the majority of its good coffee because ive found it really hard to get the good stuff here. Secondly, the safety. I've been travelling all over the country for the last five weeks and have had no problems whatsoever, the infrastructure and transport systems are good, the cities modern and the people passionate, proud and friendly. Of course there are some areas which are not safe for travellers or Colombians alike but, whether a good or bad thing, there is a definite gringo trail being established here which makes travel easy. That said, since foreign tourism only really developed more widely in the last five years you do need to speak a basic level of Spanish to get around. There are also some hidden gems in the form of small towns, islands or places which haven't yet attracted a lot of foreigners, probably because they are not yet on their radar. Some parts have felt more edgy and definitely undiscovered and i'm so glad Ive experienced Colombia at this time, before more and more people realise it's such a great travel destination. And finally the cocaine. While Colombia remains the largest supplier of cocaine in the world, the majority is exported to meet the large demand abroad. All the Colombians I´ve met out here lead ordinary, hard working lives with no connection to the drugs trade whatsoever. Infact I've personally been exposed to more cocaine taking in the UK than anywhere here. It may surprise people but from my experience I think it's very easy to travel around South America without getting involved or even exposed to drugs, although of course its also easy to obtain them cheaply if you want to. Maybe people realise that drugs aren't my thing because in all my time here i've only been offered it twice; once in La Paz, Bolivia and here in Cartagena. Understandably a lot of Colombians really dont like the negative drug related images and connotations dominating the international media and a number are quite hostile towards tourists who come here just to snort cocaine cheaply without acknowledging that its production has caused mass civil conflict and continues to profit violent military groups. There is still drug related violence in a number of communities here and the sad fact that Colombia has the world´s second largest internal refugee problem. I'm more ignorant than i'd like when it comes to knowing whether what I consume on a daily basis has been produced and sourced ethically so im in no position to preach but after visiting Colombia I'd have no problem telling someone considering taking cocaine what the impact of the industry behind it has on innocent people here.
However, I don´t want to write anymore about the negative stereotypes regarding Colombia...I want to tell you all what an amazing, intriguing and diverse country it is! The reason I have found it so challenging was because i've been fascinated by all that I have seen here and desperate to get under the skin of the place..to really understand what life is like for the people here. Sadly my Spanglish has not supported my desire to access the culture here! Since English is not spoken widely by Colombians I´ve felt at times that my experience has been more observatory and this has been quite frustrating for me. It also took me some time to get into the pace of things here and start enjoying the country properly. It didn´t help that I´d come from Brazil which always fills me with a longing to be back there, or that all the travellers who had been to Colombia had told me such great things that my expectations had been raised very high which is never helpful! But slowly Colombia started to seep into me and I´m leaving here with a strong affection to the country and towards the people. I've been shown incredible warmth and hospitality by the people of every country Ive visited in Latin America and Colombia has been no exception. What i have found is that Colombians are hugely proud of all things Colombian and they want to know exactly what you think of their country. I've especially loved the music, the dancing and the diverse geography. Colombia has a beautiful landscape, you get everything here from lush green valleys, mountains, volcanoes, jungle and the white sandy beaches on the Carribean coast. The food has been a bit hit and miss, the fruits are spectacular (I will really miss my daily mango and lulu juice), the meals a bit on the bland side and i´m leaving here really craving a curry just so I can get some spice and flavour! Everything is fried and I started to get bored with eating fried fish, coconut rice and plantaine every day. Still, I´m not going to complain too much about that!
So, since my last blog (I know it's been a while but i've been very busy!) I left Medellin which was a fascinating and beautiful city. Devi and I took an overnight bus to Tolu, a simple seaside resort on the coast which is popular with Colombians going on holiday but not really on the radar of gringos. As soon as we arrived in the morning we were hit straight away with the strong, humid heat which was very different to the climate we had just come from in Medellin (known as the city of the eternal spring). We were quite tired from the bus journey since the roads had been quite bumpy and the drivers too enthusiastic with the air conditioning. We also realised very quickly that no-one spoke English and the Spanish here was more difficult to understand. However we managed to negotiate a "taxi" ride (by this I mean a man pedelling on a bike) to a basic hostel run by a very sweet old man who saw no problem in leaving the gas turned on with the cooker while trying to find matches so that we could have some hot water to make coffee. Tolu isnt the prettiest of towns but we both really liked it, it felt very real, relaxed and best of all you can reach the beautiful San Bernado islands in the Carribean sea from here. When we were in Salento we had been recommended by a fellow traveller from Chedder in England to visit Mucura, one of the San Bernado islands. So after spending a night in Tolu we arranged to take a speed boat to the island. At this point I had begun to realise that when Colombians tell you how long a journey is going to take, what they actually mean is the optimum time without potential complications. In reality you need to add at least 25% travel time onto your journey or you will get continually frustrated about how long it takes to get anywhere. The speedboat was supposed to take 45 mins to an hour to get to Mucura. 3 hours and one island stop later, we approached Mucura...the place was spectacular. Clear, warm turquoise waters, bright white sands, huge palm trees and only a handful of people in sight. We got off the boat with our small rucksacks (all our main belongings had been left on the mainland) and started to follow the hand written map drawn for us by the guy we had met in Salento. He had advised us that if we walked around to the other side of the island we could find a lady called layla who had a hut on the beach overlooking the sea for us to sleep in. We walked for a while trying to decifer whether we were going past the "odd little resort" or the "ugly new development" and eventually found layla and the hut which looked amazing. We negotiated a good price, left our stuff in the hut and went to sunbathe on the beach nearby which was totally deserted apart from a few pelicans who would fly past regularly before diving into the water to catch some fish. The place was heavenly and totally relaxing. Devi and I saw a spectacular sunset and then chilled out in the hut. It was then that we started to freak each other out. The hut had no lock on it so could be approached by anyone, Layla had no security and we had told several people on the island where we were staying (clever I know). As we both lay in bed the wind from the sea was quite loud and the hut which was high off the ground started to creak with noises that could be interpreted as someone climbing the steps into the hut if you were feeling pretty paranoid. Neither of us slept very well that night as we worried that we had gone to an island we knew nothing about and if one of us had gone missing in the middle of the night we would have felt pretty stupid explaining ourselves! Fortunately the only thing we were greeted with the next morning was Layla and the offer of breakfast. Another day in the sun we realised we had both burnt and it was time to return to Tolu (neither of us could cope with another night on the island). This is when the second heart stopping experience occured because the driver of the speed boat seemed to be in a hurry and gave ourselves and the other passengers a pretty hair raising ride back. The sea was particularly choppy and several times we were either completely off the water or at 90 degrees to one side. At one point I realised that if we capsized, I would have to make a decision about whether I saved Devi (who can't really swim) or my camera memory card which had some amazing photos stored on it. Somehow we managed to get back to Tolu dry and in one piece and rushed to the bus station to catch a bus to Cartagena. This driver of this bus must have been related to the speed boat driver because this journey was equally hair raising. In the end Devi and I just laughed at the whole experience and prayed we would get to Cartagena in one piece....
Cartagena: very popular with tourists and a bit crazy! We arrived in Cartagena from Tolu a few hours later, for once on time, which wasn't surprising considering the speed we were going. It was incredibly hot and sticky even though it was late and I started getting attacked by the mosquitoes. We grabbed a taxi which was driven by a very funny and friendly guy who insisted on taking us out for a cerveza. We politely gave our excuses when we got to the main street where all the hostels are, quite near the old town. As soon as we got out of the taxi we were accosted by what I can only explain as Cartagena's pimp daddy, a very confident, slightly pushy man who spoke pretty good English and told us he could help us get a hostel. Neither of us felt particularly threatened by him so we agreed to walk across the street to a hostel which looked ok. We just wanted to check in, take a shower and go out so ended up taking a room at the hostel shown to us. Big mistake. It was only when we got back from our night out that we realised the room was infested with cockroaches Without being able to do much about it we got into bed and just hoped we wouldn't get eaten alive in the night. The next morning we checked into another hostel called Media Luna across the road, definitely a gringo hostel full of cool laptop carrying travellers but it was bright, airy and had a pool and lovely roof top terrace. We spent 3 days in Cartagena, exploring mainly the old town (which is absolutely spectacular, both day and night), trying to find reggaeton at night and failing miserably (all the bars were heavy on the salsa) and one night at the open bar "Cafe Del Mar" with its spectacular views over the sea and city (and hugely overpriced drinks). We also took a day trip to "Volcan de Lodo El Totumo", a mud volcano which you can climb into. It was soooo much fun! The sensation of being in the mud was incredible, you don't sink and the mud is really thick, the smell reminding me of the geysers I had seen in Bolivia. Once in the volcano a man gave each tourist a quick massage (3,000 pesos), another took photos (3,000 pesos) and then when you got out you could be washed by one of the local women (another 3,000 pesos). The cost was nothing and I liked that it was supporting something local so I went for the full experience! The river washing was particularly funny, with no time for modesty the woman fully wiped off my bikini and started scrubbing me down! I enjoyed Cartagena although it was a bit too touristy for me and much more expensive than the rest of Colombia. I also didn't particularly like the area where all the hostels are, it's the red light district of Cartagena and there were some disturbing propositions being offfered on the streets. That said, Devi and I walked around alone at night feeling completely safe and we got no hassle, apart from all the hissing from the taxi drivers which although annoying was not threatening. We also met a couple of lovely Australian girls in the hostel and they told us they were going to a nearby island called Playa Blanca for a couple of days so we agreed to go with them.
Playa Blanca was also a bit too touristy for me, and although beautiful it did not compare to the beauty of Mucura. However the beach was very pretty, I got a nice massage on the sand from a local woman and I had my first experience of sleeping overnight in a hammock near to the sea. Two days and one night was enough for me, and when it was time to get the speedboat back I realised just how burnt I had become. I put on lots and lots of moisturiser in an attempt to rectify the situation but this unfortunately meant that when I was being helped into the boat I got all slippery from the sea water and fell heavily, and in a very undignified manner, into the boat which amused my fellow travellers greatly but really really hurt The speedboat ride home was another hair rising experience and made me realise I am too old for this form of transport. Once we got back to Cartagena we grabbed our bags and took a bus to Santa Marta. The bus company had told us we would arrive at around 10pm but in fact we arrived nearer midnight which wasn't great but we managed to get a taxi with a lovely guy who took us to our hostel. I really, really liked Santa Marta and I can't really explain why. Most travellers use it just as a stopping point to get to the National park and Lost City Trek but it felt really Colombian, noisy, a bit crazy and full of friendly people.
Since this blog is fast becoming an essay, I will write about my last few days in Colombia another time. Some amazing things happened in my last week, including the Lost City Trek and celebrating my Birthday in Medellin. Will update in a few days! xx