When I told people I was heading to Colombia for winter break, I was often met with a similar reaction that fell along the lines of “Is it safe there?” or “What is there to do there?”. After binge watching Narcos; the Netflix tell-all tale of Pablo Escobar, I couldn’t very well blame people for their lack of enthusiasm about my upcoming trip. Yet, if I thought my trip to Colombia was going to be filled with highland adventures to mountainous cities, pleasant meanderings on coffee plantations, and Pablo Escobar tours in Medellin, I was wrong. Sometimes, God throws you what you really need instead, and you just have to go with it.
We started the week in Cartagena; a charming, coastal, Spanish colonial city that is known as “the Jewel of the Caribbean”. Even during the violent drug trafficking years that plagued Colombia for much of the second half of the 20th Century, Cartagena remained a safe and widely visited destination for tourists. Arriving in the early evening on a Saturday night, we could easily see why this city is so alluring.
We spent the first night eating hiptser versions of pizza in a cute, little, outdoor gastro-pub, before exploring the streets of Getsmani, where there seemed to a party taking place on every corner and in every plaza.
On our way back to our hotel, we ran into a group of Colombians who were VERY enthusiastic about life and took about 50 photos posing with them before we headed back to the hotel to call it a night.
We were staying in the Hotel Las Casa Palmas, located in the neighborhood of Getsmani, which is part of the old city, but sits just outside the colonial walls, lending itself to more grit than the perfectly manicured touristy section of Cartagena. This is also where most of the best bars and night clubs are, so it is great place to stay when visiting the city. Our hotel was located within a Spanish colonial house that dates back to the 17th century. The rooms were colorful and comfortable, and with an airy courtyyard and two four-legged watchmen who always greeted us when we arrived, we loved the charm of the place.
Also, the street art throughout this section of Cartagena is among the most interesting I have come across in my travels, expressing everything from politics to 90s pop culture, and everything in between.
And who doesn’t love a healthy obsession with Alf?
Yet, one could sense that the mood of the neighborhood was shifting. Within the four days we spent there, we witnessed the gentrification process taking place before our very own eyes. Right outside the doorsteps to our hotel, was a dilapidated bodega, while just 500 feet down the street there were two new Euorpean style cafes catering to well-heeled travelers. We actually witnessed the transformation of one these cafes while we were there.
Understandably, there are many local Colombians living in the neighborhood who are fearful they will be bought out and removed from their homes to accomodate the growing tourist industry in Colombia. But the history of Cartagena has not always been so alluring for international visitors.
Our first full day in Cartagena, we strolled over to the walled city to do some sight seeing. First on our list was the Palace of the Inquisition. It is here where people were questioned, accused, tortured and publicly shamed from around 1619 to the time of Colombia’s indpendence. Among all the pleasantries of Cartagena, the museum serves as a reminder of the city’s lurid history.
From here we continued to stroll the beautiful streets, arriving down by the waterside where we came across a women selling fresh sliced mangos in a beautiful square. After Michelle bought some mangos and told the lady that she loved her dress, the three of us preceded to partake in individual photoshoots with the pleasant mango seller.
After making some tentative plans for the week, we decided to leave the tranquil beauty of the old colonial section of Cartagena and venture to the nitty, gritty, Bazurto Market; a sprawling area filled with street food and cheaply made products, often imported from China. We hailed down a cab and were greeted by Raphael, our friendly driver who offered to walk with us inside the market so we would know where to go. We had already read about the famed Cecilia’s (thank you Lonely Planet and Anthony Bourdain), but were informed by both of those sources that it is extremely difficult to find on one’s own. Fortunately, Raphael brought us right to the restaurant where we were enthusiasticly greeted by Cecilia’s daughter (Cecilia has off on Sundays) and allowed to try the different dishes that were cooking in the large pots that stood beside a few plastic tables and chairs. The three of us laughed with gratitude as the entrepreneurs happily passed us spoon-fulls of cheese soup, chicken and rice, shrimp, coconut rice, and tortugas (yes turtle), to name a few. We decided to try a bit of everything and treated Raphael for getting us there. During lunch we asked Raphael what else he would recommend for us to see in Cartagena, to which he replied the northpoint of the city. Here, he said, we could witness the juxtaposition of extreme wealth and poverty, examining luxury highrises existing side by side with ramschackeled homes and stilt houses along the mangroves. We asked him if he would mind taken us there, to which he happily obliged. First however, he drove us by his house to briefly meet his daughter and grandaughter who was handed through his driver’s side window, into the car for us to greet. Once she began to cry however, she was passed right back out that window, and off to the northpoint we went.
In the evening, after we all took much needed naps, Courtney and I headed around the block of our hotel to seek out some coffee before our big night out. With most coffee shops closed on Sunday, the waitress at the Pizzeria offered to make us coffee if we went down the street to the bodega to get the milk. Deal! After spending a pleasant hour or so at the Plaza Del Pozo, Michelle met up with us and we all headed off to dinner. In addition to great seafood, Cartagena has many Italian options which serve excellent pastas and pizza. After our street food lunch inside the city market, we opted for the comfort of vino and pizza for dinner. Grabbing street mojitos to go, we went back to the hotel to freshen up before we ventured out to Club Havana. Recommended as one of the best places for nightlife in all of Cartagena, Club Havana does not dissapoint. With strong drinks, live music, and enthusiastic locals willing to teach akward white gringas how to dance, this place is a must for anyone seeking a fun night out.
Waking up with a massive hangover the next morning, we found out from a couple at breakfast that the national park we had planned to visit from Cartagena was closed for renovations until March 1st. With no real plans for the week, we plucked out our guidebooks and tried to lay down some ideas of where to head to next. With the beautiful islands of San Andres and Providencia lingering just 800km away, we seemed to be leaning in that direction. In the meantime, we had planned to take a bus to Playa Blanca for the day to get in some quality beach time without having to travel very far outside the city. The beach was delightful and relaxing, with cabana boys willing to bring us drinks, lunch, and whatever else we might need to nurse our hangovers.
By the end of the day, my body began to ache and I felt the chills one usually experiences as their body is about to breakdown and get sick. By nightfall, I was in full fever mode barely able to keep my head up at dinner. The next morning faired no better for me as we headed to the airport at 5am to attempt to buy tickets to San Andres. Unable to obtain tickets for that day, we secured flights for the following day and headed back to the hotel to tumble back into our beds. After crawling out of bed around 11am and grabbing a delicous bite to eat at Cafe Lunatica, I wished Courtney and Michelle fun adventures for the day and dragged myself back to the hotel to spend the day sleeping in bed. In the evening, feeling slightly better, we all made our way down to Cafe Del Mar to take in the sunset, along with every other person in Cartagena who apparently had the same idea as us. We decided to forego the obligatory sunset drinks and walked the wall a bit before settling into dinner at an Argentinian steakhouse located in the fancy part of the old city.
Feeling rested and a bit better the following day, we took an early morning flight to the island of San Andres. Though not quite as adventerous as I had imagined Colombia, the next two days turned out to be just what we all really needed; lazy, boozy days lying on white sand beaches, coupled with a splash of adventure riding around the island via golf cart. Perfecto!
While visiting San Andres, we also hopped a boat across the water to Johnny Cay; a laidback mini island with a Jamaican vibe. After sipping Coco Loco’s along the beach, we went swimming with sting rays and enjoyed some of the best snorkeling I have ever experienced before taking the boat back to San Andres to catch our evenning flight back to Cartagena. No complaints here!
As we boarded our plane to leave our beloved San Andres Island, the mood among our fellow passengers was festive to say the least. The two hours we spent flying back to Cartagena, we couldn’t help but be ammused and a bit befuddled at all the cheers, hooting and hollering, and multiple seat changes that took place before we even took off. We soon found out that most of our fellow passengers were heading to Barranquilla for Carnival, as were we.
A little lesser known among the tourist circuit, Barranquilla is another coastal city with no real reason to visit outside of Carnival. In fact, everything we had read about it had basically desribed it as an industrial wasteland which should be skipped altogether. We were expecting the worse. Yet, when we arrived in Barranquilla early Friday afternoon, we were pleasantly surpised at the lovely archictecture, beautiful skyscrapers, and wide, tree-lined avenues that seemed to lend itself to more of a Beverly Hills sort of feel than an industrial wasteland. As we drove into the city we passed numerous houses and restaurants with carnival decorations adorning their front lawns and gates, as well as colorfol ribbons and street art everywhere in preparation for the biggest four days of the year. Outside of Rio, Barranquilla’s Carnival is the biggest celebration in Latin America, and in fact, it is the second largest Carnival in the World. This seemed like a perfect way to end the trip.
Hotel Casa Bellasteros, located in the beautiful El Prado section of the city, was in full blown carnival mode when we arived early Friday afternoon. We were greeted with welcome drinks, and hors d’oeuvres, then spent the better part of the afternoon lounging around the pool listening to a live Cumbia band play traditional Carnival songs. That evening, thanks to the recommendation of one of our colleagues whose father lives in the city, we had a delightfully fun dinner at Cucayo, a local and colorful place with live music and great food.
After listening to the band play for a bit, we hopped a cab to a giant church plaza where the Carnival festivities were being kicked off by the Carnival Queen on a giant stage. There were mostly Columbians, interspersed with a few tourists, walking and dancing the plaza while drinking Aguilas, boxes of cheap rum, and the infamous Aguardiente; Colombia’s signature liquor. Realizing we were entirely too sober to get a buzz from the very watered down Colombian beer, I decided to buy us a bottle of the deadly liquor and do some shots. I was able to get about two down before I could feel my stomache turning inside out. Courtney and Michelle faired better than me, with Courtney actually proclaiming she liked the stuff. With half a bottle left and the three of us totally content not to touch the stuff again, I offered a shot to an older lady who was standing next to us. On first offer she declined, but it did start up a conversation in which we learned that although she was Colombian, she had lived in Toronto most of her adult life and only now was returning after 30 plus years to celebrate her retirment. As we congratulated her on her retirement, she abruptly changed her mind about the Aguardiente, and next thing I knew she was interlocking arms with Michelle and throwing back a shot! We fast became friends with her traveling comnpanions as well, one of whom informed us of all the best places to be for the parade the following day. We continued to dance with our new found friends, before we escaped the crowd, but not without being sprayed by white foam; another endearing tradition of Carnival in Barranquilla
The next morning we were up early to send Courtney off as she headed back to Cartagena to catch her flight home. Then, around 730 in the morning we began to hear loud music coming from the pool below. We looked out the window and saw that the same Cumbia band from the day before had set up next to the breakfast buffet and was already belting out Carnival music for the day’s festivities. After the most festive (and loud) hotel breakfast I have ever had, we bought our tickets and headed to Calle 77 to watch the opening parade of the 2017 Carnival de Barranquilla, “The Batlle of the Flowers”. Arriving early, we had scored seats in the front of the bleachers and were fortunate to be surrounded by friendly and gracious Colombians. As the parade began, the excitement in the crowd was contagious! The rhythmic beating of music was accompanied by colorful dancers, singers, floats, transvestites, foe FBI agents, dancing guerrillas, dracula, blackface characters called Sons of de Negro, Seiks in body suits, monsters, TV stars, musicians, and so much more. If the St. Paddy’s Day Parade, the Thanksgiving Day Parade and the Gay Pride Parade all had a strange love-child, coupled with a splash of cocaine, you would begin to get a sense of the day’s festivities.
As we spent the day dancing and celebrating with the people around us, we found out that the 70 year old couple next to us had been coming to Carnival in Barranquilla for over 50 years. In fact, the woman had previously been a dancer in the parades before she met her husband. They also told us how their grandson had been kidnapped by one of the drug cartels years earlier and that they had had to pay a handsome ransom fee to get him back. Yet here they were, celebrating Carnival along with millions of other Colombians from around the country, and I thought that this couple was the perfect euphenism for the nation itself. With a newly agreed upon peace agreement between the FARC rebels and the Colombian government, you could feel the hopefulness in the air, and having experienced one of the continent’s best street parties with arguably the world’s best dancers, one can not help but root for Colombians as they work to put their violent past behind them for good. Barranquilla’s Carnival slogan offically translates to “Those who live it are those who enjoy it.” With the celebratory vibe that exists throughout the country right now, the Colombians know how to party. May they live and enjoy it for years to come!