We spent four nights in Cartagena and decided it was time for some well deserved beach time. I know, woe is us!
We hopped a taxi to Muelle de la Bodeguita Harbor, the main staging area in Cartagena for boat tours and cruises to the nearby Rosario Islands. Many hundreds of people congregate in the morning to hop onto 50 passenger speed boats to do day trips to the resorts scattered throughout the islands. Our boat was booked specifically to take us to our resort and we had probably 25 people, maybe 6 of which were staying at the resort and the remainder just day trippers going to to the resort to hang out at the pool, have lunch and then head back to the mainland. There were good city views from the boat heading out of the harbour.
We were originally going to book 10 nights but decided on 7 and this turned out to be very good decision.
Our accommodation, Cocoliso Eco Luxury Resort was a worn out resort with the only semi-redeeming feature being a nice pool. The rooms were okay aside from the mould around the bathroom sink and literally no water pressure in the shower and no hot water. Zero hot water. The grounds were nice but that was probably the only thing that keeps this place occupied.
There were no English menus in the restaurant so we relied on Google Lens. The food choice was seriously limited and the prices for the some of the worst food we had were outrageous. Breakfast was included and it was cold and the coffee was cold and weak until we finally asked for cafe fuerte, strong coffee which was brewed for another guest because they couldn’t stand the wash water that was served.
Finally, and we’re not sure why but it seemed anything that could be stored in a fridge such as bread, fruit, or anything porous had a taste of burned plastic or electrical. The food really sucked!
And there was no beach! The photos of the “resort” had definitely been embellished.
We were seriously thinking about leaving after 5 nights and eating the $400 + cost but lo and behold, not more than a 7 minute walk from our place was a nice resort with not one but two beaches, a good selection of food and an ENGLISH menu! Suffice to say we spent our days there, had nice lunches and then headed back to our hotel where we would have a few drinks and then dread ordering a dinner entree of something they called food.
At least we got a sun tan and we didn’t we get sick. Well until day 5 when Joyce met me for a drink at our hotel bar, had one sip and immediately started to feel nauseous. She spent the evening and night in the bathroom and and all the next day in bed unable to keep anything down and also suffering from a massive migraine.
Fortunately she felt better the day of our departure because the ride back in the boat was extremely rough. She was a little wobbly when we got off the boat and hopped into a cab and then proceeded to get really nauseous from the overwhelming smell of aftershave or car cleaner or something. I was staring to feel sick too and both of us nearly passed out before arriving at our hotel. Joyce felt worse after the taxi ride than after the crazy boat ride. Oh well c’est la vie.
We had four nights/three days in Cartagena so we explored old town, checked out Playa de Bocagrande, the main beach in Cartagena and not worth the visit and then made a day trip to San Basilio de Palenque, the first “free town” for Africans in the Americas.
The free lands of San Basilio de Palenque were founded more than two hundred years before Columbia achieved independence from Spain. To this day their culture and traditions have remained intact which is why UNESCO declared Palenque a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2005.
The exact date of the foundation of the town is not known but it is immortalized by the statue of Benkos Bioho, a West African slave who escaped from Cartagena and with other escapees established their own settlement and were eventually given the right for freedom in a decree signed by the Spanish Crown.
We hired a driver in Cartagena and his fee included a guide in Palenque. It was extremely hot outside and we wandered around dog poop littered roads hearing about the history of this town of 4,000 people.
Many of the cultural practices from music, medicine, social and religeous beliefs have direct African roots that have thrived for centuries. Several walls throughout the village have colorful Bantu/Palenquero words painted on walls. Bantu, an African language has been mixed with Spanish to create the Palenquero language, one of 68 languages found in Columbia and the goal of the the painted walls of words is to keep the language alive and maintain it’s African roots.
Further along our walk through the village we stopped at an old house which was representative of the homes from about 100 years ago. One of the fascinating things we learned had to do with the braiding or cornrows that black women would do to each others hair. What appeared to be just braids served as maps and escape routes and tools of resistance. Benkos Bioho came up with the idea and no one would question or think that one could hide entire maps in their hairstyle so it was easy to to circulate them without anyone finding out about them.
We made a short stop at the local Shamans hut where we were told the village did not experience any Covid cases because all were given a drink concoction of eye of newt, no sorry, of natural herbs and spices grown locally. Like any shamans place there were mixtures and tinctures and drinks and powders for whatever ailed the human condition.
Our last stop was a small monument dedicated to a local boxer, Antonio Cervantes, aka Kid Pambele, a boxing world Jr. Welterweight champion in 1973 and 1976 born and raised in Palenque. A pride of his village and one of three well known boxers to have originated in this town.
We arrived in Cartagena on the morning of January 12th after a short flight from Medellin. We were instantly hit with a + 10 degree temperature difference. Welcome to Caribbean Columbia!
We stayed at a small converted mansion, Casa Abril II located within the walls of old town Cartagena (Cartagena de Indias) which is a UNESCO designated world heritage site.
The colonial architecture in the old town is outstanding, built by the Spanish from the mid-16th century. Strolling through the streets we were met by beautiful huge vines of buganvilias that spilled over the terraces eliciting a sense of well being and beauty.
And then came the non-stop harassment from the multitude of vendors and street sellers and wanna be rap hip hop singers who forced their way into your face and royally pissed us off. And if there happened to be a billion (5,000) passenger cruise ship in town then all bets were off. Old Cartagena with all of it’s colonial beauty is not a place we would visit again and is probably worth only a day or two of your time.. The harassment was never ending. Por favor deja de molestarnos, please stop bothering us.
On a more positive note, the restaurants we visited were all top notch and the food was delicious however being in a main tourist attraction, the prices were also way up there. Not much different than the prices in our home town of Vancouver.
Just outside the walls of Old Cartagena is the large and imposing Castillo de San Felipe, the largest military building constructed by the Spanish Crown in the Americas. The castle was built in 1536 and is located on the Hill of San Lazaro which gives it an excellent vantage point and strategic location to view the approaches to the city by land or sea. Our impression was this was more of a fort than a castle because there were very few inner passages you could explore and none seemed to lead to rooms or sleeping quarters however this may be because these aren’t open to the public if they do indeed exist.
After our arrival on the 6th, we checked into a nice boutique hotel, Hotel La Martina, grabbed a few hours nap, had a light dinner and then had a great 12 hour sleep. Now we were ready to explore this “ City of Eternal Spring”.
Located in Columbia’s mountainous Antioquia province, Medellin sits in the Aburra Valley, a central region of the Andes Mountains and sits at an elevation of just under 5,000 feet.
Medellin has an excellent transit system. The main train system runs north and south with two east west extensions and also boasts 5 cable cars (gondolas) that reach high up into the barrios that line the slopes of the valley. The transit system also has an elaborate Metro Plus bus system and a Tramway that extends east from the San Antonio station to two separate cable cars at Miraflores and Oriente stops. Our hotel was only a 10 minute walk away from Poblado station so it was a no-brainer to use this very efficient system every day.
We started off our day with a down hill walk to Poblado Station. Access to most of the stations requires the climbing of may stairs and on our first ascent of these stairs we nearly passed out from lack of oxygen due to the higher elevation of the city. We’re in pretty good shape and 5,000 feet isn’t really all the high but it took several days to acclimatize.
Our first day was a bit of a whirl wind. First stop was Jardin Botanico, (the city’s botanical gardens). The gardens weren’t particularly special and the whole area was in need of some TLC.
From the gardens we walked about 500 metres through some, shall we say interesting fauna that was congregated under the elevated train tracks to the very interesting Cemetario Museo San Pedro. A cemetery of ornate tombs of notable Columbians.
After deciding that we too shall some day entomb our remains in an ornate cemetery we hiked back to the train station and continued north to Acevedo stop where we jumped into a cable car to Santo Domingo and then purchased a return ticked for a 20 minute cable car ride high into the mountains to Avri Parque, a huge ecological nature reserve with 54 km of walkable trails in 16,000 hectares of forest, plants and ecosystems. It was Saturday and it was a long weekend and the place was packed with touristas, it was cold and it started to rain so we we had a snack, looked around a little and then hopped the cable car back down to Santa Domingo, changed cable cars, rode down to the train station, jumped onto a packed train, hiked up the hill back to our hotel and collapsed at our hotel entrance after 13,500 steps and god knows how many stories of stairs climbed.
The next day, Sunday the 7th we walked back down hill to the train station and rode to SanAntonio stop, hopped onto a sleek Tram and proceeded to Placita de Flores to wander through a traditional market selling flowers, meat, produce, herbs and the usual knick knacks.
The San Antonia area is apparently a lively place but being a Sunday practically all of the businesses were closed so it was an uneventful stroll back to the train station and then onward back to our hotel.
Friday January 6th and Monday the 9th were national holidays called “Epiphany”, also called Baptism of Jesus, Three Kings Day, Denha, Little Christmas etc. What it meant for us were very packed trains and long lines to purchase train tickets so on Monday the 9th we decided to put on our Panama hats and play Juan and Juanita Valdez and visit a coffee plantation high in the mountains outside of Medellin.
It was an interesting trip but being in a tropical rain forest usually means a high of probability rain so rain it did.
We don’t mind the rain but the steep, lung bursting path up into the plantation was lined with smooth rocks implanted into mud. After three minutes and gasping for air we both started to think this wasn’t such a good idea, it was really slippery, we didn’t want to kill ourselves and end our trip that had just begun but we forged ahead anyway, me hoping not to pass out, and made it into a fertile coffee forest full of the famous Columbian Arabica bean. We actually learned alot about coffee and at the end of our session we were treated to a typical lunch of rice, plantain, chicken and arepa wrapped in a bananna leaf.
Tuesday the 10th was not a national holiday but you wouldn’t have known it if you paid a visit to Parque de Berrio, a short train ride from our area, Poblado Station.
Described as a lively gathering point it is located in the geographical centre of Medellin and has been considered for generations as the main meeting place and as the main reference for visitors and foreigners. However it is considered, it was a crazy mix of vendors, vagrants, prostitutes and a whole cornucopia of the human existence and also home to Plaza Botero, surrounded by the Museo de Antioquia and the Rafeal Uribe Palace of Culture. 23 brass sculptures donated by Columbian artist Fernando Botera are displayed in the park and an incredible selection of Botero’s art is displayed in the Museum.
Our final day in Medellin was spent exploring Communo 13, once the most violent neighbourhood in the world in the most violent city in world controlled by gangs loyal to Pablo Escobar.
Communo 13 was an illegally built barrio so it was not recognized by the government and therefore did not have any police presence so it was an ideal place to run guns and drugs as the area lead directly to the main San Juan Highway.
Everything came to a head on October 16, 2002 when the Columbian military carried out the controversial Operation Orion, an operation aimed at the overthrow of all of the gangs and rebel groups of Communa 13. Over 1,000 policemen, soldiers and a number of helicopters attacked the area. Several people died including three children. The siege made it impossible to seek medical attention for the wounded so the community took to the streets in solidarity and flew white rags and cloth. This action stopped the fighting but also led to an incredible transformation underlined by “accessibility” to the barrio ( escalators were installed to allow access to the upper areas approximately 23 stories above the lower reaches), “creativity” and “community”. There is too much to write about this amazing place but suffice to say the community has transformed into an incredible neighbourhood and is now one of the safest areas in Medellin. After a very hot tour around the area we stopped for a typical Columbia lunch.
One step ahead of the rain, it rained quite a lot in Medellin, we made our way back to our hotel and had an early night im preparation for an early flight the next morning to Cartagena.
First stop, Medellin, Columbia via Toronto and Bogota. We departed January 5th and arrived at out hotel 23 hours later January 6, 2023, had a taxi waiting for us at the airport and headed to our hotel quite tired from the long journey.