My visit to the beautiful city of Cartagena de Indias, the main spanish port on the caribbean coast, took in the colonial architecture within the fortified walls of the historic old town, the impregnable Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and a boat trip to a beautiful yet crowded beach in the nearby Islas del Rosario. I was eager for my first taste of Columbian nightlife and the excellent courtyard hostel bar proved to be a great place to meet fellow travellers as i left the World Cup wagon and joined the South American backpacker trail.
Leaving behind the humidity of the Amazon Jungle, I first flew to the Colombian capital, immediately feeling Bogota’s andean chill as i stepped off the plane. I relished the in-flight movie choices, watching the majority of the second Sherlock Holmes film, only to find my second flight didn’t offer movies – how annoying! After a not so brief stopover, my next delayed flight took me to the heat of Colombia’s Caribbean coast, beginning a new leg of my journey from the North of Colombia heading South through Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia. A short taxi ride to my hostel’s old town location, then a quick check-in and shower prepared me for this new adventure.
Hostel ‘El Viajero’ had a relaxed courtyard with hammocks to relax in and it’s bar serving drinks to socialising travellers. We reflected on other travellers’ preference to spend the evening in the lobby talking to their digital/online friends. I met plenty of people during my three night stay here, from holidaying Brits to backpackers exploring the depths of Columbia and South America.
My lack of appetite from the Caribbean heat combined with my preoccupation with meeting people meant that I skipped each night’s dinner. Instead I found company for venturing into Cartagena’s nightlife. The first night followed an English girl’s recommendation to ‘Cafe Havana’, a crowded salsa bar, but we changed to a calmer outdoor bar for more affordable beers and conversation – Cafe Havana was lively but loud and so more of an end-of-the-night destination. The following night I went to an equally expensive club, ‘Fragma’, which had classy clientele including stunning models accompanying rich old men. I managed a conversation in a mixture of broken Spanish and English with a local Colombian señorita and I bluffed my way around the dancefloor.
I regret missing a great opportunity to learn some salsa moves, with the hostel offering a post happy hour group lesson on my first and final nights. Understandably, the small numbers and reservations of the girls I was chatting to gave me an easy get-out first time around but a large gathering would have provided excellent cover had I joined my five female roommates at the second opportunity. As the moves got progressively more complex dancers fell behind, so I should have at least matched the earliest dropouts.
For an interesting insight into the city’s history of invasions by Spanish colonisers, pirates (including Sir Francis Drake), then French and English troops, I followed an excellent audioguide tour around the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. My false assumption that my visit would be sheltered by the fascinating tunnels and interior of the fortress could not have been more wrong! So after an hour and a half spent wilting and thirsty in the midday sun, I sought the air conditioning of a nearby shopping centre and restored my depleted energy reserves in its food court.
Stopping off at my hostel to reapply sun cream and shelter briefly from the intense heat, I continued into the historic old town to follow the perimeter ‘las muralles’, then stroll along cobbled streets, past colonial churches and through grand plazas.
A Day-trip Not to Remember
I followed my hostel’s recommendation to visit the Islas del Rosario on a day boat trip, which included a visit to the highly favoured Playa Blanca. ￼Having failed to set my morning alarm, i awoke already late for my boat’s departure and rushed to the port with the hostels assurance that they would not have left yet. Lucky for me this proved to be true, but the sweaty mass of frustrated tourists still waiting did not share my relief. As we set off (first stopping to fill up for petrol), it soon became clear that we could not enjoy our journey into the Caribbean Sea as the boat bounced harshly off every wave. Without cushioned seats and sufficient leg room, my body tensed and tucked upon each impact.
Any aspect of a tour was conducted in Spanish so I didn’t gain any information about the islands, although some English-speakers translated the options for the morning activity. Since both the aquarium and snorkeling were hidden extra costs, these two girls had to wait on the beach having brought no extra cash. The guide for our short snorkel was interactive and enthusiastic but the area had little to offer in terms of Caribbean wonders. Finally, our visit to Playa Blanca was packed with tourists in the afternoon, with boats filling the bay.
It wasn’t all bad as I enjoyed a tasty fish lunch and massage on the beach. I accepted the welcome treatment mainly because I had run out of suncream and the lady insisted she was using an aloe vera mixture that would act as protection from the sun. I erred on the side of caution though by purchasing a questionable natural oil that i was later ridiculed for its close resemblance to soy sauce! In terms of Playa Blanca itself, it was still a beautiful beach to visit with soft sand and crystal waters. I would, however, suggest to anybody intending to visit to organise your own boat amongst a group to arrive early and leave late, or better yet to overnight there so you can enjoy the beach without the hordes of day trippers.
But if you don’t enjoy waiting in the heat, uncomfortable boat rides, packed beaches, average snorkeling excursions and don’t understand Spanish, I advise you to AVOID this day trip!