Cartagena

The colourful maze
Cartagena, Colombia


There wasn’t a lot of point in going to bed. At 5am I was picked up by a taxi to head to the airport. It was still dark.

We drove through the skyscrapers, along the highway that runs right through the centre of the city. Surprisingly it barely took 20 minutes to drive the 35km to the airport – it looked so far on the map!!

The airport was surprisingly nice, decent shops. But no food!!!!! I was so hungry.

My flight to Cartagena was at 7.30am. And in terms of distance flown, is the most expensive flight I have taken. Almost £300 to fly for just 45 minutes!

There were only a handful of non-Colombians on the flight, so wonder if they get a better price than a foreigner does! Despite being only a 45 minute flight, I was shocked when they brought around breakfast! And I don’t remember specifying a vegan meal – but I must have done, as I got one! Papaya, melon and a vegetable pesto roll! Amazing!! With guava and pineapple juice. One of the best plane meals!

We landed at 8.30am with amazing views across the city.

2014 country number 19 – Colombia

I had never really considered Colombia as a place to go to. It was never on my list. Whilst in Central America in April, I bumped into many people who had been and were saying how amazing it was. I was surprised, I had always imagined it to be rather dangerous.

When I was flying home from Costa Rica, I was sat next to a man from Guatemala. He was asking where I had been to and was dismayed when I said I had never been to Colombia. His favourite place in the world was Cartagena. So I did a bit of research and was even shocked myself about how little I knew about Colombia. It looked awesome. So here I am.

First stop, Cartagena.

You pronounce it Cart-ah-haen-a. I must have sounded stupid the first few times that I was saying Cart-a-gen-a.

Passport was very quick, for once (like ever!) the foreigner queue was only 4 people long. Whilst the local queue was the entire rest of the plane. So I had a while to wait for my bags! After finding an ATM, I went in search of a taxi. As I have said many times before, I hate taxis. So was rather nervous. After explaining (in Spanish) where I wanted to go, I was given a really cheap price – cheaper than I was expecting – 10k COP (£3). Wow.

It was a short 15 minute drive, along the carribean coastline. It wasn’t a nice beach. Dirty looking sand and water, covered in litter, but groups of locals were bathing anyway.

Cartagena, like Panama City, is divided into clear sections – the beach hotels, the old walled city, the old city outside the walls and the new skyscraper land. I’m staying in the old walled city. It’s like a maze of one way streets. But the driver found the hotel very quickly.

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And it’s so lovely – an old house, surrounding a small courtyard, two pools and lots of places to sit, and an awesome rooftop. It was just before 10am when I turned up, sadly my room won’t be ready before 2pm…so there goes my idea of having a shower and a mini sleep!! So off to explore then. The girl at the desk said, don’t plan, just wander. Everywhere will look the same.

3.1416096000.fruit-on-the-moveSo I took her advice and got lost in the maze of colourful streets, randomly choosing a turning depending on how pretty each street was. And wow did I get lost.

I thought I was in one place, turns out I was somewhere completely different. Thank goodness I have mobile internet and could google map myself every so often when needed!

And where I got lost was just amazing. Old colonial buildings, flowers tumbling from balconies, churches, cathedrals, small green squares and food everywhere.

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The old city is encircled by 13km of stone walls and is (another!) UNESCO world heritage site. There are several forts just outside the walls of the city, these were built by the Spaniards in the 1700s. It was from here that they fought off pirates and also an invasion by British soldiers. Prince Charles and Camilla visited this city a couple of weeks ago. They were given a plaque commentating the 25,000 British that were killed when they failed to take over the city in 1741. Apparently this is now a laughing point for the locals.

I was surprised at how quiet the streets were. Turns out it was a public holiday – and that is not normal! Everywhere you looked was food. Every street corner something different. More on that tomorrow! But today I just bought some fruit, freshly cut watermelon and mango for 30p per cup. 5 mandarins and a huge mango for 60p.

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I bumped into the main churches, found myself up on the wall, crossing squares and speaking with friendly locals who just wanted to say hello as they passed on their way. This is a difficult place to write about.

Words just cannot do justice to the maze of colourful streets, which change at every turn. At the southern end of the wall is an open square, with the large entrances through the rock wall. On top is a yellow clock.

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Opposite the wall was the usual pretty balconies, but also an arcade called Portal de Los dulces. A whole street just for sweets! And these were very sweet sweets! Sugared fruits known as cocadas- coconut (like coconut ice), papaya, pineapple and more. Fudge type shapes – made into teddy bears and dolls. Wow. So much variety of sugar! I bought a couple of boxes to take home, was probably ripped off a bit at £2.40 for a box.

I was so excited to find an ice lolly shop that I had read about. So many exotic flavours of ice lolly. I got a green mango one (green mango being just before they are ripe – usually served with chili and salt). And it was delicious!! Full of mango chunks. Yum!!!!! Just what I needed in this 32 degree heat.

The supermarket was a whole new level of exciting. Fruits that I had just never seen before! I picked up lots of random things with no idea what they were or how to eat them. When I got back to the hotel, I got a knife and plate and tried them out. Turns out I had bought: – tomate de arbol (or tamarillo). A red fruit, with a slightly hard tomato texture, in a chilli shape. Usually used for making juice. Was ok. – a lulo (or naranjilla). Round, orange, tangerine sized. I thought it was perhaps a persimmon. I was very wrong! Full of seeds, like a tomato (Tomato de arbol). But bitter. I quite liked it! – a yellow pitaya. When I picked it up, I thought it might have been. But I’ve only seen the much larger pink ones before. And wow it was delicious!! A white soft flesh inside, the pips are larger than the pink variety. But it is so sweet and delicious! Loved it!! – a curuba (or banana passionfruit). A banana shaped, yellow fruit. And was exactly like a passionfruit inside! It was nice, but bitter. – granadilla and maracuya. (Passionfruit) I’ve had these before. But no harm in having more!! I just love them! The granadilla is very bitter. The maracuya is very sweet. Wow that was a nice lunch!!

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After a bit of a cool down, I was picked up at 2pm. I’m off to Volcan de Lodo el tortumo. A small volcano whose crater is filled with mud! The volcano is 50km away from Cartagena and took almost an hour to drive.

We pulled up at what looked like a large ant hill, 15m high, with steps leading up the side. We were taken to a small house where we could get changed. And given instruction to take just a bikini and nothing else. We gave cameras to a local guy, who for 3k COP (90p) would be our photographer. And then began to climb the hill.

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At the top were lovely views out across a large lake and the surrounding forests. Some local people were out fishing in dug-canoes. One at a time, we walked down the ladder into the volcano. The crater is filled with mud. 2.5km deep mud. However as our bodies are more dense than the mud, it is impossible to sink. It was weird.

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It wasn’t cold, or warm. Just body temperature. And the texture of yoghurt. It made me feel a bit dizzy. As you lowered yourself into the mud, one guy was giving instructions to you and at the final step, you were told to lay down. Once you were laying down on top of the mud, he proceeded to push you across the mud to the other side. Here, it was possible to have a ‘mud massage’. I opted not to! Other than that, you just floated around for a while, whilst the photographer at the top took pictures of you trying to stay upright. It was hard. Any small movement would cause you to become off balance, sending you sideways, backwards, or forwards, bumping into the people around you, as you have no control over your movements! Aside from being just weird, the mud is said to have healing properties. Healing skin conditions and even bone conditions. Hmm.

My skin did feel a bit softer afterwards however. After about half an hour of frolicking in mud, it was time to clamber out. As you started your way up the ladder, sure enough there was someone there to start scraping mud off you (I.e. Touching as much of you as possible). We all looked rather ridiculous. Totally covered in mud.

Then you made your way down to the lake to wash off. But were chased by local ladies who helped with the washing process. Rather vigorously. Even taking your bikini off for you. Luckily you were sat down in muddy water, so not quite so embarrassing! After that experience was all over, we could go and put on some dry clothes and buy some coconuts for 90p.

Well that was fun!

Then the drive back to cartagena. It was about 5pm by the time we got back. I was so tired and only managed to have a shower, before getting straight into bed!

Tuesday 18 November 2014

Today I had planned to do nothing. Just sleep. And pool. Annoyingly I woke rather early. But forced myself to try and carry on sleeping. I eventually gave up at 8.30am. Not very successful! The hotel breakfast was watermelon, or beef tortillas. Watermelon it was then! And a chica juice – blended rice and pineapple – was really good!

I went out for a wander around. This time I went in a slightly different direction to yesterday and again got a bit lost. But loved it! Today the streets were so busy. So busy that you couldn’t move on some of the streets. Even more people everywhere selling food. Some food stalls were moving around. The lime man. An avocado lady. A bread lady. A plantain man. Everywhere you looked. It was crazy.

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As I was wandering I bought some bits, watermelon, mangos, more yellow pitaya, some little souvenirs. And before I knew it, it was 12pm and I had been wandering about for 2.5 hours. Completely lost track of time whilst I was enjoying the surroundings. And I was sweating. So back to the hotel for some pool time!

At 3pm I was picked up for a walking street food tour. I’ve never done a walking tour before – normally preferring to just wander by myself. Which I have done. But here there is so much food on offer. And my Spanish is not that good that I can understand what everything is. And there is so much choice, I wouldn’t know where to start! We headed to the corner next to the India de la Catalina bronze statue, overlooking the fort. On this corner was such a large concentration of street food sellers. Each frying away. Fried food is very popular here.

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Popular dishes here are: – papa rellena – balls of potato, covered in a batter and fried – sausages – carimanola – yucca, blended into a paste, moulded and fried – I tried one of these, really good! – arepa de huevo – ground corn, made into a paste, flattened into a disc. Fried. Then cut open, an egg cracked into the middle, then fried again. This is a famous Colombian specialty. I tried one of these, it is as it sounds, a fried egg inside a crispy corn casing. There were several sauces to try too – a soured cream, a fresh salsa and a spicy salsa. – arepa de queso – a cheese variety of the above. But totally different. This is soft and white coloured. And like eating goo. – arepa de chocolo – not chocolate! But a sweet maize, ground into a flour and fried. Filled with a white cheese. It was gooey and had a strong cheese taste. – bunelos – sweet fried dough. Like a donut. – bollo mazorca – I didn’t try this. But it is a ground corn paste (same as for the arepa de huevo), but instead of fried, is steamed inside a corn leaf.

We carried on wandering around. Stopped for some coconut water. Here they are clever. They don’t serve coconut water in coconuts. They have it in coolers, in a plastic tube. You buy a tube, bite into it and suck the water out! I love coconut water, drinking it like this was like being back in Asia and drinking out of a small plastic bag! (But admittedly, not good for the environment).

We passed a stall of sweets, similar to the sweets sold on the sweet street that I visited yesterday. But they also had much more wet sweets – plums, cherries, papaya, pineapple, guava coconut, all in a sweet syrup. And dulce de leche. We bought a sweet cake – enyucado – made from ground yucca, ground vanilla, anise, sugar and coconut, and is baked. It was nice, but a slightly smokey taste to it. Coffee is sold on the streets by sellers with lots of flasks. You get a small shot sized cup of sweet coffee. This is how the locals drink it. They don’t get large cups of it!

Next up. The cheese man. He had a dish of cheese (queso costeno) that looked like it was full of holes. It had the texture of hallumi, but tasted rather strong. It’s a local Colombian cheese. You pair it with a slice of bocadilla – solid, sweet guava ‘jam’. And together is known as ‘matrimonio’. The perfect union. It was actually really tasty – and tasted good together! We were now into the Getsemani district.

We stopped at a lady’s house and out of her front window, she was selling ice pops! Frozen juice in a plastic tube. I had a passion fruit one. It was so delicious!! The rooftop of the Movich hotel has an amazing view. All across the entire city. All 360 degrees. Wow. An infinity pool with the view of the city. It was free to pop up and have a look too! I was left at the Museo del Oro – the gold museum.

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It was small and very cold (nice to be away from the heat!). Best of all, it was free to get in! They hold a collection of gold and pottery of the Sinu people, who inhabited the nearby areas around cartagena before the Spanish conquest. I liked the small golden animals. They were incredibly detailed. I’m not sure how I was still hungry after all that. I wasn’t. But i couldn’t resist as I passed the ice lolly shop again. And got a strawberry and mint lolly! So delicious!! I made my way back to the hotel without a map. These streets are making sense to me now. Just a shame that I am now leaving!! I love this place. For the rest of the evening, I did nothing. Just sorting out. Life admin!

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