We're on the road again, like Willy Nelson!
After a much needed and appreciated reprieve from life on the road while in the States the final leg of the Pro Leisure Tour through South America kicked off with a Tuesday evening flight out of Chicago's O'Hare International. There was a little excitement during the check-in process at the Spirit Airlines check-in desk when we were informed that we were not going to be able to board because we only had a one-way ticket into Colombia and that there is a requirment that all people entering Colombia have proof of onward travel, either a return ticket or a ticket to somewhere else out of the country. We were a little skeptical so pushed back and had the check-in staff double and triple check with their superiors. After about 15 minutes of them on the phone they finally acquiesced and agreed to allow us to board so long as we took responsibility for purchasing the return ticket and paying any fines if we were denied entry by immigration in Cartagena. No problemo!
We had a 12 hour lay-over in lovely Fort Lauderdale which we passed at the equally lovely 'Red Carpet Inn'. The room was decent enough, but the people hanging out around that place reminded me of an episode of 'Cops' circa 1992. In the morning we decided it best to play it safe and so we logged onto Expedia and bought fully refundable tickets from Bogota to Quito, Ecuador so we could have something in case the Immigration official in Cartagena was having a bad day and decided to be a jerk. Predictably when we got to Immigration in Cartagena there was no mention at all about proof of onward travel and we sailed right through. For the record, Expedia did give us a 100% refund, so no harm to foul.
You can feel it as soon as you step outside, and its not just the oppresive heat and humidity...mild chaos, loud exhaust, incessant honking...yup, we're in Latin America again, and it feels good! A quick taxi ride into town left us at the Marlin Inn which was to be our home for 3 nights in Cartagena. We checked in, dropped our bags and after a quick session sitting in front of the AC to lower our body temperatures we headed out into the heat to get some food and do some preliminary exploring of the city.
What a beautiful city! We've seen more then a few beauties in our travels and I have to say that Cartagena would rank up near the top of the list. Renovated and restored Colonial architecture is punctuated by vivid colours coming from all directions. Each street we headed down was postcard perfect, complete with cobblestoned streets and lined with colorful balconies and hanging vines and flowers. The entire old city is surrounded by a picturesque wall originally meant to defend the city from the many pirates during the colonial era, but which now serves as a walk way upon which you can find amazing views down onto the city in one direction and views out into the Caribbean Sea in the other.
We found an oasis of blasting cold A/C at the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) which was mildly interesting, but more importantly frigidly cold and free to enter. For the record, we weren't the only people in there feigning interest in the exhibits for sake of that blessed A/C. For dinner that night we had a decent pizza accompanied by our first Colombia Club beers and an awful glass of white wine, I guess we'll have to stick with the beers for the time being and save our wine drinking for further south.
Day 2 began with a run around the perimeter of the wall and along the water. It was ungodly hot, and so the run was relatively short. Next we headed out to the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas which is the castle/fortress that is perched as protection on a hill overlooking the city and the surrounding bay. Apparently, it's considered one of the best examples of Spanish military architecture. We know that because we took the audio tour and spent about 2 hours wandering the grounds listening to all sorts of titillating facts as they spewed forth from our loaner walkman. From the top there are amazing views back over Cartagena and out to the Caribbean. Well worth the visit. The rest of the day was spent wandering the city and taking breaks in the A/C. For dinner we found a cheap as chips local spot and ate a surprising good 17,000 Peso meal ($10) including a beer each, before heading back to the sanctity of the air conditioned room.
Not a lot on the agenda for day 3 except to get to the Museum of Modern Art. We took our time with breakfast and getting rolling that morning and then got to the museum just after noon, which is when it closed for its 3 hour lunch break. Sweet. We went to 'Juan Valdez' cafe for an iced coffee and reading session that took a few hours. The people in front of us (German tourists) got ripped off by the guy at the cash register. I watched the whole thing happen and tried to help them without getting too involved in the situation...they didnt pay me any heed, (like I said I didn't want to insert myself into a situation that is none of my business)...and thus they found themselves 10,000 pesos ($6) poorer. Thems the breaks!
When we got back to the Museum at 3pm we were informed by a passerbyer that it was closed all day for a public holiday...right, I guess we're not meant to go into that museum. Instead we headed across the plaza and into the museo/catedral de San Pedro Claver who was a bishop highly involved with evangelizing and supporting the slave population that was brought in by the Spanish. He is considered a great patron of civil rights in Colombian history and has a pretty neat little museum and cathedral named after him.
Back at the hostel that evening we tried to by tickets out to Playa Blanca for the next morning and we were informed that the 'big boat' was full, but the guy at the hostel told us he had an amigo who might be able to get us on in the morning and so to be ready at 7:30am, and so we were...
At 7:30am the guy rang his amigo and then told us that there were no spots left on the 'big boat', but that as luck would have it (yeah, right!!!) his amigo knew a fisherman who could take us on his boat for about 2/3 the cost...G and I exchanged a quick glance, then shrugged...sure...why not. Thus we found ourselves hopping into a taxi with the amigo and being whisked out of the tourist friendly old town and to a very grimy, very local, very, very pungent fish market where we were unloaded and introduced to a young guy who was in the process of loading up his boat with supplies that he would be delivering (along with a handful of passengers) to Playa Blanca. 'Amigo' assured us we were in good hands and bid us farewell, the time was 8:15am. Yup, alllll part of the adventure.
And there we sat, and sat, and sat...slowly, the boat filled with more and more supplies and more and more people. The scene before us was quite interesting...people hacking fish up at one spot, people selling all manners of crap in other spots, bargaining, bartering, arguing, shouting, laughing, stray dogs, litter, questionable uses of the disgusting water that the boat sat in...you know: standard issue activities at a marketplace in a developing nation. The hours passed and still we sat. By this time G and I started to pass the time by commenting on some of the characters we had both been watching. Our favorite by far was the 'bread man' who had a little bicycle powered pastery shop and who hawked his goods with a relentless stream of ''pan, panes, hay pan, pan, panes, hay pan, pan, panes''. At times it appeared that he slipped into a trance or maybe in to a bout of Torrets Syndrome because his hawking often appeared spastic, uncontrollable and involuntary. ''pan, panes, hay pan, pan, panes, hay pan, pan, panes''.
Finally I asked the lady beind us on the boat when she thought we would be leaving...she laughed and said 'not for a while'. Never the response you're hoping for!
At last the boat was as full as it could possibly be and we started to see signs of them getting ready to leave. The engines were fired up and just as we were set to pull back another stream of stuff and people came crashing on board including one HUGE drunk guy who literally jumped on as the boat was backing out. He landed onboard with a crash and then unceremoniously wedged his way into a seat much to the dismay of everyone on the already too full boat. He then pounded the rest of his beer, threw the empty bottle into the ocean, shouted a few incoherent things at nobody in particular and then promptly passed out. Lucky for Gina he was sitting directly in front of her and so when he fell asleep he slumped with his head back damn near in her lap. Yeah, just a little awkward. We were riding very low as we pulled out of the Bay and into the open sea...I looked at G and said: ''maybe we should put these life jackets on'' and we did.
Thankfully the ride was only about 30 minutes (after 2.5 hours of sitting around!!) and soon we could see the white sands and circus ahead of us that could only be Playa Blanca. We'd been instructed to head out to PB by a number of friends of ours who have been to Colombia in the past and for good reason. It's a stunning stretch of white sand and beautifully blue water with very little to do except kick back and do, well, nothing. Our buddies rented hammocks and slept out there for a few nights, and we had plans to do the same. Off the boat we headed down the beach inspecting a few different options and finally came across a nice looking spot where we were approached by the young waiter who showed us to a little cabana that had just been vacated...we took a look and without much hesitation said ''we'll take it!''.
Seconds later we were in swimsuits and headed for the water. Ah yes, the perfect temperature...cool enough to be refreshing yet warm enough that you could spend all day in it without ever getting cold. The rest of the day was spent walking back and forth along the beach and alternating between sitting in the shade, lying in the sun and swimming in the crystal clear water. Thanks for the recommendation Morgan, Chris, Christy and Max!! Not bad living at all.
That evening we found out that there is one really crappy thing about Playa Blanca: the mosquitos and sand flies are vicious, unrelenting and cunning. We had our bottle of OFF confiscated by a friendly TSA officer at security in O'Hare and had forgotten to buy more before heading out to PB and we paid the price. We ate dinner quickly and then headed for cover under the mosquito nets in our cabana and even there we felt their wrath. I got bit through the netting and woke up with about 12 bites on my right elbow (all in one square inch) that had been touching the net...yes, that's right mercilessly bitten through the net. Also, I think one or two found their way into the 1/2 inch by 1/2 inch hole in the netting and feasted on me while I slept...like I said...cunning little b******s.
The next day we did more of the same...walk, swim, sunbathe, sit...repeat. The day passed in this manner until we saw the 'big boat' pull up and unload several hundred people on the beach. Playa Blanca is a popular spot with travelers, of course, but also extremely popular with local Colombians looking to get out for a day of sun, sand and sea. For the few hours that the 'big boat' is there, the place transforms itself from a relatively quiet and beautiful stretch of sand into a frenzied zoo of people...its really a sight to be seen. Thankfully we stayed the night and got to enjoy it without all the day trippers in its much more tranquil state.
We bought tickets back to Cartagena on the big boat and at 2:45 headed onto that boat along with about 300 other sun burned individuals. The ride back was 90 minutes, but they passed quickly as the boat has a massive sound system and they bumped a steady stream of J-Lo, Shakira and other other Latin club hits at unnecessarily loud levels all the way back. We lucked out and got to sit right next to the massive speakers. Hell yes we did.
Back in Cartagena we headed once again for the Marlin Inn where our big bags were waiting and we took another room for the night. We settled in under the fan after showering off two days of sand, salt and sunblock and chilled for a while until the sun started to set and it was cool enough to venture out. We headed for dinner at our favorite little local joint where we'd eaten a few days back and where we again enjoyed a cheap and cheerful dinner, local style. After, we headed back for a last jaunt around the beautiful old town for our post dinner evening stroll. The Colombian government has done a fine job in restoring the historic buildings and almost all of them are illuminated with orange light which makes for beautiful night time ambiance. Back at the hostel we booked ourselves in for an 11am shuttle headed North East to Santa Marta and passed out happy to be out of reach of Playa Blanca's ruthless insect inhabitants.
Cartagena: all it's cracked up to be!