Tag Archives: Cartagena

Encantada

Something is happening. It started last summer when I fell in love with my life and since then the shine has only gotten brighter. I feel like I am walking through life carrying my heart out in front of me for everyone to see. It’s intense and it’s also one of the most incredible spaces I have ever been in. I feel like I fall in love a million times per day. A song plays in the bus and my heart overflows. I discover a beautiful new cafe and my heart overflows. And most of all, I meet new people and my heart overflows. Like when I returned from the amazing 24 hours of bonding in San Cipriano, I am back from another trip and completely encantada with my travel buddy (and friend from San Francisco) Sarah AND with our new friends we met along the way.

Visiting the Cartagena market

Visiting the Cartagena market

Sarah and I started in Cartagena, that same colonial Caribbean city where Cameron and I ended our year of travels 3 years ago. My sister Sophie who has spent the last year teaching English on the rural island of Baru just off the coast, met us and we spent our days wandering the colonial streets, drinking wine on the city wall that overlooks the ocean, and enjoying Costeña food and mojitos. Sarah and I had never done more than a weekend away together but she is so laid back and easy going that we immediately fell into a perfect rhythm.

The old city wall around Cartagena

The old city wall around Cartagena

Lunch at La Mulata

Lunch at La Mulata

After Cartagena Sophie led us by bus, ferry, and motorcycle to her home on Baru where we toured her very tiny dusty town of Santa Ana and then headed to Playa Blanca for beach massages, sunshine, and a night in an adorable and extremely rustic sand-floored beach cabaña. Playa Blanca is packed full of tourists from Cartagena during the day, but at night and early in the morning we found ourselves on a deserted turquoise beach. Lovely.

Sophie on our way to her house on Baru

Sophie on our way to her house on Baru

Touring Sophie's school

Touring Sophie’s school

Playa Blanca!

Playa Blanca!

People watching with my lovely sister.

People watching with my lovely sister.

But it was the trip up the coast to Taganga and into Tayrona National Park when the adventures really began. There was the bus incident when a simple 20 minute bus ride turned into 3 bus transfers and an hour of Caribbean sweat (met with good humor and topped off with a passionfruit cocktail in the swimming pool that made everything better). There was the iguana incident while we waited to board our boat to Tayrona, when a giant iguana lept out of a tree nearly falling on someone’s head, raced around the street causing total chaos and then ran into the ocean and disappeared. 30 minutes later as our boat speeds through the ocean waves on the way to the park, said iguana appeared on the outboard motor. We had to pull into shore and toss him toward the rocks. =) Hopefully he is having a less adventurous life now. There was the monkey incident when Sarah and I hiked through the jungle to visit the ruins of an indigenous village. We were so excited to run into a group of monkeys playing in the treetops. Until one got a little too interested in us and headed straight down the tree to get a better look. We very quickly decided it was time to move on. =)

Tayrona from the upper hammocks

Tayrona from the upper hammocks

Tayrona

Tayrona

And then there was the Tropical Storm Incident. We first met Jose and Jose from Valencia, Spain, in Taganga before we left for the park. But we had no idea how integral to our trip they would become. Parque Tayrona is one of my favorite spots in Latin America. It’s wild. Giant boulders, palm trees, and sandy beaches backed by thick jungle and blue mountains. The ocean is fierce but there a few protected bays for swimming. The most popular spot is Cabo San Juan del Guía where you can rent a tent or sleep in a hammock. There are two sets of hammocks- the lower ones set back from the beach, packed tightly under a thatched roof reinforced with black plastic where you sleep to the sound of the generator and the smell the horses. The upper hammocks are fewer and harder to get but are high above the ocean, where you listen to the waves and smell the salty air. Sleeping in the upper hammocks is one of my favorite memories of my last trip in South America, so Sarah and I were determined to get up early and reserve them for our second night in Tayrona. Our new friends, the Joses, decided to stay in the lower hammocks and we teased them for it, bragging about what a lovely night we were going to have from our ocean front viewpoint. The only downside of the upper hammocks is that the ocean breeze is a bit chilly at night. Luckily I knew this from past experience and Sarah and I had packed very carefully including long sleeves, hats, socks…we had planned extensively to make sure we would have dry warm clothes for a comfortable night.

The upper hammocks (photo taken from the restaurant)

The upper hammocks (photo taken from the restaurant)

That night, we were sitting in the restaurant for dinner when the storm started. The restaurant is a large open air “room” covered by a thatched roof, filled with plastic tables and chairs, and the only place to be under cover besides in our hammock. It’s also the only place with light at night so most people sit there to play cards etc. The rain started hard- true tropical storm style. We were sitting the middle of the cover but it soon became obvious that that wasn’t enough to keep us dry. I was still in my beach clothes. A sleeveless cotton minidress, no shoes. And starting to shiver. My backpack and all my clothes was all the way across the beach and up the hill in my hammock. And as the downpour and gusts of wind continued for the next hour it became apparent that all my careful planning was probably soaking wet along with my hammock. The boys gathered up the few articles of clothing and damp towels they had and we all circled up to try to stay warm. Amazingly, while other tables of stranded travelers sulked and argued, we spent hours laughing at the absurd hilarity of the situation. Even though Sarah and I had absolutely no idea how exactly we were going to get through the night, for the time being it felt like enough to be in good company and we managed to maugh our way through hours of rain. Around 10 pm the rain slowed enough that I decided to borrow a broken umbrella and make a beach-run for it to see if I could salvage anything from the backpacks. The beach was dark and deserted and I hurried down the narrow strip of sand between the two bays that leads to the steep rocky trail up to the hammocks. It was dark and raining and all I could see was the circle of light right in front of me so when I suddenly reached the end of the sand I was disoriented. Where was the trail? and the hammocks? About 50 feet in front of me I could see the cliff where we were supposed to sleep. Except that the peninsula had turned into an island and between me and the island was a lot of dark rushing water. We were definitely NOT sleeping in our hammocks tonight. And it was probably better because anyone who had been in the hammocks when the storm started was now stuck out there. I hurried back to the restaurant and wrapped myself up in Jose’s towel. All the staff members had gone home after dinner leaving a dining room full of stranded and desperate travelers. All around us people we sleeping with their heads on the plastic tables or trying to curl up on flimsy beach chairs.

Surviving the storm in borrowed clothes

Surviving the storm in borrowed clothes

Around midnight when we couldn’t manage to stay awake any longer, the boys cemented the friendship and put us in their debt by giving us one of their hammocks. Muddy feet, wet minidress, and all, Sarah and I cuddled up in the single person hammock. Next door two 32 year old men did the same and we all made it through the night, exhausted and sleep deprived but still smiling. The next morning, emerging from our hammocks felt like we were survivors of a natural disaster. The grass was scattered with debris, clothes, overturned tents. There was no electricity and no running water. Nearby someone was bailing buckets of rainwater from inside a tent. All around people were ringing out everything they owned. We wandered to the beach and found that the island was still an island, but in the daylight the water was crossable so I waded over and gathered up a backpack full of wet clothes. We decided to hike out of the park early in case it started raining again. 5 hours and a bus ride later we arrived in Cartagena, wet and exhausted but still laughing about the adventure and so grateful we had met the Joses.

Hiking through the jungle to visit El Pueblito, ruins of an indigenous village

Hiking through the jungle to visit El Pueblito, ruins of an indigenous village

Sarah flew home the next morning and I headed to Bogota to spend the rest of the weekend with the boys. Maybe that is what happens when you survive a storm together, but we were totally bonded and the three of us stuck together like glue for the next 3 days. We took long bus rides, we visited the absolutely lovely mountain town of Villa de Leyva where we watched fireworks and drank wine, and we partied with the entire Spanish ex-pat community of Bogota (Fancy cheese, Spanish tortilla, Sangría, and lots of lessons in how to speak “real” Spanish and where I need to visit in Spain). I came home with the same floating on air feeling I had after my weekend in San Cipriano. Just feeling completely blessed to have so many amazing people in my life.

Photobooth at the Spanish Party in Bogota.

Photobooth at the Spanish Party in Bogota.

Drinking wine in La Guaca, an old colonial home turned into the most adorable and romantic restaurant in Villa de Leyva. (With our new Colombian friend, also names Jose. And no, I am not making this up.)

Drinking wine in La Guaca, an old colonial home turned into the most adorable and romantic restaurant in Villa de Leyva. (With our new Colombian friend, also named Jose. And no, I am not making this up.)

And for the weekly single paragraph update on my actual research…I finally have a green light! I presented my project to a panel of Public Health staff members and they gave me my third and final letter of approval. I am now the proud owner of three whole ethics committee approval letters (UCSF, Universidad de Valle, and now the Cali public health administration). The one catch is that I can’t start until January. Colombia takes Christmas very seriously and the entire month of December is reserved for holiday happenings. So my job is to officially enjoy life until January when I can actually start working. =) Luckily I have had plenty of practice and am getting pretty good at that job…

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Down and Dirty in Colombia

Colombia is full of beautiful people- some of it’s natural, some of it’s silicone. Cameron tells a story about reading the “Things to do in this city” bulletin board of a hostel he stayed at in Medellin. Smack dab in the middle, between the coolest salsa clubs and the local hiking was a “Buy two plastic surgeries and get the third FREE” deal. If you need a cheap manicure, a massage, a bikini wax…Colombia is the place to be. Unfortunately for me, so near to the end of the trip, funds are running a bit low. So I’m in the business of low-cost beauty treatments, which mostly consist of layering new toe nail polish on top of the old, trying to get one last week out of my 6 month old razor, and attempting to con Cameron into a 5 minute shoulder massage. So far, so good.
So when we started hearing about the medicinal mineral properties of the natural mud volcanoes that dot the Northern coast of Colombia, I was very interested. Sounds like a spa treatment…Don’t people pay big bucks for full body mud masks in New York?

There is a “Mud Volcano” just a short

Beachfront in Tolu

ride outside of tourist town and colonial city, Cartagena, but we decided that since we had the time we’d head out to Tolu- a beach town that although packed with Colombians on weekends, is otherwise pretty quiet, at least with the Gringo crowd. Full of beachside hotels, there is exactly one “backpacker joint”. What makes for a backpacker friendly hostel? Why do we all tend to gravitate to the same few guesthouses? It’s not just the Lonely Planet or hostelbookers.com effect, although I’m sure that also has a huge impact. We backpackers look for certain characteristics.

  • A Well Stocked Kitchen is a must. Bonus points if there are stock spices.
  • Free breakfast or at least coffee. Although every backpacker knows that free breakfast is usually just stale bread, we still look for this service for some reason.
  • Community space. Whether it’s a movie room, or just nice tables for hanging out and meeting people. In tropical climates, hammocks give major bonus points.
  • BYOB allowed. If a hostel tells you that you can’t bring in your own booze for an evening drink, they better offer a darn good happy hour.
  • Lockers. Believe it or not we have been to numerous hostels that didn’t offer a place to lock up our valuables. This matters when you share a room with 8 strangers in bunk beds.
  • A good book exchange. A good novel is like gold.
  • Other choices come down to personal preference. Some prefer the party all night, free shots, don’t even think about going to bed before 4 am kind of hostels. Other prefer the quiet hours at midnight and lets share a community dinner kind of hostel. Some need private rooms, some only sleep in dorms. You learn to pick your hostel carefully…

Anyway, the one backpacker place we found in Tolu (being off the Gringo Trail, it has been fairly empty during our stay, but that’s true of the whole town right now. Apparently during local holiays it fills to overflowing, which is hard to imagine with the sheer number of hotels and cabanas lining the beach!) exceeds our expectations. We got a private room (with our own bathroom!), hammocks galore, a beautiful kitchen- with a blender!, and a gorgous rooftop deck to watch the sunset. Villa Babilla is an absolute gem.

Sunset cards and Cuba Libres on the roof top of Villa Babilla

Which brings me to Tolu itself. Tolu is a town built on Colombian tourism. On the weekends (especially holiday weekends) the beach sidewalks are packed with plastic tables and Colombian families. Dozens of kids run in the amazingly shallow and bathtub warm waves. The women wander around in their florescent bikinis with matching florescent mesh cover-ups, decked out in their new beachside jewelry purchases. The men continue to decorate their plastic tables with beer bottles (never try to clear the table- it’s a game of some kind to see how big the pile can be at the end of the day), all sporting their cowboy style woven beach hats. Meanwhile, the local taxis cruise the street. By taxis I mean bicycles equipped with not only a cart for passengers but also a battery operated sound system designed to outdo all the other bici-taxis. So goes the beach scene on the weekends.

Ready for the sunset on our first night in Tolu

On the weekdays, Cameron and I and a couple random local kids out for an evening swim, were able to enjoy our own private beach sunset in silence. We learned the ins and outs of the street food in Tolu. We got to know the old women who spend every day sitting in a rocking chair in front of their house. We

Dinner on the plaza corner in Tolu. A tortilla sized smashed and fried plantain covered with sauce, meat, and cheese. $2.50 and enough for two. Yum!

discovered the local beaches in Covenas where we has all the thatched roof palapas and all the white sand to ourselves for the entire day- no other Gringos and no vendors trying to sell us anything. Just us, our books, and the ocean breeze. As beautiful as Tayrona Park and Taganga were, it felt really good to find a town that;s not yet listed in our guidebook. A town where we could ditch the Gringo Trail for a few days.

Our private beach in Covenas, 10 kilometers from Tolu. The water is like a bathtub and stays shallow about 60 feet out.

But back to the Mud Volcano. After a debacle of buses and a dusty dirt road we found ourselves at the Volcan de Lodo near San Antero, Colombia. About 3 hours from here is the biggest Mud Volcano in the country, but we decided to go for the closer one so we could still have a half day on our private beach. We were both very unsure of what to expect and as we approached, it became clear that on this beautiful and very hot Thursday morning we would have the Volcano to ourselves. We paid our $1.00 entrance fee and marched confidently in the direction pointed out to us. About 20 steps later we found ourselves at the end of a hole in the ground. I guess volcano was a bit of an overstatment…what we had in front of us was a completely nauseating put of gurgling slimy mud.

You want me to climb in there??!!?

I was just about ready to go back and demand my $1.00 refund. Yes, at first glance $1.00 seemed like highway robbery. But we’d come a long way and there was the attendant urging us in and reassuring us that the mud kept everyone at the surface so there was no way to drown. What?!?

My $1.00 spa treatment.

I went first. The first few steps took me down to the edge of the mud. Holding onto the rope rail with one hand I took my third step…and in I went, up to the thighs. There was no going back now. I cringed and yelped as my legs disappered into the thick slimy mess….but it wasn’t so bad. It didn’t smell bad like I expected. And although the top layer was warm from the sun, underneath was actually cool- a needed respite from the Colombian sun. So I sat down, expecting to sink in. But no, instead I found myself sitting on the surface. It tooks quite a bit of hip wiggling and manourvering to get my body deeper into the silky smooth and extremely thick chest deep pool. After trying to move a couple feet toward the center of the pool I realized that the effort of trying to move inside the mud was worthless- it was like trying to swim through a solid pool of jello…I was going no where fast. That was when I heard the familiar sound of  children’s voices. Suddenly, from out of nowhere, 40 school children in their pristine white school uniforms emerged, headed straight for the mud pit. It was took late to move anywhere (as if I could move anyway)

My audience. I was on the far side of the pit, like a museum display.

so as Cameron stood by snickering, I sat, covered head to toe in mud, while the school children gathered around to learn about the Mud Volcano and to watch me squirm. “And that, class, is how the mud volcano is formed. Interestingly enough, Gringos come here and actually pay to climb inside! In front of you, you can observe a Gringa in her natural habitat, frolicking in the gurgling slimy mud.” I smiled and waved and felt extremely uncomfortable. Luckily for me, Cameron came to the rescue with a nice big leap into the mud with me. And next to him, with his beard and hair suddenly taking of new shapes and colors, I looked relatively normal again.

You seriously had to work to get deeper into the mud than this. They weren't joking about it being impossible to drown.

Trying to lift myself from the mud- feels like lifting 300 lbs.

Duende

Mud Angel

I’ll spare you the details of the mud removal…Medicinal? Healing? Spa-like? That might be giving the mud too much credit. But trying to move our bodies through that oozing grey pit of fun was just that…a lot of fun. If you ever have the chance to hop into a mud volcano, I’d highly recommend it.

 

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