Week 6 - Cartagena de Indias
Updated: Feb 23
We felt stiff and achey after our 16Km jaunt in the jungle the previous day. We left Minca in the rain, and followed the twists, turns and hairpin bends back down to sea level just outside Santa Marta, negotiating a large round-about where there seemed to be the absence of any kind of highway code (really fun actually!), peeling off to follow the road towards Barranquilla. We had been advised by several other people to give this city a miss, and we weren't disappointed that we had heeded this advice and decided not to stop there. If anyone has been to the city and has really fallen in love with it, please correct me, however to us it appeared very industrial and a bit on the 'gritty city' side. On the Northern entry to Barranquilla you have to come in via a thin strip of land, flanked on each side by a body of water. Along this strip was a mass of 'houses' akin to those we saw in the Calais Jungle last year. Sadly, due to the poverty, infrastructure was non-existent, and the inhabitants' rubbish was piled up and strewn all over the place causing quite an interesting smell in the air. In some places, there was also a strong stench of urine, and it made me wonder what the sewage arrangements were. I decided to refrain from thinking about this for more than a few seconds for fear of feeling queasy. It's such a shame that some people have to live in such poverty when so much is wasted and footballers (yes I'm picking on football) are paid millions upon millions of pounds every year.
We entered Barranquilla and it was quite clear it had also been suffering from torrential downpours. I wish I had photos, but it was just too crazy (and dangerous) to stop. We had to traverse the city, which appeared to be on a slight slope, possibly higher on the Southern side and lower on the Northern. I have no idea if I am correct, however in many places where we came to large intersections, there was cascades of water flowing right accross our path from left to right. In some places it quite deep and in other places the force of the water was lifting the drain covers - not so bad if you can see them to safely go around...not so good when the road surface is invisible! We decided to slow right down and pick a path behind other road users, especially bikes - if they disappeared down a hole we knew to stop. We could both feel the force of the water trying to push our bikes sideways in several crossings, and I was trying to keep in a position where I could keep moving should the traffic in front of me stop. I managed, as did Kelvin, and we got through without any real dramas. I was glad to be on the other side.
We continued from Barranquilla on the 90A, along the coast all the way to Cartagena de Indias. We had found a place on-line and set about searching for it. It took a while, and both of us were feeling a little faint from the heat where we had stopped several times to work out where the hell we were going. There were several gated communities around, and after the fourth or fifth stop to ask a gate guard we were finally informed that we were at the right place. Well the right community anyway. We rode around the area and one chap came to 'help' us. He appeared a little gruff and I had the distinct impression that his offer of help was solely to get rid of the noise below his balcony, or maybe it was just his manner. I did discover later on that my DB killer had exploded, so maybe I was being a little loud?! About fifteen minutes later we found our destination; La Espanola Boutique. The plus of this place was that it had air con and a kitchen! A kitchen meant a good chance to start living under budget for a few days and eating a bit more healthily. We parked the bikes, put them to bed, showered and went for a stroll around the neighbourhood. We found a large supermarket just outside of the gates to 'La Urbanization Espanola' and got some provisions, then we headed back, cooked our first meal in a while and chilled in the room with the aircon at its lowest temperature setting.
The good thing about where we were staying was that it wasn't at all far to walk to the 'old town' and the 'walled city', but it wasn't party central and we could safely park our bikes as well as get some decent sleep. We struggled to find anywhere within Getsemani (South of the walled city and a popular hostal location) that we could easily afford, had a kitchen and advertised safe parking. We were happy with our choice despite the poor choice in TV programmes of the lady who looked after the place. Unfortunately the wifi was only available in the communal area so we were subjected to the Colombian version of Judge Judy and Jeremy Kyle on multiple occasions!
For other travellers coming to Cartagena, apparently the Jamrock Hostal in Getsemani is meant to be good and will allow you to park your bike in their secure courtyard. I think most places have rooms with air-con available due to the high humidity (often in excess of 80%) and hot temperatures. We would recommend it. Sun block is another key recommendation, and don't worry, it would appear you can still tan with sun block, well if you're Kelvin at least. Kelvin is getting a good tan and is starting to blend in with the surroundings a little more. I felt I was getting a slight tan despite my daily application factor 50, however, Kelvin has informed me that I have changed to a slightly different shade of blue and that the chances of me blending in are slim as Colombia doesn't have Smurfs!!! Thanks my love.
The day after we arrived in Cartagena we headed into the Old city. It was hot, we were sodden. I went to the tourist information and asked for anything to see and do that was 'gratis' (free). She told me that we could walk on the walls of the old city and watch the sunset, and also pointed to a monument that we could look at. We went for an explore. The first place we came accross of interest was the gold museum (Museo del Oro) - free to get in, free to look around, lots of information and history and no tips required. The second place was almost nextdoor; the Emerald museum - also free to go in and look around and see the displays and read about the history. You can buy Emeralds after if you want to. We didn't, however Esteban who worked there was really friendly and we had a fun time chatting about Colombia, England and traveling in general.
Later in the week we discovered the best museum of all when we passed some young people dressed in white with brown chef's hats on - the Choco (chocolate) musuem! Woohoo! We hadn't had a decent piece of chocolate since we left the UK, so this was one for us...and...it was FREE to go in and learn all about the source of choccolate (from Cacao trees), try some 'nibs' which are found inside the dried cacao pods. Ok, so we were scuppered at the end...after a great tour of the choco museum and an excellent explanation of everything in english, buy our Colombian guide Luis, we just had to buy some chocolate! Fortunately, I still had some birthday funds. We got some pure dark chocolate, some dark chocolate with ginger, as well as some solidified blocks that you can use to make hot chocolate, and another drink with cloves and white chocolate...delicious, and I'm certain we will be very thankful of it when we are camping in the cold later on our adventure. The chocolate tasted divine! We were overjoyed.
Just a word of advice...sometimes the Tourist information doesn't have much information. We visited three museums and they were all free, plus they had air-con, especially the vauted part of the gold museum (definitely worth going if the heat is getting too much, and just read everything s-l-o-w-l-y!). The other thing we managed to do was the 'Free Tour Cartagena' - a two-hour walking tour of the old city. Yes, you can tip if you feel able and if you feel it's worth it (it's excellent), but it's essentially free. Needless to say, we booked ourselves on the english afternoon tour for later in the week. Our guide Edgar was brilliant. His english was fantastic and he had real passion about what he was talking about, especially the history and beauty of Cartagena's Walled city. I particularly liked the 'Portal de Los Dulces'; Portal of the sweets. Edgar even got a box of 'Dulces de Coco' for us all to try...yum! We chose the ones with Dulce de leche. This was a great place to go for cheap sugary things and heaven for anyone with a true sweet tooth.
Lots of people try to sell you hats or 'sombreros' in Cartagena old town (I've lost count of how many times we've been offered hats), and there's an abundance of places to eat and drink, but for the most part, Cartagena is expensive. If you are on a budget don't just wander into the cafes and restaurants, particularly in the old town. There are soooo many little gems of Colombian food places if you look hard, tasty and cheap, plus the usual street vendors. We discovered fresh lemonade here; I'm not sure why we hadn't before now but there we go. Several street vendors were walking around with large amounts of icey, lemon water. For 2000 COP (about 53 pence) the chap would squeeze four or five little lemons into the bottom of a large cup and top it up with a ladel of the iced lemon water. It was awesome. We then noticed that to get pretty much the same thing in a cafe was about 5000-6000 COP. I guess you have to pay for the air-con! It goes without saying that over the week we spent in Cartagena, we sampled several of the fresh lemonades sold by the street vendors, without dissapointment. We did venture in a couple of shops, but didn't buy anything. One of the shop attendants asked us where we were from and how we felt in Colombia. He was a lovely guy, not overly fussed that we didn't buy anything, just very happy that we were enjoying Colombia and that we felt safe. We've got the distinct sense that a lot of Colombia's residents are very keen for tourists to enjoy the country and leave with positive feelings and stories, and they do truly love their country, despite the problems it's had and still has. We certainly have been enjoying it.
One thing we didn't like so much about Cartagena was the mosquitos. Each night I undertook a mosquito check and if I found one, I'd kill it. Yes, sorry, but they are little bastards and I am tired of itching myself raw each night despite long clothing in the day (when bearable) and DEET. I'm sure mosquitoesserve some higher purpose in the grand ecosystem, even if it is population control, however at this moment in time I don't care. If it comes within a towels reach of me, it will be splatted.
One of our final outings in Cartagena took us on a 9km round-trip on foot in the opposite direction to the old town. We were in search of some biking provisions...and we succeeded. We found MegaMotos and got WD40, a new brake light for Kelvin, waterproof electrical connectors, and some chain lube whilst our chain oilers are being somewhat dysfunctional. Hopefully we will manage to rectify this issue soon. We also met a Colombian biker called Alexander, and had a good chat with him in Spanglish as well as the helpful, friendly staff. Later, on our mini expedition we stumbled accross a huge market; Mercado de Bazurto. I had the bright idea of taking a shortcut through it. Well, it was an experience and quite an insult on the senses, not in the most positive way for me anyway. Just be thankful that 'scratch and sniff' online photos haven't been invented yet. There wasn't a tourist in sight and it was a mass of people, stalls and the first part we went through was all sorts of meat in the open air. I'm not sure you could actually call it all meat, but it evedently came from some sort of animal. I found the quickest route through, intermittently holding my breath. It was a little too much but I'm glad we saw it anyhow.
On our last night in Cartagena, we headed into Plaza La Aduana to meet up with a fellow DR650 traveller, Philippe; a really sound guy who had just arrived from Panama on the Stahlratte; a boat that ships motorcycles and people from Panama to Cartagena and vice versa and comes highly recommended. Kelvin had used Philippe's website (motophil.ch) several times before leaving the UK and since starting our travels and found it really useful - needless to say the bikes featured highly in the conversation.
The plaza was alive with music and people, not to mention a huge number of 'working girls' that were apparently winking at Kelvin when I was looking the other way...or maybe just a twitch?! We had a good catch up over several beers until about 2am. One thing we learnt on this night - leave nothing on the table. Philippe had his cigarettes on the table with his lighter and just before we were leaving, this guy stumbled onto our table and then asked for money. After we didn't give him any he walked off. Very stealthily he had managed to swipe both the lighter and the cigarettes. Fortunately it wasn't a phone/wallet/camera etc, although we all had those safely tucked away, but it just goes to show how easy it is for someone to steal things when they are well practiced at it. We had a lovely evening and it was nice to see Cartagena at night, and catch up with a fellow adventurer.
Overall, despite the lack of motorcycling, Cartagena de Indias had been a good experience with beautiful architecture in the old town, and it gave us time to eat properly, cook our own food with lots of fruit and veg, get on top of things generally, and reflect on the adventure so far, that seems to be passing at an alarming rate of knots. We were however, very much looking forward to getting back on the bikes and going in search of some slightly cooler destinations.