The old town of Cartagena, Colombia is stunning. I guess I haven’t seen a lot of Spanish style architecture, but the old town here is a shining example of well preserved history and it seems a local love of draping buildings in flowers. If that bores you then you can soak up the ridiculously hot sun at beautiful beaches on the islands.
I flew in from Sao Paulo on a business class flight via Bogota. The food was nice, but I would never buy business class again unless it was super cheap compared to economy again.
The service staff asked you if you needed anything every 5 minutes and then looked at you like you were greedy asking for a second glass of wine. I really don’t think the chair was any more sleep-able than economy too. Not until you hit full flat bed class.
Catching up with an old friend
The whole reason I stopped by Cartagena was to catch up with a friend called Nirsa, who was pretty much the first travel friend I ever made back in New Zealand in 2008. I’d previously promised to stop by on my last trip to South America, but it was far too expensive to go from Chile to Cartagena for what was almost just a weekend.
Nirsa and her husband Mauricio came to pick me up at the airport and she recognised me instantly. It surely wasn’t the hobo look and giant backpack! (at that point I’d been on the road almost 3 weeks and just found my shaver was out of batteries) I really don’t understand how she never ages?!
We then went back to their flat near the city and I was happy to find that I got my own bed and I finally met this little guy who I’d been seeing all over Facebook.
In the morning I went with Mauro to grab some traditional breakfast food, arepa. It’s a fried pastry type thing made from flour of maize. They come with either egg or the full carnivore inside, and with your window to opportunity (if you watch the Simpsons).
Mauro doesn’t speak any English really, so I had to brush up on my Spanish! It’s always amusing what fun you can have even with the most basic communication (and Google Translate).
Inside the Muralla
It was an overcast and relatively cool day so we headed over to explore the old town of Cartagena. Sadly I didn’t bring my camera while the light was soft. I went back again another day, another ridiculously hot day, but we got there in the end.
I feel like the old town is very well preserved. There are some tacky shops at one corner, but if you keep wandering you can find quiet streets, interesting old houses and, my favourite part, doors!
Apparently the size of the door and the number of studs indicated the wealth of the family. As did having two stories on your house. Every door had its own design and character. They all seemed to be custom made and that’s what makes them so interesting. Each house is also painted proudly in some vibrant colour. We really don’t bother painting houses in Australia and I realise now that that makes our houses really boring! Plus we normally only have boring front doors with a fly screen too.
Another night we came back to the city for a romantic horse cart ride. Aww, just the three of us. The driver had a lot to say about the city, but all in Spanish, so thankfully Nirsa was there to translate for me.
Museo del Cacao
Given we were in South America and Colombia is a massive producer of cacao it seemed appropriate to visit the “Choco Museum”. They provided some interesting explanations, but to be honest all I remember was drinking the various chocolate liquors and eating chocolate.
Actually, that’s not entirely true. I learnt a little bit about cocoa butter and I now properly understand why white chocolate still counts as chocolate or at least as a product of cacao.
Sabores Food Festival
It was a public holiday weekend so at the Centro de Convenciones there was a food festival called Sabores (tastes). Despite most food in Colombia costing as much as in Australia, the festival stalls were far cheaper than Canberra’s Multicultural Festival.
For 20,000 pesos I got an epic and refreshing cebiche which kicks the crap out of plain old sushi. Love the lemon zing and herbs!
Then for only 30,000 pesos we got a five course taster from four of Cartagena’s restaurants.
1. Lobster course of course – delicious
2. Squid with inked rice – wasnt my favourite
3. Tuna sashimi with avocado in a sauce made with black sesame, tamarind, ginger, orange and who knows what else – definite favourite
4. Lasagna Cartagenera style – the meat is to die for!
5. A banana cupcake – that all you got.. really?
There was plenty of good South American wine too. So we grabbed two bottles.
Isla de Encanto
We took a ride out to one of the islands for a day trip and wow it was nice! About 45 minutes on the boat each way, passing by the old fortifications, but it was worth it for a day to chillax.
We were actually hanging out at a resort, but just using the facilities and sharing the beach. I imagine the northern beaches of Brazil are like this too. Crystal clear and warm water with pure sand.
Nirsa and Mauro’s friends came along so I let them hang out and talk Spanish while I had a ponder and did some catch up. In the end though they actually spoke more English than I thought so I felt quite rude!
I kept saying I’d go exploring after lunch, but when lunch finally came there wasn’t actually much to explore. It seemed the island was either private land or resorts so I didn’t get to walk far. Only far enough to a hostel next door to buy some Oreos and scam a 500 peso coin as a souvenir.
Castillo de San Felipe
The other big thing in Cartagena (is that a pun?) is the giant fortress that the Spanish used to use to guard their gold before shipping it back to Spain.
Probably not the nicest place on a blazing hot day, but for us it was overcast and threatening so it wasn’t too bad.
Before we left I figured I should add to my growing collection of hippie friendship bracelets. The first bunch started off as gifts so I thought I better keep it going.
Contrasting old and new
One thing I liked about Cartagena in general was just the weird contrasts of old with the new.
Bye for now
So after a handful of nice days together, a bit of rest and a lot of food and wine it was time for me to head off. Once again, Nirsa and Mauro have shown how kind and friendly South Americans can be (and a little too generous too!). I hope I will have more time to come back and explore more of Colombia and I hope Nirsa and Mauro come to Australia to visit one day too.