The World Cup was a major focus of our travels, but as sad as we were to leave Brazil we knew we still had plenty to look forward to. Our next stop, Cartagena in Colombia, was one of the more anticipated destinations ahead of us. Despite stifling hot temperatures and going without any water (so no showers) for two days, we really enjoyed our time there.
Cartagena was founded almost 500 years ago and in its early life was the main port used by the Spanish to transport treasure that they’d plundered from the natives back to Spain. The treasure helped build a beautiful city, but also attracted plenty of pirates. After five sieges, the Spanish built a wall around the city, which is why most of the cobbled alleys, plazas, churches and beautiful buildings have survived until today. To get a deeper appreciation of this rich history, we took a segway tour around the walled city, which was a lot of fun.
We found that Cartagena was at its best around sunset, when temperatures start to drop and the city feels most romantic. At night we enjoyed some of the best (but certainly not the cheapest) food we had in Colombia, with the highlight a Peruvian/Japanese fusion restaurant. During the day, we watched each of the World Cup quarter finals in various air conditioned bars, including the Brazil v Colombia game. The atmosphere around Cartagena before that game was amazing, rivaling the atmosphere in Brazil before their national team played, but after the game the place was silent. Colombians were convinced that the game had been fixed (something to do with Fifa wanting to manage bad press in Brazil around World Cup spending). Cindy’s alternative, more plausible, explanation, that the better team on the day won, was generally met with cold looks and deepening conspiracy theories.
While in Cartagena, we took a day trip to a beautiful white sand beach, playa blanca, enjoying a nice fresh fish for lunch and trying not to stare at some of the most obvious plastic surgery customers we’d ever seen.
From Cartagena we took a bus along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela in search of more beautiful beaches. We stayed in Santa Marta, a small town with a rich history but not too much, in terms of colonial buildings and public spaces, to show for it. While there, we visited the nearby beach towns of Taganga (hippy town with a dirty beach but a nice relaxed vibe) and El Rodadero (a more modern beach town preferred by Colombian holidayers that’s relatively lacking in character). We also visited the final residence of Simon Bolivar (famous military and political leader who helped Venezuela, Panama, Ecuador, Peru and Bolivia all achieve independence from the Spanish empire), which has been turned into a nice open museum.
The main attraction in the Santa Marta area is Tayrona national park, home to some of Colombia’s prettiest beaches, including Cabo San Juan which Lonely Planet uses as the cover photo for Colombia guide books. The problem with Cabo San Juan is that it’s not as accessible as many would like, requiring a one hour bus trip to the national park gates followed by a two hour hike in 35 degree heat. The alternative is a pretty scary, and relatively expensive, one and a half hour boat trip through relatively rough seas. For this reason a lot of people decide to camp overnight (in extremely hot tents or in cramped hammocks) to get maximum mileage for the time, money and effort it takes to get there.
We decided to get up early and just do a day trip. The two-hour hike through nicely set out trails offered lots of beautiful vantage points along the way. Two thirds of the way there the searing heat started to get the better of Sam, as he reflected that it wouldn’t have been difficult for the Conquistadors to sell Christianity to the locals, since it promises believers will either go to heaven (which sounds like a good place) or hell (which would at least offer cooler temperatures). At that point, we arrived at La Piscina, a protected beach that afforded us a much-welcomed opportunity to jump in the water and cool off.
We got to Cabo San Juan before 11am and immediately booked the 4pm boat trip back to Taganga (at that stage an overpriced near guarantee of sea sickness seemed more appealing than repeating the hike). The twin beaches at Cabo San Juan were at least as beautiful as the lonely planet pictures suggested and we really enjoyed spending several hours in the turquoise water. However we were ready to go when it came time to board the boat back. The boat trip lived up to its dubious reputation, with the beachside boarding and initial efforts to get out past the waves particularly hair-raising. One American passenger (not Cindy this time) seemed to be particularly convinced that the boat was going to be the end of her, but in the end we all got back to Taganga safely and without any dramatic episodes of sea sickness.
Sam woke up the next morning looking forward to the day ahead, watching Brazil hopefully beat Germany in the World Cup semis from an air conditioned bar before flying to the significantly cooler city of Medellin. In the end Brazil lost 7-1 and the locals threatened Sam with everything from deportation to rape just for wearing a Brazil jersey (which is pretty disgusting, but also sad since when we were in Colombia in March all the locals we asked had said Brazil was their second favorite team). After the game we headed to the airport only to be told that, despite getting two confirmation emails, there was a problem with our reservation and we couldn’t get on the plane (in short, don’t book with Viva Colombia unless you want to know what an airline worse than Easyjet or Ryanair looks like). At that stage the last buses and planes had left for the day, but after much pleading with rival airlines, internet scrambling, expense and inconvenience we were able to fly to Medellin the next morning from the somewhat nearby city of Barranquilla (Shakira’s home town).