Since moving to Chile, Colombia had been one of my top destinations but I never seemed to have enough days off to make it work. So I decided that on my way back to the U.S. from Rio, I’d stop in Colombia for a week –I mean it’s on the way right?
I flew to Cartagena and spent my first 3 nights in Boca Grande. My first full day in Cartagena was actually my birthday. I booked myself to join a free walking tour of the walled-city or the historical part of Cartagena. Immediately I met and be-friended an adventurous yogi from Minnesota and a girl from Switzerland. The tour was actually really nice; I highly recommend it to anyone traveling to Cartagena! I even won a prize for saying what the colors of the Colombian flag represent ( –thank you first grade Open House).
^^ Cartagena's iconic palenqueras have a really interesting and intricate history
On the tour we learned that back in the day, the knockers on the doors told you about the people that lived there:
^^The lion means strength and power, someone from the military lived here
^^Mermaid: A seaman or fisherman lived here
^^ The lizard or snake was to keep enemies away; royal or wealthy families lived here
Afterwards me and my new friend explored the city together and she took me to lunch. It was really nice to not have to spend my birthday alone. We even went to a park where we heard there were sloths! I’d never seen a sloth in real-life and anybody that knows me, knows I’d jump at any opportunity to see animals.
We arrived to a small park, with many trees but equally as many people. We searched the trees and didn’t find anything. We were convinced that there were no sloths. At one point we saw a green parakeet and got very excited and took several pictures. A guy just waiting for people like us asked us if we wanted to see the sloths. We followed him around the park as he proceeded to point out all 4 adult sloths and the 2 babies. He seemed to know exactly where they were and all about them. It was clear that we’d have to give him some money, but we didn’t mind –if it weren’t for him, we wouldn’t have even found them!
The guy told us that the sloths were donated to the park and that’s why they live there. There were 2 males and 2 females plus the two babies. He also pointed out the monkeys to us and fed them some cookies from his hand. It was amusing to see how this guy found a way to make a living by showing tourists the wildlife of the park. He was very nice and knowledgeable!
After the sloths, we watched the sunset from the wall –a must do when in Cartagena and then had a delicious dinner topped off with a birthday crepe. It was definitely a birthday to remember and I fell asleep the minute my head hit the pillow in my fancy-schmancy hotel room
Islas del Rosario
Before arriving to Colombia, I had read that if you want to experience the gorgeous beaches, you have to go out to the islands. Colombia has many big islands just a short plane ride away, but they also have little ones about an hour boat ride off the coast. Since I was short on time, I decided the latter. It was a little difficult coordinating everything –would be quite difficult for non-Spanish speakers.
The boat ride there was… an experience. The ocean was so choppy, I swear we hit a wave and flew the rest of the way. It was like an amusement park ride. I had a giant suitcase with me (I had to bring Flo some stuff in Rio beforehand) and I was watching anxiously as my suitcase leaped up and down in the air, just waiting for it to leap off the boat. I asked the guy in front of me to keep his hand on it for me. I was also concerned because my suitcase was soaked and my laptop was inside. Luckily, it was fine.
When I arrived to the hostel on the island, I realized how rustic it was. I instantly thought, what the heck am I gonna do for 2 days? It had a dock, but no beach. The little island that I was on was a very strange place. Most of the little hostels were also people’s homes, and they lived very basically. There were chickens everywhere, people were washing their clothes in buckets outside and you couldn’t tell where one property ended and another began.
After a walk in this strange new reality, I found a tiny paradise tucked away. All of a sudden, there was a beautiful white-sand beach with turquoise water and luxurious canopy beds. I made a bee-line for the beach, hoping it wasn’t only open to hotel guests. The owner was very nice and allowed me to rent a space for the day. I was able to order food and drinks and was waited on hand and foot. I quickly found the answer to my earlier question… this is what I’ll do for 2 days.
I spent my time on the island at the little hidden paradise. I watched as the day-tours came in each day and dropped off the majority of the beach renters (they must have had some sort of deal) and then watched again as the boat came back later in the day to pick them back up.
Check out this cool eel I stumbled upon just walking along the shore:
I’d seen pictures of this lagoon on Islas del Rosario with phytoplankton (glow in the dark plankton). I knew that I had to see it. The pictures online make it look so magical! I told my hostel reception that I wanted to book that tour and showed up that night ready to go. The owner came out and told me that the guy who normally gives the tours was ill. I must have looked sad because the owner, bless his soul, offered to take me instead. I was so grateful!
We got in his little motor boat and headed into the dark abyss. I had a few thoughts about the fact that this guy could murder me out here and nobody would ever know. Riding in the boat late at night in the middle of the ocean was one of the most peaceful moments I’d ever experienced. The stars were unreal, since there was no light pollution. It was truly a spiritual moment for me –I even saw 2 shooting stars!
We slowly pulled into a little alcove, where you could hear other people splashing and having fun. We drifted up to a tiny dock with several other people, all jumping on and off. I was confused, where were the plankton? The lagoon was supposed to have a mystical blue glow. The guy told me in order to see them, you have to get in the water. He handed me a snorkel and goggles and I hesitantly jumped in. I still didn’t see anything, and I did not like swimming in the middle of a lagoon a night. After some time he told me if I move my hands under the water, I’ll see little flashes of light. The little lights looked like the magic sparkles that surrounded Cinderella when she transformed into her ball gown. It was sparkly and magnificent. Unfortunately, I couldn’t capture it on camera because the plankton like the dark, so any source of light makes them go away.
The experience in itself was cool, but not what I expected. Online, there are these amazing phytoplankton pictures with glowing blue lagoons. The guy told me that those pictures are taken with a special camera. In reality, you’re swimming in the dark, in a lagoon with tons of other people and you can only see the sparkles of phytoplankton when you’re underwater. And they’re white, not blue. I was a little disappointed, but still a cool experience. Honestly, my favorite part was looking at the stars on the boat ride.
On the island, things were weird. One house seemed to collect different types of birds, and had them hanging in cages on the porch. Another house had a peacock, owl and pet monkey. The monkey had the saddest eyes I'd ever seen. It broke my heart to see him in that little cage. The owl also made be quite sad.
Back in Cartagena, I spent my last full day re-walking the walled city. There is a certain charm about the city within the walls. It has a timeless feel, with old balconies and cobblestone streets. It’s almost like walking in a historical Southern town of the U.S. My tour guide told us they’re trying to ban cars from being allowed inside the walled portion of the city, which would definitely contribute to the timeless vibe.
^^ Obsessed with this bookstore/cafe, I went twice!
I unquestionably enjoyed my time in Cartagena. I absolutely loved it and recommend it to anyone wanting to travel to South America. Many people have the perception that it’s dangerous because of Colombia’s past. However, nowadays Cartagena is very safe, I never once felt scared or in danger and even feel you would be fine walking alone at night. The best part about Colombia was the people. They are so kind and so welcoming. People on the streets will stop and welcome you to their country. Locals will offer to help you find your bearings if you’re lost. They reminded me so much of my neighbors in Chile. I saw and heard them in each and every person in Colombia. I miss them terribly.
Spending a week in Colombia seemed to fulfill that pre-conceived notion I had before moving to Chile. I had pictured Chileans to be as friendly as Colombians, and was disappointed when I didn’t encounter that degree of openness and hospitality I was expecting right away.
Although sad, I found this information interesting:
Also, side note: the food is bomb in Colombia. The coffee, is to-die-for. Like, really out of this world. For all those considering traveling to South America, I’d definitely add Colombia to your list. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved it there, and already have plans in my head to go back and explore their other cities.
When getting on the plane, we were delayed a solid 20 minutes because everyone was trying to switch seats so they could sit with their family members. Colombians are very family oriented.
When checking into my hotel, I walked into the lobby with about 20 KLM flight attendants. Everyone was wearing electric blue uniforms, it was crazy! It took them a good 25 minutes to check everybody in before they got to me.
There is an old clock tower in the main square of the walled city, however when they built it, they couldn’t get the 4 clocks on each side to synchronize, so each side shows a different time. The locals have a saying for when someone is lying, “tienes más caras que el torre reloj”, “you have more faces than the clock tower”.
One day, after returning to my fancy hotel, I noticed there was police everywhere. Upon entering the hotel, they searched my bags. My taxi driver told me all the commotion was because a U.S. senator was coming to town. The security people couldn't tell me who was coming, but they told me several famous people were staying at the hotel, both Colombian and American. I never did figure out who was there.
^^ This friend stopped liking me after I pulled a tick off him
^^ My taxi driver told me his brother lives at the hotel I was staying at and he has very big feet. When we pulled up this was outside...
^^My dad lives in Columbia, CT so I got this for him
^^They say if you touch her hand, yes hand, you'll return to Cartagena. I have a feeling people have been touching other areas though...
After returning home from Colombia, I can honestly say I don’t know which is my favorite city in South America now. Before, I was so certain it was Buenos Aires in Argentina. But now, I’m conflicted. What a wonderful problem to have right? I've fallen in love with too many cities. I will see you again, Colombia!