Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

Happy post-vacation Tuesday, y’all! Yeah, I know most of you had to work last week, but that’s just another of the perks of living in these southern regions.

On the other hand, I spent basically all day yesterday sitting in the teachers’ room at school, doing nothing — not because I’m a huge slacker, but because upon my return to Bogotá this weekend, my body immediately decided to express its displeasure with the departure from warmer, sunnier climes by becoming quite indignantly sick (at least it seems indignant to me. And it’s my body, so who is anyone to tell me otherwise?). It’s not anything severely terrible, just a rather emphatic cold, but between the constant sniffles and the fact that my voice is operating at about zero decibels with the occasional squeak to provide contrast, I’m afraid I won’t be much use at all as a teacher this week.

walls and lamps

Cartagena: Exhibit A in "how to create successful mood lighting."

The immune system devastation was absolutely worth it, though, for last week’s festivities. Here in Colombia, as in most Latin American countries, the week before Easter is Holy Week, or Semana Santa. For most working people, only the Thursday and Friday of that week are holidays, but lucky us in the school system — we get a whole week off! It is one of the biggest travel holidays of the year, though, kind of like our Thanksgiving week, so you have to plan ahead if you don’t want to be paying your entire year’s volunteer stipend just to leave the city. Luckily, I’m friends with some savvy people, and we figured way back in January that by April we’d probably need a break from the Bogotá rain, so we got ourselves some flights to Cartagena ASAP before the prices went through the roof. And holy arepas con huevos, am I glad we did.

Our weeklong journey took us to the beaches of Cartagena, around the walled city and up the ramparts of an old castle, through a highway that winds along the Caribbean coast past the port city of Barranquilla, up to the smaller town of Santa Marta and the gorgeous beaches near Tayrona National Park, then back to Cartagena for one more day of socializing and eating ice cream before we crashed back into the rainy reality of Bogotá. But let’s go back to the warm, happy place for a few minutes, shall we?

oh hey, pretty sky

Like this one!

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast (think I can squeeze any more alliteration into this sentence?), is built around the preserved remnants of an old walled port, dating back almost 500 years and now an UNESCO World Heritage site — in the company of such illustrious locations as the Sydney Opera House, the Great Wall of China and the Acropolis. I’ve visited a few World Heritage sites over the course of my travels (Argentina’s Iguazú National Park, the historic center of Bruges, Masada and the Baha’i gardens in Israel, Fiordland National Park on New Zealand’s South Island, and Colonia in Uruguay), and I’d definitely say that Cartagena deserves its place on that list. It is outrageously beautiful, the kind of pretty that makes you take pictures of random porches and windows because you’re just trying so hard to capture whatever the essence is hiding in the walls that makes the city so bewitching. I don’t know if I succeeded, but I sure do have a lot of photos to show for it.

So we had two days in Cartagena, with our friends Mayis and Dany serving as official hosts and unofficial tour guides (this is why it’s always smart to go on vacation with someone who’s actually from the place you’re visiting). Though we didn’t realize it before, we ended up visiting the city the week before the sixth Summit of the Americas, which is drawing presidents from all across the region, including Obama and the ever-unpredictable Chávez. Needless to say, the city was positive crawling with cops — we legitimately could not walk two blocks without running into at least half a dozen cops. When people mention shows of force, I think Cartagena the week before the Summit is exactly what they’re talking about.

i'm on a boat!

BOAT CEVICHE. With bbq sauce. Winning.

Still, we didn’t let the omnipresent fluorescent green jackets and large signs proclaiming “Somos seguridad” (“We are security”) put a damper on our vacation. We did all the regular touristy things: walked along the wall, took pictures of doors and horse-drawn carriages, drank piña coladas on the beach, watched sex workers plying their trade on said beach, spotted a few local celebrities, drank micheladas, applied a lot of sunscreen and ate our weight in ice cream. Being the crew of Bourdain groupies that we are, we also made a point to eat at La Cevichería, a cozy ceviche restaurant that was featured during his Colombia “No Reservations” episode. Chalk up another point for the supremacy of Bourdain — the ceviche there was mind-blowingly good, and incredibly creative. Mine came in a dish shaped like a boat! Covered in barbecue sauce! AMERICA!

that kid totally stole my thing

The Santa Marta waterfront. For once, I'm not the one doing the victory pose.

you know, hawaii isn't the only place with pineapples

Tasty fresh mango/papaya/pineapple juice at Lulo in Santa Marta. Breakfast drink of champions!

I could (and probably eventually will) write an entire essay about how much I loved Cartagena, but I’d be remiss and a terrible travel cataloger if I didn’t talk about Santa Marta — and the beach. When I told people here that I was headed to Cartagena, almost everyone informed me that I “had” to go to Santa Marta. I’ve never been one to turn down travel recs, and it turned out that what seemed like half of WorldTeach was also headed to Santa Marta around that same time, so we decided to take two days and head up the coast to see what was so special about it. Santa Marta is about a four-hour easy drive up from Cartagena, along a pretty, mostly waterfront highway. The town itself is pretty small and not necessarily anything to write home about — it kind of looks like a mini-Cartagena that nobody has bothered to wash yet. Its definitely a bit grungier than Cartagena (which may be the key to some of its backpacker appeal), with more than a few iffy-looking neighborhoods, but it has a cute waterfront filled with vendors and some damn good restaurants. I think we might’ve eaten better in Santa Marta than I have anywhere else so far in Colombia — everything from Mediterranean to Italian to breakfast sandwiches and fresh juice.

seeing how your bag gets made

The aforementioned bags, happily-colored and direct from the source!

But you don’t go to Santa Marta just for the food, or to buy cheap bags (though both of those turned out to be excellent perks). You go for Tayrona. Tayrona is one of Colombia’s most famous national parks — and in a country with as many beautiful outdoor spaces as this one, that’s saying something. We actually didn’t visit the park itself, since we only had one day and the entrance fee is a bit pricey for a day visit (most people stay for a few days, hiking and sleeping on the beach). Instead, on the recommendation of several random people we’d met the day before (in my experience, always a good strategy for useful advice), seven of us headed to a beach called Los Angeles, right next to the park. Instead of paying $35,000 pesos and walking for two hours to reach the beach, we were at the waterfront 10 minutes and $3,000 pesos after climbing off the bus.

they do sunsets right, here

This is at least as good as someone reading me a bedtime story.

And you guys, this BEACH. The whole place looks like Jurassic Park — all primeval forests and looming mist-shrouded mountains and crashing waves and mirror-clear water. There were other people at the beach, mostly couples in hammocks or families in tents, but they mostly kept to themselves and there were no vendors in our faces like on the beaches in Cartagena. It felt like we’d discovered this place all by ourselves, like the sky and boulders and soft sand were there just for us, that day. The day at Los Angeles with six of my fellow WorldTeach ladies was probably one of my favorite days I’ve spent in Colombia so far, and my new goal for the year is to make it back there, this time for long enough to spend a few nights in one of those comfy-looking hammocks, waking up to sunlight and sand and waves stretching out in front of me all the way to that prehistoric horizon.

[Stay the digital equivalent of tuned! Many, many more photos to come this week!]

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4 thoughts on “Coastal Adventures in Cartagena & Santa Marta; or, Why I Want a Hammock for My Birthday

    • Brittany, it was definitely amazing. I’m willing to say it’s the first time I’ve ever eaten out of a boat. And as far as traveling, you can always do what I did: resign yourself to the reality of being totally broke and volunteer for a year! It’s been working out pretty well for me so far…

  1. Pingback: Salento: My Happy Place in Colombia | a year without peanut butter

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