After a whistle-stop week back in the UK attending and performing Best Man duties* at my brother’s wedding, I flew back to Cartagena in northern Colombia exactly one week ago. It was wonderful to be home, and the wedding was simply amazing, without a doubt one of the happiest days of my life.
Since taking three flights in the same day (not an experience I would recommend) and stepping off the last one in Cartagena seven days ago, I have been fighting off the jet-lag and re-adjusting to a very different style of everyday life, as well as getting to grips with the last inhabited continent that I had yet to visit.**
After leaving you last in Bocas del Toro at the end of March, we traveled to Panama City overnight, spending the last few days before my flight home exploring and taking advantage of a few creature comforts that this developed city had to offer (e.g. FROYO, or in Vicky’s case a 4* hotel).
An early port-of-call was one of the great wonders of the engineering world, the Panama Canal, where Ben and I regressed slightly to little kids watching the BIG SHIPS and COOL LITTLE TRAIN THINGS GUIDING THE BIG SHIPS. Seriously, it was awesome and an absolute must-see for Panama City visitors, we were even pleasantly surprised by the quality of the small museum attached to the visitor centre, and our only regret was that we hadn’t arrived earlier in the day, as we were turfed out after witnessing only one set of ships transit the locks.
We also rented bicycles for an afternoon, a jolly adventure that was rudely and not-so-briefly interrupted by a serious rainstorm. We cycled to the city’s fish market, and treated ourselves to about as fresh a fish lunch as money can buy at one of the many restaurants located just outside. The quality and price of the sea bass was worth the smell (but only just).
That takes us up to my flight back to the UK, where I had just enough time to squeeze in one more adventure. Making the most of a six-hour layover in Atlanta, I achieved a life-long dream by hiring an enormous pickup truck and driving to a world-famous rib restaurant. Certainly an extravagance, and yes I could have hired a hatchback for half the price, but that’s just not as fun is it? The ribs were sublime, so much better in fact than any ribs I’d ever had before that they made me wonder if I’d ever had ribs properly in the first place. My Ford F150 Lariat was enormous and hilariously fun to drive. Getting back to the airport for my next flight by driving through downtown Atlanta at rush hour perhaps wasn’t the best use of it, however.***
Anyway, that’s you all caught up with the embers of the first half of my trip, and we’ll now jump back to Cartagena! It would be fair to say that we didn’t fall in love with Cartagena the way some people do. It’s a beautiful city, filled with stunning buildings, bright colours, plentiful flowers, and a patently obvious rich cultural history. All of these factors, however, have made it a touristic hub for the regeneration that Colombia has been through in recent years, and with this comes aggressive street sellers, shyster taxi drivers and an atmosphere that often toed the wrong side of the line between busy and downright oppressive.
A perfect example of these detracting factors came in a day trip to Playa Coral, a beach destination about 45 minutes outside of the city. Despite – on balance – enjoying our day here thanks to a cool-box filled with cheap beer, azure waters to cool off in and a tasty lunch, we spent the majority of the time lamenting how lovely the place must have been before being descended on by literal hordes of locals looking to take advantage of the tourist droves.
Aggressive and often rude people trying to sell you everything from oysters to sunglasses, bracelets to henna tattoos would bother you at roughly 45-second intervals. The constant buzz of jet skis and boats would drill into your temples and their engines’ acrid petrol smell would force its way up your nose. Women would grab your feet or shoulders whilst you weren’t looking, attempting to display the massage skills they wanted you to part with your pesos for. Sun-loungers and chairs ran the length of the beach and right up to the water, leaving virtually nowhere to sit or relax that you didn’t have to pay for.
A real shame to witness a perfect example of why a country’s regeneration and new-found prosperity can sometimes be a double-edged sword.
Cartagena was not without its saving graces, however, namely the Museum of Caribbean Naval History, which we wandered through one afternoon, before sitting on the historic city wall to watch a (slightly disappointing) sunset. We also found much solace in arepas, the local delicacy of butter and cheese sandwiched in the middle of a crunchy and chewy dough patty. Yum.
Our second stop in Colombia was Santa Marta, where we traveled to three nights ago and I’m writing from now. Here we’ve enjoyed the comforts of a rather spectacular hostel named Drop Bear, which local rumours would tell you is set in the old mansion-style house of a ‘narco’ drug-lord.
Two days ago we day-tripped to a local fishing village named Taganga, where we found a lot more of the peace and tranquility missing from Playa Coral and again enjoyed the cold, fizzy contents of our new traveling partner, Carlos the polystyrene cool box.
After an admin day yesterday, we have a flight booked to Medellin in a week, and bookings and plans for a journey up to the most northerly reaches of Colombia (and in fact South America), which should manifest themselves in everything from jungle to sand dunes.
It’s great to be back out here and amongst so much new and exciting again, but was just as lovely to be home seeing all of my family and sharing in a magical**** day with my brother and his wonderful new wife. I know it’s not a sunset or a Caribbean beach, but I’ll give you a tiny glimpse of their beautiful wedding below.
*By all accounts, with bloody aplomb.
**Time to get saving for that trip to Antarctica then…
***The activities engaged in on this layover are not an endorsement of Donald Trump, Pepsi or United Airlines.
****I know, I know, laaaaaaaaaame. But seriously. It was epic.