Cartagena is one of the most beautiful cities I've ever seen. The architecture and colourful tree lined streets of the Walled City are unlike any place I have ever visited.
The vibrant windows framed by Bougainvillea are just asking to have their photo taken and the atmosphere is lively, almost festive, all the time. The temperature is sweltering, street vendors sell freshly sliced tropical fruits and every street corner offers a new possibility to explore. I loved it from day one couldn't have been happier that this would be our home for the coming weeks.
Arriving in Colombia and finally departing Portuguese-speaking Brazil also marked the start of our next 4 months in Spanish speaking countries. We were excited about this as we would both like to achieve a basic grasp of the language during our time in South America but Brazil had really put the brakes on our progress. Before leaving Brazil we had discussed the various places we could settle for a week or so to attend a Spanish language school and it just happened to make sense that we would get started ASAP. So there we were in the beautiful, historic coastal city of Cartagena, ready to make ourselves comfortable, smash out some Spanish and explore the city….. It couldn’t have been more perfect.
Cartagena is a reasonably large city however for most travellers, their visit centres around the UNESCO listed Old Walled City and the nearby backpacker suburb of Getsemani. The walls of the Old City of Cartagena are an incredible insight into this city's history. They were built between the 16th and 18th centuries to protect the city from pirate attacks. The walls are up to 20 metres thick in sections and several cannons still stand next to observation turrets, defensively watching over the ocean.
We chose a hostel on the well known backpacker street Calle Media Luna. The street has some very well known party hotels (one of which is owned by a friendly Aussie) but with the atmosphere comes a higher price and we actually wanted something quieter seeing we would need to be at school by 9am everyday. Wade and I opted for a smaller, cheaper hostel only metres away from the party hostels but with a quieter, more local feel to it. Hotel La Española had a unique charm about it that only faded slightly when we realized on day three that we were in fact right above a pumping nightclub!
Within our first few hours of arriving in Cartagena, a few things occurred that at first surprised us but over the next 2 weeks would become part of everyday Cartagena life. For starters we met a well dressed, super creepy man who wanted to know all about us. We stopped to chat seeing as he seemed extremely interested in where we had been and what we were doing in Cartagena. It was only after we told him our names and where we were from that he quite openly introduced himself as the local drug king pin. He offered us an array of goods including free samples, all of course because we were his new friends and “he liked the look of us”…. Whatever that meant! It only took us three days to find an alternate route around town that avoided our new friend on our daily walking path!
Make friends with the locals... Tick!
We were then offered lunch by a motherly Spanish woman as we walked passed a very homely looking doorway. I used my basic Spanish to ask what the food was and how much it would cost. The price was cheap enough and while I didn’t understand every word, I gathered that we had a choice between chicken, beef or fish. We sat at a table surrounded by locals who were all eating plates of delicious looking food but we had absolutely no idea what WE were getting. Ten seconds later "Mamma" (as we decided to name our oh-so-efficient chef/waitress/business owner) came back with an icy cold juice and a bowl of hot soup. At first the thought of hot soup in 30 degree weather with 80% humidity sounded terrible but this soup was incredible! Wade looked vaguely disappointed at the fact that our lunch was soup and juice but I assured him that Mamma said something about chicken or meat and I had asked for one of each. Before we had even finished our soup there were two wonderful plates of deliciousness sitting in front of us. One with grilled chicken, rice, beans, plantain and salad and the other the same but with steak. Our lunch was awesome and when we asked for the bill at the end we really didn't know what to expect seeing as Mamma had somehow also sneakily added soup and a drink to our lunch order. In total, twelve thousand peso. Hmmm the new exchange rate was still messing with me a little but I'm sure that equals $6 or $7 for the two of us. I gave Mamma a large note just in case I my Spanish translation was wrong but no it was right. I thought she was going to hug us when we left the equivalent of a $2 tip and we left more satisfied by a meal than we had been in weeks. I asked Mamma about the juice and soup and she simply gave me a confused look and said “Menu del Dia”. I looked this up later and as it turns out, lunch meals in Colombia consist of soup, a main plate and a fresh juice all for one small price!
Eat Colombian style "Menu del dia" like a local.... Tick!
We spent the rest of our first day in Cartagena speaking to the different Spanish schools in town. While they all seemed great we chose to go with Babel and couldn't have made a better decision. Prior to signing up to Babel, my grasp of the Spanish language could be entirely attributed to a combination of:
1) The extensive vocab of Speedy Gonzalez
2) an App called "Mind Snacks" (try it, it's awesome!) and
3) the song from the 1992 Barcelona Olympics which for some bizarre reason, at the ripe old age of 7, I decided was the coolest song around.... it wasn't.
On our first day at school we had 6 people in our class. By day two, we were down to four and by day three we were down to three. Wade and I found ourselves a new friend in James the pommie, who within minutes of meeting we immediately loved his wicked sense of humour and even better was that he only had a slightly better grasp of Spanish than ourselves! Our teacher Gisella was fantastic although it took her a few days to accept that she had somehow scored two of the most typical "naughty boys" at school in her class of three! The poor woman had no idea what had hit her. By the end of our first week we had a vague understanding of verbs and adjectives but knew without a doubt phrases such as "porn star", and even had an hour lesson on the history of Colombia including guerrillas, drugs and Pablo Escobar (all in Spanish of course!). In all honesty though, as much as we strayed from the normal curriculum, Gisella was a fantastic teacher and somehow the three of us English-speaking morons managed to really improve our Spanish over two weeks of school.
Speak Spanish like a gringo…. Tick!
During our two weeks of study we even had two school excursions! The first was to a small beach called Punta Arena which we accessed via a 20 minute boat ride from Cartagena. We wandered this idyllic island for the day playing word games and learning vocabulary relating to our surroundings. Our second excursion was to the local market, Mercado Bazurto. While Wade cringes at the mere thought of markets, I loved every minute strolling the alleys of this truly local market while learning all about the local foods and trying some of the more unique fruits and foods on offer.
Seeing as our two weeks of Spanish School were the most routine we have had in the past 3 months we decided that we deserved a break on the weekend for all of our hard work! The beaches in Cartagena are nothing to write home about and by Australian standards are pretty miserable, so we decided that along with a group of girls from school we would head to Playa Blanca for the weekend. Playa Blanca is either a one hour drive or boat trip from Cartagena and once you are there it has all the makings of a remote, idyllic island only technically it is part of the mainland.
While it is an absolutely stunning beach, we all agreed that the vendors on the beach offering everything from bottled water to oysters to creepy massages kinda ruined it a little. Eventually we headed down the beach to the overnight accommodation where there were far less tourists and therefore far less people trying to sell you warm oysters and unwelcome foot rubs. The one salesman that every tourist welcomes is the Coco Loco man. He spends his day strolling up and down the beach selling ridiculously strong Piña Coladas and other rum based concoctions in fresh coconuts and all made from his wheelbarrow. The guy is a genius!
We all decided to stay the night on Playa Blanca seeing as all the tourists leave at 4pm so we had the beach more or less to ourselves. We chose a small thatched roof hut as our accommodation for the night and Wade and I made a daring move when we decided to give the hammocks another "crack"! Lucky for us, this shelter held up better than our last and we made it through the night unscathed.
Our second day on Playa Blanca was spent swimming, reading and hooning around on a jet ski. It was a great escape from the city for a few days and really made us feel ‘normal’ again by having a weekend!
During our second week in Cartagena we spent some serious time exploring the city. By the time we left the city, we had walked every street within a 1km radius of our hostel and thoroughly explored the museums, architecture and alleyways of the magnificent fortified Walled City. During the days Cartagena is a stunning combination of bustling plazas, colourful window frames and blossoming bougainvillea while after dark the city shines in all it's beauty from the vantage point of the historic walls surrounding this unique UNESCO listed city.
I was sad to say goodbye to Cartagena. It had been our home for 15 days - longer than we have spent anywhere on our trip so far! Hotel La Española had really grown on me. Angela, the owner greeted us by name and asked about our day at school every time we passed her and the toilet-seat-less toilet and PVC pipe for a shower head now looked like cute quirky features of our home away from home.
We spent our last night in the city having a few ice cold beers out on the busy party street with our school mate James and the local beer vendors (who we now knew on a first name basis) while sweating in the city's never ending humidity.
It was a fitting, if not poetic end to our time in Cartagena.
Enthusiastic but Useless Traveler.