Sun, sightseeing and Spanish lessons

Trip Start Oct 16, 2012
Trip End Apr 20, 2013

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Saturday, October 20, 2012

As the 20 hour mark came and went, we arrived at a bus station and the driver came through shouting "Cartagena". Woohoo, at last!  We jumped out and waited outside the bus for our luggage.  The driver then appeared after a few minutes and laughingly said in Spanish something along the lines of “this isn't your stop you idiots, you have another two hours before we get to Cartagena, now get back on the bus and stop wasting my time”  or something like that, who knows, all I understood was Cartagena 2 hours.  Whilst he unpacked everyone else’s luggage, Kory made a run for it to get us some food, as yesterday’s pizza was long gone.  The driver made sure I understood that he needed to make up some time and didn’t appreciate having to wait.  So I had to stand with one foot on the bus and one foot off, until Kory ran back with some take-away pollo pastels.  Ha, ha bloody gringos!

Along the way to Cartagena we saw quite a bit of the countryside.  There were lots of rolling hills, with small villages on them.  There were much smaller, shack type houses, with naked children running about and a donkey tied up outside.  There was more rubbish by the sides of the roads and it felt more like a developing country than the city had portrayed.  As we neared our destination we noticed the locals were wearing shorts and vest tops and had red, sweaty faces.  The sun was out, and the countryside was lush, maybe our rainy season was over?!  The air conditioning had been pumped up to the max throughout the whole journey, and I’m sure we looked pretty crazy arriving into Cartagena with jumpers and down jackets on, but they were the only way that we could get some sleep on the bus.  We also saw a couple of mountains with snow on the top of them, which surprised me as we are so close to the Caribbean Coast.  When I referred back to the lonely planet, I quickly learnt that it was indeed the highest coastal mountain range in the world, with peaks at 5775m. 

As we arrived in to Cartagena, after a 23 hour bus journey, we didn’t relish the idea of having to get a taxi to the centre and then trying to find a room that had sufficient space for us to put the bikes together in and that wasn’t too expensive.  However, it all went surprisingly well.  We arrived in the bus station and seemed to be presented instantly with a truck/yute-style taxi, which easily accommodated the bikes.  We set off for the Old Town, which took about half an hour.  The only incident that arose was that a young taxi driver rear-ended us when we slowed down, but thankfully it was only a tiny bump because everyone was going slowly.  Our taxi driver didn’t even comment on it, which seemed a bit strange.  We arrived in to Cartagena and gave him the address that the cheaper hostels were on, which Sophie had told us about.  We checked out 2-3 places that were all next to each other, and lumped for the cheapest one, of course.  One place was asking for 45,000 pesos per person. 

The hostel that we checked in to was pretty basic but had a nice feel to it.  It had a movie room/bar/dining area in the front, with the staff kitchen and guest kitchen, with a courtyard leading from there, surrounded by dorms and private rooms.  The whole area was painted with bright colours and it had a nice vibe to it.  Regardless of this, it was still the most expensive wood panelled, basic room, with a bed in it, with shared bathroom, we have every paid for during our travels.  We are going to have to tighten the money belt, if these rates keep up.

We spent a week in Cartagena.  Cartagena is a beautiful, old, colonial walled city, with lots of old buildings, cathedrals, museums and brightly painted buildings, with balconies overlooking plazas.  Every few blocks there are open squares with tables out for people to have their lunch in the sun, looking up at the huge, stone buildings with grand architecture.  This reminded me of a Spain that I have never seen, but it is what I imagine Spain to look like.  It also reminded me a lot of Italy, as they have squares with impressive buildings as far as the eye can see. 

The Old Town was touristy, but in a nice way.  It was popular with tourists but not over-run.  It had lots of dining options and expensive looking shops but it didn’t have stall after stall of tat.  On the whole we weren’t pestered too much either, which was great.  There were street performers; mime artists, women dressed in native dress for photos and teenage dance groups who showed off their moves and their brightly coloured outfits

We walked around the Old Town and along the fortress walls.  Most of them were still in good repair, and we returned to one area that we could view the sunset a few times over the week.  There was a restaurant there, which sold beer for 10,000 pesos each, or you could sit up on the fort wall and buy a beer from a street vendor for 2 or 3 thousand pesos, obviously it was a clear choice which one we would do. 

Our main reason for coming to Cartagena and for staying for a week was to learn some Spanish.  We had heard that Cartagena had lots of places that taught Spanish to foreigners but were surprised to see few posters about it when we arrived.  We asked at the tourist information and found out about a school that we could attend for a week, which seemed perfect.  We arrived first thing on the Monday morning at the school and promptly started our first lesson in a class of 5 people.  We expected it to be difficult but the first lesson was ridiculous.  We went straight into difficult, irregular verbs and the teacher barely spoke a word of English.  He would ask us bizarre questions in Spanish about Colombian writers and Swiss tennis players and it went way over our heads.  We didn’t know what to do, we hadn’t paid any money for the weeks classes and they had no information about us, so we considered bailing on them.  However, we had come all the way to Cartagena for language classes and we didn’t have any other options.  We decided to make the decision over a beer and Kory convinced me we should stick with the classes and get whatever we could out of it, even though it was making me angry that he couldn’t explain what he meant in English.  As we walked back to the school, with the payment for the week, 750,000 pesos for both of us, we stumbled upon a hostel that advertised diving.  When we walked in, we saw a poster about a private tutor who comes to your hostel to teach you one-to-one or two-to-one.  Now we were unsure about what to do again.  Thankfully the receptionist at the hostel helped us and called the tutor, he could probably hear that we really needed some language lessons.  When we spoke to the tutor on the phone, all we had to go on was that he spoke good English and we could understand him on the phone.  We signed up and arranged for him to meet us in our hostel at 10am the following day.  Well, that was the decision made, we were meant to be in class at 9am at the school but we had made plans to meet him instead.  Now, we were really unsure if we had made the correct decision, with going with the unknown entity, someone who we knew nothing about and had read no reviews on.

When we met Amaury he instantly put our minds at rest, he spoke really good English, was friendly and extremely patient with us.  Over the week we gradually learnt more verbs and adjectives and how they changed depending on the person who was using them.  It was tough going but we picked up sentences and began to speak in slow, deliberately constructed conversations.  We had instruction for 3 hours each morning and spent a few hours each afternoon trying to revise and practise. 

The temperature and humidity of Cartagena made having a siesta almost a necessity; however it was always too hot to sleep, so we ended up not doing too much in the afternoons.  We both chatted to our families on Skype and caught up on any news from the last few weeks.  We also met lots of other travellers who were straying in the hostel.  There seemed to be lots of couples, rather than single travellers.  We spent one evening chatting over beers to three other British couples, until somehow it was 1.30am and we remembered we had school at 7.45am

We really enjoyed our time in Cartagena; we learnt some Spanish, explored the beautiful city and met some lovely people.  We were really excited to get on our bikes and to explore the Colombian countryside but we realised that we were getting nervous.  We had no idea what the roads would be like, or how busy they would be, we also had no real idea about where we might be able to sleep that night.  There was also the nagging thought in the back of our minds about Colombia’s violent history and regardless of how much research we did on the internet it was difficult to determine how much risk there currently was.  So it was with mixed emotion that we headed to bed that night, for an unsettled night’s sleep.           
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Paddy on

Hi Guys! Loving the blog Gemma. Might put my friend Anne on to it... you know the one that biked across Canada. Stay safe & enjoy the ride :o)

Stacey on

Wow Gemma! It sounds like you and Kory are having an amazing time. It's good to hear what you've both been up to in so much detail :-)

Have fun and stay safe! xxx

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