Wallowing in mud - our last days

Trip Start Jun 04, 2005
Trip End Apr 05, 2006

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Friday, March 10, 2006

The very last days of our nine-and-a-half month adventure crept up on us so stealthily that it came as a shock: the realisation, as we rode the bus from Santa Marta to Cartagena (about 6 hours), that we were on our way to our final destination - the very last stop! - in our trip. We'd have to come to terms with it over the next four days, there'd be some grieving to do...

Cartagena, situated on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, is a historic port town founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistadores, for whom it was the gateway to northern South America. Treasures of gold plundered from the native Indian tribes were stored here before being shipped to Spain. This made the port vulnerable to pirates, the most famous raider being Francis Drake. Consequently, the Spanish fortified their key port with impressive walls, which still surround the old city today.

The impromptu 'scenic tour' we were given upon our arrival in the city showed us some less spectacular parts. Let me explain. Having arrived in Cartagena by Coche Suite (our now favourite bus line in Colombia), we hopped onto a local bus to get us into town (the bus station is about 6km away form the centre).

But this particular bus took every possible detour... it wound its way through endless suburbia, then rode straight past the city walls and swung north, in the direction of the airport, which is wayyyyy out of town (yikes!). Well, the driver had assured us that his route goes to the city centre, and we had no idea where we were, so there was nothing we could do but sit tight. Thankfully, the bus finally returned in the direction of the city cente, and an hour and a half later we entered the old city walls.

It was late afternoon by the time we got to Casa Viena, an old Lonely Planet favourite which other travellers along the way had told us does actually live up to its reputation. We got a comfy, airy, slightly more pricey room with cable TV (we were after all planning to be here four nights) and set off to meet our Dutch friend Jeroen in a bar, as arranged. Casa Viena is in Getsemani, a less savoury part of the old town, but our walk to the bar on the ocean-facing city walls took us straight through the heart of the historic city centre... utterly charming.

The wind was howling (as it continued to do in our four days in Cartagena), so after meeting Jeroen we decided against drinks on the old wall and headed instead for the high-rise beach resort part of town called Bocagrande. We were very keen to arrange a dive at the Islas del Rosario, a nearby archipelago national park, so Jeroen drove us past all the dive shops (they're all based in Bocagrande) in his car. None were open; we'd have to go back in the morning. A few drinks later, we headed back to Viena with a take-away of the usual fare... you guessed it, "pollo con arroz" (chicken & rice).

Well, we slowed down in our last days. Having decided simply to chill out in one place until Thursday (when we would take the bus to Caracas before flying to the UK on Friday) there was plenty time for sleeping late, just randomly wandering and catching up on cable TV movies. On Monday, after a lazy breakfast at a very local little restaurant opposite our hotel, we meandered back down to Bocagrande and visited a few dive shops. Prices were high and the weather & visibility, due to the howling gale, were not good, so we ended up deciding not to dive.

In the evening we wandered through the narrow streets of the old town, lined with quaint colonial buildings painted in warm oranges and reds and sporting cute wooden overhanging balconies with trailing geraniums and potted palms. Around every corner the lanes opened up into squares dominated by dramatic stone churches. Though the historic centre is rather touristy, with plenty of pricey craft and jewellery stores, you only needs to round a bend or two in the 'wrong direction' to find yourself back in the heart of local Cartagena... basic, noisy eateries and bars, dilapidated buildings, beggars on the street-corners. We loved this lively part of town, and stopped off for a beer at a street bar to soak it all up.

Tuesday it was all aboard for a tour of the area's famous oddity, Volcan El Totumo. This is no ordinary volcano... in fact I very much doubt it can technically be called one. Basically, it's a cone-shaped earthen mound, 20m or so in height, with a pool of cool, creamy mud in its 'crater'. We arrived by mini-van with 10 or so other tourists, changed into our swimming togs and mounted the rickety wooden stairs up the flanks of the cone.

One by one we lowered ourselves into the pool of grey mud... ahhh, the most intriguing sensation, like wallowing in double cream! The strange thing is that you're very bouyant in the stuff: you bob on the surface and no amount of thrusting legs downwards gets you any deeper than chest-level.

With us in the mud pool were a few masseurs - the local men who run the tourist attraction - so we all lay back and enjoyed wallowing and being pampered. Then it was down the stairs again to go and dry our mud-packed bodies in the sun... a few of us had a beer while waiting. The last step of the 'treatment' was a wash-off in the lagoon, with the aid of the local ladies (who strip off your swim-suit to scrub it for you!).

The second part of the tour was a bit lame, really, and involved a lunch at a beach-side restaurant north of Cartagena. The wind was still blowing a gale, so the beach itself was unpleasant, however the lunch of fish was nice enough. We whiled away the afternoon chatting to fellow tour-goers, including Peter, a well-travelled South African living in Hong Kong.

In the evening, after a shower, we met up with Peter again for a stroll into the old town. After a few drinks on the beautiful Plaza de los Coches, we set off in search of a meal, and finally, after much hunting around, settled for a place called Spetzi's. We ended up going there the next night, on Wednesday, too - great local food and a very friendly waiter!

Well, the very last day of our travels was upon us. Along with Peter, we boarded a large cruise boat to the Islas del Rosario - nowhere near as exciting as going diving there, but at least it meant we got to see the isles. The sea was choppy, thanks to that ever-present wind (reminded us of Cape Town with its south-easter!).

About an hour and a half later we chugged past several islands dotted with luxury hotels, and landed at the oceanarium. Unlike the aquariums we've been to, this one is open - the captive animals' pools are staked out in a sheltered bay with chicken wire fencing, so they are, in fact, swimming around in fresh sea water. A member of staff led us around the pools, presenting interesting facts about the residents - sharks, turtles, shoals of game fish and a trio of dolphins, who put on a great display. Thank goodness they seemed well cared for and happy!

The second stop of the day was Playa Blanca, a beach famed for its beauty - long and crescent-shaped, with sparkling white sand and a fringe of palms, it certainly had the makings of paradise, were it not for the goddamn WIND! With a bit of effort, our boat anchored off-shore and all the passengers were herded onto a small launch for transfer to the beach. However, the choppy seas made this quite a hair-raising little ferry-ride, and there were quite a few panic-stricken faces!

Many people we'd met absolutely loved Playa Blanca, but I'm afraid we saw it on a bad day. The ocean was much too churned up for snorkeling, so we had a few swims and for a few hours endured the wind and being pestered by hawkers. To me, Tayrona remains the epitome of parade!

After returning to Cartagena in the early evening, we took to the old city's streets again with Peter, enjoying a few drinks and a meal at our favourite restaurant. Back at our hotel, we packed and prepared for an early start to the bus station. And that's how our grand world trip ends... 24-hours aboard a bus to Caracas. We endured the long ride in a sort of trance. It just didn't seem real...
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