Posts Tagged With: Cartagena

(Not) Sleeping Around Coastal Colombia

When you sleep around Colombia, here are three guarantees:

  1. You won’t sleep
  2. There will be no hot showers (or, lukewarm for that matter…but, you might be able to bird watch from the convenience of your shower)
  3. Sometimes you’ll have to request a toilet seat

Poor Kim. Even with ear plugs and enough rum to kill an elephant,  the crashing waves of the Caribbean were just too crashy. The coconuts also crashed during the night and even the tiny little lizards peeped and barked from the palm frond roofs above our heads. And of course we had a few requisite heat-seeking missile mosquitos trapped inside our mosquito net, and an off kilter rooster (from Australia?) who cockadoodled at 3am onward. There were howler monkeys, street dog choirs, horny neighbours having (apparently) amazing sex in the outdoor shower adjacent to our room, salsa lovers with music CRANKED at dawn, Fred Flintstone snorers, farters and trickling toilets. Kim didn’t sleep for 21 days.

But, sleep aside (I’m in charge of sleeping for two), here’s where we crashed around Colombia.

Zaguan Boutique Hotel, Cartagena

$129.35 CDN, 2 nights incl. breakfast

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We weren’t supposed to sleep here. Despite having made a reservation with booking.com, our ‘original’ hotel, Casa del Mango, had no room for us. Via Google translate, the receptionist awaiting our arrival typed in “Hello nice lady of the night, we have no room but will send you somewhere else.” GREAT. Our introduction to Spanish charades began that night as we guessed that our cab fare would be covered by the first hotel and we would be shuttled off somewhere else. She showed us some convincing pictures of Zaguan, and we hopped in another cab and headed back directly to where we had just come from, via the airport.

In the historic centre of Cartagena, this hotel was actually closer to where we wanted to be. In minutes we were atop the walled city, walking the fort (which we soon learned was where everyone under the age of 30 came to make out on the cannons).

The room itself was contemporary and had a King bed. After we unpacked most everything on to the single bed in the room, the receptionist knocked on our door. She needed the single bed for another room. A mild annoyance, less so than the waterproof child who continued to cannonball and splash about the courtyard pool until almost 11pm. Oh, and supervising dad? He had a nice marching band mix pumping out of his cell phone—placed on our bedroom window sill. Around 2am, a group of three (probably the ones who needed the single bed) clomped in and shared their life stories above us until dawn.

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We made our way to the courtyard, bleary-eyed, for our first day (but not last day) of crappy, muddy coffee, white bread, eggs and papaya.

Highlight: our shower curtain rod was an old mop handle and we had some type of insect with a 12 hour lifespan in the bathroom. Each morning, 150 dead miniature flies would be left tits up all over the sink, soap and floor.

Dumaga Hostal, Taganga

$67 CDN, 2 nights, no breakfast (but free coffee and convo with Anna!)

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For $33 bucks a night, I loved this place. Owned by a recently retired Colombian American Airlines flight attendant, Anna, it was authentic, rustic and Tiny House Nation-cool. It even had a flat screen TV! However, Taganga, a formerly sleepy fishing village, is also home of the “crazy breeze.” This breeze is like a gale-force wind that whips towards the ocean, and I thought for sure our tiny cabana was going to blow right off its tiny stilts into the sea. Our bed shook, the whole structure leaned with the wind and creaked and threatened until sunrise. Oh, and then the rooster started in. This set the Rooster Richter Scale at an all-time high. It was like waking up in the middle of Old Macdonald’s Farm.

Anna compensated though with her tall tales, hatred for the neighbour’s rooster and plied us with better coffee. She helped us arrange our hell ride (see previous blog) to Playa Blanca with her rooster-owning neighbour and found us a private cab to Minca for a steal. She was the only English-speaking person we had found in Colombia in four days.

Dumaga is .8km to the beach and not entirely flip flop friendly. Kim banned me from flip-flopping down due to the terrain and my tendency to skid out or lose a flop. It’s rocky and more of a trail than a proper road. Even the taxi refused to climb the hill to drop us directly at Dumaga. At night it’s a steep crawl and one that is only done confidently with the aid of several happy hour drinks to dull rational senses.

Highlight: Sundowners at the beach. This actually ended up being our only sunset in Colombia and it was fun to park ourselves on the seawall and watch all the activity. Fisherman carrying Chihuahua-sized lobsters for sale, kids hoofing soccer balls and an odd and surprising collection of homemade circus acts. As Kim said, “It’s the place where everyone who didn’t make the Barnum & Bailey’s cut come to live.” We ate very cheaply here (and without diarrhea), sampling deep-fried arepas stuffed with guacamole and cheese for 75 cents. Beer was the same price. We also discovered what we dubbed “Colombian poutine”—the heap consisted of Crisco-saturated fries, three hunks of sausage, shredded lettuce and carrot in a mayo dressing with tomato and salty cheese. Mojitos made it taste better. I’m not sure if I would rave about it as much midday, not under the influence.

El Dorado Bird Reservo,

$230 CDN including a paltry dinner and breakfast (and 136 hummingbirds)

PLUS: $82 hell ride on the back of motorbike, to and fro from the reserve

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Well, we ruined ourselves by staying here. See previous blog for the full account of hell ride #2 to access the bird reserve on motorbikes. But, wow. Soundtrack? Wattled guans and holy cacophony of green parrots! Hummingbirds, fifty at a time, circled the feeders. This place just oozed birds. At 1,700m, we were truly sleeping in the clouds. Standing on the balcony of our room, clouds would swallow the canopy below and soon envelop us, then part again.

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At night, Cartagena and Bocagrande appeared like a distant Lite Brite set. The stars were bigger and brighter than those of the city far below. We were above the coffee plantations even! It was like waking up in a treehouse with toucans. Kim and I both sounded like hyped-up versions of David Attenborough, spotting birds at all angles and thumbing through the Encyclopedia-sized Colombian bird book on hand to identify the orange-eared tanager, tawny headed swallow and yellow-legged thrush.

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At dinner (no other options in this remote reserve!), we chatted with the other guests. Two Americans, four Canadians and a Brit. The Canadians were also herpetologists—they couldn’t eat dinner fast enough. “When the birds end, the herps begin!” They even travelled with snake hooks! They were like sugar-high kids, finding ghost frogs and anoles that made their voices even higher than before. In two weeks they had seen 267 species. The Americans bragged about how many endemic species they had seen before breakfast–18. Kim and I privately rolled our eyes and opted out of the conversation to check out the superb collection of neon lime and orange moths and katydids that had gathered on the window of the treehouse where dinner was served.

Dinner was a pure flop—but, not why we came. I’m not even sure what it was. Tuna pie with a cold pile of mashed potatoes? It was all very beige and something a grade 7 home-ec class would prepare.

Highlight: Take the trail to El Mirador for a stunner of a view. You won’t cross paths with anyone else on the trail. And, fill up your coffee cup with hot cocoa in the morning ( a nice departure from the coffee slurry) and take a perch below the treehouse to watch all the birds that come to the “take-out” window. Those lovely moths from the night before make for a quick breakfast!

Tayrona Tented Lodge, Costeno Beach

$310.00 CDN for three nights, all-inclusive (no booze)

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After walking 30 minutes through an old banana plantation, we weren’t entirely sure if we had turned the right way. Yes, we were parallel to the beach but we saw no signage for the tented lodge. The sun was like molten lava and our packs like Sumo wrestlers on our back.

We found a surf camp first and the cool dudes had never heard of the Tented Lodge. Even though it was DIRECTLY beside them, just 75 meters away. Alas, we were happy to drop our bags and find that we had booked three nights on a perfectly isolated beach. The surfers couldn’t be heard or seen unless they took to the water—but, most of them were surfing the internet or hanging out high in their hammocks. We had the beach to ourselves.

The Lodge consists of three self-contained cabanas and, again, due to the remoteness, an all-inclusive package is necessary. We ate like kings—spaghetti Bolognese, coconut rice and tilapia, chicken in coconut sauce with plantain fritters. Each meal we were presented with a new mystery juice (enhanced by our in-room vodka)–strawberry, guava and tamarind.

It was so peaceful here and our morning ritual was lazy outside of my 5k run to the end of the road. Kim would follow behind, with binoculars and camera, chasing pileated woodpeckers and parakeets around.

The beach was littered only with coconuts—obviously we were well off any boat or steamer pathway.

On our first night, the owner welcomed us with a complimentary bottle of champagne (which we think was possibly perfume blended with gasoline). He had built a Burning Man-esque effigy on the beach and invited us to join him on the beach that night. There was a cooler of beer and marshmallows even! The fire was over five feet and with endless driftwood and coconut husks, we fell into a lovely trance for hours.

Tayrona proved to be one of our faves with its isolation. We both plowed through our books, nursing drinks on our balcony, walking for hours on the beach like it was our new-found occupation.

La Sirena Eco-Hotel, Palomino

$645 CDN, 7 nights seaside casita, incl. AMAZING breakfast and one cute cat

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The seaside casita we booked at La Sirena was a Pinterest page, for sure. Located right on the beach, it oozed serenity. We had an open-sky shower! We chatted with one of the massage therapists on-site and learned she was from Nelson, BC. She said she was looking for another “Nelson” somewhere warmer, and this was it. She had found it. Having been in Nelson in the fall, Kim and I agreed. It was zen, granola, yoga-centric and had groovy on the GPS.

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Marta, the Colombian owner, charmed us with her genesis story. She had bought the property years ago, when her children were young. She was living in Toronto then, and, after purchasing the land, couldn’t afford to fly back to see or enjoy it for years. Her patience is evident in her plan and what she has created. The bungalows, casitas and permaculture gardens embrace and enhance the land instead of stealing the show. It’s eco-conscious all around with herbal mosquito repellants and honey for sale. The menu is a showcase of the garden (the ginger pumpkin coconut soup is the grand prize winner) and the local bakery. Unlike the rest of our travels through Colombia, when we groaned at the thought of having to eat again, La Sirena was a pure treat with the likes of dense fruit-studded French toast, lentil burgers with red cabbage slaw and plantain chips and hefty black bean burritos.

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We enjoyed “bat o’clock” (at 5:55pm the bats begin to flit about and circle the palms) with bottles of red and watched the pink sky settle into night.

Though we were nearly vegan converts by day 7, we didn’t yoga—not even once. Though, we watched a lot of classes while drinking beer!

Highlight: One adorable cat named Emma who will gladly help you out with your French Toast and an endless beach that you can walk to Venezuela on. And, you can pay for your stay via paypal.

Palomino Breeze, Palomino

$35.77 CDN including breakfast and five snoring farters

We had lofty plans to go to the desert region via 4×4 but axed the idea when full logistics and cost were considered. We still had nearly a week to plot out after La Sirena, so we decided to cut costs and have a cheap sleep just a 15 minute walk from the beach at Palomino Breeze.

We had passed by the hotel every day on our way to ‘town’ on our grocery run. It was well-manicured with a pool and gorgeous golden retriever. We couldn’t believe the price either. Oddly, no one was staying there it seemed. That is, until we booked a night. Directly above our private room was a dorm with six bunk beds. All night long a group of Colombian students jumped in and out of bed, sent text messages and hosed themselves with citronella. They chatted, farted and carried on, oblivious. The couple beside us did the same—the walls were maxi-pad thin and we could hear everyone from all angles. The toilet trickled until Kim shut the water valve off. The pillows were made up of lumpy bits of leftover Q-tip cotton. The bed was like sleeping on a panty liner with springs. The hotel owner watched TV in the open-air commons room until 11pm at a blaring level. Even though the extensive document we signed said the commons room would close at 9pm, there would be no loud noise after this time—and absolutely no psychotropic drugs. We needed some serious psychotropic drugs!!

We tried to calm ourselves by turning the experience into Camino training. Walking the Camino de Santiago’s greatest challenge for Kim and I will be the other people—not the 600km walk. Sharing a hostel with no walls? Ugh. This was close. The walls here didn’t go to the ceiling and shit was falling from the ceiling as the frat party upstairs bounced around.

Not worth the savings or a picture.

Posada Jasayma, Tayrona National Park

$153 CDN for two nights, including 4 breakfasts, 4 dinners (incl. $15 deduction for bitching

about the noise levels from the neighbours listening to accordion music at 6am)

$38 CDN (park admission for two)

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I missed the booking.com disclaimer that this hotel had no electricity. Or, toilet seat! It was a version of a farm shed, something like the three little pigs would have built. A combo of wood scraps, brick and cement, the water in the shower and sink smelled like a swamp—but, you could birdwatch from the shower. The screened window was at the perfect height to look for titi monkeys and parakeets.

Amazingly, the bed had no mosquito net—despite being in prime yellow fever territory. I suppose the curtains on the window were the equivalent?

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The worst coffee we had in Colombia was here. The chef roared in the back of a motorbike every day to prep breakfast (day 18 of eggs and white bread, hurray!) and dinners that were actually impressive given her makeshift kitchen with pots and pans nailed to a palm tree. She made a super sweet lemonade that we tempered with rum.

Despite being inside Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park), you are still 35 minutes to the trailhead, and another 8km to Cabo San Juan.

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Highlight: At night, watching the fireflies emerge with the stars. Waking up to howler monkeys! And, finding out that we could dial-a-bottle. Because the ‘hotel’ had no bar service or drinks/snacks for sale, we could request the motorbike driver to pick up beer for us, for no additional cost (leaving the park means you have to pay admission to re-enter to the tune of $18US). Also, there is a pet parakeet here that you can have up close and personal moments with.

Yuluka Eco Hotel, Tayrona

$184 for 3 nights, Mountain View Bungalow, King Bed incl. breakfast

$59.80 for 2 mojitos, 4 mango shakes, 2 beers, 2 waters, 1 spag bol, 1 chicken quesadilla, 1 salad and 1 whole snapper with coconut rice (not all in one sitting)

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Visually and architecturally impressive, the bungalows at Yuluka are built in and around massive boulders. A winding stone staircase is a real heart-thumper, but the mountain views from the rooms are uninterrupted and worth the price of admission.

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As lush and manicured as an Oscar night attendee, Yuluka is a traveller’s oasis with a palatial bedroom, King bed and hammocks on the balcony. The bathroom—again, open sky (check out the conch shell shower head!) with a tub that would fit twenty of our friends was a knock-out. I loved that you could just drip dry on the hot stones—like a Turkish spa.

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Esther, one of the amiable kitchen staff made the best thick and foamy mango coconut milkshakes. We even convinced her to switch up the smoked salmon quesadilla (smoked salmon in Colombia??) to chicken, and, it was the best thing we ate in three weeks. Served with mango salsa and stuffed with stretchy cheese, Esther has found her calling.

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After tromping around Tayrona park, we were happy to be supine poolside with the above-mentioned mango shakes. Just watch out for the dive-bombing iguanas that suddenly belly-flop off the trees. Yuluka has built a living wall by the pool—one that we want to recreate. Hiding the concrete cinder blocks, it was a real marvel.

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Unfortunately, the hotel is right on the major highway through Tayrona and trucks and motorbikes like to gun it down the straightaway. It’s the only negative I have for the property and really, once we were in the groove and sucking up the last of the Colombian sun, we tuned it out.

Highlight: A few chapters in the hammock before dusk, though you will be distracted by inevitable mountain staring.

Yes, we were largely sleepless but well-satiated by the rhythms, guaranteed sun, unexpected entertainment/hell rides and fauna of Colombia. If you are a resilient traveler open to some roadblocks, bouts of diarrhea, zero soundproofing, hiking through banana plantations to solar powered hotels, long hauls on public transport and of a steel gut, Colombia will suit.

If you’re looking for good coffee, air-conditioning, sanitation, English, ice cubes, hot showers, satellite TV, reliable internet, culinary delights, a wine list and cockroach-free suites—nope. Not here. Try somewhere in North America

Next stop? Maybe Fogo Island Inn, Newfoundland, where the hotel rooms have switches to turn on white noise if the silence becomes too unbearable.

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Mucking Around Colombia: Mud Massages in Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo

When Kim and I began digging deeper into Colombia, it became obvious that tourism had yet to really percolate outside of Cartagena. Websites were thin on content and logistics. How to physically get to the dunes of La Guajira was vague and not entirely enticing. Descriptions varied, but all seemed to involve a solid two days bumping across a wind-whipped desert and sleeping in hammocks. Yeah, we don’t sleep in hammocks—even for $8 a night. I can handle a few chapters in one, but not a night’s sleep.

We opted to skip the desert, our memories of Egypt’s Siwa Oasis and the love affair we had with the White Desert can’t be matched, I know. Instead, we plotted out a route along Colombia’s coast that would be heavy on birds, a few nights in Tayrona National Park (the world’s largest coastal national park) and a volcanic mud massage at Volcan de Lodo El Tutomo in Santa Cantalina, 50km outside Cartagena.

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Years ago (2008!) I had seen an episode of Word Travels on Colombia, but it wasn’t until Kim pulled up a few photos online of an ant hill volcano that the memory was triggered. I told her about travel writers and TV hosts Julia Dimon and Robin Esrock (whose Great Canadian Bucket List book launch we had attended last spring) going to that very volcano. I was certain.

The ‘attraction’ looked very homemade with a rickety staircase (that would fail any North American standards) to the crater, not so very far away at 49 feet.

Finding transit to the volcano was trying. Local buses stopped at a nearby gas station and then involved a 3km walk to the site. But you had to get to the local bus station, not so locally located on the outskirts of Cartagena. We opted to save hours and spend more by hiring a private cab who could also take us directly to the Convento de Popa, the only other site of interest to us in the city.

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The convent can’t be reached by public transit either, and the walk up the zig zag road with cabs ripping up and down blind switchbacks was not advised. We understood immediately. The convent was lacking in wow factor but, the location at 150m did allow for a cool (and expensive) aerial of Cartagena and Bocagrande.

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For $210,000 ($105US—total rip-off but total convenience for our party of 2) our cabbie waited for us to poke around the convent (15 minutes—not including 15 minutes drinking a beer and looking for our cabbie who probably assumed we’d be a pokey hour). There was no small talk with him due to him speaking 100% Spanish and us, 100% English. Instead he turned up his Latino rockabilly muzak and the air con to Canadian winter levels. Great.

As soon as we came to a stop (the mighty volcano in full view), fixers latched themselves to us. Two lanky Colombian boys, probably just shy of 20, introduced themselves and said they would help us. I’m not sure how or why we needed help because it was all so self-explanatory. Pay here ($10,000 for two/$5.00US), climb stairs and, get in to the mud!

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What can you do for $5.00 nowadays? It was going to be a scream. Kim and I did quick changes into sports bras and underwear (I know, so classy! But I didn’t want to sacrifice my bikini) that we knew would be disposable after the mud dunk. We had read in Lonely Planet that folklore surrounding the mud volcano involved a priest who saw the fiery hole as the work of the devil. Apparently, it used to be a bubbling brew of molten lava and angry (tiny) eruptions. A few sprinkles of holy water and the priest turned the cranky volcano into mud to drown the devil. And, to provide a lark of an attraction for future tourists boasting mineral content and healing properties.

Our fixers also became our chief photographers (with the Fuji in hand, they snapped over 100 pics in less than half an hour—and even took video footage). They clung to us like mud as we climbed the ladder and queued up to enter the pit. Looking back at the Word Travels site now—I am shocked at the change. The mud bath is now about 10 feet lower than it was in the pictures on Robin and Julia’s 2008 visit. Now we had to climb a ladder down into the drowned devil pit–seven years ago it the mud was flush with the crater’s surface. Climate change?

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I tell you. There’s nothing quite like sharing a mud bath with twenty of your closest non-friends with elbows and feet in your ribs and face. It was like a frosh week hot tub. But, not hot. The mud was like lukewarm pudding and so buoyant it was impossible to stand. I have no idea how deep the pit was or whether the devil’s skeleton was just a toe-tip away, but, it was like being in outerspace. Gravity bounced me to the surface with a local urging me to lie back, relax. “Put head down.” I didn’t really want to muck up my hair, but, with his hand not so gently pushing my forehead down, I had to cave. Kim entered next, as bewildered as me. “Okay, how many of our friends and family would say this would be their biggest nightmare?” All of them, except maybe my sister and our pal Michelle Bluhm who does zany things like eat walrus and polar bear and sleep in treehouses and spend years living in human-unfriendly places like Nunavut.

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I thought of our friends Heidi, Kay—my mother. All of them would require sedation or millions to enter the mud volcano. Because, better yet—you get a massage too! But, it isn’t included in the admission price. No, it’s another $2.50 each for a muddy groping. The mud massagers began rubbing Kim and I up and down within a minute. They turned us like we were on a rotisserie spit and came only so close to our nether regions. I was surprised, in the dark and depth of the mud, those wandering hands could go anywhere, sight unseen.

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It was brisk, weird and hilarious. Our fixers continually called to us for in-action photos from above. We were spun around a few times and well-slathered, heads half-dunked in the devil’s remains. It smelled mineral-ish, like pennies and clay. Like Plastercine actually. After maybe 20 minutes we were whistled at to get out. We were dragged to the second ladder where a mud-whiskerer whisked off the mud from our bodies as we mounted the rungs. Still slick with the healing pudding, we exited the crater and were instructed to walk down the other side of the volcano, gripping the mud-caked hand rails as we skidded down the ‘steps.’

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Our fixers met us and ushered us to a lagoon 50m away. It was like the walk of shame down a road lined with makeshift restaurants selling beer, arepas, gasoline, fried fish and candy bars.

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At the lagoon, Kim and I were still laughing about our five dollar experience. Little did we know what was in store next. Two women led us into deeper waters and pushed us down rather aggressively into a seated position. The murky water was up to my collarbones. The last thing I saw was Kim get doused with a bucket of water over her head. And then it was my turn. The buckets kept coming—I couldn’t breathe. I could hear Kim say, “Jesus!” And then I knew why. My bucket-dumper was tugging at my bra and trying to pull it over my head. Next she was giving me a wedgie. Her index fingers were deep in my ears and her thumbs in my eyes. Holy! Still sputtering, she threw more water over my head. We were being drowned! It was like having a fire hose at point blank! What’s that expression? Baptism by fire?

We choked and burped up lagoon water. Finally, there was a reprieve from the prodding fingers and wedgies.

Kim and I said a weak thank you to the women. We swam further into the lagoon for safety. “That was like being INSIDE a washing machine!” We still had traces of mud, surprisingly.

Exhausted from the roughhousing and attempted drowning, we found our fixers and camera. Of course, such fun would cost more than the admission. The fixers wanted $10,000 each ($5), and the massage guys were waiting for us too. They wanted $5,000 each. And of course the women who tried to smother us—they sneered and gave us a Spanish cussing when we gave them $2,000 each.

Once we paid off the hoser girls and refused to give everyone more money, a small van packed with pasty Germans piled out. Our fixers were gone in a flash and everyone resumed their positions.

We stripped in a tiny closet-sized change house and headed back to Cartagena for a serious shower. My hair was scarecrow-like, our skin grey with mud streaks and seaweed.

It was obvious. This was the very best thing to do in Cartagena.

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Booking Three Weeks in Colombia, South America (aka How We Coped With Our First Snowfall)

Last week, if you had asked, we were rather dead-set on checking out Bolivia and Chile. The week before that I had Curacao all mapped out and was madly flipping between sell-off flight sites.

And, then, quite innocently, Colombia was put on our radar. An affable guy I met in Entebbe, Uganda back in 2008 (in a distraught state, having just had his wallet stolen on an overland bus) had posted his upcoming travel itinerary on Facebook. Andrew, a NY lawyer with a chronic travel bug, has been to the kinds of places that attract us. We seem to be on the same travel parallel. I hit him up for Iceland info two years ago, after learning that he had been there for a stag party.  I offered him savoury bits on Belize. Our worlds had collided in Africa for good reason.

When he mentioned Colombia, I posted some nonchalant comment that he should check out Anthony Bourdain’s recent No Reservations episode on Colombia. The next morning, ironically, I was sucked into a feature on Providencia and San Andres, Colombia in the travel section of the Record. I found myself underlining bits and Googling flight paths before work. The connection times were gross, all routed through Panama with an overnight stay (with Bogota just an hour away). All flights had a stop at JFK (just an hour from Toronto) and a four to six hour layover in New York. However, despite the crappy flights (hell, we endured 17 hours of flying to get to Zanzibar, why the wimpy whining now?

Providencia was totally our speed—it sounded like the magical atoll that we needed after just one blast of snow. We needed a climate-controlled environment, stat.

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A few winters ago we became big ambassadors of Belize—especially Caye Caulker. The romance was in the casual, lazy vibe, killer cheap curries, colourful beach huts, old school bikes and barefoot philosophy. However, Caye Caulker offers little more than pure sun, gin-coloured water, paralyzing rum drinks and addictive ceviche. There is an opportunity to break your back on a dodgy 2+ hour boat ride to the Blue Lagoon and (better yet) to Lighthouse Caye to see the red-footed booby colony. But, that’s about it–though there is nothing wrong with that winter rehab prescription!

The rest of Belize offered everything else—terrifying cave adventures neck-deep in water, an opportunity to sleep at the zoo, river tubing, howler monkeys and bird mania.

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I knew Kim was keen on some adventure and cultural literacy (in tandem with the lazy beach, beer and book days). Colombia appeared again—I was skimming through a Huffington Post article on the Top 50 Cities to See in Your Lifetime. Of course, Colombia was there, like an epiphany, seated at #36.

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36.) Cartagena, Colombia – The colonial city of Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast has a history filled with explorers, pirates, and royalty, and it’s UNESCO-recognized Old City is every bit as enchanting as you’d expect.

I returned all the guide books I had checked out of the local library on Bolivia and Chile. Now I was searching the catalog for “Columbia.” I was disappointed to see that the search pulled up zero matches. When I expressed my concern to our esteemed librarian, Mary Lou, she immediately tapped away at her keyboard, also in belief. “Let me look,” she said with total librarian authority. She found a 2014 Colombia Moon Guide right off the crack.

“What? How come that came up for you? I typed in the same thing on that computer over there and had no matches.” I shrugged.

“Show me.” We marched off to the terminal near the travel shelves.

The screen still showed my recent search. Keyword: Columbia.

“Well, Jules, ‘Colombia’ is spelled with two o’s not a ‘u.’”

Oh, duh, I’d been busted by the spelling and library police.

Now that I knew how to spell Colombia, the search changed dramatically. That night I laughed at the Moon guide’s content for San Andres. The biggest highlight was “Big Pond.” Rastafarian-owned, the pond had no set hours, no set fee and visitors are told to ask for Fernando. Apparently, if he is there, Fernando will feed white bread to the alligators. Wow. This is the Big Pond. Nearby there was a hole in the coral that, when the tide was just so, sprayed water 10m in the air. I couldn’t believe how exciting San Andres was! Gosh, we’d want to go see the alligator feeding and big splash every day!

Scouring Providencia (an island nearly 800km north of Colombia, but just 230km east of Nicaragua) on booking.com and airbnb for accommodations a lesson in frustration. The price points for lackluster ‘hotels’ (not beachfront even) were off-putting (ie. Scary).

And this is how it happens. I started looking at Bogota (elevation too high = cooler temps). Our first questions with travel destinations are always: How’s the heat? And, what’s to eat?

A zesty Brit I met on a Toronto pub patio years ago, Ju Hayes, Facebooked me pronto to say Colombia had giant ant salty snacks and hot chocolate served with melted cheese in the bottom of the mugs. Talk about an apres-ski fondue and hot cocoa all-in-one. I was immediately charmed.

Recurve-billed bushbird

While Kim was busy toiling away at the steel mill, I hunkered down and researched our new unexpected zone—it had to be Cartagena and the 1,760 Caribbean coastline that stretches from Panama to Venezuela. There are 1,800 bird species (the most in the world!) in Colombia. Over 3,500 orchids. Fifty species of bats! There are volcanoes where you can soak in a thermal mud bath, rivers to tube down and desert sand dunes in Nazareth even. I already had us kayaking through the placid mangroves to see the flamingoes and sleeping in cabanas made from yotojoro (cacti) heart.

DSCF2978

Humid jungles, arid dunes, sloths, empanadas, empty beaches, coffee farms, solar-powered huts—all the boxes were ticked.

When Kim phoned from work I told her that we had a whole new game plan. I couldn’t wait for her to get home to sell the coastline package to her. I pulled up pics of Tayrona National Park with wild horses on the beach, showed her the crunchy La Sirena cabanas on an old coconut plantation (we’d skip the yoga classes). I wooed her with the Dunas de Taroa that drop 30m into the sea. A few beachy pics of the icing sugar-white sand and the contrast of the walled city of Cartagena and its historic appeal had Kim on board.

jungle hut

As the snow pounded down and cars spun sideways down our street I had my credit card at the ready. We clinked glasses of Lug Tread as we warmed our butts on the kitchen rad. “Let’s do it.”

And, so, suddenly, or not so suddenly, we are going to Colombia for three weeks in January. Stay tuned. And, if you’ve been—let me know! I want all the gory details—who, how, when, why!

Pre-trip homework:

  1. Rent Romancing the Stone. A romance writer sets off to Colombia to ransom her kidnapped sister, and soon finds herself in the middle of a dangerous adventure.
  2. Read One Hundred Years of Solitude. The 1967 novel by Colombian author Gabriel García Márquez tells the multi-generational story of the Buendía family, whose patriarch, José Arcadio Buendía, founds the town of Macondo, the metaphoric Colombia.
  3. Re-watch Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations episode on Colombia—from drug capital to food capital.
  4. Watch Andrew Zimmern’s Bizarre Foods: Colombia The host eats everything from capybara to caiman to jungle rats.
  5. Brush up on 1,800 Colombian birds.
  6. Drink a lot of Colombian coffee so I’m well-versed.
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