Friday, 19th September
We caught a taxi to the Tocumen International Airport for our flight which would leave at the very precise hour of 11:21am from Panama City courtesy of Copa Airlines. Upon checking in, we were informed that we had to purchase either a return ticket or an onward ticket from Colombia otherwise they (Colombian immigration) wouldn’t let us into the country. I knew this to be a technicality in which we did need proof of onward travel but the reality is they rarely check it, although we did get checked upon entering Panama. So, we ended up buying a fully refundable ticket for a portion of our trip (Bogota to Quito) which we could later refund once in Colombia (we hope, otherwise it’s going to be an expensive way to get to Quito, Ecuador). The flight was short, just over one hour, and we landed in Cartagena to a hot and humid day, the norm up here on the Caribbean coast. As I thought, when going through immigration for Colombia, we weren’t asked about proof of onward travel so that made be bristle for what Copa Airlines had made us do. We would get the cost of the flight back but not the US$50 we had to pay in ‘agency fees’ for buying a ticket at the airport. Not sure why you pay agency fees when booking directly with the airline at the place where the planes leave from. Seems a bit crazy to me but then they are exploiting the entry requirements to Central and South American countries to make a bit of extra cash so no wonder.
Cartagena is Colombias fifth largest city and sits in the North on the Caribbean coast. The city was founded in 1533, and named after Cartagena in Spain although settlement in this region around Cartagena Bay by various indigenous people dates back to 4000 BC. During the colonial period Cartagena served a key role in administration and expansion of the Spanish empire. It was a centre of political and economic activity due to the presence of royalty and wealthy viceroys. The colonial walled city and fortress have now been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
We got a cab from the airport, for an honest fare, to our hotel in Cartagena, ‘Hotel La Magdalena’. We have one night booked here and thought we’d see how we go before booking another night as it did have some mixed reviews but it is cheap in comparison to other accommodation here. It’s a double room with an ensuite bathroom and air-con for US$37 a night. We went for a brief look around and our first impression of Cartagena was that it is a beautiful city but intensely hot. It was mid-afternoon by now and feeling peckish we tried some street-food (chicken filled empanadas, delicious) and stopped for a couple of lemonades to refresh (I had a pink lemonade and got some strange looks from passing men, Kirsty a coconut one). We thought we could be cheap here by doing our own breakfasts so after stocking up on groceries from the supermarket we stopped by the hotel to pay for another night not wanting to search for more accommodation tomorrow and have a lie down. We were plagued by a mosquito last night so didn’t get much sleep. We eventually got up for dinner and had a walkabout in what is a very lively place. We are staying in Getsemani which by all accounts is a lively and noisy part of town. It’s part of the original old city, actually older than the ‘old city’ and nowadays not as polished. It’s a cheaper part of town to stay in whilst still being very close, within walking distance, to the ‘old city’. A lot of people were out mingling on the streets here and going about their business, it’s nice to be in the thick of the action. After a happy hour mojito in a nice bar (‘El Laboratorio’) we found a typically Colombian place for dinner and had what turned out to be a mountain of food (Kirsty had some chicken rice and chips and I had some deep-fried pork skin with rice and beans). We were a bit overwhelmed by the quantity and didn’t finish it. It was also incredibly hot in the restaurant. We called it an early night with the thought of an air-conditioned room drawing us back. We would explore Cartagena in more depth tomorrow.
Saturday, 20th September
I got up early today to head to the Copa Airlines office and try to get a refund for the flights we had to buy in Panama City. Annoyingly, it turns out we have to go to Bogota to process the refund as it was paid for on credit card and they can’t process that in Cartagena for some reason. We intend on getting to Bogata anyway so this shouldn’t be too much of a problem and it was good practice of my Spanish to deal with this. Today is Saturday and is clearly a busier day than yesterday with more street-trade and people going about their Saturday business. We had our breakfast of in-house cornflakes and headed out to the old walled city to check out some of the sights and wander around. This is the kind of place that you are better off just ambling around without a plan as it’s basically just a suburb of Cartagena albeit a very beautiful one that’s surrounded by walls to keep pirates out. It was only a short walk from where we are staying, Getsemani, which is also part of the old city, actually an older part of Cartagena but it seems as though the ‘old city’ is where people go for wandering. Getsemani is more of a living suburb and doesn’t have any walls and isn’t quite as polished.
In our ambling, we stumbled across the ‘Palace of the Inquisition’ and decided to take a break from the heat and have a look around. It’s the 18th century seat of the ‘Holy Office of the Inquisition’ and is now a museum displaying torture equipment which was used, as well as other historical artefacts including witch-finding equipment such as weighing scales (if you weighed more than a feather, you were a witch). The building is amazing as you would expect for such an ‘important’ office. It is situated on one side of ‘Parque Bolivar’ which is a nice shady area to take a break and it seems, buy a hat and a coconut water. After a walk around the museum we hunted down a coffee and ended up partaking in some caffeine in a bookshop. On the way to the bookshop/cafe I sampled an ‘Arepa con quseo’ from a street stand. An arepa is a thick flatbread made from maize dough and fried. I had mine cut in half and filled with cheese. It was nice although not the kind of thing you want to eat loads of, unlike empanadas which I had later on in the day. After our coffee break we opted to walk along the wall of the ‘walled city’ which isn’t really that high, maybe about 3/4 metres. It was mainly a defensive wall and had canons mounted at various points to protect the city from looting pirates and anyone else wanting to get in who wasn’t welcome. It was a very hot day but nice on the wall getting the breeze from the Caribbean Sea. On the way back to the hotel we stopped off for an ice-cream which whilst we were eating it, noticed that the Clintons had visited this ice-cream store in their time in Cartagena. Anything good enough for the Clintons is good enough for us.
Before dinner we had a couple of chicken empanadas from a street-stand to keep us going, which were awesome and after walking to the old city a couple of happy hour cocktails in a nice bar. We have missed this is in our travelling lately and it’s nice to indulge a bit, especially in a place with this kind of atmosphere, one where people head out for dinner and drinks and walk the old cobbled streets. This part of town is where most of the tourists hang out it seems. There are nice restaurants, cafes, bars and fancy shops with expensive clothes around here. We ended up having dinner in a place called ‘Pulpitos’ and had some typical food of the region. It was really good, a bit more than we would normally pay but we fancied a nice meal in a nice restaurant. After dinner we went back to ‘El Laboratorio’ where we went the other day for a glass of champagne to celebrate Megan and Phil’s wedding back in Australia. It was a really nice evening, a few drinks and dinner. Something that we haven’t done in a while. We have become a bit blasé about dinner lately but here I have found we are getting exited about going out and choosing somewhere to eat.
Sunday, 21st September
We got up around 10am this morning with checkout not until 2pm, the latest we have had to date. It’s Sunday morning and the church next door is going off with back to back songs at full volume. I nipped out for some juice to go with our cornflakes and it was noticeable how much quieter it was for being a Sunday. It started to rain for the first time since we hd been here and it poured down. Luckily for us we still had a few hours up our sleeve at the hotel before we had to check out. We lazed around some more in the hotel and finally got around to checking out about 1pm. We left our bags with the receptionist, saying we’d be back around 6pm to pick them up. We plan on catching an overnight bus to Medellin, the next city on our itinerary, around 12 hours to the south of Cartagena. So, we had a few hours to keep busy for before we would catch a taxi to the bus terminal. We started with a coffee at a nearby cafe. After that we rounded the corner and found somewhere for lunch. We had a lunch of the day which included soup, a juice and main plate for 8,000 pesos. Or so we thought. On settling the bill we ended up paying 23,000 pesos for our two dishes. After questioning the total we were told this was right so rather than question some more which we should have done we just paid up and left. It was only a couple of dollars more than it should have been and it was too hot in here cafe to hang around any longer.
The rain stopped so we decided to walk around the old city some more, heading to Parque Bolivar where we took up residence on one of the benches surrounding the fountain. It was a nice way to spend a couple of hours, watching the people as they went about their Sundays, which seemed to be mainly walking around in your best clothes and posing for various photos. We have noticed after the moderate conservatism of the way people dress in Central America, Colombians don’t have a problem with displaying a fair amount of flesh and there was certainly some out today.
After snacking on an ‘arepa con queso’ we headed back the hotel to pick up our bags before catching a cab to the bus terminal, a half an hour ride from the old part of the city where we were staying. The roads here, like much of Central America, don’t seem to have a clear system or any lane markings but everyone gets on with it in a disorderly fashion. The bus terminal was, as expected, initially confusing upon our arrival with people shouting destination names in a way that you couldn’t quite hear what they were saying. Having done some research before we got there we found the counter for the company we wanted and purchased our tickets to Medellin aboard a ‘luxury’ coach. The tickets stated 100,000 pesos each on them but for some reason I was charged 105,000 pesos each. After the overcharge at lunch and just accepting it I decided that I would challenge this one with my limited spanish. After successfully getting my query understood and some puzzled expressions combined with a cash reconciliation I got my extra change back. It turned out to be a genuine mistake and the guy was very apologetic, even coming over to me later on to shake my hand and to explain in spanish what had happened, which I couldn’t understand. I just nodded and said ‘no hay problema’. The bus was decent and had the most reclining of all the seats we had come across so far so we were confident of getting some sleep. Before the sleep they put on the traditional inappropriate movie. This time it was a film about guns, drugs and violence in, you guessed it, Colombia. Reassuring when you are just about to take a 12 hour night bus through the country. Anyway, with the movie done we could get some sleep and did so quite successfully although I expect a nap will be order once we get to Medellin.