I'd been looking forward to Cartagena. In all honesty mostly due to my love of the eighties film Romancing The Stone with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas which is based in the colourful Colombian town but also because it marked an achievement, that we'd managed to travel South America, from Rio completely overland. We arrived on a hot and sunny morning after a sleepless overnight coach journey. Our public bus to the old town seemed to take a lifetime in the excessive heat but eventually we arrived at the town wall and jumped off to walk the ten minutes to our hostel. The streets of old town Cartagena were bursting with colour, bougainvillea in bright shades of pink and purple tumbled down walls of yellow and blue. Countless pots filled with every type of tropical plant were dotted along every street. Cute tables and chairs lined the sliver of shade outside cafés while tourists and locals alike chatted exuberantly. In fact the area we were staying in was an Instagrammers dream and I felt a pang of sadness that our camera was gone and all I had to record the colourful walls was an iPhone. After walking through a pretty park to the harbour, around the historic centre and along the city walls we found a shaded table in a square and enjoyed a refreshing drink, I was reminded of childhood holidays in the sun.
The following day we decided to walk to the fort that we had passed on the bus. I had imagined that it would have been where they filmed some of Romancing the Stone as the end portion of the film takes place in a fort on the water. This fort wasn't on the water, you could see the sea but several roads and buildings were in the way so I was slightly confused. We paid the 25,000 peso entrance fee and climbed up the slope to the top of the fort where a welcome breeze provided respite from the intense heat. A huge Colombian flag flapped around and in the distance we could see the walled old town and high rises in the wealthy part of the city. Underneath the fort were torch-lit tunnels which were fun to explore, some led to areas we hadn't visited before and some were plain dead ends. After returning to the colourful old town we stopped for lunch outside, as people-watching is a favourite past time of mine I relished sitting at a table looking out as the world passed by. The table next door appeared to have some sort of problem as an argument with the waiters ensued leaving one of the party to dramatically storm off, in fairness the service at this particular café was terrible but we had all the time in the world.
After a relaxing afternoon in the pretty hammock-filled foyer of our hostel we left for pizza. Fairy lights were strung around the garden that we sat in and the air was warm. Our pizzas were delicious and the piña coladas were an excellent price so I was able to enjoy a cocktail without being guilted by our modest budget. We watched Romancing the Stone in the evening and I couldn't recognise anything that we had seen, after a quick look on Google I found that the film although supposedly based in Cartagena was actually filmed in Mexico as Colombia in the 1980's was too dangerous a country. Mystery solved!
We organised a last minute minibus to take us to Palomino along the Caribbean coast, our first intention had been to travel to the bus station again and look for a local bus but the idea of being picked up from our hostel and immediately put into air conditioned transport was too appealing an option to pass up. After a six hour journey we arrived in dusty Palomino and walked to our characterful accommodation. Up some creaky old handmade stairs was a mezzanine with chairs and a hammock, off the mezzanine was a little room with two bunk beds and a door leading to our room. Inside was a four poster bed covered in a mosquito net, the roof was made from thatched palm and the walls didn't reach the ceiling so though it was a private room it wasn't completely sealed off from the next room or the dorm space. The nearest spot for food was a newly built shack selling 'pizza pies' an interesting take on the Italian favourite. With dough made up like an open calzone inside was a delicious mix of tomato sauce, creamy mozzarella and fresh basil which was oozing out onto the wooden platter it was served on. The quality of the ingredients was second to none and it felt really authentic, I remember thinking that the dish was like something that would be served in a fashionable eatery in Shoreditch except there it would cost £10 a portion and here on this street lamp lit dusty track surrounded by friendly stray dogs it cost next to nothing.
In the morning we took a wander down to the beach which was further away than we first thought. Across the main road and down a sandy track we arrived at the sea and walked along the golden sand. We found a couple of chairs underneath an umbrella made from bamboo opposite the sea and took a seat. We asked the resort behind if it was ok and they replied yes for an hour or so but as no-one came to move us on we ended up sitting there all day. The waves crashed breaking up the silence and the sun made the sand glow gold. We didn't have to leave our seat for lunch as local vendors passed by with snacks and drinks, we were perfectly catered for. In the evening we couldn't resist another taste of mozzarella and so headed back to the pizza shack.
We'd only booked two nights in our accommodation and there was no further availability so we walked on to the main strip towards the beach in search of new accommodation which we found in a clean but characterless property. With no ATM's in Palomino we were slightly worried about money as we were getting a bit low, after a bit of research we found that the next town along had an ATM so we jumped in a taxi and did a cash run.
The next day we took a bus to Tayrona National Park. I'd wanted to visit the park but wasn't sure how to go about it as everything that I had read mentioned camping overnight and we knew that we didn't have time. After a chat with the guy at our hostel we learned that it can easily be visited on a day trip and so that's what we did. We arrived, bought our tickets and took a minibus from the entrance on the main road to the trail. The path was easy to follow and not too strenuous despite the humidity. Up and down wooden stairs and along boardwalks we went until we reached the white sandy beaches that I'd hoped to see. We found a tiny little cave right by the water and sheltered from the sun while we watched the waves splash over the boulders in front of us. Craig rolled his shorts up and edged closer to the water and got splashed big time which made me chuckle. We walked further along the coast, through a field of palm trees to another beach perhaps even nicer than the one before. Time was running out so we walked back via the wide trail that horses are taken down which was a slight shortcut to the coastal path that we had taken in the morning.
An infuriatingly long travel day back to Cartagena followed our lovely coastal adventures and the day after that was our last full day not just in Colombia but in South America too. Our flight to Panama had been booked a while back and marked an exciting new chapter in our travels, a forty day adventure through Central America to Cancun in Mexico where our flight to New York awaited.
We spent our last day organising our rucksacks, I had decided to leave a few things behind to lighten my pack including my alpaca jumper from Argentina which turned out not to be alpaca wool at all. We enjoyed a delicious lunch in a café in Cartagena and then met our buddy Carl for one last time. As fate would have it he was leaving the same day as us but his journey was to be many days on board a cargo ship destined for New Zealand. As we sat on the sidewalk on a warm evening we joked that we'd wave at him as he passed through the Panama Canal, the next morning after a restless night we left Colombia. The end of an era and the beginning of a new one.
🎥 Colombia video:
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