We struggled a bit when planning our time on the Caribbean Coast. While everyone knows about Cartagena, we didn't want to spend an entire week there. Parque Nacional Tayrona, with its perfect beaches and interesting wildlife called to us but the accommodation options in the park did not. We don't like camping and couldn't contemplate sleeping in a hammock. Ecohabs seemed more our style but they cost a small fortune to stay in. We could have also visited the park from Santa Marta or Taganga, but those are noisy, bustling places; the latter is overrun with foreign tourists while the former lacks a nice beach or much to do.
Other visitors to the Coast faced the similar problem of deciding where to go and what to do. The cities of Santa Marta, Barranquilla and Cartagena all have airports. For those wanting almost complete isolation, La Guajira is on offer. We were looking for something in between. Why go to the coast to hang out in a city? But we also like to socialize and didn't want to go anywhere too remote.
Luckily we took a chance on Playa Koralia, a natural resort only a short drive away from Tayrona. Our private beach bungalow featured only what we needed: a bed with mosquito netting (the insects on the coast are ferocious day and night), a roofless bathroom with a rain shower, a safe and a place to hang a few clothes. We could relax in a hammock or the comfy lounges on our front porch or spend time on the private beach where we seldom saw anyone else. One morning we wandered over to the little village of Buritaca for market shopping and a couple of beers. White-robed indigenous locals mixed with the Colombian-holidaymakers in the shade as children played on the beach. It was both relaxing and interesting in this place. In the afternoons and evenings we escaped the rain at Koralia's bar, hanging out with our new friends: the talented bar staff of the resort.
We took a day trip to the park, which involved an hour walk from the main entrance to the beaches through the jungle. Many of the beaches have deadly rip currents and are no-gos for swimmers. But we took a dip at the La Piscina and Nudista beaches. The mica in the water makes the experience akin to swimming in Goldschlager. I'm not usually an ocean swimmer but how can one resist the crystal blue water and gentle waves? These beaches, along with the very busy Cabo San Juan beach that lies between them, are protected by reefs and free of seaweed or excessive shells that can make the sea unpleasant. We relaxed under the vines afterwards before heading back to our accommodation. We never wanted to miss a sunset at Koralia.
The drivers on the Caribbean Coast are a bit psycho. Most of the highway is two-lane, so everyone speeds and tailgates each other, ignoring the double lines when passing. Military and police checkpoints only seem interested in random searches rather than traffic violations. Our initial trip from the airport was terrifying. We arrived just before a huge storm and enjoyed a white-knuckle journey in a seat-beltless sedan, our driver taking curves on the wet road at 110 km an hour. We'd been worried about the little Fokker 50s that Avianca uses for flights in and out of Medellin (these planes are perfectly safe but we had a fear of small propeller planes). Now we faced death at the hands of a crazy person who must have been blind to the steam rising from the asphalt. We informed the staff at Koralia of our harrowing experience on arrival and were assured that they would no longer use that driver, who had the nerve to ask us for a tip!
People aren't as friendly on the Caribbean Coast as they are in the rest of Colombia. No more con gusto. You're lucky to get a grunt as they hand you your change. This is not true of everyone, of course, and it was even more noticeable in the cities. After leaving Koralia, sad for the end of the delicious meals and friendly staff that made our time there so special, we spent one night in Santa Marta at the wild gringo hostel, which we likened to sleeping in a nightclub. We took the comfortable MarSol van to Cartagena the next day for about US$20 each (about four hours). It was another rainy day, but the journey was made intriguing by the small towns we drove through.
Our arrival in Cartagena pretty much summed up our time there. After agreeing that we would be dropped off three blocks from our hotel because the vans are too big to go under the old walls, we were dumped on the other side of town on the side of the road. We found our way to our hotel, which would prove to be the saving grace of our stay. I will not keep everyone in suspense: Cartagena was our least favourite place in Colombia. Yes it is beautiful and historic, but this was clouded by the unfortunate circumstances that surround it. Everything is overpriced and tourists are seen more as walking ATM machines than cherished guests. This was a clear departure from our wonderful experiences in Bogota and Medellin.
Cartagena de Indias has a complicated and violent history. It is no stranger to pirate attacks, invasions, the slave trade and outbreaks of disease. These problems are not unique to the city but many of the current issues plaguing its residents are often overlooked by the rich tourists who come to visit. Well over half of the city's inhabitants live in extreme poverty, many in dangerous slums, facing problems such as child prostitution (also here) - sadly this is not limited to Cartagena. While problems like these exist in many parts of South America and the rest of the world, it was only in Cartagena that I felt them affect our experience as travellers so strongly. Wandering Trader described his experience throughout the Colombian Coast and I can second his feelings. We felt constantly bothered by touts offering everything from paintings to fake cigars and watches to drugs. Visit Cartagena if you've dreamed about it - but keep your camera safe, your wits about you and an eye on your pockets as you wander the city. If I were still in the United States, I'd save my money and go to New Orleans, which has a similar style and is much more fun!
We found our pleasures in food, drink and our hotel. La Merced is a mansion offering all the comforts of home for the traveller. And a very nice home it is. Plush linens, a mouth-watering breakfast where everything on the menu is included, a rooftop jacuzzi, refreshing pool and bicycles kept us busy during our time in the walled city. The staff are gracious and friendly, looking out for us and taking care of our every need. We had some delicious meals and can heartily recommend Vera, La Cevicheria and La Vitrola. Expect to pay more in Cartagena for most everything compared to the rest of Colombia. It's very touristy and we felt that we spent too many days there.
It is sad to leave Colombia. We came on a whim, not sure what to expect, and are leaving enchanted and enamoured with the continent's second most-populous country. I use that statistic because it's the people who really made it for us (wonderful people so often do). It has been my favourite, with Uruguay nipping at its heels in second place. Much is on offer here to please travellers of every budget. Beautiful green landscapes, friendly people, fresh fruit and modern amenities make travel pleasant and different from other parts of South America. We've made friends here and missed out on so many places that we are sure to return someday.
Have you ever travelled to a touristy place and felt overwhelmed?