Monday, October 18, 2010

The Caribbean Dream

For many of months travelling, especially when it was cold, Jace and I dreamed of reaching Colombia. More specifically, we couldn't wait to get to the Caribbean Sea and the hot weather, swimming and diving it promised.

After nearly 6 months on the road, we made it to Cartagena, the jewel of the Colombian Caribbean coast. It was hot. And very humid. But we were ecstatic.

Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena has a interesting history. It was founded in 1533 as a colonial Spanish town of 200 people on the site of an indigenous settlement. It soon became a major commercial centre as the Spaniards found and sent gold, silver and emeralds down the Magdalena River to Cartagena for export to Spain. As the port's wealth grew, so did its appeal to pirates and corsairs, who attacked many times in the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries. The (in)famous Sir Francis Drake captured and held the city to ransom in 1586 and, after destroying 1/4 of the city including the recently built palace and cathedral, received 107,000 pieces of Eight (the equivalent of US$200 million today) to leave. After this incident, the Spanish put a lot of effort and millions each year into building and maintaining walls and forts around the city to protect it.

Map of the Caribbean showing the Spanish shipping routes

A maquette of Cartagena, showing the fortifications. The walled Old City is on the far left

Cannons line part of the Old City's wall

The huge fort of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Many tunnels form part of the fort

A display of a cannon and all the tools used to prepare it

In 1610, Cartagena became the third seat of the Inquisition Holy Office Court in the Americas, along with Lima and Mexico. Hundreds of people were accused, captured and tortured, but only 3 executed, over the next 200 years in Cartagena. The Inquisition Palace is a beautiful building on the Plaza Bolívar which has been made into a museum with displays on the Spanish Inquisition and the history of Cartagena de Indias.

The imposing entrance of the Palace of the Inquisition

Courtyard of the Palace

"Window of the Accusation. The Court of the Holy Inquisition received via this window anonymous accusations against those who's practices were considered anti-Catholic. The accusations were verified and the accused then had the chance to respond to the charges and then the process continued." (To what? you may well ask.)

Some of the torture devices used by the Spanish Inquisition

Jace is about to get the chop

Cartagena declared complete independence from Spain on November 11, 1811, but was reconquested in 1815 and became a ghost town after being virtually destroyed. Finally in 1821, Simón Bolívar and his troops defeated the Spanish and created the state of Gran Colombia, which included all of modern Colombia. Throughout the 19th century due to famines and cholera (Gabriel García Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera is set here), Cartagena nearly disappeared, but began to recover slowly through the 20th century and is now the 5th largest city in Colombia.

Simón Bolívar on his horse in the Plaza Bolívar

Today, Cartagena is a very popular holiday destination for Colombians - many own holiday apartments in the fancy Bocagrande area - and it's no surprise, it's very pretty and a bit of a party town.

Entrance to the Old Town

The Naval Museum is on the right

Courtyard of the university. Beats the Library Lawn any day

The clock tower lit up at night

Besides walking around the Old Town, Jace and I loved nothing better than sitting next to the colonial wall at Café del Mar, sharing a jug of rum punch and watching the sun set over the sea.

Nice view from Café del Mar

On our first afternoon in Cartagena, we were sitting waiting for lunch in the Plaza de Santo Domingo when we saw a very beautiful woman getting interviewed on camera. It turns out she was a famous Brazilian model called Raica Oliveira. We walked past a fashion parade later that night and figured out that she, and a number of "very hot" women Jace had seen entering one of the biggest hotels in the Old Town, must have been here to model at the event.

Raica Oliveira getting interviewed for Colombian TV

The Plaza de Santo Domingo was the place to be because we also bumped into Todd and Shana who we'd dived with in the Galapagos. We met up for a drink at Café del Mar the next night and arranged to go on a chiva bus tour on the Thursday. Thanks to Todd's work, he and Shana were staying at the Hilton in Bocagrande, so they kindly invited us for a swim in the pool to cool off and to have a couple of drinks before all headed out.

Todd, Alix and Shana in the pool

Alix has a go on the waterslide (yes, the Hilton Bocagrande  has a waterslide)

Sunset over the Hilton pool area

Jace living the high life at the Hilton

The chiva bus tour is almost a rite of passage as a visitor to Cartagena. You get picked up at your (or your friends') hotel in Bocagrande by a brightly coloured chiva bus complete with musicians, and you drive around for a while as other passengers are collected. Then the fun starts: plasic cups, a bucket of ice, a half bottle of rum and a bottle of Pepsi are passed into each row. You drive around some more while the MC introduces himself, the driver and the musicians, and he starts to get everyone excited by doing shout-outs for all the nationalities on the bus, gets the ladies in each row to "shake it" to the music, and then the men have their turn.

All of us on the chiva bus

All the necessary tools for a good night

The boys in row #8 "shake it"

[Video of musicians coming soon]

By now, you're in the Old Town and everyone jumps off the bus with their drinks to go hang out on the wall with everyone from the other ten chiva buses that have been driving around. Up on the wall, there are all the usual hawkers selling drinks, cigarettes and knick-knacks (Cartagena is full of them) as well as women in tradional Caribbean dress with bowls of fruit on their heads that you can pose with and have photos taken. There is also a troop of very energetic local dancers.

Last stop is a local nightclub, where you can leave the bus and party on till the wee hours, or just stay for a drink and a dance and get taken back to your hotel. We were all pretty pooped, so headed back early on the bus. It had been a very fun night.

Dancing in the club

Playa Blanca

Eugene, who had told us about Izhcayluma, also mentioned Playa Blanca as a good place to kick back and relax. After all our fun in Cartagena, we decided to head to this white-sand beach on Barú Island for some quiet R&R.

Getting there proved interesting. We were planning to camp so were taking all our gear, making the inland route (bus-ferry-motortaxi) a non-option. We went to the quay from whence all the boats departed, most of them day-trippers which stop at Las Islas del Rosario before taking people to Playa Blanca. A fast-talking salesman hussled us onto one boat with promises ("Yes, yes, it's direct to Playa Blanca... It will take one hour and a half."), which turned out to be total lies. Despite leaving Cartagena at 8.30am, we didn't get to Playa Blanca till 1.15pm, after stopping at Rosario for about an hour. We weren't happy but we got there in the end, got a "free" lunch and learned a valuable lesson.

Playa Blanca was very picturesque. We walked up the beach with all our gear till we came to a nice-looking place that offered hammocks and tents. They were cheap and clean so we took a tent, dumped our gear, changed into our swimmers and took a much-needed dip. It was lovely and warm but still refreshing; we were finally swimming in the Caribbean!

Ahhh, first swim in the warm Caribbean waters

Sunset on our first night

The next three days were spent in a very relaxed way: swimming, reading, eating fish, octopus, prawns or chicken with coconut rice and salad, getting to know the locals, and drinking rum & coke.

Having fun in the sand

Alix sunbathes while the hawkers try to sell necklaces to a couple nearby

Looking to the northern end of the beach

Yep, life's pretty good here

Unfortunately, the amenities on Playa Blanca are pretty limited, so after three nights, it was time to head back to civilisation (and showers). Plus, we really wanted to go diving in these warm Caribbean waters. It was time to head east again.

Glad they have spare lives on the ferry, but I'm happy with the one I have!

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