19
Jan
09

Ahh, Paradoise – The Majesty of Cartagena de Indias & Serenity of Playa Blanca

The SteepleIt was a bittersweet arrival as we disembarked from the Stahlratte’s dinghy at the port of Cartagena. On the one hand it had been an incredible voyage by sea across the Caribbean from Panama and the San Blas Islands. However, on the other hand, we all felt somewhat rueful at the thought of saying goodbye to one another after the raucous events of the past few days and the wonderful memories that we had forged together. But hey, we were in Cartagena – and in South America! – and it wasn’t over just yet.

We soon found out that the majority of our crew would be lodging in Getsemani, the slightly shabbier portion of Cartagena’s old town, for the next few days. So it was time to live it up and make the best of what time we had left. After dispersing to our respective guest houses, I found myself on my way to Hotel Holiday by bicycle to meet up with Justin, my Kiwi buddy from the Stahlratte voyage, completely unaware that we would become quite close over the next month and soon find ourselves journeying almost halfway across Colombia together.

Las MurallasOnce Justin and I had settled into our new home for almost the next two weeks we headed out for a promenade around the magnificent walled city of Cartagena before rendez-vous-ing with some of our other shipwrecked pals. It was truly a glorious place this Cartagena. The sultry Caribbean air was refreshed by cool breezes floating in over the sea as we casually meandered the charming colonial architectural relics of long gone pirating generations and the once thriving capitol of South America’s gold exportation days. Majestic rotundas and spires rose picturesquely above the shady cobble-stoned streets and from time to time a group of children or plump Afro-Colombian women would erupt into hypnotically fascinating traditional dances in the many palm lined plazas and parks.

Once Justin and I had braved the afternoon heat for several hours of strolling about, we retired to our room in Getsemani to relax and refresh ourselves before heading out to meet the others for a night of merriment off of the boat and in this new Caribbean paradise. After reuniting we found ourselves at a lovely old plaza in Getsemani, flanked on one side by a quaint canary-yellow colonial church and filled with chattering locals and the sound of Colombia’s tropical cumbia music drifting in the air.

Los Jugos de CartagenaWe weren’t sure of just how we intended to pass the next few hours together, but after spotting a lone jugo kiosk (a fresh fruit smoothie blending operation often found on the streets in Latin America), I was suddenly struck by a magnificent burst of inspiration. That was how we soon found ourselves all blending in among the locals, sipping on rum cocktails of mixed fruit smoothies with mango, papaya, banana, and other sweet endemic coastal Colombian fruits. It was a deliciously simple evening in the company of wonderful friends and one that I’ll surely never forget.

Over the next several days different members of our ship’s old crew began to filter out of Cartagena one by one – but not before a few of us were able to find new and unusual adventures to get into. As a number of us had wanted to head to the nearby mud volcano of Totumo further up the coast, we decided that this would make for a terrific last hurrah field trip. That was how we found ourselves (Sinead and Aaron, the Irish couple, Lindi and Aaron, the American couple, and Justin and myself) all sitting on one another’s laps, with two Colombian campesiños (country-folk) and a driver, all crammed into a tiny four door taxi for a one hour trip down a muddy, pot-holed dirt track to the boonies.

TotumoAlthough it seemed improbable at the time, we did all survive the trip and eventually made it to Totumo in one piece. The mud volcano indeed did turn out to be an experience unlike any other that any of us had ever experienced before in our lives and moments after arriving we were down to our skivvies and climbing the rickety wooden staircase of the tiny brown “volcano”. Upon reaching the summit we discovered a shimmering crater of viscous brown mud with a small handful of Colombian tourists up to their ears in the fluid, and began lowering ourselves into it one by one.

It was a wild sensation – the buoyant mud-bath had no discernible bottom (apparently it went down hundreds of feet to the source of the unusual muddy sediment deep below the earth’s surface), yet refused to let us sink below the surface for more than but a moment. We soon found ourselves giggling and smearing one another’s faces with mud while doing frozen Han Solo impressions with our mud-slicked bodies floating on the surface as if coated in some strange alien material.

Han Solo... and Princess LeyaAlmost two hours later, once we had had our fill of mud (in our mouths and ears as well), we headed out and down the stairs and were greeted by local body-washers in the lagoon down below. We went running into the water, tackling one another and tossing about some of the pesky children which had recently appeared. But this didn’t last for long as the skin and bones Afro-Caribbean ladies got hold of us and began scrubbing us down. Before we knew what was happening, they had our bathing suits off and we were left in the lake in all our naked splendor, being scrubbed by smooth talking Costeñas.

As we recomposed and redressed ourselves, made our way out of the lagoon and scrambled for change to tip the “body-washers”, we suddenly realized that the last bus to Cartagena from the main road would be leaving in fifteen minutes! We had not time to waste, we had to get out to that bus stop. But we were way out along a dirt side road that would take us at least half an hour to walk. There was only one solution, and as we heard the rumbling engines roaring up, we knew we had better hurry.

Look - No Mud!Moments later we were mounting onto motorcycle taxis, each of us mounting onto a different taxi behind the respective moto’s driver, and throwing our helmet on for the fast and bumpy ride out to the highway. I saw everyone else’s taxi tear off out of the Totumo area in a cloud of dust ahead of us as my driver was just starting up his engine and next thing I knew we were off. However, my ride wasn’t destined to be quite as simple as for the rest. Only two hundred meters into the journey we were laboring up a steep hill through the thickets and our motorcycle began to tip backwards! I half fell and half jumped backwards off the rig, barely landing on my feet and slightly shaken up.

Apparently these moto-taxis weren’t built for big and tall gringos. But my driver told me to run up to the top of the hill to meet him from where we would continue the ride. I sprinted up the remaining several meters, launched myself back onto the rear seat behind him, and this time cinched up a little closer to my driver in a very intimate position, not in a hurry to find myself rolling in the dusty trail behind us. We raced back into action and flew forward, practically flying over the many bumps in the road and desperately trying to catch up with the rest of my motorcycle riding party.

Jewel of the CaribbeanLess than ten minutes later we emerged from the underbrush and joined back up with the highway. Our motorcycle lurched up onto the pavement, turned sharply to the left and then once again sprang forward, shooting towards the other buzzing swarm of motorcycles disappearing over a hill in the near distance. The wind warm wind whipped against my shirtless skin as we made our way along the smooth highway and it wasn’t long before we were catching up with and then passing the rear stragglers of the party. We fell back into pace and only a short while later were slowing to a stop and hopping off our moto-taxis along the roadside to await the bus.

Fortunately, on the way back we managed to catch a somewhat more comfortable bus than the taxi which had borne us to Totumo and we sat in pleasant exhaustion throughout the ride back to Cartagena. Over the next two days the remnants of our friends who had journeyed with us from Panama disappeared back into the ether that is the backpacker world and Justin and I were left alone in the jewel of the Caribbean. However, after our buddies were all gone we began to feel the pangs of the “party’s over” syndrome and felt we had to get out of town.

Playa BlancaThe following day our luggage was in storage and we were on a ferry boat back out into the sea and on the way to Playa Blanca. The peninsular beach of Playa Blanca had been recounted to us as being a white sand paradise only a few hours from the port of Cartagena and so we thought that a little camping excursion along the turquoise waters would be a pleasant getaway for a few days. After several hours at sea and a stop at a tiny aquarium island, our boat drifted towards the remote shores of Playa Blanca and our ship’s passengers were loaded up onto the floating platform which bore us to shore.

The next two nights and three days living on Playa Blanca were indeed delectably paradisiacal however, what we hadn’t anticipated was the complete and interminable isolation. Yes, I had brought a book, but this was no match for the deserted shores of Playa Blanca. During the height of the afternoons, boatloads of tourists would arrive at the white sands, lounge under the swinging palm trees that bent desirously over the lapping waves, and within several short hours would once again load up and disappear – leaving us almost completely alone once again.

Massage-GirlJustin and I made sporadic conversation over the course of each day, with the recurring sarcastic theme of “ahh, paradoise” (in a New Zealand accent, that is), but towards the end of day two we knew that we couldn’t take much more. We had spent the entirety of those few short days roasting on the beach, slathering on sunscreen, haplessly trying to defend ourselves against the sly Afro-Caribbean massage ladies which would mysteriously appear behind us with their slippery hands on our shoulders (and other parts of Justin…), sleeping in a sandy tent and smoking the sweet fruits of the Caribbean by night. But it was nay enough to keep us entertained.

Then finally, as Justin spent his last few hours bobbing in the sparkling blue waters (which he basically did all day every day while we were there), I began readying our equipment for departure and soon we were plodding back up the beach to await our transport. By late afternoon we were back on board the Alcatraz (nice name for a ship to and from paradise, eh? Oh the irony…) and navigating our way back along the Colombian coast towards Cartagena. The sun was setting behind the infinite high-rises of Boca Grande as we pulled into harbor that afternoon, and boy were we glad to be back.

Boca GrandeNevertheless, Justin and I soon found ourselves restless to move on and continue our voyage deeper into the Colombian interior. It was soon time to say goodbye to the languid pace of Costeño life, the jugo kiosks and street ceviche (which yes, was a real bad idea in the first place…) and make our way up into the Southern hills. Once again we were hit with that same familiar bittersweet feeling as back when we had arrived in Cartagena many days before. However this time it was the sadness of definitively closing the Caribbean chapters of our Latin American Adventures and the excitement of embarking into the mysterious and unknown allures of what was to come in the approaching months of our foray down the spine of the fabled Andes.

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