Refugees Run the Seas Because We Own Our Own Boats

*This is part 1 of 2 of Cartagena.  See part 2 below.*

Destination Colombia.  FARC rebels conduct secret raids across the Venezuelan border while drug peddlers deal cocaine on the streets?  Isn’t is just SO dangerous?  While a lot of that stuff still exists to a degree, Colombia is nothing like it was a few decades ago.  After years of conflict, Colombia is now safe to visit and back open for business for the adventurous traveler.  In days past there was a saying in Colombia that “if only it weren’t for the violence and the drugs, Colombia would be paradise.”  While the drugs are still here, the violence has mostly subsided – Colombia is easy to fall in love with and is that tropical paradise for many, myself included.

My dad and I, wanting to escape the 50˚ weather in Florida, flew to the famed Colombian port city of Cartagena.  Cartagena is the best preserved colonial city in either of the Americas – cliché, but the city enchants your senses.  Located on the southern Caribbean Sea and less than 10 degrees north of the equator, the city has a laid back tropical feel with heat and humidity to match (only Singapore was hotter!).  We stayed in Cartagena’s impressive old city, a centuries-old fort meant to protect the Spanish investments and trade routes from other European hegemons.  Now it is home to prolific winter escapees like Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Shakira up the coast in Barranquilla.

The old city itself is very much like Antigua, Guatemala in that it’s full of vibrant colors (à la Mumbai in Slumdog Millionaire) and lots of little plazas and squares.  Unusual statues and great little food places dot ancestral street corners.  There is a always a parade or festival or concert making its way through the cobbled streets, the same streets that Spanish colonists, traders, and soldiers marched.  The impressive city walls are now a sight in of themselves, offering views of the murky Caribbean.  It is crazy to think that once, people were frightened to look beyond these walls, afraid of what incoming armada may lie in the distance.  Now, hundreds of years later, people fly thousands of miles to stand upon the same coral stone walls, gazing out into the cerulean horizon.

Later, we ventured to the Volcán del Totumo.  This volcano wasn’t like Pacaya, an active volcano in Guatemala, I climbed a few months ago.  In reality, it’s not even a volcano.  Totumo looks like a giant termite mound and instead of molten lava, is full of a warm, cream-like mud that bubbles up from the interior frequently.  Legend has it that the mound was once a real fire-spewing volcano.  A local priest, seeking to destroy what he believed was the work of the devil, sprinkled holy water into the caldera until the flamed subsided and mud filled its place.  Now, the Volcán del Totumo is a popular attraction for Colombian tourists and foreigners alike.  Located about an hour from Cartagena, the mud volcano is located between the this city and Barranquilla, pop singer Shakira’s hometown.  It was, um, well, an unusual experience.  Much like the Dead Sea in Israel, getting yourself upright from lying on your chest or back was difficult.  For a small tip (you can’t forgo it, it is just something that is part of the experience) people rub your head and legs with the mud.  Afterward, you make your way down to a freshwater lake where local village women wash you.  And yes, you part with your bathing suit here.

A great, extremely unique experience.  More to come…

American and it's partners take too long to get from South Florida to Cartagena, so we flew Spirit from Fort Lauderdale. Below, Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport (SRQ) on the west coast of the state.

Meet me in Miami

Blurry picture taken from my phone, but our departure board in Ft. Lauderdale International

After clearing the extensive Colombian customs, we got in a cab and went to our hotel. I captured this shot of the restricted beach along the way. The beaches directly adjacent to Cartagena are kinda of subpar. The sand is dark brown, as is the water. You have to go about 20km north or south of the city to get the crystal clear cerulean waters of the Caribbean.

The first glimpse of Cartagena's fabled old city

Bright colors abounded in every crevice and wall in the old city

Shalom, giant door

A sign in an Argentinian steak house was familiar - we've been to this famed restaraunt the poster is advertising in Buenos Aires, the illustrious capital of Argentina!

Our first night, in the Plaza de Simon Bolivar, we witnessed bachata dancing. Cartagena has a very strong African presence. It was one of the principal slave ports for the Spanish New World colonies and was subsequently one of the first slave cities to be liberated. Los afriamericanos make up almost half of Cartagena's population.

More dancing. Interestingly, when the hat is passed around after the dance for donations, I noticed that all the Colombians put in money. Though it's only coins (roughly 2000 Colombian pesos = $1 USD), it is sort of striking that virtually no one passed on donating, something that would not happen in the States.

A hearty Colombian breakfast, complete with unusual fruit juice and fried plantains.

One of many small plazas throughout the old city

Me + giant cathedral door. A lot of large doors here for such small people...

Monks? Friars? Uh...who?

Making our way to the las murallas, the great walls encircling the old city

People once were afraid of what lied on the horizon past these walls. Now, we traveled thousands of miles to look upon the same waters that Spanish colonists looked at, though this time out of wonder and grandeur rather than fear.

Eh, too close

Canons face the southern Caribbean as skyscrapers line the Bocagrande beach in the distance

Another of canons atop the old city walls

On the walls facing the city

Cool street art

Busy cathedral entrance

Simón Bolívar, the liberator of many South American countries from the Spanish Empire. He is trated as a hero in Colombia and elsewhere. His translated quote reads, "People of Cartagena, if Caracas gave me life, you give me glory!"

At the Plaza de Simón Bolívar

A great place for lunch and a drink, La Perla (the Pearl). I had seafood lasagna and my dad hade marlin. Total cost, including smoothies = $12

The inside of our hotel

Later that night, there was some crazy dance contest following a road race. Odd Cartageneros...

That night, we started with some great ceviche

The next day, we boarded a bus for the Volcán del Totumo. Legend has that centuries ago a priest sprinkled holy water into the mound, turning the lava into mud and drowning out the tenant, el diablo. Now, it is a popular place for visitors to swim in.

Going up the side of the mud volcano

People swimming in the mud, which was fairly warm, bubbled up every now and then, had the consistency of cream, and was super buoyant, much like the Dead Sea in Israel

The mud volcano is located about an hour from Cartagena, half way between the city and Shakira's home city, Barranquilla

My dad and I; I looked pained

Dad and I covered in the 'healing' mud

Going down to the river. There, local village women washed you. It was a weird feeling for some old Colombiana to put her fingers in my ears.

A nearby café by the mud volcano

After 'swimming' in the Volcán del Totumo, we took a bus to the tiny seaside town of Manzanilla and had quite the lunch. As we ate, various peddlers from the town came to us and tried to sell us oysters and some crazy sweets.

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