Nick Says: Ah Christmas. A bearded, fat, and jolly Santa. Reindeers frolicking in snow-scenes. Tinsel around the palm tree. Wait, what?! Welcome to Christmas in the tropics my friends. We arrived in Cartagena ready to embrace another party hostel but unlike Pariwana, the dreaded Cusco experience, this time we knew what we were letting ourselves in for. After the wilderness of Tayrona, it was time to come in from the cold (or rather the 35 degree sweltering heat) and get ourselves some company.
Once arrived at our festive home of Mamallena, we quickly settled into our barn like room and set out exploring Cartagena. Based in Getsemani, the former red light district turned trendy hot-spot, we were minutes away from reaching the walled old city. Cartagena is one of the oldest cities on the continent, and has a long and famous history, including being destroyed by Sir Francis Drake once upon a time. It now has a beautifully preserved centre which is probably the most gorgeous looking urban place we’ve seen thus far on our trip. Crumbling colonial buildings and churches sit on cobbled streets which spill into plazas bedecked with lights, music, and people enjoying themselves. Even the police seemed in on the action – one officer delighted in showing us the latest recruit to the force, a tiny, playful puppy. Although to be fair, the cops did swing into action later as a drunk guy decided to stage a one man protest about, well something I guess, in one of the plazas. Sadly his protest seemed to mainly involve him banging his guitar (never once strumming it) and shouting incoherently while several old guys drank beer and laughed at him. The other excellent thing about being back in a city, and particularly a vibrant, tourist filled South American city, is the sheer amount of street sellers peddling their wares for you. Be prepared to want several things you hadn’t even known you needed as you woke up that morning…
Bee Says: On our first morning in Cartagena, Nick had made a big decision. In the couple of months prior, his travel beard (or as I liked to call it, his Mr Twit beard) had grown into a luxurious chin mane. He had become very attached to this new facial addition, constantly asking me to “pet the beard” or give it a stroke. I was less attached to the beard, especially the prickly kisses. Given that we were about to do the dreaded Colombia-Panama crossing, which due to its preference by narcotic smugglers includes an interview with customs officials, Nick eventually decided he might look less sketchy if he went and got a nice cut throat shave. He woke up early and ventured out to find a barber.
An hour later he returned with his shiny smooth face AND wearing a panama hat, that he had bought off a man on the street. He basically returned a different person to the one who left! His lust for souveniers only grew as the day went on, and as I was queuing to buy some market food, I turned to see Nick purchasing an authentic Colombia football shirt from another guy on the street! Not that I am questioning the fact its real, but I do wonder why it only has 2 stripes down the arms instead of the usual Adidas 3… Something I enjoyed about Cartagena was the food. Quel surprise! On our first night, sleepy from the 6 hour drive and stupid from the hot hot heat (topping out at nearly 40 degrees) we staggered to one of the closest nice looking places called iBalconi. I picked it because you could sit out on beautiful balconies overlooking the old town, but didnt realise I was had unwittingly taken us to the best pizza in Colombia… maybe even South America! We opted for the 4 cheese, which basically was a chunk of dough drowning in a gooey cheese lake.
The street food in Cartagena is magnificent. I got completely addicted to arepas which are a cornmeal potatoey mix, stuffed with cheese, and grilled on hot plates on the pavement served oozing with melted butter. There are also a team of beautifully dressed local ladies, who trundle the streets with bowls of fruit on their heads, and serve up the freshest exotic pina, papaya and melon salads. I should probably confess that we also went on a special mission to seek out the legendary Cinnabon in the Mall Plaza, not quite so traditional but soooo sweeeeet.
Nick Says: When I could drag Bee away from the street food sellers, we also managed to bag ourselves some culture in Cartagena. One of the finest museums they have there is the Palace of the Inquisition, an incredible looking colonial mansion where hundreds of poor souls were taken, interrogated, and never seen again. The lower floor displays the history of this period, and has a list of questions they used to ask women being accused of being a witch. There were over 30 of them, and ranged from the (almost) reasonable, ‘Are you a witch?’, to the really oddly specific, ‘Which 7 beasts attended your dark wedding?´’. We then got to see some of the fun medieval torture devices the holy men uses to prove people’s guilt, before our path led us out to a lovely orchard garden, complete with this season’s must-have ornaments – gallows and a guillotine.
After indulging ourselves in some more arepas and beer, Bee’s longing glances at the horse and carriages got the better of her, and she went off ‘just to check on the price’. Next thing we knew, we’d bargained ourselves an amazing deal and were trotting off to see the rest of the old town. We clattered through the streets and peered down alleys, fought off buskers (no senor, I do not want to hear your rendition of Pretty Woman, no matter how much you tell me it’s the tradition in Cartagena), accepted the amusements of a clown, and then surprisingly saw two of our fellow Tayrona travellers, an English girl named Nicola who was travelling with her Mum. Considering the last time they’d seen me I was bearded, vest-wearing, and living in a tent, to see me trot past cleanly shaven on a horse drawn carriage… they did well to recognise us.
Bee Says: We had selected a lively hostel with the aim of adopting a new festive family to share Christmas with. This certainly paid off, as within a day of arriving we met Jon and Shaz who are a vivacious British couple who have been living in Sydney for 6 years and taking a Latin American detour en route home to return to London. They in turn introduced us to Ro and Pooj, an Indian-Australian couple who had just got married in Cusco and were Honeymooning. Add to that a pair of amazing Dutch girls who taught us how to twerk (a vital life skill) and a couple of other British lads, and we had a huge Christmas crew to venture out with on Christmas Eve.
Nick Says: Earlier in the day we’d spotted that most traditional of Colombian eateries, the Hard-Rock Cafe. Joking that this is where we would spend Christmas Day dinner, it was with a sense of destiny our group trudged in on Christmas Eve to tuck into burgers and chips. In our defence it was the only place open… Once filled with carbs and meat, we then returned to our hostel. With all the locals celebrating their Christmas (the heathens do it on the 24th rather than the 25th), it was up to us to make the party. And the only way to do that was to down far too many shots, take over the bar’s sound system, blast Slade’s Merry Christmas Everybody and gather the four Brits to bellow out the words. Small wonder then that me and Jon seemed convinced it was a good idea to search the streets at 5am looking for a rooftop bar a drunk guy had told us about.
Bee Says: Christmas Day was.. odd! It didnt feel at all like Christmas as I applied sun cream and started sweating the moment I opened my eyes. Slack old Santa had failed to find us in Colombia, but Nick had bought me a new CLEAN teeshirt and I bought him some explorer books for the kindle. I skyped my family, but the Wifi was frustratingly dodgy, probably due to overloading of similar travellers making similar calls. We made attempts at various phone calls to family and friends all day but never with too much success. The best part of the day was at 3pm, when Mamallenas wonderful staff put on a full chicken roast dinner with all the trimmings, INCLUDING Yorkshire Pudding which bought a tear to my eye. I even got to feed some to the parrot, who loved it of course, forming a lasting memorable Christmas miracle moment. Despite the fact I was far from home, it was lovely to share the day with new friends and fellow backpackers, with everyone swapping stories and sharing the feast.
The best part of Cartagena? We saw Santa driving a pimped out scooter!