A Travellerspoint blog

Shakin’ it like Shakira in Cartagena

Hot nights and hotter days on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

sunny 29 °C

“But isn’t it dangerous?” we asked every backpacker trying to convince us to go to Colombia. “You’ll be fine, you’ve just got to go, the place goes off!” So that is how we found ourselves on a 1 hour flight from Panama City to Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast.

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— View of the walled city from the beach.

Cartagena is the jewel in Colombia’s tourism crown. Half of it looks like Australia’s Gold Coast with high-rise after high-rise hugging a long strip of beach. The other half is old and atmospheric.

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— Formerly one of the biggest slave ports in the Americas, now Colombia's most popular tourist destination.

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— Due to the city's history in slavery, a lot of the locals have African heritage.

Much of our time in Cartagena was spent wondering around the old walled city. The buildings – some hundreds of years old - are magnificent with flowers tumbling from crumbling balconies; men play chess in the parks and women in rainbow frills wonder around selling tropical fruit. At night the cobblestone streets are filled with street performers and the clip clop of horse drawn carriages.

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One afternoon we jumped on a sightseeing bus for the obligatory whiz around the city’s historical sights. First stop - Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an old fort dating back to 16th century. The castle defended the city against pirates, the English and French. Built into the fort is a winding network of tunnels, many of which are open to the public.

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— The biggest and strongest fort ever built by the Spaniards during colonial times.

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— Viva Colombia!

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— This sculpture pays homage to a local poet who compares his home town to a pair of old shoes - worn but familiar and comfortable.

For the best views of the city there’s no beating the vista from Convento de La Popa, an old convent built on the highest point in Cartagena.

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Our tour also brought us to one of the city’s many emerald showrooms (no doubt owned by our tour guide’s cousin). Colombia is the world’s largest producer of the bright green stones, some years providing up to 95% of world supply. I normally loathe being forced into souvenir stores but it was great to learn about the stones and have emerald rings thrust upon my fingers (if only I got to keep them).

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— Emeralds were mined in Colombia long before the Spaniards arrived.

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— This sculpture by famous Colombian artist Fernando Botero is an icon of Cartagena. Legend has it if you fondle her boob, you'll get good luck.

About an hour and half out of Cartagena lies one of the strangest activities I’ve ever done. El Totumo is a baby volcano, filled not with lava but with mud! For a small fee you can climb a rickety staircase and take a dip in El Totumo. It feels like being submerged in lukewarm yoghurt, the consistency making it almost impossible to move. It doesn’t help that they pack the tourists in like sardines either. After our dip we washed the mud off in the nearby lake to reveal our new velvety skin.

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— The 15 metre mud volcano El Totumo.

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— Here goes...

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— MUD-nificent!

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— Villagers scrub visitors clean for a couple bucks.

Cartagena is a steamy place; humidity is at 90% and the temperature hangs around 30 degrees most days. But at night things cool down and the locals come out to play. The plazas burst into a hive of activity. Men sit around drinking beer, women yak in circles and kids play football. Some nights there are even free Zumba classes, an opportunity that was too hard to pass up! So I didn’t have the moves of Colombian megastar Shakira but I did all right for a gringo.

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— Zumba was created by Colombian dancer Alberto "Beto" Perez.

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— The barefooted chick in the white top...that's me!

You see, it’s not just Colombia’s sights that delight foreigners; it’s the people’s zest for life. One morning we experienced another perfect example. It was 8am and we heard all this cheering and singing ‘an early morning party?’ we wondered. We had our answer a minute later when an open sided bus packed with kids on their way to school flew past. They were dancing in their seats! Five minutes later we heard the same thing and assumed it was kids again. But this time it was a bus of adults on their way to work! Turns out it's not mandatory to look miserable while heading to the 9-5.

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— Even the local supermarket is a place to drink, watch football and socialise.

Very happy with our introduction to South America, we packed our bags for Medellin. The city was formally one of the world’s most dangerous now it's a thriving place, firmly on the tourist trail.

Stay posted.

Posted by elyshahickey 22.12.2012 18:23 Archived in Colombia Tagged beach history colombia colonial

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