Good luck needs no explanation. Cartagena, Taganga & Palomino, Colombia

11 May

Stepping off our plane in Cartagena the intensity of the heat and humidity hits us full force. Even at almost 9pm at night, it’s a scorcher and a welcome change from the crispness of the previous week. Our luck keeps shining on us when we arrive at Hotel Villa Colonial in Cartagena, our accommodation for the next 3 nights. It’s perfectly located, reasonably cheap, impeccably clean, spacious, cool, with a hard mattress (read: no sinking in the middle!) and fluffy pillows. Even better is that, unlike many hotels, it has an excellent kitchen for guest-use and an affordable drinks fridge, which we quickly get acquainted with before retiring to bed.

Listed as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Cartagena draws legions of tourists and thus, inevitably, aggressive touts and street-sellers. Dodging the unwanted sales and navigating the completely irrational driving and road rules requires skill – feels like we’re playing a game of ‘Frogger’. You need to coyly idle along, scanning for the ideal moment, then dash across, winding and weaving, hoping you won’t become a squashed frog (not the delicious shooter glass kind) in the process.

Our first sight-seeing stop is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the greatest and strongest fortress ever built by the Spanish colonies. The original fort was constructed between 1639 and 1657 on top of the 40m-high San Lazaro hill and was quite small. In 1762, an extensive enlargement was undertaken, which resulted in the entire hill being covered over with this powerful bastion. It was truly impregnable and was never taken, despite numerous attempts to do so.

MC decides we should get the audio tour as well, only to (surprise surprise) get annoyed with this modern contraption and instead dart around taking happy snaps while I listen, review, summarise and relay the information to him.

A complex system of tunnels connected strategic points of the fortress to distribute provisions and to facilitate evacuation. Not normally one to get squeamish in small places, as we travel down, down, down along the increasingly tiny, tourist-laden corridors, the air becomes a little too thick for me and I scurry out leaving MC to explore in peace.

By the time we finish inside the fortress, it’s close to midday and the sun and humidity is no less than extreme. We spot a small shopping mall and escape to its air-conditioned walls for a few hours doing nothing much except potter around, drink coffee and grocery shop.

The afternoon sees us headed to Cartagena’s ‘Old City’, without doubt its biggest tourist attraction.  The city is encased in Las Murales, thick walls built to protect it against enemies. Construction began towards the end of the 16th century and took another two centuries to complete. The inner walled town is a real gem of colonial architecture, packed with churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces and mansions with overhanging balconies, bougainvillea climbing the walls and shady patios.

Our little walking tour takes us past museums and churches, all closed. Confused, as the opening hours on the doors say different, we soon find out it is, in fact, a public holiday in Cartagena. Hmm, excellent pre-trip planning again.

We take it as a sign to retire to the pub early, finding Café del Mar. The café is actually a bar, on the western rampant of the old city, and while the drinks are not cheap, the sunset views are thankfully free.

The following day we check out the Museo de Arte Moderno. Then ponder what to do next. As the heat comes on stronger seems the street touters start to yell louder “HEY AUSTRALIA!” (Had no idea that many Australians visited these parts!?). Keen to get away, we decide to head to the closest beach in the guide book, El Paraiso, in La Boquilla, a town 7km from town. Bicycle hire is quite cheap so it seems genius to grab the opportunity for a little exercise too. But oh no… It’s a stinker of a ride, the beach is unremarkable and we get ripped off buying a couple of Cokes. I spend the rest of the afternoon standing under a cold shower and trying not to look at my sunburnt nose.

The following day, fuelled up on the always necessary omelette and coffee, we embark for Taganga, a small fishing village set in a horseshoe-shaped bay, 5km northeast of busy Santa Marta. We were a little surprised when we rang the doorbell of Hostel Tropical Maison, for it to be answered by John, a white-haired 79 year-old. Turns out not quite a hostel, only a couple of rooms rented in john’s house, but we respectfully listened as we were given an intimate tour of his kitchen and an introduction to the cats before being shown to our basic, but impeccably clean, room (“Please don’t put your laptop on the bed”, says John politely. “They melt and stain the sheets.” …. Sorry, whaatt?).

The first couple of days sees us touring the town, trying to plan our next move and scoffing local fish, caught and filleted fresh from a beachside shack, while we watched the sunset.

On day 3, we take a trip out to Bahia Concha, a pretty beach only obtainable by boat. We are happily sold fresh shrimp ceviche as we soak up the rays, before the afternoon’s storm rolls in and we retire to our favourite beachside dining joint.

We don’t even bother looking at the menu anymore as the waiter once again whisks MC off to have a look at the day’s latest catch and decide what’s for dinner. This last evening, MC scurries back, all smiles and says, “Langosto, Kelly, langosto”. Lobster. At 1.5kgs, it’s a delicious juicy one and for just $20 per person with all the salad, rice and papas fritas you can eat, it is too good to turn down. After cocktails and a candlelit dinner (due to the storm cutting the town’s power), we retire to John’s for one of our now-regular late-night chats.

John turns out to the most interesting character indeed. Seemingly a little forgetful and strange at first, he turns out to be quite the opposite. He is an American who has lived and worked in Bogota, Colombia for the last 35 years as a University Professor in Linguistics and Sociology. He speaks 6 languages, is the man behind many intricate oil paintings in his home, plays the most incredible jazz / lounge music on his piano and has a penchant for martinis (clearly we have a lot in common). We come home never knowing quite what to expect, enjoying debating over everything from how to build the best bacon sandwich to whether or not Cuba will survive once Fidel Castro is gone.

A previous hostel guest selfishly bought and dumped a tiny 4 week old Labrador in John’s care. After a baptism in aforementioned martinis, we named him ‘Jack Castro’ (the more intelligent brother of Fidel).

Sadly, again all too soon, its time to move on…

We’re headed to Palomino, a tiny, unheard-of town on Colombia’s far north-east coast. We’ve headed there only on the recommendation of one traveller, met ever so briefly, and a quick review online of some very pretty (though very few) pictures. We arrive in a ramshackle town and are promptly offered a lift to our cabana at Finca Palomino by a couple of teens on motorbikes. With no helmet, a heavy backpack and wearing only flip flops, I board and hang on for dear life. Our accommodation is a little beach-side shack, on beachside grounds, cared for by a Colombian couple and their 5 children. Although the cabana was nice and clean and the beach is on our doorstep, it’s raining, we’ve brought no food with us, cannot spot any neighbouring life and the town is far and lacks everything. We source enough from the locals to be able to throw together ham and cheese salads for dinner and fruit and omelettes for breakfast, and though we’ve booked for three nights, we start planning on how to reduce it two. Things seem grim.

This first night, I encourage us to stroll the beach looking for other signs of life. Not too far up the coast, and there it is, our beacon of light. A café/bar/restaurant/god-send. I happily scope out the coffee machine and MC’s fears of turning into a carrot subside.

We open our eyes the next day to glorious sunshine, clear blue skies, palm trees, white sand, bare beaches and a calm sea.As quickly as we were looking to leave, we’re now signing on to stay longer. Our next 4 days in Palomino are magical. We dawdle over coffee in the morning, swim in the sea and read book after book in the hammocks. When the tropical clouds roll in, in the late afternoon, we stroll into town with one of the family’s dog, Chicito (who has developed a crush on MC) or take long walks along the beach (insert corny joke here), before enjoying our ham and cheese over a glass of red.

We’ve got lucky with the accommodation. The family – Antonio, Denise and their 5 children – are the happiest, most beautiful, funny, kind people. Denise offers to buy fish from the local fisherman for us, cooking and serving it with delicious platanos – made from plantains (look like big bananas), they’re squashed flat, fried and served as an accompaniment to dishes like bread is in Western countries. Suddenly our dreaded ham and cheese salads have turned into the most delicious banquet!

In the evenings, while MC tests the older boys on their geography, I spend time with Sairi – the 11 year old daughter – helping each other improve on our Spanglish. I say the phrases from her book in Spanish, while she corrects me, and then she says them in English (needing far less correction than I, might I add). When it’s bedtime for the kiddies, we head to the local bar with Andrew, an American working in Chile as a fishing tour-guide and the only other guest at Finca Palomino.

A very odd thing to get used to in Palomino is the abundance of crabs. Literally hundreds of them, scurrying around everywhere, all day. One day, when Denise fed the chickens scraps of corn, and suddenly the chicken coop was suddenly inundated with the scavengers.

The only thing I don’t get is, why don’t they eat them?

Again, too soon, too soon, and it’s time to leave. Antonio returns on the bike picking the kids up from school (for truth’s sake, the smallest baby in the very front was placed on for the photo, but the rest all rode in from their day at school like this)…

We say our sad farewells, kiss the pretty palm trees goodbye, and board the bus for Santa Marta where we fly to Bogota.

Bogota is its usual self – cold, raining and wet – but amazingly we’ve scored a free upgrade (luck again!) to a one-bedroom apartment with lounge and kitchen! As I prance around making a pot of coffee in my alpaca fur slippers, I almost think I’m living as a normal person again. Then I spot the ads online for employment and see my hiking boats in the corner. Nup, still smelly backpacker.

Oh well. We rush around loading up on all the essentials we think we won’t be able to buy in Cuba, change money, Skype our nearest and dearest, before packing up again.

Hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to Cuba we go…

x kel

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4 Responses to “Good luck needs no explanation. Cartagena, Taganga & Palomino, Colombia”

  1. uncovercolombia May 12, 2012 at 10:37 pm #

    Thanks for a nice chronicle. Glad you had a good time in Colombia.

  2. Father Bear May 14, 2012 at 3:19 pm #

    Kelly, was that a misprint….”I spend the rest of the afternoon under a cold shower…………” ?
    If not, I think I can help you out when you get back to the UK.

  3. Craig May 24, 2012 at 6:08 am #


    Fingers crossed that you still have lots of luck left 🙂 Don’t use it all up.

  4. Highland Park Gringo April 25, 2013 at 9:03 pm #

    Great post, I’m heading to Palomino soon and look forward to it.

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