From Bogota we moved on to Cartagena out by the coast. Cartagena is adorable – full of old colonial architecture and flowers hanging down over the street from wooden balconies. It is much hotter here than in Bogota, and the town feels strongly Caribbean. The old city is walled, with cannons still pointing out over the sea where Francis Drake and other pirates used to lurk, plotting to steal from the Spaniards the gold they in turn had only just stolen from the Indians. A couple of replica pirate ships were actually parked in the harbour. Cartagena was an important port in the early colonial days and nearly all the gold shipped home to Spain was shipped from here. It also became important for the slave trade, with the main plaza where you enter the walled city once being a slave market. First local indigenous were used, but the priests started protesting that it wasn’t right to use these people for slaves since they had souls just like catholic people – for slaves it would be much better to import blacks, without souls, from the west of Africa.
With a charming city center and fantastic seafood the only thing that wasn’t nice in (contemporary) Cartagena was the place we were staying – we had arrived late and picked a random hostel in the Getsemani part of town near the walled city. It looked a bit shoddy and Edel was suspecting it was a rent-by-the-hour love hotel (…they only had a room free for us after 10pm). In the morning we moved across the road to a place that looked better from the outside at least, though the room was smaller, more expensive, and on top of the TV/wifi/shower being broken it was a bit of a party-hostel with someone practising the guitar (quite poorly) outside our room until 2am. And then of course the ants… We decided we might head for Taganga a bit sooner than planned!
We did one daytrip from Cartagena before we couldn’t stick the hostel any more – to take a dip in a mud volcano 1-2 hours outside town. We booked through the hostel so went in a group with a handful of other tourists. The “volcano” is a 20 meter high mound, with bubbling lukewarm mud inside – some rickety mud-baked steps lead up to the top and then down into the mud pool. Very strange to slip down into – you float high, about shoulder-level, in the smooth sticky mud. One thing we found you need to look out for is that if you lean forward to much your legs will start floating up behind you, tipping your face further and further down – like falling forward in slow-motion. Someone else in the group slipped in and got a total dip. There was a lagoon nearby to wash off in afterwards, and it was a funny experience (apart perhaps from having to dodge all the people who look for a tip by trying to massage you, help you wash off, or take your picture).
From Cartagena we got a bus to Taganga, a small village by the coast a couple kilometers from the town of Santa Marta. We planned to spend three nights in the village before setting off on a trek, and here we found a really nice hostel. The owner, Jean, is a French gentleman with 76 years of travel stories under his belt – living in Colombia during its most turbulent decades and growing up in China at the time of the Communist takeover, a linguist with eight languages he’d spent time living with a tribe in the Amazon, and as a brilliant jazz pianist he’d played in a jam session with the Buena Vista Social Club. After the first night we were the only people staying there, so we had most of our meals together with him, listening to stories of kidnappings (he’d been in three!) or of being at sea during a typhoon. In the evenings once the heat wore off we’d sit under the lime and mango trees in his garden, listening to crickets, geckos, and more amazing stories that start with “Well, back in 1947…”. Once, living in the US during the height of communist-paranoia he’d been questioned by the FBI for visiting a Russian bookshop (which they saw as unpatriotic enough) and then walking through the town, using his feet, for a full hour and a half (very suspicious)! One evening before we left he dusted off the piano and treated us to a beautiful April in Paris and other jazz classics. He’d worked as a photographer as well, and gave me a couple filters to play with during the trek after I set up the wifi for his hostel. We made plans to come back and stay a few more days after we returned from the six day Ciudad Perdida trek into the Colombian jungle.