7 Lessons from Colombia

We were originally supposed to spend only 5 days in Colombia and only in Cartagena.  But thanks to weather, boat and plane snafus, we ended up spending 10 days and taking in Medellin, San Jeronimo, Cartagena and Bogota.  While we had other plans and part of us are still gutted they didn’t work out (oh, San Blas, why do you elude us!), we still had a great time in “the gateway to South America”.

And despite us having been in Colombia before (and in many of the same cities), we still experienced some new amazing sites and experiences and will take home stories and little tidbits of info.  Below is a few of these ‘stories’.

Lesson 1 –  The fruit – OMG, the fruit!

We mentioned this is our Cartagena foodie adventure post (December 2nd), but it is seriously worth mentioning again – the fruit of Colombia is something else!  Not only is it always fresh and A.MAZ.ING tasting, but they have so many unique and wonderful fruit that you can’t find anywhere else.  A few include:

Maracuya: Colombian passion fruit, but more slurpy.

Pitahaya: Colombian dragon fruit…tiny pips wrapped in juicy sponge like texture.

Guayaba: Colombian guava… again, super juicy – so perfect for juicing!

Pineapple: yes, this exists elsewhere, but here it’s extra juicy, picked at full maturity, as it was spared the long journey to our shores.

And you can find all this fruit everywhere!  In Medellin and Bogota, it’s often sold on the streets already cut up into cups of fruit salad (for busy urban folk).

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Yet in the countryside and in Cartagena, it’s just sold whole directly on the street from numerous sellers.  And so super cheap!

In summary, we suggest traveling to Colombia for the fruit alone.

Lesson 2 – Salesmen are everywhere

Like anywhere, the touristy places of Colombia have their share of street vendors and hawkers. Usually this is benign (although see beach lesson below) and uncharacteristic.

However, unlike the last time we were in the country, this time we took public transport – both within cities and between them.  And here we learned that besides the street hawker, Colombia has salesman on the buses.  These guys, hop on the bus at a usual stop, do their pitch from the front and then walk the aisle touting their wares – only to then get off at the next stop to make the return journey.

Often they are selling very useful items, such as bottles of water (a lifesaver once when we forgot to top up before a 2-hour journey on a hot day) or snacks (candy seemed to be a good seller with the locals).  Yet, on one occasion, a gentleman was selling a sort of ointment called ‘Coca y Marihuan’.  We didn’t quite get his pitch, but he kept saying “marijuana” and it appeared to be a panacea for all one’s ailments.  We didn’t buy it, but Erwan is now regretting it, as he thinks he has the start of early arthritis. . .

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Lesson 3 – And they want to sell you a hat. . .

With the salesman phenomenon, comes one that is very specific to Cartagena.  They all want to sell you a hat.  Seriously, this the place with the most hat salesmen per capita.  We declined the offer of purchasing one at least every half an hour. . .

Lesson 4 – The last Domingo of the month

On the last Sunday of the month, the major tourist attractions are free for entry.  Sounds great, however we then learned that it was just for Colombian nationals.

While we sadly couldn’t enjoy, that still sounds great, right?  A good way for locals to learn more about their history, city, and culture.

In theory, yes, but this is the day we decided to visit the fort in Cartagena (we had to miss it the last time around having decided to visit the Totumo Volcano instead – check that out if you get the chance).  Anyway, the fort is one of the biggest attractions in the city and thus, when it’s free entry, it was rammed with people.  They were everywhere, and Jen kept getting frustrated when they would walk in front of her carefully composed photos – and Erwan kept getting inpatient with Jen as she waited for people to move out of the way of her shots.

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Fortunately, we found one level of the fort, where many didn’t venture (it was on the bottom and around a tight corner, so less people ventured to it) and Jen had her photoshoot. . .

Lesson 5 – The beer is not as good as the fruit

We’re beer drinkers.  Erwan is actually a broken French man and doesn’t drink wine, so beer is the adult beverage of choice (he’s also keeping a tally of all the local beers drunk on this trip, so expect a future blog post).  We grow our own hops, we make our own beer and we like trying beers, particularly craft beers from all over the world.  So, we were obviously excited when we found a craft beer market in Cartagena.  We picked out a small selection to try and headed to the city walls to enjoy a nice, cheap evening.

Sadly, it sounds better than it was.  Of the three beers we tested, we only really liked one and feel that in fact all three were mislabelled in some way.  One was described as an IPA, but it tasted like a weissbeir (which Jen does not like) and the pale ale tasted way too citrusy and not hoppy at all.

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That being said, we do support the growing beer culture in Colombia and while in Bogota, we went back to one of our favourites, the BBC, Bogota Beer Company, to enjoy some quality brewskis.  Jen particularly likes the Monserrate Roja.

Lesson 6 – Cartagena is not a beach town

 So, let me preface this ‘story’, by saying we love Cartagena.  It’s a beautiful city with such a great vibe and really friendly people.  We have even discussed coming back to live for a bit as part of one of our future ‘retirements’.  Yet, it is not a beach town and we do not recommend going there for such – there’s a good chance you will get scammed in some way.

Ok, so upon getting to Cartagena, Jen was desperate for a beach day.  We had missed out on our fun in the sun time in San Blas (see November 23rd post), and Jen was desperate to rid herself of and even out her backpacker tan.  Considering that we had four days in the city and we had already done a lot of the sites, a day doing nothing on the beach would be great.

The closest beach to the city is along Boca Grande – a newly developed part of the city.  We were advised against this area, as it wasn’t the prettiest and it has more aggressive hawkers.  As we didn’t go, we didn’t experience this ourselves, but the perception was confirmed the first evening, when we had dinner with some Canadian friends (from failed San Blas trip).  They spent that day at the Boca Grande beach and besides always being hassled to buy stuff, they had massages forced upon them, with the assaulters then demanding payment.  We agreed to avoid.

Another option is Playa Blanca, which is two hours from Cartagena.  We heard mixed reviews on this one and were considering it.  Again, we didn’t go and can’t personally attest, but another friend (this time an American from the failed San Blas trip) was scammed trying to get there by boat.  The driver agreed a price, but then demanded an increased amount for fuel while traveling in the direction.  Our friend refused, but still had to work out payment to get off the boat.  Twenty dollars out of pocket and right back where he started, he finally caught a bus to Playa Blanca.  Considering this and the distance, we opted out.

Thus, we decided to travel to one of the nearby islands for beach time.  Rosario is known, but we were advised that this is best as more of an overnight trip to do it well or the day trips are just further scams, where they try to sell you tons of stuff, charge extra fees for snorkelling (even if you don’t want to snorkel) and take you to the aquarium as part of the tour (which Jen does not like).  Instead, we opted for Tierra Bomba, which is just a 20-minute water taxi away from the mainland and the only place we didn’t hear bad things about.  Our Airbnb also recommended it and told us to go to the Tropical Inn, a hotel on the beach, where for about $15 you could get beach chairs and shade, lunch and use of the hotel facilities for the day.  Great!  Let’s go!

We were joined by our Canadian friends (who wanted another beach day, but away from Boca Grande) and after negotiating the correct rate with the water taxi (as advised by the Airbnb host), we were off.  At that time, we thought it was cute that the water taxi guys that surrounded us when we first arrived in ‘port’ described themselves as a ‘collective’. . .

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Upon arriving on Tierra Bomba, the ‘captain’ of the water taxi accompanied us to the Tropical Inn (we thought he was just showing us where to go).  In reception, the price of the day pass suddenly jumped to $25 per person.  When we told the hotel receptionist that we were advised it was only $15, there was a heated discussion between him and the water taxi guy.  From what we could make out, essentially the water taxi guy was trying to get his cut.  We tried to only pay the $15, but the hotel guy caved and said it was $25.  We decided to walk away and find elsewhere.

As, we walked down the beach, the water captain followed us and said he would get us a deal like we wanted, so we gave him a change.  A few meters away from the hotel beach, he got us some lounge chairs, the use of a ‘cabana’ and a promised lunch for 50,000 COP – just a bit more than we were expecting (45,000 COP is about $15).  We agreed and decided to just sit down and enjoy the beach, rather than walk around looking for elsewhere (particularly as the lunch options looked sparse).

Enjoying the beach is a stretch though – it was fairly small, a bit littered and the water was dirty (a plastic bottle and other bits floated by as we were in it).  Furthermore, the water taxi guy, just hung around behind us the whole time – um, awkward.  At least the company of our friends was great.  Oh and the view was pretty good too. . .

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Lunch came, and it was ok, nothing spectacular (see the foodie post from 2nd December for the description of the fish).  We accompanied it with some beers, which Jen thought was included in the lunch.

We ‘enjoyed’ the beach for a couple more hours and then it came time to head back and therefore, time to settle the bill.  Here we learned that not only were beers not included, but the water taxi guy was charging 7000 COP for them (over $2) – elsewhere they are only $1.  Ok, fine, we should have asked how much the beers were, so we hand over more money.  Then the water taxi guy, puffs up his chest (and he’s a large fellow) and says “where’s my tip”.  Um, where we’re from, one earns a tip with good service, not by demanding it and scamming us out of the Tropical Inn, charging more for beers and creepily sitting behind us as we try to enjoy the beach.  However, we need to get back via this guy (fortunately we had already withheld the return water taxi fare until arrival back in Cartagena), so we fork out an unjustified tip just to get back.  When we arrive back we exchange our terse goodbyes, mumble how we won’t be returning and go back to the much more beautiful side of Cartagena.

In the end, we paid $10 more than we expected/should have.  It’s not a lot and the dude (and his ‘collective’ probably need it more than us), however the whole experience leaves a very sour taste in the mouth – particularly given that it wasn’t a very nice beach.  So, if you want to go to the beach in Colombia, just go to Santa Marta instead. . .

Lesson 7 – Plaza de La Trinidad is where it’s at!

This time in Cartagena, we stayed in the vibrant Getsemani district – essentially the trendy, up and coming part of town and still filled with more locals than tourists (although there’s more and more gringos apparently).  The heart of Getsemani is the Plaza de La Trinidad, which is actually quite a historical place – for instead, it’s the location where the slave rebellion started.

During the day, the plaza isn’t much.  It has a fairly non-descript church marking it and a couple of street vendors settle under the only two trees.  However at night it is a party!  Our Airbnb place was only a block away, so we witnessed it every evening and there was always something going on – from large dance classes, to a trampoline for the kids, to street performers.  And the whole neighbourhood comes out to sit on the steps or benchs, drink, eat and mingle – fun times had by all!

So those are our take-aways this time from Colombia.  Although it is not all positive, we truly had a grand time here (again) and we will be back!

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