We almost didn’t go to Colombia. It was on our original itinerary, but then we became worried by reports that it was dangerous. We seriously considered skipping over Colombia, but other people we talked to had enjoyed their visit and encouraged us to go. So on June 9th we flew from Quito to Bogota, and then on to Cartagena. We visited three places in Colombia, each of which reminded us of a film.
Pirates of the Caribbean
Cartagena de Indias was one of the first Spanish settlements in the New World, and the place from which much of the treasure was shipped back to Spain (including silver and gold from Potosi in Bolivia). As such it was a target for pirates and buccaneers, including Sir Francis Drake who held the city to ransom for 100 days in 1586. We’ve seen the film Pirates of the Caribbean just once, but we have many times enjoyed the Disneyworld theme ride on which it is based. We quickly realised that the town being invaded by pirates there is closely modelled on Cartagena. Only later did we discover that real-life pirates still infest the place!
Cartagena is a beautiful city, with many fine buildings in a colonial Spanish style with balconies and courtyards, and old city walls which make an excellent vantage point from which to watch the sunset, cocktail in hand. It attracts many tourists, who in turn attract a host of vendors trying to sell everything from Havana cigars to emerald necklaces. These are not really pirates, though they can be a bit of a nuisance as you walk round the city or try to have a meal in peace.
One thing we noticed when we arrived was the temperature – it was really warm and muggy. After weeks in the Andes we were glad to put away our sweaters and change into shorts and t-shirts. So for two days we enjoyed exploring the city in the sun. (One historic house we visited had parrots lurking in the kitchen and dining room – the Parrots of the Caribbean?)
The shock came on the third night, when we discovered that money (some US dollars, some local currency, about £100 in total) had gone missing from the safe box in our hotel room., We had counted the cash very carefully, so (despite the protestations of hotel staff) we knew that someone had gained access to the box. The pirates had struck!
Escape from Alcatraz
Just offshore from Cartagena is a chain of small islands, the Islas de Rosario. We had arranged to spend two nights at a resort called Isla de Pirata (Pirate Island). The first sign of trouble was when our promised 8.30 pickup failed to materialise. After an hour and a half and several unsuccessful attempts to make contact, we had to wheel our luggage down to the harbour and got bundled into an already full motor boat to make the transfer to the island. We had to share one seat, and Sandie (right on the edge) got soaked to the skin by spray. We were relieved to reach the island, but our joy quickly vanished when we set off to explore. We discovered that the ‘resort’ was a small clump of buildings on one end of the island, with a high wall topped with broken glass acting as a boundary. There was no real beach, and being confined to such a small space seemed like being in prison.
The set-up made Sandie (who is claustrophobic) feel so bad that we considered leaving next day, even though we had booked (and paid) for two nights. A boat leaves the island at 3pm each day, so having arrived on Sunday we planned to get the Monday afternoon boat. However, on Monday morning we paid a guy to take us in his small boat across to the neighbouring island, where there was a small beach, with beautiful white sand and easy access to the warm Caribbean sea. We enjoyed it so much we decided we could perhaps survive until Tuesday, providing we went to the beach again on Tuesday morning.
Unfortunately, there was a very heavy tropical thunderstorm on Monday night. By Tuesday morning the rain had stopped, but there was no sun and the beach would have been wet. So we had to hang around waiting for 3pm in order to escape from the island we had privately christened ‘Alcatraz’. By a supreme irony, the boat that took us back to Cartagena really was called the Alcatraz Express!
Our third Colombia location was Tayrona National Park – where the jungle meets the sea. There are several beautiful sandy beaches, backed by palm trees, mountains and dense forest. There is basic accommodation (camping or hammocks) at a couple of the beaches, but there are various problems attached to this, such as how you get your luggage there (no roads) and what happens when it rains (as it often does).
We decided therefore to stay in the only upmarket (and expensive!!!) accommodation, the so-called ‘Ecohabs’ which are situated near the park entrance. In each of the 13 Ecohabs there is a bedroom under a conical thatched roof, with a bathroom and an open-air living area underneath. They are built into a steep hillside, and we were one of the highest: there were 112 steps between our ecohab and the restaurant (torches and umbrellas provided).
The sea in this area is very rough, and at most beaches swimming is prohibited (there are dire warnings about the number of people who have drowned there). There are just a few places where you can ‘swim with caution’. Accessing most of the beaches involves a long and quite strenuous hike from the ecohab through the steaming jungle. We spent one long day feeling like Leonardo di Caprio in the film, walking on and on in search of the perfect beach.
Should we have gone?
All in all, was our visit to Colombia worth it? On balance, we’re glad we decided to go. Cartagena was beautiful, and Tayrona was scenic. We would happily have missed Pirate Island – but if we’d skipped Colombia we’d always be wondering what it would have been like. Now we know.