Monday, March 24, 2014

Colombia: Arriving in Cartegena and Traveling to Tayrona National Park

I'm happy to report that Colombia is not even a teeny tiny little bit like Boston at all -- it's 80 degrees and sunny, the food is spicy, the buildings, the clothes, everything is brightly colored, there are fried snacks everywhere, and there is no hurry for us to do anything: no papers to write, no readings to read, no slide sets to review. Well ok, there are those things, and they will welcome us with open arms (or a punch in the stomach) when we return to real life, but for now we're on spring break and it is absolutely glorious.

Towards the end of last semester, KatieHat and I committed to an international spring break together. Then a few weeks ago we sat down and scanned the internet -- Mexico? Ecuador? (Tortoises!) Italy? What about the Alps? Or maybe Argentina? Suriname? Do people even go there? (Not really.)

We finally settled on Cartegena, Colombia, based on the important criteria of cheap direct flights and beaches and summertime temperatures, the idea of which got us through some dark late-winter Boston days.

Day 1: 

We flew out of NYC early Sunday morning and arrived in Cartegena, a 500-year-old city on Colombia's Carribean coast, at noon. Despite three hours of sleep the night before, KatieHat and I checked into our hostel in the walled city and immediately switched our shoes for flip-flops and jeans for sundresses and ventured out into the streets.

Inside our hostel.
We saw as sign on a hole-in-the-wall full of Colombians for "vegetariano" and sat down for lunch. My non-existent Spanish managed to get me a fried fish plate, while Katie ordered the veggie option (a plate of rice and beans and cheese and egg) plus a guabanana (aka soursop) milk smoothie. We sat there grinning like idiots and agreeing that this is literally all we want in life at this moment and maybe forever and for always.

We wandered around the walled city (beautiful tourist-land), and started jumping up and down at the sight of the ocean (we are West Coasters => we like the beach). So to the beach we went!

Cartegena's beaches not particularly stunning, but ummm hello ocean I missed you!!! I immediately laid out my towel, plopped down on my stomach, and proceeded to do what I do best: read on the beach, nap on the beach, and beach hair.

Our third amiga arrived in the early evening and we went back out to the city to find dinner. Apparently the fried fish/chicken/carne asada plate that I had for lunch, with rice, fried green plantains, and salad is the plato tipico of Colombia, so I proceeded to eat that for pretty much the rest of the trip.

Day 2: 

The next day we were off on our first true Colombian adventure to Tayrona National Park!

Bus stations in foreign countries always amaze me. You walk in to complete chaos -- stalls hawking little cups of coffee or tea, sodas, a million varieties of cookies and chips, local pastries and unidentified candies wrapped in plastic, local families milling about waiting for the next bus to somewhere the kids silently sucking on lollypops or sitting at plastic tables slurping bowls of noodles or plates of beans and rice (depending on where you are), and buses and taxis of all colors and shapes and sizes in varying degrees of disrepair zooming in and out, loading and unloading their human cargo. But there is an orchastrated beauty to this madness. Without fail I have walked in, stated a destination, and been guided by some young man to exactly the bus I need, told where to pay and where to sit, and how long to wait until it leaves. I stand by the assurance that when traveling, other people know what I need and where I need to go far better than I do -- it's best to listen, follow instructions (or gestures, as I have rarely traveled where I know the language), and smile at everyone.

Colombia was no different. The bus, though nice, took significantly longer than expected (about 5 hours instead of 3.5). Luckily Colombians are very committed to fried snacks, so an Arepas con Huevos! man rocking quite the mullet briefly boarded the bus to sell us fried corn cakes filled with eggs about halfway though the trip. Muy delicioso!!! (Is that a thing people say? I do...) Also if you go to Colombia and see something that looks like a baseball-sized and -shaped fried something GET IT. It's potatoes formed around a bit of spicy ground meat and wrapped in dough of some sort. Aka the greatest ball of carbs ever.

The bus ride showed us the more real side of Colombia (as I said, the inside the walls of Cartegena is very nice tourist-land). As we drove, brightly painted one-story stucco progressed to dilapidated wooden shacks, showing the remnants of being once a brighter color of paint. Skinny horses and donkeys pulled carts alongside the cars, dirt bikes, and motorcycles (Katie: I am shocked and delighted that everyone on a moto is wearing a helmet! Go Colombia!) as people went about their business.

A long bus ride plus a taxi (that I was 80% positive would chug its way up those hills -- I don't know much about cars, but I know that they should not make noises like that) landed us at the gates of Tayrona National Park at exactly 5 minutes to 5pm, just in time to pay our entrance fee before the park gates closed for the day.

A long tired day of transportation ended in the most beautiful sunset hike -- through the jungle, up and over some hills, and then down along the beach. The day's heat subsided into what would have been pleasant summertime evening had we not been carrying backpacks, but a little sweat (or a lot) never hurt anyone!

We arrived at Arrecifes Beach and paid for three hammocks for two nights at Aviatur has Ecocabanas. (Turns out this was the higher-end fancy option and there are cheaper places a bit further down the beach, just fyi. But Avairur has nice bathrooms with tp and individual mosquito nets on its I don't regret our mistake.) We showered, sat down at the restaurant to delicious Colombian seafood, and fell asleep to the sounds of night animals and birds and waves crashing on the beach.

To be continued...