January 2016

Week two: from hikes and bikes, to the urban jungle.

Since my previous musings, I’ve been moving about a lot more- took a break from beaching and hammocking, for fear that my bones and muscles may turn to mush.

First point of excitement: I spent a day rekindling my love of scuba diving at Taganga bay. One-on-one with a dive master, complete with a Mohawk and moustache. Despite these visual drawbacks, we had a glorious date/dive. The first issue was my buoyancy: he had to fill my pockets with stones, a la Virginia Woolf, and hold my hand to drag me down. It was probably a little too long before we realised we were still swimming around holding hands. That, compounded with the brunch on a secluded cove at the tip of Tayrona National Park, made the whole affair rather romantic. The charm offensive was shattered only when he kept planting his GoPro in my face with no warning; turns out, I’m certainly not photogenic underwater! After refreshing a few skills, and bonding heavily, we splooshed in for a second dive. Whilst the water and reef alike were distinctly murky, that just added to the glamour of the fish. Whilst Camillo (my dive boyfriend) got super excited about some lobsters, I was charmed by a slithery, swirly sea snake and some sneaky translucent flute fish that hang upside-down.

Pretty much the rest of my time in Santa Marta was spent on a bean bag. The town itself isn’t much to write home about. My personal highlight of the oldest town in Colombia were the ubiquitous market stalls of tat, selling mugs, personalised for every family member imaginable. Because I just never know what to bring home for my grandfather-in-law!

Moved on up to Minca- a teeny tiny town in the coffee-growing-jungle-mountains. Arrived there in the boot of a jeep and had no choice but to jump (unprotected, sorry Mum) on the back of a motorbike, to slalom further up the mountain. Marginally feared for my life when my driver kept sneezing, i.e. closing his eyes, but somehow arrived unscathed and exhilarated at the idyllic Casa Elemento. Nothing but giant hammocks hanging over the cliff edge and friendly faces.

Knowing (and fearing) my penchant for becoming at one with hammocks, a few of us decided to branch out and go for a lovely hike. Our intended destination was a dreamy mountain-top bar with a pool table and an uninterrupted view; our reality was an incredibly crude, hand drawn map, some guesswork and a lot of complaining! Devastatingly, the bar couldn’t have been more closed when we arrived. At a total loss for what to do, luckily a middle aged Colombian man invited us in and offered us a bed for the night. Whilst we politely declined, we were more than willing to join him on his veranda for some fresh pineapple and a spectacular sunset. He then roused some neighbourhood youths to convoy us back to our hostel in moto-style. Consumed with smugness about not having to hike home, and not having my bike slip in the mud, I had barely finished shouting “Eat my dust bitches” when we plummeted into a puddle, deeper than our tyres. Karma can be a real bitch sometimes!

A couple more days cliff edge hammocking (the extreme sport version of regular lounging) and several campfire nights later, I hiked down, via a waterfall, to my 16 hour bus to Medellin.

Quite a culture shock to follow my new love of treacherous motorbiking with a bustling metro. My successful acquisition of an Oyster card said ‘local’, whilst my enormous, turtle shell rucksack and generally pale demeanour must scream ‘gringo!’ Luckily, here, that seems to equate to: “please come over and chat”- people seem to beam with pride at the thought that I’d come all this way to visit them. (Either that or they beam with neon clothing; I’ve concluded that if it’s not covered in rhinestones, netting and/or neon, no self-respecting Colombian woman will wear it!)

Spent my first night at an al fresco bar, perched on tree stumps, under a canopy of bunting and fairy lights. Felt much more Minca than Medellin.

The following day had some more bustle to it. My system is to jump on a metro and get off only when I see an exciting looking building. So far it’s led to some churches (of course), an art gallery (full of and surrounded by some spectacularly rotund sculptures by Botero- we aren’t allowed to call them “fat”!) and the botanical gardens (where I discovered that iguanas severely creep me out.) My actions are only ever semi-intentional, but it seems to be working so far.

The above ground metro and connected cable car system offer an all encompassing view over the city that spews and fills the valley. Whilst I’ll have to wait a couple more days for this city’s notorious party spirit to take hold, I’ve had a glorious period of acclimatising back into civilisation.

And one last thing: to any budding travellers reading this, this week I discovered a travellers’ BEST friend: An offline, non-data-guzzling version of google maps. I’ll never be lost again (hopefully!)


First week in Colombia; the good, the burn and the Dutch

Dedicated the first week of my marathon trip to the Colombian Caribbean coast, where there’s a tough decision to be made between natural beauty and Colonial wonders. Highlights include:

Cartagena was my first stop. A good start to my aimless wanderings as, wherever I walked, I would quite literally hit a wall! Hard to get lost when encased in a fortress that’s been keeping people out since Sir Francis Drake popped by.

At first somewhat apprehensive about flying solo, I soon discovered my worries were unfounded as I couldn’t move for friendly gringos (mostly Yanks, Londoners and the Dutch- a lot of them.) Despite all being on different trips and schedules, we still found time to eat, mingle and explore together, and to drink, quite copiously. The still lingering Christmas lights irked me upon arrival in mid-January, but that was until I realised how much the culture of ‘late night street drinking’ could be enhanced by twinkles!

Once I’d found some wandering partners, the city opened up; a LOT of statues and busts of people who all probably had something tenuous to do with achieving independence; even more bizarrely abundant (and unexplained) distinctly modern, abstract sculptures; and a ton of old churches- my favourite being one with colour changing windows! I could totally get into religion if all churches doubled as kaleidoscopes!

Along with a pair I bonded with over our mutual love of free walking tours, we took a trip to the Volcan de Lodo el Totumo (‘mud volcano’ to you and I), which sits about an hour out of town- via the modern sprawl of the rest of Cartagena. It also sits up there with some of the more surreal experiences of my life so far. The crater itself is the size of, at a push, four pool tables arranged in a square; made even smaller by the unwanted masseurs. Instant manhandling was a given, as they lay you down, rubbed eagerly, floated you along to their “colleagues” and insisted you ‘relax!’ Easier said than done when you are acutely aware that there is no floor for 2000-odd metres and there are mystery floating bits working their way into your crevices! Once your “spa treatment” is over you are discarded into a corner to make sense of things. Unable to recognise my own hand before my face, I felt unexpectedly statuesque- once I ignored the fact I was flailing uncontrollably in a bath of mysterious shite! Discovered the trick was to stand totally straight in order to become weightless; guess I don’t need to go to space now!
To de-mud after the treacherous climb out, a coven of aggressive Colombian women wait with bowls of water to hurl at you. Zero respect for anything covered by my bikini, I essentially got charged 80 pence to become a mud-soaked peep show!

After de-filthing, and despite the little voice in my head warning against it, I have repeatedly tried to dance; but salsa and bachata don’t come naturally to my straight, white frame. Certainly not when I had to play the male lead to my Dutch friend, who stands at six foot tall, equally white and equally consumed by fits of the giggles. Our teacher was less than impressed and moved on to help more hopeful cases! But, regardless of my lack of sassy hips, the live music here is playful and abundant.

Several other days have been dedicated to the beach. Various beaches up and down the coast, but the beach nonetheless, upon which I do nothing but chat and sizzle. Felt I deserved a bit of a break for surviving the first few days of my trip rather spectacularly. Bocagrande, Playa Blanca y Bahia Concha, to be specific and to practice my Spanish (which gets me by at times and, at others, leaves me momentarily panicked and bewildered!) The most defining feature of all three playas being a toss up between bums, wind and selfie sticks.
Thong bikinis appear to be the in thing- I may as well be wearing a wimple with mine! The wind means that every time I reapply my factor 1 million, I turn into an ice cream that’s been dropped in the sand. And the many, many South American tourists in this area seem to spend all day on the beach perfecting their new profile picture. So I sit and observe, with my new favourite lemon crisps and a cerveza in hand.

Thus far I’m finding travelling alone to be totally liberating, having no one to please but myself (apologies if I return from this trip a totally selfish nightmare!) Whilst I’m a good few years younger than everyone I’ve come across, it’s never hard to buddy up. To quote my wise new best Dutch friend, dancing partner and fellow Gilmore Girls enthusiast, Delia: “it doesn’t feel like I’m ever alone and then sometimes I think ‘wow, I’ve made it on my own to Colombia, I’ve done it!'” (OK, so it’s not quite Descartes, but it pretty much sums up my current state of being.)

Off up some mountains and then to the urban jungle next. Watch this space.

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