So much more than we ever expected
25.01.2012 - 01.02.2012
To be honest we weren't really sure what to expect from Colombia. We knew the country's dark history with it's constant revolutionary wars often fueled by drug trafficking cartels and their world famous bosses. Most people's knowledge of Colombia (including ours up to very recently) is based on grainy footage of horrible violence shown on the news. The most recognized Colombian name outside of Colombia is Pablo Escobar, the drug lord who once famously offered to personally pay of Colombia's entire foreign debt in exchange for amnesty. Contrasting that however have been all the great things we've been hearing from other travelers in the last couple of years. We also heard that things were improving and that a hard core police crackdown on both the revolutionaries and the drug cartels by the government was having an overall positive effect on the Colombian way of life. Most importantly though we heard the country was now a great up-and-coming tourist destination.
Understandingly we were a bit apprehensive about what to expect as we landed but that cleared up quickly. The customs official was the friendliest we've met in a while and we were quickly helped on our way to a taxi and on to the Getsemani neighborhood in Cartagena where we had booked our stay.
Getsemani is a small neighborhood which is inside the "new" old city walls, and just outside the "old" old city walls. The key is that it is still on the same island as the actual old city "Las Murallas" so it's very close without some of the exorbitant prices that you pay for staying inside "Las Murallas". It's also safer because there is limited access to the island (3 bridges) with police usually patrolling the entry points.
The neighborhood was eclectic to say the least. Gorgeous Havana-like colonial architecture still in much disrepair, but with some buildings either already beautifully restored, or on their way to being restored. There is no doubt in my mind that this area will become extremely expensive one day if Colombia continues on its current positive track. There were all kinds of people mingling around including surprisingly few foreign backpacker tourists, Colombian tourists, local residents living in the area, food cart owners trying to sell their wares, small time drug dealers, the occasional drugged out crack head and even some prostitutes late at night. It's a place where you can find a brand new expensive boutique hotel just down the street from a run down brothel.
The next morning we made our way to the old town. This is really when we started to get a feel for the city. It is like the city is constantly dancing, there is music EVEWHERE, it's loud with taxis honking their horns and teaming with people. We found that all the people are smiley, friendly, and polite, even the ones trying to trick you out of a dollar or two. Colombians are ridiculously friendly and welcoming and very curious about all these new people coming to visit their country. You can quickly tell they are happy and proud people who are looking to the future with hope and great expectations for their country. The food carts on the sides of the streets are teaming with all kinds of deliciousness rich with flavour, color and textures. The old city itself is absolutely gorgeous with its colonial-Spanish architecture, flowery balconies overlooking narrow streets and churches and plazas around every corner. There is a lot of construction and reconstruction as the city is quickly restoring buildings and parks. The temperature was ridiculously hot the entire time, over 30 degrees in a cloudless sky. Here are some pictures to give you guys an idea of how beautiful Cartagena is:
To say that we liked Cartagena would be a major understatement. It has quickly become one of our favorite cities anywhere in the world and definitely our favorite city thus far on our trip. We absolutely loved it and stayed a full week, much longer than planned, not really wanting to leave at all. With it's super friendly people, amazing and cheap food, gorgeous buildings and architecture, beaches, and relatively modern infrastructure, this is one place we would have no problem returning to over and over again.