Only on mainland could we survive so much time on the hard. We’ve spent the last month and a half traipsing around Colombia, practicing our Spanish, brushing up on culture and history and visiting with friends and family.
Colombia holds a special place in my heart. I have a gaggle of family and friends here (a dear first cousin in Bogota, an aunt in Cali, an uncle and his family formerly in Barranquilla and work friends in Bogota). I’ve visited several times over the years, but was always pretty confined. In the 90s, my travels were limited by the violence plaguing the country; my mother and I were driven everywhere by a driver and we were not allowed to walk alone on the streets. In the last ten years, my travels were limited by my hectic work schedule that always had me tied to my blackberry and catching the next flight back to work.
This visit we had tons of time; we will have spent nearly two and a half months in Colombia by the time we leave. We were joined by my cousin for a few days here and there, by mom for a week and by buddy boats for a few weeks. Everything is relatively very inexpensive compared to the US or the Eastern Caribbean, so we finally settled in and splurged. The Colombian Peso has suffered grave devaluations against the dollar over the last two and a half years (from a high of COP$1850/USD$1 in July 2014 to a low of COP$3400/USD$1 in February 2016), and took a 10% hit against the US dollar while we were here; it’s about COP$3100/USD$1 now. A cold beer at the bodega on the corner costs COP$2000 (USD$0.65); dinner for two with drinks at a nice restaurant costs COP$90,000 (USD$29); and a twenty-minute Uber ride across town costs COP$12,000 (USD$3.87).
At the airport and around town, government tourism signs herald, “Colombia is magic realism.” Several times Jason and I looked at each other and exclaimed, “You can’t make this sh*t up.”
Magic abounds: from the city roads of Cartagena so flooded people bathe in them; to the patches of perfectly paved road in the mountain road to the Lost City trek that our driver said were paid for by a man who needed to launder some money; to magnificent lightning storms over Cartagena bay; to the vendors offering emeralds “almost free, only today, just for you”; to the payment of large sums (COP$10,000,000 – that’s a lot of zeros) to the marina in cash in large piles of small denominations (COP$50,000 (USD$16) is the largest denomination). Donkeys pull carts around, men sell anything you can imagine from carts on the street, men paddle anything that floats and bail often as necessary, workers use scrap to fashion useful tools and replacement parts. People call me nicknames from “pollita” (little chicken from a bus driver) to “mi reina” (my queen from a boatyard employee), the ice cream truck guy rings his bell and cheers me on whenever I run by on my sunset runs, middle age men push each other around to see if one might bump into me, they cat call and stare, and still all men speak directly to Jason instead of me though he speaks not a word of Spanish. I love Colombia for this craziness. I love its warm, friendly people, its dark green mountains, its perfect Spanish accent.
I’m so glad we got to spend so much time exploring. On the road again! (Did I mention I get car sick?!)
Just a one-hour, $60 round-trip flight from Cartagena. Bogota is a sprawling city of nearly seven million people. It is flanked by the Andes mountains and sits on an altiplano at 2,640 meters above sea level. It’s chilly for our Caribbean blood – low 50s in the morning. Jason even cuddled with me under the down comforter! And what a treat it is to run in that temperature, though the altitude is tough on my heart during cardio.
My mom flew in for a five-day visit with us in Bogota. We celebrated my cousin’s birthday, visited museums and gorged ourselves on local cuisine. The Gold Museum in Bogota has an overwhelming amount of gold (and I’m told it is only a fraction of the amount in storage) and very thoughtful exhibits explaining history, culture and art. The Salt Cathedral in Zipaquirá is an awe-inspiring cathedral built 200m underground in caverns previously mined for their salt. And finally I made it to my bucket list restaurant – Andres Carne de Res – a quirky, loud, fun restaurant outside the city.
We also got to have dinner with an old work friend from New York and his new wife and friends. It was a highlight for Jason, to finally be able to converse in English again with interesting people. For me, it was nice to talk to colleagues about finding escapes from an all-consuming career; I feel so blessed to have this opportunity to travel and unplug.
We were lucky to have a driver at our disposition, but I did miss wandering the streets of Bogota like I did in past visits. You can take the girl out of the city, but you can’t take the city out of the girl.
Just a five hour, $16 round-trip bus ride from Cartagena. Santa Marta is a city of five hundred thousand people, and the oldest surviving city in Colombia. It is a quaint old town, with a lovely square surrounded by good restaurants. The bay is not much cleaner than in Cartagena, but the mountains and beaches are certainly picturesque.
We joined our buddy boats for several days in the marina in Santa Marta, including a Thanksgiving celebration and Janice’s birthday. Livin’ Life was generous enough to host us while we brooded over our intractable boat problems in their big, beautiful, air-conditioned catamaran sailboat. Slow Flight, Milly, Glass Slipper, Muse and Kanpai joined us for docktails and meals in the city. We tracked down the city’s famous food – Salchipapas – which the guys raved about for days and then swore off after another dish of it; it is a huge tray of french fries, covered in several kinds of meat, cheese, mayonnaise, ketchup, lettuce, tomato, fried egg and crunchy topping.
***Cartagena de Indias***
Just a five hour, $350 round-trip flight from New York. Cartagena is a coastal city with a population of approximately one million people. It was the center of the Spanish colony in the 1600s and 1700s, and the first Latin American city to declare independence in the 1800s. Cartagena’s walled city is beautiful and colorful and lovely and fun and safe. What a world of difference a $4 uber ride away from our boat on the hard to a hotel in the city makes – thank you to our visitors for getting us away.
My mom joined us for two days in Cartagena at a fancy beach hotel just north of town. Then our buddy boats joined us for four days in Cartagena at an amazing villa in the old town. It is fun to see the walled city of Cartagena again through their eyes – to wander around the cobblestone streets with flower-draped balconies overhead, to have drinks on the wall overlooking the Caribbean sea and the old town, to visit the museums storied with history of Cartagena. We even got to enjoy the Independence Day Festivities in the old city, which were a loud, disorganized, people-watching frenzy.
***Lost City/Ciudad Perdida***
Just a four day trek, 50kms of hiking, to an elevation of 1500m. We hiked to the Lost City with our buddy boats Livin’ Life, Slow Flight and Milly, and a handful of Colombians. We slept in bunks and had hot meals and cool showers every night. Mules were available to help carry our bags when we needed it and to carry injured hikers out. Quite civilized, I thought.
The Lost City is breathtaking – a series of moss-covered terraces set deep in the mountainous jungle. Everything about it is incredible – that it was built so long ago (800 BCE) so high on a cliff in the mountains, that it sat for so long undiscovered (from the 1500s when it was abandoned by the indigenous to protect it from potential discovery by the Spanish until 1972 when it was discovered by grave robbers digging for gold), that Colombia is finally safe enough to make a trek through the jungle feasible. I wish we’d had more time to sit and take in its glory.
The local Kogi indigenous tribes own the city and its surrounds, and let tourists in most of the year as a fundraiser. The Kogi are a fascinating people – the barefooted women do all the work, marrying after their first menstrual period and raising a family of a dozen or more children; the longhaired, booted men conduct commerce and are never without their poporo – a sea shell dust filled gourd that they draw from to alkalize the coca leaves they chew all day long. The Kogi children, with their big brown eyes, beg for “dulces”; one girl requested the yellow plastic park tags I had dangling from my bag – I like to believe they are hanging from a string around her neck with her traditional beads.
A long, expensive bus ride from Cartagena (6 hours, COP$70,000) or Santa Marta (5 hours, COP$80,000). Mompox is a largely untouched (read: unpreserved) colonial town built in the 1500s on an island in the Rio Magdalena when it was the main conduit for Spanish transport of goods.
History abounds. Simon Bolivar recruited most of his independence fighters from Mompox when he liberated Colombia from the Spanish colonizers in the 1800s. A statue of the liberator in the center of town proclaims “If to Caracas I owe my life, then to Mompox I owe my glory.” Gabriel Garcia Marquez grew up up-river from Mompox, likely visited it in his early years, and certainly wrote about colonial river towns eerily similar to Mompox, but he famously denied its existence in “The General in His Labyrinth”: “Mompox doesn’t exist, we sometimes dream about her, but she doesn’t exist.” We spent two days wandering its cobble stoned streets and admiring its historic churches; I assure you it does exist.
Nature surrounds. The town is centered around Rio Magdalena, a broad, fast, sediment filled river that cuts across nearly the entire length of Colombia. Kids jump into the river all day, float down it in innertubes, bathe in it, collect water in it, punt long tree-carved canoes down it. On a boat trip down river and through the marsh we saw hundreds of iguanas and eagles, and a few kingfisher too. The region is still recovering from a devastating flood that wiped out villages and buried Mompox under several feet of water for several months.
And now back to our regularly scheduled sailing. We’ve splashed and are headed to the San Blas Islands in Panama. Sail ho!