After Bogota, our next stop was Cartegena – on the Caribbean coast of Colombia. We had found cheap flights from Bogota using the country’s budget airline – Viva Colombia – and arrived after only an hour of travel. We were immediately hit by a wall of heat and humidity as we left the plane, which was quite welcome after the cold and drizzly weather in Bogota. Unfortunately, the novelty quickly wore off when we found our hostel and realised we were in the only room without air conditioning!
After a very hot and restless night we dragged ourselves outside to explore the ‘Old City’, where our hostel was based. The old city is a beautiful place; full of narrow cobbled streets and colourful colonial houses with terraces that are draped in hibiscus and bougainvillea.
The old city itself is surrounded by an ancient wall that was built in the 1600s to protect the city from invaders (such as the British and pirates!). The wall is huge and you can walk across the top, which gives you fantastic views of the picturesque old city below and the modern Bocagrande district in the distance.
We’d heard from our roommates that the beaches in Cartegena (which have grey volcanic sand that makes the water look muddy) weren’t the best, so we decided to go with them on a boat trip to Playa Blanca and the Rosario Islands. The Rosario Islands were a bit of a let-down. We were expecting pretty Caribbean islands lined with sand and clear water, but they’re actually more like rocky outcrops that are better for snorkelling than sunbathing. Playa Blanca was much more what we had in mind. It looked amazing, with beautiful soft white sand and warm turquoise water, but it was also very busy with boat-loads of people being delivered throughout the day. Along with the tourists were hoards of salesmen and women trying to tout everything from food and drinks to jewellery, shells and massages. The tranquillity of our surroundings was somewhat dented by having to tell the persistent sellers ‘no quiero nada!’, but we still enjoyed ourselves though – and we got to have our first ever swim in the sunny Caribbean sea!
After our brief stay in Cartegena, we caught a bus further along the coast to Santa Marta where we planned to trek 44kilometres into the jungle to see Ciudad Perdida – an ancient lost city, similar to Machu Picchu. When we’d arrived in Santa Marta, we heard about a small town nearby in the Sierra Nevada mountains called Minca where you can hike to beautiful waterfalls and visit coffee and cacao farms. Deciding it was worth a look, we took a collectivo from the market and soon we were in the mountains looking out over the jungle below.
It was raining when we arrived so we decided to skip the waterfalls, but we managed to catch a tour of one of the coffee plantations and finished off the day with a demonstration of how chocolate is made from cacao beans.
Our guide, Joe, spoke excellent English as he told us all about how the coffee and cacao is grown, harvested and processed. He also told us what he knew about the indigenous tribes that still populate the mountains in the region – showing us a mud hut that they use when they visit.
My favourite part was when Joe actually made some chocolate for us to try. He took the roasted cacao beans, ground them up and mixed them with a coconut candy to make a sweet, sticky, chocolaty goo. It didn’t taste much like the chocolate we get at home, but it was delicious!
After learning all about coffee and chocolate it was time to go back to the hostel and prepare for our exciting jungle trek!