It’s been a long time. Too long. Not being a beach person I didn’t think I would mind being away from it for so long. But we’re backpackers. It’s our natural habitat no? The fact of the matter is that we have actually been in the Andes at this point for close to two months. We haven’t seen the sea since we left Playa El Zonte in El Salvador in mid-February. So by the time we leave Salento we are frothing at the bit for the seaside. But first, two cities. Very famous cities for very different reasons.
The 7 hour bus ride to Medellin from Salento was bearable, and the four of us were soon in a taxi going round and round (and round again)the lively nightlife of the El Poblado district while the driver tried to find Hostel Arcadia. Eventually with the help of a police escort in a kind of motorcade fit for a visiting diplomat we were at our lodgings.
The previously infamous Medellin is now a safe, fashionable, affluent, bustling metropolis, with a young population and an air of ‘Europeanness’ about it. Let’s get the big white elephant in the room out of the way first. Pablo Escobar and the Medellin Cartel. It would be downright foolish and I would be being deceptive if I were to say that this man doesn’t still cast a pretty big shadow and that cocaine is not an problem here (or in Colombia in general!) any more.
The Pablo Escobar tour is a ‘thing’ here and on offer to anyone who feels the need to see some of his properties, meet his brother and see his grave. Morally I had a problem with it once I got there after being initially keen. This was due to seeing how the city has moved on and I felt that this is history, a history that the city wants to put to rest, so I felt that contributing to keeping the negative aspects and stereotypes alive would be counter-productive tourism wise. But hey, if you want to see it, I can also see that it is an important part of Colombia’s past, and like all distasteful parts of history, should not be forgotten.
Saturday; Ollie bagged a bikini at a boutique shop and then we visited the mall (shudder). Once that awfulness was over, we returned to the hostel in got down to the business of playing Grass and warming up the night with some Ron Medellin.
“You want some Charlie? Good Charlie? Good price! You try?!” Offered to us by a confectionary salesman on the street not five minutes out of front door. We headed to the main drag and to a square down the road that seemed to be lively. It was all lively! This city seems to live for the night. We were out at about 11pm and the feeling we got was “You’re out early guys, it’s a long time till morning!” The square was packed full of ‘the yoof’ of Medellin, all drinking, chilling, singing and watching the girls go by. Sure, a couple had had a touch too much Aguadiente, but on the whole there was an amazing atmosphere with vendors sorting you out your next bottle of Aguila beer as soon as required. We moved onto another square at around midnight, Parque Lleras Poblado I think which is surrounded by cringy euro bars, playing equally cringy euro dance, so after I politely declined a 10 year old’s offer of some cocaine, we moved onto a club. The rest is hazy…
In a way I feel quite satisfied that I saw nothing of Medellin apart from the night and the underside of the bunk bed above me as it was a great weekend. That city can party and we certainly gave it a good go. Being over long bus rides and finding a cheeky flight for about $25 we decided to hop a plane to Cartagena…on the Caribbean coast.
Cartagena de Indias was eventually founded (after numerous failed attempts) by the Spanish in 1533, mainly so they could raid the nearby tombs and fill their boots with native gold, but soon became an important hub for the empire. A tasty looking place, it was subject to pirate attacks for years, including a successful one by Sir Frances Drake who levelled a quarter of the city. The Spanish eventually had enough of this nonsense and in the 17th century constructed some 11km of mighty concrete walls around the gaff and as a result, managed to stop further French and British pirate attacks. Today this city is still under attack, but now from a constant stream of tourists and backpackers who besiege it by land, air and also by sea on the boats that pour in from Panama every day.
A taxi to the Getsemani district, where the grubby and fragrant streets house the budget backpackers, at night is an illuminating experience. The city is hot, and the streets are full of people who are scantily dressed and clutching fast warming beers. “Charlie Charlie!” A man shouts through the taxi window at Paul before we even get out the car. Possibly you could believe that he mistook Paul for his Gringo buddy Charlie, but I think it not the case. It’s a rough and ready area, but again, not threatening, just alive!
Ollie is reminded of Cuba by some of the colourful and crumbling buildings through the city. It is a city that appears in decay, but in a delightful way. Making our way into the main square the battle with the heat is a hard one, what with the siege of never- ending offers from street hawkers. Still in need of seeing the sea we head to the city walls and walked along them for as long as we could with eyes on the cloudless sky and equally blue Caribbean. After a day exploring these eye-catching streets we decided it was time we get onto the beach proper and have us a coconut.
Playa Blanca on the peninsular of Barú, is a short boat ride from Cartagena, and as the name suggests it promises a white sandy beach experience with a certain amount of isolation that is required to enjoy such a setting. Silly. It was only bloody Semana Santa, a time of year where Colombians get time off for ‘Easter’ and head for quick getaways such as this with their entire families in tow. After a stressful encounter with a boat man who could only best be described on this PG blog as a complete bell-end, we were fast approaching the shores and our hearts immediately sank. The beach was packed. Overflowing, with local tourists. Like those pictures you get in the UK of Brighton beach when we have ‘a heat-wave’. We headed right (when facing the water) up the beach, where it thankfully quietened off and found some hammocks to sleep in for a couple of nights at $5 a throw.
“Excuse me, can you take a picture please?” A Colombian lad and his girlfriend ask me and I’m happy to oblige. Only getting ready to take the shot of them, it turns out he wants ME to pose with his lady-friend. Suitably baffled I oblige whilst trying to ignore the sniggers from Paul. Later, some other Colombians shouted at me, “Hey, it’s David Guetta! David, how’s it going?” We googled David Guetta when we got back to the city, and in my opinion, I look nothing like the mug.
The Colombians we out in full force, and they ain’t shy either. Many of them cracking beers from well stocked coolers from 8am; they are there for the long haul. Nighttime took me wandering around the back of the beachfront restaurants where I stumbled on a scene which can only be described as a happy refugee camp (if there is such a thing, which I’m pretty sure there is not) with tents as far as the eye can see, with children and half-cut adults milling around past fires in the night.
We spent three days there, in our relatively quiet patch of beach doing not much but drinking beers, eating tinned food that we brought (you’re not a real backpacker until you have eaten a tinned frankfurter out of the can in a hammock you’re sleeping in, in the interest of budgeting, in my opinion: Tick) and of course adding rum to coconuts. If I tried really hard, I could imagine what the place is usually like without the hordes, but it was just too much, so the only way to get through it was to drink. A great night out was had along the beach, starting at a reggae bar (on the beach), then busting our one Salsa move to some classic Colombian tunes (on the beach), then onto another bar, where we danced to some cheesy electronic tunes (into the sea this time) and finally ended with the sun just coming up.
“Lancha. Cartagena. Muy rapido?” An offer we couldn’t refuse, but was indeed a lie. After more scenes comparable to evacuating refugees on a barge to a larger boat (complete with helicopter flying overhead) we were on the slow boat back to the city. The worst possible thing happened. A man picked up a microphone and started singing, we realise we are on the tail end of a Colombian day cruise. It only worsens when the chap puts on a Trilby hat and gets involved in a Michael Jackson mega-mix. Say what you want about it, it’s not my cup o’ tea, but the Colombians were all up, dancing, singing along to all the songs and having a great time. I suppose, they were all a bit intoxicated from day drinking, but they certainly can sing and dance.
Our first beach expedition was not exactly what we expected, but nevertheless, we had had a taste of what’s on offer. We then headed east along the coast to see more of it, in search of that deserted white sandy beach with palm tree.
Thanks for reading!