People fall in love with Colombia. I have listened to friends wax lyrical about this formerly troubled country for hours.
“Oh my god, Colombia,” they intone, their eyes sparkling, whenever the name is mentioned.
“You have to go, it’s amazing.”
Medellin left me feeling confused as to what it was these people were seeing that P and I were missing. It was not beautiful. It was not particularly enjoyable to walk around. There was not much to do or see. The food was at best average. It was a big sprawling city.
It felt like travelling to the Colombian equivalent of Southampton.
Even the Parque Arvi, 17 square kilometres of jungle on the high hills above the city, did not blow me – or P – away.
Frankly Medellin was an underwhelming experience. I wanted to love it, I was ready to love it. Particularly as one cannot have anything other than great respect for the resilience of its people who have been through more turmoil than most in their lives but appear upbeat and charming towards the unknown foreigner.
But all I felt at boarding the bus to leave was relief.
Then we arrived in Cartagena and suddenly everything became clear.
Cartagena is where people fall in love with Colombia.
It is fairytale pretty. The colonial houses, their wooden balconies overflowing with bougainvillea and other bright flowers, are painted every shade of the rainbow.
It is where the Caribbean collides in colourful confusion with Latin American and the results are spectacular. A beautiful colonial city with a tropical twist.
Caribbean beats pour into the street from ornate carved balconies, majestic plazas overflow with palm trees, the colours are brighter, clothes are tighter and sweet Jesus it is hot. So hot.
There are plenty of fun things to see and do within a stone’s throw of the city.
One particularly entertaining trip which P and I took was to a nearby geological anomaly, the Volcan de Lodo El Totumo – a 40-ft high volcano which spews forth warm liquid mud. It is possible to bathe in the crater.
The density of the mud makes everyone bob about at the surface like friendly swamp monsters. Looking down at a group of curvaceous stately Argentinian woman who had already descended into the pit and been lathered by the willing hands of the local mud ‘masseuses’ I got the giggles as their impressively buoyant breasts were pushed up to float like twin balloons at the surface, creating a spectacular array of gleaming muddy cleavages for those at the top to admire.
“Tit soup,” I commented to P.
Climbing in you are immediately told to lie back and are passed around to various cheerful clay-soaked gentlemen who massage you with the mud sweeping it over your arms and legs and gently painting your face.
You then float about glorying in the disgusting pleasure of the whole thing and giggling irrepressibly until you are politely asked to move on and make room for others.
It is then a 40 yard walk to a nearby warm lake where a number of women await you ready to take you by the hand and wash you down.
You are instructed to sit down in the water and close your eyes and place yourself entirely in their capable hands.
It is blissful. The woman who had taken charge of me scrubbed my hair, arms, shoulders, legs, and so on.
I was about to drift off when the instruction came: “Take off your bikini.”
“And the bottoms.”
While she was scrubbing the mud from these garments, P came bounding over disturbing my peace and looking like a puppy who had been given a juicy bone.
“She got me naked! She made me take off my swimming shorts!”
So a good morning was had by all.
After a typical lunch of fried fish, coconut rice and plantain fritters on the beach we headed off for a canoe ride round the mangrove swamps, their oppressive dark tunnels teeming with bird life. Pelicans, white herons, black herons, grey herons and more before returning to the welcoming cobbled streets of Cartagena to reward ourselves with mojitos.
In Cartagena the people are charming, the food delicious, the cocktails cheap, the city stunning, the shops tempting… And delightful beaches and mangrove swamps are within easy reach. What is not to like?
But P and I wanted the beach closer than easy reach. We wanted it on our doorstep. Literally.
So after a few days in the city we headed for the Islas de Rosario, where a palm hut awaited us.