"Why Cartagena?", you may ask. Well, first of all, it’s one of the most historic cities in the country. All the commercial development started here and the first steps toward the abolition of slavery were taken by a Spaniard Jesuit priest, San Pedro Claver, who, seeing the poor conditions of the slaves, began enacting what was then called Equal Human Rights. If you are walking around the old city, you can feel the mystical combination between the Spanish wealth and the black slave hands. Every street has a history that unfolds in front of who’s looking beyond the curious shapes and stones.
|Plaza San Pedro|
In Cartagena you can try the gastronomic deliciousness of the country. Yes, I might be biased, but I’m not the first one to affirm that Colombian food is one of the best on the continent. You heard right, the continent. Specializing in seafood, you can taste the best of the international fusion cuisine combined with authentic Caribbean flavors. Fruits you have probably never heard of, juices you will not find at the supermarket, cocktails with local flavors like Lulo, or even street snacks like mangos, mamón or plums, with lemon and salt, that you can buy very cheap. My mouth is watering just thinking about it!
|Arroz de mariscos.|
The buildings and the great walls carry the weight of history, of war, of violence, of racism. After many years, you can see the miscegenation in every street. People are proud of their roots, and you can hear through the music the mixture of cultures, religions, languages and instruments. Today, the official language is Spanish and we are all Colombians.
A few miles by boat, you arrive to the Islas del Rosario, with a seven colored sea, white sand beaches, some virgin islands, and some others have not a palm tree left. This place is ideal to spend two or three days with zero connection to the rest of the world, except the underworld, because it’s a beautiful place to scuba dive, snorkel or observe fish, besides massages, all inclusive hotels, open bars starting at 5... and I could go on. I recommend it more for lovers than for families, but there’s something here for every need.
How would I organize a short trip there?
Since I’ve done this many times before, I’ll tell you one good piece of advice: avoid the super high season!! (December 24th to January 7th). The entire country is there AND the gringos that heard that it’s a good place to go. So everything is full, hotels are all booked, the islands are all packed, you have to make lines at restaurants or skip them because there’s no table for the next month. So, if you can, avoid this time of the year.
So, for 2 or 3 days:
Day 1. Take a historical tour. A half day tour is just fine and you will understand a lot better why the old city was constructed as it is.
- Have lunch at Cocina del Socorro or also, La Casa de Socorro. The owners were friends and then they fought and split. Don’t ask me why. Do not ask for beef, unless you want to be disappointed. You eat seafood at a beach town, that’s a basic rule. Colombians love rice, so if there’s something with rice, it’s probably good. I ordered the Seafood Rice and the Patacones con Camarón (pictured)... my mouth is watering again.
- After lunch, you might want to go to the nearby beach and rest. Then recover your breath and go for a walk to the old city. The best pictures you will take are around 5 to 6 PM, when the lights are turning on and the sun is sinking. If you'd rather drink your way through the sunset, go to Café del Mar, a nice bar where you can drink and chat, while a beautiful sun sets behind you.
- If you still have energy during the night, there are a couple of bars that you can go to. You should ask the concierge or someone else about it, because they change every year.
|Camarones al ajillo con patacones|
Day 2. Go to the islands. If you don’t have time to stay longer, then you should check the islands for a day tour. Make sure you go to Playa Blanca or Cocoliso, there are other islands but they seem more like a scam. This is a whole day tour, so when you are back in the city you can go take a nap and then try these bars at night: Bazurto, Havana, Donde Fidel and Quiebracanto. The locals dance there to salsa music. Even if you don’t know how to dance, you will still have a great time.
|Un lorito y un guía|
|Paseo por las lagunas|
Day 3. Go out to eat! These restaurants are my favorites: Juan del Mar, Club de Pesca, Plaza de las Armas, Quebracho, Palo Santo, D’arte, Restaurante San Pedro. There are more and every year there’s a new trendy one. Also, there are clubs you can try, but if you are not looking for ‘easy access’ women (c’mon, you knew that), avoid Mr. Babilla. The last time I went, like 4 years ago, I was asked for an offer. Enough said.
|Camino a un atardecer|
With more time, you can take it easy and dedicate to enjoy, walk and learn about the rich history. Or simply have such a great time, that when someone asks, you will say: “Man, I don’t remember what I did there, but it was awesome”.
The objective of doing this short trip was to recharge my lungs with some fresh, pure air. Living in Buenos Aires, your life can get annoying, so from time to time, a fresh air escape is ideal. I wanted to visit Cordoba city, but there is not a lot to do there, and the most beautiful part of it, is going to Las Sierras. So after many recommendations, I ended up in La Cumbrecita.
This is a little town in the mountain, in the Calamuchita Valley, entirely pedestrian. Cars are not allowed and as a tourist you have to do all the treks by foot (and no complaining). The Alpine style architecture combines the cute mountain houses with the high altitude environment.
|El pajarito salió a hacer cucú a las en punto|
To get there from Córdoba city takes around 3 to 4 hours. You buy the ticket to Villa General Belgrano and then you take another bus to La Cumbrecita. The view from the route is already gorgeous. You can take a day trip or a weekend getaway and all the information is on their own website.
I took the one-day trip because I couldn’t find a hotel, and the main activity I wanted to do, was to trek the Cerro Wank, located 1,750 mts up a mountain. As soon as I got to the town, I went to the Info Office and they gave me a map. My travel partner and I didn’t hire a guide, even though the map suggested it. So we started walking and going up, up, up. The more we walked, the better the view. And up, and up. For two non-athletics bodies, that was quite a lot of work, but we kept going. No signs on the way did make it challenging, but soon we discovered the ‘hints’ to follow the path (pictured). There were small pile of stones located in strategic places and we looked for them all the time. After 1hr and 15 minutes (estimated time on the map: 1 hr and 30 mins), a lot of sweating, a lot of complaints and a lot of ‘hot and cold’, because it was cold -although it was cold, walking under the sun made my jacket hot, so off came the jacket and it was cold again- we reached our goal!
|Las piedras nos soplaban el camino|
Once there, we took our time to have lunch. We packed some sandwiches and water. We ate and enjoyed the view, the air, the horizon. The could feel the pureness of the cold wind touching my cheeks, the deep tranquility I had experienced, the happiness of being there, the self-satisfaction. And we just stayed there. Alone. Us and the wind (And some random birds that tried to eat our food, but well, nature).
It was time to go back. We walked and somehow it felt longer. Tired and thirsty, when we hit the town, we went into a nice coffee place we saw. I don’t remember the name, but they are all very similar and pricy. It was cold. The sun began to set and we were not prepared, but the coffee and the Raspberry and Ricotta pie made us feel better. Much better. It was the end of a peaceful day and soon we walked back to the bus station with our lungs revitalized, ready for another day of adventure in Alta Gracia.
Maybe adventure is a lot to say for this small town. Alta Gracia is very well known for being the town where Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the famous revolutionary, spent his childhood. The main attraction is his House/Museum and you get to know a lot more about his story. Contrary to popular belief, Che didn’t come from a poor family, and there you can learn when it all got twisted.
|Esta laguna es artificial, fue creada para darle otro atractivo al pueblo|
I went to Chile for three days. When you are working, you can only ask for a few days a year, so I ask for those days spread out during the year, so when I take my 3 week vacation to Colombia, no one remembers.
What do you do when you don’t know the city, or locals, and want to get to see the most you can of a city in one day? Take a tour. So that’s what I did. I took a Hop on- Hop off tour around Santiago and chose some main places I wanted to see, like Downtown, Pablo Neruda’s House/Museum, the Port Market and the Cerro San Cristobal to get a panoramic view of the smoggy city.
During my tour I noticed that Santiago is a modern city, nothing like Buenos Aires, where I was living. The architecture is different, clean, wide, glassy, and the streets unfold the conscious work of city planning by its leaders. People are nice and warm, helpful to tourists. Although, it is kind of hard to understand them even in Spanish, so be prepared with a piece of paper and pencil.
|City and Smog|
The first stop was Cerro San Cristobal. It has a great 360 view, but there’s so much smog in the city that you can only clearly see the city after it has rained. Otherwise, a dense layer of smog settles over the city. This happens because the ridge prevents the passage of air, so it doesn’t circulate properly. Yes, government knows all about this and they are working on it.
Downtown has the old buildings and part of the historical part of the city. The Central Mail building, the Plaza de las Armas, the Cathedral, the Central Place, the Government Palace and other historic places. Nice architecture and a lot of movement during the day.
|Palacio de la Moneda|
The Central Market was my favorite place, not because of its beauty, but because of the food. All the seafood that stays in the country or is exported is there, so the restaurants around have excellent and fresh seafood dishes that you can enjoy at a very affordable price. I ate at the restaurant El Galeón: Corviño and Paella. Soooo good.
After the tour, we took a shower and a nap, and continued on to Patio Buenavista, a hot spot for the night scene, located in the heart of the bohemian/chic neighborhood in Santiago. It’s basically like an open mall with lots of trendy bars and restaurants where you can spend the entire night and have a great time.
In the following posts I’ll tell you more about other things to do with a rush visit like mine: Viña del Mar and Valparaíso.
Despite finding the city dirty and neglected, it’s in a great location, surrounded by big and green mountains and 900 mts. above sea level, which makes it a perfect climate: not too cold, not too hot. Although, a lot of these mountains are covered by enormous slums or Ranchos.
|View from The Avila Park|
The public transportation is very cheap, so cheap that it is almost free. The subway costs less than a cent (USD) round trip, has air conditioning and it covers most areas of the city, and still growing.
The streets are dirty, the buildings are old, have never been repainted or repaired. The traffic is unbelievable, you don’t know where all that people is coming from. There’s no rush hour, because no matter what time of day you are going out, you’ll get stuck in traffic. But, of course, everyone has a car. Gas is also so cheap that it hurts. I took a 4 hour trip by car 1 dollar in gas. Yes, one There are not many sidewalks or bike lanes, if you are feeling ‘alternative’, and the excuse of “traffic was awful” never gets old.
Without entering into a political discussion, you could think that Chávez, with his socialist speech, at least offers quality life to El Pueblo Venezolano, but you can’t go out until late because you are at risk of being assaulted. You can’t walk alone, you need to observe your surroundings, you feel the insecurity touching your skin. You see people sleeping in the streets, selling stuff on the corners, kids asking for money at every traffic light. You see poverty in different expressions and you can even feel how unlucky they feel. A country that has so much money and natural resources should be in way better condition than this. And we are talking about the capital of the country. Let’s imagine the rest.
Inflation. I thought Argentina had inflation (and this is 2010), but Venezuela... mamma mia! Prices change from one day to another. I went to the supermarket and 18 out of 20 olive oils are imported, none at an affordable price for a middle class Venezuelan. And the currency? That’s a major joke. The official rate is 1 USD= 4.3 BSF (Bolivares), but you can’t get dollars in that country, unless you are Chávez. The ‘black market’ has dollars: 1 usd= 6 to 10 (bsf). Who can pay a price like that, when an average salary is around 3000 BSF a month (in 2010)?
And want more? Last year -2009- Venezuela went through an energy crisis because of the lack of rain, so the government decided to shut down a big part of the public lightning, for good. It was supposed to be temporary, and it’s been a year and nothing has changed. Thanks to the lack of light, insecurity went up. I didn’t know that until I asked why Caracas was so dark.
The good news is... the FOOD is amazing! If there’s anything I liked about this trip, it was the food. Of course, it looks a lot like Colombian, after all we are pretty close. From the most traditional arepas, to chapas, rice, plantains, beans, different cuts of meat, seafood, fruit, vegetables. I liked everything and all I did there was eat. My favorite dish was called Pabellón, a typical low-middle class daily lunch that includes plantains, rice, beans, avocado and carne mechada.
|Arepa Reina Pepiá (with avocado and chicken)|
I wasn’t expecting to find this sad news. I wasn’t looking for it either, but it was so obvious. I went to the coast, to the beach, and it was gorgeous, and I’ve seen pictures of places that look like a dream, but that’s cool for a short term visitor like me, but what about the ones who have to stay? No wonder why the ones that can, are living in Miami.