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Part 2: Adventures in Cartagena and El Caribe

The journey continued with a ridiculously long day of travel departing Buenos Aires at 4am, 3 flights between 3 countries and finally sharing a taxi with a new airport buddy to meet my 2 friends in Cartagena at 8:30pm. Total travel time = 16 hours.

Cartagena

Needless to say, I was so excited to meet my two friends after wandering solo for the last few days in Buenos Aires. Even though I’m all about independence, it was nice to have companions for the adventures that were to come. Our one night in Cartagena together was spent at the expensive, yet delicious restaurant, La Viola. Even though the prices are closer to a reasonable dinner NYC, it was worth it for the live music, amazing food and cocktails to get us in the vacation spirit.

The Caribe region is incredibly HOT and HUMID, so for the full effect, it is necessary to keep in mind that every activity in this post was accompanied by dripping sweat and mosquito bites (knock on wood no Zika).

We departed bright and early from our hostel and made our way via Santa Marta to Minca. The road traveling East was beautiful along the coastline, but also showed the striking difference between Cartagena, the natural beauty and the shantytowns that lined the highway. The road to Minca reminded me of the twists and turns up to Pai in Thailand and after a long morning we were finally dropped off in the center with our backpacks and empty stomachs. After a quick meal in town, it was time to try and find our hostel, located a 30-minute walk through the jungle outside. Despite having directions, we took a few wrong turns before finally being corrected by a police officer to get on the right path.

Oscar’s Place is one of those rare places in the world where it’s hard to imagine that it truly exists. Not only is the location breathtaking, but the atmosphere seems to exude a kind of magic.  When you arrive, you know you are somewhere special. The closest experience I ever had to this was also in Thailand at Ton Sai beach. We arrived soaking wet with sweat to the stunning views of the mountains and jungle and the quirky, friendly hospitality of Oscar. The hostel truly is Oscar’s Place and his personality sets the tone for the entire space. There’s no wifi, no advertising and nothing to do but relax and enjoy the company of Oscar, those you came with and those you meet.

The cast of characters that set the stage of Oscar’s Place for us were a group of guys traveling together—1 American, but most from Germany— and a kiwi couple, all country-hopping for months on end. After watching the sunset, our night was dominated by playing a card game with no rules and drinking beers, first by generator and then by candlelight.

Nena
Nena

Minca is a very small city, but we spent the day exploring the surroundings. Even though my foot was strained and legs were killing me, we trekked up a mountain (high enough that my ears popped on the walk) and met our new puppy friend Nena who accompanied us for the rest of the day. Finally, at the top at La Candelaria we were treated to seeing a toucan, having fresh jugo and receiving a full-fledged chocolate tour from Eugenio. Truly, it was the best hot chocolate I’ve ever had!

Colombia LunchOur time in Minca was running out, so we sped back down the mountain with Nena, through town and back up another hill to meet our friends at a recommended spot, El Camarito. While we were too late for their company, we still made it to enjoy the simplest, yet most flavorful meal at a place where everything was under $5. After a long day of hiking literal mountains, we didn’t mind getting caught there in a torrential downpour with some free postre 🙂

Walking back to Oscar’s our magical luck started to change. We witnessed a fight in one of the restaurants in town, Oscar’s dogs attacked Nena our new friend, which was terrifying, and then we had quite the experience navigating to our next hostel on the beach near Parque Tayrona.

Costeño Beach

About five hours later though, we were scaring away beach tarantulas to walk to a tiki bar next to the ocean and then falling asleep to the sound of the waves in our little beach hut. Although we didn’t get the full Parque Tayrona experience, I would highly recommend staying at Costeño Beach, for those who are willing to pay a few more pesos. The next day, we were saved from carrying our huge backpacks for the 2-hour trek and therefore moderately less sweaty than we would have been.

Tayrona was truly beautiful. The landscape changes so much from the beach to the giant rocks to the wooden walkways to the giant tall trees encompassing everything. With our one-day there, we walked to Cabo San Juan, one of the most iconic beaches, and enjoyed the crystal blue water. Tayrona was full of tourists and Colombians alike and we had several interesting conversations with a Colombian man and his daughter and travelers from the Netherlands.  While it was our first insight into Colombian current events, it was just a preview of what was to come for me the following week.

After our Tayrona day, the portion of the trip with my two friends was winding down. We had a travel day to get back to Cartagena when I woke up with mild food poisoning, likely from accidentally drinking some of the water at our eco-hostel 😦 They left the next morning from Cartagena after we did some mochilero shopping and then I spent my day hiding from the heat until the evening.

El Viajero hostel is a great place for solo travelers to meet people as it truly is the backpacker hub of Cartagena. While I usually try to stay in the female dorm, the hostel was all full so I met some nice guys in my new room. I tagged along with two med students to the top of Cartagena’s castle and then we made it to a bar on the city walls to watch the sunset, the harvest moon rise rapidly into the sky and the USA vs. Argentina Copa America game. Even though I was alone, it turned out to be a pretty awesome day.

The night then took an unexpected turn. The hostel bar was hopping with people from all over and game night got everyone talking and laughing together. All of a sudden I had a bunch of new friends from Brazil, Wales, the US and Mexico, as the night moved from the hostel to the main gate. While we decided where to go, I was shocked at the number of prostitutes and drug dealers hanging around the square. It felt so strange to be there with them, practically in my pajamas in a huge group of tourists. Cartagena is known to be a party city and although that was not my experience there, it was difficult to see the negative effects of the tourist industry in such a beautiful place.

Journaling in Hammock

And so I flew on to Bogota for the last leg of my trip. The El Caribe portion had been a whirlwind and a total 180-degree flip from being cold and a bit lonely towards the end of my time in Buenos Aires. In a way, it felt nice to satisfy my small longing for the backpacker lifestyle and the spontaneity of meeting so many wandering people from around the world. In many South American hostels, they request that you provide your occupation when you check in. At Oscar’s Place, when I hesitated as a newly unemployed person, Oscar suggested that for others who come to his place in a similar boat he just puts down “Student of Life.” I think that whether conventionally or unconventionally employed, or just not, I’ll always consider myself a Student of Life. Thanks to Colombia, I learned that that’s ok.

Stay tuned for Part III about my local adventures in Bogotá and Boyacá!

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