Sunday, April 26, 2009

Coolin' In Cartagena

In 2002, a year after a great... introduction to South America with two weeks in Brasil, the ex and I found ourselves in a situation with enough frequent flier miles to do a round trip to the Caribbean/Central America. We ended up going to Isla Margarita (off the coast of Venezuela and part of it) and Trinidad. We had researched Colombia too but after reading the U.S. State Dept. report at the time that issued a strong travel warning, we stayed a little east. Now there has been a reversal-Venezuela is a mess (during my time in Colombia I met some Canadians who started in Venezuela but high-tailed it to Colombia due to all the hassles in Chavez loco-land) and Colombia is the place to go as two term president, Alvaro Uribe, has managed to stabilize much politically and economically over the past 5-7 years.

In late 06' while in Vietnam, met a Brit who said he spent 2-3 months wandering around Colombia a year or two before and he said it was fantastic. And then in mid 08', Anthony Bourdain debuted his episode on it on "No Reservations" on the Travel Channel and he raved about it calling it a “vacation wonderland” & I was sold.

Just had to figure when I might go. Well, in mid-February I managed to start chatting with a linda nurse chica named Lyz online and on skype so now I had a good reason to get there ASAP. After some planning and parlaying some sky miles and a cheap international fare from Miami (it's less than 3 hours to Cartagena), I was on my way in late March.

Well I recently got back from Cartagena (plus a few days near Santa Marta and Tayrona NP up the coast a few hours toward Venezuela at a really nice and inexpensive all inclusive resort) and it was truly amazing-it is still truly a hidden gem as far as most tourists go. The historic old walled city is amazing-it is clean and ultra safe, well taken care of with lots of culture/history and everything was vibrant. About a week in, Lyz and I decided to eat at La Cevicheria where Anthony started his episode but Jorge, his host for ½ of the episode wasn't there that night. But we stopped by a week later as things were getting busy for the upcoming Easter holiday and he was there and showed him a pic I have of me and a friend with Anthony in Portland Oregon and it cracked him up and he said he needs to be back in touch with Tony. BTW, on our first night together, we ate at another great place, La Vitrola, which has garnered an international reputation.

The greater Cartagena area is easy to get around without a lot of traffic (the population is only about a million). And most things are quite affordable from apartment rentals to food to taxis. I stayed in Laguito, a beach neighborhood and a ten minute taxi ride to Centro (the old walled city) is always about $2-3 one way. The actual beach here and at nearby Boca Grande are typical urban beaches which resemble the scene in Rio at Copacabana and Ipanema. However, there is less of a beach culture here and the beaches aren't as nice so that part of it doesn't measure up. However the more Caribbean beaches near Santa Marta and Tayrona NP are spectacular. In fact the mellow beach at the National Park is called “Cristal Playa” for a good reason.

Yes, I was pleasantly surprised by Colombia, particularly Cartagena. I could see myself living there some day. It's in the central time zone and only 3 hours from the U.S. as I mentioned. The climate is mild. It was about 85 every day I was there and it didn't rain once. There is some mid day humidity but the kicker is the full sea breeze that permeates the city every day in the afternoon and into the evening. And I can certainly not complain about strolling around the breezy Centro most evenings.

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