Bogota to Cartagena
“Have you just got here?”
Five words that not only served as an ice breaker, but welcomed me back into the backpacking community.
They were from Gabriel, a tall German guy who had been travelling around South America since June after completing an engineering project.
I was sat on the top bunk of my dorm bed, contemplating how to interact with fellow travellers at the El Viajero hostel in Cartegena. I’d arrived a few hours before the conversation, but not heard many English-speakers staying at the place, so took myself for a quick walk around the block to get my bearings and found a nice pizza restaurant with some refreshing air conditioning for tea. It was upon my return that Gabriel took it upon himself to say hello, the moment he walked through the door and saw me sitting there.
What followed was the well-worn traveller conversation – where are you from, how long have you travelling, where have you been, where are you heading next, where’s your favourite place so far?
It’s a conversation you have hundreds of times on a big trip. It can become tiresome, but a necessary way of quickly getting to know someone. Before you know it, you’re friends and putting the world to rights.
I told Gab I was only on a two week trip, and that I’d done a big year-long round the world journey five years previous. We talked briefly about our lives back home, and how he was returning in just a couple of days.
“I’m going to the bar if you want to join me for a beer?” Gab said, reaching for the door.
I’d been welcomed back into the fold once again. Its part of why the backpacking community is so appealing. Within just a few minutes, you’re sharing a beer and travel tales with someone from another country who, a few minutes before, had been a complete stranger. It rarely happens back home in a normal setting, and suddenly I was being introduced to others at the hostel. I was quickly becoming a part of the crowd again.
It had come as a bit of a culture shock however. I had left the relative luxury of my four star hotel in Bogota, complete with complementary toiletries, fluffy dressing gowns and adjustable room temperature just a few hours earlier.
I had now checked into a 12-bed mixed sex dorm, and walked in to find the only bed remaining was a top bunk – the least favourite bed of choice. The room was a tip,
with half unpacked backpacks, shoes and bottles of water dotted around the floor.
One bed was occupied by someone sleeping, so I had to tiptoe around. The muggy, humid tropical weather didn’t help with the smell either. A combination of smelly feet and stale humans. It’s a smell you get used to when backpacking, but one that’s incredibly noticeable when you step back into that world after a four year absence. But then its just over £10 for a night, so I can’t complain!
I’d flown to Cartagena after deciding I didn’t have enough time to make a stop via Medellin, booking a domestic flight with Latam Airlines and arrived back at Bogota airport with plenty of time to spare. So the timing of a phonecall, just as I was about to board the flight, couldn’t have been any better.
“It’s about your fridge freezer – I left you a voicemail you didn’t get back to me. I can pick it up now”
It’s clear the man on the other end of the phone only has a basic grasp of English, but he seems angry that I’ve not returned his call. I tried apologising for being out of the country, but it fell on deaf ears. I’m in a line shuffling forward with bags, about to board a plane 6,000 miles away from home, and now having to quickly think on my feet to try and shift my old fridge freezer that’s been advertised on Gumtree for weeks without any interest.
Thankfully, with a quick bit of Whatsapping over the slow airport wifi, my housemate Joe was at home and able to help out the slightly impatient buyer. I boarded the flight and smiled at how modern technology really does mean you are never really far away from ‘real life’. Despite the distance and time difference, I’d managed to sell a fridge freezer on the other side of the world.
We touched down in Cartagena, and the heat hit me as soon as I stepped out of the aircraft door. Gone was the cool, fresh breeze of Bogota. The tropical heat and humidity made it feel like you could drink the air, there was that much moisture in it. But Cartagena is classed as a must see – a beautiful colonial city with a vibrant old town set within historic fortified walls. The taxi ride to the hostel gave me my first glimpse of the Caribbean Sea on this trip, and with the sun setting, children were helping the locals bring in fishing nets and boats.
When the sun goes down, Cartagena comes alive. And it’s thanks to Gabriel I found myself wandering through the beautiful old buildings towards a rooftop bar and club called Eivissa. It offered a fantastic view of the city, its harbour and famous clock tower and square. It also offered many cold Coronas, pretty girls twirling balls of fire around their heads, and male dancers who knew how to pull far better moves than me on a dance floor. It was a great night, and our group stuck together throughout, laughing, joking and chatting about our individual adventures. Gab realised halfway through the evening he’d left his wallet in a supermarket. I bought him a beer and a hotdog. He was reluctant to take me up on the offer at first- all backpackers have an element of pride at stake when it comes to money, as so many are on a shoestring, or simply have very little left. But I insisted; I know I was in similar situations in the past and fellow travellers helped me out. What goes around comes around in this world. You look after each other, nomatter how long you’ve known each other.
On the way home, there was another reminder of why the backpacking community always sticks together. It was coming up to 3am, and our group was walking back to the hostel. We passed by two Colombian police officers who were talking to two men. Moments later, they drove past us on their motorbikes and stopped us all. Without any pleasantries, they cut to the chase. They wanted to see our identification.
Its law in Colombia to carry ID with you. Thankfully I had my driving licence in my wallet, and we were all lined up by the officers. It was very clear they were not in any mood for jokes or chat. The loaded pistol on the officer’s waist made me think again about taking any photographs to record the moment.
“You have coca?” came a question to all of us.
We were being stopped for a cocaine search. I’d been warned this might happen, but didn’t count on it on my first night out in the country. The drug is readily available on the streets, and while I’d never touch it, many backpackers try it. Some police officers are known to capitalise on this, by taking cash in return for not arresting those caught. Bribes, in other words.
More worryingly, some rogue police officers have been known to plant it on tourists in exactly these types of search. The advice I had read was to keep an eye on absolutely everything they do.
I was next up to be searched, my arms out and patted down by the officer. I’m told to empty all my pockets and show what I have. After revealing a bundle of change from three countries, a packet of chewing gum, my iPhone headphones and a load of fluff, he then asks for my wallet. I hand it over, and keep a close eye as he empties every compartment and inspects it, even having a good sniff inside. I knew there was nothing to be found, but you hear of horror stories of people being jailed who insist drugs were planted on them. The Coronas I’d enjoyed at the bar had quickly worn off as I made sure there was no slight of hand at play from the bad cop, bad cop routine being played out in the street.
Without exception, we all waited for each other to be searched. Nobody drifted off back to their dorms, or kept a distance. We were from countries including Britain, German, Brazil and America, and we’d only known each other for a few hours, but we were looking after each other and making sure we got back to the hostel safely, without falling foul of any corrupt policing.
It was clear the officers were frustrated as their search efforts drew a blank, but they let us go with a nod and a flick of an index finger to motion us off down the road.
The rest of my time in Cartagena was less eventful – infact, a very pleasant few days of wandering around the pretty streets filled with colourful houses. Despite the police intervention on the first night, the city has a very relaxed, holiday feel about it. It was a contrast to the slightly edgy, gritty feel of Bogota. This is a city filled with Caribbean colour and the sound of salsa beats drifting through the hot humid air from bars and restaurants. Bright pink Bougainvillea flowers contrast with their rich green leaves, hanging from balconies of pink, green and orange homes, many of which have stood for hundreds of years.
It’s a place where you can walk for hours on end just taking in the explosion on the senses. The heat is stifling, but thankfully there are plenty of cafes and restaurants with parasols or air conditioning to shelter from the heat, catch your breath and enjoy a cooling drink or two.
This is a city with some history too – it was founded in 1533 and was the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. As a result, valuables and treasure acquired by the Spanish was stored here before being shipped across to Europe. This made it a target for pirates – and English pirates at that! The most famous siege here was in 1586 when Sir Francis Drake agreed not to level the town in return for a 10-million Peso ransom which he quickly sailed back to England with.
It’s because of those attacks that the magnificent fortified walls were built, taking some 200 years to build by the Spanish, yet completed just 25 years before they were expelled after Simon Bolivar’s troops liberated the country. Today, locals meet for a romantic rendezvous on the walls, while visitors walk around them for an elevated view of the historic city within.
In between taking in the Caribbean culture, I was also having to sort out the next stage of the journey. I booked myself onto the San Blas Adventures trip which leaves Cartagena in a couple of days, a combination of a speed boat journey and island hopping for four days, ending with a jeep ride to Panama City.
The journey goes through some of the most remote places in south and central America, and we’ll go for four days without access to the outside world and cash machines. So I needed to change lots of cash into US dollars, the currency used in Panama, to pay the local transport and accommodation on the way.
With no exchanges letting me use a credit card and passport to make withdrawals, it came down to making numerous withdrawals in Colombian Pesos from cash machines. But with a 300,000 Peso (about £78) withdrawal limit in Colombia, a move to try to restrict money laundering, it required quite a few withdrawals to pay for the trip and the spending money. For a few minutes, I became a millionaire, before it was exchanged into a few hundred dollars.
Annoyingly, I also fell foul of the dreaded manflu – and we all know how serious that can be – probably picked up on a plane somewhere. Combined with the sweaty hot temperatures it was quite unpleasant at times. But the people in Cartagena are also so very friendly. A cheerful, happy place, it was hard to do anything but smile.
After a few days soaking up the Cartagena vibe, tiptoeing in the dark around the hostel dorm, visiting late night bars and adjusting back to life as a backpacker, I felt I had definitely ticked the city off my list. It was time to focus on the next part of the journey, the perfect mix of practical ‘A to B’ travel along with adventure and fun with new people. As I laid in my top bunk bed contemplating the next step, my phone rang, with a vaguely familiar phone number. I answered it, as quietly as I could to avoid waking those sleeping around me.
“Its about that fridge. Its broken. Doesn’t go cold enough. I want money back,”
Wonderful. Get me to the beach.