A Travellerspoint blog

El Caribe

ho ho and a bottle of rum...

Cartagena is situated on the north coast of Colombia on the Caribbean. The city was founded in 1533 and the historic fortress is now an UNESCO heritage site.

I arrived in Cartagena after a 17 hour bus ride. The buses in Colombia are so comfortable that 17 hours goes past quite fast. It was interesting to just sit and watch the different scenes go by- people chilling on hammocks, banana trees, dusty, a boy riding a bike 10 times bigger than him, soccer, a mother washing her baby by holding her naked and pouring water over her, 2 hour road block, being serenaded by a reggaeton-rapper

I arrived at 9pm, and I was not in the mood to find out which bus goes to the centre, so I took the next best thing: a thrilling ride on the back of a motorbike with a dude called Jose who is so surprised I am from Sud Africa. It was money well spent- dodging through traffic, feeling the closeness as we zip past buses and cars. My helmet´s visor would fall down every time we hit a bump, so I had to hold one hand on the bike and the other on the helmet together with a gigantic backpack on my back and another in the front. Times likes these I really feel alive…
I found a bed and a friend in a dormitory hostel. It´s amazing how easy it is to meet people while traveling. I forgot his name, but he was from Germany and after a 17 hour ride it was nice to share an Indian meal and a beer with someone. In one plaza close to where I was staying, people hang out, drink beer or rum and just enjoy the night cool air. We also had some entertainment- singers, guitarists, jugglers, fire throwers. They are from all over South America and have come to Colombia to enjoy their life. They make some money performing/busking every day. One evening I found myself playing with a little girl and her shiny ball. I think her mother was glad to be free for a while.
The next day I walked around the old city which is walled (like a fortress). It´s a pity they allow cars and hooting taxis in there, because it makes walking around unpleasant. It´s also extremely touristy. But despite this, I still enjoyed taking in the scenery- bright coloured walls, colonial architecture and pretty balconies. I could easily imagine life back in 1500´s- with all the pirates… ;-)

There are many things to do in Cartagena, but they are based on going a tour. And from experience, tours just don’t do it for me. So I just walked around and on one day I rented a bike and rode around with a guy I had met (Colombian born, but adopted by a Norwegian family). Cartagena is divided into 4 areas which we covered in 3 hours. The city´s beaches are horrible- dirty beaches, murky water. From what I´ve seen in my travels- South Africa has THE best beaches! :)

I planned to stay for 5 days, but I got bored, so I took a bus to Santa Marta which is 4 hours north up the coast. I negotiated my bus ticket (saved $3- which bought me 6 beers later…everything is related ;) ) and off I went. This bus was pimped out with green carpeting that continued up on the wall, green curtains which were all closed and some guy had a speaker (whats new?) which was blasting reggaeton. It felt like I had entered some lounge. I was kinda wondering where the tiger and whisky was…We took some detour because of a road block, which caused a mini riot amongst the ladies in the bus who started shouting at the bus driver. Was funny!
On the bus was an elderly couple from Slovakia. All my Czech has now gone from my head and I couldn’t think of one thing to say to them! They could speak a bit of English and Spanish, so it worked. We shared a taxi (my negotiating skills are getting good!) over the hill to a small fishing village called Taganga.

There are more foreigners here than locals. It´s called ´”gringos paradise”, which I can see why. It´s tiny, there´s a beach, the Caribbean sea , lots of sun… I would compare it to Thailand- people come here to escape reality and get stuck in a life of partying, alcohol and drugs. Taganga is close to where the coca leaves grows, so cocaine is available and I have heard is really cheap. The village is also dominated with police who love searching everyone at any given moment. I heard a story of a guy that was caught with a joint, he was taken to the police station, paid a $50 bribe and was let go. They even gave him weed back (not his, but better) so that they can catch him again…???

The first night I stayed in a”penthouse” loft at the top of a hostel. The only barrier from the external elements was a straw roof and some sheets forming a little fort. The wind that gushed through was hectic!! I had to hold on tight to my sheet and keep my legs straight to prevent the wind was flipping my mattress up in my face. I think I slept for an hour that night. But it´s ok, because I just catch up on sleep the next day on the beach :) There were some other girls at the hostel who I hung out with that day and partied with that night. Every night at a place called “Mirador” there is a party on a balcony which overlooks the glimmering bay below. Good times! Colombians really know how to party!
I also made friends with a couple of Colombians who are basically just travelers and make their money performing. Miguel has an interesting life- he was born in Colombia but when he was 10 moved to New York. He is now 20 and wanted to see his country. For the past 2 years he has travelled around, juggling to make money. His English is obviously excellent and it´s been cool hanging out with him and his hippie street crew. The others make and sell jewellery, drums or mini harmonicas. I “played” (I thought I wasn´t too bad) one last night and it´s easy to get caught up in it and never stop playing…
I´ve really had to use my Spanish, so it´s been good to be around locals and I still have sooooo much more to learn!!!!

I am still in Taganga, and waiting to hear about some potential jobs. So I will stay here for a few more days and then move on.

Last week I went on a 6 day jungle trek to the Lost City- the best and most difficult thing I have ever done in my life! But this adventure is for another day :)

Thanks for reading!!! :)

Posted by piratejax 12:03 Archived in Colombia Comments (1)

Santa Fe de Antioquia

A town where busyness doesn't exist

Santa Fe de Antioquia was founded in 1541 by Jorge Robledo and is the region’s oldest and best preserved settlement. It was the capital of Antioquia until 1826, after which it was moved to Medellin. The town is about a 90 minute drive from Medellin and arrival in the old colonial centre feels like you have stepped back in time. The narrow streets are paved with cobblestone and the whitewashed buildings and homes remain the way they have looked since the 1500’s.

I went to Santa Fe with Jared, an America that I met last week while volunteering in the mountains. We caught a bus there and walked around eventually finding a nice little hostel. The entrance hall’s walls were lined with old -school photos, religious icons and paintings. It opens up into a small courtyard where the reception and eating area is. Using what Spanish I know, we figured out how it cost, what is included etc. Our room had a windowless window and was made from bamboo sticks and dried leaves. We both commented on how ‘Thai/Cambodian” the place felt (the tuks tuks add to this feeling as well). Ummmm, a Thai meal would’ve gone down well, but we weren’t in Thailand, so we had to make do with what’s offered. A typical lunch/dinner is a huge plate of rice, beans, fried egg, meat (chicken, pork, beef, tongue) and a measly portion of ensalada. Here in Colombia my appetite has increased 100 fold, so I easily managed to finish my plate (see the photos!), while Jared didn’t even come close! ;-)

After lunch we strolled the streets; taking in the smells, the extreme (dry) heat, and noticing the beautiful workmanship in the homes. Intricate tile designs on the sidewalks, charming wrought iron designs on the windowsills and balconies and antique barn-like doors. We came across 2 churches, which weren’t that spectacular. There is a “Plaza Mayor” in the centre, with a church of course (very colonial) and surrounding the square a little market selling all sorts of cowboy souvenir- hats, ponchos, leather goods, as well as “made in China” trinkets. Fresh juice is available everywhere, so we stopped for a drink. I have no idea what I drank, but it was deliciously refreshing. We walked past huge villas with grand gardens and swimming pools- a “weekend away” for rich Medellin’s.
In the afternoon we went back to the hostel, had some rum and coke, went for a swim and then just chilled on this little deck which overlooks the mountains. The heat was slowly diminishing and a slight breeze made it all that better.

In the evening we took a leisurely stroll around town. No one here is in any rush; since there is no place to be but you where you are right now. We passed old men, who must have such great stories to tell of the old days, sitting on homemade chairs just sitting and chatting and watching the world go by.

We stopped off at a bar called “Shots”, and it doesn’t really fit into the “old colonial style” of the town, but it was a pretty cool bar! On the walls were stylishly mounted posters of various rock bands and the bar table was just two planks of wood balanced on steel drums, that had been decorated with pictures of different bands from Nirvana to Radiohead, to The Beatles and Muse. We tried 3 of the locally brewed micro beer (I think it’s called this?) from Medellin. Two were great, but the last one, the strongest one, tasted funky and earthlike. We then proceeded to find a fiesta. Unfortunately Saturday is the fiesta noche, so we made our own! We found a bar playing the loudest mix of music- reggaeton, salsa and bachata. I tried Colombians version of soju/slivovice/vodka called “aguardiente”. It’s similar to sambuca, so it tastes s^%t! Colombians can apparently knock back shot upon shot of this fire water. No one was dancing, so it was just us two “locos gringos”, dancing on the empty dance floor, while the locals sat and watched us, laughing of course!

The next day we had our free breakfast which included enough calcium to keep me going for a few weeks; a vegan’s nightmare! Scrambled eggs with cheese, a piece of cheese and a sort of “smarzeny syr” (fried cheese). And to wash it all down, hot chocolate. We walked around again, had a papaya y naranja juice and then decided it was just too hot, so we decided to head back to Medellin.

On the way back, I was reading one of Jared’s book called “Vagabonding”, and in one chapter the author was comparing a tourist and a traveler. Here are some quotes about this which I found interesting. “A traveler sees what he sees. A tourist sees what he has come to see”; “A tourist doesn’t know where he has been. A traveler doesn’t know where he is going”.
I really like the last one and it gives a clear answer to the constant question people keep asking me: What will you be? When will you stop and get a real life?
I am what I will be and I will be what I already am :-)

Posted by piratejax 13:54 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)


This entry will be a bit of this and a bit of that.

Last weekend we went out for a drink with some of Julie’s friends to “calle 33” (street 33). The street was packed with people, since everyone spills out of the bars onto the pavement. Music is blasting at me from all directions and the vibe was pretty cool! We also danced a bit in this one salsa bar. It was hot and everyone was sweaty. But was great fun! I danced with a guy with one leg, and a crutch. Here, it doesn’t matter what disability you have- just dance!! :-). And what I really like is that if a guy asks you to dance- that’s all it means. Just dancing! Once the song is finished you say thank you and that’s that.

On Tuesday night I went to this one hostel for a free salsa lesson. It was great- I was the only girl! ;-) I actually haven’t met that many foreigner girls here, it’s mostly just guys. This could be due to the 4- Colombian girls-to-1-guy ratio here in Colombia…

The drivers here are absolutely loco! The number of times I have seen close shaves when the distance between the person and the car/bus/motorbike is too close to even think about! I have found myself getting a bit too close to cars when I’ve crossed the road (sometimes you have to just run and hope for the best!).

There are not too many beggars here; instead I have been entertained by all sorts of artists. From jugglers and saxophone players at traffic lights, to bongo and guitar players on buses. My best is the guy balancing a bicycle on his head! Hahaha :-)

The city is generally flat, so walking around is pretty easy. And the best is around 4/5pm when the sunlight is just beautiful and the sky a brilliant blue, with a slight breeze.

People generally wear jeans and t-shirts (the tighter the better) and takkies (sneakers). So I actually stand out in my conservative, loose clothes.
Public transport is good- buses and the country’s only metro system. I have been taking the buses quite often and have gotten used to how it works etc.

I went up to help out in the mountain village yesterday again, and the bus wasn’t coming, so Mark and I hopped on the back of 2 motorbikes and zoomed off up the bumpy potholed “road”. It was a cool experience! And the bike had super-suspension, so the bumps were not too bad!
A few years ago the bus services up there went on strike because they didn’t want to be involved with the extortion that was going on with the gangs. One bus driver was dragged out of his bus and macheted to death, the gang’s warning that they mean business…

Volunteering with “Angels of Medellin” has been really rewarding. It’s such a difference to teach people that actually really and truly want to speak English! Victor, one of the guys that attends the English class, is someone with big dreams! He wants to be a lawyer in USA, so English is really important for him. The class is also great because I have learnt so much Spanish. Yesterday I got a few chances to translate the English sentence into Spanish and the rest of the class is so encouraging and really shouts out “yahhh!” when I got it right :-). I also talked to Victor (in a combination of English and Spanish) about him and what he wants in life; how he sees USA and how he gets angry that USA controls Colombia…interestante!

Today I am going to an old town (Santa Fe de Antioquia). It used to be the region’s capital, so it’s apparently really quaint and pretty. So more about this soon!!! :-)

Posted by piratejax 06:36 Archived in Colombia Tagged of dancing salsa angels medellin Comments (2)

Regalos de Dios

Ok, so a lot has happened since I arrived. First of all, and I know it’s only been 6 days, but I’m in love with Colombia! The people, the constant music being played wherever I go, the vibe and the weather have stolen my heart! ;-)

On Tuesday I went downtown with Jorge’s dad and he showed me around some places. He doesn’t speak any English, so together with my knowledge of Spanish and a dictionary we could make some decent conversations. It’s such a happy moment when I know exactly what he’s asking and I am able to answer him (in very basic, bad-grammar Spanish).

Through Couchsurfing, I found out that one of the university’s offers free Spanish conversation lessons every day, for 2 hours. It was a little daunting in the beginning to try string sentences together in front of the class, but after a while caring goes out the window and we are all laughing at and with each other.

Thursday and Friday have probably been my most special days since I’ve arrived. There is an organization called “Angeles de Medellin” and it’s run by an American (Mark) who has been in Colombia for 6 years now. He rents a little room up in the mountains of Medellin where the poorest of the poor live (in a barrio called Regalos de Dios). There are mostly displaced families from the Colombian civil war.

His organization provides the families with new clothes and sometimes money for food. (He personally has a look at each potential home, to see if they really are the poorest in the area). In the little room he rents there are 5 computers available to anyone who wants to learn to type. He also has board games, puzzles and memory games for the kids to play with. In the morning (from 10am) it’s mostly children, but at 1pm he sends them home and for 2 hours he has an English class for adults. There can be any number of people on any day- maybe 2, maybe 12. I haven’t been in a more amusing English class then this one. The people are just so much fun- they love learning English, and enjoy themselves so much that I could (have!) learn a thing or two about just being in the present moment and not worrying anything else besides where I am now. There are 2 policemen in the class and they are such nice, kind and genuine guys! It has been so wonderful to actually be able to talk to them, in Spanish, and ask them personal questions about their life and what’s it’s really like. Never before have I had this opportunity to speak to a foreigner, in their language! It is one of the best feelings and achievements of my life! :-)

An example of how “poor but happy” Colombians are: Mark told me a story of how one day, a girl asked politely if she can please leave class early because her house had fallen down- all said with a huge smile on her face!

Let me tell you about life in the mountains of Medellin. The history of this city is very sad, and is filled with stories upon stories of senseless murders, rapes and extreme violence. There is a movie called “La Sierra” which documents some true life stories of life in some of the most dangerous areas in Medellin where gangs operate; La Sierra being one of them.

In the past few years things have gotten much better, and it basically started with a cable car. Since the mountain isn’t easy to get around, police couldn’t really help where they were most needed, so a “metro cable” was built which would allow police to get up and down easier and faster, as well as allowing people to get to the city easier in a much safer way (avoiding La Sierra and other dangerous areas altogether). The ride up and down is just amazing! The views of the valley below and 360 deg mountains are something to be seen! Life up there reminds me of India- very dusty, a narrow, bumpy “road” where the buses fly crazily around corners almost taking out the motorbike next it to, lots of people and stray dogs. It’s a very common sight to a young girl with her baby on her hip or to see a donkey carrying a load on its back. There is actually a milkman who goes around with his horse and 2 big canisters tied to it, selling milk.

Now of course, it’s Colombia and so these days things are not all honky dory. There are still hectic and extremely dangerous gang wars going on, with murders every single night. This doesn’t happen everywhere, so it’s not like you can’t go out- you just need some street smarts… like Joburg :-). Up in the mountains the gangs are around 24/7, but in the day it’s totally safe to go up there. There are just some rules to follow, for eg,: do not take photos of any young men (most likely there are in a gang and they will take your camera and who knows what else…), do not go up there at night (for obvious reasons), do not go alone.

Once off the “metro cable” we took to take a bus a little further up to get to Regalos de Dios. We passed real gang members hanging out; I saw the bus driver pay a gang member $10 to allow the bus to pass through. (The bus drivers have to pay 17000 pesos to the gangs, for every trip up and down, in order for the bus service to be allowed to run). I have never been in this position before- to actually pass boys (yes, they are so young!) who have murdered many times and who are deeply involved in drug trafficking, yet aren’t locked up and act as everything is cool! And it’s so sad that they live like this because of external demands: USA/Europe (majority) needs drugs and Colombians need money. And it’s this demand that has driven Colombia to the extreme circumstance that it’s at, as well as other factors of course.

Two 5 year old boys yesterday morning were playing with some building-plastic-tube-things, and the first thing they make is a gun and start shooting each other and me. I told them to stop it and that’s it bad, but they don’t understand. To them, guns are a way of survival. They have very likely seen someone been shot, or have lost a family member to gang violence. And they will probably get caught in it sooner or later.

Ok, that’s all I got for now :-).

(There are photos on this website of some of the kids and the mountains)

Posted by piratejax 07:05 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

First days in Colombia

So, after about 56 hours of travelling; which included 3 flights, a 15 hour layover in Sao Paulo and an 11 hour night bus ride- I made it to Medellin. The trip sounds pretty hectic, but after a while I just turned into a zombie, with just the basic human functions working. Nothing was lost during the 3 flights and my luggage arrived safely in Bogota.
The bus trip was pretty comfy! I had 2 seats to myself and in and out of a sleepy daze I watched the Colombian countryside pass me by. It was dark for most of the journey, but in the last few hours I could see we were passing through mountains with valleys deep below us. The landscape is overgrown with vegetation with a few small villages here and there. There's a point when we came around a corner and down below us I saw my first glimpse of Medellin- my home for a while. It looked pretty huge- many apartment blocks and tall buildings sticking up. Medellin sits in a valley so all around are mountains- it's really pretty!

Right now I am writing this from my new room at the home of my friend Jorge, whom I met when I was in Czech. We were both there on AIESEC internships. So far I have experienced such great hospitality and generosity. Every Sunday night the family (10 brothers and sisters plus kids!) gets together at Jorge's grandmothers house. I met quite a few of his family and again my Spanish proved to be lacking! But when I just sit and listen I can kind of work out what’s being said. But when I get asked a direct question, my mind goes blank. I am in the best place to learn Spanish, since Colombians speak the slowest in South America and they are the easiest for foreigners to understand. So with a bit of studying and practice, I should be able to hold simple conversations soon :-).

This morning I was given a tour of the city, by bike. Jorge and I rode to a small park with a bike/jogging path and did some laps. Riding on the roads was pretty hectic, especially since everything is the opposite. If it wasn’t for the arrows on the road, I would have no idea in which direction the cars were coming! We rode 1km uphill to “Pueblito Pasia”. This is a tourist site which has on display a typical house for the Antioquia area. There are also fantastic 360 deg views of the city. I was shown the area I think I should best avoid. (It’s where the worst gang violence happens). Speaking of crime, Medellin is just like home. There are murders, hijacks, muggings. But it’s like Joburg- just don’t go to the bad parts and be aware of your surroundings; and you’ll be fine :-) So, please stop worrying mom! ;-P Medellin is also home to Pablo Escobar- the notorious drug lord. His home where he was murdered is now a museum.

Ok, lets change the topic to happier things :-). The weather here is just great, just like home! Not too hot, not too cold. It isn’t called “the city of eternal spring” for nothing. There’s no humidity :-)...(At the coast it’s obviously different).

I don’t know for sure what I am going to do here-probably volunteer at a place called “Angele de Medellin”. So I’ll see how this goes, and then plan my next move.

Thanks for reading, and please keep me up to date with what’s happening in your life! :-)

Posted by piratejax 10:41 Archived in Colombia Comments (0)

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