Trip Start Jul 31, 2005
118Trip End Feb 18, 2007
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Where I stayed
Our first port of call in South America is Colombia, and although it's connected to Panama by land, we can only get there by plane or boat. This is because of a large swath of swampland and rainforest called the Darien Gap. It's the missing link in a road network running all the way from Alaska to Argentina. In fact, the missing section is only 54 miles long, but for some reason the link has never been completed. There are various reasons cited for this, from funding problems, difficult terrain, environmental concerns, through to Panaman concern that a road would make it easier for drug traffickers to smuggle drugs from Colombia into Panama. There's no doubt that a road link
will one day be built, but for the moment, to get around it, you choose either 3 days on a boat or 45 minutes in a plane, we chose the later option
No Drugs please, we've got enough already!
As soon as we arrive into the airport in Colombia, our bags are thoroughly searched for drugs. This is amusing, we're entering a country which is the world's biggest producer of cocaine, and we're being searched for drugs on the way in! We figured that maybe the Colombians feel that they have enough drugs already and can do without any more being brought from outside.
We make our way from the airport to Cartagena, a lovely colonial city on the Caribbean coast. Our shelter here is Casa Viena, a homely hostel in a tatty, but atmospheric part of the outer walled old town, and a stone's throw from the beautiful inner walled old town.
Our room is overlooking a very lively street, and we could literally sit there for hours, gazing out of the window, and watching Colombians going about their business. There were dozens of tiny old fashioned shops, typical restaurants teeming with local people and selling set lunches at bargain prices
The Party Bus
That evening, we head out for some drinks on Avenida del Arsenal, a street teaming with bars and clubs, and whilst drinking on the tables outside one of them, we watch with amazement as several Chivas pass by, full of people who seem to be having a great time. Chivas are basically a party in a traditional wooden sided Colombian bus.
About 8pm in the evening, the buses set off with a live Vallenato band on board, and fill up with people who are ready to party. The bus drives around town with the band playing at full volume, whilst the organizers ply the customers with as much rum and coke as they can handle. Occasionally, the bus will stop for people to get out and dance in a public place.
The next night, and being a Saturday, it seemed the perfect night to give this a go. So we head out from the hostel with a Swiss couple, a Kiwi, a Canadian and an English girl and we all somehow managed to squeeze onto the same bench on the bus. Our party group grew to thirteen, when we got chatting to six South American guys, three Brazilians, two Argentinians and an Ecuatorian, who in typical Latin American fashion, seemed to be able to make more noise between the six of them, than all the other passengers on the bus put together. After the usual route of partying around town, the bus left us in a disco where we partied on for the rest of the night.
Time to squeeze in some sightseeing
The next day, we shake off our hangovers to visit the inner walled old town of Cartagena. It really is an exceptionally beautiful historical town, with several pleasant squares, narrow streets and colourful two storey colonial buildings, with wooden balconies bursting with flowers.
Drinking in the streets Colombian Style
The next couple of evenings, we sit on plastic chairs on the pavement outside a bar near our hostel, enjoying beers and conversation with an Irish/Spanish couple who we met at the airport, whilst their bags were also being dissected by the Army in their energetic search for drugs.
It was great to sit out on the street in this atmospheric area, with the tropical sea breeze filling the streets, the street vendors still plying their trade late into the night, and the bar blasting out salsa beats. It made us realize that Colombia has something that was lacking in most of Central America, a passion for nightlife, with a touch of Cuba and a touch of Brasil.
It's gonna be hard to move on from Cartagena, it's one of those special cities which you only discover every once in a while, with a great atmosphere, great services, great restaurants, lively nightlife, and a stunning colonial old town.