Cartagena, Colombia

We spent our first two days in Cartagena catching up on work and sleep in the Mamallena Hostel with the rest of our shipmates from the Jacqueline. After spending five days together on the boat—laughing, talking, vomiting—we were as close as family, and it felt especially comfortable to have a home base in a new city.

statue booty

Aesthetically, Cartagena somehow manages to maintain the perfect balance of historical ruins and chic modernity within its city walls. Walking through the cobblestoned streets in any given neighborhood it’s impossible to ignore the placement of derelict buildings with peeling yellow paint and boarded-up windows right next to posh new shops and restaurants with glossy windows, neat displays and air conditioning billowing out into the clammy afternoons. By the same token, the foot traffic flaunts a curious diversity— barefoot ragamuffins, stylish aristocrats, toothless street performers and tourists alike join together in the hustle and bustle, forming a colorful herd of determined street-walkers.

The best part of Cartagena is without a doubt the old town area. Tucked away behind a wall of nondescript buildings, the neighborhood is a beautiful maze of small alleyways woven with boutique stores, churches, eateries and museums. Fernando Botero’s art is everywhere and there are several plazas dotted with bistro tables where, drinking a cappuccino over a red tablecloth, I felt like I was back in Italy.

Cartagena is surrounded by a colossal stone wall, which is a constant reminder of the city’s perilous past. Built in the 16th century after the devastating attack of Francis Drake, the wall stands strong today, peppered with ancient cannons and fortresses that were once meant protect the people from ruthless pirate invasions.

602126_4784734211143_452804885_nAbout an hour outside the city sits Volcán de Lodo El Totumo. It’s a relatively small mound—about 50ft high—full to the brim with thick gray mud. According to local legend, El Totumo was once quite an active volcano, but a priest believed that lava was from the devil, so he used holy water to turn the magma to clay. Today, El Totumo is a popular tourist destination and so of course we had to check it out. I went with a few friends from the boat early one morning, (Kyle and Meghan went the next day.) Once we arrived we were immediately instructed to strip down to our bathing suits and climb the rickety staircase up to the top. Once we got up there and looked into the pit of mud monsters we couldn’t stop laughing. It was hilariously creepy but strangely beautiful at the same time. There was nothing to do but embrace the weirdness, so I climbed down into the crater and let the warm sludge encompass me.

The mud is so dense that you float on the surface despite the volcano’s depth—once you descend, the locals cover your exposed skin and hair (saying “Shampoo! Shampoo!” while they pour sludge over your head.) As soon as you are completely caked with mud, they push you through the pit to an available massage station, where someone will rub you down for $3. It was a hysterical system that reminded me of rolling dead bodies on carts into their cubbies in a morgue. I have to say, the massage was actually quite nice, and I quickly grew to enjoy the feeling of the clay soaking into my skin. Once the massage ends you’re allowed to sit in the mud for as long as you like. It’s really difficult to control your movements due to the thickness of the mud; in order to get from one area to another you have to push off something or be pulled, and if your knees somehow come up to the surface you need someone to help you get back upright. The five of us awkwardly congregated in the middle of the pit, bobbing around and laughing uncontrollably, submerging each other and cracking up like twelve year olds as the murky bubbles erupted around us from within the volcano.

Once we got out of the mud and walked down the steps of the hill we were instantly seized by a cluster of tiny Colombian women and marched down to the river. Without much of a choice we walked straight to the water and each woman escorted one of us further in and proceeded to pour water all over us and scrub the dried clay off our bodies. They took off all our bathing suits and thoroughly washed us before giving our clothes back and walking us back to the entrance. There was nothing to do but laugh and pay another three dollars for the odd bathing ritual.

As I sit here trying to narrate the events of that morning, I cannot stop laughing or find accurate wording to explain how amusing the whole thing was for us.

Our friend Doug arrived in Cartagena the next morning and it was so nice to see a friend from home! We spent the afternoon walking around the old town area, doing a bit of shopping and sampling the street food along the way. Doug was fiercely determined to eat as much as he possibly could throughout his vacation and he surely succeeded. Every day he sought out meals of shrimp, lobster, steak, and whatever other sundry food options presented themselves. I feel like we sampled more restaurants in his ten-day stay than the three of us have in the entire four months we’ve been traveling! It was fun to indulge ourselves for a bit and Doug was very generous, always trying to treat us backpackers to little tastes of luxury like fine dining and hostels with hot showers..

Posted on by Erica Duncan in Colombia

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