I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia after a short flight from Panama City. The “Darien Gap” which divides Panama and Colombia is filled with terrain and other reported dangers that make it difficult to cross, so after a bit of research into the possibility of a sailboat ride, it just appeared that a plane trip, which a ridiculously expensive option, was the safest and most direct route.
When I arrived, I didn’t know much about Colombia outside of movie portrayals and bits of sidebar knowledge that made me think it would be a scary place. It’s funny how we form impressions once, and then often they never change. In fact, here’s what scared me about Colombia. When OJ Simpson was on trial…a long time ago…his lawyers alluded to some bombshell information that would show that OJ was not the killer and the fact that there might have been a bigger story centered on a drug cartel. They described a “Colombian necktie” and went on to tell how someone would have their throat slashed vertically and their tongue pulled through the slit to resemble a necktie. Obviously, this conspiracy theory didn’t gain any steam, but from that point on, whenever I heard about Colombia, that gruesome story would pop into my mind. It is far too easy to form conclusions without any current or accurate information and we are all susceptible to stereotypes.
When I arrived in Cartagena, I immediately felt comfortable and intrigued. As my taxi to the hotel passed the old walled city center and a view of many high rise towers, it seemed like a nice blend of old and new. I checked into the hotel and immediately started walking…this city is extremely walkable and rounding every brightly-colored corner gives something new to explore. I climbed the San Felipe de Barajas castle and walked along the water…all the while enjoying new things to eat. I tested homemade coconut sweets from a vendor whose jars overflowed with candy options and had the most delicious Argentinean empanada from a man selling them from a wooden box strapped around his neck. I wandered into shops and passed the same places again and again…all the while enjoying the beautiful warm weather. People in Cartagena seem to be enjoying life: playing games (gambling?) on street corners, watching soccer from wherever they can find a seat-even the grocery store, and mingling outside for all hours of the night. There is a small backpacker crowd here, so while English isn’t spoken in many places, there are still many options for food and it feels very comfortable walking in the city center late into the night where locals and travelers are everywhere.
As I perused travel blogs about this area, I read an account by a woman who visited the Volcano de Lodo el Totumo for a trip to a mud bath and decided to give it a try. The volcano is hard to get to via public transportation, so I signed up for a day package that included transportation and lunch. The shuttle included ten of us…one young UK couple who has been traveling for nearly a year, an older Colombian couple who lived a few hours away, two single women and a single man from Europe and me. Five of the ten people were on journeys of six months or more. You might think it is a rare or unusual thing, but I have met a bunch of people who are enjoying lives on the road.
When we arrived at the volcano, they had us strip to our swimsuits and start climbing up the short set of steep stairs to the top. It is really not a big volcano, but it is unique because it is filled with over 200 meters of cool mud. At the top, they have wooden stairs into the volcano and you climb into the muddy pool while being pulled by a local masseuse who lays you on the surface and starts covering you with the mud. No matter what you do, you cannot sink in this thick, oozy mud…in fact it is hard to move anywhere, so the tug of the masseuse is helpful… even if you really don’t get a massage but more of a mud covering. Once I was covered, I sat socializing with our group and watching everyone “enjoy” the fun. I had mud on my teeth that I was too covered to rub off, so I just had to suck it up and swallow it. If I lifted my arms and stood really still, I feel like one of those bodies that were preserved at Pompeii, so I just enjoyed making silly poses for a while. At the end, I worked my way back to the ladder to be pulled up and to have globs of mind scraped off of me. The next stop was a walk to the nearby lake to be cleaned off. A few women grabbed me…for a promised small fee, and covered my head with buckets of water and rubbed the mud off of me as I sat in the shallow water. I was a bit surprised…shocked…when she undid my swim top and rinsed it out while I laid modestly under the water. When she demanded my bottoms, I handed them over for the same treatment.
When we returned to the changing shack, I noticed my shoes were gone…the flip flops that I had worn every day for two months had disappeared. The tour driver hunted desperately, but I assured her that it wasn’t a big deal and after her frantic searching, we headed to lunch with me in my bare feet. When I got back to my hotel, I had to put on my silvery flats with my gym shorts – a stylish look – and hunt for new flip flops in a town where almost everything is closed on Sundays or find myself back in those uncomfortable flats for another day. What a thrill to find some at the only open store…a supermarket!
Shoes were back on my feet when I boarded the bus to Medellin. Medellin is a fairly famous city because it is the home place of famous drug cartel leader Pablo Escobar and was the center of his crime ring. The city is nestled below mountains and has seen positive changes in the last years including a Metro, public art, and focus on reducing crime. I planned on stopping over on my way to Bogota because it was a halfway point and an estimated 12 hour bus ride. I have been told by many that overnight buses are not yet a safe option in Colombia, while I heard that this one would be fine, I opted for the 7:00 am departure with an early evening arrival in Medellin. The ride began beautifully with only about seven passengers on a luxurious bus and me having two seats to spread across for the first four hours. With each stop, the bus filled and soon I had a great big seat mate…one of the taller men I have seen on this trip. He was polite, but I had to scoot all the way into the window to make him look even halfway comfortable. His leg was spread well into my personal space…and let’s be honest, my personal space bubble is smaller than most. He told me that the ride would actually last 14 hours and we would arrive at 9:00 pm. The buses have toilets on board, but do not stop much at all. We only made a short meal stop at about 3:00 pm that lasted 15 minutes. I am not a big fan of bus toilets, and will avoid them if I can by skipping drinks beginning the evening before the ride. It started to get dark. The road was very bumpy and it was raining. Our driver seemed very safe, so I just enjoyed my squished up space until the seats in front of me reclined practically into my lap with a kissing couple who cuddled in my lap for the rest of the ride. At about 6:00 pm, we encountered a traffic jam..not any ordinary traffic jam, but what must have been an accident ahead on the two lane highway with police very far away. Our bus was stopped and moved about two miles in SIX HOURS! Most people were out of their cars trying to figure out what happened, but our bus stayed closed to the outside world with everyone sleeping in reclining seats. My seat moved to the recline position but wouldn’t stay there. My seatmate seemed sure that he could make it stick. Even after ten attempts of him politely throwing one arm over my legs to push the lever under the window arm seat and using his other arm to push my seat back, he refuses to believe it was broken. I assured him that I was comfortable sitting up and sat in my corner reading and trying to figure out what people were saying. I have to admit, until Colombia, I was able to cheat on my Spanish lessons and could always find someone who spoke English. Colombia is different…I have yet to meet an English speaker outside of other tourists. So…with only guessed knowledge of the situation, I chalked it up to a travel experience and just waited for the bus to start moving again…and it did and instead of arriving at my hotel, my taxi pulled up at 5:30 am…with another bus adventure behind me.
So far…Colombia is one of my favorite places. I know I say that all the time, but there is something special about this place!