Heading Home: What to Even Say?

ColombianFlagSelfieIt’s been an experience. For someone who’s never travelled alone until this trip, I’ve done a lot of new things on my own. I’ve also never been happier than when I saw Brian’s taxi arrive at the AirBnB in Cartagena and I knew the alone part was over!

The volunteering was really great – and really hard. I have a lot of respect for all teachers, and day care workers and babysitters. And parents. But day care workers? Wow. 26 2 year olds. In 33 degree heat and humidity and no air conditioning. Impressed. Next steps? Knowing I will never be a child care worker but still love to play with kids and having the utmost respect for those who do that every day.

The home stay was also great. Warm and welcoming people and a different world for me. I definitely got to use my limited Spanish. Next steps? Spanish classes or a tutor back in Toronto. I went to a couple of language exchange meet-ups, in Cartagena and Medellin, and will seek those out in Toronto now.

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Cartagena’s Tourist Area

The guidebooks call it “The Old City,” or “The Walled City,” and the locals merely call it “El Centro” but either way they’re talking about a beautiful place to visit.

Cartagena’s tourist area is a beautiful mess of narrow streets filled with colorful buildings, art, crafts and people. The old city is surrounded by an old stone wall, which makes for a great walk overlooking the sea at dusk when the blazing sun isn’t burning you to a crisp.

Horse drawn carriages mix with taxis in the roads, and tourists work around vendors on the sidewalks. Stroll around and see old churches, modern art sculptures, craft stalls and lovely plazas.

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The Beautiful Islas De San Bernardo

The Islas San Bernardo, combined with the Islas Rosario (where I dove outside of Cartagena), make up one of Colombia’s national parks. There are 9 coastal coral islands in San Bernardo and I was going to stay on one of them, Isla Mucura.

These southernmost islands are much less busy than the Rosario islands, which makes sense since Cartagena is much busier than Tolu.

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Crazy Cartagena

My goal after volunteer duty today was to go to the gym and do laundry. The plan was to take the bus to the mall with the gym and then walk or taxi to a place I found online called Beer and Laundry. I know I am from New Jersey and I wanted to do 2 of the 3 Jersey Shore things minus tanning. Lol I get the irony.

I did some extra research this morning and discovered Beer and Laundry closes at 6 so I wouldn’t have time for the gym and clean clothes. Priorities of not smelling won out.

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Last Day in Cali

The weekend flew by and now I am sad to leave Cali. I know I’ve only been here 3 days, but I preferred Cali to Cartagena in many ways.

  • The weather is much easier to deal with! More temperate and way less humidity
  • Easier to get around: considering Cali is bigger with 2.5 million people to Cartagena’s 900,000, I can only guess this is because I stayed in a more convenient location to all the attractions as a tourist as compared to living in the barrio in Cartagena. I don’t think that’s totally it though
  • The sights are in residential neighborhoods: In Cartagena, you only go to one area as a tourist, The Old City and adjacent Boca Grande. In Cali, sights were spread out a little bit more, and were in areas where people live so it felt like I was seeing “the real Cali” while also sightseeing
  • Cheaper: apparently Cartagena is the most expensive Colombian city, and while still cheap to a Torontonian like me, I still noticed that Cali was even more affordable
  • Cleaner and prettier: Aside from the ocean and the old city, Cartagena is not that pretty. And there is trash everywhere. The Rio Cali doesn’t smell so great, but the streets and paths were very tidy and well kept.

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No Sugarcoating

So I don’t want you to think this is all a bed of roses and I am handling all the differences with no problems. I have had some setbacks along the way.

I’ve gotten lost twice, and it’s highly likely I will get lost again. So much of Cartagena looks a lot the same to me. The inner barrios are full of short apartment blocks mixed in with stores and restaurants. The stores and restaurants sometimes look like homes as well. Probably because they are or were at some point.

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Volunteer Duty

So I have been volunteering at the institution for over a week and gotten into a bit of a routine.

Surprisingly there are no other full time volunteers. About once a week a couple of Europeans will drop by for a few hours, never to be seen again. They are with another organization whose name I haven’t caught but I am surprised they don’t return or that no one else is volunteering here.

I usually get to the institution around 8:30am. I have tried to arrive earlier but haven’t seen a bus between 730-8am so gave up on that.  The bus I need comes around 8am or after so that’s what I take.

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Where I Am Living

So I have mentioned that for almost 4 weeks I am staying with a Colombian family in Cartagena. They live in an apartment in a middle class barrio called Campestre. I stayed with them for 2 nights in their old place, but they have since moved to a bigger and better place a few blocks away.

This is by no means the lap of luxury. Part of my plan in coming here to volunteer was immersion, and living with a family was better for that than living with other foreigners or by myself. This is a simple home with enough amenities but not everything we are accustomed to having. I realize everyday here how spoiled we are and how little we actually do need to get by. I am not saying I am thriving in this environment! I have some internal struggles being the spoiled brat I am. But it’s going OK so far, and the people are so great it helps a lot! Still, there have been a few times I’ve dreamed of checking in to a hotel for a night – with AC of course, including a search I did on hotwire a few hours ago!

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Cartagena City Tour

Cartagena is a city with a rich history and a lot of sights to see.  Since I only have my weekends to be a tourist, I did a city tour yesterday to maximize time. The city tour was going to hit at least two of the Cartagena must sees.

I booked the 65000 peso (approx $28 CDN) tour through a hostel in the old town, El Viajero. I met the tour guide at the clock tower at 130 pm. The plan was to see a couple of the big sights and get a ride around the city to boot.

I didn’t know until the morning of the tour that the barrio was going to have a party that day. It turned out to be a good time to leave though because the sound system was blaring from 10am and was still going when I got home and then some! I wore ear plugs from 10a-12noon when I left for the tour.

So this is the Caribbean and nothing moves fast.  About 12 of us loaded into the bus and waited.  Then we drove around for a bit and returned to the clock tower to pick up some latecomers. Then we drove around some more and picked up other tourists. Most of those were in Bocagrande, a big tourist section on the beach. Bocagrande has a lot of big hotels and fast food restaurants and I am glad I got to see it on the ride because it confirmed what I thought: I don’t need to hang out there.

Cartagena Tour Bus
Our bus for the city tour
Bocagrande Beach
Bocagrande Beach gets pretty busy on Sundays

The bus was pretty full by then and our 1:30 tour got started at around 2:15pm. This was actually very good because we beat the other groups to every stop!

Our guide was a pretty flamboyant guy who I am not kidding got something to eat everywhere we went! He was entertaining if extremely loud on the sound system. That seems to be the Colombian way. The tour was conducted entirely in Spanish and the majority of the group was from Colombia with a couple from Argentina and Brazil. I think I got the gist of the tour plus I had my Lonely Planet so read about each place before we arrived.

  1. Monumento del Zapatos Viejos– old shoes.we stopped for 15 minutes so people could take photos sitting in these shoes. I read that this was a tribute to the famous poet, Luis Carlos Lopez.  Meh. Definitely not a must see.
Momumento de Zapatos Viejos
I didn’t pose for a photo with the shoes but everyone else did!

2. Convento de la Popa– an old convent at the top of a hill with gorgeous views over the city. The drive up was interesting with the bus zooming around corners past people’s homes. People live all along the road up the hill in pretty rough conditions. The convent was quite pretty and included a chapel and some interesting artifacts like old maps and money from around the world, even Canada, which the guide pointed out so I could look at my country’s money. Leaving La Popa was a challenge because all the other busses were there or arriving. It took a while to get out but we made it. I took some nice shots of the views.  It was a little cloudy but still everything was visible.

Convento de la Popa
View of the Convento
View of Cartagena
View from Convento
Popa Courtyard
Courtyard at Convento De La Popa
Rooftops of houses on the hill, Cartagena
A house on the hill, Cartagena








3. Castillo de San Felipe – pretty cool place created by the Spanish to defend the city and protect all their gold and jewels in the 1600s. A little bit of climbing involved but not too hard and you’re rewarded with some pretty views here too. The highlight of this spot is all the tunnels you can walk up, down and over the castillo. The Spanish did a good job because the sound carries really well throughout so they always had the drop on anyone trying to attack or escape via the tunnels.

Castillo de San Felipe
The Castillo de San Felipe
Cannons at Castillo
The cannon sighting the city
Tunnels at Castillo
Tunnels were the highlight!











4. Plaza San Diego– a perfect example of exiting through the gift shop. Not to demean the story behind this place which I am glad I learned yesterday. This part of the old city was where they used to hold slave auctions. Many of the shops and the people selling fruit are representative of this heritage It’s a beautiful plaza on the edge of the old city and the gift shops weren’t bad either. On a Sunday, there were many people flying kites in the area.

Plaza San Diego
Vendor in San Diego Plaza
Vendor in San Diego Plaza
Kite Flying Plaza San Diego
Kite Flying Plaza de San Diego

Back on the bus and the guide was going to head back to Bocagrande so after seeing the house of the author Gabriel Garcia Marquez (which you can’t visit because his sister lives there), I hopped off for good. The tour ended around 5:30 so about 4 hours from the supposed start time, but really more like 3 of actual touring. I was ready for una cerveza.

The tour was worth it for getting to and into the 2 key attractions even if it did take a while. Despite my lack of fluency I saw a lot, learned a lot and got some photos.

Diving Rosario Islands 

UPDATE: Got some good wifi at the Juan Valdez Cafe – how Colombian! Photos uploaded

So 4 days of working in the heat requires a fun weekend. As I am in the Caribbean, it makes sense to go diving. I found a well-reviewed dive shop, Diving Planet, and booked a two-dive day.

The majority of the reefs around here are around the Rosario Islands, which are approximately a 30 minute boat ride from the mainland. Far enough that it feels like the natural 4 it is.

I wouldn’t say the diving was the best or most fish filled I have experienced. It was among the most relaxing which was enjoyable. The water temperature was 26C so no need for wet suits. Super easy diving without! And fast for getting ready for dives. Besides being a super comfortable temperature, there was no current at all so we were able to take it nice and easy.

Most of the people who booked for the trip were snorkelers or learning to dive. This was great because only 3 of us dove with the dive master. And the other two were a couple from NYC- only the guy was originally from Toronto. Gotta love those small world moments. Super nice people too.

One of the things I like about diving is I can do it on my own and the other divers are usually friendly. At the very least they’ll talk to you about their travels and other dives. Today I also met a couple from Illinois and a man from Argentina whose daughter is moving to Toronto in December. Fun day!

Even if I didn’t see a lot of fish, the visit to the islands was worth it. They are national park land but you can stay there in a choice of hotels and all inclusives. Our lunch stop after the dive was one of those called Cocoliso. The trip over was combined with another group doing a tour so there was a Spanish language history lesson that I only half heard. I was busy trying not to drop my phone as I photographed some beautiful scenery!

Cartagena lighthouse
Cartagena lighthouse
Isla Tierra Bomba
View from the boat of Isla Tierra Bomba
Isla Tierra Bomba
Isla Tierra Bomba
Island resort
Resort on the islands
Resort Pool Islas Rosario
Resort Pool Islas Rosario

Sadly, I can’t get a strong enough connection today to upload my photos. You will just have to believe me that it was a beautiful day in every way. I am a little disappointed that I can’t make this blog as good as I wanted but that’s part of the experience too.

Maybe tomorrow I can find some powerful wifi somewhere but it’s not happening today and I need to roll with it! My new mantra. Hasta mañana!