Eric and I ended up taking a flight from Panama City to Cartagena, Colombia, on June 1st. Due to a large area in southern Panama and northern Colombia known as the Darien Gap, it is, for all intents and purposes, virtually impossible to travel overland between the two countries. The Darien is known for being one of the most dangerous crossings in the world. There are no roads through the Darien and the region is infamous for drug trafficking, kidnappings, and guerrilla fighters.
Having opted not to risk our lives with an overland crossing, we took a flight and arrived in Cartagena around 3:00 pm in the afternoon Friday, June 1st. The plane we took was a small prop plane that sat about 40 people and our flight was only about an hour long. As I mentioned in previous blog entries, we first looked into the option of sailing to Cartagena, but this required spending too much time waiting for a boat to leave.
Cartagena de Indias is a Spanish colonial town on the northern coast of Colombia. It is a place of incredible beauty and charm. The town itself features a maze of cobblestone streets, intriguing balconies, and quaint shady parks. Cartagena is one of those picturesque places where every turn reveals another enchanting scene.
We ended up spending two nights in Cartagena. In some ways it reminded me of Dubrovnik, Croatia. Both places are ancient walled cites whose interiors have been converted almost exclusively into restaurants and souvenir shops geared to tourists. Both Dubrovnik and Cartagena are incredibly beautiful, yet lack the feeling of being authentic towns full of real residence. In a way, both are kind of like living museums.
Our impressions of Cartagena may have been better if we hadn’t already seen so many great colonial towns, such as Antigua, Guatemala. Overall we liked Cartagena, but it wasn’t enchanting enough to keep us there longer than a couple of days. The highlights of our time there included one of the most beautiful sunsets I’ve seen in my life (some pictures above) as well as watching some local dancers in Simon Bolivar Square (also pictured above).
In general, Colombia gives all appearances of being a very beautiful and interesting country. The Colombian women are dark beauties with black hair and supple brown cleavage, always on display. As you might expect, drugs are prevalent. Cocaine and marijuana are offered on every street corner by dealers that seem to have little concern about the police. One such dealer welcomed us to Colombia and laughed while fearlessly swinging a huge bag of cocaine in our faces. This was during broad daylight on a fairly busy street. Neither Eric nor I are fans of cocaine, but we heard from other travelers that the quality is very good and the prices are ridiculously cheap, about 1/4 what the cost would be in America.
Given the long, violent history of drug trafficking in Colombia, and the ubiquitous presence of drugs here, one might expect that the overall environment would have a menacing, dangerous feel to it, but we actually found it to be quite the opposite. Sure, people offer you drugs everywhere here, but no one ever tried to intimidate us and we never detected any edge of violence. Most of the dealers we encountered on the streets would happily give you directions to your hostel and let you know they would be available if you changed your mind about buying from them.
After two nights in Cartagena we took a series of buses to a nice little fishing village near Santa Marta called Taganga. The bus ride was supposed to take only 4 hours; however, it ended up taking over 8. This was our first bus ride in South America, and it turned out to be a nightmarish affair. First of all, the bus was in terrible condition, and when a rainstorm ensued, it began dripping water all over the inside. As if this wasn’t bad enough, the bus ended up breaking down and left us stranded on the side of the road, waiting for another bus.
After 8 long hours we finally arrived in Taganga (picture of beach above). Taganga is a quaint fishing village with a perfect beach and very friendly, laid-back locals. The night we arrived we had hardly eaten all day, so we immediately headed to the beach to find a spot to eat. We ended up having one of our best meals of the entire trip. In a small outdoor restaurant, right on the beach, we were offered a selection of incredible fresh fish. After choosing which fish we wanted, they were fried and served with rice and plantains. It was a king’s feast after a long and taxing day on the road.
We ended up spending two nights in Taganga. Yesterday morning we awoke at 4:45 am and began a 14 hour travel day to reach Coro, Venezuela. It was a typical travel day with little food, no comfort, and plenty of challenges to overcome. After taking a minibus to a Colombian town near the Venezuelan border, we found ourselves being driven across the Colombia/Venezuela border in a 1970’s Chevy Impala (picture of Eric with car). We got into Coro late last night.
I’ll write more about Venezuela later. Coro has not impressed us so far. Our guidebook described it as being “Venezuela’s best-preserved colonial city,” but we’ve found it to be rather barren and lack-luster. The security in Venezuela appears to be very strict with guards boarding buses frequently and checking the i.d.’s of all occupants.
Like Cuba, there are plenty of signs promoting socialism and deifying Hugo Chavez as a hero of the people. There is also a very interesting situation with the national currency known as the “Bolivar.” We were told by some other travelers to bring US dollars to Venezuela because you can get incredible exchange rates on the black market. Due to Venezuela’s struggling economy, Chavez has had to devalue the Bolivar several times. This has lead to a thriving black market. The official exchange rate at the bank is around 2,100 Bolivars to 1 US dollar. Today on the black market we exchanged money at the rate of 3,500 to 1. Hopefully this will make us a little money while passing through Venezuela.
Tomorrow we’re off to Caracas and we’ll be looking into the option of visiting Angel falls. After seeing what we want in Venezuela, we’ll be crossing Colombia via Bogota, en route to Ecuador. I’ll write another blog posting soon, hopefully. Internet has not been dependable. This entry was written in a hasty manner, so please forgive its rushed and artless presentation.