We just returned from a 3 week whirlwind trip that included New York city to celebrate our wedding anniversary, Cartagena and Santa Marta Colombia and winding down in Playa del Carmen Mexico. If you have followed this blog at all, you will know that we have been looking for a place that fits our needs/budget so we can pull off an “early retirement.” Colombia and Mexico had been on the short list for sometime so this trip was a long time coming. I am going to break this into two separate posts as there is so much to cover. You can also check out the reviews I have left on Tripadvisor for more detailed information and places I have left out of this page 🙂
Colombia…wow. What a lesson in first world problems, humility, culture, food, and privilege. It is not like I went in blind. Colombia is a third world country and I expected a lot of what I saw. What I didn’t expect is how absolutely desperate people are there for food/money. I have been to plenty of locations where there are street hustlers, beggars, etc but the beaches in Cartagena trump it all. You will be asked several times a minute if you want, xyz and you will need to say no repeatedly and often times, that isn’t enough. Some of the vendors took no for an answer and would move on but several did not. It appeared to be especially true of female vendors who would offer a massage. They would start by asking you, telling you some story about starving children, you can say no repeatedly and they would persist. Often times moving into your personal space and touching you while stating you are so tight, you need a massage. When you continue to decline, some would say that because they touched you, you now needed to pay them, even if you never accepted the massage. We had to physically get up and leave. When I mentioned this at our hotel, the staff said that was unfortunately normal and that the beaches are just not safe. This is an absolute shame as the beauty of Colombia is unparalleled but you can’t go anywhere in Cartagena (Boca Grande is the area we stayed in) without actually being accosted.
The walled city in Cartagena was absolutely beautiful and full of history and culture as well as little boutique shops. We experienced several vendors and children begging for money saying they were from Venezuela but it was nothing compared to the beaches.
We took a bus from Cartagena to Santa Marta. After much research, we settled on Marsol for transportation. They picked us up (late but that was to be expected, it’s been my experience that almost everything runs on different time in Latin America) from our hotel and dropped us off at our hotel in Santa Marta. You need to text Marsol using Whatsapp to get a reservation. It was $50,000 COP (about $15 USD) per person and the van ride was ok. We scheduled a time slot where there was no stop in Barranquilla but it still took about 5 hours. This is where the biggest shock came. We chose to take the bus instead of flying because we wanted to see the land and area between Santa Marta and Cartagena first hand. After passing Barranquilla, you enter the small fishing town of Ciénaga. Until that day, I had never seen actual slums. Skid row in LA? Yes, small fishing villages in Belize? Yes. Ghettos, bad neighborhoods, poor tribal reservations, and my own research could not have possibly prepared me for what I saw on that bus ride. Children playing in pools of what I can only assume is contaminated waste water. Dogs, trash, rubble… and it went on for miles. Here is a good article that talks the death of Cienaga .
When we arrived in Santa Marta we could tell the vibe was different than Cartagena. The poverty didn’t seem as pervasive and the vendors were not as aggressive. We spent only a day in Rodadero which is considered the “ex pat” section and to be honest, we didn’t really care for it. The beaches are beautiful but it just seemed so cut off from the rest of the area. We did look at an apartment for rent/sale while we were there and were impressed with the location and value. The big advantage i felt Rodadero has over SM is the breeze! Nothing feels as good as the breeze coming down from the Sierra Nevada mountains on a very hot and humid day. I could totally see spending the day on a hammock on the balcony. Oh and if anyone is wondering, yes, there are lockers for rent on the beach! I searched forever for that info and never found any 😉
The beach in Santa Marta isn’t as pretty but the Marina is very nice. And lets be honest, after the experience we had with vendors, we weren’t going to be hanging out on the beach. While we were in Santa Marta, we found plenty to do besides hanging out on the rooftop bar/pool. The big adventures were trying to navigate the city and find the best restaurants. I think we were pretty successful, the food there was amazing! We really had a great time even though our level of conversational Spanish is minimal and practically no one in Colombia speaks English. We flew out of Simon Bolivar Airport south of Santa Marta to Bogota on Avianca where we connected to our flight to Cancun, also on Avianca. One of the most stressful parts of the trip was trying to navigate the airport in Bogota having arrived on a domestic flight and needing to make our way to the international terminal where there were literally no signs. We had to ask two different people and it involved a long walk, going down several flights of stairs, leaving the terminal we were in and walking a bit more to the international terminal. If you are planning to do this, allow plenty of time to get lost, get through customs and get to your gate. Both flights were pleasant, on time and without issues.
We went diving with Caribbean Pro Dive while we were in SM and had a great experience diving at Tayrona Park. It was just the two of us with the divemaster and a photographer. We left from the marina in a small dive boat and they provided snacks and water. Two tank dives with equipment was $180,000 COP (about $52 USD) Later that week we took a sailboat excursion back to Tayrona to spend the day at the beach. Similar vendor issues but they took no for an answer much more readily. The sailboat trip was booked through Tripadvisor- Tayrona Bay Sailboat Trip
Final thoughts on Colombia…. It was an experience of a lifetime, it really helped shape my perspective. The people there are mostly friendly to foreigners though Lisa caught a handful of dirty looks. I am not sure if it was because of her looks (blonde/blue) or? I did not catch a single one though maybe I am more oblivious. Most people assumed we were travel partners, and the one time someone asked for clarification they were genuinely shocked when I said she was mi Esposa. I would definitely go back to Santa Marta to visit though I think it is safe to say we have ruled it out as a possible future home. Mexico on the other hand…. More to come!