On leaving Medellin we embarked on our first overnight bus journey in South America. Having been so used to long, hot, dusty days on chicken buses, Dan and I were actually quite excited at the prospect of a comfy bus with air conditioning and – get this – even a toilet! So armed with our thick fleece jumpers (as the buses can get quite chilly) and neck pillows, we hopped on board our bus at the Medellin Norte terminal, and I’m pleased to say we weren’t disappointed! The seats were huge and reclined almost to a flat position, the bus was cool, and we even got entertained by a couple of movies during the journey – dubbed in Spanish of course, but nice to have all the same!
However, when we arrived in Cartagena the next morning it was a very rude awakening as we stepped off the bus in our trousers and jumpers into, basically, a city sized sauna. Cartagena is significantly hotter and about 8 trillion times more humid than Medellin, and by the time we had found our hostel we were all soaked, sweaty messes. Fortunately for us we had booked a hostel with air conditioning!
We got up on our first full day in the city to do a free walking tour. We did our tour with Free Tour Cartagena (not to be confused with Free Walking Tour Cartagena who are, by all accounts, a bit shit), and despite the relentless heat we had a brilliant time. Our guide, Edgar, spoke flawless English and impressed everyone by being able to name the capital city of any country in the world. He also made a real effort to learn everyone’s names, and was kind enough to stop in air conditioned shop doorways as often as possible!
The next day Michelle and I set off on a girls day out to visit Playa Blanca, a beautiful beach outside of Cartagena that was supposedly well worth a visit. Most hostels and travel agencies run shuttle services to the beach, or you can get a tourist boat, but we decided to skip these more expensive options and try to get there on the cheap.
As it turned out, Playa Blanca is definitely one of the places where I would say it is 100%, without a doubt worth it to fork out a little extra to get there by tourist transport.
The receptionist at our hostel told us it would be fairly easy to get a bus to the small town of Pasacaballos, and from there we could get a taxi to the beach. The first part of the journey was simple enough and we found the bus to Pasacaballos with no problems – until it then spent half an hour driving in the opposite direction to where we wanted to go, extending our journey time quite significantly!
Eventually we made it to Pasacaballos, where we were unceremoniously tossed off the bus into the middle of a deserted square. Within seconds we were surrounded by insistent men clutching motorbike helmets, offering us rides to the beach on their “moto-taxis”. Not wanting to get split up onto separate motorbikes with strange men – and also not wanting to fall off the back of a motorbike, which would totally have happened to me – we just kept repeating that we wanted an actual car taxi. This went on for around five minutes, to the point where Michelle and I nearly went to look for the bus back to Cartagena, until a blue local taxi pulled round the corner and the men started ushering us towards it. Despite our nerves feeling a bit frayed from the journey so far, we climbed in and set off – the driver was very nice and chatted to us for a bit, offering us his number so we could call him for the return journey later.
When we finally got to Playa Blanca we set about looking for a place to put down our towels, but for the entire time we were walking down the beach we were accosted by men trying to sell us stuff. One guy was so insistent that we try his oysters (not a euphemism!) he walked alongside us holding one in front of our faces for several paces before we could shake him off. It felt pretty overwhelming, and we were relieved when we finally found a patch of sand to lie down on.
We then spent a nice few hours swimming in the sea, reading our books and enjoying a couple of beers. It ended up being a lovely relaxing afternoon, and the reviews are right – Playa Blanca is a beautiful beach. Eventually though it was time for us to make our way back to Cartagena.
We had already decided not to attempt the return journey by terror taxi, and instead chose to try and hitch a ride back on one of the tourist boats. So we walked down the beach for a bit asking around, and after a while we were directed to what we thought was a tourist boat – oh how wrong we were! – where the driver took our money, told us the journey would take around 15 minutes (ha!) and off we went.
After around half an hour we pulled up to a dock that looked absolutely nothing like Cartagena. A quick check of Google maps confirmed that we had stopped at an island just outside of Cartagena, and our driver told us to disembark and get onto a new boat before promptly hopping on a motorbike and disappearing in a cloud of dust. We then sat in this new boat for around 15 minutes with a nice Colombian family as groups of men at the dock openly stared at us – and we became increasingly nervous – until finally one of the tourist boats that we had been looking for back at Playa Blanca pulled up and told us to get on board. We had never been more relieved to see another group of gringos!
After what felt like an eternity we were back in Cartagena and collected Dan from the hostel before heading out for much needed drinks. Moral of the story: get a tourist shuttle or boat to Playa Blanca. It is not worth the hassle and emotional trauma to get there otherwise, and in the end our journey only ended up being around 10,000 pesos (around £2.70) cheaper.
In the evenings in Cartagena we visited Getsemani, a street that has a number of delicious cheap eat options including an Indian restaurant that does pretty decent curry! We also enjoyed sitting out in the main square in the old city, where most of the bars do happy hour drinks deals, watching the amazing street performers and relaxing in the cooler evening air. Cartagena is a lovely, picturesque city, and (despite the heat!) it was a great place to see and explore before we set off for our next destination: the small jungle town of Minca.