Never Returning To Paradise – Playa Blanca, Colombia

I was SO excited and SO looking forward to going back to Playa Blanca with Matt. Playa Blanca is just off the coast of Cartagena on Isla Baru, and I first went in 2009. It was one of the most beautiful places I’d ever seen. 

White sand, turquoise water. I slept in a hammock. I ate fresh fruit everyday from a woman who would crouch down beside me, take the big bowl of fruit off her head, and cut up enough for a beautiful fruit salad. I bathed in the sea and spent days and nights on the pristine beach. There was hardly another soul.

Playa Blanca 2009
Playa Blanca 2009

The beach has really changed.

Playa Blanca 2015
Same Beach, 2015
 
Needless to say, it was pretty disappointing. The secluded paradise has turned into a super popular day trip destination for foreigners and Colombians alike. 

And with that kind of popularity comes problems.

The beach was crowded with people and make-shift huts and so many horrible plastic chairs. Ugly “restaurants” sprouted endless lines of people waiting with ticket in hand to pick up their plate of included fried fish lunch.

 

The ugly plastic chairs that were EVERYWHERE
 
And the water was a hazy turquoise. Hazy from the countless people people kicking up sand. I’m okay with that part.
But it was impossible to spend a moment in the water without dodging garbage. Usually, it was plastic bags or plastic labels from pop bottles and the like.

This time, I didn’t sleep in a hammock. I didn’t bathe in the sea. I didn’t eat fresh fruit from a woman on the beach. It wasn’t secluded, or peaceful. It will never, ever be pristine again. And I’ll never dream of going back.

– Cyn

I Finally Tried Maracuya

Too bad it wasn’t ripe.

Colombia has loads of cool mystery fruit that I’ve been looking forward to trying. The ugly maracuya is one of them! 

Most of the ones I’ve seen have been much wrinklier than the one I chose. Turns out, they wrinkle when they’re ripe. So yep, I ate an unripe fruit because I didn’t know what I was doing…and I google after the fact. 

  
The Chosen One was seemed edible though. At least for me because I had no idea what to expect.

I cut it open and was met with a sweet and fragrant aroma. I took a moment to inhale deeply and truly enjoy this fruit’s sweet offering. 

  
Mostly, I was just trying to figure out what to do next. Do I eat the seeds? Just eat the slime?  I went all in. 

I grabbed a spoon and shovelled a spoonful of slimy seeds into my mouth. No holding back for me. 

My eyes watered a little. This fruit is so tart!! It was like eating a lemon! It tasted nothing like it’s sweet aroma. 

The texture was weird. Is weird. It’s kind of like mucus and the seeds seem like they should be similar to pomegranate but they aren’t. They make a sort of cracking sound when you bit them, and they taste like nothing. 

By the end of my Maracuya, I realized that it’s best of you just swallow the slimy seeds whole. It’s sweeter that way.

My favourite part of the fruit is probably the part that you shouldn’t eat. It’s the part that looks like an alien and holds the seeds to the inside wall of the fruit. Looks gross, tastes good!

   

What’s the weird fruit you ever ate?

— Cyn 

Tips for Taking Expreso Brasilia from Cartagena to Medellin

We took the 9:30pm Expreso Brasilia bus from Cartagena to Medellin. It wasn’t a great experience. It was loud. And freezing cold.

Matt suffered most because he wore shorts. At one point he looked at me helplessly and said “I need to use you as a blanket”. And then he proceed to sit-sleep sideways with his legs tangled in mine for a little bit of warmth. 

 

I wrote this while sitting in the bus (at 6am) so you know these tips are based on recent firsthand experience! Make a rather long journey from Cartagena to Medellin more pleasant with our tips.

Where to Buy Your Ticket

You can book the bus either at the bus station (which is a 12.000-20.000 COP taxi ride from the Centro Historico) or at the Supertienda, Olympica. We booked at Olympica a day in advance. It’s best to buy a little bit in advance so that you can choose your seat. 

Where to Sit

The good thing is you can choose your seat on Expreso Brasilia. The bad thing is if you’ve never taken this bus before, how can you know where to sit!? Let me tell you.

Get a seat on the left side of the bus for an amazing sunrise and mountain view in the morning.

Pick a seat that is in the second half of the bus, near the back but not at the back. 

Why not the back of the bus? If you choose the very back, you’ll be too close to the toilet, which will smell eventually. Even if you have no sense of smell, the toilet light is bright and people will be opening the door all night long. It’s best to avoid the back.

Why not the middle/front? It’s freezing cold! There are vents in the middle of the bus that blow freezing cold air all night and morning. It’s so cold, trust me – I’ve had them blowing in my all night!

Try for seats 25, 26, 29, or 30. Or for the very front!

How Much Does it Cost? How Long Does it Take?

The cost is more straightforward. It cost us 240.000 COP for 2 tickets so they’re 120.000 COP each. It was slightly cheaper than flying but if you factor in the taxi costs from airports, the bus is better for budget travellers.

The bus should take 12-13 hours. The bus I’m in has been driving for 13 hours and we’re not there yet. So I think it takes 12-15 hours, depending on traffic in the mountains.

Update: we left Cartagena at 9:30pm and got to Medellin at 12pm the next day. Jeeze. 

Is It Safe to Take a Night Bus in Colombia?

I’m not advising on this because it’s impossible for me to know for sure. But I can tell you that our drivers were responsible and didn’t bomb it down any roads or drive like they didn’t care if they lived or died. Based on my experience, the drivers have been safe!

Is The Expreso Brasilia Bus Comfortable?

Meh. I think it’s different for everyone. The seats are nicely padded and recline quite a bit, and there’s lots of leg room. However, it’s not a sleeper bus with beds like in Vietnam!

What to Wear and Bring On the Bus for Maximum Comfort

  • Pants because it’s cold 
  • Sweater because it’s cold
  • Pillow to make you more comfortable
  • Blanket because it will be colder than you expect
  • Eye mask because people don’t close the window covers until it’s light out (really stupid if you ask me)
  • Ear plugs because you might get sandwiched between a freaking annoying girls’ rugby team (and they won’t give a shit what time it is, they’ll be playing music loudly and taking millions of selfies with the flash on and shouting over everyone on the bus, it happened to us).

What About Toilets and Food?

There’s a toilet on board at the back of the bus. Bring toilet paper and hand sanitizer/wipes.

The bus stopped for breakfast at about 9:00am. There were bathrooms there that you can use free of charge as well.

Sit back and enjoy the view when the sun rises!

  

  

 

If you have any questions, just let me know in the comments!

— Cyn

Santa Marta, Colombia – You’re Worth a Trip

Finally, finally we’re in a place that’s hot, not humid, and has lots of delicious vegetarian food! Thank you for being awesome, Santa Marta!

Santa Marta is Colombia’s oldest surviving city, so Lonely Planet tells me. I can’t tell you what the alternative is to a surviving city. Anyone? No, okay, I didn’t think so. Anyway, Santa Marta is super old and super important. 

It’s here that fútbol (football, soccer) was introduced by the English ages ago, and it’s here that many Colombian  fútbol stars, like Carlos Valderrama were born. There’s even a big statue honouring “El Pibe” outside the old stadium.

Source

Look, I feel weird calling the sport fútbol, and I have to keep Googling every detail because I don’t actaully know anything about it, so I’m going to change the subject. Plus, there’s way more interesting things in Santa Marta!

Like it’s vegetarian restaurants. 

And plethora of coconut vendors. 

And you know, it’s proximity to the Sierra Nevada. 

And it’s history of riches, drugs, and Simón Bolívar.

Honestly. I don’t know why so many backpackers skip this place. Especially since it’s rated #3 on TripAdvisor for top places in Colombia! Maybe everywhere else in Colombia is way freakin’ better, or maybe it’s because the Lonely Planet tells them to they should want to skip it. I say, don’t listen to the book! Come to Santa Marta, plant yourself in a cool hostel (Casa del Escritor is awesome) in or near the historic centre, and eat some vegetables. K?

As a vegetarian traveller, I miss out on a lot of the cusine and food related customs of countries. For example, in Colombia, many little restaurants serve a menu del dia for a cheap set price. Normally, it includes soup, a main (rice, fish or meat, salad kind of thing), a desert, and a fruit juice. It’s not just an amazing value, it’s part of the culture to take advantage of these big set lunches. But I (and because of me, Matt) can’t partake because of the meat/fish situation.

Govinda’s Restaurante Vegetariano was definitely our favourite lunch spot because finally I could join in the fun of a set lunch and feel totally confident that there wouldn’t be meat hiding in my food! For 8.000 COP ($3.10 USD), you get a soup, main, desert, and fresh fruit juice. There’s no menu to choose things from. You just sit down and wait for the delicious food to be placed in front of you!

Also, I can’t stop thinking about the sandwiches at Carepastel. Their bread was so good, and so were their homepade spreads for the sandwiches. Matt loved their chicken and I loved that they catered to vegetarians as well! Sandwiches there started at 5.000 COP and salads started at 3.500 COP (the salads were pretty small but they were still really good).

There really were lots of restuarants for us to choose from — those are just two of the best and cheapest!

Aside from being impressed by the options for vegetarians (can you tell how happy it’s made me?), we were equally impressed by the Museo del Oro

Museo del Oro

Matt and I spent a few blissful hours at the Museo del Oro (museum website), soaking in the history of the area as we were amazed by it’s gold artifacts. There are English explanations for everything, which was completely unexpected, especially since the museum is free for everyone and is beautifully set up.

 
I’ve never understood why people take pictures of informative signs until now. I wish that I could remember everything I learned in the museum. Actually, learned is maybe not the right word since I can’t remember any of it. But everything that I read and was certain that I’d be able to remember, like how the various Pre-Columbian indigenous groups used gold and how they sculpted it into beautiful and intricate things.

Despite being extremely fuzzy on the details, it was great to visit this museum before we did the Lost City trek. It gave us a greater insight into the route we’d be hiking along.

Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino

In case you don’t know (which I also didn’t either so don’t feel bad), Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino is the death place of the man with the two accents in his name: Simón Bolívar. Simón Bolívar is celebrated in Colombia as El Libertador, The Liberator. And yes, the country Bolivia is named after him.

For it was he who played an instrumental role in the establishment of Panama, Venezuela, Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru and Colombia first as Gran Colombia independent of Spanish rule, the federal dream of Bolivar’s. And then subsequently, after his death, as sovereign states (read the rest of the wiki page for all the info I’m not telling you because I’d just end up plagiarizing). 

As part of our quest to understand Colombia and specifically Santa Marta, we spent an afternoon at Quinta San Pedro Alejandrino. There’s one thing that our 20.000 COP entrance fee ($7.75 USD) didn’t get us, and that was English signs. We did get a guide who spoke English though! 

But he somehow managed to get out of his tour guide duties by getting us to agree to take a map and walk around by ourselves. Neither Matt nor I have any idea how that happened. One minute he was all “nice to meet you, I’m your guide” and the next minute he was all “here’s your map, have a nice life.”

Given that nothing was in English, we were reduced to the equivalent of looking solely at the pictures in a textbook and trying figure out what the entire chapter was about. Which was alright because a) Matt can fill in the historical gaps pretty well and b) hey, we don’t actually know what we were missing. And anyway, the grounds of the Quinta were beautiful enough to walk around blissfully unaware of what exactly we were looking at.

  

  

  

  

  

 

  — Cyn

Still Alive – First 2 Weeks in Colombia

We’re not dead! I know it’s been nothing but the sounds of crickets on CharlieTravels for a few weeks…sorry about that.

I have a few posts that are coming to life, but internet is slow here in Cartagena, time’s been limited, I have so much to write, and we’ve having trouble with our GoPro not working with our iPad anymore so we can’t make videos (thanks for that, GoPro!).

Anyway, I thought I’d share what we’ve been up to so far, mostly in the form of pictures.

Casa Del Escritor in Santa Marta was our home base for nearly 2 weeks. From there…

…we ate loads of amazing (vegetarian) food, our favourite restaurants being Carepastel for cheap and delicious sandwiches and Govinda’s Restaurante Vegetariano for their giant set lunch (all veggie all the time for 8.000 COP).

…we indulged in the occasional coconut (by we, I mean me)

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…we went on a crazy awesome adventure through the desert in the seediest district in Colombia for 3 days. And made it to most northern point in South America: Punta Gallinas!

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…we watched Colombia play Peru in the Copa America

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…I lost one of my Tiffany earrings jumping off a cliff into a river (I know, I know, I shouldn’t have worn Tiffany’s backpacking – I can hear you shaking your head).

…we trekked 43km over 5 days to see the Lost City. It was exhausting, exhilarating, and oh-so-worth it (blog and video to come)!

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And now we’re in Cartagena.

We haven’t been able to do much here because Matt had been sick 🙁 It was either jungle trek food or the water. We think the water on our last day was most questionable. As in, we probably drank river water disguised as potable agua.

Cartagena is just as pretty as I remember her to be.

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In between resting our weary bones (and bowels), we hung out on the old city wall, ate delicious empanadas, tried a disgusting street arepa (that had ham hiding it), and replaced my Tiffany earrings with ones that look identical and cost 3.000 COP…just a little over $1 USD.

– Cyn