Looking for another remote destination that does the tranquil and the mind-blowing in equal measure. Welcome to Cartagena, Colombia...
What do you get when you mix unspoilt white sand beaches, some of the world’s cheapest, purest and most potent cocaine, some off-their-face locals and the kind of women that want to make you drop to your knees and thank God he made you a man? The answer it seems is Colombia’s Caribbean coast.
I was turned on to the idea by a friend who had recently returned from a one-month “shagfest” (his words) in the South American country. “It’s off the scale man!” he promised. “You’ve gotta see it now before it all changes and gets shit like Thailand!” He’s a good salesman.
I jetted off deeply unsure if it was possible to enjoy – or even survive – a week’s break exploring the coastal strip. Was it really the last great untapped holiday paradise? Or more likely was there a bloody good reason why so many gringos stay well away?
After a tedious and bumpy 18 hours and three flights later I touched down in Cartagena. What a start.
The place is incredible. Set within fortified walls – and under a blistering sun – the multi-coloured buildings and winding streets have stood largely unchanged for four centuries. It feels like walking through a film set. And even though a Hard Rock Café and other shitty global brands gnaw at the edge of the old town, it’s hanging on to its old world charm. For now at least.
By night the place goes up a notch. Parties in the Getsemani neighbourhood outside the old town are legendary. Everyone – gringos and locals – get loaded on cheap cocktails late into the evening and party ‘til dawn. And there is always the pick-me-up option for the gentleman in need of a nasal refreshment. Although illegal coke seems to be everywhere. A gram of outrageously pure marching powder will set you back about 15,000pesos – or £5.
The general rule of thumb you can safely assume is anyone staying beyond that time is off their tits. It’s a unique vibe.
And the dancing, ahhh, the dancing. Dance is an important expression in Latin culture. There exists none of the mindless six gins-then-boogy formula of Whisky Mist and Faces. If you want to dance – dance. Any way you choose. And you will always get a good reception. But be warned – doing an “ironic” running man just does not cut the mustard. You look like an even bigger twat than usual and the locals will think you are a piss taker. And weird. Rightly. And nothing in life can prepare you for a group of Colombian chicas dancing. It is different from anything I’ve ever seen – they seem to balance seriousness, fun, rhythm, perfect movement and teasing sexuality. None of which I could possibly perform on a dancefloor. And so friendly! Sometimes they’ll dance with you if you offer and sometimes not. But you are always accepted/let down with a smile.
According to my guidebook – the city is safe. But it isn’t. As I settled down to making some dinner one night in my hostel – I heard a platinum blond girl from Essex telling the owner: “Some fucker held up a broken bottle to my froat last night and took my cash and necklace.” Jesus. “Don’t take a wallet out when you go out,” she advised me later on. “Just bring as much cash as you need. You gotta be fackin’ careful all the time.” Salient stuff.
After a couple of heavy nights I needed a scene change. From Cartagena I took a four-hour bus ride along the coast to the fishing village of Taganga. And that place is wild.
The village is not much to look at. It’s a mesh of criss-crossed dirt roads, filthy stray dogs and rubbish strewn back yards. But three things get the tourists frothy; an amazing beach, year round heat and heaps of the best coke in South America.
After a day spent catching up on some beachside reading (Killing Pablo – what else?) I got into my holiday glad rags and hit the clubs. Sensations nightclub is somewhat…unsensational – but the after party at the Israeli Hostel is becoming legendary.
The Israeli hostel is just that – a home from home for any number of twenty-something Israelitos in town to let off some steam after the army. And about three every morning, dozens of backpackers descend to party hard until the sun comes up. And beyond.
The crowd seem to separate out at about 5am – those who are on it from those who aren’t. The general rule of thumb you can safely assume is anyone staying beyond that time is off their tits. It’s a unique vibe – friendly, wild and trashy all at the same time. The only problem is the walk back to the hostel. The local fuckers tend to descend safe in the knowledge that a not so elegantly wasted gringo will make easy prey.
One night I had to pick up my pace to sprint as three locals came up me at four in the morning. The semi-run-semi-swagger home was not a good look but I’m dead certain I would have been in trouble had I not have legged it.
“It’s off the scale man!” he promised. “You’ve gotta see it now before it all changes and gets shit like Thailand!” He’s a good salesman.
That’s the contradiction about the place. You often hear gringos talking about either a) the incredible, life-changing night they’ve just had or, b) the digital camera that they just got robbed of hours earlier. The general rule is if cornered – hand it over. Although I heard plenty of tales of knife/gun/bottle toting locals – only once did I hear of someone being physically assaulted.
I could only handle so many of these nights out and I fancied a change of scene to end the trip. From Taganga it’s a short bus ride and two-hour hike to the spectacular palm tree lined beaches at Tayrona.
Tayrona is a national park and home to numerous swimming spots and hiking opportunities. The water is bright, clear, choppy and cool and waif thin Argentinean chicas cluster along the sands – sipping their hot mate drinks. It is a beautiful spot.
A hammock for the night overlooking the ocean costs 25,000pesos – about eight quid. Falling asleep to the sound of waves lapping the shore is a cliché – but a great one. It is really the perfect place to detox. Before you retox.
And best of all I didn’t hear anyone speaking English for two days. I kept expecting to hear some west London trustafarian idiot shouting into their iphone but thankfully they never came. Just me, my ropey Spanish and the South Americans – bliss.
It was a great last leg to a paradox holiday. Plenty of ups and comedowns, amazing nights out and real concern for my own safety. But it is the glorious heat, good fresh food and friendly, beautiful chicas that will live long in the memory.
And parts of that coast really are untapped, unspoilt, unreserved and hugely unsafe. It really is the best/worst place I have ever been.
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