Sunday, July 12, 2009

Swimming on the beach, swimming in the mud

You can only appreciate the architecture and the windy streets of Cartagena for so long - when you're here for a week, you eventually need to get out for a bit and find a place to cool off from the oppressive heat and humidity. So, after 3 days of being proper tourists in the old city, we watched Cartagena sail away as we headed for the Rosario Archipelago and Playa Blanca.

We'll see you again soon, Old Town!

Rosario comes highly recommended - by the guide books, by the hotels, by Colombians... It's an archipelago consisting of about 30 little volcanic islands some one or two hours sail away from Cartagena, depending on how fast of a boat you paid for. Don't believe the hype - there's nothing to see but other tourists there! In spite of the entire archipelago being a National Park, most of the tiny islands are covered with houses. I don't know if they are vacation properties for rich Bogotans or just expensive weekend get away destinations, but the place doesn't so much look like a national park anymore. Our boat delivered us to Isla del Pirata, which no longer has any pirates, but has an aquarium. I don't think it's going to rival SeaWorld, so we skipped the aquarium (and the crowd) and just hung out by the water for an hour, which was admittedly, quite pleasant.

You call this a National Park!?

Playa Blanca, on the island of Barú, which lies on the way to Rosario from Cartagena, is somewhat of a different story. During the day, it's just as much of a tourist trap as, really, most everything else in and around Cartagena - the beach is filled with day trippers delivered there in the morning from Cartagena, and the boats that delivered them, are buzzing just off shore, helping add some oil and gas to the beautiful Caribbean waters. And of course, on shore and off, there are hundreds of local entrepreneurs prowling the streets offering a massage, a drink, a snack, a souvenir, a boat ride...

They are quite good at carrying things on their heads though...

But, with Playa Blanca, there's hope! The day trippers are all back to their Bocagrande hotels by 4, only coming back around 11 the following morning, so spending the night, you get the beach just about all to yourself for the entire evening and the morning to follow. And it's a nice beach, mind you - proper white sand, palm trees, and the warmest water I've ever swum in:

Looks idyllic when it's empty!

Your sleeping options include a hammock, a tent, or a ricketty hut. We went with a tent.

Fun in the sun

Playing around in the water - in the background, the tourists are starting to invade on our little paradise!

Overall, I'd estimate, there's a few thousand tourists on Playa Blanca every afternoon. And maybe a few dozen that spend the night. There's also several hundred salesmen (and women), who come from a nearby village to try and make money off the tourists, but they, too, all disappear before the sun sets. Naturally, we stayed for the night, camping at Hugo's, along with some 10 other gringos. Hugo's a funny guy, and he's got places to sleep, as well as food, drinks, music, chairs to lounge in while staring at the sea, gazebos to keep you from burning too badly while lounging, and a chicken on a string which may or may not had become part of our dinner. Word of the day at Hugo's: 'Tranquilo!'

Hugo's Place, bar and restaurant. And hotel, and kayak rental, and, well, Hugo's a problem solver - most of the gringos seem to stay here.

Nearby on the empty beach in the morning... Hugo can rent you a boat too, by the way.

For a bit more about life on the island of Barú - I came across this blog post from someone else who had been to Playa Blanca fairly recently. It's quite well written (and agreeably short), and gives some nice perspective on the goings on of the world of Playa Blanca as far as the locals are concerned... An interesting read, if you've got a minute.

In the morning, we wondered up and down the beach a bit - in a somewhat surprising discovery, there's plenty of other nice parts of the beach that aren't as crowded, but the day trip boats still take everybody to the heart of Playa Blanca building the huge crowd there. Maybe they are just making life easier for the people selling crap. Or maybe, it's the old 3rd world attitude of do the least you can get away to take the tourists' money...

Spending a second night on the beach was tempting, but the tent wasn't all that comfortable, and Hugo's cat seemed pretty convinced that our tent really belonged to him (which led to some disagreement between me and said cat in the middle of the night), so in the afternoon we joined back in with the crowds and boarded our slow boat to head back to Cartagena. Most of the other passengers on board were Colombian tourists, and seeing them led to a a new and interesting revelation - the local salespeople are always hunting for gringos, because light skin clearly and obviously means that you have an overabundance of money, and better yet, don't know what to do with it. However, in reality, the gringos are relatively reserved, it's the local tourists that seem to buy absolutely everything - ice cream, souvenirs, massage... I could probably try to extract some meaning out of this, but I just found it amusing.

On the way back, we were entertained by more dance performances on board and a nice red sunset behind Bocagrande's high rises.

So, this was the beach excursion, but that's not it for going swimming in Cartagena. You can go to depressingly gray beaches in Bocagrande, but better yet, you can head out to the Mud Volcano of Totumo. What exactly is a mud volcano, you may be wondering? Well, it's a big (natural) mound sticking out of the ground:

With people crawling up the side of it

At the top, you have the crater, which supposedly extends some 900m into the Earth's surface, but it's filled with warm, bubbly, and viscous mud, that you float in. And while disgusting, it's supposedly good for your skin... and it just seemed interesting, so in we went (by this time, Irina was back at work home in the States, so I was with a group from my hostel)

Diving in!

It just isn't a complete experience until you dunk your head in the water... uhmm, I mean, mud... Mud doesn't taste good!

And after about 15 minutes of sharing the very limited confines of the mud crater with some 25 people, who are now some of your closest (in a very literal sort of sense) friends, you crawl back out and head down to the lagoon to wash off. Well, actually, a friendly Colombian lady very expertly, and very thoroughly washes you off, then sends you on the way back to the bus, so you can retrieve your wallet, then give her a tip...

And then back to Cartagena, back to the hostel, where you can finish washing off in a shower, or just take a quick dip in our swimming pool.

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