Week 8 – Cartagena, Colombia and Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica
Hi everyone. We’re writing this to you from Costa Rica. Having had an amazing Christmas week in Colombia we’ve moved on again. This week we’ve visited a castle, a tropical island and an aquarium. We’ve worn Sunhats and Christmas hats and drunk lots and lots of coconut lemonade!
Today we went to visit one of Cartagena’s most iconic landmarks, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress was built in 1536, although it’s been expanded and added to since then. Its purpose was to defend the city of Cartagena from overseas attacks. It hasn’t always been successful – it fell to the French in 1697 – but the audio guide took great pleasure in telling us that they successfully defeated an English attack in 1741. It’s an imposing if not exactly beautiful castle, standing on a hill just outside the old city.
Because we’re trying to be budget conscious travellers, we decided that we only needed one audio guide between us, so we spent a lot of the day ear-to-ear listening to the history of the castle and the various landmarks it overlooked. It was boiling hot, so we would do this in any shade that we could find. For the most part the fortress was all external, with large open areas for patrols or drills. They also had some tunnels dug into the hillside. Apparently they still haven’t been fully explored. One or two sections were open to the public, and we enjoyed walking through them. They consisted of a long corridor with niches off to either side. Apparently these could be used for sleeping in, storing food or ammunition, or for jumping out at enemies. We quite enjoyed re-enacting the last one and trying to surprise each other. It failed when we both decided to hide at the same time, then were locked into a battle of wills as to who would cave first!
After enjoying a nice coconut ice-cream (you may be sensing a theme here!), we went back into town. We managed to find a nice restaurant doing a ‘menu of the day’ plus the essential coconut lemonade. In the afternoon we stayed at our hostel and swam in the pool.
We went out in the evening to see all of Cartagena’s Christmas lights. As well as a large Christmas tree, they also have a huge shooting star, a boat in the centre of a lake, and they’ve decorated the Clock Tower too. It all looked really pretty. We tried to find “Plaza Santo Domingo” for dinner (which we nicknamed the fat-lady plaza after the statue they have there). We walked around in circles for half an hour, then just as we were about to give up and eat somewhere else we found it! Cartagena really is a maze.
Today we had a very tropical Christmas eve! We took a boat trip to spend the day on an island. The Rosario Islands (Islas del Rosario, so named because the string of islands looks like the beads of a rosary) are located around 50 miles off the coast of Colombia. Some of them form a protected National Park, whereas others have been bought privately. We went to an island called Isla del Encanto (island of charm). It was owned by a Hotel, so it had overnight guests as well as day trippers who could use their facilities. To get there we had to take an hour long journey on a speedboat. It was a bit bumpy!
The beach on the island was beautiful. The first thing that we did was go into the sea, which was warm. It was so nice! We were entertained by a man who’d signed up to waterski but couldn’t quite get the hang of it. Every time the engine started, he’d let go of the rope within a few seconds. He did eventually get onto his feet and I think that everyone on the beach was relieved!
When we arrived at the island, the tour guide explained that we could either stay on the island all day relaxing on the beach, or we had the option to go snorkelling, scuba-diving or to an aquarium. We’re hoping to get some good snorkelling time in in Belize (home to an amazing barrier reef), so we opted for the aquarium. We were loaded back into the speedboat as it was on one of the other islands.
There were quite a lot of tour boats pulling up when we arrived, so we were a bit worried that it would be overcrowded. Certainly we were herded through the first part, past a shallow pool with turtles and starfish. However we were then all directed through to a large area of outdoor sea enclosures, and we realised that there was a talk about to begin.
One of the men from the aquarium took us around the enclosures, explaining the nature of the different animals and their feeding habits. He had a bucket full of fish to feed them. We saw dorados, turtles and these fish that create a whirlpool when they encounter their prey to help catch them. The man also showed us some sharks (he even stroked one – either very brave or very stupid!) and dolphins. The dolphins put on a show, jumping, diving and crossing the pool using just their tails. It was very cool.
After the show we headed back to Isla del Encanto where there was a buffet lunch waiting for us. We then had some time in the afternoon to relax. We found chairs in a shady spot and ordered fancy drinks to celebrate Christmas Eve! I had a piña colada and felt very tropical. We then relaxed and went back into the sea before it was time to go home.
The speedboat on the way back was even more bumpy. We sat in the middle and I got absolutely soaked! Every time the boat went over a wave, spray would hit the deck. I think I was probably in the worst possible seat on the whole boat – the people at the front didn’t get wet at all. Ben also got a few soakings but I was drenched by the end! At least it was only a short walk back home when we arrived back in the port.
After embarrassing Ben by wearing my Christmas hat down to breakfast, we skyped both of our families. It was so nice to see everybody! We then went out to catch the hop-on-hop-off bus tour. We were a bit surprised to hear it would be running, as we had expected everything to be closed for Christmas Day. As it happened, the streets were all just as busy as normal. All the shops were open and the street vendors were still there as if it was any other day.
The hop-on-hop-off tour was interesting. It took us past the historic landmarks that we’d already seen, but it was interesting to learn more about them from the audio guide. It then drove us along to the modern part of Cartagena, Bocagrande. It’s quite an affluent neighbourhood with a lot of big hotels, and is one of the main tourist areas of the city. It’s surrounded on three sides by the sea, because Cartagena has a large internal bay. Along one side runs Playa Bocagrande, a large beach. We got off here to spend the rest of the day.
The beach was slightly less beautiful than the one on Isla del Encanto yesterday, with greyer sand, but it was still lovely and nice to be beside the sea. But it was so busy! We walked along from one end to the other and kept getting hounded by different street-sellers. The whole beach was taken up with sun-loungers that you had to pay to use – there wasn’t really any other choice unless you wanted to sit right at the back by the road. We paid for two seats under a tarpaulin sunshade and settled in to read and relax. It was really nice, but people kept coming by and trying to sell us things. There were a lot of people advertising massages, and one even started trying to massage my shoulder even when we said we weren’t interested. We had to be quite firm and emphatic to get them to leave us alone.
At the end of the day we went back to the historic centre, and went up onto the walls to watch the sunset. We’d been quite surprised yesterday and today that we’d seen no Christmas events at all, and nobody we’d met had really acknowledged it. We’d thought that the restaurants would have special Christmas menus or that the street sellers would be selling Christmas items but it had just been a normal day. It had been quite hard to feel festive, and we thought that probably the weather had a lot to do with it. A lot of our Christmas traditions are wrapped up with the weather – mulled wine, fires, snow-scenes! Watching a sunset in a sundress felt a very strange thing to do. Still, it was really lovely and a nice end to the day.
Today was our last full day in Cartagena. We decided to go to visit the Gold Museum. Most of the countries in South America seem to have one. It was quite busy (air-conditioned indoor attractions are quite attractive in this heat!). We found the displays interesting, and they had a number of artifacts on display. I particularly liked some of their tiny intricate carvings of animals. They must have been very skilled craftsmen and women.
When we came out there was a man waiting to usher us into the ’emerald museum’ next door. Colombia (and Cartagena in particular) are famous for their emeralds, and there are jewellery shops all over the city. The emerald museum was a one room display about the extraction of emeralds, linked to another jewellery shop. In fairness the display was quite interesting – I didn’t realise that emerald and aquamarine were forms of the same mineral, changed only by the trace metals oxides trapped inside them. It mainly felt like a sales push though, with the only exit being through the shop.
In the afternoon we went on a walking tour of the walled city, which was an extension of our hop-on-hop-off ticket from yesterday. The group was absolutely huge, so it was difficult to get close enough to hear what the guide was saying. He took us to the different plazas and taught us a bit about their history. The bits we heard were interesting, but we ended up leaving before the end because it was so hard to hear what was going on.
Today was a full day of travel, from Cartagena to San José, Costa Rica. After driving away from the hotel with the room key still in my pocket (luckily I realised before we’d got to the end of the road) we felt like we’d had enough travel mishaps for the day. Unfortunately when we arrived in Costa Rica, our bags hadn’t! The airline arranged to deliver them to our hostel at 9am the next day.
We arrived at the hostel quite late so didn’t really have much time to explore. We withdrew some Costa Rican colones and liked the fact that all the notes are decorated with different animals. The 5,000 notes have a capuchin monkey on them, and the 10,000 notes have a sloth!
We finally got to Manuel Antonio today, after catching an early bus (our bags did arrive in the end). Our Airbnb is a house which we’re sharing with one other couple. It’s only a couple of minutes walk from the beach, and about a ten minute walk to the National Park, so its location is perfect. We even saw a toucan in the trees just outside our veranda!
As soon as we’d unpacked we headed down to the beach. It’s gorgeous! It’s quite long, and you can see the National Park extending out to the left. There are palm trees along the beach front and it’s much less touristy than the beaches we went to in Colombia. I was expecting the sea to be a bit cold because it was the Pacific but it was actually really warm. The waves were quite strong so I kept getting dunked, but it was really fun.
We stayed on the beach, reading and relaxing, until the sun set at around half five. It was absolutely gorgeous! The clouds all lit up golden and the sky went orange. Once it had set, the sky went red and purple. It was so beautiful.
We’re in Manuel Antonio until next Thursday, so next week I’ll let you know what we got up to. We’re hoping to find some good New Year’s Eve celebrations here. Merry Christmas everybody!