Planes, Plazas y Pasacaballos

Cartagena Architecture

Cartagena with its beautiful Colonial Gold

And when all’s been said and done
It’s the things that are given not won
Are the things that you earned

-“See the World” by Gomez

Cartagena Dia 1

It’s no coincidence, accident or stroke of luck that I am living in Barranquilla, Atlántico, with many beaches, cities and historical places to discover nearby. Barranquilla is a short 2-hour bus ride to Cartagena de Indias, Bolivar, a place I have wanted to visit for many years. I had Plaza San Teresa on the computer at my IT job: the vibrant gold and white colonial colors of Colombian edificios luring me each day to change my life. And two years later, here I am.

Hostel courtyard

The courtyard at El Viajero Hostel

I left my house in Barranquilla to catch La Carolina, my favorite bus line, traveling through La Ocho and arriving at the terminal in about 45 minutes. The Expreso Brasilia to Cartagena was a comfortable and uneventful 2 hours. I arrived at the Terminal de Autobúses about 5:00 pm, and took a taxi to El Viajero Hostel, where Miriam at reception gave me a set of sheets and assigned me to my dorm. Outside I met Stephano from Switzerland and Deborah from Milwaukee, and later joined Soledad from Ecuador whose constant reminder “¡por favor, en español!” made me laugh when our conversation slipped to English.


early morning Boca Grande with Stephano and Soledad

The first morning of Cartagena, I joined Stephano and Soledad at Playa Boca Grande. Soledad scolded me for making them 30 minutes behind schedule and told me “7:30, Switzerland! That is the perfect time, 7:30” I asked for what, and she replied, “Everything! 7:30!” I Googled this later, but only came up with one universal theory.

Perros en la playa

Doggone, it’s Cartagena: Perros en la playa

Playa Boca Grande is large, sparse and not very pretty, but the view to the city is charming, the water is warm and calm, and the people we met out for an early swim were friendly. After Soledad enjoyed a quick shoulder massage on the beach, we headed back by bus only to get lost and have to walk back to the Centro Historical. We made the best of it, stopping for coffee, and taking a few photos along the way.


Because Blanca loves the Morena

After a quick shower and change of clothes, Soledad, Stephano and I met with Deborah and Jim for lunch, criss-crossing Calle Siete Enfantes for an affordable but appetizing meal. I found Restaurante Vegetarian Girasoles and almost cried tears of joy; my first vegetarian restaurant discovery since arriving in Colombia in January. I quickly ordered the bolas de garbanzo menu del dia, which was served with frijoles, arroz con coco and ensalada.


Catalina India, KD and Stephano

Clutching my comida rapida vegetariana, I laughed out loud when Deborah cynically noted, “they probably cooked it in lard.” Having only met Deborah the night before, I loved her comment for it’s striking honesty. Travel has taught me that everyone we meet along the journey is different, including ourselves. If more people stepped outside their inner self when visiting some place new, they might be surprised at the things they discover about who they are.

Deborah and KD

Smile Deborah! It’s lard you can love

After eating nearly every bite of my Girasoles lunch, I spent the rest of the afternoon discovering (and falling in love with) Cartagena. I wrote and mailed 3 postcards – my only ones so far in Colombia – and paid three times the amount for the stamps as I did the cards. Dropping my handwritten hopefuls in a small blue box marked “Buzons,” I wondered if they will one day reach their intended recipients…


Hey you kids, get off my plaza!

Walking through Plaza Anadula to Plaza de los Coches, I felt my heart beginning to race. Not only have I wanted to visit Cartagena for years, but I have often dreamed about seeing the place where one of my favorite artists, Tito el Bambino, filmed his video for Llueve El Amor.

As I turned the corner to Plaza de Los Coches, my heart still racing, I nearly burst at how different the scene appeared from the video. Not only were there vendors selling coconut treats, cigars and touristy tchotchkes throughout the main building, but there was trash everywhere. I thought to myself that Tito must have had one fine clean-up crew the day of the shoot. It wasn’t until I returned home and researched further the tourist attractions of Cartagena that I realized I had misjudged the colonial gold. The video was shot at Las Bovedas, a long building that once served as a jail, meaning I missed it completely. But since Cartagena is only 2 short hours away, I know this won’t be my last visit to this beautiful city, and now I have a reason to return.

KD-Plaza de Los Coches

Plaza de Los Coches: seeing is… believing that I’ll be back!

Making my way through the busy market, I was approached by a man. “Hello, how are you, do you speak English?” he said, introducing himself as a guia de tours. We chatted briefly about US baseball before he pointed me in the direction of  street vendor selling beautiful shells pressed in lucite rings for $5000 COP (about $2.50 US).

When the solution is simple, God is answering.
– Albert Einstein ( German theoretical physicist, 1879-1955)


Sonrisas y las brisas en Plaza de Santa Teresa

Exhausted from the day(dream come true) of Distro Historical de Cartagena, I went to bed early and woke with a plan to visit Playa Blanca off Isla Barú. Currently WorldTeach has three volunteers living on Isla Barú – Megan, Alex and Joe. Unfortunately this weekend they were in Santa Marta, so my adventure to see their al fresco school and frog-filled home is on hold for now.

“You can devise all the plans in the world,
but if you don’t welcome spontaneity; you will just disappoint yourself.”

― Abigail Biddinger   (the other AlBid)


Orgulloso en Cartagena, Bolivar

Cartagena Dia 2

The day trip by boat to Isla Barú was advertised at $50000 COP, which for me was spendy, and honestly, I wanted to see how the locals get there. I shared my plan to take the bus to Pasacaballos, then a mototaxi to the ferry over to the isla with Stephano, Deborah and Jim.


Café with Stephano, Deborah and Jim

Parting ways after coffee, the group wished me luck just before introducing me to Silvio from Argentina, who agreed to join me in my adventure to Playa Blanca. Less than an hour later, I was running for the bus to Pasacaballos with Silvio, Gonzalo, Federico, Silvia, Maggie and Lucia, all from Argentina.


¡PASACABALLOS! My first mate! with Federico, Silvio, Maggie, Lucia and Silvia.

After the initial yelling of “Pasacaballoooos!” like we were on a roller coaster, the group passed around mate in a small ceramic cup. I always imagined my first real mate experience would be in a café in Buenos Aires, but as the cup was passed to me, I knew better than to refuse it, the hot grassy flavor flowing easily over my tongue through from the metal bombilla. Ahhh refreshing.


Ferry-catcher selfie with Federico, Silvio, Silvia, Lucia, Maggie and Gonzalo

40 minutes of bumpy road and Vallenato music later, our crowded bus arrived in Pasacaballos, a small town with ferry access to Isla Barú. We walked a few blocks to find the rusty, flat ferry already loaded with people, cars and motorcycles. Jumping several feet from shore to ferry, we barely made it on before the boat set off to cross the murky river. Once on the other side, mototaxis swarmed us for rides to Playa Blanca. “Gringa, I take you! Beach, ride, Gringa, here!” The energy, sounds and smells were dizzying under the hot Caribbean sun.


The $50000 COP boat I’m so glad we didn’t catch

I was grateful for my new Argentinian friends, who negotiated firmly (“no we will not pay more for the American”) with a taxi driver named Hermés to take our group , and finally we were on our way, traveling down a dusty rock road through fields of cattle, past small tiendas and shacks.


Federico and Gon… with a family of photo bombers. Playa Blanca, Bolivar Colombia

Arriving at Playa Blanca, we walked down the uneven concrete stairs to find a beautiful, white-sand beach with palm trees, blue skies and clear turquoise water. The group let out a collective celebratory sigh at the beauty before walking beyond the families and huge crowds in the shallow shoreline until we found a half-shaded, half-sunny spot to settle.


Amigos en la playa – Playa Blanca, Bolivar Colombia

An entire day was spent swimming, snorkeling, sunbathing, playing cards and taking photos: it appeared that everyone enjoyed just relaxing among beauty, nature and touristy hammock hotels on the beach.


Yep, it’s me in my swimsuit. Just smile!

After calling for a taxi pickup, we said goodbye to Playa Blanca as the sunset over Isla Barú. Hermes was fast and efficient in retrieving us and dropped our group off promptly after seeing the long traffic line. We walked for what seemed like miles, among huge commuter buses and families in cars, to reach the ferry.


Obligatory sunset photo “Pinterest!”

It quickly became apparent there was no sense of urgency to shuttle people off the island, and I wondered as we passed them how many of them would actually be spending the night there. Once again, I was grateful for the Argentines, as the evening fell in Cartagena and our group traveled back to the hostel, retracing our original steps.

A goal without a plan is just a wish.
– Antoine de Saint-Exupery, French writer (1900 – 1944)


Hermes to the rescue! Catching the ferry from Playa Blanca

Exhausted from the adventure to Playa Blanca, I went to bed early and woke the next day to pack my bags for the return trip to Barranquilla. Before leaving, I had one last cup of coffee with Silvio, who showed me photos of his barrio and its metro stop in Buenos Aires. As we talked about travel, music, people and  life plans, I realized this weekend, among the new connections and memorable adventures, I had made a goal a reality through my plan to visit Cartagena and see a place I’ve dreamed about.

“First comes thought; then organization of that thought, into ideas and plans; then transformation of those plans into reality. The beginning, as you will observe, is in your imagination.” – Napoleon Hill (American author, 1883 – 1970)