From the Valley to the Ocean: Cartagena and Play Blanca

After a week of city livin’ and urban adventure it was time to say goodbye to our first Colombian love, Medellin. Leaving such an electric city was a bit sad, but time and money were ticking.  Sunshine filled days and Caribbean coastal towns were calling. Cartagena was on deck. We decided to fly, as it can often be cheaper than a lengthy bus ride. Remember, Colombia is massive. Think, the UK, France and Germany combined. That being said, there isn’t really any “I’ll just hop over to (any major city) tomorrow on a morning bus,” in this country.  Getting from one region to another can cost about $30-60 USD and a minimum of 8 hours. Flights go for about the same and only take 50 whole minutes of your day. The choice was clear. We purchased tickets via Avianca, a popular national airline, for about $70USD. It was a higher price than we had hoped for, but we were also traveling during a very busy time in Colombia — Semana Santa, better known to most as Holy Week (the week leading up to Easter). We took that into consideration and figured that $70 to get from one end of the country to another (during such a major holiday) wasn’t so bad. We headed straight to the airport from Guatape and arrived with plenty of time to check in, drop the overstuffed packs and eat a few overpriced goodies. Although it was close, our flight was on time and we touched down in Cartagena by late afternoon. We snagged a taxi straight to our desired hostel, just outside of Old Town (the walled city).  As soon as we got in the cab, we noticed the driver was streaming a live soccer match on his phone. We then noticed an abnormal amount of horn-blowing  and whistle-blowing in the streets — even for Latin America. Our timing was impeccable. We managed to land in Cartagena in the middle of a World Cup qualifier. It didn’t hurt that Colombia was up 5-0. In a country where fútbol is more of a religion and less of a hobby, this made for quite the street celebration. The local drunks, the tourist drunks, the yellow jerseys — all were in abundance on this spirited and boisterous Friday night. We gladly rolled with it, thinking & hoping that tomorrow would be just a bit less calm. I love a good party, but the amount of obnoxious drunks and trash on the streets was a bit much.  Even so, we happily roamed over to a local area and got in on the madness. Aguilas (National, cheap brew), street food and noise it was.  When in Rome, right?

Passport Flight

We didn’t stay out too late that night, as we were a bit tired from transit. After a good night’s sleep, we woke up like any other morning in Colombia and went for a little exploratory walk around town. As usual, I was in search of coffee, and on this particular day, some coconut water too. With temps in the 90’s year ’round, coconut water is both available and necessary. We walked for hours and soaked up every bit of heat and humidity.  Now, here’s where I get a little “ehhh” for the first time in Colombia. Cartagena– the beautiful, old colonial city that sits on the Caribbean. Balconies with colorful flowers and vines draping down to the first floor of homes and shops. The most picturesque city in Colombia. The city in the walls–how crazy is that?! There used to be pirate wars here! It’s surrounded by castles, for Christ’s sake. The only city Americans really travel to in Colombia. It must be such a find, right? Right? That’s what the travel sites say!  Well, um, not really.  Don’t shoot me guys, but this isn’t what you see in the over-edited photos and movies. It’s actually one of my least favorite towns in Colombia. [Insert gasp here]. There, I said it. What most people see are the few blocks inside the walled city, which are absolutely well kept and landscaped.  In fact, I will give those few blocks an 8 out of 10. It’s well-preserved and takes all of about 20 minutes to walk through. Boutique hotels, expensive cafes and high end clothing shops pave the way. In other words, you could be in almost any fancy, old Florida beach town. You could even be in Europe. You know where you didn’t feel like you were though? That’s right– Colombia. And seeing as that’s why we came, we were completely disappointed to find that these few Western world blocks were the best thing Cartagena had to offer. Oy, and I can’t even begin to talk about the tourists. It was as if we had been suddenly teleported to Beverly Hills, California. As in the United States. Know what I’m sayin’, guys?


This is what the streets inside the walled city look like. Beautiful flowers and an array of colors surround you. 
me on the wallSitting on the wall overlooking the ocean. This is certainly one of my favorite areas of Cartagena. You can walk on top of the wall for hours around Old Town, where you’ll find spectacular 360 degree views. There’s even a restaurant and open area atop the center where people gather for happy hour daily. Naturally, we joined. 

cartagena statue square

First thing people see when walking through the main entrance of the walled city. Horse & carriages and monuments are frequent sightings here. 
cartagena square band

Stumbled upon a little concert. Caribbean tunes and food were the theme on this particular day. IMG_6219

Here’s your standard restaurant inside the walled city. Get your wallets and boring taste buds ready! 
City View Cartagena

View on a gloomy afternoon from the top of the wall. There used to be pirate wars here. PIRATE WARS. 

Ginski’s turn on the wall. 

Although beautiful and interesting in parts, we found the walled city (Old Town)  to be quite boring. At the complete opposite spectrum of that, however, you will find the area where we stayed — Getsemani. This is the area where the hostels, affordable food and locals reside. In other words, this is where you go if you really want to see a city.  We stayed at 2 different hostels during our time in Getsemani, including Media Luna (the “place to be” as a backpacker in Cartagena).  It was clean, had a massive kitchen, nice pool area and rooftop terrace & bar.  It is located on a main stretch and surrounded by a few cafes, bars, shops and other hostels. It’s a buzzing little area and can be fun at night. Backpackers pour out of the hostels and onto the streets — but not too far. Cartagena isn’t really known for its safety and backpackers are aware of that. That being said, there aren’t many places you want to “roam” around after dark. We took several walks throughout the day and even after sunset, as the streets are packed. It’s only late at night you really need to be careful, just like any other dodgy city.  Here’s the thing though.  Even in the broad daylight, I found a lot of the locals to be…dare I say… repulsive? We couldn’t walk 10 feet without being harassed by a local guy trying to sell us Colombia’s gem (or demise). Yep, here she is, folks! I’m bringing the C-word into this. No, not my favorite C-Word. The other, obvious C-Word: Cocaine. It is everywhere in Cartagena, most of it being used to scam the shit out of backpackers like us. Luckily, we were warned about this in Medellin, and we’re not morons.  I’m shocked that so many travelers take the bait here, but they do. We’ve heard first-hand stories from quite a few fellow gringos. The scam, you ask? Ah, let me enlighten you.  A relentless, annoying, 20-something local approaches you out of nowhere on the street. Their English is outstanding and they are very well educated on whatever country you might come from. They seem to really take aim at the Aussies and I’m guessing that’s because they so often fall for it.  I mean, come ON, Australia. You guys are smarter than that.  These local men start shouting things like, “Hey, Australia! Welcome to my country!  I remember you, do you remember me?”  Remember, at this point, they’ve already harassed us for a day now, so they certainly recognize us and vice-versa. Then they pitch what they’re selling — the obvious. “I have the best stuff in town! Come to my bar! I will sell you the purest stuff in Cartagena!  Where’s the party tonight? I gotch you, amigo!” And this goes on and on and on and on.  This is where (apparently) the silly little tourists say “Yes! I think it sounds like a GREAT idea to go to your bar and buy cocaine from you. I’ve never seen you before. Why the hell not?”  Excuse my French, but I am completely fucking baffled. What part of this sounds like a good idea, regardless of the goods?  Something does, because it works. After the young tourist says “yes,” the obvious happens. They are walked to the bar with this “oh-so-nice local dude,” where a gang of drug dealers awaits them. No one else is around, the dealers and head honcho hold the customer hostage, take them to various ATMs around town, drain their accounts and release them. Another foolish and now, broke tourist. Often times this ruins a trip. The most bizarre part though? The dealers release the tourist with the bag of cocaine!  I suppose you can’t say they didn’t live up to their promise, eh? The morons just didn’t realize it would cost them their bank accounts. And perhaps you’re wondering how they get away with this? Well, what’s the tourist going to do?  Tell the cops he wanted to buy some blow and then got screwed on a drug deal? And so you see, this goes on and on. Seeing as the local police are often in on the scam (i.e., getting payouts to turn a blind eye), I just don’t see this ending anytime soon.  It is a sad reality for a city with such potential.

media luna

A snapshot of Media Luna. It’s so well kept and has a fantastic rooftop bar, but you certainly pay for it. At about $18 a night for a dorm bed, this is the most expensive hostel we came across in all of Colombia. 

A small plaza sits between Old (fancy) Town, and our (questionable) part of town. They look close enough to unicorns to me! 

There’s not much graffiti or street art in Cartagena, but we did find this gem. 
kiddie pools

Want to buy a kiddie pool? Awesome! You’re in just the spot, apparently. I’m so serious. Ginski eatingOne of our favorite cheap eats in Cartagena. It’s a quarter of a chicken (think: rotisserie), with some potatoes and sauces on the side. Not bad for $2.25.


What’s that? You can’t find your cat? Don’t worry, we got him! He was just hanging out with the lighters inside of a glass shelving unit. Where else would he be?

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.03.50 AM

Oh, Colombia and their big calls. Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.00.17 AMStill not sure what this was. Looked like jammed fruits and I can only assume it was packed with sugar — a key ingredient in any Latin food. 
Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.10.24 AM

View of the main road in Getsemani from the rooftop of our hostel, Media Luna. The streets are always buzzing in this area — especially at night. Party town, it is.

Nice shot on a morning walk, snagged by the photographer, Ginski. 

For us, the drug scam was simply a massive annoyance. When locals anywhere push and push and push anything onto tourists, it really takes away from a town.  Some people look past it and are able to ignore it, and I envy that. I think it’s such a damn shame and it makes me sad for a town like Cartagena. It took about four times of the same guy following us around like a used car salesman before I snapped. Ginski, as usual, is far more patient and friendly than I, so he just kind of shoed them away kindly.  Me? Not so much. I finally looked at the guy and said “Leave. Us. Alone. Stop following us. We do not want cocaine from you or anyone else here. We are walking around the city trying to enjoy our day and you are ruining it. Please, stop.  Got it?”  Naturally, this guy played the “Don’t be a snob” card. I was fine with that response and that was that. We walked away, he mumbled something and we weren’t bothered as much after that. Then again, we did change our walking routes to avoid these guys. That, in and of itself, angered me. Here we were in this city that was supposed to be all sunshine, heat, parties & a great Caribbean vibe, and all I could think was, “So, this is weird. When do we leave this grimy place? Tomorrow? Cool.”

Although I was serious about leaving, we had to stay put — but for a really good reason. Shira was coming to visit for a week and was flying into Cartagena! We were excited and sat by the pools, beer in hand, awaiting her arrival. She walked into the hostel right on time on almost no sleep. She had literally left work at the bar the night before, driven straight to the airport to catch her 6AM flight, then straight to the hostel in a cab to meet us. A trooper, she was. We knew that though. She threw her bags in the room, put the suit on and hopped right into our little version of Sunday Funday in Cartagena. We immediately gave her our honest opinion about the town, but were open to staying a bit longer so she could form here own. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my travels, it’s that we all see places so, so differently. What one traveler loves, another may loathe. This is why you have to see things for yourself. You can’t get too caught up in Lonely Planet and Trip Advisor.  Besides, word of mouth always wins. So, we let Shira do exactly what we preach. To boot, she was feeling really run down from the lack of sleep and came down with a bit of a cold.  Acknowledging that we didn’t love Cartagena, she suggested that we stay there for a couple more nights so she could rest and stay away from transit. This way, she could see Cartagena for herself and we could all just chill out by the pool for a few days. So, that was it.  There are far worse places to be stuck in the world, obviously. We made the best of sunny days and high temps. We cooked, played card games, roamed around, ate cheap pizza and even found a decent hang out! We stumbled upon a cool little square a block or 2 behind the hostels which plays host to fire twirlers, street DJ’s (or guys with laptops and speakers) and heaps of street food nightly. It’s kind of the designated backpacker spot, which I really enjoyed. A mix of locals,  broke-ass travelers, eclectic music and cheap street food always makes for a reason to get involved.  And we did exactly that.

shira and i at med luna

Our card game resumed! We started playing this when we were all in Belize together. It’s our own version of “Asshole,” if you will. A few Aguilas, a bottle of Aguardiente and some cards?  Life was good. 
Screen shot 2013-04-26 at 7.39.38 PM

This season’s Sports Illustrated cover model, a.k.a., Ginski. 

Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.00.35 AM

One of the nights we hung out in our new found square, we ran into a bit too much street food. Oops. 
Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.01.11 AMWhat have we done? Our Spanish failed us this time, and instead of a hot dog, we ended up with everything but the kitchen sink.  It was literally everything they had behind the counter. We enjoyed every bite and there was plenty to go around. Oy.
Screen shot 2013-05-01 at 10.03.23 AMSome local girls were interested in my fair skin and blond hair. They were showing off their English skills, as I attempted to show off my Spanish ones. They were shoving and teasing each other, each time reminding me of my sister and I. Tough age, that one. 
IMG_6159Standard street in Getsemani. Notice the lack of color and vegetation?

This is where Getsemani begins. You can see the massive clock tower entrance of the walled city from here. Taxis own this town.

A couple of extra days in Cartagena flew by and Shira even grew to really like it! We were all happy with that, but also all happy to move on. The trek to white, sandy beaches and coco locos began early on a Wednesday morning. We were all packed up and ready for an interesting day — we just didn’t know exactly how interesting it would be. While Shira and I went to grab waters, snacks and money from the ATM, Ginski ran over to the major dock and tried to see if we could score a cheap boat to this pristine island.  Once again, we had forgotten that it was Semana Santa, and half of the country was headed in the same direction. Dammit. We met Ginski at the dock and he told us the news. The boats were even more than we had heard, and not a single company was budging. So, plan B it was  –busses and motorbikes. We hesitantly headed towards the bus area (I can’t really call this mess a station) and looked for a bus headed to……wait. Where were we headed again? Busses don’t go to Playa Blanca, so we needed to get to a bus to a town we couldn’t think of for the life of us. Thank goodness Ginski has a killer memory and saw something that looked familiar — Pasacaballo. That was the town we needed and the bus gladly pulled over to let us on. It’s not a typical way for gringos to get there, so we got a few looks of confusion from the ayudante (drivers assistant who is responsible for collecting money and keeping up with passengers getting on and off). We each handed over all of $1700 COP (under $1 USD) and hopped on for the adventure. We went through some insane areas of Cartagena, which I absolutely loved. It doesn’t get more local than some of these parts, guys. Traffic rules are literally non-existent and the word “order” has yet to be introduced. Absolute madness, these towns.  After a million stops and pick-ups, the small little town of Pasacaballo snuck up on us. We wouldn’t have known that was our stop, but a group of about ten, shouting men running towards the bus from their motor bikes gave it away. They had spotted gold, better known as Gringos trying to get to Playa Blanca. Sweet! We had made it to the right town. We hopped off the bus and immediately, the local motorbikes swarmed us. They were all fighting for our business, which is standard here, or in any part of the world really.  Like we read earlier that morning, they wanted $15,000 (around $8 USD) for the entire ride, which included the fee to cross the canal. We chose our 3 guys — one for Shira, one for Ginski and one for myself. We were off! We purposely left the big backpacks at the hostel back in Cartagena because of the possibility of motorbikes. That might have been our best idea yet. No way those packs would have fit on the bikes. We comfortably carried our small, day-packs on our backs, held onto the driver and enjoyed the ride. About 20 minutes later, we approached a canal, which we had anticipated.  Wait. I should call this a “canal.” It was about 30 yards wide and took under a minute to cross. We were instructed to hop off the bikes so the drivers could wheel them onto the “ferry.” This “ferry” was a nothing more than a few pieces of plywood strapped onto an old row boat, now upgraded with some sort of engine. We could have paddled this bad boy across the “canal.”  Once we reached the other side, we hopped back on and enjoyed the last 5 minutes of the ride. At last, we were in Playa Blanca!


Just hopped off the bike at Playa Blanca. Excuse how amazing I look here. That awkward  smirk of mine really is the cherry on top, isn’t it? 


It was beautiful…..and packed. We weren’t really phased by it though, as I ran to the bathroom to throw my swimsuit on with the quickness. The beach is blue, clean and is lined with vendors for days. Wow. Souvenirs  food, drinks, massages, coco locos — you name it, Playa Blanca has it. We took a quick walk up and down and decided on our lodging place quickly. We just wanted to put our stuff down and get in the sunshine. I’m fairly certain we ended up selecting one of the sketchier places on the island, but they all looked the same during the day.  You have the choice of either sleeping in a hammock with a mosquito net, or a cabana– if you want to call it that. We opted for the oh-so-cheap hammock, obviously. There seemed to be a constant & heavy breeze, so I wasn’t too worried about the mosquitos overnight. We picked our hammocks, put our stuff down and instantly morphed into beach bums. I should note that we are all really good at it.  I should also note that this might be the most lethal sun I’ve ever experienced. Because there’s such a strong breeze, you don’t feel it. Thus, I wasn’t wearing sunscreen for the first hour or so as we roamed around in our suits, grabbed a beer and just sat and talked. Major “oops,” Emily. I can hear my parent’s now, specifically my Father. “Emily Ann!” It was a sneaky sunburn and an awful one at that. I expected to get a little sun while we were there, but as usual, never intended to burn myself.  That being said, we had an absolutely amazing day on the Caribbean. We got what we came for — Paradise.


You want to be here right now. I know. IMG_6335

IMG_6399 IMG_6338


My amazing Father’s birthday happend to fall on our day in Playa Blanca. The obligatory “Happy Birthday” in the sand had to be done and photographed. I uploaded once we were back to the land of Internet, and it was a huge hit. Dad’s oldest wins again!

Typical structure on the island. These huts line the beach and the hammocks hang from them, while cabanas sit just above. 

Our night on Playa Blanca was a bit different. I don’t want to call it weird, as that often has a negative connotation, but it was certainly interesting. Our “hostel” became really, really quiet after sunset, as does most of the island. It’s mostly a day time tourist attraction for people, so it empties out around 3:00 when all of the boats come back to retrieve the toursits. The budgeted backpackers are the ones who opt for the overnight trip with a hammock, and I’m glad. The island transforms once it empties out and the vibe is perfect. After sunset we wandered back down to the center of the beach where more seemed to be happening. We found a great dinner spot at another hostel, right on the water. There are no roads or real plumbing here, so everything is very simple and close. It’s just a massive beach lined with accommodation and food. The restaurant we chose had cheap eats and an awesome happy hour. We sat back and ate a typical dinner, drank Mojitos and Caipirinhas at 2 for 1 prices and chatted about anything. It was the perfect end to our day.  By the end of dinner I was freezing cold, thanks to my stupid sunburn.  I wanted to go back and bundle up in the hammock, but I knew Shira and Ginski wanted to have a few more beers. There seemed to be a party going on up the way, so they wanted in on it. For the first time in a while, I was completely fine with missing out on it. I was toast — literally.  I didn’t have much trouble getting to sleep, despite the burn, but that’s standard for me. Shira was still not feeling well and wasn’t comfortable in the hammock, so she hopped upstairs into one of the cabañas.  Ginski was in the hammock beside me and didn’t have the same luck. Cue the laughs. Early the next morning, we all exchanged sleeping stories. Ginski won. Everyone was complaining about the crappy sleep (barking dogs, strange sounds, people talking, etc.), when Ginski asks, “Did you guys hear the cow?”  Shira and I burst into laughter and begged him to tell us more. Apparently, the island cow roams around in the night and he head-butted Ginski, waking him up out of a dead sleep. True story. How’s that for wetting your pants? We heard a rumor about this before we arrived, but didn’t think much of it. Thank God it wasn’t me. The entire island would have heard me scream. Ginski said he just elbowed him right back in the head, and the cow buggered off. I’m still laughing out loud as I write this. You cannot make this shit up.


Coco Locos at sunset? Don’t mind if we do. It was a bit of a splurge, but they were delicious. 

Our local Coco Loco master. This guy is killer with a machete. Pun intended. IMG_6374

Shortly after our early morning laughs, it was time to depart. You only need a day and night on Playa Blanca, and Shira only had a week in Colombia. We wanted to take a boat back to Cartagena, as it was the easier option. Not to our surprise though, the prices were still high and the boats weren’t leaving until 3PM. No way, we thought. We needed to get back to Cartagena and onto our next destination, Taganga. Once again, we opted for the motorbike route and made the best of it. It was cheap and quick, allowing us to get back to Cartagena in time to catch another bus to Taganga.  It was a packed day of transit — motorbike, ferry, motorbike, local bus, then the dreaded, long bus to Taganga. We were determined to not waste time, so we powered through. Despite the uncomfortable seats, limited space and constant stops, we were happy campers. We were en route to a town known for it’s parties, hippie vibes and beautiful scenery.  Waking up on one beach and falling asleep on another? That’s just how I like things. Let the adventure continue, Colombia.

I’m already working on the next post, which will include the awesome town of Taganga,  Tayrona National Park, an unexpected camping trip, one hell of an unexpected trek, the oldest city in South America, and more.  I’m already looking forward to writing, which says a lot given my current word count of 3,772. Sheesh! I’m out for now, friends. Stay curious and stay tuned. Much love from wherever I am by the time this gets posted! X

This entry was published on May 1, 2013 at 11:18 am. It’s filed under Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.

6 thoughts on “From the Valley to the Ocean: Cartagena and Play Blanca

  1. Mom on said:

    Em, you awaken intrigue and you open our senses with your blogs. You effortlessly create a world to escape to. I hope everyone enjoys these as much as your mother does.

  2. Sean Brown on said:

    Incredible read, Colombia looks beautiful, I spent 5 years traveling back and forth to Santiago,Chile, its a little pricier than most of south america but very safe and beautiful, you should check it out someday.

  3. Thank you so much, Sean! So nice to hear from you! I thought I saw something on Facebook about your travels to South America. I think it was a year or 2 ago? So great that you’ve had that opportunity. I’ve heard great things about Chile and hope to get down there within the next few years. Thanks for the kind words and advice! Take care and keep traveling! 🙂

    • Sean Brown on said:

      Yeah, i loved it so much i got married there lol! Congrats to everything you’ve been able to accomplish so far, your story is inspirational, you’ll never regret getting out of the rat race and living the real life. Take care and safe travels!

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