The LBA Latin America awards

As the Latin American leg of the Let’s Be Adventurers world tour draws to a close, now’s the time to reward the best and shame the worst of our discoveries as latter-day conquistadors.

Best night’s sleep

Hostel Lao: Mendoza, Argentina

It’s just got everything. Hot water and decent pressure in the shower, good WiFi, convenient location to get the bus out to wine valleys, friendly and helpful staff, comfy beds, good social area and a nice garden, wine for sale and a great crowd of people. Fabulous place.

Highly commended

El Pueblito: El Bolson, Argentina

El Pueblito hostel, Argentina

A forest fire in the region gave the hostel an ethereal glow but it’s really not spooky, honest!

A beautiful old wooden chalet-style home from home in a stunning valley. It is nestled away from the main road, next to a clean and cool river that’s perfect for an invigorating dip before dinner. They bake incredible bread and the staff are simply wonderful, helpful, friendly, people. Rooms are a bit rustic, but that’s the charm.

‘What a dump’ award for shabbiest hostel

Favela Chic: Foz de Iguacu, Brazil

More favela than chic. The roof leaked so our bags got soaked through during heavy rain. The WiFi didn’t work, the food was garbage and the staff were beyond weird. The fact that there was no-one else there gave the whole place a desolate vibe and the owner tried to charge us twice. Click here for Franki’s amazing TripAdvisor review.

Best end-of-a-hard-day drink

La Vineria: El Chalten

After a long hard slog through the Patagonian mountains, enjoy their huge range of craft beers, a giant wine selection, brilliant music, friendly bar staff and tasteful decor, plus you can see Mount Fitzroy out of the window on a clear day. What’s not to love?

Highly commended

Havana: Cartagena, Colombia

OK, so it’s a Cuban theme bar with its fair share of tourists. But damn it’s fun. Salsa the night away among people who can dance much better than you, weaving around a huge well-stocked bar, to the sounds of a live Cuban band blowing their lungs out. Magica.

Worst hangover

Rio de Janeiro

After a night on the caipirinhas with a Polish pal we made that same night, Rio had us well and truly beaten. Some people talk about feeling like death warmed up. When it’s 40 degrees out, that phrase rings truer than ever. Ouch. Kill us. Kill us now.

Best street art

Valparaiso, Chile

A masterpiece on every flat surface, that’s the beauty of this soulful city.

Valpo, as the locals call it, is legendary for food and drink too. So there is plenty to look at as you reel homewards down its precipitous streets. Check out my blog featuring some of the best of Valpo’s open-air creations.

 

Highly commended

Buenos Aires, Argentina

Take one of the local street art tours and learn about the artists behind the giant, colourful murals found all over the city.

Gabriel Garcia Marquez award for magic realism

Salento, Colombia

Perhaps it ought to be sultry Cartagena, the fictionalised version of which is the backdrop for Love in a Time of Cholera. But for us, Salento was an other-wordly, dreamlike paradise.

Fog rolls through vivid green hills dotted with the world’s tallest palm trees, which look like they belong in a fantasy movie.

Highly commended

Trancoso, Brazil

A twinkly, groovy, tranquil, dingly dell of a beach town, the centrepiece a huge village green surrounded by ramshackle houses daubed in bright colours. At night the whole place is dimly lit with hundreds of lanterns, as overawed tourists and ageing hippies who came here long ago mingle beneath the stars. My sense of surrealism may have been enhanced by the strong muscle relaxants I was taking for a totally knackered back. Oh, the beach is gorgeous as well.

We spent Christmas there and you can read all about how wonderful that was – and see more pictures – here.

Best place to stuff your face

Siete Cocinas: Mendoza, Argentina

It ought to be good because it ain’t cheap. But if you’ve bought your pesos on the blue market, it’s not too bad. The concept is a mix of cuisines from Argentina’s seven regions. The tasting menu was exquisite and we finally achieved our ambition of getting through two bottles of wine with dinner.

Highly commended

Flor de Lis: Guatemala City, Guatemala

Confession time, this establishment is owned by our great friend Harold Caballeros-Arimany (pictured, with his lovely wife Monique) but we didn’t include it only for that reason.

Flor de Lis restaurant

When Franki’s hair was red and mine was plentiful.

Harold and his team of talented chefs have created an amazing degustation menu of genuine high quality, using Guatemalan ingredients in completely novel and delicious ways. A real treat.

Funniest menu translations

La Cevicheria: Cartagena, Colombia

What heart of stone could see “Lovely Wet Lobster Rice” on the menu and not order it.

Highly commended

Nice restaurant whose name we sadly can’t remember: Salvador, Brazil

“Chicken asleep on a bed of spices”. I don’t know how to break it to you guys but the chicken wasn’t just sleeping.

Hairiest moment

Threatened with police in Guatemala

You know you’ve said the wrong thing when a middle-aged woman starts filming you on her phone and says she has called the police. Run. Run really quite fast.

Highly commended

Running out of money in Patagonia

Patagonia

So…what now?

You have no cash, half a tank of petrol and you are 300 miles from the nearest working cash machine. Time to think laterally.

Catchiest tune

Rebellion by Joe Arroyo

If you spend any time on buses, you’re going to hear a lot of salsa and merengue and it’s going to get pretty tedious pretty quickly. But I just never tire of listening to this musical account of Latin America’s slave trade by Colombia’s Joe Arroyo.

OK, i’m basically obsessed with it. That whimsical piano solo, man…you can watch the whole video here.

 

Worst bus ride

Foz de Iguacu to Sao Paulo, Brazil

20+ gruelling hours. If you have any money at all, fly.

Best bus ride

Bariloche to Mendoza, Argentina

Bus bingo with a bottle of wine as the prize! We didn’t but the sheer novelty cheered us for the 13 hours of sadly bingo-less bus journey that followed. The trip through the Andes is pretty eye-catching too. Thank you Andesmar bus company.

Booze of the World ‘Tippler’s Choice’ award

Ron Zacapa, Guatemala

Repeatedly voted the world’s best rum for a reason. Pure, heartwarming joy in a glass. The original Booze of the World post about it can be found here.

Highly commended

Malbec in Mendoza. So much to choose from, so little time.

So that was the end of our time in Latin America. Now the small matter of a 13-hour flight across the dateline to New Zealand…hasta luego Latinoamerica!

Mount Fitzroy in the background, Franki and Rob

Bye bye to scenes like this…

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bogota colombia

Colombia: The Debrief

Stuff we did that you can do too…

Eat: Bandeja paisa

This Medellin dish isn’t so much a delicacy as a massive heart attack on a plate. The ingredients are fried pork, red beans, white rice, ground beef, black pudding, fried egg, plantains, avocado and arepa (Colombian flatbread).

There are variations to this of course but however you do it, a bandeja paisa makes the English Breakfast look like a wheatgrass and kale smoothie.

Medellin food

Don’t worry, he didn’t eat the whole thing – we shared a plate

Drink: Aguapanela

Made by dissolving unrefined cane sugar in either hot or cold water. Essentially it’s nothing more exciting than sugary water, but the addition of a bit of lemon or lime turns it into a refreshing pick-me-up on hot days. You’ll find it sold on city streets, while out in the country it’s just as good for attracting hummingbirds as it is for refreshing tired hikers.

hummingbird sanctuary

Try: A game of tejo

This is a game that dates back to pre-Columbian times. Players hurl metal discs weighing about 680g at gunpowder-filled squibs resting in pits full of clay, some 20m away. A loud bang means you scored points, but you can find out more about the scoring system here. Tejo is second only to football in the Colombia sporting consciousness. Best played while drinking copious amounts of beer.

Buy: Fresh coffee

There’s surprisingly little good stuff available to order in cafes or restaurants, with most of the quality beans earmarked for export. But near the coffee-making town of Salento, you can pick up some great fresh beans and grind them yourself. Try the Don Elias coffee tour and pick up a bag at the end.

salento coffee tour

Do: Consider flying instead of taking the bus

Buses are still the cheapest way to get around but Colombia has some surprisingly cheap and regular flights between its major cities. Check out Avianca or, if you can do without hold luggage, low-cost airline Viva Colombia does some good deals. The mix of dense jungle, high mountain plains and plunging valleys means that it can take 20 hours to get between cities that really aren’t that far away from one another. So if you book early and grab a good deal, flying can spare you a long journey through winding roads with someone being sick in a bag next to you. Seriously.

Don’t: Believe the scare stories

As Rob discussed in his post on former murder capital Medellin, Colombia has come a hell of a long way in the last decade. Reputations take longer to change than reality and it’s likely that friends and family will bombard you with horror stories about Colombia.* The truth is, the necessary precautions are much the same as you would take in any other part of Latin America. Of course Colombia has crime. The drugs trade has not vanished overnight (though it is largely contained in certain areas) and the wealth divide exists just as it does anywhere. Obviously don’t go wandering into the dodgiest neighbourhood at night waving your iPhone but would you really do that in any city?

Bogota skyline

Bogota is perfectly safe as long as you’re sensible

Above all, don’t let your preconceptions (or other people’s) stand in the way of getting the most out of this amazing, magical country.

* Or, if you’re Franki’s dad, a warning based entirely on a fictional scene in the film Romancing The Stone.

And not forgetting…

…the time our taxi was held up for half an hour by about ten thousand roller-bladers dressed in Father Christmas outfits. Colombians don’t do Christmas by halves.

Medellin Colombia

Booze of the World 3: Colombia

On to Colombia now. It may be famous more for its intoxicating powders than its beverages but there’s a craft beer revolution stirring…
 
Aguardiente: Found in different forms across Latin America, aguardiente literally means ‘fire water’. In Colombia it’s a grimace-inducing concoction made of sugar cane and flavoured, unfathomably in my opinion, with aniseed.
Aguardiente Antiuqueno

Warning: This beverage can seriously contort your face (Source: Wikipedia)

You’ll see the stuff being ordered by the bottle and shared around at parties and bars, particularly in the high mountainous regions. I’m probably not the fairest judge because I loathe aniseed and Colombian Aguardiente tastes like some evil genius fermented Liquorice Allsorts. Imagine someone extracted everything that makes Sambucca vaguely drinkable and you’re halfway to understanding the awfulness.

Check out this blog for a witty account of the horror of aguardiente.

Beer: As we move out of Central America, the beer situation improves markedly. Yes, you are still assaulted with Latin much-of-a-muchness pilsners, such as Aguila, Pilsen and the slightly more complex Club Colombia.

But Colombians have noted the micro-brewing revolutions going on elsewhere and are responding, with varying degrees of success. 3 Cordilleras, Moonshine and Apostol all boast a strong range including Pale Ales, Weizen and Ambers, most of which offer a decent alternative to light pilsner without being particularly memorable. They can be found in many supermarkets and some bars in the bigger cities too.

The most successful among the new brewing breed is the Bogota Beer Company, which has the most impressive armoury of anywhere I’ve found in Latin America so far.

Bogota Beer Company

Three of BBC’s impressive range of brews (Source: http://www.creadictos.com)

Its range includes a 5% ABV ‘English recipe’ Chapinero Porter, the Candelaria Clasica IPA and the Monserrate Roja (red ale). I was particularly pleased with the Cajica Honey Ale, which succeeds in avoiding the sickliness you get with some honeyed beers.

The highlight though was the Raquel pale ale from the Chelarte brewery, a robust and hoppy American ale at 5% ABV that could hold its own among what you’d find in any bar in Portland or San Francisco. Here it is alongside a tasty Moonshine Amber Ale, served with dinner at Bogota’s wonderful Salvo Patria restaurant (featured in Franki’s ‘How to be a hipster in Bogota’ post).

Raquel and Moonshine cervezas

Raquel and Moonshine, not two strippers but some great Colombian beers

Other: Slim pickings beyond beer and aguardiente i’m afraid. Colombia’s big cities all have some high-end restaurants but if you’re drinking wine you will be emptying your wallet pretty quickly.

If you like gin (hello Franki!) be prepared for a shock. It may be among the cheapest drinks in Anglo-Saxon countries but it sells for the price of a small car in Colombia. Honourable mention goes to the Agua de Mar restaurant in Cartagena, which has a comprehensive gin list, albeit for a king’s ransom.

Being Caribbean, Cartagena also has plenty of rum on offer but nothing local to write home about.

The verdict

Top tipple: Un Cajica Honey Ale por favor.

Gourmet’s choice: The Raquel pale ale from Chelarte

Bubbling under: A gin and tonic at Agua de Mar, Cartagena

What to slur drunkenly: “I frickin’ HATE aniseed!!

Next stop on Booze of the World: Caipirinha time…it’s Brazil

* Sobering tip: Do not leave your drink unattended. Drink-spiking with the aim of robbing or sexually assaulting people is a problem in Colombia. Be aware of where your drink is at all times and don’t accept anything from strangers that isn’t sealed when you get it.

Caffeine dreams in Salento

We were due to arrive in Salento around 4pm. At 3.55 the storm that had been threatening all afternoon, as we made our way through the Antioquia countryside from Medellin, broke.

Hauling our already-drenched backpacks onto our shoulders, we splashed across the flooded street into the tiny tourist office where we stood shivering until someone was able to call us a cab. I say “cab”. In Salento local taxis come in the form of 40-year-old Jeeps.

Nestled in the Quindío hills and the heart of Colombia’s coffee country, Salento is tiny, scruffy, but oddly charming. The whole place seems to move at an appealingly slow pace and the colonial architecture in the town square and its surrounding streets add a touch of vibrancy to this sleepy town.

Salento Colombia

Outside the centre it’s fair to say the rest of the town is plainer and more functional. Fewer than 8000 people live here and they work in agriculture, tourism, and of course coffee production.

But the countryside that surround the town is breathtaking and that, after all, is why we’re here.

Salento Colombia

We arrived dripping wet at La Serrana, our farmhouse-style hostel, where they have hot showers (our first for a while). The cosy common area, filled with solid furniture and agricultural curios, was a welcome retreat from the thundering weather and we were only to happy to settle ourselves in for the evening.

People, ourselves included, come to Salento for two things: coffee and palm trees. We started with palm trees.

Nearby Valle de Corcora is home to the world’s tallest palm trees. A looped walking trail that takes you through the lush valley, up into the hills, reaching altitudes of 2400 metres, and back down again. It takes around five hours.

We took a jeep from the town square around 11am, arriving around 11.30. The last jeep back was due to leave the valley at 5pm. Which gave us exactly five and a half hours. Time to crack on.

Vintage jeep

The route is not so much a walk as a scramble. It’s muddy, rocky, jungly, steep, wet and in parts you’re following the river so closely you’re practically in it. On our way up we passed a British family with two boys under five. At least two of the party were wearing sandals. I will never know how they managed it.

Valle de Corcora
Oh, and did I mention the dark clouds were starting to gather again?

Still, we weren’t going to be discouraged. We had heard there was a hummingbird sanctuary at the top where they also (and perhaps most crucially) served drinks and lunch.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora

Like I said, it’s jungly.

We clambered over boulders, scrambled up muddy banks, lost our footing on several occasions and once, while balancing precariously on a tiny strip of path between a barbed wire fence and a muddy trench, slipped and accidentally grabbed a handful of spikes.

From the start of the trail to the hummingbird sanctuary took us just under two hours and after the uphill climb we were looking forward to sitting down for a hearty lunch.

Except it didn’t quite go like that. The “hummingbird sanctuary” is actually the home of a canny local woman who has put out bird feeders filled with agua panela  or sugar water to attract wildlife. And “lunch” is whatever she has in her larder to sell. By the time we arrived at almost 1.30pm, the cupboard was  virtually bare. Options included a single chorizo sausage, mugs of hot chocolate and some agua panela served with cheese (pretty much as revolting as it sounds). We said yes to everything.

As we sat down to pick at our meagre meal, we saw there were two hikers already there, finishing off what was clearly the last of hummingbird lady’s reserves.

“I’m done with mine, you’re welcome to finish it if you like,” said one, pushing a quarter of a plate of seasoned rice towards me. I am not in the slightest bit ashamed to say I took it. And I’m not embarrassed to admit the world looked a lot better after that leftover stranger-rice. Plus, there were hummingbirds.

Hummingbird sanctuary Colombia

Hummingbird sanctuary Salento

On the way back  towards the trail we bumped into the British family with the kids, still climbing, the younger of the boys now riding on his dad’s back.

“Is it much further,” the dad asked. We assured him it was not.

“And can we get drinks there? Lunch?”

We hesitated, unsure whether we had the heart to tell them.

“There’s hot chocolate,” I volunteered.

“Wow, boys, hear that? Hot chocolate!”

And so with happy cries of “Hot chocolate! Hummingbirds!” they continued on their way. We, emboldened (and a little humbled) by the enthusiasm of these two tiny humans, scrambling through the Colombian jungle spurred on only by the vague promise of a hot chocolate, decided to hike on and climb to the top of the hill.

The Valle de Corcora trail begins at the road. You can start in the valley, as we did, and scramble up alongside the river, making a 1.5km detour to visit the hummingbirds, before climbing the final, steep, kilometre up to the finca (farmhouse) on top of the hill. From the finca, the walk down to the valley is an easy two-hour descent down a dirt road with breathtaking views along the way. Alternatively you can do it the other way around.

If you’re not much of a hiker, I’d very much suggest you do the latter because that final climb is killer. Also the breath-taking views are very much cloud-dependent.

Valle de Corcora

Hmm. That said, there’s something wonderfully spooky about catching your first glimpse of the famous palm trees through the rolling fog.

Valle de Corcora

Valle de Corcora’s wax palms are the tallest palm trees in the world. Up to 60 metres high, they seem barely possible as they sway over the lush landscape. The effect is almost fantastical, like a set from a science fiction movie.

“At any moment,” said Rob, reading my mind, “we’re going to see a brontosaurus lurching towards us.”

As we descended out of the clouds, our surroundings became clearer and the verdant, mist-soaked hills rose up before us, studded with these amazing trees.

World's tallest palm trees

Towering above and around us on every side, they were every bit as breath-taking as we had been promised. Naturally, I took about a hundred photos but I’m going to be very self-restrained and only post one more…

World's tallest palm trees

It was difficult to drag ourselves away. But the last Jeep back to Salento was due to depart and we had to go. We made it back to the road with fifteen minutes to spare.

The following day we went to visit a local plantation. Like many tourists, we had flocked to the area in the hope of sampling some of the purest, freshest Colombian produce, close to source.

Yes, as stoners to Amsterdam, so we came to Salento in search of coffee. Our hostel recommended the Finca Don Elias but be warned, the sign is hard to spot and the farm next door does a good line in nodding and smiling at confused visitors as they usher you in to their tour. Just so you know for sure that you’re in the right place, here’s the man himself, offering us bananas which he grows among the coffee plants to act as a pest-deterrent.

Don Elias coffee plantation

The plantation is entirely organic, as it has been since they started business when Don Elias was a young man. Banana, mango and pineapple trees provide shade while their fruits attract bugs away from the coffee and provide sweet compost for the soil.

Beans are picked by hand, and shelled using a hand-cranked machine. They are then laid out in a makeshift tarpaulin greenhouse to dry and roasted in great pans on top of the brick oven.

Don Elias coffee plantation

And if you want to buy a bag of coffee – which obviously we did – you also have to grind it by hand.

Don Elias coffee plantation

All that was left was to sit down and enjoy a cup of the stuff. There are pictures of me doing so but they’re not for public consumption. Let’s just say grinding coffee is sweaty work.

That evening we went out to sample Salento’s nightlife. You think I’m being ironic but let me ask you this, when was the last time you threw chunks of metal at a clay pit filled with gunpowder?

Tejo, the local pastime, involves arranging small packets of gunpowder into a “target” shape in the clay and throwing a 680g metal disc at this target. The gunpowder, as you would expect, explodes on impact and there are different amounts of points allocated depending on where on the target you hit. The pros (yes, really) throw from a distance 20 metres. We tried it from five.

I am and always have been terrible at all forms of sport so I don’t mind telling you I failed to trigger a single explosion. Rob, however, would like me to let you know that he got two direct hits. On the sidelines our new local friends barbecued meat and drank aguardiente  (a local aniseed liqueur) as though nothing in the world made more sense than to combine alcohol, fire, and explosive materials.

Finally, tired, tipsy and with the scent of gunpowder still in our nostrils, we made our way back to the hostel.

After three days in coffee country we packed up and were on our way back to the capital feeling as though we’d awoken from a strange and wonderful dream. Once again we’d experienced Colombia’s unique brand of magic… and, much like the coffee, it’s addictive.

Salento Colombia

Cartagena street art

Love in a town of colour: Exploring romantic Cartagena

When my dad heard I was going to Colombia he did what most parents would do and gave me some parental advice. Not, as you might expect, about the dangers of travelling through the still-unstable rural areas. He did not tell me to steer clear of the perilous borderlands, nor lecture me on the dangers of illegal drugs, no.

What he said was: “Don’t take the bus to Cartagena.”

[No time to read? Skip to the end for my top 5 things to do in Cartagena.]

If you don’t get the reference, don’t worry, neither did I. Luckily my dad was only too happy to enlighten me.

For those unfamiliar with the 1984 classic Romancing The Stone, this is what happens to Kathleen Turner when she hops on a bus to the northern coastal city (the first 30 seconds pretty much covers it).

Yikes. In the end I flew to Cartagena. Not because I was worried about ending up in a ditch (in fact I am afraid of flying so on most occasions I would far rather take the bus), but because the bus from Bogota to Cartagena takes 20 hours while a flight takes an hour and fifteen minutes.

Cartagena was somewhere I’d been looking forward to. Mixing Spanish heritage with Caribbean climate, not only is it intensely attractive but it’s history and culture makes it unique within Colombia.

Cartagena street art

The city, perched on the edge of the Caribbean Sea was once among the most important ports in the whole of Latin America. Founded in 1553, Cartagena de Indias (to give it its full title) became a crucial stopping point on the way east from Peru and Ecuador onward to Cuba and Puerto Rico and back across the Atlantic to Spain.

The Spanish quickly found gold in Colombia, as they did elsewhere, and Cartagena itself was home to many indigenous burial sites, all filled with treasures that could be traded and sold. Unsurprisingly with so much gold passing through the port, the city was also a prime target for pirates – something that probably only adds to its story-book appeal.

But the uncomfortable truth is that a lot of Cartagena’s wealth came from the slave trade. In the 17th century the city became an official slave-trading centre – only the second in Latin America (the other was in Mexico). In fact many of the old city’s buildings were built on money made this way. Suddenly they don’t seem quite as charming, do they?

Beneath Cartagena’s dreamy surface lies a history at best uneasy and at times really quite dark. It’s a place of legend and mystery, romance and cruelty. It’s the town that inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez’ fictional coastal setting in Love In A Time Of Cholera (in fact the city did suffer a major cholera outbreak in the 1800s) and after just a few days here, I think I can see why.

Cartagena street

The walled Old Town is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Outside this, it’s an ordinary working city and port with the majority of its 1million+ inhabitants working in maritime logistics, manufacture and exports (eg coal, petrol, sugar, and coffee), and of course tourism.

Cartagena skyline

Cartagena port

It’s as popular a holiday destination with Colombians as it is with foreigners and most people stay in one of the many chic hotels in the Old Town itself, in hostels in nearby Getsemaní, or in one of the purpose-built tower block hotels in affluent Bocagrande

I arrived alone on a Friday afternoon in December. Rob had left Bogota two days earlier to go to Valle Dupar for work and so I was going solo for the first time since we’d left the UK. I meandered idly round the vibrant streets and alleyways of Getsemaní – the ‘popular’ quarter just outside the walled city – taking pictures, enjoying being answerable only to myself.

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

Getsemani Cartagena

But as the evening drew in and I made my way towards to twinkling Christmas lights of the walled city, I began to miss my travel buddy. Not just for his Spanish-speaking skills (although they would have come in handy when I tried to explain to the hostel receptionist that to simply tell me “There six beds and only five lockers and yours is the one without the locker – sorry, is that ok?” was really not ok), but because Cartagena is seriously romantic.

Tiny, tucked-away restaurants, leafy plazas full of fairy lights, candlelit bars perched high on the old walls, overlooking the ocean, music, dancing – we’re talking picture-postcard levels of romance here.

Cartagena walled city

In fact I’d go as far as to say Cartagena is the second-prettiest city I’ve ever been to. I’ll give you to the end of this blog post to guess what the first is!

I consoled myself in Rob’s absence as any pining lover would: by going to the Spanish Inquisition Museum and looking at torture devices.

Cartagena was a key tribunal site for the Spanish Inquisition, with over 1000 people questioned and tortured here between 1610, when the tribunal was established, and 1700. The Palacio de la Inquisición, in Plaza de Bolíva is small and there isn’t an awful lot to see. But you can check out some of the more grisly means of interrogation and gauge whether you’d have passed the questioning. (Spoiler: You wouldn’t have.)

Spanish inquisition

Rob arrived on Saturday evening, tired, sweaty and, having eaten little more than an empanada and a bag of Colombian Wotsits in the last 24 hours, very much looking forward to a decent meal. We went to La Cevicheria, a seafood restaurant I’d scoped out, knowing that both of us love Peruvian ceviche and having heard that they did it pretty well in Cartagena. It was one of the best meals we had in Colombia.

Reinvigorated by delicious fresh fish and a bottle of House White, we decided to check out Havana, a Cuban-themed club on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10 in Getsemaní. We took our place in the (mercifully short) queue, paid our 20,000 peso (£5.60) entry and went through the velvet curtain to emerge in a high-ceilinged hall dominated by an old-fashioned brass bar that starts at the back wall, runs almost the full length of the room before curving back round towards the far side once again. The place exuded an easy glamour, all twinkling lamps, clinking glasses and a nine-piece live salsa band. Photos of Cuban musicians and politicians decorated the walls and around the bar, tables were pushed back against the wall to allow people to dance… which we did, with varying degrees of aptitude and indeed coordination as the night wore on.

Havana club Cartagena

We nursed our hangovers, the following day, up at Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. The fort was built in in the mid 1500s and it one of the biggest and strongest ever built by the Spaniards. What remains today appears at first glance to be a rather ugly stack of stone. But it does have some pretty good tunnels, climbing between one level and another. For someone who still, at the age of 30, feels a flutter of childlike excitement at the thought of a secret passage, this seemed a decent trade-off.

The fort is also where the video for Colombian salsa singer Joe Arroyo’s hit La Rebelion was filmed, a song we discovered in Cartagena and which is now on our ‘travel playlist’ alongside some seriously dodgy Guatemalan hip hop and a lot of Latin power pop. Drawing on the history of the city it tells the story of a slave and his wife who decide to rebel and escape their masters.

If you’re on holiday or travelling it is customary to try to be on a beach on Monday morning so as to be able to post a smug “Monday morning… doesn’t look so bad from here ;)” comment for the benefit of all your buddies back at home, who are easing themselves into a new working week. Of course, in Cartagena, the majority of your morning will be spent fending off tour agents, all of whom want to convince you their identical (and more or less identically priced) trip is the one to sign up to. Then, when you’ve finally agreed to part with some cash, flung your name on the nearest clipboard, and been issued with your tickets, you will spend another hour or two waiting on the dock while everyone around you seems to be getting on a boat until finally your name is called and you set off. The tedious rigmarole is such that I’d almost tell you not to bother. But if this is likely to be your only taste of the Caribbean, as it was for us, then you should go for it. And the beach, when you finally get there, is pretty heavenly.

Playa Blanca Cartagena

We rounded the Cartagena leg of our trip off with a visit to the Totumo Mud Volcano ($35,000/£10 each and we booked it through our hostel). The legend goes that it was once an active volcano which was exorcised by a priest who sprinkled holy water into its crater and turned its fire and ash to nourishing mud. According to locals, the mud is so rich in volcanic minerals that ten minutes inside will make you look ten years younger. I know, ridiculous.

We’d also heard tales of tourists, herded in to be summarily scrubbed and washed and filed out like a production line, with each person along the way demanding a handful of pesos for their services. At least one traveller told us categorically that it wasn’t worth doing. We did it anyway.

With it being the Christmas holidays, our tour bus was made up almost exclusively of vacationing Colombians whose infectious enthusiasm quickly dispelled any doubts we had about the trip. It was also where we met Ivan and his family, a Paisa who a few days later would show us round his home town of Medellin with equal enthusiasm.

Once up on the ‘volcano’ we shuffled round the edge before climbing down the ladder into the muddy crater. As the warm, grey sludge closed over our limbs, we found ourselves grabbed and ordered to relax and lie back for the massage. Tentatively we did. And while the massage itself is nothing particularly life-changing, the feeling of floating in a pit of mud 15 metres deep was very cool indeed.

Cartagena mud volcano

The mud gives you so much buoyancy that it’s actually difficult to stay upright as your legs keep trying to pop up to the surface. Eventually I managed to manoeuvre myself into a sort of standing position, suspended in the mud and from there could enjoy watching everybody else shriek with delight and bewilderment at the sensation.

Afterwards we made our way down to the lake to wash off with the (unsolicited) help of local women who scrubbed our skin, hair and even – having ordered us to take them off – rinsed and wrung out our swimsuits. Of course, all these people – the masseurs, the washerwomen, and the man who looks after your camera and takes snaps of you – do require paying ($3000/85p apiece). Given the utterly bonkers nature of the whole experience, not to mention how much I’d enjoyed myself, this didn’t seem too unreasonable.

On the bus on the way back, a young lad got on, explained he was saving up to go to music college, and then proceeded to belt out versions of local pop songs while accompanying himself on the guitar. Our new Colombian friends all joined in, looking at us questioningly when they saw we weren’t singing along. Okay, it’s not quite up there with Kathleen Turner’s bus trip experience… but it’s close.

 

Five cool things to do in Cartagena

1. Eat at La Cevicheria.

The classic Peruvian dish ceviche – raw fish and seafood marinated in citrus juices and chilli – can also be found in neighbouring Colombia, particularly on the coast of where the fish is fresh and plentiful. This place, on the corner or Carrera 7 and Calle 39 was fantastic. The blue and white colour theme, with fish and mermaid motifs just manages to squeeze in this side of kitsch and it serves an array of delicious seafood combinations, both hot and cold – all well worth the hour-long wait for a table. NB it’s closed on Tuesdays.

2. Lose yourself in winding cobbled streets.

Did I mention Cartagena was pretty? So pretty in fact that it’s quite easy to while away a day simply wandering around the old town, snapping pictures and stopping for the occasional coffee/beer/fresh coconut. I highly recommend losing at least a morning to its streets.

3.  Take a bath in a mud volcano

We’d heard that this was a bit of a tourist trap. No one is quite sure whether the stories about how the mud volcano came to be are true (the ones about it having been an active volcano, not the ones about the mud god) but the pull of doing something this unusual was too much for us. I can’t vouch for how beneficial it is but I can tell you it’s hilarious fun. We signed up through our hostel and it cost $35,000 (£10).

4. Salsa the night away in a Cuban-themed bar

It says something not very complimentary about our own culture that when we read that Havana, on the corner of Media Luna and Carrera 10, was the city’s best nightclub, we imagined a dingy, sticky-floored dive full of coked-up backpackers and churning out Latin electro-house. Instead what we found behind the curtain was a stylish cocktail bar full of  old-style charm and a live salsa band.

5. Dibble your toes in Caribbean waters

If this is your only  chance to hit the beach in Colombia (it was for us) then you’ll want to make the trip to Playa Blanca. While the city’s own polluted beaches are decidedly unenticing, the nearby Islas del Rosario and Isla Baru have everything you expect of their Caribbean location: white sands, clear turquoise waters, palm trees full of coconuts and beach shacks selling scrummy fried fish.

To get the most out of the beach you really need to stay there for a night or two but this can be prohibitively expensive (on Islas del Rosario) or unappealingly basic (on Playa Blanca). To do it in a day you’ll need to get up early and make your way to the port where ticket touts will compete to sell your their identical tours. Most cost around $60,000 (£17) and take you to visit various parts of Islas del Rosario, including a stop at the reportedly unimpressive aquarium, before dropping you at the beach for about two hours. If you want to skip the tour and go straight to the beach (as we did) you can easily negotiate this and you’ll pay a bit less, too. The return boats leave Playa Blanca no later than 3.30pm so it’s worth setting out early if you want to make a day of it. To work out which boat is likely to get going soonest, ask to see the tout’s clipboard before signing up. The boats leave when they’re full so the clipboard with the most names on it is the one you want to sign!

Cartagena Colombia

Oh by the way, the most attractive city I’ve ever been to is, of course, Venice. Did you guess correctly?