We wimp out a bit at the end of our trip. Our Spanish lessons end on Friday and we only leave Monday evening so we have 3 free days to go somewhere. I have especially not planned these days so that we can decide on the spot what we most want to do. Original first choice had been Tayrona but that’s out because we don’t think Benjy will manage the five hour bus ride (each way) without getting really sick. Plus we’re not in the mood for more oppressive heat. Second choice is Medellin but we nix that because of cost of air tickets and the amount of time we’ll waste at airports, transit etc. The obvious choice is Islas Rosarios, but the prices we’re quoted are so outrageous that we decide against. We could stay in a hut on a beach somewhere, but as we and our children have got older, those kinds of options have started to lose their appeal.
Benjy really wants to go someplace with a pool (he has considered sneaking into the Santa Clara hotel pool, the incredibly fancy hotel just up the road from Tres Banderas) and preferably even a waterslide. My biggest lesson of the last few days is that in some cities – like those that get to 90 degrees by 9 in the morning – try staying in a place with a pool. So we go online and get a good deal at the Cartagena Hilton by the beach. After our final lesson, our final GCB lunch and our final trip to Exito, we get a taxi to Laguito where the hotel is. We’re suprised the driver has not heard of it; even more surprised that he thinks it’s the Houston hotel. I’m pretty sure the hotel will occupy a substantial piece of real estate and should be well known, but not evidently to him. We get lost a few times and when we get there, the hotel is huge, the sign is massive and there’s a long line of taxis outside.
On arrival, we’re surprised to learn that inadvertently we’ve booked into the Executive Club – whatever that is – and have some privileges.Those turn out to be pretty substantial and help make for a really fun time for all of us. Firstly, we have access to the Executive Lounge with free soft drinks, snacks, computer usage, and continental breakfast, the last of which obviously reduces the cost of our stay conveniently. We have other perks too : a discount on the bill, and the option of staying in the lounge after checkout on Monday (we do).
Benjy goes racing to the pool and waterslide while we take it a little easy. We go to the beach which is terrible. The water is as dark (and probably as dirty) as we’ve been told, and the sand is not much better, so we hang around the pool and lounge. That night we go for pizza nearby and take in the altogether different surroundings we find ourselves in. This is not the Cartagena city that we’ve been a part of the past week. This is a beach community with high rise condos and hotels everywhere, and holidaymakers all around. We can’t help but notice – you’d have to be blind not to notice – that there are apartment buildings going up literally everywhere.
Next morning we’re up early and go to the port. Through our school, we’ve booked a trip to the Rosario islands. Benjy’s skeptical, and it takes me only a few minutes to realize he’s right and this is a terrible mistake. The boat, Alcatraz, is a huge party style boat, packed to the brim. Whereas our main focus is the beach, it seems a lot of people find the actual boat a source of entertainment. It takes an excruciatingly long time to set off, then another 2 hours to get to Oceanario – the aquarium. Ironically very few people actually go in maybe recognizing this as a ripoff to try drum up support for Oceanario.Even worse, as we disembark, a crewmember takes photos for later purchase – photos of (in our case) disgruntled passengers wasting their time on a boat when we could be in the water. We get to swim in a miserable lagoon type parcel of water and then set off again.It’s a ridiculous 2pm when we get to Playa Blanca on Baru, having started at 8am. This is a trip that can be done in 45 minutes; the Alcatraz has somehow made it in 6 hours. Included in our tickets is a mediocre lunch, but at least we get to spend a couple of hours in the beautiful water. This is a gorgeous beach, as good as anything on San Andres (my opinion only – Benjy thinks Johnny Cay is better). While there are vendors everywhere, they can generally be ignored.The water color is perfect and the sand smooth and soft.
Eventually we have to leave, resolving to return. The boat makes good time, taking only 2 hours this time. We get a pleasant surprise at the hotel – the pool, which closes at the bizarrely early time of 6.30pm , will stay open till 8pm, so Benjy at least is happy.
Next morning, our last full day, we try our luck again. When we returned to the port the day before, people were selling tickets ONLY to Playa Blanca, so we know it should take about an hour to get there and can be done on a direct route. A guy at our beach offers to take us to ‘Playa Blanca’ for a decent price in a good time, so off we go. When we get there 1/2 an hour later, we’re at Tierrabomba, and although the sand somewhere may be ‘blanca’ the water is decidely ‘negro’. Now at least we feel like savvy travellers for we just won’t accept this, and demand to be taken back. A stormy session of negotiations ensues, but in the end, unpaid till now, they agree to take us to the real Playa Blanca, although for a heftier fee. We’re also riding in the flimsiest little boat you can imagine; it stalls a few times, has to stop on route for gas, but makes it in the end.
We spend a few wonderful hours in the water before heading back. The little boat rocks in the now wilder water and it gets pretty hairy for a while. But after an hour the coastline of the city appears and as we near our hotel, we see all the mass construction going on. It’s the most I’ve seen since Beijing in 2007 which is saying something.
After Benjy’s mandatory time in the pool, we head back into town. It’s our last night in a great city at the end of a great trip, and I don’t want to leave without seeing this wonderful place again. The city is at its best – there are street markets and vendors, people everywhere, a terrific atmosphere, and walking around we even find places we haven’t seen before. Set up has begun for the next day’s National Day celebrations but sadly we’ll miss that. Over dinner, while I’m being crushed at cards, Benjy asks me if Cartagena is one of the best cities I’ve visited, and after a while I give it second place (after Barcelona, ahead of Hanoi).
It’s been a spectacular trip.