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Colombia's Caribbean

Created by Giulia Grazzini

The spit of land stretching from Cartagena to Sierra Nevada de Santa Maria, along the Caribbean coast of Colombia, is a destination rich in cultural heritage and natural beauty. The bright colors of the old colonial architecture of Cartagena are only an introduction to the vibrant thriving world within. Cartagena is nested inside an eight-mile-long fortress wall built in the 17th century, and within it pulses a magnificent world of diverse cuisines, passionate salsa dancing and cultural traditions that have endured for centuries. Six hours away rests the Tayrona National Park emanating its world-class beauty. It is in these places that I found myself for a week last May.

Typical Spanish colonial architecture in Cartagena Walled City. Photo by Giulia Grazzini​

Tayrona National Park. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

Cartagena, washed in sun and adorned with colors, is an architectural marvel to admire and a colorful labyrinth to get lost in. The well preserved colonial section of the town, also a UNESCO Heritage site, gives visitors a sense of history as it feels like time is moving backward with every step. I arrived on a humid Saturday afternoon. The air was thick enough to cut with a knife and the thought of walking out on the streets was nauseating. However, I don’t like to let little things like weather stop me from exploring.

As the taxi entered the Ciudad Amurallada (the Walled City), where my hotel was located, I immediately forgot about any fatigue and was excited to wander through the bright narrow streets adorned with bougainvillea-draped balconies and large wooden doors. I just wanted to get lost, flattering my eyes with majestic scenes of towering church spires and palm bordered plazas.


Cartagena architecture. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

The night of my arrival, I indulged in an authentic dinner of coconut rice, grilled robalo (sea bass), avocado slices and patacones (fried green plantains). While I ate, I swayed to the rhythm of live salsa music coming from the bar behind me.

Robalo at La Mulata restaurant. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

Cafe del Mar in Cartagena Walled City. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

Feeling transported by the melody, I took advantage of my remaining energy and hopped in a taxi headed for Café Havana, the most famous bar for live salsa in the charming neighborhood of Getsemaní, (located just outside the old walls). This neighborhood, despite the live music scene and the artistic community spirit, was the epitome of the gentrification that the area was going through: it was clear in the architecture and in the provocative graffiti that Getsemaní used to be a sketchy enclave; but has become the hot spot for nightlife today. With more attention being focused on the neighborhood by the government, it has emerged from a complicated past and evolved into a burgeoning barrio. The murals painted by locals represent new issues that are plaguing Getsemaní, such as racial segregation, destruction of historical buildings and increased tourism. When Café Havana opened its doors in 2006, it changed the impression that the neighborhood had on visitors. It attracted an excited crowd of locals and tourists with live salsa bands and potent mojitos in a setting reminiscent of the run-down warehouse it used to be, and it has been a hit ever since.

Cartagena at Night. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

The morning of my second day in Cartagena, I walked to Café San Alberto to treat myself with a premium Colombian espresso. With espresso in hand, I walked down the streets of the city. Wherever I turned, I saw posters and reminders of the nearby beach, Playa Blanca (White Beach). I didn’t have a desire to see Playa Blanca as I was sure that it was overflowing with tourists, so I decided instead to venture to Isla Baru. Baru is a 90 minute drive from Cartagena and it is part of Islas del Rosario National Park, home to turquoise waters and the most extensive coral reef of Colombia. With a kind and accommodating attitude, the concierge at my hotel organized a private car to take me to Hotel Sport Baru, where I would be able to explore Isla Baru.

The view from Hotel Sport Baru. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

After about an hour on the road, I was surprised to see that the bumpy road flowed onto a narrow stretch of sand. The driver parked the car on the beach and within seconds we were surrounded by a swarm of excited local men on motorbikes. Panic set in as I had not been aware that in order to reach Baru, I had to chose between a 40 minute boat ride and a 20 minute ride on the back of a motorbike. With a mix of perplexity and fear, I saw a couple of tourists jumping on a motorbike and I steeled myself against the fear in my stomach. With my backpack and my carry-on secured to my body, I situated myself behind one of the motorbikers and took a breath for courage. The next 20 minutes were surprisingly fun as we rocketed toward the hotel on a road that could have been a roller coaster in disguise. The excitement and adrenaline I was feeling was complemented by a feeling of awe as we whooshed past panoramic desert beaches, thorny vegetation, vibrant green brush and calm transparent waters.  

See this short clip of my adventure to Isla Baru on the back of a motorbike.

The beach at Hotel Sport Baru. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

There are only a handful of very modest accommodations in Baru, and there is nothing corporate or predictable about it. Hotel Sport Baru had minimal decorations but was quite comfortable. The day in Baru flew past as I snorkeled and kayaked until I had seen as much of the pristine beach of Playa Paraiso (Paradise Beach) as I could. I finally had to pull myself from the surf, but I was met with a fresh, indulgent coconut water, so my sacrifice was worthwhile.

Back at the hotel, its restaurant terrace was surrounded by Caribbean foliage, and bushes hung lazily over the thatched roof. It was the perfect spot to relax after a water workout. None of the handful of visitors were using the hammocks, so I occupied one and napped in front of a gorgeous view of the bay. Once in awhile an ocean breeze swayed the hammock and I breathed deep its fresh scent.

The beach at Hotel Sport Baru. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

The workout was the perfect excuse to reward myself with a torch-lit dinner composed of ceviche de camarones (shrimp ceviche), coconut rice and fresh salad. I tried to savor each and every bite, letting the flavors linger on my tongue, but I was so hungry and the meal was so delicious, that it disappeared much too soon. The sun slowly set as I finished my dinner and I watched the stars blink on overhead. The silence and the deep blue of the night sky surrounded me like a comforting blanket and I felt my body release the last bit of tension that had stubbornly held on throughout my visit.

Coming from New York City, where noise pollution and visual stimulation distances everyone from the night sky and the sounds of nature, I truly felt that Isla Baru was magical. On the chaise lounge outside my room, I contemplated the magic of the stars as the crisp breeze played on my skin, and crickets and calm waves lulled me to sleep.

I can still feel the invigoration of that undisturbed night under the stars. I was really satisfied that I had chosen to spend the day in Isla Baru instead of heading to the loud but more convenient Playa Blanca. One night in Baru was a mini, but greatly relaxing, getaway from an urban and tourist-laden Cartagena.

View from Arrecifes, Tayrona National Park. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

The more I reflect on my trip to Colombia, the more I want to define it as “eclectic.” Not only was I able to experience Cartagena through the cultural lens of Colombian folklore and architecture, but I also had the opportunity to visit another signature place in Colombia. Located six hours northeast from Cartagena is a rainforest, where mountains and beaches blend together to create undeniable beauty. It’s called Tayrona National Park.

On the way to Cabo san Juan. Photo by Giulia Grazzini

The journey to and from Tayrona was hosted by David, a local man, born and raised in Cartagena. I immediately clicked with David as we shared our life stories in his native language of Spanish, of course. A dozen hours in the car with David reminded me why cultural immersion is such a special element of travel. If there is anything I can recommend to a traveler, it is to abandon the mainstream tourism path and experience local culture. Be curious and present and immerse yourself in the world around you. Listening to David’s life stories, I understood the pride he had for his country, his family and his lifestyle, as well as his disappointment. I was given a look into an authentic Colombian life, not the candy-coated version advertised by tourism companies. David’s words about Colombia set the incredible tone for the rest of my experience.

David took me to La Brisa Tranquila beach hostel located close to the third entrance of the Tayrona park. Before we arrived at the hostel, we stopped along a dirt road in the middle of an old coconut farm. The rainforest was on one side of us and the beach was on the other. My breath caught in my chest as I thought about where I was and how incredible life could be.

At the hostel, nothing separated me from nature, only the locally harvested wood of the cabanas and their thatched roofs. I found the perfect spot for what I was looking for: a peaceful retreat to engage with rough ocean waves and a rainforest to get lost in. I found this minimalist stay to be almost a personal oasis, a place where human needs are reduced to a delightful minimum.

The beach at La Brisa Tranquila. Photo by Giulia Grazzini.

Named after the indigenous people, Tayrona is perfect for hiking in the rainforest hills or lounging around the park's many secluded lagoons and swimming holes, such as Cabo San Juan. The expansive beach was the perfect place for me to rest and rejuvenate.

The many endangered species wandering Tayrona kept themselves hidden, so ventures into the wild were more for the experience itself than for witnessing wildlife; although I encountered monkeys throwing half-eaten mangoes at me from the treetops.

Dramatic views opened up as I hiked through Tayrona. I followed a trail that lead from the third entrance of the park to a campsite on a beach called Cabo San Juan. Several travelers had staked their claim on its campsites; most of them had hiked in, while a few others had ridden in on horses. It seemed that every visitor was being held captive by the stunning landscape. Tayrona`s gorgeous beaches were mostly set in deep bays, their backs shaded by coconut palms and their sides flanked by lush mountains. At times it was hard to know where the palms ended and the beach began.

For me the bays, with their tumultuous waves and deep ocean currents, reflected something that is within many of us: a curious desire to break free from the mundane, and escape and experience new adventures. Cartegena, Isla Baru and Tayrona National Park certainly satisfied that desire in me, at least for now.

View from Arrecifes. Tayrona National Park. Photo by Giulia Grazzini.

August 9, 2016

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