When cities are as stunning as Cartagena, I think they deserve their own post dedicated to pictures. Luckily for me, Megan ventured out one morning shortly after the sun came up and shot Cartagena as it was slowly awakening. She got some amazing shots of the empty plazas, tinto vendors, and of the city coming alive in the morning. The vivid colors of the buildings were a sight to behold and made for some great shots in the early morning sun. Enjoy!
The following post is a guest post of sorts. Since this is World Travel for Couples, and now that my wife has gotten a new, less demanding job that doesn’t see her working 60-70 hours a week, we thought it would be time for her to join the mix a bit more often.
The Charm of Cartagena
A colonial city situated right on the Caribbean Sea, much of Cartagena’s charm can be discovered in the old quarter of town. Still surrounded by the original walls built in the 1500s to protect the city’s wealth from pirates (often unsuccessfully), the colonial architecture, ancient churches and narrow streets evoke a romantic, old-world atmosphere. The infusion of energy brought by the African roots of the Caribbean culture ensures that the vibe is anything but sleepy. I found that the best way to enjoy the city was just to start walking and get myself thoroughly lost in the old district—not a difficult task with winding, unsigned alleys and streets.
The mid-day gets steamy-hot, but there’s no shortage of refreshment in the form of juice and fruit vendors. One of my favorite gastronomic adventures so far has been sampling the native fruits. I can’t say they were all delicious (zapote and nispero, I’m looking at you), but I’ve also discovered amazing flavors, some that explode with sweetness (maracuya) and intensity (tomate de arbol), others with a subtle delicacy that leave you wanting more (the lovely curuba).
Best of all, if you head out to explore early in the morning, you can have the streets of the old town to yourself—the charm of colonial architecture combines with the colors and flowers of the tropics to create a paradise for anyone who enjoys taking photos. Be sure to check back tomorrow for a Cartagena photo essay.
Is Cartagena Too Touristy?
Some complain that Cartagena is too touristy. It is certainly a tourist destination, there’s no denying that, but even the hawkers in Colombia are generally friendly. They tend to be a bit more aggressive in Cartagena than in the other beach cities we visited and there are so many more of them– emeralds, paintings, jewelry, hats, mini Boteros, you name it they sell it. However, we had some interesting conversations with people trying to make a sale, so sometimes it can be to your benefit to wait a minute before pulling out the “no gracias.” In addition to the vendors, some people are irritated by the hordes of cruiseshippers that are disgorged from the boats a couple of times a week. But really, if you grab a seat in one of the many plazas (and maybe a beer from one of the street vendors), you’re set up for some top-notch people watching.
The beaches of Cartagena are home to a string of high-rise resorts—not exactly our style. So, to get another beach fix (although we were pretty sure nothing could compete after Parque Tayrona), we hopped a boat to Playa Blanca, a beach reputed to be the nicest beach near Cartagena. On the way to the islands, the boat took a tour through the Islas Rosario. The little bungalows on teeny tiny islands had us daydreaming about secluded island getaways and kept us well occupied until we arrived at Playa Blanca.
Playa Blanca definitely lived up to the hype regarding its natural beauty—the sand was powdery white and lined with palm trees and the ocean was a surreal turquoise.
We figured that a spot so pretty was worth more than an afternoon, so we hooked up with a crew of Irish boys from our boat and wandered off to sort out a place to sleep for the night. The beach is lined with restaurants that will not only cook up some of the local fish and plantains for you, but will also happily rent you a hammock.
The accommodations were even more rustic than those in Tayrona, only a few meters from the surf and with only a piece of mesh fabric between the hammocks and the threat of rain, but we just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend the night right on the beach. The other bonus? Our accommodation expense for the evening—about US$2 each.
It’s Always Fun to Meet Interesting Characters
Possibly because of the lack of accommodations, the majority of people who come to Playa Blanca do so only for a few hours in the afternoon. There is one direct bus a week from Cartagena (Sunday morning) and daily boats that drop visitors for the afternoon, collecting them and returning to Cartagena as the sun starts to descend in the sky. This means that the beach is downright packed in the afternoon and virtually deserted in the evening. The daily crowds provide a perfect market for the local hawkers. They sell mostly bracelets and necklaces made from the local stones and shells. The funniest little quirk was that they all seemed to have adopted nicknames. The first guy who introduced himself to me was Punto Com (Dot Com). Later that day, I also met Picasso and Nelson Mandela (Nelson Mandela is actually referenced on the Cartagena Wikitravel page). I’m not sure how these pseudonyms began, but they definitely fall in the category of weird little quirks that keep travel interesting.
Picasso was from Santa Ana, a nearby town that, despite only having about 2000 residents, has two English schools. Picasso was studying at one of them, so we had a nice conversation, him practicing his English and me practicing my Spanish. We talked about his family and his work and the conversation inevitably turned back to the topic of me buying his stuff. At one point, trying to convince me that I needed several new bracelets, he assured me that he would give me a very special price, only for me. He was absolutely delighted when I exclaimed “Only for me?? Que suerte!!” (What luck!). Turns out that humor is an effective negotiating technique because promptly he dropped his price by half and we had a deal. That’s one of the joys of this adventure–getting the opportunity to meet people from around the world and learn a bit about their lives, whether they are other travelers or locals. Every time I have an experience like that, I find myself somewhat taken aback. I am reminded of why we are here and am so utterly grateful.
Sticking with the Vietnam theme for this week, today’s picture comes from our trip to Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam, a few hours outside Hanoi. Ha Long Bay is one of the most picturesque places we’ve been, with countless, giant limestone cliffs jutting out from the water. It’s an amazing site to see, and one of the highlights of our time in Southeast Asia. This picture comes from the kayaking portion of our trip, which was a ton of fun. Paddling around the bay, through caves, and into little coves created tons of great photo opportunities.
With the exception of India, the country we were most nervous about visiting was Vietnam. The opinions of travel in Vietnam were polar opposites and had us confused and not knowing what to expect. People seemingly either loved it or hated it.
Those who hated it couldn’t get over the in your face attitude of some of the touts and Vietnamese people, and it ruined their experience. Travelers cited unfriendly people, the large number of touts trying to take advantage of you, and just too much intensity. Despite the magnificent sites and beautiful terrain, I have read many accounts of people vowing never to return.
Those who loved it cited the natural beauty and variety of the country’s landscape, along with the culture, history, and cuisine. These same people seemed to look past the negatives and focus on the positive aspects of traveling in Vietnam.
The problem was that opinions were all over the board. There were some who weren’t very well traveled at all and loved Vietnam, while there were those who had traveled all over the world and hated it. And vice versa. There wasn’t one defining group who loved or hated it.
So by the time we took off from Bangkok after nearly two months of travel in the Land of Smiles and the laid back country of Laos, we were quite nervous and really didn’t know what to expect upon touching down in Hanoi.
The Importance of Doing your Homework
Because of our nervousness and my affinity for research and list making, we were pretty well educated in the workings of travel in Vietnam by the time we arrived in the Hanoi airport. We read a lot and talked to many people about their travels in Vietnam. We paid particular attention to the scams that other travelers fell prey to.
We knew about the difficulty of simply crossing the street. We knew that popular tour operators, hotels, and guest houses were cloned by impostors, making it difficult to discern which of the 5 Ocean Tours was the real and best one. We knew we would be harassed incessantly by touts and lied to by cab and minibus drivers.
Day 1: The Importance of Being Firm and Confident
So it was no shock to us when we arrived in the Old Quarter of Hanoi after a 45 minute minibus ride from the airport and the driver picked up someone up off the street to help us find our accommodations. We were also unsurprised when he told us that the hotel we booked was far away (even though we had our map out and were pretty sure we were only a few blocks from it) and he knew of a better and cheaper one to stay in. While they were certainly pushy, we were adamant about getting out of the van and going to our hotel.
Both the tout and driver were very firm about us being wrong. We went with our gut instinct and were very serious about him letting us out of the van NOW. We said it firmly and with an air of confidence, as though we had been here before. Both were a bit rude but by now had turned their eyes to other unsuspecting tourists on the bus. So we hopped out, grabbed our bags, got our bearings, and walked to our hotel that was indeed only two blocks away.
An Initial Victory
That was our introduction to Vietnam. Immediately upon arriving in the city, someone tried to scam us and take advantage of our situation. But because we had read about this exact situation and were ready for it, we got out of it unscathed and without a negative first impression of the city and country. I would imagine those who were taken for a literal and figurative ride after being in the country for only an hour would have a bad taste in their mouths.
A Second Victory: Our First Meal
Because of our first little victory, we were feeling good. So we dropped our bags at our hotel, showered, and hit the streets. The first little alleyway we came to had a small, makeshift restaurant with customers sitting on tiny plastic chairs slurping what looked like pho out of steaming bowls.
We were starving so we wandered over to scope out the situation. The woman couldn’t have been any nicer as she invited us to sit down. Within seconds we had a steaming bowl of soup sitting in front of and every imaginable condiment at our disposal. Fresh, fragrant, bright green herbs sat in jars in front of us. Hot sauce, soy sauce, fish sauce, and a myriad of peppers and spices were adjacent to the herbs. We devoured our first of many street meals in Vietnam, a delicious and flavorful Pho Bo, just as the locals eat it, with smiling and curious eyes on our every bite.
Wandering the Streets
We were both feeling pretty good at this point, and our first few hours in Vietnam were looking good. I’m not going to lie here though. After wandering a bit, the nerves crept back up. The streets of the Old Quarter were utter bedlam. Cars, taxis, and what seemed like a billion motorbikes whizzed by us everywhere. The sidewalks were tiny and packed with goods from the storefronts nearby. The streets were so small that motorbikes just parked on the sidewalks, creating a frenzy of traffic on the sidewalks and streets. People walking had to avoid the racks of clothing and parked motorbikes on the sidewalks and step momentarily into the street while trying not to get run over by someone flying down the road.
Simply walking and trying to get the lay of the land, which is what we love to do when arriving in a new city, was complete madness. Stress level was high as we just tried to wander the streets for a few hours and get our bearings. We wanted to look into Ha Long Bay tours, but knowing the frustration that is involved in finding a good one, we decided to wait another day.
The Discovery of Bia Hoi
I rather enjoy wandering around in chaotic cities like Hanoi. Because I grew up in a smaller city that doesn’t have the hustle and bustle of a massive city like this, I have always enjoyed the energy and business of large cities. While Hanoi was a new kind of crazy, I did still enjoy it, but Megan wasn’t as big of a fan and I could sense her stress rising as we were nearly run over for the thousandth time. As we meandered down a small road, I spotted a sign in the distance, handwritten with the words Bia Hoi-5000 dong (for those who don’t know, dong is the currency of Vietnam, not something profane like you’re thinking).
I had read about Bia Hoi and was eager to try this homemade beer that locals made and sold at makeshift bars on the side of the road. The fact that it was available for the equivalent of 25 cents just sweetened the deal that much more. Since I could tell that Megan was about to lose her patience and possibly change her view of Vietnam, it was perfect timing that I saw that sign. We pulled up the mini plastic chairs that are synonymous with Vietnam roadside restaurants and bars. Our bartender then reached into the fridge to pull out what looked like a 10 year old 2 liter bottle filled with sudsy goodness, filled our glasses, and we were on the right track again.
Going with the Flow
After our brief respite in the bar, we were refreshed and ready to take on the crazy streets of Hanoi. We were nice and relaxed and may have had a slight buzz on, but our frame of mind was good yet again. We began to go with the flow of Hanoi. Ignoring or giving a firm head shake and “No!” to the touts who got in our face. We graciously sidestepped oncoming traffic and danced around the obstacles surrounding us on the sidewalk. We exchanged smiles with roadside chefs and other travelers, and we became at peace with this chaotic city in northern Vietnam.
I know it wasn’t any one thing, but we had a great feeling about Vietnam after that first day. It was probably the perfect storm of thorough research, smart decision making, bia hoi, a bit of good luck, and big smiles that got us off on the right foot during our first day in Vietnam. As we went to bed that very first night, we both felt good about what was to come. We were confident, we were happy, and we were excited to see what the next month had to bring.
It’s been over 18 months since we returned from our RTW trip. It’s been a roller coaster of a ride over the last 4 years, from the inception of the trip to the planning to the going to the return. I’m not going to lie. I have struggled mightily at times with our return, and even though we’ve been back for over a year and a half, I still wonder if we should be here at home or back out on the road.
There are a lot of reasons for these thoughts. It’s not that I’m unhappy here. I am very happy, but I still have the same feeling I had before we decided to take the trip. Sometimes I feel as though something is just missing. At times, there’s a bit of an empty feeling that I can’t quite put my finger on. That feeling rears its ugly head at different times, and sometimes I’ll go months feeling perfectly happy and at ease. Typically when I’m feeling down and confused about my career path is when those feelings come roaring back.
Becoming a Tourist in your Own Town
But this post isn’t about that. Instead of dwelling on those feelings, I would rather focus how to deal with them. Megan just started a new job, I am just now finally starting to monetize this site and actually make some money off my writing, and we are about to welcome a new niece into the family at any moment. So we aren’t going anywhere in the near future.
So rather than feel down and depressed and hoping for something that’s not going to happen, I felt a better use of my time would be to make the best of home. I wax poetic all the time about my hometown of St. Louis, telling anyone who will listen how great it is and how it needs to get more love in the travel world. So now it’s time to practice what I preach. My new goal is to become a tourist in my own town, exploring areas of the city and activities that I have never taken part in before.
With the warmer weather upon us and summer right around the corner, it’s time for festivals, barbecues, parades, and activities galore. With so much to do, it’s silly to sit here and lament the fact that we’re not traveling. There’s tons to do here in my hometown, and it’s time to make more of an effort to take part in activities I’ve never done, despite living here the vast majority of my life.
Cinco de Mayo
We have an area here in the city that has a lot of Latino residents, and one particular street has been up and coming over the past 5 years. Cherokee Street, home to head shops and prostitutes back in the 90′s when I was in high school, is now filled with a plethora of amazing and authentic Mexican restaurants and markets (it’s still a bit rough around the edges, but that adds to its charm). This past weekend, Cherokee Street was home to the Cinco de Mayo Festival and Parade, with live music, tons of food, and an oddly awesome and random parade.
It’s the Little Things that Bring you Back
Megan had other plans on Saturday, so I took off solo to explore the festival before meeting other friends down there. Normally I would have packed a little cooler and put most of my focus on sipping some cold beers and sampling as much of the local fare as possible. I would usually bring a small camera with me, but most of the time it would just sit in my pocket as I focused on beer consumption.
But with my new goals in mind, I thought it would be a good idea to treat this afternoon as though I was traveling. So I packed my little travel bag that usually sits in the closet while at home, bringing my nice DSLR camera, some sunscreen, my dry bag in case it rained, and my little point and shoot in case I wanted to take some video. As I headed out the door, I was excited, and as stupid as it sounds, simply having the bag that accompanied us around the world made me feel as though I was back on the road.
Feeling like a Tourist
I couldn’t have been more pleased with my experience as a tourist in St. Louis. As I wandered around solo with camera in hand, I felt as though I had never been down here before, despite the fact that I have been familiar with this area for nearly 20 years. I noticed things I normally wouldn’t have paid attention to. I was more outgoing than usual, chatting with food vendors and getting up close and personal while taking photos. I made mental notes of restaurants we had yet to eat at, and I made a promise to myself to come back down to explore some of the Mexican markets, something Megan and I love doing when in other cities.
After wandering, snapping hundreds of photos, and familiarizing myself with the layout of the festival, it was time to meet up with my friends. So I put my camera away and went back into St. Louis mode, taking off my tourist hat, grabbing a beer, and becoming a resident again.
One of the biggest reasons we travel is to experience new and interesting things. That’s probably the simplest and easiest way to explain my love of travel. Honestly, I just get bored with the same ol’ same ol’ all the time, which partially explains my wanderlust. I went to 2 different high schools, 3 different colleges (4 if you count grad school), and I am on my third different career since graduating college 10 years ago.
Since I have lived here nearly my entire life, and let’s face it, St. Louis is no New York City, I sometimes think there’s nothing new to do here. How wrong I was. I never been down to this particular festival, and while the food and demographic was a little different than I was used to with St. Louis festivals, it was still pretty typical.
Then the Parade Started…
And this is precisely why it’s important to remain open and adventurous, always willing to explore more of your own city, even if you’re less than 10 miles from your house. You never know what you’re going to encounter. We settled into a good spot on the side of the road to watch the Cinco de Mayo parade, and within minutes, the confusion began.
First, it was the fact that the floats in the parade didn’t seem to have anything to do with Mexico or Cinco de Mayo. As it went on, this parade confused us even more. Not only did it not reflect the holiday we were supposed to be celebrating (save for some sombreros here and there), but the floats and people marching were so odd and random that it baffled and confounded us.
From the crazy hipsters flying around on their scooters, coming dangerously close to the crowd while doing tricks, to what looked like floats celebrating the Chinese New Year, to the hippies with hoola hoops, to a man dressed as Jesus, complete with a cross, throwing candy out to the kids, to the finale of bands playing loud, electronic, rave-type music while wearing even odder outfits, this was one of the weirdest yet most entertaining parades I’ve ever observed.
This bizarrely awesome parade was a complete and total shock. I’m not typically a fan of parades. They’re fine, but I get rather bored quickly. This had me on the edge of my seat the entire time, and it was all we could talk about as the day went on.
If someone came to us tomorrow with a million dollars, my guess is that it wouldn’t be long before we were back on the road. Since I don’t see someone dropping off a bag of money anytime soon, it’s long overdue to accept where we are now and start enjoying life more. I’ve spent too much of the past 18 months lamenting the fact that our trip is over and nothing else is on the horizon. It’s time to start researching my own city, exploring and attending events I’ve never gone to before. It’s time to become a tourist in St. Louis, realizing that even in a place I’ve lived in for the better part of 33 years, I can see and experience plenty of things I’ve never experienced before.
Have you become a tourist in your city before? What did you do? Have you found any events that have been a pleasant surprise? Comment below to tell your story.