Cartagena de Indias is a large city with several faces; the old city, the modern skyscrapers lining the shore, and a busy commercial area inland. The walled old city is a UNESCO world heritage centre and you can see why it's popular with cruise ship visitors. There are plenty of hotels, restaurants and cafés, and most of the old buildings restored to good condition in bright colours. We visited the museum in the Casa de la Inquisición, which upstairs had some excellent displays explaining of the history of the original (exterminated) indigenous inhabitants, the slave trade, as well the colonial Spanish aspects of the city and it's fight for independence.
We also visited the iconic Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas fortress which overlooks the city. The statue is of Don Blas de Lezo, who looks like a classic peg-leg pirate, but was in fact the Spanish Admiral and governor of the city who led the successful defense against the major British attack on the in 1741. The city was well fortified and the British fleet, led by Admiral Vernon suffered a crushing defeat, despite their overwhelming force.
We then drove along the coast past Barranquilla, through the narrow strip of land between the sea and the huge Cienaga (Swamp) of Santa Marta, to the entrance of the beautiful Tayrona National Park. The park is situated on the coast and just below the Santa Marta mountains, and has fantastic sandy beaches as well as protecting coastal forests. Parking at Cañaveral, we walked about 1 hour to Arecifes where we rented comfortable hammocks for the night at about 5 pounds each. They had no mosquito nets, but fortunately I brought my own, so no bites at all for a change. Some of the parks facilities leave something to be desired, but it was well worth it. There were plenty of people on the path into the park, but they spread out, so it didn't feel crowded.
We took a great morning swim in the warm sea at "La Piscina" a beach where it's safe to swim & snorkel because of the surrounding reef. Other beaches have strong rip-tides and many people have drowned. It was a shame we only had 1 day in the park.
From Tayrona, we drove a short while to the small town of Minca, about 650m up in the Santa Marta mountains and about 15km from the city of Santa Marta. The town has a fresher climate than the coast, is surrounded by forests and small shade-coffee plantations and is making big efforts to become a major eco-tourism centre with reasonable quality accommodation, and good food. It has a friendly feel and is very peaceful compared to the big cities. It also has a several great waterfalls to visit.
Driving up from Minca to the El Dorado bird reserve higher up in the mountains is an experience in itself; the road is the roughest I´ve ever driven, but our little 4x4 made it. The reserve lodge was very nice, with great food, but we missed out on any views of the mountains because of cloud and rain. We walked up towards the San Lorenzo ridge, but didn't have time to make it to the top. From there, if you are very lucky with the clouds, you can see Pico Bolivar and Pico Colon, the highest points in Colombia at around 5800m, covered with year-round snow. It was a great experience to visit the mountains, and again I wish we'd had more time there, though the weather was not always good. Apparently Dec-Feb is the best time to visit, with much more chance of clear, dry weather, but with global warming, Colombia's climate is much less predictable.
Of course the trip was great for animals and birds, and I'll put some pictures of those in the next blog entry.