Heading South

After 2-3 weeks on the Caribbean Colombian coast around Santa Marta I finally left for Cartagena. It was nice to have a base in one place but I was ready to get back on the road. Cartagena was just a few hours along the coast and after an uneventful 4-hour trip I settled into my new hostel. That evening I went out for food with an Australian girl who was soon taking a sail boat from Cartagena to Panama. I’ve met several people who have done this trip and all have said amazing things about it. I’m already getting ideas for my next trip through Central America and either starting or ending in Colombia. Any excuse to come back here! After my experiences in Santa Marta I was pleased to have a quiet night and spend the next day exploring the city.

Cartagena is an old colonial city with narrow streets and cobbled roads. The old city is surrounded by a huge wall which was built to protect the city from pirates. We walked along the wall for as long as we could until the heat became unbearable and we retreated to the air conditioned hostel. That night I bought a ticket for a party bus. It’s recommended as being one of the best and most fun ways to see the city. I went along with a German girl, Christina, who was also in our hostel and after the usual job of refusing to buy everything from coconuts to maracas we boarded the bus. It was a national holiday in Colombia and the bus was packed of what we thought were drunken Colombians. We realised we were many drinks behind so naturally got to work playing  catch up.

Cartagena’s City Walls

Cartagena definitely had a Caribbean feel to it!

As we relaxed (got drunk) and our inhibitions about speaking Spanish faded we discovered that we were actually on a bus with 50 members of the Chilean Navy. They had arrived onshore that day after 3-weeks without touching land. Needless to say they were making up for lost time. They were a great bunch, very welcoming and some spoke good English which helped. They invited us to take a tour of their ship the following day but we had both planned to visit a mud volcano and unfortunately an early start was going to be impossible. We met some other travellers near the city walls and spent until the early hours with them.


The following day was not an ideal day to be severely hungover in 35°C heat. Plus the fact that I had signed up to go and jump in a smelly volcano filled with mud and I had to catch an evening flight to Medellin. Fortunately, it turns out that mud volcanoes are a very good hangover cure. Christina and I took the tour bus along with a group of tourists from England, the US, Australia and Colombia. Upon arrival we stripped down to our shorts and climbed the rickety steps to the top of Volcan del Totumo. The volcano was around 15m high and the mud was about 10 feet below the top of the volcano. We climbed down and fell ungracefully into the mud.

Volcan del Totumo (Courtesy of colombiarents.com)

We received massages before being allowed to splash, float and frolic in the mud. We were informed that the depth of the mud is around 2,500m but it is so dense it’s almost impossible to go below shoulder height. We did manage to push one of the guys right under but he soon popped back up. Although I haven’t experienced anti-gravity (yet) the feeling of floating in the mud is supposed to be comparable and I would have to agree. After 20 minutes or so of getting used to moving in the mud it was time to climb out and go to the nearby lagoon to get cleaned. Here, the old ladies bathed us in the clean water and they made sure not to leave any areas dirty…

It was a fun experience and incomparable to anything I’d done before. After a quick supper it was time to get back on the bus to return to Cartagena and for me, to the airport. I didn’t have a long time in Cartagena but enjoyed the time I had there. The Volcan del Tutumo was definitely an experience I won’t forget although at times it did feel like one big tourist trap. In fact, Cartagena in general, was the place where I had met most tourists. Not always a bad thing but it’s nice to be surrounded by Colombian’s in Colombia and not always other tourists.


I had to dash straight to the airport but made it with a little time to spare and bumped into another Aussie I had met back in Santa Marta. He was on the same flight so we shared tales of the last few weeks and agreed to share a taxi although we were heading to different hostels. When we arrived we bumped into an Italian friend of his where we proceeded to argue with every taxi driver over less than $5. I say we, but it was the flairy Italian who was doing the arguing. It was ‘the principle and not the money’ that he was concerned about but at 11pm in Medellin I wasn’t too concerned. Eventually we jumped on a bus and I made my way to the Urban Buddha Hostel. The following day was a relatively lazy one but I was lucky enough to take the place of a chap who had food poisoning and went to see my first South American football match.


It was Atletico Nacional from Medellin, against Sao Paulo (Brazil). The competition was the Copa Sudamericana and it was the second leg of the quarter final. The first leg had finished 3-2 to Sao Paulo so it was set up to be a thriller. Typically, the match finished 0-0 and Sao Paulo went through on aggregate. Frustratingly Atletico Nacional were by far the better team, they created more chances but couldn’t get the ball in the back of the net. Although it would have been nice to have seen a goal, the atmosphere was still amazing. The fans there were far more passionate than anything I’ve witnessed in England and in the South Stand, renowned for its die hard supporters, they never stopped singing, standing or, I think, shouting abuse. There were a grand total of less than 10 away fans in the stadium and at one point it looked like they were going to get attacked but then they produced a Brazilian and a Colombian flag and held them up together. It was the perfect way to diffuse the situation and it got a well deserved round of applause by the majority of the Nacional fans.


Among other reasons for visiting Medellin, I had heard Medellin was the place to party in Colombia. We went out Thursday and Friday night and in all honesty, neither night proved to be anything particularly special. We had high hopes for Friday and as we ventured into a club we were nothing less than distraught to find it full of other tourists. Perhaps this is what some people look for while they travel but for me and the guys I was with, it was the exact opposite. We eventually gave up and called it a night.


I did manage to do some sightseeing whilst in Medellin. We took both metrocables over different areas of the city which gave us an appreciation of the size and diversity of the place. Medellin is another city that has changed hugely due to the massive urban sprawl where people from the surrounding areas have flooded to the city looking for better opportunities. Anyway I’ll put my Geography hat away before you close the page. The city was beautiful in places and over the last few years there has been a real effort to improve the place. For decades, Medellin was on the map because of Pablo Escobar, the infamous drug baron. He more or less had control of the city at times and lived by the motto ‘plato o plomo’. This translates to silver or lead, i.e. take money (bribes) or face bullets. Escobar also offered a reward for anybody who killed a police officer. There was a tour to visit Escobar’s house, grave and where he died but after talking with some others I decided against it due to its hefty price tag. Apparently it also involved visiting and talking with Pablo Escobar’s brother but supporting the prosperity of a mass murderer’s family isn’t really on my to do list.

Metrocable to Parque Arvi above Medellin

As well as being a great way to see the city, the metrocables are also fundamental to getting residents in and out of the main city
Medellin City Centre

One of many characteristic churches in Medellin

After a second night out and a second handover we left Medellin for Guatapé which was a bit more up my street with slightly less tourists, less city and more great views. We arrived early evening and three of us spent the night in a tent. The town of Guatapé is very attractive with brightly painted houses and cobbled streets. They say the resident’s repaint their houses every year and it certainly looked that way from what we saw.

The main attraction in Guatapé is a huge rock over 200m high with steps built into the side. We chose to walk to the rock but abandoned that decision when the rain set in. There are over 700 steps and the views from the top are impressive to say the least. Lagoons in the area dominate the view around Guatapé and in a way it reminded me of the lochs in the Scottish Highlands. After a short while the rain subsided, the clouds slowly lifted and the view cleared. We were treated to a spectacular sight and once again, the photos can give a far better impression than my words.

Representing Atletico Nacional at Guatape

We tried walking again on the way back but with thumbs out we soon managed to attract a group with a truck. We jumped in the back and I had my first hitchhiking experience. That evening we caught the 2-hour bus back to Medellin. I had been travelling with Tanya, Mauro and Peter for a few days but it was time for Peter and I to start our great adventure, our trip into the wild. We were heading to Parque Nacional El Cocuy with no guide, no plan and no worries. But that’s another story…


Hitchhiking to Guatape from the rock


2 thoughts on “Heading South

  • November 27, 2013 at 09:44

    Fascinating as ever joe . A great blog .

  • December 1, 2013 at 19:09

    What a good description of your adventures Joe. Really enjoy reading it. Agree with you in not visiting Pablo Escobar “museum of horror”, such a bizarre tourist attraction! But is all a question of business and demand. People that visit Medellin, began to inquire about it, local people saw the possibility of earn some money with it. I am excited to read your new blog about El Parque del Cocuy…


Leave a Reply