Cartagena, Colombia: Finding peace in a chaotic journey

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When I woke up in Medellín and my board shorts that I had hung out to dry the night before were 16 stories below, I knew it was going to be a rough start to the day. Little did I know, however, that it was only going to get worse.

After our Uber driver picked three friends and me up to head towards the Medellín airport, where our flight was scheduled to leave at 8:45 a.m., we soon came to a standstill in traffic caused by a five-vehicle pileup on the main highway towards the airport. After 30 minutes of waiting in traffic and our driver walking 500 meters up the road to see how bad the accident was, he stopped to gossip with the car in front of us before coming to us with a semi-shocked look on his face.

"It's extremely bad, parce ," he told us.

Since traffic still wasn't moving southbound on the highway, we started to stand in the median to try and catch a cab coming northbound back towards Medellín's city center. We finally hailed down a taxi and had him take us through the Santa Elena mountain pass east of the center, which is a curvy and slow climb towards the airport.

We finally arrived at the airport check-in at 8:40 a.m. where the nice ladies at LatAm Air by then understood most clients would be late-arriving because of the accident and rapidly checked us in before we had to sprint to security. After a long run to and then past security, we luckily made it to the boarding gates as a line had just formed outside our plane.

Though just minutes before we were positive we were going to miss our flight, we were now on our way to Cartagena.
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We landed in Cartagena , somehow all on time, and were hit by the oppressive wall of heat coming off the plane. After the short drive to town and a quick change into shorts, we headed out for a much-needed lunch after a stressful morning.

Walking into Cuba 1940 in Old Town, the restaurant-goer is immediately transported to the shores of Havana as portraits of famous Cubans hang on the walls and a pool is carved out in front of a small bandstand. The food was incredibly good, including the Cuban sandwich and the slow-cooked black beans.

While in Cartagena we decided we had to try the city's famous Dictador rum that is constantly recognized as one of Colombia's best rums, despite the fact it can't be sold anywhere else in the country because of the legal monopolies the aguardiente producers in each department have over the country, most notably the producers of the ever-ubiquitous Aguardiente Antioqueño.
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Following a drink of rum, it was time to walk along the iconic stone walls that make Cartagena well-known across the world. According to legend, the walls were ordered to be put in place by town founder Pedro de Heredia after fires burned much of the town when all the architecture was mostly wooden. 

The old town that the barriers surround, named a UNESCO World Heritage site in the 1990s, is spectacularly beautiful thanks to the charming Spanish Colonial architecture, colorfully painted walls, and golden-domed cathedrals. Strolling through town, we were able to decompress a little bit more before heading to the main beaches on Bocagrande.
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Something about Bocagrande is eerily similar to Florida. The high-rise hotels and developed strips of restaurants hover over the crowded beaches where vendors constantly bother sunbathers with solicitations of massages, artisan crafts, or cold beers. 

When I needed a mere 100 pesos for the showers that cost 1,500 pesos, I was frantically searching through my short pockets when a man selling bracelets I'd already seen a dozen times before asked if I wanted any. Instead of saying yes or no, I asked "¿Oye, chico, vos tenés 100 pesos? " ("Hey man do you have 100 pesos?") and he disappeared quicker than any of the waves breaking on the shore.

That night we ate hamburgers for dinner in a popular plaza in Old Town where there are even more vendors, and a lot of singers, approaching restaurantgoers as they eat. Upon finishing our delicious dinner, we headed over to the KGB bar on Carretera 7, which is donned head to toe in Russian garb. While in a Russia-themed bar, we figured, we should act like the Russians and shoot vodka then follow it up with White Russians (even though those were reportedly first concocted in Belgium).
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The next day we woke up to take a speedboat to Islas del Rosario to snorkel. We were strangely forced to pay again in choosing between snorkeling and taking a picture with a dolphin after we had already paid once for the tour itself and once for a tax for the national park we would be entering. The snorkeling itself was a bit of a bust, as we saw very little of what our guide promised us and he alarmingly never told us that there were sea urchins scattered throughout the rocks in the shallow part of the water.

Soon enough, we swam back to the boat to grab some beers we had stashed in our bags. Once the whole group was back in the boat, we headed towards the similarly turquoise waters of Isla Baru. The island was packed with people, and a relentless stream of vendors, from the minute we got there. Including lunch, we had just 2.5 hours to enjoy the beach, leading us all to agree that we would recommend for people to travel to the island without a tour group by getting there on their own via the public transport available.
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Finding a quiet rooftop bar on a popular street in the more southern part of Old Town that night, our last in Cartagena, we were again able to relax after a hectic day. With traditional salsa music playing in the background and people walking below, it was the perfect way to find solace and calm in a coastal city where those things shouldn't be taken for granted.

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