Cartagena: Week 255

Cathedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandria: Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena de Indias is a very hot Caribbean destination in Colombia filled with beautiful architecture and great restaurants. It was founded in the 1500s by the Spanish to protect their access and interests in the Americas.

When it was constructed, the fortified island was divided into an inner city for the wealthier class and an outer city for the artisan classes.

The colonial streets of El Centro: Cartagena, Colombia

A couple walking past street art in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

La Matuna and Getsemaní comprise the outer city. They are not as developed as the inner city, but Getsemaní especially has a lot of good restaurants (Cafe Lunático and Oh La La come to mind). The nightlife and open air dining in La Trinidad Square feels authentic and less contrived than some of the more expensive counterparts in the Inner City. The area also has some interesting street art.

Most of the budget hostels are located on Calle de la Media Luna, which is a bit rough around the edges, but the area is undergoing gentrification.

Gold figure from the Museo de Oro Zenu: Cartagena, ColombiaCeramic figure from the Museo de Oro Zenu: Cartagena, Colombia

El Centro and San Diego, inside the inner city, have the lion’s share of historical sights, churches, museums, and government buildings. These areas are more expensive and filled with a lot more vendors, hustlers, and street performers. If rapping for tips makes one person money, soon enough there is a whole group of kids doing it. We were approached on two separate occasions by aspiring rappers and both name dropped Harry Potter when trying to describe Barret.Polaroid of a band performing in Bolivar Park: Cartagena, Colombia

One evening, after several bottles of wine and amazing seafood at El Boliche Cebicheria, we decided to have one last drink in the Santo Domingo Square. Some restaurants were starting to pull their tables in, but there was still a fair amount of people about.

As we relaxing an older guy stopped by with a polaroid around his neck and a metal box with two jump rope-like leads. Grant and the waitress each grabbed a lead while he cranked a handle. Each turn produced a higher and higher voltage until the waitress shrieked and let go.

Because we were shaping up to be the last customers of the night, the electric shock vendor asked 10,000 pesos for the experience. Of course I said no and instead we bargained over the cost of a Polaroid photo. It was a deal after adding a stray dog and the opportunity to shock both of my travel companions.

Polaroid of an electric shock vendor: Cartagena, Colombia

Bocagrande is a peninsula just outside the walled city that is filled with high-rise developments and casinos. The coastline looks like a watercress sandwich with bite marks and on a sunny day the beach is swarming with families, umbrellas, and hawkers. The most aggressive sells in town are on the Bocagrande Beaches.

The options were limitless: wooden ships, lobster magnets, soda, cigarettes, airbrush tattoos, jet ski rides. Then there were the massage ladies. They carried little footstools and plastic pails filled with massage oils. The lower the sun sank the more aggressive they became and wouldn’t take no for an answer.

One woman squirted aloe onto her hand and started rubbing my neck. No thanks. No. No thank you. I said no thank you!

Ten minutes later another woman squatted in front of me and rubbed the top of my feet. The cool lotion actually did feel good mixed with the fine gritty sand, but I felt that if I said yes, I’d be taken for a ride. No thank you! No. Really- no thank you!

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

The biggest mistake we made was putting too much confidence in the bottled water. At least that’s the best explanation we came up with. Maybe it was bottled city water or maybe it was over-chlorinated. The only thing for certain is that we were feeling good after our big night out until we opened a new gallon of water. In Grant’s words, it was Superbowel Sunday.

There were a few false starts before we finally left the apartment later that afternoon for the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Its placement just outside the city was strategic as it guarded the bay and the gate entrance to Getsemaní.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

It was a steep walk up the fortress in the scorching sun and it was only when we’d made it to the top that we realized we didn’t have a map. Normally I’d head back down, but I was feeling a little weak and dehydrated.

Detail of construction materials at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

Without any sort of guide, I wasn’t really sure what I was looking at, but there were a lot of dark tunnels to walk through and the texture of the construction material was quite beautiful.

Detail of construction materials at Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas: Cartagena, Colombia

After poking around for two hours, I wasn’t the only one who needed the bathroom. Grant and I looked for the most fortified building we could find and ended up in front of the old hospital. “Even better!”

Unfortunately, the hospital was only a theater with a historical documentary on loop. We walked in on the scene where the Spanish colonists were bayoneting the English; it was the perfect metaphor for my stomach.

About: the food and nightlife in Cartagena

About: Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

How to get to the Museo del Oro Zenú: Centro, Cra 4, 33-26, Plaza de Bolivar, Cartagena

How to get to El Boliche Cebicheria: San Diego, Calle Cochera del Hobo #38-17, Cartagena

Street art mural near the cathedral: Cartagena, Colombia

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Aruba: Week 252

The blue waters of Malmok Beach: Aruba

Aruba is a very arid island. The contrast between tropical Caribbean dreams and the desert landscape couldn’t be any starker than it is on the coast, where cacti grow straight out of white beach sand.

The sheltered SW side of the island is famous for its beaches and snorkeling. Barret and I spent our first morning at Malmok Beach, which is smaller and quieter than the resort beaches further south.

A large iguana lounged against a white wall while turquoise-speckled Aruban Whiptails scurried out from the shadows. One accidentally grazed the top of my hand with its soft underbelly and scratchy nails.

Turquoise-spotted Aruban Whiptail lizard: Aruba

Along the coast pelicans swooped into schools of fish while small boats cast their anchor further out. The tour boat blasting dance music was named Putin Pleasure. I blinked twice and realized the palm tree logo in the font was meant to spell out Palm Pleasure.

View of the Boca Prins Beach: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The NE side of Aruba has pounding waves and a jagged coastline reminiscent of shards of glass. A good portion of this coastline belongs to the Arikok National Park. The relentless sun beats down year round and is the reason only stray goats cross this desert landscape on foot. A rental car is the best way to visit to Arikok.

Desert landscape at Arikok National Park, Aruba

View of the coast at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Mikayla at Arikok National Park, Aruba

Cave art at the Fontein Cave: Arikok National Park, Aruba

The coastline north of the national park is unpopulated and largely difficult to reach without 4WD. The Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins is one of the few buildings that sits along this stark coast and is accessible by a paved road.

View from the Bushiribana Ruins: Aruba

The mill was built in the late 1800s and was in use until being replaced by the Balashi Mill on the other side of the island. Balashi operated until WWI, when the imported mining materials became impossible to secure. After the war, the neglected mill was in such a state of disrepair than no further production was pursued.

Collapsed Natural Bridge: Aruba

Close to the ruins is the former location of Natural Bridge. As its name suggests, it was a strip of land that spanned across a rugged cove. Although nature eventually had its way and the bridge collapsed, tourism still prevails.

A wooden ladder has since been constructed which allows people to access a small, protected pool during low tide. My friends and I happened to be there during high tide and it was one of those moments where I could imagine the following day’s headline: Security measures to be proposed in wake of tourists being dragged out to sea.

Driftwood folk art from Aruba

Leaving the ruins, along the single paved road, was my favorite gift shop on the island. It was actually a wooden shed on private property, but it had a massive collection of driftwood painted to look like colorful fish. It was folk art at its purest and I didn’t see anything like it near the cruise ship docks.

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

Cacti sunset near the Alto Vista Chapel: Aruba

The Alto Vista Chapel can also be found on the desolate NE coast. It was built upon the location of the island’s first Roman Catholic Church. While the building itself attracts tourists and Tuesday evening service-goers, the most compelling reasons to visit are the sunsets and the footpaths through the cacti-filled landscape.

Alto-Vista-Chapel-Sunset-Walk

Exterior view of the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Downtown Oranjestad, with its colonial architecture, is actually quite small. Aside from a spattering of museums, retail shops dominate the landscape. The National Archaeological Museum, which is free to the public, is located inside the former Ecury Complex.

Anthropomorphic ceramic jar from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

Pottery shard from the National Archaeological Museum Aruba - Oranjestad

The buildings, some of which date as far back as the 19th century, remained in the Ecury family until 1997. Today, the complex is a modern museum with a focus on Aruban Amerindian culture and the country’s colonial heritage.

Street art in Oranjestad, Aruba

Colonial building in Oranjestad, Aruba

Papiamento and Dutch are the two official languages, but Aruba is much more linguistically savvy than that. Because the island receives a significant amount of tourism from the US, English is very widely spoken.

Most of the ATMs dispense US dollars and stores usually expected me to pay in USD. I, of course, took all my money out in Florins and every time I went to the store I felt like the kind of tourist that wears a beret in Paris.

Chinese restaurant in Oranjestad, Aruba

Spanish is also understood because of the close proximity of Venezuela and it’s hard not to notice that most of the independent groceries stores reflect Chinese ownership.

Polaroid of a pink bungalow house in Aruba

Outside of Oranjestad’s historical area, the majority of homes are one-story bungalows. They come in an array of colors and would not have been out of place during the 1950s.

After a few days of driving around the island, I thought about the couple at the airport that passed through immigration before us. This was their 28th visit to Aruba and they were excited to be back.

No matter how much I’ve enjoyed a destination, I’ve never felt that strongly about one place. I liked Aruba and I loved the desert sunsets, but the One Happy Island was a little too small and commercial for me. I’d dipped my toes into Aruba and it just left me curious about all the other Caribbean islands. Good thing we’d already planned on jumping over to Curacao.

Polaroid of the road leading to the Alto Vista Chapel in Aruba

About: Alto Vista Chapel

About: Bushiribana Gold Mill Ruins

About: Arikok National Park

About: National Archaeological Museum Aruba

Polaroid of a tangled cactus in Arikok National Park: Aruba

Colonial Williamsburg: Week 251

A carriage ride in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Between 1699-1780, Williamsburg was not only the seat of power in Virginia but also the most influential city in all of the colonies. For strategic reasons, the capitol was moved north to Richmond towards the end of the Revolutionary War and the cultural and political importance of Williamsburg waned. It wasn’t until the 1920s that preservation work began on what was once the most important city in the US.

A man in period costume strolling the streets of Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Colonial Williamsburg was so much more immersive and larger than I had imagined. It is 301 acres of restored and historically furnished buildings. On top of that, employees in period costume lead tours, tidy gardens, run auctions, and stroll down the streets.

A large two story brick house in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Within the historic district there are also period-specific shops, restaurants, gardens, and even private residences. There is no cost to stroll through the area, but an expensive day pass is needed for any tours.

A traditional garden in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The Brick House Tavern in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

A garden shed in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The reconstructed capitol in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

Because it was about three-hour drive to get to Colonial Williamsburg, we arrived in the early afternoon and decided not to buy the day pass. Instead we picked up some hot coffee and enjoyed a long, ambling walk.

A door trimmed with Christmas decorations in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

It was New Year’s Eve and the traditional Christmas decorations were still up. I loved the doors outlined with real boughs of pine and the wreaths decorated with leaves, apples, oranges, pineapples, and cotton.

A window decorated for Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

A window decorated for Christmas in Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia

The only thing missing in this wonderfully preserved town was snow.

A fruit-themed Christmas decoration that is located over a door: Colonial Williamsburg, VirginiaAbout: Colonial Williamsburg

Buga: Week 247

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

Barret was out on the balcony with a cold glass of beer. I laid down on the double bed and listened to the motorcycles drive by on the street below. I’d heard that sound before, years ago, the echo of small engines bouncing off brick buildings and fading into a maze of narrow streets. It’s the sound of a South American vacation.

Balcony view from the Buga Hostel and Brewery: Buga, Colombia

During a four-day weekend, Barret and I had traveled three hours south of Manizales to a small town not quite on the tourist trail. Buga had a dry December heat and an influx of pilgrims visiting the Basilica del Señor de los Milagros. The plaza surrounding the church was filled with gift shops, old men selling lotto tickets and anyone else looking for a miracle.

Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

The pews were packed on a Sunday afternoon and the line to pray at the feet of the black Jesus only shortened during mass. The revered Señor de los Milagros, famous for the color of its material and its skirts, was visible through a glass panel behind the pulpit.

Leaving the basilica, we walked out onto Calle 4. It was filled with relic shopkeepers eager to usher us into their stores.

Exvoto plaques for Señor de los Milagros: Buga, Colombia

Off of Carrera 14a was a museum dedicated to the basilica. The majority of the walls were dedicated to exvotos. These are offerings that the public gives in honor of blessings received. They came in a variety of forms – from marble plaques to letters sent with military medals or baby clothes.

Parque Cabal, a few blocks over, was filled with iguanas. A booth selling cholados was set up at the southern corner of the park. Manizales is too cold for shaved ice desserts, but not Buga. The ice was sweetened with generous portions of fruit and covered in condensed milk.

Iguana in Parque Cabal: Buga, Colombia

After dinner with a friend, Barret and I spent the rest of the evening on the hostel’s rooftop terrace. The afternoon heat lingered into the evening and the lights from the Basilica shone in the distance.

My friend had told me, “now that you two are here, there are three times as many foreigners in Buga.” She was almost right about that. Buga is a small town draped in Spanish moss, but there were a few other foreigners in the hostel who had already discovered its charm.

Señor de los Milagros relic: Buga, Colombia

About: Buga Hostel & Brewery

About: Basilica del Señor de los Milagros

Villa de Leyva & Terracotta House: Week 245

Villa de Leyva cobblestone plaza: Colombia

Villa de Leyva is a colonial gem several hours north of Bogotá. It was founded in the late 1500s as a retreat for the well-to-do and high-ranking officials. Because the town was not located on important shipping routes or near significant mineral deposits, the cobblestone town escaped the pressures of modernization.

Although Villa de Leyva has certainly been ‘discovered’, there is still more foot traffic than cars in the center of town. It is also possible to see a bridled donkey on a side street and know that it’s a working animal and not a photo prop.

Donkeys on the cobblestone streets of Villa de Leyva: Colombia

A small courtyard in Villa de Leyva: Colombia

One of the reasons Villa de Leyva is so beloved by tourists is because of its massive main square. At 14,000 square meters, it’s quite possibly the largest cobblestone plaza in South America. The white-washed buildings and churches surrounding the plaza were also beautifully preserved.

Virgin Mary statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Jesus Christ statue in the Church of Our Lady of the Rosary: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Balcony of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

On the outskirts of town is an eccentric house named La Casa de Terracota. It was completed in 2012 by the Colombian architect Octavio Mendoza. In his own words, Casa Terracota is, “a project that transforms soil into habitable architecture, by simply using the supporting help of natural resources—e.g. the other three elements of nature (air, water and fire).”

Living room of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Studio at the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

Aside from the relatively low-cost of the construction process, there are several other benefits to using soil as a building material. The first benefit being the insulation properties of soil and the second being its harmonious relationship with nature. Imagine a house that could actually become stronger after being ‘cooked’ during a season of devastating wildfires.

Bathroom mirror at the Terracotta House: Villa De Leyva, Colombia

While no one lives in the house, the rooms were furnished, wired with electricity, and the tiled bathrooms were connected to running water. I really liked how all of the textures in the house were imperfect and organic, but perhaps the nicest design element was the number of windows and skylights in the house. The warm afternoon light made the terracotta surfaces glow.

I’m not sure how durable terracotta homes are, but if one were available, I could see myself giving it a go. Especially in the desert- how wonderful to live without an AC bill!

Work bench in the studio of the Terracotta House: Villa de Leyva, Colombia

About: Villa de Leyva

About: La Casa de Terracota

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