Venezuela/Colombia 2010: from Caracas to Cartagena

Note: This posts comes from an email I sent during a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in June 2010.

Hello from Cartagena!

Our last day in Venezuela passed extremely uneventfully since we left our hotel only to go to the airport. Greg and I joined other Venezuelans in the lobby of our hotel to watch the Italy-Slovakia game, and the Italian-at-heart part of me felt very sad as I saw them miss some shots and ultimately drop out of the running.

As I predicted on the way to the airport, Venezuela is a difficult country to leave. In addition to an exit tax (which somehow we didn’t have to pay?), there is an airport services tax which you can only pay in cash. Given that we had just given our last remaining bolivares to our cab driver, that was a bit of a problem. After searching in vain for an ATM and rejecting numerous whispered offers of “¿cambio?”, we gave in and experienced another round of horrible exchange rate currency switching. If nothing else, this provided us the opportunity to eat one last arepa, though none of the four I ate were as good as the first.

Final thoughts on Venezuela: I would love to go back one day when the country has calmed down a bit and see the rest of it. There are beautiful beaches and plenty of things to see outside of Caracas, and the people can’t be beat – they were incredibly friendly and accomodating of my sometimes struggling Spanish skills. I am excited to have made it through without having been robbed at gunpoint (something I was legitimately concerned about thanks to both the State Department and various connections there), but on the whole I found it much less scary than I had anticipated, and I am extremely glad that we went. My favorite part other than the political discussions with the cabbies was ascending the mountain to view the city; be sure to look for those (and plenty of pictures of political propaganda) on Facebook when I get home.

We arrived in Cartagena last night around 10 and quickly made it to our hotel. Our helpful cab driver gave us lots of tips for exploring the city and assured us that we’d be safe walking around at any time. (Everyone to whom we’ve mentioned that we were just in Venezuela has reacted with faces or words that indicate that we are clearly very brave people.) Our hotel is AMAZING. While technically a hostel, it’s really quite nice and located in a great part of the city. It’s in a building that is pure hacienda design; its three floors form a rectangle around an open courtyard, and there is a roof complete with three mini jacuzzis and three hammocks hanging under a gazebo. I enjoyed some time in those this afternoon!

This morning we started with a trip to the beach, located a mere two blocks away. The water looks about the same as it does anywhere on the east coast – that is to say, it wasn’t crystal clear, but it wasn’t disgusting either. It was warm, though – like bathwater! Greg and I had barely had time to learn this before we were pounced on by various zealous Colombians offering a variety of goods and services, from necklaces, bracelets, t-shirts, beer, fresh fruit, snow cones, sand shovels, flip flops, massages, and hair braiding. We took advantage of the last two… while two women set to work on my hair (and Greg’s, which is long), a third massaged my feet, legs, and arms while consistently telling me “you are so tense!” Two hours later, Greg and I sported more than 30 tiny, beaded braids a piece and found ourselves to be victims of majorly overpriced services… I won’t say how much we spent, but suffice it to say, Greg is taking control of our money and haggling hard from now on. (I always tend to think that they need the money and thus will cough it up, but the braids were ridiculous even with that.)

Given that we’d been in the  sun for two hours and that Cartagena is both very warm and extraordinarily humid (Virginia loses that contest in a heartbeat), we trekked back to our hotel and changed into more tourist clothes (shorts) before walking the two miles or so to the old town. Like Old San Juan, it is surrounded by a large wall, and we walked on top of the wall (at times only two feet wide) for most of the way around the city. I also insisted on some time sitting in the main plaza (another Plaza Bolívar; he’s big here, too) and complaining about how we don’t have those in the US. (Really, why don’t we?)

After some brief shopping (during which I only bought postcards), we started heading back towards our hotel, where I promptly collapsed in a hammock and got back to reading Gabriel García Marquez. We are leaving shortly to go on a nightlife tour of the city that will presumably include some sampling of Colombia’s own liquor… which apparently Americans don’t like, but which I don’t think can be any worse than the “rocket fuel” I consumed in China.

Tomorrow we are hoping to bathe in the mud of a nearby volcano before boarding a 13-hour bus to Medellín (yes, as in the cartel), where we will spend a few hours before heading to Bogotá. I will be extremely sad to leave Cartagena (I truly would love to live here), but I am excited to see more of Colombia as well. So far, I am impressed!

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