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

Curacao: Week 253

Polaroid of a pink building in Otrobanda: Willemstad, Curacao

Curacao is the largest member of the ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao). It has a much more European feel than Aruba, which could partially be attributed to the beautifully preserved UNESCO area of Willemstad.

If you were to imagine a horseshoe pointing downwards, historic Willemstad would be the two ends. Both ends make for an impressive entrance to Schottegat Bay and are connected to each other by the retractable Queen Emma Bridge. Cruise ships, Venezuelan fishing boats, and oil refinery traffic pass through the bay daily.

Vintage postcard of Punda: Willemstad, Curacao

We spent the morning walking through the Otrobanda side of the harbor before crossing the pedestrian bridge to Punda. The waterfront colonial buildings in Punda are probably the most common postcard image of Curacao.While they looked beautiful, the businesses housed a few too many tourist traps for our liking.

For something a little more interesting, we walked one neighborhood over to Nieuwestraat in Pietermaai. It was less touristy and filled with lots of delicious restaurants like Mundo Bizarro. Their vanilla lemon sorbet was incredible.

Curacao is also famous for the failed Valencia oranges that the Spaniards brought over during the early days of colonization. The island turned out to be far too arid and dry, so the trees were left to their own devices. It was only much later that someone discovered the wonderful aroma of the dried peels.

We were on our way to the Curacao Liqueur Distillery, famous for using the offspring of the original oranges, when we accidentally ended up outside the Zuikertuin Mall. I was trying to figure out where we went wrong when we noticed a large, open-air cafe.

There was freshly baked bread on the first floor and a cool breeze on the second. The backyard was filled with tall trees, peacocks and roosters. After some coffee and beer we did eventually find our way to the distillery, but it wasn’t as nice as our accidental find.

Blue iguana at Christoffel National Park: Curacao

Christoffel National Park is on the north end of the island. It was an hour’s drive via a quiet road peppered with iguana sightings. Of the two trails available, we picked the coastal loop. Because of the early afternoon heat, walking the loop was prohibited. We had to drive to the sites, but that didn’t prevent us from seeing massive ice-blue iguanas under bushes and in trees.

Coin purse from Jaanchie's: West Punt, Curacao

Rounding out the north end of the island is a small town called West Punt, where Jaanchie’s was located. The first thing we noticed when we walked in was the birds. A hundred little yellow bodies darted in and out of the porch feeders. The volume of the birdsong was incredible and their rapid, jittery movement was mesmerizing.

We quickly discovered that Jaanchie’s is the kind of place you don’t want to rush. The beer is very cold and the only menu can be found in the owner’s head. When Jaachie’s ready to list the options, he’ll pull up a chair.

“Who are the couples?” Jaanchi asked before walking two fingers up Jen’s arm. “Iguana is supposed to be very good for couples.”

We each ordered a different dish and decided to share a plate of iguana, which ended up tasting like really good chicken wings. The meals were served in metal trays.

My goat stew was flanked by salad on the right and beans and rice on the left. The only seasoning on the table were three little bowls of diced onions, tartar sauce and mayo. Jaanchie’s has been on the tourist trail for decades, so its prices reflect that, but the food is definitely worth it.

The blue waters of Grote Knip cove beach: Curacao

Playa Abou (AKA Grote Knip) is a popular beach cove close to West Punt. The cliffs overlooking the crystal clear water are covered in cacti while trees and thatched pergolas shade the beach. The mustard yellow hue of the rocks reminded me of Australia.

That’s how I knew we’d found a little bit of heaven in the ABC Islands.

Dinner and sunset on the beach at Pirate's Bay: Curacao

About: Curacao

How to get to Mundo Bizarro: Nieuwestraat 12, Willemstad

How to get to the Curacao Liqueur Distillery: Elias R A Moreno Blvd, Saliña Ariba, Willemstad

About: Christoffel National Park

How to get to Jaanchie’s: Westpunt 15, Westpunt Curacao

About: Grote Knip

Sunset over the ocean at Pirate's Bay: Curacao

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.


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

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