New Year’s Eve in Cartagena, Colombia- Walking the old city & fireworks!

Combing the streets of Cartagena!

Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that is almost a gateway to South America. Located in the northern part of Colombia, it has a very European feel to it, yet is as South American as they come! Always warm and inviting Cartagena is known for it’s ‘magical realism’.

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Its a wonderful city to walk around with interesting neighborhoods like Getsemani, San Diego and Centro inside the walls. There were more developed Miami-like beach areas which we avoided, preferring to get a feel for the real city, not only the touristy parts.

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To get a real feel for the city, we would recommend walking along the walls of old city Cartagena. Get lost exploring- walking through Centro and San Diego neighborhoods. This can take ~3-4 hours and along the way you can see many shops and restaurants or small cafes which provide a refreshing respite from the hot sun! You will walk past colorful houses, interesting street art, statues and murals.

The city looks even more beautiful in the evening as the sun sets. You can see the main gate all lit up and enjoy views of Christopher Columbus’ ship which is now a museum.

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If you still have energy left, Cartagena is famous for its buzzing night life, which starts only after 10 pm. Cafe Havana is one of the famous places to visit. It is supposed to have great music and drinks, but since it was New Year’s Eve, and we were completely unprepared (no reservations), we didnt get a chance to check it out.IMG_0099

New Year’s eve in Cartagena was another special experience! The whole city came to a standstill. Restaurants were completely full, as were the streets, and from the crowds it was clear that New Year’s eve celebrations and the fireworks were a family event, to be celebrated with everyone, children and grandparents included! We waited along the wall, like most of the locals, to see the fireworks.

While we called it a night after the fireworks, the city and its inhabitants carried on well into the wee hours of the new year 2016!

Chasing waterfalls and more: 2 days in Baños, Ecuador

Baños de Agua Santa or Baños is the adventure capital of Ecuador. Located in the eastern Tungurahua Province, in central Ecuador, it is known as the Gateway to the Amazon. Baños de Agua Santa, Spanish for Baths of Holy Water, is named after the hot springs located around the city which have a reputation of having healing properties due to their content of various minerals.

After the first 2 days in Quito we headed to Baños to get our fill of outdoor adventure sports. And boy, we did!

The bus ride from Quito, while long and uphill, was quite scenic and we arrived in a much cooler, rainy small town, compared to the metropolis we had left behind. We stayed at the Erupcion hostel, which is on the main street, right in the centre of most of the action.


Baños, is famous for the spectacular waterfalls and hot springs within and around the city and there are open top buses that take you around, to the various waterfalls. At almost each stop, there were activities that could be done- from the tame ride across in a basket/cable car that offered spectacular views of the waterfalls, to the extreme upside down zip-line across! What was amazing was how little everything cost: a single ride on the cable car cost about $1 while the zip-line cost just $15!


We spent a few enjoyable hours chasing waterfalls- the zip line rides were awesome, the kind that would inspire songs believing that you could fly and while the cable cars looked tame, they shuddered and jerked- making it a brilliant ride!

The pièce de résistance came when at one of the stops we were told you could bungee jump off the bridge for $20! Thats been on the to-do list, and we thought it could only happen in NZ, for >$100, so this was an opportunity not to be missed! Needless to say, it was thrilling and made the day!

We ended at Pailon del Diablo, a waterfall named after the devil’s cauldron, which was as dramatic as the name made it sound.

Back in the city, we treated ourselves to jugo de caña and watching taffy being made. True to tradition, we like to find and try local brews in the cities we visit, we ended the evening with delicious beer from a local microbrewery, Stray Dog Brewery. 

Day 2 brought adventure #2- white water rafting with Geotours. While we had signed up for the whole day of rafting, the river was too rough, so we were taken on the half day course, which promised class IV and IV+ rapids. The water was cooooolllldddd but after a few minutes of intense paddling we were warmed up and had a great time!

That evening, we felt we’d earned a real treat and Ponche Suizo had just the thing- their special Ponche Suizo hit the spot!

Baños is also well known for its thermal baths and massages, though we didn’t try either.

All in all, while the town/city of Baños is nothing special in itself and can seem extremely touristy with not much to do, given its proximity to the Amazon its a great spot to get your fill of outdoor stuff- biking, hiking, white water rafting; with the occasional affordable zip-line and bridge jump thrown in!

Two days in Quito- in and around the city

Our trip to Ecuador made me want to start this blog. It was planned fairly spontaneously and the plan was to improvise  as we travel through the country, so it gave rise to lots of opportunities worth blogging about!

Day 1 was a big shock to the system. As soon as we landed, we realized that English is not spoken very widely. We had to quickly start thinking and talking only in Spanish. Learn a little Spanish– this will be my advice for people planning to go to Ecuador. It will change your experience completely.

Flights into Ecuador from the US all land late, around midnight. The drive from the airport to the city is almost an hour. By the time we completed immigration and took a taxi to Quito it was almost 3 am. People fear being cheated by taxis, but all our rides were safe.

In the morning after breakfast we headed to the Equator! Mitad del Mundo is about an hour from Quito by local buses. It’s a bit touristy but definitely worth a visit. You get to see the north-south divide and experience strange phenomenon like balancing eggs on a pin and watching the flow of water reversing itself. Rest of the “amusement park” is just about OK. The museum in the tower is quite interesting and gives a nice overview of the different regions of Ecuador and it’s native folk.

That evening we decided to take the gondola (or Telefirico) to one of the attractions in Quito, their local mountain, Pichincha. The views from the top are spectacular but be prepared for rarefied air because you were at the height of 14,000 feet. It was also our chance to meet up with college friends Enrique and Cynthia who are Quito locals.The walk was refreshing even with the rarefied air and catching up with friends is always great fun.

Since it was around Christmas time, there was a Christmas fair/market at the top of El Panecillo. Convinced it would be a quintessential Quito experience, and since the traffic leading up to the top was horrible, we decided to walk all the way up. While it is quite a climb to the top, the market and the view were definitely worth it.6.jpg1.JPG

We tried interesting local treats, including banana stuffed with cheese and chocolate, and had our first taste of Canelazo, which immediately became our favorite drink in the country and we drank it at every opportunity we got, over the next few days!

Day 2 was about exploring Old Quito, again with Enique and Cynthia, who, once they decided we were alright to spend time with, volunteered to show us around. We’ve said it before and will do so again, seeing a new city with a local completely changes the experience and is absolutely recommended!

Enrique took us to his art studio/workshop/music venue: Casa del Art, before we started the tour around town. They have some very interesting art pieces! Unfortunately they didn’t have a concert planned, but there’s hopefully a next time..1.jpg

We began with Iglesia de San Francisco, a a 16th-century Roman Catholic complex in old Quito, which houses the city’s beloved Virgin of Quito. While imposing from the outside, it was gorgeous inside!4.jpg3.jpg

Lunch was Equadorian fare in the picturesque Vista Hermosa, overlooking the beautiful city.2.jpg

We ended our tour of the Old town in La Ronda neighborhood- it used to be infamous back in the day, though now it has been cleaned up and has lots of chique cafes and bars.3.JPG

Having spent all day in Old Quito made us curious to see what the new part of the city was like. So we ended the day in Plaza Foch, the center of La Mariscal, the subsection of New Town, with a dense concentration of clubs, bars, restaurants, Internet cafes, and backpacker hotels – the area is informally referred to as Gringolandia because of its popularity with tourists. Our local guides had left us by now- this was too touristy even for them!  2.JPG

As advertised, it was full of tourists and could very well be a main street in any American town, so after the mandatory photo, we headed back, to rest our tired feet and prepare for our next destination in Ecuador- Baños!

 

Day trip from Cartagena: Volcan de Totumo 

Volcan de Totumo is a day trip from Cartagena. It is highly reviewed and recommended in TripAdvisor and other travel sites, so it first came across as a tourist trap. We resisted but in the end were very happy we tried it out. Let me start by saying it is touristy but well worth the experience.

Approximately a one hour drive from Cartagena, the “volcano” is a giant mound of mud. It is claimed that the mud has therapeutic qualities and hence is very popular. You have to climb up a few steps and then down into the mud using the ladder.  The locals help you into the “volcano” and offer massages. May sound creepy but it isn’t and they just help cover your body with mud. You can choose to decline and spend time on your own, like we chose to do. The feeling of weightlessness you experience is unique and for us the most exciting part of the day. The mud pit is quite deep and even though your feet never reach the bottom, you stay afloat and bob around. Great fun!

We were lucky it wasn’t very busy and so got a little more time in the mud. The locals limit the amount of time to keep crowds moving so recommend going early in the day. The locals also clean you up as you leave the mud pit in order to preserve the amount of mud. You can see clearly that the levels have reduced over the years.

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Once you leave the “volcano”, time for cleanup. Nothing can prepare you for the thorough cleanse the local ladies will give you to clean all the mud of you. They walk you down to the river and may even pull your swim gear off. Just soak in the experience 🙂

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2 days in Cartagena: travel itinerary

Cartagena is a beautiful walled city that is almost a gateway to South America. Located in the northern part of Colombia, it has a very European feel to it. Always warm and inviting Cartagena is known for it’s ‘magical realism’.

Two day itinerary

Day 1

  1. Walk the walls of old city Cartagena.  Get lost exploring Centro, San Diego neighborhoods (~3-4 hours)
  2. Lunch at Sombrero Ceviche
  3. Spend time at the beach
  4. Dinner within the walled city. Discover the night life (which starts only after 10 pm)

Day 2

  1. Half day trip to Volcan Totumo (read more here)
  2. Food tour with Juan or Kristy (Cartagena Connections) (~3 hours)
  3. Continue walking through Getsemani neighborhood.