Chips of coral looking for all the world like bleached bones litter the creamy white sand. Powdery as chalk dust, the beach stretches along into the horizon flanked on the one side with the translucent sea green Caribbean sea, the other lost in a muddle of straw topped cabanas and hammocks.
The launches that were packed with day trippers finally left the beach at three in the afternoon leaving Playa Blanca and the Isla Barύ to those who were staying overnight. I had arrived in Cartagena two days previously and I had decided to treat myself to a bit of R & R as a treat for all of my hard work leading up to the re-launch of my website.
Now, I am sat with pen and paper at a small table in the dark looking out to sea at one of the time little ‘hostels’ that line the beach. The warm ocean gently laps around my toes á la Shirley Valentine and the sky is lit up with a thousand stars. Reggae music drifts along the beach and candles stuck into plastic bottles cast a soft orange glow across the small groups of people who are sat chatting quietly over their evening meals of extremely freshly caught fish.
I don’t like boats and I hate small boats with a vengeance so when I found out that my hostel in Cartagena, the Mamallena was offering a shuttle bus transfer to this idyllic beach I jumped at the chance to give it a go.
Instead of a small boat across the open water which apparently can become quite choppy in the afternoons I was picked up outside my hostel in an air-conditioned minibus and myself and the eleven other passengers were whizzed along the smooth road which connects Playa Blanca to Cartagena in less than an hour.
The bus costs 35,000 Pesos (50,000 return) and unlike the boat it goes directly to the beach and it also means that you don’t have to pay the additional landing tax. The return element is valid for more than the one day too which is a good deal compared to the boats. The boats land on the beach, the shuttle bus stops at the back of the beach. You just need to walk down a short flight of rocky sandy steps and you are there, although I would suggest, just like Stuart at the Mamallena suggested, that you immediately turn to your right and walk ten minutes to the softer sand, rock free sea and less beach touts.
As you walk along the beach it gets quieter but to be honest nowhere is really noisy or busy apart from the very first bit immediately in front of the little stallholders. Food and drink is a bit pricier as the fish is fresh and landed that day or other food has to be transported in, but it was not as hefty as I had expected. And my piece of fish was beautifully cooked over an open wood fire at the back of the hostel.
After two days and a night swaying sleepily in one of the hammocks for just 10,000 pesos (£3) I really didn’t want to leave Playa Blanca but I dragged myself away from the beach and took the shuttle bus back to the Mamallena hostel.
On my return I had been allocated to another dorm which was lighter and more spacious than my first room but noisier in the night. I sleep badly anyway so it didn’t matter to me. The hostel does all that it can to minimise noise within the building and it is very quiet inside the courtyard at night. It is not a party hostel but it is situated in party street but it is so very friendly. I met several people who relocated to it from other, less friendly hostels in Cartagena.
The rooms are clustered around a long narrow central courtyard shaded by trees and have colourful artwork on the walls but best of all, the dorms and the private rooms have air con. Believe me, you will need it here at night. The hostel has a resident dog and a couple of cats and while in the heat they mostly lazed around, the star of the show has to be the parrot Tori. A green parrot just one year old she entertains all the guests with her antics and her singing and her non stop chatter, while she demands attention and hops around in the trees in the courtyard.
Stuart from Tasmania owns the hostel and with a nice bar, decent food, a pancake breakfast included and the mellow atmosphere the Mamallena is a great place from which to explore Cartagena. Situated just a couple of blocks from the walled city in the Getsamane district, the streets outside offer nightlife and day life in the form of clubs, bars, restaurants and people watching.
Medellin had been hot and sunny but Cartagena takes things a steamy stage further. I can honestly say that the only other place that I have been which is just as hot and humid so far has been India during the monsoon season and the sea at Playa Blanca has been the warmest sea that I have ever been in – and also one of the clearest.
So, what about Cartagena?
Well, Romancing the Stone was not filmed here. I haven’t seen any crocodiles but the old walled city is stunning. It oozes colonial architecture with its balconies and courtyards, flowers tumble from terraces and there is colour everywhere. The old walls guard the city and are incredibly well preserved and dotted with tiny cafes, restaurants and gift shops. Did I say that it is hot? I picked up a ‘free for tips’ city tour (more about that in another post) and I went into the ice cold interior of one of the emerald shops. I had no intention of buying but the jewellery was stunning and made of stones sourced in Colombia and I listened attentively while the assistant brought out many more plates of expensive jewels until my core temperature had dropped to a more manageable level. I popped in and out of the cathedral and some of the churches and I thought about going into the Naval Museum and the Inquisition Museum, but I will save them for another visit.
I escaped from the heat and I lunched in a really cute little restaurant called El Balcon which was situated in the old town and one evening I joined the crowds and I went up onto the walls looking out to sea for the sunset, rubbing shoulders with people who were paying 10 mil for a bottle of beer while I paid a little man with a cool box just 2 mil for a can of beer. We watched the same sunset but my experience was 8 mil cheaper.
I ate out with Mor (from Israel) and Tina (from the Philipines) at a little Mexican restaurant around the corner from our hostel and I joined hordes of other travellers, backpackers and locals one evening in Parque Trinidad. This square is jam packed at night with the travellers who are not searching out the loud clubs but want to sit and chill, drum or strum guitars gently and juggle. Served well by the men with their cool boxes, the men with their flasks of extremely decent coffee for about 18p and snack sellers this is the place to be, although I did spend a sweaty evening watching a great salsa band in Club Havana
I joined forces with Carlos another guest at the hostel (and who owns his own hostel in Brazil) and we walked up to the fort which is just a fifteen minute walk from the Mamallena. I didn’t know that Cartagena had a castle let alone such a big one. It was a bit pricey to get in (17,000 pesos/£5.30) but for an extra 10,000 pesos we shared one of the little audio tour handset things and joined together by the umbilical cord of the headphones we wandered around. We were in there for over two hours, climbing staircases, peering over walls and getting just a little bit lost in the underground tunnel system.
As a sideline to the Mamallena hostel Stuart has Mamallena Tours and Travel through which you can book trips to the mud volcanos, buses to Santa Marta or Tayrona, boats to Panama and you can also book a trek to the Lost City. I am still weighing up the pros and cons of doing that four or five day trek so watch this site to find out if I eventually went for it, but also check out the link to see what else is on offer from this company.
And then one evening, Lio visited out hostel with some mates. We had already met whilst staying at a hostel in Medellin and we decided that as we both planned to go on to Santa Marta next we would meet up and travel together a couple of days l
Note:- Whilst I received a complimentary Shuttle Bus transfer to Playa Blanca from the Mamallena Hostel this did not influence my opinion or review in any way. I have portrayed an honest picture of my stay