We were both utterly exhausted by the ocean crossing from Panama, and it rather took the wind out of our sails as we stumbled off the deck of The Black Dragonfly and into the hot colonial port of Cartagena. It didn't help that the heat in Cartagena was utterly stifling, giving León a run for its money as the hottest place we've been on this trip, and it really didn't help that both of us were struck by land-sickness, with the solid ground swelling and swaying around us like the ocean.
I was also emotionally drained, as all the tension I'd built up in the run-up to the voyage spilled over into a bout of lethargy and listlessness that I simply couldn't do anything about. I found myself in a new part of the world – South America! – and I just couldn't get motivated at all. So we knuckled down to do pretty much nothing until the fog cleared, the rooms stopped spinning, and we could come up with a decent plan for exploring Colombia. It would take about a week in all, but luckily Cartagena turned out to be a perfect place for procrastination.
Arguably the most beautiful colonial town in the Americas, Cartagena de Indias (to give the city its full name) is a tale of two halves. The Old Town, which covers the districts of El Centro and San Diego, is surrounded by a huge fortified wall that the Spanish built to keep out invaders, and inside the wall is a maze of narrow streets and atmospheric plazas that are crammed with restaurants, boutique hotels, shops and churches. Coming from Central America, the first thing that strikes you is how clean it all is, but that's because the Old Town has been restored and gentrified into one of the most popular tourist attractions in Colombia.
It's a place for aimless wandering, but there is one problem: the gentrified streets now tread a fine line between characterful and clinical, and for me, it just manages to overstep the line. Yes, the architecture is wonderful, but the shops are all about ultra-modern designer clothes, the restaurants are all about ultra-smart modern cuisine, the bars are all about ultra-cool cosmopolitanism, the hotels are all about ultra-chic boutiques and spas, and the atmosphere is one of a European city with the Colombian influence swept away in a tide of Benetton and Prada. Scratch the surface of the Old Town and you will find gorgeous buildings and a palpable history, but you'll also find that in terms of character and soul, its beauty is only skin deep, having been exfoliated and pampered just a little too much.
But head east, passing beneath the picture-postcard clock tower of Puerta del Reloj and across to the other side of the Parque del Centenario, and there you'll find the Outer City, where things get a lot more earthy. The suburb of Getsemaní still teems with real Colombian life, and its squares fill with local life in the evenings while the walls crumble and the streets bubble with characters. Not that long ago Getsemaní was a no-go area for tourists, as it was home to the red light district and lots of casual criminals, but it's now pretty safe for visitors, and indeed, most of the city's budget accommodation can be found there. We explored the Old Town, but we settled into the Outer City, and that's where we finally shook off our nautical exhaustion and started to take stock of where we'd landed.
With of our energy levels on the rise, we even managed to visit one bona fide tourist attraction: the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This immense fort is just outside the wall around the Outer City, to the east of Getsemaní, and it's one of the most formidable colonial fortresses that the Spanish ever built. The views over Cartagena are stunning and worth the entrance fee alone, but the fort is also home to a labyrinth of underground tunnels, some of which are open to the public, and which provide you with an eerie and claustrophobic way to escape from the baking sun outside.
But even this short foray into the outside world nearly proved too much; it's hard to overstate just how fierce the equatorial sun is at this time of year, and it's no surprise that the locals simply hide from the midday skies, choosing to cram their day into the early morning and late evening, when they come out into the streets in their hundreds, promenading around the bars of the Old Town or eating street food in the plazas of the Outer City. So our stay in Colombia's premier colonial city degenerated into daytimes spent relaxing and hiding from the outside world, and evenings spent in restaurants and bars, including a very enjoyable evening with Jan and Holly from The Black Dragonfly at a rather special Argentinian restaurant in the Old Town.
It might not have been terribly good for our waistlines, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut instincts, so we simply waited until we felt we were ready to step into the rest of Colombia. It took a good week for the land to stop swaying and for a plan to start forming in our heads, but eventually we recovered enough to hop on a bus heading east along the Caribbean coast to Santa Marta, South America's oldest surviving city.