As we aren’t very stern taskmasters at all, you may be forgiven for thinking that Cartagena is just about fabled old architecture, pirate stories, outrageously good food, and glitzy parties. Granted, if that were indeed all this city was about, it would still be pretty damn fine. It just so happens, though, that Cartagena is also Base Camp for all of the natural beauty the Colombian Caribbean has to offer.
Just for example, the pristine beach, Playa Blanca, is tantalisingly close to Cartagena’s ancient walls.In the same neighbourhood is the enchanting archipelago of the Rosario Islands, with its siren-song of aquatic sports, marine life, and beach-bummery. Less pristine, but just as fun, is a cheeky volcano that’s just waiting to splash elemental mud all over you. Add to this the taste of Colombia’s world-beating megadiversity as displayed in virgin mangroves an energetic hop, skip and jump away. We offer these few examples as a hint that although Cartagena’s centre does exert a strong magnetic force on eager visitors, there’s so much more to explore around its edges.
There’s a lot going on in Cartagena. If you feel like you’ve had enough of the hustlers and bustlers for the time being, and that some time on a sandy beach looking out onto pristine waters that you’ve just had a dip in might make a welcome change, you may well be in luck. Rosario Islands, an archipelago of around 30 coral islands that are so ecologically significant they’ve been a National Park for years, beckons. And it’s not that far away. First, however, you have to get there.
It’s best to book a one-day (or overnight) tour while still in Cartagena the day before; either with your ho(s)tel; through a travel agent; or at the Tourist Marina at the Muelle Touristico de la Bodeguita,from where your boat will whisk you away. If you do this, and study your receipt, you are much less likely to be swindled by the experts plying their trade on the streets. Be aware, still, as most tours don’t include port tax (COP$12,000) or the park entrance fee (COP$10,000).
If you go for the day tour, you’ll cruise through the islands until you reach San Martin, where you can pay (COP$15,000) to visit the aquarium full of rare and crowd-pleasing species from around the area; or just hang around relaxing on the beach. You will then probably head off to Playa Blanca for lunch and beach-related activities, before heading back home. Otherwise, there is the possibility of staying on one of the islands for a night or two, so that when the other tourists and their associated swarm of vendors have left, you have the place more to yourself. The accommodation isn’t that cheap (remember, book in Cartagena!), but staying longer does give you the opportunity to try your hand at more water sports, such as kayaking, snorkelling, or water skiing – as well as just taking your own sweet time doing nothing.
Totumo Mud Volcano
Everything in Cartagena and its surrounds is constructed around the stories told about the places. Totumo, the Mud Volcano, is no different in this respect. Spouting out infernal fire and smoke since time immemorial; it took a feisty local priest to vanquish the demon possessing it with a handy vial of holy water. From that moment on, instead of raining brimstone, this volcano started calmly bubbling up beneficial, mineral-rich mud.
Thanks to this priestly feat, all are now invited to miraculously float atop this bottomless pit of mud, and take advantage of its purportedly medicinal qualities. Laughter is said to be a pretty good medicine, and the desire to do so while a local amateur masseuse covers you from head to toe in gunk, while another helper takes photos of your delicious discomfort, will bubble up at a giddy rate. You are then invited to take the slightly strenuous walk back down the peak, and dip in the conveniently located lake (clear water, we assure you), where other trusty assistants offer their services as expert mudcake-cleaners.
There are only a few things you need to do to ensure this strangely hilarious experience is a fun one. If you accept the offers of all these helpers, make sure you bring some smaller bills to reward their efforts; and another $COP 2,000 for the chance to muddy more than your name. Make sure you’ve brought a swimming costume, sunscreen, thongs (alright, non-Australians: “flip-flops”, or “jandals”, or whatever name you “call” them) and a change of clothes from Cartagena, less than an hour away. The other few things you bring can be placed in a locker at the foot of the tamed volcano, freeing you to bask in this unique, sanctified – yet somehow still dirty – day of mucking around.