Starting in South America – sleepy Santa Marta, glitzy Cartagena, beaches, more beaches, and the Caribbean Sea

My trip through South America started with an early morning in O’Hare and my best friends from Chicago, two lovely folks from Minnesota, and an esteemed esquire currently living in St. Louis.  Our flight from O’Hare landed us in Panama City, one of the most common transit (layover) hubs for flights to South America.  We had a long layover so we ventured out into the city for some lunch.

The parts of Panama City we saw were less than inspiring – the area we drove through near the airport seemed gritty and industrial.  Due to significant influence from the United States (e.g., the Panama Canal) Panama uses the U.S. dollar, which we used to pay our restaurant bill.

From Panama City we flew to a very humid Barranquilla, Colombia, where we spent the night.  We didn’t have much of a chance to see the city but the humidity was enough for me to want to get out quickly.  Some of my friends got stuck with a room with broken air conditioning.  Bummer dude – that air was sticky.  

As we left Barranquilla the next day our van was stopped by the Barranquilla police.


According to my buddy, Juan Bottia, my Barranquilla-born friend living in Chicago who inspired our group to come to his country with him, the Barranquilla police are notoriously bad relative to the rest of the police in Colombia.  In other words, it was no surprise that we got pulled over.

Apparently our driver was supposed to fill out some sheet with all of our U.S. tourist names on it and he had not taken the time to do so, which was the reason for the hold up.  How the police could have known this from outside vehicle when they pulled us over is beyond me.  Apparently there is no such thing as “probable cause” here in Barranquilla.  Luckily the police let our driver go without a ticket or a bribe, when they could have required one or the other because of his failure to fill out the sheet.

On our way out of Barranquilla we were able to see some things that are distinctly South American.  First – a burro being used for transport.


Next, as our car was stopped on a highway our van was approached by a series of people selling beverages and snacks.


These folks spend their entire day out on the hot highway under an unrelenting sun, wandering between hundreds of traffic-jammed cars selling cheap goods with a razor-thin profit margin.  Can’t say I’m envious.  Gotta’ make those pesos though, ya know?

After several hours we arrived at the house Juan had rented for us in Santa Marta.  It was a nice house with a view of the Caribbean Sea in the distance.


The lovely Elena Caceres takes it easy on the upper balcony

We would end up spending part of each of our days on the nearby beach.

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Santa Marta is not the prettiest town in Colombia but like its coastal neighbor 4.5 hours away, Cartagena, it is experiencing a tourism-based growth in the high season (late December through mid-January).  Our group was just one small contribution to that growth.

There is not much to do in Santa Marta itself but the nearby Parque Tayrona, small village of Minca, and Ciudad Perdida (“Lost City”) trek (subjects of later blogs posts) give visitors more than enough reason to set up a temporary home base in Santa Marta.

We didn’t do much else in Santa Marta with a few notable exceptions.

First, we spent some time with Juan’s father, Luís Fernando “Pacho” Bottía.  Pacho is a cool, laid back guy who lives in Santa Marta and as I mentioned in an earlier post, Pacho is also a professor of film in Colombia and when we met with him, was in the last stages of directing a new film, El Faro (translation, “The Lighthouse”).

At Pacho’s apartment in Santa Marta he showed us certain scenes of “El Faro”, which at the time was in post-production.  Pacho was getting “El Faro” ready to premier in the 2013 film festival going on right now in Cartagena.

Pacho, on the left in the yellow.

Pacho, on the left in the yellow.

I’ve watched movies with director’s voice-over commentary on select parts of the film but never have I had the privilege of being in the same room as the director while he explained the significance of certain scenes.

Because the film was still in post-production we were only able to watch certain parts of it but from the scenes I saw I could tell it has been beautifully shot and has a simple but moving plot.  Overall it was a great experience and I truly hope “El Faro” experiences great success, both in Colombia and abroad.

After the exclusive screening of El Faro at Pacho’s pad, we headed out towards downtown Santa Marta.

Me and my best bud from law school, Pete D’Angelo

Me and my best bud from law school, Pete D’Angelo

It is windy in Santa Marta from the breeze coming off the Carribean and El Parque de Los Novios (the “couples” park) was full of people out for a night on the town.

A couple nights later we rang in new year’s eve (“feliz ano!”) on the beach along Santa Marta.  I failed to get any sleep that night because of obnoxiously loud music playing across the street from our house.  By 7 or 8 in the morning I was a borderline crazy person – Juan told me that my eyes were darting and unable to focus on anything.  Apparently putting your speakers outside and playing your music as loud as humanly possible is quite common in Colombia and something I could probably never get used to.

After four days in Santa Marta our group headed to Cartagena, a former-swamp-turned-vacation-hotspot along the Caribbean coast.


With Juan’s and Pacho’s help we had rented a swank penthouse overlooking a bay in western Cartagena.

The view was great, as was the breeze.

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I liked Cartagena a lot better than Santa Marta and it is easy to tell that Cartagena has set the precedent in terms of Caribbean Coast vacation spot.  Things are more expensive, you can find a casino every couple blocks, and fake breasts and fake butts dot the shoreline.


Expensive stores line each main drag.  I wandered into a swim suit shop hoping to find a reasonably priced replacement for my dull beige trunks and wandered out dazed and confused – the cheapest pair of trunks in the store was $80…If you come to South America to find “cheaper” clothing/jewelry/swimtrunks/etc., the main drags in Cartagena are not the place to do it.

Juan told me some ridiculous fact about square footage of real estate in Cartagena being so expensive that only Colombian drug lords could afford it.

Turns out Juan wasn’t too far off – as of 2011 one square foot in the historic center cost $418 on average.  That means a modest 2,000 sq. ft. place would run you just shy of $850,000.  Its not too much of a stretch for me to say that some of the few people that have that kind of money in Colombia are the drug lords.

There were also lots of good little eateries along the main drag.  It is my understanding that Jenny ended up getting this well-balanced meal for lunch two days in a row…

( Ice cream + fresh fruit ) /  hot day = brilliant

( Ice cream + fresh fruit ) / hot day = brilliant

Many other little differences between South America and the U.S. were noticeable along the main drag – this one made me smile.



As I see in many other places in the world outside the United States (for instance, I saw Julia Roberts in ads in several places in SE Asia), I saw a famous actor willing to endorse a product on a series of posters in Cartagena, whereas this same actor would rarely endorse any commercial product where he could be recognized in an advertisement in the United States.

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As alluded to in the movie “Lost in Translation,” very famous actors/actresses, while still recognizable in foreign countries (otherwise, why would they get paid to be in these countries’ foreign advertisements), feel more comfortable being on a billboard abroad than in the United States.  I think that they worry that in the United States people would be more quick to point fingers and accuse them of “selling out” whereas abroad, they don’t have that same problem.

The crew and I spent almost every day on what Juan called the “poor man’s beach” – the crowded public beach along the coast of Cartagena.

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For a small (negotiable) fee we would rent a tent to sit under.


From there we could sit and relax, with occasional dips in the Caribbean.  Vendors selling beer, water, ceviche, ice cream, and of course Colombia’s signature arepa’s (I loved these things) would walk by our tent every five minutes or so.  It was a pretty rough four days….

If you notice my two good-looking Chicago friends on the left in the above picture, we were lucky enough to spot the European version of them walking by us late afternoon one day.


The Europeans love their speedos.


The sunset over the poor man’s beach was nice – a pickup football game to keep the locals and tourists busy was a nice touch.

After the sun would set we all would meet back at the penthouse and entertain ourselves with music and games.

Our friend Joe impressed us with a trick where he would put three quarters on top of his down-faced palm, flip them up in the air, and then catch them one by one.  After several failures I decided to take a video (for the first time) to put extra pressure on Joe…and he nailed it.

Kudos Joe.  The man has good hands – must be one lucky lady he is engaged to. 🙂

The view of the lights over the bay at night was also nice.


Except for one night when the power went out.

Notice a difference?

Notice a difference?

It went out in our penthouse and about the entire western half of Cartagena.  Bad weather was not at fault.  I’m not sure what was.

But Cartagena is not all about glitzy buildings, beaches, and expensive stores.  It has a historical aspect as well and was once Spain’s primary port on the Caribbean Coast.  Cartagena was used to store all the gold that the Spanish had plundered from Colombia’s indigenous people before Spain would bring the booty back to Spain.

Where there be gold, there be pirates.  The pirates on the Caribbean knew Spain had loads of gold in Cartagena, making it an easy target and the subject of five sieges during the 16th century.  But Spain was no dummy.  After it was clear the pirates were not going to leave Cartagena alone Spain built massive walls to surround the town and a massive fort to protect it.

“Las Murallas” – the thick walls built to protect the Old City

“Las Murallas” – the thick walls built to protect the Old City

These additions, now known as Cartagena’s “Old City”, made the pirates’ work much more difficult over the next century and help guide Cartagena into the flourishing economy it is today.  I spent a day by myself exploring the Old City, starting out by walking through the “Puerta del Reloj”, the gate to the old city.


Once through the gate I was in Plaza de los Coches, a former slave market.  In Coches and nearby Plaza de la Aduana, there a series of awesome sculptures depicting scenes from local life.  Jenny told me that it is the same local artist who did all of these sculptures.  I loved the sculptures and proceeded to take a picture of nearly every one of them.

A woman selling her fruit and carving up a watermelon

A woman selling her fruit and carving up a watermelon

A man wheeling some goods

A man wheeling some goods

A barber getting ready for his next cut

A barber getting ready for his next cut

The milkman

The milkman

A man listening to his ipod :)

A man listening to his ipod 🙂

Not just chess...Timed chess!  My favorite!  With a clock just like mine.

Not just chess…Timed chess! My favorite! With a clock just like mine.

Another one of my favorites – the boys playing poker.

Another one of my favorites – the boys playing poker.

At the sewing machine

At the sewing machine

“Get the cool! Get the cool shoe shine!”

“Get the cool! Get the cool shoe shine!”

The Pied Piper

The Pied Piper

After wandering through the old town I headed down to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the massive fortress the Spaniards built to help spot and defend the town against enemies.


The fortress was built on the Hill of San Lázaro to give the Spaniards a strategic view of the Carribean Sea and potentially approaching enemies and pirates.  Nowadays it provides a pretty strategic (and pretty) view of downtown Cartagena.


The fortress has an intricate system of tunnels, specialized designed to amplify sound (of potential enemies) coming from the Caribbean Sea.

"Did you just hear an Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr?"

“Did you just hear an Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr?”

The tunnels also made it easy to supply, and if necessary, evacuate the fort.


On our last night together, we all went down to the Old City to grab dinner.  In between Plaza de los Coches and Plaza Aduana some breakdancers were showing the old folks in the Old City whats new.

A few of us ended up chilling on a rocky pier and sipping some Colombian ron (Medellín) before we went to the casino and played blackjack (Ryan D and I both had some luck….).

The next day all my friends flew home and I headed back to Santa Marta to continue my journey.  I felt a pang of loneliness as I split with them but it took no longer than 10 minutes before I met three cool MBA students from the University of Texas, Austin, on my bus ride to Santa Marta.

Just how traveling works I suppose.  Come to think of it, now over eight weeks into my trip through South America (this blog is a bit behind, but catching up!) I have not once been traveling “alone” – I always seem to meet up and travel with one, two, or a group of fellow travelers that are headed in the same direction and planning the same things I am.  Inevitably when I split up with them it never takes more than 12-24 hours to meet a new crew to continue my journey with.

Despite all the good random fellow traveler camaraderie the first 10 days in South America with my Chitown friends is still one of my favorite parts of the trip.  I’m really glad Juan pulled us all together to come down and start things right in Colombia – if you are reading this Juan, thanks!


One thought on “Starting in South America – sleepy Santa Marta, glitzy Cartagena, beaches, more beaches, and the Caribbean Sea

  1. Great 1st blog from S. America, Matt. Jenny’s “lunch” looks delicious. Glad to know that you rarely need to travel alone. Stay safe. Dad

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