One month into my travels in South America, I hit Cartagena de Indias on the Caribbean coast of Colombia – my body was ready for some tanning, my liver ready for some partying and eyes ready to indulge. It's a city of sheer beauty, legend and culture from every cobbled street to every wall of its many bars.
Smashed in the face by the stifling smell of heat when we first arrived, I knew the morning was going to be tough. First thing was first though: Cartagena's backpackers' paradise, Getsemani, had to be scoured from head to toe to find the the best hostel possible. With my HUGE bag (yep, 17kg on my back), 30 minutes in, five hostels down and a block explored in 35 degree heat, I finally dragged my body back to the first one I came across – Media Luna – primarily for fear of passing out but also because it seemed relatively good.
I was warned that that night was the party night and it was going to be utter chaos. The pressure was on. The night flew by in a haze of rum (Ron Viejo de Caldas) and a blur of my best salsa moves in Cafe Havana (the club of choice for a dance with the locals). This was all to the detriment of the next day, and some of my pride.
But skip a day and I was thankfully a real person again; I was off on a tour of the Totumo Volcano, having been told that it was “funny and weird” by tourists, but good for the skin and soul by locals. I was picked up early from the hostel and taken an hour and a half away to the volcano. I say volcano, but it wasn't one to marvel at, rather it stood ugly at about 15 metres high, surrounded by opportunistic vendors.
We were led to a cafe, and told to change into our bikinis and climb to the top of the volcano where we were helped into the volcano's muddy belly by some Colombian men. These guys then proceeded to massage everyone, while we floated, unable to move, covered in bubbling, warm goo and being passed around like sardines. But the weirdness doesn’t end there…
We climbed out of the mound and, heavy with mud we slipped our way down to the lake. Here we were told to sit in the water and were thoroughly washed (by women this time) who got rid of the mud...and then, er, our swimming costumes. So off we walked, feeling like little kids on a very strange swimming trip, paying all the various helpers £1 each for their bizarre services.
What else can you do after being massaged in a volcano? I spent the next day on a bike ride around the small, beautiful, hot city, which gave me a very strange tan line. La Plaza de Bolivar was my base to explore the historical centre; think museums, grand churches and romantic mansions in abundance, all paying architectural homage to the Colonial times. Add in a load of freshly pressed lemonade and coconut juice from street vendors, and you've got a decent day of sightseeing.
Ditch your warm clothes, hold onto your livers and embrace your senses – it’s not called the Capital of the Caribbean for nothing.