A Trip to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast | Week 72 Abroad

A Trip to Colombia’s Caribbean Coast | Week 72 Abroad

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We were excited to hear that Whit’s fall school term included a 10-day break in the middle of October.

We’ve explored entire countries in that amount of time, so at first we considered where we should go to make the most of this opportunity.

Costa Rica? Aruba? Cuba?

Ultimately we decided that Colombia is a wonderful, beautiful, interesting, huge country and we should spend as much time exploring our own “backyard” as we can. We settled on a trip to the Colombia’s Caribbean coast, a popular region we’ve heard about non-stop since we arrived.

It’s been a really long time since we took a trip while living in one place, and I forgot how much fun that is. Knowing we had a trip coming up made our monotonous daily lives so much better, it helped us look forward to and plan our vacation, we didn’t have to pack everything we own, this trip wouldn’t make or break our impression of an entire country or phase of travel, and we knew we’d be coming home to friends, a place we love, and comfortable beds.

What a luxury!

To make our vacation extra special we finally used some of the credit card points Ben has so carefully been racking up. This meant we not only had a more stress-free vacation, but that, for the first time, we were able to choose comfort and amenities over price.

Another luxury.

Our trip began by picking Whit up early from school on a Friday to catch a plane from Medellin to San Andres Island. When I knocked on the door of his classroom Whit was seated right across from where I stood, but was so focused on his math teacher that he was the last kid in the class to notice me! Once he started collecting his things his best friend, a girl who also moved abroad from North Carolina, ran up to give him a huge hug and say she’d miss him during the break. I couldn’t help but feel so lucky that we’ve settled in such a wonderful city, and be grateful to be returning.

 

family on a plane visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Days 1-5: San Andres Island

San Andres Island is part of Colombia, despite needing an extra application and exit fee to enter and the fact that it’s closer to Nicaragua, Panama, Costa Rica, and Jamaica than it is to Colombia. (I don’t quite understand the history of how San Andres became part of Colombia, but it feels like a China v. Hong Kong situation- at least to the locals.) Colombians are incredibly proud of this little Caribbean island, and made it sound like their own Hawaii.

It isn’t.

We were surprised at how out-of-date the infrastructure and buildings are, at the incomplete or torn down houses along the coast, and how dirty the beach is after being told for months about the 5-star resorts on this pristine island. Maybe the fault lies with us- the fact is that when you’ve traveled to some of the most gorgeous beaches in the world you end up a bit jaded. It’s sad, but true.

Our main hotel splurge was on San Andres Island, and it did not disappoint. We stayed at Sol Caribe Campos, an all-inclusive resort set on the island’s central hill. We had views of the beach from the three pools and different restaurants on the property, and a courtesy van to shuttle us the 5 minutes to their private beach complete with covered seating and additional dining.

 

father and son at sol caribe campos visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

I gotta say, as much as we love to adventure, act local, and figure things out, all-inclusive resorts are pretty fun. Sometimes it’s nice to relax and not have to scavenge!

While my favorite part was being able to relax and not worry about a hectic itinerary every day, Whit’s favorite part was their activity pool. This pool was zero degree, had fun fountains to play around, deeper pools to jump into, and a long water slide. He and I would spend every afternoon there- he making friends with the other boys going down the water slide over and over and over again, me finishing two books (thank you, no internet service) on the pool side lounge chairs with a virgin pina colada, while Ben was back in the room trying to work.

I felt like I was finally embracing the woman I was bred to be on that lounge chair as memories of my mom and stories of my grandmother and great aunt all relaxing pool or beach side the same way flooded back to me. Mom raised me right.

 

mother and son in san andres island visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Ben still wanted to explore, which we tried to do a little bit each day. He rented a jet ski for a morning (essentially kicking me off of it in our last minutes together so he could do some more dangerous stunts, which I found adorable), we toured one side of the island on a small sail boat another day, he and Whit (and later all three of us) walked/ swam down a wide sandbar to another island and snorkeled around one of the many abandoned shipwrecks, and we rented a golf cart (the vehicle of choice) to explore the island for a day including a trip to Captain Morgan’s famous cave of hidden treasure, a crocodile pond, and a visit to a cliff side high dive.

 

family rents a 4x4 in san andres island visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

rent a sailboat in san andres island visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

I’d feel guilty if I didn’t admit that, though it sounds idyllic, we did face some issues on this portion of our trip. Because of me. The day we rented our golf cart something snapped in me and I started acting pretty unreasonable. It started with wanting to use our drone to take a family picture, but there was more behind my sudden burst. At the time it seemed reasonable, but now I don’t remember what justified me dampening everyone’s bad day. That’s what happens when you let emotions get the best of you- in the end all you’re left with is regret and hurt.

 

boy jumps off the high dive in san andres visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Moving on.

 

Days 6-8: Cartagena

On day 3 of our all-inclusive resort stay things were starting to feel a little boring. We’ve been on two short cruises and one other all-inclusive resort stay, but never stayed in one place (especially a somewhat boring small island) for so long. By day 5, however, we’d gotten into a nice routine of where we liked to eat, which drinks we liked, when we’d visit the beach and switch to the pool, and who the guys were renting the boating equipment.

We’re so used to making a home wherever we land that when the time came I was sad to pack up and leave the island. Luckily wonderful things awaited us in Cartagena!

 

downtown cartagena visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Cartagena is one of the oldest cities in the Americas and is full of history, culture, and beautiful architecture. It’s famous for it’s colorful streets, walkability, street vendors, and other things tourists love. We usually don’t like the same “easy” things other tourists like, though, so naturally I expected to not like it.

We arrived much earlier than the check in time of our first hotel, but we still made it our first stop to drop off our bags. This hotel, the Casa San Agustin, was incredible. They graciously took our bags, welcomed us with fresh drinks and ice cream, and gave us a grand tour of the historic, beautiful hotel.

 

Casa San Agustin Cartagena hotel visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

This hotel is rated #2 best hotel in Central and South America by Town and Country magazine, and is well out of our normal price range. This stay was one of the few perks of being a travel writer, though, and we stayed for free in exchange for a mention in an upcoming article about Cartagena and a picture on my Instagram account.

The room they reserved for us was to die for. A short, winding staircase led to a living room and kitchen which doubled as a separate bedroom for Whit, and a hallway leading to a gigantic, beautiful bathroom and the master bedroom and private patio. When we first arrived the living room couch had been converted into a bed for Whit and a welcome basket of fruit and a personalized card were waiting for us in the master bedroom. When we returned after an exhausting day of exploring on foot the room had been turned down, with Whit’s drapes drawn, his decorative pillows put away, our dishes of fruit cores cleared, our bed prepared, slippers laid out, and a night snack left. I’ve never been in a hotel with turn down service, and let me tell you- it changes you. Wow.

 

casa san agustin cartagena hotel visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

After dropping off our bags that first day we hit the cobblestone streets running. We had a late breakfast at a cute bakery right beside an amazing chocolate shop/ museum with lots of delicious samples, visited the gold and emerald museums, saw Simon Bolivar plaza, took pictures on the gorgeous streets, and went jewelry shopping.

 

shopping in Cartagena Colombia visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

I was specifically looking to replace the engagement ring I left in my sister’s safe in the U.S. and the wedding band we lost the weekend we left. My ring finger has been naked for the last 18 months, and it’s a symbol of my marriage and commitment to my family I’ve really missed. Ben and I decided to buy a travel-friendly placeholder while traveling, and once I knew how incredible Colombian emeralds were I decided that was the type of ring I wanted.

Colombia exports up to 70% of the emeralds found around the world and are considered the highest quality. Buying emerald jewelry is one of the most popular souvenirs in Colombia, and Cartagena is the second best place to do it. The rise in tourism led to an abundance of jewelry shops and, therefore, high competition to offer the best prices on quality pieces.

Ben, being so sweet, encouraged me to look in every jewelry store we passed. I took pictures of rings I liked in seven different stores, keeping notes on which I may want to buy during our trip. We found a ring ended up really liking, but I wasn’t as fond of the emerald solitaire. The friendly saleswoman was eager for our business, though, and pulled out multiple loose emeralds they could fit into the ring setting to better fit my taste. After repeatedly texting the owner of the store asking about the price of individual stones he finally just showed up to meet us, and we were given the star treatment by whom we later learned was one of the key players of the Bogota emerald mines and just happen to be in town overseeing his many stores that day.

The people of this store were so incredible that I really wanted to support them and buy my ring there. The store owner had the power to drop the price of my custom-made ring to an amount we couldn’t walk away from, and Ben decided to fit it with an absolutely gorgeous 3.3 carat emerald. I was not expecting that when we started out that day, and I still felt like it was too good to be true for days afterwards. I initially wanted a simple gold band with an emerald inlay, but the thought of having a giant solitaire was just too much for my girly heart to bear. I don’t consider myself a materialistic person, but this beautiful stone was something I both desperately wanted and felt too guilty to actually ask for. Once Ben finalized the sale I kept saying, “Are you sure? Do I really deserve this?” He would laugh and tell me that I did, and I swooned at my good fortune.

To make matters even better the store owner walked us over to their local design studio where a very friendly man was in charge of making my ring. In the course of about 3 hours (most of which we were there for) he melted and formed the setting and fit the stone inside. It was so incredible to watch, and made the ring even more special. Not only had I picked out the stone and the setting, I was part of the process while it was made!

 

buy an emerald ring in cartagena visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

buying emerald jewelry in cartagena visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Is it too much to hope that Whit has a child who will appreciate this ring enough to use it as a family heirloom one day? I can’t help but think that the addition of baguette diamonds would turn it into the perfect engagement ring, but I know not everyone is as sentimental as I am!

 

buying emerald jewelry in cartagena visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

We only commissioned a one-night stay at the incredible Casa San Agustin, so we enjoyed it until the very last minute and then packed our bags to go to our next hotel for our last 2 nights in Cartagena.

Our next stay was a nice hotel in a part of town across the main road, and I couldn’t believe how different the neighborhood was just a 10-minute walk from the center of Old Town. In Getsemane we saw a vibrant local culture, where citizens hang out at the plaza at night and the streets are covered in incredible wall murals. It’s the sort of place we would normally love, but staying at such a luxury hotel just steps from the most charming streets spoiled us.

 

cartagena wall visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

It was hard to enjoy the rest of our time in Cartagena as much as we had that first day of jewelry shopping and staying at a fancy hotel, and I was even left feeling really exhausted from changing hotels and expectations every day for the past three days and considering if I even wanted to keep traveling at all.

It takes a lot of stamina, patience, and optimism to maintain this lifestyle, and I’m starting to feel kind of old.

 

Days 9-10: Santa Marta

One of the first friends we made after settling in to Medellin was a young bilingual couple in our new LDS ward. They came over to dinner one night, excited to speak English and answer all of our questions about life in Colombia. We told them we wanted to take a trip to the Caribbean coast, and their main piece of advice was to make a stop in the small town of Santa Marta. They showed us pictures of what they consider the “most beautiful beaches in Colombia”, and I was hooked. We had to go.

Santa Marta is 4 hours away from Cartagena, and we took a 20-passenger comfort van to get there. I wasn’t sure if 1.5 days would be enough to see the area, but once we arrived in the small, virtually abandonded town I knew we made the right choice.

 

downtown santa marta colombia visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

Though Santa Marta does have a couple of fun, walkable downtown streets for restaurants and the Simone Bolivar museum, the main reason to visit is Colombia’s famous Tayrona Park. We spent our entire full day in Santa Marta getting to Tayrona, which included walking to the town center plaza to catch a $2/ person public bus for over an hour to the park (where Whit sat on my lap with a local guy between us and Ben the whole time), paying $20/ each to enter the park, another $1/ person to take a van from the park entrance inside the park, $10/ each to ride two horses for 45 minutes to the closest beach, hang out for a couple of hours, and then walk 2 hours back to the van to get to the park exit and another bus back to town.

 

riding a horse in tayrona park colombia visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

It was a LONG day.

But, our friend was right: the beaches were beautiful, riding the horses was a fun thing to do, and the walk back (though super hot and uncomfortable) was really gorgeous.

 

la piscina tayrona park colombia visting the colombia's caribbean coast cartagena san andres island and santa marta

 

The most memorable thing about our day in Tayrona was the fact that the $20/ person cover charge was unexpected, and left us with very little extra cash. Once we got to the beach we had just enough money to buy a couple of  freshly made arepas and some drinks, and then hike out to another public bus instead of taking the horses the shorter way back and a taxi to Santa Marta.

We were worried about how Whit would do on the hike in hot weather, but he was amazing. I’m actually really glad it worked out the way it did- we had an unexpected adventure, which made the trip more memorable and exciting.

 

Back home

It felt so, so wonderful to know what we were coming back to after 10 days of 5 flights, 4 hotels, three cities, 3 long bus rides, and lots of exploring.

We arrived back in Medellin before lunch time and spent the rest of the day lounging in our comfortable apartment, not unpacking or doing settling in chores, just relaxing.

I’m telling you… staying in one place and taking side trips is definitely the way to go!

Too bad we won’t be doing it again for the foreseeable future.

 

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