Thursday, 14 March 2019

The Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca, a day trip from Cartagena

How to begin the story of this crazy day .... We had heard about and seen photos of the best beach close to Cartagena - Playa Blanca. We were in our last two weeks in Cartagena and our friends last couple of days with us - it seemed like a 'go now or never' kind of trip. I like to snorkel and so do John and Brenda so that was something we were looking for as well as the beach. We walked to the main harbour docks in Cartagena situated just outside the Old City wall. We talked to a security officer because he was the only one there who could explain the features of our trip to us in English. The plan was to go from the harbour, to the Rosario Islands for a snorkel and then to Playa Blanca for lunch and a couple hours on the beach. Leave at 9am and return at 4pm. The total cost was approximately $65 CAD per person. Seemed reasonable enough. They took a partial payment at time of booking. They could not take the full payment. The remainder would have to be paid on the day of the trip. We confirmed that we would be able to use our credit card. We didn't have much cash left and didn't want to withdrawal more than we had to.
The next day we returned promptly at 8:15am as requested. Because we had to pay with Credit Card, John and I went on a 2 minute boat ride across the harbour to sort out the remainder of our payment. The cashier assumed we were paying with one card, and we didn't really understand what was happening so we confused them by trying to pay with two. Back we went to the dock to find someone who could speak English, once sorted out, we went back across to make our final payments. Finally all paid up, we were ready to go. The first boat had already left so we waited for the second boat. Instead of leaving at 9am as scheduled, we were at least 30 minutes later in leaving. Not super surprising ... What was a little surprising was how many people they crammed into this speedboat. We put on our life jackets and piled in with 40 other people. The ride out was okay. The main guide was speaking in Spanish the entire time and I'm sure he was witty and all but I was getting nothing from his jokes.
Before we got to our snorkelling spot, we had to drop off people at Playa Blanca, pick up a couple of passengers at one of the islands and drop off passengers at the optional Aquarium. I'm sure all of this was explained but each time we pulled into a dock we wondered if he was telling us to get off or stay put. So far ... it hasn't been that fabulous of an experience. But the promised Caribbean clear aqua waters did not disappoint. The view was absolutely beautiful.

Not our boat but one exactly the same with fewer people crammed on board.

 This is the resort side of Isla Grande, we picked up a couple of passengers from here ... or maybe we dropped them off here .... I don't remember. What I do remember is another passenger said they were there for a bit and although the resort is very nice, there is nothing else on the island. They said they would not want to be there for more than a couple of hours.
We could see some people snorkelling here ... but this wasn't our stop.

The water was so beautiful warm and clear.

At one stop, this boat pulled up along side with lobster tails all ready for purchase. No one was interested in lunch at this time. We were about to go snorkelling and everyone had a pre-paid lunch - what were they thinking?
We finally arrived at our snorkel spot, along with about 4 other boats. Each group was gathered around their tour guide who was feeding bread to the fish.
We were given our snorkel and mask and told to jump out of the boat. No ladder, just jump. Ugh.
I'm a good swimmer and didn't take my life jacket. Someone who is not a strong swimmer would need a lifejacket here. The waves between the islands were quite large and the current was strong. It was not easy going. We did see a lovely reef and lots of fish. Finally something that was nice about this trip! We had lots of time to explore. I think we were in the water at least 45 minutes before the boat returned to pick us up. Now, with no ladder, getting back in the boat was very interesting. They used two lifesaver rings tied together as a ladder and then someone grabbed your arm and pulled you aboard. Not ideal for someone who may not be in the best of shape. A boat like this would never be able to carry tourists in North America ... but we're in South America and that's what you get here....for $65.
Next, it was time for lunch at Playa Blanca. We jumped off the boat (no ladder) and were surrounded by people trying to sell us drinks, oysters and bracelets. Lunch was on a picnic table under a shelter. I did not take photos of our food. It was the typical Colombian lunch of fried fish, rice, plantain and salad. It was delivered to us very quickly. And I would have taken a photo except I needed both hands to keep the flies off my food. Ugh! It was super annoying. The food was very good, it was just annoying to try to eat while fanning your food.
After lunch we had some time so we took a walk to check out this famous stretch of beach that everyone must see.

 It's a beautiful beautiful beach. There is no disputing that ... BUT ... look at how close the hostels and restaurants are to the water. That's wonderful if you're staying in one of those but if you're just here to hang out for the day, there isn't too many open spaces to just put a towel down and enjoy.
As you can see from my delicious looking Pina Colada, we found a place to have a drink. We walked to the very end of the main beach area where it looked like there was some space and a small bar. We were ushered under an umbrella. Happy to have a place to sit in the shade, we placed our order and then went in the water for a quick swim. Our drinks were promptly served.
They were delicious.
We enjoyed our drinks and the view until we realized how much time we had left to get to our boat ... just enough ... we had to quickly pay our bill and get back.

I'm going to show you this bill because I don't want this to happen to you. This applies to any situation like this where there is a language barrier and no clear price list. We were also in extra trouble because we wanted to use a credit card and we were completely out of time to negotiate anything.

1 Pina Colada 75,000 COP
1 Pina con Vodka 65,000 COP
2 Club Colombia Beer 40,000 COP
1 Aguila Beer 25,000 COP
Service Work 100,000 COP

If I add all that up, I get 305,000. They added it up to be 295,000 so we'll just use that. This works out to be about $122.00 CAD.

We got taken - big time.

Just to put this in context, the Pina Colada should have been 25,000, not 75,000. A beer should be 4,000, not 25,000. The service is something that we could have avoided by walking up to the bar ourselves.  Rookie mistake. So embarrassing! 
We made it back to the spot to meet our boat, but it was at least 40 minutes later before we started to load in. Again, no ladder. This time they stacked plastic chairs beside the boat to climb up on. 

One last look at Playa Blanca as our boat pulls away.
Our ride home was fast and very rough. The waves and wind pick up in the afternoon. Be prepared to bounce around. If you're near the back of the boat, you're also going to get splashed with every bounce.

So - what would I do differently with this trip or advise you to do?

1) Pay with cash on the day to make everything easier and faster.
2) Make sure you are clear with the route the boat is going to take before you leave. Don't worry if they make 5 different stops before the first intended stop. This is, apparently, normal.
3) If you are not a strong swimmer, I suggest the Aquarium instead of snorkelling. 
3) You can stay in the "lunch" area for free. The drink prices are clearly marked at the bar there. 
4) Walk down the beach and check it out. If you stop for a drink, make sure there is a price list or that you are very clear on the price before your butt hits a chair. Pay before your first sip so if there is a dispute, you can walk away. (They won't let you walk away from an already opened or made drink, you'll get your price)
5) If you don't like bouncing around in a speed boat, I would suggest going by car. Yes! You can drive there. It takes longer and costs more money but it would feel safer for anyone who isn't excited about a crazy boat ride. 
6) One more suggestion would be to stay overnight away from Playa Blanca on Isla Baru where you can have a lovely quiet afternoon and walk or cab over to Playa Blanca in the later afternoon when all the boats with tourists have gone. I'm sure it's quite peaceful in the early morning too.    

Our friends, who love water, snorkelling and beaches would do this trip again. They though it was a good value and now that they understand the process, would be prepared better for next time. 
Mike would never do this trip again. I would look for alternatives like the car option or a much slower boat and I would book with a tour company that had some English. 

So there we go ... our day at the Rosario Islands and Playa Blanca ... up next ... the one with the videos! 

Hasta Luego!


Monday, 11 March 2019

Medellín Day 3: Coffee, El Peñol and Guatapé

We spent Day 3 touring around with Ana from: medellindaytrips
She picked us up in a very comfortable vehicle promptly at 8am. She gave us some history on Medellin while we drove. For only 22 years old, she knows a LOT about Medellin. We recommend her to anyone looking for a tour guide.
Our first stop was to taste some fruit that we’ve never heard of before.
Ana collecting our fruit samples.

We tried Pitaya (it's yellow but looks just like dragon fruit inside) Granadilla (the orange ones on the right, very light almost styrofoam shell, slimy and sweet on the inside) Maracuya (The smaller yellow one at the top and middle. Same as Granadilla but more sour) Gulupa (the smaller purple one, like granadilla but even sweeter) Guava (the green one, eaten like an apple. It's pink with little seeds on the inside.) Not pictured is Lulo and we tried another fruit that looked to me like a Prickly Pear that grows on cactus. It was nice to get to taste some of the fruits that look so foreign to us in the stores and on the street. Pitaya was my favourite and I often bought it from our local Exito.

John and Brenda slurping their sweet Granadilla.

After fruit tasting, we learned all about the man made reservoir created by electric company EPM. The city of El Penol used to be here but was relocated. In the distance they have a cross sticking out of the water where the church used to be. 

EPM built the people of El Penol this replica town square as a tribute to Old Penol.

Mike and John in typical Colombian gear.

Every town square is complete when there is a statue of Simon Bolivar

After our tour of El Penol we headed to this beautiful little family owned organic coffee plantation. Cafe Oriente Excelso. The view they have while picking coffee is stunning. 
The coffee bushes on the steep mountain side. The tall ones in the back are actually orange trees.

Learning the different stages of the coffee bush from seed to bush to bean
First they grow a white flower and then green beans grow - don't pick these ones!

These red beans are ready to pick!

Let's do this!

The beans on this plantation are picked by hand. There are so many bushes all at different stages, that they have to pick daily for hours to keep up.
Brenda putting her excellent gardening skills to work.

They wear a bucket around their waist so both hands are free for picking. 

So many beans ready to be picked. 

Once picked, this machine removes the outer red shell. It's mostly automatic but there are a lot of beans that need to be sorted out. 

The orange trees effect the flavour of the beans. This is a good thing, making their coffee unique.

Next step, the beans are dried and sorted.

You can see the difference between a dried "good" bean and a "bad" one. A good bean is a beautiful light beige colour with no brown spots. They are sorted by hand because only the very best beans are exported. The "bad" ones aren't really that bad, they just aren't perfect enough be exported ... they stay in Colombia and are sold to local companies. This explains why we were so choosy about our coffee while in Colombia. Most of it is the "bad" stuff. We did eventually find good coffee in Colombia - but there was a considerable price difference. Lucky for us, we were able to purchase fresh roasted beans direct from the farm at an amazing price. They keep a specific amount of their crop for resale in a few places in Colombia and direct from their little shop on the farm. The rest of it is shipped out of the Country.   
The farm co-owner and her grandson.

He was sharing his beans with us. Such a cutie!

If they are roasting their own beans, this machine takes off the white shell to expose the bean inside. If the beans are to be shipped, they are shipped in their white shell to maintain maximum freshness.

This is the roaster. The beans that they keep are roasted for approximately 15 minutes to obtain the exact flavour they want.
Bean from dried, shelled, roasted and finally ground.

Once the beans were ground, it was time for a tasting! This coffee pairs beautifully with anything fruity or with chocolate. We purchased some coffee for our apartment and for home as well as some chocolate that I ate in the car before we got to our next destination.

Have a look at our next destination!! Isn't that huge rock super interesting? How has it resisted erosion all these years?
La Piedra Del Penol - The Big Guatape Rock

The rock is 656 feet (200 meters) tall. 

650 steps to the top and 740 to the lookout. 

Half way up you can say a little prayer to the Virgin Mary.

We made it to the very top! From this viewpoint you can see how large the man made Guatape - Penol reservoir really is.   

Staircase down is a little narrower. 

We did it! Total time up and back down was 40 minutes. My legs were trembling a little. I don't recommend climbing all those stairs in flip flops. 
The gorgeous view was worth every step.

Our last destination for the day was Guatape. The most colourful little town in all of Colombia.
It’s known for its houses decorated with colourful bas-reliefs. Each one tells a story in its own way.




This is Memory Lane.

Our tour finished with lunch. Mike and I split the order. This is my half. I love how they cut everything exactly in half. This is a typical Colombian dish called Bandeja Paisa. Missing from the photo is my half bowl of bean soup. 

Next up on the blog .... our day trip to Playa Blanca ....