Triumphs and trials in the Islands
The transition from staying with my friend and her family to traveling on my own with a limited budget was a bit rough at first. But I have been glad to have my travel buddy with me to do all of the tourist activities that I missed out on in my first week in Cartagena. Not to mention he has successfully restored my confidence in my Spanish-speaking ability by comparison to his own. No longer able to rely on others to communicate for me, I have felt dually electrified and terrified by the challenge that traveling alone has posed and, more so, by the effect that is has had on me. Within a few days, I began to feel Spanish words and phrases coming to my mind with increasing speed and clarity. Within a week, I had my first dream in Spanish (Shakira took me shopping – it was awesome, she says that red is my color).
Our first day as tourists in Cartagena was spent on the beach in Boca Grande where I learned that laying in the equatorial sun at mid-day means multiple sun screen applications always. Later, we went downtown for a free walking tour of the oldest part of Cartagena. There are free walking tours offered in most every major city in South America and I strongly recommend them as the tour guides are extremely passionate about their cities. In Cartagena, free tours are offered in Spanish and English. We over confidently joined the Spanish group and ended up quietly slipping away to join the English one after five minutes of sheer confusion. As it turns out we don’t have much of a repertoire when it comes to Latin American history vocabulary. After two hours of learning about Colombian history and architecture, our guide ended the tour with an impassioned speech about his love for his country and how proud he is that Colombia’s international reputation is evolving from a country wrought with corruption and violence to a country of beautiful landscapes, rich culture and loving people.
For the next day, we planned an overnight trip to the Rosario islands off the coast of Cartagena. We had reserved a hostel on the main island and arranged for a taxi to get us to the coast but, unfortunately, that was the extent of our planning for the trip. After a short but terrifying boat ride from the coast to the main island, we realized that we only knew that our hostel was on the island and had no idea where on the island. The lancha (Spanish for the boat/death trap that we took the island) dropped us off on a small platform full of island natives eager to show us around in exchange for a few thousand pesos. I was immediately apprehensive upon realizing how big the island was given the fact that all we knew about our hostel was the name. But the first islander who approached us (who we would get to know very well over the next three hours) assured us that he knew where the hostel was and lead us into the jungle along with a group of Argentinian backpackers. After about fifteen minutes of walking, we arrived at a clearing with a few buildings and a small beach where he motioned to one of the buildings and said, “hostel.”
As it turns out, he had indeed brought us to a hostel but hadn’t understood that we were looking for a specific one. When I realized what happened, I showed him the print-out of our reservation at Hostel Casa Nativa and explained that we had already paid to make a reservation and had only brought a very limited amount of pesos to the island with us. The islander spoke briefly with the woman who owned one of the hostels and assured us, once again, that he could take us there. After ten more minutes of walking we arrived at a Hostel Punta Nativa which, unfortunately, was not the same hostel as Casa Nativa.
He spoke with a man sitting outside and once again said he knew where to go (I know déjà vu right). At this point I was more than a little apprehensive but with no access to wifi, an ATM to get out more money or taxis (or any kind of car for that matter) on the very remote island, we had no choice but to trust him. And so, we followed the islander to the complete opposite side of the island. Along the way, I learned that his name was Juan Carlos and that he had been raised on the island but dreamed of moving to Cartagena. We passed through his town where adorable half naked children laughed at how much I was sweating and wrinkled women cooked yucca in large cast iron pots over wood fires. We passed the only school on the island where he said he had studied for a bit but later dropped out. But for most of the time we walked through thick jungle forests where it occurred to me that Juan Carlos could easily lead us off the path to rob and kill us and no one would be the wiser. But thankfully he did not seem like the murder-you-to-sell-your-organs-on-the-black-market type and even offered to carry my backpack when I started to fall behind.
When we got to the other side of the island and realized that, once again, we were not in the right place, I tried to call the hostel using the cellphone of a local store owner but there was no answer. The store owner told me something in Spanish that I understood as her saying that Juan Carlos would have to take us to a “secret part of the island.” Feeling very reminiscent of the beginning of one of those horror movies where you yell at the television because of how stupid the main characters are acting, we began to consider just staying at the nearest hostel. But, in the end, our broke college student spirits won out and we decided to follow Juan Carlos back into the trees to one final place where he thought our hostel might be. We essentially retraced our steps all the way back to the other side of the island until we arrived at a fenced in area of the jungle with brightly colored buildings inside. Juan Carlos stopped and said that, as an islander, he was not allowed to pass through the fence but that he thought that our hostel was inside. With no other option but faith, I paid him for leading us around and we walked through the gate.
To our relief, we were finally in the right place. Once inside we learned that our hostel was actually part of a larger resort called El Paraíso Secreto or secret paradise which explained Juan Carlos’ confusion when we simply told him the name of the hostel and also explained the local store owner’s ominous instructions. Either way, after walking around for three hours in the scorching heat, I have never been so happy to see a bed in my life and immediately fell asleep for two hours. The resort was extremely beautiful with a private beach, restaurant and bar as well as an assortment of sponsored activities to do on the island. I spent the day with my toes in the sand and snorkeled alongside brilliant-colored fish through a coral reef the next morning. The peaceful ambiance and breathtaking stars definitely made up for any times that I feared for my life getting there.