Colombia has it all. From the cities to the jungle to the mountains to the beaches, there’s something for every kind of traveller. Now I’m the the type of traveller that likes a bit of everything, but who in particular loves all things beach. Naturally, then, visiting Cartagena was on the top of my list of places to visit in Colombia.
I came here once before, but I was only a few months old so it’s safe to say I have zero recollection of the trip. Luckily, my cousin Elena’s family (on the other side of my own) owns an apartment by the beach here. They invited me to join them for a vacation of just over two weeks, so here I am in paradise!
Cartagena itself is fascinating. It was founded in the 16th century by the Spanish, and the old town is impressively preserved. It’s also surrounded by old fortification walls, built to protect the city from French and English invasions. This colonial area was actually named a UNESCO World Heritage Site!
Nearby the old town there is the San Felipe castle, another site where the Spanish army defended the city. It’s a cool place to visit with lots of tunnels and a great view over the town. Additionally, with a guided tour you can learn a great deal about Cartagena’s history.
Besides visiting this colonial part of the city and learning a bit about the history, I’ve been doing a lot of lounging on the beach. The apartment is perfectly located right along the beach, so most mornings we go down to read, swim, and tan for a few hours.
The Cartagena beach experience is something unique; there are dozens of vendors walking along selling all sorts of different goods. You can buy jewellery, beach shawls, water toys, drinks, and lunches. You can get a temporary tattoo, or have your hair braided, or get a massage. But of course, if none of that appeals, you can just say “No, gracias” firmly and wait until they pass by. It’s a bit overwhelming at first, but after a while you get used to it.
Ringing in 2017
Additionally, I got to experience New Years festivities as they happen in Cartagena. First, we spent the night at the house of some extended family of my cousin. We ate dinner there, and spent a mellow evening chatting and drinking. At midnight, we cheered and gave each other new year hugs, while watching the distant fireworks.
There are some wacky, fun Latin American New Year’s traditions too, though, and I got to participate in a few of them. Here’s what we did:
Burning the negative of the past year.
A cousin of my aunt spent the evening sewing a little doll. Little did the doll know that it was destined for a short life – it was burned just before midnight. Along with it went pieces of paper on which we had all written things we would like to leave behind in 2016. Setting it all aflame offered a satisfying sense of release of negative energy from the past year.
Sending hopes for the new year to sea.
We also wrote on a separate piece of paper our hopes for 2017. Things we want to achieve, or change about ourselves, or see happen in the world. We put them on a little handmade boat, and after midnight we walked to the beach and sent it off.
Running around the block with a suitcase.
After wishing everyone a happy new year, my cousin and I headed off down a nearby bicycle path with some suitcases in tow. It’s supposed to mean that we’ll travel lots in the new year! Some people in an apartment across the street cheered us on and wished us happy travels. We were pretty winded at the end – perhaps running more should be a New Years resolution?
Dance, Dance, Dance
After the midnight excitement and these rituals, my cousin and I headed to the centre with one of her cousins and we danced the new year away. At a party in an outdoor plaza, we swayed along to the rhythms of merengue, salsa, and champeta. Well, they did – I just did my best to not step on people’s feet! However, my skills increased substantially in concordance with my rum intake – or at least the rum made me think they did. 🙂
When we left the party and were heading home, we came across a bunch of people dancing in the street to someone’s music. It was a makeshift afterparty, and it was amazing. We stayed and danced until the police came to clear everyone away.
The New Year in Cartagena was definitely a blast. I hope you had a good time wherever you were and whatever you did as well! Cheers to an awesome upcoming year. 🙂
Well it’s the last day of 2016. It sure has been a turbulent year for the world, what with Brexit, Colombia initially voting no to peace, Trump elected as president, the migrant crisis leaving millions without a home, not to mention all the hate crimes and terrorism reports that fill our news channels.
It’s easy to pay attention to all these negative news and reports and forget that there actually are lots of good things happening in the world as well! I was definitely guilty of falling into a black hole of despair when contemplating all the negative things that have happened. But when you think about it, there are still lots of reasons to have hope.
For example, Colombia managed to renegotiate a peace deal that was more accepted, a fierce effort of perseverance to put an end to 50 years of war. Canadian PM Trudeau held his word to bring 25,000 Syrian refugees to Canada, and the country pulled together to make it happen, hosting families, donating goods, and all around making them feel as welcome as possible in their new home. Sri Lanka eradicated Malaria. The gene that is linked to ALS was discovered. The protestors at the Dakota Access Oil Pipeline met with victory after a lot of resilience and commitment.
These are just some of the good big things that happened, but there were a lot more small victories all around.
It also made me reflect on my own personal victories that I’ve achieved this year. I decided to make a list of 16 things I’m grateful for that happened in 2016. Here it goes:
1. I welcomed in the new year with a Mexican family I didn’t know, and it was amazing.
I used couchsurfing to gain contacts in Mexico, and one of the people I got in touch with, Christian, showed me around his city the day after I arrived. We got along well so he invited me to spend New Year’s Eve with him and his sister. I thought we’d be going out to dance and see fireworks right away, but it ended up being a dinner in his house with his whole family. They were all really welcoming and kind, even despite the slight language barrier.
Afterwards, I did end up going to dance – not with just him and his sister, but the whole family! It was probably one of the most random nights of my life, but for that reason, it was really special. It was an awesome way to start the new year.
2. I got to explore New York with one of my best friends.
Between tough final-year courses and two jobs, I was a bit stressed out in my final semester. I didn’t have much time to socialize and spent a lot of my time reading and writing frantically. Taking a mini vacation to New York with my also-stressed-out friend, Agatha, was much-needed and was the push we needed to keep going until graduation.
3. I fell in love with Mexico, twice.
My trip to Cancun was my first time in Mexico, and I absolutely loved it. I raved about it to my mom and told her how lots of people had told me how cool Mexico City was, so the day after my final exam, we got on a plane and went! The people were right – Mexico City is fascinating. My mom and I loved it! I definitely want to return sometime soon to get to know it more in depth.
4. I graduated university!
After four years of hard work at U of T, I finally got to make the walk from University College to Convocation Hall to walk on stage and receive my diploma! It was one of the happiest days of the year. I loved studying at U of T and I’m proud of how much I learned there, but by the end I was more than ready to move on to the next chapter of my life. Convocation was a great way to say Thank you, and goodbye.
5. I went on my first multi-day hiking trip, loved it, and went on a bunch more.
In June, I took a trip with one of my best friends, Andrew, to Algonquin Park. We had never done a multi-day hiking trip but both wanted to do one, so we planned it out and went! Besides being in high mosquito-season, and being slightly petrified of coming across bears, it was amazing. It was 3 days and 2 nights, the perfect amount of time for beginners like us. It gave me the confidence and desire to do a lot more hiking, and I went on to do some amazing treks in Hawaii, British Columbia, and Peru. I can’t wait to do some more this year, in Colombia!
6. I set foot in the Pacific for the first time.
One of my good friends, Megan, who I met while studying abroad in England, is from Hawaii and invited me to visit her. She had visited me in Toronto, so I jumped at the chance and booked a flight early to get a good deal to go see her. I had never been to the Pacific before; it was amazing to go to such an exotic location to experience it! I had a great time with her in Honolulu before flying to Maui for a solo adventure.
7. I learned to hitchhike and to have faith in the good of humanity.
In Maui, I took my chances and agreed to go on a roadtrip with someone who’d responded to a post I made on couchsurfing. We got along really well and it was an amazing time! I was so glad I’d decided to go for it, because I got to see a part of the island that I wouldn’t have on my own.
I used these ‘trusting’ skills more in BC. Where I was living in Squamish, it was a bit of a challenge to get around without a car or bike. I relied on hitchhiking a lot of the time to get me up and down the highway to where I wanted to go. Besides one odd character on my way to Whistler with a friend, everyone was really friendly and just wanted to help out.
8. I worked in ahostel.
Ever since I studied abroad and stayed in lots of hostels, I thought it would be really fun to work in one for a while. Then I found out about workaway.com., a site that connects you with a bunch of places looking for volunteers. I only sent out one message, to the Squamish Adventure Inn, and got accepted to work for stay there for about six weeks. It was a really cool experience – I did odd jobs, housekeeping, reception, and led a few social events, so I learned a lot of new skill sets!
9. I learned to rock climboutdoors.
Squamish is also a place renowned for its amazing rock climbing. Working in the hostel and living in the town surrounded me with people from all over who had come to climb. It was inevitable that I learn, and I absolutely loved it. I’ve gained a new hobby that keeps me fit, and entertained. Since, I’ve been pacifying my craving to climb by practicing at indoors gyms, but I can’t wait to eventually improve my outdoor skills some more.
10. I learned to surf in Tofino.
Tofino was my first stop on a roadtrip around Vancouver Island. I had always wanted to try surfing, but didn’t end up having the chance to do so in Hawaii. Tofino was finally the place to do it. Although it was raining and the water was cold, the first time I successfully managed to stand up on the board, albeit for a short time, got me super excited about the sport. I hope to keep practicing sometime soon!
11. I saw dolphins, sea turtles, stingrays, whales, sea lions, otters, penguins, and llamas in their natural habitats.
From the sea turtles, stingrays, and iguanas in Mexico, to the dolphins in Hawaii, to the sea lions, otters and whale (yes, just one) in BC, to the penguins in Peru, it was awesome for an animal-lover like me to see so many different animals in their natural habitats. “Awwws” all around! 🙂
12. I raced my first ToughMudder.
I went with my good friend, Andrew, to the race in St. Louis Moonstone, Ontario. It was defintiely muddy. And it was definitely tough. But it was a blast.
13. I moved to Colombia, and now my Spanish is improvingeveryday.
Knowing I had a job lined up in Colombia for January, I decided to come a bit early to live with family and practice my Spanish. It was a bit tough at first, and I still struggle to understand when people talk really fast, but I’m learning. Right now, I’m about 100-pages in to my very first ever Spanish novel, and I’m amazed at how casually I’m able to read it!
14. I got to explore Peru with two of my cousins.
From sandboarding in the desert, to hiking the Inca Trail, to 20 hour bus trips, exploring Peru with my cousins was unforgettable. I couldn’t have asked for better company. 🙂
15. I got my TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) certification.
During my first weeks in Colombia, my free time was spent doing an online TEFL course. I don’t technically need it for my upcoming job but I thought it may be useful, and it opens doors for the future! I’m definitely glad I took the course.
16. I got paid for writing an article and got inspired to write more, starting this blog! Starting a blog wasn’t something I expected to do, but here we are, and I’m really enjoying it. It’s given me a lot of opportunities to practice my writing, as well as to share my adventures with family and friends (you!). I’m hoping it may lead to future writing opportunities, but for now, it’s just good fun. Thanks for supporting me and reading my posts! 🙂
I am beyond excited for what awaits in the new year. In upcoming days, I’m looking forward to exploring more of Cartagena, and Santa Marta. Then I have my big move to a city called Manizales, where I’ll live for the rest of the year teaching English. I’ll get to experience looking for my own apartment, teaching in a real classroom, and getting to discover more and more of this beautiful country.
Further than that, who knows what’s to come! I’m filled with hope and excitement.
I encourage you to look back on your own year and maybe even make your own list. Perhaps there are some sad events, or some things that made you really upset, or experiences that scared you. But I’ll bet that there were some good things there too. The new year is the perfect time to reflect on the past: learning from rough times, appreciating the good times, and preparing to better ourselves for the year to come. I know I have a lot of things to work on, but hey – everyday is a new day, and tomorrow, it’s a new year!
I hope you have an amazing New Year’s celebration, and I wish everyone health, happiness, and love for 2017! 🙂