Semana Santa

Holy week! Colombia goes on vacation the week that includes Holy Monday, Holy Thursday, Holy Friday and of course Pasqua, or Easter.  You’d think an entire country going on Spring Break at the same time would cause some problems, but it seems to work. I guess the holy part keeps people on their best behavior.  In fact, I only saw one inappropriately drunk person all week, and it wasn’t me or Andrew.

We left our planning until the last minute and went back and forth on whether it was a good idea to drive 10 hours to the Caribbean coast. (Actually, it was just me doing the back and forth; Andrew was in.) The roads here are bad, Colombian drivers are insane, driving at night is discouraged, and I was worried that our ridiculous (and beautiful) red mini cooper would attract all kinds of the wrong attention on our journey.  We were going to Rincon del Mar, a tiny beach town that had been recommended to us by a French man we met in Medellin. The beaches in Colombia aren’t the nicest and are crowded with people trying to sell you things, so a rustic and quiet fishing village sounded pretty good. But again, I was nervous about the trip there. (I was worried about a lot of things. None of us  had the recommended yellow fever vaccine. The place we were staying didn’t take credit cards and I had just deposited $300 in their account to hold our reservation, and then immediately began to worry it was all a big hoax.  The town we were going to was so small and the cabanas had what looked to be bunk beds- were we up for this kind of travel with kids? I am usually pretty relaxed, so all this worrying had me worrying.)  Andrew asked his Colombian coworkers if it was safe to drive from Medellin to the coast. He happily reported back that there was no rebel activity; the only dangers were mudslides and falling off the crappy roads that cling to the mountainsides. No, gracias. As my dad always says, cars are machines of death. And he wasn’t even factoring in the Colombian drivers passing on blind curves on two lane cliffside roads. I spent the next 3 days fretting and then got a text from a friend saying they had an extra room at a hotel in Cartagena; her mother-in-law had the flu and wouldn’t be able to join them.  The hotel had 2 big pools, several playgrounds, beach access and a mini-zoo with monkeys. They had me at monkeys.  I checked the flights and there was magically an $80 flight to Cartegana that Saturday.  We could fly to Cartagena, stay at the monkey hotel for 3 days and then hire a car to take us the 2 hours to the little fishing village on Tuesday.  Problem solved!  I was pretty happy about this solution and was shocked when Andrew threw what can only be called a temper tantrum.  I’ll spare the details, but the gist is he had really been looking forward to seeing the countryside and the adventure of the drive is what he was most excited about. We eventually agreed that he could make that drive on his own on his next work trip and spare the rest of us. Yay! I spent the next day buying sunscreen and DEET and we were on our way!

At the airport.  Andrew is smiling but his eyes are saying "I wish I was driving my car right now."

At the airport. Andrew is smiling but his eyes are saying “I wish I was driving my car right now.”

The 45 minute flight to Cartagena was great. Avianca has TVs at each seat so the kids were totally entertained and we got a short reprieve from the spinning and yelling and crashing. We took a taxi to the Hotel Caribe, which our driver confirmed was the hotel where President Obama’s Secret Service got into some trouble last year.  Sam and Aiden resumed their loco routine in the hotel lobby during the check-in process, which took as long as the flight. Someone scolded me for Sam’s crazy behavior – he was using the velvet ropes in the lobby as hurdles- just as he got his foot stuck on one of the ropes and sent a metal pole crashing to the marble floor.  The childless couples sitting in the lobby turned and glared at me for so long, and with such disdain I felt like yelling that way worse things had happened in this hotel so give me a freaking break.  But I had to yell at my kid instead.  I dragged the boys away from the judgy lobby people and took them for a little walk.  We headed down the first hallway and found ourselves out in a lush moonlit courtyard by the pool. This place probably had it’s heyday about 5 decades ago, but the gardens and the pool at night were pretty magical.

It turns out there are sloths living in those trees!  Sloth in Spanish is oso perezoso, or lazy bear, which I think is the greatest name.  Once the guard pointed them out to us, we were able to spot them every time we walked past. We even saw one come down from his tree, which is a lot of activity for a sloth.

Locating the oso perezoso

Locating the oso perezoso

After the requisite 5+ hours of daily pool time, we explored the old city of Cartagena with our friends Jamie and Ed and their daughters Georgia and Laine. Cartagena is intensly hot and with three children under 5, we didn’t cover much ground.  I could have spent a lot more time here- but we’ll just have to come back one day without kids.

On Tuesday afternoon we left Cartagena in a taxi headed to Rincon del Mar, two and a half hours away. Actually, the taxi driver agreed to take us to San Onofre, the nearest town.  The email from Cabanas Palenque told me that we could take another taxi from San Onofre to Rincon (a moto taxi was the most economical!) and we should ask the taxi to take us to Hotel Paraiso.  From there, one of her employees would meet us to help us carry our luggage and get to their cabanas on the beach.

San Onofre was much less of a town than I was expecting and anyone in town who wasn’t walking was on a donkey or a moto.  I thought moto taxi meant a moto with a little cab on the back, which would have been an adventure, but they just meant moto.  And motos can apparently hold 3 grown men or a family of 4. It was pretty clear that we weren’t going to find a taxi so our driver agreed to take us the rest of the way, for another $25. We continued down a half paved road that passed a few palm farms and cattle ranches.  More like this:
IMG_4607     IMG_4901
than this:
The dry season was coming to an end and from the looks of things it hadn’t rained for a few months.  We saw a lot of skinny cows and not many people.  The road ended at Rincon del Mar, a town with a few sandy streets and cinder block houses.
I was cautiously optimistic, but I think the family was a little concerned. Here’s Sam pondering:
WTF, Mom?

WTF, Mom?

We found the Hotel Paraiso, the last stop on the sand road, and someone there walked us over to Cabanas Palenque, locally known as Cristina’s place. We arrived right around sunset.  The beach was lovely and the ocean was bathtub temperature.  The kids played in the water until dark.

Sleeping arrangements included bunk beds and mosquito nets.  Sam and I shared a double bed, Andrew and Aiden got the bunkbed.

IMG_4792 IMG_4794

We stayed for 3 nights. Here’s a list of some of the events of  those few nights:

  • Sam fell out of the bed twice
  • Andrew saw a rat run past his head
  • I thought I saw a person in our room
  • Andrew thought he saw a person in our room (2 different nights, apparently we were both hallucinating)
  • The neighbors had a party
  • Aiden almost fell out of the top bunk
  • Aiden climbed out of the top bunk and walked around in his sleep
  • Aiden climbed out of the bottom bunk and yelled out the window, in his sleep, about how scared he was

We went to bed at 8:30 every night- not much to do in Rincon del Mar- so we actually got some pretty good sleep despite all that activity.

The town and the cabanas were rustic but charming and everyone was lovely. Cristina and her two staff members were great and made a big fuss over us.  Fifi helped Aiden build a sand castle and Cristina got us a birthday cake for Sam. (No easy feat apparently to get a cake during holy week from San Onofre, delivered by moto or donkey, not sure which. And it just happened to be his favorite flavor, bright blue).

On our last full day at the beach Cristina arranged for a boat to take us out to the San Bernardo islands. These islands are part of a nature reserve off the coast and have some of the nicest beaches in Colombia, with crystal clear water and white sand beaches. (I had looked into staying on one of these islands but the only available resort cost US$1000 a night.)  The kids loved the boat ride- there was a lot of bouncing over waves and splashing- we were soaked by the end. In true ‘safety last’ form, the kids had broken lifejackets that would have slipped right off if they fell in the water. Andrew agreed to save Sam if we went overboard and I focused on not getting sick. We passed a few islands, one with a Decameron resort where we could see their ‘pet’ dolphins popping their heads out of the water.  And then Santa Cruz de Isolte, a 12,000 square foot island with 800 residents, which Lonely Planet describes as a tropical shantytown. Our first stop was Isla Mucuru. It turned out to be our only stop. We didn’t know what the plan was because we couldn’t understand anything our guides said. Not really a big deal, but we hadn’t brought any money with us. I thought we were going to snorkel off of one of the deserted islands. The part of Mucuru that we landed on was set up for day-trippers from nearby coastal towns and everything had a price, including the shade. We tried to sit at a table under an umbrella for a minute, but we were told it had to be rented. We swam and hung out on the beach until we couldn’t take another second of sun and then we headed to the mangroves for some relief.  (There comes a point in a gringo’s life when no amount of sunscreen can save you.  Aiden and I ended up with burned and swollen lips.) After about 4 hours our guides found us huddled next to a mangrove swamp and we headed back to Rincon.  The water was much smoother this time, but right at the end the engine stalled. There was some talk of paddling, and a mention that swimming back was out of the question because of the sharks. I think it was a joke, but it left an impression on Aiden.  The engine got going again after a few minutes and we returned to the cabana to tend to our sunburns.

On Friday we found a cab to bring us back to Cartagena for our flight back to Medellin. We had to pay extra considering it was Holy Friday, but our driver, Johnny de Jesus Sossa, was a treat.  He was the slowest, most cautious driver I have ever encountered in Colombia.  We were passed by all other vehicles on the road, including tractor trailers and mopeds.  He had obviously received the machine of death message – or maybe he was just treating his new taxi with the utmost respect. He was also a deeply religious man and every other sentence ended with ‘thanks be to God.’ He and Andrew chatted away the 3 and a half hours it took to get back to Cartagena.  Aiden played ‘guess my animal’ 20 questions and Sam slept. Johnny de Jesus dropped us off at a restaurant in Cartagena for dinner, vaccummed all the sand out of his car, and then picked us up for our flight.  The flight was on time, everyone was in a good mood and polite, even the stumbly innappropiately drunk guy in the airport, and two different people came up to us to suggest that we get on the plane first because we had young children. I thought we were past that phase, but we took them up on their offer and were the first ones on the plane. Each kid got a window seat – crisis averted- and we were back in Medellin an hour later. Our first big Colombian adventure was a success, gracias a Dios.

2 Comments on “Semana Santa”

  1. kateculver says:

    Hilarious. I cried, in my office.


  2. Carina says:

    Megan! What a great trip. You know I read all your blogs, right? I was just thinking how unfair it is to you that I don’t have a blog to keep you up to date on our family life. I am afraid it wouldn’t read as funny and interesting… Looking forward to seeing you this summer.


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