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Chilling Out and Burning Up

Olly and I don't like night buses at the best of times, but when the driver cranks the AC to the point where conditions are near artic, night buses become completely insufferable. We flew from Quito to Medillin, Colombia and then decided to save some coin by getting a night bus to Cartegena – a mere 14 hours away.

Lonely Planet warned us about the chill and we thought we had prepared adequately. We had put on most of our clothes but we were still freezing. We realised how under-prepared we were when we saw the locals don beanies, gloves and huge blankets. We huddled under one of my scarves and wiggled our toes periodically to keep the circulation going. When we eventually arrived in Cartegena, our icy bones were instantly thawed as we walked off the bus into a wall of heat. Suddenly we were frantically trying to remove all of our layers lest we spontaneously combust. Despite the rapid defrost, I was haunted by the bus ride for a few days to come when I came down with the sniffles. Fortunately, Cartegena isn't a bad place to recuperate.

Cartegena was established by the Spanish in the 16th Century. It soon became the main Spanish port on the Carribbean coast and the major northern gateway to South America. The city was a store for the plundered gold and treasures taken from the continent in pending their shipment back to Spain. Accordingly, it was soon a target for pirates. In the 16th Century alone, Cartegena was subject to five sieges. The most famous being that by Sir Francis Drake. Drake sacked the port in 1586, and in his benevolence, agreed not to level the town if he was presented with 10 million pesos. To combat the scurvy dogs and scallywags, a series of defensive forts and Las Murallas (thick walls) were built around the city. It took two centuries to complete, with the last of the walls completed in 1796, just 25 years before the Spanish were expelled from Colombia.

The Old City (inside Las Murallas) is now a Unesco World Heritage site and it is not hard to see why. Walking around the city feels like you have gone back in time, or perhaps to one of Disney's themed resorts. Balconies covered in bougainvillea hang over cobbled alleyways that give way to enchanting colonial plazas. Tropical fruit is sold by vendors on the street – sometimes even from baskets balanced on ladies heads!

My one beef with Cartagena was how obscenely hot it was. We were staying in a small Hostal in the heart of the walled city. Getting the location we wanted for a price we could afford meant compromising on amenities. Only the bedrooms had AC – and the AC was only turned on at night. It was no good heading to the beach to cool off – we quickly learnt that the water was like a hot bath! Our salvation was ice cream and cherry limonada. We found a gorgeous little ice cream shop full of frilly things, floral wall paper, AC and some of the best ice cream I have ever eaten. We did not let a day in Cartagena go by without a visit to the ice cream shop. Cherry limonada is a Colombian variation of the limeade we had throughout South America. Glacé cherries are added to limeade along with a heap of ice and blended to make the perfect cooling drink

We braved the heat one night for an evening on a Chiva bus. Supposedly traditional, a Chiva is basically a brightly painted flat deck truck with wooden bench seats added. On the back of the seat in front are a series of variously sized metal loops. They are to hold the ice bucket, rum bottle, coke bottle and glasses. As the bus drives around the City, you pour your own drinks as required. Meanwhile, a band sits in the middle of the bus belting out local beats and an MC yells at everyone to dance, clap, stand up, sit down and generally make a fool of themselves. We managed to make even greater fools of ourselves because we were the only non-Spanish speakers on the bus so our timing was always way out! Eventually, a Mexican girl took pity on us and started translating for us. When we told her where we are from she got quite excited because she knows a Kiwi girl. All I could think was “Yeah – that's right, all four million of us know each other”… Turns out I had to eat my words – I went to uni with the one New Zealander she knew!

Volcan de Codo el Totumo is a half day trip from Cartagena. It is basically a miniature volcano that oozes mud rather than lava or ash. Legend has it that the volcano once belched fire but the local priest, seeing it as the work of the devil, frequently sprinkled it with holy water. He not only succeeded in putting out the fire, but he also turned the insides to mud to drown the devil. The mud is luke warm and is the consistency of custard, only grittier. It is ultra bouyant and pretty much impossible to get your whole body down into. You pay to take a dip in the mud and then thoeretically pay extra if you want a local to take some snaps on your camera while you wallow, get a mud massage or a wash down at the end. The reality is that it is impossible to say 'no' to the extra services. One Kiwi bloke kept trying to and just got himself in a tizz, was rude to the locals and failed to enjoy the experience (I could tell he was going to be tosser when he started going on about Aucklanders). The only bit I struggled with was the wash down. Your swim suit is all but torn off you in water too shallow to cover all your bits in spitting distance from the rest of the group – who you met only hours before. It might not have been so bad if I'd had a few beers beforehand!

The BEST holidays

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