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North America

Colombia: I Felt Like Gilligan

Jonathan van Bilsen



January 6, 2013

Colombia: I Felt Like Gilligan

Cartagena has to be one of the most spectacular places on earth if you are looking for sun, sand and a great amount of history. Located on the northern shore of Colombia, Cartagena has remained safe for tourists, even though the rest of the country has been engaged in wars with drug cartels.

I was pretty excited about my visit to this sundrenched, tropical resort town and when I arrived at the airport I discovered I had a layover in New York, something the travel agent forgot to mention. It was certainly not a concern, as it was not very long; however, I was a little apprehensive when I realized I was flying Avianca Airways (Colombia's own).

The fact that it was a 737 was not in itself disturbing, but the interior was quite ‘tired’, to say the least. No matter, the flight was only five hours and I felt sure time would pass quickly (even though there were no media players on board).

The seatbelt sign was lit, the captain ordered the flight attendants to sit and the plane began to taxi to the active runway. A quick turn and the engines picked up speed. A moment later we were barrelling along one La Guardia’s runways. Suddenly I felt the reverse thrust of the engines and the brakes were applied. Everyone was jolted forward, as the plane came to a halt. Slowly we returned to the gate and I sat patiently awaiting an announcement.

The captain finally explained that the luggage had not been loaded properly and there was too much weight in the rear of the plane. He went on to clarify that if he had taken off, the tail would scrape the runway, a statement which falls into the ‘too much information’ category.

After about 30 minutes we are once again ‘good to go’, this time completing the take off without incident. We had just left the ground when suddenly I heard someone scream ahead of me. Being somewhat curious I stretched my neck to see a woman weeping from fear of flying. The flight attendant and another passenger tried to console her, but I knew it would be a long five hours.

Once I was on the ground and in a taxi I relaxed as the 30+ temperatures eased my tension. I checked into the Hilton, right on the beach and was pleased with the accommodations and facilities. The ocean was azure blue and quite warm and the whole ordeal of the flight was now behind me.

The city of Cartagena, with its population of just under 1 million, is very tourist friendly. The main square, with the statue of Simon Bolivar, is a hangout for tourists and locals alike. Men can be seen playing chess or enjoying a morning coffee and tourists with guidebooks in hand are planning the day’s adventures.

In 1984, the walled city of Cartagena was granted UNESCO heritage site status, ensuring it would be maintained in its original style and continue to be a draw for tourists. The Clock Gate is the main entrance into the old city and opens directly onto the town square.

After walking for several hours, enjoying the great local food, I decided to book an excursion to the Rosario Islands, a private group of tiny islands which are located about an hour and a half away from the mainland by boat. It is an amazing place to snorkel, swim or just soak up the sun. Lots of sunscreen is a must and a hat is a necessity. The average temperature in Cartagena and surrounding areas is in the low 30’s all year round, so you can imagine how hot the sun must be. I would recommend the excursion, however, I would advise you check out the weather conditions before you go…  something I did not do.

The ride out was great. The boat was fast, cutting across the Caribbean and the day on the secluded islands was very relaxing. The crew ensured that every detail was looked after.

We were scheduled to leave around five in the afternoon, however, at four we were told we would be leaving sooner, as there was a storm approaching. I looked out over the water and saw dark clouds in the distance. Surely these type of weather patterns were normal for the area, but the captain and his two crew members began rounding up passengers. It was not very long before I was back on the boat.

The captain announced we would be taking an inland route, as the open water would be too rough for our return journey. The boat began to make its way across the open water in a different direction from where we came. After 20 minutes we navigated into a river, which narrowed and we slowed our speed. The views along the banks were spectacular. Small villages with huts made from palm trees and children stopping to watch the uncommon sight of a boat, were everywhere along the route. I was having a field day with my camera when suddenly I felt a strange vibration followed by a loud noise.

We had run aground. The captain and crew were shouting; no doubt trying to find blame. The passengers on deck, had worried looks. The two crew members jumped out of the boat into the water and began to push the boat back into the center of the river (which had become more of a stream). They had difficulty and the captain asked for volunteers. I looked around at the dozen or so people and several younger men jumped in the water to help the crew. I thought I could be more effective in the boat capturing the event with my camera, and decided to stay put.

Eventually, the boat moved and we were able to continue our journey. Instead of arriving at the hotel by six it was closer to nine and everyone was tired. I decided to skip dinner and head for my room for a well-deserved night of sleep.

The rest of my stay in Cartagena was uneventful, which is exactly what I wanted. If you are looking for a destination away from the standard Caribbean resorts visit the city of Cartagena, rich in history, sunshine and wonderful cuisine. 

Jonathan van Bilsen’s photosNtravel TV show can be watched on RogersTV and YouTube. To follow Jonathan’s travel adventures visit

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