Upon returning stateside for most of May, I basked in the creature comforts that only home can provide and swiftly got to work catching up on all the distinctly American vices I had been missing out on while in Asia. Although old favorites like Chipotle and ESPN were at the top of the list, full-bodied American beers were an unexpected pleasure after months of watery, tasteless Asian beers.
Most of all though, I was incredibly grateful to be constantly with friends and family who welcomed me back with open arms. There was an unmatched comfort in being surrounded by people who simply accept me for who I am. First up on the American itinerary was my brother's wedding, the perfect opportunity to catch up and get down on the dance floor with members from both sides of the family.
Next was two long weekends in New York and Philadelphia, catching up with old friends, pretending to be a tourist in my own country, and lounging in the perfect weather only early Summer can provide.
As great as the American lifestyle was, after a month I was absolutely ready to hit my next destination. Last Friday I boarded a flight to South America, starting the next leg of my journey in Cartagena, Columbia. Having survived an endless summer in Southeast Asia and August heatwaves in Washington, D.C. I thought I could handle anything went it comes to heat. But as soon I stepped off the air-conditioned plane and onto the tarmac in Cartagena, I realized how ignorant I was to the prospect of Columbian heat. Immediately, it felt as though I had stepped straight into an oven and the sweltering heat began to permeate directly through my skin. Three days in, I don't possess an article of clothing that hasn't been completely sweated through.
Set right on the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is a popular tourist destination for Columbians and foreigners alike, and for good reason: the city is an architectural and cultural delight. Cartagena's cultural significance dates back to the 17th century, when the town's port was a trading post between North America, the Caribbean, and Europe and thus a popular destination for pirates and sieges. Today, the same 13KM stretch of walls which protected the city serve as a beautiful destination to take in stunning views of the downtown skyline, breathe in the crisp Caribbean breeze, or cheer on a soccer match.
Encompassed by the city's walls, the old town area is perfectly walkable and around every corner there's another beautiful cobblestone alley or peaceful tree-lined park. In fact, the best activity in Cartagena seems to be to just put on a pair of comfortable walking shoes and see where your own two feet will take you. It's easy to get lost ducking through the windy, narrow streets, but it's never too hard to find your way to the proper destination, if you had one to begin with.
The city's many plazas and parks serve not only as unofficial guide posts for wandering travelers, but also popular destinations for locals to practice their dance moves or play music. In one plaza on Saturday night, I encountered an entire orchestra composed entirely of police officers, who when prompted by the illustrious conductor rose out of their seats and played their instruments while dancing around unsuspecting passerby. It was a hilarious sight to witness and a testament to how much Columbians really love music and dancing.
With the exception of the cab driver who tried to charge me $40 USD for the 10 minute cab ride from the airport, I've found the Cartagena locals to be a largely gregarious and welcoming bunch. Around every corner there's a multitude of street vendors selling drinks and street food or tourist trinkets. The most popular of these local entrepreneurs are the hat salesmen, who won't stop until you're properly equipped in a stylish Columbian sombrero. Although persistent, they're also an easy-going bunch and always willing to point you in the right direction if you're wandering around looking lost.
Cartagena's charm is embodied by its architecture, which features flowered balconies overlooking tiny one way streets, historic military and religious sites side by side, and an enchanting combination of brightly colored facades. The endless maze of ornately decorated Cathedrals, historical buildings, and statues adorning plaza squares all combines for a delight for the eyes.
Juxtaposed with the massive skyline of "Miami of the South" just a stone's throw away across the bay, the entire vibe of the city ushers in a feeling that you're stepping back in time, to a place left behind by the chaotic nature of cities today. The streets are so narrow not many cars can even fit into the city, so pedestrians always have the right of way. Cartagena is a place where life is enjoyed at a more leisurely pace, whether that means taking in the scene from one of the city's many open air cafes or strolling the streets at night as the plazas come alive with people and music.
I'm not yet sure where I'll be headed next or when I'll be departing Cartagena, but I do know I'm immensely enjoying this gorgeous little town and returning to the traveling lifestyle.