I'll be honest again in this post, because I always am and because I know you know something's up. I mean, could Cartagena itself really be the only reason I wanted to come back so bad? Could Cartagena itself really be the only reason I was looking forward to living here? Just the city, without anything extra to pull my mind towards this place like a bright flame does with flying ants? We both know it can't be true. So, here we go, I'll fill you in on what's really the reason. But this is just between us, right?
OK. I've found a reason for me. To change who I used to be. A reason to start over new. And the reason is you.
Enough bad jokes for today? I don't think so, but I'll still tell you the real reason now. The reason is The Island. And believe you me, those capital letters are justified! Wait, what? You though I'd start talking about a guy? No, man... The Island! I still neede a proper welcome to Cartagena and Béa needed some time off to relax after three weeks of working straight through, so we decided to go to The Island for two days, spending one night out there. Because Béa knows everyone there and everyone knows Béa, it was easy to organize the trip last minute, we decided to go on Tuesday and left Wednesday morning.
The Island is a special place to me, you can't imagine how until you've seen my face light up when I step off the boat at any one of its little docks.
What and where is The Island? The Island is Isla Grande, part of the Islas del Rosario group of little islands just off the coast of Cartagena. That group forms part of the Parque Nacional Natural Corales de Rosario y San Bernardo. In a nutshell, it's a little piece of paradise just out my front door, thankyounature. I love that place so much...
I went there for the first time in 2010, as part of that year's excursion. I never forgot it, though, and when Béa and I wanted to take a short trip somewhere last year, going back there was my first idea. I found a special offer that would take us to the Cocoliso Resort on Isla Grande and that first trip for her and second for me was so incredible, it's not only unforgettable to us but also to some of the people who work in the resort, simply because everything was so great. We happened to be the only people who stayed the night. That explains it all, right?
Because of that brilliant first trip of 2011, we went back about five or six times. Not sure anymore, I just know we spent a lot of time there last year. For me, that island became an extension of my home. It wasn't just trips to a nice place anymore, it was like going somewhere but still being at home and I felt like I really knew the place.
It's not like that anymore. I was gone for 10 months and, of course, naturally, I've been forgotten by most people. Béa is their superstar so I'm still very welcome there, but that's because I'm with her. It was sad to come back and have lost that feeling of complete familiarity. It still is. But it doesn't really matter, the island itself still knows me and still loves me, even if to the people I only am "ah sí, esa que vino con nuestra queridísima Béa".
Now, why is the island so magical? I'll try to give you the full overview by telling you what we did on this trip of ours, chronologically. Because, yes, all the beautiful things that could possibly happen did really occur within a little over 24hrs.
On the boat.
We got off the boat after a pretty smooth ride over and went to find Eduardo, the manager of the Cocoliso Resort, to say hello after such a long time (not so long for Béa, of course) and to thank him for getting us the boat reservations. Then we went straight to where we were really staying, the Ecohotel Las Palmeras. It's a little place with a few cabanas for guests and everything about it is ecological, nature is Ana Rosa's number one concern - well, after her guests. She's the one who runs the place and also an important person in the island's community, because she's very engaged in the process of making the island a better place for its inhabitants, human and otherwise. It's always interesting for me to hear her talk about what's going on on the island lately, because she, as the high-standing person she is, has a great overview over everything from politics to gossip. So nature, yes. There is electricity and there is running water for the toilets now, but you still wash your hands and shower with fresh water from a barrel - it's a coral island, fresh water is extremely scarce there!
We got two cabanas instead of sharing one, because, no matter how strong a friendship is, sometimes it's nice to be able to sleep in a room by herself. Béa got her favourite one, which made her really happy. Deservedly, after all that work!! I didn't really care, I like the whole complex and I knew we wouldn't be spending too much time there anyways. We were on The Island after all.
First, after dropping our things and putting on bathing suits, we walked to Playa Libre, our favourite beach. Las Palmeras is in the middle of the island, so it doesn't have its own beach, but on the other hand its being situated so far from everything else makes it a perfect place for relaxation. You don't hear the big hotels' generators, you don't hear the boats and there's no loud music all the time. And if you do want loud music, you can go to the village or Playa Bonita or Cocoliso. And to get to the beach, there's so many options, there's no way you can get bored. But because we like Playa Libre so much, we went there first.
One of the little piers on the island.*
Soft white sand, crystal clear water, a few algae and sunshine.*
After soaking for a little while and enjoying the fact that I'm alive and healthy and able to just come to this miraculous little paradise, I yielded to Béa's wish to head back to Ana Rosa's for lunch. She's not as lucky as me skin-wise and burns easily, even when she uses SPF70, poor thing. At this point I would like to thank my parents for passing on their no-burn-tan-easy genes to me, I'm making good use of them!
Going back to the ecotel meant lunch, because it was already around noon and everyone who's ever been in the sea knows that salt water makes you hungry. Lucky girls that we are, we got ceviche de pez león for lunch. With a side of arroz con coco. Can food be happiness? Yes, it can.
Ceviche de pez león.*
I've only had ceviche de pez león once before and that was actually the last time I went to The Island in December, before going back to Europe for half a year. But at that time I was sick, sort of, and couldn't eat properly, so I only had a bite off Béa's plate and then went back to eating dry rice and stale bread. Not this time though! And it was sooo good! But if that lunch was already freaking delicious (How delicious, you ask? Let's say it's hard to eat and keep saying "oh my god oh my god oh my god" at the same time...), then how can I describe dinner? That was truly incredible. We actually got to say hello to our dinner at noon, because it was still alive!! Have a glimpse:
A "Krebsmetzel" followed later that day, but we don't have pictures of it.*
There were two of those huge crabs waiting for us in a big bucket, when we got back from the beach. And that evening, when we got to the eating area of the ecotel, they were waiting for us on a big plate. Ready to eat, shells crushed so we wouldn't have to do that ourselves. With boiled potatoes and green beans and carrots. We got cutlery, but we didn't use it. Sometimes, you just have to eat with your hands, to enhance the experience even further. I'd never had real crab like that before, and I was smitten. Just smitten. Seriously, people. Smitten!
If you want to eat good food - no matter if you want fish or seafood or "regular", everything is possible - then go to Ana Rosa. She is by far the best cook on the island, we go to eat at her place even when we stay at Cocoliso. Of course that crab dinner wasn't part of the regular meal plan, we had to pay for that additionally while everybody else got chicken for dinner. But still, at the price we paid, you don't even get to look at a crab in any European restaurant. Or one in Colombia, for that matter. And, again, it was sooo good... oh so good...
But back to the afternoon. After lunch we relaxed for a bit and then went over to Cocoliso, to say hello to all our friends there - only to find out that two of them weren't there. Our dear Santa and my extra-special friend Álvaro - such a sweet guy, and the only one who will hand me the machete without hesitation. Love him so much! At least Ever was there, the best bar tender in the world. Nobody makes cocolocos quite like him, they make your taste buds flower and your bain cells die - perfection. [I'm leaving this typo in here, because it's awesome.]
For us, the key to going to Cocoliso is to go either before all the day visitors arrive or after they've been picked up and shipped back to Cartagena again. That way, we have the whole area to ourselves and tourist-free, just like that first time back in the day. We hung out at the beach, lazing around for a while. The we went up to the poolbar to enjoy the first cocoloco of the season and then back to beach. Jokingly, we'd said that they could bring us some caiprinhas (another one of Ever's specialties) down to the beach in about half an hour. We hadn't expected that they'd actually do that. We were in the water looking for starfish (I'd never seen them before outside of an aquarium and was going completely nuts every time we found one) when suddenly Tomás showed up with two caipirinhas, bringing them down to the waterfront for us. Tomás is a young guy who represents Diving Planet at Cocoliso, not a native islander but an adopted one - a bit like us. We'd met him in the forest on the way over from Las Palmeras and he is now part of our circle of friends on The Island, or at least of mine.
Because we felt we weren't being obnoxious enough, we asked if he had snorkelling masks we could borrow for our starfish hunt. Not only did he get us the masks, he also got one for himself, jumped in the water and showed us all sorts of cool underwater creatures: starfish, cute and colourful little fish and corals, spiny lobster, stonefish, a fish that looks like it has big blue wings and even two stingrays! Right there in front of us! RIGHT THERE!!!
Can you tell that I'm happy?*
After all the snorkeling, Béa and I finally had our caipirinhas that had been sitting on the water's edge that whole time, waiting for us to come drink them. Poor things, but we paid them our full attention afterwards. After another while of alternating splash-around-in-the-water and be-a-sloth-in-a-beach-chair we headed back to Ana Rosa's just in time before it got dark, because we didn't have the flashlight we would have needed to make it back through the forest in the dark.
Easy enough, but there's all sorts of roots and bits of coral on the path that can make for a bad surprise when you walk in the dark.
After dinner, Tomás came to pick us up again - he's a surprisingly puncual young man, too. First, he took us back to Cocoliso (he has a flashlight) where he invited us to have some rum and coke with lemon, then he took us over to the laguna.
On Isla Grande, there are many lagoons. One of them, Laguna Encantada, has fluorescent plankton. Yes, that's exactly what it sounds like. Underwater stars and sparks. It's also why it's called "encantada", because it's enchanted and it enchants you. I had never been in the laguna before, not even during the day, so I was - understandably, I think - somewhat nervous. Here's a picture I took of the laguna last year.
That night was perfect for swimming in the laguna and seeing the fluorescent plankton, because it was new moon and the only light at all came from the (almost continuous) lightning over Barú. (The storms that keep the people on the "mainland" wet and awake don't touch the islands at all, from out there you just see the lightning and enjoy a light breeze.) Almost absolute darkness is what you are looking for when going to the laguna at night, because the less light there is, the better you see the plankton. The disadvantage is, have a quick guess before I tell you, that it's freaking scary to jump into a pitch-black body of water that, encima de todo, you've never been in before. Béa jumped in first, then I made Tomás jump in, too. He wanted to help me by jumping with me, but I was all like "No, I can do this, I just have to see that there are no big sharp rocks where I'm about to jump and you guys can't look at me either so you all have to turn around." Yes, I know, like a little baby. Whatever. I did it! I jumped in! And it was magnificent! There's no way I can make you understand how incredible it was, because you have to have been there. Only now that I've done it myself, I can understand why Béa and everybody else had been so excited about it.
You float around in the darkness (illuminated only by lightning every 30 seconds or so - which really added to the badass-ness of the whole thing) and whenever you move your body, even just lightly, sparks fly and the water lights up. When you lift your hands out of the water, bright little stars slide down your skin, like shooting stars on your body. It is absolutely incredible. Magical, even.
After a while, we got back out of the sparkly goodness and went back to the alcoholic goodness. Please don't think we're alcoholics, we're not. Béa got tired, though, and borrowed a flashlight from Ever to go back to Las Palmeras and sleep, while I stayed behind and after a little while I couldn't help it anymore. Tomás was right there. We were all alone. The night was young and beautiful and the atmosphere was so... well, you know....
Of course I had to go and jump in the laguna again!
After my second swim, Tomás took me back to Las Palmeras - he knew I'd get lost because they changed the pathway due to a fallen tree on the original route and I wasn't used to it yet.
Talk about a perfect day... because it was.
The next morning we were completely knackered, though. All the swimming and hunting and sparkling had made us really tired the evening before and then it was so hot at night that we hardly slept in our no-A/C-no-fan cabanas. We took the morning for relaxing at the beach after breakfast and it was grand.
Then Tomás met up with us again at Cocoliso and, gentleman that he is, showed us the way to another pretty little beach he'd told us about previously but that we didn't know how to get to.
I am gente de mar!!
This beach is called Playa Bonita. Can you guess why?
There was also a bar at that place, because Gente de Mar is a hotel and restaurant. We each had a cocoloco, but they were the grossest thing on Earth, compared to Ever's. We'll be faithful to our favourite island barman from now on, we promise! After that it was back to the little veranda in front of Béa's cabana until it was time to catch the boat back to Cartagena.
And here we are. It was so good to be back, genuinely good. Like, for the soul. You know, good. And I'm happy, because we're already planning the next time.
* All pictures marked with an asterisk are from Béa's camera.