Escape to Cartagena

If you know me, you know that I desperately try to get these blog posts out in a timely manner but I often fall short. Therefore let’s pretend I just stepped off the plane  rather than three weeks ago and  I am freshly reflecting on my time relaxing oceanside in Cartagena, Colombia. Traveling to Cartagena was the result of a sporadic desire for excitement. Needing some spontaneity in my life, I decided to venture to South America, a continent I hadn’t visited before. Why Cartagena? I ran across a JetBlue vacation package and to be honest, the Google images looked cool. So I convinced Alejandro, my friend and Spanish-speaking confidante to join, packed my bathing suit and bug spray, and we were set for our South American adventure.

 

Day 1 – Much-Needed Island Breeze

The flight to Cartagena from New York was an easy 5-hour direct trip. Upon arrival, we were welcomed with a THICK layer of humidity and 85-degree weather. The temperature was 40 degrees when we left New York so we were sweating our way through customs. The hotel picked us up from CGA airport and shuttled us to Hotel Las Americas where we loved our stay. Because the Colombian peso goes much further than the American dollar we were able to afford the 5-star accommodations (flips hair). The hotel is located in La Boquilla, a fishing village in Cartagena that is about 5 minutes from the airport and 10 minutes from the city center. The beaches are calm and quiet and there’s plenty of fresh fish to go around.

After we spent time lounging by the pool and enjoying a delicious dinner, we headed into the Walled City to watch the sunset at Cafe del Mar, a popular outdoor destination to grab a drink and listen to music. We caught the sunset just in time as you can see from pictures!

 


 

Day 2 – Colorful Cartagena

The following day we headed to Old Town to wander through the streets of central Cartagena. It’s as though the city was frozen in time hundreds of years ago. The architecture remains intact and the bold colors pop from one building to the next. We wandered past hostels, shops, and soccer viewing parties on the way to Castillo San Felipe, a castle built on the hill of San Lazaro. Once we climbed up the fortress we made our way through a complex system of tunnels. Once on top of the fort we were able to get a great view of the city.

Afterward, we grabbed lunch at Cande, an upscale Caribbean restaurant with live music and dancing. As became routine, I ordered some form of  fresh seafood and ceviche for each and every meal while in Cartagena. In fact, I could build a complete slideshow all the dishes of fish I devoured with a mojito on the side. What’s special about Cande is that 100% of the food comes from Cartagena.

After a long day we decided to head back out to the “Infamous” Cafe Havana, where we enjoyed delicious arepas, mojitos and lots of salsa dancing. We were hinted that there is always live music at Cafe Havana so I definitely recommend visiting!

 


 

Day 3 – Rolling in the Mud

This excursion was something that I had seen online and from the pictures, I knew this was something I really wanted to partake in. Where and when else would I be covered head to toe in mineral-infusing mud? Only at Volcan de Lodo el Totumo.

The day started with an hour bus ride from our hotel to the outskirts of Cartagena. We pulled up to a small village where there a small home with lockers would hold our belongings. Before packing up our valuables, we (Alejandro) gave our phones and cameras to one of the many workers  who would take pictures of us in the volcano. Of course, we were initially nervous about this set up but they did a great job of not mixing up any phones and producing quality pictures.

We climbed up the very steep steps of the volcano and one by one, climbed down the ladder into the mud. You can tell by my facial expressions below that I initially did not know how to feel. There were lots in people in the space with us and the mud was warm so I tried to tune out all thoughts of what could be in this mud. Also, we were floating which caused some balance issues as we were constantly tipped over. We got some good laughs out of the situation.

As we exited the volcano someone scraped the mud off and guided us down the other set of very steep stairs to the river. Once dipping in the river the mud came off fairly easily. After drying off and grabbing a snack, we were back on the bus to head to La Boquilla to enjoy (another) pescado (fish)/tostones (plantains)/arroz de coco (coconut rice) lunch and a beach day with our tour group.

Later than evening we jumped on the Chiva Night Rumba Tour. The Chiva tour is catered to tourists who are visiting Cartagena.  Think NY City tour bus but with rum and live music…and arepas. So I guess it’s not like the NY City tour bus…

The bus stops at various hotels across Bocagrande to pump up tourists for an entertaining sightseeing tour around Cartagena. Depending on the seating arrangement, you’re placed in small groups to share a bottle of Aguardiente rum. You can see us (kinda) dancing in our seats as the mariachi band performs in the back. We were the first stop so by the end of the night the bus was packed.

Heads up, the tour is completely in Spanish, which is why once again, I was fortunate to have my handy dandy translator, Alejandro, to help me understand what the heck the tour was about. My favorite part was when they called me out as the girl from los Estados Unidos and asked me to get up and dance and I had no idea. After my awkward hesitation I think everyone realized I was the one person on the bus who didn’t speak Spanish.

Half way through the tour we stopped in the Walled City where other Chiva tours were parked for arepas and more live music. After jumping back on the bus the last stop left us at a night club that was a drop off point for all other Chiva tours. So imagine a club full of rum-infused tourists. Yes, it was a fun night.

 

 


 

Day 4 – Playa Blanca

Obviously we couldn’t go to Colombia without spending a full day laying at one of the Caribbean beaches. While there are many beaches to choose from, we chose probably the most popular, Playa Blanca.

Once again, we were picked up for about an hour bus ride to the beach. The beaches of Playa Blanca on the Island of Baru are completely different from the beaches of Cartagena. It looks like Caribbean water with the bright blue colors. Once there you can grab a beach chair,  umbrella, and a locker to head out into the water. Some popular activities include snorkeling, jetskiing, scuba diving, . We decided to go on the private snorkeling tour where they even took pictures of us underwater, BUT unfortunately we forgot to pick up the pictures before we left so pretend this was us:

Lunch was provided after our snorkeling adventure and guess what was on the menu? Yep, pescado, tostones, y arroz de coco–my favorite staple! After lunch there was a free happy hour with rum, vodka and tequila. Free was especially great because by this point we had run out of cash (there’s story about this as you scroll down). In the late afternoon we headed back to the hotel very very sunburnt but relaxed.

We ended the evening in the city center with dinner at La Cocina de Cartagena, where I had my usual–you guessed, it, pescado, tostones y arroz de coco con un mojito! There was live music at this restaurant as well and fireworks went off as we were heading out. We never found out why there were fireworks but it was a fitting finale to our trip.

 


 

Tips for Traveling to Cartagena

  • Convert your cash at the airport: There aren’t many ATMs in Cartagena and when the ATM in our hotel broke down (luckily on the last day) we were left with the cash we had in our pockets. Unfortunately, that’s when we were headed to the beach where everything had to be paid in cash. We were strugglingFortunately at the beach Alejandro was able to negotiate so we could afford the beach chairs, snorkeling and locker rental, which brings me to my next point…
  • Speak Spanish: Everyone, including the hotel staff, only spoke Spanish. Most people visiting Cartagena are from other South American countries and very few are from the U.S. or Europe. We met a few people along the way who could speak about as much English as I can speak Spanish (which isn’t much) but I’d have been screwed if Alejandro hadn’t been my translator!
  • Pack light: I’ve already mentioned how hot and humid Cartagena is so I’d only recommend loose and light clothing.
  • Must love fish: Every single meal I ate was fish, plantains and arroz de coco which I loved. If you’re a fish person, you’ll love Cartagena!
  • Purchase your excursions in Cartagena, not in advance: If you look up some of the excursions online you’ll see that you can reserve a tour in advance. No need to do that, the hotel and hostels will set you up once you arrive and walk you through the day and the options. It’s also cheaper to purchase the tours in Cartagena rather than online ahead of time.
  • It’s ColOmbia, not ColUmbia: Columbia is the university in Harlem, Colombia is the South American country. Don’t mix it up!

I loved visiting Cartagena and was surprised by how many people I knew had already been! Let me know if you’re planning to visit Cartagena any time soon!

Who Am I? My Ancentry.com Results

img_2345“What are you?” is a question I’m often asked and when I respond “black” it never seems to satisfy those who are so curious. I always get nudged to further explain my ethnicity (which is annoying by the way) but the fact of the matter is, I’ve never fully known. I’ve known that I have African and European traces on my father’s side and African and Native American on my mother’s. Yet it bothered me that I didn’t know details of where my African lineage traced back to. It’s not uncommon for media, or society in general, to refer to Africa as a homogeneous land without differentiating the countries and cultures within the massive continent (there are 54 recognized countries, 2,000 languages spoken and over 1.1 billion citizens within Africa).

It almost felt as though understanding and claiming my specific African roots would help debunk the myth that the entirety of Africa and African culture are identical. I also strongly identify as African American and an important part of our history is slavery. As one can imagine, slavery stripped us of our tribes, culture,  traditions, and ultimately the ability to track our African ancestry and details of our ethnicity. Getting my DNA results felt like I was taking back something that was brutally stolen from me and my family.

Therefore on my birthday this year I requested an AncestryDNA test to discover a small piece of my ancestors. Once I received the kit I simply had to provide a saliva sample and ship it back to the lab (which was complimentary by the way). Within 2 or 3 weeks I received an email stating that my results were in.

Before I revealed the results to my curious family, my parents gave their guesses:

Mom: 70% African, 15% European, 15% Native American

Dad: 65% African, 30% European, 5% Native American

The final results were as follows:

62% African, 36% European, 2% Asian

dna-map

You can see in the left tab that the majority of my DNA traces to Ivory Coast/Ghana (26%), Cameroon/Congo (17%) and Ireland (14%). Sorry mom, no traces of any Native American in my blood; not even one percent! I must say, that was unsurprising to me (I feel like everyone claims that they’re Native American) but of course surprising to my mother. What I was not expecting was any traces of Asian ancestry, especially since my DNA was mapped to India and the Turkmenistan/Afghanistan/Uzbekistan region. Although just 2% is apparent, it does make me curious about where that came from! Of course it was very valuable learning about my specific African ancestry: I was traced back to 9 African regions.

What’s also worthwhile about Ancestry.com is that based on your DNA, they’ll match you to other people who have taken the test who are believed to be related to you. The first person who popped up for me was my first cousin so I trust the accuracy.

At this point almost everyone in my family has now requested an Ancestry kit for Christmas since they’ve been so intrigued with the results. This excites me because if my parents take the test I’ll have a better understanding of my maternal and paternal history and which side my results derive from.

Overall I’m very happy that I decided to get the test and learn more about my family and myself. There’s definitely a relief in taking back something that is so personal to me.

Books Reccos You Can Thank Me For Later

As a kid I was an adamant reader–in fact, competitive. I took my reading duties very seriously. Each year I “won” amongst my classmates for most AR points and most books read throughout the year.  Before I went to sleep I would always read new stories in bed.

tumblr_nlgt2q4aza1qbrtzvo1_1280Unfortunately I fell out of this habit (thank you technology for my decreased attention span) but one item that has rekindled my love of reading has been my handy dandy library card. I caught myself being the girl who would “test read” books at the Barnes & Nobles but actually finished them in a single sitting….without purchasing the book. So in an attempt to be more ethical,  I got a library card when I moved to New York. It’s provided me endless access to books without the need to hide in a corner pretending that I am not in fact reading an entire book free of purchase. Therefore I’m constantly wandering through the many Manhattan bookshelves grabbing as many books as I can carry home. A few of my favorite finds are below:


issa-rae_book-cover

1. The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl  – Issa Rae

Comical

I have been a fan of Issa since 2010 when I discovered her “Awkward Black Girl” web series. If you’re a fan Issa’s productions (she recently launched Insecure, a new HBO show) then you’ll definitely be a fan of her book and there’s a reason it’s at the top of my list.

 

51osr0cuxbl-_sx329_bo1204203200_2. It’s Not About Perfect – Shannon Miller

Inspirational

As a former gymnast myself I am especially intrigued by the life stories of accomplished Olympic gymnasts. Shannon Miller, a part of the Magnificent Seven who brought home the first USA team gold at the ’96 Olympics, shares how she used lessons learned from competing in gymnastics to fight cancer later in life.

 

41juac3j6jl-_sx330_bo1204203200_3. Off Balance – Dominique Moceanu

Inspirational, Reflective

Another intriguing gymnast story, Dominique Moceanu opens up about her broken family life and the abuse she experienced training for & competing in the 1996 Olympics. Later in adulthood Moceanu receives a letter from a fan claiming she is her long lost full-blood sister — and looks just like her! That’s not even the full extent of plot this twist but you’ll have to read to find out more.

 

notes-to-boys-lightbox-mar-25-2014-copy14. Notes to Boys – Pamela Ribon

Comical, Inspirational

I really enjoyed this book due to the writing style the author adopted. Teenage Pamela Ribon was a hopeless romantic who would not only write profoundly dramatic notes to boys, but also write a copy for her records. Readers will wince reading young Pamela’s old notes & poetry that are coupled with present day commentary for laughs.

 

mindy-kaling-why-not-me5. Why Not Me? – Mindy Kaling

Comical

Since The Office days I have loved everything Mindy has put her hands on and this book is no different. In her second book, Mindy shares the awkward and uncomfortable moments that come along with being “kinda famous.”

 

04806bb43e423cf0fb78f8d4c93308bf6. Everybody’s Got Something – Robin Roberts

Inspirational

Good Morning America host, Robin Roberts, recounts her journey fighting cancer in the wake of being a well-known TV figure. Throughout the book Robin reminds viewers that regardless of money, race, religion or background someone always is going/has gone/will go through trials & tribulations.

 

151116-year-of-yes-shonda-rhimes-1119a_b87c344671869b5d6f178c0f5e6d8cf3-nbcnews-ux-2880-10007. Year of Yes – Shonda Rhimes

Comical, Inspirational

Readers finally get a look into TV producer/powerhouse, Shonda Rhimes’ personal life as she shares her journey to inner-confidence. Painfully shy, Shonda reveals how she hid behind her characters and storylines, that is until she made a commitment to say “yes” to all new opportunities–including those of utmost discomfort.

 

51guq6zjyol-_sy344_bo1204203200_8. What I Know For Sure – Oprah Winfrey

Reflective

Everything Oprah touches turns to gold in my eyes so of course I enjoyed reading words of wisdom from Mother O. Because hello, it’s OPRAH. No more explanation necessary. Thank you Mother O for blessing us commoners with a book filled with your wisdom.

 

modern-romance-aziz-ansara-book-cover9. Modern Romance – Aziz Ansari

Reflective, Comical

As I read Aziz Ansari’s book all I kept repeating in my head was “SO TRUE.” Aziz truly does his research analyzing and uncovering the world of modern dating, showcasing how and why this generation’s dating world completely unlike any others’ due to technology. He brings light to the unique benefits and struggles we face and how we can all improve.

 

51blvmfngyl-_sx330_bo1204203200_10. Cinderella Ate My Daughter – Peggy Orenstein

Comical, Reflective

Raising a 3-year-old daughter, Peggy Orenstein questions the world of pink and princess fluff that her toddler seems innately drawn toward. Is it all harmless or will the messaging harm young girls’ self-esteem? With humor, Orenstein asks these questions and raises concerns about how princess culture leads to the sexualization of girlhood.

 

220px-quietbookcover11. Quiet – Susan Cain

Reflective

The full title of this book is “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking.” Growing up I was always under the impression that extroverts were favored to introverts, which resulted in a lot of awkward and uncomfortable situations. This book shares all the crucial traits and skills introverts bring to the table and how society suffers if we force everyone into extroversion.

 

living-forward12. Living Forward – Michael Hyatt & Daniel Harkavy

ReflectiveInspirational

If you’re looking for a step by step guide to plan for your future, this book will provide the exercises to get your priorities in line and live the life you’re purposed for. Authors provide personal exercises that will readers stop drifting and instead live with purpose.

 

If you have any book recommendations please let me know!

Life and Lemons on the Amalfi Coast

As I sit in a Starbucks in Manhattan typing this I’m faced with post-travel distress. “Things were so much [fill in the blank]-er in Italy…” Yep, I’m that obnoxious person right now. Last week I traveled with Travel Noire on a TN Experience through the Amalfi Coast and although I was only gone for seven days, I had the time of my life. a42e7ed6a936f378d1afe5b3c7299463

Since college I have followed Travel Noire on social media, envying the beautiful people I saw traveling the world. So when I realized I had the opportunity to join in on the fun, I jumped on it. TN Experience registration opened and I immediately emailed a handful of friends asking if they wanted to join me on one of these curated trips. Rumor had it that registration fills up within 24 hours so I insisted that if anyone was interested, we should talk that evening. My friend Simone and I had both recently read Year of Yes, which could have been a leading factor in our eager “lets-go-for-it” attitudes. After deliberating between destinations (Cape Town or Bahia? Bali or Johannesburg? Where is Zanzibar?) we agreed the Amalfi Coast would be a perfect break from the hustle and bustle of New York.

Day 1 – HELLO RAVELLO

A seeming paradise compared to the slum of NY airports (those who know me know how deeply I despise flying in/out of New York), I flew into Naples Airport Capodichino before being shuttled to our living accommodations in Ravello, located in the hills of Campania. The hour drive stunned everyone, with our eyes glued to the window. We exited Naples to the winding roads in the mountains, ascending 1200+ feet up where we had a view of Pompeii and Naples on one end and the Mediterranean Sea on the other.

Once in Ravello I was escorted to a B&B directly outside the town square. The accommodations were extremely spacious and owned by the same owners of the restaurant next door. Since the weather was a perfect 78 degrees, Simone and I strolled through Ravello, popping into shops that sold limoncello, custom leather shoes, hats, bags, and the infamous “Wine and Drugs” store. Naturally, we were also gawking at the picturesque views.

That night we all gathered for a group dinner overlooking the sun setting over the Amalfi Coast. On the menu was fish, pasta, breads, wines, tiramisu with lemon flavor on everything. This was the first time our group of 15 sat down all together; from the start it was apparent that we had a fun-loving crew that never stopped laughing! Following dinner we enjoyed a live concert in the town square, which was a part of the Ravello Summer Festival.


Day 2 – BASKET WEAVING & HIKING

Each morning we awoke to an Italian breakfast, which consisted of pastries, fruit, sliced meats, juices along with coffee or a cappuccino. I quickly learned that ordering a coffee meant ordering an espresso shot so cappuccinos were my thing! I also learned that coffees and teas are never meant to be drunk on the go–in fact, food in general is never to be taken on the go. The Italian way is to slow down, sit and enjoy a meal so it’s frowned upon to grab-and-go. In fact, there aren’t to-go containers or cups to accommodate those trying to be on the move.  Certainly a stark opposite from the New York lifestyle of wandering Starbucks cups on every street.

After breakfast our crew visited a local family who not only weave baskets, but also create wooden instruments for the town of Ravello. We each had a chance to create a custom Italian instrument before we used them to perform as a “band.” We also learned the art of ancient basketweaving with local plants. The family was as welcoming as you could imagine. They rolled out cheeses, bread, lemons and other fruits harvested from their family grove. Of course, bottles of prosecco and wine were passed around as well.

In the afternoon we shuttled to the hilltop town of Agerola to begin our hike to Positano on a trek dubbed, The Path of Gods or Sentiero Delgi Dei. Our tour guide, Anna, pumped the group up and kept us motivated throughout the 5 mile hike. When I described some of the beautiful sites in New York City in conversation, she always exclaimed “Mama Mia!” Along the trail we enjoyed magnificent views of the Mediterranean, neighboring towns and old homes and buildings from hundreds of years prior. Nearly 3.5 hours later we arrived in the quaint town of Positano where we watched the sun set. Unsurprisingly, on the shuttle back to Ravello most of us fell asleep.


Day 3 – COOKING SCHOOL

Chad, our experience designer, warned us not to eat anything on Day 3 in preparation for Mamma Agata’s–and for good reason. From our B&Bs we walked to Mamma Agata’s Cooking School, which takes place in the family’s private home resting on top their family grove, where they harvest all their ingredients. We were 1000 feet above sea level and basically in the clouds.

Mamma Agata has been the private chef for notable icons who would frequent the Amalfi Coast such as Liz Taylor and Jackie Kennedy. At 80+ years old, Mamma is still in the kitchen cooking and gathering ingredients from the grove. In the kitchen with Mamma Agata is her daughter, Chiara and Chiara’s husband, Gennaro. Both Mamma and Gennaro are chefs while Chiara is the master host.

We spent 8+ hours at Mamma Agata’s! Chiara hosted us from breakfast to a late lunch with plenty of snacks, limoncello and wine in between. At one point in the kitchen saw that it was raining outside. Chiara looked out and called it “romance;” the rain wasn’t ruining the day, it was adding romance to the day.

Before we left the kitchen the rain let up and the sun was out. During breaks we toured the property which has been in the family for 300+ years. Our group had a blast at Mamma Agata’s and were definitely stuffed the remainder of the day.


Day 4 – BEACH DAY

As a group we were free to do our own thing Day 4…but only after our Swedish massages in the morning. How taxing!

I suggested heading down to the beaches and the entire group cosigned. Heading to Maiori we split into two groups: those busing to the coast and those walking down. Excited to capture some pictures on my nicer camera, I opted for the hour(ish) walk. On the trek down we passed through Marmorata, Minori and smaller towns until arriving in Maiori. The views along the way were stunning.

Once in Maiori we settled onto our beach chairs for some well-deserved rest. We were happily surprised by the drink prices– beer ranged from 1 to 4 euros (maybe I’m just jaded by NYC). The sea water was cool but refreshing–definitely warm enough to dip in–so we stayed there for hours until sunset. After we beach-bummed ourselves out, we bused to Amalfi for dinner where we popped into one of the restaurant/cafes by the water. Naturally, we enjoyed another Italian meal of pasta before heading back to Ravello.


Day 5 – LEMON ERRYTHANG

Our day started a little chilly but quickly warmed up as we rode up to Scala in a 1970s Fiat shuttle. In Scala we toured a large lemon grove that also harvests grapes, chestnuts, pumpkins, etc. On our tour we enjoyed a lemon-inspired snack inclusive of lemon slices covered in balsamic vinaigrette and salt (eaten with the peel still in tact), lemon pound cake and lemon rum pops.

Next on the itinerary was visiting a Limoncello factory. Since lemons are a staple on the Amalfi Coast, limoncello is considered the official drink of the region. Best served cold, limoncello consists of 98% alcohol steeped in lemon peels (for often as long as 80 days) and water. There are many different flavors but all consist of 35 – 40% alcohol so be forewarned, it goes down like a shot. From the factory we rode down to Amalfi to eat lunch in a castle on the water. Everything on the menu was lemon-inspired: mussels with lemon, artichokes in lemon, lemon-seasoned pasta, lemon sorbet, and even more that aren’t coming to mind. Too many courses to keep track!

Later that evening we attended a wine tasting class in Ravello where we learned more about wine production in the region and techniques to spot quality red and white wines. Several people left with multiple bottles in hand before heading to dinner for another traditional Italian meal of endless courses. At the end of our meal the chefs came out to thank our group and give us big hugs before we departed.


Day 6 – YACHT LIFE

We lived like Beyonce on our private yachts from Amalfi to the Isle of Capri–in fact we passed by her Amalfi home which is basically a private island. Our group split up onto two yachts that met us in the Amalfi harbor. From the time the boat arrived our captain guided us through the most beautiful stops along the way, offering us snacks, prosecco, wine and the ever so important aux cord. With a photographer on board to capture the ride it honestly became a party!

We stopped by the Green Grotto, the Blue Grotto and countless other grottos and sites along the coast. Someone graciously brought handy dandy ginger gum to prevent sea sickness on the 2.5 hour ride.

Once we reached Capri we look a lift to the top of the hill overlooking the entire island. Since I wasn’t too interested in window shopping around the swanky stores I walked through the gardens and captured some beautiful shots before my camera died. Although much more crowded than Ravello or Amalfi, Capri had incredibly stunning views. Before catching our yacht back to Amalfi, a few of us took advantage of the free bike shares on the island, enjoying the perfect 75 degrees. Once arriving back to Ravello our group met up for a final dinner of pizza (my surprising favorite was pumpkin and mozzarella) and gelato. The “Last Supper” was bittersweet but we all acknowledged that we had experienced something incredibly special that week.

Overall I am giving Travel Noire a solid 10 stars for creating an exclusive once-in- a-lifetime experience that I will always remember fondly. Incredibly friendly, Italians in general value moving slower and taking in the experience much more than in the States. I highly encourage anyone to visit the Amalfi Coast or book a TN Experience!