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!

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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!

30 Hours in Philadelphia

I’ll start by admitting that I have no complaints about this trip because it was a perfect, much needed 30-hour getaway. My friend, Jordun, and I decided to escape our respective cities (Washington for her, New York for me) for a fun and relaxing day after a few grueling work weeks. We conveniently met in the city of brotherly love, which is a 2 hour drive from New York and 3 hours from Washington. This trip was a combination of simplicity, relaxation and fun. We both had already been to Philadelphia before so we didn’t need to see the traditional historical landmarks again (i.e. the liberty bell, the Rocky steps, Love Park). We wanted to see what else was brewing.

FOOD

First stop of the day was Green Eggs for brunch.  Despite the hour wait I would return because the food was that delicious! The most difficult part of the day was choosing my order but I eventually decided on the chicken and waffles benedict with grits on the side. My final rating is a solid 10/10 (pats self on the back for good decision-making). Next time I’ll try the crab mac&cheese…or maybe I’ll get the Creole shrimp and grits. Too many tempting options! I will forewarn that the long wait is a bit annoying since the restaurant doesn’t provide an alert system to buzz or text you when your table is ready. So you have to wait out front to hear your name be called like it’s not 2016 and there’s no simple technology to alleviate this annoyance.

 

We were tipped that Ms. Tootsie’s is one of the best soul food spots in Philadelphia and I boy do I now love this place! There was a bit of a wait to be seated here as well but we were escorted upstairs to a swanky bar that served generous portions of Chardonnay in giant wine glasses so I wasn’t mad AT ALL. Our server was especially sweet and came out with hot corn bread when we were seated. I can always tell by the cornbread whether the rest of the food is going to be on point and it didn’t disappoint. I had smothered pork chops with mac & cheese and collard greens and turkey. It was just as heavenly as it sounds; in fact I licked my plate clean! I’m still daydreaming of this meal. Please believe we were in a food coma for a good few hours post-Ms.Tootsie’s.

 

Walking through Reading Terminal Market was a bit overwhelming for my indecisive mind. Inside, this marketplace had dozens of food vendors pulling at my heart and taste buds. After circling for what felt like forever, I finally decided to try the crepe vendor and ordered a “Philly crepe.” Filled with beef, cheese, tomatoes, spinach and mushrooms this was a solid move on my part because it was just right hint of “savory” that I was searching for. In Reading Terminal Market there truly is an option for any palette: from cheesesteaks, chocolates, vegan eats, soul food to fresh fish accompanied by the largest crab legs I have ever seen.

 

Activities

We wondered upon the South Street Spring Festival without even realizing that it was taking place that Saturday. I would compare it to the H Street Festival in Washington, but better. There were more vendors, more live music and you can legally drink on the streets of Philadelphia which earns major points. My favorite band of the day ended their lineup playing Purple Rain (good choice). Another highlight was running into a few friends from college while walking around, proving that the world is the size of a cotton ball.

 

Jordun discovered Elfreth’s Alley, the nation’s oldest residential street dating back to 1702. Located in Old Town, all 32 homes on the block date back to the 18th or 19th century. We enjoyed walking down the cobblestone road to read up on some history and admire how the architecture has gone nearly unchanged.

 

Similar to Brooklyn Flea at Smorgasburg in New York,  Art Star Craft Bazaar at Penn’s Landing is a pop up market for the spring and summer seasons. More than 100 vendors set up tents on a  across Penn’s Landing on a beautifully sunny day. As we entered the Penn’s Landing, we received gift bags with adorable complimentary earrings that I’m slightly obsessed with and currently wearing. Penn’s Landing connects to Spruce Street Harbor Park, a park with paddle boats, ferry tours, restaurants, food trucks, sail boats, and my favorite, hammocks to lay in. It was a blissful way to end our trip.

 

Night life

After looking up a few jazz bars, we decided to pop into Time on Samson Street to listen to some quality music on a Saturday night. So imagine my surprise when we ventured to the second floor and found ourselves in a hot messy club with trash music. I wasn’t thrilled. The saving grace was realizing that we had wondered too far and the jazz bar with live music was just downstairs (phew!). The up and downstairs were as different as yin and yang and the jazz band was wonderful that night. So if you ever go to Time, remain on the first floor and stay clear of  upstairs UNLESS you thoroughly enjoy being bumped by rhythmless underage college students who think they can dab.

 

Overall

It may come as no surprise that I had a great time in Philadelphia and look forward to returning. The change of pace was slower than New York in the best way possible, but was still full energy, culture and excitement. If you have any plans to go to Philly let me know!

A Weekend in Toronto

I’m a bit late on posting this (what’s new?) but last month I took a trip up to the land of the nicest people on Earth. Yes Canada, of course! I’ll start with the food…

FOOD

For brunch I highly recommend dining at School Restaurant. I have dubbed this spot my best brunch experience of 2016 which, since I am a serial bruncher, is a big deal. Who knew Toronto could do chicken and waffles so well? The entire restaurant is decked out to portray a classroom with fitting drinks named, “Hot For Teacher” and “The Juicy Lunch Lady.” The patio outside is referred to as “The School Yard.” We went on a Friday for weekday brunch and there wasn’t a wait at all. As expected, the staff showed their true Canadian friendliness!

For a sweet treat we stumbled upon, Sweet Jesus, which was a spiritual awakening if we’re being honest. It was frigid the entire time I was in Toronto but my friends and I still felt it necessary to indulge in this once-in-a-lifetime ice cream experience. I will let the pictures speak for themselves!

 

ACTIVITIES

After eating at School Restaurant we skipped over to Queens Street West, where Graffiti Alley lies. Graffiti Alley is Instagram heaven for basics (including myself). So many photogenic background shots and I’m not even ashamed that I nearly ran out of memory snapping pics. Along Queens Street are boutiques and coffee shops to dip into. The street eventually leads to Kensington Market, where there are several trendy bars and restaurants.

Our AirBnB was a condo right on the coast of Lake Ontario, near the ferries that can take you to Toronto Island. The island is pretty small but the view from the ferry is amazing! On the island are beaches, gardens, trails and even an amusement park.

Our AirBnB was also conveniently close to the Air Canada Centre so we were able to do a quick walk over to watch a Raptors game vs. The Pacers.  If you’re a sports fan, Toronto is your place because there are teams for nearly every sport: basketball, baseball, hockey, soccer, football, lacrosse, it’s all here!

 

niagara falls

We spent a separate day at Niagara Falls, which I highly recommend since it’s only a 1.5 hour bus ride from Toronto. We stayed on the Canadian side, which I hear has more activities than the New York side. We rode the Hornblower Cruise into the falls where we were provided the incredibly stylish red ponchos seen below. We also walked the bridge that connects the U.S. to Canada, which required that we bring a passport. The view was beautiful so don’t forget to bring yours along! A bit of a walk aways was also the Niagara Falls Museum.

 

overall

Toronto is a fun city and the people truly live up to their stereotype of being super friendly. I was surprised by how delicious all our meals were! And the wine! The wine was great! The flight was only 1.5 hours from NYC, which made for very simple travel. If I were to revisit back, I would definitely come in the summer. Visiting in April, I thought we would experience spring weather–turns out it was in the 20s and 30s the entire time (brr!). The American dollar goes much further in Canada so we didn’t spend too much money–not to mention their currency is beautiful! The public train/rail system was very simple and convenient, plus Uber is inexpensive (especially compared to New York). Planning to visit Toronto? Let me know!

Easter in NYC

Over the last few months I have taken several pictures but never got around to to sharing them.  I’m making up for lost time by posting some of them a little later. Here’s a flashback to my Easter this year featuring an extravagant Easter Parade in Midtown, a stroll through Bryant Park, and an encounter with a famous street photographer.

A mother and daughter leave the Easter Parade on Park Avenue.

A mother and daughter leave the Easter Parade on Park Avenue.