Touchdown in Colombia: The Cartagena Chronicles
Cartagena Colombia holds UNESCO world heritage status for reasons that are obvious to those who have ever visited this classic colonial city. Cartagena has a rich history deeply seeded with pirate attacks, hurricanes, conquests, and heroes. Cartagena also consists of the largest and poorest population in Colombia outside of it’s historic fortified walls of the “old town”. As our plane from Boston began to prepare for landing, our view of beachfront development, luxury apartment condominiums, and new age concrete fingers that were stretching towards the light of the sun changed into rough and tumble lean-to’s, concrete block houses with metal roofs, and the reality of yet another Latin American country with a huge gap between the rich and the poor. Instantly I felt like I was home again. This whole traveling thing has sunk it’s fangs deep into my skin by this point, and I felt incredibly at ease with the chaos of figuring out what defines a new place, what makes it’s heart beat.
Without any set plans (as always) we naturally asked for the maximum stay at custom. 90 days seemed like an enormous amount of time to spend in one country, but in my eyes it’s always better to be safe than sorry. We grabbed a cab and set off for the Caribbean city that was beckoning us to come. Hostels within the walled part of the city were almost 3 to 4 times the price that our guidebook (the newest edition) had listed. Instantly I knew this was going to be a common theme in Colombia. We walked with our 40 pounds in tow through the thick, humid air until we found ourselves in the Getsemani area, a few blocks from the infamous clock tower. Casa Venecia was the first hostel we found and wound up being our home base.
Our new home was an absolutely perfect location to bring us back into the swing of Latin life and get acquainted with Colombia. Colombia was a country that we had been a little nervous about considering it’s history that is rife with Guerrilla warfare, drug production and trafficking, and random acts of robbery and violence. But as soon as we settled onto the dusty streets of Getsemani, we took in the raw elements of the Caribbean Colombian lifestyle. The neighborhood seemed like a more realistic and poorer one than it’s touristy counterpart, but it was nothing like the life seen on the fringes of the central city limits. Life and culture was still very much preserved in Getsemani. I watched life for hours from our little balcony in our hostel, and studied it like it was an intrinsically detailed snow globe. I saw men without shoes pushing massive carts containing fruit, beer bottles, bread, and everything else you could possibly imagine up and down the street. In the small inlet opposite the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas we watched fisherman on small wooden fishing boats throwing nets for their daily catch. In a city like this, every moment and experience is a truly unique one. The parts of the equation are constantly changing, but the answer always remains the same.
Coffee, as it turns out, was ubiquitous. Men holding homemade metal carriers with around a dozen or so white thermos containers with blue, red, and green tops were never more than a 5 second search away. Although I read they normally had coffee of different variations, they only ever seemed to have “tinto”, which is a highly sweetened black coffee. Each small cup cost about 12 cents. I was officially in trouble.
Anything and everything would surprise me when I turned corners in Cartagena. I almost walked into a man carrying a 55-gallon metal drum over his shoulder and watched him walk down the street and out of my life like so many strangers before him. A lot of eyes were on me, a gringo walking around in sandals, cut off jean shorts, a summer shirt, and a camera that kept popping out from my hand made llama wool bag I purchased in Guatemala. Fear melted away as smiles were returned and the secrecy of Colombian friendliness revealed itself. I found myself walking down lonely streets without any destination in mind just to see what would present itself for me. At the end of our street I found a community church with a pet birdcage hanging from a tree housing a little parejo. At night the square would fill up with a local crowd, kids honing their soccer skills, and multiple stands whipping out the best street hamburgers and zapote smoothies I’ve had to date.
Up and down the streets that were devoid of car traffic I could easily peek into the windows of everyday life. Windows were always barred in by hand carved wooden pillars, aged by years of wet sticky air, heat, and rain. Flowers overflowed from trees and balconies throughout the entire city. Some streets were only 7 feet across, just wide enough for a tuk-tuk to squeeze through and nothing more. On side streets it was almost impossible not to stumble into someone’s metal and woodworking shop, shoe repair business, or Colombian style restaurant. Behind each thick, omnipresent facade usually existed a classic open-air Spanish Colonial courtyard full of plants, sunlight, and rocking chairs.
Large portions of the old city are surrounded by a huge, thick, fortified wall consisting of bricks, limestone, coral, and chunks of rock cemented together with heights ranging from about 15 to 30 feet in some locations. The wall was built to ward off frequent pirate attacks and various attempts to gain control of this Caribbean port city, which was growing rapidly and had the attention of different countries for it’s potential riches. In fact, a one-eyed, one-handed, one legged Spanish mariner named Blas de Lezo helped save the city from one of many gruesome attacks, thus helping write history and keep the city alive.
Inside the walls are some of the best-preserved Spanish Colonial Architecture, churches, public spaces, and walking streets that the city has to offer. Bookshops, museums, and restaurants were planted throughout the old town. This is considered the touristy part of town and is priced rightly so. We couldn’t really afford to hang out too much there, but we did walk and explore for many days in the hot, sticky air. Most of the days we were searching for places that had air conditioning and pretended to be interested in whatever the store had to offer. Coco frio carts were never too far away and gelato was ingested to help beat the heat.
Churches, plazas, parks, and public spaces were nearly spotless and usually occupied by street performers with a wide variety of talents. Afro-Carib dancers would beat out deep-rooted rhythmic percussive performances combined with highly energetic dance routines almost nightly by the clock tower. Comedy squads would keep crowds in a state of laughter while fruit ladies dressed in brightly colored dresses would dole out mini platters for non-mercado prices. We saw the friendly same cotton candy man wandering around almost every day with fluffy pink bags hanging from his wooden pole. Tables for chess were set up with the owner sitting wearily nearby, waiting until people wanted to play in the thick, humid air. On weekends, children and adults that never grew up would gather outside the wall to harness the natural energy of Caribbean coastal winds by flying kites. Hundreds of plastic vessels of all shapes and sizes were filling the sky while I wondered how they could possibly avoid getting tangled with each other. Kite watching has turned out to be a great spectator sport for me.
One of the first things I noticed about Cartagena was the omnipresence of bread. Right next to our hostel was a bakery, and there seemed to be one never more than 3 blocks away in any direction. Hot, delicious bread filled with cheese, butter, and topped with some sort of sugary sombrero would force me to stop in my tracks and buy a small bagful every time. Fruit was available everywhere on the streets. Fresh Banana, pineapple, mango, grape, mandarin, avocado, zapote, and lime carts were frantically zipping around the worn, historically rich streets. Crime, just like any large city in the Latin world, was a concern here but fortunately for us it never showed us it’s ugly smile.
We knew we needed to check out what the newer portion of the city had to show, regardless of prior expectations of what development does to this part of the world. Huge skylines fronted what little beaches existed, protected by a sequential series of man-made jetties. We walked from the old town to the approaching Miami-like city scene of Boca Grande, one of the main attractions to the city. What we found was exactly what I was expecting. The polarity between old vs. new was ever apparent. The westernized way of life had blossomed into a full onslaught of fast food, upscale restaurants, luxury services, and the “comforts” of living. While we were swimming we were being barraged with offers to ride jet ski’s and crazy looking float able tubes that get pulled behind boats. While we floated in the salty waters we looked in the distance at the domes of old churches and castles of the old city and compared them with the modern white washed sky rises just a stones throw away.
We fell right back into the metaphorical music of Latin America like the ease of getting back onto a bicycle. We had 5 days to kill before our friends from Boston, Jason and his wife Brook, were scheduled to arrive. They booked their flights months ago and were anticipating our adventures together the entire time. We couldn’t wait for them to join us in our journey and looked forward to showing them how budget traveling creates some of the best memories. We knew they were coming from a completely different world than the one we had become so familiar with since beginning our journey in Mexico. We had no plans of holding back and knew Colombia would not disappoint us with surprises, beauty, and experiences that couldn’t possibly be described in written word.