Tag Archives: Cartagena

The way it is

Cartagena is surrounded by 11kms of stone wall which took the Spaniards more than 200 years to build in response to repeated attacks by pirates. According to LP, Cartagena was one of the most “important bastions of the Spanish overseas empire and influenced much of Colombia’s history.” Inside these walls there is a charming ‘old town’ whose cobblestone streets I had already roamed (and tripped up on) many times over the past two weeks. Despite feeling like I’d been there a bit too long, I was going to be more than happy to wander those streets again with my old friend, Scott.

I surprised him by meeting him at the airport. Lots of squealing and jumping up & down and hugs all round. Okay, I squealed and jumped up & down. We then checked into a pretty hotel with a rooftop pool & a cracking view of the entire city (his treat). And then it was Christmas! Well kinda.

I had asked Scott to bring me a bunch of things from back home. Vegemite (how could i have neglected to leave home without it?); Bonds knickers (because apparently I have the biggest ass in all of Latin America. Where the fuck do all the black ladies shop?); mini tampons (impossible to find over here); and Bushman’s bug repellent (so many jungles and only 7.5% DEET!?) Aaaand not to forget my brand spanking new Kindle! Books books and more books. I can download up to 1,000 I’m told. And it weighs just 290g! Did you know the LP South America on a Shoestring book weighs 830g? Every Gram Counts when you’re carrying 22kg on your back. Trust me.

We caught up over dinner in an alfresco Italian restaurant in the beautiful (albeit very touristy) Plaza Santo Domingo, where Botero’s Gordita (aka, the fat lady) lounges seductively right in front of the church. Nude! The saucy minx.

Next day, we visited the macabre Palacio de Inquisicion which houses a depraved collection of instruments of torture – including an Addams Family style stretching rack and an iron skullcap with a drill piece. My favourite article though, was the list of questions they used to ask women to determine if they were witches, such as: “What worms and caterpillars/slugs have you created?”

That afternoon, we had wine & cheese and watched the sunset from the rooftop. Much later (no one even thinks about going out until 1030pm over here) – we went to Club Havana. Flocked walls are adorned with antique lights and fading framed photos of legendary Cuban singers. An old timber U-shaped bar is surrounded by high stools. Waiters in white vests serve up the meanest mojitos I’ve ever imbibed. And later: another massive band on another teeny stage playing sassy salsa you just gotta shake yer stuff to.

Needless to say, nothing much got accomplished the next morning. We did manage to visit the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas high up on a hill later in the afternoon. It’s an interesting triangular shaped design with multiple layers, and is said to be impenetrable. Underneath there is a complex maze of tunnels which have incredible acoustics. At sunset, we had a couple of beers at Cafe del Mar before heading to a Japanese restaurant for sushi & sashimi and a lychee martini!

Next day we set off for a side trip along the Caribbean coast towards Venezuela.

I had heard Santa Marta wasn’t particularly special, so we just stopped for just one night. That eve, we had some excellent Spanish tapas & a local brew in a bar by the plaza. The next day we got some beach time in (confirming: nothing special) and went for a walk to a swish-looking restaurant at the top of a steep hill overlooking Rodadero.

I don’t think Scott was terribly impressed when we later boarded a non air-conditioned bus which wouldn’t have provided a midget with any legroom. Luckily the trip to Taganga was only an hour.

The place Scott had booked for us at Taganga was just gorgeous. We were very enthusiastically greeted by a very young, very pretty Colombian girl. She turned out to be the wife of the French owner, who was old enough to be her grandfather (standard.) He had extended his lovely family home with two casitas off to the side. A bougainvillea-lined pool provided sweeping views of the village & the bay.

Later that afternoon, I went for a walk downtown to organise a dive. Taganga is a tiny fishing village rampant with wannabe hippies, high on ganja selling, lots of very average looking jewellery. The township is a bit hot & dusty by day but quite pretty at dusk. It’s renowned for cheap-as-chips diving courses.

I went for a couple of dives the next morning. Windy as all get out on the way to the site, so we got absolutely drenched before even getting into the water. First dive in more than a year that I had to wear a wettie for (Have to say: not too keen on the sub 20 degrees water anymore). The vis wasn’t all that great, but the reef was in great condition. Loads of big ass fish (and a notable absence of lionfish). Plus I got to see a couple of slugs & other stuff I hadn’t seen before. So all good.

Next day we made our way to Tayrona National Park, where Scott continued to up the ante. We stayed here.

At the top of a winding old stone stairway, you are welcomed by not one, but two infinity pools – which guide your wide open eyes to the most spectacular vista of a deserted wild seascape. Our own private beach stretching on for ever. This folks, is what is known as “flashpacking”.

Considering there were only four suites, the place was massive. And there were soooo many things to lounge around on. Banana lounges. Day bed lounges. Living room lounges. There was even a suspended dugout canoe which had been converted to a lounge. It was filled to the brim with big soft poofy pillows of various shapes, sizes & colours. Clearly, I had died & gone to lounge heaven.

So, we lounged around. And ate beautiful gourmet meals. We also got to know the only other guests there: Dot & Wayne – an interesting Canadian couple who captained & care-took a luxury yacht for a wealthy Colombian entrepreneur.

The next day, Scott & I went for a walk into the Park which started with an unplanned ‘shortcut’ shown to us by our uncertain but well-intentioned hotel manager. We had to wade knee deep through a river and do a bit of bush-bashing through some light jungle. Fortunately our intrepid ‘guide’ escorted us all the way to the road otherwise we would have got lost for sure. He flagged down a local on a motorbike & arranged for him to take us to the road’s end. I told Scott it was an adventure. But I don’t think he believed me.

The walk through the park was just beautiful and at the end of the trail – the greenery gave way to these untamed beaches with craggy rock formations peppering the skyline. We had a quick dip in one of the bays but it was a bit seaweedy unfortunately. We turned around & walked back the way we came. Without the stupid shortcut bit.

The next day Scott booked himself on a flight back to Bogota with a view to returning to the States (and home) a lot earlier than planned. He had decided Colombia wasn’t for him.

In retrospect, I guess I could have prepped him a bit more as to the differences between the First World and Colombia. Stuff like: Toilet paper doesn’t go in the toilet. Electricity can be unreliable. WiFi even more so. The shower pressure isn’t always best. You won’t always get hot water. Sometimes you won’t even get water. I could have asked more questions as to what kind of holiday he wanted to have and planned a better itinerary. I always knew we would be different types of travellers. But I just figured it would be stuff we could easily work around.

So that was that. A week of fancy hotels, fancy cocktails, and fancy pools with views. I am grateful to Scott for his generosity (dormitory rooms and shared showers do lose their charm after 10 months on the road). But to be perfectly honest, I would have traded all the fancy for just more time & more laughs with one of my oldest friends. I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed.

We shared a taxi back to Santa Marta. On the edge of town, our cabbie organised for another driver to take me into Centro Historico, while he took Scott straight to the airport. And so I bid my best mate a teary farewell on the side of the road.

We’ll be all right at the end of the day. We love each other immeasureably. And have done for 25 years.  Scott & i will be friends until we’re old & wrinkly.

But it’s true what they say – that it’s not always easy to travel with friends. I think we can only happily travel with people who are very similar to us. Insofar as the places we want to see, how we get there, where we stay, how long for, how we spend our money, and probably most importantly – our overall outlook. Especially when things don’t pan out as we had anticipated. Because one thing’s for sure: they won’t.

And that’s when you just gotta say to y’self, “It’s an adventure!”

Hot on the floor

Around 8pm, I arrived at the ‘hostel’ (meaning a completely empty house) that the Bowen brothers were staying at in Barranquilla. I was relieved to learn they had organised a ‘bed’ (meaning a blow up air mattress) for me, for a very low price. All hostels / rooms had apparently been booked out ages ago & at double their normal going rate.

It meant that if I decided I couldn’t / didn’t want to pull an all-nighter – I didn’t have to. (*small sigh of relief*) It also meant I had a place to stash my daypack (infinitely more ideal than lugging it around all night, hoping all my shit wouldn’t get stolen.)

The Bowen brothers had linked up with some fun Irish & Aussie girls we had met while staying at Captain Jack’s in Portabello, Panama. As soon as I walked in the door, they gave me a big warm welcome, a shot of Aguardiente (the local firewater) & a *hero* … and that, my friends, basically set the tone for the rest of the weekend.

We caught up, talked a lot of shit, and laughed ourselves silly over several bottles of the surprisingly smooth anise-flavoured liquor. Evidently, I had missed an epic first day – stacks of colourful costumes in the multitudes of parades; oodles of live music & dancing; masses of foam / mud / flour wars; and shedloads of your ‘run-of-the-mill’ Carnaval debauchery. They had been going for days and weren’t showing any signs of slowing down.

We eventually decided to get in amongst it. Our hostel manager – a slightly effeminate, tubby Colombian, who fancied himself as an entrepreneur, hotel owner and a real ladies’ man – had taken it upon himself to play host to our lil crew (he had misguided designs on one of our girls).

He took us to the nightclub strip where of course, he knew the owner of this place and that place and could get us in for free everywhere (I suspect we could have gotten in for free, irrespective of his ‘connections’).

There were dozens of discotheques competing in a ‘my sound system is bigger than yours’ competition. In Latin America, speakers are strategically placed outside a club (as well as inside). The intention is to create what we marketers call ‘salience’. There was just this ridiculous cacophony of noise: latino pop, 80s house, old school salsa, trashy techno, and of course the omnipresent J-Lo vs Pitball: “Nyah, nyha, nyah, nyah, nyah … Hot on the floor.”

People were spilling their drinks out on the streets, local musos were crowd gathering with impromptu jam sessions in between randomly ‘parked’ cars … and everywhere raucous street vendors were pushing all manner of Carnaval necessities: gum, water, beer, meat on sticks. It was absolute anarchy. We cruised up & down the calle, checking out a few different scenes, and having a boogie in each. A bit of a Carnvial bar crawl, if you like.

Sometime after midnight, we escaped the bedlam & headed ‘home’… there was a massive street party underway right around the corner. Hundreds of people were dancing their arses off to the thumping sounds of an excellent salsa band with some 16 odd musos squished up on a tiny stage. And it was going OFF. We danced. And danced. And danced. Somewhere in the middle of the carnage, I got picked up by a rather gorgeous Carib boy (who am I to say no to broad shoulders, pretty dreads and a smile that goes on forever?) Around 4am I hit a wall, bid farewell to the young Jesse, got me some meat on a stick (not a euphemism) and ambled off to my airbed.

I woke up a few hours later to a blinding light lasering into the ‘living’ room and well into the recesses of my eyes. All a bit unnecessary, I thought. I assessed the damage around me. Bodies everywhere in varying degrees of decay. People were covered in mud & all manner of Carnaval debris. The place resembled a clean crack den. I was feeling extraordinarily average.

Marcus eventually woke up & took me downtown to get some brekky beers & a feed. We then went on a mission for some tacky Carnaval souvenirs. He bought some godawful fluoro Carnaval t-shirts, while I bought a pretty glittery elephant’s mask which is looking to become one of my most prized possessions.

I decided to stay one more night. We eased our way back into it with some afternoon beers and whatnot. Before you knew it, night had fallen and we were debating the merits of catching a cab across town to see a concert or schlepping our sorry butts back around the corner where another big band was giving the neighbourhood a lashing. We opted for the latter. I didn’t have another epic night in me, and crying old, told the boys I couldn’t go on. Being sometime between 1 & 2am they gave me permission to go home. They weren’t that far behind me truth be told (but to be fair, they were on Day 4).

I woke up fresh as a daisy the next morning (resplendent in my pretty sparkly elephants mask!) having had a solid night’s sleep in the middle of a 4-carriage highway that was the living room in that godforsaken crack den.

I needed a decent breakfast (as opposed to just beers) and so went to the local supermarket to get a big fat watermelon, proper unsweetened non-reconstituted orange juice (a rarity in Latin America) some veges & eggs.

A few hours later, we had made arrangements to our subsequent destinations. Barranquilla had certainly shown us a good time but it was no place to have a hangover.

I waved the boys off in a taxi… they were headed up to Tayrona National Park. And I eventually climbed into the air-conditioned comfort of a posh collectivo going back to Cartagena, where I had 24 hours to make myself nice for Scott.

The times they are a changing

Tuesday 7 February: It was a grey kind of morning, and a dense Darien jungle inundated the teeny fishing village of Sapzurro (pop. 1000) where we dropped anchor in South American waters for the first time. I was absolutely hankering to get on land.

Deb arranged a ‘launch’ (panga / speedboat) with one of the locals to transport us from Ilean to Capurgana (pop. 2000). Both of these villages, because of their proximity to the border – are rich with sailing legends: stories of pirates from Panama, criminals from Colombia, and the wine & wenches who drained them all of their wealth.

Passports stamped, we checked in as a group into the Hotel Los Delphines – rather fitting, given our welcome to country by the beautiful critters. We were all desperate for showers, cold beers & food in varying orders and so went our separate ways for a bit. For the rest of the day we ambled about, bumping into each other by street food vendors, in the pool hall, and down by the sea.

Capurgana is a sweet lil place that reminded me a bit of Little Corn: no cars, no ATM, and town power for only ½ the day – if that. And subsequently, very unreliable WiFi connection.

It’s incredible how reliant we’ve become on the internet. I remember travelling through Europe in ‘98 and carrying traveller’s cheques – now I do my banking electronically. I made arrangements to meet new friends by the Trevi Fountain at a specific time – now I Facebook them. I wrote old-fashioned letters (and faxes!) to communicate with loved ones – now I email them (although I still send postcards!) I collected mail at the next town’s ‘poste restante’ – now I have no idea where I’m going to be from one day to the next. And I made reverse charge calls to my folks from public phone booths (using coins!) – whereas now I Skype them. Oh, the times they are a changing.

I would have stayed longer in Capurgena, along with Pinky & Shannon, except I really needed cash. I needed to touch base with Scott – who was on his way! And I had promised to let my poor old Pa know I had made the crossing safely. I needed to get back to civilisation.

So at 7 the next morning, I was standing on one very disorganised dock, an unwilling participant in yet another brilliant Latin American System. This is how best practice for a Latin American System goes: The more useless paperwork – the better. The more power the bossman thinks they wield – the better. The more other ‘officials’ standing around watching the bossman – the better. And last but not least the more waiting you (as the paying customer) have to do – the better.

It was another back-breaking, tongue-biting, teeth-smashing ride of about 2.5 hrs to Turbo. I didn’t think too much of it when the engine kept cutting out. Men over here can fix anything. But when we ran out of gas in the middle of fucking nowhere, I started to feel a little uneasy. But Whaddya Know! – out of nowhere, a boat with extra fuel appears and topped us up. Like John, the owner of the bar on Little Corn said to me, once – they know how to make you feel grateful for small things.

Turbo was just as the LP described it: a place to get the hell out of, as quickly as possible. It’s a hectic, noisy, filthy place that smelt absolutely putrid and was teeming with touts, sleazes, conmen and beggars. The people from our sailing trip (sans Pinky & Shannon) split into two parties at this point. The lads & Constance were headed for Medellin. While I was headed for Cartagena – along with the delightfully kooky German, Nils and the sour Swiss fellow, who was getting on my nerves.

We got herded to an expensive collectivo where we joined some travellers we had met on the San Blas islands. I chatted with a young Californian girl who looked just like Buffy. The bus took us to a place called Monterria where we ate shit food & got herded into another expensive collectivo, destined for Cartagena.

After midnight, we arrived into Getsemani – the red light district in the old part of town – where a fuck-off street party was in full flight. I checked into the nearest available hostel with Buffy & her crew, right outside where all the action was. An hour later, I literally fell into my bed – which was smack bang in the middle of an awful crowded dorm room on the street-side of the hostel. I dreamt I was trapped inside a sound system that night.

The next day, I moved to the much more resort-y style Media Luna right next door. Into a lovely uncrowded back room. I had a personal admin day by the pool and got an early night.

Shannon came found me the following morning. She & Pinky had arrived late the night before. He had bailed to hook up with a girl he’d arranged to meet here. Shannon was leaving on the 13th, so she & I spent the next 3 days hanging out, having heart-to-hearts, eating lots of g-o-o-d food, chatting with locals, and having lots of great big belly laughs.

Shannon’s a bit of a rarity. She’s only just 25 but such an old soul in many ways. She’s a bit of a dag, which I think makes her incredibly cool. She’s well-travelled and well-read and as such, has lots of interesting things to say. But she’s also a very good listener. Those who she chooses to shine her light on, light right back up at her. It’s a lovely thing to behold.

She reminds me a bit of an amazing woman I used to know called Annie. An angel sent to save my stupid teenage ass, and who ended up having a massive influence on the person I became.

That night we partied with Buffy & her crew. We sampled some of the *local fare* and did a bit of bar hopping, winding up at a cool lil dig with live music & lots of dancing. Next day, we ate a delicious 3-course meal in a beautiful European bistro. I flirted with the cute waiter with gorgeous skin, and a big shiny smile.

We also took a tour to the volcanic mud baths … the whole experience was a bit “different” to what we had both been anticipating (ie, how many tourists can you fit into 5 square metres & sketchy masseurs trying to cop a feel). I got mud in my punani. As my mate Dave would declare, “Now, you don’t get to say that everyday.”

We topped it all off with a wonderful last night of wine & cheese (blue & swiss!) night in the Plaza de los Coches (Square of the Carriages) and a chat with a talented Brazilian artisan whose work we had both fallen in love with. I just kinda moped about the day she left, and then cheered myself up by researching a plan of sorts for when Scott comes. Not long now!

I met a sweet man from San Diego and made plans to go to Playa Blanca with him. It’s supposed to be the best beach near Cartagena and is the weekend playground of many Colombians. And it was just lovely (not quite San Blas, but lovely all the same) … more pristine white sands, more turquoise waters.

We met up with a couple of other solo travellers, and scored ourselves hammocks for $3 / nite. The only downsides to Playa Blanca were getting harassed by hawkers, and the exorbitant prices of meals. But there is nothing like the sound of waves to put you to sleep, and waking up right on the beach will never lose its charm for me.

I ran into Guy and Marcus (the sound English brothers who were on our yacht) and we hung out on the beach for the day, which was a bit of a bonus!

I had started coming down with an intense sore throat thing and was feeling a bit achy in my glands, and didn’t really fancy sleeping out in the open for another night. So I cut my trip short to come back to Cartagena.

I’ve been back two days now and have just been chilling out, drinking lots of water and getting some rest. Re-charging for the Carnival in Barranquilla. Apparently it’s the second biggest in the world, after Rio de Janiero in Brasil.

I’ve decided to go for just one night. I don’t have accommodation sorted (standard). So I’m going to pull an all-nighter. The first in a long time. I’m a bit scared. But also super excited. Plus I have sparkly blue nails! All I need now is some feathers, and I’m good to go.