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Cartagena is a city on Colombia's Caribbean coast. If you've read or watched "Love In The Time Of Cholera" you might be familiar with it, ditto if you're a fan of cruising as it's a popular port of call. We went for the final week of my stay in the country, as it's somewhere I thought warranted more than a weekend, the only time I could spare while still working. Because there are two main areas, the historic centre and the stretch of beach, we chose to make it into a twin centred holiday and switched hotels half way through. This worked out really well and it honestly felt like we had travelled some distance, not just a few km down the road, as the areas are so different.
Now THAT'S What I Call South America
I've been all over the place in the last year, leaving the UK last autumn for 4 months in Africa, spending 3 freezing weeks back here in January and then moving to Colombia for 6 months with just a brief jaunt to Venezuela. Here's what no one ever tells you about South America: it can be cold and wet and miserable. Which is fine when you're living and working there, but when you're coming home and everyone expects a tan, well, then action needs to be taken, hence our beach getaway. Getting off the plane in Cartagena was like walking into a sauna. The city is tropical, hot and humid. Being close to the Equator means it's a 12 hours of light / 12 hours of darkness set up, but once the sun is up, so is the temperature. We were regularly outside by 8am and it was already sizzling, staying that way until the sunset around 6.30pm when it cooled off but only everso slightly. Because Cartagena's centre is within walls, these keep out any potential sea breeze, and the streets don't help either, as they're narrow and crowded.
Cartagena has a main tourist office and several satellite branches but they are currently all well hidden behind thick scaffolding, and it took us a while to track one down to acquire a map and ask the super important questions (like "Is there a Crepes and waffles in the centre? Where exactly?") The map we got came in a booklet listing hotels and restaurants, but there was little in the way of tourist info or history on offer there or anywhere else for that matter. Luckily I'd photocopied the relevant pages of my guidebooks so I knew all about how the city had barely survived an attack by the evil, menacing , plundering pirate that was Sir Francis Drake. My students had in fact told me this too. What? I asked. They must be mistaken. They must not have got their words right. After all, everyone knows FD was a skilled and intrepid explorer, a hero in fact, not an evil, menacing, plundering pirate.
The Tourist Tariff
We had high hopes for doing lots of sightseeing but it was just too hot and, more to the point, everything was so expensive. In Bogota most things are free or cost $3000 pesos (£1). In Cartagena they want you to pay £6 for a nosy round the cathedral, £5 for the modern art museum, and the same for the boring looking city museum and naval museum. The Gold museum is free but like a poor man's version of the giant thing in Bogota, i.e. only recommended if you won't be taking in the capital city as well during your trip. It wasn't even air conditioned.
One place we did make a point of visiting was the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, a huge fort to one side of town (handily the side we were staying in). This costs $16,000 per adult (a little over a fiver) and that does not include a tour, but does give you access to the site and allow you to roam freely. Set atop a 40m hill, there are great views to take in once you've got your breath back and wiped off the sweat. The fort was in active use in the 1600s and is still well preserved, especially the warren of tunnels below it which were used to transport goods, and designed to maximise sounds for early detection of approaching baddies. They were dark and narrow and good fun as long as you had a torch (or someone else) with you as the labyrinth went on and on and it would have been relatively easy to get slightly lost. Out of the tunnels there were various ledges to sit on, and canons to pose for photos by, and there's even a shop at the top too. It was definitely worth a trip and I didn't begrudge the entrance fee in the way I would have done had I had to pay the same amount to nosy round a boring, plain church.
For those on a budget, or even those who aren't but can't abide the hideous price inflation in Colombia's most expensive city (fact), there are lots of things to wander round and see. Wander round slowly and see, of course. There's the Plaza de los Coches which used to be a slave market and is now the place to go for candy in big bottles, old sweet shoppe style. The clock tower - Puerto del Reloj - is built into the walls and is one of the ways to access the inner part of the city. That and the nearby cathedral tower make for some nice pics, especially at night (or any time after 6.30pm, once the sun's gone down). The walls themselves are good too, of course, and free. You can climb up at various points and wander along for some great views. We took a book and a Kindle and spent a happy hour there on our second day, because it was the best way to enjoy the sun without feeling like you were going to keel over at any point. Back at sea level it's worth simply wandering some of the less cluttered backstreets to soak up the atmosphere and the architecture. And by architecture I mean some pretty balconies. But they are really pretty, honest.
How To Make A Fast Buck: Grab A Pizza The Action
Because we were on a bed and breakfast basis in both our hotels we had to sort out the other meals which I thought would be easy. Bogota, as I'd realised over the previous 6 months, is awash with places to eat and often it's cheaper to eat out than to cook there, what with the scarcity and cost of certain ingredients. Not so here. On our first day we staggered off the (supremely delayed) plane and went for lunch. We got slices of pizza that would have been $2000 pesos in Bogota. Here, they were $5000 each. That was our first clue. Aside from Crepes and Waffles which has the same menu and virtually the same pricing as the rest of the branches in the country, eating in Cartagena was alarmingly expensive. Not by European standards, sure, but considering you're paying in pesos, and considering the cost of both ingredients and labour locally, someone was making a tidy profit. There are 2 main touristy squares that are packed with eateries and you pay for the location and the name of these places, but it wasn't just there, and even when we found a small Croatian place for pasta one night, and a sort of Arabic place for falafel sandwiches the next, we were paying approaching £15 a time which is, quite frankly, outrageous. What bothered me more than this was the ice creams, or lack thereof. We only found a couple of places scooping cones (not selling pre-packaged Cornettos) and then we were faced with the least favourable combination of poor flavour selection and high prices.
Restaurants were quite set up for foreign tourists, most automatically offering menus in English (though some of these didn't have prices on which was....concerning).That said, I don't think they were running a 'one price for locals, one price for fleecing the tourists' set up - I just don't think locals would eat anywhere in the centre. There are two malls out of town that are known to be popular and have restaurants and food courts etc, but these are a trek without your own wheels so we didn't bother. Service is included in most restaurants, and is the government mandated 10%. Most places include tax - if they don't, I would walk very swiftly away because it adds a fair whack to already eye-watering prices.
I'm not one for street food normally, but I made an exception in Cartagena for the delicious still limeade that it sold in cups on street corners for about 10p. Bogota has the cleanest drinking water in the continent (allegedly) but Cartagena...not so much. Even so, I was having ice in my drinks and brushing my teeth with water from the tap without problems. The Limeade was the only street-side refreshment we managed because the city was surprisingly devoid of pavement cafes, where we'd imagined we would sit and read our books, sipping drinks slowly and enjoying the sit down. In the end we went for carrying water and plopping down on the walls instead - still fun, just not what we had had in mind.
Feeling Hot, Hot, Hot
Though the historic centre has a coast line, the beaches are thin and a bid uninspiring, so most people head for Bocagrande, about 10 minutes drive along the promenade. This was the site of our second hotel, but we could have also got there by bus from the centre (or vice versa). The two areas could not be more different, as Bocagrande is modern and quite free of personality - it could be a high-rise beach resort pretty much anywhere. It's a split of land with water on both sides but sandy beaches are only on the west side. And mmmm, those beaches. They are just what you would expect for the Caribbean, complete with sparkling (and scorching) sand and warm seas...and harassment by hawkers. You cannot sit for a moment on the beach without someone wanting to sell you something - a sarong, a watch, drinks, ice creams from a dubious cooler. You can buy gold and emeralds on the beach alongside shell necklaces and seed bracelets. You can rent a chair and a shelter (though loungers are few and far between) or have a massage. We didn't spend much time on the beach in the end, preferring to sunbathe by our hotel pools and just pop down for a swim in the sea, leaving everything but towels behind. Clearly having no money on us sort of did the trick, but some persistent fellas still tried.
Off the beach Bocagrande has casinos and tourist shops, though the mark ups continue (over £7 for a bag of Hershey's Kisses that would cost $2 in the US). There are supermarkets, too, which fare a bit better and seemed only a smidge higher than Bogota prices. And there are places to eat - everywhere from McDonalds to Crepes and Waffles, with lots of pizza places thrown in. Like in the centre, a lot of the restaurants are exorbitantly priced and somehow it seems so much worse here since they are far from fancy places and have a distinct 'family diner' look about them. Many were playing the youth world cup while we were there (Bogota was hosting it) and though most we tried served ok food, the atmosphere alone didn't go with the prices they were asking.
You can walk around the two distinct parts (walled city and Bocagrande) but to get from one to the other you need a bus or taxi, mainly for the heat - and once the heat goes it's pitch black, so that's not a solution either. The taxis are fine - safe and clean - but they don't operate meters the way the ones in Bogota do, so you need to check the price in advance. This should be related to zones, and with an official tariff for each, there shouldn't be much you need to negotiate though I'd still check before getting in as there are some taxi drivers who see gringo blood and grin in glee. We took 3 taxis: one from the airport to our first hotel (airport taxis are easy as you get a ticket from the official booth and just pay what it says), one to our second hotel, and then a final one back to the airport. Each one was about £3 - £4 which sounds cheap until you realise that in Bogota it would have been half that for the same distances.
So Hot And Yet So Cool
Cartagena is a good jumping off point for the region, with trips to Santa Marta and Barranquilla on offer alongside more touristy excursions to several islands nearby, and the awesome mud volcano. As a city it's not to be missed and has plenty to occupy you for a week or more, as long as you factor in the weather. A hotel with air con is a must, and if you're only staying the historic centre, more than a few nights will leave you craving even the smallest of rooftop plunge pools. While you could just stay in Bocagrande, we didn't have the energy to leave once we got there so were glad we had 'done' the historic centre already as the sun loungers were calling and nothing was going to drag me away from them and onto a packed, sweaty bus.
There's a mood in Cartagena that doesn't seem to exist in the rest of Colombia - the mixing pot of cultures, the steamy atmosphere, the way it seems like there's a party every night, a festival every weekend. Cartagena was everything I expected and wanted it to be, and more, and I am very glad I got my visit before I came home. It's more than 2 weeks since I left the coast, but I still have a golden glow on my skin and the memories in my heart. The latter, at least, should last for ages to come.
While the cocaine barons attempted to move into right-wing politics with dirty money, left-wing guerillas started to produce and smuggle the drug to finance their war with the government. The police with machine guns, and constant army checkpoints along the Caribbean coast and roads to the capital, were supposed to restrict the effectiveness of guerilla movements. But backhands were given for certain things not to be seen. The checkpoints also forced the faster air-conditioned coaches to stop at the food-stalls of the poor. Understandably there is a nervousness in the young lad with a gun and army fatigues; the week I arrived in Colombia, a checkpoint near Cucuta was ambushed and bombing incidents in Medellin and Bogotá were reported in El Tiempo as frequently as The Princess of Wales appeared on the front page of The Sun. The Colombian media were building up to the Cartagena 90 summit, where George Bush would meet the presidents of Colombia, Peru and Bolivia; Senhors Barco, Garcia, and Paz Zamora. They talked about American paranoia, aircraft carriers and Air Force One having to land at Barranquilla, 130km away from the capital of Bolivar. Getting George Bush in was a military strategy; like the drug run north, in reverse. A diagram showed the flight path from Washington DC to Miami and across the Caribbean in two graphically wide and curving arrows. Then a slightly narrower arrow illustrated the short hop, by helicopter, to Cartagena. A file picture of the American President, peering through field glasses and wearing a combat jacket, seemed to suggest that he was the leader of a war-hungry nation. No-one was supposed to be able to tell who the tourists were, and who were the secret agents. But compared to my visit to the colonial Caribbean town the previous November, the place was quiet. I guessed that those getting burned on the beach with walkmans on were the holiday-makers, and those with suits in the swelte
ring heat and only one earplug were the others. Or maybe I was wrong, maybe there were no tourists; then who did they thing I was? The American media were said to be scared and would arrive shortly before George Bush. Perhaps they were busy people and didn't have the chance to laze around on the beach, thinking-up wild stories for at least a week before the event. But then Cartagena is Colombia's favourite city, so why shouldn't the boys from Bogotá make something of a holiday out of it? And once they were there, the editors would demand copy for their readers. If I had such an understanding editor, I would have hired a yacht and sailed out into the Caribbean: "To check how many cruisers accompanied the aircraft carrier." An officer told me that the reported five thousand marines would not even total three thousand soldiers and police, including the young cadets normally stationed at the naval base. The large press corps covering the historical event would almost match them one for one. The local fishing-boats and tour-companies had been moved from the harbour area, near the convention centre where the journalists would watch the proceedings on a large screen. No more cars were being stopped and searched than in November, but at least a naval vessel guarding the entrance to the bay, gave some of the young cadets a chance to feel operational at sea. The Colombian television reporter didn't have it so good, he was wearing a thick coat and held a microphone up to passers-by on the cold streets of New York. The Colombian television crew managed to tickle their compatriots back home: Seventy three per cent of Americans asked had no idea where their President was going, the ones that said "South America somewhere" were grouped with those who said Colombia. Of course the two Spanish speakers that the viewers saw being questioned said, "Carta-hena," in a flowing tongue. I wat
ched the news with a group of Colombians: "There's nothing wrong with cocaine," cried the pregnant woman; holding her three year-old son in her arms. "It doesn't do any harm, it's the hallucinating drugs they should worry about!" Senor Trujillo wondered if she would say the same thing if it were her expected child that became an addict. She evaded the question, claimed that the whole thing was a propaganda, and asked the others how many people they knew who used cocaine; or any other drug for that matter. A youth in dreadlocks left the room laughing. The debate became very voluble, but they agreed that if cocaine were legalised and taxed, then more people in Colombia would benefit from the drug as an export commodity, and if the Yanquis wanted to destroy themselves, that was their problem. The Swiss were brought in as the bankers who didn't care where the money came from, and again, if the drug were legalised then Colombians could keep their money at home. The Presidents would come to a formulated conclusion that would mean spending more money to destroy a little of the product, for a little while, and in the end solve nothing. This was the cynical opinion of some of the people being represented by one of the countries' Presidents, while the people of the other had no idea where he was going. If you do get offered cocaine in Cartagena, or anywhere else in Colombia, don't be tempted. It is an illegal drug, and you may be getting set-up by a police informer. Presidents' Night Out in Cartagena: The President of America was in town but Bolivia's Jaime Paz Zamora need not have felt so uncomfortable with his handkerchief poised almost permanently to his forehead; perhaps only he was big enough to realise the farce of the whole event. The others believed their own press, but the media remained cynical among themselves. Peru's Alan Garcia refused t
o join Bolivia's Jaime Paz Zamora and the host Virgilio Barco, in Cartagena, the night before the arrival of George Bush; saying that they were all presidents of equal standing. They were all presidents, true, but the eyes of the world still focus differently; everyone with their own myopia. Only the Bolivians appreciated, somewhat embarrassingly, that their president was the minnow. The large screen in the convention centre had its blank moments, and the audio-reception was not always clear. But nobody wanted to leave in case everything worked efficiently and they missed something. In the end, all they missed were the half-empty beaches, and another gloriously sunny day. The Colombian Secret Service had to follow the rules of machismo and let everyone know who they were, by wearing white armbands with DAS printed boldly in black; as if you couldn't tell by the jeans and open shirt. Only Latinos could display their machine-guns so nonchalantly; cruise around the bay in one of two brightly coloured speedboats, with a gun-ship escort; roar through the streets on trials bikes; or ogle at the half-naked women from their trendy four-wheel drive road cruisers, with radios loudly transmitting -- like designer cops on a film-set. If the presidents returned to their respective countries unharmed, then some of the respectability might be returned to an organization whose headquarters in Bogotá were bombed in an attempt to remove their boss. The Colombian media enjoyed the idea of a possible ground to air attack on the American President. If the desperadoes wanted to make world headlines and launch a land-to-air missile, they could have easily succeeded from the San Felipe fortress, built on a hill by the Spaniards to defend the city. Half an hour before the President was due to fly into Cartagena, the fortress overlooking the flight path was not even being guarded. By the military operations in Cartagena, it seemed that the
Press Centre would have been the more realistic target. Old Cartagena, by Night: The Americans might have been relieved to see the return of their president, those who knew where he went that is, but Peru's Alan Garcia and Bolivia's Jaime Paz Zamora used the opportunity to see behind the Spanish-built walls of Old Cartagena, by night. At the Mayor of Cartagena's invitation, their entourage filled Paco's Restaurant. Nicolas Beeson, a bearded Englishman, proved the perfect host for such an occasion. Even the cartel didn't make him jump when they demanded drinks on the house in the days when they moved more freely in society; a local owner might have been more intimidated. Married to a Colombian women, Nicolai was popular and respected in Cartagena and Bogotá; in better days, well-know film-stars sought out his company during Cartagena's annual music festival. This was the night of the presidents, and with them the DAS men enjoyed double whiskeys; until Britain's self-appointed Honorary Consul suggested that they might be able to better protect the presidents from an attack, if they were out in the street and could see it coming. They refilled their glasses, drowned the strong measures, and spilled out into Plaza Santo Domingo. Journalists were also present, but Alan Garcia had consumed enough not to worry about them when he joined the band in song; Jaime the Bolivian took to the dance-floor, and others at their table encouraged the world leaders with rhythmic hand-clapping. A top-dog in the Colombian media world was seated upstairs, and the lady he was with persuaded the Peruvian President to join them at their table. Something must have been suggested to upset Garcia, so much so that the restaurant almost emptied when he came back down. He wanted to let loose after work, and had no intention of being grilled for an exclusive, even if it was off the record. Independenc
e Day -- Cartagena in November: Cartagena became the first city to proclaim absolute independence from the Spanish Crown, on 11th November, 1811 -- the day is now a public holiday in Colombia. For the week leading up to Independence Day, 1989, the Plaza de la Aduana held nightly festivals; culminating in the coronation of Miss Colombia (a girl from nearby Barranquilla). The four routes into the square were heavily guarded and everyone was painstakingly searched by armed soldiers, younger than many of the revelers. Guns pointed up from young shoulders on all the balconies overlooking the square, and foot patrols among the crowd remained in radio contact with their superiors. Even during the day, on the beach at Bocagrande, camouflage mingled with bikinis and dark natives carrying a selection of fruit for sale on their heads. Occasionally, an olive-green helicopter cast its shadow across the sand; several gun-totting soldiers clearly visible by the open doors. It was so sad to see such a delightful town geared up to please the foreign tourist, waiting patiently for them. From November to March it hardly rains, and at night the Caribbean rhythm could not fail to move the wallflowers. A friendly local is always at hand to give encouragement, another Coco Loco (rum in fresh coconut) gets to work on those stiffer parts, then the salsa starts to swing the hips. The palm trees on the beach and the coconut cocktails put many of it's rivals in the shade; Cartagena is cheaper than most Caribbean islands and it's safer than Bahia (in Brazil). The Presidents of Peru and Bolivia certainly knew how to enjoy colonial Cartagena, and are probably trying to arrange another veteran's conference; so strong is the desire to return to Colombia's Caribbean Coast. As For Me: I hope to be in Cartagena again on 11th November, 2011 -- to see the bi-centennial celebrations. Don't Say: It's sure to go
off like a bomba. (For a more touristic perspective, read Dantes' opinion on Cartagena). TRAVELNOTES.ORG
Ignore the warnings, don't worry about narco-terrorists, forget about being kidnapped, and go to Colombia. Quite simply it's the most beautiful country in South America. There's something about the people and the place that set it apart from other Latin countries, and all the danger surrounding the place only adds to the mystique. Cartagena lies on the Carribean coast two hours west of Barranquilla, about 24 hrs by bus from Bogota if thats the way you're coming. Their are three parts to the city; the new part, Bocagrande is a long spit of land with all the hotels, cheesy bars and tourist tat. Avoid except when necessary unless of course you're staying in one of the nicer hotels. The old town, within the city walls, built in colonial times, has withstood the attacks of the turks as well as the british. Beautiful architecture and design typifies this part (the film the Mission and Romancing the Stone were filmed here) and there are good bars and cafes as well. Getsemani, next to the old town, for me is the real Cartagena, noisy, busy, hot, action at all hours. Try residencial Familiar for nice clean rooms and see Paco, the cat with golden eyes. After dark, keep your wits about you and you'll do fine. Once you're here, you night as well visit a little part of paradise, four hours west towards the Guajira peninsula is Parque Tairona where you can lash your hammock between two trees and spend a week or two contemplating the finer points of relaxation. Me gustaria estar alli ahora en vez de aqui, sentado frente esta puta computadora. Pronto.....
Cartagena, formally known as Cartagena of the Indies (Cartagena de Indias), is a large city seaport on the northern coast of Colombia. Capital of the Bolívar Department, it has a population of roughly 895,400 (2005 Census). Founded in 1533 by Don Pedro de Heredia, and named after the port of Cartagena in Spain's Murcia region, it was a major center of early Spanish settlement in the Americas, and continues to be an economic hub as well as a popular tourist destination.