Sol 9: So what happened in Cartagena? On the first day, chronologically, we dropped our stuff off at the AirBnB apartment then went to the market with Freddie (21 year old French Canadian who spent time in Australia and now lives in Colombia) and Christophe (50ish Frenchman who teaches Krav Maga and has been all over the world) then explored inside the walled city before returning to the apartment (before nightfall) for beers with Christophe. Then we went out to meet Freddie and Sue (A Malaysian engineer who decided to take a year off and travel the world) who is staying at another AirBnB across town.
The market we went to was extremely authentic. Tarps covered the walkways between wooden stalls that sold all kinds of vegetables and dead animals. My 6’3” frame was bent halfway over but it didn’t seem that Christophe had any trouble at about 5’5”. It was a labyrinth of new smells, surprised looks, and one avocado a man gave to Freddie (Free) that we passed around taking sample bites. The apartment and this market were in an extremely poor part of town called La Esperanza. Freddie and Christophe were taking us to the mall that was right beside the market. They led us inside and in seconds we went from fishmongers and fruit sellers to a modern, shiny mall with upscale Colombian and international stores. In my time the Virgin Islands, I saw 100 million dollar-plus yachts just a fence away from the ghetto. The contrast in economic wealth is stark and very apparent. I suppose it’s a Caribbean thing.
We took a free bus from the mall to the walled city. Cartagena has a rich history of Spanish maritime warfare and pirate activity. There is a portion of the city center that is surrounded by stone walls. This area is now filled with hostels, galleries, air-conditioned clothing stores, bars, and over-priced restaurants. Gringo Central.
Our first purchases inside the walled city are a knitted hairband from a street vendor for Angelica ($3) and a cup of fresh papaya, mango, and watermelon (66 cents) to share. By the way, now might be a good time to talk about how good the fruit is here. Its really, really, really, really good. All of it. Sort of like how only really good arugula has that spiciness to it, these fruits have extra characteristics of delicious flavor that their brothers and sisters back home just don’t share.
The architecture here is that awesome Spanish colonial look that reminds me of Zorro for reasons I can only describe as anachronistic. The salty air blowing in from the Caribbean ocean, just on the other side of the wall gives the whole place a feeling of vacation nostalgia. I’m keeping this one fruit vendor in business by myself, sixty-six cents at a time. I will regret the papaya genocide I’m leveling on the local population.
As we leave downtown Cartagena, we look for a taxi to get us back to our “cultural experience” of a neighborhood. The first guy we came up to understood where we wanted to go (Freddie had written down instructions to give to cabbies) but was surprised that we wanted him to take us there. He asked us why? We struggled to explain that we were staying at a friend’s place there. He looked at us like he was a priest and we were going off to war. Shrugging, he motioned for us to get into the car. We drove along silently and a few blocks before the neighborhood he locked his door and reached over and locked the passenger door. Angelica then locked her door. I puffed out my chest and just looked at the lock on my door. Nope, not gonna do it. We cruised along and when we reached the apartment, the driver pulled a U-turn and went onto the sidewalk so that not only did we not have to cross the street but we didn’t have to walk on the sidewalk at all to get to our apartment. I get it, cabbie. This is a dangerous area.
After sundown, Christophe and I got some beer from next door and along with Freddie and Angelica sat and traded stories of traveling. Christophe talked about his time around Asia and Africa, his friends in Bogota, the process he goes through for his Krav Maga certification, the refugee situation in Europe, and about his sailboat back home.
When we went to meet Sue later for dinner ($3 for both of us) it was more of the same. We talked about where she had been so far on her journey and all of us discussed our thoughts on Colombia so far. Originally, we had planned on going dancing but all of us but Christophe were tired from the night or nights before and we decided to grab some rum, limes, and sugar and head to Sue’s apartment. She mixed up a batch of some sort of margarita/mojito situation and while it wasn’t my favorite drink of the year, it did have alcohol in it. Christophe took one sip, pushed his face together in disgust, and said with a thick French accent, “none for me, thanks.” Apparently, he’s too far removed from his college days. The rest of us choked ours down.
The next morning, we went into town for more of the walled city (and papaya) before heading over to San Felipe, a fortress built by the Spanish in the 1500s. Admission was an outrageous $6 each. This massive stone structure was the highlight of Cartagena for me. Looking over its walls and imagining how the area might have looked when the French admiral-pirate (pirate admiral?) Baron de Pointis attacked and ultimately took the fortress. In the dark underbelly of San Felipe are tunnels leading back and forth like an anthill. Yet again, as I walked through these halls I felt like Quasimodo, hunched over trying my best to be five feet tall. At the end of this trip, I’ll list how much my spine surgery costs and we’ll factor that into the total budget.
That night, Angelica and I met Freddie, Sue, and an Italian friend who we were all meeting for the first time. He said this was his fifth year in a row that he traveled to Colombia for a month and a half. He didn’t speak English and I don’t speak Italian or Spanish so there wasn’t much interaction there. The ceviche ($8) was incredible and I wish I would have eaten there more than once. I still lay awake at night thinking about that ceviche. It may always be so. Angelica and I turned in early as Sue, Freddie, and Christophe stayed out for dancing in the walled city.
The next morning we packed up and headed into town. Our mission was to find the clinic that gives free Yellow Fever vaccines before heading to Santa Marta. We quickly found the place and got our vaccine and left within 15 minutes of arriving. It was the easiest thing we’ve done since we got here. But then we realized the nurse filling out our paperwork made two of the
booklets out for Angelica and zero for me. So while I did in fact get the Yellow Fever vaccine, until we go back to Cartagena and hope the woman remembers us, I don’t have any proof of it. These sorts of situations are typical for my traveling.
After getting our Colombian vaccines, we took a crosstown taxi ($5) to a bus, ($17 each) which we rode for four hours to Santa Marta. If we had a negative reaction to the vaccines, this would have been a terrible, disastrous idea. Trial by fire. Arriving in Santa Marta, we grabbed a bus to the nearby town of Rodadero to find our hostel for the night, Calle 11.
We were excited about Calle 11 because it used to be a Colombian drug lord’s mansion. A German man and French woman had bought it and now ran a pricey hostel complete with swimming pool, on-site masseuse, and plenty of space to hang out. The price for one night of this luxurious getaway from our getaway that included a tub and an inside look at a place straight out of the show Narcos…$22 each.
When we walked in, we were enthusiastically greeted by a tall, blonde haired, blue eyed, German accented man in his early thirties. He seemed very nice and was extremely helpful but because of the Bond films I’ve been inundated with, I couldn’t help but imagine him in a campy - not actually secret but the main character doesn’t know until later - bad guy role. When he gave us a tour of the place, all the female guests looked exactly the same and three of them all apologized in unison for not keeping their dorm room meticulously clean as he walked by. He said it was no problem but I secretly wondered if they would be punished at the nightly cult blood orgy that very evening. I never heard one of the male guests utter even a syllable and there may have only been one of them because they all wore the same board shorts, shirtless and with the same brand of flip-flops.
Much to our surprise, we lived through the evening without being lobotomized or being given a free hair cut and even though the wifi never worked and the bathroom situation was less than desirable, I enjoyed the place, if only for a night. We never did try the poolside Kool-Aid spritzers everyone was sucking down but there’s always next time.
The next morning, Sol 9, today, we left on a crosstown bus (50 cents) to another crosstown bus (66 cents) to the small beach town of Taganga. After a situation in which the cab driver had no idea where our hostel was and drove us about four blocks ($2.66) before giving up, we found Magic House. We’ll be in Taganga for four days of hopefully absolute laziness.
Until next time…