Upon leaving the unexpectedly small Cartagena airport, I was welcomed by a huge billboard featuring a Colombian Elvis impersonator.
The other passengers who had also just arrived were poppin’ into little yellow micro-machine cabs and spinning off into their own assorted narratives. I stood and watched their numbers dwindle.
Soon I was one of only a few prey left for the desperate transportation peddlers.
A husky, determined Colombian man approaches me and begins his pitch. His name is Fernando. After a reluctant discussion, an agreement over transportation to my hostel is reached. A moment later another man appears who turns out to be, perhaps literally, his identical twin brother.
Fernando shoos him off to go get the car.
He asks me if I want any “mota,” “yayo,” or “mujeres” — miscellaneous things a virgin-traveler of privileged decent might be in the market for. I tell him that I am not interested at the moment as a car pulls up and we hop in.
The whole way to my predetermined destination the two try and sell me on other locations, and continue to push the drugs and women — pulling out flyers and business cards.
I continue to express that I am not interested and that I am tired from commuting over 3000 miles to a new foreign place, the furthest I had ever been from my home country at that point.
I did my best to relay in broken Spanish that all I wanted to do was get to my hostel and relish my accomplishment of being an outsider far from home.
Fernando, who was not easily deterred, insisted on helping me into a hostel after my first choice turned out to be booked.
Once checked in, he tells me that he will be back in the area later. Now that I have his business card I tell him I will call if I need anything.
In a daze, I pulled apart my bags and passed out on the bed.
Sleep in a Foreign Land
There is air conditioning.
I hate air conditioning.
Within an hour or so the continually dropping temperature of the room awakens me and I decide to get out and explore the city.
I grabbed a beer just down the street and returned to my room. A moment later there is a knock on the door and a couple of minutes after that another. I answer by calling out and no one responds, so I go to the door and open it. The receptionist is standing in the hall and asks me if I know someone named “Fernando” and that he is waiting for me downstairs.
These guys are relentless.
I go downstairs and continue to tell him and his brother I don’t want anything, and that if I do, I will call.
They proceed to ask where I will be staying tomorrow and the next night.
They really want to make some sales; hell-bent on peddling to an aloof tourist. When they realize I won’t budge the twins squeeze into their tiny car and putter off into the sunset with tears in their eyes.
On My Own, Finally!
The next morning I awoke and quickly evacuated my private freezer closet of a room to peek around the hotel and the streets of Cartagena.
I meandered around to find some food and eventually found a small deli serving Coffee, something I don’t typically enjoy too often back home, and a simple egg breakfast.
After a quick acclimation to my new world, I sought out the most inviting and cheap hostel within a leisure distance from the hotel. After obtaining confirmation there was a bed at a nearby dorm I returned promptly to the freezer box to acquire my things, check out and left the hotel for good.I was also elated at the thought of escaping the Fernando’s surveillance.
I was then situated into a dorm room at the nearby hostel packed with at least 3 bunk beds. At night, I slept in just my underwear atop the sheets that I was assigned and fell asleep in a puddle of sweat.
The bustling noise and activity of tourists, that I would eventually become very accustomed to in Latin American Hostels, was a comforting background.
I spent my first few days in Colombia meandering the streets of Cartagena.
It’s a lovely place.
La Ciudad Armurallada; The Old City, or “El Centro” as it is often referred to, is a labyrinth of narrow streets, colonial Spanish architecture and vintage cathedrals.
The sweltering heat of Cartagena quickly became apparent. There was never a moment when my face and clothes didn’t feel drenched from the sweat and impromptu monsoons.
The Food in Cartegena is Amazing
I also found some great little restaurants. I’d hop into one here or there, point at something on the menu and see what I got. All the food was great, but a bit pricier than I had hoped.
Often they will flavor their rice with coconut milk which I found delicious. I’ll be bringing that idea home with me. Fried plantain strips are also a staple. I can get used to that. Not too shabby.
One of the most interesting and delicious meals I procured I found within a string of shops hidden in a confined alley around El Centro. It consisted of an Arab bread, covered in a mango salsa with shrimp.
Misadventures in Sightseeing
Down the street from my hostel and across a little bridge were ruins of an old Spanish fort built to defend against pirates: El Castillo de Felipe. I hoofed it over and paid the $10 to climb around it for the afternoon.
Halfway up the fort, it began to rain, a few minutes later it was pouring.
Everyone huddled under a cabana part way up the ruined fort to take refuge. The rain here is actually extremely refreshing. It remains 80+ degrees (Fahrenheit) outside the whole time so for me, there is nothing to complain about.
In fact, it is preferred over the typical sweltering climate.
Inside a small room right next to the cabana they showed a 20-minute video about the history of the fort. I did my best to glean some details from the all-Spanish presentation. Not much luck there.
But the cheesily animated graphics got the point across.
Later, I got a tip from a local to visit La Fuerte de San Fernando on an island not far from Cartagena.
When I travel I like to get an idea of someplace that might be interesting to visit, get a broad idea of how to get there, then set out on foot to see if the path presents itself.
It usually does.
Approaching the docks near El Centro I was greeted by a Colombian man trying to sell boat trips to popular nearby beaches. I communicated to the man that I was more interested in visiting La Fuerte de San Fernando. He appeared to have the solution, walked me over to the docks, asked for some money, got me through a set of gates and pointed me toward a small banana boat rapidly filling with people.
The guide, another Fernando, invited me in.
Slightly confusing that his name happened to also be Fernando, but as I would come to discover, around 1/5 of Colombians seem to have that name. At this point in the trip, it’s very possible that I think I’m hearing the same name because of my un-acclimated senses.
I realized before setting out that I was the only gringo on the boat, and more importantly, the only person who spoke English.
The boat took off and began to make its way around the island, making stops to drop locals off. Bocachicha was the destination apparently, and by the time we got there, it was only me and a couple of Colombians dressed from head to toe in white garments that remained.
Upon arriving, I made the further discovery that I was in fact, the only one going to explore the fort — Quite an impressive fortification, full of booby traps, bats, canons and the like.
Following the exploration, I took the opportunity to take a dip in the sea. It’s nice to have a nearly private beach sometimes…Huge cargo vessels slogged by within several yards; a donkey mulling around just a few yards from the playa, and scrawny wild-eyed dogs fighting and scavenging.
The people in this village had very little. What an interesting life it must be to live this simply in such an isolated place, where the outside world pops in daily via ships and then leaves again within a few hours. I stood in the water and watched a Doritos bag get pulled back and forth between my feet and thought of “The Gods Must Be Crazy”.
The presence of American corporations is probably the most difficult thing to avoid in my traveling experience. I can’t help but be extremely amused by it, even if it feels a little tragic in a lot of ways.
Side note: Potato chips come in two popular flavors here: Lime and Chicken (Limon or Pollo). The chicken flavor tastes like its flavored with those packets that come with your Top Ramen. Tasty for a couple of handfuls, but the nostalgia runs dry quickly and being the type that always goes for the large bag and ironically hates waste, it becomes a strong waste.
The Curious Tale of Juero and Juanjuero
The guide then led me and the two Colombians from the boat through the village and across to a different port. These roads were unpaved, flooded with water — electricity unlikely. Still, folks were gathered on their porches enjoying the simple pleasures. Content.
The boat heading back was to drop us off at a different port on the other side of the city outside of my familiarity. I attempted small talk with the two remaining travelers. No English present, but we were able to communicate. I regret not locking down their names. My ears just could not get a grasp on it, but it was something like Juero and Juanjuero.
Almost as if one of them had an abbreviated version of the others name…
En route, Juero pointed to a mosque atop a hill in the distance. “La Popa!” That’s where they were going next. He asked if I wanted to come along.
I wouldn’t miss it for the world.
Also, what is “La Popa?”
We hoofed through a suburban area of the city and eventually made our way across traffic to the foot of the large hill. Traffic here is nuts — swaths of tiny yellow cabs and motorcycles maneuvering through them, everyone honking. I’ve come to find in travels across South America in years since, that the disorienting traffic situation and gratuitous honking of car horns is not uncommon.
Juero summoned a few motos over and we hopped on the backs and made our way up the hill.
“This is rad,” I thought.
Something I tend to think at least a few times a day down here.
At the top, we were able to bypass fees and security. Turns out Juero works here on occasion. Interesting place with a great birds-eye panorama of the city below. I snapped a few photos and we headed back down.
I regretfully passed up the opportunity to hold and have my picture taken with a Sloth. Tourist gimmicks frighten me, and my gut reaction to someone trying to entice money from me with these Carnie tricks is to immediately reject and ignore them.
Next stop Bocagrande — the beach.
They invite me and I concede. We catch a cab at the bottom. Juero knows a woman in the cab and they wrestle through some gabble. When we arrive we sit and contemplate the day’s adventures and swim until sunset before I catch a bus back in the vicinity of the hostel.
I made it, but I don’t really know how.
A few more days of the nights of sweaty bunk bed slumbers, 30oz Caguamas of beer, too many cigarettes, difficult foreign language exchanges, and I then I am off to the next adventure.