Cartagena de Indias: My South American swansong

Cartagena. Such an evocative name. To tell the truth, I get a bit hung up on place names. For instance I’ve wanted to go to Jakarta, Indonesia for years simply because it sounds like an exciting place. I know nothing about it, but the name’s good.

I have harboured a similar yearning for Cartagena since coming to Ecuador. An impossibly romantic name, an ancient city on the Caribbean coast. What’s not to like? Well, quite a lot in fact, but I’ll come onto the gripes later.

For now, I’d decided to stay at El Viajero hostel on the Calle De Las Sieteinfantes, right in the heart of the ancient walled city. I’ve stayed at El Viajero hostels before, and they’re generally pretty good. This one was no exception. Sure it’s big, but actually a really nice place to hang out during the dying days of my South American adventure, with a big sunny terrace, TV room and loads of space to avoid Wankpuffins. Of which, actually, there weren’t really many. A win-win scenario for 3 nights. 

Suitably settled, I set out for a wander around the old city. No apologies for the following super-set of photos.

Leaving the hostel, out into the calm historic streets

New and old: Skyscrapers of Cartagena’s future beyond the thick walls of its past

Cartagena’s plush Bocagrande area as seen from the Old City walls

Caribbean sunset amongst the paseando crowds

I was to discover over my 3 days that sunset really was Cartagena’s time of day, bringing out the honey-hued warmth of the sandstone walls and generally making everything deeply atmospheric. For now, though, there were greater issues at hand: The mighty cerveza.

“The Beer Lovers” bottle shop

As it happened this was a lucky spot made whilst I was wandering down one of many back streets. A comfortably air-conditioned shop/bar stocking hundreds of beers from around the world. The English representative was, sadly, London Pride. I explained the error to the nice guy working there, but he maintained that it was ‘really popular’. Still, my Colombian ale was spot on so I’m not complaining.

After a spot to eat I settled in for a ridiculously satisfying evening wedged in the cosy TV room flicking through the movie channels. Sometimes you just need to vegetate. Because anyway, next day was designated as Sightseeing. Capital ‘S’

Around the squares and parks, taking in the atmosphere of the streets…

And indeed the incredibly prolific touting activity everywhere. I hadn’t realised before I got here that Cartagena is actually really easy to get to from the US, therefore is crawling with Americans taking weeks off or weekend breaks. And where there are Americans, there are bucks to be made.

The streetscene hots up… Jineteros (touts) everywhere. Selling hats, shoeshine, arepas (Seriously tasty maize/cheese pancake combo)

So, I began to escape a bit. Away from the madding crowds and the laser-like sun. First into the Casa de Cultura in order to see some art and to pretend that I understood it… Generally if you nod and ‘hmm’ a bit it makes the point. You’re an art lover!

…and then into the Inquisition Museum, charting aspects of Cartagena’s long and chequered history, such as the slave trading and the conquests of various countries here, fighting over gold and resources. And of course, not least the Spanish Inquisition. To be honest I was slightly disappointed by this place, some of the historical insights were relatively interesting but I did want to see more gory torture stuff. Fantastic building though. A good break from the stifling Cartagenan heat and humidity.

A guillotine in the courtyard 

A bell, yesterday.

As the day wore on, the bright sunlight faded towards sunset hues. Show your beauty, Cartagena… I really was in my element. It’s known as one of Colombia’s safest cities so there are no worries wandering around the Ciudad Vieja at night toting a camera. Lots and lots and lots of pictures snapped.

The shadows lengthen…

Day slowly fades…

Dusk swoops in…

Getting dark: Horses, horses everywhere 

Night descends 

Day trippin’… off to the mud

My next couple of days represented a dramatic change of scene. Escaping the city for a ratito, there really is only so much wandering and hmm-ing over history that you can do.

My first outing was a visit to El Volcan de el Totumo, by far the strangest experience I’ve had on this trip and one which overall denies rational explanation. However, in a nutshell…

30km from Cartagena there is a small community by the shores of a lake. This community has no obvious means of support other than the bizarre anthill-like structure perched in the middle of their village. It’s not an actual volcano, it’s a tall anthill type structure filled with liquid mud. But they call it a volcano. Because MARKETING.

….and it looks like this

The enterprising community has built steps up the “volcano” (To be honest I’m sure they built the bloody thing in its entirety) and has gone in cahoots with a Cartagena-based tour company which delivers a steady stream of tourists to their door. It was a good value trip, at 50,000COP per person for transport and entry. Then there are the ‘extras’…

Climb into the alarmingly buoyant mud pool and a local guy ‘massages’ you inexpertly, basically just covering you in the mud but NOT IN THE MOUTH! You are then pulled and prodded over to a position where you can relax in the mire for a while. So far, so good. It’s apparently only the men who are allowed at the top of the ‘volcano’ and to take photographs. Cod religious baloney if you ask me. Still, at least I got some good photos courtesy of the fluffer.

On the face but NOT IN THE MOUTH!

The mud didn’t strike me as the most sanitary of products, there was a definitely crystalline property to it and also the odd hair or two. Nice! I did see a few people get a full face full. Just… NO!

Out

You then get roughly de-mudded, at least of the loose stuff, by yet another helper at the top, then struggle down the now-lethal wooden steps to get to the lake. Here the oldest, most snaggle-toothed of the village women wash you off. Vigorously and enthusiastically. Particularly around the midriff. A real treat… not. I’ve heard reports of women being divested of their bikinis during this washing process.

Of course, all of this is intended to generate tips. A ‘price’ of 4,000 is attached to each service which you pay at the end. I didn’t have a problem with it per se, but it’s mighty odd to just turn up at this village where nothing economic whatsoever appears to be going on, other than the fluffing of tourists. Just a thought. But hey, they get by and it’s all good fun.

Carta-gripes

Well, I had to get a moan in somewhere, didn’t I? 

In some respects Cartagena is a beautiful place to visit, with a lot going for it. But compare it to other cities in Colombia and in some respects it really comes up short. Here, more so than anywhere else in Colombia, you’re a buck, not a person.

I think the main ‘problem’ of Cartagena is its close proximity to the USA, and indeed the availability of stupidly cheap flights here, both from within the USA and via connections. I paid $150 for my ticket from Cartagena to Fort Lauderdale, bringing it well within scope of a weekend break. 

With short trips you bring a different kind of tourist. One that doesn’t bother learning/using Spanish and who generally treats it like an extension of home. So, this has an effect on the service. Everyone working here gets the glassy eyed, can’t be bothered ailment because of the constant churn of tourists. It’s a generally pretty toxic cycle. 

And indeed here more so than anywhere in Colombia I’ve noticed the prevalence of low-level scamming on a constant basis. Some guys I met on the volcano tour were charged 35,000COP for a 6,000COP taxi ride (Which actually is OK, as they turned out to be utter dicks, haha) and the American guys had all sorts of stories about just how many prostitutes there were out and about. But more so than this, holding onto your change seems to be a pastime, and one which infuriates me. The worst was a pizza restaurant which has a ‘tips are voluntary’ sign on the till. The waitress asked me if I wanted to add a service charge, and I said I was happy to. I then paid, including a decent tip, but they still retained 2,000COP, only returning it when I made a fuss. Now that’s pisstaking. At the club it was virtually impossible to get any sort of change on a drink, the bar staff just took it for themselves and ignored you when you asked. And I’m not talking about small change either- Like £4 change on a £6 (overpriced) drink. It’s blatant theft!

Rant over. Cartagena’s a great place but you have to stay on your toes.

Boating around

My next outing involved a distinct change of scene. Walking down to the other end of the walled city, I passed the Torre de Reloj and hit the Muelle Turistico (tourist pier) for a day trip to the nearby Islas Del Rosario, a chain of islands just off the coast near Cartagena. Day trips here are good value, running at around 50,000COP or more for itineraries of greater complexity.  

The famous Torre de Reloj

There was a degree of chaos in the morning, since a thunderstorm was rolling in and we wouldn’t be able to reach the intended destination, therefore I got lumped together with a group of others for an apparently further flung trip. I think the boat company guys were slightly confused with how easy going I was about the whole affair but essentially, on my penultimate day in Cartagena I just wanted to get out of the city and onto the water. After all, I hadn’t exactly paid a king’s ransom for the trip. It even included lunch!

The boat ride was not a relaxing one. Nearly an hour hitting, jumping over and generally being molested by waves, with the mean group of Brazilian girls on the boat squealing for each one. But still, after further faffing with our captain not knowing the way, nor what tour we were on, we arrived at Isla Grande.

This was definitely not a cultural tour, the vast majority of the boat passengers just fancied sun and beach. Not a bad combo. I hopped off the boat and headed to the side with the least beach, but at least a good distance from the bar and lobster tanning beds.

Yep, I’ll avoid that end..

In amongst the mangroves

Para para…paradise

So, that was the extent of the day really. A couple of hours on the beach, a half decent tuna meal and then a while on the beach before returning to the vomit comet which at least was rather more smooth and quicker on the return trip. The proof of the pudding was in the selfies, and this one was a happy Sam! It felt like a good ending to a great year down here.

Back to the city…

So, final night, and I definitely couldn’t go to bed early. This was slightly challenging as the hostel was a big place, and I hadn’t really met anyone on the previous nights however I plonked myself at the bar and, sure enough, half the cast of Jersey Shore pitched up, a group of 4 really Jock-y American guys. To be fair they completely realised this (and in fact got there first with the Jersey Shore thing) so were a good laugh. We all headed out to a club they’d been at the previous evening which had some sort of promotion but, as they’d described earlier, was packed with hookers and generally a bit of a dive. I managed about an hour before bailing, but hey- I’d made midnight on my last night down here. Great success!

Exploring the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

I couldn’t go without seeing the huge castle which towers over the Cartagenan skyline. A genuinely fascinating place with a long history, it’s actually 4 or 5 different castles all rolled into one, and was constructed in such a manner that it wouldn’t ever be attacked, since it was so forbidding and with so many layers of protection. The audio guide available from the ticket office is great and really explains all this in detail.

Sentry boxes on every conceivable corner, looking towards strategic points on other fortifications around the harbour

A forbidding, nay impossible, wall to scale

One of the lower battlements, with rifle/boiling oil slits in the higher parts in case any intruders got this far…

Cannon emplacements. One was permanently aimed at the leper hospital just inside the outer walls, regarded as a point of susceptibility to attack. Harsh!

For me, the most fascinating parts were the vaults under the castle, a network of hundreds of alleyways, dead ends and ventilation shafts. I was quite surprised with the level of access they allowed- They simply said on the audio guide “If you’re planning to explore the deep ones, hand back the audio guide and tell the staff!”

Descending into the gloom

Upper galleries

Further down…

A side view to show the angle of the shiny brick path down to the bottom… Virtually impossible in worn-out boots so an undignified bum shuffle it was!

The light runs out

As you go deeper underground, sound disappears, you can hear nothing. The passageways start to get damp as you near the water table and then they stop lighting the lowest passageways. I managed to get a fairly good distance due to my trusty torch but when they started getting narrower and wetter I’m unashamed to say that I wimped out and headed back to the Cartagena sun.

Back up top

 Relief. Right, that was me done with Cartagena really. Just enough time to grab some lunch and hit the airport. 

Adios Cartagena, it’s been a blast 

A final and special mention here must go to the rudest English man I have ever encountered. “Taylor Room 13” was buying a beer at reception whilst I was booking my boat trip and I made an inconsequential, but friendly comment to him. He fixed me with a silent, intense and withering glare and then stalked off. So, if you’re reading this, “Taylor Room 13” then it was a pleasure. You utter valve.

Next up… best laid plans go awry in the Caribbean

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