Thirty-six hours in Cartagena

I boarded my flight to Cartagena early Friday morning, June 10. I slept most the way to Fort Lauderdale, and once I boarded my second flight, I found myself sitting between a Colombian middle-aged man named Edgar, and a young American-Colombian high school graduate named Sarah (she had taken my seat in the window and being the sucker that I am I said no problem, have it, sure go ahead why not!). Edgar immediately wanted a selfie with me and Sarah, so I happily obliged. We chatted a bit in my broken Spanish. I told both him and Sarah what I was doing in Colombia - searching for an incredibly rare rodent in the jungles of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta. I think this sentence usually appeals to everyone, am I right? Edgar told me to be careful and asked if I was traveling alone. Luckily my friend and work colleague, Chris Jordan, was meeting me in Cartagena for the first two weeks of my trip. Edgar seemed happy that I would not be alone (a common theme since I’ve told people I am going to Colombia).

Once I landed in Cartagena, I immediately felt at home. The warm air, Spanish, and vivid colors, broken and dilapidated homes reminded me of Cuba. The Afro-Caribbean region of Latin America is quite different than other parts of the region, and tends to give rise to a more lively reputation. Once I grabbed my monster bags (mind you I was carrying 70 lbs on my 115 frame body). I proceeded to customs. I was anxiously awaiting the interrogation I would have at customs, “what is all this equipment?”, “where are you going?”, “who are you working with?” etc. However, once I handed my customs sheet to the man at the airport exit he gestured for me to move forward, without scanning my bags in the machine, like all the others had done before me. I was quite surprised but didn’t hesitate to take all my equipment and hastily move toward the exit to wait for Chris.

Once we got into the cab, the presence of the policia was quite noticeable. Armed police stood on most street blocks as we passed through poorer regions of the city on our way to downtown Cartagena. Colombian cities* are known for their heavy police presence, which is seen as the government’s way of keeping peace in these regions.
*the smaller towns and campesinos have had virtually no government assistance and largely live in poverty without any access to amenities like roads, hospitals, food etc. These people were the most impacted by the drug trafficking, paramilitary, and guerilla groups that has wreaked havoc through the country since the 1950s.

After a bit of fumbling and sweating trying to figure out where our Airbnb was, we settled in with Ofelia and her kids in the neighborhood of Getsmani. Getsmani is a super hip neighborhood bordering the walled city aka tourist destination for Cartagena. Apparently a few years ago Getsmani used to be rough, but it has now come up as the artistic neighborhood of Cartagena, full of young hipsters, street art, and trendy cafes and bars (at least my cell phone app said so). My favorite part of the city was walking around Getsmani photographing the vibrant colors and street art, and of course, the cats and dogs.

Since we had such little time in Cartagena, we stayed mostly within the tourist area of the walled city (there is literally a wall surrounding the city). We ate an abundance of Colombian food including arepas (thicker tortillas, made out of maize, usually containing some cheese products), jugos (delicious freshly made juice drinks- pina, mora, lulo, y limonda con menta- a personal favorite), fruits of all kinds, stinky cheese soups, beans and rice, pechuga (chicken breast), and more. The food here is tasty, but not heavily spiced. Rather the one heavy thing is sugar, Colombians love their sugar.

Because it is throughout the year a generally cool 97 degrees, I attempted to drag Chris to the beach. We went to the most tourist-filled beach and got harassed the entire time we were there, “buy this table; oh you want a drink? I go get it for you; massage!” I ended up getting two “free” foot massages, not because I wanted to, but because I literally could not pull my foot away. The women would walk up to you with some kind of soapy/lotion mixture in a squirt bottle, grab your foot, and begin massaging “no es una regala para ti” (it’s a gift for you). Yeah right. Luckily one was a gift, the other tried to get me to buy her beer. I said no. We got the hell out of there after a couple hours, and went immediately to a bar which led to a rather spontaneous night that ended with dancing at the famous Café Havana.

After attempting to crash a wedding in the walled city, we made our way back toward our neighborhood. Copa America (a big futbol tournament for those of you who’ve been living under the NBA finals rock) is going on, so the bars were crowded with Colombians and tourists alike watching the Colombia vs. Costa Rica game. We grabbed a warm beer and watched a half. Afterward, we meandered up the street and ended up in front of Café Havana. We had read about Café Havana, a fun night club where the ron y musica go all night, and Chris and I decided to pay the 12,000 cover (~ $4) to check out the hype. It was 9:45 pm and we were literally the only people there with the exception of a young woman who sat alone at the bar. Her name was Hannah, she was from Toronto and traveling throughout Colombia alone. Naturally, I struck up a conversation and we drank mojitos with her until the band finally arrived. We had the nicest bartender, and he let us try his favorite kind of rum which was a mere $250. I was still sandy from the beach, had no make-up on, and was wearing my swimsuit under my ratty jean shorts and work out tank top. The place had already filled up by the time the band arrived (around 11:45 pm) and I grabbed a front row spot on the dance floor. I had a wonderful time dancing like a wannabe Colombian while playing the part of dirty hippie. Like many foreign women, Colombians are quite striking. At one point, a beautiful, woman dressed in a skin tight long white dress, with jet black hair and red lipstick asked me where I was from. I told her los estados unidos and she told me I danced like a Colombian (I always take these to be the best compliments ever!). Chris and I chatted with her for a bit. She had a Chinese boyfriend who spent most the year in China and hardly spoke English and then there was an older male sidekick there as well. Not sure what was going on, but it was quite the trio, wish I had snapped a picture.

We finally left around 1:30 am, but not before my favorite bartender handed me a free Heineken for the walk home. Needless to say Chris and I did NOT need the Heineken, and I promptly dumped it into one of the local plants. The next day we woke up, bleary –eyed, and hopped on the MarSol bus that would take us to our next destination: Santa Marta.

Chillin in the hammock outside Ofelia's

View from the top of the wall

Bad drinks at a fancy ex-pat bar

Chris' doppleganger!!

One of my favorite doors

Los colores brilliantes!


The famous Cafe Havana

The beginning of my Cats of Colombia album



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