We had anticipated a grungy port city, enduring long days waiting for the van to arrive. But Cartagena turned out to be a joy to visit almost from the time we arrived. I say almost because there was that moment at the airport. Going through customs, we were surprised to see a short line just for Canadians. Wow! We skipped up to the window with the red maple leaf sticker. How nice to get special service. Our smiles quickly faded when we learned that incoming Canadians are slapped with a reciprocity fee of $80 US each. This is apparently in retaliation for fees that Canada places on Columbians who venture there. As we offered up the payment, the Customs officer smiled wryly and said, “Bienvenidos a Columbia”.
For the first two nights we stayed in the district of Getsemani, which a few years ago would have been a dangerous decision. But today the old narrow sidewalks are full of backpackers of all ages, who hail from many countries of the world, including Columbia. The hotels are small but clean, welcoming, and artfully decorated. Even though our hotel was inexpensive, it had a large two story water feature. To get to our room we crossed a little bridge over a pool of coy and catfish. On the streets colourful graffiti art covered many of the walls, and men pushed wooden carts loaded with mangos, bananas, papaya, oranges and apples. At night we sat on benches in the small square in front of the church where locals and travellers mixed, relishing the balmy evening air. Meat was grilled at food carts, and coffee served from thermoses. Behind us, a tienda sold beer in plastic cups. Two young men tried to sell us tours to the islands but when we said no thanks, they sat down to chat so that one could practice his English. And then he graciously said, “Now it’s your turn, talk in Spanish”. He was a sweet kid.
One evening we walked by the convention center and saw that it was set up for a outdoor concert. We decided to hang out on the street and listen but a man soon hailed us down offering tickets for a decent price. We went for it. It turned out to be Wilfrido Venza, a well known Columbian musician and trumpeter. His music style is known as marenque. Wilfrido was sporting a sparkling silver jacket with black pants, and his four singers were wearing white jackets. They were backed by 2 trumpets, 2 saxophones, 1 trombone, a keyboard and a set of conga drums. The instruments were just wild. The crowd was pumped, familiar with the music, singing along and dancing non stop. That step looks simple, but the hip action is tricky. We were hopeless, but it was a great night.
From Getsemani we could walk to two touristy areas. One was the Castillo San Filipe, used as a defence against the English and French in the 16 and 1700’s. It was a well restored stone structure, with maps and descriptions provided along the walkable route.
And from the height, the views of the city were spectacular.
The other area we walked to was the old city. Surrounded by the original wall, it now hosts upscaled shops, emerald stores, restaurants, and probably anything you want. But we had to endure a swarm of hawkers.
Selfie challenged in Cartagena Columbia
The number one item to hawk was a hat. Made of palm fibre they are light weight and foldable. Most tourists were wearing one, including me.
We enjoyed the numerous statues, sculptures, and old architecture. Each area has posted placards describing the historical significance. For us it was a happy place to stroll about.
We moved to another hotel in an area known as Bocagrande, a newer district built on a long spit of land that runs out into the ocean. About four blocks wide, it was full of tall apartment and office buildings, and many small restaurants with dining areas in or out. An unshaded beach ran the entire length of one side.
The sun was scorching and everyone sat under the long rows of blue and yellow umbrellas. The ocean water was cool, with gentle waves and a soft sandy bottom. Hawkers offered tours to pristine islands, but this beach was good enough for us.
The container with our two vans arrived at port on Saturday night. Bright and early Monday morning Michaela, Peter, Bob and I met at the Sociedad Portuaria to start the unloading process. As vehicle title holders, the entire job fell to Michaela and I. Day one was 8 hours going to banks, Customs, the shipping agent office, the photocopy shop, and then around again. Each time we completed a section we would have to return to the port and sit in front of Rafaela’s desk waiting for further instructions.
It was a bit like playing a live board game.
On Tuesday morning we finally opened the container about 930. The batteries had all been disconnected at loading, but there was no space to squeeze past our van to the hood. I crawled in the back door, over the bed, and leaned over the two bikes to reconnect the solar battery. It was at least 120 degrees in there and immediately rivers of sweat ran inside my clothing.
Strangely, the helper hombre crawled over the bed behind me, resulting in a tangle of arms and legs as he tried to climb over me and the bikes. What are you doing Dude? He thought that I could open the window and he would climb out to the front of the van. When I explained that the windows only worked via the battery under the hood, he was disappointed. He crawled back over the bed again and the next I saw, he was shimmying up the van and over the sideview mirror. But thankfully he made it to the front end and reconnected the battery. Both vans were backed out and parked. Then another walk to Customs for more paperwork. Streamline is not a process in Columbia. At 3 PM Vanna and I finally drove through the gate and picked up Bob.
Saying goodbye to Peter and Michaela, we headed directly out of the city. We stopped at a finca (farm) named El Manantial, about an hour from Cartagena. There we experienced both good and bad.
The good was that the farm was a haven. It had a beautiful shaded camp spot overlooking the Pacific and at night we could see the lights of Cartagena in the distance. There was a banana grove, an orange tree and lots of other shade trees and palms.
The domestic animals included a flock of African sheep who came by to inspect our stuff, a very pink pig, a braying burro, five dogs and a gorgeous Macaw sporting brilliant blue and yellow plumage.
Guaca, as he was named, could screech and whistle like a trooper. He would shout and talk in earnest, until I showed up with a camera to video, and then he would not make a sound.
Farm owner, Graham, retired from the British consulate in Columbia, is a wealth of knowledge about the country and how it has changed from the violence of the drug cartel days to a relatively safe country today. He relayed stories of creating the farm or of rescuing travelling Brits from his consulate days. We enjoyed every conversation with him.
The bad was that on the way to the campsite the van suddenly lost power. Bob had to coax it the last few miles of gravel road, and up the long driveway. The fuel pump was hooped. Bob was thinking tow truck, hoist, mega bucks. But Graham called a mechanic, Luis, on our behalf, and right at the camp spot he dropped the tank and replaced the pump over two days. In scorching heat plus he had to motorcycle into Cartagena to get parts. Graham very kindly assisted us with all the steps in dealing with the mechanic. We can’t thank him enough.
And then there were the toads in the toilet. Central to the campsite was an open air kitchen and two small tiled rooms, each with toilet, sink and shower. On our first evening, when I opened the door of toilet one, a brown toad with toes, was sitting on the lid. His black beady eyes looked directly at me. I closed the door. Toilet two was no better. A gigantic toad with larger toes, was spread eagle, plastered to the wall like a glob of sticky goo. That was disconcerting. I opened the toilet lid slowly. Five smaller toads were jumping around inside the bowl. I closed the lid. Back to toilet one where Lid Sitter had disappeared. Good. But when I opened the toilet lid, out jumped a toad the size of my fist. In one gigantic leap, he cleared the bowl, and stuck to the wall. He stayed hanging there, staring at me. Oh, so you can jump and stick? Great. Four smaller amigos were crouching inside the bowl near the rim. I closed the lid.
The great outdoors was far preferable to having an amphibian stuck to my butt.
The next day the toads disappeared but in the evening they were back. Gigantic Toad from the previous evening was the size of a softball. He had dropped down from the wall and sat crouched in a corner on the floor, as still as ceramic. Except for his buggy eyes. He glared at me. I sat on the toilet and glared back. “Don’t you dare jump”. I was fighting with a toad. It was nerve wracking. Yes, welcome to Columbia.
The Plan Head south to Medellin, and then on to Ecuador.