Soaking In Cartagena
Panama City - Cartagena - Bogotá - Omaha
Cartagena Hampton Inn
Siempre he dicho que uno envejece más rápido en los retratos que en la vida real.
- Colombian author and Nobel Prize Winner Gabriel García Márquez
The key to this global soul, for everyone, lay entirely in perception; it was not so much that man had been exiled from the Garden as that he had ceased to notice that it was all around him. - Pico Iyer
"Scuba Steve, you want to go to Colombia in March?"
"Sure, but I have to be back by March 22nd."
"That works for me. I should probably ask my wife first."
The trip was set.
That was the amount of extensive planning involved in a quick jaunt to the home of Pablo Escobar, Shakira, Fernando Botero, and FARC.
Panama was a nice morning starter, but Colombia called. After a shared airport taxi with a salon owner from Maryland, I was at the modern Cartagena Hampton Inn situated at the heart of the Bocagrande neighborhood, just mere steps from the north facing Playa Bocagrande. There I met Scuba Steve.
Seventeen years prior to this encounter at the foot of the Hampton Inn, I had deliberated and decided to leave the United States and volunteer for sixteen months in Bolivia and Peru. I brought all the necessities. Or at least the ones I thought I would need over that time. In the end, I literally brought two body bag sized duffle bags jammed with six sticks of deodorant, every single CD I owned, a foldable chair (yes, literally a camping foldable chair), and every other “necessity”. Like a novice traveler (I just backpacked Europe for six weeks for the second consecutive summer), I thought this was all needed.
In addition to those two duffel bags, I imported a large backpack and my girlfriend’s large hard cased turquoise suitcase. It was a bit too much. You can imagine my host family’s surprise in Cochabamba when they picked me up at the airport. We took a longer than expected amount of time stuffing this tall gringo’s belongings in their small sedan. It was at this point that I realized, “I brought way too much shit! This is ridiculous and a bit embarrassing.” Over the next three months in Bolivia, before a subsequent move onto Peru, I gave away the majority of my “necessary” belongings in a place that had true need. This abruptly changed my perspective of “need” and “want”.
In contrast, my preparations for a brief morning stop in Panama City and four days in Colombia, I brought one simple backpack. Simplicity. Minimalism. I wasn’t weighed down by possessions, but open to my surroundings and new memories. We booked flights and reserved a hotel with the modern convenience of digital currencies. Travel has never been so easy in this contemporary world for the Western traveler. Marco Polo would shed a tear. My route to Colombia was indirect. From Omaha, my plane headed west to Denver before eventually heading south to Panama City through the night. Travel started on a Saturday and concluded on a Sunday in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia.
Cartagena de Indias, situated along one of the most northern port cities along the coast of Colombia and South America, had been a vital Spanish port. Founded in 1533, this port shipped natural resources and South American booty back to Spain. The French, English, and the occasional pirate ship attacked this strategical port. Yet the Spanish cleverly built fortresses to fend them off. It was successful most of the time. The French and English did finagle control a few times, but it would return to Spanish hands. This historical presence provided a foundation to Cartagena's current burgeoning tourist industry and livelihood. As Colombia sheds the black eye of the decades-long conflict with the FARC, Colombia flavor has drawn travelers and industries alike with Cartagena as one of the main attractions.
After a brief nap, I headed with Scuba Steve to the colorful Old Town. A consistent northern breeze swam down the narrow roads bordered by brightly dyed facades of colonial homes and buildings. We weren't alone. On this extended Saint Joseph's holiday weekend, thousands of wanderers roamed the same venerable pathways and historical murallas. Interestingly enough, Cartagena is a favored spot to an eclectic mix of visitors from Latin America, Europe, and North America. The Old Town was a fashionable place to be.
The next morning, our Islas del Rosario tour indicated that they would pick us up between 6:15 and 6:45. My past experience in Latin America read that scheduled time to really be somewhere between 6:55 and 7:30. Much to my astonishment and Steve's chagrin over a lazy breakfast, our guide Arthur pulled up at 6:10. He waited for 10 minutes. That pokes a hole in my conventional knowledge of Latin American timeliness.
This was without a doubt the most eclectic and diverse group of tourists in one tour. There was a smattering of ages, homelands, professions, and personalities. There were two 20 something Ecuadorian guys from Guayaquil; a middle-aged couple from Cartagena, a quiet single Ukrainian woman who claimed to come to Colombia once a year; two younger girls from Mexico and the Dominican Republic pounding beers at 7:30 in the morning at the back of the bus; a young reserved German couple (redundant?) seated at the front; a pair of North Carolina realtors couple; a pair of friends from Pamplona, Spain; a reticent American couple; and two New Jersey friends.
We traveled by bus for an hour to Isla Barú where we boarded two outrigger boats and departed swiftly to Isla Grande, Playa Blanca, and Playa Cholón.
Hundreds of meters offshore from Isla Grande, the boat set anchor, we entered the water hovering over the juxtaposition of healthy and dead segments of coral reef while aquarium quality fish swam around the healthy portions. While we swam, one of our guides thoughtfully returned to the beach to fish . . . for a solo Spanish girl's phone number.
The tour continued to Playa Cholón. This must have been the party beach awash with two-speed boats anchored down pumping Reggaeton off the beach. Scantily clad girls danced and giggled happily on one boat while the guys clutched their cans of Club Colombia on the other. Despite our diversity, our group never revealed itself as a wild one, other than the Mexican girl downing beers for breakfast. Arthur questioned us whether or not we wanted to spend time on the spit of sand that is Playa Fiesta, but in reality, I assumed it was an unwritten required stop. Boats stop so the purveyors on this pitch of sun-drenched sand have a constant flow of tourists who overpay for beer and lobster while guides receive a little kickback.
Our stay was brief, but Steve and I chatted up the odd pairing of New Jersey friends. Anna was actually a seasoned solo traveler and accountant born in Israel and her friend, whose name Steve and I never actually caught, was a delivery driver in the Bronx. They were a juxtaposition of travel acumen. She had been around the world and carried an aura of coolness, he, on the other hand, was awe-struck by . . . basically everything, and we got along with them well.
The chilled out sister to Playa Cholón was Isla Blanca. There we lazed on the beach. I admired my lost friends, sun and warmth, vital elements missing the last four months in the American Midwest. While drinking my Coco Loco (a mix of young coconut water and rum), two touts approached. The first woman approached me and said, "Te pareces muy estresado amor. Necesitas un masaje" just as her friend repeated verbatim the same line to Scuba Steve and our unknown named Jersey friend (for now we'll call him Dan). I mentioned to her that both of them had just said the same thing, so she changed it and replaced love with cutie. It felt more genuine at that point.
She leisurely sauntered behind me in the midday sun and started rubbing my shoulders. "¡Demasiado tenso amor!" At which point she grabbed my head and quickly gave it a quick turn to the right and my neck popped. If it had been an episode of Narcos, I would have been one of the extras that got whacked whose body went limp without uttering a single word. I passed on the massage and happily accepted another Coco Loco.
We returned to Isla Barú through choppy surf to lunch on a second-floor dining area overlooking the throngs of people fêting Saint Joseph's Day at the beach. Hannah, "Dan", Steve, and I agreed to meet up later for rum flights and steak. The fantastic steak and rum flight back at Carbon de Palo finished the day off well in Bocagrande.
Prior to our arrival, there was little commitment to planning. Tuesday's goal? Visit the UNESCO site Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. Other than that, no real plans. Once we flagged down a part-time university engineering student, part-time taxi driver to pay for schooling, Sebastián calmly offered to drive us to the most noteworthy sites in town. We deliberated briefly and then eagerly agreed to tour the sites in his air-conditioned taxi. His yellow taxi cooly climbed the tallest hill in Cartagena up to 17th century Convento de la Popa. This convent overlooks Old Town Cartagena and provides some of the best panoramic views in every direction.
The highlight of this afternoon, other than seeing Steve's sweaty shirt in the tropical humidity and heat, was our visit to the strategically located Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fortress guards Cartagena's port. It protected the city in more dubious times. Just as impressive as the Spanish ingenuity and architecture in this era was all the Instagram and Snapchat worthy poses people struck. I tried my best to match their modeling prowess, but there was much lacking. The most ridiculous was the couple's "spontaneous" kiss right on the corner of the upper level with the Colombian flag perfectly placed over their shoulders blowing in the wind. It only took 90 seconds to get that shot. We finally were allowed to pass.
Wednesday arrived and signaled our departures. Scuba Steve flew to Atlanta. My return flight included a ten-hour layover in Bogota.
In general, art doesn’t grab my attention. But one Colombian artist, in particular, caught my eye. In my opinion, the work of Colombian artist Fernando Botero is exceptional. Originally from Medellín, some of his work is on display downtown in La Candelaria area at Museo Botero. Botero has the unique ability to take normal human forms or even historical events and in an Impressionist style make them rounder, plumper, less daunting. In Bogota, I fixated my energy on visiting Museo Botero.
I disembarked the short flight from Cartagena and hailed a taxi. Actually, the taxi driver hailed me. He briskly lead me to the parking lot, past the queue of patiently waiting taxis outside the terminal. What caught me off guard was not his cutting the line, but the sheer magnitude and beauty of Bogotá. In my experience, I would rarely describe Latin American capitals as beautiful (i.e. Lima and La Paz), but like a Botero painting, the Cerros Orientales simply framed the city and aroused my curiosity.
After energetically perusing Botero's works, I set out on foot under partly cloudy skies to the base of Cerro Monserrate. I climbed in the funicular and rode up to Sanctuary at 3,100 meters above sea level and the 360-degree views of the expanse that is Bogota. I concluded my layover with steak and conversations at the multi-floored restaurant Andrés D.C. In addition to the second best steak in Colombia, they created the most colorful and comprehensive menu I have ever seen. This menu could serve as a Spanish textbook for at least a semester.
Four days in Cartagena and Bogota, Colombia was short-lived but captivated my attention leaving me wanting more.
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Author John White.
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