Sunday, 22 June 2014

Cartagena, Colombia

If this post reads a little differently it's because CP wrote most of this one..!

Love this city!

We arrive in Cartagena just before midnight after being moved onto an earlier flight that was then delayed by an hour, but still got us in earlier than the 2am we had been expecting. Rich managed to negotiate a taxi price to our new home for the next three nights (we knew not to pay more than 10,000 pesos and thanks to Chris and Lucy, had some pesos to hand), only to find that our slightly entertaining, wolf whistling and direction seeking taxi driver would accept nothing less than 15,000 pesos once we had arrived at our destination. This strikes me as a strange time for him to try for a new price, since he's already taken us where we want to go, but it was midnight - we had been travelling for over 20 hours - so after some expert Spanish banter we let him have the extra $2.50 and woke up our air B&B hosts. Eduardo is a lovely Columbian guy who speaks good English and lives with his beautiful mother who speaks no English but had the most stunning green eyes! Their home is a little oasis in a beautiful city, and we couldn't have found a better place to stay.

We allowed ourselves a nice little sleep in in our luxurious comfy double bed and spent the day exploring the city - and what a city. Over the next couple of days, we would find it to be one of massive contrasts, and unique in every way. We spent the first day exploring the old town and the walled city, both of which we loved. We ate lunch (that we had acquired from a tiny little stall in the very back of some indoor market street, and what turned out to be a pretty awesome paella type dish) under a massive old tree with old men playing dominos, and then proceeded to snack our way through fresh orange juice, sliced mangos and cheesey bread (arepa) just because we could! 

We played with some pigeons in the park and brought some corn from an old man to ensure we got plenty of attention from the pigeons! 

We also managed to explore almost every shop and stall looking for Colombia world cup singlets. There were shirts for sale a plenty, but who wants to wear a shirt when it is THIS hot (we much prefer to show off our not so massive guns). After many false starts with a little too much commitment from the stallholders we found the perfect ones so we will be kitted out nicely for all of Colombia's games in the coming weeks.

CP cooked up a great dinner of the biggest steaks (we bought them from the market for about $4, and only needed one between us they were so big, and sooo good), with lots of fresh vegetables, something that is distinctly lacking in a regular meal here. Colombian food is nothing particularly unique to write home about but it is a solid staple and so long as we avoid too many of the fresh juices (delicious but loaded with extra tablespoons of sugar), you can eat out pretty healthily...ish! Still, being able to cook up in our own kitchen was a bit of a novelty and was a refreshing change.

It is probably easier to get the feeling of the town from our pictures...why we fell in love with it is because it is a city of contrasts (old vs new, skyscrapers vs wooden houses and tin roofs, rich vs poor) and yet has still somehow managed to retain a feeling of magic despite the somewhat touristy St Malo style walled city and skyscrapers on the beach....!

We were staying in Getsemani, which has traditionally been the rougher part of Cartagena (brothels, drugs, etc) but is now the BEST part of the city with tiny little lanes, colourful houses, clever graffiti and friendly happy people who all congregate around the little square at night, watching musicians and entertainers, playing chess or dominos or just have a few drinks and eating from the nearby food stalls. We spent an evening in the square with Yohan (a full of life and friendly Finnish guy who we met in Antigua, Guatemala, about a month earlier) and who we had magically bumped into directly outside our place as he happened to be staying in the hostel right next door. 

We were moved off the steps of the church by policemen because whilst it was absolutely fine to drink our beers (purchased from the most profitable corner shop in Cartagena), it was not allowed on the steps of the church... something about being disrespectful... sorry - we moved as soon as this was explained, although most of the locals took no notice of the police...

The next day was spent exploring the other side of cartagena, the "city" and the beaches.  We walked about 5km to get there and saw a whole different side of cartagena, with sky scrapers, massive chain shops and expensive hotels. We made our way to the quieter beach away from the tourists and skyscrapers and spent the day on deck chairs, eating ice cream and avoiding men trying to sell us crabs from little eskies who had a habit of throwing fresh crab with lime straight into your mouth before you could say no! Despite politely telling them, "no thanks, maybe later", they continue... and then ask for $10. If they'd been more reasonable we'd have happily paid, but at this point we turned and walked away, leaving a slightly confused Colombiano calling out progressively lower prices to us as we disappeared into the distance.

CP got a pretty average foot massage for $5, and an epic fruit salad made on the spot by a lady carrying an entire fruit salad bowl on her head. This was never actually asked for and after several failed attempts to ascertain the price, (even having to ask RD if she was saying "quanto es?" wrong?), a massive plate of fruit salad had been cut and placed on her knee. It turned out to be $3, so we couldn't really complain and so enjoyed our special treat in the setting sun (take note crab man!).

We then hightailed it back home so we wouldn't miss that nights activities - the chiva rumba bus! This turned out to be the best idea and we had a wickedly fun night..despite a rather slow start. What is a Chiva Rumba we hear you ask? Basically it is a open aired bus that cruises the streets of Cartagena playing live music and having a party, with each row of seats (eventually) being issued with a bottle of rum, a bottle of come, and a bucket of ice. It's full of tourists, Latino tourists that is, and we (together with Yohan) were the only non-Latino travellers on board (which was a good thing!). We duly purchased two Maracca type "instruments" to get into the mood, negotiated by RD from $15 to $5, (of course, CP left one on the bus when we got off...) and were ready to party!! The essence of the party bus is perhaps best described by pictures we think...

The slow start of the night was due to us arriving at the allocated pick up point outside the clock tower at 7:30pm to get on the bus, then waiting for it to fill up while we haggled for the maracas, and then cruised around the city picking up randoms until the bus was absolutely full. During this time, no rum was flowing, thus the "slow start"... although there was live music on board the bus courtesy of a 5 man band and two guys on microphones getting everyone into the mood, both of which totally authenticated the whole experience even if we couldn't understand what was being said. Still the crowd was getting restless, occasional chanting "thirsty, thirsty, thirsty!", in Spanish of course (we understood that!). Luckily for us, Yohan had brought his own half bottle of rum and so we shared that, and had finished that off before the "rum" part of our party bus officially started! Anyways, once the bus was full, out came the plastic glasses, the ice buckets, the coke and the rum for each row of the bus. The bus had little holders made up to hold each essential item... genius! Now the fun really started, as a dancing competition of the men on the bus is announced, and a demo of the dance is given by the two hosts on microphones who stand up, turn around and start wiggling their butts in the air dancing...then each of the men in each row had to do the same...hilarious!

CP got a special go later on when cries of "Australie" managed to cascade over the din of the band and the microphone! We proceeded to cruise around town signing at the top of our lungs, making as much noise as possible with our maracca's and dancing on the benches. We had three stops enough route, one at the old port for some tourist site seeing (we think that they have to do some tourist guide aspect to legitimize the party bus...).

The second time for a bit of a street party where we all danced in the street and watched some professionals show us all up:

And then finally at a club for an hour of boogie time! We loved it and danced non stop... CP rather like a maniac but there is nothing unusual there! it was a great way to finish the night and really was one of the funnest nights we've had so far.

There was one dampner on the night though - whilst we were in the club and unbeknownst to us at the time, Yohan had found himself getting asked if he would like a prostitute for the night...but not just any prostitute, a child. In retrospect, it did explain why there was a 13 year old girl sitting in the area we were dancing in. once we knew why, it made us feel sick...We came to understand that child prostitution is a very real issue in Cartagena in particular.

While the age of consent here is 14, and while prostitution is legal (tolerated?), it is absolutely not legal for a 14 year old to be prostituted out. Seeing that innocent looking girl with what looked like her mum and grandmother in the club whilst the dad (or her pimp?) tried to find her clients is something that we will not forget, nor is it something that we can understand...there are so many reasons for the situation that girl found herself in, money, crime, necessity, fear...We will never know but what we do know was that Yohan refused the invitation (obviously), and we all felt very sad afterwards.

We spent our final day in Cartagena exploring other parts of the city, taking lots of pics of amazing graffiti art, traversing side alleys, eating ice cream (the very friendly guy immediately recognised us as regulars, this being about our 5th ice cream session in 3 days, our obsession starting with CP buying an ice cream for a homeless man who gave us the biggest toothless smile whilst he devoured it sitting under he bin he was using as a shade) and exploring the old fort. The pictures probably tell the story of the fort better than words, so here is a few choice pics of the city's famous defensive fort and a snippet of its history from the ever correct Wikipedia...

"The fortress was begun in 1536. It was significantly expanded in 1657. It was built in a triangular shape on top of the hill, with eight guns and a garrison of 20 soldiers and 4 gunners. Its name was given in honour of Philip IV of Spain. Another expansion was made to the fortress in 1763 by Antonio de Arévalo.

In the 1697 raid on Cartagena, during the War of the Grand Alliance, the castle fell to the French privateer Baron de Pointis. The castle was repaired by José de Herrera y Sotomayor in 1739. British Admiral Edward Vernon attacked the fortress in the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias, an important conflict of the War of Jenkins' Ear. Vernon's forces were repelled by the Spanish admiral Blas de Lezo. By mid-1815 a large Spanish expeditionary force under Pablo Morillo had arrived in New Granada. Cartagena fell in December, and by May 1816 the royalists had control of all of New Granada.

The fortification consists of a series of walls, wide at the base and narrow toward the parapet, forming a formidable pattern of bunkers. The batteries and parapets protect one another, so making it practically impossible to take a battery without taking the whole defence system. The stone blocks used to build the castle were said to be splattered with the blood of slaves as Cartagena was a port of the black slave trade. The guns of the castle commanded the whole bay, so that any suspicious vessel attempting to dock could be attacked.

The castle is striking for its grand entrance and its complex maze of tunnels. It is the most formidable defensive complex of Spanish military architecture."

Impressive stuff - and in 1586 it was a target for a young Francis Drake to plunder on his way to becoming a Sir.

There's only time for another ice cream before we have to leg it back to our house, to wait for our bus pickup to take us to Santa Marta. Expectations are high as Chris and Lucy have raced about an Aussie run hostel there so we're all booked in and raring to go!

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