Cartagena: Two Reinas in Colombia.
Cartagena is one of the famous hotspots in Colombia. You might have heard about the CIA prostitution scandal that happened a few months back with some of Obamas men getting themselves into a bit of a pickle with some of the working girls in the area, and it would be hard to deny that sex tourism is a strong draw for many middle aged tubby white men. And yes, this is quite evident as you are in the street. Its not unusual to see two señoritas led by a gent with silver hair, tucking their bare bronzed legs into the taxi as he wraps his arms around their tanned, skinny shoulders and pulls them in for a snuggle as they head off to his hotel.
However, as I am sure you can guess this was more of an undesirable footnote rather than an attraction to the area for my Mexican amiga and I. We made plans to head up to the Caribbean coast because this weekend was a bank holiday festival – the carnival for Miss Colombia – and we wanted to check it out. We headed up on the Friday, we left early and were lucky enough to get pushed into Priority so we avoided the queues. Two things that I cannot stand include waiting, and travelling, so I was pretty pleased to be able to alleviate some of this stress. When we arrived the Caribbean heat hit us and we jumped into a cab with a young shouty taxista, who was very annoyed at how the taxi line was being organized. We had some banter and I told him to stop being so serious as he was going to ruin my first impressions of Cartagena. He gave me his card which read “El famoso rompe corazones” (The Famous Heartbreaker) and asked me to smile, with that he told me that I had paid for the taxi, he jumped back into the taxi and sped off without charging us. Good first impression restored.
We were staying in a hostel slap bang in the middle of the old part of the city, which has a colonial feel not dissimilar to that of the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. All the houses had fat old wooden doors with huge bolts and many were painted pretty Caribbean colours like pink, yellow and blue. The streets in the Old City are small and just make room for the horse and carriages taking wealthy visitors around, as well as the little yellow taxi cabs.
This weekend the city was crazy busy, and as we ditched our stuff we went out to eat and run some errands. I had to pay a bill in a specific place so we took a taxi out of the Old City to a shopping centre in the wider region of Cartagena de las Indias. Outside of the quaint, touristy area things are a little more straggly, and there were a lot of people sitting by the sides of the road, chilling, watching the traffic go by. It is crazy to have spent three and a half months living in Bogota, which is nestled in the mountains and has a bizarre mixmash of a climate, to experience an area that ticks all the boxes of a Caribbean island. It was boiling, there was fried everything, everywhere, the girls were wearing crazy bright tank tops and diamante jeans with impressive nail extensions, and there was reggaeton blasting out of every crack in the pavement.
One distinct feature that I felt about the people in Cartagena was that they were a lot more down to earth than the people in Bogota. Much as I love the capital, it sense of humanity between strangers is frozen, as you see in London and Paris. Everyone is going about their business, running as if they were on a treadmill that never stops, that won’t let them look to the side and see the homeless man looking through the rubbish for something to eat. When we were in a resto-café, we ordered a plate of fried fish, creole rice, plantains and salad. Yes, this was definitely the route to an early heart attack, but it was also DELICIOUS at a mere two quid. The place was full of Costeños, (people from the coast, as opposed to gringos) and all of them put together their leftovers in a takeaway box to give to the guys who were begging outside. It might not seem like a huge gesture, but having seen people completely ignore brothers and sisters in the street, it struck me to see people going around the tables, carefully picking out pieces of meat to share with those outside.
We were in a hostel but we went about it the comfy way with a private room and en suite, and we met a lot of backpackers. They were very nice people, but it was strange having hardly seen any English speaking people to bump into some “gringos” with their flip flops, battered guidebooks and of course, those beasty backpacks. There’s this stereotype of having a rugged beard, dirty feet and a shitload of bracelets and necklaces bought of that market that makes the backpacking lot look very bohemian. They all seemed to be enjoying themselves, but I really clocked that I travelling like that wouldn’t suit me or my desire to see more of the world. I like travelling with people who know the area, fully immersing myself in the culture and getting my teeth into the language. I guess there are different ways to travel depending on what you want, but the most important thing is that each person finds what satisfies them.
We took a fat off bus journey along to coast to the very pretty Santa Marta for the day on Saturday. The buses in Latin America are very often more comfortable than planes, but I guess that is because there aren’t any trains. We made our way to the beach, and then hopped on a boat just the two of us to get to a more secluded beach called Playa Blanca. I bought some arroz con coco, a sweet Caribbean version of rice pudding, and we lounged out for the afternoon, feeling very much detached from the craziness of Bogota. We made friends with a Colombian fitness model with a cracking bod, who seemed to continuously be rubbing tanning oil onto her chest and glutes (this is the perfect word to describe that derriere…). Later we took the big journey back to Cartagena, and went on a nighttime adventure exploring the nooks and crannies of the Old City. As it was the festival weekend, there were stages with live music, plenty of street vendors, and groups of people sitting in plastic chairs in the street soaking in the atmosphere.
The next day was CARNIVAL DAY! The city was packed full of people, armed with spray foam to attack passersby, so we carefully slash sprinted to the promenade, where the procession was going to pass by. It was sweltering and everyone was in tiny shorts and t shirts, sunglasses firmly on the face, milling through the security to where the crowds were congregating to watch the carnival. To get up into the seated platforms and have a good view you have to buy tickets, which we hadn’t done, but the carnival fairy have us a hand and we managed to bag a pair for free.
The carnival was as would be expected: colourful loud and very very dancey. Each of the Reinas or Queens went past on huge floats, shimmying away in teeny tiny bikinis and killer platforms, and we could hear the commentator over the loadspeaker repeatedly commenting on their “cuerpos perfectos, cuerpos naturales” which was a massive joke. Although the Reinas were all objects of “perfection”, I would question the claim that they were all natural. After all, Colombia is renowned as being a hotspot for plastic surgery – you see huge billboards for it around town, and even commercials on television. Each area of Colombia had a beauty out there to represent them, and the competition took place the day after at a swanky hotel, watched by the whole country in their living rooms.
All of the spectators were whining away to the music enjoying themselves, and from the safety of our paid-for seats we could see randomers being attacked with the dreaded foam spray in the crowds. As we were going to leave I bumped into some of the other assistants for the British Council who are working in Barranquilla which was a nice surprise – I hadn’t seen them since the week that we had arrived!
We went home to wash off the sweat and spray and went out on a mission for ice cream. Considering that Cartagena is a beach city, it was surprising how difficult it was to find an Heladeria that sold ice cream, and we wound up in a very swish bar where the ice cream cost an arm and a leg, but we decided it was worth the sacrifice.
As we were ordering, a gentleman on the next table interrupted us to ask the waitress something and I got a bit narked because I thought it was really rude. He apologized and I aired him, but later when we were asking drinks prices the waitress told us not to worry, as the gentleman had said he was going to cover our tab. The three of them came over and apologized to us, and invited us to join them. We rejected their offer initially, but they won us over with a bit of charm and we sat outside and shared virgin cocktails and fancy food. It was a really fun night and the atmosphere was very relaxed, so we went onto a club later on. Not being from Cartagena, my friend and I would never have found this place, it was very exclusive and full of the “It” people who were in town for the carnival. We were definitely not dressed for the venue, but it didn’t really matter, we were dancing away in our flats and watching all of the interesting people. Finally we left the guys to do what they needed to do and made our way back to the hostel, having had an incredibly fun and spontaneous night.
The next day we were due to get our plane and we arrived on time, but somehow managed to miss the flight whilst waiting in the waiting room. It was a bit of a nightmare and we had to pay a bomb to get new flights. As you can imagine, being the impatient person that I am, I wasn’t very pleased. But I think God was trying to balance out all of the good luck that we had had throughout the weekend! Luckily my fairy-grandmother in the UK came to the rescue, and we managed to get flights that were to leave in the evening, as I had to be at work at 9am the next day. We ended up having one of those deep conversations where you really get to know the other person and what events have shaped their lives, so I would say that it wasn’t all bad. At one point we were sitting outside the airport with our bags and I was joking out loud to passers by that I had spent all of my money on my flight home, that my mum was in another country and that I really wanted an arepa (a typical Colombian pancake/bread). One man actually stopped and forked out 3000 pesos (about one pound) so that I could by one. (Remember what I told you about people from Cartagena!?) My friend and I were killing ourselves laughing and we spent the rest of the day in fits of giggles, lamenting our bad luck and joking with each other. The only moment we got a bit serious was when we had to catch our flight, because we didn’t want to miss another one, and I don’t think I could have found enough Costeños to fund a third ticket before 9am the next day!