[HUGE photo gallery at end]
Cartegena has multiple identities but as a tourist you can’t help but find yourself in a tourist town. One of the other identities of Cartegna is that of an incredibly poor lower class which is in direct proximity to the tourism. Normally the mixture of these 2 elements is …. crap. Normally you are just bombed with junk – Junk crafts, junk tours, junk jewelry, junk-ies and countless other types of junk in a desperate attempt to move money from your pockets to the pockets of the poverty stricken locals.
In Cartagena however you will ….. I …. don’t ….. want …. to …. say — you’ll find exactly the same thing. Yup. It’s a flagrant tourist trap with the flagrant tourist crap. We don’t “do” tours but somehow we wound up chumped into the worst tour ever!
So wait – shouldn’t this be the end of the blog with a big, fat “Run, hide, get your wallet out of this sad place”????? The answer is – absolutely not. Don’t run and hide. Go ahead and add it to the list. I wouldn’t put it at the very top – but – on the flip side there is now a 5 hour non-stop Jetblue flight from JFK and apparently they are only $400 or so roundtrip!!!
So now, here’s what I found about Cartagena which was amazingly cool and maybe sort of sexy.
Flying into Cartagena airport the last semblance of orderly society occured as we got to the taxi stand. We are asked for the address where we are going, this is punched into a computer, we get a printed receipt with a price and we are showed into the cab where we hand this very formalized, organized document.
From that moment forward absolutely nothing was orderly in Cartegana. If you have ever been to Disney and have ridden on “Pirates Of The Carribean” it’s my guess that the ‘town’ that you ‘sail’ through (you know the one – where the pirates are running around drinking rum, music is pumping and mayhem is alive in the streets) has Cartegena as it’s basis.
Driving from the airport at dusk is absolute mayhem. It’s a different kind of crazy than Medellin. Every bus is lit with neon lights to make it look alive and the lanes of traffic appear to be suggestions versus actual paths. It seems like every vehicle moves nearly as much latterly as it does forward. I can imagine on a used vehicle “Highway miles, city miles and lane changing miles”. The cab navigates into a web of ridiculously narrow streets lined with colonial walls decorated with modern mural graffiti. Every inch of the neighborhood is painted – both the colorfully painted walls of the houses and the colorful graffitti pieces. Some of the walls are immaculately repaired and some of them are falling down – plaster peeled back to expose brick. All over the place are lots of people of all colors – mainly hanging out – sort of doing nothing. It’s 5PM on a Saturday evening – what else is there to do – but every it seems is out in the streets.
We pull up to our the house where we are staying. The big colonial door opens into a well decorated bright courtyard complex. The walls hide everything here. This is what the city is like. On the outside it just looks like one long wall – on the inside it’s a whole other world.
We drop our bags and head out. The oldest part of the “Walled City” is a few blocks away. Ou neighborhood is call Getsami but the streets are still just a series of walls and doors – your walking down a corridor. In the one direction every wall is a huge graffiti mural. In the other direction (where we are heading) the walls are perfectly painted crackle colors in a series of sections and they are all lit by a lighting designer with heavy can lights built into the sidewalk to accent the walls, doors and windows. We round the corner onto the avenue that is lined with people. There is a shiny new cafe followed by a run down bar. There are a bunch of hookers hanging outside the bar. There’s also a place to rent bicycles – they coexist happily. Across the street there’s a fence around a public park that has a fountain. The fence seems to be falling apart in places and the grass in the park is uncut – but the fountain looks well serviced.
Along that street more bars, more hookers, more people hanging out. We walk along into the actual walled city. There are vendors selling crap “Mr, Mr, come see”, “Mr, mr, what’s your name, where you from, look at these bracelets”. Under the clock tower and the 4 story colonial buildings. There is a line of horse drawn carriages and cobblestone streets. “Want a ride? – only 60,000 peso ($30)”. Looking at a map we bite on the offer (this tour is not the bad one – it’s actually really fun). We get carried around like old royalty (sure, there are stacks of other tourists in similar coaches – but it still feels fun). Clack, Clack, Clack – hip clothing stores, cafes, a sushi bar, street vendors, old streets, old buildings, old street signs, walls, walls, walls. Cathedrals, theaters, hotels, park like squares, bustle, bustle.
Cartagena was a critical town for the Spanish. The gold came from the region into this port city. Out of the jungles and brought here to send back to Europe. Of course it was attacked constantly. The walls were built to protect but there needed to be forts, cannons, etc – and the pirates still came. They pillaged but they weren’t equipped to destroy the walls and the buildings – and so they are still here. Now they are stores, restaurants, etc.
One thing that we read about Cartagena – it’s oppressively hot during the day. It made Trinidad look like a joke. During the day walking around my clothes soaked through and through. Light blue shirts were navy in 5 minutes. As a result of this things slow down. They slow waaaaay down. One morning we had crepes at a restaurant. Normal crepes. 45 minutes after we ordered we were eating. We were the only people in the place. Literally.
In the old city there’s a lot of low impact glam. The hotels are gorgeous with hidden pools matching the highest of styles. Hostels cost more than any place we have been. Restaurants charge U.S. prices. Clothing stores drip with all sorts of fashion. “Cafe Del Mar” plays down-tempo lounge music for sunset overlooking the other tourist section of Cartagena – the “New City” with glitzy high rises reminiscent of Miami.
But our little neighborhood – Getsamani – now – that was so cool, so sexy it’s like a charicature of cool. At night hip people, poor people, old toothless bums, well dressed Cubans, black, brown, white, yellow and every color in between lounge in the intersection of a few streets. The graffiti murals light up in the street lights in a different way than during the day. There’s a champagne bar, a tapas lounge, a pizza place (all three in nearly falling down brick buildings that look during the day like they are just shuttered). There are stray dogs and old men shouting at each other and there are street vendors selling amazing chorizo dogs and cheeseburgers. There’s a liquor store which just sells and sells and sells. People are drinking beers and playing chess and it is just teaming with something like a book – or a movie. We were only there for a couple of days but it will be in my mind for a long time.
Oh – and what about that horrible tour? I don’t even think I can remember it! – well – just a tip – don’t bother with the day time Chiva bus. save your energy and money for a night in Trinidad square in Getsamani – that’s the tour to take.