Not to be confused with the French Quarter…well, it could, actually. If Colombia is a dangerous country, someone needs to tell all the tourists! The streets are packed! Cartagena is very much like New Orleans, only instead of the muddy Mississippi river, there is the muddy Caribbean ocean. Back in my 20’s, I dated a guy who grew up here as a child. He used to talk for hours about the turquoise blue Caribbean ocean, how he would dive down for conch shells off the city walls. I wonder is it possible that his memory had just faded, or could we have really screwed the ocean up that badly in just 30 years?
Otherwise, it is very similar….a big, ugly, dirty, noisy, hotter than hell port city, where in the heart can be found a small, quaint colonial quarter –that is the old city of Cartagena. Lots of winding streets, very old colonial architecture, flower-strewn wrought iron balconies with overhanging bougainvillea, large fountain-filled courtyards, rows of sweet shops, exclusive clothing stores, and a disproportionate number of very expensive restaurants. Oh, and a few historic buildings thrown in now and then to give it some legitimacy. The only thing the French Quarter has over Cartagena is a few more trashcans instead of using the sidewalk gutters, and a few more public bathrooms instead of using the concrete corners of every building. Half the Old City reeks of pee.
Cartagena, though on a par with US prices, seems ridiculously expensive by Colombia’s standards. Beer went from under $2 to over $4 — though something strange has happened twice now which I really cannot figure out. I get all angry over the prices on the menu, then I give in to the notion that ¨okay, splurge…its vacation!¨ only to have the bill arrive at a 20% discount off the menu prices. So I am not sure if that is because it’s low season and perhaps they don’t want to reprint the menus? Who knows, but anyway it is a welcome relief, otherwise I would really have sticker shock.
I dropped $30 on lunch at the restaurant, La Cervicheri, featured in Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” Colombia episode, where I had two kinds of Cerviche — one in lime and oil and another with a mango vinaigrette, which was delish!. They have Tony’s picture on the back of the menu, as well as on the wall. When I pointed to the picture and said, ¨Senor Bourdain is mi novio!¨everyone laughed hysterically. Why, do you think, were they laughing?
So anyway, I digress. Cartagena is pretty enough, but two days would be enough, especially for a non-shopper like me. I had planned three days and four nights, but I decided to cut it short by a day rather than hang with the cruise ship crowd the extra day. Too much more interesting things to see down the road!
Speaking of down the road, back to the 13 hour bus trip. I figured if the bus from Bogota to Medellin was reported to be 8 hours but took eleven, then the reported 13 hour bus trip to Medellin would probably be more like 16 hours, right? Wrong. He took 13 hours and one minute! It was actually not bad considering the conditions. Leaving Medellin, we climbed a mountain so high that you would swear you were looking at the city below from an airplane! About the time we were halfway to the top, a wicked thunderstorm blew in as we were climbing the curvy mountain road, passing trucks in the driving rain. The man in the seat next to me genuflected around every curve. As I looked out the window at the sheer drop-offs below illuminated by the lightening cracking all around, I thought it was probably a good thing that I had my passport in my money belt around my waist so at least they could identify the body! Once over the mountain the storm was gone, and I fell fast asleep until I awoke to the farmers tending their crops by hand, with beautiful rolling green hills dotted with Brahma cattle as a backdrop.
The Casa Sweety where I stayed in Cartagena was nice, though like everything else in Cartagena, seemed way overpriced. It was close to the old city, as long as you didn’t mind a short stroll through the red light district. It had a tiny pool in the courtyard which offered a very nice escape from the heat, though I was awakened at 6:30am by the young man cleaning the pool right outside my door. Breakfast was very good, with fresh fruit and eggs scrambled with onions and tomatoes.
Another similarity Cartagena has to the French Quarter is its photogenic quality. This is a photographer’s paradise in every possible light. I spent an entire day just snapping photos. Although very heavily touristed, I did enjoy the many fine dining options and $10 cocktails at sunset on the seawall. But tomorrow it is back to eating empanadas off the street! I spent the first five days counting my money, trying to figure out why it wasn´t going down, until I got to Cartagena, then I nt the last 3 days counting my money trying to figure out where it is going so fast!