Cartagena is the jewel of the Caribbean. The Old Town is littered with Spanish colonial buildings adorned with bougainvillea, intimate restaurants and boutique hotels discreetly tucked behind unpretentious facades. The pulsing rhythm of Colombian life animates the narrow streets with vendors selling crafts and the delicious barbecued meat-on-stick on every corner. Rich in history and exploding with colour and music, it is hard not to be lured in by her charms. Unfortunately these do not extend to the harbour, which is crowded and nasty.
We were very fortunate when we arrived to find a slip in the local marina, and while “slip” is perhaps an overstatement, we do have water and power, which makes life bearable in this oppressive heat. As soon as we tied up the boat we were met by an army of locals looking for work and we were grateful for some expertise and access to parts. We had inspection ports cut into in the tanks so they could be cleaned, we replaced the fuel pump on the outboard, replaced the shower pump, installed new LED lights (hopefully they will last longer than the one week that the last batch did), had the anchor chain re-galvanized, and finally repaired the forever headache-inducing water maker.
We arrived during Colombia’s independence celebrations and the city is fully decorated with Colombians descending from all over the country to join in the “festival”. On the first day there was a huge parade, similar to Carnival in Grenada, on the main street in the Old City. We had been warned not to wear good clothes as there would be some paint and flour flying about. Old pros at “Carnival chaos” we took a taxi close to the centre of town and then joined the throngs of spectators walking into Old Cartagena. We were barraged by locals selling beer, water and what looked like small fire extinguishers. Firecrackers exploded at our feet and the atmosphere was loud and chaotic, leaving us all a little on edge as we tried to assimilate into this mess of humanity.
Shortly after we got out of the taxi we learned the hard way what these fire extinguisher things were. They contain pressurised non-toxic foam cream firing about ten feet, and were toted by the young, old and everyone in-between. More likely found at Homecoming than in historic Cartagena we had stumbled onto a city-wide foam fight. After receiving an unwelcome and unprovoked blast in the face when we exited the taxi, we promptly armed ourselves and thus began an afternoon of foam wars with complete strangers in the streets of this historic walled city. With credible back-up provided by 4 Coconuts, and David and I oblivious to the cost of the armaments, we wandered through Old Town following the parade. I must emphasize that our posture was completely defensive and we never launched an unprovoked attack, however we also adopted the NATO “an attack against one is an attack against all” philosophy. There would invariably be some unsuspecting Colombian who would casually target one of you two with a non-committal shot of foam, and it would appear as if the entire crowd would turn on them with blasts of foam coming from every direction. Being gringos we were the targets of choice for the locals, but they just didn’t expect to engage eight when they fired on one! We spent the afternoon in an unrestrained foam fight, finally arriving back at the boat exhausted from our adolescent ordeal.
Cartagena, so long overlooked due to the violence and instability brought on by the drug cartels, is a dichotomy. There is massive development of new and shiny skyscrapers, invariably funded through money laundering, juxtaposed against the charming and authentic Old Town which has experienced a revival in the past twenty years.
As Mommy said it is a bit like Europe, but grittier and less refined. We have taken advantage of the lower peso and have tried several of the local restaurants which has been a real treat. We toured an old Abbey and San Filipe, the principle Spanish fort, however it is the general vibe of the old town that is so compelling. While tolerant of our excursions, neither of you really enjoy the sights and sounds of the chaotic Latin atmosphere, and perhaps you are not old enough to revel in “people watching” however Mommy and I feel that this is our most interesting stop so far.
Cartagena is very similar to Old San Juan in Puerto Rico but larger with more of an edge. There is still much reconstruction to be done as the city is climbing out of its narco past, and we have restricted ourselves to the security of the Old Town.
We are now waiting for a weather window to complete the five-day crossing to Cuba and the weather gods are not cooperating. The challenge of Cartagena was always getting here and then getting out, so we will see how the next few days shape up. Regardless, this is a very special city which ranks as one our favourite stops.