Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Cartegena





Despite having an architectural gem of an historic old town that would rival nearly anything in Europe, the city was my least favorite place I visited in Colombia.

First of all I will outline the positives and there were many as it should be understood that being my least favorite place in Colombia does not mean that a place is not very nice indeed and well worth a visit. A very impressive outer wall encases street after street of time warp. Aesthetically pleasing colonial edificios dating from the 16th century onwards are on every side and everywhere. There are beautiful churches, government buildings, mansions, plazas and equally interesting colonial buildings from the poorer parts of the old town. To sit in a plaza at night, eat a beautiful steak and watch the people go by is really quite special. In the day it is a buzzing place with much to see. Wandering around the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas (a huge fort just outside of the walls) and down into the tunnels was particularly impressive and enjoyable.

A very peculiar incident occurred while wandering into a posh Argentinian (more steak) restaurant with flip flops, wife-beater and not in the best of states, but they served us seemingly happily and there was sumptous amounts of hilarity.

Cartagena also gave us a few fun nights out. These highlighted the problem with the place. Unlike the rest of Colombia that is relatively untouched by tourism, Cartegena is overrun. There is nothing per se wrong with tourists – I am one – but when there are a lot of foreign dollars about people tend to treat you as a walking bill not a human being. Part of what has enchanted me with the rest of Colombia has been how locals have so welcomingly embraced our presence with barely any noticeable attempt at exploitation – it has been a delight. In Cartagena almost everyone wants to exploit, from beggars, clubs 90% full of prostitutes, to every vendor trying to charge absurd rates for everything. All in all pretty frustrating. Now I do not blame the locals for this, as it is almost inevitable when so many people come off cruise ships etc dripping in money. There is easy meat to extract money off, but it is still unpleasant. A good example are the little boys who threaten you with broken glass bottles or on one occasion the sharp end of one of those long fluorescent bulbs that frequent class room ceilings. I barely even noticed them asking for as little as 1000 pesos ( less than 30 pence) because they were so small. Sebastian’s answer to the problem was to do a little dance with the kid which worked pretty well - that guy has an enviable ability to confuse.

It was here that we said goodbye to the ever so slightly very crazy pair of Sebastian and Mark who sailed off towards Panama on a little yacht. A great idea that Dave and I seriously considered (alongside Venezuela), but my limited time coupled with the imposition of Colombia, let alone Pananma, being exceedingly far from my ultimate destination of Buenos Aires, acted as sufficient detterent. It had been a crazy and ridiculously enjoyable few weeks with Sebastian and 10 days or so with Mark that I will certainly not forget. I hope they are having fun and have not killed each other. (Authors note: Some time later I discovered that the captain of their ship had decided to force them to smuggle drugs at knife-point before the ship ran aground, they were forced to swim to shore and were then stranded on the Darian Gap for a week)

Anyhow, Categena it is a city worth seeing, but if you go there before the rest of Colombia do not take it as typical because it is far from it and to leave Colombia at that would be to miss the heart of the place.
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