Cartagena: The Koh Phi Phi of Colombia

In Thailand, theres an island called Koh Phi Phi. Essentially, there are no adults, it’s like the Neverland of South East Asia, an outcrop of land populated with wild tourists, boat parties, mushroom shakes, and a whole mess of other insanities that are too numerous to list here now. The toll it takes on your body, soul, and dignity is extraordinary, and requires numerous days after of rest, prayer, and meditation on life to return to some sense of normalcy.

I found the Koh Phi Phi of Colombia, and its in the form of the Caribbean beach town Cartagena.

Cartagena is a massive port city, founded by the Spanish in 1533 as way to transport all of their gold, slaves, and whatever else they managed to pillage to and from España. Of course, indigenous people had been living in the area for thousands of years previously, and were most likely not incredibly stoked on the Spanish colonization. Being a port city, the settlement was under constant stress from pirates and foreign invaders, and was notably involved in the fantastically named War of Jenkins Ear in which the British advance into Spanish Colombia was handily stopped by Spanish troops.

Now a days, instead of the British, the only real fear of living in Cartagena is exhaustion from heat, lack of sleep, and excessive late night dancing. The city is incredibly lively, and people are often dancing well into the early morning, the sounds of salsa and saxophones drifting through the warm nights sky.

I arrived in Cartagena around 9pm, after spending my last day in Bogota a bit outside the city, in the small town of Zipaquirá, about an hour north by cramped minibus. I had forgotten how my frame rarely fits into coach buses abroad, and throughout the journey I got flashbacks to my time in Asia, crammed into a seat sized for a chubby toddler at best and smashed between crying babies and their mothers on one side and overweight men eating steaming meats on the other. An exhausting sentence for an exhausting ordeal.

Zipaquirá is a lovely little town, settled into a small valley surrounded by trees and low lying plants. The streets are small and cobblestoned; the squares are quaint and lined with towering palms. It’s a lovely change from the bustle and hustle of Bogotá. Myself, the Irishman Sam, and James from Seattle make our way to the Salt Cathedral, an active church built 200 meters beneath the earth in an active salt mine. It’s actually the second of two cathedrals, with the first one being shut down due to safety concerns. Of course they don’t tell you that until your fully in the second one, and would maybe be a fact that should be prominently displayed at the start of the tour rather than in the bowels of the earth.

It’s quite a strange place, with stations of the cross carved into the rocks and three massive naves featuring sculptures, pews, and a whole mess of tourists. The place was packed, and we discovered we were some of the younger people there. With an entry fee of 50,000 pesos, it makes sense that a majority were older folks traveling with their kids and not backpackers. Regardless, it was pretty cool and very bizarre, and quite a way to end my time in Bogotá. After my night at Teatron, some time in a cathedral probably did me good.

We returned to the city and I made my way to the airport, quietly stepping past the striking Avianca Airlines workers in the front of the terminal, and headed to my gate. It seemed like they were quite upset about something, I bet it was about the bag fees and the lack of suitable snacks onboard domestic flights. At least thats my guess.

I touched down in Cartagena and made my way to the hostel, when all of a sudden the strongest thunderstorm I have ever been in began. The rain was literally dumping out of the sky, and Cartagena’s ancient roadways quickly were overwhelmed with water. We were driving through feet of water, and I stared amazingly out the window at the sight of it. My driver, a man who loved his horn more than his family I bet, honked his way down the narrow streets and finally got to our hostel.

I was staying at Casa Mamallena, a reasonably priced hostel on Calle Media Luna pretty close to the old part of town. It’s a great little spot, with a huge outdoor patio, in-house bar, and events almost every night. I walked up to my room and discovered a massive crowd of backpacks hanging in the hallway, taking cover from the storm and drinking heavily. I met a great group of kids, and we all decided to head out and see what Cartagena had to offer for a night out.

Now a note here. I’m going to change the names of these guys and gals, as part of this story might drift closer to the rough and tumble elements of Cartagena. In this city, walking down the street, you’re inundated with calls to buy everything you could imagine, a literal drug emporium on every corner and park. If you look vaguely non-Colombian, men come rushing up to you with warm words and little baggies, ushering you into their “office” which turns out to a bench in an ill-lit part of town. You are in a constant state of “No Gracias,” and oftentimes it takes four or five of those for them to get the point and start working on your friends behind you. Cartagena has turned into the beach party station of Colombia, and with that demand for fun comes a steady supply of fun inducing intoxicants.

We depart the hostel through the wet streets and head towards the walled city, a massive section of town surrounded by a huge stone walls that were used to, once again, defend from the British. I’m amazed British people can even get here today; I half expected them to be stopped as they get off their plane and thrown into a dungeon somewhere to face the ire of the Inquisition. Nevertheless, we worked our way past small parks and down narrow streets and finally made it into the main square.

It was myself, an American named Marge, a Dutchman named Mark, a Spaniard named Antonio, and a pair of Brooklynites named James and Sandy. If they are reading this, I hope you enjoy your new names and feel free to use them in your daily life from now on. Especially Marge, it’ll remind me Fargo every time. Anyway, once inside, Antonio decides to purchase some purchasables from a man in a black shirt who seemed like an honest fella, and he went away with him to survey the wears as we waited. Suddenly, another seller comes by us and whispers “tu amigo, policía,” made a handcuff gesture, and shuffled away. Our hearts dropped. Oh god, not the first night. We wait nervously as Antonio, who luckily speaks fluent Spanish, walks with the police around the square, talking quickly and desperately. We sit and try not to stare, hoping against all hope he can bribe his way out. After twenty minutes of intensity, the police just leave, and Antonio comes back with a grimace on his face.

“Ok, we go to the club now?”

We stared back in amazement.

“What!?” we yell back, “What happened? Are you O.K?”

Antonio shrugged, “Yeah, they wanted money, 100,000 pesos, they told me to hide it in that tourist information tent to pick up later. I put in 50,000, they don’t know where I live. Anyway, the club?”

Our jaws were dangerously close to detaching and falling onto the cobblestone square. Antonio is a younger kid, very quiet and reserved. And suddenly, out of nowhere, he becomes an absolute legend. 50,000 pesos is around $17 American, a fair price to pay to avoid a Colombian jail. We clap him on the back, cheer out his name, and head into the first club we see.

Which was 90% prostitutes. So we head to the second bar, which was 85% prostitutes. Cartagena at night becomes somewhat rougher than during the day, and avoiding the workers becomes just part of your evening. We spent the rest of the evening at a rooftop patio, drinking Aguilas, a delicious light beer that tastes like a better version of Corona, and is light enough on alcohol that one can drink their fair share and still be in constant control of their surroundings. The night was cooler after the rainstorm, and the swaying palm trees and light breeze created the perfect image of a Caribbean paradise. We spent in a square with some musicians, rapping over a strumming guitar for tips. Even though we said we had nothing for them, they stayed anyway and jammed with us. Most of them were from Venezuela, and had fled the country to look for more opportunities further west. They were incredibly talented, and I even added in a little vocal accompaniment on the chorus, which I gave them full license to use later.

Despite being a bit frayed around the edges, Cartagena was shaping up to be an incredibly interesting town. Thinking about all the fun I’d had and the friends I’d already made in just the 6 hours I’d been in town, I couldn’t imagine what the next few days would be like.

Oh, and for the family reading this, don’t worry, I’m staying safe; do not let this story worry you. Remember, I have plenty of experience with bribery (Russia), street hooligans (Ghana), and cities packed with insanity and chaos (Nepal). This, much like the winds coming off the warm Caribbean waters, will be a breeze. Trust me.

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A square in Zipaquería

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An angel and a cross, 200 feet in a salt mine

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The main hall of the Salt Cathedral

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An Avianca Strike

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A Club at the club in Cartagena

 

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