Cartagena 2: The Venice of Colombia

Located in the crux of Italy’s eastern expanse off their peninsula, situated directly on the coast, is the city of Venice. Known as “The City of Bridges,” or “The City of Canals,” or “That City that Keeps Sinking into the Ocean,” Venice is by all accounts a magical city, one that feels as if it was grabbed sometime in the 14th century and plopped down into ours with only the modest of changes. You wander amongst the canals and bridges, down the narrow roads and past the antiquated buildings, and if you get far enough away from the main plaza and lose yourself in the middle, it almost feels like you’ve gone back in time.

Cartagena is, officially, the Venice of Colombia. If you can zone out the vendors hawking sunglasses, and the cevicherias and the ice cream trolleys, perhaps you can imagine yourself walking the stone streets in the 1600’s, keeping safe inside your walled fortress that protect you and your family from those dastardly British invaders.

Which is in fact how I started my second morning in Cartagena. Despite having gone to bed around 5am, we started bright and early at nine and went to see what the walled city had for us. It was myself, Margie, Antonio, and another Minnesotan girl I’d met who was teaching English in Colombia, exactly what Margie was doing as well. A note on Margie, we both happened to teach English in Thailand together at the same time and never met. She even taught in the same small town as my friends, Sam Phran. It’s amazing the connections you make when traveling, small world doesn’t even crack the surface of it.

Anyways, the three of us wandered around the old city for a while, soaking in the hot Caribbean calor and marveling at the ancient architecture. Cartagena was founded in 1533 by a Spanish gentleman named Commader Pedro de Heredia as way for the Spanish to move their silver from Peru back to Spain. Of course, this led Cartagena to become a magnet for pirates. In 1544, a French pirate was able to ransack the whole city and make Heredia retreat and pay a ransom to get his city back. And of course, if the French are able to make a fool out you, that means you need to get your act together fast.

Construction on the wall lasted for nearly two hundred years (a sentence that makes present day Americans incredibly nervous to hear), and alongside numerous bastions, garrisons, sand bars, forts, and castles, the city became a near impregnable stronghold.  The Walled City still holds much of its Colonial Charm, with wide cobblestoned streets, clock towers, and the beautiful Metropolitan Cathedral Basilica of Saint Catherine of Alexandria shining like gems in the proverbial gem holder. The four of us wandered around with our heads on a swivel, taking in the Andalusian architecture. Buildings are often pastel colored, light blues and yellows and pinks, with large wooden balconies and porches lining the rooftops. Eventually the heat became too much to bear for our pasty Midwestern complexions and demeanors, and we retreated to sanctity of James and Sandy’s hotel pool for a few hours of coffee and contemplation. Vultures would often fly by, landing on the tiled roofs and looking at us curiously. I had never seen a vulture that close; they are not the cutest animals I’ve ever laid eyes on, and remembering that they mostly eat the corpses of various things did not make me compelled to call them over for snacks and a scratch behind the beak.

The five of us, that would be James, Sandy, Antonio, Margie and I, later went and got some chicken for lunch. It’s here that I lament my note taking, because I did not write down the name of the place, but it might have been the best chicken restaurant I’ve ever been to. All I can tell you is its near Carrera 9 and Calle 32 in the Getsemani Neighborhood, and for now I’ll just call it Chicken Heaven. Half of a chicken, broasted, with a side of garlic aioli, for only four and a half bucks. We stuffed our faces with poultry and Aguila beers, and were approaching near perfect nirvana.

At this point we had a decision to make. It was late afternoon, and had to decide whether or not to head to Playa Blanca, a beach tucked away about an hour from Cartagena to the south. There was much debate, pool or beach, but considering how nice of a day it was and the worry we might not have another one, we piled into one of the smallest Uber rides I’d ever been in and took off for the beach, the four in the back and Gringo Grande (that would be me) in the front. It actually took an hour and a half in the end, driving through roads that were mostly absent and replaced with small ponds and mountains of gravel. I’m honestly amazed our little hatchback could make it; I was half preparing to have to get out and start pushing.

But eventually, after an incredibly uncomfortable journey, we arrived at Playa Blanca, one of the most beautiful beaches I’ve ever been to. It was soft white sand surrounded by a mess of palm trees, with little huts set up to sell beers and tours. We arrived pretty late, close to 4:30, and by then most everybody had left, beach goers and vendors alike. We pretty much had the beach to ourselves except for a few interested cows, a lovable dog, and an older woman named Maria who cackled when she told me her name. “Me llamo Maria!” she screamed and slapped me on the back, laughing all the way back to her family who thought it was equally as hilarious.

After a while, we realized that finding a way home would be trickier than we thought. Most of the cabs had left, and we would have to call one from Pasacaballo, a very small town in between us and Cartagena that looked like it did not have the resources for vehicles, let alone taxi cabs. After some searching, I stumbled into a man who ran a hostel further down the beach. Through my broken Spanish, I deciphered that he owned his own boat and would be willing to drive us back into the city for 50,000 pesos each, around 17 bucks. Marge and Sandy (especially Sandy) took some convincing, but after a while we all agreed and hopped in the Lorena, a lovely little rig with an engine that might look more at home on a pond in Minnesota than on the Caribbean. It was maybe twenty feet long, five feet across, and made of wood and good intentions. I thought it was going to be a hell of a ride. Sandy shuffled nervously towards the boat and eyes it warily.

We started at a breakneck pace, flying up and slamming down on the water as we skimmed across the waves. Our driver, Juales, had the air of an old sea captain, his eyes fixed firmly on the horizon and his hands never wavering from the wheel. I felt totally secure.

And then the engine stopped.

Antonio and myself laid back in our benches and waited for the problem to be fixed. Meanwhile, Sandy had what could be described as a “mild panic attack,” and began going through all the terrible things that could happen if we don’t get the engine fixed. We attempted to console her, but I think my mantra of “its all part of the adventure,” just made it worse. I kept my mouth closed and watched the sun dip down into the sea, the sky exploding with pinks and purples. Antonio and I talked for a long time, we were both in the back near the captain and the captains friend. He’s a young kid, around 20, and studying in Bogotá. He seemed interested in working on the glacier in Alaska, and loved the idea of working with 280 sled dogs. Alaska Icefield Expeditions should be paying me for all the recruitment I do for them, even on a ramshackle boat in the Caribbean Sea.

The engine was finally brought back to full force after some tinkering from Juales, and after a quick pit stop on La Isla de Terra Bomba to drop off a friend of his, we made it back to Cartagena, slowly boating through the canals and waterways on the southwestern side of the city. The ride had taken over an hour, zipping through the Caribbean as the sun set and night descended onto the water. Juales, in Spanish but translated through Antonio, told us the story about the underground sea wall, how it was built to defend the city from invading ships and would secretly destroy incoming armadas and block the entryway to the city. In the old days you had to have a secret route to get around it, but today boats have such a shallow draft that its not really an issue. I think that made Sandy even more terrified, and she was beyond grateful to get the hell off the Lorena and onto dry land. We walked through an abandoned shipyard and said thank you to Juales for getting us safely home, and wished him well as he went off to watch the Colombian futbol game.

Colombia was playing Peru in a very important game. Colombia had to win or tie in order to be eligible to play in the World Cup this upcoming year, and the whole city was on the edge of its seat with anticipation. I watched it at Hostel Mamallena, the main foyer packed with Colombians and foreigners alike. Of course, as I was in the bathroom, Colombia scored the first goal. The whole street exploded with cheers and whooping, and I almost did some serious damage to a very sensitive spot as I zipped up my pants and rushed back into the party. Colombia ended up winning 1-0, and it was then we decided it was necessary to go out once more.

Two nights in a row is something I don’t do too often; its been a long time since my antics of freshman and sophomore year, when the thought of going out Thursday to Sunday was simply the usual order of operations. That night, after only four hours of sleep the night before, I tested my resolve and went again. It was a night filled with plaza beers, nightclubs with dancers on stages and rooftop patios overlooking the old wall, a fortress now used by drunken tourists instead of Spanish conquistadors. In the plaza we hang out with our Venezuelan rapper friends, a Colombian photographer living in Germany, a horseback rider who misunderstood dogsledding, the hostel owner, and a whole mess of others whose names or occupations I can’t recall. Going out while abroad means more than just drinking, its meeting people from all walks of life, all parts of the world, and clumping us all together into a group of strangers simply called travelers.

The night ended back at the hostel around 6am, and I collapsed into my bed with a resounding thump. There was no way in hell I’d be able to do another round tomorrow.


Sneak Peek for The Next Episode: I do. Thanks a bunch Renae.



The Plaza’s of Cartagena


A lovely pool view, vultures flying above


Playa Blanca


Our new friend, lets call him George


The gang on a boat


Sunsets in Cartagena


A bar made of mirrors


Nights in the Plaza





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