Colombia, Part I: Cartagena in the Time of COVID
I woke up to the sound of the pilot announcing our descent into Colombia. I felt ever so slightly out of breath from nodding off with the thick KN95 mask over my nose and mouth. Uncomfortable, but a small price to pay for the opportunity to travel to a country with no COVID test.
The sleep was most welcome after such a long and stressful day. It had started bright and early, getting up and going to work. After putting in my 8 hours, my Cotopaxi travel backpack and I hopped on a bus down to Richmond Main Street Station. From there, I took the train up to DC, then a subway and finally another bus out to Washington-Dulles International. I hope I saved a ton of money, because I certainly didn’t save any time.
Check-in at Dulles went smoothly up until I was in line to board the plane. The ticket agent checked my ticket and then asked for my CheckMig. Caught off guard, I told him I didn’t know what that was. He hurried me over to the gate agent, who informed me that although Colombia did not require a PCR test for COVID, it did require an online CheckMig form stating where you’d be within Colombia and for how long.
I looked over at the quickly dwindling line of passengers waiting to get on the plane, and asked him if it would take long to complete. He said it would, and without it, I would not be able to board the plane. He folded his hands in finality.
Several minutes later, after sweating through my thermal shirt and jacket I had worn in the 30-degree DC weather, I presented my completed CheckMig to the gate agent, who approved me to board the plane. I was the very last one on, and walked through a sea of glares and audible sighs.
A small price to pay, I suppose.
Like a lot of Millennials, I played a lot of video games growing up. One of my favorite series is the Uncharted line of PlayStation games, essentially a modern-day Indiana Jones blend of action, adventure, and globetrotting. Uncharted 3 in particular has a young Nathan Drake stealing a ring from the Caribbean Naval Museum in Cartagena, Colombia, and then escaping the police by running, jumping, and climbing across the brightly-colored Spanish roofs.
The part of Cartagena shown in that level is la Ciudad Amurallada, the Walled City, so named for the massive stone walls that have been ringing the old part of the city since shortly after its founding in 1533. Built by the Spanish to defend against British attacks and pirate raids, they are some of the most formidable in the Caribbean. I couldn’t wait to walk along them, soak up the history they held, and fly my drone around the historic center.
The look of Cartagena stuck with me, and I knew I had to go there some day.
Landing in Colombia
Landing at Rafael Nunez International, I quickly passed customs before finally placing my first steps on the South American continent. While it had been below freezing in DC, here in Cartagena it was about 85, and probably about that percentage of humidity. I resolved to find a cab as quickly as possible so I could get out of these layers.
I eventually tracked down a cabbie who could take me to my hostel in Getsemani for 14,000 COP (about $3.89). I threw my Cotopaxi in the back seat and got in, separated from the driver by a clear plastic curtain even though he also wore a mask. So far, they were definitely doing their part to slow the spread of the virus.
Half-blinded by the sun, I reached for my sunglasses, a nice pair of American-made Native sunglasses with purple lenses that I had spent a pretty penny on. I rooted around in the top compartment of my travel backpack for a while, before looking up in desperation at the planes taking off from Nunez International.
I could always make a lost and found claim, but that didn’t do me any good right now. That’s okay, I thought, I’ll just buy a cheap pair from a sidewalk vendor in the Walled City. It’ll take two seconds.
The cab ride from the airport to my hostel reminded me somewhat of Havana, the pristine beaches juxtaposed with dilapidated buildings. Things brightened up though once we entered Getsemani, the popular artists’ enclave just a ways down from the Walled City of Cartagena. The cabbie dropped me off right outside La Antigua Capsula, on Calle Larga (literally, “Long Street”).
La Antigua Capsula
A masked dude came to the door and introduced himself as Rodny. He immediately told me to not only sanitize my hands but also the soles of my shoes, which was a new one to me. Rodny directed me to a tray with what looked like synthetic grass set into some kind of sanitizer, where I wiped my feet.
After paying and getting all my crap settled in to the dorm, I changed into joggers and a T-shirt, more appropriate attire for the heat, humidity, and sun of the Caribbean coast. I took stock of my money: I only had 20,000 COP in cash left with me. It’s typically wise to land in a foreign country with enough local currency to cover any issues, but Chase bank doesn’t dispense Colombian pesos and I didn’t want to get reamed by the expensive exchange booths at the airport.
So the plan became A) head to the Walled City, B) get a cheap pair of sunglasses, then C) exchange my dollars for pesos.
Before heading out, I spoke with Rodny about where to get some food, what he recommended seeing, etc. Rodny pointed out that food in Getsemani was considerably cheaper than in the Walled City, which he warned me was more for tourists. He said a “recorrido” could be had in a number of cheap eateries for as little as 15,000 COP.
He gave me directions to the Walled City, which were pretty simple: just turn right and walk down Calle Larga, and you’ll see the large yellow clock tower, presiding over the entrance to the Walled City since 1554. Clock tower is torre del reloj in Spanish, with Rodny pronouncing the final syllable in “reloj” with a noticeable hard “k” sound. The gate is known as the Puerta del reloj, or Clock Gate, and it’s pretty hard to miss.
Thanking him for his help, I set out.
Walking down the wide pedestrian boulevard that leads to the Clock Tower Gate, I passed kids playing, old men pushing coffee carts, and couples enjoying the shade of the trees. I missed Kristen, who couldn’t make it this time, but I knew she’d love it.
Realizing I hadn’t had any coffee since this morning, I stopped an old guy trundling along with a beverage cart. He sold coffee that already came with sugar in the pot, 1000 COP for a little cup. I sipped it as I strolled along. It was some of the best, richest coffee I’d ever had in my life. Starbucks had nothing on this little cup of street vendor coffee, and it had cost me about 30 cents.
I also noticed that, unlike Mexico, dudes were actually wearing shorts here. Of course this only makes sense in a hot, humid environment, but I was expecting the cultural stigma of grown men wearing shorts like you find in Mexico. I was burning up unnecessarily.
While the romantic in me wanted to soak up the history that every cobblestone and roof tile secreted, the realist knew that my righteous path would be beset by inequities of a particular kind: vendors. As a white American, we have the privilege of having far more opportunity to roam the earth than many other people, but that comes at the cost of being a target for people looking to make a quick buck from “rich” tourists.
As I walked under the Clock Tower Gate, a dude holding a sheaf of pamphlets perked up.
“Hey brother! Where you from?!”
“I’m good, dude,” I told him, knowing that he was going to pester me for a little while. Many seasoned travelers swear by just not making contact, but I like to at least acknowledge them as human beings before telling them to f*** off.
“Take a tour of the city! Just 100,000 pesos!”
While he was still following me, a nearby sunglasses vendor perked up.
“Hey, brother! Where you from?!”
Okay, a vendor I was actually looking for.
“I have Ray-Ban, all kinds. Which one you like?”
(Author’s Note: These were not Ray-Bans)
“I just need a cheap pair. How much are they?”
“See, I only got 20,000 on me. Any for that?”
“Okay, for you, brother, 70,000.”
“I’m not haggling, bro, I really do only have 20,000. Nothing for that?”
“70,000 is good price.”
“Well I ain’t got it, thank you though,” and I walked away. Thinking I was just using advanced haggling tactics, he followed me. So did the tour guy, who had been standing patiently off to the side, still hawking his unofficial tour.
It didn’t take long for a third vendor to perk up, sensing an American like a spider senses a fly in its web.
“Hey, buddy!” he said, falling in step with me. “Are you having a good time in Cartagena?”
“I’ve been here all of two minutes and already got three of you bothering me,” I said.
“Ahhhhhh, buddy, you need to relax. You need cerveza, no? What about cocaina? A woman? Huh? What you think about that? I know best bars in Cartagena. Best women. They do anything. Name your price.”
“A tour is good for you, amigo. Learn about where you are! Just 100,000 pesos!”
“Okay, okay, for these glasses, for you, brother, 50,000 pesos.”
All of this was annoying as hell, but nothing beyond the pale if you’ve traveled in a popular Latin American destination.
Beyond the pale is what happened next.
As I turned a corner, a pack of youths perked up in unison. With three dudes already in tow (where on god’s green f*** is the money exchange?), three more joined my improptu little posse. And they weren’t just armed with unofficial tour pamphlets, pitifully cheap knockoff sunglasses, and promises of debauchery.
They were armed with a handheld radio.
And they proceeded to rap.
Now, Andre 3000 these guys were not, but they weren’t half-bad, either. I don’t speak Spanish well enough to count their bars or dissect their multis, but they had a nice little flow going on. They were even doing a little freestyle on the spot. One of them could rapid fire like the Colombian Tech N9ne, it was awesome.
I was also so close to telling them to vete la mierda that I literally started laughing in the middle of the street. I looked at all six of my entourage, dudes who could not take no for an answer, and shook my head. I walked away, and this time they did not follow me.
I didn’t get too far before I heard rapidly approaching footsteps.
“Okay, okay, okay,” the sunglass vendor said, nearly out of breath. “20,000 pesos.”
Cartagena: A Tale of Two Walled Cities
There are two walls in Cartagena. One is the centuries-old wall of stone built by the Spanish colonizers. The second is an unseen wall that separates a visitor from really getting to know the soul of the city. It’s a wall built by necessity and opportunism.
I understood completely that the vendors more than likely lived in the impoverished areas surrounding the Walled City and Getsemani, and they needed to make a living. At the same time, as someone who had spent more than chump change to fly to another continent, I lamented my inability to fully appreciate the city and its beautiful, historic architecture.
Even coming from the point of view of getting to know the current residents over structures built by long-dead colonizers was impossible. Very few vendors I interacted with actually acted genuinely. We were operated on the common ground, the plane of pesos, and how many I could give them. Again, we were separated by a wall of assumptions about how much money I had to give.
It’s unfortunate, but it very nearly ruined my trip. I just think other visitors should be aware of these guys and how hard they are to get rid of.
Making the Most of It
That was not, by any means, the last I would see of the Vendors of Cartagena. But I still vowed to make the most of this voyage.
Once you put on your social blinders, Cartagena was a very pretty place. I’m not even just talking about the architecture; every few blocks you would see the famous palenqueras of Cartagena. These block women hailing from the island of Palenque dress in vibrant red, blue, and yellow dresses and pose for photos by and with tourists. They wear colorful, ornate headwraps and can be seen walking the cobblestone streets of the old quarter balancing large bowls of fresh fruit on their heads.
The streets were strewn with lights, and several of the squares were watched over by giant trees of light, in celebration of the upcoming Christmas season.
In talking with Rodny, I would later learn that I missed the celebration of the Velitas, or Candles, by one day. From Getsemani to the Walled City on the night of December 7th, people light candles outside their homes and businesses. The way he described it, it was truly a sight to behold, and I kicked myself for missing it.
Despite the horrible start, Cartagena had plenty of gems to offer. Look out for Colombia, Part II coming soon!