If I liked Bogota, Cartagena astounded me. It was a Technicolor odyssey of architectural sights, set inside a fairy-tale-like wall that surrounded the city like a fort. Well, it WAS a fortress once upon a time ago. Cartagena is a port city, so of course, it was the sight of many a battle for occupation. Those Spanish, always trying to take over South America, one city at a time… The now-rusty canons that once fired at such Spanish proudly stand tall against the backdrop of a Caribbean Sea; the Colombian flags wave at intervals along the dated stone walkway (you can walk atop the wall surrounding the city – at sunset it makes for the beginning of a great night); the watchtowers still loom, nowadays filled with school kids peering out or lovers making out, and the skyline of a more modern side of Cartagena is outlined in the distance. It’s unlike any city I’ve been to in South America, and in keeping with my Colombian theme, it’s another favorite.
My stay in Cartagena was semi-quiet but amazing...
As most of you know, I like my beach time solitary, I’m not a big fan of sand-side chatter and nonsense; too much fuss in creating a relaxing environment negates the whole experience. I need an uncluttered space, and like a bit of solitude when I find myself near the water. Plus, this trip was ending and at each trip’s end, I get a little anxious. Cartagena provided beautifully. I stayed, as instructed, inside the walled city. I filled my mornings lazily taking breakfast poolside, spent afternoons on the beach, and evenings strolling through the narrow cobblestone streets of Cartagena. The vivid colors of the buildings; the people dancing in the streets at sunset; the horse-drawn carriages that transported people from place to place; the little cafes with dancing couples inside – heads of ladies on shoulders of men, hips in unison; the seafood menus that make me hungry just thinking about the coconut or cilantro based incarnations of fish stews, ceviches, and grilled filets; the beautifully lit churches that demanded attention against the night sky; the people, infused with a little bit of South America and little bit of Caribbean, as colorful as their city, and as hospitable. I took a trip to the Islas del Rosario, ecological islands that reminded me a little bit of the Galapagos because of their seclusion and their natural beauty. The boat-ride to Islas del Rosario showed Colombia to be a country of such diversity when comparing the hills of Bogota to the old city of Cartagena to the untouched jungles of the coast. The blue of the sky, meeting the green of the landscape, meeting the turquoise of the water. I feel almost as if I’m romanticizing Colombia, but really, I was just overcome by how surprised I was by this place, this country, these people. All of it.
I could tell you a hundred ridiculous stories about how I had to change my hotel room three times and after that everyone in the hotel knew me by name (“Aaaah, si, si…Senorita Martinez…” not, I’m pretty sure, in a good way), how I got into a scuffle with a church usher who wanted to take me into the church museum (I didn’t want to go) and he asked why I was being such a “scared American?” I could tell you how my Australian pop-star from Vietnam resurfaced and is now looking for ME to be HER friend or how I saw the legendary Gabriel Garcia Marquez going into his house (around the corner from my hotel), but I was too terrified (and way too sweaty, it’s about 100 degrees everyday here) to approach him and try to talk to a WRITER in Spanish (god, talk about grammatical pressure…). I can tell you how I seemingly had a stain on the back of my white skirt the day I went scuba diving that looked like blood, rendering me completely mortified in front of the Islas del Rosario tour group when I was the first out of the boat. I quickly became “that poor girl.” The kicker was that it was chocolate, not blood, but WHO would believe that if you saw what it looked like (and try explaining THAT to a boatload of vacationing Colombians). I can tell you how everyone gets searched, thoroughly and repeatedly, when flying anywhere in Colombia, and the guard, upon opening my bag and seeing the order, the effort, the anality with which I packed, looked up sheepishly, and said: “I’m going to ruin all of your very hard work,” and removed EVERY piece of clothing from the bag. I had to sit on my hands to actually allow it to happen – don’t even ask about HOW he repacked it all. I tried not to watch. Instead, I’ll just leave you with all the amazing feelings and images that Colombia inspired. I cannot wait to return, hopefully with someone who I know will be as awed and surprised as I was during their first trip. It’ll be a pleasure to experience that. There are only a few places where I’ve thought that: I MUST return with someone else to appreciate what I’m seeing. Both Bogota and Cartagena are two such places.
My trip finished as it started, in reverse. I found myself sitting in the airport in Panama City, awaiting a flight connection that would deposit me into NYC in the middle of night, instead of South America. Waiting with me were two precious little girls and their mother, in Ecuador World Cup shirts, going to New York from Quito for their second time, to visit some new friends. How apropos…life's little coincidences.
More soon from Europe…a very different trip with many different stories, I’m sure.