Posted by: scottishboomerang | August 1, 2007

Impressions of Cartagena

This post was originally published on Poor But Happy Colombia, which is a great travel sites but basically I post very rarely there now because I don’t like the way in which certain foriegn males brag about their sexual exploits with local women. It angers and saddens me,  and quite frankly, I don’t have time to challange them on  the evils of sex tourism as my thesis is due shortly.  I was advised to post my stuff on a blog rather than the site, which I have done now, and sometimes wish I had actually done at the start.

Towards the end of my stay in Colombia,  I went to see what I could see in Cartagena (CGT). The town placed on the map by the nobel prizewinning writer, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, in his book El Amor en Los Tiempos de Colera (Love in the Time of Cholera), which is one of my favourite books, although I do not read it so much as a love story but a warning, and, I suppose like many who go to Cartagena, I wanted to see the Old Town for myself. 

  I’ll place my impressions here for posterity, though I think that many have been or are planning to go. I could only spare (both in time and in cash), so I saw the old town, and the convent at La Popa. I’m going to put the prices here to facilitated discussion about what the fair prices are in Cartwledge, after all is power. It should be noted that at the moment I have stricter security rules than your average tourist or English teacher (because of my work here and because I am a solo female traveller) my time was very limited, and it was a spur of the moment decision to go, so I hadn’t researched the place. Experienced PBHers will probably get a better deal. Please do not whine about the length: these are my impressions. You don’t have to read it if you are not interested.

Getting there:

After consulting my boss we figured the best way to go was by express taxi. This is a kind of shared door-to-door taxi which picks you up at your door. [ Transportes Doyfi, (BAQ) 375 7070 373 9991 (CTG) 656 1933 – 300 469 2100 Santa Marta 431 8988 ] I think this is a very good way to travel as a solo girl here, safe, quick (they do have to pick up others on the way though) and good value (25,000 pesos each way). It will take you from Barranquilla to Cartagena or Santa Marta.

Staying there:

I stayed in the Hotel Costa del Sol in Bocagrande, right on the coast ( which is trying to compete with Southern Spain in the Most-Spoiled-Coastline-in-the-World stakes). The Hotel was, well, it was what I paid for it: about $70 US per night (I was only there one night), one of those terrible looking highrise features. The view was lovely, over the ocean, but as the name of the Hotel suggests, the décor was cheep and the food was mediocre. You get what you pay for, as I said. I was the only foreigner I saw staying there – this is still off season. Some of the staff spoke English but in that rather plastic insincere manner. You are cheep and staying in a cheep place. If you want sincerely, pay for it in the Old Town. The worst thing about the hotel was the plumbing: no water pressure and the toilet had trouble flushing. Hotel Costa del Sol. Welcome to 1980s Alicante.

Getting around:

The taxistas in CTG are famous for their rip-off tendencies. I met a fairly honest Santadereano, a straight-talker who drove me up to the monastery at La Popa for a negotiated price. The standard fare from the hotel to the old town was 5CP $ 5,000 – roughly want the same journey would have taken in Barranquilla, but to go further afield I had to negotiate a separate deal with the taxista. I had a fairly straight talking Santandereano, who’s pitch was right outside my hotel, who drove me to La Popa and around town. My time in CGT was short so I only saw La Popa and the Old Town. This taxista was with me for most of the morning and waited for me while I took the tour of La Popa – something which would have been a problem otherwise. That morning set me back about CP $30,000: I haven’t a clue whether that was fair or not – others can judge that. Its one of the reasons why I hate being a tourist 😉 He was very helpful though.

La Popa:

The Convent of La Popa lies perched on the hilltop above Cartagena, and is currently home to four Augustinian monastic priests who occupy the second floor (first floor to the Brits) of the building while the ground floor is open to tourists. To European eyes, the monastery is small and unadorned compared with the ancient churches and religious buildings of Europe, but it nonetheless offers a wonderful glimpse into monastic life in the Americas. It is brick-built along traditional lines around a central courtyard. Here, the monks would have prayed and read from their office-books while circling the courtyard in a clockwise direction.

I decided that I didn’t need guide, having be dragged around the religious monuments of Europe as a child, and there being detailed interpretation boards (Spanish only) to explain the functions of the various rooms. The chapel is home to a gaudy golf-leaf tabernacle with a rather lacy Virgin Mary in the centre alcove with two other male saints (one of them, presumably, St Augustine); s well as some rather morbid and (to my eyes) poorly executed artwork dating from the 19th Century.  Other than that it was fairly small – in keeping with the size of the convent – and simply furnished. I was happy to note that there were (as there should be in all places of worship which are also tourist attractions), signs telling visitors to enter with respect.

I was also kind of pleased to discover that La Popa is still in use as a religious community and not a museum like so much of the rest of the old town. It therefore has a “lived in” feel to it: the vestments on display, for example, are obviously still in use. The site is excellent for panoramic views of Cartagena and is worth a look for that alone, especially if there are several of you and you can split the cost of the taxi. There were the usual vendors of hats/trinkets/rosary beads/sunglasses/ green fluffy things on a stick outside the convent, you need to be tough because they are fairly persistent. Although I can hold my own with them, my taxista was fairly good at keeping them at bay as well. On the way back, he took me around the outskirts of the old town where cars were permitted.

“There’s the house of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, but he lives in Mexico now!”  he said proudly, pointing to a house surrounded by a big orange wall, whose roof was barely visible.

The Old Town:

I came to see the old town, (and to see what all the fuss was about). It matched my imagination as a colonial Spanish town, but is in many ways a kind of living museum. Most of the houses have been converted into hotels, boutiques, cafes or bars, but nobody (well, very few anyway) seems to actually live there. There are other sections of the Old Town that I didn’t see, though: I was on foot for much of the time. I spent the afternoon wandering around, finding that the old town actually has a cafe-culture of sorts, but mainly to cater to visitors. It was like being back in old Europe in many ways: it seemed to me like Canterbury, Bath, or St Andrews for the sense of history, although of course these cities (and their architecture) are much older. After Barranquilla it was a balm to the eye.

I found a bookshop-cafe (that rare thing in Latin America) with hideously overpriced books and coffee (I bought a book. I stopped short of the coffee). I had a look in one of the emerald shops but didn’t like the way they were selling: we weigh them like this on these dodgy scales, right, and then we think of a number and multiply it. The gringos fall for it every time.

They changed their tune a bit when I started asking about carats, colour and cut, and gave me the card for the better ones in Bogota. I said I’d think about it, which was a lie. It is not worth shopping in Cartagena. The place is a complete tourist trap, all merchandise hideously tacky and made in China. The sad thing about the old town was that there didn’t seem to be a single store that catered for ordinary Colombians. I had the feeling I was walking around a museum, not a town.

The Inquisition House.

I then had a walk around the inquisition house. $9,000. This time – just to see – I got a guide who asked for $20,000 and I got for $15,000. I would probably have got him for less. He began tell telling me in memorised English – his broken English wasn’t good enough for storytelling about the various ways the Catholic Church tortured people up until the 1700s, but I told him to switch to Spanish. To be honest, this is only good if you don’t know anything about early modern history, and speak Spanish. I actually knew more about the inquisition (in general, not in Colombia per se) than the guide. Having be dragged round the torture chambers of medieval Europe, I could kind of guess what the implements were for. You’d have to be one sadistic “modefoque‿ (where is elmo when you need him) to come up with that stuff. And the Americans think Europeans are SOFT.

The inquisition house was actually not the original building they used to interrogate prisoners, so it is basically just a museum in an 18th Century building with interpretation boards and various gruesome exhibits. Upstairs, there was a model of Cartagena and some large maps, pictures, and a lot of Spanish text. This is not a place to go if you only read English – unless you want to pay for the guide who has memorised most of his English and therefore is almost unintelligible.

I also found it rather weird that they were setting up tables for dining as I was leaving. Can you imagine Mr and Mrs Jones from England on their honeymoon in Cartagena:

Mrs Jones: “I say, darling, shall we go out to dinner tonight, its a lovely evening.‿
Mr Jones: “Certainly, my dear, may I suggest the Inquisition House, in Plaza Bolivar. There, we can dine under the stars next to that rack where they used to tie ropes around the genitalia of poor hapless clergymen in order to extract confessions of heresy, and shred woman’s bosoms as a punishment for witchcraft.”

Mrs Jones: “That will be lovely darling. Be sure and order the table nearest the gallows”.

Seems sicker to me, in some ways, than the rack and the breast-shredder themselves.

The Old Town at Night.

One thing that I would definitely say is worth it is the horse-drawn carriages that can take you around the streets of the Old Town. Again, the driver was knowledgeable about the town, but spoke no English, so I imagine that this is best done, if you don’t speak Spanish, with a Spanish speaker in your company. I have no idea whether the $25,000 CP he charged me was fair or not, but it was certainly lower than the price he originally quoted. The drive was beautiful – the Old Town is well lit and safe by night, and reminded me in some ways of Venice (but obviously without the boats and canals). Its wonderful for soaking up the atmosphere. Alighting from the carriage, I then decided to walk around. The streets being well paved, well lit, and well patrolled, this is something I never had the opportunity to do in Colombia before after dark.

Strangely, the old town after hours somehow ceases to be a museum, and became more alive in the European sense. I really felt that I could have been somewhere in Italy or Spain: pavement cafes, the sound of music coming from the buildings, the bouncers trying to get me into the few clubs their were. (I didn’t go in. So tempted, but this is Colombia still, not Europe, and my Santadereano taxi driver had delivered to me earlier a stiff lecture about the dangers to unaccompanied foreign women from hustlers and drug dealers. (I usually listen to the locals but half of me was saying “can’t I just say no thanks to the sex and drugs?) I felt a pang of loneliness, the missing of my boyfriend’s arm around me: this was another place we should have been together.

Circling the plaza, the doorman at one of the restaurants. He asked me why I was walking alone. This kind of question bugs me sometimes when I travel alone: there seems no logic to it. Well, its obvious ain’t it? I’m walking alone because I am … alone. He then goes on to say something equally daft.

“Ah yes, to walk around here is very romantic, no?”

Er…yeah. If you are with someone. Me, I was just enjoying the sensation of walking around without falling into pot holes. But we got talking and discovered that we both were studying law. I have to admit, I was envious because he was studying in a much more beautiful place than me.

The next day I went to mass in the Cathedral the first time since arriving in Colombia. That was kind of weird after the House of the Inquisition with its thumbscrews, almost opposite, but I enjoyed it because I felt like I was in a real community again. The Cathedral has a bare simplicity compared with the cathedrals of Europe, but I actually preferred it to the gaudiness of many others. Most importantly, it convinced me that the town was actually a community as well and not a ghost town. Then I went to the plaza and did what I might do in Europe, a rare luxury of nostalgia. I took out my book, sat on the bench, and began to read.

Books are great. They are solace in times of hardship, they are a great deterrent for the stupid and the venders of trinkets, who must complete for your eye contact with the page, and they attract interesting people. I highly recommend reading books in public.

In this case, the interesting person was another viejo, to add to the collection of viejos whose faces are pins on my own map of Colombia. A frank, admiring glance as he buys a newspaper from the street vendor, asking him whether there was any news: a creature from another time when men still asked things like that of newspaper sellers. He sat opposite me, watching me with bright eyes that will ever refuse to die, a man who obviously has loved life, has lived it to the full, and intends to go on living it until he drops dead. About 70 years old, he allowed himself that old man’s luxury of admiring young women openly. He fed the pigeons and I go on with my reading. But I feel as if I am back in the real world, Cartagena’s lazy Sunday where people gather in the plaza in morning, feeding pigeons and reading the papers. His friend joined him, and he started talking to his friend. Suddenly he bursts into an impromptu tango song in my honour. I have to say that was cool – he’d obviously used that one in his younger days to very great success with women.

That song, and those bright eyes, really, will remain my best and truest memory of Cartagena.

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