Wednesday, September 22, 2010


27th Aug to 1st Sept

It's a bit sad to leave Ludwig, Rolli and the rest of the Stahlratte crew behind as we take a short dinghy ride to shore with our bikes and kit. Riding into the old town of Cartegena, the very first Colombian to talk to us is a guy who jumps out in the road offering us drugs! Welcome to Colombia - good to see all the old stereotypes alive!

The town centre is carnage with narrow streets thronging with hoards, all weaving in and out of hand carts and yellow taxis that blare horns incessantly. We ride the wrong way up a couple of streets to a hotel where some of the others from the boat are staying; but it is full.

I'm sure I didn't buy any drugs off that guy, but I must be hallucinating when we see a guy dressed as a horse throwing high-kicks at a group of passing school children. They scream and squeal in delight running out into the traffic choked street.

We hole up just outside the old city walls in "Getsemeni" and head out to explore this mad place - our first sight together of South America. Cartegena is an old, colonial walled town that prospered as a major Spanish port in the 16th Century. Old silver money just drips off the beautiful building facades. Nowadays, some are showing signs of disrepair as the money dried up and left; this block is the thriving red light district where painted ladies stretch latex to bursting point as they pout and whisper enticements to the crumbling, hourly-rate rooms upstairs....

Heading on inside the walls that South American vibrancy hits you immediately. Plaza de los Coches is alive with dancers writhing to maniacal drumbeats. They dance the traditional steps of the "Kalimari" tribe who inhabited this coast before Spain came. They worshiped a serpent god and the dance is seductive, sexy and sinuous reflecting the demon spirit of the snake. It's too fast to capture....

The streets are similarly alive with vendors of all kinds pushing carts of fruit, deep fried foods or coffee and cakes. 'Minutos' are everywhere - guys sitting behind trestles with mobile phones for hire. For 100 Pesos ($0.05) you can buy minutes and they will place the call for you. In between calls they gamble on dice or the flip of a coin. The excitement is too much for one onlooker....

We meet up with all 20 fellow passengers from Stahlratte in their hostel's roof top bar and enjoy a couple of cold ones in sight of Fort San Filipe that once protected the city from English pirates....

Later we hit a reggae bar for some live music. We leave at around 1:30am but some of the others see the dawn in... Cartegena is a party town.

There are some excellent museums in town and we head to the Naval Museum next day which has a history of the Spanish conquest displacing the local tribes in this area. The main room has some fantastic models of the ongoing struggle to defend the city during the 16th to 18th centuries. The treasure hoards of Peruvian silver attracted increasingly more determined fleets from Britain and France (including Sir Francis Drake) who often carried out pirate raids rather than risk outright war closer to home. There are descriptions of the battles and a timeline for the building of ever more elaborate defensive walls and forts around Cartegena.

Inside the walls, Cartegena is definitely less seedy than Getsemeni and there are tons of upmarket eateries and boutique hotels around the open plazas....

They obviously cater to a different budget than ours so we head back to the cheap seats and find a bar doing an excellent curry. Oh I do miss a good curry! After that we head on to a Salsa bar and meet up with the crew and our Stahlratte ship mates again.

On the last Sunday of the month, most city attractions are free so we head en-masse up to San Filipe Fort to see the canons and imagine battling scurvy sea dogs come-a-plundering!

It's all a little hard to imagine with all that modern skyline in the background though. The Fort itself is impressive with tunnels running like an underground warren, but as a museum it is not. There is no information of any kind and it definitely pays to visit the Naval Museum first.

As it a free day we head to the gold museum next and learn how rare metals like iron and steel were here but that gold was commonplace. Rumour has it that pure nuggets could be found just lying in rivers waiting to be picked up! Consequently it was used for everything from beautiful jewelery and ornamental dress; right down to commonplace objects like weights and fish hooks....

You can imagine how the Spanish must have felt when they washed up on shore amongst all this wealth!

There is a film about the "Zenu" - an inland tribe that built vast canal networks over a 2000 square mile area to control river flooding around 2000 years ago. They slowed the advancing water and used the river and it's silt to irrigate and fertilise vast tracts of land. It is a feat that is beyond modern engineers and parts of Colombia's central valley suffer from uncontrolled flooding today!

Plaza Trinidad is a local's hangout and the boat crew head down for Sunday nights. There is a 5 piece band just jamming and they are really, really good. A stilt walking dancer joins them followed by a juggler with flaming torches. There are street carts laden with food and the local shop sells cold beer which you can carry out - it's a really chilled atmosphere.

A typical Sunday night out with friends....

50 kilometers outside Cartegena is "Volcan de Lodo el Totumo" so we take a tour bus with our group. The volcano doesn't look that impressive - just a 15 metre cone, but it is made from mud spewed up to the surface under pressure. The lukewarm mud is supposed to have therapeutic properties and it's a weird feeling slipping and sliding into this thick, oily bath....

You feel a bit like a cork bobbing uncontrollably high in the water and you just can't move. There are 'helpers' who push you into place where, if you are still, you hardly feel the mud at all and you get this weird sensation of floating in space. If you do try and move, you get a strange feeling of overbalancing as your body flails about and you start to roll forward.
Mud does not taste good!
Your skin does feel amazing afterwards though and you can get a massage for about $1.50. Next it's off to the lake to wash off and there are washer women who are more than happy to help. You have to be quick to stop them whipping off your shorts underwater and giving you a good rub down!

We return via a golden sandy beach where a fish lunch awaits us.

Cartegena is alleged to be the most beautiful of all Colombia's cities and I can well believe it. It's not just the buildings either, the people are warm and friendly as well. True, in some parts of Getsemeni after dark it can get a little edgy and there are whispering spivs on many of the street corners, all 'trust-me' smiles and shifty eyes. Mobile phone attached to ear, they promise they can get you anything..... ANYthink (nod, wink....).

But alongside the more 'adventurous' side of life, it's also a place where you could spend a couple of hundred dollars a night in a boutique hotel and dine in fine style in an expensive gourmet restaurant then stroll amongst the walls looking at the ocean and admiring the incredible architecture. It's a real mix!

You could spend days just wandering here. There are numerous old plazas, churches and municipal buildings, plus the street scenes are vibrant and chaotic and ever changing.

A couple of images around town...

A scene straight out of the 16th century....

Cafe culture....

With ever present street vendors and music....

Ancient defenses - modern hangout....

Classic lighting....

Modern art....

The question is.... does life imitate art or does art imitate life....


Anonymous said...

Really nice photos.


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