I arrived in Cartagena after the five-day boat ride from Panama. What a welcome sight the city was after the boat fatigue I had.. and what a welcome feeling to finally arrive in South America!
I got off the boat and headed to where I was staying to drop off my bag and explore the city. I couchsurfed with a host that hosted my friend Eli, who hosted me in San Luis Potosi, Mexico. Talk about a small world!
I lined up a volunteering project in Cartagena. I was to meet with them the day after I arrived. Everything was arranged by email, and my contact gave me his phone number so I could call him and they’d send transportation to pick me up.
Well, in the end I called a couple times and my call was never answered. I left messages and they never called back. The organization focused on the development of an impoverished area of Cartagena called La Boquilla through education, health and nutrition programs. It sounded perfect, but they didn’t seem very interested in my help when I arrived.
Thus, as has been customary in my trip recently, my plans changed. Having lost my volunteering opportunity in Cartagena, I decided to be a tourist and visit Santa Marta, Taganga, and Tayrona National Park on my way to Venezuela for Christmas.
Cartagena is a city in its own right, yet it has a decent amount of tourism due to its beautiful old city, beaches, and Caribbean architecture.
The city is quite old and is fortified by a wall.
I spent most of my time in the old part of the city. It’s colonial, yet Caribbean – a beautiful, colorful mix. Unlike Panama City’s old city (Casco Viejo), I felt like the old city in Cartagena is more authentic. It’s not as touristy, for example, and I felt like it was a normal Colombian neighborhood, though wealthier I’m sure.
While leaving the old city one night, I was treated to a street performance by an Afro-Caribbean group. I loved it! There is something about this kind of rhythmic drum music that I like, and the dancing was just a bonus.
The rainy season has been way worse than usual pretty much everywhere I’ve been. This applied to Colombia as well, unfortunately. But at least it usually rained for only a couple hours and there were perfect, dry days.
Many parts of the city flooded daily when it rained. And when it did rain, it was usually torrential. Still, even when it wasn’t raining it wasn’t hard to find standing water all over the city.
When I arrived in Cartagena, the first thing I purchased was an umbrella. The one I had was broken and I knew I’d need one. I didn’t realize I should have brought boots as well though! The water would be up to the middle of my calves at times. But in a moment, you’ll see some amazing local entrepreneurship in action to take advantage of the rain and lack of infrastructure to handle it.
Below is a video showing the flooding and intense rain in Cartagena:
And here is a video showing the ingenuity of the people here! These guys constructed a bridge out of scrap pieces of wood to allow for people to cross without immersing their feet in the water in the street. They didn’t charge the old lady passing by in the video, but they expect a 100 or 200 Peso ($0.05-$0.10) coin for their efforts.
The first thing I tried in Colombia was, naturally, an apepa. Arepas are to Colombia as sushi is to Japan. You have to try it!
Well, here is a picture of my first arepa. It’s basically masa (flour made from corn) that is cooked over a hot plate using butter. Most people eat it with cheese, but I, being lactose intolerant, got a plain one. Big mistake. I didn’t like it at all.
I later had several egg arepas. It is much, much better, but it’s fried.
I love guava. The fruit itself is great, but I like guava-flavored things even more. When I discovered this circle of heaven called a roscon de guayaba/guava roscon, well, time stood still for a solid five minutes as I ate it.
The size of the roscon is a bit gluttonous, but I later found out that they sold a smaller version. Later in Colombia, I’d have one of these smaller ones for breakfast often, or I’d have one as a snack.
And, come on. I’m in Colombia. Of course I had coffee!
I don’t think my taste palette is very sensitive when it comes to these things, so I didn’t really taste much of a difference between Colombian and Central American coffee. Don’t get me wrong.. it was good! I liked it. I guess I was just expecting to have a pleasure-induced seizure as the coffee entered my bloodstream.
In the picture to the left, you can see a waitress preparing “cafe con ritual/coffee with ritual.” This was, by far, the nicest coffeehouse I found in Cartagena. I didn’t dare order more than a coffee at this place as it was very expensive. I came to use the internet and get out of the rain. But, uniquely, they offer coffee prepared the traditional way. It’s the same way coffee is prepared in Central America, but despite the lack of newness it was still a fun experience.
Cartagena is a strange mix of commerce, tourism, and history. I liked it, but wasn’t sad to leave. I was sad my volunteering opportunity didn’t work out, but if everything happens for a reason then I lost this volunteering opportunity so I could visit the amazing Tayrona National Park a few days later.
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About Adam Pervez
In mid-2011 I left my cushy corporate job and took the plunge into a life incorporating my passions of traveling, writing, volunteering, learning, educating, and telling stories. I study what happiness means to others, offer what I can from my engineering/MBA background as a volunteer, and try to leave each place better than how I found it. Read more.