A view on the street in Cartagena, Colombia

Now Arriving in Cartagena

We landed in Cartagena, Colombia on a Tuesday afternoon.  It was overcast and humid as we disembarked the plane onto the tarmac and walked with the other passengers to the immigration building.  The line inside was long, snaking back and forth, crawling along at a painfully slow pace.  As we shuffled along with the crowd, we attempted to connect to the spotty free wi-fi to see if our AirB&B request had been approved.  We are aspirational organized travelers, which is to say not at all, but we like the idea.  We had sent a booking request for our first few nights mere minutes before boarding our flight.  The website was slow to load, but after losing and regaining the connection a few times, we had confirmation.

The line divider at the Cartagena airport in Colombia
We saw a lot of this for our first couple of hours

After two hours of inching forward, we were officially admitted to the country, with an admonition that our tourist permit was for 90 days, which is not the same thing as three months.  Our first order of business was to get money.  I have a debit card that offers perks for international travel, so I always try to get cash from ATMs to avoid losing money at the exchanges. But we looked and couldn’t seem to find any.  I finally asked someone and they directed us to the far corner of the airport, near the departures terminal, where there was a group of four or five machines.  We headed over and I put my card in the first one, following the prompts.  Before even getting to a question about money it said “Thank you for using our ATM” and spit my card out along with a receipt saying “Unable to process request”.  I tried again, thinking maybe I had made a mistake, but the same thing happened.  I tried another machine, and the same thing again.  At this point I got concerned that if I kept trying, my card would get blocked, or worse, the machine might keep my card, so we decided to just exchange some cash and try to sort out the ATM situation later.

Where’s the Taxi?

With passports stamped, money in hand and a place to stay, the next step was getting to the place we had booked.  Being the budget travelers that we are, we were trying to figure out a way to get to our location by public bus, but our host recommended we take an Uber since it was our first time in the city, and the apartment was not in the historic center.  This turned into quite the event.  Neither of us had SIM cards, so we had to find internet.  The airport’s complimentary wi-fi disappeared once we exited immigration, so getting back online involved buying a very subpar cup of coffee from Juan Valdez, one of the conspicuous coffee chains in Colombia.  The speed was slow, and the signal didn’t extend far, so we had to stick close to the café to maintain our connection.

I could not get my Uber account on my phone to connect.  Kasia was able to use her account, which was on her iPad, but when we tried to set the pickup location at departures where we were standing, the app kept moving the pin and would only let us set it at arrivals, which put us too far away from the wi-fi area to stay online in case the driver needed to ask us a question.  After several unsuccessful attempts to reset the pickup location, we just ordered the car, and the Kasia stayed near the café while I walked to arrivals, repeating the license plate number to myself and making sure to keep a line of sight with her.  Fortunately the airport is quite small, a single story building, and a straight sidewalk that stretches for probably less than two blocks.

After about 10 minutes she waved me back over.  The driver had sent us a message saying that he couldn’t come into the airport.  We had to walk to the far end of the sidewalk and cross the street, and he would meet us on the other side, in front of a busy car rental business.  It seemed a little suspicious to me, but I went over to meet him while Kasia waited in the meager halo of wi-fi.  He drove up after a few minutes, loaded my bag into the trunk, and then let me use his phone to let Kasia know he had arrived.  Everything went smoothly from there.  Later we read online that Uber is officially illegal in Colombia, despite its widespread use, thanks in large part to a powerful taxi lobby.  Drivers can be fined and even have their cars impounded for offering the service, and the airport is one of the easiest places to get caught.

Like in many countries, traffic here is fairly interpretive.  The lines on the street, if they even exist, seem to serve more as a suggestion than a rule.  Many roads will appear to be one-way, and suddenly traffic will compact down to a single lane to accommodate opposing traffic, only to spread back out once it has passed.  Our driver had to stop in the middle of a small street at one point to ask someone for directions.  Cars coming the other way were honking at him, and he half-heartedly waved to let them know he would move in a second.  After a ride long enough to make me glad we didn’t try to navigate the bus system, we finally arrived at our destination.

Home Sweet Home

The place we stayed was about a twenty minute walk from the historic center.  It was on the third floor of one of the only three story buildings in the neighborhood.  It faced the east, so it got sun in the morning, but before noon was in full shade.  Our hosts were a lovely couple, Billy and Digna, who were temporarily managing the apartment for Digna’s mother. They had painted colorful designs and pictures on the walls, and the whole apartment had a very artistic vibe.  It was spacious, bright, simple and welcoming.  It also had a generous terrace where we spent a lot of our time, getting used to the heat and humidity and observing life in the street.  (You can see pictures of where we stayed, or if you are planning a trip to Cartagena and would like to stay there yourself, you can see it here.)

A view of the Papayal neighborhood from our terrace
A view from our terrace

Staying in a residential neighborhood also gave us a close personal look at a local tradition.  November 11th is Cartagena’s independence day, and in the month or so leading up to it, lighting off firecrackers is a popular pastime, especially among the children that live on our street.  Much like in Mexico, they seem to prefer the kinds that are incredibly loud and don’t have any visual component, sounding more like gunshots or mortar rounds than traditional fireworks.  Every evening the street would become a mock war zone, the night air being sporadically perforated by the three-round bursts of yet another exuberant showdown between two or more children.  And every once in awhile, one of the really loud ones would go off, the intensity of it so great  it created a pressure on my eardrums that left me disoriented for a second or two.

Children playing in the street at night, Cartagena, Colombia
Neighborhood kids preparing for a skirmish

Some Like it Hot

October is one of the hottest and  rainiest times of the year in Colombia.  During our time in Cartagena it was 90 degrees, or nearly so every day, and the humidity hovered between 85% and 90%.   We had both spent the past year in temperate climates and had fully reacclimated to them, so being dropped into such a thoroughly tropical environment was physically and mentally exhausting.  We were grateful for the fruit and vegetable vendors that passed by so we didn’t have to venture out in the beating sun for something to eat.  Even when just sitting I would  perspire intensely, sweat dripping from my face as if from a leaking faucet.

The Reluctant Traveler returning from the street with fruit for lunch
The Reluctant Traveler returning from the street with fruit for lunch

The tropical downpours were a major highlight for us.  We arrived in the middle of the rainy season, and our next few locations never offered such dramatic events as did Cartagena.  It rained almost every day, sometimes briefly, other times torrential downpours that made it so we could hardly see the buildings the next street over, the sound of the rain on the corrugated metal roof drowning out everything else.  During these episodes the streets would flood, and from our balcony we watched as the adults took shelter and  the neighborhood children came running out to play soccer in ankle-deep water, or stand under the downspouts pouring like oversize hoses from the roofs.

A rainstorm as seen from our terrace
It rains a lot this time of year

There are also lots of thunderstorms during this time of year. Usually these storms were quite a ways off, with the thunder being only barely audible, and often not at all, but a few times it was right on top of us.  One day we were racing to get home ahead of the dark rain clouds that were chasing us, and just as we were turning the corner two blocks from our place, we heard a crackle of electricity, saw an intense flash, and then it sounded like a bomb had gone off.  We made it inside, and within minutes it began pouring.  At night there was rarely thunder, but always lightening, sporadic soft, pink flashes in the distance that added pleasantly to the nighttime ambience.

Fancy a Dip?

Cartagena’s coastline offers an amazing example of a great concept questionably executed.  All along the northern part of the old city, huge boulders have been stacked in segments running parallel to the coastline that act as breakwaters.  On the map it looks like docks, but there are no ships here.  As the tides have come in and receded over time, they have created sandbars that connect the breakwaters to the beach, and the spaces between the breakwater segments become like tiny bays that are safe for swimming.  Each little bay has people that come and set out covered chairs on the beaches that you can rent if you don’t have your own, and we saw lots of groups of people swimming and playing in the water.

A view of the beach along the northern coastline of Cartagena
It’s a nice idea, but it leaves something to be desired

But when you turn around, the highway is right there, cars and trucks rushing past, horns blaring, and open drains that allow all of the oil and gasoline from the highway to be swept by the rains right into those same swimming areas.  Between the noise pollution and the runoff, we decided against going for a swim.  Instead we walked along the beach, watching the pelicans languidly cruising for fish, until we reached the walls of the old city, where we crossed over.

You can always go Downtown

Unfortunately we were not particularly impressed with Cartagena.  There are personal reasons that contributed strongly to this; we both had had long years leading up to this trip and were tired; the sudden change in climate was hard for us that first week; we were waking up late, and it was simply not pleasant to walk around once it gets hot, so we had just a few hours a day to see the city in the daylight (it’s dark here by 6:15); and Cartagena is a fairly expensive city, so with our tight budget we felt somewhat limited in what we could do; even the street food is kind of expensive.

Unfortunately we were not particularly impressed with Cartagena.  There are personal reasons that contributed strongly to this; we both had had long years leading up to this trip and were tired; the sudden change in climate was hard for us that first week; we were waking up late, and it was simply not pleasant to walk around once it gets hot, so we had just a few hours a day to see the city in the daylight (it’s dark here by 6:15); and Cartagena is a fairly expensive city, so with our tight budget we felt somewhat limited in what we could do; even the street food is kind of expensive.

As I already mentioned, it is hot there, and the buildings are fairly short, so they don’t offer a lot of shade until late in the day.  Perhaps one could overlook this design flaw if they truly enjoy colonial architecture.  Kasia does, and she pointed out some unique things, lots of balconies overlooking the streets for example.  I am not a particular fan of it myself.  It all looks more or less the same to me unless I really think about it.  I generally spend most of my time pondering how the Spanish, coming from a hot country, could take over lots of other hot countries, and despite all their experience with hot climates be so consistently abysmal at managing heat.  Where are the towering street trees that could provide shade?  Why are awnings virtually non-existent?  Why are there not more heavily shaded parks to spend time in?

The Monument of the Indian Catalina
The Monument of La India Catalina. Notice the lack of shade.

Your Mileage May Vary

In truth, I think there is a lot to like here, especially for someone who is more of a vacation tourist that has a bigger budget and is planning just a couple of days of tours and sightseeing.  The historic center has been restored, the old town having high end hotels with fancy restaurants and luxurious swimming pools in their courtyards.  The Getsamani neighborhood favored by backpackers is undergoing a full-on hipster gentrification process, complete with boutique shops selling farm-to-table single-origin chocolate bars for $8 a piece and coffee microroasters offering roasting classes on site.  There are numerous museums, lots of shopping, and plenty of restaurants.  Of the seven days we were there, we spent parts of five of them walking around the old town, so we saw a good bit of it.  But for a number of reasons we preferred our residential neighborhood, and we went downtown more for the exercise than for anything else.

Onward and Upward

At the end of the week we bid farewell to our hosts and left for Minca, a city in the Sierra Nevada mountains, that we were hoping would offer us a bit  of a respite from the heat and might offer us the opportunity to just relax and do nothing in particular for a week or two.  At 7:30 in the morning, the day already beginning to heat up, we set out on the 15 minute trek to the bus station.  We were both soaked through by the time we arrived, and didn’t really stop sweating until we were on the bus and going.  We were off to a new place, hopeful that a break from the heat would revive us, and looking forward to a change of scenery.