Does danger appeal to you? People who’ve known me for any length of time would probably tell you that I’m a very cautious person. I wouldn’t argue with that assessment. There is, however, a little adventurer trapped inside me always fighting to get out! This brave little guy would love to take a trip to Freetown or seek out isolation in remote mountains and deserts. The real me has, over time, become more aware of the limits of my comfort zone. I do try to push those limits pretty regularly because I believe many of my fears are unfounded or overstated, but I also realise that right now I probably wouldn’t enjoy, or get the best out of, a trip that I considered to be unsafe. I often ponder ways in which I can become more self-sufficient and empowered.
When my wife and I were browsing possible itineraries for our Caribbean cruise, I would say the presence of Colombia as a destination was the single biggest factor in my choice. When I saw Cartagena on the list along with Aruba and Jamaica I was immediately sold – Aruba would be the Caribbean we imagined, Jamaica would be, well Jamaica! And Cartagena would keep that little adventurer in me happy. All that was left to do was convince my travelling companion. I was really looking forward to reaching South America. I was super-excited that it was Colombia we were visiting. And even though I didn’t know a whole lot about the city, the name ‘Cartagena’ painted a romantic picture in my mind’s eye. Despite Colombia’s reputation, I figured if a cruise ship was pulling up here, it must not be too daunting. A small amount of online research later and this conclusion was reinforced.
Fast-forward about ten months and we were, at last, in Colombian waters. The approach was frustratingly slow, as they always are on ships. But the view was spectacular. Initially it was deep forest and beautiful beaches, and even tribal-looking characters fishing in tiny boats. This view then gave way to white skyscrapers, long piers and expensive marinas. This was one place where I definitely didn’t expect to be dawdling around the port – I couldn’t wait to see the ‘real’ Colombia. But I also wasn’t expecting the cruise port in Cartagena to be so much more tourist-friendly than the others we’d been through. Instead of concrete and stalls, we were met with wood and greenery and smiling ladies in white and blue uniforms introducing us to their pet parrot. Who was also blue. And yellow. So I figured it was worth a few minutes to get some pictures with the parrot on my arm. On our way back through the port later that day we realised that they had many more exotic animals, but they were a bit more confined and at the mercy of thoughtless tourists than we would have liked.
Outside the port, the taxis were lined up and most people, like us, seemed to be headed for the Old City. So we shared a ride with two American women to keep costs down and speed things up in the queue. The drive in was quite enjoyable, in a theme park kind of way – last second manoeuvres and close calls were the norm. And the views were great too!
We wandered into the Old City with food on our minds. My wife can be quite fussy about what she eats, so I was anxious to find somewhere quickly rather than waste our few hours in Colombia arguing over restaurants. Most of the restaurants hadn’t opened yet but the stunning streets and churches and buildings distracted us somewhat from our hunger pangs. Cartagena is a beautiful city and it gave us many of the best photos from our cruise. Our search ended when we happened upon a very charming courtyard restaurant near the Cathedral of Cartagena. The exchange rate was something like $1:55,000 and we weren’t even sure that was right at all, so trying to work out how much our food was costing us was a source of minor concern.
Our basic plan for the day was just to get a feel for the place. So we wandered the pretty streets, climbed the ramparts, visited a maritime museum and had an ice-pop in Plaza de Bolvar. The place was much more relaxed and tourist-friendly than I expected – I had been looking forward to the madness of Tijuana or something similar! I was anxious to see the modern part of the city as well for a bit of perspective. But we found it difficult to pick up a taxi on the street so we had to walk back to the Clock Tower where there were a number of taxis waiting for a fare. Time was running out on us, so I decided that a tour of the rest of the city by taxi, finishing up at the cruise port, would be the thing to do. Neither of us speak Spanish so it took a while before we found a taxi driver who could understand our slightly unusual request. Happily, we came upon an agreeable fellow with broken English who offered to take us to the places we wanted to see for a surprisingly low fare.
Our friendly driver pointed out the sights as we headed for the skyscrapers. We saw the beaches, the glitzy business hotels, the heavily armed guards – present for some high profile international conference. In the bay we saw a US Coastguard vessel and were told that it was a constant presence in Cartagena. Our last stop before leaving the city was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This was a grand old fortress and a good spot for a few photographs and ice-cream. This part of town was much more run-down but it was no harm to see it along with the postcard views of castle walls and sparkling seafronts elsewhere in the city.
In summary, Cartagena is a very picturesque city and makes for a very pleasant visit. It’s also worth noting that my view of the place may be at odds with that of someone who has had time to experience it more fully. I came away with a somewhat anticlimactic feeling, but that was possibly somewhat due to me building it up in my head for so long beforehand.