Here’s a great blog entry from Richard McColl on Mompos. We stayed with Richard and Alba at La Casa Amarilla when we visited Mompos–the entire experience was utterly brilliant!
Here’s a great blog entry from Rainbow Nelson on why Getsemani (a neighbourhood in Cartagena) is totally cool. Rainbow’s a cool guy himself–he runs This is Cartagena and he’s one of the official bloggers for Proexport Colombia. We ran into him at La Casa Amarilla in Mompos and again at a great little restaurant in Cartagena called La Mulata. This past Sunday, we happened to catch some of the baseball he mentions in his blog entry–it was fantastic fun!
Shortly before we left Canada to come to Colombia, we discovered that the Organization of American States would be holding the Sixth Summit of the Americas in Cartagena just before our departure. We thought it might be interesting, but it’s turning the city into a bit of a zoo. The event is still several days away, but the police presence has already grown substantially. The local police were always out in good numbers, but they’ve been joined by the National Police, the military, civil defense, and more.
It’s not that they’re terribly intimidating–actually, they’ve been quite casual and friendly. They’re obviously here from all over the country, and they’re taking as many snapshots of each other standing in front of all the local landmarks as any other tourists. They also seem quite happy to pose for tourist photos. Nonetheless, the city has a markedly different atmosphere than it did just last week, and the security will only get more visible and tighter as the summit itself approaches, so we’ve decided to get out of town for a few days.
We were able to snag good deals on flights from Cartagena to Medellin and back as well as a good deal on a hotel in Medellin, so we’re going on a 72-hour hop to “the city of eternal spring“. The main reason we’re going is that Medellin–formerly one of the most dangerous cities in the world–has had an incredible renaissance, largely the result of the “social urbanism” of former mayor Sergio Fajardo Valderrama. There’s been a lot of writing about the architectural renaissance of Medellin–in the LA Times, ArchDaily on the web, Architectural Record, and elsewhere. We’ll let you know what we find!
I started this post almost two weeks ago, and kept meaning to update it, but never seemed to get around to it. It’s hard to keep up with the blogging part–we’re spending too much time having fun! I’ve decided to just post it, so take it for what it’s worth.
After getting the kids settled into bed on the first Saturday night, Joni graciously agreed to stay home while I went out to see what life is like on the streets of the old city on a Saturday night. The city really comes alive after about 9 or 10PM. There are people everywhere–tourists and locals alike. The parks are full of young couples snatching an hour or two of romance, people are sitting in doorways, every little hole in the wall has at least one or two tiny tables with a couple of chairs out on the sidewalk, and the hawkers and vendors are out in perhaps even more force than they are during the day. Around 4PM, the air starts to fill with the clip-clop of the horse-drawn carriages (We haven’t yet figured out where the go to sleep at night).
All of the various larger plazas are filled with tables, and there’s music wafting over the air from almost every direction. Last Saturday, there was a concert in the plaza between the cathedral and the main government administration building. I didn’t catch the name of the group, but I’m pretty sure it was vallenato music, since it featured the accordion and what I believe were the guacharaca and caja vallenata.
Vallenato is a type of music with strong similarities to Cajun music–the instrumentation, the form and rhythms, and so on. This got us to thinking that Cartagena actually has a lot in common with New Orleans. They’re both on essentially the same body of water–New Orleans on the north, Cartagena on the south. They’re both port cities with a strong blue-collar tradition, They’re also both cities with similar colonial histories, including legacies of trade in general and slave trading quite specifically. And they’re definitely both cities with other shared characteristics–architectural, cultural, social, culinary, musical, and so on.
One of the most striking things about Cartagena is that you never know what’s behind any given doorway. It could be a family residence, with the folks inside watching a telenovela or a soccer game, or it could be an ultra-modern boutique or restaurant. It’s hard to figure out exactly how the city is doing economically. On one hand, there are signs of recevelopment all over the place. On the other, there are a lot of “for sale” and “for rent” signs. But walking the streets is a fascinating experience.
Sunday March 25, we went to the Volcan del Totumo “mud volcano”. It’s about an hour outside the city. The drive to the site was our first chance to see what Colombia looks like outside Cartagena. It’s pretty typical “developing Latin America”, with fairly frequent (and fairly cursory) police/military checkstops. The “mud volcano” itself is about 20 metres high.. You climb up some ramshackle steps and slip into a cauldron of thick grey mud, where attendants (men) massage you while you float in the mud, which is supposed to have restorative properties. When the mud dries, it forms a very fine and pure grey clay–but there doesn’t seem to be an indigenous pottery industry.
When you emerge from the mud, you climb down and walk a couple of hundred metres to the river, where other attendants (women) wash you off. (This is where Joni swallowed several mouthfuls of river water, but seems to have lived to tell the tale!) There are plenty of little places at the site selling juice and snacks as well. The whole thing seems to be operated by a handful of local families.
We went with a tourism company called “Eco Turismo Los Pinos“. The only thing “eco” about them seems to be their name. There is genuine evidence of environmental awareness in Colombia, but in this case the name seems to be simply a bit of “greenwashing”. They provided a good experience and service, but there was nothing noticeably ”eco” about it.
For lunch after the mud volcano experience, they took us to a restaurant on the beach. We sat under a thatched roof and got the full-court press from vendors. Sadly, it was near the construction site of “Colombia’s first all-inclusive resort” (according to the sign at the entry to the site)–the beginning of the end, I fear.
After a siesta at home we had drinks at the rooftop terrace of the Hotel Ananda. There were some people from London there as well, and it turned out that it was their friend’s wedding we had seen the night before. We carried on too Plaza San Diego for an alfresco meal at Juan del Mar, where we were serenaded with a version of Besame Mucho by a couple of dapper old gents playing very well-worn guitars, followed by a performance by a group of teenage hip-hop dancers.
We’ve been having an incredible time feasting on all the great food in Cartagena and Mompox. We’ve guzzled gallons of freshly squeezed juices and polished off dozens of arepas, empanadas, and buttifarra (spelling?) sausage from lots of different street vendors in both cities. We’ve eaten at tiny little roadside places with pigs and chickens roaming around. We’ve eaten in all kinds of local restaurants, from basic to fancy. And we’ve been absolutely, utterly, totally fine.
Last night the kids were just dying for some “comfort food”–something familiar. So we broke down and had a meal at the Hard Rock Cartagena (yes, there’s one here, too, alas). For the first time in our 2.5 weeks here, several of us had upset stomachs this morning.
The moral of the story? Stick with the local street food!!! As good old Anthony Bourdain is fond of pointing out, the street vendors and the people who run the little local holes in the wall are NOT in the business of killing their customers–i.e., the locals they feed every day. Whereas the “chef” whipping up the non-indigenous “fettuccine alfredo” at the all-inclusive is making “food” he knows nothing about for people he doesn’t know or care about. Where would you rather eat???
The coolest thing we’ve seen–but unfortunately didn’t get to try–was the elderly woman feeding a bunch of construction workers bowls of soup (sancocho, I’,m pretty sure, based on the fish heads I saw) out of a 5-gallon pail she had lugged to their building site from wherever she made it. I’m willing to wager it was amazingly good!
Just came across this from the New York Times.
1. It is impossible to eat too much coconut rice.
2. I'd barely taken one step outside the airport before wondering why I'd ever owned a coat.
3. I've never seen a Cartagenero rush - not even when crossing a busy road.
4. No-one likes getting up early. But it's easier knowing you're going to buy a fish from the very man who caught it.
The post title was the first thing Duncan said as we got off the plane in Cartanega last Thursday night. It was about 10PM local time, 27 degrees Celsius and tropically sultry. The airport here doesn’t have jetways, so we deplaned the old fashioned way–down the roll-up stairs and across the tarmac to the terminal. It was a delightful stroll through a pergola dripping with bougainvillea (native to these parts!) to the customs lineup, but for a boy who has lived in Calgary since he was 6 weeks old, the “thickness” of the air was viscerally palpable.
The journey had been mercifully uneventful (except for the 4:00AM start). The flights from Calgary to Houston, Houston to Panama City, and Panama City to Cartagena were on time and smooth. The only complaint was Michael’s usual pleasant muttering about legroom. But after 16 hours of bone-dry airplane and airport air, some of us found the thick air quite welcome.
The customs officer was entirely pleasant and charming, wearing a typically Latin American pseudo-military uniform. He was not at all perturbed when he asked Michael’s occupation, and Michael answered “escritor” (writer)–presumably he just figured Michael was yet another Garcia Marquez pilgrim. After collecting our bags, we were introduced to the taxis of Cartagena. There may not be a word to describe their abundance. They’re also all about the size of a Smart car. Somehow or another, the driver managed to cram all 4 of us, all of our luggage, and all of our backpacks and other assorted detritus into said vehicle, and off we went.
Michael managed to explain that he needed to hit an ATM (there aren’t any at the airport), and the driver obligingly took us as a fare without any cash and stopped at an ATM en route to our apartment. It was a bit of a challenge finding the place, though. Each BLOCK in the old city has its own street name (ours is Calle Vicente Garcia). The driver wasn’t sure where to go, and the guys he stopped to ask weren’t either. With the help of a map Michael had printed before we left (thank goodness!) we were able to find the place–which you would never know was here!
The apartment is in a very typical three-storey building with balconies cantilevered out over the very narrow one-lane street. It looks like any and every other typical building in the city–old and somewhat disheveled. At street level, there is an entirely nondescript and again typical extremely narrow double door. Luckily, the owner’s local rep Patrick was waiting for us. The four of us and all of our associated flotsam and jetsam emerged from the tiny vehicle in fine clown-car fashion, and 52 stairs later (the kids counted) we were here!!!
“Here”, suffice it to say for the time being, is an utter delight. I promise a separate entry about the apartment, Patrick, and our remarkable “aide de camp” Lina. For now, let me just say that the apartment is huge, gorgeous, has two separate rooftop terraces at different elevations, and is 2 short blocks from anywhere you might want to be within the very compact walled “Centro” district.
Thursday night, we basically just crashed more or less immediately, and all slept like rocks. It was warm, yes, but not unbearable for sleeping by any means. Friday, we were up fairly early. Being so close to the equator, one day is pretty much like another. The sun comes up around 6AM and goes down around 6PM. The day starts out warm, gets very warm, there may or not be a (thunder) shower in the afternoon, and the evenings are utterly perfect. The streets come to life quite early, and we were anxious to begin our explorations, but we wanted to wait until Lina arrived to meet her and establish our routine.
When we were finally ready to go out wandering, we opened our door to the street, and had to climb over a guy who sets up shop right there every day. He has one of those ubiquitous green plastic “lawn chairs” and a small table. Attached to the table with strings and light chains are several cell phones. Basically, his business is to be a cell phone booth–one of many all over the city. Like just about everywhere these days, most people of all ages and socio-economic standing seem to have a cell phone, but apparently there’s enough business letting people use your collection of phones tied to a little table to make it viable.
Pretty much every corner, and much of the sidewalk space between corners is taken up with vendors of one sort or another–fruit, juices of every possible description, every kind of street food imaginable, and the usual array of crafts, sunglasses, and motley assortments of bric-a-brac. Every has “their” spot…and those who don’t have a spot just sell stuff on the move. The hawkers and vendors of Cartagena are legendarily ubiquitous and persistent, but you do get used to it and learn to simply decline politely and keep moving. But as they say, he who hesitates is lost! Stop for even a moment, and you’ll be set upon with a vengeance.
It didn’t help matters that on Friday there were two cruise ships in town. One of the “must-do” things around here is to take a horse-drawn carriage ride. The poor beleaguered animals are not the finest specimens known to the planet, but we’ve seen no evidence of any ill treatment, and we’ll undoubtedly get around to taking ride at some point. On Friday, though, the thousands of cruise ship folks were all doing so at apparently the same time. There were literally traffic jams of horse drawn carriages–remember, the streets are all one lane wide, and the intersections are all “uncontrolled”. There’s quite a ballet between pedestrians, the zillions of teeny-tiny taxis, and all the carriages, which involves a lot of honking, whistling, shouting, and gesticulating. It’s all very animated, but usually without malice or “road rage”–just a form of communicating and managing a lot of bipeds, quadrapeds, carriages, taxis, and motorcycles all jostling for limited space.
Right–the motorcycles. They’re almost as common as the taxis. They’re obviously an economical and effective way of getting around. They’re the preferred mode of transport for the police, who are omnipresent–not in a heavy-handed or uncomfortable way, but certainly all over the place. They’re usually quite young guys, riding around in pairs on fairly small motorcycles–actually, quite charming.
Speaking of the police, we’ve felt entirely safe and comfortable (so far, knock wood, and all that) in all places and at all times of day. Michael has been out wandering fairly late at night, and we have ventured “outside the walls” more than once. We’ve bumped into some Australians (what a surprise!), Germans, and others who all say the same thing–everybody “back home” thought they were crazy when they said they were coming to Colombia, and they’ve all had the same experiences we have, not only in Cartagena, but in Bogota, Medellin, and elsewhere.
On the food and beverage safety front, we’ve also had plenty of street food and tap water to eat and drink and Joni has had more than a mouthful of river water (explanation coming), and we’re doing fine (again, so far, etc.)
But I digress–back to our wanderings on Friday. We quickly discovered two places sure to be favorites with the kids–Gelateria Paradiso and Crepes y Waffles. After a snack at the former and lunch at the latter, it was home for siesta time. We all had a nap (an astonishing rarity for Joni and Callum) and woke up in time to head out to the city walls to watch the sunset. After that we roamed the Plaza de los Cocheros where the kids each got something at the Portal de los Dulces–the arcade now populated by candy vendors on the edge of the plaza where hundreds of thousands or Africans were sold into slavery over the centuries.
A quick stop at the Desigual store (one of Joni’s faves) and a quick chuckle over the sign advertising “Broasted Chicken”, and it was time for bed.
Saturday, we got off to a rather sluggish start after stuffing ourselves on a great breakfast of local goodies made by Lina. Michael needed a couple of things to wear so we headed to the Centro Comercial Plaza Caribe (otherwise known as the mall), where we found linen shirts and pants that actually fit Michael. (This was rather unexpected, since Michael seems to have a good foot or more on everybody in the country.) On our way back, we did a cursory tour of Getsemani, including a stop for a fantastic lunch at a place called La Cocina de Pepina, owned and operated by one of Colombia’s better-known celebrity chefs (Maria Josephina Yances Guerra), where Joni had to fight the impulse to sit down with the interior designer and client reviewing architectural drawings.
Just before we got home for siesta (it’s very easy to get used to!), we walked past the convention centre where the OAS Summit of the Americas will be happening just before we leave. There’s quite a mad scramble going on to get it completely ready for the big event (it must be a mad scramble because there were dozens of guys working away at a time when everybody else in town was having lunch and siesta).
We strolled around Plaza San Diego in the evening and came across a wedding party at one of the many churches–little did we know at the time that we would run into some of the folks from the event the next day.
It’s getting rather late, so I’ll leave it at that for tonight. I’ll get caught up and include links and pictures tomorrow!
As the title suggests, our next destination is Cartagena (de Indias), Colombia. Many people have asked, “why Colombia?”. The subtext often seems to be a certain concern based on a lingering perception of Colombia as the land of the Medellin cartel, Pablo Escobar (and his hippos), FARC, and general disarray (Miami Vice, anybody?), but those days are gone. (There’s a Canadian consulate in Cartagena, just in case.)
Colombia today may not be perfect, but it’s an “emerging destination”. Cartagena has even been called “Latin America’s hippest secret“. The country has actually had quite a remarkable turnaround in the past 10-15 years. Colombia as a whole made a great deal of headway during the presidency of Alvaro Uribe Velez (Colombia has has a rather checkered history of presidents, and there were some ups and downs during the Uribe years), but the most astounding transformations happened at the municipal level in two cities–the afore-mentioned Medellin as well as Bogota.
In both cities, it was progressive urbanism that made all the difference in the world. Medellin has become somewhat of a mecca for greenies, architecture buffs, and planners. It’s a hilly city where the poorest folks live high on the hillside. How do you make it easier for them to get to and fro? Build a giant outdoor escalator!
In Bogota, it was largely the efforts of a somewhat odd and unlikely mayor that brought about an astonishing transformation. Antanus Mockus almost became the first Green Party cadidate to become a national leader in 2010, but ended up losing the presidential runoff. There’s a fantastic documentary on the transformation of Bogota under Mockus.
But I digress…we’re not going to Bogota or Medellin–we’re going to Cartagena. Why? Remember–we’re from Canada, and the lure of a consistently warm place on the Caribbean coast is hard to pass up. That’s the glib and facile answer, but there’s much more to it than that. Cartagena is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It is the home of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and the setting for his book “Love in the Time of Cholera” (great book, crappy movie). A couple of excellent websites, Lure Cartagena and This is Cartagena have much more to say. In short, it’s a city (check) with beaches (check) in the tropics (check) with great architecture (check) and culture (check) in a Hispanic part of the world (check).
We’ve rented a great apartment within the old walled city (which we found on airbnb). We’re taking Spanish classes at the Babel Language Institute during our first week. We’re going to Mompos (another UNESCO World Heritage Site) for part of Semana Santa (holy week), where we’ll be staying at La Casa Amarilla. The Semana Santa observations in Mompos are quite extraordinary. We’re also hoping to volunteer with or make some sort of contribution to the Fundacion Pies Descalzos (Barefoot Foundation). It was founded by pop star Shakira, who is from Barranquilla, and the foundations’ latest project is in Cartagena. We may do some other excursions…or we may just succumb to the heat, humidity, and charms of Cartagena. Whatever we do, we’ll update here regularly.