Monday, July 11, 2016

Cartagena Colombia

My last trip to Colombia was mostly about hanging out at Diana's mom and dad's house and going to doctor appointments. It was nice but not as fun as past visits like when we went with her folks to the coffee area. We decided that this trip would be different and we wanted to go somewhere new (for me) to have some fun. With Fidu and Juaco back to their former farmer-strength selves, we chose Cartagena. A day after arriving in Bogota, it was back to BOG for a short flight with mom, dad, and one of Diana's brothers and, voila, we were in the Caribbean!

Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in the 1500s and part of the old town is inside a fortified wall. From the top of the wall looking towards Boca Grande where there's a lot of newer high-rise hotels and apartment buildings:

There were two different events going on the week we were there that gave it extra flavor; the anniversary of the founding of Cartagena and the Copa America futbol tournament. There were yellow jerseys for sale everywhere as well as on lots of people.

Fernando Botero sculpture, La Gordita, in one of the plazas in the old part of town:

Old town has two faces; during the day, it's a mix of locals going about their daily business and tourists taking it all in. We had fun checking out the old houses, public buildings, churches, and plazas but, it was hot! And humid! It's in the evening, after the sun went to bed that it was way easier to walk around to enjoy the relative peace and quiet and lovely scenery.

The historical part of town is divided into two, one inside the wall and another nearby but just outside the wall. We came across a plaza where they were celebrating the city's birthday with a musical variety show. It reminded me a bit of the first evening I lived in Merida, Mexico, and I watched the Noche Mexicana show, which was probably the single moment when I fell in love with traveling.

The Getsemani neighborhood (outside the wall) had a much more hippy feel to it. Lots of college students, most sounding like they were from the United States, hanging out in the streets smoking pot and drinking beer. It was like a fraternity party had been brought in for the evening.

So, if you still have any doubts about visiting Colombia, it's time to get over them and go visit this amazing country. It's safe, so safe in fact, that the discount travel folks have found a way-cheaper and more-authentic locale than the likes of Cancun. Until Cuba's open to us U.S. passport holders, we'll have to (happily) make do with scenes like this one:

...and this:

Our second day in town, we spent the morning at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which is a large fort complex overlooking the city and bay.

Even after visiting the fort, I have my doubts if it was built on top of a hill or if the hill is the result of building the fort. My guess is that it was a hill first and they covered with what you can see. It's the impressive (and massive) series of tunnels, storage, barracks, and water tanks you can't see that give me my doubts.

Don't let the clouds in these photos fool you. Like I said earlier, it was H-O-T hot! We stopped for frequent breaks and drank way too much water. Here's Diana's mom and dad taking advantage of an old canon, which was used as winch point to bring supplies up to the top, during one of our stops. Note Fidu representing Philadelphia by rocking the Phillies hat my dad gave her when he came to Colombia a couple of years ago. Way to go Fidu!

While we were at the fort, Diana's brother hired a driver to take us to our next two stops, the first of which, La Popa, is Cartagena's highest point. There's a monastery, which is nice, but it's the view of all of Cartegena, the bay, and the ocean beyond that takes the prize. If you look at the photo below up close, you'll see the Castilla San Felipe de Barajas, which is beyond the yellow building above Diana's head, and the old walled city just beyond that. Nice view!

We wanted to eat some good fresh seafood and the driver recommended a place he knew out at La Boquilla, which is a narrow island just north of the city. You get there by driving, along with basically all the other local traffic on the sand just up from the water. Lining the entire way is a series of covered "restaurants" that really aren't much more than tents where you can get some food made in nearby houses. As good as that sounds, our meal was just okay. We had better in town for pretty much the same price.

What made the visit worthwhile though was the setting. Diana and her family went in the water while I took photos and enjoyed the locals going about their business. At one point, a fishing boat came in and I watched the maybe twenty guys pushing the boat up onto the beach, bring in the haul, and tend to the nets. While all this was going on, a series of vendors sold mangoes and other snacks to the most-likely freshly flush fishermen. What a great experience! And the view's pretty nice too!

Another day trip was over to the beach at La Boca Grande, which is the more modern side of Cartagena. I'd imagine that most of the tall buildings have been built in the last few years with many still under construction. The beach itself is full of rental beach chairs and umbrellas, small restaurants, and an army of people trying to earn a living from anyone who's not a local.

We ate lunch at a place that had the appearance of being made from leftover lumber and may have lacked indoor plumbing. Depending on your style this may not sound appetizing but I can tell you that the view from the tables on the sand were first-class and the food. Well, let's just say, like when we ate on the streets in China, it was the best meal of the trip. The fresh fish was the size of my thigh and my pina colada, which was made with fresh coconut and pineapple by the nextdoor business, was also super yummy and I'd go back in a second! And, as a bonus, Diana and her mom got massages at the same time!

And about those views...

Diana and her family wanted to take a boat ride out to the nearby Rosario islands, which is supposedly one of the must-dos when visiting Cartagena. We woke up extra early one day and headed over to the docks full of energy.

That is, until I found that it was like four-plus hours in the boat between coming and going. If you've been reading my blog before, you may have seen I'm not the biggest fan of boats. It's not that I'm at all afraid or anything. It's just the idea of being on a boat for four hours is not my idea of a fun day. So, I opted out, gave some goodbye hugs, took photos of the dearly departing, and happily headed back into town to enjoy some alone time!

After stopping back at the house to drop off my stuff, I went to the highly promising Museum of the Inquisition, which is located in an old colonial-style palace inside the walled city.

A quick side story before getting into the museum. When we were kids and often when the whole family was gathered together like at Thanksgiving, my dad would lead a game he called Torture. Although I'm still not clear on what the rules were, it involved all of us jumping on him while he acted as the torturer. As games often say on the box, it was fun for all ages.

I fully expected a museum version of this game. Maybe a bit more hardware, a lot more raw flesh, and gobs more crying. With the exception of the display below, it was surprisingly short of torture. In retrospect, I foolishly confused "Museum of the Inquisition" with "Museum of Torture", which I'm sure exists somewhere I haven't yet gone.

Having said that, it was a good museum and I learned a lot about a topic that I probably slept through during my schooling. A nice extra was a few rooms filled with some more modern art done by (very talented) local kids. It included drawings of daily-life experiences like random things seen while riding the bus, times at school, and even family-time. And, no, there was no Torture game artwork. Maybe like comedy, the game doesn't travel well.

I'll often have moments when I'm hyper-aware of the setting and me in that setting. I've tried writing about it before but I've never been able to really capture what I meant. As an example, I recently found myself standing and waiting on a street outside a post-wedding party I had just attended. The variety of people I was surrounded by, the number of languages being spoken, the setting of the street I was standing on, the random people passing by were mesmerizing. It was so much in such a compressed time and space that it really struck me and made me reflect on what path got me to that random spot at that random moment.

Other times, I'll be in the middle of something that could be a scene out of one of those movies where the director focuses on all the micro details of what's going on (like I said, this is a bit hard to explain). While we were walking around a random Cartagena neighborhood, the moment captured in the photo below, I had one of these hyper-aware moments.

The amount of traffic passing by, the mini buses packed with locals heading wherever, the guy talking on the phone at a way-too-high volume, the people selling items at the stand, the palm trees, the heat and humidity of the day, the smells of food cooking on the street, the modern shopping center, all the random folks walking by or just hanging out, and even the "mototaxis" between the bus and the curb (mototaxis are a lower-cost version of a taxi). It was all a bit surreal and made me stop and wonder for a moment how I had arrived at that specific moment.

I wonder if this is how people feel when the meditate; an awareness of everything all at once. Or maybe it's the opposite as meditation might be the hyper-awareness of nothing at all. In any case, it's moments like this when I can be found in one of my happy places.

The scene in the next photo was a surprise. While walking through the Parque del Centerio, old-town's Central Park, we came across a bunch of local kids practicing inline racing. All the kids had racing skates, spandex outfits, and the track was in great condition. I've been to Colombia before and have spent almost nine months in various parts of the country. I know it fairly well and I'm very comfortable there. But, this scene made me realize that, for some reason, I have some biases that are still embedded deeply in my brain.

Let's try something. Close your eyes and think about the idea of Colombia. What images flash into your mind? I can almost certainly guarantee that this is not one of them. All that other stereotypical crap, yeah that may have existed (and maybe somewhere still does) but this is real:

One of the more popular pastimes for locals and tourists alike is walking along the top of the city wall. Diana and I walked it at least once a day. It was a great place to people watch and just relax.

At one point along the wall, there are a series of openings that might have been where canons were placed. In the evenings, each of the openings would be filled with a single teenage couple pawing at each other while looking out over the sea. I joked with Diana one time that we should come early, stake out a place, and then sell our spot once all the others had been filled by sweaty teenagers in love. She thought it was a good idea, or so she says, and we spent maybe an hour one day just "hanging out" in our own little nest.

Another random Cartagena thing I enjoyed was the Portal de los Dulces, which is a small market area where people sell local-style sweets. There's lots of coconut and tropical-fruit-flavor candy some of which appears to be handmade and others that are definitely factory items. Diana and I stopped by one day to buy about $20 worth of candy (and sample another few dollars worth!) to take back to Bogota and Barcelona. Worth a visit if you're ever in town.

Our last morning in town was spent at the Naval Academy visiting with a friend of Diana's brother who is a naval officer at the school. We got the full tour, ate some coffee and sweet bread, and took a bunch of photos. It was interesting to see the facilities and learn about the history but, humorously, the thing I remember most is the cadets cleaning the statue below and the surrounding plaza. Some of them were hand cleaning the bricks and others were polishing the statue. It was hard work and it, again, was hot, hot, HOT in the sun!

Oh, and I need to mention that we stayed at an amazing, five-bedroom house that had a rooftop deck and a small pool in the courtyard. The house is colonial style with all the first floor rooms open to the courtyard, which is open to the sky. With the air conditioner on, it was very comfortable and pleasant to lounging by the pool drinking some Argentinian wine. This is the life!

Dinner on our last night in town:

It was nice to be back in Colombia with Diana's family and to be able to spend so much time with her mom, dad, and brother in such a beautiful house and city. Plus, it was way better than refreshing my knowledge of the Colombian medical system!