Cartagena's Charms and Challenges

Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
Trip End Ongoing

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Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, December 16, 2006

Ever since the white water rafting excursion in San Gil, we had been eagerly looking forward to our next anticipated adrenalin rush - paragliding high over the city of Medellín. Unfavourable weather conditions had kept these soaring fliers out of the skies for the past week, but our final day in Medellín was superb - totally clear and sunny. By 11 am we joined throngs of fellow adventure seekers, watching as they made the final dash to the end of the cliff, culminating in a take-off that appeared to be sheer bliss. For five hours we relaxed in the sunshine, patiently waiting our turn. Just as we were ready to buckle up the winds suddenly changed, dark clouds loomed overhead, and all flights were suspended until further notice. How could we be so unlucky??

Extending our stay in Medellín unfortunately wasn't an option for us. Our numerous e-mail requests for information on shipping DC3 to Panama had produced "zero"results, so it was time to get to Cartagena to begin the arduous search for an ocean passage. We had been dreading the steep climb out of Medellín on three and a quarter cylinders, but were quite pleasantly surprised at how smoothly the van was running. We savoured every minute of the lush countryside and the pleasant temperatures, knowing full well that the other side of the 9,000 ft pass would descend to almost sea level with its accompanying unbearable heat and humidity.

Can Cartagena really be a part of Colombia? For the past seven weeks we have encountered so many friendly Colombians, seen such magnificent countryside, and enjoyed a pleasant and relaxed tempo. Our arrival in Cartagena changed all that: the entire city seemed to be in a permanent traffic grid-lock; camping was unavailable, and the affordable hotels with vacancies all seemed to centre around the seedier part of town; our requests for assistance/directions were met with indifference or even indignation; aggressive touts bombarded us from every angle, offering the cheapest rates for 'everything'; and the searing temperatures and dripping humidity made things next to intolerable. Or was it simply that we were yet again arriving in a major city - tired, hot and in the dark? After all, our guidebook describes Cartagena as "a fairy-tale city of romance, legends, and sheer beauty".

After a gourmet meal in El Bistro, and a good night's sleep in a small family-run hotel, the next morning painted quite a different picture. Yes, Cartagena is Colombia's largest port and by association is an important but dirty industrial centre. However, it is easy to forget the rather grubby surroundings of the suburbs by immersing yourself inside the old walled city. Due to storm damage and many attacks by the likes of Sir Francis Drake and his motley crew of pirates, construction of Las Muralles (the walls) took two centuries to complete, but the sections that remain today are a remarkable example of engineering prowess. In fact, the entire wall would be intact today, if not for a group of 'progressive-thinking' city officials who had parts of it demolished in the mid-20th Century!

Inside the walls you can spend hours wandering the narrow cobblestoned streets - gazing up at the rainbow-hued bougainvillea bushes growing on elaborately carved balconies, admiring the lofty church spires and domes, or watching the fashionable Colombians look for new outfits in the trendy boutiques. Or would you perhaps have more fun smirking at the multitude of cruise-ship tourists, all lined up with their name tags and ready to 'follow-their-leader'? We have definitely seen more tourists here in Cartagena than in all the rest of Colombia, and it really makes us wonder how much damage 'we all' are doing.

But getting back to reality - our purpose in coming to Cartagena was to locate a ship sailing to Panama. It should be straightforward - just identify a list of all ships sailing to Panama within the next two weeks, and chose the most appropriate one. Unfortunately, nothing seems to be quite that easy here. Would you believe that five days later we were still searching, and the heat was really getting us down. At the end of each day, our customs agent Julio would announce that he had found the perfect solution, but by the next morning when we arrived at his office, that perfect solution appeared to have gone up in smoke.....or would that be heat? And with each passing day, we became more concerned - partly because our entry permits expire on the 23rd of December, and partly because we were really anticipating meeting sister Bonnie, her husband Bob, and friends Sheri & Lance in Costa Rica for Christmas.

Today is December 15th. By all accounts, DC3 is reserved on the 'MV Silkeborg' of the Wallenius Wilhelmsen Line, sailing out of Cartagena on December 25th - the earliest passage we could arrange. Do we really believe that the ship will arrive here on time from Santos, Brazil, and do we really believe that it will sail out again on Christmas Day? Likely not, but what choice do we have. We've agreed to have DC3 ready for the Anti-narcotics Inspection Team and the final customs and port 'tramites' on Friday, December 22nd, and after that she will be inside the port and out of our hands. Meanwhile, our next task is to arrange for our own passage to Panama - as usual, passengers are not allowed to accompany their vehicles on the cargo ship, so it looks as if another flight is in the works. It would be much more romantic to sail on a catamaran via the San Blas Islands, but the extra five days is simply not feasible right now - we'll have to add that to our list of "things we still want to do before we're ninety"!!
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