Cartagena's Charms and Challenges
Trip Start Jan 20, 2004
187Trip End Ongoing
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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
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.