“Dios bendiga Cartagena, La fantástica, Viva el África, Viva el África” says Carlos Vives, a Colombian Vallenato singer in his ode to Cartagena, Colombia: La Fantastica. In his song, he alludes to the Afro-Caribbean roots of the people. I’d later find out what made this city so fantastic!
Before traveling solo to Colombia for two weeks, I was sure that I’d see Medellin and Bogota, since I’d be flying in and out of these two cities. I also knew that I didn’t want to spend a week in each (but now I want to live in Bogotá, so…).
Aside from visiting these cities, I had to decide between Cali, Santa Marta, and Cartagena. Where would I spend 3-4 days? I wanted to experience more than just the mountains. Cali’s famous salsa and music scene had an undeniable allure. Santa Marta, on the Caribbean Coast just like Cartagena, appealed to me as the gateway to Parque Tayrona and La Ciudad Perdida. I’d need more time.
When I asked foreigners and Colombians about Cartagena, I heard mixed reviews:
“Cartagena is where tourists go to find cheap sex and cocaine.”
“It’s more expensive than Miami.”
“There’s not much to see-it’s where rich people go to vacation.”
On my final days in Medellin, I had to pick a place, but I couldn’t decide. Finally, I went to the Laundromat in El Retiro to pick up my neatly folded clothes-in-a-bag. While there, I met Carolina, a kind and friendly woman my age who spoke perfect English (she went to college in Chicago). We would’ve been friends if we’d studied together. Now, she was back in Colombia, helping her family manage a Laundromat after they’d moved from Bogotá. I was telling Carolina all about my trip, and presented her with my dilemma. Her father, I skinny man with black hair and rimless glasses, sat behind her, sewing a garment. Her brother sat nearby, helping him.
Carolina and I asked her father for advice on where I should go. “If you have a few days, go to Cartagena. La ciudad amurallada (the walled city) is nice, and the beaches are, too. Just be warned that vendors won’t leave you alone. They’ll offer you massages and sea shells, but just tell them no.” I ended up chatting with them for about 30 minutes. It was getting late, and since I’m used to heading home by the time it gets dark in Nicaragua, I headed out.
The next morning, I bought a plane ticket to Cartagena on Viva Colombia airlines. It was one of the most impulsive things I’ve ever done. I’d be leaving in about five hours! Since I knew no one in Cartagena, I scrambled to find a place to stay. A host named Libi had an apartment for about $17 a day, so I made a reservation. I called her to confirm that everything was in order for me to arrive that night, and she said that there was a problem-the apartment wasn’t ready. What she could do, however, was give me the keys to another beach front apartment for $20 a day. I’d have air conditioning, and be by the beach? Fair deal. I booked it for three nights.
I packed up my bags, triple-checked that I had my passport with me, and took a bus for the Medellin airport. While waiting for my flight, I went inside my new favorite store, Velez Leather. Since I couldn’t afford their gorgeous $200 backpacks, I settled for two $9 bracelets. I’m not much of a bracelet or a leather person, but I just had to have some of that high quality leather, even in miniscule form.
As I sat in the terminal, I hopped onto my Couchsurfing application and put in a public trip. I explained that I was a queer woman traveling to Cartagena for certain dates, and that if anyone wanted to host me or just go to the beach with me, that I’d appreciate it. Again, I didn’t know anyone, but with this feature, I was confident that I’d eventually meet someone.
For each city I’d go to, I would post a public trip. I also posted the same thing on the Cartagena Couchsurfing facebook group. Then within a few hours or days, I’d get someone from that city message me. Even though I was openly gay on my profile, it was interesting that 95% of the people who offered to host me were men. To be clear that I wasn’t looking to hook up, I’d ask if they had queer friends or if they knew about LGBT spots. I’d also see if they had hosted other solo women before. There’s only so much verifying you can do online, but these strategies brought me more peace of mind. Since I was traveling alone, I would only stay with a man if they were living with a partner or if they were gay.
Around 7:20 p.m., I walked down my airplane’s staircase and a wall of humidity hit me. As I waited for me suitcase, I was nervous because of what I’d heard about Cartagena as a drug capital. I felt tense like Chimamanda N. Adichie felt in her Danger of a Single Story Ted Talk, before she traveled to Guadalajara, Mexico, which she thought was going to be a drug cartel warzone. When she realized it was just like any other city, with people going about their daily lives, she checked herself.
I couldn’t help but wonder how many of the suitcases spilling onto the belt have been filled with drugs over the years. I couldn’t believe how tense I felt in this tiny airport. I’m sure that JFK has had way more drugs slide through. I needed to stop thinking like I was a drug mule for Johhny Depp in Blow. I needed to experience Cartagena for myself. I wasn’t here for a drug trip—traveling alone in a new country is exhilarating enough.
Libi and her friend from Bogota met me outside. Libi is a small, friendly woman who made me feel like I was her host daughter. We walked for about ten minutes into the Crespo neighborhood and she showed me the apartment. It had two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and deliciously cool air conditioning. Cartagena averages about 80 degrees (F) a day, but it has a humidity index of 90%. So at night, things don’t cool down too much.
A few minutes later, Libi’s mom walked in. She was timeless. Maybe it was her naturally jet black hair, or the fact that she still goes out dancing in her 70s. Maybe it was her intriguing, sparkling eyes that were even darker than her hair.
When I looked into them, I thought of what Nobel Prize winner and Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez had said about magical realism in the Caribbean:
It always amuses me that the biggest praise for my work comes for the imagination, while the truth is that there’s not a single line in all my work that does not have a basis in reality. The problem is that Caribbean reality resembles the wildest imagination.
“Do you want to know why keeps me looking and feeling young? Berro (watercress). It’s really good for your health. I haven’t had to dye my hair because of it.” Libi’s mom told me, as she tapped her long fingernails on the couch and nodded her head, matter-of-factly.
I was still pretty nervous about being alone in what people made me think would be a cocaine expo, and beauty tips weren’t first on my list. “What places should I avoid?” I asked Libi. She named off a few neighborhoods, then interrupted herself.
“Why don’t we talk about the places you should see, instead?” she asked, in a firm yet reassuring tone. Guests probably ask her this all the time. She recommended that I visit la ciudad amurallada (Cartagena’s walled city and fortress), a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for having the most extensive fortifications in South America. Libi’s mom mentioned a restaurant, La Mulatta, where I would find regional dishes.
Libi and her mom invited me to grab a drink the following night, and I asked if her mother enjoyed dancing. “My mom can go dancing longer than I can. She loves to go out!” The older woman laughed and nodded in agreement. Her eyes glowed like diamonds lost in the depths of a coal mine.
Also, the women in my family age well, but still- I should look into berro…
The next morning, I woke up and went to the corner store for breakfast. The family who owned it was attended to hungry customers sitting at plastic tables in plastic chairs just like the ones in my house. I asked for an agg arepa, and the cook carefully slid a raw egg into the empanada-like arepa. Then, he deep fried it with the other arepas floating in their oil jacuzzi. I mistakenly ordered two. Oops! After eating the first one with the deliciously spicy home made salsa they stored in used plastic jars, I was full. I took the other back home in its oil-stained brown paper bag and left it on top of the fridge as a snack.
After take two of leaving my apartment, I grabbed a taxi headed for the walled city. A black woman sat in the front seat, and she and the driver asked me where I was from. I gave my long story about how I was born in Mexico, grew up in the states, and have been volunteering in Nicaragua for two years, and that I’m traveling alone in Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. I mentioned how friendly Colombians were (honestly, I’ve never been in a Latin American country with an more rude locals than friendly ones).
“Somos mas saludables que el Alka Seltzer,” the driver added, his hand making a dropping motion into an imaginary glass. In English, this literally translates to “we’re healthier than Alka Seltzer” but instead of “healthy” it’s meant to be taken as “wholesome/friendly.”
“With lime!” I added, and we all laughed. I thought of the way my Nicaraguan host grandmother would pinch her nose as she showed me how to take a shot of Alka Seltzer with lime whenever my stomach hurt. She calls herself La Curandera (the healer) for a reason. The driver took me all the way to the center of the walled city, and I saved his number because I felt safe around him. It was only around 9 a.m., but humidity was brutal.
One could easily spend the day wandering around the walled city and its many shops. I found respite from the heat by entering stores and by eating kiwi-flavored popsicles. These popsicle stores seem to be all the rage now. After going into too many stores selling $300 purses, I decided to hit up the more affordable stores in the perimeter. One of my favorites was Seven Seven. Almost everything was 75% off, so that has something to do with it.
I hopped around to different department stores that had DJs set up with their own booths blasting vallenato, bachata, and merengue music nonstop. The staff at these stores were super helpful. As soon as I walked in, they attended to me and even waited for me to try on clothes in case I needed a different size. Then they’d go look for the sizes I’d ask for. One woman did such an excellent job that I tipped her, and I’ve never tipped someone in a clothing store before. She seemed as surprised as I was by her service when I handed her the money. Tipping isn’t nearly as expected in the Latin American countries I’ve been to as it is in the states.
Once the sun’s rays relented a tiny bit, I walked to the non-air-conditioned modern art museum. Outside in the plaza, locals were selling hats, mangos-in-a-bag, and the nicest-looking counterfeit Ray Bans I’ve ever seen. A woman wearing a colorful dress sat on a bench talking to an old white guy. His wife was smiling as she took a photo of the two. I felt strange seeing this type of staged interaction-I hope they paid the woman.
The couple looked so happy, but I can only imagine how this counted as their deepest interaction with the locals. I have to remember that not everyone speaks fluent Spanish, though, so it’s hard to have cross-cultural interactions with people when you can’t even converse with them in the first place.
As I thought about the implications of this scene, I paid my entrance fee at the Modern Art Museum’s front desk. The museum was a tiny, two story building-it sure wasn’t the Museum of Antioquia by any means. I’m not much of a modern art fan, but I did enjoy the pieces. Each room had huge fans blowing the hot air around to make the rooms a tad less stuffy, but I forget about the heat as I finally sat down.
I love museums because you can rest your mind and your feet at the same time. I love it when museums are as empty as the benches placed in front of paintings. It’s like an invitation to contemplate exactly what’s in front of you. My tired, hot feet appreciated the break. My mind appreciated the opportunity to construct Cartagena from my experience and not from the preconceived notions I’d built up of this city.
The next morning, I’d meet two women who, like the city had done, show me the meaning of La Fantastica. They’d profoundly shape my love for Cartagena and Colombia.
The featured image above is an ink pen and colored pencil drawing I did. Shout out to my girl Gertrudis for being an excellent model!