Cartagena has been a surprise. We were expecting just another Caribbean city - too hot, overbuilt, and under-economized - but Cartagena is more like dipping into the Med. History and modern sophistication blend in a pleasing and elegant harmony.
Cartagena was founded in 1533, and by mid century it was the major consolidation point for the silver, gold and jewels being plundered from the New World by the Spanish. As such it was a popular target for pirates. In response to these attacks the Spanish built an elaborate defensive system of walls, the main one encircling the town, but also linking together outlying forts, which included a wall right across the closest entrance to the inner bay. Although the city was subsequently besieged by both the French and British navies, once the walls were completed it was never again taken...until 1821 when Simon Bolívar finally wrested the city - the last, insular outpost of the Spanish - out from under Imperial rule. Indeed, the weeklong holiday celebrating Cartagena's independence is just about to start!
Most of the defensive walls encircling the city are still in place, and the Old Town has been preserved much as it was. To the south of it extends the crooked elbow of the Boca Grande Peninsula with its mix of modern high-rises and hotels. To the northeast rises two of the city's most famous landmarks, Fort San Felipe, and, even higher, the Convento de la Popa, (which has been restored by Augustine monks and is now actually a monastery!) North and east of all this sprawls your usual urban industrial spread, while tucked into an armpit of the inner bay is Isla Manga, an upper middle class area of old mansions and mid-rise apartment buildings, on the south edge of which is Club Nautico...our home base.
Neither of Colombia's internal problems - the drug industry or the guerilla war - is manifest in Cartagena itself, and by all accounts the city sits apart from these issues. One analysis we heard before we came was that this is where all the drug lords come to vacation and by common agreement it is a demilitarized zone! There is some impact, however. Although a couple of cruise ships a week fill the streets with shoppers, their stay is brief, and the hotels and restaurants are all but empty. Grocery stores are modern and well stocked, but there are almost none of the international American products we have come to take for granted in Trinidad, Venezuela and Curaçao! On the other hand, someone is keeping this city alive!
During our first week we got a lot of things done, but almost nothing related to typical touring activities. Our anchor windlass had gone "pee weak" as Don would say, and he had had to weigh anchor by hand our last two departures. In trying to determine the problem, Don was a paragon of a troubleshooter, methodically checking contacts and wiring from end to end of the system. Then he was sure it was the Venezuelan battery we'd bought in Margarita. Finally he was forced to open up the motor itself, where he found a broken brush holder. By good fortune this is the kind of thing Cartagena excels in, so much of our first week was spent negotiating our way through battery and motor shops and "mechanical" Spanish. Thank God for our friend Kathy Parsons' book Spanish for Cruisers, with its extensive maintenance vocabulary! On the other hand, virtually none of our other little projects will see completion as the stock of general marine and rigging parts is very sparse. For example, although every cruiser in port is hot for some spare fuel jugs, no one has yet caved in to the $40 price tag on the one $20-diesel jug in town. Similarly, the only line in sight is dock line.
While Don was struggling with wire and multimeters, I was motivated to sit down and write two articles about our trip, one for Cruising World and one for the Commodore's Bulletin of the Seven Seas Cruising Organization. I already have had a positive response from CW (email is a wonderful thing) and they're the ones that pay!)
Although these efforts tied up our first days in Cartagena, they did not stop us from indulging in the one area Cartagena excels: restaurants. Whether little neighborhood joints a few blocks from the marina or beautifully detailed places in the Old Town, eating out is a great deal. We have barely eaten a handful of meals on the boat since we got here! Highlights have been an all day brunch at Hotel Santa Clara (afternoon in their fresh water pool), Café San Pedro (Thai and sushi), Enotecha (Italian), Donde Orlano (French/Creole), Crepes & Waffles (salads, crepes, & ice cream) plus the side-by-side but nameless Mexican and Arab cafes a five-minute walk away. Most days we do breakfast at Club Nautico with eggs, bacon, toast, a plate of papaya & cantaloupe plus a papaya batido (smoothie) for $2.
We finally tackled tourism properly this weekend. Saturday we did museums, three in fact: The Gold Museum, The Inquisition Museum, and, what else, the Maritime Museum. The most interesting part of the Gold Museum was a display depicting the economical diversification of the early Indians that permitted them to support the their gold craftmanship. This had nothing directly to do with gold at all. It was a huge hydrographical endeavor covering 500,000 hectares of regularly-flooding land in inland Colombia. The Indians constructed a system of canals and banks to allow the floodwater to drain. They lived on and farmed the ridges between the canals, and apparently cultivated a huge inland fishery in the waterways! It has all been abandoned in modern times! There were some examples of pre-Columbian gold in one room in the Museum but the fact is there is not much of it left. It was all melted down and sent to Spain. The most interesting things in the gold display room proved to be us...at least to the school group visiting at the same time. (Have I mentioned that Americans are very popular right now? Have I mentioned that nearly every Colombian we meet thinks Don look like Bill Clinton?)
The Inquisition Museum was a no-holds barred collection of the atrocities committed upon people who were accused of being in the grip of the devil. Not only was there a torture chamber complete with the "rack," there was a whole room dedicated to the "proofs" women accused of witchcraft were submitted to, and as you might guess they were all no win situations. If you lived/survived, you were a witch. If not, oops, sorry. I don't even want to touch what they did to homosexuals. Let's hear no more complaints about television; obviously these people had too much time on their hands.
We finished the day at the Maritime Museum, which had some delightful models. On the first floor were models of old time ships, almost none of which were labeled, plus some really great models of the undersea terrain in not just the Bay of Cartagena, but the Caribbean Sea and nearby Pacific. There were also models of every fort and or battery that was ever constructed anywhere near the city. Upstairs, there were more models depicting all the major sieges by sea the city endured in its history. Pretty neat stuff.
Tourism 102, an all-day guided tour with Hernando, a chubby, one-eyed English-speaking guide, took place on Sunday. Six of us partook. We started at Convento de La Popa, the monastery né convent that sits atop the city. It has a longer formal name, but is called La Popa because it is said to resemble the stern of an old time ship...only our guide said "bow". None of us sailors saw the similarity, however the two-story courtyard was of gorgeous stonework with dripping bougainvillea and hibiscus, and the 360-degree view was irresistible.
From La Popa we drove 36k north of the city to Volcán de Lodo el Totumo. This is a 45' high mud volcano rising from the shore of a gorgeous lake, and according to the guidebook it is one of the largest mud volcanoes in the world. The locals have quite a little operation going giving mud baths and mud massages. You strip down to your bathing suit (an old one is good - but not too old, as it turned out), climb the mud cone via mud and stick steps, and at the top lower yourself gently into the 10x10' crater. Imagine lowering yourself into a giant tub of slightly-gritty, room temperature chocolate pudding and you're there! Oh, by the way, there is no bottom, but the mud buoys you up with no risk of heading for China. Three young guys awaited us. Once immersed, they "float" you and move you around like dead wood! It takes a little while to really lie back and relax - indeed the giggling went on for some time, but the massage gets you there pretty quickly. All in all we were in there for an hour! Getting out proved half the fun. Our friend Sam had made the bad call of that too-old bathing suit, and it hung to her knees, the aged elastic no match for the weight of the mud. We all about died laughing, but the guys were discrete and restrained .... Relatively. From the crater, you mince carefully down another "ladder" from which you are led to the lakeshore by a team of ladies, who sluice you down with bowlfuls of water. At a certain point the water, with water hyacinth pads floating all about, becomes muddy enough that you remove your suit entirely which they then scrub free of its mud load. For a simple set up, it's all amazingly civilized! All this for 2000 pesos per person ($1).
From Totumo we drove back south to "La Hacienda". This is a working farm for raising bulls for the bull ring. Evidently, if you don't make the cut for the ring, you end up as lunch in the restaurant. They served us a great luncheon of beef and chicken done on a great big grill, complete with salad, potatoes and guacamole. Just to be different I opted for Sancocho, a traditional Sunday soup/stew with a chunk of brisket, provision and a well-seasoned broth.
Some tour groups get to partake in bull training or horseback riding, but not us. From the "Hacienda" we were driven back to the city and straight into the heart of Boca Grande to the obligatory Emerald Factory. Emeralds, along with coffee, are Colombia's other well-known exports, and you can't take ten steps down a street without someone offering you their special deal on emeralds. The fact is that the best emeralds, along with the best coffee beans, are sent out of the country for export. Indeed, it wasn't long ago that it was illegal to keep premium examples of either in the country! The Emerald Factory we were ushered to turned out to be fairly interesting as we were shown the shop area with samples of the gem from rock to finished product. It took ten whole dispassionate minutes before we were ushered into the sales area! Don and I were fairly immune as not only do neither of us wear any jewelry...but I'd already indulged in a rather nice pair of emerald studs! I mean, after all, we ARE in Colombia! Souvenirs, you know. I mean we've got our coffee beans, we've got our emeralds, we're done!.......... Right? RIGHT! One cruiser bought, so the rest of us were let off the hook, else we might still be there today!
After a stop for ice cream, our reward for being good sports about the sales pitch, we drove back to the Old Town to tour the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, aka "the Fort". San Felipe is a marvelous construction of sloping walls, turrets and tunnels. Hernando, being a chubby, one-eyed, claustrophobic with high blood pressure, does not do the Fort personally. He passed us off to a "friend" who shortly passed us off to another rather rabbitty fellow. Although this last guide struck us initially as being hyper/frenetic with possibly an underlying disability, we were quickly won over by his solid grasp of and passion for the history, including the humor and the ironies of some of it, not to mention his determination to get it all out in good English. This meant some sentences were uttered about ten times to get it right. After exploring some of the tunnels we left the San Felipe right at sunset. It was a great day.
Although not strictly Cartagena tourism, today's highlight was an afternoon tour of the British Frigate Sutherland, the most modern frigate in the British Navy. The Sutherland pulled into the dock east of our anchorage yesterday, and a gala reception kept her lit up all night last night. On the tour we found out that the honored guests included all the Miss Colombia contestants! The Sutherland is finishing up a worldwide deployment, circumnavigating east-about, the purpose of which was essentially to remind everybody that the British Navy can get there if it wants to! Our opportunity was arranged by Aussie cruisers Peter & Margaret of Swarra II, who are to be commended for gamely taking a whole pack of potentially disrespectful Americans along with them. All I can say is we enjoyed the tour...and we got out alive.
And so, just in the nick of time it would seem, we have got our touring in, because we are RTG(ready to go).. It's kind of like Cinderella...when the clock strikes, the clock strikes. The boat is fueled, the laundry is done, I'll finish provisioning for the next two months tomorrow, and our papers go to the officials first thing in hopes of getting cleared out before the Independence holiday gets into full swing. Given their fondness for firecrackers on an average night, I don't think I want to be nearby for the Independence Day itself. Especially with an armed frigate at close range. The Brits might think they are under attack! I know we've thought so a couple of times!
So, on Thursday, we hope to head out for a day or two in the Rosarios, an island cluster just south of Cartagena, where there is clear water for cleaning the growths off TIIs bottom. Then we'll depart on the 140-mile passage to San Blas. Until then....
[MID: 1429_WP2AIL Sent Via: K4CJX Date: 2000/11/07 23:20:25]