Rum overload

Trip Start Nov 08, 2004
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Trip End Nov 08, 2005


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Flag of Colombia  ,
Saturday, October 15, 2005

Someone told me a tragic but very Colombian story recently (which you may already know). During the 1994 World Cup, a Colombian player called Andreas Escobar scored a home goal. 10 days later he returned to his home town of Medellin and was shot 12 times in a car park by a hit man shouting "Goal Goal" as he shot. The hit man was working for another man who had lost money gambling on Colombia's exit from the World Cup. This apparently is not the only football-connected shooting in Colombia - there have been more as recently as 2003. And you thought the England team got a raw deal when they got home after messing up a game!

Cartagena: A tropical flavoured Cusco?

Anyway, we caught the bus from Santa Marta four hours along the coast to the walled city of Cartagena with Mil and Ya El. We rejoiced as we realised this would be our last bus journey in SA, but of course felt equally sad that this adventure was coming to an end. Catagena is Colombia's most famous tourist destination and is positioned on the Caribbean coast almost completely surrounded by water. We checked into the main gringo hotel in the budget area, Gethsemani, which was an improvement on anything in Santa Marta and had a TV room, a kitchen terrace with a temperature of about 200 degrees, and great atmosphere (Casa Viena).

The streets around the hostel were chaotic and full of beeping traffic, street peddlers, limbless beggars and stalls selling anything from fried beef tripe to shoes. We were warned in no uncertain terms not to walk around here after 10pm at night. Street sellers shouted as they pushed their carts of fruit and fried food around, people joked and slapped each other on the back, African women dodged the traffic with huge baskets balanced on their heads, old 1970`s cars vied for space on the narrow streets along with donkeys pulling carts. The tiny shops had shelves stacked high with old cartons, boxes and jars gathering dust. Most shops had a safe built into the wall in favour of a cash register. You could hire anything from a mobile for 2 minutes to a man with an ancient type writer to type your letter for you. It was a typical 3rd world scene, a melting pot of cultures, and although we had seen many similar scenes in other cities none were as quintessentially the South America that you would imagine as this one. Although many budget hotels are in this area, foreigners are almost non existent and get stares from the locals. Although backpackers usually end up staying in the worst part of cities (the cheapest) by doing this I am learning you see so much more of a city`s real life and people.

But step through the gate into the old walled centre of Cartagena, and you are in a different world. The city was founded by the Spaniards in 1533 and suffered so many sieges by pirates that walls and forts were constructed circling the whole city. These walls and the entire city centre have been perfectly preserved making this a colonial city to rival even the beauty of Cusco, Peru. All the buildings had been painted in bright pinks and yellows and most had ornate balconies and shutters brimming with flowers. There were squares and ancient churches round every corner and loads of cafes. As a popular destination for well off Colombians to holiday there were some touristy trappings such as horse and cart rides around the town, but with virtually no foreign tourists it still didn't lose any of its authenticity. At night candle lit open air restuarants fill the prettiest plazas making this one of the most romantic cities I have ever been to.

A walk on top of the old walls gave a great view across the orange and white domes, spires and towers of the old city. Palm trees swayed, the heat was intense but the place was completely tranquil and traffic free. We found a very swanky, perfectly positioned bar on top of the walls which was done out in an exotic style with beds, big cushions and a little table for your drinks in the middle. We spent several sunsets and evenings lounging on the cushions looking at the Caribbean sea one way, the tops of the old city the other and over to the modern town, Boca Grande, a peninsula with sky scraper hotels.

The Rum bus

At night Cartagena, both old and new, bursts into life. From the atmospheric bars of the old town to the frenetic bars and clubs of Gethsemani to the more upmarket bars of Boca Grande, parties spilled out everywhere and even in the tiniest bars the space was taken up by Colombians practicing the national sport: Salsa. With so few backpackers in Colombia there is a certain unity between travellers and we always went out in a big group from our hostel made up of several nationalities. Even the Israelis inter-mingled here (they usually travel in packs and tend to ignore other travellers) and on Friday night we sat in an open air bar in the old town with our bottle of rum and some coke. In Colombia you don't go up to the bar and order a rum and coke. Oh no, you order a bottle of rum and a bottle of coke! All the bars have bottles and bottles of rum and another lethal local tipple called Aguardiente stacked up high.

By Saturday night our group had dwindled to only 5 (us, another Welshman (why are there so many mad Welsh in Colombia?), an Aussie and an Israeli) even Mil the Welsh alcoholic was too hung-over to venture out. We decided we had to try a popular Colombian night out called a "Chiva". A Chiva is a brightly painted open sided bus which drives you around the town for 3 hours whilst plying you with as much rum as you can handle. Each bus has a Vallenato band on it and the minute they started playing all the Colombians started going crazy jumping around the bus singing, dancing in their seats, cheering and clapping. Vallenato is the music of the Colombian Caribbean and combines African and Latin American rhythms to produce something which sounds like a cross between salsa and Samba. It's played with an accordion, a bongo, a scrapy thing and some maracas and its beat is infectious. We "Back seat gringos" had a hard time keeping up with the Colombians talent of dancing on a moving bus whilst drinking rum but we have seldom felt so part of the South American culture.

After a couple of hours the bus stopped at the old city walls where there was a traditional dance display. Then the street entertainers started to come round. Usually I am not one for street entertainers but Colombian ones are completely hilarious. Amongst the best was the hat man, who managed to mould one hat into about 20 different things such a mobile phone and a dog. He had us in stitches and then along came a man with a sloth draped over his shoulder. The sloth didn't even blink as it was passed round each person for photos and the man swore blind it was better off as his pet than in the wild.

Eventually the bus drove onto the beach and dropped us off at a thatched-hut club right on the beach. True to form the Israeli member of our group disappeared and was not seen until the next morning. The four of us continued to sample more nightlife back in Gethsemani where we were approached by several people selling Colombians most famous product. "Try before you buy" they kept saying and I watched with astonishment as people did just that in the middle of the street! One thing we have learned in Colombia is that nights are never dull...
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