Day 171 – 22 Aug, 2015
Sweltering. If I could describe Cartagena in a single word, that would be it. Of course, given more words, I would describe it as colorful, loud, romantic, bold, spicy, and seedy. But before there was Cartagena…there was Minca…a disaster of sorts.
My brother, Rhett, and I had reservations in Minca, a crumbling jungle town just south of Santa Marta. After a 2 hour 4×4 ride through muddy and pot-holed tracks carved into the mountain (I just can’t bring myself to call them roads), we were delivered to Casa Elemento. Andrew, one of the owners, had accompanied us in the jeep and chatted us up about the ins and outs of Colombian business affairs. He had to pick up about 100 cinder blocks on the way for some construction project he was working on so we were obliged to wait and have a beer in the shade. I definitely got the impression that Andrew was an overgrown kid trying to keep the party alive with this hideout in the jungle where there isn’t much to do besides drink beer and smoke weed.
I love heeding the advice of other travelers but sometimes there’s a disconnect. Sometimes what someone else thinks is paradise is someone else’s nightmare. Many people had recommended I go to Minca. Not only is it beautiful and quiet, but also there are many adventure sports. And don’t miss the giant hammock!, they said. If I had been alone, I would have felt differently perhaps. I would have made friends with the attractive bearded guy and pretended to have fun or sat by the pool and read my book. But I wasn’t alone. I was with Rhett. Given only one week off work and flying all the way to Colombia, I felt hugely responsible that he have a good time. This was not what we had in mind.
I can see the appeal of Casa Elemento to some. It has its merits, like weekly cookouts, group hikes, and communal meals for an extra price. But on the night we arrived, the power was out, the giant hammock had a large tear down the side, and the music played outside our room until nearly 4:00am. I listened to Andrew and the other owner banter about the safety of the “tree house,” a wooden plank with a hammock rigged about 10m off the ground. The consensus was that it was unsafe but there was almost always someone in it. The next morning the hammock appeared to be “fixed” but of the two of us, we only tested my weight on the strength of the repairs.
Going to Minca was a risk. I wanted it to be cool and fun and different. Mostly, it was just a joke and we were both anxious to leave as soon as possible. So the very next day, we strapped back into the jeep and slogged through the same muddy route as the day before. We didn’t have reservations again for 2 more nights because we left Minca early so upon arrival in Cartagena, we were homeless. At the bus terminal, Rhett, having given up on my taste in accommodations booked the best beach deal he could find, Hotel Caribe Cartagena.
For nearly 2 days, we did nothing but rest by the pool. Usually, I get bored with too many days at a beach or the pool, but my relentless itinerary over the previous few months was wearing me down and it was exactly what I needed. Although not where I would have guessed, Rhett and I both found what we were looking for in Cartagena.
Because I had been traveling alone for so long, I am accustomed to the whistling and kissing sounds that South American men think is so endearing to women. My least favorite sound that they make? It sounds something like “psht psht” when they want a woman’s attention…and it’s the same sound I hear them make to dogs or cattle when they want their attention too. When I walked the streets of Cartagena with Rhett, I noticed the sounds were silenced. Nothing. So is this what it’s like to travel with a guy?! When I mentioned my observations to Rhett, he scoffed. He said that when he walked the streets by himself, he was routinely offered hookers and drugs. With me, it kept the seediness at bay. So it seems it was a lot more calm for both of us if we stuck together!
The main attraction of Cartagena is it’s authentic walled city. Within the walls, it’s as if you have entered another world. The brightly colored buildings, the clip clopping of the horse-drawn carriages, the music coming from every open window, the smell of fresh seafood grilled to perfection with Caribbean spices – bringing all the senses alive. Rhett and I walked from our beach resort to explore the walled city, a 30 minute walk was another poor decision on my list of failures. It was only 9am and the temperature was soaring into the upper 90s. We were absolutely melting in the sun and it was nearly unbearable. By the time we reached the entrance, we were drenched with sweat with only one thing on the mind – where could we get ice cream?? As if by some stroke of destiny, we rounded a corner and came upon the best gelato I have ever had. Gelateria Tramonti is owned by 2 Italian guys that are truly passionate about their trade. Rhett and I drooled as we waited for the store to open and watched them carefully arrange the gelato in exactly the right order by color and visual appeal. Traditional flavors such as pistachio, chocolate, strawberry and capuchino are paired with local flavors like maracuyo and specialty flavors like cheesecake and tiramisu. We had 2 scoops each while we hovered in the air conditioning of the matchbox sized shop. Reluctant to leave the shelter, we made a quick lap around the block and ducked into a clothing store to steal their precious cool air. After a couple more detours through the shade, it was futile to continue. The humidity penetrated everything. Conceding to the heat, Rhett and I decided to return to the luxury of our beach side resort (by taxi this time!), but not before one more stop at the gelateria. Within an hour’s time, we had 4 scoops each of their creamy creations!
With Rhett’s departure, I only had one more week left in South America and I was starting to feel apprehensive about moving on. I spent a couple more days alone, contemplating what I have accomplished so far and the things I have done, the people I’ve met, the places I’ve seen… The narrow maze-like streets are a perfect place to get lost and reflect.
As it happens, there was one experience I had yet to have and Cartagena was happy to oblige. I woke up the second to the last morning to whispers in my 12 person dorm room. The whispers grew louder and then a bit panicked. It seems of the 12 beds, all 6 of the bottom bunks (I was on the top) had an infestation of bed bugs. You know how everything is bigger in the tropics? Well this was no exception. Bed bugs as big as sesame seeds they were. When the maintenance guy banged the bed’s wooden slats on the ground, you could see hundreds of bugs litter the floor from 10 meters away. Sickened by the sight, I got to spend my last full day decontaminating my belongings for fear I would carry the little blood suckers for the foreseeable future. I won’t share the hostel name because it was month’s ago and they have no doubt cleaned up the mess but let it serve as a reminder, even cozy and well-kept hostels (and hotels) are not immune to such pests!