Besides the fact that I kept singing “Hey, Cartagena!’ to the tune of that Macarena song whose lyrics I don’t even know, this place was amazing. Cartagena is situated on Colombia’s northern coast, on the Atlantic Ocean. After the cool altitude of Bogota, tropical sea-level warmth was most welcome. The city is a major port, and because it was frequently attacked owing to its strategic location, the old city is surrounded by a high wall, and a major fortress with battlements sits at one end.
Cartagena blends the cultures of the Spanish, indigenous people, and freed slaves of African ancestry. The result is people of all colors, and music that is at once Latin, Caribbean, African, and Western. Its colonial architecture earned Cartagena a UNESCO world heritage designation, and buildings in various states of decay and grandeur line its small, windy streets, in some ways resembling New Orleans. Cartagena has long been a tourist town, and we could explore safely on foot, which was most welcome.
By Day 2, we’d fully settled into the local pace. We spent mornings (after a very delicious breakfast with bottomless cafe con leche) walking around the old city, taking in the sights, sounds, and smells. We’d eat a leisurely and more hearty lunch, and then head back to the hotel for either a siesta or a dip in our hotel’s rooftop pool. I use the word dip literally here because the pool was not much larger than a bathtub. But it was good for cooling off from the heat, and with the strong wifi signal up there, it was ideal location for a Skype call while drying off.
We’d head back out for sunset and a light bite for dinner before calling it a day. Well, we didn’t completely call it a day yet, and in the interests of full disclosure, I admit that we had satellite TV in our room. For the first time, we could not only get some American television but also some shows not dubbed into Spanish. I had flashbacks to my Hong Kong days, as the main English channel showed nonstop CSI and Law and Order reruns. There’s nothing like the CSI WHO-screaming intro to make one nostalgic for home…
Cartagena was marked this vegan-turned-vegetarian’s return to seafood. With so many menus offering even more pathetic vegetarian options than in American restaurants, I decided that unless I wanted to live on hearts of palm and fried potatoes, I was going to have to give in – and what better place to do so than where the fresh catch was literally just brought in? We had seafood paella for the inaugural meal, and it was heavenly. In a week’s time, I’ll probably be having steak tartare for breakfast and weigh 300 pounds, but at least I won’t go hungry.
On our last full day, we took a boat trip out to one of the islands beyond Cartagena’s bay. With about 50 people on-board, we motored about an hour out and docked at a little island with beach chairs, a pool, eating and bathroom facilities. The beach left much to be desired, and we didn’t opt for the snorkeling trip but instead relaxed in the chairs, catching up on some reading, shaded by palm trees. That, along with the breeze, offered welcome respite from the tropical heat.
Given that the lunch consisted of fresh fish, fried fish, fish soup, and rice with fish, it didn’t sound like a big draw – but it turned out to be a highlight of our Cartagena time, not because of the food, but the company! We met Luis and Chris, a couple from Berlin. Chris is German but spent two years of his medical school training in Chicago and is now a practicing plastic surgeon. Luis was a teacher in Cuba, left to perform and teach Latin dance in Europe, and is now a German citizen, teaching preschool.
At Hope’s and my tender ages, we of course had no interest in the latest anti-aging procedures and products, but we politely asked questions to make nice conversation. Though I expected an interesting answer the question of “What’s the strangest request you’ve ever gotten from a patient?”, I can honestly say I was not prepared for that response (which cannot be printed here, to spare the more sensitive reader). Suffice it to say that people are doing (or wanting to do) all sorts of things to their bodies these days.
We hung out with Luis and Chris for the afternoon and then dinner at one of our favorite Cartagena restaurants, Oh La La (a telltale sign of mastering a city is having favorite restaurants). Oh La La serves the most ridiculously delicious vegetable risotto I have ever had. The chef may put cocaine in it to make it so addictive, but I don’t care. It was a great meal to end our time in this fabulous city.
We left on the 18th, my brother Peter’s birthday – Happy Birthday, Pete! – for the most arduous travel of our entire trip. Four flights, on three airlines, with two 6-hour layovers made for one tired MB. By the time we arrived, I was ready to keel over. But I’ll save the delights of Rio for anther post.