Cartagena, Colombia –The Hotel Stil is an eleven-story relic of the late nineteen-sixties or seventies that isn’t good at wearing its age. Everything about it is weathered. Humidity hangs in the foyers like an old wet blanket on a forgotten clothes line. The two narrow elevators rattle as they shake. The faint smell of frying grease lingers in the stairwells.
But it’s also functional, the Spartan rooms comfortable and clean and the staff friendly and welcoming, almost to a fault. Cartagena’s well-preserved historic city center, the eighth UNESCO World Heritage Site I would visit on this trip, is less than a ten-minute walk away. All things considered, a good base for much of RTW Trip Week #20.
Even prior to arriving on Colombia’s steamy Caribbean coast, the goal was to get a bit of R&R this week, essentially to listen to body and soul, both of which have been complaining –sometimes loudly– in recent weeks. That I succeeded to a certain extent is due more to Cartagena’s sultry climate than to any great effort on my part. But hey, I’ll take it. But I do need more.
Tuesday, June 4 – Medellin, Colombia
I spend much of the day indoors working on my manuscript; pleased with a rhythm that has developed, I go out for a quick stroll and wind up to the Plaza Cisneros, a busy square that’s home to dozens of twenty four-meter high light poles, a jungle of metal growing from a concrete forest floor. A large, attractive municipal library flanks the park at one end, refurbished brick buildings housing offices and shops at the other. Two police officers mounted on segways take a break in the shade provided by a narrow flank of trees.
I decide I need another light shirt so I buy a Colombian national football team kit for fifteen thousand pesos, roughly eight dollars. The shirt vendor’s young daughter introduces me to Lulo juice. It’s not among my favorites.
Wednesday, June 5 – Medellin, Colombia
I visit the Botanical Garden in the early afternoon where I enjoy the company of hundreds of vividly colored flowers and interrupt an iguana’s lunch. I then spend about an hour riding the city’s modern, sleek and efficient metro, exit at a random station, and then walk for about an hour in an area of town that’s slipped under the clean-up crew’s radar. I conclude that the majority of Medellin’s homeless, at least those living in cardboard dwellings under overpasses, are exceedingly friendly.
I have my last coffee of the day at the Salon Malaga on Calle 51 Bolivar, near the San Antonio metro station. It’s packed with old jukeboxes from various eras, the walls are covered with photos of singers and musicians, and coffee is just eight hundred pesos, around forty-two cents.
Thursday, June 6 – Medellin, Colombia
It’s my last day in Medellin so I decide to try out a ‘four by four’ experiment I concocted a few months ago, but never quite put into practice. It is to go something like this: When passing through a larger city for only a short period of time, I would spend the vast majority of that time in a four square-block with my hotel at its center. That type of exploration, the thesis goes, would allow me to at least experience one area of a city fairly well. Since I get a late start which further limits my time, I reduce the area to three blocks by three. I don’t even cover half of it.
As I walk I count fruit vendors (twenty-six), bakeries (eleven), theaters (two), available taxis (forty-one), juice sellers (twelve), and people peddling phone calls (lots). The latter, with cheap mobiles chained to their belt loops, are ubiquitous. During lunch I watch one particularly enterprising woman who has five calls going simultaneously, tugged every so often in a different direction. I’m surprised that I see more than one person walking the street selling incense sticks (four).
My bus (Brasilia) is scheduled to depart at six-thirty from the Terminal Norte. The 109,000 peso ride, roughly fifty-seven dollars, is to take thirteen hours. I wasn’t awake to see the lay of the land arriving in Medellin and I’m disappointed that it’ll be too dark to get a grasp of the geography upon departure.
We pull out of the station at six forty-seven; at nine we stop for a brief dinner break at a place called Estadero Tono. The walls are lined with black and white drawings of famous thinkers, writers, scientists. I had no idea that Pablo Escobar looked like Honoré de Balzac.
Friday, June 7 – Cartagena, Colombia
I wake up at about half past six and quickly see that the environment has changed dramatically. The only trees along the surprisingly rough road are those that bear bananas. I can’t feel the heat but I can see it. Locals are already walking along the roads beneath sun-blocking umbrellas.
After a brief police check at eight –the officer has no idea where or what Slovenia is– we arrive at Cartagena’s sprawling station at eight thirty-five, fourteen hours after departure. The taxi journey is a fairly long but illuminating ride, so after some time passes I no longer feel upset about the inflated 20,000 peso fare I paid, roughly $10.50. According to World Bank stats, about forty percent of Colombians live in poverty. In Cartagena, the figure is six in ten. Many of those live along the route my taxi driver covered.
We arrive at the hotel at 9:25 where I’m greeted by an enthusiastic bellhop and given a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice at reception. Just behind me, about five dozen young men and women climb out of two buses carrying brass instruments and bass drums which will provide a large portion of my weekend’s soundtrack. I’m given a corner room on the tenth and top floor where I nap for the next four hours.
I’m up and about in time for the Colombia-Argentina World Cup qualifier. A beer-guzzling sea of yellow jerseys packs the plazoleta near my hotel to watch the game on a pub’s big screen TV. Colombia outplays favored Argentina and drew them to a tie. The honking car horns, noise makers and brass bands continue well into the night.
This was to be the day I revisit the possibility that travel fatigue is setting in. I can’t decide if it’s a good idea to schedule that self-examination on the day after another very long overnight bus ride when I hardly get any sleep – or if it was indeed apropos. I decide that the timing is bad so I put it off one more week. I also decide that if I’m still feeling lethargic and somewhat indifferent to my spectacular surroundings when I’m in the San Blas Islands next week, a serious look as to why I’m doing this will be in order.
Saturday, June 8 – Cartagena, Colombia
In late morning the plazoleto is full once again, as it will be on Sunday as well; this time it’s major league baseball that’s the TV draw. It’s mostly men sitting in plastic chairs talking and laughing, surrounded by empty beer bottles. A few tap their feet to the loud salsa music coming from the competing bar next door.
I head into the old city, first to explore the Modern Art Museum – there’s a strong collection of Latin American works from the 1950s– then just to wander the narrow cobblestone streets.
On the famous wall that surrounds the city, one women approaches and offers me two young “negritas” for the evening. A few minutes later another offers a very intimate massage. I tell them both that I’m just looking for some sliced mango.
Sunday, June 9 – Cartagena, Colombia
I remember that Cartagena is a stop for R&R so do very little besides read and watch CNN. I do venture out briefly and notice two things worth noting. The first is a woman standing next to a plastic scale who offers passersby the opportunity to weigh themselves for two hundred pesos, about ten cents. The second is that one can buy chicken or mayonnaise flavored chips here.
Monday, June 10 – Cartagena
It’s a holiday so the plazoleta, like much of the streets, is much more subdued. Most shops are shuttered. The music is turned down and at the corner pub a white cover cloaks the TV.
In late morning, two buses, loaded with young brass band musicians and their instruments, depart.
I finalize my sail boat transport to Panama via the San Blas Islands where we spend three of the five days. My boat, an eighty-five footer called The Independence, has a Slovenian captain. I’ve never been sailing. We leave Thursday morning.