I’ve been to a lot of hot places – Tanzania at the height of summer, Cambodia during monsoon season, Haiti on a long bus ride with the windows closed, but I think this last week in Cartagena might possibly take the cake. I can only guess that the intense heat is because it is so close to the ocean or perhaps the sun shines a bit brighter on such an incredible city and people.
Aside from nearly melting while lying at the beach, walking the city, drinking, eating, sleeping, and breathing, Cartagena is well worth a trip. And although it was my first of many stops in Colombia, I have a feeling it will be the most distinct. Of course, it’s overwhelming Latin, but in many respects, it feels just as Caribbean as so much of the music and food are Caribbean-inspired and the people are every beautiful brown hue out there.
And they sure are beautiful. I swear, it’s like the Denmark of Latin America. Everyone is fresh-faced, smiling and happy – the men, the women, the children, the elderly – even the frickin’ pets look like they’re happy to be alive and proud to be livin’ the vida loca.
A few funny (absolute) truths I discovered from my limited time in Colombia so far: all women must wear platform shoes. And no, not regular ones; we’re talkin 3-inch-Paul-Stanley-from-Kiss type of platforms. Whether you’re 9 or 90, whether it’s 9am or 9pm, I think citizenship may possibly be revoked if you’re caught without them. And the men…well, I assume they all go from the soccer pitch right to a Gap photo shoot each day. And whether they’re trying to sell you kitch at the beach or a beer at a restaurant, I’m convinced they’re trying to take your clothes off with their eyes. Or their citizenship may be revoked too.
But regardless of what they look like, they are all so laid-back and pleasant. Even the hawkers at the beach that spend all day harassing beach goers are extremely happy and courteous. Every time they come up (which is every 5 seconds) yelling “helado, cervezas, pescado, joyeria, anteojos de sol, agua, oleo de coco” they are quick to welcome you to Cartagena and tell you there is an e-special promotion on that day just for you!
And the massage ladies want to massage you so damn badly that even after you say “no, gracias” for the eleven-ty-thousand-teenth time and close your eyes, they will invariably start rubbing you anyways. It actually got to be kind of funny…just as I’d be drifting off into over-sun-exposed bliss I would feel some lady’s hand on my back or my leg. Even though I’d be in total shock, they’d be so smiley about it, I couldn’t even get angry. I would simply shoo them away as politely as possible and wait for the next mamacita to pull the same thing. 5 minutes later.
Other than the few jaunts I took to Bocagrande beach and walking the hell out of the city centre, I ventured out of the walled Old Town very little because the humidity made every step feel like a Sahara trek. I did walk to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which is a well-preserved fortress that was constructed by the Spanish in colonial times. It is considered the most impressive and daunting of Spanish military complexes so there was plenty to marvel at, and it offered a great aerial view of the city.
My one big adventure was a tour to Volcan Tutomo. Located about an hour outside of Cartagena, this experience was as bizarre as it was gross as it was fun. According to legend, it used to be a volcano that spewed fire and lava, but a local priest sprinkled some holy water into it and turned it into mud to cast out the devil. Okie Dokie. It’ a surprisingly small dirt mound/hill that you walk up to find an even smaller mud pit that tourists from all over (including my dumb ass) bathe in, for it apparently contains muchas healing properties and minerals.
It is a somewhat disgusting feeling when you’re in there, not so much the mud but the gritty bits mixed in and the fact that there are a ton of other people sloshing around in the same goop. I was doing okay and having a few laughs with the others on my tour when one guy found a bandaid “float” by. It got me thinking about the decades and decades of sweaty people playing in this magical, stinking mud hole. Play time…over.
The other hilarious part was the local men that are in there with each group, waiting to give you a message for the “low, low price of 3000 COP”. I passed, but I know a few girls who did and got a little more ‘massage’ than they bargained for. After your creep factor has been filled and you do or do not go to second base with one of the masseurs, you climb out to another waiting local who rubs all the excess mud off you whether you want him to or not.
Then, you crawl down a rickety set of scalding hot stairs to walk on an even hotter gravel trail to get to the lagoon to wash off…which is packed with local women who are waiting to give you a hand for the “low, low price of 3000 COP”. I actually think they were more aggressive than the dudes in the pit. After reciting “no, gracias” over and over, they still follow you around in the water with little buckets and hands like tentacles. My little crew had quite the laugh trying to dodge them.
So, did I come down with a skin rash afterwards? Nope. Did I mange to avoid the plethora of inappropriate rub downs? Yup. When I close my eyes can I still feel the grit and sludge in every crevice of body? Unfortunately. But would I recommend it? Kinda. It’s quite the experience and as long as you know what you’re in for, you might actually like it. Maybe.
So as I say goodbye to Cartagena and settle into Medellin, a much different South American vibe from the looks of it, I see Cartagena as the best intro I could have had to my South American adventure – where the only thing warmer and more relentless than the weather are the people.