Cookin' in Cartagena
I've been noting the number of showers I have to take per day in order to feel clean—my personal city comfort index—seven a day in hot and sweaty Nicaragua, and at least three or four in Cartagena. It's hot. Air conditioning is a dream.
Airport immigration control refused my request for more than a 30-day visa—annoying. People arriving by boat are getting 30 or 60, while land crossings typically get 90. I'm left wondering if I should step quickly through the country, or petition for an extension.
I liked the hats the military was wearing at the airport. Armed soldiers don't phase me, but I did notice the nifty green jungle cap atop their heads, the brim folded and buttoned up on one side. Entertaining to see in a modern environment.
I cabbed into the historic center, at the mercy of inflated evening airport taxi rates (the information desk said it should cost a US$1.50 to get into town, no one would go for less than US$3.25).
I'm always tense and on guard when taking a taxi in a new city, especially when it's in dark or twilight hours. I half expect the driver to pull down an alley someplace where three of his friends are waiting to liberate me of my belongings, or more. Always lock the rear doors.
When the neighborhood that the taxi took me into started to look exceptionally dodgy, I put a knife in my palm. Moments later we stopped in front of my requested destination, although the looks of the place made me confirm by pointing to the map in my guidebook.
Casa Viena is a cramped, narrow hostel situated gritty part of the old city, compared to the attractive, colonial section of town it sits next to. Nearly all the hostels are here. I've got no problems with gritty during the day, frankly I prefer it (the locals are authentic and the street food is plentiful), but leaving the hostel after dark can be problematic.
I'm surrounded by Israelis. The hostel can hold about 25 people, and I think 75% are from Israel. News coverage of the war in their country is on the television constantly. Military service is mandatory for both men and women. Most are still considered on reserve status, and some have been called back to action (cutting their travels short). I listen as they discuss the situation, and whether the Colombian city of Medellin is host to the most beautiful women in the world.
I explore hotels and hostels as I roam about the city streets. A decent room for two in the colonial zone typically runs about $40,000 pesos (US$16.50), whereas one can expect to pay P$10,000–12,000 (US$4–5) per person where I'm at. My top choice in the economical part of town: Hotel Doral.
I was looking for a culture change, and I found it. Colombia is uniquely so, and isn't exactly like any other country I've encountered. Impressions from my first day of walking around was that this is not a town for novice travelers. There's a sizable amount of swindlers, hustlers, and beggars here, praying on soft hearts and loose pockets.
The old colonial town (Cartagena's principle attraction) is surrounded by Las Murallas—large, thick walls built in the late 16th century to protect the city and its inhabitants from attack. You can stroll along most of it, assuming you can tolerate the heat.
It's easy to get turned around inside the fort walls, the streets twist and turn all over the place, and the city has the lovely habit of giving the street a different name for every block. Each side of a block has a different street name—multiply that out 50 fold.
Street food and natural drinks are outstanding here. I have the odd feeling that the town is expensive, yet I find I could live here for less than US$10 a day (if skipping on alcoholic indulgence, which isn't hard for me).
By far one of the most entertaining experiences I've had here was when I was strolling around town yesterday. Sipping on a natural lemon/lime drink, I was suddenly swarmed by nearly a dozen teenage girls. Cameras in hand, they asked if they could pose with me for a photo. I laughed, and let the snapshots begin. They were from Ecuador, and I continued to laugh as the woman with them (their instructor?) juggled 12 cameras. Group shots turned into doubles, which turned into singles—even the instructor got in for a snapshot. Crazy! I was very entertained by the entire thing.
I'm trying to decide where I'm going to head off to next. Bus travel is long and expensive, and I feel the need to make educated decisions. I might take off tomorrow for another coastal town, or head inland in search of cooler weather.