The Trip has officially started. That’s still weird for me to say. We’re in Cartagena, Colombia, our first stop on the South American continent, and already the sights, sounds, colors, and culture offer striking differences in the best kind of way.
We landed at the Cartagena airport at around 1pm local time. The airport is small enough that there are no real terminals or boarding gates, so we disembarked directly onto the tarmac, which made me feel just a tiny bit like Indiana Jones. Customs and Immigration was a nerve-wracking experience as usual, but after a few stern stares and questions, our passports were stamped and we were allowed to enter the country. We were ushered through the baggage area, which only had two carousels, and straight out into the taxi waiting area.
The taxi drivers pounced like sharks. Sharks that pounce. Since we had no Colombian pesos at this point, they had the high ground on the negotiations, so we ended up paying almost triple what we should have for a ride into the Old City. A fair price, we later found, would have been around 10,000 COP (about $3.50). Instead we paid $8 USD which, by Los Angeles standards, wouldn’t be bad for a twenty minute cab ride, but by Colombian standards was a bit much. Then again, taxis from the airport are pretty much ripoffs worldwide.
We arrived at our hostel without incident, and after checking in, we set off. Our first stop was an ATM, so we could start paying in the local currency. The prices here take some adjustment, as $1 USD is roughly equivalent to 3,000 COP, so at first glance the prices seem startlingly high. Once you get used to it, it’s pretty easy to convert just by dividing the Colombian price by 3 (for example, 12,000 pesos is roughly $4).
Our next stop wasn’t a super fun one. We had to track down a pharmacy because, before the trip had even really begun, Bridgette had already picked up a fun new disease. Not from trekking through the jungle or hiking up a mountain, and not in far-flung tropical lands or impoverished villages. Instead, she managed to catch Lyme Disease while sitting at home in Ohio. After all the warnings, precautions, and vaccinations, she got infected before we even left the house. Luckily, the treatment is just a course of simple antibiotics, which are available over the counter down here.
That out of the way, we were able to start truly exploring the city. The area of town we’re staying in, the Ciudad Vieja, or Old City, was the original site of the colonial port city founded in the 1500’s by the Spanish. Now, it’s a quaint touristy area offering restaurants, bars, hotels, spas, and shopping. We were approached frequently on the streets by touts offering panama hats, t-shirts, sunglasses, artwork, jewelry, tours, and even Cuban cigars. The streets are narrow and winding, and the buildings create a multicolored array of blues, browns, reds, and yellows.
From there we decided to head towards the walls; the Old City is completely surrounded by ancient-looking walls complete with cannons and parapets. You’re allowed to explore and walk along the narrow walls however you want. There are no railings, warning signs, or liability-releasing announcements like there would be in the States; you’re just expected not to be stupid and they don’t treat you like you’re stupid, which was actually kind of refreshing. Stray dogs are a common sight around town, and one seemed to take a liking to us, following us through the streets and along the wall for an hour or two. Bridgette was, of course quite taken with the pup, who appeared to have recently given birth to a litter, prompting Bridgette to nickname her Mamacita.
As we walked along the wall, we eventually began to see kites. Just a few at first, but more and more came into view until there were hundreds in the air. Unwittingly, we’d decided to arrive in Cartagena on the final day of their Kite Festival, an annual occurrence that takes place every weekend in August. Vendors sold snacks and beer both on the walls and in the grassy field below, and children and adults alike ran by pulling a wide variety of colorful kites behind them. It was quite a spectacle, especially given that we hadn’t expected anything of the sort.
By this time, the sun was setting. We happened to be on just the right spot on the encircling wall to be able to grab a cerveza, hop on the edge, and watch the sun dip down below the Caribbean Sea. A crowd had gathered for the nightly occasion, although I’m sure it was augmented by the kite festival below on that particular night. The cooling wind offered by our proximity to the sea offset the heat that lingered even into the evening, making for a perfect setting for our first night.