Cartagena, Colombia July-December 2008
We spent the end of June and the first half of July, 2008, enjoying the little backwater of Isla Mujeres, Mexico and reveling in all the things we hadn't had in Cuba, such as good American cheeseburgers and the availability of refrigeration parts. By July 9, we'd eaten our share of American and Mexican food, drunk our share of Mexican beer and margaritas, seen the Mayan pyramids, repaired the fridge (again) and caught up on our e-mail.

We were enjoying life in Mexico, but Hurricane Bertha was in the offing, and we needed to be south of about 12 degrees North when she got to the Caribbean. So we stocked up on supplies and set off for Cartagena, Colombia, 1000 nautical miles to the southeast. If the easterly tradewinds held, the passage would be a fetch, barely. If the wind came any further south or we visited any of the cruising spots to leeward of the rhumbline, the rest of the passage could easily become a beat to windward. So we skipped the Bay Islands, Providencia, and San Andres and headed direct for Cartagena.

Eight days later, we crossed through the narrow break in the undersea wall constructed four hundred years ago to protect the Cartagena harbor from marauding English pirates. After a brief inspection by the Guarda Costera, Akka came to anchor in the totally protected waters off the Club Nautico de Cartagena. This anchorage would be her home for the next 5½ months, with a short break to get her bottom painted at a local yard, and a couple of weeks at the Club Nautico docks while we traveled to Peru (see our adventure "Peru").

As soon as we had a chance to get some rest, we took the 15-minute walk into the Old City, which turned out to be as pretty as we had heard. Completely surrounded by the original defensive walls, it's really more of a town than a city, with narrow winding streets, overhanging balconies and flowers everywhere.

Also, emeralds. Colombia is, of course, known for its emeralds, and Cartagena is where the tourists come, so … it's impossible to walk down the principal streets of the city without being accosted by touts for the various emerald shops. After successfully fending off several of them, we finally succumbed to a Juan Valdez look-alike, who turned out to be the owner of the shop he led us to. Our overall impression was that we were back in a rug shop in Turkey or in the bazaar in Jerusalem. There was the same offer of something to drink (tea in the Mideast, coffee in Colombia), the same assurances that there was no obligation to buy, the same friendly instruction in how to spot quality pieces, and even the same format, with a subordinate to lay out the wares in front of us and the proprietor maintaining a lively patter, calling us his "friends" and complimenting us on our incredible perception of quality. And as in the Mideast, the prices were "so low, they're almost free!" Andi finally ended up trying on a beautiful set of earrings and matching pendant, set in white gold. All for only $1,300, a price which, Juan Valdez assured us, was the lowest they could possibly sell the set for. We feigned indecision, then reluctantly turned down this fantastic deal. As we went out the door, the price dropped to $1,200. Don't get us wrong, here - the experience was delightful and the pressure was very low.

We were to spend many hours wandering around in the Old City, always delighted by the charming atmosphere of narrow streets and overhanging wood balconies dripping with bougainvillea. We were less delighted by the heat, which was, especially in the summer months and especially within the confines of the Old City wall fortifications, stifling and sapping.

A major drawback of Cartagena, from the cruiser's point of view, is that the heat can't be beat by swimming: the harbor is filthy and unsuited for swimming. Not only that, the harbor water is of a composition that nourishes and encourages marine growth on boat bottoms and anchor lines. Anchoring in the harbor is free, but it is necessary to hire a fearless diver every two weeks to scrape the bottom of your boat. Leave it for 3 weeks and the barnacles are too well attached to remove. In four weeks, the anchor chain is no longer recognizable as chain. When boats leave at the Club Nautico Marina, they either abandon their lines or hire a marinero to scrub them. (These various jobs cost a mere $20-25 a shot, so it's not too much of a hardship, and the workers seem quite healthy, though we noticed that they shower immediately and thoroughly after every dive into the harbor!)

Cartagena has only a few tourist sights, but each has its own fascination. Rising high above the city on a lone bluff called La Popa (because of its resemblance to the "poop" or stern of a ship) is a lovely convent, dating from 1609. The trip to the top must be made by taxi because the neighborhood at the foot of the hill is said to be the most dangerous in the city. But the cool peacefulness of the convent (it's still a monastery, occupied by a half-dozen monks) and the fabulous views of the city are worth the trip. The Castillo de San Felipe is in fact a fort. It's a huge, brooding structure designed to defend in many directions, but also designed to shoot on itself and even to blow itself up in case it is successfully attacked. It was famously defended by the local hero: Blas de Lezo, who, despite missing an eye, an arm and half a leg, led a small group of soldiers and slaves to victory against a huge English force, at worse than 10-1 odds. The British were so sure of victory that they had commemorative coins struck before the battle. The best part about the coins was that they showed Lazo on his knees before the conquerors, with all his appendages intact. The Brits wouldn't want to think of themselves as beating up on a cripple! Of course, they didn't beat up on anybody, but despite this crushing loss, Lord Vernon, the British general in charge, was so admired in the British Empire that George Washington's family named their plantation after him.

Like much of Latin America, Cartagena is obsessed with beautiful women. And it's got more than its share. Of course, not all of this beauty comes naturally, so plastic surgery is a big business and a way of life. (It's said that for their "quince años" (fifteenth birthday), many girls are given trips to plastic surgeons, to get their breasts enhanced.) Beauty pageants are the natural byproduct of this obsession, and the Miss Colombia pageant, which takes place in Cartagena in November to coincide with the national celebration of Independence Day, is a Big Deal. For at least two weeks, the local daily newspapers feature pictures of the contestants. And because everyone loves a parade, there are dozens of beauty processions during Carnival, each with a theme, but each featuring float after float with scantily clad beauties.

Naturally, the Miss Colombia pageant draws contestants from all over the country, each representing her province or city. These contestants are generally light-skinned Latinas from the upper classes or Landed Gentry. The working class Cartagena locals, being more dark-skinned and descended from slave-Indian roots, hold a simultaneous local beauty pageant featuring girls from the various locales within and around Cartagena.

We attended a couple of the parades that honor local contestants. These turned out to be a celebration of the heritage of music and dance from the area of Costeña (the coastal region that includes Cartagena). What a delight to see young people preserving their heritage! There were dozens of small groups, dancing folk dances in colorful traditional garb. Wonderful make-up, and great cowboy hats in a number of different traditional weaves.

Lacking a car, one gets around in Cartagena by -- in order of decreasing cost -- taxi, bus and moto. Motos are motorcycles that carry passengers astride the back; they are identifiable by the spare motorcycle helmets on the drivers' arms. By and large, these motos became our transportation of choice. Fares ranged from about US$.30 to US$1.00, anywhere in the city (except the Old City, where they are not allowed to go).

We soon grew to know Cartagena as at least three separate cities. There is the charming Old City, the high-rise steel and glass Boca Grande, and the hot, dusty areas of mom-and-pop stores, car repair garages and machine shops, with the noise, bustle and traffic of a busy town. Like most Latin American cities we've seen, there's a huge contrast between rich and poor; we saw people who have no running water living within view of skyscrapers with million-dollar condos. There are two first-class universities in the city, but at the same time there's no compulsory education, and we saw lots of poor school-aged kids in the streets when school was in session.

If there's one thing the Cartageños seem to have in common, it's an antipathy for the FARC, the Communist guerilla resistance movement, which depends largely on kidnapping to fund its efforts and to apply pressure on the government. Every couple of months there is a "Parade for Peace" that draws tens of thousands of people wearing T-shirts with slogans like "I am Colombia!" and "No to kidnapping!" The president of Colombia, Alvaro Uribe, has done an incredible job of rallying the citizens in the cause of destroying the FARC and restoring security. Four or five years ago, the national bus system had virtually come to a stop for lack of customers - nobody was willing to take the chance of the bus being hijacked, so the rich traveled by plane and the others stayed put. Now, long-distance bus is the preferred travel method and Colombia is in the process of completely revamping the system, with new busses and terminals and (hopefully) roads all over the land.

Many American and European products are available in Cartagena, but when something is not available, it's totally not available. For example, there's no blue masking tape. When we hired some guys to put anti-fouling paint on the bottom of Akka, they used the old-fashioned tan tape. The paint job took several days (with rain delays), so when it came time to peel off the tape, the painters risked pulling the paint off with it. They understood that, and carefully applied thinner to the tape to loosen it up and then again to clean off the residual glue. This was a time-consuming and worrisome job, because if any of the thinner were to run down onto the new bottom paint it would make streaks. So it took them more than an hour to remove the tape. They could have just ripped off the blue 3M masking tape in seconds, with no worries about hurting the paint underneath. So Rob brought a small roll of blue tape that we had aboard Akka and showed it to the painters. They knew of it, and acknowledged that it would have been better to use it. But, they said, "No hay": There is none. And when we inquired further, it turned out, they were right -- unless they the tape was provided out of a cruiser's private stock,, they couldn't get it in Cartagena. The irony is that the brown tape they used was made by (you guessed it) 3M.

The painters also gave us two new jokes. The first is that Cartagena is the City of Tomorrow. Why? Because nothing gets done today. Bah-da-boom. The second is an insight into the meaning of "mañana", which translates literally into English as "tomorrow". But that's not what it means, they insisted. What it really means is "not now". So something promised by "mañana" isn't necessarily expected tomorrow, or even expected at all. It's simply not available now. An awareness of this meaning has made life a lot less frustrating -- no longer do we rail about the workman who promises to do the work "mañana" and then doesn't show up the next day. He really didn't mean he'd be there tomorrow, just that he couldn't make it today.