November 2009 Fiesta Time in Cartagena
November is fiesta time in Cartagena. There are so many holidays around that time that they blend together, but they all center around November 11, the Día de Independencia, which is the day Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811. Basically, the week in which that date falls is a party. School is dismissed; businesses may or may not be open; workers may or may not show up. Ask anyone that week if they are working, and the answer may be either "¡Claro que sí! ¿Cómo no?" (Of course; why not?) or "¡Claro que no!" (Of course not!) We think it depends on how much they need the money.

In this land of beautiful women, it makes sense that the Independence Day festivities should revolve around beauty pageants. For 75 years, the Miss Colombia pageant has been held here in Cartagena around November 11. Each Department sends its Reina (they're not princesses - each is a queen!), plus one each from Cartagena and Bogotá, for a total of 24. The winner, Miss Colombia, represents the nation in the Miss Universe competition. Colombia is serious about this competition - many pages of newsprint and hours of radio and TV time are devoted to the candidates. During the 2 weeks leading up to the final selection, the Reinas are in Cartagena, doing "good works" during the day, visiting schools, orphanages, etc., and going to official functions, with various competitions in the evenings. These evening do's are expensive: the bathing suit competition was $80/person and the final pageant cost $150 a head. The Miss Colombia pageant is more or less the exclusive preserve of the country's social elite. Originally, all the reinas were sponsored by local social clubs, and most of those clubs are essentially country clubs, to which the poor (or even

middle class) need not apply. So, naturally,the poorer but proud Cartagena locals decided to establish a separate series of events, centered around, of course, a beauty pageant for the Queen of Independence.

This pageant features local women who represent their barrios (neighborhoods) in Cartagena and its surroundings. In typical florid Latin American style, the organizing committee justifies the fiesta/beauty pageant by stating "The Pageant of the Queen of Independence is conceived

as an activity that not only exalts the beauty of Cartagena women, but as an instrument with which these women can exercise leadership in the community to enjoy the festivities." We didn't see much of the leadership exercising, but we did exalt their beauty, which their skimpy outfits displayed admirably.

No matter the official rhetoric, it's just another excuse to party, party, party! The local beauty queens are far more natural and diverse than the Miss Colombia candidates, and receive
enthusiastic support from their friends and neighbors during many readily accessible pageants and parades.Many community organizations,youth groups, schools and universities, dance troupes, etc. take part in the parades, usually wearing traditional clothing and dancing to traditional music. It's quite charming.

The parades essentially shut down the city. Often, the spectators show up hours ahead of time, some wearing costumes or makeup or, for some reason, big afro wigs - That's got to be really hot in the 90-degree weather! In the streets, along with spectators, are young men, semi-naked and smeared with dirty motor oil, asking for coins or they threaten to smear you with their oil.

We carried lots of coins - pennies would suffice, as long as you gave something - and they really weren't serious about the threat, anyway. Other spectators carried spray cans of mild soapy foam, and we were liberally sprayed. Considering the sweltering heat, this was actually pretty welcome, but unfortunately

the foam serves as an excellent cover for pickpockets, who spray it in your eyes and when you try to clear your vision, nab your money. We didn't bring much money, but Andi's cell phone got snatched out of a secured pocket of her purse; she felt the theft but by the time the nearby people rallied to stop the thief, he was gone. All the other revelers apologized for his actions, and we felt more welcomed than disturbed by the incident. We kept watching the parade!

Meanwhile, back to the Miss Colombia side of things. Two huge and free parades showcase

the Miss Colombia candidates to the general population - one is a land-based parade; the other is water based. The land parade is, of course, better attended by the locals, who generally don't have access to boats. They pile onto the city walls in a general air of fiesta - once again, it's really just an excuse to party!  

We wanted to attend the water parade, and we do have access to a boat! So we got official permission (Rob received a bright orange t-shirt emblazoned with the words "Capitán Designato"), raised Akka's anchor, and joined a hundred or so other spectator boats.

In the water parade, or ballenero, each

queen (or, in a few instances, couple of queens) was in a lifeboat rowed by cadets from the Colombian Naval Academy, all in their spiffy whites. The boat carrying Miss Colombia 2090
  led the parade. Six cadets rowed each lifeboat, another steered, and another stood in the bow with a boathook. A junior officer stood watch by the platform where the queen stood, presumably as "safety officer" to keep her from falling over, or in. Occasionally, a queen would grab her escort's hand, lift it high, then twirl and dance under it. The escorts looked

uncomfortable - the queens looked beautiful and blasé.

This was a long parade - 2 ½ miles - and the cadets weren't all that good at rowing. Plus, some of them were pretty distracted by their Queens, who were wearing bikinis and high heels (and their sashes, of course) and dancing to the sounds of the various sound systems on the spectator boats.


Occasionally, the cadets would stop rowing altogether and simply join in the moment.

The parade of lifeboats hugged the shore opposite our anchorage, and was separated from the spectator boats by a line of buoys. The spectator boats could -- and we did - nose right up to the buoys. As soon as all the queens had passed, the whole line of spectator

boats pulled back and sort of leapfrogged on itself to find a new vantage point to watch the whole thing all over again. And again, and again. We got to watch and wave and be waved at up close, four different times.

Some of the spectator boats had been chartered by supporters of a particular queen. They'd festooned the boats with balloons or streamers and a big banner with the queen's photo, name and title. And all the supporters on board were wearing t-shirts with the queens' image on them. When we were jockeying past one boat, they called us over and tossed us a t-shirt. Andi immediately donned the shirt, which showed the face of the Queen from North of Santander (the actual name of a district that's, well, north of the city of Santander).

The spectator boats ranged in size from dugout canoes (really!) to excursion boats and two replica galleons. Many of the boats had to be well over their safe passenger limit, but the patrolling Coast Guard and Police didn't seem overly concerned. We noticed that only some 80% of the skippers were wearing the official orange "Capitan Designado" shirts.  

No matter. Despite the huge crowds, loud music and drinking, there was some remarkably good seamanship.

On one speedboat, a man was dancing on the foredeck and attracting a lot of attention. We

  got closer and realized why. His outfit consisted of an Afro wig, a huge pair of sunglasses, a thong bikini with another afro wig pinned to his front, and a huge dildo! After we snapped a couple of pix, we noticed the police boat approaching and were dismayed - the guy really wasn't hurting anyone, and lots of spectating girls were wearing equally little.

As it turned out, the police didn't want to arrest him - they just wanted to take photos of him!


Akka was one of only 3 sailboats in this melee, and the only sailboat daring to get right up close to the buoy line. Despite the carnival atmosphere, the drinking and the distractions of the queens, etc., we were never bumped into. Everyone was really polite and festive, seemed delighted at our gringo participation.


Did we mention the water balloons? Local guys in dugouts were selling small plastic bags of water (some dyed yellow or red or blue, the colors of the Colombian flag) to toss. We quickly learned to stay away from the tall galleons and excursion boats, from the top decks of which we were an easy target. Fortunately, the dye was weak and cleaned up off the decks without leaving stains. And fortunately, we weren't wearing good clothes, although that t-shirt with Queen North of Santander's picture will never be the same. And, you don't really want to think about the environmental impact of all those plastic bags in the bay…

After some 2 ½ hours, the beauties were delivered to the Navy Club, and the spectator fleet began to disperse. Again, total politeness and wonderful driving, smiles everywhere, and we returned Akka to her parking place to clean up the decks and resume ordinary life.

Two nights later, Miss Colombia 2010 was selected. She was Miss Bolivar, which is Cartagena's province, making the locals very happy. . To see Miss Colombia 2010, go to

To see the Queen of Independence, go to