Blonde, Cartagena, Travel
I hear it's not often a blonde-haired, green-eyed girl walks the streets of Cartagena de Indias, and by herself to boot! The first time I decided to travel to my mother's native land I must admit, I was a bit nervous. With all the travel advisories and stories of kidnappings, I wondered if I would be a target. Then I landed. While the machine guns the airport security guys were wielding could be seen as a bit intimidating, this wasn't too different than what I'd seen in Ireland shortly after September 11th. Other than the fact that I was in a third world country and didn't look a thing like 99% of the other people there, really were things that different?
I wanted to immediately jump in and see the sights, but first, I needed to eat! With mother, abuela and primo in tow, outside under the clear lights and trees of Enoteca, a wonderful little Italian restaurant, we dined on a meal fit for ten people but seemed to only be paying for one. Soon after we headed to Plaza San Pedro Claver where I took in a beautiful and grand church, street characters and vendors selling their stories and creations. And some of their stories were quite the creations!
In the days that followed I walked for hours, until I thought I couldn't walk anymore. I held a mother and baby sloth, took in views from La Popa, experienced a party "La Chiva" style, became friends with Ariel, my cab driver, lived through a haunting at Castillo de San Felipe with my younger cousin (you won't convince us otherwise!) and witnessed a Colombian Coast Guard search as we boated to La Islas Rosarios, where people live in the middle of the sea. I feasted on some of the freshest and tastiest dishes my palate has had the pleasure of making acquaintance with. Most of all, I felt the love of the people that, while they didn't look like me, had the same blood running through their veins. At night, when the staff of El Amirante put brandy and candy out on the nightstand for me to unwind, it was their smiles and conversation that relaxed me rather than the spirits.
I've since been back to this beautiful, colorful place. Every time I'm there, people call out to me, "Ah, la gringa pura!" When this fair skinned, very European looking woman (thanks to my father's Dutch/Danish roots) replies, "No, no. Mi familia es de aquĂ," it is with surprise, open arms and smiles I am welcomed back. It has become the most delightful of expectations -- that and freshly made arepas con queso!
And everytime I'm there, I never, ever miss a day of walking through Boca Grande to Pan de Bono for my fresh jugo de mandarina. I walk with friends, and I walk alone, for I walk in the love that runs through the souls and sangre of my fellow Cartageneros.
Travel tips: Don't be afraid! Be smart. This is like traveling anywhere. Don't make yourself a target! Realize that you are going to be in a third world country, and there will be people you encounter asking for money. Be kind, but don't wear your heart on your sleeve. Taxis are usually a flat rate, make sure you ask before you get in. And exchange money before you go to Colombia. You can withdraw from ATMs too, but it's best to go with Colombian pesos in your pocket. Bring cool clothing, sunblock and sunglasses. It is sunny and hot down near the equator!
Must see/do at this place: Castillo de San Felipe and its tunnels, Drive up La Popa and toru, fresh squeezed juices (my favorite is mandarin!) at Pan de Bono in Boca Grande, Hotel Santa Clara and the toucans there, San Pedro Claver Church and Convent, The Rosario Islands, La Tinaja Restaurant, La Chiva Bus, Walk the streets of El Centro!, CafĂ© del Santisimo, hit the outside cafĂ©'s near Santo Domino Square and enjoy a meal while watching the performers, say hello to a Palenquera, walk the walls, visit the museums, walk up and down Boca Grande, bargain with street vendors, but be reasonable.
You should avoid here: Giving money to children or anyone begging. If you do this, you will attract more attention. Be kind, but be firm.
Other helpful information: Cartagena is on the ocean, so it's not considered as dangerous as the inland and mountainous areas of other parts of the country. There are direct flights into Cartagena from Miami, without having to go into Bogota.