In Cartagena

Tuesday July 23

There’s lots of Americans around here, which is actually heartening.  I have this perpetual impression that my fellow Yankees don’t travel abroad enough, so I’m happy to be proven wrong in Cartagena.

Cartagena is full of tourists, but justifiably so. The old town is a marvel of gaily painted buildings, vertical wooden dowels on windows which are oh-so charming, and more wood balconies overhead, all enclosed in a ring wall of stone, brick, lime/coral. Lots of vendors selling straw hats (to stave off the sun) and drinks (to quench thirst), but they’re not terribly pushy.

Towards late afternoon, when it starts to cool off is when the streets really come alive with people re-emerging to throng the streets, after laying low during the midday heat.  Most will be drawn to the western walls, which have platforms wide enough to host parade grounds. There’s a place called Café del Mar on top of one of those, which has lots of wooden tables and comfy chairs, and it’s incredibly pleasant to take in the sunset, the bracingly refreshing breeze, while downing a 9,000 peso domestic beer, while tasteful loungey music wafts about you, which we did the first night.  Or, you can buy a can of beer for 3,000 pesos from a vendor on the other side of the Café del Mar, and park your butt on the stone wall for the same view. Either way, it’s all good. (Actually it’s amazing that you can easily buy cans or bottles of beer from sidewalk vendors in so many public places like parks, plazas, on the beaches, etc.)

Old-town Cartagena is sort of on a grid, but since the old town itself is on an odd-shaped island, it’s easy to get lost. In fact the whole point of this place is just to wander and discover, with lots of shops and places/snacks to eat.  This place is not about hitting the requisite museums or churches.  In that respect, it’s like visiting Venice, or New Orleans.

San Felipe Fort is a little outside of town; and it is pretty amazing. I’m glad we made a point of going there, per Carolina’s suggestion. There’s all these tunnels and other military engineering features that are rather interesting. There’s a movie shown inside the old hospital building that animates the fort’s defense of Cartagena against an 17th century English invasion [otherwise English might have become the language of the day instead of Spanish in South America!], and really makes the fort’s significance/history very clear. You can skip the human guide or the electronic audio guide, if you watch the movie!)  In fact, you should simply go see the movie first when you get into the fort and then work your way out backwards.

Eats: Wednesday (July 24) was a day of extremes, pricewise in Cartagena.  I had a couple of smoothies while hanging out poolside most of the afternoon.  One was made with corozo, which tastes like Santa Rosa plum. That was 10,000 pesos.  Then we went out to walk, and I had a beef empanada, a bunuela (like a spiced buttermilk donut ball, said Joe) and a fried croquette of beef and potato, which cost 1,000 pesos each from the street vendor.  Two blocks later, we came across another  vendor selling what looked like 油炸鬼 yau cha gui (Chinese long donuts), but these were filled with cheese.  Another  1,000 pesos. (Less you think all street snacks cost 1,000 pesos, a young coconut will set you back a whopping 3,000 pesos!) (Currently $US 1 = 1,800 pesos).

After the fried greasy food, I felt like we should have some fruit, but we came across an artisanal heladeria (ice cream place.) We each had a double cone, at 6,000 pesos each. I had the tomate de arbol, which tasted like the tomate de arbol I got from the supermarket. It wasn’t very cold though, and melted rather quickly.

There’s plenty of upscale dining places in Cartagena, as you might imagine. We wandered into one place, Le Cebicheria, enticed by the featured squid ink black rice, only to find that it had been featured on an Anthony Bourdain show! I had something called octopus and peanuts. (Somehow I was expecting it to taste like som-tam!), but it came out more like dish tasted like kung pao octopus over rice and a layer of tomato/avacado salad, which wasn’t bad, but too sweet. I should have asked for hot sauce. Joe’s dish was much better. Rice with mixed seafood cooked in coconut milk and cheese, rather like risotto. The clams and the mussels were a bit poor quality, one wasn’t open, and the others had broken shells. (Dinner was better at El Boliche: see Joe’s July 24 tweet/ instagram of the crab empanada.

I wonder if anyone would make crab Rangoon here, since local cream cheese (queso crema) is quite good.


Sleeping with dead nuns

Our last day (Wednesday July 24) in Cartagena, we had splurged for a night at the spiffiest hotel in town. The Hotel Santa Clara is built within a huge block in what was formerly a convent/hospital/university (and maybe even a jail). The fancier suites are in what was the old abbey part (think Author Wing suites at the Oriental Hotel in Bangkok), and the regular modern cookie-cutter rooms (which is where we were) are in a building that is freestanding but enclosed inside the old hospital/university walls. So when you walk along the street outside, it looks like an old building, but inside the corridor looks like a Holiday Inn. Very artful. It’s a French chain, so they greet you with “Bienvenue” instead of “Bienvenidos” when you walk in, which threw us off!

It was a bit early in the trip to splurge (room-service! hair dryers!); we had not really been roughing it so far), but since we’d thoroughly walked through Cartagena old town,  there wasn’t much left to explore.

We have also yet to acclimatize to the heat/humidity, we’re still quite gringo: every time we walk anywhere in shorts and T-shirts we immediately sweat buckets. Whereas the locals dressed in jeans and long sleeved shirts, look as cool as cucumbers.

Hotel Santa Clara is ‘ tropical upscale resortville/chainville, anywhere’ but it is not on a beach. Since we were paying for it, we hung out by the pool most of the day. The smoothies and snacks came promptly as ordered, including a corozo one, which tasted like Santa Rosa plum.  The wifi was reliable and speedy (that’s actually how I managed to blog so much for the last couple of entries.) The pool towels were fluffy, the deck chairs comfy. Could have done with more shade umbrellas though.  We appreciated it for what it was worth. . .

The pool was actually decently sized, but the water was too warm (I can’t do too many laps in what feels like bathwater.) There was also a gym, which Joe used. There were Americans around, including one woman who’s worked in business development for Google (boy, can’t escape Silicon Valley anywhere!)

The hotel bar has a crypt in it, leftover from the convent days. The bartender told us the crypt had only been unearthed 50 years ago, and served as the inspiration for one of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s stories. (I wonder what the crypt’s pious inhabitants would have thought of the alcoholic libations/imbibing now surrounding what they had expected to be their final resting place.) He also told us that there were some other crypts on the property, but they had been left in place, along with their long-standing occupants.

There was a toucan hopping around the Hotel Santa Clara lobby. It was quite tame. (These 2 days, we’ve been staying in a hostel in Santa Marta whos mascot is an adorable small kitten, almost all black, called Alquin.) This place is a large apartment on the top of a 4-storey building, with open windows (and no mosquito screens!) to take full advantage of the very strong breezes. Which I really appreciate, in this heat! It’s in a quiet residential neighbourhood, away from the centro (old town/center.) When you look below at these tidy homes, and lots of leafy mango trees, it’s like looking at residential neighbourhoods in Bangkok’s Sukhumvit area in the 80’s. It’s a good place to chill and hang out  . . . and spend too much time on the computer.


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