It’s my last day in Cartagena, a city I’ve come to love. The people are friendly, the food is good, and just walking around the streets is entertaining. The only problem is the damn tourists. Wait, perhaps I’m one of them. Well then, it’s most of the other damn tourists. With the exception of a some whose company I’ve enjoyed.
I walk the twenty-or-so minutes to the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas fortress, also known to locals as the castle. (I’ve discovered that Cartagena is a very walkable city.) While waiting in the ticket line I meet Charlotte, a twenty-something American who has just left her job in New York to return to school to get her Master’s Degree. She’s traveling alone through parts of South America and often gets the same reaction to this as I – “You’re so brave.” Neither of us considers it so unusual but, if it inspires more people to do it – or even to do something else which they find scary, hell, I’m happy.
Charlotte and I walk throughout the fortress, listening to the audio tours we’ve purchased and trying to figure out if we’re in the corresponding place. After an hour-or-so, we both lose interest as it’s difficult to figure out where we are in relation to the audio tour and everything sort of looks the same. We decide to leave and grab some lunch.
This evening I take one last walk around this wonderful city. I keep discovering new areas and tonight is no different. I find in a beautiful park with fountains and a pond and a sloth. A sloth? Yup, while guiding tours this year in Yellowstone National Park I always told my clients that, when you see people gathering, it probably means there’s wildlife around. Colombia is no different. I see people gathered around a tree and make my way over. Looking up, I see it moving slowly (well, perhaps not for a sloth) up a tree. Someone points out that a baby (a baby sloth, that is) has its limbs wrapped around momma (or daddy – we get into a big discussion about sloth parenting responsibilities) and we all begin to film. It’s not exactly action-packed as the sloth moves at, well, a sloth’s pace. Still, it’s entrancing.
While watching the sloth, I meet an American couple and, after some discussion, we head to the square in Getsemani as they tell me it was rocking with jugglers, mimes, and more last night. I plan to have an early night but stay long enough to share some dinner from a street vendor they’d heard was good. While food trucks have become a craze in the U.S., here in Colombia no truck is needed. Simply set your barbecue grill out on the sidewalk, maybe some plastic chairs, create a menu and you’ve got a pop-up restaurant. We enjoy some nice Carne Asada (yup, steaks on the street) and conversation while sitting on plastic chairs lining the sidewalk (who needs a table?).
After finishing our meal, we say our goodbyes to go and explore on our own. I head into the church across the way. It’s Sunday night before some holiday and a service is happening. While nobody seems to be able to explain what the holiday is, the doors are open and the priest singing has a beautiful voice so I take a seat and enjoy it. The service ends and the couple-hundred people inside joyfully head out while I joyfully head to the bar next door where I meet an American woman who just arrived on vacation. Marni needed to get away to someplace warm and, remembering the film Romancing the Stone, she thought Colombia might work for her, though it’s doubtful that, staying at the Sofitel, a four-to-five-star hotel, she’ll have a similar experience as Kathleen Turner.
While enjoying our drinks, we hear the sounds of Michael Jackson coming from outside and spot a lot of group movement. I step outside to see what’s happening and it seems an impromptu evening aerobics class has broken out. dozens of people are doing the same moves to Mama Se Mama Sa Mamacoosa. Ah, Cartagena, there’s always something fun happening. I leave the party/workout and, it’s back to my hotel to pack my bags and catch a bus in the morning.
I awake having not slept well. I had to change hotels two nights ago as my previous one didn’t have room for me to extend my stay as a French family had rented out the place. This happens a lot in Cartagena. Many of the hotels have somewhere around five-rooms; perfect for a family, bachelor/bachelorette party/vacation or group of friends. You can rent the whole place (many are listed on Airbnb or VRBO) and include a cook, assistant, housekeeper, or whatever you require. It’s a nice and economical idea for a group.
I catch some breakfast and a taxi to the bus station to board the bus to Santa Marta. The bus could have picked me up at the hotel but then we’d spend the next hour driving around the city collecting people at various hotels before we got underway. Santa Marta is a beach town about four hours from Cartagena. I heard about it while here and thought of going but, after some investigation, it seemed like a Colombian Cancun (party city), which I try to avoid at all costs. Still, while investigating I came across the town of Minca. About forty minutes from Santa Marta, it’s in the jungle of the Sierra Nevada Mountains and, after the heat of Cartagena, the elevation of 2,100 feet (615 meters) it seemed the cooler mountain air might be a welcome relief.
As instructed, I arrive at the bus station fifteen-minutes prior to my reserved 10:00am bus. The owner of my hotel supposedly reserved it for me. She also got me the taxi and told the taxi driver where to take me. When I walk into the office, they have no reservation for me. I give the name of my hotel which booked it and still nothing. The woman I’m speaking to says, “un momento” and disappears in the back. I don’t see her again. I begin chatting with two American women who have no reservation but are hoping to get seats on the bus. As we all wait, two other employees, one after the other, ask who made my reservation. They shake their heads, the looks on their faces give me no hope. Just then, someone enters and shouts, “Dos personas, Santa Marta!” The two women shout and are given tickets.
“Wait!” I protest. “They don’t even have reservations!” Nobody seems to care.
Eventually, I’m awarded a seat on the bus (really an oversized van) so, to make myself feel superior to the women who claimed those seats and now sit in the back, I take that seat up front on the passenger side next to the driver who introduces himself at Martin. It isn’t long before I find out that this isn’t so much of a transfer as it is a race. Many buses are on the road doing this route (I’m on one of the many MarSol buses) and they all seem to be racing; weaving in and out of traffic, coming within inches of cars they follow and oncoming ones as well. We pass an 80-kilometer per-hour speed limit sign going 110. Just like on the motorbike, I’m wishing I had a helmet.
After two hours, we stop for a bathroom and snack break. I buy Martin a coke and, once on the road again, he and I share Oreos and Pringles (the diet of a Colombian road trip). Another hour-and-forty-minutes and we arrive in Santa Marta. Martin has flirted with me most of the way asking if I have a husband.
“No.” I respond.
He gasps in surprise exclaiming, “Por qué?” (why?)
This seems a common question and reaction here in Colombia. I ask if he’s married and has kids; no to both. This isn’t the first time this same thing has happened this week. Both times this conversation has been with men. And then they say, “You’re very pretty, so why are you not married?” Guys, if this is a pick-up line, you really need to do better.
After dropping everyone off at their respective stops, Martin drops me at the Mercado where I drag my bags into the collectivo office. You’ll find collectivos in many Latin American countries. They’re kind of like Uber Pool only less expensive and often more dependable. There are already two young women waiting to go to Minca and now we just need a few more people to join us before they’ll send the van. After a twenty-five-minute wait, we’ve got enough people and they grab our luggage and throw it on top of the van while inviting us inside. I not-so-much sit down as fall down as this van’s doors are much lower than ones in the states and I gracefully slam my head on the doorway while entering. Finding little padding from my hat, I’m fairly sure I’ve not only concussed myself but compressed some neck vertebrae.
We spend the next half-hour driving around town picking up and dropping off more people before finally heading to Santa Marta. The driver pulls to the side, unloads our bags from the top of the van and points out where my hotel is. It begins to rain as I’m walking up the hill around the corner, dragging my bags behind. Ah, Kathleen Turner would be proud. Just as the drizzle turns into a downpour, a man appears and helps me drag my bags the last fifty feet into the Hotel Minca La Casona. One look out the back of the lobby and I know I’ve made a good choice.
Tomorrow – It’s a Jungle Out There.