The day before I had arranged to meet a Colombian friend of mine’s brother for lunch but he texted me saying he couldn’t make it– I suspected a hangover as they had had a big house party the night before. Instead, he sent his best friend to meet me, Oscar. Oscar met me at the hotel at 12, the time we had agreed, surprisingly. I wasn’t ready at 12 – I still needed to pack my case and check out. I hadn’t counted on the man’s punctuality, being South American. Perhaps things happen on time in Medellin.
Oscar came across as a lovely chap, into football (Arsenal his favourite team; in Colombia, the green and white shirts of National, a Medellin team) and food (he runs a restaurant, with plans to expand). He spoke of his best friend Sebastian (my friend Alberto’s brother whom I was supposed to meet) fondly, speaking with an almost brotherly pride, and I wished I could have met him, as he sounded like a great guy.
We were driving to a traditional Paisa restaurant close to the airport – a wonderful drive along the curving, mountainous roads, windows down, fresh air, lovely vistas…..Medellin is indeed a lovely place – and with a people fiercely proud of their city. It’s interesting the rivalry that exists between top cities in a country. Colombia is no different. They look to Bogota as you would a bitter rival….they acknowledge its size and power, but believe that they are a better city, all in all. Oscar explained the rivalry well, and gave good reasons why Medellin was ‘better’. Later on in this trip, I would be in total agreement.
The restaurant was busy with local families tucking into blood sausage and bandeja paisa platters, which is what we ordered – a hearty dish, a perfect hangover cure of beef ribs, chorizo, eggs, brown coconut rice, queso and arepas. It went down a treat as we chatted. Oscar told me of how Medellin used to be, not that long ago, when he was growing up amid the turbulent ‘la violencia’ time when Medellin was one of the world’s most dangerous cities. ‘We’d hear gunshots all the time. Once, a bullet passed straight through our house when we were watching TV. This was normal. Friends and me used to be late for school sometimes, because of the shooting. We’d leave our houses when the shooting stopped. The higher up the hills you lived, the more violent it was. But hearing guns fired all day, people getting killed around you – that was normal at that time.’ Next time people from my home town of Brighouse boast of it as being ‘Dodge City’ I’ll make sure I mention the Medellin stories.
I paid for the meals, and Oscar drove me to the airport. I bid farewell – he was planning a trip to Thailand later in the year. I’d probably see him again one day. Time then, for Cartagena.
I was excited about coming to this part of Colombia more so than anywhere else. The Spanish colonial gem on the Caribbean, full of romance and intrigue, cobbled streets, fine architecture from an altogether more graceful time, horses and carriages driving through the narrow streets lined with colourful houses where locals sat on the balconies sipping coffee or playing chess, smoking cigars and taking life at the slow and languid pace of the Caribbean. At least, that’s how I imagined it.
It took only 10 minutes and $9,800 Colombian pesos to get to the walled Old City of Cartagena. The taxi driver was the chatty sort, and he took great pleasure in telling me all about his city (at least, the Spanish I understood seemed to hint at that). We drove by an unimpressive brown beach, full of locals wearing very little, black, brown, white and all shades in between. Then we came to a gap in a tall brick wall, part of a fort built around the town by the Spaniards in response to several pirate attacks (our very own Sir Francis Drake’s amongst them), drove through, and were suddenly transported back to the 16th century. To use the most over-used word in the Lonely Planet – the place was ‘charm’ personified. Just as I’d imagined, cobbled alleys, buildings with huge balconies covered in bougainvillea, churches and plazas everywhere, the pace of life in the streets that of which only living in the Caribbean could sustain and still be productive. Charming indeed. I was accosted as soon as I got out of the taxi by a beggar in tattered clothes, black as the ace of spades and smelling of decay, saying he was hungry and had a family to feed, which wasn’t particularly charming, but then one must expect rogues, whores, vagabonds and ne’er-do-wells in any city, no matter how charming and romantic. They are part of the picture too….life isn’t rosy for those not on the tourist bandwagon. Or any wagon for that matter.
I checked into Centro Hotel, a mid range place with an attractive courtyard around which, on the second floor, are spartan rooms with walls as thin as tracing paper. Still, it was in an excellent location, right next to Plaza de Bolivar. I’d rarely been in as much of a hurry to get out. It was getting dark, and I wanted to quickly get out and around and get my bearings. I headed out in shorts and flip-flops – for this city doesn’t follow the South American ‘hombre’ dresscode of checked shirt, jeans, and shoes. I wandered down to Plaza de Bolivar first, a pleasant place surrounded with elegant buildings and the imposing Palacio de la Inquisicion. An all-black band was playing in the plaza, tribal rhythms, drumming and dancing – it certainly gets the adrenaline rushing. I wandered around the narrow streets a little more, and headed instinctively towards to the ocean. Here, like many others, I hopped on the fort wall and walked around, talking in the marvelous sights and the luscious sunset. I made it as far as Cafe del Mar, on the western ramparts of the Old City – a perfect place for sunsets. I sat down at a small ocean view table and took in the last glimmer of the sun’s rays whilst waiting for my refreshing cerveca – an Arguila Light, a favourite in this part of Colombia especially. Of course, being the Caribbean, it took 20 minutes for my beer to arrive, but I didn’t care – I was happy to slip into the local’s relaxed pace of life – I needed to. This was the third Cafe Del Mar I’d been to. The first, in Ibiza, is key beachfront property, and the atmosphere around sunset, coupled with Jose Padilla spinning on the decks, creates the most perfect sunset atmosphere ever. The second one is in Singapore – a cool-looking place with a swimming pool, and decent music too, but the view is of cargo ships moored out to sea, and a far from impressive beach. Singapore’s problem of elitism is all too evident as well – a loungy sofa is yours only if you can afford to spend a fortune on a bottle of liquor. Because of this, the clientele attracted are much more of the show-off look-at-me type, and this means the atmosphere is not right at all – people look at you to judge you critically, rather than glancing over hoping for a chat or friendship. This third one, though it has no beach, makes up for it with layout, the crowd, and the genial atmosphere. A winner.
I was enjoying my own company when I heard a shout of ‘England’ from behind me. It was the same guy who had tried to talk to me earlier while I was walking through the old city getting my bearings. He had a shaved head, was stocky and with a neck like a bull. He had a gold tooth as well. I figured it best to humour him than ignore him, as Cartagena is a small place, and I didn’t wish to make enemies. He told me his name was ‘Jonny’ and then started telling me about all his foreign friends that he has all over he world speaking of them as though they were his closest friends, when in reality he probably knew them for days or at best a couple of weeks. I waited for the pitch, but what Jonny was pitching needed a more careful introduction. He pulled a fat wallet out from his jeans and told me he was going to show me his ‘testimonies.’ Every card started with the man’s nickname: ‘Jonny the fixer’ and the testimonies were high praise indeed. ‘Jonny can fix anything.’ ‘He’s the best fixer in town’ ‘Trust Jonny the fixer – he’ll take good care of you.’ He must be a good mechanic. I was dubious as it was, as every card was in the same handwriting, so when Jonny showed me one from the ‘Manchester United football team’ I had to suppress a laugh. Jonny the fixer was sure now I knew what kind of fixer he was, so he ventured further: “My stuff is the best stuff on the island. Pure, none of that cut shit. You understand me?” I told him I understood. “If you want fixing, I’m over there talking to a Dutch couple.” I’d never had a conversation that used ‘fix’ and it’s variants so much. I told him I’d see him if I needed anything. He went back to his place smiling, but I wasn’t here for a cocaine holiday, and he certainly wouldn’t be getting any business from me. Manchester United must have had fun here though!
I enjoyed my beer, and enjoyed the views out to the ‘New Town’ – Bocagrande, the lights of the skyscrapers twinkling brightly and harshly, in contrast to the dim yellow bulbs used in the Old City.
I wandered to Plaza Santa Domingo, and sat down for a beer and a pizza. This place is amazing. Full of life, musicians playing love songs to star-struck couples, barrio kids rapping to the beat of their friend’s oral boombox, men and women drifting around the tables selling everything from panama hats to paintings. It was chaos – and the best place in town for people watching without a doubt. My food came after 2 beers – an hour after I’d ordered, and by the time I’d finished I was slightly inebriated. I decided to carry on into the night, and wandered the narrow, cobbled streets, avoiding the peddlers and the horses and the taxis. I went to Plaza de los Coches, once used as a slave market, where a statue of the cities founder, Pedro de Heredia, stands. The black drummers and dancers had moved here now, and were putting on quite a show to the tourist hordes. I had a couple of drinks in bars around, then headed back for a rather early night, heading down the dimly-lit cobbled streets to the sound of idle chatter and the clip-clop of horses hooves, like I was walking in another era. I was tired, and wanted a full day to explore this enchanting place tomorrow.