An early start, as I’d promised myself. Breakfast on the terrace in the hotel. Lovely. Out into a gorgeous Caribbean day and into the enthralling and immaculately preserved colonial town, where I took my time to wander around at a languid pace. It’s a bustling place in the day, not quite holding the charm of the late afternoon/early evening, but not faring badly either. I wandered to Getsmani, out of the walled Old City, which is a different kettle of fish – old too, but in a poor, dilapidated way, dusty streets, bustling markets, cheap and cheerful eateries and bars, rough around the edges. This is backpacker heaven. I found a hostel and agreed a price to get my laundry done. I hadn’t done laundry since leaving Venezuela almost 2 weeks ago. Having dropped off my bag of clothes, I felt light enough to go for a long walk in the burning midday of the Caribbean. I headed for the most splendid Spanish Fort ever built in a Spanish colony – Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
The fort, impregnable, was never taken, and has a complex series of narrow low tunnels built underneath it. The views from the top of the fort were over the whole city, Getsmani, the Old City and Bocagrande and the sea, and I stood for a while underneath the huge Colombian flag. What a difference a day makes. Yesterday I was on top of a huge rock looking at a lake and green mountains in a mild climate. Today I was under the searing Caribbean sun, looking onto dusty street scenes and the glimmer of the Caribbean sea. I was still in the same country. Incredible.
I walked back towards Getsmani, stopping at a little restaurant for a bite to eat and an ice-cold aguila light michelada style, which means the beer is served in a glass rimmed with rock salt and a shot of lime juice at the bottom. There is nothing as refreshing in the world as a beer served like this on a hot, dusty day.
I picked up my laundry from the little hostel – at last clean clothes! I wandered around the Old City , around Plaza de los Coches, Plaza de la Aduna, Plaza de Bolivar, just soaking in the atmosphere and getting my bearings. It’s not a particularly big place, and I was pretty familiar with most of the streets come my 10th circuit. I was also on the look out for a new hotel to stay in the next night. Veronica, my girlfriend, was flying over from Caracas to join me, and I really didn’t want her to come all the way to Cartagena and have to stay at the Centro hotel, nice though it was. I wanted something with more of a ‘wow’ factor. And so it was that I stumbled upon the incredible Hotel Cartagena de Indias, one of the ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, a delightful blend of Colonial architecture and contemporary styles. I was shown around by a charming Colombian lady. The rooms were nice, the rain shower was lovely, but it was the rooftop that sold it for me.
The rooftop terrace has a jacuzzi, an infinity pool, and a sky bar, all overlooking the Old City, some of the churches…..it was a truly spectacular setting. I was now reading ‘Love in a Time of Cholera’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and was in love with the book and it’s description of love. Never before had a book warmed me so much, and this book is set right here in Cartagena. It hasn’t changed much since the time the book was set in. I could see myself sitting on this roof terrace glancing at the views all around while getting stuck into the book. Yes, this was the place. It was expensive, but then I wouldn’t be in Cartagena again for a long time, if ever, and I wanted to do it right. I booked 3 nights, then went back to my hotel and the quaint coffee shop at the bottom for a cappuccino and to read more of ‘Love in a Time of Cholera.’
The evening came and it was time to head out and sample the nightlife. Cafe Del Mar was my first port of call. Then I headed elsewhere. Pretty low-key. The plazas were crawling with prostitutes, the kind that American Secret Service men prefer, and if you go down the wrong street the allure of romance turns into the lust of sleaze. I found a few lively bars, but they were full of drunk gringos. I met a few American girls staying in a hostel in Getsmani, who had come out with a backpacker they’d met from somewhere near my home town – Hull I think. He was off his head on cocaine, and making an absolute arse of himself. The American girls were trying to get rid of him. This wasn’t why I’d come to Cartagena, to fend off idiots like him on their cocaine holiday. I bet Jonny the Fixer had sorted him out. I left the packed, sweaty place after a drink and went back down the streets, fading into the quiet of the night.