Friday, March 30, 2007

Cartagena, Colombia

We've arrived in Cartagena and checked into our hotel. Salma gave us a hard time on the flight, screaming and fussing, but she is not nearly as sick as she was yesterday - in fact she seems almost well - so that's a real blessing, thank God.

Cartagena, or at least the old quarter in which we are located, is a fascinating city. As you approach from the airport, the ocean is on your right, mile after mile of sandy beaches, with boys playing soccer and children swimming in the ocean. On your left is a long wall of stone with turrets and entrances every few hundred meters, and the entrances manned by traffic cops.

Cartagena is a walled city, with very little traffic inside. The wall was built over the course of two hundred years - ending in the late 1700s - to protect the city from pirates. In fact, our taxi was not allowed to enter the city and we had to walk the last few blocks, from the entrance at the city wall to the hotel.

Even though Cartagena is said to be far from the violence of inner Colombia and is quite safe, there is definitely a heightened awareness of security here. Uniformed policemen are seen throughout the city, not in an intimidating way, just hanging out, chatting with the people in the streets, and letting themselves be seen. When we located our hotel we rang the doorbell and someone opened a peephole in the door. We identified ourselves as guests, and the door was opened, then closed again behind us.

The hotel is called Casa La Fe (house of faith). You can see their website at

Here is a map showing the location of the hotel within Cartagena´s old town:

In spite of this heightened security, the city is packed with people and reminds me of Cairo. Close set blocks of colonial buildings with massive wooden doors everywhere - this city was founded in 1533 and you can feel it. This plus the throngs of people walking in the streets and the virtual absence of automobiles, make the city feel almost medieval. Everywhere you see fabric stores, restaurants, small pizza parlors, electronics shops, street vendors selling candies or fruits... crowds of schoolchildren in their uniforms, walking arm-in-arm in the streets. Horse drawn carriage taxis ferrying tourists about, clopping down the cobblestones. Little scooters zipping in and out between pedestrians, people in streetside cafeterias watching a football game on TV and cheering... the city is full of life, vibrant.

The weather is balmy, warm and humid with ocean breezes and the scent of cooking food.

Our hotel is quite nice, a four story colonial structure with stained glass windows, and an interior courtyard garden. The room has air conditioning, a fan, cable tv, a nice bathroom, and a mini fridge fully stocked with Coca Cola, juice, peanuts, beer and wine. Of course I have no use for the last two, but it's nice that they are so thoughtful.

This internet cafe that I´m writing from closes at 7:30 pm, so I'm not sure how I'm going to get my work done. I'll figure something out Insha'Allah. Gotta go now, Laura and Salma are waiting for me in the street outside. I'll write more when I can.

Back at the Hotel

Added note: I´ve discovered that the hotel has an internet terminal on the third floor, so that´s where I am now.

We wandered around earlier and found a pizza parlor. Like everything here, it was in an old colonial building, with big wooden rafters in the roof, and open to the street to let the breeze in. The food was decent and filling, but I was disappointed to discover that the pizza was $15, much more than I would expect in Colombia, a country that is supposed to be cheaper than Panama! We´ll have to look around for some place cheaper tomorrow.

Later I was somewhat mollified when we found an Italian ice cream shop that sold us two cones of rich ice cream for about one dollar.

Laura was carrying Salma in a front-mounted sling as we walked around, and I guess people here have never seen one - come to think of it, I´ve never seen anyone else with one in Panama either - because she got a lot of looks, with people smiling and pointing, and women turning to look. But it didn´t seem intrusive, just friendly and amused. Laura told me that while I was in the internet cafe, one little girl pulled her mother by the hand over to Salma, then the little girl kissed Salma on the cheek and stroked her face.

There is a lean, sleepy looking yellow cat that hangs around the courtyard of the hotel and loves to be petted. Of course we did pet him, and then he followed us to our room. When I opened the room door the cat zipped inside, jumped up on the bed, and promptly fell asleep. For the next few hours he made himself comfortable, playing with one of Salma´s toys, and walking around the rooom sniffing all our things. After Laura took a shower the cat slipped into the bathroom and apparently drank the water on the shower floor, as he came out licking his lips. Once we put Salma to bed and turned off the lights, the cat went to the room door and bumped it with his head to indicate that he was ready to leave, so I let him out.

Actually, I just found a picture of him on the hotel´s website. His name is Tom, and here he is:

The Lonely Planet guide book says that Cartagena is packed with historical sights and the best thing to do is just wander around and experience them, so I suppose that´s what we´ll do. We´re also planning to hit the beach at least once.

By the way, the Panamanian customs official did not even ask to see my exit permit when I left.

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