Cartagena vision

I awoke at 4:30 Saturday morning, feeling that my left eye was glued shut. This was the same eye in which Steve had splashed a droplet of the volcanic goo on Friday — the obvious cause of my distress. I lay in the dark, wondering if the resulting infection would blind me permanently. After a long, long time, I fell asleep again. But when I woke up for good, around 6:30, the eye seemed mildly improved, and it continued to get better throughout this day that we devoted to seeing Cartagena’s sights.

The old section of Cartagena acquired a wall centuries ago to protect it from the wave after wave of Caribbean pirates who attacked the city over time. Today sections of that protective structure have been lost, but a lot remains, and you can walk along the top of most of it. Steve and I had resolved to do that first, partly because the day dawned sunny and hot and promised to get hotter later. The receptionist at our hotel had assured us it was safe, but almost immediately we had reason to doubt her, when we passed a gaunt young man who looked high on drugs and was holding the leash of an animal that appeared to be part retriever, part Rottweiler. At least 30 feet separated us from them, but the dog suddenly sprang to its feet, and made straight for Steve’s leg. “NO!” Steve bellowed at it, in his best dog-training voice. More effective at protecting him was the muzzle around the dog’s jaws; also the fact that its master stumbled over to collect it. 

After that exciting start, the rest of the day was unremarkable, albeit pleasant. Steve and I circuited the wall and bought Colombian headgear. We ambled up and down the picturesque narrow passages in the Old City, today filled with trendy shops and restaurants and bars and energetic street life.

Back in our more residential neighborhood (Getsemani) we had a superb lunch prepared by a culinary historian, then we went back to our hotel to escape the stunning heat and humidity (105 degrees and 80% humidity, according to my phone). We ventured out again with Mike and Stephanie for sunset cocktails at a bar on the wall and more excellent seafood in the centro. After that, we headed to one of the most famous salsa bars in Cartagena (La Habana), where depressingly, the bouncers let Steve and me in without paying the cover charge (about $9 per person.) Doubtless they guessed we were such geezers we wouldn’t stay for long, and more depressingly, they were right. When we learned that the live band wouldn’t start playing until 10:30, we headed home, though Mike and Stephanie remained and got in an hour or two of (extremely crowded) salsa.

Because Steve and I were asleep so early (10:30 pm in a town where many folks stay up till 3 or 4!), we were able to squeeze in an early morning walk this morning to the great fort of San Felipe de Barajas.

One of the watcgh towers within the fort.

It occupies the heights across from the Old City, and the guidebooks claim it was the largest and most effective fort ever built anywhere on earth by the Spaniards during their long colonial hegemony. We used the audio guides and were genuinely impressed. Pretty much all the gold looted by the Spaniards from South America must have passed through this city. The fort enabled Spanish soldiers to blast would-be looters from any direction. 

Once again, the day was astoundingly, breathtakingly hot — rivers of sweat poured down me, and it made me think (in retrospect) that Vietnam was cool in comparison. After two hours of walking around, I couldn’t take any more, and besides, it was time to pack up and get to the airport for our 12:45 pm flight to Pereira in Colombia’s coffee country. 

What the top of my skirt looked like after walking around from 8:45 to 10:45 am in Cartagena. That’s sweat, drenching the fabric.

Now we’re checked into our hacienda on the grounds of a big coffee plantation in Juan Valdez country. We’ll get the coffee culture tour tomorrow.

Going native

Since our arrival in Cartagena Thursday night, I haven’t actually seen any big groups of gringos who looked like they arrived on a cruise ship. But I know they do come here, and I imagine when they arrive, they’re loaded on a bus at the cruise-ship terminal, then driven to the city’s Old Town, where they’re led around to engage in shopping and some sightseeing. Certainly everyone must enjoy that. The ancient, walled city here is a World Heritage Site, and deservedly so. 

For the first of our two full days in Cartagena, however, we engaged in a couple of Latin American diversions. One was an outing to the mud volcano of El Totumo. Truth be told, I had heard about this activity from our (norteamericano) friend Howard Zatkin, who ranks among the world’s most intrepid travelers. Howard traveled around Colombia last year with an adventure-travel group that mainly caters to young Europeans. During their visit to Cartagena, Howard signed up for an excursion, seemed to greatly enjoy it, and recommended that we do it too. You can also find it listed on the TripAdvisor app, where you can buy tickets for an excursion priced at $93 a person. We instead, upon arrival, simply asked the receptionist at our boutique hotel, the Zana, if we could make a reservation with a group for the next day (Friday). She made a call and said we could get the guided excursion (including lunch) for 60,000 pesos a person (about $20 each).

An aging mini-bus picked us up promptly at 8:30 the next morning and spent a good hour driving around and collecting other customers: Mexicans, Bolivians, Peruvians, Brazilians, and Colombians. Except for two adventurous girls from Savannah, Georgia and a tubercular looking German, Steve, Mike, Stephanie and I were the only Anglos on board.  Finally, we all loaded onto a full-size bus and trundled north along the swampy coastline, past mangroves and rugged hills. After more than another hour, we finally arrived at the star attraction: a 50-foot mound that looks like a miniature volcano but contains liquid mud rather than lava. 

Part of what was fascinating about this experience was how impromptu its organization felt. No one told us what to bring (or not bring), so Steve and I packed our bathing suits (while M & S wore theirs under their clothes — the smarter choice). We borrowed a couple of towels from our hotel, but had no idea what we actually would do at the volcano site — where we disembarked to find a chaotic scene packed with what felt like was a thousand rambunctious Colombian school kids. Still, our calm and happy guide, Eliana, somehow managed to direct all 25 of the folks in our group. You gave her your towels to guard, gave your phone or camera to a guy with a fanny pack (Enrique), chucked your shoes in a pile at the base of a steep wooden staircase, and then climbed up it. 

At the top, the full scope of the weirdness of this experience became clear. The pool of mud was only maybe 15-feet square, so a limited number of folks could enter it at any given moment. Once inside, a crew of 5 or 6 men worked helping each tourist down the ladder into the pool, guiding them into a prone position, and vigorously massaging their legs and arms and neck and back. Eliana had told us all that the mud had medicinal and aesthetic properties that would enable us to return home healthier and more beautiful. 

I felt dubious, but the idea of turning back at this point seemed unthinkable. Mike descended first, foll0wed by Stephanie. 

I went third. It felt like stepping into melted chocolate, except that it was only lukewarm and smelled vaguely sulfurous, rather than chocolatey and delicious. Although the massaging had looked vaguely pervy at a distance, by the time I was floating, I had lost all sense of normalcy and just yielded to the man-handling (which never actually felt inoffensive.)

After a minute or two, my massager launched me off like some kayak. I struggled to right myself. The mud is even more weirdly buoyant than the Dead Sea (which Steve and I floated in last year). I learned that it worked best to hold my legs rigidly straight. Then I could just kind of bob there, upright. Any move toward a fetal position was disastrous, though, making you unstable — in a place where any splashing was downright anti-social.

Steve climbed out almost immediately, but Mike, Stephanie, and I hung out for a few minutes before asscending the decrepit and slippery exit ladder. 

That was scary, but only a fraction as terrifying as the main ladder leading down to the ground below. Its every tread was as slippery as if greased; even the railings had treacherous patches. Somehow, I muscled my way down (trying not to think about Michael and Stephanie in my wake but reflecting that if OSHA ever learned about this place, it would probably order the US military to invade and put an immediate stop to it.)

At the bottom, I followed more instructions and made my way down a pathway to some distant tubs and ladies. This turned out to be the only “shower” in the place. Grim indigenous women poured cupful after cupful of dirty looking water over every mud adventurer, roughly rubbing and tugging the bathing suits and body parts. Amazingly, it seemed to get us more or less clean — or clean enough to pack up and climb on the bus again.

The rest of the afternoon was far less interesting. We drove for about an hour, then stopped for a mediocre lunch at a low-rent private beach. That was bad enough, but then Eliana announced that everyone would have an hour to “disfrutar” (“enjoy”) the beach. Steve and I tried to go for a stroll on it, but a life-guardish fellow stopped us and told us it would be dangerous to continue on. He said we could walk for a bit in the other direction. But soon he was chasing after us again and ordering us to return to the group. 

Not exactly the La Jolla Beach and Tennis Club

We finally got back to the hotel and had real showers that yielded amazing amounts of additional mud. Later last night we soaked up some of the street life exploding because of the opening game of the America Cup soccer games, in which Colombia was playing the US. The sounds of vuvuzuelas and honking cars and chanting fans filled the air, and we walked for a while trying to find a good place to watch the game. We wound up in a quiet bar, stayed for an hour or so in which the American defeat came to look inevitable. Then Steve and I headed for bed, exhausted by all the native action. 

A short sojourn in Paradise

Besides Bogota and Cartagena, the village of Villa de Leyva invariably ends up on short lists of places to which first-time visitors to Colombia should head. Founded by the Spaniards not long after they took over the place in the 1500s, the town boomed for more than a century because wheat grew so well in its environs. But monoculture eventually destroyed the soil, and almost everyone left; what remained of life in the village was frozen in time. By 1950, only 3000 or so farmers inhabited the town. Then in a happy twist of fate, a Colombian president (who owned land locally) declared it a cultural heritage site. Since then increasing numbers of tourists, expats, and wealthy Colombians seeking vacation homes have flocked here to soak up the colonial color.

It seemed to me that we should follow in their footsteps. But how? It is possible to board an intercity bus in Bogota and take it to Villa de Leyva, but there are sights worth visiting along the way. Instead we splurged and hired a driver to transport us Tuesday morning. The good news was that our driver, Paulina, was careful and never once scared me. On the downside, our Chevrolet was muy compacto. Although our carry-ones fit in the trunk, cramming three of us in the back seat took family togetherness to a whole new level. Because it was my birthday, my fellow travelers kindly ceded me the one commodious (front) seat for most of the ride.

I had figured that if we left Bogota at 9 a.m we might reach Villa de Leyva by 3 p.m and still have time to do a 2.5-hour hike. This proved to be a pipe dream. We got to the principal sight en route — the “Salt Cathedral” of Zipaquira — around 10:20 but had to wait for the start of the English-language tour, which wound up taking a full hour and a half. The cathedral’s pretty interesting. About 25 years ago, local miners carved huge stations of the cross and a full church into the gloomy tunnels and caverns of the salt mine. People claim it’s now the third largest such work in the world (albeit dwarfed by two colossal ones in Poland.)  Steve and I were particularly charmed to learn that the church and the admission fees collected belong to the town (rather than the federal government which owns all mineral rights to the salt). Since it opened, it has grown into a huge tourist attraction, that now generates some $5 million a year. Profits are reportedly being used for schools, hospitals, and other local bounty. The miners never expected their artistic impulse and religious devotion to have any material consequences, but sometimes miracles do happen.

What with visiting the salt works and making another stop for lunch and being blocked repeatedly by road construction, it was past 5 p.m by the time we reached our hostel in Villa de Leyva. And then we spent a bunch more time deciding what to do the next day and booking a tour and figuring out where to eat dinner (many places were closed) and waiting for a taxi to arrive and take us to one that was still open. It was raining and chilly and once at the restaurant, we learned it was basically a sandwich shop, and the only tables available were outside (though, happily, protected by umbrellas big enough to block the drizzle).

Such are the times that can try travelers’ souls. But once again, good luck was with us. It soon became clear that the reason this restaurant is so highly rated online is because the cook and owner are artists. Their canapés and smoked meats and soups were the stuff of culinary headlines. They adorned my tomato soup with birthday wishes and presented me with a piece of delicious cake. By the time we’d consumed it (and finished up a third bottle of the good Chilean Cabernet), we had invited Eduardo and Pilar to visit us any time in San Diego. And I was counting the day among my most memorable birthdays.

Our one full day in Villa de Leyva (yesterday) dawned warm and sunny, and the 5-hour private tour we’d booked while tired and tense turned out to be excellent. Our guide took us to an impressive fossil museum…

…a field filled with a 4000-year-old astronomical calendar, that adjoined another field holding thousand-year-old giant stone phalluses…

…a lovely old monastery…

…and then a vineyard.

Our guide, Angela, also did a terrific job of filling us in on current life in the town, which she insisted has the best weather in the world. “Es un paraiso,” she declared. (It’s a paradise.)

After the tour, we had time to stroll around the time-frozen center of town, and later, to consume another very good meal. It seemed easy to understand what pulls people here. 

And yet we’re moving on. I’m writing this post on our ride to the Bogota Airport, where we’ll catch our flight to steamy Cartagena. I’m hoping to upload it there, or failing that, at our next hotel.