I´ve been here nearly a week, and am still seduced. It´s not surprising, as Cartagena seems to respond to every hazy dream of a life less frantic. Tropical heat with a gentle breeze (that only picked up a few days ago), stunning Spanish colonial architecture (half Merida in Mexico, half Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic and probably a touch of Havana, though I’ve never been there), lush vegetation, the walk-shuffle of people accustomed to the heat and humidity who never speed up, fabulous hideouts from hotels to bars and restaurants, people who sit in the street late into the night singing along to a TV in a cafe, big black mammas with even bigger grins, the highs & the lows of Latin American countries…it´s all here.
But for 24 hours I was in Bogota, the capital – what a contrast. A vast sprawling city that was daunting to say the least, making Mexico City seem manageable in comparison. From there it´s a 90 minute flight along the Andes, down down (or up up) the map towards the coast. As you stroll from plane to terminal the tropical heat envelops you in its clamminess but then parrots and other winged creatures squawk and whoop and I, at least, feel instantly at home. Not for me the high altitude, mountain-rimmed Bogota which gave me a permanent headache. Now I´m ensconced in an air-conditioned cyber cafe within the 17th century walled town. I just made a call to a local mobile through a girl seated outside who juggles about 5 mobile phones, each one on a different system, all for hire for a minute or 30. What utter simplicity.
Yesterday I headed south out of Cartagena to trace the path of my mother and aunt who were dancing here as teenagers way way back in the late 1930s. Now that dates me instantly – give or take a decade. My aunt´s autobiography describes a night spent in a nearby village, mainly of black Caribbeans, where they watched an all-night festval until dawn. So I grabbed a cab and sped out there past Cartagena´s petrochemical plant which gives the city much needed income and past some pretty dire bidonvilles.
The village sits on a canal which in turn is fed by the Magdalena River. Village? There´s hardly anything to it. The main square had one church, one shop, one food-stall, one mobile-phone rental girl. One horse? Nowhere to be seen, just squadrons of motorbike taxis which whisked me back mentally to long journeys through Asia. I chatted to an old woman about my quest and she smiled and told me the dates of the big festivals are – I´m going to miss the big ones on December 6 and 7 – and how by law they now have to stop at 1 am. But it sounds like little has changed- everyone’s so tanked up on rum and beer that the dancers go into a kind of frenzied trance and lose all sense of the present. Here’s the only shop in Pasacaballos (literally Horses’ Crossing). The venta de minutos is another of those brilliant mobile-minutes-for sale places.
Then it was onwards, across the canal in a wooden canoe with a boy cheerfully swimming beside us and onto a motorbike to bump the 14 km or so to Playa Blanca, said to be the best beach in the area. But that´ll be the next epidose. That tropical heat is calling. Here’s the local swimming champ – and here’s the essential water-melon.