Having spent a week in Panama City arranging to ship Charlotte to Colombia, Ned and I finally flew to Cartagena on Saturday June 14, 2014. The easy hour long flight found us excited to be on our first new continent of the trip, but we were still worried about Charlotte. Is she getting beat up in the container? Was she tied down correctly? Robbed? Lost amongst the hundreds of thousand containers that go through these ports daily? Or worse yet, fallen into the ocean!? Regrettably, we had watched those YouTube videos of cargo containers stacked hundreds high, suddenly collapsing and hurling themselves to a watery death….uhhhh! The thought of her loss was devastating. Unfortunately, we wouldn’t be able to get to the port to begin the frustrating process of retrieving her until Monday, and this was still only Saturday! What would we do? I had a vision of Cartagena being a seedy port town and was not looking forward to being there. Happily, I could not have been more wrong!
Flying into Cartagena…South America, a new continent!
We had found an inexpensive, but cute hotel on the internet near the “Walled City” in the old part of town. The taxi ride from the airport was short, and when we pulled into the ancient, tiny streets of the neighborhood we were delighted! Hotel Pedregal turned out to be wonderful. The owner, Patricia, was warm and welcoming, assuring us that this was our home while we were in Cartagena. Our room was charming, featuring a colonial style vaulted ceiling and windows (sans glass) with wooden shutters, which looked out on the street below where cheerful locals hung out, enjoying their Saturday.
Patricia’s adorable co-host, Luna (Moon) was good company during our visit.
Walking the streets that afternoon was delightful. We hadn’t had such a good experience since Mexico. The neighborhood around our hotel was charming and very local. No tourists around here.
We eventually wandered into the beautiful Walled City, which yes, does have an ancient wall around it.
We bought a cheesy arepa (corn muffin thing) from a street vendor. It was hot and gooey and wonderful in a guilty-junk-food kind of way.
Interestingly, the FIFA World Cup (soccer) games, being held in Brazil, had just begun. Cartagena was alive with fútbol fever, proudly flaunting (and selling) the yellow, red and blue colors of Colombia.
Our arrival in town coincided with a win for Colombia! Cartagena was alive with ecstatic Colombians celebrating in their soccer jerseys, reveling and dancing, making a lot of noise….and just plain being happy. After Central America, the energy was refreshing, and, not normally soccer fans, we too were unexpectedly swept up in the passion South Americans have for the game.
Inside the Walled City we found lots of pricy, touristy restaurants. We were hungry, so we decided on this less fancy sidewalk café in the church plaza. The food tasted ok and was fun to look at, but the celebratory atmosphere in the plaza was the best part.
In the plaza, musicians were singing and playing cool instruments, and there were a lot of hawkers. One guy, Luis, really wanted us to buy his jewelry, but ended up sharing Ned’s ice cream instead.
But this was the main attraction in the plaza! Vendors were lined up selling little replicas of the lovely lady.
A resourceful mother and son team. Mom was cutting little soccer ornaments out of wood, while the youngster painted them in bright colors.
Part of “The Wall”
Back in our own neighborhood people were doing more ordinary things…like reading the paper…
…and making homemade ink. No, really! We stopped to ask this guy what he was doing. He explained that he was extracting a henna-like ink from these fruits to be used for temporary tattooing. He wrings the ink out of the fruit using a cloth and discards the leftover brown fiber. What covered his hands and forearms didn’t look very temporary to us!
As much as we were enjoying Cartagena, the weather was miserably hot with temperatures around 100 and 90% humidity. We went back to the hotel to rest in our relatively cool room. (the A/C could barely keep up). Outside our shuttered windows, we could hear the vibrant sounds of a lively community…music played, a dog barked, church bells chimed, and the clippity clop of horse hooves faded off down the street. A totally cool place to hang out. All good. Oh wait! Ned just captured a cockroach the size of a small cat (ok, mouse) in a cup and threw it out our window. Hope no one was hanging out directly below!
Night time in our little local barrio was even more fun. Everyone comes out to enjoy the balmy evenings after roasting all day.
The local church square was alive and vibrant. It’s a poorer area but did not have a scary, druggy feel. Just good folks. Street vendors selling spicy smelling food, kids playing soccer (oops, fútbol) and riding bikes, teenage boys showing off their horses, old women sitting, taking it all in. We sat and enjoyed the vibe for over an hour.
We loved watching this artist create our delicious pizza out of fresh, local ingredients.
A few nights later, our Swiss friends, Simone, Michael and Michele caught up with us after their not-so-wonderful boat ride from Panama City. It was great to see them again, and they were happy to be in Cartagena. We had another great meal in our local church plaza. (Note, everyone but Michele and me in Colombia fútbol jerseys!)
An Argentinean and a Swiss guy accompanied our meal with wonderful Argentinean music.
This was our favorite breakfast place in Cartagena. We ate there 5 times! Dadiana and her daughter Laura are the owners of Locombia, where, for little money, you get lots of good food and cheerful service.
Monday June 16. It’s port day! Get our game faces on…time to face the mother of all border crossing/bureaucratic nightmares. We got to our favorite brekky place at 7 am, then took our first taxi to Seaboard Marine (the shipping company) on the far side of the port. We stood in line to exchange our passports for a badge to enter the secure area. We were then directed to the offices of Seaboard Marine, the shipping company that brought Charlotte over, only to find out that the ship did not sail! Charlotte was still stuffed in a container in Panama! The boat was now not due to arrive in Cartagena until sometime Wednesday. Evidently the delay was due to heavy rain…blah blah blah. The very nice, helpful lady at Seaboard told us that Panama was notorious for unreliable shipping departures. Fortunately, we could still get the Aduana paper work done over at the DIAN offices (customs). We took our second taxi ride back to other side of the port. More badges to enter. It was a huge office building with masses of employees stuffed in cubicles. We were directed (by another very kind security officer) to the cubicle of a young man who asked us to fill out the all important import papers. Then, what do you think he asked for? Yes, copies! What a surprise. And of course we had to exit the compound, give back our badges, go to the copy place down the street, get the badges back, then back to cubicle. You mean nowhere in this gargantuan office complex is there a copier??!!! Next, we were able to set up an appointment with a customs inspector for Thursday at 8:00am to approve Charlotte into Colombia. In the mean time, what were to do until Thursday? These itchy feet of ours make it hard to stay in one place for very long.
So we decided to fly to Bogotá, the capitol of Colombia! Ned and I have a car enthusiast friend based in Bogotá who knows many people involved with Colombian auto racing, past and present. He had offered to get us together with two Colombian race car drivers who drove one of Ned’s Porsche race cars professionally back in the 70’s. We were interested in obtaining more history on the car, and this was an amazing opportunity. Unfortunately, our friend was leaving the country on Saturday and would not be in Bogotá when we planned to drive through in a few weeks. We couldn’t miss this generous offer, so flying in to see him while we waited for Charlotte seemed like a great idea.
On Tuesday June 17, dressed in our wrinkled tropical wear and flip flops, we caught our 9:30am flight to chilly Bogotá. All our clothes and shoes were in Charlotte. We had only brought along small day packs to Colombia. Bogotá’s climate is a consistent 50-60 degrees year round, and it was embarrassing to be meeting with our friends in our inappropriate, living-on-the-road-in-the-tropics-wear. But heck, we were driving around the world! Getting off the plane, a Bogotáean woman actually laughed at my sun dress and flip flops saying. “Hace frio!” Meaning, “It’s cold!” ‘Ya, I know it’s cold, but we’re only here a few hours. Surely we could endure the cold and ridicule!
Kat and I spent an amazing day in Bogotá with our wonderful host. He had a driver pick us up at the airport (in an armored Land Cruiser!) and take us through the city’s dreadfully snarled traffic to his private “man cave/restoration shop.” There we were served a wonderful lunch while we had a couple of private hours with two of Colombia’s most famous (rival) race car drivers. They shared information and memories from their days together as teammates in the ’70’s, racing America’s most famous long distance IMSA endurance races (Daytona, Sebring, etc.) in what is now my vintage race car. I came away with some new found history on the car, but better yet, two wonderful new found friends. Later in the afternoon we were driven to our host’s home for wine and a viewing of his car collection, complete with beauties like these C Type and E Type Jags, an Allard, a Cobra and a dozen more great cars of similar caliper. The icing on the cake was sharing this time with a former mechanic (now a close neighbor) who worked on my car extensively during its heyday! All too soon it was time for us to be driven back the 1½ grueling hours in bumper to bumper traffic to the airport. We arrived back in muggy, hot Cartagena at 9:30pm, knowing we had experienced a very special day.
Thursday June 19. Port day, take two! Our first glimpse that Charlotte was alive and well!
Ned and I arrived early for our 8:00am appointment with the inspector. We checked into the compound, got our badges and floundered around for a while before discovering where we were to meet him.
We never did find our assigned inspector, but a different one took pity on us and, after a 30 minute wait, took the 2 minutes to check the VIN number and scribble something on our customs form. We had been hoping that we could finish up here on this side of the port, but our new inspector friend, Federico, informed us that we would have to go back to the DIAN offices to get his boss’ signature. Ughhh, another two taxi rides! Federico then surprised us by kindly offering to drive us over in his company truck.
This is where poor Charlotte spent the last week. Makes our little hotel seem like the Waldorf Astoria!
A final taxi ride back to the other side of the port and another 45 minutes of fumbling rewarded us with the final step…getting the key back.
Happy Ned drives Charlotte out of the compound…while I go turn in our badges.
Freedom at last!
Looking back, the overall process of springing Charlotte wasn’t that bad here on the Colombian side. All of the people involved were very nice and everything flowed smoothly.
We rushed back to our little village…Colombia was just starting another World Cup fútbol game, and we joined the locals in this bar to cheer on “our” team. Ned had even bought a yellow jersey so we didn’t stick out too much.
Another victory for Colombia resulted in a massive street party.
Driving Charlotte from her (illegal) parking spot on the street took us through the heart of the reveling.
The next day, Friday, we said goodbye to our comfy neighborhood, our hostess, Patricia and our Swiss friends and made our way through the teeming urban hell of the rest of Cartagena. We were so happy to be back in Charlotte and we loved being on this new continent.
How many lanes of traffic can fit on a two-lane highway?
It took over an hour to get out of the huge city, but we finally headed southeast on the 90, then east on the 80. The area was all swampland; hot and humid. Even driving down the road with the windows open I was dripping sweat. Our goal was to get to a higher elevation with hopefully cooler temperatures at the Parque Sierra Nevada northeast of Cartagena. We did not want to go the coastal route, thinking that it would be worse. Now I couldn’t imagine it being worse. It was miserably hot. And loud. The small towns along the 90 boasted numerous roadside places to eat….all blasting music…no, I mean REALLY blasting. I’m not going to call them restaurants or cafés; they all had the colorful kindergarten chair thing going and most looked like food poisoning waiting to happen. They also had pool tables in at least 4 or 5 different places. It was really weird. The roads were jammed with trucks, and the truck drivers were kamikazes, playing chicken with oncoming traffic to pass other trucks. It was insane. And hot. Then the road construction started. There was one-way controlled traffic all along the 90, but the roads were still rutted and potholed. To make matters worse, they collected $3-4 tolls every 10 miles!
By dark we were hungry and nowhere near higher elevation, nor could we find anywhere we wanted to eat or camp. One place looked like it had pretty good pollo asado (which we determined to be the safest thing to eat) so we stopped.
The people were decidedly unfriendly, and the music from across the street was so loud we literally could not hear each other speak. The taciturn young man brought our plates which looked good, but we didn’t dare eat the lettuce, tomato or cheese. We ate the chicken (which actually was delicious) and the boiled potatoes. And we fought the flies for our dinner. We ate quickly while an exuberant teenager asked us about our car. I asked him about the music, and he grinned, telling us that it played 24/7. I then asked him how they sleep, and he said they just go inside their houses. ‘Ya, that would work! The music was brain splitting, and we scarfed our food before the flies could. After eating, I jumped up to use the baño and wash the chicken grease off my hands….no sink. The still non speaking owner pointed to two big bowls…one with murky water, the other with soapy murky water. Uhhhh, no thanks! Oh god, is that where they wash the dishes? We were so going to get sick tonight! I opted for baby wipes. Ironically, the town was called El Difícil (The Difficult).
It was now 7:30 and dark, and we were still in the boggy lowlands. Where were those damn mountains?? So far, we have really liked Colombia, but this area was not great. Around 9:00pm we pulled off the highway and went up a dirt road about 5 miles. It was still agonizingly hot, but looked quiet enough. We figured no one would bother us till morning…we would get up early and move on. Wrong on both counts. And what happened to our rule about hiding off the road? And the one about not trying to find camping in the dark?
The night was miserable. Dogs barked, cows mood, and donkeys brayed, letting us know we were close to a pueblo or rancho. Too close. Sweating, I lay on my towel dripping, even with the fan on. Ned seemed ok and fell asleep, which is good because he is the driver. It was taking massive concentration to not get squashed like a bug by the trucks on these roads. Oh, speaking of bugs…yes, there were lots inside our little hothouse. We spent the first hour hunting them down with the bug zapper. Sweet revenge! Around 1:00am Ned woke up to say we had to turn the fan off or it would draw down the battery. Really? I was dripping sweat WITH the fan! The air was perfectly still. No breeze. Just lightning flashing in the distance and no rain to cool things down. Wait, did I just say I wanted rain? Yup, it’s all about perspective again!
I read all night.
Around dawn, 4:30am, I was finally dozing off when a little motorcycle drove up…adrenaline rush, but it kept going. Trying to go back to sleep, I heard another motorcycle! Arggg. Then around 5:00 some guys came up on bicycles and on foot, uttering something loud and guttural. Shit! I grabbed my pepper spray and tried to stay hidden. Now Ned was awake. They kept saying something but we couldn’t understand them. It sounded like a native language (we had heard there were a lot of indigenous people up north). The men ended up just hanging around Charlotte for about 15 minutes, smoking cigarettes, while the smoke drifted in through our screens in the still dawn air. That was it. We were out of there. Just hope the battery lived through 4 hours of running the fan! Yes! Back down the dirt road toward the highway, with me still in my jammies.
Uh, oh…oncoming headlights stopped right in front of us, blocking our way. It was a big Chevy pickup…full of police. Jeez, what happened to our quiet little, out of the way camping spot? Five officers scrambled out, pointing their AK47’s at us…
Stay tuned next time to find out how we got out of this one!