Ellen and I both have so much more to say about our amazing sailing trip from Panama to Colombia, but first, it seems unfair to Cartagena to have been here 24 hours and have said nothing about its charms. Cartagena is a beautiful, welcoming, delightful city. We arrived yesterday morning after a long six days on the boat without a shower or cold drink, so we were smelly, dirty, hot, and tired. Our captain, Antonio, recommended Mama Waldy hostel in the old city, so without hesitation we got into a taxi and paid about $3 for the five-minute ride from the port.
We were welcomed into this family hostel in the friendliest way. It’s a cool stone building on the corner of a quiet street near a bustling square. The hostel has large open windows and doors, with cheerful salsa music playing from speakers on the back of very well-worn couches. The proprietress (who I assume is named Mama Waldy) gave us water, followed by iced tea, shortly after we arrived. After drinking nothing but boiled rainwater, served lukewarm, on the boat for three of the last six days, ice cold drinks were a welcome refreshment! We were the only guests, although lots of locals drop by to hang out and chat.
We ventured out briefly the first day, to get some money and a phone card, and were impressed by the gorgeous seventeenth-century architecture all over the old city. Tiny alleys with brightly-painted buildings spread out from the plaza like tendrils of weeds, each inviting you to explore their winding walkways. Balconies hang over the sidewalks, offering patches of relief from the hot sun, and tropical vines climb buildings and walls, dropping flower petals onto the cobblestones and bricks below.
In the evening, after we’d had a brief siesta, we had planned to wander the city taking pictures, but our intentions were pleasantly hijacked instead. When we got up, our hostess handed us each an ice cold beer, and invited us to sit on the front steps and chat. Our Spanish stood up to the test, and we discussed interesting sights in the area with a friendly local who works at another hostel but prefers to hang out at Mama Waldy’s when he’s not working. He invited us to head down to the Plaza de Trinidad for a beer, where we found the church had put on a hopping fiesta complete with dance competitions (kids, enter your parents!) and bingo. He had to leave to go to work, but a few cheerful groups of Cartagenans made us feel welcome. One woman took Ellen under her wing and gave us a couple of bingo cards – excellent practice at keeping up with rapid-fire numbers and letters in Spanish!
I had a flock of teenaged girls and boys next to me, asking me about my travels in an awkward mix of shy mumbled English and heavily accented Spanish. Even though we were exhausted and left the fiesta by nine o’clock, it was an excellent first day in Cartagena. On our way back to the hostel, we couldn’t resist tasting some street food – meat on a stick!
This morning we made up for yesterday’s lack of wandering by walking back to the port first thing in the morning to drop off our passports at immigration. We gave ourselves an hour to walk about a kilometer, so even with stopping every ten meters to take pictures, we had plenty of time to sit in the shade and write or sketch, watch cranes hopping along the waterfront, admire boats in the harbour, and chat with the captains at the Nautical Club where we were to meet Antonio.
After dealing with our passports, we wandered around the old town until lunchtime, hoping to find sundresses, which everyone seems to wear but nobody appears to sell, and a post office for Ellen to mail some letters.
When we were ready for an early lunch, we decided to stop at a small restaurant and get a meal. The restaurant didn’t have menus and we didn’t know what we ought to eat anyway, so Ellen asked for “something tasty because we’re hungry” and we eagerly awaited our meal. We were served a pleasant soup with fish, parsley, and yucca, the root we’d planted so much of on the farm in Costa Rica. The soup was delicious and we agreed that yucca may be our new favourite vegetable.
A few minutes later we were surprised to find that the soup had only been the first course, and each of us had a whole fried fish, served with coconut rice, tomato and onion slices, and lentil sauce. It was absolutely delicious, and we consumed the entire meal. I have to pause here to describe coconut rice, because its name doesn’t do it justice. It’s rice cooked in coconut milk, and it’s nutty and slightly sweet, but served as a savoury side dish for meat and fish dishes. It is slightly stickier than the rice usually served in Central America, but not as sticky as Korean and Japanese rice. I’ve only had it twice, and each time, I smiled every time I took a bite.
We are definitely staying in Cartagena for Christmas (tomorrow) and possibly for a day or two afterward, before we head out to visit our cousin Daisy. We’re tempted to do a tour of something locally, but we may just wander the city and see what there is to see. There certainly seems to be a lot worth seeing!