In the four days we’ve been in Cartagena, Ellen and I have spoken to only one other Canadian and one European. The rest of the people we’ve interacted with have been locals, or at least South American. We’re not off the beaten track – there are at least 4 other hostels within a three-block radius – but we’re refreshingly free of the typical tourist traps catering to American and European travellers. It has allowed us to pay attention to the local residents and learn more about them, which is for us a large part of our trip.

Our hostel, with its usual cohort of friendly locals chatting with the owner outside.

Our hostel, with its usual cohort of friendly locals chatting with the owner outside.

I love people-watching, and Cartagena is an excellent place to do it. There are lots of plazas and shady parks with pleasant benches to sit on, and many vendors wandering by to offer iced lemonade, cold beer, coffee, or ice cream. If a cafe or restaurant is more your style, the old town is full of little sidewalk tables where you can get an overpriced snack or meal along with a break for your aching feet. Cartagena is a town built for walking or riding a bicycle – the narrow streets were built to maximize air flow through the city, rather than traffic, I’ve heard. Anywhere you sit, you’re sure to have people amble past you.

A wonderful shady park full of places to watch people

A wonderful shady park full of places to observe passers-by

The residents here are hard to identify, I have to admit. When I was travelling in Korea or the Philippines, it was easy to spot the tourists and differentiate them from the locals. In Cartagena, it’s not so simple. For starters, the people here have diverse heritages. Colombians are mainly descended from the local indigenous peoples, European colonials, and African slaves. We’ve been told the plaza a block from our hostel is where the black slaves began their fight for independence from the Spanish colonists, and that certainly shows in the people we see in the neighbourhood. While the guidebook tells me Colombia is about 20% black, the proportion in our neighbourhood must be closer to 60%. The rest seem to have European ancestry, but they speak Spanish when they walk by, so we guess they’re local as well.
If we were spending more time in this city, we’d probably be able to tell you for sure who is from where. Colombians are notoriously friendly. People smile and greet us on the street. Colombian culture seems to call for men to shower women in compliments – anywhere we walk, we hear men telling women they’re beautiful. We’re not sure if it’s supposed to be polite or misogynistic, but catcalls, whistles, and murmurs of admiration are the norm here whenever a woman walks by, and it’s not just the drop-dead gorgeous women on the receiving end.
In fact, the variety of shapes, sizes, and colours of people walking by is refreshing. In Panama and Costa Rica, we noticed the few curvy women we saw had to squeeze themselves into jeans three sizes too tight. Here, both men and women come in all shapes and sizes, and it’s wonderful to behold. Some people wear skinny jeans, some people wear loose flowing dresses, some wear short skirts and tank tops, and some wear polo shirts with shorts. There doesn’t seem to be an overriding style like I saw in Korea, or a refusal to accept one’s body, like I saw in Panama.
I admit, there are times when the whistles and comments get to me, when it’s too hot outside and I haven’t had a siesta, and the crowds of the city are getting to me. My body clock is still timed to the farm – I’m up at 6am and ready for bed by nine, which has some disadvantages when all the Argentinians and Chileans at the hostel want us to go partying with them all night. But I have to say, it’s nice for the ego to have taxi drivers tap the horn to catch your attention so they can blow you a kiss. I’ll be glad to visit my cousin at the coffee farm next week, but in the meantime, Cartagena, with its friendly people, is a wonderful place to be.