So I’d left the delights of Peru behind me and headed on up to Colombia, a country famed for its excitement and general hijinks. As it turned out, this excitement and hijinks weren’t as innocent as they sounded. But there again I probably should have guessed that things weren’t going to be a pleasant Sunday afternoon in the park, what with Colombia being the country that gave rise to the man who would go on to become the 7th richest man in the world in 1989… due entirely to dealing cocaine.
Even the flight to Bogota, a city of some 9 million people and a self-proclaimed ‘Megacity of South America’ (along with Sao Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires and Lima), was exciting, but with a heavy dose of vice. You see, when I’d sat down on the plane, I happened to glance to either side of me and notice that both of my neighbours were rather buxom and generally largely constructed of plastic it seemed.
Rather unsurprisingly, it turned out they were Colombian porn stars. As I said, exciting, but you know your mother wouldn’t approve.
So with that particularly bizarre journey behind me, I thought I’d penetrate Bogota itself and I must say, I was unimpressed with what I saw. Bogota did not look like a city of its size. Not by a long chalk. It made Machu Picchu look like a bustling metropolis. The city centre felt tiny, as did the rest of the city.
The people were friendly though. Whilst seeking out somewhere to have lunch one day, I came across an affordable-looking restaurant, so I quickly wiped it off and apologised before entering the premises. This restaurant was jam-packed with Colombian soldiers in dress uniform, with not a spare table in the house. I must have looked devastated, as, before I knew what was happening, I was invited to sit and dine with some of the aforementioned soldiers. In the whole travelling spirit of things, I duly accepted and sat amongst Colombia’s finest. Even though I speak barely enough Spanish to order food in a restaurant, let alone make casual conversation with Colombian squaddies, I had a very enjoyable lunch despite the dire quality of food. The soldiers were incredibly friendly and made me feel welcome and I’d recommend having lunch with the armed forces to anyone.
On the job though, these soldiers were a completely different type of person. Gone was the amiable, talkative geezer, and in his place was the hard-nosed, merciless oppressor, as I found out (very nearly) the hard way. After lunch, I decided to investigate the city’s colonial architecture, which was pleasant and Hispanic enough, despite the best efforts of an American Evangelical missionary group trying to convert people through the medium of new-age dance and football demonstrations. One of said sights was the vast presidential palace, which was heavily fortified. If one covered one’s ears for a moment, it would have appeared a lot like Colonel Gadaffi was cowering there. I was innocently walking along the pavement looking slightly confused one minute, and the next I was confronted by 3 heavily-armed presidential guards, all with assault rifles pointed directly at me. My heinous crime? Walking on the pavement next to the palace. Paranoia? Probably. Unnecessary? Most certainly. Even outside the White House in Washington, tourists are allowed to gawp and take photos all they like without the notoriously oppressive American security forces coming down on them like a ton of bricks. Not in Bogota.
The Evos do their thing in Bogota.
And it isn’t just tourists that the authorities scared. The street vendors peddling their counterfeit DVDs immediately shut up shop and ran for their lives as soon as there was mention of some sort of authority figure approaching.
Bogota, I decided, was not the place for me, so like any self-respecting individual, I left and went to the Caribbean coast and the architecturally famous colonial town of Cartagena.
Cartagena was, in a word, hot. Very, very, very hot. Now I enjoy heat as much as the next man, but this was too much. It is supposedly the playground of Colombia’s elite, and thus has all the typical upper-class trappings: there were big yachts moored in the harbour; attractive, rich people everywhere; a Hard Rock Café. Yet I wasn’t all that entertained. The Cartageneans just didn’t seem like they cared all that much about their town and so there was a constant feeling that it could be so much better, so much cleaner and prettier. And then there were all of the more illegal and unpleasant trappings that accompany money and glamour. Outside the hostel in which I was staying, there was the constant presence, day and night, of the friendly local drug dealer. Every time I exited the hostel, he would immediately approach me, ask me where I was from (I actually played a little game with myself, telling him increasingly unusual home countries. The best I came up with was Mongolia) and proceed to offer me “the finest cocaine in Cartagena”. Goodness knows that was against some stiff competition.
Then there were the prostitutes. They were like bats, unseen during the day, but swarming the streets at night. The most popular ‘pick-up’ line seemed to be “Amigo, f**k me, f**k me, f**k me.” It was all beginning to sound a lot like Newcastle on a Friday nights… except the prostitutes were dressed more tastefully.
Tourists were also, unsurprisingly, a common feature of Cartagena. This helped support the local underground economy and all the thousands of street vendors this involved. There was all sorts being sold: handicrafts, jewellery, DVDs, musical instruments and food. I even saw one thin-looking lady with an equally undernourished child in her arms, sitting on the pavement trying to sell passers-by an old plastic cup with a few coins in it. She didn’t manage to sell the cup as far as I could tell, but several people did seemingly augment the value of the cup by adding their own coins to it.
Tourists come to Cartagena for good reason as well. The town is actually Colombia’s main port, so any boats coming in from the Caribbean will dock in Cartagena, unloading their haggard-looking cargo there. Then there is also the rather wonderful colonial architecture. The old, walled city has lost only a little of its colonial charm, with pleasant balconies and cobbled streets in abundance, as well as the imposing hillside fortress, built to keep Brits like me out of the town. Finally, there is the weather, which, as previously mentioned is mightily warm.
Cartagena by night
The fortress, or castle (I believe both are acceptable in Cartagena) was started in 1639 with the specific aim of protecting the town from French and British invaders. Thus, it was with a slight sense of irony that I opted for a guided tour of this previous bastion of defiance against Britannia’s dominance of the seas. The castle itself was very impressive, with a maze of underground tunnels, some nice views of the city and what looked like Colombia’s biggest flag. What made the tour for me, however, was the tour guide. This was a little Colombian fellow called Umberto who had the social skills of someone with autism and a stammer which could have been the basis for an Oscar-winning British film about a monarch and wartime speeches. Either way, I learned a lot, although I do suspect some of the things I was told about in the castle were made-up.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, complete with enormous flag
After several days of sun, I left Colombia with a great sense of disappointment and headed to what most South Americans consider to be the most dangerous city on the continent: Caracas, Venezuela. But you’ll find out if I survived the crime and the insane, socialist dictator next time.
Until then, please, don’t have nightmares.