Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Blind date in the old city.

For almost a year now (really has it been that long, wow) I’ve been in contact with another traveler who’s route was mimicking ours. Geoff started in Mexico at the end of March and worked his way down through Guatemala and Honduras. And now we were both in Cartagena so a drink was in order. We made plans to meet that evening thanks to the wonders of modern technology and not having met each other I considered making a joke about wearing a red rose but decided to just attach a picture of Adrian and I instead. With our blind date made, Adrian and I set out to fix our cash flow problem.

We had about $300 US left over from Panama but because it was US dollars we didn’t think it was a big deal. Afte rall, in half of the places in Central America we were often quoted prices in US dollars even when it wasn’t the local currency. So we headed out to the bank and also to get used to this new dangerous country. As we stepped outside the hostel into the sweltering heat, a young guy selling cold drinks immediately tried to tempt us. When I explained we had no money, he generously offered to take us to the bank. Uh-oh I thought, this is it we’re going to be mugged on our first day in Colombia. But no, he honestly just showed us to the bank than peddled off to continue selling cold drinks. Oops I felt bad for even thinking negative thoughts about the man.

We walked into the first bank and stood inline for 15 minutes only to be told that they didn’t change money, only one bank changed money. They directed us next door. Once again we stood in line and when we got to the front of the line we were told that this branch didn’t change money; we would have to go to another branch. It was around the corner and down the street. We couldn’t find the branch she was talking about so we decided to hit another one that our Lonely Planet mentioned. Of course after another 20 minutes in line, we were denied again. This teller told me to go back to the last bank. When I told her they sent me here she shrugged. I asked where another branch was and when she pointed off my map I gave up. Although our 6-year old lonely Planet had failed us on the bank we decided to search out one of currency exchange places it mentioned, hoping it still existed. And it did. But super tight security meant only I got to sit inside the air conditioned Western Union office while Adrian stood outside dealing with the black market money changers who were offering rates way too good to be true. The current exchange rate was about 2100 Colombian Pesos for every US dollar but these guys were offering 2600-3000 provided we came back to their office. While the guy selling drinks had been kind, I didn’t have as much faith in the shady characters hanging out in front of the banks. Sorry.

Inside I had to show my passport, my passport stamp and give my fingerprints before they would change my money. Never has exchanging US dollars been so difficult and I this may have had something to do with stopping drug money laundering. But it was worth it as our money was then changed and we were once again solvent. We quickly headed back to the hostel to settle our bill and get something to eat almost getting run over by an armoured van from which two heavily armed guards, guns drawn and pointed out, emerged to replenish a bank machine. It looked like something from a bad cop movie although looking down the barrel of a gun is far more scary in real life than in the movies. We backed away from them and went off to explore the world heritage city of Cartagena with all its shady squares, colourful churches (photo above) and curvy balconies.

It was just as beautiful in the day as it had been last night. It was surrounded by a wall built keep out the pirates over 350 year ago but now helped to preserve the old colonial buildings. I was shocked by just how beautiful and well kept it was. But I soon figured out why. Although Colombia has just reappeared on the tourist trail, Cartagena has long been a stop for cruise ships and the money they brought in helped keep the city beautiful. It also helped keep a steady stream of touts selling tourist tack well employed. As we started walking, we couldn’t get a block without being propositioned at least once to by something. But they weren’t terribly aggressive perhaps because they were outnumbered on every corner by tourist police.

We started at the old clock tower and began the informal walking tour suggested in our guidebook. We walked through the cute streets, around open squares and parks, past churches but not in them – they were charging admission and we’ve already seen enough free churches. And whenever we pulled out our map, there were friendly official tourism stands to answer any questions. Wow. I wonder if the rest of Colombia is going to be like this. We did stop at the naval museum which was momentarily interesting for it’s explanations of all the forts in the city limits and the battles they were involved in. Poor Cartagena had been the victim of countless pirate attacks form the Brits and the French, all aiming to get their hands on the Spanish land and riches (most of it plundered from the natives). However, the second half of the museum was a collection of boring model ships and modern navy memorabilia which was much less interesting so we headed out.

Our next stop was the Gold Museum, it was small, and best of all free. But it was also interesting because the story of gold in Colombia is tied to the history of the first nations in the country some of whom managed to survive all the European diseases, slavery and wars of colonial times and still live and practice their rites and rituals. For a change of pace we then popped into the contemporary art gallery before continuing to poke around the pretty little city. Poor Panama City paled in comparison to Cartagena which was almost overwhelming in its attractiveness. Actually it was overwhelming and after 5 hours we decided to head back to the hostel and get ready for our blind date with Geoff.

Geoff arrived on time at our hostel accompanied by fellow Brit and fellower traveler, Matt. With introductions made, we headed out into the old town, thankful that it was a little less hot now that the sun had gone down. There were just as many people out at night if not more, but we found a table in one of the church squares and spent the rest of the evening chatting over beer and pizza, swatting away the continuous stream of vendors trying to sell us crap, until we had had our fill of all of them. But the fun wasn’t over yet as we discovered we had all signed up to jump into Cartagena’s active volcano the next day.

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