It was 14 years ago that Dan and I spent about 11 months backpacking through South America. It was a true and clichéd life changing experience. I still look at that trip, and the way I felt when immersed in a Latin culture, as one of the best times in my life. We visited Chile (the country of my father’s birth), Argentina, Brazil, Uruguay, Paraguay, Bolivia, and Peru. Our slower pace, including 2 months living in Buenos Aires, meant that we did not have the time to include Colombia or Ecuador. We had visited Venezuela on another adventure and hope to eventually visit Suriname, Guyana and French Guiana, but Colombia was always next.
Here we are, over a decade later, married with kids and trying to recapture that heady spark we had once felt on this continent – that feeling of connectedness to a fiery and mystical culture, and a karmic sense that you are exactly where you belong. Of course, this is an almost insurmountable amount of pressure to place on a new-to-us country, and time will tell if Colombia is up for the challenge. I do have to admit that coming to Cartagena from sparkling clean and manicured Naples, Florida gave the city an early handicap. Stella and Gabriel were quick to make comparisons to India. I seemed to be the only one in our family still wearing rose-colored glasses. We all suffered the lethargy and discomfort that comes with the climate shock of unrelenting high heat and humidity, which can wear out the best of intentions.
Despite all that was stacked against Cartagena, our first foray into the narrow streets of Getsemani, left me tingly with hints of magic. The colors! – shades of exotic fruits and Caribbean cocktails – tangerine orange, lime green, fuchsia, “azul” Curaçao (blue liqueur). The sounds! sonorous Spanish, peals of hearty laughter, calling street vendors on the calle, and salsa on the stereo. This old colonial neighborhood, now a travelers Mecca filled with hostels, guesthouses, bars and restaurants, still retained a true neighborhood feel, with private homes maintaining generations of families. As we walked down the street, these locals would be taking a break from the heat in sidewalk rocking chairs, or lounging in doorways and wide open windows. We peeked glimpses into their homes, made to maximize breezes and with hidden courtyards in the back. It was hard not to feel a part of their private spaces, when the entire front parlour was exposed to our eyes. We watched families dining in undershirts, watching futbol or telenovelas on boxy tv’s, playing chess and chatting animatedly, or reposing in a comfy chair to watch the world go by, which included studying the passer-bys like ourselves. We happily returning their gaze with friendly salutations of “buenas!”.
Although we did check off the standard list of sights recommended in your typical guidebook (churches, museums, and the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas), our focus was more on trying to absorb the newness of the culture, pounding steamy sidewalks, admiring graffiti art, and resting to partake in the coastal cuisine, which featured ceviche and tropical fruits.
We took one afternoon away from the historical center of the city to visit the Totumo mud volcano outside of Cartagena. Here we climbed up a small dirt hill in our bathing suits to then climb a ladder into its small crater. We experienced the odd sensations of floating in a deep pudding of mud, as locals ensured that our skin was thoroughly coated, and helped to document it all with our cameras. Getting clean was a test in modesty, as we were guided up and off the “volcano” to a group of women who fastidiously bathed us with buckets of water. Gabriel had his bathing shorts pulled down to his ankles and was shocked to find quick hands cleaning his privates. We all left a little stunned, but with sheepish smiles on our faces. Newly baptized and ready, “Colombia, here we come!”