Location, location, location.
Cartagena, the finest seaport in Colombia and like a cherry on top of an ice cream cone shaped South America, never had such a windfall of real estate endowment, capturing the best geopolitical spot when Mother Nature tossed out some goodie treats. A safe haven off the coast of a huge land mass is just the perfect spot. All it needs are 4M’s - merchants and merchandizes, maritime ships and mariners. That’s how it all started.
Strategically important for a superpower, this island hub achieved a feat linking realms when inter-continental travel was strictly limited by foot and sail. An entrépot and repository of goods, it hosted a monopoly of fleets where gold, slaves, cultural softwares, and technological transfers crisscrossed each other.
Dominion and glory were its hallmarks.
The above reads like Venice, christened after ancient Mediterranean’s Carthage officially as Cartagena de Indias - South America’s Venice and appropriately, now like an aging diva yearning to be a debutante once again but still Caribbean’s belle of the ball, pulsating to saucy modern beat behind tales of sea adventures and sunken booties.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site tag suggests a tasty architectural and intellectual pursuit enhanced more by its celebrity resident, Nobel Price’s literary laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez. A dash of child-like pirates-and-lost treasures fantasy treat evokes a Disney-safe wholesome family entertainment marina-getaway. Deceived, I saw this city overwhelmingly stamped with labels of “R” as in “For Adults Only”.
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The sanity and similarity stops there. Here, export-import goes hand-in-hand with sex and tourism industries.
As classic as Sodom-by-the-Sea as it gets, this temptation island gives Rio and New Orleans the run for their money, hosting wild party and sex, seasoned with hot spicy salsa and all that zing and zest, sober inland Colombians are said to describe in disdain.
Because of its proximity, its speak easy, party loving Mulatto inhabitant composition, and architecture characterized by charming houses’ outstretched eaves and breezy balconies where parties spill over, New Orleans reveals more similarity with Cartagena. How does it stack up with other sin cities? Dangerously rowdy Tijuana is notorious for booze-bingeing, especially by American teens, free from Uncle Sam’s watchful eyes. Acapulco and Cancun, with its high-rise resorts, cater to American students on raunchy vacation breaks and winter birds on hot pursuits of tropical fun in the sun, sea, and sand. A little bit of this, a little of that, Cartagena can be all the above plus lots of history to tell.
I saw its two touristy sides, the modern island-strip of Bocagrande - Cartagena’s answer to Miami Beach and Cancun’s Zona Hoteliera, and the historic but seedy downtown-island. But its ground zero is unlike Las Vegas’. Business is conducted hawker and home-based style, more of micro-economy ambience paling in comparison to Las Vegas’ corporate-looking Strip, dominated by Home Depot-type mega-feel and sophistication, and glitzy marquee or jumbo pixel-trons. Typically a third world recharging station, Cartagena offers cheap momentary escapades, a seaman’s paradise for refreshing ephemeral fun and shallow relationships, and all that adventurous comforts to reinvigorate atrophied muscles from cabin fever of unrelenting days in the harsh desolate sea sojourn.
A feel of déja vu bubbled up as familiar images emerged. That’s right. This city shares striking similarities with my hometown Manila.
For one, these two cities are daughters of Spanish imperialist agenda.
Manila, now the Philippines’ capital, served well in Spain’s Golden Era as the first-leg hub of a sea trade route between Asia and Europe, as rich as the Spice and Silk Roads, berthing at Acapulco, Mexico across the Pacific Ocean, crossing overland to Veracruz, then finally sailing to Seville, Spain, and back. It was the ideal route before the Suez Canal.
Over South America, shipping starts from Lima, Peru, crossed overland to Panama and sailed through Cartagena, the lynchpin to Seville for its last leg, and vice-versa.
Oceans apart and years later released from Spanish grip, both presumably have charted its own course, but their characters are so telepathically parallel that they ought to be twins. After all, the seas didn’t disappear. They still bear the titles of two of the best harbors in the world.
Save for its remnant fortification and its now touristy turrets, enduring centuries from harassing pirates and covetous European powers, Manila shares unmistakable physical features with Cartagena.
It doesn’t end here.
Simultaneously, their profiles are now draped with towering skyscraper hotels at the frills amidst urban blight, poverty and unemployment, typically manifested by a developing country.
Common maritime function, cultural base, climate, and now - allure of comfort women and political destiny bring them closer, displaying their struggling third world Sin City flavor.
Cartagena’s R&R facilities preoccupy locals. Manila, though notorious for its red light districts hosting air-flown first world - dollar and yen, as well as petro-dollar paying dirty old sex maniacs and pedophiles, performs diversified national functions as political, financial, manufacturing, cultural, and educational capital.
The “R” rating starts at the airport. A two-storey-high gargantuan poster of a woman’s close-up bare bottom advertising a lingerie brand hangs starkly in one of its halls, humongously larger than the billboards posted on Las Vegas’ strip.
Approaching the historic downtown’s north gate, I was greeted by a frozen statue of a bar girl in her itsy-bitsy work uniform. Endearly called La India Catalina; this native epitomizes the city, after all its world class colonial charm isn’t only its selling epicurean asset. Catholic cities no matter how sinful, prominently display heavenly icons such as Rio’s open-armed Christ, or Manila’s dime-a-dozen everywhere images of its heavenly goddess, the immaculate and modest virgin-mother Mary, the protector. But here, it’s a strange twist, rivaling that of Florence’s liberated David or Copenhagen’s pensive mermaid.
Hired by the conquistadores as an interpreter, she ended up endearly acceptable to the locals, much different from the fate suffered by La Malinché who is maligned and disgraced by her fellow Mexicans.
She must’ve easily clinched the job reporting for interview topless and bottomless saved for a seductive g-string. Articulated by her assets, she rose up the ranks as somebody’s trophy wife and now, fondledly clutched and remembered as an iconic trophy handed out to the winners of the city’s Oscar Awards.
Her vulnerable maidenly meek pose and state of undress combine a strong statement about this gateway city, the land and its native people’s yielding resignation to the plunder and prostitution of their possessions and dignity.
For its enduring native symbol, the city’s inhabitants are now overwhelmingly composed of mulattoes - dominantly pale blacks with a trace of one or two baucasian and indigenous ancestors down the line.
An obvious La India’s inspiration, female pulchritude saturates downtown streets, offered to starving seamen titillated by prospects of a different brand of flesh. Not surprisingly, Colombia’s fame lives up to expectation. One in twenty down the street is worth a second look, although in Bogota, I should say it’s one in ten. More dusky complexioned, some are flamboyantly feminine. It’s just too easy to speculate if they’re originally female or retouched through the wonders of science.
Its hot humid climate makes passable excuse to bare more figure and flesh than anywhere else and enjoy the refreshing sea breeze no matter how undisplayable some figures are.
Night and day, whore galore fashion parades the streets.
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Reminiscent of Manila, here, sleaziness reeks with loitering men idly eyeballing passerbys even in the morning, some, while chugging alcohol for breakfast. Charming endangered casas are spoiled by full-time vagrant fixtures that annoy self-respecting tourists.
Gangs hang out at corners touting touristy appetizing vices, other than waiting for the dipping of the sun and appearance of the moon, the arrival of a solar eclipse, or the results of lottery draw.
Upon entering, I stopped by the Cathedral’s plaza to refer to my guidebook. This place proves to be just one of the many watering holes of touts. Easily I was recognized as a hot pie dropped from the sky with my giveaway backpack. I was cornered as a frazzled prey by a pack of hyenas, the touts handing-out hotel cards formed the first wave of onslaught.
Capable of speaking better English than the tourist information clerks anywhere else in Colombia, an overwhelming swarm of them was simply frightening, sticky as Velcro and hard to shrug-off.
They speak my language too. I could’ve made history in the Philippine version of Guinness Book of Records for being the first Filipino to set foot in Cartagena but I was too late by a handful of decades.
Down a street, I was doggedly engaged by a tout, coaxing me to reveal something of myself, greeting me in Spanish, English, and Japanese - no response. Then he asked, “Indonesian?” Getting interesting, my curiosity gave way to accidental eye contact. He slipped a greeting. Did I hear it right - in Tagalog? Stunned, caught off-balanced and red handed, I can almost converse with him in Tagalog.
He doesn’t appear like a world traveler explaining as a seaport-city, Cartagena is no stranger to various nationalities. Consider this: Filipino seamen gobble up a huge share, almost to epic proportions, the world’s merchant marine crews. They are the single biggest contributing group in the spread of AIDS in the Philippines.
No wonder, he has ways to spot a needle-sized Filipino from a haystack. The world is ever shrinking everyday after all!
Upon arrival, first thing seamen crave for is a sample of local flavor, no other than the world famous captivating women this side of the continent. In fact, he had them ready in the stables round the clock.
In case docks dry out of sex-starved sailors, he has fallback goods. Colombia’s hot items - cocaine, maybe, but for sure, emeralds and Cuban cigars.
My misadventure with cigars started when I was offered a box of two dozen sticks of Fidel Castro’s - and Bill Clinton’s infamous - favorite tinkering toy, six inches long for 125,000 Pesos (US$ 55). Checking-out the price at a posh air-conditioned cigar shop, I realized recklessly that the street price is much better. Shortly, a tout offered 60 grand (US$ 28). As if a connoisseur, I even ripped the plastic seal, checked and savored its aroma in the darkness of the night. I bought two boxes, thinking I hit a jackpot.
Window-shopping at Bocagrande next morning, I came across a small artesiana; the stall merchant quoted a pre-bargain price for an identical box at 25 grand (US$ 12). I was devastated.
Colombian fakes encased in a box with Cuban label, that’s what it is. One real stick costs 20 grand (US$ 9). No way can a branded cigar be bought for measly $12 a box. So what’s new? I paid steeply for a bootleg. Foolish me for not heeding warnings never to buy in the streets, I learned my lesson well.
Within the historic center, the feel isn’t safe to let my guard down. Prying eyes followed me to distract and discourage my intimate gaze and admiration at a charming architectural piece.
The money exchange alley, Cartagena’s financial center a block north of Plaza de los Coches offers potential gold mine for pickpockets and hit and runs. Venturing into the scene aiming for pictures, I was swallowed by an uneasy thick crowd of vagrants and vendors.
One bystander distracted me with her gesture - index finger pointing to her eye. Not paying attention, I was led to pull over behind a building’s column. Warning me to secure my belongings because I’m being tailgated, she baffled me. I’m not sure whether to fear her too. From then on, things looked not the same. I wasn’t that relaxed anymore, my starry-eyed innocence lost forever.
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On the nicer side, stunning montage of Cartagena’s urbanscape images pleases everyone with this hodgepodge of descriptions:
Tight cozy streets, open squares, one even if enhanced by Botero’s modern sculptures, evoke lazy yesteryears.
Buildings painted with upbeat colors smile in the tropical sun, dressed with thick-door portals decorated with grotesque knockers, and windows secured by wooden sticks and slats. Canopied balconies picketed with spindled wooden balusters sentimentally remind me of Philippine ancestral houses. Spanish roofs hang over, uniquely styled upward with pointy hip corner tiles.
Arcaded shops and courtyards highlighted with palm trees offer comfy shades. On the noisy streets, bars pulsate to beats of flirtatious and high-energy Latin music.
Religious architecture provides more texture. Easily noticeable by sky-poking belfries from blocks away, sanely prudent baroque churches and convents bask in calculated decay get-up.
Surrounding the historic downtown-island, sturdy ravelins, ramparts, and scarps faced with beautifully rustic masonry form a perimeter of a medieval-looking fortress adorned with antique cannons.
Last but not the least is the relaxing azure sea, complemented by palm trees, and cool Caribbean breeze.
East of the historic city, Fort San Felipe, like immense pyramids fused together and sliced off its tops can be reached by walking and hiking on a 30-minute comfortable tempo. Traffic annoyances are non-existent, the only letdown is the intense heat on an early afternoon hike. The beautiful panoramic city skyline is best viewed from its top.
Busiest areas gravitate in and around the triangle formed by Plaza de los Coches, the cathedral and the church of San Pedro Claver, overlapping functions of tourism and mundane dealings of locals with the city bureaucracy. Touts and bystanders are the most dismaying features of this very touristy place.
The quiet and charming north side is designated by the churches of Santo Domingo, west, and Santo Toribio, north, no American suburbia can out-charm; the chic feel of Beverly Hills 90210 evokes in its tony boutiques and casas lining up shoulder-to-shoulder.
The transitional, quiet, middle-classy, but charming northeast is where the award-winning novelist Garcia Marquez’s palatial seaside compound stands.
Colonial townhouses on two north-south lanes along and west of Santo Toribio are the quaintest. Uniformed maids sneak time to gossip, a few moments of interesting exchange while clutching dusters and squeegees, off the doorways of posh casas.
Admiring all these is possible, just be warned the city is “R” rated.