The extraordinary customs process was still rumbling on but the port capitan gave us permission to sail the boat 50 miles or so round to Cartagena, so we left the brown waves of Puerto Velero and motored out in a calm, back in to the blue.
Cartagena makes quite a spectacular landfall. Arriving by sea, you first see the skyscraper skyline of Boca Grande, the ‘Miami Beach’ of Colombia, then as you close the coast, the old walled city appears in the foreground. About 5 miles out you first hear the music!
The approach winds around the high-rise beach hotels, across the busy shipping lanes, past the Colombian Navy base lined with battleships through the anchorage for sailing boats, and finally to the inner harbour area lined with ancient battlements.
Here it feels a bit like an old Mediterranean port, stately old palms, tree lined parks, the domes and spires of churches in the old town. But you’re still in South America, the noisy smelly water taxis buzz across the harbour, and of course every motor boat in town is fitted with a prodigious sound system. Then look the other way and the view is more like Hong Kong harbour, behind the sailing boats are the soaring new glass towers.
We spent Christmas tied up in the very swanky Club de Pesca, snoozing through the heat of the days and exploring the old city by night.
Cartagena can sometimes feel a bit over-run with tourists. Cruise ships call here, then the street hawkers step up a gear, selling anything from boxes of fake Cuban cigars to fruit, cigarettes and chewing gum, or little shots of ‘tinto’ (sweet coffee) but mainly panama hats.
I estimate there are 500 blokes trying to sell me a panama hat in this town on any given day. (What will it be like when we get to Panama?) They are drawn to my uncovered hair and will cross streets to explain to me how badly I need one from the hundred or so stacked on their head. One guy stopped me on my morning run at 7am, I was jogging along the old battlements like a mobile puddle of perspiration but he thought that might be just the time for me to do a bit of hat shopping. ‘No gracias’. Another guy fell in to step beside us as we were walking purposely through a plaza, he pointed out my lack of a panama hat and how fortunate I was to have run in to him. (He happened to be wearing a stack of 50 hats). ‘No gracias’ . But he had already sized my head by eye, selected one from his stock and placed it on my moving head, I’m still walking, ‘No gracias’. He explains how powerful the sun is and how handsome I look in the hat, ‘No Gracias’. Now he somehow produces a large mirror from his pocket and, still walking backwards in front of me, shows me how great I look in his hat. A superb mobile retail pitch, I take my hat off to him.
But there is still lots of real life going on. I’m fascinated by people’s faces here. The indigenous indian tribes, blended over time with Spanish and African arrivals, a new world of faces. This is a great place to watch the world go by. At night we wander the narrow backstreets of Getsemani where it’s always happy hour and music pours out of every building.
In 1741 the British sent an enormous expeditionary force to take Cartagena from the Spanish. 186 ships and 30,000 men! After a long siege and huge losses on both sides, the Brits were seen off by the much smaller Spanish defending forces commanded by the defiant Don Blas de Lezo, or what was left of him. Previous battles had relieved him of his left leg, right eye and right arm. Minor flesh wounds for Don, who is now remembered as a hero of the city. If he had lost that battle, this whole northern end of South America would be English-speaking today, imagine that.
We took a provisioning trip to El Mercado Bazurto which is a huge bazaar selling everything. An overwhelming world of commerce on the poverty line, everyone working very hard in the heat of the day for a few pesos. We loaded up with all the fruit and veg we could carry and retreated.
We are provisioning for the next leg now, a few weeks in the more remote San Blas islands where there will be no supermarkets. It’s amazing how much stuff we can carry on our 2 folding bikes. An fully loaded supermarket trolley is somehow swallowed by 2 front bags, one rear bag and a backpack. Or if you prefer, 72 cans of beer, 12 bottles of wine and a watermelon. Like I said, a few weeks. Anyway, it is so much easier to ride the groceries a mile back to the boat, with all the weight on the bike, than to walk it. Actually a mile on a Brompton bike is usually a pleasure, with some air moving around you. A mile on foot in these temperatures is a long hot walk, particularly with 72 beers on your back.
We will probably be offline for a bit once we leave here, so signing off for now and a Happy New Year.