Melting Down in Cartagena

I am, unfortunately, one of that annoying breed of persons who likes to state the obvious over and over again. In Cartagena, this meant that about every five minutes, I would turn to Craig and exclaim, “It’s SO hot!” I’m sure this started to get on his nerves, but he was either too kind or too overheated to ask me to shut up.

Cartagena’s temperatures hovered around 90 degrees F, and the humidity stayed at about 80%. This kind of heat is totally opposite from the dry, desert heat that I grew up with in Southern California and can tolerate with lots of air-conditioning. The last time I felt heat with this level of humidity was on a short trip to the Yucatán Peninsula in Mexico, where I recall the phrase “I’m sweating balls” being used quite frequently. To say that we were unprepared for the heat is an understatement. As soon as we stepped off the plane, the heat just seemed to wrap us in a moist brain-numbing haze, and as our hostel was not air-conditioned, there was no escaping it.

Craig already mentioned our disastrous attempt at finding Playa Blanca, a fruitless and exhausting endeavor. The funny thing is that when we got back on the bus and Craig was seething with rage and feelings of impotence, I was feeling pretty okay with it all. I’ve had a lot of meltdowns on this trip, but they mostly happen when I’m confronted by a lack comfort. While sitting for three hours on that bus was not exactly comfortable, long, bumpy bus rides are about as common as mosquitoes down here, and I’ve gotten so used to them that I usually end up falling asleep. At one point on our way there, I woke up to some mild commotion and Craig saying, “We almost crashed into that other bus!”–to which I promptly nodded off again. Near crashes have also become somewhat commonplace.

No, the bus ride didn’t get to me, and neither did the giant torrential rainfall that we drove right into. The turning point also wasn’t having to wade through shin-deep murky water with who-knows-what floating around in it. (Dog shit? Human piss? I tried not to think about it.) I could endure all that with some measure of equanimity… it was only as we were sloshing our way to the Juan Valdez Cafe and I lost Craig for a minute (he had stopped to take a picture and had shouted at me to wait but I never heard him), that my own mental stability started to decline.

The picture that put a chink in my mental armor.

I don’t know if there’s anything worse than being unknowingly separated in a foreign country. It’s a scary feeling, full of panic and anger and consternation. Where is he? Why is he not here? What should I do now? Craig showed up after only a minute had passed, but I was already a bundle of nerves and fear.

“Where the hell were you? Didn’t we say we were going to Juan Valdez?” I hissed, despite my relief at seeing him again.

“Sorry, sorry, I was taking a picture! I yelled at you, but I don’t think you heard me,” Craig replied contritely. A good, diplomatic answer. I couldn’t remain angry, but my energy was gone. Once the rain stopped, all I wanted to do was just go back to the hostel. It wasn’t a great prospect, since it would be as hot and steamy as the rest of Cartagena after the rainstorm, but it was somewhere to rest for awhile and gain our bearings.

Several hours of mindless internet later, I felt renewed enough to tell Craig I thought I’d be okay with going into the walled Centro and walking around. The night air was cooler and the evening was tranquil. We bought some beers and strolled through the cobblestone streets, admiring the colonial architecture and how it was almost like we’d just stepped into Disneyland’s New Orleans Square. All the restaurants looked expensive and the buildings were kept in much better shape than in the rest of the city, spic and span for the hordes of tourists. In that strange, glitzy bubble, filled with horse-drawn carriages and gussied-up club-goers, I felt like I’d made my peace with Cartagena.

Ice cream makes everything better.

Cartagena’s Centro neighborhood at night.

We still decided to leave the city the next day. There’s only so much heat and humidity you can take before you start to crave de-humidified air. But our parting experiences with Cartagena, such an iconic Colombian city, had improved. We are contemplating going back someday, but we’ll be especially careful to avoid both the rainy season, and hostels without air-conditioning!


A horrible, no good, very bad day in Cartagena

It probably started with a pretty uncomfortable night, actually. The humidity here is like a blanket that is wrapped around you too tight; your skin feels like it can’t breath properly. And there are mosquitoes. Stealthy, fast and tiny coastal mosquitoes. After sleeping fitfully and waking up with bites, we reluctantly started our day. What’s the best way to appreciate the Caribbean? Head for a beach! We were recommended Playa Blanca, so we did some errands (sweating through them) and boarded a bus headed out that way.

The hostel staff assured us that a moto from the bus stop to the beach would run no more than $4,000 COP each, so it was a bit of a shock when the 6 guys circling around us, trying to get us to choose their moto, were quoting us more than two times that amount. I never expect the price to be what someone has told us it should be, but more than 2 times wasn’t what we were prepared to pay… After talking it over for about ten minutes, we reluctantly decided to turn around. It was probably one of the worst bus rides I can remember just to get out to that point (1.5 hours of bumpiness and going in circles), so the decision wasn’t made lightly. I felt defeated and pretty angry. Should we have blown the budget? Maybe, but the splurge on a flight from Medellin was still fresh in my mind.

On the way back to the city center it started to rain. Then it started to rain very, very hard. The streets became little rivers, with motorcyclists abandoning their rides at the curb and taking shelter in nearby businesses. Everyone started taking cover, and traffic ground to a halt. We stared out the windows of the bus with amazement, then a little bit of annoyance, and finally hopelessness. We were stuck in a river of water and cars. Rain started to come through the roof and the closed windows, causing most people to abandon the window seats.


Several hours after starting out, we were back in the Getsemaní neighborhood, jumping out the back door of the bus into a couple inches of water, then wading ankle deep to cross the street. We took shelter in a Juan Valdes coffee shop for another hour, and then slowly made our way back to our accommodation.

Cartagena is supposed to be one of the most beautiful cities in South America. I have seen some glimpses of that, and I was so excited to walk around with a camera in hand.. I’m fighting the urge to run away as soon as possible – so that we can try our luck somewhere else on the Caribbean coast.