I knew it was time to leave Aruba as I roamed the mall in Oranjestad for the third day in a row, eyeing up sexy white palazzo pants, too high stilettos and a Louis Vuitton suitcase on wheels.
I looked at myself in the mirror and grimaced. I’d been lounging on Eagle beach guzzling Pina Coladas for two weeks and it showed. I had a mahogany tan to rival George Hamilton’s, gone up a dress size and spent way too much money. This wasn’t good, I was supposed to be backpacking around South America! I parked the suitcase put the pants back on the rack and headed for the travel agents. The cheapest flight available was a one-way ticket to Cartagena. Pushing aside fears of being kidnapped by the F.A.R.C or turned into a coke mule I’d bought it.
The next day I was on a little Avianca airplane en route to Cartagena via Bogota. A surge of excitement buzzed through me as I relaxed back into my seat and closed my eyes. I felt really happy, I was going to Colombia, this was why I’d left England. I was going have a proper adventure!
When we landed I wasn’t sure where to go for my transfer, my Spanish is very basic so I just tagged along with a little posse from my plane and was delighted when we arrived in the transit lounge. I sat next to a nice lady who spoke English and was thrilled when she told me she was also going to Cartagena; so when the flight was announced in Spanish I just followed her, result!
I arrived at Cartagena’s tiny Rafael Núñez airport an hour and twenty-five minutes later, where I encountered a little problem. follows me around like a psycho waiting to strike at the worst possible moment, of all the places!
I was halted at passport control by a scowling woman with a gun on her hip who glared at me as though she had in front of her someone from Interpol’s most wanted list. I felt queasy as she waved my passport in my face and shouted at me in Spanish.
Unable to understand her I whispered a few of the only words I knew in Spanish. ‘No Comprendo, lo siento.’
I was terrified. Maybe someone had made me their drug mule after all! SHIT…DID I LEAVE MY BAG UNATTENDED ANYWHERE? Oh fuck! I left it outside that toilet in Bogota because it wouldn’t fit in – OH NO NO NO…! I was going to be arrested and put in a squalid cell with no window and a hole in the floor and someone was going to rubber glove me! I nearly threw up in my mouth.
I was really scared, I was ready for crying. She shook her head, pursed her fuschia painted lips and handed my passport to her male colleague. He was tall and thick set with masses of wavy black hair, he looked nice, friendly like. He stepped in front of me and smiled, I felt better. He had a gold tooth that glinted in the sunshine, I will always remember that tooth.
‘What is this?’ He held my passport up to my face as he fingered the bitten edge.
‘Oh the dog chewed it!’ I was so relieved, it was just the passport! Just the silly passport, ha! His bushy black eyebrows shot up. He took a step closer, properly eyeballing me.
‘The dog chew it?’ He squinted at me and his smile vanished. I could smell his breath, smoky and bitter. I took a step back, my heart hammering again.
‘Yes, that’s right, well actually it was my sister’s puppy, he chewed it just before I left for Venezuela I didn’t think it mattered, no one else said anything you see…’
I reached out and fingered the chewed edge. ‘It’s just a little bit, I didn’t think it was important, I’m really sorry.’ My heart was pumping so fast I felt dizzy and then a nervous little laugh came out of my mouth. He pulled a face that let me know he didn’t like that. I clamped my mouth shut.
‘You should not travel here with this.’ He waved my passport in front of my face, then he took hold of my hand and for a hideous moment I thought he was going to cuff me and I nearly passed out. He slapped the passport into my palm. ‘Fix it, don’t come back to Colombia with this, next time we will not let you in.’ He wagged his finger at me. ‘Go.’ He waved me through.
I nodded, too scared to speak. I moved away from him slowly then rushed towards the gleaming sunlight of the arrivals hall. However, before I could leave I was stopped and fingerprinted at the arrivals kiosk. A friend told me they do that so they can identify the tourist’s bodies.
I ran towards the taxi rank, jumped into a shiny yellow cab and made my getaway. I have never felt so relieved to be moving in my whole life.
My taxi driver spoke good English, so I asked him to take me to a nice hostel within the old city walls. I was very pleased when we pulled up outside a stunning colonial mansion with wooden balconies full of Bougainvillea.
‘Perfecto, muchas gracias!’ I paid him, slung my little rucksack over my shoulder and stepped into the cool, tiled lobby. It smelled old and I liked it. Historical. I followed the wide, long, wooden staircase up to the reception desk.
‘Hola.’ I leaned on the desk, gasping for breath, it was bloody hot.
‘Hola, Como estas?’ The receptionist asked how I was, flashing me a pretty smile. She was much nicer than the airport guard woman.
‘Estoy Bien, gracias’. I felt a swell of pride as I realised I had answered her automatically, I knew more Spanish than I thought I did!
She was very friendly and after our initial Spanish flurry, she spoke to me in English, which was a blessing as we could’ve been there a while if she hadn’t. The nightly rate was very reasonable and I was thrilled to learn I got the last room! As she checked me in I looked around, pleased to see a big bright room beyond an open door leading off the main landing. It had huge windows with high ceilings and looked very clean, there were two girls sat on the window ledge chatting and laughing.
I couldn’t wait to get to my room, I was absolutely exhausted. She gave me my key and I half skipped along the wide, wooden corridor towards room 109. As the door creaked open I froze. I stared into a pitch black box room, not quite believing my own eyes. ‘What the f…’ There was NO WINDOW! Not even a small one! How was that even a thing? I would be spending my first night in Colombia in a cell after all.
I wanted to leave immediately but fatigue and the overwhelming heat forced me to lie down on the small double bed. It was so hard I checked under the thin blanket to see if the mattress was made out of concrete. As I pulled the bottom sheet out a massive cockroach dropped from the bed and landed with a sickening thud on the floor. I put my fist in my mouth to stifle the scream as I watched it scuttle into a crack under the thin skirting board. I leaped from the bed, yanked the door open and ran screaming along the corridor.
An hour later I was checked into a beautifully restored colonial mansion. I’d asked to see the room before checking in, to make sure I was getting a pretty bedroom with a big window. It cost me far more than I planned to spend but as the antique ceiling fan whirred gently above my head and I settled back into the huge pillows on the comfy king-sized bed I knew it was worth every penny.
I woke to the sounds of birds chirping outside my window. I got up and threw open the shutters and windows then leaped back into the fluffy white duvet. I lazed there for a good hour, enjoying the soft, warm morning sunlight on my face until hunger dragged me out of bed. I sang in the marble walk-in shower, pampering myself with the yummy scented gel and body lotion, ensuring I utilised every bit of my luxury experience.
I sauntered down to take breakfast in the pretty interior courtyard, it was really cool and shaded by beautiful potted plants and flowers, the architecture and interior design was just gorgeous. I loved the colourful tiles, the carved mahogany balconies, and big pendant lanterns.
The food was delicious, I devoured my yummy cheese omelette, drained my cafetiere and moaned with pleasure as a feather-light buttery croissant melted in my mouth. When I felt completely satisfied I strapped my Invicta bum bag on and stepped out of the tranquility of the inner courtyard into the blazing Caribbean sun. I popped my sunglasses on and off I went, street map in hand to explore Cartagena des Indias!
There is something magical about Cartagena. It has a really good vibe, it’s vibrant with colour, history, and energy and it is astoundingly beautiful. I felt like I’d stepped back in time as I strolled through the warren of ancient cobbled streets. I wandered for hours in and out of beautiful churches, elegant plazas, and mansions with their flower strewn balconies. I took a break in Plaza San Diego, sitting outside a very cool bar called Santa Clara. I denied myself my usual Pina Colada, determined to shed the extra weight, instead, I quenched my thirst with an icy fresh lemonade. Two older gents played guitar and sang Que Sera and I felt utterly enchanted by the whole experience.
A highlight of my first day was walking around Las Murallas, the fortified walls built to protect the city after Sir Francis Drake Attacked on February 9th,1586. I sat on the wall, enjoying the fresh breeze from the Caribbean. As I gazed out across the sparkling blue sea I imagined what life was like in Cartagena when pirates roamed the seas and galleon ships advanced with cannons thundering and gunpowder blazing. Cartagena is known as ‘The heroic City’ and It’s easy to understand why the English and Spanish fought so ferociously over it. Despite the violent history and all she has endured, Cartagena is still standing and she looks magnificent! I was so happy I’d bought that ticket!
Part two ‘Would you like some Cocaina with your Pina colada?’ To follow.