Saturday, April 25, 2009

Cartagena, Sept to Nov 2007

In early September 2007 we arrived at Cartagena, Colombia through the traditional (and shorter) entrance which has an underwater wall protecting the city. This wall is not visible in any way from the surface and has protected Cartagena for hundreds of years. It was built to keep out invaders by sea and proved itself to be completely effective. The only other entrance requires ships to go much farther south and turn back north behind some small islands. This circuitous route provided the Cartagena residents plenty of time to prepare for invaders. The entrance through the underwater wall is fairly narrow, but it was well marked the day we arrived so our entry was smooth and uneventful. We motored to Club Nautico and were soon docked.

That first afternoon we experienced our first chocosano. About 2:00 p.m. the sky suddenly darkened. About 3 minutes later one of the notorious Chocosanos arrived! Everything we had heard and read about these sudden high-wind storms was true. Chocosanos are a local phenomenon that also occurs in the San Blas Islands. These are very sudden, high, sustained, straight-line winds that may or may not be accompanied by rain. They usually last 30 minutes to an hour, but have been known to last as long as 3 hours. That afternoon the winds topped at 35 knots. That doesn’t sound like all that much because we have encountered 35 knot winds while out sailing and managed just fine. But these winds are different. Best description I can give is that they are straight-line solid winds, not gusting winds. This makes a huge difference.

Now we understood why boats are required to have three 100-foot bow lines tied to the underwater cable anchoring system at Club Nautico. The winds started directly on our bow and slowly clocked to our port beam, without ever letting up a bit. The strong wind caused the water to become extremely agitated and caused all the boats to start hobby-horsing like crazy. Everyone instantly got up into their cockpits -- ready to start their engines if a bow line failed or if the lines stretched too far and let their sterns pound into the dock behind them. I t was most exciting – an excitement that we would just as soon not experienced.

Then heavy rain began to blow with the strong winds. The whole thing lasted about 30 minutes as best I remember. Then it was perfectly calm and still. I have read that these Chocosanos typically occur in afternoons but the other cruisers here at the marina said that lately these storms had been happening about 3 a.m. We are glad that the first one that we experienced was during the daylight. Now we had an idea of what to expect.

Then, at 2:00 a.m. our first night in Cartagena we experienced our second Chocosano! This was most unusual to experience two in less than 24 hours, and these were only 12 hours apart! The second one did not have any accompanying rain, just the high sustained winds. All the boats were again hobby-horsed all over the place. But we again escaped any damage. And this turned out to be the last chocosano that we experienced during our 2 1/2 month stay in Cartagena. The chocosanos occur much more frequently during the summer months but usually subside by October.

Each afternoon a woman walked the docks at Club Nautico marina selling her fruits from the pan atop her head. She walked along calling out what she has available that day. One day she wore a plastic bag for rain protection as the chocosono has just passed.

Cartagena is divided into several districts. There are 2 very thick old stone walls that encircle the old town districts. Our marina was located on a small island called Manga which is just southeast of Old Town. It is an easy walk over the bridge to enter the first thick wall which surrounds the Getsemani District of the old city Cartagena. If you walk straight through the Getsemani District then you pass the Centre Convenciones. After the convention center you pass through another thick stone wall surrounding the Centro District (directly in front of you through the Clock Tower entrance of the inner wall) and the San Diego District of the old city (to the right or north of Centro). There is also anther area called La Matuna which is off to the right separating Getsemani and San Diego. I never was able to find out what La Matuna is all about; it is inside the first wall but outside the inner wall, and there is another partial wall around part of it. The other 3 districts (Getsemani, Centro and San Diego) are filled with shops, restaurants, bars, churches, libraries and museums. The La Matuna area is a mystery to me as I could not find information on anything that is supposed to be located there.

The major tourist area is the Centro District inside the old walled city. The Centro District is literally filled with shops of every kind. Lots of clothing and shoe shops, mostly higher quality items. One evening we walked for a couple of hours and finally decided it was time for dinner. The restaurants had good-looking babes standing in the streets with menus. Most of them wore tight skimpy tops and tight jeans with high-heeled sandals to get attention. They approached people walking down the street and would try their best to get you to eat at their restaurant. Same hawking was true for the hundreds of jewelry stores, except the jewelry stores all used men who were not nearly as attractive as the restaurant babes.

We chose an upstairs restaurant with a balcony table overlooking the Plaza Santo Domingo. This provided us with a wonderful opportunity to people watch on a Saturday night as this is the most popular plaza in Cartagena. I had mango ceviche appetizer and fabulous seafood pasta; Bill had a less-than-stellar churrasco (steak). This meal cost more than twice the price of the great meal that we had enjoyed at the lovely de Oliva on our first night in Cartagena. Still not an expensive evening at 92,000 pesos ($41.50) including both taxis and dinner with tip. Cartagena is a bargain for restaurants compared to the eastern Caribbean.

The people watching was fun. A dance troupe performed in the street; there was a mime; a man juggling fire sticks; several table-side guitar players for the 3 restaurants whose tables fill the plaza at night; a puppeteer; and a couple of the black boys that are famous in Cartagena. These boys (appeared to be very young men or teenagers) paint their skin and clothing totally black. They sometimes cavort around but mostly just sit quietly with a black-painted can placed in front of them to collect tips. We had heard that these black boys can cause problems during carnival by ganging around tourists and demanding money, getting black paint onto the tourists if they don’t give enough money or sometimes resorting to robbing the tourists. But all the black boys that we saw were quiet and well-behaved. It was a fun evening.

One day we visited the Gold Museum and saw beautiful items fashioned from gold by the original natives of this area. We also watched a video explaining how the natives had devised a canal and drainage system thousands of years ago that tamed the great flooding that occurs in certain areas of Colombia each year. Their drainage system was amazingly effective. But when the Spanish arrived they filled in this wonderful drainage system and caused flooding to begin again, which continues annually through today.

We also visited the House of Pain where the Spanish Inquisition was so horribly carried out in the name of the Catholic Church. Those Inquisition priests were some really sick puppies.

Like almost every visitor to Cartagena, the big fort and La Popa were also high on our must-visit list.

We truly enjoyed Cartagena and look forward to returning after we complete our circumnavigation.

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