Each year, Cartagena celebrates its independence from Spain in the first two weeks of November with an enormous fiesta and the Miss Colombia beauty pageant. Quite a way to mark it, I think you’ll agree. I wanted to visit the city for several reasons. Mostly because I’d read about it in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s (Colombia’s most famous author) book ‘Love in a Time of Cholera’, but also because I was enraptured by the fact that England’s Sir Francis Drake had himself attacked the city in 1585, aiming to relieve the Spanish of their Aztec booty. He was successful on more than one occasion and the Spanish still see him as a pirate where the Brits have him down as a noble hero. As a child I had a bizarre fascination with him. I know not why, but it gave me kicks to see the walls that he had attacked over 400 years ago.
This year was the 200th anniversary of the city shedding the shackles of Spanish conquistadors. I arrived on Friday afternoon, just missing Wednesday’s Miss Colombia tranny beauty pageant. Curses. The bus from Santa Marta crawled through streets packed with streams of people *covered* in face paint leaving the historic centre. A police officer approached the bus and told one of us gringos to keep cameras inside the bus, lest one of the scamps snatch it. One friend told me that on his journey in, he saw a youth pull a bag of cocaine the size of a bag of sugar out of his bag and pass it round to his friends for a key-full. The same friend told me that he passed the police stop-and-search point and found a pile of baggies full of coke behind them. No charges made, just confiscating the hard stuff.
In fact, I had heard nothing but horror stories about the realities of the Cartagena fiesta, for locals as much as gringos. Large cans of foam play a prominent role in the celebrations and one common ploy by the casual thieves working the crowd is to spray this stuff in your eyes (it stings like mace) and have a rummage in your pockets while you’re temporarily blinded. If you are clever enough to defend your pockets, sometimes they simply slash the valuables out of your pockets instead. If that weren’t enough, I heard other stories. People being held up in broad daylight with machetes and told to hand over their valuables or have their throat slit. One dude was even held up with a pitchfork! (I later learnt that it was a barbeque utensil but pitchfork is so much more Anchorman.) The tales made me wonder just why the hell I was there, but there I was. The solution is to roam in packs and never take more than the bare essentials out with you. A pocketful of change – you can get crunk for a tenner – and the clothes you stand in. No cameras, no phones, no bling. And hence, few pictures of the events unfolding, even if my camera had been working.
Still, I arrived at a hostel with my newfound friend, settled ourselves in with a curry and headed out to the streets to see just how wild they really were. I should mention that a certain person (Ian Trickett) had told me that the Media Luna hostel was ‘the only place to stay’. Just check out these stories from its recent history. Well, it all seemed pretty tame. We roamed a few bars, found a square with live music and dancing and wound up in the Club Havana salsa club drinking and getting tips on proper baile. To me, salsa seems little more than an excuse for grim old men to grind against you. I was under the impression that it was an old-fashioned system where you were more or less obliged to dance with the gents who invited you. Quickly learnt that you can and should say no to the pervy, uggo ones. Likewise, the following night consisted of roaming the beautiful old walled city, revelry and dancing into the wee small hours. Too much good times.
City-wise, I think the Pocahontas statue is worth mentioning. She’s actually called the ‘Native Catalina’ but Indiana Catalina was the beautiful daughter of one of the native chiefs, captured by conquistadors as a child. Pesky Spanish. When she was returned 20 years later and reunited with her family, she played a key diplomatic role between the invaders and invadees. She also helped the Spanish on their treasure hunt, but less of that. At least they weren’t so savage if they got help.
On the third day, we encountered the fiesta proper. It’s anarchy! Celebrations essentially consist of each barrio taking it in turns to host a party each night. It starts early. People line the streets from about 2pm, drinking beer and chatting with friends, awaiting a parade. As they wait, they begin smearing each other, friends, passersby, and especially gringos, with face paint. Then they start spraying dye and throwing flour. Large cans of spray foam are produced and naturally, foam wars break out. Add to this firecrackers and bangers which are lit and thrown by the handful into the crowd, sending them squealing in all directions. They’re actually fairly innocuous, but try telling that to Brits brainwashed by years of ‘fireworks make you go blind’ safety campaigns. Hawkers roam around selling ice-cold beer and devilish aquardiente at pace to the eager punters. Parade and dance display complete, doors in all the surrounding streets are flung open, sound systems are turned outwards and every calle turns into a seething mass of dancing bodies. Brilliant fun!
And worth the danger element. Pickpockets are out in force but not having any pockets, I was ok. The locals stashed their valuables in their pants.
Behold, this is what Cat and Tom looked like after a couple of minutes on the street.