The most fun you can have with your clothes on

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.

Cartagena, stolen snap so your imagination doesn't have to do all the hard work

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.

Cat. Painted.

This is after a casual clean-up

Apparently the Baranquilla fiesta is even bigger and better, the only other in South America to rival Rio de Janeiro. This isn’t until April but a local was telling me that during the fiesta, the only shops that open are the pawn shops where people drop off their worldly possessions for the weekend and spend another 6 months paying them off. The same person also explained to me that people collect empty cans in the street, less to recycle the aluminium, but more for the steel ringpulls which are valuable since the booming dentistry industry here uses them in braces.
Although I had explored the city in the daytime, absorbing the beautiful old colonial architecture, city walls and Miss Colombia contestant parade (on boats around the harbour), I felt it important to not simply squander Cartagena on fiesta but see some of the surroundings.
Nearby are some famous mud volcanos. I managed somehow to miss the equally famous mud volcanoes in Baku, Azerbaijan, and I wasn’t about to do the same again. Toddled up the coast early one morning on a tour (shudder) to find them. Turned out to be a very nice, varied mix of people from all over the world – Europeans, South Americans, Indians, Aussies… Spent time talking to one Australian couple in their late-50s who had liquidated their flower farm business, sold all their stuff and are travelling permanently around the Americas, basing themselves loosely in Buenos Aires. ‘How did you meet?’ I asked. ‘At an ecstasy party in Sydney in the 80s,’ came the reply. Not one I had expected, I confess.
The volcano lies on the shore of a lake, about 50kms out of the city. The drive there takes you up the Caribbean coastal road past deliciously colourful fishing shacks and roadside stalls. Upon arrival, you strip off down to your swimmers and clamber into the muddy pool, about 5m by 5m. Locals at the top help you in, dunk you in the mud, give you a five minute massage as you float and cast you weightlessly off to wallow. Me, I was lucky enough to be called back for a second massage, essentially an opportunistic grope, but he was good with his hands and didn’t charge so whatevs. Floating in the mud is a very odd sensation. Sinking is impossible and even directing your movements is hard.  There seems to be no limit to the number of foreigners that they will squeeze in for a wallow. It’s supposed to be ever so good for you, with 55 minerals waiting to permeate and improve your complexion.

Stolen pic from net to give you an idea of the volcano

Also stolen. More mud when I was there after the rains.

Another girl enjoying the same grope/massage

When you tire of slipping among the writhing mass, you are slicked down as you get out and sent padding to the lake to get rinsed by the ladies or wash the worst off yourself. Heading back, you stop into the seaside resort of Manzanillo for a slap-up lunch of local fried fish, plantain and coconut rice on the way back to town.
The perfect preparation for the 12-hour, Arctic cold night bus to Medellin that lay ahead.

3 thoughts on “The most fun you can have with your clothes on

  1. Clare Cardinal-Pett says:

    Dear Laura, May I please use your photo of Cartagena’s main gateway “stolen snap” in a book I am working on? Did you take it? Or steal it : ) ?

    Best wishes, Clare

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