Chivas and Caffeine: Cartagena and Colombian Coffee Country
When I first told people I was beginning my South American trip in Colombia by myself, the usual response was relatively predictable.
“Like, have you actually, like thought about the fact that you might actually, like, you know, get kidnapped?”
“Don’t go looking for cocaine.”
Naturally, I kept these pieces of advice in mind and reassured everyone that I had no such plans.. For most people who travel, reducing risk also means reducing the adventure and serendipity of your trip. I figured my best move was to book a hostel in advance and organise transport from the airport, then read the mood on the ground.
This unsolicited advice went through my head as I arrived at Cartagena airport and tried to find my ride to no avail. After searching the airport thoroughly as my panic increased, I wrangled my beginner’s Spanish into shape to try and ask the police stationed there for help.
“Descupla senor, tengo un reservacion por un taxi pero no puedo ver lo.”
Getting the feeling I was understood but was going to need to be more convincing, I decided to give a look around one more go. With great relief, I came across a man sitting with a sign with my name on it conveniently placed face-down across his knees.
And so it was I had made a successful exit from the airport and was en-route to my hostel. So far so good.
Colombians have absolutely beautiful Spanish that is clean and clear in comparison to some others. The entire trip to the hostel was passed with the most genial and civilised conversation in Spanish between myself and the driver.
“Eh primera ves en Colombia?”
“Si si primera ves!”
I was buoyed by a newfound confidence after avoiding being stranded at the airport.
Cartagena is the magical place straight out of Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera. The heat is intense, the humidity insatiable and the streets of the old town lined with bright flower boxes in window sills looking down over the pavement and passers-by, daring them to fall in love like Fermina Daza and Florentino Ariza. I fell in love with the place instantly and couldn’t wait to do some exploring.
Armed with the tourist map given to me by the hostel staff, I set off. More of Garcia-Marquez came to life as I passed stunning dark-skinned Caribbean women with bright baskets full of fruit on their heads.
I made it back to my hostel just before the first deluge of rain. As I sheltered in the main foyer area, I was dumbstruck by the resilience and coping mechanisms of people in the northern tropics as I observed the sandbags that guided an internal river which flowed over the tiles from the back courtyard through the main building and out the front door directly on to the street. It was then I appreciated the design of the footpaths positioned high above the street, built for times like these.
The showers in the hostel only released water at room temperature, which was all we needed. “Should we turn it on, now or wait for a bit do you think?” Inside the dorms, intrepid travellers negotiated air conditioning use as they balanced the need for some relief from the humidity and to keep energy use to a minimum.
Having met some fellow guests, we decided later after the rain had stopped to head out for some dinner. Over an outdoors feast of seafood in the local style, we were approached by a group of teenage males who made some pocket money out of entertaining people with their rapping skills. On the way home, we had a brush with the police as we were searched for cocaine, but were thankfully cleared. They did not have any female officers with them, so did not find it appropriate to frisk the senoritas
Out of determination to push my Spanish to the next level and an intention to meet some locals, I befriended a group of two Chilean guys and Mariana from Buenos Aires. We spent the day on Boca Grande returning to the beach where I had been the day before, this time taking my first proper swim in the Caribbean. This crew took me under their wing even with my elementary Spanish and we all decided to go out that night on a pub crawl.
Around 2 or 3am after dancing and aguardiente, we decided to head back to the hostel. I had presumed we would be taking a taxi but the guys thought it was a nice night for a stroll. After we had set off on foot, one of my Chilean companions turned to me and quite matter-of-factly and said, “Now if anything happens, just run.”
After my initial shock wore off, I was compelled to ask, “Run where? If what happens?”
The response was, “Anything, just run”.
With a warning like that I wondered why we hadn’t caught a taxi home, then I remembered that the guys were on different cash flows to me and probably didn’t want to spend the money.
The next night was for Rumba de Chivas, a party on wheels in a re-purposed traditional truck-cum-bus. The party was complete with personal rum bottles, a live Cumbia band on-board and a visit to a popping salsa spot. Thankfully I could rely on my friends for translation; proper fiesta is always in Spanish.
An overnight bus then carried me to the funky student town of Armenia in search of Colombian coffee goodness. Having botched my booking at the hostel, I was kindly escorted via bus to a gorgeous farm stay run by the same family. After settling in and showering, I gingerly searched for my hosts eventually to find two middle-aged Colombian sisters huddled under a blanket watching Colombian idol.
Two quickly became three as I joined them and we shared in some of the best coffee I have had, Nice to know Colombians keep some of the good stuff for themselves.
Cover by Ricardo Gomez Angel; inset supplied by the author