After leaving Santa Marta, and after making a short pitstop in Barranquilla, our 4-hour bus ride to Cartagena begins to draw to a close as we reach the outskirts of the city. On the edge of the highway, black Colombians have established swamp-side communities where homes are made from tin and tarp, adjacent to yards littered with heaps of trash.
Although nighttime is approaching, there aren’t any glowing lights or flickering television screens glaring from windows; these homes have no windows – just doors opened wide enough for a cool breeze to pass through to the shadowy darkness inside. Residents sit on porches chatting, neighbors come and go about their evening routines, and I look through my bus window imagining what my life would be like if I lived here.
Our bus whizzes past, but the unmistakable expressions of hopelessness imprinted on the faces of these swamp-dwelling locals (who look like me) don’t escape me; they’ve etched an indelible impression in my memory.
But we’re not here to see them; perhaps that’s why the bus drives so quickly past. This is the Cartagena no one writes about in guide books or glossy travel magazines. This kind of poverty doesn’t attract tourists’ dollars.
We drive deeper into the city, stopping to drop riders off at their rented vacation penthouses in Bocagrande’s towering condo complexes; a stark contrast from the communities we’ve just left behind.
As traffic slows, I wonder if our driver will drop us off in front of our hotel located inside the walled city. I soon get my answer when our driver drops us off outside of one of many of the wall’s entrances and points towards the direction we need to walk to get to our hotel.
I’m not mesmerized like I thought I’d be as we enter into this colonial slice of Cartagena that’s earned it a UNESCO World Heritage Site designation. The sky darkens as we try to navigate our way through the narrow roads, stopping at random convenience stores and shops in hopes that someone will be able to point us in the right direction of our hotel and that we’ll be able to communicate in light of our broken Spanish and excessive gesturing. Eventually, we find our way.
After getting settled, we venture out for dinner and are delighted to get an amuse-bouche of that certain something that lures so many visitors here. During our post-dinner stroll, horse-drawn carriages clickety-clack past us, salsa music drifts up the road from an unknown source, people are still coming and going. I’m smitten.
But I don’t really fall in love until the next morning during our tour inside the walls. Admittedly, I don’t hear much of what our guide is saying; my senses are on overdrive as I find myself reminiscing about places like Old San Juan, New Orleans, and even Paraty. But Cartagena is different. Behind its walls, the city oozes charm, character and color, and there’s not a picture around that can adequately convey the feel of this place. Still, I try; I can’t put my camera down…