Note: This post comes from an email I sent during a trip to Venezuela, Colombia, and Panama in June 2010.
I have had an epic 24 hours in Cartagena. Last night Greg and I arrived in our lovely hotel’s lobby at 8:00 to await the arrival of our tour bus for an evening tour of Cartegenian nightlife, or something to that effect – we weren’t sure what to expect.
You are probably familiar with the concept of a “party bus” in the United States… people rent a bus with tinted windows and get to drink on it while driving around. I haven’t been on one, but let me tell you: they are LAME compared to what they have here in Cartagena.
The bus, or chiva, that arrived to pick us up was open air – there was a roof, but nothing on the sides. Each of the eight or so rows on the chiva holds about six people, and one of the rows holds a band. Yes, a band! When the chiva pulled up to our hotel, already about 75% loaded, the band of a clarinetist and two drummers was in full force, pounding out rumba rhythms to match the enthusiasm of those on board. We climbed up next to a young Colombian couple and were later joined by an older couple from Brazil (with whom I managed to converse in Spanish). The 30 additional minutes of driving around to pick up people were a blast in and of themselves; at every stop, the seemingly omnipresent street vendors hopped aboard in order to try to sell people hats, maraccas, beer, or water. We passed many other chivas, and each time this happened, we of course made an effort to make sure ours was the loudest. I have video footage of this.
Things got signficantly more interesting when we suddenly received a bucket of ice, a bottle of Pepsi, and a bottle of rum – for the six of us in our row. We quickly poured ourselves a cocktail, which we quickly consumed while we continued to drive around the city. After everyone had partaken of sufficient social lubricant, the tour guide commenced with the real entertainment: get up and dance the rumba while drinking and while the bus is moving! The girls began first, and each row would stand up in succession and shake it like a saltshaker for 10 seconds before yielding to the row behind. (I did my best, but it’s hard to compete with Colombian women.) The guys went next, and being less able to shake the tops of their bodies, they imitated the tour guide: stand up on your seat, bend over, and shake your ass around! I caught some of this on tape as well… “hilarious” doesn’t begin to cover it. After this, the guide asked for volunteers to participate in a contest… and my new Colombian friends to my left quickly volunteered me for this. Three of us stood up and danced for all we were worth, to thunderous applause all around. It was unclear who ultimately won, but the point is that I tried. 🙂
We ultimately arrived at one part of the old city, where we had 45 minutes to hang out up on the wall with a bunch of other partiers. It reminded me a great deal of the great tradition of botellón in Spain, where everyone brings a bottle of liquor and drinks in the plaza all night. Greg left to make friends with some Europeans on our bus, while I stayed with the Colombian couple and talked to them over a beer (which is, by the way, great here and in Venezuela). We discussed a variety of things, and they praised me on my Spanish – hooray! While we were talking, one of the ever-enterprising Colombians came over holding none other than a three toed sloth and transferred the cute creature into the arms of José and Diana, who then passed it to me. You never know what the night will hold.
Back on the chiva, we got to eat a great drinking snack: arepas con huevo. Arepas exist in Colombia as well, but they typically just have egg in them. It was delicious and necessary given that we received ANOTHER bottle of rum (granted, these are about the size of a soda bottle from a vending machine) and proceeded to get rid of that as well. A short time later, we arrived at another entrance to the city for our final destination, a salsa club. Once inside, we watched as the talented Colombians shook their groove things to the peppy music of the Caribbean, and José and Diana demonstrated a bit for us. A short time later, Diana passed José to me (dance with a hot Colombian man? check), and I had a great time twirling and shaking with the best of them… perhaps my salsa lessons from Spain resurfaced to help me. Greg danced with an old lady who was still plenty able to dance, and we all had a great time.
Finally, around midnight, it was time to get back on the chiva for the ride back to our side of town. The band was gone, but the spirit remained. I continued chatting it up with Diana and José, who felt very strongly that we should stay longer in Cartagena and avoid going to Bogotá altogether. Unfortunately, we have to fly out of Bogotá on Tuesday, so we have to go there eventually, but we came back so convinced of Cartagena’s greatness (not that there were any doubts before) that we actually contemplated trying to switch our flights. Instead, we settled for skipping Medellín and staying here an extra day so that we go straight from Cartagena to Bogotá (a 16-hour ride reminiscent of our Model UN trips to Montreal).
After getting those changes taken care of, our principal activity today was to visit a nearby mud volcano that José had described as “delicious”. After a nap in a hammock underneath the rooftop gazebo during a noontime thunderstorm, we boarded a van with four other people and headed along the coast an hour to the site of the volcano. What a change between Cartagena and the surrounding rural areas: we quickly went from expensive highrises to roadside huts and people riding donkeys (seriously). We were also stopped by a few members of the military, who chose only to check the credentials of our driver rather than make us get out and submit to a frisking (which the men on the other side of the road experienced). Never a dull moment.
The volcano is quite small, but that’s definitely what it is. A volcano-shaped (?) mound rising about 25 yards above the ground, its sides are covered with dried mud, and two steep staircases (also constructed from mud) run up its sides. We were just in time to see people coming down from the top, completely covered in black mud. Once we got to the top (after some clinging to the guardrail on my part due to the slipperyness of the mud), we saw that the mud pool was large enough to hold maybe 10 people comfortably. Greg was the first from our group to lower himself into the mud; I followed soon after and was immediately flipped onto my back and covered in mud by a helpful native who then proceeded to give me a full-body massage… delicious, indeed! Everything other than my mouth and eyes was covered in mud. After the massage, we had a good time just hanging out in the mud. It was roughly like being in a pool of thick, melted chocolate… it was impossible to sink lower than my shoulders, and moving was quite difficult. As Greg put it: “this is where standing and floating meet.” I was literally suspended in mud, not moving up or down at all. You could stay there all day!
After about 20 minutes of mud bathing, we exited and made our way down to the river, where more helpful natives each took charge of one of us and led us into the water. They did quite a thorough job of cleaning us off, including removing our bathing suits and getting all of the mud out of them. We emerged 10 minutes later relatively mud-free and boasting newly glowing skin.
All in all, the last 24 hours are the best of the trip thus far. Tomorrow will include beach time and shopping (there’s quite a lot to buy in Cartagena) before we head to Bogotá overnight. We’ll be in Bogotá on Monday before leaving for Panamá early Tuesday morning.
I’ll write again from Bogotá!