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Saturday, August 30, 2008

CARTEGENA, COLUMBIA--AN UP AND COMING VACATION LOCATION

Our second port-of-call on our Panama Canal cruise is Cartegena, Columbia, a very intriguing city. This is the first year it is a stopping point for cruise ships, and indeed, there will be only one more ship entering this harbor this season. As with Northern Ireland, Colombia was considered far too dangerous for a stop, and so Columbians are still developing ways to handle cruise ship tourists. That is a massive undertaking. Cartegena is a beautiful city, a glorious mixture of old and new—and also of old and new world. We’ve booked an onshore excursion here. Its title offers something very new and different: Mangrove Tunnels & “Old City” Stroll.

Colombia is our first venture into South America, so right away that’s cool. But “cool” is not a word easily used in Cartegnea. We are only 12° from the Equator. The temperature at 9:00 AM is already in the mid 80s, and the humidity is hovering around 70%. No wonder we are warned to bring plenty of sunscreen and water on this tour. Despite the oppressive heat, the day is beautiful and the sky is a rich blue.

Our tour bus, thankfully air conditioned, takes us along the coast on the packed sand road past fishing huts, dwellings that can only be described as hovels but also past some nice residential neighborhoods. On the beaches, swimmers sit under cabana-type structures as safeguard from the sun. In fact as we drive past the one remaining wall of this once-walled city, there are people sitting in all the cannon holes where the stones offer a bit of cool space. We pass fishermen carrying their nets and children playing in the sand. Our guide, Raphael, speaking adequate English, points out many of the sights along the way.

Upon our arrival at the Mangrove area in the eastern part of Cartagena, we board canoes built for four passengers and the Columbian poler. Mangroves are trees that grow in the water, their reaching roots forming beautiful patterns at their bases and their leaves, green and fluttering reflect in the water and form a green canopy overhead. I’ve never been in this kind of environment before. Off we go, a long procession of canoes and polers in their yellow or green shirts and orange baseball caps.
The lake is shallow, and all along our route, small, poor children stand begging or seeking to sell us seashells for $1.00. Very sad.

The mangrove tunnels are cut through the dense mangrove trees, so we wind around in a quiet, green coolness. We marvel at the density of the trees as we skim the water under this canopy of green leaves. It’s cool in here. Our polers maneuver through the narrow cuts, and everything takes on a green tint. We emerge from the mangroves to a large shallow lake, and after a bit, the polers turn the canoes around and we re-enter the mangrove forest for the ride back. This is a totally different world. What an experience!

This ride is a lovely bit of eco-tourism. We become part of nature and enter its private areas with minimal disturbance.

As our polers beach our canoes and help us back to dry land, we are greeted with freshly cut coconuts. Straws jut from the holes in their tops. Here for many of the cruisers is the first taste of coconut milk. We are also treated to a folkloric dance show, vibrant with enthusiastic movement. This is a lovely way to spend part of our day, but there is more to see in Cartagena.

After a bumpy ride back to the city, we take some time in the colorful shops filled with linens, dolls, and many native crafts.

Next is a walking tour of some important areas of the old walled city. Our guide, Raphael, works very hard to explain the history of some of the buildings, and it is most interesting to walk and admire the Spanish colonial architecture and the vivid colors. Some of the buildings are original, and some have been painstakingly restored.

Cartegena’s history involves pirate attacks and assaults by the British—Sir Francis Drake for instance, and so a 12 ft. wall taking 197 years to complete was built around the city. There were 23 bastions (guard towers) along the wall, and 16 still stand. It is a city that mixes the old and the new, and it struggles to find its way in an era of visitors and expansion. As we walk through the city we are barraged by street vendors who don’t want to take no for an answer. We also receive a “coin” at the end of the tour with a telephone number—a timeshare offering. Yes, definitely a mixture of the old and the new.

One aspect of the tour did make a remarkable impression. We were never without police or military escort. Two officers were in the mangroves with us, and although we had been advised to stay with the group when we walked through the city, at the rear of the group were two uniformed officers. Raphael at the front and the officers in the rear. We never felt unsafe, but the guards near us and the soldiers on the street give one pause. But let me reiterate, we never felt unsafe, and I am very happy that we had a chance to visit Cartegena and to explore a bit. It will be interesting to come back to see how their tourist industry develops.
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