We have been in Cartagena de Indias, Colombia, for a month. The marina is a quick 10-minute walk from the heart of the city which, as far as we are concerned, consists of two or three parts:
The Centro Histórico—a fully restored World Heritage site of luxury hotels and high-end restaurants (the kind that serve a thumb of lobster meat in the middle of a white porcelain disc the size of a manhole cover, garnished with two red nasturtiums and a tiny puddle of beetroot coulis in the shape of a tadpole…or sperm…beside it, for $40) tucked inside 11 kms. of ancient fortified walls.
And the less well-restored but more vibrant Getsemaní quarter…a maze of smaller rainbow-coloured houses, informal cafés, bars and grog shops, amazing street art, clichéd hipster hostels that get their design ideas from Pinterest, wonderful public sculptures, and a not entirely artificial ‘La Vie Bohème‘ vibe. (Also of practical interest is the sector La Matuna, a swarming commercial area of bargain department stores, Chinatown-like warehouses that sell anything you can imagine, and a rash of small mobile and smart phone accessories vendors).
Founded in 1533 by the Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia, Cartagena de Indias is often called “a living museum of the 16th-19th centuries”. And, amazingly, it still is…inspite all the tourists, boutique ice-cream shops, and the hundreds of infinity pools or Sisley-of-Paris spas hidden within the rustic outer walls of old colonial mansions, this city is still very much a part of the daily lives of local inhabitants (who cannot afford to live here, but come into the walled city everyday to work, shop, beg, busk, or just stroll around and enjoy their own city).
It is a photographer’s dream and nightmare…not a street exists that does not cry out to be photographed; I’ve had to go without my camera, some days, just to be able to enjoy the place for itself, and not endlessly succumb to the mindless consumerism of photographing everything. It is like so much eye candy that the teeth ache just looking at it all.
Didn’t rain choke the animal throats
of the cathedral sputter
against the roofs of the city didn’t the flight
of stairs rise up above the cobbled street
didn’t the key clamor
in the lock flood
the vestibule with clattering didn’t we climb
the second flight
toward the miniature Allegory
painted on the ceiling
and touch the flat-faced girls
winged part animal
who did not flinch and did not scamper
—Keys to The City by Richie Hofman
I must confess that I kind of wasted my first three of weeks in Santiago de Cuba. The first two, we visited some tourist attractions, and I took a ferry to the city of Santiago five times, but didn’t venture very deeply into its daily life.
I stayed on the cobbled streets, snapping photos of building facades, sitting—somewhat lost—on park benches, browsing the souvenirs or galleries, looking respectfully at monuments in squares, having coffee at one of the many places that serves only tourists, taking portraits of willing or unconcerned subjects like this little street pup…
But, after days of this, I remained on the outside. I was sick of taking pictures of every candy-coloured building and curly lamppost, tired of lugging a camera around, of being a spectator. I was looking at the city through a glass wall. I knew there was more to this 500-year-old city than the sugar-paste facades of beautifully restored buildings, the smooth English-speaking jineteros (‘jockeys’…so-called, because they ‘ride’ tourists) touting cigars, tours, cheap rum, or a room and a quick tryst, the charming sidewalk tourist-only establishments serving mojitos and cuba libres at 9 in the morning. I wanted the city’s beating heart, it’s radiant soul, it’s humanity…but where/what was it?
And then I spent the third week (from Christmas till New Year’s Day) on the boat with the flu, watching the distant fireworks blossom soundlessly from the direction of the city square at midnight on New Year’s Eve, feeling quite miserable. With just one week left, I desperately wanted to get in touch with the real Cuba.
Promised myself, that last night of the old year, to throw myself into the search with less reserve, to take more risks, to reach out—again and again, if I had to—until a door opened somewhere, somebody took my outstretched hand, and pulled me in…
“The Posada Don Carlos guesthouse is a colonial mansion, built in 1876, carefully restored by its owners. Located in the heart of the historic quarter in Ciudad Bolivar, it is only steps away from Bolivar square and 200 meters from the Orinoco River. Combining traditional atmosphere with modern conveniences, the options range from sleeping in a hammock to staying in very elegant rooms.” (quoted from the website)
Having booked our tour to Canaima, Kris and I took a taxi straight to Posada Don Carlos, situated on the corner of Calle Boyacá and Calle Amor Patrio, in the casco histórico (historical part) of town. We stepped up to a large heavy door with an ornate brass door knocker (and a modern doorbell) set into a discreet terracotta-coloured wall. A friendly face appeared at one of the wrought iron windows for a second, disappeared, and then the same smiling lady was at the door.
Stepping into the mansion from the hot streets of the town was like moving into another world. A shadowy hallway opened up onto a dappled central courtyard, with cool green light filtering through the delicate leaves of a tree with outspread branches.
Two big, serene dogs lolled on the cool tiled floor. In places, the ancient red brick walls have been tastefully exposed, and all the doors are tall enough to accommodate the colonial men and woman of old as they entered their home astride their horses (I guess horses were watered and stabled within the walls of the house, in the courtyards).
The owners have put a lot of work into filling the mansion with Venezuelan antiques: not only large pieces of furniture, but little curios like old irons, typewriters, cameras and kitchen utensils pepper the corners of the house the way they must have, back in the day.
Also, many really beautiful old pieces of Pemon basketwork and weaving, together with cow and deer skulls, and a few rustic objets d’art, hang from the walls, or swing gently in mid-air, suspended from the high ceilings.
I love the high, open ceilings of colonial homes…in the tropics, it’s a great way to deal with the incredible heat. The extra wall space means that windows and doors were made much taller than their modern counterparts, letting in more wind and a really marvelous ambient light.
A room with a double bed, our own shower and toilet, and an electric fan (because we don’t like air-conditioning), was $3.00 per night (at the time of writing…prices change very fast, here…it is even cheaper now…$2.85 or something) Incredible.
Breakfast can be requested, but we preferred to eat outside, so I don’t know how good it is. No lunch or dinner, although you can use the kitchen to cook your own food (you may or may not need to have your own dishes, pots, pans…they haven’t got a lot of kitchen gear). There’s always coffee in the morning, two big flasks of it, and it’s good, strong coffee. The atmosphere is very “relaxed” and a bit “rustic”…meaning the staff sit around a lot, and don’t seem particularly eager to get to their feet when you ask them for something. It can be noisy, too…what with the dogs barking at pedestrians from the windows, the car alarms in the street going off now and then, and the owner’s wife spontaneously picking up a cuadro (a small guitar) and, together with some of the staff, bursting into the loud ballads typical of Los Llanos (The Plains). Out of tune. At seven in the morning. Outside your bedroom window.
But, for the excellent price and the beauty of the place, it’s totally worth putting up with the desperate, unrefined singing of The Lady of The House!
After much trouble trying to rent a car and make various other complicated travel arrangements, to no avail, Kris and I just packed a couple of backpacks last Monday the 21st, and went to the central bus terminal in Puerto La Cruz at 7 a.m. We’d decided to catch the first available bus (that didn’t have huge queues) to any of the states in Venezuela that were on our wish list.
There were no buses, except to Venezuela’s capital, Caracas (definitely didn’t want to go there!) but, as luck would have it, a por puesto taxi (literally ‘per position’: one seat in a regular air-conditioned car that takes four passengers, $3.00 each) was leaving for Ciudad Bolívar. We were thrilled, as this destination is at the top of our Venezuela list, so off we went.
Ciudad Bolívar is the gateway city to Canaima National Park, which is the place to experience, among many other stunning natural wonders, the famous Salto Angel, the world’s longest waterfall, as it plummets silently for nearly a kilometre, down the sandstone rocks of Auyantepui in the Gran Sabana region of Bolivar State.
We arrived from Puerto La Cruz three hours later, then spent most of Monday at the city’s small airport—where all the tour agencies for the remote Canaima are located, and little four-seater planes take off throughout the day, carrying people across the vast wetlands and the Gran Sabana, through which there are no roads—haggling and pitting one agency against the others in order to crank the prices down as low as possible. Finally we made our choice, pushed one agent against the wall (metaphorically!) and booked with a small agency run by a family of Peruvian immigrants ($200/pax)
We had to spend a night in Ciudad Bolivar, and would leave the following morning. We took a taxi to the casco historico, the old colonial part of the town, built on hills overlooking the Orinoco River, and booked at Posada Don Carlos, a really lovely bed & breakfast located inside a meticulously restored colonial house on a quiet street.
We deposited our bags, had a shower, changed, and then went out to wander the streets of the old town, with camera. Also, we were looking for dinner of some sort, as the Posada doesn’t do lunch or dinner. The rest of these photos are pretty much more colonial streets and houses…
…except for this last one, where we turned a corner at the top of a hill, and I managed to snap a bit of the state’s beautiful bridge, Puente Angostura, before night fell. The great river it spans is The Orinoco, river of legends, songs, explorers, and dreams of centuries.
Okay, that’s it for St. George, bet you’re relieved. These posts have been scheduled to post automatically, every few days, because I don’t get an internet connection all that often. By the time you read this post, we will probably have been in Venezuela a couple of weeks. Wish I could post things as they happen, but well, that’s life on a boat, I guess, the news will always be a little bit old by the time I can get it to you.