Cartagena, Part 1

October 21, 2009 at 4:01 pm
Cartagena street

Cartagena street

One of our favorite squares

One of our favorite squares

It’s Monday morning, our first full day in Cartagena, and the first day of our Spanish lessons. A year earlier we did this as a whole family in Antigua, Guatemala; this time it’s only three of us, and we don’t know what to expect, so we’re nervous and excited. After a very small breakfast – we like our hotel, especially the free internet (I’ve found in many places around the world, the more budget a hotel is, the more likely they will provide free internet, and the more fancy a hotel is, the more likely they will charge you for internet which always feels cheap because you’ve already splurged on the room), but breakfast is really minimalistic.

I look at the map and wisely decide we’ll walk to the school in the Getsemani area. It’s 85 degrees at 7.30am so after a few minutes, I realize I’m not so clever after all, but now I have a point to prove. We get there late, and things don’t fall into place very well at all. In Antigua, we had a choice of at least 15 different schools while here we had a choice of one, Cactus, and the lack of competition has made them a little lazy. We all are asked to do a placement test, even though Benjy and I are complete beginners and are supposed to have our own private tutor, so we laugh our way through the test in which I expect I get my lowest grade of my life. Liora’s placed in a class, but they’re not sure what to do with Benjy and me, so they send us off and ask us to come back two hours later.

We are on vacation remember, so we don’t mind that too much. First we have breakfast at Gato Negro, a cute place down the road from the school. Then we wander around, finding the local market where Benjy immediately starts negotiating soccer shirt prices. He has a nose that can find the soccer shirts in any city. When we return, covered in sweat, they’ve found us a teacher, and we start. It’s a very interesting experience, being in a private class with my eleven year old, and I really enjoy it. It’s also not too intense as we only have two hours of class each morning while Liora has three.

We meet up after class, practicing our poor Spanish, and go down the street to the GCB (Getsemani Cafe Bar) for lunch. For about $3 a person, we get the meal of the day – comida corriente – of soup, main course and fruit drink, and it’s amazing value and very good. we will eat here five days in succession and enjoy it every time. We try a selection of fruit juices which are wonderful and a speciality of Cartagena. Then we head out into the streets.

Despite the suffocating heat and humidity, the city is a hive of activity and atmosphere. Everyone looks as if they are engaged in some sort f industry, no matter how small. We love the coffee sellers who reload at coffee stations, and the hawkers of fruit, juice, and small tchachkes. We discover the massive Exito supermarket – perfectly located about halfway between the school and our hotel – with its excellent selection, but even better air-conditioning. Whenever the sweltering heat gets too much, we take refuge in Exito.

We stroll through the markets and narrow, busy streets of San Diego; we get lost a few times but land up at our hotel. After a short rest we go out again – after the sun goes down the weather is much more bearable – and walk on the old city walls. Although I have read the warnings in the guidebooks about being careful after dark, this seems impossible as half the world looks as if they’re walking around too.

Outside our hotel, Tres Banderas

Outside our hotel, Tres Banderas

Benjy on city walls

Benjy on city walls

City walls

City walls

By day three in Cartagena, we have our bearings and it’s easy to find our way around. We have a rhythm and routine too. Liora leaves early for class and Benjy and I walk there later. We detour through Juan Valdez, and Exito to stock up on supplies and just enjoy that brilliant cold air. We also have a breakthrough when I eventually reach our daughter in Israel. At first we had no chance because somehow I had the wrong number; then we just could not get through, and finally we left messages. But on this auspicious morning, we actually talk.

We have our own route, through the streets of San Diego, to the market, into Getsemani where we stop for pastries at a small bakery. It’s one of my wonders of travel that after a couple of days in a city – almost any city – you feel as if you’ve known it well forever –  After class and lunch, we go to the old fort, Castillo San Felipe. It’s very well preserved and has good views of the city. We hire a guide to show us around and explain some of the history.

Afterwards we walk to a very authentic crafts market which unfortunately is too authentic for us. We find a more touristy one near our hotel which unfortunately is too touristy for us.We spend the evenings walking the streets taking n the incredible buildings – it is hard to describe how beautiful the old buildings are – eating at outside cafes, and playing card games, where my son taunts me for my guileless play.

View from Castilo san Felipe

View from Castilo san Felipe

Benjy at Castilo

Benjy at Castilo

Colombian flag was massive, although that's not clear here

Colombian flag was massive, although that's not clear here

Castilo, with circus in background

Castilo, with circus in background

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