This may seem strange coming from a cosseted cruise writer but I consider myself to be quite an adventurous traveller. I’ve hitched across Tibet, swum with whale sharks and even visited the scary, mean streets of New York before Mayor Guliani cleaned them up. But 14 years ago, on a three-year motorcycle ride around the world, I skipped Columbia. That was largely because Colombian prisoners had taken over their entire prison and the rest of the country was in control of drug cartels so the Colombian Tourist Authority took the unusual step of asking international visitors not to come. Tales abounded of backpackers on the streets clad only in cardboard boxes after all else was stolen.
Not visiting Colombia in general and Cartagena in particular is one of the regrets of my travel life. I’ve seen Romancing the Stone and remembered the dramatically beautiful scenes around the port of Cartagena.The first port of call on this Radiance of the Seas voyage is Cartagena, so one travel regret is about to be redressed.
But with an inordinate fondness for my cameras, my passport and my life I approach the day with some trepidation. However, a man I spoke to in one of the ship’s bars tells me that he’d been to Cartagena before and found it perfectly safe: “the Mexicans run the drugs into the US now and the Colombian government keep the old town of Cartagena under solid security so it’s very safe for tourists. However, if you wander into the other areas . . .”
Cartagena is an astonishing monument to mistrust. It’s World Heritage because it was a heavily-fortified city surrounded by forts and bastions. And it was eventually so impregnable that, despite numerous attempts, it wasn’t captured and destroyed and remains an excellent historical sight.
But that isn’t my first impression of the city. As we sail past a small entrance fort, the horizon is filled with gleaming white skyscrapers that mark the modern city. Oops, I thought it was merely a quaint old place where the only industry was flogging T-shirts and coffee. However, after more than an hour’s delay in disembarkation because Island Princess grabbed our dock, I directed the cab to take me to the entrance to the old city. Here there are hours of enjoyment in walking the streets of beautiful colonial terraces houses, clambering onto the battlements and watching kids playing in the central plaza. Most remarkable is the way that nice-but-nondescript doorways open to reveal beautiful verdant courtyards where fountains tinkle and flowers bloom.
Then it’s time to head into the Museum of Torture right on the main square. It begins with a list of leading questions from the XVII Century that modern politicians would find enlightening. “Why did you become a witch? What is the name of your master amongst the evil spirits? What demons and people attended your wedding?” Who could answer those questions without feeling the rack or stocks looming?
Of course, there’s an array of instruments of torture. The ingenuity to inflict pain on others is remarkable but, after seeing objects that I hope were never used, I come back into the sunshine feeling rather unclean. My purification takes place in a restaurant with wi-fi called Waffles & Crepes where I seek salvation and it’s largely delivered. The coffee is excellent, too.
After a day of walking I feel I have a good grasp on this very appealing city. Contrary to preconceptions I remain unmugged and no-one has offered me cocaine. Only one question remains. Where was the dock scene with Danny DeVito filmed? I walk into an emerald dealer cleverly named “Romance in the Stone” and ask. The answer is shattering: the film was set in Cartagena but was filmed in Mexico’s Veracruz. No wonder my walk along the top of the city walls didn’t trigger any memories.
As I caught a cab back to the ship ($20 each way) it started to rain. But not in a wimpy temperate climate sort of way – this was the deluge you’d get if you hang washing on your hotel room’s ceiling sprinkler. I have an umbrella but that just means I’m drenched from the waist down. Fortunately, a hot shower and dry clothes are just a security scan and ID check away. As we sail away the sun breaks through and the modern high rise skyline is bathed in a golden sunset. I vow to return.
Words: David McGonigal.