Our first experience of South America was heat and beating sun—the kind of heat that made us feel like we were back in Southeast Asia. That’s because we landed in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, a city that was one of Spain’s major ports in the New World and a prime target for pirates. Today, the old parts of Cartagena are colorful and charming, full of narrow streets and low, brightly painted buildings with flower-filled balconies (where residents tried desperately to catch a breeze). There’s not much else for tourists to see in Cartagena, except some colonial-era churches and fortifications, but the city would be a perfect place for strolling—if it weren’t for the relentless 90-degree F days, equatorial sun, and throngs of touts.
The vendors sell everything from souvenirs to boat rides to sunglasses to teeth-shatteringly sweet local candy. Many of them are from neighboring Venezuela, among the more than 1 million refugees who have fled to Colombia as their country’s economy has collapsed. You can’t blame them for trying hard to earn a living in a new place; still, if you want to get down a street in Cartagena’s old town at any pace faster than a snail’s, you have to say “no, gracias” a lot as you pick your way among the vendors.
That’s not to say that we haven’t helped the Cartagena economy a little. AJ enjoyed sampling different local sweets and paid to take Francesca’s picture with the women in colorful dresses and bowls of fruit on their heads who walk around the city charging for photographs. We also paid a local guide in the Parque el Centenario (Centennial Park) to point out the interesting wildlife living in the tall trees of that dusty urban patch of land. We saw big brown iguanas, green parrots, black-and-white tamarins (which look like small monkeys), a baby vulture, and adult and juvenile sloths. There’s a family of sloths living in the park, each member dozing in its own tree, until they come together (like kids at the dinner table) in whatever tree happens to be flowering at the moment.
For our two nights in Cartagena, we stayed in the Getsemani neighborhood, close to the old town but less touristy, in the aptly named Casa Relax—an old house centered on a courtyard that has been turned into a 12-room hotel, complete with such godsends as air conditioning and a partially shaded swimming pool. The promise of a swim (along with a visit to a famous popsicle shop) is how we lured a bored and drooping Francesca through the hot streets as we walked around the old city.
Just up the street from our hotel, a small plaza in front of a church transforms in the evening into the neighborhood’s living room. People sit on benches and talk, food carts arrive, young guys play music, and kids whiz around on bikes. There, we met Alvaro, a Colombian man in his 50s who was selling souvenir magnets. He’d worked as a tour guide in Venezuela for decades but had recently returned to Colombia when tourism to Venezuela dried up. Now he’s trying to earn enough to pay for a tour guide’s license in Cartagena and is working on his language skills. His English is excellent, thanks in part to a notebook he carries in which he copies poems and articles he finds at the library to study whenever he has time. To make himself more marketable, he’s trying to learn German as well. When he found out that AJ teaches English to immigrants, he asked her for all kinds of advice and engaged her in conversation for an hour. Alvaro is such a friendly, upbeat, hard-working person that we feel sure he’ll do well.
While we were talking, Francesca—whose energy had returned as the evening cooled off—was amusing herself by running back and forth between our bench and the church steps as fast as she could. She was joined by a little boy who wanted to race. Together, they ran and whooped and dodged the people lolling in the square, as the tropical torpor dissolved (for a few precious hours) into a temperature at which Cartagena’s residents and visitors could enjoy life again.