7th September 2022

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia – Cienaga de Cholón, Colombia

Juxtaposition. This is not just a great scrabble word scoring between 29 and 178 points but it also perfectly describes everything we’ve experienced in Cartagena. Rampant tourism sits next to authentic living, sanitised malls give way to thriving local markets and chaotic Cartagena is swapped for calmness in Cholón.

As night descended, we ventured into Cartagena and life in its rawest form was everywhere. Sellers of snacks and drinks weaved through the crowds while touts tried to draw our attention to their wonders. All this was under the gaze of buildings that were centuries old and would have many stories to tell.

As the evening drew on, instead of the town starting to sleep its energy grew. The booming rhythms bursting from salsa bars became faster, the dancing became more exuberant and every square inch of every plaza throbbed with life. In a mere few hours this was going to change.

As the sun dawned, we found ourselves walking through the same streets* but the noise and crowds were gone and replaced with silence and art. Every surface was covered with murals stretching along walls, across windows, around corners and over roofs. Reaching up, these murals gave way to street coverings of umbrellas, flags and bunting of every colour. This change could only be described by the word juxtaposition.

The clean sanitised world of tourism continued as we wandered around city walls, past ancient churches and through forts, which in the greatest tradition of forts, were mostly completed after all the action had finished. We were however about to get off the tourist trail and into the world of locals.

Nearing the Bazurto market our senses were starting to be assaulted, the sanitised world of tourism was a long way away. The clean streets were replaced by roads covered in the detritus of trade, where gutters ran red with blood from slaughtered animals and heaps of rotting fish guts were scavenged by stray cats. Occasionally these aromas were overpowered by the smell of home cooking where spices were used liberally and fresh herbs exploded with flavour.

As we wandered through this glimpse of South American life, we fought for space with traders selling their wares, motorbikes with powerful engines, belching trucks who had no place around so many people and the occasional donkey, who was happy for a rest in the congestion.

Escaping from this inner gloom our noses had time to recover but our ears were now being bruised. Every roadside shop was employing DJs resplendent with turntables and volume controls that went all the way up to 11 in a bid to pull punters into their shops. MC’s bounded up and down the street shouting lyrics into sound systems hoping that the sound waves would be enough to bounce us to their tills.

Needing to wave goodbye to the chaos and craziness of Cartagena we had an eye on a little anchorage south of the city which offered nothing but dark skies, flat water and an absence of people. The only challenge was the tricky navigation to get in.

Nearing the entrance and skirting around the reefs our Navionics charts** showed us squarely aground and heading for an entrance that looked impossibly narrow. This narrowness had grown even narrower as reams of powerboats, who’s stereos were more powerful than their engines***, were moored stern to the beach with their tiny anchors reaching into the water that was just deep enough for us to float over.

As we weaved our way past countless boats and further and further into the bay silence descended. This was only broken by birdsong and the gentle splashing of the oars from dugout canoes as they paddled out looking for fish or someone to sell their mangoes, papayas and homemade sweet treats to. Where the anchor set gave us an extreme change to Cartagena and to the party we found at the bay’s entrance.

In the bay of Cholón the only entertainment was of the self-made type and gone were the attractions of a big city. We watched as birds swooped around us, fishies swam below and mangroves slowly grew along every shoreline. We’d found a different pace of life and even venturing through the narrow mangrove channels into the ‘town’, engines didn’t roar and people didn’t gyrate.

There have been exceptions and not everything has been a juxtaposition. Everywhere we have been there are constant smiling faces, happy people and continent that has welcomed us.  Maybe this constant therefore makes the juxtaposition, a juxtaposition in itself?

* Surprisingly we didn’t pull an all-nighter we just got up early.

** Navionics charts are totally inaccurate in Cartagena’s bay islands.  Fortunately, the Colombian government has published a free pilot book with charts and waypoints.

*** This is saying something as most of the powerboats were packing at least 1000hp!

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Author: Iain & Fiona Lewis

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