Bus2Antarctica: Choose Your Own Adventure in Cartagena

Andrew Evans’s pre-adolescent love for all things pirates was evoked while traveling through the Colombian city of Cartagena. Follow his entire trip to Antarctica here.

Cartagena CafeForgive me while I generalize for a bit:

All little girls go through a princess phase. It starts around age four and starts waning around age seven or eight. Disney has made a fortune by tapping into this phenomenon.

Similarly, all little boys go through a pirate phase. It starts around age five and lasts until–well, it actually never goes away. Disney and the NFL have made a fortune by tapping into this phenomenon.

I caught pirate fever early in my youth and it has since developed into a chronic illness. I think if I really I had my way, I would lie in a hammock and read pirate books all day.

Now in regards to travel destinations, whenever I hear someone announce (or more often, hear myself announce), “I’ve always wanted to go there,” I try and dissect the “always.” Desire for specific destinations is not an inborn trait–at some point we pick up these travel inspirations from somewhere–books, TV, movies, music, maps, school projects, and of course, travel magazines.

As a child of the eighties, I fell victim to the Choose Your Own Adventure books and the very similar Time Machine series, where readers could travel back in time and made choices about the direction and ultimate ending of each story. Out of the dozens of books I devoured there was one favorite: Sail with Pirates by Jim Gasperini. I am sure I read that book at least fifteen times, and each time I read it, I always chose to “travel” to Cartagena.

Cartagena WallI have since read other books about Cartagena, like Gabriel García Márquez’s Love in The Time of Cholera.  These stories have also fed the dream of someday visiting this wonderful city in Colombia–and yet, admittedly, the first little seed of travel longing goes back to a paperback written for and marketed to young boys in the height of their pirate phase.

Life is far more exciting than fiction because I finally made it to Cartagena while en route to Antarctica. If only time machines did exist and I could travel back to 1984 and tell that little boy that Cartagena was in the cards and oh, so much more–well, he probably wouldn’t believe me and would just go back to playing with his pirate action figures or coloring in his pirate coloring book.

I didn’t see any pirates in Cartagena, but wow, I sure felt them. Even in 2010–477 years after the founding of Cartagena de Indias– the city still feels like pirate Grand Central. Sweating from the 97° F heat and intense humidity, I walked into the old city and stepped back in time.

Every little thing just oozed the age of pirates: the weathered Spanish architecture, the narrow cobbled streets, the thick stone ramparts that go all around the city, the heavy wooden balconies exploding with flowers, laughing Afro-Caribbean women with long, frilly skirts selling whole pineapples, the church bells, and the constant warm breeze of the Caribbean always blowing in your face.

Cartagena OrangeAnd the colors! In Cartagena, every house, door, shutter, roof, and trim was a different color and all so beautiful. As I walked past each building, my mind searched for names to match each shade: vermillion, aqua, coral, alabaster, lemon, ivy, amaranth, cobalt, pumpkin. Walking in Cartagena was like walking on the surface of an artists’ palette mid-painting where any color was possible. I felt like I was seeing some colors for the first time–the Crayola company needs to send a delegation to Cartagena quick. The city deserves to have a crayon named after it (I would like to nominate this shade of orange, right).

Now what I love about visiting walled cities is that it’s impossible to get lost–at some point you’re going to run into a wall and have to make a turn, and at some point you’ll end up back where you began. I feel like the old city of Cartagena demands at least two weeks of aimless wandering but unfortunately, I only had 24 hours. I spend most of that time out in the streets because they were so entertaining. Walking along the top of the city wall or down in the narrow alleyways was a visual feast. At one point I ducked into the Church of Santo Domingo where a priest was chanting the Mass to a full house. The outside of the church is remarkable, but the inside of the church is simply astounding: Imagine a cathedral built from pastel-colored marshmallows.

When night came, I picked a hotel in the old city that looked interesting. I was told the building was over 400 years old and it felt like it–my own room had no windows but I did have access to a third-floor balcony and a rocking chair where I could sit and watch the evening’s activities. Horse-drawn carriages went clomping past every few minutes and groups of people kept coming… to my hotel. I quickly learned that the first floor of my hotel doubled as a nightclub, and while I doubted there would be much of a party on a Monday night, I learned I was wrong.

Cartagena Street VendorI also learned that my room was directly above the nightclub. Somewhere around 3 a.m., I awoke to the jolly and repetitious chorus of an accordion that never quit. Over and over again, the accordion played the same tune. It was like a guitar riff, except it went on for much longer. I would drift off to sleep and then wake up to that same accordion riff playing (even now as I write this, that accordion is playing like an audio tattoo on my brain). For an hour or so, I laid in my bed and stared up at the ceiling some twenty feet above me. Long, timbered beams hewn from single tree trunks held the weight of my centuries-old hotel and I thought that if a pirate ever stayed in a hotel room, I’m guessing it looked like this one.

Now a true pirate would have rushed down to the nightclub and stabbed the accordion player through the heart before marching back up to bed. Instead I chose to embrace the moment and pretend I was attending my own private concert. What I discovered later was that I had been lucky enough to capture an authentic bit of Vallenato music. Vallenato is a traditional music form that originates in Colombia’s Caribbean region and you can listen to plenty of great examples here. I have now been listening to it nonstop on every bus that I’ve ridden in Colombia and have slowly developed an admiration for the art (though I’m not buying any CDs just yet).

Cartagena Street SceneBut sleepless nights or no, I really did not want to leave Cartagena. I was so glad that this was my entry point for the South American continent but also felt this longing feeling that here was a special place that was not be loved and left so quickly. The city itself was terrific as was the huge mix of people–indigenous, African, Spanish and everything in between–and all of them so kind and open.

Despite its huge appeal, Cartagena has avoided becoming a tourist trap. The surest sign of this for me was how warm and unaggressive the people were. This was their city too–they lived here and were invested in keeping it beautiful and real. I found this authenticity comforting, especially since so much of the Caribbean has lost its soul to dredged beaches and T-shirt shops filled with vacuum-sealed rum cakes. On the contrary, in Cartagena, the old Caribbean is still very much alive in the language, art, music, food and everyday life. What’s more, I never saw any plastic pirates, or pirate flags, or cheesy pirate-themed restaurants–there was no need. The city was real enough to make any hapless pirate content, including this one.

Andrew is currently traveling through Ecuador. Follow Andrew’s Twitter feed here @Bus2Antarctica, bookmark all of his blog posts here, see videos here, and get the full story on the project here. Photos by Andrew Evans.


  1. Eric
    January 26, 2010, 3:19 pm

    Awesome post! My familia is from Colombia and although the last time i went was in ’95, I sadly did not make it to Cartagena.

  2. bali travel
    January 27, 2010, 1:32 am

    I never gone to Cartagena. But by reading your post I felt that I just came back from there. I felt that I have seen it. Very nicely written.

  3. Tracy
    January 27, 2010, 3:48 am

    Very good written. This post gives feeling you have been there and seen all your own eyes. Great. Thanks.