I’m back in Cartagena, having left my bike briefly to check out Tayrona National Park, further round the coast at Santa Marta.
After getting a wisdom tooth pulled (no 18) and undergoing some heavy, root canal drilling (I cracked on a chicken bone in Panama), the dentist has recommended I stay put for a few days, to reduce any chance of infection. Despite the bargain price, the whole ordeal proved relatively discomfort-free. Only the closing moments of digging out my stubborn, semi-rotten wisdom tooth induced a flurry of feet kicking and expressive toe wiggling, as I tried to fulfil my promise to keep my head as still as possible.
Anyway, Colombia… So much more than just cheap dentistry. Most visitors are drawn to my first port of call, Caribbean Cartagena, for the colonial splendours of its old town, stamped with the UNESCO heritage site stamp of approval. As such, it’s been spruced up for the huge gangs of tour groups, regularly disgorged into its tight cobbled back streets from their towering cruise ships. They, in turn, draw an almost equal cluster of street touts, collecting like bees around honey/money. Still, with their merchandise of Panama hats and Cuban cigars, they’re definitely a higher class of tout than the ones who loiter in the street where I’m saying, yelling ‘Rasta!’ when I pass, sidling over and sniffing provocatively, or whispering a hopeful ‘charlie’ or ‘cocaina’…
Yet impressive as the old centre is, with its grandiose gateways, churches and convents, its elegant balconies, shaded squares and its Francis Drake-proof city ramparts, I inevitably find myself steering away from the boutique hotels and cafes, in search of the peeling paintwork and the scruff of real life.
I’m itching to rolling again, but will wait until Easter has passed. In Getsemani, the backpacker part of town, the streets are fast emptying in readiness for Semana Santa, a momentous festive period for Latin Americans, stretched out into several days and nights of drunken revelry. If it’s anything like Mexico, it’s no bad idea being off the roads at times like this.
This enforced break has at least given me the chance to recover from another bout of phlegmy coughing, and more importantly, taste some of the street snacks and drinks Colombia has to offer, surely one of the most enjoyable perks to bike touring.
I just have to remember to chew on my left side…
The Puerta del Reloj, gateway to the old town. Seen here with pirate-proof reinforcements. Cartagena was a valuable staging post for shipping plundered gold back to Spain, making it a popular spot for British pirates too.
The 16th Century Iglesia de Santa Domingo, the oldest in the city. Below the crop is a throng of American tourists.
Plenty of colonial splendour for history buffs, though much of it was rebuilt after Drake sacked the port in 1586. He was bought off for a princely sum of money.
On every street corner, copies of the works of Colombian art hero Fernando Botero - who delighted in depicting unusually rotund characters.
And one of his original sculptures, in Plaza de Santa Domingo.
Beautiful old town backstreets in El Centro. Caught in a rare tour group lull.
This was more my style - the more beatnik backstreets around Getsemani.
A little run down, but rich in character.
Each house, a slice of living history.
I spent ages walking the streets, bemusing locals with my choice of photos.
Enjoying the little details around every corner.
More city artwork, in front of la Iglesia de Santisima.
And to cool off... Chichas, natural fruit drinks, help temper the Caribbean heat. This one is made from mandarins.
And this one is made from avena - oatmeal, water, syrup and canella. Nice bit of anti-corporate recycling.
Healthy snacks available too.
Great to see the bike culture here is going strong. On the recreational front, Colombian riders are famed for their hill climbing prowess, and I've heard there's an active road club scene too.
Utility bikes everywhere.
And handpushed carts.
More refreshing liquid mysteries on offer, served on three wheels.
Lorely and Russ, from Bath, UK, on their Argos and Surly LHT. They've also ridden down from Alaska. I'm now being overtaken by the riders who left in summer 2010...
My 'local' grocery store. Colombians are quick to smile and have a laugh.
Cheesy classic. The Colombian stable, arepas, are fried corn flour dough generally stuffed with butter and cheese. Available through the day.
More cheese: the tasty, doughy pan de bono. An instant classic. Appears at breakfast time.
As far as I can see, when Colombians aren't eating some form of pastry made with cheese, they have a sweet tooth too...
The best of both worlds. This snack involves wedging some cheese with a slice of sugared bocadillo - made from guayava. Strangely delicious.
Fruit crazy. Each 'pila' - pile of mangos - costs a dollar. I had ten in mine.
And my current favourite treat, bread intertwined with 'arequipe' - heated, sweetened caramelised milk. I really need to get back on that bike...
And perhaps brush my teeth a little better... This is the sorry state of my stubborn wisdom tooth. Glad that one's out. After a scifi panoramic x-ray (15 dollars), the dentist promises me the rest are in much happier condition!
Need a good dentist?
Try Ivan E. Porto Cortes, Manga Cra.16 No 25-23 (tel 6606399 – 6604814).