THE ROAD TO EL DORADO

CARTAGENA DES INDIAS | COLOMBIA

BOGOTA | COLOMBIA

DECEMBER 2014

OUTSIDE OF POSSIBLY VENICE, CARTAGENA IS WITHOUT DOUBT THE PRETTIEST CITY I’VE EVER HAD THE PLEASURE OF VISITING. NESTLED IN NORTHERN COLOMBIA ON THE CARIBBEAN COAST, IT IS FAMOUS FOR IT’S MAGNIFICENT WALLED COLONIAL TOWN, KNOWN AS THE CANDALERIA. AFTER MANY BRUSHES WITH DEATH ON THE JOURNEY HERE THROUGH VENEZUELA I’D MADE IT TO THE JEWEL OF SOUTH AMERICA IN THE THE EARLY HOURS OF THE MORNING.

Traveling can be a lot of fun. It can also be grueling. Then it can also be fun but grueling at the same time. Such is the case with long bus journeys through back water towns and villages. Great to see, but it also throws up a whole lot of practical concerns. I’d spent all day on the bus from the Colombian border, through the stunning northern coastline, past Santa Marta and Tayrona, and reached Cartagena in the wee hours. I had no idea where I was going. I found myself wandering around the maze-like Candaleria at two a.m., asking directions from confused locals who had never heard of my hostel, or even the street it was on. Eventually the need for sleep won out over my inner Stranger-Danger and I agreed to follow a rough looking dude who claimed to know where it was. Through darkened and lonely alleyways I had visions of my picture been flashed up on the news back home. The accompanying caption being something like “He should have known better”. Surprisingly the guy was alright, and sure enough I was in front of my lodgings. Now, very few people ever do anything for free in my experience, but if you are genuinely helpful and kind to me I have no problem in throwing some money your way. As I reached into my pocket to reward my good Samaritan I turned to find he had disappeared into the night. The dimly lit corners and alleyways as quiet as the ghost town I’d entered earlier. I slept well that night.

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At it’s heart it’s still an old colonial Caribbean town. I love balconies. As cute as Hobbiton was, that was it’s major flaw.

My hostel was a cute little place on the corner of an equally cute little square.The free Colombian coffee for breakfast had kicked my ass awake enough to start exploring.  Cartagena, the colonial town, was founded by the Spanish in the 16th century as Cartagena des Indias. It’s had a long and troubled history since then, being the centre for Spanish trade in the Caribbean, a headquaters for the Inquisition, a major slave port, and the subject of numerous pirate attacks including those by Francis Drake and Captain Henry Morgan. Yes that Captain Morgan. Oh, and it was funded initially by raiding the tombs of the local Sinu people for their gold. Start as you mean to continue I guess……

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The Clock Tower, and entrance to the walled city of Cartagena

You wouldn’t think to look at it today it had such a dark past. The brightly coloured facades and overflowing window boxes give it a picture perfect, almost Disney-esque look. The old town is easily walkable, or you can get one of the many drawn carriages if you prefer to complete the Disney vibe and keep the horses off social welfare. Every corner will amaze with the vibrancy of the colour, like a city designed by clowns. But the good kind. Not the Stephen King kind. Who am I kidding. There are no good kinds.

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Another beautiful plaza. Along with a guy delivering me a parcel apparently.

The entrance into the walled Candelaria is via the Torre del Reloj, the Clock Tower which opens onto the Square of the Carriages. Cartagena is full of quaint little town squares. My favourite is the Plaza Bolivar. This contains the Palace of the Inqusition, which is well worth a visit to learn about the cities gruesome past with witchcraft and black magic. It even has a gallows and a guillotine out back. What more do you want from a sunshine holiday? On certain nights here there is a music and dance party, with locals dressing up and acting out various Colombian and Caribbean dances. Lots of old school twerking and booty shaking. No biting the heads of chickens though thankfully. The beat of the drums, and the bright colours of the twirling afro-caribbean dresses is intoxicating. Using the word “intoxicating” to describe something which doesn’t actually get you drunk is something I’ve learned from reading travel blogs.

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Techno

Across the bay stands the largest Spanish fort in the Americas, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. It’s quite a walk to get to the top. From here you can enter a maze of darkened underground tunnels. A lot of them seemingly lead no where, while many are closed off. Make sure your flashlight app on your phone is in good knick, there are some very steep, and very dark stone steeps here. You don’t want to end up as one of the skeletons I’m assuming they keep chained up. In one of the guard houses they show a film about the history of the fort. On fridays they screen Speed. A short walk further up will bring you to the lookout where there is a cute little gift shop full of old fashioned pirate charts and maps, and miscellaneous crap that normally I’d spend a fortune on if I lived in a warehouse and had enough space.

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I guess you could say Captain Hook here defended the city single handedly……

It’s a strange place. In the plaza out front stands a statue to a one eyed, one legged, one handed guy called Blas de Leo, a spanish admiral who won the Battle of Cartagena des Indias against the British. At least I’m assuming it’s Blas. How many one eyed, one legged, one handed dudes did Cartagena have? Was this a common problem here? Where did all the superfluous limbs go to? How awesome is the name Blas? In my head I’m guessing it’s pronounced “Blaze”. It’s not surprising the Spanish won. No one is gonna mess with a eye patched, hook handed badass called Blaze.

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All you need here is some CGI to remove the skyscrapers in the background and you have the set for the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, the graveyard of Johnny Depp’s career.

Speaking of pirates, down by the harbour, and just across from the city walls, I discovered two pirate ships. Actual, full sized, pirate ships! I guess it’s fitting. Just around the block is the Maritime Musuem, a good portion of which is dedicated to piracy. The larger of the ships was closed to the public (but available for group bookings for dinner – just like real pirates!) Just like the buccaneers of old I elaborately swung onto the smaller vessel (after paying a small fee to a kid) The lower compartments were quite small and cramped, there was a small galley and table, and a map room up front complete with melted candles, decorative skulls, and battered looking conquistador helmets. The ship looked like it had been barely maintained from the age of piracy, you could probably carbon date the layers of dust, but that just added to the charm I guess. My initial plan to sail this thing up to Mexico soon fell by the wayside.

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This is a real ship I swear. It was an old merchant vessel. Whether it’s actually sea worthy is another question.

Cartagena is most famous of course for being the jumping off point for the film Romancing the Stone starring Micheal Douglas doing his best Harrison Ford impression. Incidentally that film was shot in Mexico as opposed to Colombia. Coincidentally corrupt cops and drug smuggling play a huge part in the film, as they probably do in both countries.

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That time I commanded my own pirate ship, along with my loyal crew of…..that kid I paid? Hey, he had a strong back. We could have gone far.

After the delights of Cartagena I headed south to the Colombian capital of Bogota. I didn’t know it at the time, but Bogota is one of the world’s highest capital cities (the fourth actually). Compared to the lush and vibrant sunshine of Cartagena, cold, windy, and rainy Bogota came as a bit of a shock. The city is placed on a plateau surrounded by highland cloud forest. While walking the cobbled streets of it’s own Candaleria you can get pretty good views of the misty jungle surrounding it if you look up. The old town here, while really nice, is obviously a lot plainer to look at after your eyes have been massaged to a happy ending in Cartagena previously. Still, it’s an interesting town. There are plenty of day trips on offer here. As well as hikes through the cloud forest (which are very expensive if you don’t have a big group) the most popular tours are excursions to the salt cathedral, and the lake which provided the inspiration for the legend of El Dorado.

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Some very voodoo style dress in this particular routine. Maybe that’s why I woke up the next morning missing some toes.

Ever since the European colonisation of South America rumours began to spread of a hidden kingdom of gold hidden somewhere in the jungle. El Dorado, or “the Golden One”, was purportedly a city made of solid gold and guarded by a fierce Indian tribe. The location could never be properly ascertained. Some pointed to the amazonian depths of Brazil. Others, including noted explorer and serial exaggerator Sir Walter Raleigh, claimed he found it in the Orinoco Basin of Venezuela. He ended of being beheaded. A lesson there for liars.

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More Cartagena. Why? Screw you, that’s why.

Today the general consensus is the story originated from Lake Guatavita, a submerged volcanic caldera about 35 miles from Bogota. What if El Dorado didn’t refer to a city, but to a person? According to legend the Muisca tribe would adorn their chief in gold dust and float him on a raft into the middle of the lake. Here golden offerings would be thrown into the waters to appease the gods. Guatavita has long been a source of the myth, and the many attempted dredgings of the lake have been attempted over the centuries, none revealing very much. Guatavita, and El Dorado itself, look like they are still keeping their treasures very much hidden.

You can explore the legend further at the world famous Museo del Oro in downtown Bogota. Here is an exquisite collection of gold and artifacts from pre-colombian times. Everything from ancient stone work and idols, to finely crafted gold and silver. The highlight is the incredible Raft of El Dorado. An artifact which has a cloud of mystery surrounding it almost as thick of the ancient city itself. It was discovered by  bunch of farmers in a cave, and created using a gold / wax technique we aren’t able to replicate fully today. In the center of the raft stands the chief in a ceremonial headdress, surrounding him are his assistants in jaguar masks. It’s like a WWE entrance. So precious is the relic that it has never left Colombia. I don’t know what they’re worried about -outsiders have always been respectful with south american gold.

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Some incredible pre-colombian gold relics at the Gold Musuem, Bogota.

One of the coolest parts of Bogota was actually my hostel. It was a really old stone and wooden building which looked more at home as a mountain shack in the Himalayas then in a major south american city. The only problem of course was that it was bloody freezing. I liked to think it was preparing me for what was to come. Bogota would be my last port of call on this leg of my round the world journey. After eight months away I was heading home to Ireland to apply for my Russian visa. Apparently you can only apply for this in the country of your residency. Plus it was christmas and it’s always good to go home for christmas right? Unless your a Griswold. I even dropped into an Irish bar here for a pint of the black stuff to ease myself back in. Can you believe they didn’t even sell Guinness here? In an Irish bar?!?!?!?! I was almost gonna lodge an official complaint at the embassy. Still, their local Bogota Brewery Company stout was a pretty good replacement.

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The Road to El Dorado reaches it’s successful conclusion. It’s small enough to sneak on as carry-on right? Only kidding. I would never steal, rape, and pillage indigenous American cultures. I’m not Christopher Columbus.

Next time: A surprisingly hassle-free Russian visa is secured for my Trans Siberian adventure, but I almost forget to apply for my Indian visa. The second half begins on The Wandering Blas. (I actually wish I was called that now)

 

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