Searching For Stories (And Vacation) In Cartagena, Colombia

David Farley

I had come to Colombia to write – or at least I had hoped. But on my third day, I was sitting in the bar of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel sipping mojitos spiked with lulo juice, one of the many exotic fruits found here, and all I could write about in my notebook was that I had nothing to write about. A friend of a friend who works at this hotel found me a guy here who takes care of a toucan. But that wasn’t the story I was hoping to write.

It was nearly a whim that brought me here, booking a ticket on the new JFK-to-Cartagena route on JetBlue. It was almost a personal anomaly for me but I had no itinerary and I did little research. What did I know about this part of the world? I knew that singer Shakira and actress Sofia Vergara were from near here. Perhaps on some level I pathetically half expected (or hoped?) all the women to look like Ms. Vergara, whose physical appearance reminds me of a woman I still wish I was dating. I was wrong. I also thought I could maybe kickstart a book idea I had after visiting Bolivia a few years ago – a book about the coca leaf. But like Sofia Vergara lookalikes, there’s no coca leaf culture in Cartagena like there is in Bolivia or the southern parts of Colombia. Two stereotypes down, several more to go.I thought I’d be an old-school journalist (or just a journalist) and come here and sniff out a story, come upon something unique and interesting that would lead me to smoky clubs, inside the cars of strangers going god knows where, or to parts of town I would have never stumbled upon. So I strolled the streets of this handsome seaside colonial town. I was unprepared for the bold sun and, as a result, my face turned a severe red by the second day, prompting locals to call out “Rojo!” as I walked by. I was a different kind of gringo here – the dumb kind – opting to wear jeans instead of shorts and a black button-down shirt instead a light T-shirt, because where I come from only the tourists wear shorts.

I went to the Convent Santa Cruz de la Popa, to the fortress, and I walked the walls around the old town. I talked to restaurant owners and chefs, all of whom reminded me how much safer it is here now, which was great but reminded me that I needed to find a fresher angle, one that didn’t involve the travel publication clichés in the headline, “The New Cartagena” or, my favorite, “Cartagena Reborn,” as if somehow an entire city was reborn and we barely knew about it.

One day I took a boat out to one of the Rosario Islands. As I was traipsing off the boat, I was immediately accosted by options: scuba diving, mountain biking, a trip to an aquarium – all potential stories. But as I scanned the tourists relaxing on the beach next to the teal-colored sea, I had a realization: maybe I just need a vacation. Travel writers need a vacation, too, and, when I thought about it, I’d pretty much been doing tourist stuff all along. I haven’t traveled anywhere without an assignment in maybe a decade and perhaps the subconscious voices in my head were telling me to relax a bit.

Instead of the options that were presented to me on the island, I put my notebook away and I planted myself under a palapa. I ordered a mojito and pulled out the Joan Didion book in my bag and began reading.

Video Of The Day: Modern Day ‘The Motorcycle Diaries’

Before beginning his doctorate in biomedical sciences, “Alex the Adventure Biker” took a break to realize his lifelong dream: to ride a motorcycle through the Americas. Over the course of nearly a year and a half, he rode his bike through 22 countries as he made his way from El Paso, Texas, to Argentina and then back up through Brazil and all the way to Alaska – a journey of more than 82,000 miles.

“In short I drove solo half way around the world, through interstates, highways, dirt roads, no roads, mud, rivers, through hurricanes, tornadoes, tsunamis, rain, hail, sun shine, snow, ice roads you name it and I made it back,” the adventurous biker wrote on his website. Ride along and check out the varied landscape as he saw it (and some disco dancing, too) in the video above, which was created from more than 600 hours of footage.

Odd Travel Jobs: The Toucan Caretaker Of Cartagena

Meet Wilson Garcia. He’s like the Clark Kent/Superman of his workplace in Cartagena, Colombia. He looks, by first appearances, like an ordinary security guard, the ubiquitous sort one sees all over this handsome Colombian city. But look closer and you might get a clue as to his other job: he doubles as the official caretaker of Mateo, the on-property pet of the Santa Clara Sofitel hotel. Mateo is a toucan and hangs out in the courtyard of the 17th-century former convent that houses the hotel. I sat down with Garcia to ask him what it’s like to be the official caretaker of an exotic bird.David Farley: What’s your official job title?
Wilson Garcia: I’m a security guard but I’m also the caretaker of Mateo.

DF: Does it say that on your business card?
WG: No.

DF: How did you become the caretaker of the bird?
WG: Every security guard has a second line of duty here at the hotel. When I started, they told me I’d be taking care of the bird.

DF: What’s his favorite Fruit Loops flavor?
WG: [Laughs] He doesn’t eat Fruit Loops. He does love fruit, though – especially apples.

DF: Do you have to bathe him?
WG: He can clean himself, except for the parts that he can’t reach, mainly his beak. So I clean that for him.

DF: Aw-awwww-aw! Toucans are known as the “chupacabras of the sky.” Isn’t it dangerous to have such a ferocious winged beast just freely hanging around the hotel?
WG: [Laughs] I don’t think they’re called that. There has been some internal discussion about this since Mateo is technically a wild animal. But so far he has been good. He’s only attacked a couple people?

DF: He’s attacked people?
WG: Yes, but nothing serious. He just pinched a couple people with his beak when they were trying to pet him. It didn’t break the skin.

DF: How long did it take to gain Mateo’s trust when you first arrived here?
WG: About a week. Every day I’d try to pet him so that he’d know I was a good person.

DF: What kind of training did you previously have?
WG: I’ve trained dogs. Dogs and birds, and all animals, have the same instincts, especially when it comes to food. You use food as an enticement and it’s really easy to train them.

DF: So have you taught Mateo any tricks?
WG: I don’t have time. But some day I’d like to teach him to catch food in the air.

DF: So when Mateo is bad how do you punish him?
WG: I give him a time out in a place he doesn’t want to be. In this case, it’s the old chapel. He hates it. It’s amazing, though. After 20 minutes of being in there, he’s a totally different bird when he comes out.

DF: So Mateo is not a religious bird?
WG: No.

DF: When you see another toucan in the wild now, do you feel this impulse to teach it tricks or connect with it.
WG: Yes, sure. I do, actually.

DF: So really no Fruit Loops?
WG: Really, no.

[Photo by David Farley]

La Paz’s Museo De Coca: A Historical And Cultural Look At Bolivia’s Most Controversial Crop

coca leafHoja de coca no es droga.” “Coca no es cocaina.” You’ll see these sentiments, which are indeed accurate, on T-shirts displayed throughout La Paz’s tourist ghetto, which is centered on Calle Sagarnaga.

I should preface this post by saying I’m not a fan of recreational drugs (no judgement; I do live in Colorado, after all), so my recent trip to Bolivia had nothing to do with that. It’s unfortunate, however, that a certain type of traveler has made Bolivia a destination to obtain cheap coke, because it’s not doing the country any favors with regard to its reputation. But, if you know where to look, cocaine is available in abundance. If you know the right people, you’ll also find it’s the best-quality stuff available (sorry, Colombia). And yes, it’s illegal.

How do I know this if I don’t partake? Let’s just say that I’m a journalist, and I read a lot and talk to a lot of people. I’ve also spent enough time traveling in South America to understand the difference between coca leaf– the raw ingredient– and cocaine, the manufactured drug.

For thousands of years up until the present, coca leaf has been an integral part of the cultural, spiritual and economic psyches of Bolivia, Peru and Colombia. A member of the family Erythroxylaceae, coca is native to the Andean lowlands and highlands of western South America.

For aforementioned reasons, the plant is considered a high-value cash crop because it contains trace amounts of alkaloids, including cocaine. It’s important to note that ingesting the alkaloid is not the same as using the synthesized, concentrated form of the drug cocaine. Synthetic cocaine is, as we all know, a powerfully addictive stimulant that affects the central nervous system. Since this isn’t an article about “Just Say No,” let’s get back to coca leaf, shall we?museo de cocaThe indigenous peoples of the Andes (primarily the extinct Incas, and the Aymaras and Quechua) have historically relied about coca leaf as a means of alleviating altitude sickness, fatigue, hunger and thirst. It also acts as a mild analgesic, and has been used to treat everything from digestive issues to fractures. Macchu Picchu is said to have been impossible to build without the aid of coca leaf. South American miners and other laborers also rely heavily upon coca leaf to help get them through the long hours required for their jobs (in a forthcoming story, I’ll post photos of Bolivian miners in Potosi, cheeks bulging with acullicos, or quids).

Coca is traditionally consumed in two different ways. It may be brewed into tea called mate de coca. I drank a lot of mate while on a trek in the Cordillera Real; you just take large pinch of dried leaves pour hot water over them. The flavor is … very hay-like.

Alternatively, the leaves are compressed into a ball, and tucked into the cheek. A pinch of ilucta (quicklime or a quinoa ash mixture) is added, which helps facilitate the flow of salivia and make the leaves more palatable (I tried this in a market in Potosi, and in no way did it make things remotely palatable enough for my gringo taste buds). This is the delivery system by which the alkaloids are absorbed into the body. In Bolivia, the act of chewing coca is known as picchar.

In recent years, much has been made of the medicinal benefits of coca leaf. Bolivian president (and former cocalero, or grower, as well as union leader) Evo Morales began lobbying the UN in 2006 to legalize coca, which would be an economic boon to the country, South America’s poorest. And that, perhaps, is the best reason to visit the Museo de Coca in La Paz.

The museo is located in what looks to be a former apartment in an old, colonial-looking building. It’s in the Mercado de Hecheria, the heart of La Paz’s backpacker ghetto (coincidence? I think not). Regardless of your reasons for visiting the museum, its overriding purpose is to educate visitors about the cultural/historical use of coca leaf, the economic importance of its cultivation in Bolivia and medicinal benefits.
coca leaf
Photography is not permitted in the museum, but there are hundreds of vintage photos of cocaleros, indigenous peoples using coca leaf, the various species, and technical information on the chemical breakdown of the plants. There’s also a section dedicated to the manufacturing and history of cocaine, as well as the dangers of cocaine use (illustrated by some very dusty mannequins surrounded by gutter detritus). The museum patently goes to great lengths to distinguish the difference between plant and synthesized drug.

If you happen to be in La Paz, the Museo de Coca should be on your list of things to do. It’s highly informative and interesting (and sometimes, unintentionally entertaining), and more important, it’s a part of Bolivian culture and history that too often goes misunderstood.

The museo is open 10 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Sundays. Entry fee is about 10 bolivianos ($1.50). Calle Linares 906.

[Photo credits: tea, Flickr user MacJewell; sign and T-shirt, Laurel Miller]

Layover Report: Where To Eat At Miami, Lima, And Bogota International Airports

cuban foodI just returned from three weeks in Bolivia and Paraguay. In that time, I had 12 flights, five of which were required to get me from my home in Colorado to La Paz. Now why, you may ask, in this age of expedited air travel, does it take so many connections to travel 4,512 miles (or nine hours by air)? Budget, baby.

I’m also horrifically flight phobic, so for me to fly various Third World carriers from Miami to Bogota to Lima to La Paz (and then La Paz to Lima to Asuncion, and Asuncion back to Lima en route to Miami, followed by Dallas-Fort Worth to Denver), is probably the best example I can provide of just how much I love to travel. I really, really, really love it. I also really love having Xanax on hand when I fly.

One of the reasons I didn’t mind my layovers too much is that I happen to adore most South American airports, especially Jorge Chavez International in Lima (so many cools shops, free snackies, great Peruvian food!). And since one of the things I most like to do in South America is eat, I used my downtime to see if there was anything worth writing about, foodwise. Indeed there was, and so I present to you my findings. Feel free to send me some Xanax in return (kidding! I’ll take empanadas instead).

Miami International Airport
It’s hardly a secret that the Concourse D location of Miami’s beloved La Carreta chain rocks, especially in a sea of Au Bon Pain and Starbucks. Best of all, it opens at 5 a.m., so when I was rushing to make my 5:30 a.m. flight to Bogota, I was able to grab a jamon y queso sandwich en route. If time isn’t an issue, sit down and feast upon Cuban-style roast pork, stuffed green plantains or fufu con masitas, or a medianoche sandwich.
empanadasJorge Chavez International Airport, Lima
It’s all about Manacaru, the token Peruvian eatery in this gorgeous, progressive airport (they even recycle and post about water conservation). Every time I layover in Lima, I make a beeline for this full-service restaurant in International Departures, and order some empanadas and suspiro limon. Also known as suspiro a la limena; this achingly sweet, meringue-and-condensed milk pudding is the official dessert of Lima.

It’s no Gastón Acurio restaurant, but it’s pretty damned good for airport food; even the ceviche is sparkling fresh in my experience. It’s also great for when you’re dashing between flights, as they’re centrally located between gates, and have an entire case of grab-and-go.

They are open pretty much around the clock, serving breakfast, lunch, dinner, snacks and coffee.

El Dorado International Airport, Bogota
Never having been to Colombia, despite repeated attempts to plan trips, I was desperate for a taste of the national cuisine when I landed in Bogota. Thank god for the (wait for it) Juan Valdez Cafe. I happily resolved my caffeine jones, and ordered up some arepitas, mini-versions of arepas. These corn-and-cheese cakes are Colombia’s most iconic street food, and I was thrilled to be able to try them despite being unable to leave the airport. Gracias, Juan.

[Photo credits: Cuban sandwich, Flickr user star5112; empanadas, Flickr user jules:stonesoup]