We’ve all seen the pictures of dodgy estates in the UK where people have Christmas light wars each year and light up the place so that you can see it from space. Over the top, a bit naff, brightly coloured and confuse the innocence of Christmas with the gaudiness of a Vegas lap dancing club.
Take this principle and apply it to a whole country, and you get to understand a little what Colombia is like at Christmas time. Now, I like OTT Christmas, so I loved this. Every town square is awash with lit-up stuff, some relevant – like the Three Wise Men, others less relevant – like Cinderella’s pumpkin carriage pulled by creatures born via a love match between rabbits and tigers. Every apartment block is covered with lights and every street has a least half a dozen houses with enough of them to keep a nuclear power station working hard. It’s wonderful.
Then there are the fiestas that I have already mentioned. Every night, everywhere, you sleep to the sound of at least two parties, all listening to pretty much the same stuff. This party loving nation comes into its own at Christmas.
We got to spend Christmas proper in Cartagena on the Caribbean coast. It is a mix of well preserved colonial architecture in the walled city, Miami like towers along the beaches of Boca Grande and the Favelas at the edge of town. It is known as a place to celebrate Christmas and every fucker goes there. It’s packed.
We were meeting our friend Liz there, who was spending three weeks in Colombia, and between the three of us we decided to spend a little more than our normal budget on an apartment and ended up on the 40th floor of the tallest building in Boca Grande with views of the sea, the bay, the old city and the new bits. It was worth every penny.
We got about a bit whilst there, visiting the quiet and well put together bird park and the busy but beautiful Playa Blanca for a day, joined a tour of the old city and caught up on some running. The best bit was the people watching.
There are plenty of foreign tourists there as it is very much on the ‘top things to do in Colombia list’ but loads and loads and loads of Colombian tourists too. The main activities seemed to be walking around looking at lights, drinking beer (but never misbehaving), eating (often at street stalls) and taking selfies in front of the lights, the buildings etc. On the evening of Christmas Day we went to the old and less well developed area of Getsemini which had a mix of people very much in favour of locals. In one square there was a number of good food stalls, people selling beer and hundreds of people milling around. We decided that we were peckish and settled on ‘stuff’ coming from the most popular stall. To get ‘stuff’ involved an undignified scrum that required a level of intimacy with strangers that makes Englishmen a tad uncomfortable. I was in that scrum for about thirty minutes. I was delighted to make it close enough to the front to order and chuffed that I think I even asked for what I wanted. All this within about 10 minutes. The next 20 minutes were a little less satisfying as I stood in a crowd that alternated between periods of mad activity followed by lulls. It turned out that they did things in waves; a wave of just making burgers, a wave of hotdogs and a wave of ‘stuff’. I had hit the stall at the end of the ‘stuff’ wave and the fact that I was close and had ordered counted for naught…….. I withdrew, sweating, overly familiar with strangers……and defeated. Liz then went to a different place and we ate something a little less popular.
As we wandered around the small streets it was difficult to differentiate between bars and peoples houses. Both had blaring music, both looked welcoming and both had lots of people sitting outside on plastic chairs drinking beer and rum. The key difference is the reaction you get if you walk in and ask for a beer!
We ate reasonably well in Cartagena and even got to eat in a womens prison. There is a great initiative that involves talented chefs teaming with a charity to teach inmates cooking and service skills that can be of use on ‘the outside’. The restaurant is attached to the prison and is called Interno. The idea is great, the food is reasonably good and the service … well, it is functional. All for a very high price, and three courses that you must get through in an hour or less. I wouldn’t say don’t do it, but I would advise you write it off as doing your bit for a good cause.
Being in Cartagena felt like a very different experience to the rest of Columbia; more touristy, more glitzy and much hotter. It is worth going to but I would recommend avoiding Christmas and New Year.
We hired a car and driver to take us from Cartagena to our next stop, Santa Marta. The car that arrived seemed a little poorly and proved just how poorly it was when we stopped off at ????, herd a bang then saw the radiator coolant pour all over the road. We then had 2 hours to wait for a replacement car, fortunately we were near a bar so all was well.