Back when Danny DeVito was kidnapping novelists and Kathleen Turner was luring Michael Douglas with small sums of cash in search of treasure, Cartagena was the centre of it all. Riches and romance, drug lords and crocodiles. 20 years later not much has changed, only now crocodiles wear counterfeit Wayfarers in hotel swimming pools.
7 days earlier we touched down in Panama City, focused on ripping into ourselves for a couple of days, before setting sail to Colombia. With us were a couple friends, who had never been to this continent, so the language barrier and culture shock seemed to be a kick in the face for them. After seeing the sunrise for the second day in a row, we stocked up on food and a thousand beers, hired a 4×4, a crazy mother fucker of a driver and met our captain on the northern coast near Portobelo. Our captain was a wild German man who a few of the guys had met 10 months prior. Fonzell was friendly enough, but there was a twitch in his eye that kind of said “Hey young, man. Welcome to my boat and please make yourself at home. This trip is going to be incredible, but if I catch you looking at my wife, I’ll cut you and throw you overboard”. Actually maybe he said that. He definitely said that. His saucy Hungarian babe named Lujza took care of us all, made sure we were fed, hydrated and always a tinnie in hand. But we felt Fonzell eyeballing the shit out of us the entire voyage.
It took 5 days to sail from Panama to Colombia, though the San Blas Islands, then through an open stretch of water parallel to the stretch of jungle that connects the 2 countries called the Darien Gap. The only safe options to Colombia are by air or sea. Land crossings through the Darrien are possible, but as this area is rampant with yellow fever and Colombian militants, it’s not advised. For the most part, we had smooth sailing – stopping off on deserted islands to party, spearfish, discover miniature reef breaks, run around nude through the coconut trees and drink ourselves into a mess. The only situations that dampened the mood were local Kuna pirates who kept ‘taxing’ us for being in their waters. Oh, and Slick Rick nearly slipping into a diabetic coma. I had to nurse him back life with coco-cola, fruit juice and chocolate, until someone could find his bloody Glucagon pin. He was a shit diabetic.
The Kunas are the indigenous people to Panama. Occupying islands in San Blas, they live healthy and simple lives, fishing, living in huts, selling carvings to people of boats and assisting cocaine runs from Colombia to Central America, and the US. Everyone’s got to get by somehow, and the Kunas in these waters get by just fine. Our captain had all the stories when it came to the indigenous Panamanians. Actually he had a story for everything. Careful not to take his word as gospel, we called bullshit on a bunch of things he told us, we learned some valuable intel and let our minds escape into seafaring fantasy world. You’re only as interesting as your last story and holy shit this guy had some good stories.
Once upon a voyage, there were 2 captains who had spent many a season in the San Blas Islands. Lets call them ‘Captain Hound Dog Taylor’ and ‘Captain Howlin Wolf’. A month before we set sail, the captains had a huge argument in a bar in Bocas del Toro, an archipelago in North Western Panama. It was about a lady they both called their own, so as you can guess, shit was about to go down. Lets call her Ma Rainey. Then add the fact they were both salty sea dogs – this passion for what they claimed was theirs was always going to progress into a form of insanity. A madman sees no logic. A madman does not reason. A madman cares not for consequence. Late one night, Howlin Wolf climbed aboard Hound Dog Taylor’s vessel overcome with rage – his eyes lit up like the blood red moon. Knife clenched in his teeth and a rope draped around his shoulder, he snuck about the boat like a ninja in a bubble wrap factory. Upon entering Hound Dog’s sleeping quarters, to find him fast asleep, Howlin Wolf lent over the sleeping captain, knife drawn and murderously murmured “Son, you’re sleeping by yourself, remember that”. Hound Dog, who was had been awake since the first he first heard the bubble wrap pop, lunged at Howlin Wolf, causing him to drop his knife. The two salt dogs wrestled on the ground, beating the living hell out of each other, grasping at anything loose and blunt to weaponise. Eventually after a few pounds to the face with a dive tank, Howlin regained his composure, regained his rusty filleting knife and inflicted lethal damage to Hound Dog. The last thing Howlin Wolf uttered was “Im’a down on the killing floor”. As a mark of contempt and out of sheer arrogance, Howlin cooked himself a fancy fish dinner with all the trimmings. Little did he know that Ma Rainey saw the whole thing go down and held in her hand the very same dive tank that inflicted damage to Howlin Wolf’s face. She raised it over her head, swung hard and deep, colliding with Howlin Wolf’s rib cage. He stumbled backwards, still chewing the seared tuna steak he had exquisitely prepared and fell overboard into the sea. Ma Rainey whispered under her breath “call me anything, but just call me”. Noone ever saw Howlin Hound Dog or Ma ever again. We stopped at El Porvenir to get our passports stamped before leaving Panama, which is where Cap pointed out the lone boat docked in the harbour, before telling this tale.
The final stretch into Colombia was an overnight crossing across an exposed stretch of ocean in the Caribbean. A concoction of petrol fumes along with the big swells, caused the contents of everyones stomachs to be shared with the sea. I can honestly say that was the lowest point of my trip – pretty sure I asked someone to throw me overboard.
Cartagena was the intersection for 2 groups of our friends. One crew had spent the last few months adventuring through South America and we had just begun our investigation south. It was only fitting for the next 72 hours in the sweltering heat, we get as much humanly done as possible together, while maintaining a consistent flow of cuba libres. Here’s the top 5:
- Volcon El Totumo mud baths. Take a bottle of Colombian Aguardiente, shot the whole bottle between friends (or solo) then see how the heat hits you. Once you’re done, head down to river behind the volcano and pay about US$3 for a seedy old Colombian woman to give you a massage as she scrubs the mud off your back.
- Sunset beers on the walls next to Cafe del Mar. Sure you could pay US$30 for a fruity cocktail or you could buy all the $1 beers your soul can handle from the corner store down the road. The place has amazing people watching coming into sunset – from the rich Euro power couples to the incredible sasla dancing Colombian princesses.
- Street food. So much street food. There are huge lanes of street vendors next to El Centro – smell the marinated goodness from about 2 blocks away. Massive plates of meat called Fritanga, fired pockets of meat & potatoes called empanadas and then to finish it off, a classic Colombian hot chocolate and cheese.
- Cartagena is all about the nightlife. Things don’t kick off until about 10pm but everything rages on until the early hours. Head to Cafe Havana in Centro and pretend you know how to salsa. You also need to pretend you have a shitload of coin and can speak spanish if you’re going to have any luck with the Colombian princesses. Keep an eye out for your mates and yourself, there are hookers around that have some angry pimps close by. One of the guys thought he had scored on his own merits, went home to the senorita’s place, got robbed by her pimp and was made to walk all the way back into town.
- Getting the fuck out of there. A few days without sleep and damage to your bank account takes a toll on your mind, body and soul. Sometimes it’s best not to tell your friends you’re leaving them, just a book a one way ticket on a first class air conditioned bus to Medellin to collect your thoughts. Medellin… Was I headed for greener pastures? Unlikely.