26 Tips for Cartagena Tourists

Visitors' advice: 25 things you should be wary of in Cartagena

1.Never, ever change money on the street. Unlike other South American countries, there is no blackmarket, and it is not safe or recommended. Getting short-changed or handed fake bills, or having your wallet snatched from your hands in broad daylight are common scams. Cartagena has plenty of banks and casas de cambios. Many large hotels and emerald shops will change dollars, and most of the larger businesses accept US dollar bills. Exchange rates for other currencies are very poor.

2.Credit cards are accepted, but you can get a better deal, and have peace of mind, by withdrawing your money from an automatic teller and paying in cash. The larger supermarkets accept charge cards. Always keep an eye on the boy packing your purchases: bags containing expensive items have a habit of disappearing before your very eyes. Same thing applies to buying anything in bulk: bottles of beer, apples, even photographs: count them to check that you got what you paid for. You might be tempted to buy the cheaper friut and vegetables on sale in the streets outside supermarkets. Don't. They are nearly always mouldy or ridden with insects inside, or in the case of fruit, lacking any juice.

3.Don't walk on the wall at night. Despite the romantic vistas and the fact that scores of locals and lovers do, it is a known haunt of thieves and assaults on women have been reported.

4.It is not always a good idea to brag about being American, British, or French. Heres why:

(i) America formented the loss of Colombian territory, ie Panama, so they could extract concessions and build the Panama Canal. American drug consumption is often cited as the source of all the narco-dollars that corrupt Colombia's legal system. Aerial spraying of coca fields is poisoning the countryside with weedkiller. The Untited States' controversial "Plan Colombia" has many opponents.

(ii) British pirates attacked Cartagena several times. Robert Hawkins bombarded the city for eight days in 1568. Sir Francis Drake torched the city, house by house, over a period of a month, until he received a ransom. Admiral Vernon tried to take the city in 1741 and bombarded it for several weeks with a fleet of 180 ships. He failed to take the city, but inflicted enormous damage. In 1837 the Brits blockaded the harbour again claiming money in a civil compensation case, which the city paid under threat of bombardment and starvation.

(iii) French pirates who sacked the city include Robert Baal in 1544, Martin Cote in 1569. Baron de Pointis in cahoots with Jean Baptiste Ducasse beseiged the city in 1697, causing damage that in todays money would be 40 million dollars. In 1834 the French Admirals Le Grandais and Mackau blockaded the harbour and threatened bombardment in retaliation for the imprisonment of the French Consul.

5.Always check notes both Colombian and US, as many fakes are in circulation. They are most easily passed off in taxis or dim bars. Colombian notes have a watermark and a metallic thread running through them. There are even counterfeit thousand peso coins in circulation, made of lead. Locals check them by hurling them on the pavement and seeing if they bounce. If they don't, you've got a nickel-plated fake.

6.If you think you are being followed, stop and catch a taxi. Taxi drivers are a lot more likely to be honest than the person who is following you.

7.It might sound obvious, but don't walk around flashing expensive cameras, jewellery, wads of money etc. Places like beaches, outside banks and the area around the clock tower are favoured pickpocket haunts. Calle Media Luna, where most of the backpacker hostels are situated, is another place to be vigilant, especially after dark. Thieves have been known to follow people from banks for up to half a day before they strike. Remember that there are tens of thousands of desplazados, or displaced people in Cartagena who have fled the problems in the interior of Colombia. Many of these people work for a salary of around $2 a day. Be wary of pushy street vendors who wave T-shirts and other objects in your face: often it is a foil or distraction so an accomplice can relieve you of your handbag or camera. Leave your "fanny pack" or zippered money pouch at home - they are sure to attract a thief. During the Reinada Parade, public concerts, in fact anytime there are crowds are always lucrative times for the thieves. If you find yourself being jostled, a good tactic is to yell "Ladron!" (thief) and point at the thieves. The Reinada Parade is also a time in which you might be pelted with firecrackers, flour, horse manure, paint or water. Groups of youths covered in black grease corral people with greasy ropes and ask for a few coins in return for being spared a greasing.

8.By all means visit the beautiful Convento de la Popa, but on no account walk up or down from it. The access road passes through a very poor part of town. A taxi should charge around US$5 to take you there, and probably will be waiting for you when you come out.Figure on paying him 10 to 12 dollars for the round trip, including waiting for an hour. From the lookout, you will see see children begging from the ground below. They hold up a stick or broom handle with a plastic container attached to it, and ask for tips. It is best to ignore their requests: the barrier fence is electrified and if their pole touches it they could get a nasty shock. Also, some of the beggars are adept at hooking the end of their poles around your camera bag strap or handbag and ripping it from your grasp.

9.Unless you have a cast-iron stomach, avoid Sopa de Mondongo. It is often worth asking if mondongo is the soup of the day in the comida corriente in set menus. It contains all sorts of offal including tripe, intestines and cow's udder. Likewise, avoid anything fried or containing ice from street vendors. The frying oil they often use is rancid black pork fat, and the blocks of ice are broken up with a pick in the street gutter in the early morning. Always check your change in even the best restaurants. In fact you should count your change out when paying as well - so they can't say you only gave them 1,000 pesos not 10,000 pesos (the notes are the same colour). The bill may come as a bit of a shock anyway: it will often contain a 16.5% tax, a service charge for weekends and public holidays, and an item called "propina voluntaria". This is a voluntary tip that some establishments automatically add to the bill. If you aren't happy with the service, don't pay it. It's always better to pay the waiter directly anyway, to ensure your tip goes to whom it is intended. And if the waiter is slow in bringing the menu, you could be being set up for the gringo menu scam. Some restaurants have one menu for locals, and a higher priced one for tourists. The "gringo menu" often lacks the cheaper comida correinte and sets exhorbitant prices for the other meals. Be especially wary of waiters who say no hay menu - there is no menu - you are almost certainly going to be overcharged when they say this! Even the most basic restaurant has a menu. A comida correinte rarely costs more than $US2. And remember that some restuarants charge an extra 2000 pesos for things like parmesan cheese to go with your pasta. Be wary of seafood in Cartagena. Things have improved since the opening of the La Bocana canal, but a few years ago the bay of Cartagena ranked as the second-highest in the world for mercury contamination. For this reason avoid fish bought on the street or from Bazurto fish market.

10.Swat up on emeralds before you buy. There are many very good dealers, but caveat emptor. You probably won't get green glass, but you might pay more than you should. Excellent deals can be had, but you must bargain hard. Some gold and emerald shops have "Museo de Oro" posters in their windows, but Cartagena's only Gold Museum is Plaza Bolivar. When ordering custom pieces, make sure that the it is the full price you are handing over, not a deposit. Many shops use the word "bono" instead of the word "deposito" to confuse tourists. When the customer returns to pick up the piece they are then told they have only paid for materials, and the full price including labour is usually double. Not wishing to lose their deposit, the hapless tourist then has no option but to the extra. It would be prudent to check the weight of such pieces also to see if you got everything you paid for.

11.The same goes for Cuban cigars. The ones sold on the street are of dubious origin and freshness. If in doubt, buy from one of the stores. You'll pay more, but you will be getting the real thing.

12.Ignore touts in the commercial district who call out "Americano?" "Italiano?" "What are you looking for?" "Money change Sir?" or similar phrases. They are only trying to initiate a conversation to gain your trust. If a vendor is being pushy, don't waste time talking to them - get moving. This applies especially to street sellers, and people who approach you on the street and offer to take you to `the cheapest' emerald shop or internet cafe. Such establishments need these characters to stay in business, and pay them commissions. Give them a big miss!

13.Always ask the price before getting in a taxi - the minimum fare is about US$1.20, while $8 will get you to anywhere within an hour's drive.

14.If you're a backpacker going to the airport, ask your taxi driver to drive to the green church at Crespo. You can then simply walk across the road to the airport and avoid paying the expensive airport tariff, which is official. If arriving at the airport, walk out of the airport parking lot and hail a taxi for less than US$2, or catch any bus marked Centro passing to the left. A bus will only cost you about US 25 cents to get the 2 miles or so into the center of Cartagena. And if you are meeting someone arriving, remember that in Cartagena Airport some domestic flights originating in Colombia process their passengers in the international terminal.

15.Do not buy drugs. You might find that the seller is an undercover policeman, despite his hippie appearance.

16.Be wary of people offering their services as guides. Tourists coming off the cruise ships are besieged by guides offering their services at prices ranging up to $US80 for an afternoon. You can bargain them down to less than half that. Make sure you get a guide who does actually speak English. Pay him at the end, not before, and make it clear where you want to go, because many "guides" head straight for shops that pay them commisions. A taxi driver can be hired for a day trip for around US$10 an hour, though very few speak English. If coming off a cruise ship, you must get a taxi driver from outside the terminal, because the ones inside the terminal have set up a cartel. To see a printer-friendly list of 36 interesting excursions in Cartagena.

17.Be wary of over-friendly members of the opposite sex in bars and discos - and remember that AIDS exists in Cartagena. Don't accept drinks from strangers that you haven't seen poured with your own eyes. A common scam is watered down liqour poured from an apparently full shot glass. Some names of drinks in Spanish: cerveza = beer, ron = rum, ginebra (pronounced hinaybra) = gin, gaseosa = pop or soft drinks, jugo (pronounced hugo) = juice. You might notice that bottles of rum and aguardiente in Colombia carry notices on their labels asking consumers to destroy the bottles after use. The reason? To make it harder for moonshine distillers. While on the topic of bar scams, beware of people who ask to try your Ray-Bans or expensive prescription glasses. You might have to fork over 10 or 20 bucks to get them back. Same goes for people who ask to see the stamps in your passport. Don't show them! (and don't laugh. Many people fall for it!)

18.If renting an apartment, shop around. Get receipts and ask everything be written down. You shouldn't have to pay more than a month in advance to obtain an apartment. When choosing an apartment, be aware that it is common for rental contracts here to specify a 3 or even 4 month penalty clause. It is also common for the ladlord to charge a "repainting fee", usually equal to 1 months rent, at the end of the rental agreement, regardless of whether the apartment needs repainting or not! It is also worth remembering that under Colombian law, landlords are entitled to raise the rent an amount equal to inflation on the 1st of January each year. Landlords can apply for the money retrospectively, and you might get hit with a big bill halfway through the year. There have been cases of foreigners being detained at the airport for not paying their rent in full. It also a good idea to keep an eye on your telephone, water and electricity meter boxes - illegal connections are common, and often connected and disconnected while you are out. The same goes for satellite and cable TV connections.

19.Carry a photocopy of your passport on your person, but not your actual passport. It is actually illegal to walk the streets in Colombia without I.D., but a photocopy will suffice in 99% of situations. Don't give your passport to anyone who doesn't produce convincing I.D. themselves.

20.Visit some of the beautiful islands around Cartagena - but don't pay boat operators the return fare in advance, unless its one of the larger boats who will give you a printed ticket. Don't listen to the smaller operators' pleas that they need an advance to buy gasoline. And if they say they will be back to pick you up at 4, they might be on time or they might be an hour or more late.

21.Pre-colombian pottery and gold. If it is real, it is illegal to take it out of the country without an export permit. Its easy to fake such antiquities by burying them in the ground for few months. If it is replica, check the price tag.

22.Go on a chiva tour - but don't drink too much of the free rum - you never know where you might wake up.

23.Don't get mail sent to a Cartagena address via regular post -it will probably be stolen. It is better to pay a bit more and use a courier service.

24.If someone is offering to help you find what you're looking for, remember that they will be looking for a tip after they help you. And don't get offended by the term 'gringo'. It is not an insult in the minds of the Colombians, and it refers to all caucasians, not just Americans.(It is their word, so its futile to try and tell them what it does or doesn't mean; it officially means white foreigner)

25. Keep an eye on people who run errands with large amounts of money. I was once at a function where a uniformed waiter disappeared with my 20,000 peso note, but never reappeared with the goods or change.

Glen David Short is a freelance writer based in Cartagena. His new adventure travelogue, `An Odd Odyssey: California to Colombia by bus and boat' has just been published by Trafford Publishing.

- B A C K -

Text and Photos Copyright 2005 Glen David Short