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
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
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
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