It was around the start of April this year when that Cartagena, an ancient coastal town in Colombia, Latin America, made its way to my itinerary. I was expected to acquire a Colombian visa to attend a global event on biodiversity in this city from July 21 to July 28. So without wasting any time, I started searching for information about the documentary requirements and procedures involved.
Having suffered undue visa-related stress during my past travels, this time I was determined to secure one well ahead of my scheduled departure and avoid the uncertainty caused due to last-moment approvals. Unfortunately, my experience was even more nerve-wrecking this time.
As I started my quest, I was surprised to find out that Colombia has no diplomatic presence in Pakistan and one has to travel to Abu Dhabi to get a Colombian visa. Soon this information turned out to be incorrect. I was advised to contact the honorary counsel of Colombia, a Pakistani businessman-cum-politician, based in Islamabad. Unfortunately, this person was inaccessible and the reason told by a friend was that his was just a ceremonial post and he could not really help anybody out. So, he intentionally avoided meeting aspirants of Colombian visa or taking their calls, or so it goes.
To cut a long story short, an electronic visa was ultimately issued by the Colombian Consulate in Istanbul and was sent to me via email. The process was made more tedious by the fact that the visa payment could only be made into the consulate’s bank account by someone physically present in Turkey or online by an individual through his or her Colombian credit card only.
The relevant personnel at the Lahore airport were also quite unfamiliar with the visa document and took quite some time to clear me for boarding.
The idea is to point out that this destination is hardly familiar to Pakistanis and there are no efforts on part of either of the two countries to fill the information gap. It was on my arrival in Cartagena after a 52-hour journey from Lahore, including the time spent as a transfer passenger at airports, I realised that all this hassle was worth it and that the frequent international travellers from this part of the world were missing a lot. The longest flight was around 15 hours in duration, between Istanbul and Bogota, the capital of Colombia.
Cartagena, known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, is a major port founded in the 16th century, located in the north-western part of Colombia and faces the Carribean Sea. It also has an old Walled City dating back to that era. The wall was built to protect the city from pirates because it was a hub of trade between Spain and its occupied territories in the region. It was at this very place that slaves brought from Africa were sold to the affluent. The slave trade point is preserved for the visitors interested in learning about the history of this settlement.
My first day was spent resting in the hotel and trying, though unsuccessfully, to overcome the jetlag. But the following day, in the afternoon, I mustered strength and left for the old city with some other foreign visitors staying at the same hotel. We were advised by the hotel staff to go on foot if we wanted to closely observe the architectural and cultural beauty of the city and also experience the sea breeze.
I could see tourists strolling along or atop the fortified walls, taking photos with the centuries-old cannons placed inside the openings in these walls and heading toward the sea. Within moments, I was approached by half a dozen vendors celling cigars, products made of or decorated with coffee beans, handicrafts and clothing bearing pictures of the unique animal and bird species of the country, shirts with portraits of the Colombian drug lord Pablo Escobar and so on.
Taking me for an Indian, they would offer me a ‘special’ price and on my correcting them they would exclaim: “Man…You were one country and became two after the British left.”
I was surprised to find street hawkers so informed on this count. Maybe they could relate because they had themselves won freedom from Spain — a colonial power like the British.
The walled city is so beautifully preserved that one feels travelling back in time once here. The houses built centuries ago have been converted into hotels, restaurants, galleries, bars etc without doing any harming the structures and even changing the colour schemes. Horse cart ride is a major attraction after dark and sometimes people have to wait for long for their turn.
The area is very pedestrian-friendly and gets crowded as the night falls and the city livens up. The air is filled with aroma of local and foreign cuisine and the enchanting sound of indigenous music on streets and in clubs and bars. The family home of nobel laureate Gabriel Garcia Marquez is also here and, as per information provided by a Colombian guide, is up for sale.
Though the weather is mostly warm and humid, the city attracts a large number of tourists from countries like the US, Venezuela, Ecuador, Spain, Mexico, Peru and Panama. The sandy beaches, rainforests, diverse fauna and flora, economical passions, the perennially festive mood of the city, endless fairs and festivals are some of the reasons that make it a tourist hub.
There were options galore: We could spend good time at the beaches or opt for boat or launch rides to the closeby islands and an archipelago in close vicinity. There are about half a dozen different companies that persuade tourists to avail their options including that of riding on sight-seeing buses.
Colombia is a paradise for bird-lovers. Thousands of visitors make trips just to see the birds they cannot find anywhere else in the world. Aviario de Nacional Colombia is one just privately-owned aviary where hundreds of bird species have been kept in different exhibit areas representing different habitats or region. For example, rainforest, desert and tropical areas. The ticket to this facility carries a price tag equivalent of US$ 15 and yet the number of visitors is quite robust.
One thing that I observed in particular was that Colombians take pride in their nationality and excessively used outfits and products exhibiting the three colours of their national flag — yellow, blue and red. The explanation I was given was that yellow is a symbol of the riches the country boasts of, blue represents the two oceans (the Atlantic and the Pacific) and red depicts the blood spilled by the country’s heroes in the struggle for freedom.
A piece of advice that nearly every other person offered me was to come again during the November-December festive season when the city is abuzz with extraordinary activity. This is exactly the time when they have preliminary and final rounds of national beauty pageant in Cartagena, participated in by contestants from all over the country. Some even felt sorry for me for not being able to be there for this ‘heavenly’ experience.
A recent positive development recently is that in the post-conflict phase, the Colombian government’s focus has shifted to developing new tourism products and marketing these to the world. Earlier, it was on the tourism map for shady reasons. A large number of tourists would and are still coming here for sex tourism as sex work is legal in the country. But sex workers are supposed to get tested for sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) every week.
This makes it next to impossible for men without companion(s) to move around alone in the walled city and enjoy the mesmerising sights of the preserved structures. I dared to do that and was literally pushed by locals posing as guides to accompany them to queer places. On resisting I would hear this. “Man, we know what you are up to. We can read it in your eyes. So, don’t be shy and just follow us.”
Amazingly, this lot of locals can speak English quite well. Otherwise, many Spanish-speaking locals use handheld devices with Google translate option to communicate with tourists.