“Masayo masayo! Ah mira que estresado estás! Mucho nudo! Trabajas demasiado! Necesitas masayo!”
No, fuck off. I don’t need a massage. I just got one 5 minutes ago from a woman who looks shockingly like you, are you sure it wasn’t you? I’m not gonna believe you even if you say no. Ok, stop grabbing my neck, I don’t need you rubbing off my suncreen because I’m guaranteed to burn in three minutes. Oh, now you’re grabbing my foot. No, I don’t walk a lot in my job. In fact I walk none at all. Am I serious? Do I really not want a massage? Yes, I’m fucking serious now move along and take advantage of someone else.
Cartagena is a wonderful, historic city emblematic of Colombia’s afro-influenced coastal culture. Surrounded by a Revolutionary War-era wall, there is a powerful straight-out-of Pirates of the Caribbean feel that certainly makes the city uniquely enchanting. The buildings have an old colonial feel, traditional dancing fills the streets, and everything a tourist could ask for is within reach. Bright emeralds, fresh fruits, local ice cream and fresh seafood are all abundant in the streets. With a strong US dollar, prices are very reasonable, even if they’re extremely high for Colombia. Best of all, there exists a slight air of magic within those walls. Of course, that magical air is also carrying 100% humidity and filled with inviting hisses from whores and occasional wafts of urine. I wouldn’t go back as a tourist anytime soon. Here’s why.
While Cartagena remains the flagship for Colombia’s Caribbean coast tourist industry, it really shouldn’t. Besides the historic old town, there isn’t much about Cartagena that makes it distinctly wonderful. Once you find yourself outside of the wall you could be anywhere. Classic white condo buildings line the shore across from beaches that aren’t particularly all that nice. While being clean enough, they are a far cry from the touted white-sand pristine destinations the Caribbean is known for. (Note: The white sand beaches in the photos are from a nature reserve located 45 minutes by speedboat from Cartagena)
As a North-American tourist things get worse. White skin makes you a prime target for the wandering sellers of anything from the aforementioned massages to other standard wares. You are a target, meaning less relaxation and more insistent telling-off of Colombians trying to make a quick buck off a gringo that speaks no Spanish and can be bullied into handing over a seemingly worthless currency. The grifts are all classic, and one can see them coming a mile away. Yet, a sellers’ insistence is still able to lure in even the most prudent tourist. One man, even after I had told him multiple times I hate oysters, shoved shellfish after shellfish into my hand until I demanded he stop. Then he stuck out his own hand and demanded $20,000 pesos (USD $7). For reference, I make $22,000 pesos an hour teaching English, which is mind you a decent hourly wage, even for teachers. He tried to show me how many oysters he had just forced me to consume (probably 6) and tell me “hey man you ate all my shit gimme cash” as if I had been begging him for more. I simply looked at him and laughed the price down to $2,000 pesos. Eventually he took my bill and his harbor mollusks and walked off, but anybody with a lower Spanish skill and less idea of the value of currency here likely would’ve paid him exactly what he wanted. Even the taxi drivers neglect to have meters in the cabs, and when prompted for a price simply ask “Well how much do you wanna pay me?” Go too high, they rip you off. Go too low, they act outraged. The need to bargain never ends.
This constant barrage of arguing people down on price gets extremely tiresome, which coupled with the heat will leave any white American tourist weary after only a few days. Calls of “Hey man, where are you from?” that are meant only as an in to try to sell something quickly start sounding like nails on a chalkboard. Whether on the street or the beach, it’s a never-ending battle. For this reason, Cartagena would be touristically doomed without the physical remnants of its historic past. The wall, the historic architecture, the bright Colombian colors.
Cartagena needs to reel in the insistent vendors if it has any chance of appealing to North American/European tourists. Unfortunately, this may be so embedded in the culture that it’s simply too late. This is due mostly to the fact that Cartagena’s government focuses so strongly on protecting the pristine tourist destination that it neglects the burgeoning underbelly that is Cartagena’s “real” downtown. A historically neglected Afro-Caribbean population that is forced to prey on tourists in lieu of having the opportunity for gainful employment. Emphasis on strong police presence in the historic sector takes away resources from the rest of the city, and money spent on maintaining relics likely comes out of the budget for much needed social spending. Therefore, by forcing vendors to leave tourists alone, the government would simply be brushing aside one symptom of a much larger socio-economic problem.
But it’s not a shithole. Colombia is filled with some of the world’s most wonderful people. People who are happy you’re visiting their country, interested in what you think, genuinely friendly and open. An ambitious man spied my white friends and I from 4oo yard away and brought us beach chairs and beers. Never mind we were another 400 yards from the edge of the water, we accepted his offer because his price was fair and any time in 90˚ heat is a good time for a Pilsen.
Might as well say yes to that massage as well.