Up, up and away…..

After a few life/professional changes, the FP travel group re-started it’s latest set of travel ventures in November 2011. Always in search of not so trite and commercialized travel destinations, our friends in Panama whispered fondly a few years back about an “off-the-radar” locale our travel group might enjoy! Really? Colombia? Yes, you see this is one country that has not exactly been on the travel radar for Americans due to it’s reputation and dangerous drug past of the 70s & 80s. But almost 2 decades later, Colombia and many of it’s largest cities, Bogota, Cali, Medellin, and Baranquilla, have shed that negative label and pushed international business commerce and travel tourism to huge levels. Known as an affordable destination throughout Latin America already, Cartagena is considered to be the “Monte Carlo of the Caribbean”. Exactly due south of Jamaica and Cuba on the northern coast of South America, Cartagena is an easy trek from Miami or NYC with all the elements of a good-valued Caribbean vacation year round. After some research and promotion, it was off to visit the Colombian lands during one of their grandest events – Carnival in Cartagena de Indias!!

CARTAGENA CARNIVAL is more than just your typical, uninhibited street parade. This one long weekend was Colombia’s annual event for celebrating their heritage, culture and historic independence. Like most afro-latin countries, national pride is on display where the citizens add their own flare and touch on this celebration. This normally sleepy place, takes on a whole new personality. South American travelers and socialites from all over the world descend on this coastal town for some high level revelry and fun under the sun! Additionally, all eyes are focused to see which of this country’s beautiful young women will win the most prestigious event of the year, the national beauty pageant crown of Miss Colombia. Imagine a political convention – mixed in with the anticipation of the Oscar’s or Grammy’s during Super Bowl weekend. “Yeah, just how does all this happen in one weekend?” We were about to find out…..

Arrival – I get in late from my connecting flight to check in at the Cartagena Plaza Hotel in Cartagena’s trendiest beachfront neighborhood, Boca Grande. I had only a few minutes to change – I’m lagging behind in joining our group at the first night meet and greet location. I’d gotten word that a few other folks had flight delays, so let’s hope all is going smoothly at this point. It’s already after 11pm and the plaza behind the Torre del Reloj is crowded. The clock tower is a landmark fixture in Cartagena’s Walled City section and is a center point of interest for incoming visitors. The Tu Candela bar is a staple here and a great meeting place for locals and first time visitors. The mood was kinda of laid back, I wave to some familiar faces and see a few new attendees at a table in the corner. I see one our trip leads and get briefed on the arrival updates and plans for the weekend. There’s usually activity plan changes once we arrive at a destination and this time, the weather and carnival organizers were the culprits. I discover that the Pageant Street Parade was actually earlier that day, but there’s plenty more on tap for the travel group. Ok, no worries. I’ll let our local travel vendor deal with juggling all of the weekend particulars. After a few rounds, we leave to drop by one of the most popular cafes here, Arepas Pues. If you like Jamaican patty’s, I recommend checking out this spot for a late night bite to eat – the prices are cheap and the service is always entertaining. Arepas, a big part of the cuisine in Venezuela and Colombia, are made of ground corn dough or cooked flour with tomatoes, salad, and cheese added in with the meat. Pretty tasty! Be sure to order the the special of the house an “Arepa filled with any choice of churizo, carne or pollo.” or the very familiar “Hamburguesa de carne”.

DAY 2 – Free day. This means, we’ve got lots of daylight to explore the festival surroundings. The weather is great, the views from my hotel room and rooftop pool are incredible. The travel group is not all in one place, but I think the Cartagena Plaza has a few great benefits this weekend. I realized during breakfast that a great many of the stage performers and television production crew are staying here, cause the lobby looked like the backstage of a NY Broadway show. There were stylists, make-up artists, and photographers everywhere. Who are all these people? I had no clue, but I got a few pics of some the dancers and delegates whenever I could, lol! The whole neighborhood was mobbed. You could randomly walk down the main street in Boca Grande and see a mass of people shouting and chanting or carrying posters of their queen. I now realized how serious Colombians take their beauty pageant business. This was something to see. All 26 states in the country have sent their own high-spirited delegation to Cartagena for only one expressed purpose – to make sure “their beauty queen” is crowned on Monday night. I cannot tell you how this makes for a wild atmosphere almost every where you went around town.

The beach across the street was crowded today. The peddlers were making rounds and you were guaranteed to be asked to buy a drink or something to eat or a t-shirt to wear or a nice massage or….. well, you get the idea. (Just ignore them and keep walkin’). We managed a few dips in the ocean water while soaking in some rays though. I still think, however, Playa Blanca Beach is a much nicer urban beach than Boca Grande. Strolling down any of the streets in Boca Grande and you’ll see numerous boutiques. Shopping is also a good way to spend some time here. Lots of jewelry, clothing and local art design bargains can be found. A favorable US dollar exchange rate surely helps. On Friday afternoons, there’s no better place to kick the weekend into high-hear than at Cafe del Mar. This outdoor restaurant/bar is located atop the colonial wall of the Old City and is packed with a mix of people from all over. Drop in around 4 or 5pm, there’s a live DJ, good food to sample on the Mediterranean menu, and you can sit at the bar, a table or on one of the party benches. Most importantly, you have the best view in town of the setting sun. Sample any of of the house cocktails or just try an Aguila or Club Colombia (the national beer favorites) and people watch.

Tonite’s meet up was at venue nearby the city center. The main entrance line was long, but our VIP status got us past the crowd with ease and right to our table at Mister Babilla’s. Filled with mostly South Americans in town for the weekend, the international DJs and the servers keep this place going. There’s no real dance floor area, so after the conga line makes a few laps, dancing on the tables and chairs becomes the norm. Literally!! I know we were definitely having a blast when our group size at the corner table doubled in size. It never fails, the social energy of Funky People usually draws curiosity of the male and female locals, when we’re on vacation. No doubt who the out of town Americanos were. I can remember lots of dancing, singing and shots of rum, then………

DAY 3 – Holy moly, was it Saturday morning already? This is crazy, now I’d have to avoid sleeping for fear of missing today group activity. It’s a 9am pickup at the hotel. Colombian coffee is a must at breakfast!! After a bit of confusion the entire travel group arrives at the correct marina to board our vessel for the day. The Saturday event was the Boat Parade for the National Pageant. It’s the last time for each beauty queen to make a statement and sway the judges and voters before the actual competition began on Sunday nite. Really different, but pageants are a big deal here. People were scrambling to get on boats all over the two adjacent marinas. I thought half the city must be renting any boat they could, to witness this. The regatta consisted of multi-million dollar yachts, smaller speed boats, tour boats and even a passenger cruise ship off in the distance. The party antics on the spectator boats were as close to the Bourbon Street Mardi Gras, as you can get. The Colombian Marines escorted the queens in row boats past our floating procession. People toasted and cheered as the women posed during their drive-bys. (Talk about swaying public opinion.) It was an fun day on the water in Cartagena Bay. I’m pleased to report no one got seasick and the whole group was accounted for upon our return to the dock. Kudos to our hosts, captain and crew!!

For the Saturday nite finale we visited two of the best places to dance in Cartagena. Club Havana for live Salsa music and Babar, a exclusive discotech in the old city. Both places got pretty packed! Good thing we had our salsa moves ready for Club Havana regulars. We also got a pic with some Latin athletes mingling at Babar. Finally, I get in early. Must sleep now.

DAY 4 – Cartagena’s Carnival has been great but there’s still two days left!!! A few tours head out with the attendees to the Totumo Mud Volcano, and to the La Pompa monastery. The best beach in the region is on the Rosario Islands. This was a peaceful way to relax in a beautiful ocean setting away for the carnival madness. Back from the tours, we explore the adjacent residential neighborhood of Laquito. Our driver directs us to a unique beach side restaurant hidden behind the Dunn Hotel called the Sunset Beach Club. The bartender and servers here offer warm greetings and suggest a few specialty appetizers on the light menu. The owner/DJ, Juan Diego, mixes up a good blend of soulful deep house music. This is my kinda of international vibe. You can lay out out on the beds or just sit at the bar the whole time as the sun descends on the nearby horizon. Enjoy the atmosphere and share some eats while you reflect on the day. Shout out to our new found friends from Canada, Europe, and Australia. The hospitality here was great!

One of my best recommendations for dinner is La Olla Cartagenera. This is a cozy indoor/outdoor restaurant to sample some Colombian dishes with Caribbean options. The service is excellent and you should try a seafood favorite, the Langostos con Arroz de Cocoa. You won’t be disappointed! Now over to the Hilton Hotel Resort. Security is tight and for good reason. This was the big event of the pageant, the 3-hour Miss Colombia Swimsuit competition! It’s now fully clear just how big and prestigious the business of beauty pageantry is in this country. There’s more than the actual title at stake. Sponsored social service community activities, educational scholarships and public social program funding for the state are in the coffers for the woman that wins. A great deal of the income generated by this event are used to fund the winnings. What a novel idea! No wonder the hotel property had a stadium-like atmosphere. Our seats were amongst a “who’s-who” of A-list guests, political leaders and relatives of the contestants. We just stood, watched and took it all in as each state contingent cheered for “their girl”. The show was more like a nationally televised fashion show with a half-time performance, but who’s complaining? Honestly, after two costume (*clears throat*), I mean bikini changes, I deem this contest a tie. All the beauty queens were winners in my book. I’m told only Venezuela does such a production on a bigger scale. I can believe it. The Miss USA/America pageants are very different.

Day 5 – Monday held a variety of day tour options for the group members. There’s lots of historic places see in Cartagena, the Gold Museum, the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress, or the Old Walled city are all favorites of mine. Cartagena’s afro-latin colonial history are on the UNESCO World Heritage site list, in fact. The people of Colombia are warmest you’ll meet! They don’t get to interact with many Americans, so they tend to be just as curious about you as you are about them. Hmmm…..is that why we’re having such a good time? I did notice that many of the locals here didn’t even realize I was American, I guess my limited Spanish skills didn’t give me away. We get lots of great photos and compare our souvenir finds before the day ends.

Our last nite brought us to an Argentinian restaurant called, Quebracho. Between our conversations, the restaurant staff would turn up the large screen monitor volume for the status of the pageant. Tonite’s final two events, Evening gown, and Question & Answer, would determine the winner. The food is delicious and the wine complimented our churrascos flawlessly, but attention kept coming back to the television. The winner of last nights swimsuit category is one of the four finalists. The results are tallied. There’s a pause, and the 2011 winner is announced……….Daniella Margarita Alvarez Vásquez!

Just like that, it was over. It seemed like only a few hours ago, we’d just landed here. The new queen was crowned, the casual bets were settled and the restaurant begins to close. We consider a few last after-parties to attend, but the massive crowds have left and the city is a lot calmer. No thanks, we’ve seen the best of this event has to offer already. The travel mates in our group begin to exchange contacts and pose for a few last pictures. It’s a plus when the personalities in the group get along so well. It was great to be a part of another fun group of people I had not known before this weekend. “See you all again, soon! Thanks for the great times! Maybe I’ll see you in Cuba next year…?”. Yup, the travel bug is back, people are still funky – what a weekend!!!

The country of Colombia as a whole will appeal to most tourist interests. If you are looking for a nice getaway, do add Cartagena to your list. Not every weekend in Cartagena has the energy or the crowds of Carnival week, but the colonial history, architecture, afro-latin culture, food, dining, shopping and even eco-tourism activities are all a part of the basic appeal. Other recommendations include Santa Marta, or the isle of San Andres, if you wish to avoid the big interior cities. Special thanks to our usual lists of members, friends and colleagues for assisting with all the groups stateside US promotion! Our on-the-ground activities were handled by the Tours Gone Wild Travel group and boy did they show us an absolutely fantastic time!!! Thanks Arturo and Santiago – we shall connect again for new adventures. Our Funky People Online Network is now on Facebook and Twitter – follow us around the globe using your smartphone or computer. Stay tuned – upcoming trips through 2014 are already in the pipeline….hope to see you with us!

Check out the photos & videos from this trip at this link: Cartagena Carnival 2011 !

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