Colonial meets Caribbean.
Fortunately, I had the pleasure of sharing this pain with our new best buds and fellow overlanders, Wendo, Chris, and Tyler. For two full days (8am to 5pm), in long pants and closed-toed shoes — not allowed inside government offices without them — we trekked across Cartagena through swampy heat, sweating pit stains the size of basketballs, to fill out papers and wait for God-knows-what. Our van eventually emerged from its container. No worse for wear.
The Walled City
The more prominent, more touristy area of the city is behind a doubly fortified wall built by the Spanish, as are most of the churches and colonial structures. It’s gorgeous and quaint inside. Worlds and (literally) miles away from the stark white, Miami-like towers flanking the walls. In this way, and in many other ways, Cartagena reminds me of San Juan, Puerto Rico. The Spanish, despite their faults, at least built sweet cities.
Fun fact: Just ten to fifteen years ago, the walled part of the city, the old town if you will, was nearly in ruins. Due to crime and lack of tourism. You could buy a colonial house for as little as fifteen thousand dollars. That same house today will cost you over a million. Man, if only we’d had the foresight….
Caught this guy (or gal?) munching on berries during one of the many boring, bureaucratic waits. Didn’t have my fancy camera at the time.
The Most Interesting Conversation(s)
Before we left Idaho, Everett’s kindergarten teacher passed along her sister’s contact information in Colombia. We reached out to her in Panama.
Andrea and the kids were able to lunch with her, Patti, a retired schoolteacher, and her husband, James, a nearly retired DEA agent during one of the two days I spent filling out forms I didn’t understand.
Andrea WhatsApped me as soon as she finished, still beaming from the conversation. I was jealous. Then she told me that James, current Assistant Regional Director for the DEA Andean Region — the cocaine capital of the world! — wanted to meet with me — the current Cheetos cheese puff champion of the world — for drinks. I was stoked.
The Meet And Drink
It did not disappoint. I, with the confidence inspired by a Club Colombia Negra, brazenly asked every question that I’ve ever wanted to know about drug trafficking. And James, with the confidence inspired by career-long civil service, answered the questions he was allowed to answer. Here are a few of the highlights from the conversation:
- Colombia is still the biggest trafficker of cocaine in the world, even more so than the Pablo Escobar era. It’s just not as reported because (thankfully) the crime has significantly decreased.
- The drug cartels in Mexico are controlling most of the drug trade in the Americas. And they’re bad bad dudes. Make the Cali and Medellin cartels look like ninnys.
- One of his agents caught like four tons of coke while we drank our two beers.
- Do this math: Cartagena has had five mayors in the last seven years. All jailed for corruption.
- Bushels of coke are grown in Bolivia and Peru as well.
- Speedboats and semisubmersible submarines smuggle drogas from southern Colombia to Central America.
- The Ecuador / Colombia boarder on the Pacific is ground zero for cocaine distribution from South to Central and North America.
Then, just five minutes after this conversation, I got offered (didn’t buy Mom and Dad!) coke on the street. What a world.