Cartegena de Indias is a city of two sides. Most visitors will stick behind the colossal old city walls and just see the photogenic facade: brightly painted colonial buildings, picturesque crumbling churches, shady palm-tree plazas, friendly street-side sellers, bougainvillea balconies, horse & carts, bustling outdoor restaurants… it’s undeniably attractive and you can see why the place is a regular stop for cruise ships.
But like most tourist towns, Cartagena has another, more desperate side. At night the streets change, away from the lantern-lit tourist centre the atmosphere becomes a little edgy, the dark alleys become foreboding, and you’re not quite sure what might happen. As the tourist police turn in for the night, the city’s forgotten people emerge to walk the streets.
The city has a torrid history. In the past Cartagena had been used as a base by the Spanish Inquisition to torture suspects, and as a port for slaves brought from Africa. Most recently it was mentioned in the news because a group of US secret service agents were found cavorting with a load of prostitutes. When I heard about this I remembered when I was approached by a pimp just outside our hotel in the Getsemani district.
It was around 10pm and me and Jemma were walking back from our evening meal when he leapt up from a dark doorway and stood in front of me in the road. ‘Welcome to my world!’ he growled in an impressively sinister way, opening his arms to indicate everything around him. He smiled and asked me if I liked what I saw as he gestured towards a line of girls sitting on the pavement.
I don’t think he thought for a second he would succeed, and neither of us felt particularly threatened as we walked away. But the sad thing is there are people out there with money who will pay (not just the US secret service). And so every evening as the sun falls, Cartagena’s parallel world begins again, just a stones throw from the locked hotel doors.
We stayed: Hotel Villa Colonial
We paid: We got them down from 70,000 Pesos a night (£25) to 60,000 (£21). Definitely worth haggling!