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Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Panama Canal Cruise — October 5, 2010 – Day Twelve

Today was a day in Cartagena, Columbia. We arrived in this city on the northeast tip of Columbia where it juts out into the Caribbean sea at 0630. As usual the weather was overcast and it was raining. We did not realize that this was the rainy season in the tropics, but we were quickly becoming acquainted with this fact.

We would be taking a four hour tour of the city and here is what the brochure had to say about the tour; “Cobbled streets, balconies with blooming bougainvillea, and pastel plazas make Cartagena one of Latin America's most photogenic cities. But it's not just another pretty seaport. Founded in 1533, this Spanish-Colonial city is steeped in history. Its location made it a popular port for plunderers and pirates. Today thrill-seekers will find a perfect mix of old and new with a twist of island attitude.”

“You will travel through the Manga residential area, home to some of the most ornate mansions and beautifully restored homes of the city. Continue on to a photo stop at the largest Spanish fort in the New World--Fort of San Felipe de Barajas, originally built in the 17th century. Snap pictures of the ancient towering walls and main entrance. Then drive approximately 30 minutes to the walled city (not inside the narrow streets) and see colonial buildings, the old church domes, and age-old fortifications around every corner. Your sightseeing portion of the old city will end at Las Bovedas handicraft shopping center, built in the late 18th century as dungeons and as a means of storage. Sightsee and shop in the many handcraft boutiques and stores that now fill the area. Continue your journey to the Navy Museum. Enjoy the display of Colombian history and culture during a folkloric show featuring traditional songs and dances, as well as a complimentary soft drink. Before returning to the ship, see the modern area called Bocagrande known for its shops and hotels.”

This all sounded pretty good when we signed up for the tour and by golly it turned out to be a pretty good experience.

We were met at the pier by a band from the Columbian Navy and women dressed in traditional dress with baskets of fruit on their heads. Luckily when were boarding the bus the rain finally stopped and it looked like we would have four hours of clear and sunny weather.

We were met on the bus by our tour guide, Sergio Camacho, who spoke very good English and had a great sense of humor. On the way to our first stop Sergio gave us a great deal of information about Cartagena and Columbia. Sergio mentioned several times he watched Fox News and even reference Bill O’Reilly — interesting (Note; the ship has Fox News, ESPN and TCM on their satellite TV. They also have CNN International, but I don’t think many people watch it. We get to watch all of our FNC favorites every day). The following is some of the narrative we received as we made our way through Cartagena:

210 cruise ships come to Cartagena each year during the season from May to November. These ships account for a major portion of the 900,000 tourists that come to Cartagena each year. The goal of the city fathers is to reach one million. Tourism is accounts for a major factor in Cartagena’s income stream as they have no real manufacturing base.

Columbia’s main exports are emeralds, coffee, bananas, oil and fresh flowers. Every day they send 747s loaded with fresh flowers all over the world. Perhaps, if you are buying flowers from your local market they may be from Columbia or Costa Rica.

Emeralds are a big deal in Columbia and they lay claim to having the biggest, best and most green emeralds in the world. The say that their emeralds are better than those from Brazil as they contain and additional element that gives them a deeper green color. I am sure Brazil will have a counter claim. Anyway, you can get emeralds at almost any shop in Cartagena.

There are three classes of people living in Columbia; Upper Class, Middle Class and Lower Class. The upper class has an income of $8,000 per month, the middle class $2,500 and the lower class $400. Due to the nation’s socialist policies fees for utilities and other expenses for entitlements are prorated on a sliding scale based upon income. As an example the upper class will pay $800 per month for water, electric, gas and internet while the lower class will pay only $40. Sounds like Obama’s plan.

There are 45 million people in Columbia with 5.5 million of them unemployed (12.4%). This is causing a drain on the Columbian economy as the government provides a great many social benefits, including housing. There appears to be a very wide gap between the haves and have not’s in this country, This is one of the reasons they are still battling the FARC in the eastern districts along the Venezuelan border.

In the old town district people are buying the old houses and refurbishing them, These house range from one to two million dollars and celebrities such as Jennifer Lopez, Marc Anthony and Danny Glover are just a few who are buying these properties. Yes, Danny Glover with his support for Hugo Chavez and his socialist policies will buy a two million dollar home in Old Town Cartagena — talk about hypocrisy.

At our first stop, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, we had our first encounter with the multitude of street peddlers selling sunglasses, panama hats, belts, silver jewelry, T-shirts and other souvenir items. They are like flies on dung, all over you. Many people can’t handle these street peddlers. They are just trying to earn a living and all you have to do is say no and walk away. They will not spend any more time with you as they need to move on to locate another potential buyer.

Our next stop was at the Las Bóvedas with its old dungeons turned boutiques and souvenir shops. Here you can purchase a better grade of merchandise, including emeralds, at a fair, negotiated price. Outside there are the multitudes of street peddlers, all monitored by the police.

Our third and final stop was at the Naval Museum where we took a little tour of the museum and then saw a folkloric show and had something to drink. We had a choice of water, soft drink, fruit drink or beer. I choose a Columbian beer. It was weak and not that tasty, but it was cold.

This shore excursion was pretty good. We did not have any annoying people on the bus and everyone made it back to the bus on time. The weather was good and we made it back to the ship just in time. As we were boarding the ship it began to rain.

We were all pleasantly surprised with Cartagena. We could have spent more time here and we felt it was much safer than Mexico. The weather ranges from 75 to 85 all year with high humidity and a rainy season. Columbia has many problems, as do most of Latin and South American countries, and the tourism dollars will help. They will need to keep their city clean and safe if they want to increase those dollars. Cruise ships bring in many of those tourists and if there are problems the ships will bypass Cartagena,

Tomorrow we will be in the Cayman Islands where I hope we have good weather. We are planning on spending time with turtles. That should be interesting.

Click here to view an updated version of my Panama Canal Gallery

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