Cartagena, heat, bribes and foreign tourism

Dear friends and family, 

Well, my bike and i made it to Colombia.

We landed in Cartagena after a two and a half hour flight from Miami. I was sitting in row 9, so was one of the first off the plane. Felt like Alaska flying in that there is no tunnel to walk off the plane, just a portable stairs to walk down onto the jetway.

I expected heat and humidity, but was not prepared for the intensity of both. If I had walked into a heated wet blanket it would have been the same. Of course my first thoughts were “How in the hell am I going to bicycle in this?” But like a true denier, let it go and went inside to the airport’s air conditioning. 

I followed the other passengers into the building for immigration.  As I entered I saw a sign in front of the dividers that pointed to the right that said “foreign passengers”, so i went that way. As I entered the separation corridors i looked overhead and realized that above me showed an arrow that said “Colombian nationals only”. I looked at the other passengers looking for a helpful clue. I noticed only the brown covers of Colombian passports in their hands in their readiness for processing. Sure i was in the wrong line, I headed back against the traffic only to realize that there was not other line, this was the only one!

I didn’t look forward to standing in line for a long time only to find out that i had to start over somewhere else, so luckily found an agent and showed my passport and mimed about the lane i was in. He waved me forward, so i could assume i could stay where i was, which turned out to be okay.

At the booth, the processing went easy. My passport was scanned, he looked me straight in the eyes and stamped my passport. I asked to make sure i would get 90 days, so he picked up a pen and wrote “90” over the stamp. I’m sure that will guarantee that I’m good for that long!

The last time I flew in to South America it wasn’t that easy:

After i finally got out of the boatyard in Venezuela, i parked the boat in the marina and flew to see Nancy, my wife at the time, who was living and working in Boston. She went back to work after the shipwreck because her career was as a computer programmer and she worried that with technological changes, she wouldn’t be able to find work if she didn’t keep up with the industry.

I had used up most of my three month tourist visa that one gets upon arrival in the county. I understood the routine to be to leave the country anywhere for anytime and upon return, get an automatic additional three months time.

So, this trip would accomplish several things: visit with my wife, get a new stamp in my passport and collect parts in the US that I couldn’t find or import into Venezuela. 

I did accomplish all three and then flew back into the country. I had a full suitcase of spare boat parts and a few clothes. When I approached the immigration desk, the agent told me that my visa for the year had already been used up and that i could not reenter the country. 

Cannot re-enter the country! My boat was in this country with everything i owned on it. I had to figure out a way in!

I was told to wait to the side as all the other passengers were processed through. “

Think Charley, think” were the thoughts in my head. “Might want to think fast as well” I told myself about my usual slowly thinking mind. 

“Okay, its either jail or entry” was what I thought, but I was out of other options.

I took a large bolivar  (the local currency) note out of my pocket. It was worth about three US dollars, but probably more than the daily pay of this agent. It was a new note, so made a crinkling sound as I crunched it in my left hand, down below the counter of the agent. I could only smile at the thought of my first bribe of a foreign government official!

As if it was done before, the agent placed his open hand to the side of the counter to receive the note. Quickly, his hand closed around it and with his other hand he stamped my passport solidly as he voiced ‘Bienvenido a Venezuela”. He then waived me through.

Was it hot or was it nerves that caused me to sweat? Either way, I was ready when the customs agent opened my bag and complained about the illegal import of these parts into the country. In fact, the note this time was already in my hand. A quick crinkle, a closed receiving hand, and the deed was done. Easy? Physically, yes, but psychologically less so.

I am staying at a hostel in the middle of the walled city of Cartagena. It is loaded with tourists as it’s the high season. Very few of these tourists are Americans (they call us Americans here even though South America is “American”). They are mostly Europeans, a large majority being French and German. 

In the hostel it’s mostly the young backpack crowd. It’s fun being around their energy and I can go into my private room once the energy gets to be too much. I private room at a hostel here is expensive ($37)compared to the group dorm room rate ($15), but it offers air conditioning, a quiet retreat and a huge breakfast included.

I think about us foreign tourists taking advantage of our strong currencies and living high on few foreign dollars or euros. 

It does seem to bring a lot of money to the people who serve the tourists. That part actually seems a good thing for the country and its people. With the crowds of foreigners often flashing their money, jewelry and electronics, the difference between the wealth  of the locals and the tourists is what creates the proliferation of petty crimes of pickpocketing and phone stealing. That sure is a negative impact. 

I did hear a tour guide yesterday taking about a neighborhood close by that was populated mostly be indigenous people that is now being gentrified by foreigners. Houses here can sell for up to $500,000 US, thereby driving up all the other property costs. At this rate the locals are shut out of the market because of their currency. This part has severe local consequences. Being one of those “rich” people by local standards, I don’t want to judge, but just note for now.

Sending love,


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5 thoughts on “Cartagena, heat, bribes and foreign tourism”

  1. Yes, sometimes bribes are the only way to get things done. We had to do that in Mexico a number of times but it is somewhat nerve-wracking. I hope you run into less of that in Columbia. Is the weather better in other parts of the country? I hope?

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