A local encounter I’ll never forget

Female vendors in Cartagena

The style of the following story is a little different because it was submitted for a travel writing contest. I didn’t make the shortlist, but it was a good exercise.


My sister and I entered the walled city of Cartagena ready to begin our new adventure.  The air, a salty mix of scents, was ripe with possibility. First, we considered taking a carriage ride to view vibrantly-colored colonial homes now converted to lucrative vacation rentals. Then, we thought about looking for one of the mystical street performers who levitated in mid-air, seemingly defying gravity by supporting his entire body weight with one hand. At the very least, we knew we’d find an eatery where we could sample the region’s rich fusion cuisine that pays homage to its African, Arabic and Spanish heritage.

Walled City, Cartagena

Ultimately, we opted to play it by air, for we trusted the charismatic city to spontaneously spill her secrets.  Plus, we envisioned an expressive storytelling, similar to the non-verbal volumes spoken by the Afro-Caribbean women in bright, traditional costumes who effortlessly balanced fruit bowls atop their heads while sashaying gracefully, hips undulating in visual rhythm.Afro-Colombian women

Suddenly, there they were. A group of six, well-dressed seniors sitting on nondescript plastic chairs in a loosely clustered semi-circle amidst the cacophony of sounds produced by the never-ending square activity. Neither the clicking heels of tourists navigating the concrete sidewalks, the animated tones of vendors hawking wares of every size and shape, nor the excited holiday chatter spilling from the open doors of multiple bars, restaurants and cafés was enough to obliterate their presence. Their quiet camaraderie was a magnetic force that dragged me forcibly into their orbit. Authentci experience in Colombia

I approached the group and asked to take their picture.

“Sí, con mucho gusto,” they replied, and insisted I be in it. My sister snapped the photo enthusiastically. Then, as I murmured thank you and prepared to walk away, one gentleman with a 70 year-old twinkle in his eye invited us to sit and chat. A sure sign of a charmer still in his heyday.

We complied, lingered awhile, and proceeded to share tidbits of our respective cultures. The endearing grandfathers had been friends since high school, and they met from 7-9 p.m. on weekdays to banter about current events, sports and life in general.  As they regaled us with stories about their youth, early careers and families, I became increasingly impressed with the depth and longevity of their friendship.  In that moment, I realized we can make and maintain meaningful connections anywhere. We just need to open up ourselves to the experience.


Do you have an authentic and spontaneous local encounter you’d like to share? I’d love to hear about it. Please use the comments section below.

Street food is Cartagena’s best kept secret

I can’t wait to tell you about the day I ate my way through the streets of Cartagena! But first, please give me a minute to stroke my tummy while I reminisce about the explosion of flavors I experienced during that palate-friendly walking tour.

Yum, yum. BURP.

Busy stuffing my hands and face with street goodies. See all those dressings on the side?
Busy stuffing my hands and face with street goodies. See all those dressings on the side?

Even after I booked the excursion, I couldn’t explain what had come over me. I have a very delicate stomach that doesn’t hesitate to let me know when I’ve ingested something that doesn’t go down well. So naturually, I tend to be careful about my food choices when I’m away from home. But all that caution – born of sometimes painful and/or embarrassing repercussions – flew out the window when I visited the vibrant seaport town that dots Colombia’s northern coast.  Cartagena’s fusion of Latin, Caribbean and African cuisines were inspiration enough to defy my fears and make me dive tongue first into the unknown.

The first order of business was taking my probiotic tablet. I gotta keep it teal. My digestive system needs those good bacteria to keep it working like it should!
The first order of business was taking my probiotic tablet. I gotta keep it real. My digestive system needs those small bursts of good bacteria to keep it working like it should!

There was a variety of food carts, trucks and stands scattered throughout the colorful streets of the Walled City and neighboring towns like Getsemani. At almost every corner, vendors sold a wide range of foods that ranged from deep-fried starches to fresh fruit while the locals ignored us tourists and carried on with everyday life.

A domino game in play in Getsemani.
A domino game in play in Getsemani.

And one of the best parts of the experience was the fact that I could relish the delicacies while learning about local culture and folklore.  As far as ambiance goes, eating mango biche while walking past refurbished, colonial-style mansions and admiring multi-hued looms springing from second-floor balcony gardens, wasn’t too bad either.

I started the tour at the Statue of Jose Fernandez by the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid. It was across from The Cocoa and Chocolate Museum.  I just had to pop inside for a little visit before the other members of the group arrived. Cocoa plant

Arepas – These are flatbreads made of white or yellow corn and stuffed with cheese and butter.

Two types of arepas brought to you courtesy pf the local street vendors
Two types of arepas brought to you courtesy of the local street vendors

arepas in the street

Patacones  – As an island girl, I grew up eating friend green plantains accompanied by different proteins for breakfast or supper, but the Colombian version had a different twist to it. They were soaked in a salty, garlic-flavored marinade first, fried to a crispy texture and devoured as the main meal.

See that liquid in the pan to the front? It has the garlic and salt seasoned marinade in it.

Mango Biche – These are thin slices of unripe mango soaked in lime juice and seasonings, prettily displayed like extra-large fries in a cup. It had an unusual flavor; equal parts tarty and savory.

There were so many different fruits for sale all around Cartagena. And they were the fresh, not supermarket-weary variety.
There were so many different fruits for sale all around Cartagena. And they were the fresh, not supermarket-weary variety.

Empanada de huevo – Empanadas are made of corn and stuffed with beef and egg, with a sudeo ( white cream sauce) on top. We learnt these snacks are the scrumptious result of Latin, African, Syrian and Lebanese culinary influences. food container

Matrimonio – once upon a time, a sweet boy named ‘Guava’ met a full-bodied girl named ‘Cheese’ and it was love at first sight.  They hung out, got married, and lived happily ever after. guava and cheese

Chicharron – O.M.G. This pork dish is pure bliss. Crispy on the outside, and flavorful and tender on the inside, it hits the G-spot with every single bite. [Don’t gape at me. I meant G as in gastric!What were YOU thinking?]. I had it with boiled yuca, also known as cassava. Three servings still left me ravenous and yearning for more. Pork belly


Café Mural – I ended the day at a small shop run by David, an engineer who decided to leave his lucrative job in Bogota to pursue his true passion – coffee. The table behind his bar counter looked like a mini science lab. It was stacked with test tubes, multiple-sized measuring cups and other equipment I couldn’t identify. inside cafe

But there was method to what appeared to be his crazy but lovable professor madness. David, whose grandfather owned a coffee farm, lives to experiment with new blends. I don’t drink coffee but the others in my tour group raved about the blends they tasted.  I had a long glass of a mellow chocolate drink that was a fitting end to my day. outside cafe


Editors notes:

In case you want to do something similar, I booked this tour with Cartagena Connections. Tours last between three to four hours and require a two person minimum. They depart at 2:30 p.m. daily. The cost was $30 when I did it.  With that price, you get to sample about eight items but you’re encouraged to take extra pesos and try anything else that catches your eye.