Christmas in Cartagena
by Chuck Cherry
I know what you're thinking. Isn't it a little early for a Christmas article? But the truth is, as offensive as if may sound to most cruisers, if you are beginning to start to commence thinking about possibly going to the Queen City of the Spanish Main (and you should be), you might want to think outside the envelope and plan ahead. I'll tell you why.
Christmas in The Big C is not a single holiday - it's a season. In fact, it is THE season for Cartagena. Everything about Christmas in Cartagena comes early and stays late. A quarter of all Halloween costumes are distinctively "Noel", the boughs of holly go up immediately after the candy is divided, and if you are not in the harbor by early November, odds are that you won't get a slip at either marina (Club Náutico or Club de Pesca) until February. Even the big day itself is celebrated on the 24th instead of the 25th.
The festive attitude is enhanced by the entire month of November being given over to the Independence of Cartagena celebrations and the election of Miss Colombia, which is an event of biblical proportions. Twenty-some girls from every state in the nation are collectively paraded around the entire country, in front of TV cameras, and before a variety of panels where they are questioned, photographed, dressed up and down, and judged. After 30 days and almost as many locations and after absolutely every man, woman and child in Colombia knows absolutely everything about each candidate, from what she thinks about world peace to her favorite song, pet and shade of lipstick, the finalists are finally narrowed to one at the main event in Governor's Plaza in Cartagena on the night of the city's Independence Day, November 11th. This is a seriously major event with all the traditional costumes, celebrities, government officials, dueling army and navy bands, and thousands of spectators frolicking to disco music until well after dawn. A relative forecast of things to come.
By the time the queen was crowned last year the marinas were full and the anchorage bursting at the seams. By November, the usual tourist attractions, such as museums, forts, old churches, beaches, bars and restaurants, are all spruced up and decorated for the season. They have to be dolled up considerably to compete because now comes the tremendous onslaught of special events. There are hosts of concerts (many of them free in the plazas) with local and international musicians giving performances in a variety of locales. The theaters put on special holiday shows, which extend into the weekdays. Several youth shows were among these last year, and there was even a three-day kind of lollapalooza mini-Woodstock thing for those so inclined. Several South American rock stars that I couldn't name came through Cartagena during December 2008. (A little farther afield in Bogotá, Elton John and Madonna made appearances, too.)
If that's not enough to make your tempus fugit, you can buy tickets to one or both of the two full-blown film festivals. One is for made-for-TV films (they do love their tele-novelas) and one is for the big screen, complete with real movie stars, glitter and paparazzi. All together, these gala events go on for more than two weeks.
Of some interest to our cruising community was what appeared to be the entire joint US-Colombian Navy ensemble showing up in the harbor for two to three weeks of… R 'n' R? Some tours were available, and lots of photo ops. This was followed closely by the arrival of the good ship Gloria. The Gloria is a three-masted tall ship used for training and public relations. She remained parked at the party boat dock and was available for free public inspection and photos with the crew from nine to five.
The city is decorated for the festive season in a major way, especially in the old town within the wall. Last year, in addition to a big light show at the clock tower entrance, the wall itself was adorned with larger-than-life puppets portraying the indiginos and various other ethnic cultures, and topped off with a pirate ship whose occupants were scaling the north wall against heavy resistance.
And then comes the Christmas shopping. As in most South American cities, you can get nearly anything that you want or need on the street. During the season, the number of street vendors seems to double so that there is not one square inch of vacant sidewalk. Then add in all the shoppers and visitors and the streets become a living, breathing, undulating, high-spirited Christmas dragon. To the untrained eye it seems like recurring waves of people milling about in a random, happy fashion. There is, however, a small amount of method in their madness, as vendors of similar things tend to group together. A park near the marinas, for example, is taken over by more than a hundred small booths selling only toys. My personal favorite is the Christmas tree light section - a couple of blocks almost exclusively devoted to decorative lighting. You will want to visit this area at night. And of course there are food and beer stalls. (You can buy the entire skin of a pig face for only two dollars, a real bargain for pork-rind lovers.) Beneath all the hustle and bustle of the masses of shoppers and sightseers is a kind of giggle that seems to well up and crescendo until about midnight. These people are happy, friendly and a little inebriated.
So as not to forget the reason for the season there is a natural escalation of church services, religious events and fundraisers. Since there are several historical landmark churches that you will want to visit anyway, the extra decorations and events make it a good time to go.
A personal favorite of mine, along these lines, is the neighborhood get-together every night for the nine days before Christmas. They have a little Bible study, Christmas-type refreshments and then practice a nativity play to be presented on Christmas Eve. The gathering place is usually the neighborhood park, some portion of which is transformed early on into a manger. I think you are expected to be there on all nine nights to be in the play, so this is taken rather seriously. On the 24th, after the play, the adults start drinking and the children wait anxiously for the midnight hour, at which time they open their gifts. The parents drink until dawn while the kids play with their new toys. If you are lucky enough not to have kids, you can roam the neighborhood or get in your car and drive down toward the old town and just pull over with friends and drink tequila or whiskey on the side of the road while singing Christmas carols. (This particular time-honored tradition is very similar to the celebration of the other 30 or 40 national holidays per year.) Last year on my morning "run" (exaggeration) on Christmas Day I passed six or seven small hardy groups still singing, all of whom cheerfully invited me to stop for a shot of tequila.
After Christmas the stores in Cartagena are closed and the streets are bare as people rest up for New Year's. But the inland town festivals are in full swing - this is the time to head for the mountains and watch Medallín, Calí and Manizales turn into theme parks for two weeks. Catch the first bullfight of the South American season in Calí and watch the carnival parades, rodeos and decorations of thousands of flowers as the mountain towns turn out with their favorite festival music to dance in the streets. You will have a little more than 30 days to sample the festivities in the different towns before returning to Cartagena for carnival in February (really Barranquilla is better, but Cartagena is close).
Then you can relax and enjoy the off season, lolling on uncrowded beaches on weekdays, getting into your favourite restaurant without a reservation, and resting up to sail onward… or to celebrate the next Christmas in Cartagena.
Chuck and Monica live aboard the Cherry Bowl, cruising the Caribbean and enjoying talking about it.
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