Adventures in Aguardiente: Culture and Cocaine

After a night of too much Aguardiente (DAMN YOU GUARO!) I felt it was necessary to restore balance to my life and engage in cultural activities to ensure my trip didn’t go by in a licorice flavored blur.  Since the tour had given me a general idea of what was in the city, I figured I’d check things out before MuiMui arrived and I would be relegated to drunk tourism (her being the bad influence and all).  Plus the air con went off in the dorms at 11am, so I had to do something with my life.

Plaza de Bolivar


During the tour, Edgar had mentioned that Pedro Claver was one of the most important historical figures in Cartagena, as he was among the first to treat slaves humanely and was consequently canonized as the patron saint of slaves. The church where he resided was renamed in his honor and also holds his remains.  While the church was somewhat underwhelming, and I couldn’t bring myself to walk up to the altar to check out dem bonez while people were praying in the pews, the sanctuary proved to be a nice place to sit and relax for a bit. The upper floor even had a bit of a breeze, which I was quickly learning is absolutely necessary in Cartagena.  I seriously have no idea how Colombian women can survive the heat while walking around in their stretch jeans with no pockets.   

outside of the church
inside of the church
part of the sanctuary


the parrots that live in the sanctuary. the red one was an asshole and tried to bite a little girl and was consequently escorted off the premises.

Across the square from the church is the Modern Art Museum which I was also able to see from top to bottom in a whopping 15 minutes.  There were some cool pieces, but overall I was more intrigued by the metal works outside in the plaza.

my favorite piece in the muesum
men playing dominoes because…south america


Having received my dose of culture for the day, I sweated my way back to the hostel and spent the rest of the day relaxing.

The next morning, some English boys I had met night before (and forced to be my friends), invited me to come with them to Playa Blanca, the famed beautiful beach an hours boat ride from the city.  They were planning on taking the local way, which was touted to be half the cost of the hostel excursion.  As far as we were told, we could take the local bus, then a mototaxi – and being the horrible map reader that I am, I trusted they knew where we were going and never looked at a map or directions.

We made it as far as getting hustled onto a bus, where I sat down sweating profusely next to a local guy who started yelling something at me in Spanish, yelling to someone else in Spanish, then looking at me and shaking his head the same way I do when tourists in New York ask me if an uptown bound train is going to stop at the Statue of Liberty*.  Unfortunately, between the four of us, our Spanish vocabulary maxed out at fifty words so we had no idea what he was saying.  I pointed to a map and asked for Playa Blanca and just received the “stupid tourist” head shake, so we hopped out in the middle of the street and decided to make alternate plans.

*for those not from New York, the Statue of Liberty is downtown…and on an island, and not connected to the subway.

Fortunately, a friend from home who hails from Cartagena had texted me that morning with some tips for things to do within the city.  She had recommended the beach at Crespo as an alternative to the tourist packed Boca Grande, and since we were already dressed for the beach we figured, why not.

When we got to the beach, I was a little disappointed, with the gray sand, equally dismal colored water, and the giant pile of broken glass I almost stepped on en route to the waterfront.  Then again, I’ve been incredibly spoiled living in the Virgin Islands for the last three months.  We quickly found a spot to drop our stuff, and went to cool off in the water, where a plastic bag floated by my arm.  At least the Caribbean waters were warmly refreshing and still a million times cleaner than Jones Beach. The boys took out a dirty towel to sit on, I spread out my blanket to tan and immediately a dozen people started walking straight for us.

Bracelets! Cerveza! Cocadas!  Ostras! Coke! Agua! Coctel de Camarones!  Masaje!  There wasn’t much you couldn’t buy on the beach. While it was somewhat reminiscent of Rio, the sales tactics were more Southeast Asian, where before you knew it you have four Colombian women touching you all over, rubbing lotion on you and telling you “special promotion today.”  Not being much of one for being touched by strangers that want money, I kept trying to say “I don’t like to be touched,” in Spanish at which point they offered to braid my hair and I had to tell them, no, I’m not a twelve year old on a family vacation in the Bahamas.  They would then hold out their arms next to mine and tell me I needed more color like them and start rubbing oil on my arm.  A) I’m Asian and my culture frowns upon anything darker than rice B) I live in the Caribbean and am as dark as I get and C) You’re black. I know you can tell I’m 1/16th Jamaican, but my skin doesn’t do that color.

After half an hour of turning everyone down (except Bigote who got baited by the “free sample,” turned “Give me 20 mil,” foot massage) we spent the rest of the afternoon chilling on the beach mostly unmolested.  Plus the cerveza guy knew he was the only one getting our business.  And the food guys, because I’m fat and everything tastes better with your toes in the sand.

so sir, what are you selling?
fresh oysters and crabs!



coctel de camaron – tastes much better than it looks

By the late afternoon I was approaching the hue of brown rice, and we agreed to head back to the city to check out the preliminary rounds of the Red Bull Cliff Diving championships.  As we tried to hail a taxi, the drivers kept driving by, pointing at Flaco’s crotch, shaking their head and driving off.  Every guy’s dream reaction to his package.  Finally one cab pulled over, and as we were getting in, he went straight for a ball grab.  “Whoa, what!?”  After touching Flaco’s damp shorts the taxi driver gave us the Dikembe Mutombo “No, no, no,” finger wave, and took off.  At least he didn’t also swat the ball.

The solution to that problem was some more cervezas at the bar, where Flaco stripped down to his underwear which were black, and less noticeably wet, and we eventually got back into the city to check out the cliff diving.  Which was pretty fucking awesome.


Slightly tipsy after a day of drinking at the beach, and on the streets while watching the cliff diving and during our menu del dia lunch (AKA the backpackers savior $3 meal of soup, salad, meat, rice and plantains) the boys moved to another cheaper hostel, and I agreed to meet them later for drinks and going out.


When I got back to my dorm, I immediately crashed into my bed and then realized something was missing.  My book was where I left it. Pajamas were under my pillow.  Underwear was still at the foot of the bed, but where the fuck was my bra?!  I searched through my bag, and awkwardly asked the guy sleeping on the bunk below me if my bra had accidentally fallen in with his things.  I watched him check his stuff and it was nowhere to be found.  Who the fuck steals a bra off someone’s bed???

Slightly annoyed about the bra I took a quick shower and headed over to the English boys’ hostel.  On the way over I picked up a bottle of Aguardiente to forget the irritation of the bra theft, and I pledged to uphold the customs of Colombia and finish the bottle before we left the hostel.

When I arrived I started lamenting the loss of my bra and Juan asked me, “Would you be more upset if some bird had it on, or you saw some guy holding it and sniffing it in the corner?”  First I tried to imagine why a pigeon would be wearing a bra, then realized English people speak funny, and then tried desperately not to get a mental image of the second.  Ugh.  Yuck. 

As is the custom in a hostel, everyone going out had BYOB’d, and drinking games were underway.  Unfortunately, I had only gotten guaro and no mixer or chaser, which is a bit hazardous when instead of taking a sip of beer for each transgression in Kings, I had to do a full shot. By the end of the game, the bottle was finished, (with some help) and it was time to stumble over to the cheap beer/salsa place Tour Guide Edgar had mentioned.  As soon as we got there, I drunkenly dragged Flaco to get street meat with me since he had promised to make sure I ate something to counteract the amount I was drinking.  Rounding the corner he told me this was the best place for hotdogs and I wasn’t sure if we were speaking in innuendo or if he was actually helping me find food.  From the smell of the grilled meat I think he knew what kind of sausage I was searching for.  Unfortunately, my drunk stomach had confused me and after sitting on the curb and taking one bite of the hot dog I was done and we headed back to the sidewalk bar.  Guess I’m just really not that into sausage.

view from my friend’s rooftop

After this, the alcohol + lack of food starts to set in and things start to get a bit blurry.  I remember sitting down with an Israeli backpacker and starting a conversation about Israeli politics, and Palestinian relations, because that’s obviously a casual topic for a new acquaintance.  A few minutes into the conversation, I was saved from myself when we were told it was time for Cafe Havana, THE salsa place, and the club that all my friends had recommended for Cartagena.  Along the way we were stopped by a seemingly homeless man.


“How much,” responded one of the backpackers in Spanish

“50 mil,” which is roughly $25.  We can also assume this conversation took place in Spanish, but seeing as I am now sober I no longer read or speak Spanish – all will be transcribed in English.

“No, that’s expensive and I don’t know if its any good.”

“You can try it.”  The guy gave him the bag in the middle of the street and the backpacker stuck his finger in it and ran it around his gums.

“No thanks, this is terrible,”

“20 mil,”

“No, thanks.”

“10 mil!”

“Okay fine.” And that ladies and gents is how you negotiate a bag of cocaine from $25 to $5.  Apparently, the guys were constantly stopped and offered drugs, and those indulging had honed their bargaining skills. And I mean, if I didn’t see some coke somewhere in Colombia I probably would’ve been slightly disappointed.  Hooray stereotypes!

By the time we made it to Club Havana most of the group had decided they didn’t want to pay the 15mil entrance fee, since that money seemed to be going elsewhere.  We had also picked up other stray backpackers including a Dane who I’m pretty sure I tried to speak Danish to.  He was likely told that I was drunk and that I love little open faced sandwiches on rye bread.


Another backpacker had met up with a Colombian guy he either knew from a previous night, or that was just super friendly, who decided to join us for the evening.  He told us there was another club down the block that also played salsa, was a better mix of gringos and locals, and didn’t charge an entrance fee.  This was agreeable to everyone.  I started talking to the Colombian who told me he used to live in New York.  When I told him I’m from there, he suddenly forgot all the details of his life there, including what neighborhood he lived in and any places he had ever been.  Weird.

At the next bar, and another beer later, it was clear this night was going on a downward spiral.  Everyone was all kinds of intoxicated and I had given up on remembering names as our group had expanded yet again.  In typical drunk Risa fashion I had taken to yelling people’s nationalities or speaking in random languages when I wanted their attention.

“Guysssssssss.  Jeg er fuld.  Ich bin besoffen.  Je suis bourrée.  Soy borracha.  Is anyone going home yet?  How far away is the hostel?  Where are we?”

“Risa, you don’t even seem drunk.  And it’s “estoy borracha.” “Soy borracha means you’re a drunk, not that you are drunk.

Pshhh, you don’t know me!  I have no idea if they were serious, or if everyone had just decided to conspire against me, but every time I declared my level of intoxication and need for bed I was told I didn’t seem at all drunk. I think the occupational hazard of being drunk and having to pretend to be otherwise had finally caught up with me, and I had leveled up so hard that most people couldn’t even tell if I was drunk anymore.  Plus I don’t get the Asian glow.

As I tried to look around for anyone who might be ready to go home I started to notice furtive handshakes and frequent trips to the toilets amongst some of the people in our group.  As I looked closer half the people were either close eyed, staggering drunk, or starting to get wide eyed and sober up.  And grind their teeth.  You see where this is going.

As it turned out, our local guide, Barry, was actually either a drug dealer or a professional middle man for large groups of gringos looking to hit the ski slopes of Cartagena.  I started questioning the authenticity of his New York residence and realized he may have said it to gain the trust of the group.  Or maybe I was just being a paranoid New Yorker again.  Plus, not all drug dealers are bad, I mean, everyone’s got to make a living somehow?

After an hour or so of dancing, drinking and frequent bathroom trips, people started getting itchy for a change of venue.  Barry told us he knew of an after-hours pool party, but seeing as it was only 2am, things wouldn’t be getting started yet.  On the other hand, who doesn’t love a late night pool party, or a little drunk swimming, said the girl who doesn’t know how to swim.

Either way, we agreed to head to the pool party after thirty minutes of unparalleled babbling drunk indecisiveness.  The guys also made Barry promise that “after-hours club” didn’t equate to “strip club” because in basically every country I’ve ever been to, no matter what you’re trying to do, when someone says you’re going somewhere new after 2 am, unless it’s Berlin, it’s always a strip club.  Barry promised it wasn’t and we took off.

Despite being quite intoxicated, I realized the danger of heading to an “after hours pool party” with about a dozen guys and only two other girls.  I told the English boys I was having some reservations about going there, and the gender demographics, and they promised to look out for me, and make sure I got home safe to my hostel at the end of the night.  Gotta love English gentlemen.

As we approached the after hours spot, I realized we were heading down a pretty empty street with no other businesses open, except a small convenience store.  AKA where I would be running in case shit hit the fan.  The doorway for the venue was small and unmarked and half our group had already gone in.  Some of the boys were outside finishing beers, so I waited with them until they finished and then they escorted me into the dark abyss.

As soon as my eyes adjusted to the lack of light I realized we were in fact in a bar.  With poles on it.  And a dozen underage Colombian girls in micro mini skirts and fishnet tops.  To the side of the bar was a room full of pool tables.  Pool party.  Got it.  Now get me out of here.  We all immediately turned around and headed for the door.

“Guyssssss, I’m super drunk and really tired, can we go home yet?”

“Nah, you’re fine.”

For fuck’s sake!  Can’t someone believe me and let me go to bed yet?! Unfortunately, most of the people had on their drunk tunnel vision of having the best night ever out in Cartagena, and the others were marching to the beat of Bolivian Powder.  We wandered back towards the clubs and wound up in a square packed full of people hanging out, drinking, eating, and passed the eff out on the church steps.  I wedged myself between two of the English boys to stay upright and then decided to check out the street stalls.  Professional curiosity and all.  Not quite able to stomach a large plate of hamburgers, I opted for a lollipop to hopefully up my sugar and keep me awake.

Fortunately, not long after arriving (I think…I may have taken a quick snooze), my English escorts were ready to call it a night and headed back home.  Blindly following, I ended up back at their hostel with a dozen other people, where Bigote was drunkenly trying to play some music that no one wanted to hear.

“Seriously, I think I’m dying, can someone please take me home or tell me how to get there?”

Flaco stepped up and offered to get me home. 

“Thanks for the ride,” I said closing the door and walking inside. 

Then I realized he had walked me back. Sobriety FTW.

You win again Aguardiente.  And maybe MuiMui isn’t going to be the one who’s the bad influence in the family…

Aguardiente: 2  Risa: 0

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