Friday, December 12, 2008

Made it to South America, finally!

Day: 277

Location: Cartegena, Colombia

Beautiful sunset at Las Penitas, Nicaragua.

Las Penitas, Nicaragua.

The mostly empty beaches of Las Penitas.

I love this place, Las Penitas again.

Rooftops of Leon.

Leon, Nicaragua.

I arrived yesterday in Cartegena Colombia after a bit of an adventure. I got to Panama City after a marathon bus ride only to find out that the next boat to Colombia was not leaving until December 22nd, which was too long of a wait for me. On the bus ride I had met two English brothers, Tim and Chris, who are also on an around the world trip and were also on their way into Colombia, so we decided to go together and started hunting around for other options to get there. We found a flight from Panama City to Cartegena, Colombia for $158, which was about half of what every other airline charged.

Thinking that this was a great deal, we promptly bought our tickets and prepared to leave bright and early the next morning.

We got up at 7 to get a taxi to the airport, as we had been told that frequently this particular airline would change flight times, sometimes even leaving earlier than scheduled, so we wanted to make sure we were there to catch our 11am flight.

Well, the flight time was changed, but not to an earlier hour. We were delayed after getting on the plane because they said they did not have enough gas to get to Colombia. So, instilled with a great sense of confidence in our airline, we got back off of the plane and went to wait until 1:30, which they told us would be the next flight. They also gave us a $10 credit towards lunch, which was nice.

So, we ate, figured we would burn some time until 1:30 and then get to Cartegena while it was still light out. I do not like arriving in a new city when it is dark.

Well, 1:30 comes and the flight is delayed 6:30. So, we accept the fact that we will be arriving after dark, call ahead to a few hostels to make sure we can get a room and settle in to wait another 5 hours.

6:30 comes around and apparently they still have not scrounged up any gas so they comp us another $10 bucks for dinner and tell us to wait until 9:30. At this point, we are losing our minds with boredom, and in what was probably a bad decision, decided to buy a bottle of Vodka at the duty free shop. It was $11 bucks for a liter and we prefigured we would just have a few sips to pass the time and save the rest for Cartegena.

Well, a bottle of Vodka and three hours later we stumble onto the plane after 13 hours of waiting in the stupid airport. We arrive in Cartegena after midnight, a little inebriated, tired and more than a little annoyed.

We had to get a cab to our Hostel and assuming that the same breed of human sharks ply the asphalt oceans here as in other Latin American cities, I decided to go in prepared and asked people in the airport how much we should pay to go to Old Town. They told us 1,000 pesos (about 40 cents American) should do it. So, I flag down a cab, ask him if we can get a lift to our place for 1,000 Pesos. He says sure, that is fine. Then I tell him that we only have American dollars (we had not had a chance to exchange currency and did not see an ATM at the airport) and he says, yeah, no problem.

So, we get a lift to our Hostel which is in a bit of a shady part of town, get out and I hand him a dollar and tell him to keep the rest as a tip, more than doubling his asking price.

He proceeds to tell me we owe him 5 bucks. I say, no, you said 1,000 pesos, this dollar is 2,200 pesos. He tells me a dollar is just 500 pesos (which would mean we would owe him 2 dollars anyway, not 5), and I say no it is not. He says it is a different exchange rate in Cartegena, I say he is a lying $%&/!! which probably did not help the situation, but I was still feeling pretty loose from the Vodka we had stupidly downed in the Airport.

The guy gets a little upset because of my colorful words, and says he will call the police, and a crowd starts to gather. I tell him to go right ahead, which was really stupid because often, police in Latin America can be very corrupt and you are better off simply having nothing to do with them if you can help it. I even ran into an internet Cafe right next to us and pulled up the current exchange rate on the internet to show he and the other knuckle heads what the exchange rate was. Then I offer to go to the ATM, and get pesos to pay him with and he says no, he wants 5 bucks. I even asked one of the guys in the crowd how much a dollar was worth and he said, 2,200 Pesos. The Taxi driver said he told me it was 10,000 pesos, not 1,000, which I call out for the lie it is and then more local guys come out and start defending him and I blow up and start yelling at everyone, which again, was dumb as it only escalated the situation further. Eventually, in an inebriated, I can´t believe the injustice of this situation fury, I storm off to the ATM to get some Pesos to pay the lying crook of a Taxi driver.

On the way, I found the ATM but it was closed, so I started heading back not wanting to leave the English brothers alone too long with the gathering crowd. Heading back, I bumped into a couple of young Colombian guys who were hanging out on the street corner who were drinking a bottle of something which they kindly offered to share with me. So I did, and I told them in my broken Spanish what had happened as we pass the bottle around, and they said that was baloney, got really angry and then we all stormed off together to find this crook of a Taxi driver and tell him what was up.

I come charging in with a couple of drunk Colombian guys ready for WWIII, and find only an empty street with two rather fed up looking English brothers. In the time I was gone, they had simply paid the Taxi driver what he asked for and he had left. I was pretty upset that they had done that as it was pandering to a lying, two faced jerk, and my blood was up so I was looking forward to yelling at the guy with some locals to give me more leverage.

However, Tim and Chris said they just didn´t want to deal with it so they paid him and got it over with. Honestly, that was probably the smart thing to do, but I just absolutely HATE being taken advantage of or encouraging that type of behavior. The amount of money was negligible, but it is the principle of the matter. If you make a deal, you stick to it, end of story. That is why I can´t stand most cabbies in this part of the world, its par for the course to try and screw every gringo that gets in your cab. Not all of them are like this, many cabbies I have met were really nice and honest guys, but the majority have been terrible.

At any rate, the Colombian guys and I had a laugh, they offered me some Cocaine (hey, it is COlombia after all!), which I kindly refused, and we parted ways friends. Tim, Chris and I found a decent place to sleep and crashed, with me muttering and fuming about the jerk cabbie the entire time.

Well, lesson learned. Do not expect a flight to leave on time in South America. Do not enter a country without some of their money beforehand, if at all possible. Do not get drunk before entering a new country, especially one that is one of the 5 most dangerous places on earth. And lastly, video tape a cabbie agreeing to a price before getting in the cab, draw up a notarized contract as to said agreement and have him sign it in blood. Simple!

Cartegena though is a beautiful city, surprisingly so. It is very old, founded in the 15th century, and the old town is surrounded by a huge wall used to keep Pirates out in days gone by. It feels very European and I have to say, other than the not so fun episode last night, is a great place. The city is filled with beautiful building, both old and new, and everything is very colorful. There are huge forts around too, also used to defend the town from marauding Pirates, and they add a really neat flair to the place. It is very cheap too, with hotels at every price range, from 5 bucks a night to some very expensive, ultra luxury hotels. You can get a glass of fresh squeezed, ice cold Orange Juice on the street for 20 cents, or a fried piece of bread filled with cheese for 25 cents, both of which are delicious.

Walking around, we bumped into one of the young Colombian guys that had come to my aide the night before and we had a laugh and talked for a bit. Then he told me he was going to meet up with his buddy because they had found some magic mushrooms and were going to eat them and walk around the city. He then started doing a really funny dance pretending that he was on a good one and seeing funny things, which had us cracking up. He then jumped in the air and took off, laughing the entire way. He was a cool cat, if a little fixated on drugs, and he and his buddy were really funny.

I have to say that Colombia seems like it will be a lot of fun, provided I can avoid any more difficult situations like the one last night. Tomorrow we are heading up the coast to a city called Santa Marta for some beach time on the Caribbean.


Jason said...

Way to try and scam the taxi driver> I am assuming you are staying Getsemani? If so, a fair price for a taxi is about $10,00 COP, a little less than $5 USD.

Reecius said...

Well, if that is the case I would feel really badly as I have no problem what so ever paying a fair price for a service, however, I asked two people in the airport how much we should pay to go to our hotel, they both said 1,000 Pesos, and the cabbie himself said it was meant to be 1,000 pesos when i asked him how much it should cost. I was in no way trying to scam anyone.

If it was just a misscomunication then that is a shame and was unintentional. But i honestly dont think so since i confirmed the price so many different times with three different people who all told me the same number.

Out of curiousity, where did you get that figure from? I would like to avoid similar situations as it is such downer and a terrible way to get going in a new location. You look like a backpacker form the states yourself, how did you get that info?

Steve said...

That's actually a good tip for air travel in South America (and I imagine other continents as well): make sure to call the day before and confirm the flight time, and plan to arrive a bit earlier than you would in the states.

When I was last in Argentina in 2001, my flight left 1 hour earlier than scheduled. Since it was Dec 31st flight, had I missed it, there wouldn't have been another flight for a few days. At the suggestion of other "porteƱos" (what people from Buenos Aires call themselves) I called Ezeiza airport the night before and was told not only had the flight been bumped up 1 hour, but that my reserved seat was now invalid because they switched aircraft and there was no longer a seat "G".

Reecius said...

Wow, I figured Argentina would have a more efficient airline, but that just goes to show you can never judge a book by its cover. From here forward if I fly I will plan on just getting there at least three hours early and make sure I have a good book to read.

Well, I did somemore research on the cab ride and it turns out I was wrong, it should have cost from 5 to 10 thousand pesos. So, I do feel bad for making such a scene.

Its just weird, three of us all heard the same thing three times in regards to the price, which is why we all protested and why i got so angry. It was a neglible amount of money, its just when I was thinking one thing and then it appeared to me that the cabbie has increased the price I got really angry.

That plus the fact I have been screwed over on cab rides more than once, being tired, a little drunk and fed up at having to wait 13 hours for my flight all led to me being in a position to fly off the handle.

It is strange though, the ride was less than 5 minutes to our hostel and he wanted 10,000 pesos, and the next day we got a 45 minute ride and it was 15,000 pesos, or 7.50 US. We were told that the ride should have cost 10,000 pesos, but every cabbie we asked said 15 and wouldn´t negotiatie on the price. So it appears that there is some increase in price for tourists, which is no surprise.

Riding in a cab in this part of the world is just frustrating as there are usually no meters, you have no way of knowing what a fair price is or how far things are, etc. and often you get swindled by the drivers. It is usually an unenjoyable experience.

Lisa in Louisiana said...

The main idea to take from your lastest blog:

"Do not get drunk before entering a new country, especially one that is one of the 5 most dangerous places on earth."

Reecius said...


One of those things that seems like a good idea at the time, but turns out to have been really stupid.

Anonymous said...

offering to have the columbian police called to a scene hahaha god that is some crazy shiat

good story!


Reece brother I can't tell you how many times I've had similar situations with taxi drivers. I have to admit that more than once it escalated into physical confrontations, something I'm not entirely proud about, but nothing that I would change, either.

I think it's imperative to always stand up for oneself and to do what is right, to maintain a certain amount of integrity and respect for yourself and others. What I absolutely refuse to accept are people who try to infringe upon that and cheat me. I gave a guy a bloody nose in Syria once for demanding that I pay a "baggage fee" for my satchel, when none of the locals were being charged at all for their multiple bags. I tried to defuse the situation as much as possible, but I refused to give into him based on sheer principle, and when he grabbed me and started shaking me, it was game over.

Had similar encounters in Morocco a few times -- there are plenty of taxi drivers there who refuse to turn on the meter and will charge you, literally, about 3000 times the actual price of the trip just because you're not a local. It's actually illegal, and they can get in trouble for that.

It's gotten to the point now where I get an idea beforehand what the price of my taxi ride will be, and I keep that money ready in one of my pockets. When the ride is over, I hand the driver this money and walk away. If he tries to get more out of me, too bad -- he can either accept the fair amount or we can tango in the dirt. It's up to them. Usually they'll just take what you give them.

I hate sounding like I'm aggressive and confrontational; that's not the case at all, actually. I go out of my way quite often to make things easier and more comfortable for people around me. I just absolutely refuse to have people try and disrespect me and and to take advantage of my otherwise kind nature to the people in whose country I'm traveling.

Fair, but firm -- that's a pretty good motto to travel by, I think. I would have done the same thing as you, probably. However, as you noted, it's always important to have as good of an idea as possible on the actual cost of the rides beforehand.

Good luck with the rest of South America. It's tumultuous but beautiful and unforgettable.

Reecius said...

I know exactly what you mean, Josh. I absolutely can not stomach being taken advantage of because I am white, or a tourist, or do not speak the language, etc. It is just unethical.

Now in this case I was wrong and I fell badly, but hey, a deal is a deal, the guy agreed to a price and then changed his mind, which is flat out not ok. When i was in business, if i quoted someone a figure, i stuck to it even if it was a mistake on my part.

Oh well, it over and done with now. But i love that line, tango in the dirt, i am going to steal that one for sure!