A scene from Pirates of the Caribbean flashes through my mind as a motorised canoe hooks up to our tour-boat and its occupants fire a verbal broadside in Spanish.
We had been about to get underway, leaving the Island of Baru near the stunning coral islands that make up the Rosario National Park off Cartagena on the north coast of Colombia.
These local vendors had come from the beach and sounded serious.
I’m remembering we’re in the Caribbean Sea, which throughout history has developed a fearsome reputation for buccaneers and smugglers, not to mention Colombia’s cocaine kingpins.
Fortunately, these were not pirates. It turned out we had forgotten to pay them for the pina coladas they had made by trimming coconut husks and adding light rum and ice to its sweet milk.
The simple misunderstanding was quickly rectified with no need to bring out cutlasses or muskets. We speed away as a tropical thunderstorm breaks overhead, bringing welcome relief from the relentless humidity.
The journey back to the ancient seaport of Cartagena takes about an hour.
Earlier our skipper, Juan Carlos, points out the private Caribbean hideaways where wealthy Colombians, and an increasing number of foreign tourists, enjoy snorkelling, diving and swimming in crystal clear water.
He points out where Spanish singer Julio Iglesias stays and the president’s holiday home with its giant Colombian flag fluttering from its jetty.
Before arriving, I must admit a little voice in the back of my mind was rata-tat tatting paramilitary groups and kidnappings. However, the government’s efforts in tackling security issues has seen the number of foreign visitors to this country continue to climb.
Any unease has long dissipated by the time we pass the two Spanish forts of San Fernando and San Jose built mainly using coralstone between 1751 and 1759. You can clearly see their bastions and hewn rock walls dotted with canons that made entry into Bahia de Cartagena a tough mission for French buccaneers and English pirates seeking the treasures of the Spanish Main. Sir Francis Drake had sacked and looted Cartagena in 1586 and the King of Spain was forced to invest heavily to protect his riches.
It’s the end of a stellar day that took us to the clear waters and lagoons of the 27-island archipelago of Rosario National Park.
Our tour included a seafood lunch, and the novel experience of dining under canvas pitched a few metres off shore, seated on plastic chairs about waist deep in transparent waters.
Freshly caught lobster and red snapper are brought to the table on wooden platters for each guest to make their selection before being grilled on beach barbeques and returned plated and delicious. Our cooks tell us everything was caught that morning not far from where we are swimming.
Cold Cervesa from the icebox sparks conversation about the light taste and good quality of Colombian beer, while the beach vendors offer rum drinks, stone and coral necklaces, and even a massage. They can be a tenacious lot, but perhaps only because they get a short time to sell their wares before visitors return to the mainland on their tour launches or luxury cruisers.
Cartagena, sometimes known as Cartagena de Indias, was one of the main ports for the trade of slaves in South America and the people here share a colourful mix of African and Colombian heritage. If their bartering gets too invasive a “no, gracias” politely conveys “no thanks” and brings a good-natured smile.
It was humid in our serene cove, hovering in the 90% range, but the water is cooling as it laps all around with an occasional readjustment required as each chair gently moves with the sand.
The passing of a jet ski or speedboat requires some counter balancing, or the wash is enough to gently back flip the unprepared diner into these turquoise waters.
“For me this is as close to paradise as I can be,” says a visitor from Europe. There’s general agreement from our fellow lunch guests from England, South Africa and other parts of South America, particularly about how tasty the seafood is, including a plate of grilled octopus.
Cartagena is a city of roughly one million people and the favourite holiday destination for Colombians, and particularly visitors from Canada and Europe.
The harbour also welcomes a growing number of Caribbean cruise ships attracted by the opportunity to explore the Old City, a thickly-walled enclave built by the Spanish from the 16th Century and filled with narrow, cobblestone lanes leading to intimate plazas surrounded by elegant colonial homes with colourful wooden balconies.
Down every cobbled street and sidewalk arcade this architecture fuels the sense of adventure. One of the best ways to sample this unique heritage is by horse-drawn carriage late in the day. Sunsets here are a memorable sight with a yellowish glow that seems to illuminate the old fortifications that slip by. These charming lanes are a tight squeeze for the carriages when local traffic toots to pass by. It’s a hive of activity with workers returning home, street venders hawking their wares and taxis bringing in the early evening diners. We all seem to gel in the surroundings of the original Spanish colonial mansions and fortifications. The Palace of the Inquisition is pointed out and the tale of its grim past, while statues honouring local heroes recall tales of heroic battles and struggles of the early Spanish conquerors.
There’s a mix of rambling local bars and restaurants with many offering courtyard tables. Some have sectioned off air-conditioning that is a magnet for visitors not accustomed to the sultry nights when the gentle Caribbean breeze fails to come ashore.
Salsa music is everywhere. It carries across the plazas where it is common to see the youngsters practicing their Latin dances. A much noisier version booms out from the nightclubs late at night.
Local taxis are cheap and most of the places of interest are only a short drive away. Dining offers the opportunity to sample a fusion of cuisine, the most memorable being the local seafood dishes, often with rice and potatoes, and the beef from Argentina accompanied by the best wines from Chile.
The restaurant Club de Pesca is located on the fort San Sebastián de Pastelillo, which was built in 1743. The restaurant has an open-air marine terrace overlooking the bay offering stunning views of Cartagena’s high-rise along its tourism strip, and parts of the Old City.
This affluent world is in contrast to the poverty and pollution found in some parts of Cartagena, but the local residents and their leaders are vocal that changes are underway. They know the good word is spreading about this exotic paradise.