Showing posts with label Aruba. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Aruba. Show all posts

28 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Cartagena

by R.T. Lawton

Harbor with skyline of new Cartagena
Cartagena was the second port of call for our cruise ship. Even though I came as a tourist, I left the badge I usually carry in my billfold at home. Probably wouldn't do to inadvertently become involved in a situation and have that gold shield come to light. Back when the Medellin and Cali cartels were in full swing, some of our guys got kidnapped and shot in Colombia. Plus South America likes tourist money, but they are wary of U.S. citizens in-country who could appear to be there in an unofficial capacity. So why take the risk? I'm on vacation.

The Tour

These days, Cartagena is a large commercial shipping port, a carryover from the early years when it was a Spanish stronghold during their conquest of South America. Founded in 1533 on the site of an Indian village by the name of Calamar, the conquistadors used this port to gather much of their gold looted from the natives and then shipped this treasure to Spain.
Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez

Our tour bus met us at the pier and drove through some of the poorer parts of the city en route to our first destination. All of the side-by-side, squeezed together residences and small businesses had metal grill work over their doors and windows. It's not there just for decoration. At one spot, a large open gate provided a quick glimpse of an old man in shorts, no shirt, working on a dilapidated car, but then most commercial port areas are life in reality, not scenic attractions.

At some point, our route also took us past the Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez. Marquez is a famous South American author of several novels, some of which are in the mystery genre. Though not a mystery, one of the novels he was famous for in North America was Love in the Time of Cholera.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
First stop is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, built from blocks of stone and blocks of faded red coral. This is one impressive fortress constructed on a hill overlooking the harbor and the old city. With its long sloping ramps, drawbridge, high walls, multiple levels, dark and winding interior tunnels dug out of solid rock, multitude of cannons and crisscrossing fields of fire, this fort was a formidable obstacle to any Old World enemy assaulting from land or by sea. And the view from the top is breath taking, even if you aren't already winded by all the stairs or other climbing to get there.

Walls around old city
Next, the bus takes us to the old walled city where we walk on the ancient walls that once guarded this part of the city from pirates. Here, the walls are much lower than the fort, but have lots of cannon ports to repel an enemy. From the walls, we descend a ramp into the old city streets and enter the calle where parts of Romancing the Stone were filmed. Second story balconies, much like the ones in the French Quarter of New Orleans, are covered with bright Bougainvillaea hanging from wooden boxes. The tour guide says these house owners get a break on their property taxes for maintaining the decorative flowers. On the narrow street below the balconies, vendors with limited English abilities besiege us with offers to sell bottled pop, water or beer from tubs of ice. Others hawk t-shirts and trinkets.

Romancing the Stone street as seen from old city walls
Our walking tour leads us through a naval museum with models of the harbor, forts and walled city as they were centuries ago, a beautiful cathedral and the Palacio de la Inquisicion. A gallows and several instuments of torture are displayed in the palace's courtyard. Didn't do to be other than a faithful Catholic in those days.

On the way back to the ship, our bus stops at a small, two-level, open air shopping mall where one can buy emeralds, Colombian coffee or souvenirs. If you take a photo of one of the colorfully dressed, female fruit vendors, be sure to give her a couple of dollars, else she will track you down and make loud demands for money. There are signs on the street requiring those two dollars for any photo taken of her.

Fruit vendor
The Crime

All the gold plunder coming overland from Peru to Cartagena soon came to the attention of Caribbean pirates and privateers. French pirate Robert Baal was the first to attack the city in 1544. In 1559, Martin Cote (French) followed suit. Twenty-four years later, the English buccaneer John Hawkins decided it was his turn, but Cartagena's new cannons drove him off. In 1572, Francis Drake (English) sacked the city and pillaged its treasure, to include the city's bells. Baron de Pontis (French) occupied the city for two months in 1697, and English admiral Edward Vernon tried his luck in 1741, but didn't succeed. Seems pirates were a plague on the population back then.

In more recent years, home grown drug cartels brought money, violence and corruption to the country. Mother ships out of Cartagena sailed north with their holds packed with drugs for the U.S. market, but then everyone is familiar with Pablo Escobar and his kind. Our tour guide spoke of him and the cartels as not being a problem to Cartagena anymore. Maybe so, in which case we can talk of smaller crimes.

Old cathedral with crypt in foreground
Glen David Short, a freelance writer based in Cartagena wrote an article concerning advice for the tourist, 25 things you should be wary of in Cartagena. Here's a few.

1) Never, ever change money on the streets. Unlike other South American countries, there is no black market, and it is not safe or recommended. Getting short-changed or handed fake bills, or having your wallet snatched from your hands in broad daylight are common scams. Cartagena has plenty of banks and casa de cambios. Many large hotels and emerald shops will change dollars, and most businesses accept US dollar bills.

3. Don't walk on the wall at night. Despite the romantic vistas and the fact that scores of locals and lovers do, it is a known haunt of thieves and assaults on women have been reported.

7. It might sound obvious, but don't walk around flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, wads of money, etc. Places like beaches, outside banks and the area around the clock tower are favored pickpocket haunts. Thieves have been known to follow people from banks for up to half a day before they strike. Remember there are tens of thousands of desplazados, or displaced people in Cartagena who have fled the problems in the interior of Colombia. Many of these people work for a salary of $2 a day. Be wary of pushy street vendors who wave t-shirts and other objects in your face: often it is a foil or distraction so an accomplice can relieve you of your handbag or camera. Leave your "fanny pack" or zippered money pouch at home-they are sure to attract a thief.

Fort looking at new Cartagena over harbor
10. Swat up on emeralds before you buy. There are many very good dealers, but caveat emptor. You probably won't get green glass, but you might pay more than you should. When ordering custom pieces, make sure that it is the full price you are handing over, not a deposit. Many shops use the word "bono" instead of the word "deposito" to confuse tourists. When the customer returns to pick up the piece they are then told they have only paid for materials, and the full price including labor is usually double.

11. The same goes for Cuban cigars. The ones sold on the street are of dubious origin and freshness. If in doubt, buy from one of the stores. You'll pay more, but you will be getting the real thing.

Old Clock Tower (left), Cathedral (center) & large plaza (right)
19. Carry a photocopy of your passport on your person, but not your actual passport. It is actually illegal to walk the streets in Colombia without I.D., but a photocopy will suffice in 90% of situations. Don't give your passport to anyone who doesn't produce convincing I.D. themselves.

All in all, we enjoyed Cartagena for its historical value, beautiful cathedrals and panoramic views from the fort. Other than being swamped by vendors, we had no problems. In our minds, this is not a sun and water vacation destination, but we would gladly return in order to tour other places in Cartagena that we didn't have time for on this trip.

See you in two weeks in the Panama Canal. Did you know that big ditch actually runs north and south rather than east and west?

14 March 2014

Crime Cruise-Aruba

Last week, we returned from an eleven-day pleasure cruise in the Caribbean. All of the port stops along our route can be considered as warm places to get out of snow country during the winter months. We went for the fun, relaxation and pampering you get on a cruise ship, plus the chance to visit places we hadn't seen before. But, being a writer of crime and criminals, I naturally sought out some of the darker side at each port of call.

Our departure was from a large pier in Ft. Lauderdale at an entrance to the Inter Coastal Waterway. But since Leigh does such a good job at exposing the seamy underbelly of Florida, I will leave reporting on this area to him.

First stop Aruba

The Tour

Haystack Hill, tallest point on island
Aruba is a flat, sandy island about six miles wide by twenty miles long, located approximately seventeen miles north of Venezuela. Due to its arid climate, the island has to produce its own water via a desalination plant, thus water is very expensive, as is electricity generated by the same plant. According to our tour guide, only the rich Americans and the thieves can afford swimming pools. Thieves being defined as politicians in the Aruban government. None of the local's houses had green lawns for a yard, only sand and cactus. Yes, the one golf course was green, but this was a result of recycled waste water from the resorts and if you were in the know, you waited for the course to dry before moving around on it.

The resort area, the white sand beaches and the clear waters of the ocean were beautiful, therefore it was interesting to talk to those fellow passengers who had only seen that small part of the island. They were the ones who wanted to return to Aruba for an extended vacation. Those of us who had seen the full island weren't so sure. Tourism is Aruba's main source of legitimate income, but once you've seen a large rock hill (remember this is a flat island), a naturally formed stone bridge (there were two, but the other one collapsed nine years ago) and the California Lighthouse (named after a ship that ran into the island), what's left is the resort area and the beaches.

Baby Bridge, only one still standing
To mingle with some of the locals after the tour concluded, four of us went to Iguana Joe's for beer and nachos. It was much like any warm climate bar with open air seating, plus it was located on the second floor where patrons could watch people and traffic moving on the streets below. Found out too late that the local Starbuck's had free wi-fi for those who made a purchase.

The Crime

The first settlers of this island were the Caiquetios, a branch of the Arawak Indians, who sailed over from Venezuela about two thousand years ago. They were followed by the first tourists in 1499 when Spanish explorer Alonso de Ojeda laid claim to the island for Queen Isabella. Guess you could say he was the first thief on the island. He named the land Oro Hubo, which meant there was supposed to be gold on it. The Spanish soon left and the island changed hands several times before the Dutch ended up with it.

Tourist Beach
During the time period when the Spanish conquistadors were looting Mexico and South America and sending all that gold on ships back to Spain, pirates and privateers decided that Aruba made a good base to hide out between raids. You could say they were the second set of thieves.

In more modern days, the island has continued as a smuggler's paradise, dating this occupation back to colonial times when it was used to avoid taxes from the Spanish monopoly. For instance, Aruba was the most important exporter of coffee, however there are no coffee plantations on the island. Cigarettes and whiskey were other major exports. Appliances, perfumes and other items were smuggled to Venezuela and Colombia. Once, when a large refrigerator was being swung over from the dock to be loaded on a ship headed for Colombia, the refrigerator suddenly opened and a cache of guns fell out on the wharf. They were immediately picked up and no official mention was made of the incident.

Downtown, Haystack Hill on distant right
One Aruban politician signed a residence card for a Colombian cartel member so he could live on the island. Money was invested. A scandal ensued, but that politician later became Prime Minister for Aruba. Go figure. The cartel member later visited the island anyway without problems after the residence card was subsequently rescinded. No wonder our tour guide referred to the Aruban government as Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.

Still, we had a good time on Aruba and do not regret having made this port of call.

See you in Cartagena in two weeks.