Colombia, day 7: Free Tour Guides in Cartagena

“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.


Blog post 2 Cartagena
“Who’s the most famous person called Susan to have visited Cartagena?” asked the guide, outside a fancy hotel where the celebrity had stayed.

“Susan Boyle?” replied the Brit.

“No. Susan Sarandon. Next question: which film did Antonio Banderas make here with Selma Hayek?”

“Shrek 2?” I suggested.

“No. Love in the Time of Cholera.

“What was Michael Douglas doing in Cartagena?”

“Catherine Zeta Jones?”

Given Cartagena had famously withstood 6 attacks in its last few centuries, it should be no surprise our guide could withstand (if not entirely understand) our barrage of sarcasm.

And yet, we gave it our best shot.

“What does the yellow in the Colombian flag stand for?”

“Yellow Fever?”

“No. It’s for gold.”

Free city walking tours have sprung up throughout major cities in Colombia, often run by rival companies distinguished by their colours. I did the Yellow Tour this morning, but there is also a Red tour company. Or you can discover the historic city on Segways, just like the Aztecs did.

The guide started the tour, speaking through an amplifier attached to his belt, by asking everyone to give their name and where they came from. As with everything “free” these days, we were paying by giving up our personal information. He probably would have asked for our emails and social security numbers had the group not been so large.

For each person he would shoot back a fact about that particular place.

“I’m Lynn from Nova Scotia,” said one.

“Let me guess. From the city that starts with an H and ends with an X? Can anyone say what city Lynn is from?”

Though only two hours, it was going to be a long tour.

Eventually it was my turn. “Where are you from?”

“I’m not from Canada.”

“From Canada? Let me guess the province.”

“You can guess all you want, but I said I’m NOT from Canada.”

The guide was certainly knowledgeable – so knowledgeable in fact he kept on asking himself questions which he would immediately answer.

A typical 20 seconds of him talking went as follows:

“Why would the clock tower have four different times showing? Because they didn’t have a mechanic to fix it. Hey you know what people in Cartagena call someone who isn’t truthful? They say he has as many faces as the clock tower. You know what this has in common with Ireland? They have a similar expression there. Amiright, lady from Dublin in the crowd?”

“I’m from Cork, but ok.”

Listening to him was less like hearing a tour, than a two-hour educational slam poetry contest.

Given it was free, we could hardly complain though, and the colonial city was a jewel to walk through, whether listening to a babbling guide or not.

It was steeped in history, but also up to date. In Plaza Santo Domingo, he pointed out the Botero sculpture, of a voluptuous nude woman.

“You see that sculpture? For one week now, police have been on the lookout for a tourist who stripped off and mounted the sculpture.”

If caught, the young man faces being banned from Colombia for 10 years, but will no doubt live on as part of the Yellow Free Tour script.

After two years, the tour wound up with the guide asking a quiz, though it was getting less and less city-specific.

“Ladies, pick a number between 1 and 12.”


“Yes! You win, here, have a free keyring.”

He ended with a last footnote relating to Pablo Escobar. As with the previous tour in Bogota, he was disparaging of his legacy, as was the drug lord’s son:

“His son eventually moved to Argentina, where he changed his name to escape his past, and then wrote this book.

He held up a photo of the book, entitled: “My father Pablo Escobar”.

“Then why did he bother changing his name?” I wanted to ask.

In short, while there was plenty to see on the tour, irony was not one of the guide’s frequent observations.

Why I don’t smoke weed (spoiler: it’s not just because I don’t know how)

There comes a point in the life of every boy growing up in suburban Australia when they decide whether or not to throw it all away and become a bong-head.

Some made this decision earlier than others: those that bragged of “smoking billies” in Year 7, by Year 11 were marked by faces that every month drooped lower than their grades.

Not one who ever really saw the point of weed, I none-the-less found myself in a position to try it one Saturday night at a school party towards the end of high school.

Stumbling up the front stairs to the driveway I found several friends preparing cones on the bonnet of a car.

Feeling a sense of bravado, I declared it was time to discover a potential new life-depleting passion, and pushed to the front of the line.

The first cone was dutifully prepared for me and handed over, at which point, clumsy as I was, it fell out of my fingers and onto the car bonnet. The grass went everywhere.

Not to worry, these were my friends, so they scraped it up, and re-packaged the lot.

“Here you go,” they said, handing it to me anew.

Yet again, to my dismay, however, I dropped the cone from my fingers, again spraying the precious vegetal matter – or what remained – over the car bonnet. Some disappeared into the engine vent.

“Third time lucky”, my friends said – and these were my friends – and they handed me the cone.

This time, success. I put the pipe to my lips, lit the cone and sucked in hard. Really hard. And I continued to suck until I could suck no more.

“Hold it, hold it in!” my friends yelled, and I did, closing my eyes, pointing my fingers in the Victory sign towards the sky, and loudly exhaling.

The crowd erupted! Cheers, pats on the back. Soaking up the moment, I opened my eyes to look at the friends gathered and said the immortal words: “You guys just don’t know how to smoke.”

Well, neither did I apparently, as unbeknownst to me, they had repacked the third cone with precisely nothing.

At which point the crowd of my “friends” started up the humiliating chant that lives with me today: “No cone! No cone! No cone!”

And that is not just why I don’t smoke weed, but also live with the nickname “No cone”.