How I Ended Up In A ‘Love Hotel,’ In Cartagena, With My Cousin
I admit I was scared. It wasn’t the fear of kidnapping or Colombia’s violent history with drug cartels that had me spooked. It was the fact that I was traveling there with a man I barely knew: my cousin, David.
Growing up on opposite coasts, David and I didn’t meet until we were adults, and our encounters had been limited to a handful of family gatherings. But after chatting at another cousin’s wedding this summer, we decided — as people loitering at an open bar often do — that we totally needed to travel together!
It should be said that this is not something I normally do — travel with other people. In fact, I prefer to fly solo. But I sensed that vacationing with my cousin would “take me out of my comfort zone.”
Leaving one’s comfort zone is all the rage these days. It’s as if a “comfort zone” is a bad place to be, though I confess I’ve always enjoyed mine; it’s so… comfortable. Still, the idea of trying something new was tempting — especially if I could do it all with a frozen drink in hand.
When David proposed Costa Rica, though, I had to squash the urge to shriek. Eco-preserves and ziplines are definitely not my idea of fun. I made a diplomatic counter-proposal: How about the Colombian city of Cartagena? Bless him, David conceded without the slightest bit of of arm-twisting — no need for the imposition of international sanctions or for the “nuclear option” (the involvement of our mothers).
Since both of us hoped to keep expenses low, we started hunting for inexpensive accommodations and discovered “Casa Eden,” a cheap and charming-looking B&B, on an off-brand hotel website. I entered my credit card information, and moments later our reservation was confirmed.
“No,” said the woman behind the desk, in halting English, when I got to Casa Eden. “No vacancy.”
“Si, vacancy!” I nodded, holding up my printed confirmation. David wasn’t expected to arrive until midnight but, despite the language barrier, I was sure I could handle this on my own.
I asked to speak to the manager: Enter Roberto, a man decked out in Prada sunglasses and Diesel jeans.
“Ah yes,” he nodded knowledgeably. “You see, the man who took your reservation, he no longer works here.”
“The man who took my reservation,” I replied, “was the Internet.”
“Don’t worry,” said Roberto, all smiles. “We’ll put you at another hotel down the road. It’s better.”
My suitcase was wheeled down Calle Cochera Del Hobo (which literally translates to “Hobo Street”) and I was shown to my room in hotel #2, which was about the size of a Manhattan Mini Storage unit and devoid of air conditioning; staying here would be like camping in a toaster oven. Yes, I was prepared to leave my comfort zone. No, I was not prepared to take leave of my senses.
I re-crossed Hobo Street in search of Roberto, who sheepishly confessed that another party, arriving in two days, had booked the entire hotel for the week — all cash. I understood his dilemma; then I made sure he understood mine. Finally, we came to an agreement. David and I would stay at Casa Eden for the next two days, during which a better solution would be worked out for the period following. “Everything will be fine,” I assured Roberto.
David finally arrived the next day. He’d spent 27 hours in transit and learned a few lessons of his own, courtesy of the airlines. But as we walked around Cartagena that afternoon, we had some good laughs as we swapped stories.
The following day, after a boat trip to nearby “Beautiful Rosario Island and Aquarium” (which was neither beautiful nor an aquarium — more like “strip of sand” and “depressed dolphin penitentiary”) we returned to Casa Eden to find our bags packed and waiting for us in the lobby.
We were literally being kicked out of Eden.
Since my cousin and I had spent so much time laughing about the relative nature of paradise, this didn’t come as such a blow. We’d go back to hotel #2 (or, as we now thought of it, the Mini-Storage Motel), get a better room and everything would be fine.
“No vacancy!” the concierge told us as we entered.
“But we’re from Eden?” I said, trying to jog her memory. “Roberto?”
“No rooms,” she replied. “No vacancy.”
I left David with the bags and went back to Roberto. “Okay, don’t worry, I have another one for you,” he said, before adding, troublingly: “It’s better.”
As a porter led us down a far dingier street — where, it seemed to me, even hobos might fear to tread — to our next hotel, I re-enacted that exchange for David, who exclaimed, “I can’t wait to see where we’re headed next!”
Our room in hotel #3 was small and windowless. But the real focal points were the beds, on top of which were towels, on top of which were breath mints and… a condom. “Now I understand the lack of windows,” David chuckled. “Cousin, we are in a ‘love hotel.’” His assessment was confirmed by a flyer listing the hotel’s (very reasonable) hourly rates.
As we took turns reading the various packages, like the Romantico and the Express, we could only laugh. And though I can’t actually recommend the establishment — no hot water, parade of johns at breakfast — in the end, the night we spent there, though not comfortable, wasn’t terrible.
David and I fled Cartagena after breakfast, making our plans on the fly as we winged it across the countryside. By the time we got to Santa Marta, a beautiful port town on the Caribbean coast, we felt like we’d arrived in the promised land.
Lively yet uncrowded, Santa Marta boasts a lovely colonial center complete with charming restaurants and a massive whitewashed cathedral. Our hotel, Casa Isabella, was picturesque and comfortable, and the staff could not have been friendlier or more helpful. Needing to get back to the airport in Cartagena on New Year’s, I discovered to my alarm that most bus companies were closed that day. But Casa Isabella’s concierge accompanied me to the bus depot to help get me a ride and, when that plan failed, found me a private driver. I made it back in record time.
By the end of the trip, I was certain of three things. 1) I had laughed for a week straight. 2) My cousin had become a great friend. 3) I was looking forward to going back to New York. Stepping out of my comfort zone had allowed me to have a great time; but it had also made me appreciate all the comforts waiting for me at home. Which, it seems to me, is as good a reason to travel as any.