There is a church on top of the highest hill in Cartagena that you can see from all over the city. The Convento de la Papa was built in 1607 by Augustine monks. Since I hadn’t been there and had a day to kill, I thought I’d try to make my way there on foot, although I’d read something about thieves who lie in wait beside the road. When I told Carlos my plan, he had no response.
The convent looked like it might only be a mile and a half from where I was staying, and I just started walking in the general direction of it. Streets turned into dead ends and dirt paths, however, and I began to sense that maybe I would’ve been better off taking a taxi. I was dripping with sweat and the screen of my phone was steamed over and smudged with grease. I backtracked to the hostel, and then made my way to the fort, from where I’d seen signs pointing to the convent earlier. The neighborhood I passed through was full of auto repair shops and men working on motorcycles. Finally, I came to a sign that pointed uphill, and began to climb the road.
A man started shouting to me from the front of a store, but I just ignored him. Then another approached me, but it was just to warn me. I couldn’t walk to the convent. It was too dangerous. I should take a moto if I wanted to visit it. Just then the man from the storefront came zooming up on a motorcycle. He wanted to charge me for a ride to the top and back. Now I didn’t know who to trust. What if he was a thief? I asked him if he was and he just shook his head and laughed, so I climbed on the back of his bike with some grave misgivings, unable to just overlook the jagged scar that ran down his cheek.
As we began to climb the hill on the small motorbike, I realized that it was a lot longer to the top than it had appeared. I was glad to be getting the ride if only to avoid suffering a heat-stroke. We went around a number of curves. It didn’t seem to be a dangerous neighborhood, but I couldn’t see through the bushes.
At the top, I paid the small entrance fee, and went up a flight of stairs past a crowned King Jesus, extending his blessing to all who passed. The first door to the convent was locked, so I went over to the overlook where a Colombian flag was flying. You could see every quarter of the city. Once again, it made sense from on high, but when you were on the ground trying to navigate your way through the streets, the city was nothing but a labyrinth.
Finding an open door, I entered into the convent. There was sacred artwork on the walls and artifacts in glass cases, but an urgent stomach cramp made it difficult to concentrate. Although the worst of my sickness had passed, it still felt like I was walking through a lucid nightmare. When I finally found a toilet, back by the stairs, I sat drenched in sweat.
The driver was waiting for me when I came out, and with his helmet off I could see he was a large teen, not as imposing as when he’d been shouting to me from the storefront. He offered to take my picture in front of a large cross in the parking lot. The ride back down only took a few minutes and I paid him twenty thousand pesos, or four dollars for the trip.
I had a joke ready for Carlos when I got back to the monastery. He asked me about the thieves and I told him there’d been one for sure, meaning the boy who’d talked me into paying him for the ride. I looked it up later on the internet, however, and read about a guy who’d been recently robbed at gunpoint walking down from the convent, while cars, taxis, and even a tour bus passed him by. He claimed the thieves had held a gun to his head and waved a knife in his face.
The loss of the wallet and the phone he could live with, but it was the camera with 32 gigabytes full of pictures and memories from his trip that was really causing him anguish. He was wondering if someone from the tour bus had happened to witness the robbery and taken any pictures that might help him get his things back. It was a shot in the dark, but I could understand his desperation. Someone in the comments section had tried to console him, saying forget about the things. At least now he had the best party story ever. Perhaps, but if it had happened to me, it would’ve taken a long time to look at it that way.