It’s been a year since candles, muggings, Crepes & Waffles and machetes in Colombia: Día de las Velitas, a Latinalicious extract…

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Happy Feast of the Immaculate Conception! It’s been a whole year since the attempted mugging in Cartagena, when I was having an otherwise amaaaaazing time in my favourite part of Colombia. To celebrate survival, here’s an extract from Latinalicious on the topic. If you’re liking these extracts by the way, don’t forget to get your copy on Amazon.com for the incredibly random but bargainous price of just $3.63.

Candles, muggings and machetes…

I have fallen in love with Cartagena in a way I never expected to. I feel like I’ve embarked on a beautiful relationship, one of colour and music and romance… just minus the man. I decided to extend my stay at Casa Nativa because I know everyone there now and even though it’s a bit more expensive than some other hostels (AU $15 a night) I’m loving the privacy curtain (around the bed) and you always need to pay more for air-con anyway. And also, ponytailed Carlos and Juan Carlos, the manager (you can never meet too many Carlos’s in South America) were both really nice to me after ‘the incident’.

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It’s kind of hard to talk about ‘the incident’. I guess I should start by telling you that a few days ago, on December 7th it was Día de las Velitas, or Candle Lighting Day. It’s one of the most observed traditional holidays of Colombia and is celebrated every year on the same date on the eve of the Immaculate Conception.

Día de las Velitas is a country-wide public holiday and the unofficial start of the Christmas season. It’s the time when people place candles and paper lanterns on their porches, on the pavements, on their windows, balconies, parks, streets and squares late at night and let them burn for twenty four hours.

Looking forward to the event, me, Naomi and another girl we met at the hostel called Jen went out to see the sunset, as I’ve done every day since I’ve been here. This time we watched it from a table at the famous Cafe del Mar, which is an overpriced tourist trap on the wall overlooking the sea and the Bocagrande skyline. When we arrived, the serving staff seemed to be having a competition amongst themselves called ‘Who can look the most uninterested in customers?’

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A group of corpses would have done a better job. These people looked so pissed off with having to interact with anyone that they should re-name the place Cafe del Mardy, but anyway, after this we drank some more beers on the streets, chatted to a million more people and discovered that contrary to what we’d been told, they weren’t really going to celebrate Día de las Velitas in the historic centre, and if we wanted to see people lighting up thousands of candles between three and four am, we would have to go out of the city in a cab. Feeling a bit deflated we started walking back to the hostel. It was after all, after midnight at this point. And then we met Jonny.

Jonny told us all about his nightclub and how he would love it if we went inside so he could get his commission (not in those words exactly). A lot of the guys in the historic centre are employed to be nice to tourists on the streets, in order that they visit their various shops and restaurants. When we told Jonny that we really just wanted to experience the Día de las Velitas celebrations, he beamed and said, ‘Well, I’m finishing up now, why don’t you come to my neighborhood? We’re having a party and we’re all gonna be lighting candles!’

Of course, the last thing you should do as a trio of slightly drunk girls is get into a cab with a guy to a distant neighbourhood, in Colombia, at midnight, but like I said, we were a trio of slightly drunk girls and… well… Jonny seemed nice, and we really wanted to see the candles! So we hailed a cab and drove roughly fifteen minutes out of the city, with Jonny in the front seat telling us how his girlfriend’s mum was going to be so glad we could come.

At one point the driver stopped and put some black, mesh screens up over our windows, which I thought was a little odd because it meant we couldn’t see out, but pretty soon we pulled up outside a house, where we were promptly thrown into a scene from the movie Step Up. People were dancing on every balcony and front porch, music was blaring from a host of different speakers and groups of people were sitting, drinking from bottles and plastic cups around what looked like open sewers, running like concrete-walled rivers through the streets. It smelled a bit iffy. A few small fires were burning on the sidelines but Jonny ushered us forward (after making sure we had paid for the taxi) to a little shop, where he made sure we paid for the bottles of rum he said were essential.

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Then, gradually gathering more and more people behind us as we all walked through the streets, Jonny led us to his girlfriend’s house. A large lady called Mama Maria (her mum, we assumed) welcomed us in, took one bottle of rum, which we never saw again, and started pouring shots with the other. We started dancing. We spoke to everybody, although no one spoke any English. We were clearly the stars; the only white people for miles.

I was dancing with a guy on the porch, with my back to the railings and a giant pillar when suddenly the side of my head was yanked into the pillar at full force at least three times. It took me a second to realise that someone was grabbing the strap of my bag from behind the railings, and seeing as it was around both shoulders, he couldn’t get it over my head and just kept pulling me instead. Naomi tried to get the bag over my head so whoever it was could just take it and stop whacking my head against concrete, but after a couple more attempts he ran off and I never even saw who did it. I reached up and felt the giant golf ball sized lump forming on my head and realised I had gashes on my arm and neck from the strap, too.

All hell broke loose in the neighbourhood. It was Step Up mixed with City of God all of a sudden. Mama Maria ushered me into the house, followed by Naomi and Jen and we were instructed to climb a ladder up to the attic. We crouched on the floor while a man in a towel… I’m assuming Papa Ange… ran outside with a machete. People were shouting. Jonny’s girlfriend, who I’d been dancing with too, was trying to touch my head, sobbing hysterically like she thought I was going to die in her house, while I just thanked my lucky stars it wasn’t my actual face he’d smashed against the pillar. He could have broken my nose!

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He was also a shit mugger because he didn’t actually get my bag. After all that, he didn’t even break it and it was only a cheap, shitty thing from H&M. You’d think, among all those people, he would have been a bit smarter and brought some scissors to at least cut the strap, but as it was he completely failed in his mission and got chased with a machete. I dread to think what happened to him, but I’ll never underestimate H&M again.

Just as we were wondering how to make our escape, one of Jonny’s mates pulled up in yet another car with blacked out windows (which now made sense) and sped us off through the streets like we’d robbed a bank or something. On the way back to Cartagena we saw a lot of candles being lit along the streets, which is what we went out in search of anyway, so it wasn’t a total disaster. Mind you, it could have just been that I was seeing stars.

We thanked Jonny as he made sure we got back to our hostel safely. He also made sure we paid his mate 25,000 COP for driving us ‘the scenic candlelit route’, and him 10,000 COP extra for escorting us home. He also kept our rum. Thanks Jonny.

So, hmm, it wasn’t a very nice ending to the night, but it hasn’t stopped me falling in love with Cartagena. We shouldn’t have been in that neighbourhood but you can’t just sit in air-conditioned tour buses and Cafe del Mardy when you’re trying to explore a new city, can you? Besides, everyone else, apart from the shit mugger, was really nice.

I just emailed my friend Charlotte (the girl I met on the dreaded Colca Canyon trip back in Peru) and she’s decided to travel up this way to spend a ‘British’ Christmas with me, purely because I’ve been going on about how awesome it is since I got here. We can’t let one guy ruin things, now can we? I was having one of the most exciting and fun nights of my entire trip so far, before that happened. It’s not every day you get to be in a street scene from Step Up.

If he’d managed to nick my iPhone and credit card however, well, that would have been different.

To read more from amazing (but slightly scary Colombia) and everywhere else in South America, get your bargain-tastic ebook version of Latinalicious today!