We hear the launch long before it arrives. From half mile or so away, we can detect the engine churning across Cholon Bay. At 5:40 a.m. the water taxi glides alongside Happy Times. About 22 passengers, mostly male, are already on board for their daily commute to Cartagena.
We load a rolling duffle bag, three backpacks and ourselves inside the 30’ launch. Mike and I sit on the second row. Mikayla gets the cushioned seat right behind the first mate or boat boy. Silently, he passes us three life jackets as we pull away from our catamaran and roar through the eastern end of the bay. The mangroves rush by as we take the corner out of the sound and careen out to sea. The launch hits the first swell and sends a shock wave through the passengers.
The launch soars through the waves and everyone laughs as we hit one especially hard. I discover the bottom of my backpack is wet. I slide it onto my lap as my seat mate, a young Colombian man, points down at the bucket below our seat. I assume that some of the water from the bucket splashed up. At our next stop I suggest that we empty the bucket, as if he understands English. What am I thinking?
We briefly stop at a beach where an old woman waits at the water’s edge. Her hair is wrapped in a red bandanna and her leathery legs poke out from under a tiered chambray skirt. She hands a wad of papers to the boat boy. My seat mate points down again, and I see a live starfish lying in the bottom of the bucket.
We stop next at Playa Blanca. It’s dotted with palapas where Gilbert, a Frenchmen, has strung some hammocks for rustic camping. The launch’s pilot asks for the number of passengers. The boat boy calls out, “Diez personnes.” Where the heck will they sit?
Three girls gamely climb over bench seats and squeeze into the rear of the launch. Another one sits beside Mikayla. She rides to Cartagena with her eyes shut, a death grip on a handhold. Three muscular, young men—the girls’ companions—take the whiplash seats.
The water taxi goes on to Cartagena at a bone-jarring 30 m.p.h. Scrubby trees cling to cliffs that have been sheared away by the waves. The sky turns from pink to blue as we pound through Boca Chica, one of two entrances to the enormous harbor. As a flock of frigate birds wheels above a hammock of mangroves, a hazy sun emerges from behind construction cranes, their black arms set akimbo against the sky.
The water taxi eases up to a dilapidated dock that’s set precariously on the edge of the stagnated river. It’s a public dumping ground for the area known as Mercado Bazurto. This bazaar is a fish market crossed with a green grocer, all stuffed into open air stalls on a garbage-strewn, cobbled road.
You want a chicken for dinner? A vendor will snatch off its head and pluck its feathers while you wait. Prefer fish? You can choose from a dozen different kinds splayed on wooden tables. Need a jolt of caffeine? You can buy a tinto for only 200 pesos, about 10 cents, and have two ounces of the hottest, sugariest coffee you’ll ever drink.
A taxi drops us off at Club Nautico. In a few hours, we’ll board a flight to Bogota, then Lima and on to Cusco to begin our Peruvian adventure.