Cartagena la Fantasica


Not long ago I attended a Travel Photography seminar in New York City, and left that room with an almost overwhelming urge to develop another photo story. The photographers hosting the seminar are living a rare life, working in society while passion pays the bills. But for many, we anticipate the arrival of our next vacation to have an adventure. I hope this story encourages you to remember your passion, and from their use your vacation to discover your inner purpose, whether it be wild or mild.

Photography is a passion of mine that I know I share with strangers on the subway. In an era of “easy” photography, it can be the perfect purpose on our much needed getaways. Camera and even smart phone technologies these days can be so in tuned with our surroundings that creating our own photo story, now has no excuses. Why not document your cocktail taste test at a bar far from home? If you’re like me and have a photographic memory, I promise you can make this advacation (adventure/vacation) last your lifetime.

Our next step is to ask ourselves, what destination do I desire? It may be a place you have always wanted to go, or even a vision in a dream that you need to find where it truly exists. Research and remember how your fate unfolds and your journey begins. As it happened with me, my photography story was born when I said yes to an invitation to Cartagena, Colombia for Carnaval. Immediately the colors of carnival flashed through my mind and stimulated my body. I just had to capture it on camera.

As I wait to board my plane at JFK for my redeye down to Colombia, I look around and see all the available destinations we have to offer on our planet. Last time I was here I remember thinking, “Dang, I wish I was on that flight, or that one.” But tonight at midnight, I smile at myself as the feeling of being exactly where I’m supposed to be and headed in the only direction I want to go eases any anxiety. If you feel the same way, lucky you.

I board, read over the notes I took during the travel photography seminar, and sleep my way to Central America. Let’s not waist time watching t.v on our flight, get some sleep. Being rested is the only way to take on a trip. However, the 45 minute connecting flight from the Panama City to Bogota, with a snack of course because “this is Latin America,” was the perfect time to wake up and view the lush landscape below, listen to my favorite dreamy jams, and start training my photographic eye to look for what I was recently told, to find interesting pictures, and not “good shots.”. My only doubts as a photographer is my fear of being asked to present  “typical technique.” As I push technique out this small aircraft window I can feel my heart open up, and flood with creative blood. Try it.

My invitation to Cartagena was extended to a quick stay in the big city of Bogota, a must visit sprawled out valley city in the mountains, before you head to Carribean Sea level. When I arrive at any destination there is an immediate goal I want to inspire in you that helps me clear my head of what I left behind, and prepare me for whats to come. Choose my challenging activity to jumpstart your adrenaline, after a cat nap of course, and climb high to get a birds eye view of your new environment.  I do this for empowerment, and use it as a navigational tool through out my stay by remembering certain mountain peaks and city skyscrapers.

Bogota itself is a challenge for most but since I am being spoiled with local friends that are instinctually and culturally trying to take care of me, my craving and curiosity of the challenge was still corrupting. With the help of asking around, I now have the first on grounds idea, hike La Montana Quebrada. Every morning from sunrise to 11am the path is open and secured by police. Between them and fellow hikers, the connection every hundred yards or so and a friendly “buenas” is encouragement to keep going, and a wink anticipates secrets along the pathway.  This challenge will make you strong, confident, and will bring you courage for your wild trip, as well as reflect this confidence from you onto others, keeping you active and safe. Prepare to understand the equatorial risen land, before and after mankind as you make your way through three different forests that sink root into the same mountain. This astonishing secret that no body mentioned before is three clearly defined change in environment. Four actually, if you include the concrete jungle at the base.  The lower level has me jumping over streams flowing through rainforest, mid mountain guides me through enchanting towering Eucalyptus that seriously suddenly gave way to the bright oranges and dark browns of a classic Pine forest, on its peak.  A photographic eye in a forest will slow down your pace, and overall life. Let it. Here on this mountain I feel as far away from Bogota below as I do from New York City, and closer to nature. I think we are now ready to taste what this spicy South American country has to offer, and my body is warmed up for a lot of dancing, and more dancing.

* Inevitably you will have to chose your shots for your story because too many photos makes it an album, not a story. The harder it is the more successful you are, I think. Don’t worry, just remember we threw “rules” out the aircraft window so get creative. I need to show you all that I explore on my hike up La Montana Quebrada, so I visualize a colauge that ends up making sense to me. This may be 3 different photos of 3 different forests, but there were also taken on 1 mountain, 1 picture.

4 jungles, 1 mountain

* Teach your photographic eye to pick up on layers. To make these cool pictures more interesting, try rotating your camera. Make your viewer look harder and longer at your photograph. Aim to blend horizontal into vertical.

My photographic eye picks up on layers, and many times they make cool pics. To make it more interesting, try rotating your camera. Make your viewer look harder and longer at your photograph. Aim to blend horizontal into vertical.

Bogota sky

A couple days and a night out in Bogota is enough to taste the Colombian cuisine and scene from the countries largest city, which is usually where one can surely experience a culture. Our festive dinner in The Macarena District activated our night out with loud live music and traditional Arepas, a warmed round flat bread with melted cheese on top. This staple dish that is eaten through out the day was our go to appetizer. It’s delicious but don’t even try to imagine the taste unless you have had Colombian cheese. Wash it down with many micheladas, light beer with fresh squeezed lemon juice and a salted rim, and add a traditional paisa platter to the table which is rice & beans, chicharron, carne el polvo, fried egg, chorizo, and ripe plantain to the family style table. Careful not to over indulge, this feast is followed by hours on the dance floor at one of South Americas biggest and most famous night clubs, Theatron. This multi personality nightclub offers dancers and hunters all different moods to make their moves. Hips dominate the first floor arena while the official music video plays on a screen so big it’s like Jlo herself was “On the Floor.” But, If you want to enjoy a drink with out spilling it or need a moment of personal space head up the glowing staircase, by pass the electronics and the 80’s and you’ll find a cozy cantina featuring Marc Anthony. I assure you, this place can be memorable with a secret smile. I hope your in the mood for attention.

The arrival of morning during the cab ride home was our sign from the sun signaling, it’s time for Cartagena. Working to conceal my hangover and resting up, I eventually look around during our flight from Bogota to Cartagena on the popular Avianca airlines, and realize it is full of shockingly beautiful women. “Where on earth are we going?”, I thought. I turn to my amigo Antonio for answers and he laughs as if it’s a surprise, and it is. This week in Cartagena is the 80th anniversary parade for Colombia’s beauty pageant, and it’s no joke. Antonio tells me how Colombia and Venezuela are both claiming to grow the world’s most beautiful women, and now I get to photograph the beauty battle. I stare outside my window as the clouds begin to break up and scatter so I can watch as the world below me change from high mountains to swampy flood plains as we approach the Carribean Sea. This is not the case though just east from here where the highest coastal mountain on earth lives. It is so tall it can be seen snowcapped from a palm fringed tropical beach, a special site I’m sure.

When the tributaries below hint they are about to reconnect at the delta and make their appearance into the sea, I remember my one true shot that I am after and eager to try. Back in New York I purchased an EWA marine bag for my Nikon D3200 that allows me to bring my camera into the underwater world, up to 66 feet. I had a vision in my head, one that I’ve seen many times but I wanted to know for myself that I could recreate it. This Marine bag is the affordable tool, around $250, I need to capture two environments in one photograph, above and below the surface of the sea. I catch sight of the blue water color Carribean painting ahead and suddenly I know that the photo of a sea turtle or shark in danger of the falling cluster of coconuts above them can soon be a live opportunity. As quickly as this vision came, it went, as the aircraft continued to fly along the coast the evidence of human activity appeared and the natural world faded. Just ahead I have eyes on an all white city scape stacked on the dividing line of land and sea. As the sensual people of this plane descend into the playground below, it hits me that this isn’t going to be one of my nature stories, it’s a party.

As we exit the tiny airport the humid warmth sprays my body, and I immediately want to strip down. It’s been a while since I’ve been to the Caribean, and I swear I can walk off the plane blind folded and unaware, and I would still know where in the world I was.  It’s a feeling, and an immediate reminder of where on earth I want to live most of my life, the tropics! The matriarch of my new friends, Loren, guides us to a ceviche stand for a street side snack. As we simply sit on the curb sweating and chewing on the Colombia style ketchup and cream assortment of shellfish served with saltines or plantain chips, our pace adjusts to our new island life. Honestly, I did no kind of research for this trip other than typing in Cartagena under Google image and google earth. What I saw that day in NYC on my phone is what I saw from the plane, Boca Grande, the new city. This whole time in my mind I was thinking Miami style stay, but right now during the moment of truth those reflecting high rises are no where in site, and neither is the beach. The moving scene outside my taxi window shows me native families and fruit that is suddenly slated by a great wall, followed by a sharp turn through a gap. Inside the wall reveals the radiantly colorful old city of Cartagena, the true fate of the trip. Let the show begin!

Cartagena is the holiday riviera in Colombia, and since Colombians are in control of the scene, what you will find is a place almost unimaginable to North America. Boca Grande is the new city, built in reaction to Colombia’s growing wealth that desires access to Colombia’s man made jewel, the ancient Walled City. In the 1500s the wall was built for pirate protection. More recently since the old pirate days, Cartagena had become the new play ground for Drug lords. Pablo Escobar’s old private resort is on an island just off the coast of the old city, so he could have security and access to Cartagena. Today it’s abandoned but people can kayak right up to it and vision the pool parties, with out being shot on the spot. As I enter my new home for the week through giant double doors in-between jaguar statues, I am almost forced to know the truth. This is a very old city built with sturdy and storm proof walls made from coral, but the new insides and layouts of these homes are so extravagant and royal that there’s only one industry that could have, and would have wanted to fund this kind of transformation. Corporate investment companies would have taken shortcuts, but here in this home I have marble bridges, terraces, gardens, balconies, jacuzzies, waterfalls, all wrapped up and around the cool pool in the center that is freshened by scattered tropical rain showers in this brilliantly open air house. Again, I must climb my way to the top for a birds eye view of my new environment. At this moment alone, the sun is beaming through the scattered storms, shining light on all of the fantastic roof tops and the lucky ones of this world. I can feel my ear trying to turn and twitch not knowing which Colombian sound to listen to and trigger my body with, the street salsa below me or the reggaeton on the horizon.

* Try not to use automatic settings for a sun set shot. Play with the light in manual, and remember it will change again very soon.


Tonight, instead of taking a disco nap with everyone before our night out, I romantically walk the top of the wall to enjoy the warm night and the scattered laughter and music that comes from inside the city, and even check out the old canyons that still face the Caribbean Sea. I come across the meeting spot for the traveling musicians. I sit on the wall and watch as locals gather for their own inner purpose in life, to bring their instrument aboard and play for Cartagena. Every night these open air buses will squeeze through the skinny streets to make sure there is always music around to dance to. It can seem like it’s for us, but the look on their faces shows it’s for their own pure joy. Let’s say it’s for the joy of the Old City.

Soon, I will discover the beautiful and bawdy people, restaurants, hotels, plazas, parades, and night clubs that concur this lifestyle, and photograph them. I hope you enjoy!

* Unlike many countries, Colombians are not camera shy, so you don’t be shy. From my experience, If I’m caught taking a photo of someone, they will turn and pose, and then ask to get a photo of you too from their phone. I rarely want anyone to pose for my photos because I am not making a year book, so If this happens and your subject is too interesting to let go, put the camera down but leave it on and ready. Be quick to capture what comes your way next. But, sometimes poses can be beautiful, especially during such fiestas. It shows how people let go of any insecurities and feel good and have fun during such times, or simply enjoy the attention. I wish we could all, always live in this space. 


* Strive to crop interestingly when looking through your viewfinder in the heat of the moment, but if you look closely when editing, other and more personal pictures can appear. Also, if people know you took a photo of them, show them the picture and even offer to email it to them as I did with this Señora. It’s good camera karma, and will ease any feeling of violation. 

DSC_0307* Colors are so important, especially to my Cartegana Carnaval photo story. In this photo of the boy walking, I was lucky for obvious reasons. “Pictures are given first, then taken.” – hermanoearth.  I feel like this picture was given to me, but the only way I can take it is if I’m camera ready. Be camera ready!


* During mid day, the sun can be too harsh for your camera. National Geographic Photographer Ami Vitale, once told me to go inside during these hours. Lesson learned. 

* Food and drinks will always be some of our favorite memories on our advacations. Remember, It’s different these days as you try new things and make a 2 hour activity out of it, instead of a quick bite and go during work days. Feasts on advacations aren’t things, but more actions, so photograph it like it is. We aren’t here to take pictures for the menu. 

* Relationships are the most important thing in life. Find one and photograph it. This boy played in the surf all day while his Momma was the waitress at the beachfront cafe. Every once in a while I would see him disappear into the kitchen and run straight back to the surf with a mouth full. The sea, the sand, and the sun are his best friends, and a picture has the power to reveal it. 


* Messy pictures have a sneaky way of capturing a moment that feels real, because nothing’s perfect. This is one of those photos that I don’t remember taking, but when I looked back through all of my pictures during this night parade, this is the one that brings me back to the hot mess of a moment. I love the light on only the one señorita, her cartoony face, and the shadows of the gawking crowd on the building. 


* If you instinctively lock onto a subject, move with it. This guy caught my attention and I was determined to see how his costume and dance came out on camera. I followed him, continuously shooting until he gave me a glance. In that one click, I knew I had it, then moved on. 


* Entertainers are easy targets, utilize them. These girls happily and perfectly gave me a pose just from a quick whistle and eye contact with them. But, they never have much time for you because they are here for everyone, so plan your shot and get it quick. I know that the curvy Colombians that mesmerize with their middle is the whole heart of this parade, and the reason we are all here. Capture your reason. 


* Lighting! Lighting! Lighting! Look at this Lighting! Many different light sources coming from different angles can create a fantastic fuse. Dawn is the best time to spot it. 


* I am very happy with my first attempt using my EWA Marine bag to capture this half and half effect, but it was no easy swim. This shot is the growing point in my photography that I was after. It takes time, patience, calmness, and practice. I spent hours in the ocean with only a few good photos to show for it, this one being my favorite. But at the end of the day I know I set out to do it, I taught myself how to do it, and I accomplished it. It’s projects like this that can give surprisingly such big purpose in life.

boca grande

* Get creative with friends. It won’t be the most authentic photo, but you will laugh, and make a memory.


When you are on your advacation, Dress The Part!


Gracias for reading and looking. I hope you enjoyed, but mostly I hope you learned.

-hermanoearth ( Michael Wysocki )

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