Cartagena and the Colombian Presidential Elections

May 28th, 2006 by David

   When I arrived in Cartagena, I talked to a few local contacts about how to bike Colombia safely. All recommended that it would be safest to travel after the presidential elections, which were to be held that Sunday. I found a 5 dollar hotel, and spent a few days in town.

   Cartagena is one of the oldest European cities in South America, founded in the 1530s. The historic downtown is surrounded by city walls to keep out Caribbean pirates (the city was sacked numerous times), and the streets are barely wide enough for two horse carriages. The city sits barely above sea level, and, like the islands of the Kuna Indians, I wondered what the future of the city will be when the ocean level rises.

Cartagena's historic downtown
A fortress to keep out pirates during the 16th and 17th centuries
Cartagena sits barely above sea level

   On election day, I walked around the downtown and watched Colombians cast their ballots. The ballots were simple – a single piece of paper with pictures of each candidate. Mark an X over your candidate, fold the paper, and put it in a box (ballot shown in the middle below). I talked to some of the election officials, who let me take pictures of the process.

Colombians line up to vote
Ballot for the presidential elections - simply mark an X over the picture of the canidate you want
How to vote in Colombia

   I found that people were willing to say who they voted for, and I conducted an informal exit poll. Of the 20 or so people that I talked to, about 5 didn’t vote, 10 voted for the current president, Alvaro Uribe, 4 voted for Carlos Garivia, and 1 for Horacio Serpa (because ‘all of the candidates are corrupt, and he is the least corrupt’).

   The news that night confirmed my exit poll – Uribe won over 60% of the vote. Presidents are not usually allowed to run for two terms, but Uribe had the constitution changed so that he could run again. His popularity is due to an increase in security – according to every Colombian I talk to, the country is far safer now than five years ago. The army has increased in size by over 30%, and all major roads are heavily patrolled. A school master that I talked to remarked that ‘a few years ago, my friends would fly to Bogota instead of drive – now they drive across the country.’ My first night out of Cartagena, I stayed on a farm with a man who had been kidnapped and held ransom for three days in 2000. He said ‘thanks to god’ after saying that Uribe won, and then he told me that it would be safe for me to bike the main roads in Colombia.

   The armed conflict here in Colombia is a complicated issue – if you have time, here is an article with more information. I have included as the first comment on this post what I have gained about the war from talking to people – if you have thoughts, feel free to add them.

3 Responses to “Cartagena and the Colombian Presidential Elections”

  1. David says:

    Here is my quick third hand account of the history of the war in Colombia: There was and is great disparity between the wealthy and the poor. In the face of great repression, the poor in the countryside took to arms, arguing for a socialist state. The largest guerrilla fighting groups are the FARC and ELN. The government fought back, but much the fighting has been done by private militias – paramilitary groups – in the countryside. Everything is complicated by sales of cocaine, which both the paramilitaries and the FARC use to fund and continue the war. Large stretches of the countryside are not controlled by the government, but by these paramilitaries or FARC groups. Many Colombians I talk to say that the guerrillas used to represent an ideology, but now it is just about money. The current government strategy of encouraging paramilitaries to disband and also intensely pursuing the FARC and ELN seems to be very popular. I will be learning more about this war as I travel, and I will probably add to this.

  2. Mauricio says:

    Hi, I’m from Colombia but now I’m in California. I found your blog looking for information on how to travel from CA to my country by land, what sounded crazy initially but after seeing your exciting blog seems perfectly posible. Best of luck in my country, I used to ride my bike there a lot. My advice will be sad, but I recommend to you to be very carefull there, specially in Magdalena, Bolivar, and Cesar, and Santander before Bucaramanga (arriving to Bucaramanga from the north should e done with extreme precaution because of the thieves). From Bucaramanga to Bogota is very safe, you can be almost 100% confident.

    Best of lucks. Thanks for your encouraging example of how to have fun and tell people about conservation!!!!!!

    All my best wishes,


  3. javier says:

    Hi.. i’ve found your blog interesting, maybe we’ll meet today on your confference in the “Universidad Nacional” where i studied biology and now i’m on the chemical engeenering master. Feel free in the university which is the best in Colombia, hope you could express your impressions about that later. I think you have to be carefull in this city anyway, but is a cool place to stay

    Good luck for you on your trip..


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