Dec 3, 2006

CARTAGENA, Colombia – This country's a topographical fun-house. The equator chops across its southern tip like an ankle sock, contrary to norteños' misconceptions. And it sprawls over three Andean spurs and borders three oceans: the Atlantic, Pacific and Caribbean.

Best of all, Colombia claims the world's densest concentration of plants and animals, including jaguars, peccaries and condors.

I see only a morose sloth, however. My colleague poses with the creature, who scrapes his face. Its curved claws don't break the skin, but the message is clear: even the most limp and lethargic of mammals resents being a tourist photo prop.

Like the sloth, I wilt in the coastal fug of Cartagena des Indias. The cobbled, colonial splendor wavers like a mirage in the humidity. So I retreat to the rooftop pool with a friend from Bogota.

I am the only sunbather with a book. Everyone else sensibly drinks beer or snoozes.

But in two days, I depart for Islas Rosario and my advanced open-water diver course. Fatigue and firewater have eroded my strength. At the very least, I resolve, I'll have read the PADI manual.

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