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Cartagena Dances to its Own Caribbean Beat

Three days in this historic city round out Colombia

rain 85 °F

Cartagena is a walled city first settled in the 1500s, and a UNESCO World Heritage site

Cartagena seems like a whole different Columbia than Medellín and the “coffee country” we had visited so far. Cartagena is Caribbean. You feel the humidity immediately like a blanket on your face. The pace seems faster and louder. Even now, I hear the Caribbean drumbeat as I type this from the rooftop terrace of my hotel. The people are celebrating the victory of Gustavo Petro, who just won the Presidential election. Horns are honking near continuously. On Friday night, our first night here, the neighboring bar blasted its music till 3am. Just as Americans go to the Caribbean to party, the rest of Columbia comes here for a good time.

The view out the balcony in our room at Hotel Monterey

However, I have always travelled to a different drumbeat. I was not here for the beaches or salsa dancing to all hours of the night. I wanted to see historic Cartagena - the fortress of colonial Spain’s defenses. Settled in 1533 by Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, it is named after a city of the same name in Spain. That city’s name means New Carthage - as in the Carthage of Hannibal who fought and was ultimately conquered by the Roman Republic. Cartagena is a walled city, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Walking those walls was definitely part of my plans.

The streets of the walled city are cobblestoned and lined with buildings from the colonial Spanish period

It wouldn’t be on my first day in Cartagena, though. As throughout much of the trip, it was raining when we landed and took our taxi to the hotel. The Hotel Monterey is in a great spot - maybe 150 yards from the main gate of the Old City. The Plaza of Heroes separates our hotel from the gate, and our balcony looked across the plaza towards the gate. The building is a thick-walled, colonial era house with high, beamed ceilings. Centuries of humidity have thoroughly seeped into its bones, though. There was a musty smell in our room and hotel that a cranked air conditioning and ceiling fan on high could never dissipate. Still, the chill blast of AC when we returned to our room each time from our explorations in the city was a welcome sigh of relief.

Our guide on the free walking tour pointed out many of the historic buildings and told stories about them

I’d mentioned the Presidential elections earlier. They would throw a curveball into our plans. Colombia approaches its elections soberly. So soberly that no alcohol would be sold after 6pm the day before the election (and none on the day of). In addition, all museums and many sights would be closed Election Day (the third and final day of our visit). Since we didn’t check in to our hotel till close to 5pm, we had a lot to cram into a short amount of time. We decided to spend Election Day walking the city walls (they were free and open 24 hours a day), and taking an Uber up to a scenic overlook at a historic convent on a hill above Cartagena.

Rich golds and pastel colors gave the city the look of a Renaissance era city

After the great experience in Medellín with its free city walk, we definitely wanted to do that and scheduled it for first thing the next morning. Out guide, Edgar, did a good job but we both admitted that Dio in Medellín had spoiled us on tour guides. The rains came down about a half hour or so into our tour. Edgar pivoted well, and did his best to keep us under cover until it tapered off to a drizzle. He gave us chances to take pictures but Mother Nature was not so kind. The rain stayed present most of the tour. I would have to wholeheartedly recommend potential visitors to stay away from visiting in June. Colombia is country #97 for me, and without a doubt, the second rainiest trip of my life. Only the Philippines beats it, with Scotland coming a distant third.

After the walking tour, our next destination was the Castle of San Felipe

Like Dio, Edgar tried his best to get us into the mind of Columbian people. He tried to bring customs to life and explain why people do what they do in his country. For example, an omnipresent sight in the walled city are the colorfully-dressed women from Palenque, Colombia. This was a settlement of escaped slaves that the Spaniards had been shipping to South America to work for them. When Domingo Bioho led a group of 30 escaped slaves to found their own settlement in 1619, Palenque became the first free African town in the Americas. Anyway, once their free status was guaranteed by the Spanish crown, the women of Palenque would come to Cartagena to sell fruit, carrying it to market on their heads. According to Edgar, that tradition continued for centuries until cruise ships began to arrive in Cartagena in the late 20th century. The day tripping tourists wanted photos of the brightly dressed women with fruit on their heads, and paid them for it. Since then, the Palenque women don’t really sell the fruit in the bowls on their head, they instead pose for pictures and get money for that!

the castle is the largest and most powerful fortress built in the New World by the Spanish

Edgar also told us the story of Father Pedro Claver, a Jesuit priest who’d come to Colombia in his early twenties in 1600. He was appalled by the way African slaves were treated and regarded not as souls, but as property. He made it his mission to convert them, showing Christian kindness and treating and caring for them as fellow human beings. His kindness paid off, and he became beloved by those he came into contact with. He ignored the Spanish who told him to stop and is known as the patron saint of African slaves. It is estimated he baptized around 300,000 Africans and became St. Pedro after his death. A bronze statue stands in honor of him in the square in front of the church dedicated to him.

Tunnels under the battlements allowed defenders to move back and forth safely between different sections of the fortress

Edgar walked us around to the main churches, plazas, and colonial era buildings. After the tour ended, and the rain had finally tapered off, we revisited many of the places he took us. There are so many cool, Renaissance era buildings in Cartagena, it seemed a shame not to have pictures of them, now that the sun was coming out. Their golds and pastel colors deserve bright sunshine to bring out their rich tones. When the rain came back, because this is Colombia in June, we ducked into the Palace of the Inquisition, one of the museums that sounded interesting. It was actually fairly subpar as far as museums go. There was very little on the torture aspect of it, but more of an accountant’s numbers look at it. It is also the museum of the history of the city, but this part was only marginally better. I would recommend visitors give it a pass and do something else.

After raining off and on all morning, we were lucky at the castle and got sunshine and no rain

Definitely recommended, though, is the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. This massive sprawling castle guards the land approach to Cartagena. It’s battlements and walls bristled with cannons of all size and weight and were never taken by English or French attacks. There are tunnels leading from section to section, and you can still explore them. It is regarded as the greatest fortress ever built by the Spanish in the New World. There are lots of people exploring the fortifications, but it’s massive size swallows them up, so you don’t feel like you’re standing in line. You can climb to the top, make your way through all the various spurs and sections of the fort, and admire the great views across the waterway to Cartagena.

Looming above the castle is the Convento de la Popa, which we would visit the next day

Unfortunately, there were a lot of Selfie-obsessed visitors, taking a whole series of photos at the most dramatic viewpoints. Maybe that is our 21st century, Insta-world, nowadays. In my four decades of travel, we’ve gone from the tour group who wait patiently to take their turn getting photographed standing at attention in front of a site, to a population of supermodels doing Victoria’s Secret photoshoots in their mind while monopolizing choice spots at a site, taking as much time as entire tour groups once did. Neither is good for the individual traveler trying to lose themselves in the atmosphere of a historic sight.

Later that evening, we headed into the Getsemani district, which has graffiti and more of a backpacker vibe

Still, the castle was an amazing place to visit, and definitely worth the couple hours spent walking around it. There are some signs explaining features of the castle. Visitors can also rent an audio guide, but those have always fallen flat on me. You spend more time worrying if you’re at the correct spot than you do absorbing the history. Thankfully, the offers of in-person guides are not as obtrusive, constant, and annoying as inside the Old City.

The buildings of the Old Town shelter behind the encircling city walls still standing after centuries

Later that evening, after dinner, we walked to the Getsemani (as in the biblical “Garden of...”) district. This is more of the backpackers area in Cartagena, just outside the walled city. It is a little loud and a tad seedy in parts, but it is 100% geared towards visitors and has more restaurants and bars than the Old City. It is also where much of the cool graffiti art is in Cartagena. We were heading to Beer Lovers Cartagena, which had 18 Colombian craft beers on tap. There we met school teachers Rick and Tim, an American and Dutchman. We had a blast talking travel, politics, science, and more with them. We had planned on having a couple beers, but they were so fun we ended up having three. Jenny heard Rick getting chewed out on the phone by his Colombian wife, so they must have been having fun and stayed longer than planned, too!

The walls are open 24 hours a day, so were the perfect sight to see when nearly everything is closed in the city

A nice side effect of the Election rules in Colombia was the bar next door to our hotel was shuttered. No loud music till 3am (though the hotel’s thick walls and my ear plugs had reduced it to a mild annoyance the night before)! So, we were well rested for our final day of sightseeing in Cartagena. It was a good thing because we walked nearly 10 miles that day. We explored the entire circuit of the Old Town’s walls. This included ascending and descending more than half a dozen times, as the walls are not contiguous and have breaks in them where they were pierced for modern traffic.

Both the city walls and the castle yesterday had plenty of cannons lined up to increase the historic atmosphere

Much like yesterday’s visit to the castle, I had a great time exploring the Spanish fortifications. Their are cannons placed here and there a throughout the battlements. The rough stone walls have firing positions, musket or crossbow slits, round stone sentry boxes, and are an atmospheric walk back into History. Although the walls weren’t packed with visitors, there were a good number of people out walking and enjoying the sights. There seemed to be fewer Selfie Addicts, though they were present, pretending to do their Sports Illustrated swimsuit shoots in their minds. It was fun and challenging to line up the best camera shots to take in the scope of the walls in one frame. I switched between my normal and long lens, and later was happy with some of my shots. A lot were washed out and overexposed, though. I will need to figure what I am doing wrong on my camera. It has more bells and whistles than I understand, to be honest.

The interior of the convent was pretty with its stone architecture decorated by plants and flowers

Equally fun, I had a great time taking pictures of the Old Town. The tile roofs and pastel colors were augmented by the blooms of flowers and plants growing on the balconies and railings. I recognized many of the buildings or churches from yesterday’s walking tour. Still, it was a new angle to see them from the elevation of the town walls. Unlike yesterday’s walk, we had sunshine and at least partly sunny skies for the entire circuit of the fortifications. Most days start out at least only partly cloudy and the rains don’t come till afternoon. Yesterday had been the exception, with rain early.

The view from the hill high above Cartagena where the convent keeps watch over the city below

Still, this is Columbia in June (wait, have I said that before?), and the rains came just as we took an Uber up to Convento da la Popa. This 1600’s nunnery sits atop the highest hill overlooking Cartagena. On religious festival days, the image of the Virgin Mary is carried down from the convent in procession and paraded through Cartagena’s streets. It is a pretty convent, decorated with flowers and have a small museum of sorts attached. The main reason we went up there, though, was its views of Cartagena. The whole city, old walled part and new one of skyscrapers is laid out beneath you. The rain wasn’t a downpour, but it was an annoyance and probably made the pictures taken from their less striking than they could have been.

The waterfront along the skyscrapers of the new city of Cartagena

This was also the only time I felt potentially scammed by Uber on this trip. The first ride we booked sent a message asking for three times the amount he agreed to because the gas requirements to climb the hill. Thankfully, we agreed to say no. The second one who actually picked us up began to make noises about the “map being wrong” and she thought we were going to the neighborhood at the foot of the hill - not up the hill. We asked if she wanted more, but she said no, it was okay. Then she began to make noise about how “dangerous” it was atop the hill. We asked if she would wait for us in the parking lot and we’d pay her cash for the ride back to the hotel.

One of the rich, decorated doors in the Old City

First of all, the actual uphill drive was all of about five minutes, and not that steep. And the convent and souvenir stands just outside of it were hardly dangerous. Getsemani is way more seedy in some parts, and central Medellín even more so. I think she was trying to scare us into doing exactly what we did - hire her to take us back down. What’s more, knowing she was waiting would make us hurry our visit. All in all, it was the first time I was a little annoyed with Uber in Columbia. Otherwise, it was a perfect, efficient, and inexpensive way to get around in Columbia’s big cities.



A statue honor St. Pedro Claver and the compassion he showed towards the African slaves of Cartagena

Shortly after returning, we heard furious, rhythmic honking outside our balcony. It was only 5:30pm or so. Could the Election results be in already? I checked online and yes, only an hour and a half after the polls closed, 99% of the vote had been counted. Gustavo Petro had won. And - as a huge lesson for a certain narcissistic U.S. politician - his opponent conceded and said he would respect the results. This was an election that was polling 50/50 up to the day of the voting. And yet, they had almost all their votes counted, winner declared, and opponent conceded, in an hour and a half! It seems America could learn something about the conduct of elections from Columbia. It makes you wonder which country is pulling itself out of decades of chaos and civil war, and which is (supposedly) the greatest nation on the planet...

Posted by world_wide_mike 20:07 Archived in Colombia

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