January 23, 2019: We got distracted by the holidays. Back to Colombia.
Cartagena is hot. Place to place in Colombia, temperatures are more or less constant all year, and vary mainly with altitude. At sea level, Cartagena enjoys (or suffers) highs in the upper 80s and lows in the 70s, with some humidity. During the day, standing in the ample tropical sunlight, it can be brutal. (And there was a triathlon in town while we were there.)
And Cartagena is old, founded by the Spanish in 1533 (indigenous people lived in the area much earlier, of course). Visually, with its flowing bougainvillea, historic walls, forts and colonial architecture, there’s a lot to like about Cartagena.
When most people talk about Cartagena, they’re talking about the historic walled city. We found the historic center much like San Juan, Puerto Rico, and Campeche, Mexico, two other Spanish fortified port cities from the same era. Today, the old city behind the walls is a small geographic part of a sprawling city, but for tourists, it’s where a lot of the action is.
The Torre del Reloj (clock tower) marks the primary pedestrian entrance through the wall.
Passing through the wall, you find yourself in the Plaza de los Coches, surrounded by colonial buildings. During the day, the open plaza is usually filled with vendors hawking tours, hats, and general tourist tchotchkes.
Later part of the evening this plaza is filled with an entirely different sort of commerce. We didn’t take pictures, but let’s just say that after dark, what’s for sale in the plaza looks a lot more like this:
Prostitution is legal between consenting adults in Colombia. No doubt the trade is currently bolstered by some of the one million Venezuelans who have fled their country and sought refuge in neighboring Colombia. And an estimated 2-3 million Colombians expats have also returned to their home country, abandoning their lives in Venezuela and looking for a means of sustaining themselves as pseudo-émigrés to their own home country. Cartagena, being the closest major city, is full of new people, many on the streets, many whole families. There aren’t an overwhelming number of people begging, but rather trying to re-sell things to passers-by (and probably hoping for a generous overpayment). Frequently, children approach hold up a single piece of wrapped candy.
But back to the history and architecture and such. Views from the wall looking into the historic city:
And views from the city looking out to the ocean.
Walking around in the old city, the doors of current and former residences have elaborate door knockers.
Historically, these signified who lived inside. Lizards signified someone in high society, likely with royal connections; lions were for the military and fish or sea creatures meant a profession associated with the sea. [click to enlarge]
Cartagena has plenty of museums, should you want to do something other than eat, drink cocktails and ogle beautiful scenery. We checked out the Museo Naval del Caribe, the naval museum (sounded boring to Laura, was fantastic), learning much about Cartagena’s long history, particularly of pirate attacks and the city’s extensive efforts to avoid them. (“Pirates” generally being forces aligned with rival European powers.)
We also visited the Palace of the Inquisition (sounds fantastic, was boring), which was the headquarters of the Spanish inquisition in Cartagena from, ironically, 1776, until 1834. Unfortunately most of the gruesome instruments of torture are no longer on display. [click to enlarge]
On a sidewalk near the Palace of the Inquisition is this tribute to Colombia’s National Beauty Contest, held each year in Cartagena. The winner goes on to represent Colombia in the Miss Universe pageant (which the two in front have won). We understand this contest to be one of “the” events of the year in Colombia.
The scenic old city is also a major wedding destination. We saw many photography sessions around town while we were there.
As part of a city tour, we went up to the Convento de la Popa, which dates back to the early 1600s. It sits at the top of Mount Popa, high above the city. It’s a good vantage point to see larger Cartagena.
The building at the center if this picture is a school and community center built by Shakira’s Pies Descalzos Foundation:
The central courtyard is filled with obligatory and beautiful bougainvillea.
There’s an elaborate altar in the chapel. You can’t see it in this pic, but the tourist kids in the family photographed were lying face down on the floor in front of the altar when we arrived, causing their parents apparent mortification. “That’s how we pray in India,” the father explained, while the mother sternly whispered at her kids to get up. It was pretty cute.
There are also various displays of historical interest. Anyone recognize the tourists in this photo?
Our tour also included a stop outside the city’s historic fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. This fort, apparently the largest Spanish fortification in the New World, sits just inland from the walled city, on a hill defending the land approach, and denying invaders an otherwise perfect vantage point to fire on the city.
Much of the original fort was disassembled and used for other construction. Apparently the fort used to be even more imposing.
The west-facing bastions of the city wall are a very popular place to catch the sunset. There are bars where you can sit and watch. Or just hang out and a guy with a cooler will offer a selection of beverages to enhance the viewing experience.
All sorts of tourists can be spotted on the wall.
“So, how did you like Cartagena?”
That’s kind of a tough question. Here’s a story that might explain how I feel about this city:
It was early evening. The sun had gone down. At the main gate of the old city, daytime tourists were filing out, while nighttime revelers were beginning to head in. We were heading out through the gate, planning to spend the evening in the neighborhood outside our hotel.
As we headed toward the street, we approached a man from behind. He was thin, modestly dressed, wearing a short-sleeved collared shirt and a baseball cap. He was holding up a sign, he and the sign aimed away from us.
As we got closer, a beautiful young woman approached him from the opposite direction. She was simply but elegantly dressed, perhaps having come from work. Her hair was back in a ponytail. My memory is that she was wearing a suit.
As we and the young woman closed on the man, she looked at the sign, looked at the man, and her face lit up. Recognition? Was he waiting for her? The woman walked up to the man and gave him a hug. She then said something to him. I couldn’t tell if he spoke back. After a moment, she broke eye contact, and walked off to the side, where she joined a group of similarly dressed young women.
“Wow!” I said to Laura, “I wonder what that sign says?”
We walked past the man. Laura turned around and read the sign.
“It says, ‘I have AIDS. Give me a hug.'”
I found Cartagena beautiful, and sad, and hopeful, and tragic. I found it uncomfortable. But perhaps that says more about me than this city. After all, it wasn’t completely unlike other places I’ve been.
I had a good time watching the Vikings beat the Packers in a bar in the old city, but I felt uncomfortable watching the uncomfortable-looking young Colombian women at the next table flinching when their middle-aged white companions touched them. Some say that money can buy happiness, but these girls weren’t even pretending to happy.
We accompanied a friend to a fancy bar for a nightcap. It’s famous for fine cocktails. At the top of a four stair stoop, there was a man at the door wearing a white fur lapelled white suit and an oversized white top hat trimmed with more white fur. A quite frivolous look, but he wasn’t really there to lighten the mood.
As I walked up the stairs to the door, I saw a man on the sidewalk next to stairs, holding the hand of a small child. “Please,” he said as I passed by, “I’m from Venezuela.” The man in the hat welcomed us in.
The cocktails looked good. The elegant wooden bar was covered with an impressive variety of fruits, herbs, and other fresh ingredients. I drank water. I put some bills in my shirt pocket, hoping to buy my way out of guilt when I left. But the man was gone, and rest of the Venezuelans, and their children, were also gone from the streets by that hour.
So, how was Cartagena? It was beautiful. It was fun. It was complicated.
OK, that’s 1500 words. Time for you to get back to work! There’s more Cartagena and surrounds coming very soon, and after that, yet another completely different region of dynamic Colombia to tell you about. Stay tuned!