Ten years ago I was very close to coming here with a co-worker of mine, but as fate would have it, the trip never materialized. Yet I always had my sights set on visiting and finally here we were.
I knew a few things about the history of the city, and filled in the blanks with my online teacher, Wikipedia. This Spanish colonial town on the Colombian Caribbean coast would eventually become a launching pad for ships that would unload African slaves and then return to Spain with the riches of the New World – gold, silver, exotic birds and tropical fruits.
Unfortunately, the promise of such riches lured many and the area was rife with violence.
Pirates lingered around the nearby Caribbean islands, and barbarically attacked the city time and time again, unjustly pillaging everything the Spanish had worked so hard to rob from the natives of the land. 😉 Thus to protect the city from Sir Francis Drake (the most famous pirate of them all) and Company, and the occasional Portuguese and French fleet, the Spanish kings ordered a set of city walls and fortifications to be built. The projects took over 200 years to complete and cost the crown hundreds of millions of Spanish reals, a figure in the dozens of trillions in today’s dollar terms.
Legend has it that when King Charles III was informed of the costs of the project, he took out a telescope and shouted “This is outrageous! For this price, castles should be seen from Madrid.” Nonetheless, the expenses were justified considering that His Majesty, the Crown and his family lived for hundreds of years on the shoulders of the indigenous heathens.
All of this history does make for a spectacular city to be in however. Well-kept and refurbished, the city is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and as far as colonial architecture goes, it’s the best I have seen to date. The city’s inhabitants are a lively mix of Africans, Latinos, and tourists. There’s always great energy in the air, with salsa played loudly everywhere and just like a Havana Club commercial, people dancing in their houses, on the streets and wherever the opportunity presents itself.
The African descendants haven’t lost touch with their roots either and African dances were prominently performed throughout the city to the continuous beat of drums. I found the music to be beautiful and violent at the same time. The blacks seemed to be a very joyful people and despite their relative poverty, they hadn’t lost their smiles. After all, poor and free is better than poor and in chains.
The tourists on the other hand were a big mix of people which could be subdivided into the following categories: locals away for a weekend, North American couples, and Europeans looking for the odd recreational activities Colombia is well known for, and it’s beautiful women (not pointing a finger at the Italians). And of course, the Bears are in the mix.
Yes the Bears. After Machu Picchu and the three days of travel that followed, the Bears were looking to relax and soak in some of Cartagena’s atmospheric vibes. And that we did. Daily activities included pit stops at Juan Valdez, our coffee shop of choice, walks through the streets of the old city with its magnificent squares, buildings and walls, more Juan Valdez, and luncheons at Crepes and Waffles (Oh how I miss thee!).
The old city itself is a bit of a maze and we got lost countless times. Were it not for the splendid architecture on every corner, that experience would’ve gone south very soon. But the buildings are there, and the peddlers are there, and the shows are there, and the music is there, and the energy is there, and no matter how often you lose your bearings and keep going in circles, you’re still awestruck by the magnificence of the sights.
Often we dwelt on the walls of the fort, taking long strolls looking out onto the Caribbean sea (though admittedly, the waters are not of the same calibre as in Aruba). Sitting and sipping an overpriced cocktail at the famous Café del Mar, while listening to ear pleasing tunes, rounded out the night.
Cartagena was very good to us, and we’d have spent much more time there, were it not that beautiful Colombia has so much more to offer!