The next stop on our whirlwind tour of Colombia was Cartagena de Indias (not to be confused with Cartagena in Spain), on the Caribbean coast. The heat and humidity hit us as soon as we exited the airport – a reminder that we are now truly in the tropics! Not only is the climate difference, but the culture is too – it has a far more Caribbean laid back vibe and much of the population is descendant from slaves brought by the Spaniards.
Cartagena is truly a city with split personalities – the old city, within the city walls, the peninsula of Bocagrande, Cartagena’s Miami Beach (no surprise this part of the city was built by Americans!) and then the other side of the city where most of the locals live (except for the very wealthy who are the only people who can afford to live within the old city walls and the Bocagrande area).
Cartagena was originally founded in 1533 on the site of a Carib settlement. A devastating fire in 1552 resulted in only brick, stone and tile being allowed in construction in the city. Within in a short space of time, the city became one of Spain’s main ports in the Caribbean and a store house for the treasures they had plundered from the South American continent before it was shipped back to Spain. This of course lead to it being a tempting target for buccaneers and pirates (including Sir Francis Drake) and it was in response to the constant attacks that the Spaniards built the 13km of stone walls around the city.
Within these walls, much of the old city has been loving preserved and is now a Unesco World Heritage site. This is the part of Cartagena that you see in the photos – the maze of cobbled streets and colourful buildings covered in Bougainvillea.
We stayed within the old part of the city, amongst the colonial churches, plazas, palaces and mansions and had plenty of time to stroll around the streets. Just when I thought I had seen the prettiest street, I would turn a corner and find one even prettier.
It was in Cartagena that I said goodbye to some of the people from week 1 – our guide had arranged a farewell dinner at a nice restaurant that he had not been to before. Given our experience, I am not sure he will try it again! We dubbed it the never-ending dinner and rightly so – 3 hours after ordering some of the group were still waiting for food! Now of course we had been warned about ‘Colombian time’ throughout the trip, and now we were on the coast, you apparently had to multiple that by ‘Caribbean time’.
It seemed that they could only cook a dish at a time and each dish was being cooked from scratch. On top of that, all the staff stopped cooking and serving to watch the performance of local music and dancing that had been arranged for our group that went on for 30 minutes! Based on the standard of this dinner, service everywhere else was amazingly fast lol.
The next day we had a free day to enjoy the city and I also took the opportunity to catch up on all those fun things like laundry which is often a challenge when you are constantly on the move. That evening welcomed a few new people to the group with a welcome dinner – which had much improved service compared to the night before.
Our guide had also arranged a horse and carriage ride through the old city to the restaurant which was a lovely way to see the city at night.
For our final day in Cartagena we had a local guide take us around some of the key sites and tell us about the city’s history. We started with the small Fuerte de San Sebastián Pastelillo, a small fort with a view across the river to the up market Bocagrande. Most of the fort is now a bar/club!
The next stop was the formidable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas which sits on a hill overlooking the city and is known as the greatest fortress ever built by the Spaniards in their colonies. Construction began in 1630 and was extended in 1762. The fort was large and it was hot, but that was nothing compared to the complex system of tunnels underneath the fort. Apparently, the tunnels were used for distribution of provisions and evacuation if necessary, but they were also filled with nooks and crannies which soldiers could hid and attack any enemy who managed to get in to the tunnel system. The tunnels were hot, dark, stuffy and sticky – somewhat like being in a steam bath!
From forts to markets and we went for a quick walk around one of the local markets – Mercado Bazurto. A labyrinth of stalls that sell pretty much anything – it was truly an insult on the senses – the heat, the smells, people shouting, music booming. It was here we were introduced to the joy of very small bottles of cold beer – just a perfect amount to cool down and drink it all before the beer gets warm 👍🏻.
To finish up our time in Cartagena we wandered through Parque del Centenario, small city park which is home to a sloth, a red squirrel and a couple of cotton topped tamarins. Apparently, someone put them there as they really are in the middle of an urban area, but they looked happy and healthy enough and I was very excited to see them – especially the sloth which was on my list of must sees.