I had originally planned to make this post a joint discussion of Cartagena and San Basilio de Palenque, but as I was writing, I realized I have too much to say about each of those places to cram them into one post. So I will write a separate one later about Palenque. This post is dedicated to the city of Cartagena, named “Cartagena de Indias” in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, whose indigenous lover India Catalina helped him curry favor with the Calamari people who lived there before he decimated and defeated them. Catalina turned out to be an important person in Cartagena’s early development, and there is a monument to her in the historic center of Cartagena.
After all the mountain climbing and frenetic activity, it felt good to be ending our trip to Colombia in the beautiful Caribbean city of Cartagena. My hope had been that I’d get to see a lot of street music, dancing, and color, and those things, as well as an abundance of street vendors, were all over the place. Cartagena has a tropical climate, with temperatures hovering around 90 degrees all the time, so the A/C in our beautiful hotel was very much appreciated.
We landed in Cartagena on November 6, during the week of celebrations leading up to November 11, Independence of Cartagena City day—which the people call Carnaval—commemorating the day in 1811 when Cartagena was the first city in Colombia to declare independence from Spain. And in true Colombian style, the loud and happy festivities were in full force when we arrived, with the “heat” turning up each succeeding day. We left on November 9, so we weren’t there for the actual Independence Day, but we were there long enough to experience the full flavor of the celebration, people dressed in colorful costumes, dancing and music in the Plaza Bolivar, Cartagena’s main square. As the days passed, people began lighting firecrackers in the streets and spraying white slime out of their car windows and from storefronts randomly as you walked along. “Just be sure to duck if you see it coming,” we were warned. “And don’t worry about the loud bangs. Harmless.” People were outside, it was loud and raucous, and everyone was having a great time.
We did see a few dogs in Cartagena, but not as many as we saw in the other cities, perhaps because it was as hot outside for dogs as it was for us. But my favorite animals in Cartagena were the two Toucans who were permanent residents at our hotel. Because they were fed liberally by the hotel employees and guests, they were extremely friendly, and extremely adorable. The hotel sold stuffed versions of them, and of course I brought one home with me! (The stuffed version, that is!)
Landing in Cartagena, you see a skyline similar to that of Miami, but once inside the walled city, the colonial architecture stands out with its colorful pillars and tile roofs. Our guide Ismael was truly a fount of information and history, and it was fun trailing around with him for the three days we spent in Cartagena.
Because of its accessible location on the seacoast, the 16th century Spanish government declared Cartagena a major world port. They poured funds into the city, and important people moved themselves and their valuables there, so subsequently it became a favorite target of French and English pirates. After the city was pillaged multiple times, Spain began to build a stone wall around it to prevent the pirates from getting in. But during the construction of the wall, pirates continued to attack, sometimes very successfully. It took nearly 50 years to complete the wall, but even after that, the rich city continued to be set upon by pirates and foreign governments. (Perhaps some modern “rulers” should learn from this fiasco? Just saying…)
In fact, in 1741, the British Navy—with Captain Lawrence Washington, George Washington’s older brother, in the force—attacked Cartagena with 27,000 soldiers. But after a 67-day battle, the Cartagenans, with a force of only 4,000, won on their native soil. Seems the British didn’t learn their lesson about patriots dedicated to protecting their native land!
The Spanish also built a fortress, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas (in honor of King Philip IV), to accommodate eight batteries and a garrison of 20 soldiers and four gunners. It is made of a series of walls that form a pattern of bunkers, and has a complex maze of narrow, catacomb-like tunnels underneath.
We spent most of our time in Cartagena in the walled city—la ciudad amurallada. This area, the Centro Historico, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site. But we did venture outside the wall to visit the barrio of Getsemaní, which was once a district where tourists didn’t go because of the crime and crumbling architecture. It has experienced a renaissance over the past decade or so, and is now considered one of the hippest barrios in Cartagena, with hotels and nightclubs and beautifully renovated buildings, as well as some more of the extraordinary graffiti we saw in every city we visited.
Getsemaní has narrow streets and painstakingly refurbished colonial mansions, as colorful as the buildings in the walled city. The nightlife there is always vibrant, and particularly during Carnaval week, there was a great deal going on in Getsemaní.
Our last day in Cartagena, we had an incredible “field trip” to San Basilio de Palenque, the first freed African slave town in the Western Hemisphere. My final blog post about Colombia will be about Palenque and its amazing history.
Like the other places I visited in Colombia, Cartagena has left an indelible imprint on my heart and in my mind.