Cartagena de Indias
Cartagena de Indias is one of the most important cities in Colombia’s history. During the 16th century, this coastal city was the main gateway between Spain and the rest of South America, prospering from its trade in gold, silver, gem, and slaves. Today it’s the country’s fifth largest and the most frequently visited. My parents and brother had been here a few years ago, and having raved about it, set our expectations high.
The day after returning from Ciudad Perdida, Riyad and I took a five hour bus from Santa Marta and arrived completely exhausted, covered with bug bites, and needing to relax. The city was in the midst of its annual film festival, the oldest of its kind in Latin America, showing free movies that were mostly subtitled in English. Our first movie was a zombie film “Juan de los Muertos” that provided a very comedic portrayal of life in Cuba. It was only in Spanish, but the zombies transcended the linguistic divide making the film easy to follow. We saw two other movies that were not nearly as entertaining.
We stayed inside the old city – a walled off section of the town filled with cobblestone streets, colonial buildings in various states of preservation, and beautiful flowers that draped over balconies.
Horse drawn carriages plied the streets and old men walked around with large thermoses selling small cups of coffee and tea.
Bakeries selling pan queso (bread with cheese) and empanadas seemed to be on every corner. Sidewalks were lined with vendors selling jewelry, hats, and other hand crafted items.
I attempted to practice my Spanish at every opportunity, but my accent didn’t make the cut – I was handed an empanada after ordering a limonada.
The food in town was outstanding. A typical Colombian meal, “comida corriente” consists of heaping portions of rice, beans, plantains, salads, and choice of chicken, fish, or beef. Comida corriente was delicious everywhere, but the restaurant next to our hotel managed to raise the bar. Its menu was limited to a few choices that were all done very well. Riyad and I ate fresh fish in a coconut sauce daily for less than the cost of a McDonalds combo meal.
Riyad and I thoroughly explored the many small narrow streets of the old town. We walked along and on top of the city wall, past many churches, gardens, former dungeons converted to shops, and slave markets turned into restaurants.
The Museum of the Spanish Inquisition at the Plaza de Bolivar featured an exhibit on the history of Cartagena as well as instruments of torture. Riyad developed his own “instrument of torture” by repeating the phrase “Nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition!”
Just outside the old city is Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fort ever constructed by the Spanish during the colonial era.
Built to protect the city’s gold trade and inhabitants from pirate attacks, the fort was used as defense for over 200 years. Mazes of underground tunnels connect the various parts of the fort and were used to move supplies. After walking around the premises in the hot sun, listening to the boring audio guide we had enough and returned to the old city.
An hour outside of Cartagena is the Totumo Mud Volcano. Standing only sixty feet tall, it looks more like a termite mound than a volcano.
Tourists shuttle in to soak in the mud and get a natural spa treatment. Riyad and I joined the throngs of tourists in visiting.
Cartagena comes alive at night. Many people walk around the city’s various plazas where jugglers, musicians, and dancers showcase their talents. Brightly colored party buses filled with loud drunken revelers roam the streets. We could hear them banging on pots and yelling every ten minutes.
Max, my parents’ tour guide from their Colombian visit, showed us around Cartagena, and took us to the best restaurant and then to a bar situated on the city’s historic wall. We’ve been to many cities with colonial architecture, but only Cartagena had professional dancers on floodlit platforms.
Riyad and I came into Cartagena with very high expectations. After a week of relaxing, eating and wandering around town, I can say we were not disappointed.