Like many tourists, we chose to stay in and devote most of our visit to the Old Town area, surrounded by the ancient walls and the sea. As we explored the Old Quarter, we ran into block after block contained beautifully detailed, fully restored, colorfully painted 300-500 year old buildings, many with bougainvillea and other colorful plants cascading over the intricately carved, ornate balconies, grand churches and cathedrals, and all types of shops (ranging from expensive tourist boutiques to shops for everyday necessities and food stalls offering sinfully tantalizing snacks and meals. It also had a number of pieces of public art on display, including a Botero nude (in a church plaza, nonetheless) a and a number of wonderful, Eduardo Carmona sheet-metal sculptures that took humorous and poignant looks at everyday Cartagena street life. We also saw plenty of arts and crafts galleries and a number artists producing their own works (some of which were quite nice) in plazas and on sidewalks.
We felt that Cartagena had all the charms of Havana in a much more compact area, but was much more fully restored than Havana and without the overt poverty. And, unlike in Havana, Tom was able to get a choice of Cuban, Columbian, Honduran and Costa Rican cigars, all of which he was intent on sampling. The only really drawback that we could find was the space, or more accurately, the lack of space. Sidewalks, which are already narrow, are partially occupied by vendors. Pedestrians, of whom there are plenty–especially those days in which a cruise ship is in town–have nowhere to go but the narrow streets. Unfortunately, they must share these streets with cars and taxis that believe they have exclusive ownership of the streets.
The evenings are even more enjoyable. With cars largely gone from Old Town Streets, people filled the streets, tables occupied the plazas and musicians played on many street corners. And this does not even include the music (much of it recorded, but some live) emanating from most restaurant and lounge doorways. The music, a combination of restrained Latin, popular U.S 50s, contained a bit of salsa. This made it almost mandatory for us to stop for after-dinner drinks, just to catch couple music sets before retiring to our hotel. We did, however, pass on one of the more popular forms of evening entertainment–a ride on the “chiva”–one of a large fleet of brightly lit party buses that ply the city and offer riders a virtually unlimited supply of rum drinks and beer.
Among the more interesting plazas and buildings we explored are:
- The City Walls, all 11 km of them, contain 21 bastions, 7 forts, 13 batteries and 3 breakwaters,were constructed in stages between 1586 and 1796.
- The Clock Tower Gate, which marks the traditionally primary entrance into the city, originally contained a drawbridge, rather than a clock tower. Plaza de La Paz, to which it opens, had been the site of slave auctions at which 14 slave boats per year auctioned their 300-person contents. The palisades lining the plaza became a center in which snack merchants gathered to sell wares to commuters entering and leaving the city. While this tradition continues, today’s snacks are virtually all sweets and candies. The palisades is also home to Donde Fidel, a famous Salsa bar that, when we first saw it due to the downpours we ran into, was under about two feet of water, with tables and chairs floating above the floor.
- Plaza de La Aduana, the current location of the city government, which used to be Ocean Plaza (to to its original proximity to the piers) is where ships paid duties. It was also the site of Galleon Fairs, in which the newest items brought from Spain were first displayed to merchants and the public. Such fairs are among the forerunners to current trade shows.
- San Pedro Claver church is named after a priest who was a foremost champion for slaves and an effective advocate for their rights and freedom.
- Crepes and Waffles, a large Colombian restaurant chain created from an idea proposed in a woman’s college thesis, employees only unwed mothers.
- Plaza Bolivar, originally designed as the city’s main plaza (Plaza Mayor) was avoided by most people due to the building located at the. Head of the square–the Palace of the Inquisition and its neighboring building which housed the dungeons and torture chambers. It has since been renamed I remembrance of the liberator of the city and all of Spanish South America. The palisades on another side of the square later became the Arches of the Scribes to service the needs of illiterate citizens. The palisades also devote a section of its floor to pictures of each of the nation’s Miss Colombia winners, a pageant which is still held in very high regard in this country.
- Santa Domingo Church, founded in 1548, is the oldest continuing operating church in the city. While its exterior is rather plain and unsymmetrical (a second planned tower was never built), it’s interior has a beautiful baroque alter. It is also home to a crucifix to which is attributed all types of improbably miracles and feats of legend. It’s plaza is home to a Fernando Botero nude sculpture to which the church vigorously objected, and at night is filled with restaurant tables, people and music.
- Santa Clara Hotel, which was originally a convent into which disreputable and troublesome girls were sent into isolation, never to again leave the confines of the convent and its farm. It contains a crypt, still open to the public, in which many skeletons were found, including one of a woman with flaming red hair around which a famous Nobel prize-winning Gabriel Gomez Marquez novel was based.
A Stroll Through Getsemani
This neighborhood, less than a five minute walk to Old Town’s Clock Tower Gate, is a largely residential neighborhood that is also within the city walls and retains many traditional buildings. Although the neighborhood is less restored and more laid back than its sister neighborhood, it is undergoing a renovation boom, with many of the still unrestored buildings being worked on. While the buildings are smaller than those of Old Town, they are just as colorful. And the neighbors are adding additional color. Blank walls are often covered with murals and trees in some of the plazas and parks are hung with colorful ornaments. Residents of one alleyway have gone further. While each building is already a different color, the alley is spanned by hundreds of strings from which hang small, partially inflated plastic bags of multiple colors. The plazas also host a number of the quixotic metal sculptures from the same artist that has created many of those in Old Town.
The neighborhood is anchored by two big public spaces. Centennial Park, on the west end, offers a way to get away from it all with its lawns, trees, benches, historic statues and pretty pool. The east, is anchored by a new convention center and soon, a large plaza that is still under construction. All this development is, as discussed in our blog on Our Cartagena walking tour, a mixed blessing for the neighborhood. With all the neighborhood improvements, renovation and the building of the convention center, the neighborhood is being rapidly gentrified. A number of boutique hotels, including the Allure Chocolat at which we stayed are already being built and four large luxury hotels have been approved and new high-end restaurants, such as Red Knife, are opening. While this is good for well-to-do residents and tourists, less affluent residents are increasingly being priced out of their homes and the market.
The City Beyond the Walls
We also ventured beyond the walls on two occasions: one to visit the high-end, high-rise section of Bocagrande, the other to explore a dramatic slice of the city’s history by exploring Castillo de San Felipe.
Bocagrande and Its Beaches. A neighborhood a few kilometers outside the city walls, is lined by beaches and filled with gleaming lay modern hotels and residential high rises. It is home of many of the city’s expats and the preferred resort area of the millions of Latin American vacationers who come to lounge on the continent’s Caribbean beaches and gamble at its casinos. (North American visitors tend to stay in the historic, atmospheric Old Town). While its streets are lined with hotels, condos and touristy mercados (markets, or collections of small shops), the real draw is the beach–large and pretty and, at least when we were there, home to the granddaddy of all sandcastles.
Castillo de San Felipe, a Proud Slice of Cartagena History. This 16th-century fortress tops a hill overlooking the city and its harbor. It is primarily known from its critical role in the 1741 Battle of Cartagena de Indias when four Spanish ships and 2,600 Spanish soldiers and local recruits held off a British naval and land assault by 150 ships and more than 33,000 men. The Cartagenians were helped by a long standoff by which its outer harbor batteries held off the British ships long enough for the fort to be reinforced and for the British troops to suffer from, hunger exhaustion and mosquito-borne disease. In the end, however, the design and strength of the fort–the largest Spanish fort in the New World–and its men did most of the work. They ended up sinking dozens of Britain’s most formidable warships, imposing more than 10,000 casualties and dooming Britain’s efforts to offset Spain’s dominance of South America. Many historians, in fact, believe that if England had won the battle, today’s South Americans may well be speaking English instead of Spanish, and be primarily Anglican, rather than Catholic.
Although the fort fell into disrepair after Cartagena won its independence, it has been faithfully reconstructed, complete with battlements, buildings and hundreds of meters of tunnels which visitors are able to fully explore. The history of and details about the fort, as well as an overview of the battle, it’s commanders and their strategies are all laid out in a very interesting movie that is available in both Spanish and English versions.
There were, however, a number of areas we did not explore. Although the city has no traditional business district that houses large numbers of office workers, it does have many other residential areas, none of which we explored, other than during our ten minute taxi ride between the airport and our hotel.
The city is, however, surrounded by a number of islands that stretch out in the Caribbean. These islands, as emphasized by the many companies hawking tourist trips, offer swimming, snorkeling and diving opportunities, and in the case of one, a chance to see on of the restored bastions that held of the British in the above discussed Battle of Cartagena de Indias. But, after five days of snorkeling off the coast of Bonaire, we decided to pas on these opportunities.