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Travelogue – Cartagena, Colombia

“You’re taking your 8-year old to Colombia” people said. Well Colombia isn’t the dangerous gang infested place it used to be, and indeed Cartagena never really was, an historic north coast oasis away from drug fuelled murders and kidnapping.

It was this time a year ago I was looking at some places to get a quick getaway for a week, and Colombia kept coming back to me, so despite some other people’s reservations we did it, and it was great.

Cartagena is for the adventurous, the history buff, the coffee lover, the romantic. The walled city is full of majestic churches and palaces, picturesque balcony-lined streets and lively plaza’s.

Founded by the Spanish in 1533, although archaeological evidence shows people have lived in the area since 4000 BC. Cartagena was the first Spanish colony on the South American continent.

Originally known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, it served as an important trade route between the Americas and Europe. In the 16th century, trade was primarily Colombian gold and Peruvian silver. Then at the beginning of the 17th century, included the slave trade from Africa as well. Unfortunately, over the years, over one million captive African slaves were brought through Cartagena to work in gold mines, on sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches, and large haciendas or other domestic work.

Cartagena shifted regularly between independence and Spanish control during the 19th century, and was then largely ignored by Spain and fell into economic decline, but this did mean that the old city remained mostly intact through the 20th century and even during the worse of the countries drug wars during the 1980’s and 90’s stayed pretty ring-fenced from all of it’s fellow people’s troubles. UNESCO made it a World Heritage site in 1984.

We stayed for a week, and didn’t stray too far from the The Centro (Old City), and the surrounding Las Murallas (stone ramparts), that took two centuries to build but still stand impressively and they and the magnificent two-story casas altas (tall houses) are a focal meeting point for families and couples particularly the stretch that runs parallel to the Caribbean Sea.

The Centro is where most of the cities sights and hotels are located. Organized in a easy to navigate grid system, bursting with bustling squares.

The best way to get to know most cities is to get lost in them, Cartagena is most definitely a walking city. At its heart is the Parque de Bolivar, a shady park where people sit and eat fresh fruits. There is a statue of Simon Bolivar, who liberated many South Americans countries from Spain, including Colombia.

Diagonal to the park is the austere and large Catedral Basilica Menor, and opposite it the historic Palacio de la Inquisicion, once the headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition. Plaza de Santo Domingo also has a pretty park and outdoor acts compete for attention.

If cathedrals are your thing, the smaller but probably prettiest church to see is Iglesia de Santo Toribio de Mogrovejo complete with an English cannonball inside and beautiful exterior. If it’s a museum you are after the former monastery Claustro de San Pedro Claver is open every day.

The weather was hot in August (mid 30c) and there are as you can imagine plenty of drinks stops and there are plenty of cafes serving Colombia’s biggest export coffee. The lesser known local beer is pretty good too with many Colombian brewers offering a good variety.

Fresh fruit is wonderful here, and this from someone who eating a banana is a rare treat. Pineapple, mango, papaya. So good. Then the more local tropical ones of dragon fruit, prickly pear, granadilla and the prehistoric looking guanabana. There are smoothie and fruit places all over and the creamy, fruity paletas are to die for. The queen of all paletas is at Le Paletteria (above). The display a work of art. The choices and taste incredible.

Beyond the walls of the Old City is a much more blatantly poor city, it’s sprawls out in no known recognizable design and homes around 1m people. As we always do, we took the hop on, hop off red bus to explore more of Cartagena.

We stopped first in Getsemani, an area we explored on foot, so I will come back to that, then Manga, a mostly residential area reached by bridge. We passed the busy Torre del Reloj (clock tower) and then onto the historical highlight of the tour, which was Castillo de San Felipe, the largest remaining fort in the New World.

A very imposing castle high on a hill with a myriad of tunnels and secret passageways. It has sat here for almost 400 years. Unfortunately it was also a nest for hawkers and urchins and I had a bit of a rumpus with a couple over the change they never gave me for a bottle of water. The local policia sorted it, and my daughter was unharmed, nor taken as ransom….

Once that was settled we went back through the entrance to the old city, called San Francisco Entrada a la Ciudad Amurallada, which despite the distinguished name looks like a very large concrete doorway.

Then it was onto Bocagrande (photo), the kind of downtown financial area of the city with many skyscrapers. Bocagrande lies out on a peninsula and looks and feels a million miles from the Old City. There’s shopping, large hotels, casinos and as well as some of the best restaurants in the city. Bocagrande also has the nearest beaches, and surf, but if it’s beaches you want avoid these grey-sanded ones and head out instead to Islas del Rosario or Baru.

The bus took us past some Cartagena’s most expensive residences and back to the Old City via a nose at the naval base.

Just outside of the walled fortress is Getsemani, a once crime-ridden neighbourhood but now hip and cool with the busy but pleasant Parque del Centenario at it’s epicentre. Getsemani was a lively place and we had a very nice dinner at family-friendly Demente. Excellent tapas and pizza’s.

That was probably our best meal, but our most fun night was at Cande. Local Carib-Cartagena cuisine in a lovely setting with the added bonus of high-energy folk dancers.

Breakfasts were our thing though, which we had at our wonderful hotel, the Sofitel Santa Clara. The breakfast buffet was a show each morning. Endless tasty foods, juices and good coffee. Plus a daily appearance from a lovely palenqueros, ladies colourfully dressed with stupendously large bowls of fruit balanced on their heads. Then almost in one movement they bow down take a machete-sized knife and carve open amazing fruits to taste. Breakfast’s were looked forward to.

The Sofitel Santa Clara was originally built as a convent in 1621, and is perched on the northerly edge of the ancient city walls. The hotel is on a tiny side street and you enter through a large marble archway into a charming historical cloister. Tropical plants and crowded vines surround the open courtyard inside.

The convent’s original crypts are still there to explore and the pool is welcoming and hosted by just the best dressed pool boys. There’s a spa and incredible uninterrupted sea views from the second floor terrace. Then at night live music hums and cocktails are shaken at the hotel bar, El Croco. We chose well.

I always like to snuff out the local football team. Real Cartagena play in the 2nd tier of the Colombian league and are well supported. Estadio Jaime Moron Leon is about 5 miles outside of the Old City. Baseball is big in Cartagena as is Tejo, a traditional throwing game that you will see set up in squares and parks.

Incidentally the Colombian national team play all their home games in the close by port town of Barranquilla.

Cartagena is a place to drop all sightseeing routines, put the guidebook down and instead just stroll through the Old City day and night. Soak up the sensual atmosphere in this most preserved of historic places, hot and lively streets of centuries-old colonial stone walls, cobbled alleys, balconies covered in bougainvillea, and multi-coloured houses with huge doors, and the most ornate door knobs. We had to buy one, they were something else, just like Cartagena.

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