www.ambiente.us  MAY MAYO 2008

TRAVELLOG: Cartagena On My Mind           
by Herb Sosa

For those of us that enjoy a mix of
living history, amazing photo ops,
charming people, tons of trinkets,
interacting with people and cutting
edge modern architecture,
Cartagena offers a more
affordable and enjoyable
alternative than some comparable
global cities.

On a recent trip to Cartagena Colombia
with my partner & mother, the first thing
we noticed was the heat - humid, thick
heat.  A quaint airport much like any
Caribbean city, with a 10 min. drive to
our oceanfront hotel offered us a
window seat to a potpourri of music,
smells of great foods, facades
sun-kissed with color, culture and
tradition. Cartagena de Indias
(its official name) has been an important port on the Caribbean
since it was founded in 1533, when gold and silver left the port
bound for Europe, pirates regularly and relentlessly looted the city,
and a walled fort grew to protect the Spaniards booming shipping
and slave trade.  Once the riches dried out, the Spanish tried to
keep Cartagena happy and afloat economically by naming it the
official port of entry and trade for all slaves coming to the new
colonies in America.

Its history is clear in every face, brick and artifact.

Largely a city dedicated to tourists who come to enjoy its history, sights, people & weather, Cartagena de
Indias offers it colonial city, the modern city and the fashionable seaside resort of Colombia's second port.  
Cartagena's newer areas, Bocagrande and El Laguito, on the peninsula facing the Caribbean, have become
a hot & stylish area for upscale hotels, condos, restaurants and shops.  As beaches go, this one
disappointed -  with its less than sparkling sand and lack of people watching - but the sunsets, live music,
vendors selling trinkets, impromptu dancing,  nearby casinos & hotspots may make up for it.
We stayed at
Capilla Del Mar, and oceanfront hotel built in 1976.  Currently going thru renovations, Capilla
Del Mar offers a rooftop pool overlooking the beach from the 22nd floor, amazing views from every room, a
great comp. breakfast & large clean rooms for about $130 US.

The colonial charm of Cartagena's old walled city, the Ciudad Amarullada, with tiled roofs, balconies and
flower-filled courtyards, horse-drawn carriages, and plenty of shopping and eating is a testament to a
successful historic district that is also thriving as a viable community today.

Cartagena has a population of 1,240,000 in its Metropolitan Area, and 1,090,000 in the city (2005 Census),
being the fifth largest urban area in Colombia. Founded in 1533 by Spaniard Don Pedro de Heredia, and
named after the port of Cartagena in Spain's Murcia region, it was a major center of early Spanish settlement
in the Americas which had impressive development in the XVIII century as the de facto capital of the
Viceroyalty of New Granada and as the main hub of commerce and transportation in the late viceroyal era,
situation that is reflected in its alternative capitality today.

Cartagena's colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1984.

Shopping, sightseeing, drinking and eating consumed most of our trip.  Reservations to the colonial cities
most famed restaurant, La Vitrola, are a must and well worth it, but go on instinct and take a chance at some
of the less traveled restaurants, like Las Palmas, Torreluna, or one of many excellent ones.

Souvenirs and especially negotiating their prices, is everywhere in Cartagena.  Street vendors selling every
kind of repro art, necklaces, hats, cell minutes - anything they can - are constantly following you and offering
their wares.  We brought home about 40 rosaries, Botero ceramics & paintings and keychains for our entire
family tree, and more local jewels than the Spanish ever took back home, just because we couldn't say no to
the vendors, and kept buying and buying... As annoying as they can get, they are polite and at least are trying
to earn an honest living.  The shops are full of great stuff, a lot of pre-Colombian inspired artifacts, and great
deals on Emeralds, but be sure to go to a reputable shop for your larger purchases, and LEARN YOUR
CURRENCY before you buy or tip anywhere.  It is really easy to get confused and either under tip or pay
double for stuff.  Do your math first.  Exchange rates are about 1.65% to US Dollars.  This means that
100,000 pesos equals about $60 US.

For much of our trip we were followed around by Jeimer & Jhon, two teenage street
soda vendor brothers who smiled their way into my mom's heart and quickly became
our unofficial escorts around the city.

For about 30,000 pesos each
we had escorts throughout,
all the water we required for
a hot sunny days walk, trivia
about the city, and a willingness
to please and provide our
every need & request.
Most of all, we helped out two
hard working, decent kids,
felt safe and provided for, and
made great friends we will not
soon forget.

Colonial Era - 1533-1717
Cartagena de Indias was founded
the 1st of June, 1533 by Spanish
commander Pedro de Heredia, in
the former seat of the indigenous
Caribbean Calamarí village.  The
fame of this prosperous city turned
it into the plunder site for pirates and
thieves; the legions for the country’s
defence soon became insufficient,
which is why the kings of Spain
decided to approve the construction
of castles, forts, and walls that
surrounded the city.

In order to resist these attacks,
during the 17th century the Spanish
Crown hired the services of
prominent European military
engineers to carry out the construction
of fortresses, which are nowadays
one of Cartagena's clearest signs of
identity. This construction took 208 years, and
ended with some eleven kilometres of walls
surrounding the city, the San Felipe de Barajas
Castle, named in honor of Spain's King Philip
IV, constructed to repel land attacks, equipped
with sentry boxes, buildings for food and weapons
storage, underground tunnels; the San Sebastián
de Pastelillo Fort, in the neighborhood of Manga;
the San Angel battery in Tierra Bomba; the San
Fernando fort and the San Jose battery in Bocachica,
located strategically at the entrance of the bay to
entrench the pirate vessels that attacked the city.
In the 18th century, the Vaults (bobedas), now
housing a series of tourist shops, were constructed
by the Spanish engineer Antonio de Arévalo.

Cartagena was a major trading port, specially for
precious metals. Gold and silver from the mines in
New Granada and Peru were loaded in Cartagena
on the galleons bound for Spain via Havana. Cartagena
was also a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz (México)
were the only cities authorized to trade with black people.
The first slaves arrived with Pedro de Heredia and they
worked as cane cutters to open roads, in the desecration
of tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinu, and in the
construction of buildings and fortresses. The agents of the Portuguese company Cacheu distributed human
'cargos' from Cartagena for mine exploitation in Venezuela, the West Indies, the Nuevo Reino de Granada
and the Viceroyalty of Perú.
On 5 February 1610, the Catholic Monarchs established from Spain the Inquisition Holy Office Court in
Cartagena de Indias by a Royal Decree issued by King Philip II. The Inquisition Palace, finished in 1770, is
still there with its original features of colonial times. When Cartagena declared its complete independence
from Spain on November 11, 1811, the inquisitors were urged to leave the city. The Inquisition operated
again after the Reconquest in 1815, but it disappeared definitely when Spain surrendered six years later
before the patriotic troops led by Simón Bolívar.

In March 1741 the city endured a large-scale attack by British and American colonial troops led by admiral
Edward Vernon, who arrived at Cartagena with a massive fleet of 186 ships and 23,600 men against only 6
Spanish ships and 3,600 men, in an action known as the Battle of Cartagena de Indias. After weeks of
intense fighting, the siege was repelled by the Spanish and native forces led by commander General Blas
de Lezo, who inflicted heavy casualties on the English troops. This victory prolongued Spain's control of the
Caribbean waters, which helped secure its large Empire until the 19th century.

For more than 250 years, Cartagena was part of the Spanish Crown. On November 11th, 1811, Cartagena
declared its independence, and began another chapter in its history that has been anything but easy, its title
‘The Heroic City’ is well earned and reflects the life of the city.

Modern Design
Cartagena has experienced heavy urban development in recent years, particularly with the construction of
new skyscrapers. There are currently over 40 high-rises under construction.  Elegant, caribbean in flavor and
detail, mixed with a worldly sleek urban glass & steel attitude, Bocagrande and El Laguito offer an incredible
and affordable collection of hotels, shops and condos.

Private guards, tourism & traffic police are everywhere, but we never felt uncomfortable
or in a police state.  Quite the contrary.

Police & guards seem to keep a balance of safety for locals & toursits alike, and have been instrumental in
Cartagenas success as a Colombian tourist destination, while other regions are feared by foreigners for
their much publicied kidnappings, guerilla fighting and crime.  We walked everywhere, took taxis, asked for
directions and shopped with no concerns, following common sense precautions as in any city.

If you are a guy looking for female company, you have your pick of
bars, discos ans simply friendly locals strolling the streets,
especially in the colonial area.  Bars are on every corner, very
inviting and tourist friendly, and you will always find flirtatious,
pretty  women and someone who speaks English.  Smiling,
being courteous and hand signals go a long way here.  A Gay
community or nightlife however, was nonexistant or simply not
visible. The two bars we had been told about - Lincoln Road &
Via Libre - were not there or closed for the season, and hotel
personnel & cabbies were not flowing with LGBT info, either.
Our outings consisted of local cafes, bars, fancy restaurants
and the required pilgrimage to the Hard Rock Cafe.  Most bars
& discos close at midnight or 2am on weekends, but you find
an occasional late night bar open past that.

We did feel totally comfortable walking together everywhere,
but other than the occasional obvious cluster of gay male
tourists, nothing!  Dont confuse the men, who will stare you
down as if to cruise.  This is a very latino thing, and is more
about courisity about you than desire or sexual passion, but
you might just get lucky.  Be subtle, non threatening and have
a back up escape plan.

Must Sees
Casa de Marques Valdehoyos, on Calle Factoria, is a
good place to begin your explorations of the old city. This
house exemplifies old Cartagena, and the tourist office inside
offers maps and information.
Museo de Oro y Arquelogua on the Plaza Bolivar, has a good collection of gold and pottery of local culture.
Also on the plaza, the Palacio de la Inquisicon is a fine example of colonial architecture. Behind the
charming facade, a museum displays instruments of torture from the Spanish Inquisition, pre-Columbian,
colonial and independence-era art.
Cartagena's Cathedral, with its massive exterior, simple interior and fortress appearance was begun in
1575, partially demolished by Sir Francis Drake's cannons, and completed in 1602.
Iglesia de Santo Domingo on Calle Santo Domingo, which is little changed from colonial days, is the oldest
church in the city, and like the cathedral, was built to resist invaders.
Las Bovedas are dungeons initially built for military purposes and now house boutiques and tourist shops.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the largest of a series of fortresses built to protect the city from pirates.
A must-see is the tunnel system meant to facilitate supply and evacuation of the fortress.
Hotel Charleston Cartagena, a charming restoration of the first convent built in the colonial city in the XVII
century - Beautiful art, furnishings, courtyard, rooms & excellent staff.  www.hotelescharleston.com

Cartagena offered a charming, affordable and memorable vacation for my
mother, partner & I. Our Mother's Day week getaway was very special and will
offer many fun stories (and hours and hours and hours of video my mom took of
everything and everyone!) for all of us to relive at a moments notice.

Sister cities
Seville, Spain
Havana, Cuba
Coral Gables, Florida, United States
Miami, Florida, United States
Saint Augustine, Florida, United States
San Juan, Puerto Rico
Cancun, Mexico
Manila, Philippines

Copyright © Herb Sosa, Biblioteca Luis Angel Arango, wikipedia, cartagenainfo.com & AMBIENTE MAGAZINE.  
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