The main gate of Cartagena’s old city.
Friends of ours recently returned from a Caribbean cruise, which included a brief stop and a whirlwind bus tour of Cartagena, Colombia. Besides being shocked at the widespread poverty, they weren’t able to see much during the tightly controlled tour, and weren’t even able to go shopping for emeralds. This was such a complete contrast to our own pleasant experience of a few years ago that I decided to write about it.
Cartagena is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, far removed both physically and psychologically from the jungle and cocaine labs, but it has paid a steep price just for being part of a country that is now too dangerous for tourist travel. This article offers a glimpse of the way this formerly safe and popular destination used to be and, hopefully, will once again become some day.
Seeking cultural variety as well as winter warmth, in 1989 my wife and I spent two weeks in this walled and fortified city of 850,000, from which treasure-laden galleons long set sail for Spain. We found history, beauty, and friendly residents who called themselves “the happy people” and who often asked us to let them practise their English. Most importantly, we moved about freely day and night with never a fear for our safety.
Let’s begin with a brief look at Cartagena’s turbulent history. It was founded in 1533 by Heredia, a conquistador searching for the mythical “El Dorado”. Its location on a huge bay made it a natural seaport from which to ship gold, emeralds and other plunder to Spain. Of course, the “Spanish Main” was a favorite target of pirates, including Sir Francis Drake, who almost demolished the city in 1586. Tired of countless attacks, the Spanish undertook in the 1600s to build a massive wall some 40 feet (12 meters) high and 50 feet (15 meters) thick all around the city. They added a huge chain across the harbour mouth and a series of impregnable forts, the largest of which is the enormous San Felipe. Eighteen years in the building, it was completed in 1657, and is Latin America’s largest. The forts and massive walls still stand.
The expense was justified militarily in 1741, when British Admiral Vernon (“Old Grog” himself), leading an enormous fleet and invasion force, was unable to capture the city after a siege lasting over half a year. (This earned Cartagena the title of “The Heroic City”.) Nothing could ever justify the human cost of building the defences, though: they were built by African slaves, who were simply worked to death, then dumped unceremoniously into the harbour. A guide told us the number of dead is believed to have been as high as 40,000. A few managed to escape, and their descendants may sometimes be seen selling fruit on the beaches.
Boca Grande’s fine beach.
Thanks to Simon Bolivar Colombia became independent in 1819, but apart from some new houses built outside the walls, not much happened in Cartagena until the advent of modern tourism. Then “Boca Grande”, a hook-shaped spit outside the “old city” began to fill with fine hotels and restaurants, as word about the city’s attractions, fine beach and excellent climate spread to North America and beyond. By the mid-1980s it was a popular winter destination for Canadians, and service industry workers were scrambling to learn English. So what is there to attract tourists?
The entire old city inside the walls is both a chronicle of history and a masterpiece of Spanish colonial architecture ecclesiastical, administrative, and residential. It’s fairly compact, so you can do a general orientation tour on foot in one day. It is often called “the city of balconies”, for a balcony of unique design graces the second floor of almost every building. Old colonial buildings such as the Customs House are still in use. Monuments abound in parks and squares depicting, among others, the linguistically-gifted Indian maiden who acted as interpreter for the Spanish “visitors”, Columbus, Bolivar, the one-armed one-legged Don Blas de Lezo whose tiny band of soldiers held off Admiral Vernon’s attack, and a famous Colombian poet.
There are several churches, most notably the austere cathedral (1575) and the Church of San Pedro Claver (1603). He was a Spanish Jesuit who worked tirelessly against the wishes of those in power, to bring better living and working conditions to the African slaves. He became the New World’s first Saint. It comes as a bit of a shock to view his skeleton permanently housed in a glass case built into the main altar. The church’s garden is a tranquil place where visitors may find both peace and beauty .
Nearby is the building (1706) which was once the palace of the dreaded Inquisition. Today it is a museum, displaying artifacts of military life as well as torture chambers, instruments and tastefully done illustrations. We found the “witch’s scale”, suspended from the ceiling, particularly interesting. On one side its beam holds a chair on which the woman accused of witchcraft would be placed; on the other side there is a hook on which The Bible would be hung. If the woman proved to be heavier than the Bible, it was considered “proof” of her guilt. Needless to say, there was never a shortage of women to be drowned or burned at the stake!
Good hotels abound in the Boca Grande area. We stayed for two weeks at the Capilla del Mar, a four-star establishment right on the beach. Breakfast was included, and the total cost for our flight from Toronto and the hotel was less than CDN$1,000 each. The first day we took the city tour, and were pleasantly surprised when they took us to a gem factory, where they didn’t try to sell us anything but instead gave us a short course on spotting the differences between genuine and fake emeralds. (The Chamber of Commerce didn’t want any visitors being sold phony merchandise.) We eventually shopped at a well-known international jeweler whose selection of emeralds was impressive as well as affordable.
We loved Cartagena! We would walk along the shady and surprisingly clean streets or visit the old city in the morning, soak up the sun on the beach and then have a siesta in the hot afternoon, before dining on inexpensive shrimp and other fish at the fine local restaurants in the evening. One day we took in the panorama from the top of nearby La Popa hill, where there is a pilgrimage shrine which the Pope has visited. Another time we toured the enormous San Felipe fortress, a 70-cannon masterpiece of defensive architecture which has never been captured. We took an evening tour around the old city by horse-drawn carriage, and sailed around the enormous bay on a small two-master. We didn’t try the casino, but another resident of our hotel won US$15,000 at roulette there one evening. Everyone we met was friendly, and curious to learn about life in our northern nation.
Gloria under sail.
(Source: Corel Gallery)
Of course we stocked up on Juan Valdes’ finest product, at about 50 cents a pound. We were surprised to discover that, although their coffee is terrific, Colombian rum is anything but. In contrast, in neighbouring Venezuela they make some of the world’s finest rum, but their coffee is awful. Go figure! Our only regret was that, although we often saw the pride of the Colombian Navy the magnificent three-masted barque Gloria at anchor, we never saw her under sail. (I’ve included a picture from Corel’s Gallery Collection to show what I mean).
I hope you have enjoyed this glimpse of the beautiful city which captured our hearts. We hope that the time will come and soon when it will once again be possible to spend a relaxing holiday among safe and happy people in Cartagena.
If you want more information about this area you can email the author or check out our South America Insiders page.