Hola Amigos, welcome to Cartagena de Indias! Cartagena sits on the northern coast of Colombia. Not to be confused with its namesake Cartagena, Spain, this vibrant city was a strategic military port that was vital to Colonial trade routes. Frequently under siege from pirates, the Old Town’s walled fortress is a reminder of a turbulent past. Originally settled in 1533, Spanish ships loaded with gold and slaves from indigenous tribes stocked up in Cartagena before the perilous journey back to the mother country. Cartagena remained under Spanish rule until it declared its independence in 1811. Cartagena’s Old Town still gives visitors a glimpse into what it was like in the 17th century. The architecture of the cathedrals, clock gate, plazas & fountains is exquisite. Streets are lined with creative metal sculptures, ornate greenery accents classical Iberian buildings and even the graffiti has an element of style. The modern city is a bustling metropolis of high rise offices and condominiums overlooking beautiful Caribbean beaches. Cartagena is now home to nearly a million people and is Colombia’s 5th largest city.
We entered Cartagena through the Cruise terminal. Not many cruise terminals around the world stand out, but this one was spectacular! In addition to the usual souvenir marketplace, Cartagena has an interactive open air zoo. As you leave the gift shop you are greeted by a flock of flamingos ambling across a fenced-in green pasture. A stroll down the walkway leads to encounters with wild parrots wrestling playfully in front of a charming water fountain. The complex has a caged ceiling tall enough to house magnificent soaring trees full of scores of richly colored birds. Families of well fed rabbits and peacocks seem to be quite happy in their ambassador roles. After snapping some pics of the gorgeous wildlife, we caught a taxi to the city centre for about $25 (make sure you negotiate a price before you take off). Once we arrived at the historic downtown we entered the city through their prestigious Clock Gate. The city was ideal for walking with only minimal traffic allowed. Vendors hawked their wares on foodcarts bursting with brightly colored fruits, fresh squeezed juices and coconuts. For $5 we enjoyed sipping out of jumbo machete chopped coconuts, two glasses of fresh squeezed orange juice and a bag of delicious strawberries.
The city abounds with old world artisan shops. Colombia is famous for their coffee and chocolate and we bought plenty to bring home to the family for Christmas. We bought an amazing painting from a talented artist peddling his treasures on a sunny sidewalk. Speaking of sun, Cartagena was cooking – located near the equator, we were treated to a 90-degree day in December. (Two gringos like us were tan in no time!) We enjoyed lunch at Ilsabe Café. A traditional dish of grilled whole fish with plantains & rice was quite a treat paired with a local Club Colombia cerveza. Our post lunch coffee was as good as it gets and put some pep in our step to continue our trek.
After combing the entire walled city, we explored the iconic seaside fort that protected the city for hundreds of years – this UNESCO World Heritage site is quite a contrast to the contemporary seaside resorts on the other side of town. Cartagena truly offers a diversity of eras and is truly a gateway port into South America. While Colombia as a whole may not have a sterling reputation for safety, Cartagena felt friendly and safe. It has blossomed into a popular cruise ship destination and we were quite pleased we were able to experience it – we only wish we had more time. Adios Cartagena – we’re missing the coffee and chocolate already!
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