Cartagena - A trip in time
January 1, 1970
by Paola Fuentes Corcione
“Alegria, alegria con coco y anìs
vengo del barrio de Getsemanì”
Ever heard those lines? if not, you should probably plan a trip to Cartagena, the heroic city located in the caribbean coasts of Colombia. Lately it has become a very popular destination for the european and north american tourists, but not only for them, every year more and more people become intrigued and subsequently fascinated by ‘la fantastica’, a city full of colour and light that despite it’s rapid growth in the past decades, has kept it’s spirit, culture and tradition and is willing to share it with as many people as possible.
Whereas most coastal cities are located along a coastline or a peninsula, Cartagena is special.
It is a fascinating mix of bays, canals, islands, peninsulas and hills that let you not only see the sea wherever you turn your head but it also allows you the magical experience of watching the sun rise and set in the water, watching it turn different shades of violet and pink in the morning and then dyeing it a deep crimson red just before nightfall.
The city is equipped with an international airport, and arriving here is an experience in itself. The airport is located between the caribbean sea, a landmark hill called ‘cerro de la popa’ and the ‘Cienaga de la virgen’, a rather large salt water body with a smatter of mangrove islands. The landing strip is located 50 metres from the ocean, therefore when the plane is getting closer you get the feeling that you will fall in the water, but then suddenly…land!
Since the airport is located in the middle of the city, you need only take a taxi to get to your destination.
Historically, Cartagena was one of the first cities founded by the Spanish conquerors. It later on became one of the 2 most important slave ports in the caribbean. As the slaves eventually regained their freedom, they became a major part of the local population and alongside the Spanish descendants and the indigenous tribes that inhabited the zone, they created the culture, the gastronomy, the architecture and the music that lives on today.
WHERE TO GO
Whether you arrive in the morning or in the afternoon, the first place to visit is the historic old town. The old town consists of two of the first neighbourhoods in the city, ‘el Centro’ and ‘San Diego’, both surrounded by an 11 km long coral-stone wall that was built in the 16th century to help protect the city from pirate attacks.
The wall is mostly intact (except for a 1km chunk that was demolished by a former mayor to build a couple of streets) and by the most part you can walk over o around it.
Walking inside the old town is like being transported to an entirely different time and place. The houses are built in a particularly spanish style, most of them 2 or 3 stories high, with wooden balconies on the windows, clay rooftops and an inner patio, but what makes them so special are the different colours they have. Each house has a different one, from yellow to blue, orange to bright pink and even some white ones that look a bit out of place. Once you start walking, you’ll notice one particular detail: each street has a name. You’ll wonder why this is special considering most streets in the world have a name, well, the thing here is that the names of the streets tell a story, and in most cases is a particularly bizzarre story. One example is the ‘Calle tripita y media’ or ‘Tripe and a sock street’. It was given this name because a young poor girl used to live in this street and in order to survive she helped her parents by selling tripe on a small stand close to her home. It is said that one day her father was able to put apart some money to buy her a pair of socks and as she gladly started wearing them, people noticed and started calling the girl Tripita (which was her nick name) y media. this became a reference point and so the street was given this name. In any library in town you can find the books that explain each of the street names.
The further you walk into the old town, the ore amazing things you will be able to found. There are several different squares, all built next to a church, which was the spanish urban model, you will also find many places of interest in each of the squares such as:
- The church and house of San Pedro Claver: a museum dedicated to a Spanish missionary that dedicated his life to slaves.
- The inquisition palace: a museum dedicated to all the torture methods the spanish used in the witch hunting.
- The clock tower: a clock tower built on top of the wall with several old books and vinyl stands in the doors beneath it.
- The cathedral: as the name states it, the local cathedral that in recent years has been restored
The ‘bovedas’: formerly a place to store ammunition, nowadays is the perfect place to go buy souvenirs while enjoying a lovely breeze.
- The sweet’s portal: remember the first line of this article? ‘Alegria, alegria…’ ? well, alegria does not only mean happiness, it is also the name of a traditional sweet made out of popped millet, fried coconuts and anise, and you can find it here alongside many other cocadas and a variety of local sweets.
Once you have gotten acquainted with the climate and the old town you can venture to Getsemaní. This used to be the old slave neighbourhood. Nowadays it has become a very picturesque place. It still has the families from the old generations living there but it also has a large number of youth hostels, parks, small bars and restaurants. It is a fantastic place to visit in the late afternoon where you can sit in a quaint little caffe, have an ice cold coconut lemonade and enjoy the atmosphere.
There are several fantastic places to visit during the day, and for me, the best one is the San Felipe Fort.
This is the largest fort in the city and it was built, as were the walls, to help defend the city. Its many levels and tunnels create the right atmosphere for an adventure and if it doesn’t transport you to the past, it takes you back to your childhood when pretending to be a pirate was the best adventure. Once you reach the top you can enjoy a panoramic view of the entire city while eating a mango biche.
Other historical monuments you might want to visit:
- The 14 other smaller forts located around the city and their islands
- The India Catalina statue
- The convent on top of the hill
- The old cemetery
Cartagena is a large city, full of life and with an amazing history that has to be lived in order to be believed and that one article is not enough to explain. In my next one I’ll be giving a more touristic view of the city with the best bars and restaurants, the best beaches and daily trips to the neighbouring islands!