Cartagena – A hot and steamy love affair

24 Apr

Cartagena de Indias is the jewel of Colombia’s Caribbean coast. The sophisticated lady of the north. A destination overflowing with romantic notions and rich history. Larger than life stories of colonisation, slavery, piracy and rebellion ooze down the streets and wash around the city walls. The colonial city is so beautiful and well preserved you begin to wonder if you’ve stepped onto the set of a movie. Freshly painted mansions with wooden balconies drip with Bougainvillea. Mosaics of neatly laid cobble-stones lead to plazas filled with shady palm trees where church bells ring out in chorus. Rosy cheeked lovers wander in flip-flops to dine alfresco in the evening breeze and clip-clop past in horse drawn carriages. To add to a permanent feeling of well being around the city, year round blue skies and rich Caribbean waters make it feel like someone has flicked a switch and turned everything into high-definition. The word is out that this is fast developing into Latin America’s most seductive destination.

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In the past few years Cartagena has been going through a renaissance, typifying what is happening all over the country. Colonial buildings are being transformed into stylish boutique hotels, modern galleries attract cultured crowds, fusion restaurants keep foodies coming back for more and über cool fashionistas write their own rules in the style stakes. Cartagena is growing into the most popular holiday destination in the whole of Colombia and attracts visitors from around the world.

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Cartagena is a city with many faces and contrasts. The UNESCO World Heritage listed old town is perfectly preserved and lies within 13 kilometres of impressive stone fortifications. At the other end of the scale, the new town is a fast and frenetic working class hub. The Bocagrande with its tall skyscrapers, shopping malls and business district is more like Miami’s shores and attracts a jet set crowd. Whilst out at sea, designer yachts and wooden fishing boats bob side by side.

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The biggest draw card for tourists is the walled city where there are two historical areas – El Centro and San Diego. Both districts are bursting with sights.

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Beautiful cobbled alleyways, grand houses with inner courtyards, elaborate palaces and baroque churches with huge wooden doors. Look out for the hand crafted door knockers, used in many cases instead of numbers to identify houses, and resembling items pertinent to local life such as sea creatures.

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The old town can get a little packed out with linen and lofa clad cruisers following tour guides holding multicoloured umbrellas aloft, however, wander a little further off the well trodden paths and you’ll be rewarded with a peaceful plaza to yourself and a shady palm tree under which to enjoy creamy gelato.

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The weather in Cartagena is hot and steamy. By far the most humid place we visited in all of South America. The type of heat that wraps itself around you and makes every inch of your body drip with droplets of sweat. It has tourists charging from one small covering of shade to another and walking precariously close to shop entrances in the hope of feeling a flash of air con around the ankles. Opportunities like this are far too good for a South American to miss and throughout the old town men selling Panama hats do the rounds. They pray on tourists without a head covering who are willing to pay close to any price for that added protection in the scorching sun. As the days progress, we had to smile as little Panama hat wearing clones popped up all throughout the walled city.

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The main gateway into the old town, Puerta del Reloj, is painted canary yellow. In the colonial period this entrance was protected by a drawbridge and a moat but now the arches are all open and welcome tourists and locals in their hoards every day. Stepping through this gateway is like being transported to a fairy-tale kingdom.

Directly beyond is pretty Plaza de los Coches surrounded with painted buildings with grand wooden balconies and symmetrical arches.

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During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the port of Cartagena became South America’s largest slave trading port. This plaza was where slaves were bought and sold and from here they were moved across the Continent in their droves to be put to work in precious metal mines. Over two centuries so many slaves were shipped to South America that they outnumbered the indigenous population.

The black Africans brought with them new histories, religion, culture and music. Traditions of story telling, music and dance filtered into Colombian society and today the population is the second biggest in South America, behind Brazil. Black culture plays a prominent role in Cartagena to this day. Beautiful Mamas sell fresh tropical fruit from ceramic bowls balanced on their heads, fine dining restaurants serve up Creole-Colombian fusion and as dusk arrives, the sound of bongo drums or reggae fill the air in many of the city’s squares, charging the night with energy.

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The Spanish Conquistadors who arrived in the sixteenth century crowned Cartagena the Northern Gateway to South America and wasted no time in plundering a small fortune in gold, gems and precious metal to be transported back across the Atlantic to Europe in enormous wooden galleons. Word soon got out that Cartagena was a store house for these riches and pirates sailed from around the world to attack these shores. The most infamous of them was Sir Frances Drake who brought the city to its knees and only agreed not to burn it to the ground in exchange for a ransom of 10 million pesos (a small fortune at the time) which he transported back to England.

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The tall, thick stone walls encircling the old town were built following this devastating attack and took nearly 200 years to complete due to setbacks caused by ferocious storm damage and pirate attacks. Ironically the walls were only fully completed a quarter of a century before the Spanish were eventually driven out of South America, however, they have lasted the test of time, a compliment to the brilliant feat of engineering, in a time when heavy machinery wasn’t around.

The city grew steadily but many of the historic buildings took the brunt of this turbulent era. The central cathedral just off Plaza de Bolivar was partly destroyed by cannon balls fired from Drakes’ fleet and several years later another cannon ball fired from a sailing ship bearing skull and crossbones burst through the stained glass window of Santo Toribio Mangrovejo church with a full congregation inside (the cannon ball is still on display inside the church).

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Stone stairs lead to the top of the walls and it’s possible to navigate around a huge section of it whilst taking in a bird’s eye view of the old town. The skyscraper skyline of Bocagrande where business men zip along the coast in speed boats and a new wave of Cartegenos sip cappuccinos in hip coffee shops makes for a striking contrast to the old town.

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Along the walls, Cartagena’s past is ever present with watchtowers and cannons positioned towards the horizon. These days, you wont come across guards, however you may find coconut stands selling refreshing milk – the neatly stacked piles of green coconuts reminiscent of cannon balls.

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Gigantic fortresses were also built around the city for defensive purposes and Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas is the most impressive. By far the grandest and most impenetrable fortress ever built by the Spaniards in any part of the world, the complex is the size of a small village with high walls, thick stone battlements and a maze of underground passageways.

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Strategically positioned on top of San Lazaro hill, uninterrupted views of its enemies meant that the bastion was never taken despite numerous attacks from buccaneers sailing the seas. The fortress now awards visitors with memorable views of the old town and the Caribbean coast as well as an insight into the fascinating history.

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Lying between the old town and San Felipe de Barajas Fort, the neighborhood of Getsemaní is an area on the up. This less polished district feels much more local than the old town with many families still inhabiting mansions with crumbling walls.

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Kids kick footballs around in the street, groups of old men gather around small tables sharing a beer and playing domino’s and vendors peddle their wares.

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A mixture of boutique and budget hotels, tapas restaurants, lively bars and salsa clubs are being forged from the faded eighteenth Century buildings in this area. A few years ago the tree-lined Plaza de la Trinidad, a focal point in the area, with its beautiful painted church, would have been a no-go area after dark but now the plaza fills every evening with a mix of local families and visitors. Mouth-watering smells waft from street stalls grilling chicken kebabs, and arepas are piled high with shredded pork and cheese whilst pop-up bars sell cans of beer or freshly squeezed juices with a good slug of rum.

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Along with the budget street stalls serving tasty local snacks, the balmy evenings lend themselves to dining under the stars. Tables line Plaza San Diego and Plaza Santo de Domingo in the old town and many smaller cafes pimp street side tables with twinkling candles or a single flower to tempt you in. Delicious fish and seafood caught fresh each day is readily available by the bucket load. Ceviche, prawns, lobster, snapper and grouper are all available at a price tag to suit every budget.

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In just a few days, Cartagena captured our hearts. Like a Latin lothariette it whispered sweet nothings into our ear and tantalised us with its beauty. But this was no holiday romance, it was a love affair to last the test of time and on many a cold night we’ll be transported back to her warm embrace.

2 Responses to “Cartagena – A hot and steamy love affair”

  1. infused exposures April 30, 2014 at 3:05 pm #

    oh my god that title says it all!!!!

    • latinchattin May 1, 2014 at 8:07 am #

      The only way to keep refreshed is with ice cold beer! Any excuse hey! The beautiful city is certainly worth all of the sweat!

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