Cartagena, the 2nd oldest city in
Colombia, is one of the most beautiful and most visited cities in Latin America. It is paradise for those who live here, and paradise for those who are just passing through. September through May is the cruise season; two hundred cruise ships are expected to dock in 2008, and starting in August,
Royal Caribbean will use Cartagena as a home port. The distinct charm of this unique city earned it recognition as a
UNESCO Cultural World Heritage and Patrimony of Humankind in 1985; its seven universities reflect the fact “here learning is a way of life”.
Cartagena, founded by the Spanish and the richest settlement they had in colonial times, is an amazing city . . . vibrant, colorful, full of life, and proud of its history. Its people are physically beautiful, happy, generous of heart and compassionate; people come here to be with the Cartagenians.
It is the only walled city in the Americas, built during the 16th and 18th centuries to protect against pirates from England and France. It took more than 200 years and 15 million African slaves to build the wall; Cartagena was a big slave market. It is said “the walls were built with the blood of black people”. Today, the walls surround an enchanting old town; its narrow streets are lined with chic clothing and jewelry shops ( emeralds are a big attraction), charming boutique hotels and hidden courtyard restaurants.
El Santisimo is a most unique restaurant; its menu refers to “the sins of yesterday . . . and of your future visits”. Owner/chef Frederico Vega, who comes from a religious family in the religious town of Calli, has created a menu that plays on one’s tongue-in-cheek religious inclinations. Frederico greets us with charm and enthusiasm, leads us to a table in the atrium garden, and extends the pleasure of dining with us. We are amused and deliciously satisfied by the originality of the dishes on his “ Monk Special Menu”, and on “ The Sins of the Nun” desert menu. We begin with salmon cerviche, followed by sauté shrimp on mango and tamarind served with a mango mousse and El Mar de Juan, sea bass marinara.
Cartagena is a city of squares: Fernandez de Madrid, San Diego, La Merced, Santo Domingo, Santa Teresa, San Pedro, de la Aduana, de los Coches, de Bolivar are the most important. Outdoor cafes built around the squares offer the tranquility and charm of being surrounded by cathedrals, churches and two hundred years of architecture. Buildings built in the 17th to early 18th century, late Colonial and 18th century Republican in style, blend handsomely to create the vein of this rich proud city.
Cartagena women and men often dress in all white, always looking crisp, elegant and cool, even in the humid weather that can melt one’s composure just a little.
Cartagena is divided into three zones; Bocagrande is the richest and most modern residential and commercial area. Elegant glass condo towers that rise along the shoreline reflect a lifestyle of luxury, and the good life. 500 new condos are in the planning or construction stages; buying a condo facing the sea appears to be a good investment as many are being bought by retired Americans.
The Caribe Emerald Factory and Joyeria in B oca Grande is fascinating, and a reliable place to buy emeralds. You can watch stones being cut polished and set into rings, earrings and necklaces; choose your own and Alfredo the owner will help you create an original design.
The Caribe La Fontana Hotel is the oldest hotel in Cartagena; it has been modernized with two new towers. I swim in the Olympic sized pool, enjoy sumptuous breakfast buffets poolside in the mornings and hot off the grill spicy steaks at night, serenaded by a group of strumming and singing musicians.
There are twenty seven Rosario Islands off the coast of Cartagena. Our day begins with a drive to the Bodeguita dock where we board a launch for the forty five minute trip to Isla del Pirata, one of the smaller private islands. Once out of the harbor, the boat zips through open waters, chopping through the waves. It is exhilarating; the breeze and the open horizon fill my lungs and vision with fresh air; a cruise ship comes into view. On the island, we are given a thatched roof room (steps from the sea) to shower, nap and just relax; the emerald green clear water welcomes my descent, happy to have me in its embrace. Lunch is a whole freshly caught fish served with coconut rice and a crisp lush salad.
The sea in front of The Caribe is not as clear as the waters off the coast of the Rosario Islands; the sand is brown, but the water is clean, the waves gentle. I sit under a blue canopy watching a senora in a bright yellow blouse carve a bright yellow mango, a juicy pineapple and a ripe watermelon. Persistent beach vendors try to sell me sunglasses, a watch, handmade bead jewelry, sandals, a hat and a variety of local sweets. A woman insists on giving me a pedicure and a massage; a man playing an accordion strolls the beach; a senora sits on the sand reading a sunbather’s cards and palm.; everyone is trying to earn a simple living in their own way. Dodging the soliciting vendors is more of a challenge than riding the waves.
We visit the most beautiful mansion in Cartagena, Casa Roman, home
to the Roman family who invented the Coca cola formula. Senora Teresita Roman de Zurek, now in her 80’s, has the largest private doll collection in the world, carefully preserved and displayed in glass cabinets. We sip cranberry juice in her tiled courtyard; Lawrence buys a copy of the cookbook she wrote, which she is happy to personalize and autograph.
We walk the wall that surrounds the city; watch the sunset at Café de Mar on top of the wall; take a horse and carriage ride around the city, then dine on chicken and cheese arepas at Parque de Fernandez.
Lunch the next day with the locals at Loncheria Bolivar is an authentic mix of grilled pork and filet of fish. In the afternoon we visit the Gold Museum with the largest collection of Pre-Colombia gold artifacts, then browse the old Bovedas dungeons which have been turned into a souvenir shopping arcade with many vendors.
Cartagena‘s cultural calendar is impressive. The Chapel of the Mercy Convent is now a beautiful concert hall. Highlights of the season include: The Classic Music Festival the beginning of the year and The Film Festival at the end of March.
Tomorrow, it’s on to Bogotá and a hectic schedule of new adventures.
A Glimpse of What to Do
The Castle of San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress built by the Spanish in South America. Construction began 1586 and it was later crucial to the successful defense of the city from an invasion in 1741 by the British.
The walls around the Old City ( Las Murallas).
The undersea wall across Bocagrande built between 1771 and 1778; and the forts of San Jose and San Fernando, built between 1751 and 1759 at Bocachica.
The Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena was the third and final site of the New World Spanish Inquisition. In this place hundreds of witches and other heretics were tortured and executed.
Almost every church in Cartagena is worth visiting, the
San Pedro Claver and
Santo Domingo are among the most frequented.
The Convent of Santa Clara and Santa Teresa, previously convents, today they serve as five star hotels.
Las Bóvedas Quarter (
Old Dungeons). This gathering of 23 vaults and 46
arches that formed the facade of this Military Quarter was used as lodging site for the troops, military provisions and stores. Currently it is a market, with handcrafts from all over the country.
The Clock Tower, built at the beginning of the XVIII Century, this tower rises above the main gate to enter the walled city. It is the symbol of Cartagena.
Heredia Theater, built in 1911 upon the ruins of the La Merced church (1625) in order to commemorate the centennial of Cartagena’s independence. Today it is a center for the arts and cultural events.
La Popa Monastery, founded by the Agustinos Descalzos Recoletos group in 1607, with the mission of expelling Buziraco, the image of a goat adored by the Indians. Today La Popa is a site of devotion and pilgrimage.
The Monument to the Old Shoes is a beautiful allegory of Cartagena.
Volcán de Totumo, or nearby
Arboletes. These are mud volcanoes. Totumo is the tallest mud volcano in the world.
Gold Museum, (
Museo de Oro) The incredible contents of the museum includes valuable pre-Colombian gold artifacts, some of the oldest ceramics in the Americas, an explanation of the Zenú Nation's amazing hydraulic engineering achievements and a mountain of information about the way the native people lived.
Plaza Santo Domingo, Once a place where slaves were auctioned off, the
plaza is the home to Botero's gordita (the fat lady statue), and the beautiful Santo Domingo Church.
Catch a ride on a
horse-drawn carriage, Take a tour of the city and get
transported back to colonial times in your own carriage.
Drink, sing and dance the night away on a
Chiva party tour. These tours are popular with both Colombian and foreign tourists. The tours include live music, drinks and food.
If you like art, visit the
Museo de Arte Moderno in front of the Cathedral,
PADI diving certificate and dive in the Caribbean observing tropical fish and reefs, and the odd shipwreck. Cartagena is one of the cheapest places in the world to get your PADI certification.
If you like to shop, visit
Lucy’s Jewelry Emerald Store and
Flori for beautiful white clothing, both in the walled city.
Go on an
eco-cruise of the manglares. The mangrove swamps around Cartagena have recently been promoted as a tourist attraction. You will be taken you on a canoe through mangroves teeming with all sorts of animals.
Islas del Rosario. About 30 km southeast of Cartagena are the Islas de
Rosario (Rosario Islands), a nationally protected park which features an aquarium with trained dolphins and many varieties of tropical fish and sharks.
For more info:
COLOMBIAN GOVERNMENT TRADE BUREAU
601 Brickell Key Drive, Suite 801 Miami, Fl 33131
Tel: (305) 374-3144 - Fax :( 305) 372-9365
AViANCA AIRLINES flies non stop from Miami to Cartagena (2.5 hours)and from New York to Cartagena via Bogota.
For reservations: www.avianca.com