Thursday, March 30, 2017

Cartagena: Old City in the New World

30 March 2017

After our rather luxurious travel on the cruise, we decided it was time to go back to our more usual way of travelling.  So we took a leap and flew to Cartagena, Colombia.

What a wonderful decision that turned out to be!

As with much of our travelling, we got lucky with our first neighborhood.  We decided to book a small hotel in the oldest part of the city.  We're located near the Church of the [Sacred?  Holy?  Most Holy?] Trinity, or maybe the Church of St. Trinity, it's difficult to really translate the Spanish signs, especially when we're not too sure of the theology.  The name is "Iglesia de la Santisima Trinidad," for our readers who know more Spanish than we do. 

Anyway, the Church of the Trinity was built in the 1600s, though the final plans date from 1716.  The church was designed to be a replica of the cathedral of Cartagena, Spain.  In front of the church is a large plaza, known as Plaza de la Trinidad, and this really is the focal point of our neighborhood. 

In our five days here, we've seen people attending church, as well as a wedding one evening.  People hang out in the plaza, and at sunset food vendors and portable grills show up, selling all kinds of street food.  Once the church service finishes and the doors are closed, the music is turned up and all kinds of entertainment begins.  Music includes mariachi bands, violinists, guitarists, singers.  There are street performers, acrobats, break dancing, and general socializing.  We see locals, tourists, backpackers from the hostels in the area.  On Sunday evening there was a zumba class, with some two hundred people zumba dancercising in the square.  Kids run around playing soccer, or shooting baskets (though the basketball "hoop" is actually a statue of a priest with his arms raised).  And there is occasionally a small trampoline full of bouncing children!

It's energetic, it's a little crazy, it's the heart of our neighborhood.

This is why we like to stay in the old part of cities, because they tend to be the center of the interesting things.  I'm enjoying the colonial architecture, bright colorful houses with balconies, arbors of bougainvillea, odd little windows and ornamentation, huge wood doors with little cutout doors that people actually use, and ancient stone pillars or door frames that date back centuries earlier than the rest of the building.  Richard is enjoying the diverse food options around us, from Colombian to European to ultra-modern gelato bars.  (And of course a good burger spot or two.)

We're surrounded by the old old city walls, with turrets and ramps and cannons, to protect the Spanish from other colonial powers, or pirates, or even the indigenous people who didn't welcome the invading forces.

So, a little history:  

The city's formal name is really Cartagena de Indias, meaning Cartagena of the Indies - to differentiate from the city in Spain for which it was named.  (And yes, Cartagena, Spain, was named for the ancient city of Carthage.)

Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistador Pedro de Heredia, though of course their were pre-Columbian civilizations living in the region prior to that.  And the usual progress ensued - the Spanish and the indigenous people fought, other countries tried to then colonize the region, the Spanish fought them, eventually this became a Spanish colony.  (It was French for a number of years.)  Simon Bolivar assisted the people of Colombia in fighting for their independence from Spain in 1810, although he was initially trying to create a united Gran Colombia of the various South American nations.

Anyway, this area, the oldest part of the city, has the original (or rebuilt) walls that surrounded the city.  They were built in the early 1600s, with numerous gun towers (labelled "baluarte" in Spanish, although that translates to "bulwarks" in English).  There are also ramps (for horses, cannons, maybe the occasional carriage) up to the wide top, now patrolled by police on motor scooters.  The official name is Las Murallas, The Walls.  

The total length of the current wall is about 4 km (2.4 or so miles), with about sixteen turrets or gun towers.  Some of the wall along the coast was apparently removed for roads, bridge entrances, beach access, and other modern conveniences like parking lots. 

There are several lagoons that separate the old city from the mainland, although there's a long sandy peninsula that is attached to the old city.  This is now the area full of high-rise residences and hotels, as well as full of beaches - probably the more posh part of the city.

We spent Sunday wandering around on top of a section of the wall, with views of the Caribbean Sea, and a restaurant up on top.  I tried to climb into one of the open turrets, but the single step was knee-high on me, and I ended up scraping my arm on the old coralstone.  

At the town center area of the old wall is the Torre del Reloj, the clocktower monument, a wonderful yellow geometric stacked tower.  This tower was built in the 1800s, so some 200 years after the wall was built.  This area is the Plaza de Los Coches, which was the old slave trading area.  Unfortunately, because Cartagena was such a major port during the colonial era, it became Spanish America's biggest port for bringing in African slaves.  The slave trade was abolished in 1851, but places like the Plaza de Los Coches remain to remind us. 

In addition to the Church of the Holy Trinity, we found all kinds of churches and cathedrals.  Many date from the 1700s.  The Spanish brought the Inquisition to the New World and forcibly converted the indigenous populations, so they needed places of worship.  (One of the museums is the former Palace of the Inquisition.  Really, that is posted in huge letters on the wall outside.  I'm not sure if anyone is proud of this, or maybe taking responsibility for these horrible actions is part of someone's idea of repentance.  I don't know, nor do I understand how or why humans can treat each other this way.  We really have a horrible history of how we treat people unlike ourselves.  But I digress.)

There are also several theatres in the old city, beautiful sprawling buildings with performances throughout the year.  We've been checking the English language newspaper to see what might be performed while we're here, and of course I'll try to get photos of the interior(s).

We've found a variety of plazas around the city, with fountains and statues and monuments to those who are honored - the Plaza of Martyrs, where heroes and heroines of the battle for independence were hung; the Plaza of the Proclamation, where people gathered in 1811 to endorse the Declaration of Independence; the modern convention center, with several statues of Pegasus donated by the artist, Hector Lombana Piñeres.

There are also small vendors' markets around the city with gorgeous colorful handicrafts.  Shopping bags, handbags, hair and hat ornaments, HATS!, mobiles, a rainbow of knickknacks scattered across blankets on the sidewalk, or draped over a parked bicycle.  The beadwork produced here is incredible, and I'll try to get some photos.  And ladies dressed in colorful traditional skirts and turbans, selling fresh fruit by the plate.

And the door knockers!  Wow, I could probably fill an entire blog with just the door knockers we see as we walk around!  Lots of lions, batches of lizards, the occasional human or angel, and some sea creatures tossed in for variety.  I find them fascinating!

Mostly we've been getting to know the city and our way around, and chatting with various locals we meet as we explore.  Plenty of opportunity to practice our Spanish and learn new words.  We're beginning to figure out where we'd like to visit, and how long we might be here.

It's a beautiful and interesting city, and we'll just enjoy Cartagena until we move on. 




  1. Oh, my....looks so beautiful.
    Your photos are amazing.
    Thank you!