Cartagena: Colombia’s Travel Jewel

In South America, travelers hike the busy streets of the various cities clutching tightly to their preferred brand of travel guide.  The books they so dearly adhere to describe Cartagena de Indias, found on Colombia’s portion of the Caribbean coast, in verbiage such as “nostalgic,” “charming,” and “romantic.”  And the truth is, to have endured through so much, and in such a dignified fashion, is in itself somewhat of an achievement.  However, when arriving in Cartagena by boat or plane or bus the hoards of travellers that reach the colonial city on their pilgrimages realize that there is much more going on in this city than their precious travel bibles have led them to believe.

Travellers step off of their particular mode of transportation and into a thick wall of hot humid Caribbean air.  As their eyes wander across the horizon, they expect to see a city of Caribbean colours and proud colonial buildings.  What they are confronted with instead is a vast jungle of concrete, steel and glass.  In Cartagena, huge high-rise skyscrapers stand watch over the various inland waterways that divide the city’s territory.  To truly appreciate Colombia’s crown jewel one must use their most youthful skills of curious exploration.  It also requires a sense of imagination that will allow you to romanticize the days when this town was occupied by horse carts and finely dressed members of the European Elite, rather than the bright yellow taxis and flip-flop and khaki-clad tourist that now occupy most of the city’s urban core.

Other than Santa Marta, which sits about 4 hours north up the coast, Cartagena is the oldest surviving city on the South American continent.  The city was established as a sea port, and as a base from which to launch South American explorations, in 1533, two years before the conquest wars were won by the Spanish against the Inca in the Central Andes.  Cartagena quickly became the most important port in South America.  It was here that the Spanish held its wealth of gold and silver exploited from the continent and its people.  The various treasures sat in the noble city in seaside fortresses waiting to be shipped across the ocean on Spanish Galleons.

Of course the treasures held by Cartagena made it a literal gold mine for pillaging pirates.  And it was here, in the Caribbean, that many of various European proxy wars were fought via free-wheeling privateers; those characters of which are known to us only in the form of actors in our stories.  After a number of coastal attacks, including the most devastating assault, one by Sir Francis Drake in 1586, Cartagena erected a series of sturdy cement walls and a solid concrete fort to protect it from further peril.  Although they did not reduce the bull’s eye that was seemingly laid on top of this city, the robust walls still protect Cartagena’s old city today.

During the era of Spanish Colonial rule, in Latin America, Cartagena often served as the seat for the country’s vice-regency.  But despite the city’s ties to the colonial network it developed into a region known for its elaborate sense of independence and its highly developed and complex local politics.  Cartagena was a prime fixture in the push for independence from the Spanish as well.  The city, often described at the time as the most beautiful in the “New World,” was often pummelled to the ground by the various insurgencies and counter-insurgencies during the period of Simon Bolivar’s independence wars.

As the various news outlets seem to constantly remind us, Colombia has been a center of devastating and long fought out civil wars.  Although a hub to many of these conflicts in the early days of independence, Cartagena has recently become somewhat of a safe haven to the long drawn out civil conflicts that have riddled the region. Despite a single truck bomb set off by Pablo Escobar’s Extraditables in the late 1980s the city has been left untouched by the recent years of terror, violence and destruction.

The city has also been one of great cultural and ethnic diversity.  Whether it was in the early 1800s, where the population was split between well-to-do Europeans and children of African descendants who were brought in to work on one of the many sugar plantation in the region, or today where strolling the main streets can leave you deep in conversation with a dreadlocked Rasta or a well dressed member of the local business elite and, well, just about any other type in between.  As a result of its “safe zone” status the city has recently enticed people from all over the country to migrate to the city in search of a more peaceful life.  This, of course, has only increased its level of social and cultural diversity.  The sound of Castellano Spanish is often mixed with the colourful flavour of Caribbean slang which gives the city a unique cultural attitude.

Today, the city of Cartagena is divided into numerous distinctively different districts.  The most notable of these districts are the two main tourist zones Boca Grande and El Centro.  Boca Grande acts as the city’s modern Zona Rosa and lines most of Cartagena’s long, dark sanded coastline with all-inclusive resorts and high-rise condos.  It is here, in Boca Grande, where the usual chaotic street side vendors, that dominate most Latin American street sides, are replaced by air conditioned boutiques and high-end retail stores.  The typical juice stalls and small fast-food fried chicken joints give way to MacDonald’s and Pizza Hut.  Boca Grande, in reality, could be anywhere in the world.  However, despite its overall lack independent character, it can act as a nice reprieve to the weary backpackers and travelers worn down by the sometimes hectic nature of life in Latin America.

El Centro, Cartagena’s “Old Town” provides a sharp contrast to the modern tourist district of Boca Grande.  El Centro may be one of the most charming places in all of South America.  It has all the vibe of New Orleans with the peace and charisma of a small Spanish village.  Its narrow cobbled streets and colourful colonial buildings might leave you wondering if you’ve stepped back 400 years if it wasn’t for the yellow taxi cabs that wiz up and down the calles.  This city was once known as one of the most romantic places in the World; and one look at all its vicariously hanging balconies and bright churches will leave you without a doubt as to why.

The buildings of El Centro are thickly coated in full colours of blue, yellow, and pink, as they fight to hide the effects of pounding tropical rains and humid salty sea air.  However, in somewhat of a hybrid fashion, the buildings are designed in an architecture more reminiscent of 17th century Spain.  Their tall white pillars and oversized front doors describe a proud and inviting style.  The balconies that overlook the narrow streets leave visitors yearning for a period in human history where people actually took the time to stand out on these street side box seats and watch the world as it passes us by.

The canon-lined stone walls that used to protect the city from invaders now, less dramatically, shield it from the crashing Caribbean Sea waves.  The barrier provides a raised walkway which is one of the best ways to truly enjoy the city and the sea.  It really is one of those special places that can leave you at a standstill sucking in a deep breath as if you were hoping that you could breathe in the atmosphere and keep it with you forever.  It is for this moment of awe, this great sensation, that the countless number of bourgeoning travelers endure painfully bumpy bus rides, long flights, and rough seas.

In general, negative news reports and horror stories have long since cast a dreary shadow on Colombia.  Through the numerous times of hardship, war and violence Cartagena has not only managed to maintain its charm, character, and dignity, but has managed to build on it as well.  As Colombia is most known for its emeralds, violence and cocaine, Cartagena may be the country’s brightest gem, and its most valuable treasure.  It would be a mistake to leave this city, or country for that matter, off of your travel map, as it only seems only to continue to grow in character as it begins to come out of years of strife.  Much like a diamond, Cartagena de Indias seems to have emerged from a lifetime of great pressure, and subsequent resistance, into a brilliant precious jewel.