Cartagena – Colombia’s Caribbean Colonial City
Cartagena was the final destination on an almost two week tour of Colombia with Canadian travel company Adventures Abroad and it turned out to be the perfect place to wrap things up in this amazing country. After spending much of our time at some very high altitudes with consequently cooler temperatures, it was great to feel the heat of the coast and to see the aqua coloured waters of the Caribbean Sea. For good reason Cartagena has become the focus of Colombia’s reviving tourism industry, almost, but not quite, to the point of being ‘loved to death’ like Venice or Dubrovnik. In this post and the next, I’m just going to take a scattershot approach and give my reasons, in no particular order, for why you need to put a visit to Cartagena on the front burner of your future travels plans. But first, a little history.
History of Cartagena
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia, one of the most successful and by definition, bloodthirsty, of the Spanish conquistadores. Ignoring the fact that the site already had a substantial native population living in a village called Calamarí, he simply pushed them aside and renamed the place after Cartagena, Spain which was founded by the Phoenicians 1,700 years earlier. With the help of a former kidnapped native chief’s daughter named Catalina as interpreter, he succeeded in locating and plundering the tombs of the nearby Sinú tribes. These graves were apparently as rich in gold as almost anything found by Cortez or Pizzaro. Catalina for her part, rather than being excoriated as a traitor to her people, now stands on guard at the main entrance to the walled city, the Pocahontas of Latin America.
This is a public image I downloaded for this post.
In 1552 Cartagena, then made up of wooden buildings, burned to the ground and thereafter Heredia decreed that all structures be made of stone. It was this decision that led to the creation of a city that has withstood the rigours of time as well as any in the New World.
As the Spanish plunder of the Inca empire on the Pacific coast of South America really ramped up, Cartagena became the point of trans-shipment of the gold and silver bullion from across the Isthmus of Panama. In effect, the Spanish Main began in Cartagena as the starting point for shipping the stolen goods across the Atlantic to the mother country. Added to this was Cartagena’s designation by the Spanish Crown as an ‘official’ slave trading centre, Veracruz, Mexico being the only other one. Finally, add in a dose of the Spanish Inquisition which had its headquarters here for most of the New World and you’ve got a lot of s*** going down. The desire to get one’s hands on some of that loot including slaves, as well as put the boots to the hated ‘Papists’, naturally attracted pirates and freebooters. Cartagena was attacked no less than five times in the 16th century starting with Jean-François Roberval who actually came all the way from New France, the present day province of Quebec, and succeeded in carting away a huge amount of gold. I wonder if the current residents of Roberval, Quebec a city named after him, have any idea where that gold ended up.
Other famous marauders included John Hawkins and Francis Drake among others. If you’ve ever been on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at a number of Disney Parks, and who hasn’t, then you can understand the inspiration for that ride from the riotous goings on at Cartagena during this period of history. However, the Spanish weren’t in on the joke and it was their ever increasing efforts to fortify the place that led to it becoming the most famous walled city in the New World. There was one last attack that is memorable not just for the outcome – the English lost and failed to take the city despite outnumbering the Spanish defenders 10 to 1, but the lead character was right out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail. The Spanish commander, General Blas de Lezo had previously lost half his left leg to a cannonball at the Battle of Malaga, his left eye at the siege of Toulon and then his right arm at the siege of Barcelona, yet he continued to fight on. During the successful defence of Cartagena he was shot in the left arm and eventually died from that wound becoming infected. So there was a real version of the Black Knight who never knew when to quit.
All jokes aside, growing up in a Commonwealth country all I was ever taught in school were the great English victories over the Spanish including the Spanish Armada, the sack of Panama by Captain Morgan etc. etc. The English were always portrayed as the underdogs and the victories as upsets as big as the Jets over the Colts in Superbowl III. However, the Spanish did their sharing of winning as well and none was so surprising or against such great odds as Blas de Lezo’s defense of Cartagena in 1741. Apparently there’s a saying in Colombia that, “Blas de Lezo is the reason we don’t speak English”.
Here’s his statue in front of San Felipe Fort which we’ll visit in Part II of my posts on Cartagena.
Cartagena was again in the news in 1811 when it was the first Colombian city to declare independence from Spain which initially lasted for only four years. In 1815 Spanish General Pablo Morillo aka The Pacifier, retook the city for Spain with the death of over 6,000 Cartagena defenders on his hands. However, Spain’s rule over Colombia and Cartagena ended in 1821 under the war of independence led by, who else, Simon Bolivar.
So there’s a lot of history that took place in Cartagena and the amazing thing is that inside the walls of the old city, not much has changed in the past three hundred years.
A UNESCO World Heritage Site
In 1984, Cartagena was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Part of its description as a place of Outstanding Universal Value is the following description.
Situated on the northern coast of Colombia on a sheltered bay facing the Caribbean Sea, the city of Cartagena de Indias boasts the most extensive and one of the most complete systems of military fortifications in South America. Due to the city’s strategic location, this eminent example of the military architecture of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries was also one of the most important ports of the Caribbean. The port of Cartagena – together with Havana and San Juan, Puerto Rico – was an essential link in the route of the West Indies and thus an important chapter in the history of world exploration and the great commercial maritime routes. On the narrow streets of the colonial walled city can be found civil, religious and residential monuments of beauty and consequence.
Ok, now I’m finally ready to begin a somewhat random tour of the city starting with a recommendation for a great place to stay.
Bantu Hotel, Cartagena
Before booking a hotel in Cartagena you need to be aware that there are really two Cartagenas. The first, and the one where 99% of the people who read my posts would want to stay, is inside the walls of the colonial city. However, across the water from old Cartagena is this collection of high rises which is euphemistically called a resort area. We did take a quick tour of this area and I found that it looks better from afar than closeup. The beach is a narrow strip of land that wouldn’t deserve that description if there was anything better around, but there isn’t. So make damn sure the hotel you’re booking is in the right place.
Old Cartagena has every type of possible accommodations from ultra ritzy (and pricey) rooms in former colonial palaces all the way down to inexpensive hostels in the Gethsemane area. They pretty well all have one thing in common – the incredible ambience that comes from staying in a place that might be up to four hundred years old. While Lovejoy wrote that “Stone walls do not a prison make”, they actually do make for a great place to stay, as long as you know you can leave.
I’ve mentioned in previous posts that Adventures Abroad tries, where possible, to schedule stays in places that are locally owned and reflect the character of the area. They really hit the nail on the head with the Bantu Hotel in Cartagena. It was the nicest place we stayed in Colombia and was just a great place to wind down in a very laid back and relaxing atmosphere. While the name Bantu might seem a bit strange at first, actually its very fitting. Most of the slaves who came through Cartagena spoke some version of Bantu which is a language group rather than a specific people or tribe. Most of the employees at Bantu are black and probably descendants of these slaves.
As you enter the foyer there is this picture on the wall which is very apropos Cartagena.
This is a palenquera, which is the fancy name for the women who used to come from nearby palenques (fortified settlements of former slaves) to Cartagena with tremendous piles of fruit on their heads to sell in the local markets. They are still here, but not as much to sell the fruit as to collect money for having their pictures taken. The residents of the palenques developed their own language, palenquero which is a combination of Spanish and Bantu languages and is still spoken today by a few thousand people in Palenque de San Basilio. So, there are more than a few connections between the Bantu speakers of Africa and the city of Cartagena.
So what else is so great about the Bantu Hotel? Lots. There is a definite sense of serendipity about the place. This is Alison having a swing in the courtyard. When’s the last time you saw a swing in a hotel?
Here I am playing Ms. PacMan on an old style stand up console. It’s one of many classic arcade games which you can play for free and was a fun way to spend some time waiting for the group to gather before heading out for dinner. You can also get a drink from the bar to help speed up your hand-eye coordination.
The Bantu has a great roof top pool, hot tub and general lying around area that I’ve been known to spend up to 15 minutes at, but if you are capable of actually relaxing and enjoying the sun, then this is a great spot with a great view of the old city.
The Bantu has one of the best breakfast buffets that we found in all of the places we stayed, and most were pretty darn good. Now you know where all that fruit went. One thing I really liked about Colombia was the chance to try so many new types or varieties of fruit. I never realized that what passes for a mango or a papaya in Canada is a very pale imitation of real deal.
After you’ve had you fill of fruit, how about a slice of breakfast pizza? PDG.
One last reason to stay at Bantu – get to meet Tatu the toucan. This mischievous little bugger is the hotel mascot and loves to grab anything shiny including the buttons on your shirt.
OK, I’ve told you why you need to go to Cartagena and where to stay. In the next post I’ll give some suggestions on what to see, where to eat and how to get rid of a mime. Hope you’ll join me.