For years, people had been telling us wonderful things about the Colombian city of Cartagena. A major port on the south Caribbean coast it is a popular stopover for cruisers heading to Panama.
As the Colombian coastal waters are notorious for bad weather we waited in Curacao for a good window, chastened by fellow cruiser Cutty Hunk’s tales of 48knots and four metre seas. Luckily we struck a quiet patch and at one stage found ourselves wishing for more wind!
We left Bandit in the modern marina in Santa Marta, a couple of hundred kilometres north of Cartagena, deciding it was far easier to explore this UNESCO World Heritage site at leisure from land rather than by tender from a choppy anchorage.
It was a good move….our hotel was within the old city walls and we spent two nights and nearly three days walking and exploring…..walking and exploring……walking and exploring! Oh and lots of sitting and drinking coffee and cold juice and soaking up the sights and atmosphere when our feet said enough.
Cartagena is a beautifully preserved colonial city full of history featuring immaculately preserved and beautifully renovated buildings many smothered with bougainvillea and tropical vines.
Most lie within the 13km of ancient stonewalls on narrow cobbled streets. The colours of the buildings are startling ranging from deep russet red and mustard to bright blue, pink and yellow.
What we didn’t know was that the Summit of the Americas was on – meaning 32 presidents and heads of state including President Obama were due in town.
Security was tight with more than 5000 extra police brought in, many of them riot police wearing full body armour (in 35degrees plus!). Helicopters buzzed overhead constantly as well as drones (unmanned surveillance aircraft). Media from throughout north, central and south America were out in force.
The entire city had obviously been airbrushed for the occasion – there wasn’t a scrap of rubbish lying around, workmen were frantically and furiously painting scruffy buildings and giving even smart ones a touch up.
Cartagena is absolutely breathtakingly beautiful and its only downside is its popularity. On our second day a cruise ship was in and the town was overrun. Along with the explosion in tourists came the touts and we spent the entire day shaking off persistent Colombians insisting we buy cigars, sunglasses, t-shirts, artwork, jewellery, hats etc. Our polite “No gracias” soon became “non moleste” – don’t bother me!
It is a shame that most of these tourists only see the spruced up old town of Cartagena as it does give a one dimensional view of Colombia. Nearby Gethsemeni is as charming, but slightly shabby – and we only spotted a handful of tourists, mostly backpackers.
If the cruise ship visitors took a taxi ride 20 minutes out of the city they’d drive through rubbish strewn slums where the poverty is palpable and barefoot children play in the filthy streets alongside stray dogs and pigs….. (more about that next blog)….but I guess that doesn’t make such a good tale to tell the folks back home. But…not to take anything away from Cartagena which fully deserves its reputation and UNESCO rating.
We left with vivid memories of a gorgeous city and many happy hours spent sitting at outdoor cafes, bars and cheap restaurants enjoying the local food, beers and best of all – the balmy temperatures.