As we walked through Cartagena’s evening rush hour from the bus station to our hostel it seemed like any other noisy, busy Latin American city …. until we had our first glimpse of the imposing centuries-old, stone city walls. Tall and thick, with regular slots for the canyons, these walls protected what was once the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. During the 16th and 17th centuries the city was a storehouse for all the wealth plundered from all corners of the country and as such was a prime target for ruthless pirates roaming the Caribbean seas. Thirteen miles of these walls still remain, encircling the historical city centre, and are an imposing sight.
We were staying in a hostel in the Getsemani area. A popular place for backpackers with its cheap accommodation, bars, cafes and bohemian feel. Away from the main thoroughfares where taxis toot their horns and belch their foul smelling exhaust, you can find quiet streets, tree-shaded plazas, rows of one storey houses painted in vibrant primary colours
and bold street art.
To get to the old city we entered through the Torre del Reloj – the Clock Tower – which is beautifully lit up at night and immediately it felt as though we had entered a magical fairytale world. Lights illuminated the buildings and this restaurant had an outside wall that mirrored the interior.
Las Murallas, the old city walls mark a boundary between the raw, working areas of peasant-like outer city and the more regal sophistication of the old city grand dame. And she really is very beautiful and very well preserved. The streets are narrow and teeming with tourists and locals alike. Even here there are work-a-day shops rubbing shoulders with high-end haute couture, the carts with fresh coconuts and stalls selling deep fried cheese sticks for just a few pesos stop outside the fancy restaurants with their European prices.
Cars negotiate tight turns and battle for space with horse-drawn carriages.
We sought out the quieter streets so we could stop without risking life and limb to look up and appreciate the bougainvillea strewn balconies and elegant architecture.
It often felt to me like a blend of the grandeur of Havana with the vibrancy of New Orleans. There was a fiesta like feel with performers playing music, rapping and dancing in streets decorated with plastic bottle bunting!
There were lots of opportunities to peruse the work of local artisans
… and I was particularly taken by these iron work sculptures that popped up all over the city
Of course we fell across churches at every turn …
….. and the magnificent cathedral
….. and beautiful doorways
It was very easy spending time in this characterful city. We weren’t drawn to visit the museums and galleries, instead, as you see, we simply wandered through the streets or sat under the shade of trees in the plazas absorbing the atmosphere. For sustenance we started the day with strong Colombian coffee – in one cafe they presented us with silver ware for our hot water and milk and a shot glass of minted water to clear our palate! In the afternoon we would sit atop the ancient walls to catch the cooling breeze and eat snacks from the street vendors and at night after cocktails at a trendy bar we had some of the best tapas I’ve ever had (eating by candlelight during one of the regular electricity blackouts!) and wonderfully fresh and tender ceviche.