I waited a long time until I tried to formulate my impressions and feelings about Cartagena.
It wasn’t love at first sight. It is a rather complicated relationship.
But aren’t those the ones that are the most interesting?
A friend said, he loves Cartagena this much because of its diversity.
And maybe that’s the key. Cartagena has so many aspects; for some you will fall immediately and some will try you.
But like a good lover Cartagena knows to hide its problems behind a smile and keeps the magic alive.
It’s full of history
Cartagena de Indias is a very old city at the Caribbean coast of Colombia and the capital of the Bolivar department. The area was settled much earlier but due to its location and accessibility from Spain, Cartagena was one of the most important cities for the Spanish Empire in Latin America. The city was important for the administration but also to bring valuable goods like gold, silver, cocoa beans or tobacco from Latin America to Spain.
No wonder that Cartagena was also an attractive target for pirates roaming the Caribbean Sea. To protect the city the huge city wall and several forts on strategic locations were build. And the biggest fortress Spain ever built in Latin America: Castillo San Felipe.
Lots of battles were fought in Cartagena, i.e. the Royal Navy tried to invade it in 1741 with 186 ships, but the city could not be taken.
Cartagena was also a slave port and besides Veracruz in Mexico the only city officially allowed to trade african slaves during these times.
The streets in Cartagena are numbered on a map, but no one knows the numbers. People know the names of the streets and behind every name there is a story, mostly going back to those times.
For more than 275 years, Cartagena was under Spanish rule. On November 11, 1811, Cartagena declared its independence. A huge parade remembers that day every year and the city parties for about a week.
Today, Cartagena is most likely the city with the highest rate of tourists (especially cruise ship passengers) in Colombia. The city has a huge port, the biggest petroleum harbor in Colombia and is the home base of the Colombian armada.
It’s a Beauty
Cartagena is one of the best preserved colonial cities in the Caribbean and the Centro Histórico, San Diego and parts of Getsmaní, that are surrounded by the ancient city wall, are an UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1984.
And it’s a Beauty. The small alleys are lined with elaborate houses in colonial style featuring big old wooden doors and Romeo-and-Juliet balconies, that are entwined with flowers.
Fine and expensive shops line the streets and cafés and nice restaurants located at spacious squares or directly on the city wall invite visitors and locals to enjoy the warm evening air and the sundown in the bay, that is often spectacular.
It’s freaking expensive
The prices in the touristic areas, i.e. historic center, the shopping malls and some living areas are equal to every other big city which means freaking expensive especially for Colombia.
Just a comparison: a bottle of beer costs around 60 cents at the Plaza Trinidad in Getsemaní and up to 3,50$ in a club in the historic center.
We couldn’t quite believe that you could pay easily a million dollar and up for a luxury flat in the booming parts of the town. Thinking of the poverty in the streets outside those districts, we were wondering who is able to pay those prices.
Lots and lots of people in Cartagena don’t have a job and if they have one, it is often badly paid. The minimum salary is officially around 650,000 pesos (215$). A month. But sometimes even this is not paid. We met a girl working as a waitress in a bar in Getsemaní. She works from 7pm until the bar closes (at 3am, often later) and does the counting and cleaning afterwards. She got 20,000 pesos in the beginning and after some salary raises now gets 40,000 pesos (12$) a night for a 12 hour shift.
We walked to school every morning and passed all the people, that try to earn some money with - frankly - anything. There were people selling phone calls for 200 pesos (6 ct), 3 mobile phones with different SIM cards (to take advantage of the cheaper prices within one network) laying on a small table in front of them. Others make coffee in the morning and walk around with thermos jugs. Lots sell fruit (1 dollar for a hamburger box stuffed with fresh fruit salad), or fried food, or water. There’s a lady at the corner, that brings her scales from home and lets you check your weight for 300 pesos (10 ct). A few meters further sits a small, old man on the pavement surrounded by blackened cooking pots. We pass him every morning and every afternoon and day in, day out he is scrubbing pots with a razor blade.
Live today, don’t think about tomorrow
A really great attitude, brought to the extreme in Cartagena. It’s not common to save money, if it is not for a specific purpose. People spent the money they have - or don’t have. Everyone is having a beer on Friday, even though he knows that he won’t have money for food on Saturday.
Cartagena can turn into Venice
When one of the tropical thunderstorms hits the city the rain pours heavily for a few hours. There’s a reason that the pavement was build so high. The sewerage, if there is one, is completely unable to cope with the amount of water and the flood brings up a stinky broth from the sewerage turning the streets into dirty waterways. A friend told us, that he saw a rat running on the pavement trying to escape the water. The people on that pavement were screaming and shouting in disgust. The rat ran up to a man, who wasn’t happy either about that circumstance and so he gave it a hearty kick letting the rat fly over to the other side of the street. Rumor has it that it had a really astonished expression in its face after landing.
Of course that's not all facets of Cartagena. But its too much for one article.
Read more about Colombia