Cartagena de Indias is a sprawling city of over a million people which is a major shipping hub on Colombia’s Caribbean coast. However at the heart of the city lies the original walled town, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and it is this ‘Cartagena’ which is the magnet for tourists.
As I mentioned in my last post on Shipping we arrived in Cartagena on Wednesday night, the week of the Summit of the Americas. This is a Summit for all the nations in the Americas which is attended by the Presidents and a host of camp followers. From the Friday through to Monday morning the old town was sealed off and everyone going in was searched. Vehicles were prohibited from entering the old town for the duration of the Summit apart from official Summit vehicles which were each labelled with the country they were servicing. At any time a motorcade escorted by police could come flying by. Even Shakira was in town for the weekend!
Unfortunately the Summit meant that hotels were booked solid and flights were expensive. So it cost us a lot more than it should have to get to and stay in Cartagena. However we did manage to book a hotel in the San Diego district of the old town which was very central to the tourist area and a short cab ride to the Manga area where we needed to go for shipping. We only had this hotel for three nights but when we realised that we wouldn’t get the Beast until Monday we booked another hotel for the extra three nights (we couldn’t stay in the one we had been in because it was full).
The plus side of the Summit taking place was that with all the police, various countries security services and the army, Cartagena must have been one of the safest places in the world that weekend.
The walled city is a wonderful place and doesn’t need an itinerary. Just strolling around and taking in the sights is the best way to attack it and eventually you’ll walk past all the main attractions. Many of the buildings are brightly coloured and covered in flowers making a real assault on the senses. The difference between the weekend of the Summit where the town was pretty empty and the following Monday was enormous with the streets exploding with life and people.
On one of our walks we practically bumped into Hilary Clinton doing the same thing – albeit surrounded by Secret Service (those who hadn’t been sent home in disgrace that is!).
Shortly after seeing Hilary in the Plaza de Bolivar we went into the Cathedral where we did a really good audio tour of the building. The history of Cartagena is amazing – the Cathedral was almost completely destroyed even before it was finished when Francis Drake sacked the town in 1586. In fact pirates sacked the town 5 times in the 16th century leading to Spanish building forts to protect the town and building the walls around the town itself.
One of the Forts, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, is one of the most awesome defensive structures ever built. It has five different defensive areas each of which if over-run can be attacked from the others. The final line of defence is a keep in the centre which has a wooden access stairway which was burnt when under attack leaving no way out for the defenders. The fort is built on a hill and the interior of the hill is riddled with passageways which run right down to the water-table. They were used to store ammunition , explosives and supplies. There is an excellent audio tour that you can do which really brings the fort to life and tells you about all the battles that have been fought there.
One of the real features of the town was the heat. This is probably the hottest place that we have been and we were really glad to have an air-conditioned hotel room to retreat to for a siesta in the hottest part of the day. Talking to locals its hot all year with little variation, even they use air conditioning when they can!
Of course the heat meant that we wanted cool beer. There is a great bar called Cafe del Mar on top of the city wall looking over the Caribbean sea. Its expensive but you’re paying for the view !