|Harbor with skyline of new Cartagena|
These days, Cartagena is a large commercial shipping port, a carryover from the early years when it was a Spanish stronghold during their conquest of South America. Founded in 1533 on the site of an Indian village by the name of Calamar, the conquistadors used this port to gather much of their gold looted from the natives and then shipped this treasure to Spain.
|Casa de Gabriel Garcia Marquez|
Our tour bus met us at the pier and drove through some of the poorer parts of the city en route to our first destination. All of the side-by-side, squeezed together residences and small businesses had metal grill work over their doors and windows. It's not there just for decoration. At one spot, a large open gate provided a quick glimpse of an old man in shorts, no shirt, working on a dilapidated car, but then most commercial port areas are life in reality, not scenic attractions.
|Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas|
|Walls around old city|
|Romancing the Stone street as seen from old city walls|
On the way back to the ship, our bus stops at a small, two-level, open air shopping mall where one can buy emeralds, Colombian coffee or souvenirs. If you take a photo of one of the colorfully dressed, female fruit vendors, be sure to give her a couple of dollars, else she will track you down and make loud demands for money. There are signs on the street requiring those two dollars for any photo taken of her.
All the gold plunder coming overland from Peru to Cartagena soon came to the attention of Caribbean pirates and privateers. French pirate Robert Baal was the first to attack the city in 1544. In 1559, Martin Cote (French) followed suit. Twenty-four years later, the English buccaneer John Hawkins decided it was his turn, but Cartagena's new cannons drove him off. In 1572, Francis Drake (English) sacked the city and pillaged its treasure, to include the city's bells. Baron de Pontis (French) occupied the city for two months in 1697, and English admiral Edward Vernon tried his luck in 1741, but didn't succeed. Seems pirates were a plague on the population back then.
In more recent years, home grown drug cartels brought money, violence and corruption to the country. Mother ships out of Cartagena sailed north with their holds packed with drugs for the U.S. market, but then everyone is familiar with Pablo Escobar and his kind. Our tour guide spoke of him and the cartels as not being a problem to Cartagena anymore. Maybe so, in which case we can talk of smaller crimes.
|Old cathedral with crypt in foreground|
1) Never, ever change money on the streets. Unlike other South American countries, there is no black market, and it is not safe or recommended. Getting short-changed or handed fake bills, or having your wallet snatched from your hands in broad daylight are common scams. Cartagena has plenty of banks and casa de cambios. Many large hotels and emerald shops will change dollars, and most businesses accept US dollar bills.
3. Don't walk on the wall at night. Despite the romantic vistas and the fact that scores of locals and lovers do, it is a known haunt of thieves and assaults on women have been reported.
7. It might sound obvious, but don't walk around flashing expensive cameras, jewelry, wads of money, etc. Places like beaches, outside banks and the area around the clock tower are favored pickpocket haunts. Thieves have been known to follow people from banks for up to half a day before they strike. Remember there are tens of thousands of desplazados, or displaced people in Cartagena who have fled the problems in the interior of Colombia. Many of these people work for a salary of $2 a day. Be wary of pushy street vendors who wave t-shirts and other objects in your face: often it is a foil or distraction so an accomplice can relieve you of your handbag or camera. Leave your "fanny pack" or zippered money pouch at home-they are sure to attract a thief.
|Fort looking at new Cartagena over harbor|
11. The same goes for Cuban cigars. The ones sold on the street are of dubious origin and freshness. If in doubt, buy from one of the stores. You'll pay more, but you will be getting the real thing.
|Old Clock Tower (left), Cathedral (center) & large plaza (right)|
All in all, we enjoyed Cartagena for its historical value, beautiful cathedrals and panoramic views from the fort. Other than being swamped by vendors, we had no problems. In our minds, this is not a sun and water vacation destination, but we would gladly return in order to tour other places in Cartagena that we didn't have time for on this trip.
See you in two weeks in the Panama Canal. Did you know that big ditch actually runs north and south rather than east and west?