Here overnight, we had two opportunities to see and experience the city. We’d booked two tours, thinking they were diverse enough to avoid repetition, but there was still some crossover. Never mind. Cartagena is a visually exciting city and as long as there’s something going on to watch, to photograph and to notice, I’m happy.
Yesterday afternoon, Sergio took us up to La Popa, the monastery on top of the hill which, when reflected in the water looks rather like a ship. Hence the name – referring to the “poop deck”. To reach the top of the hill involved a drive through the suburbs, initially through areas which had been settled by Lebanese and Syrian families in the early part of the 20th century. Then, as we began to climb the hill itself, the settlements became poorer and more marginal. The road itself was lined with police barricades, for on Tuesday, there will be the annual procession of “Our Lady of Candlearia” and her figure will be brought down the road to the church at the foot of the hill.
There was a great view from up there and as we looked out over the areas around the harbour, Sergio pointed out that we were looking over the middle class, richer areas of the city. Because, as is often the case, Cartagena is home to a very diverse population and just over the other side of the hill, he showed us where the more ordinary, less wealthy people live.
Here were no high rise apartment blocks or hotels, but a densely populated area of single storey homes which filled the available space between the harbour and the ocean.
Though we were told that the current government had taken action to build a more effective police force and as a result, crime levels had been reduced, we nevertheless noted that houses were secured with high railings and metal window and door guards.
As we wandered around the city, we weren’t bothered by anyone at all, with the exception of a few good natured approaches to buy silver jewellery, leather goods, hats and T shirts, perhaps. In these cases, a smile and a “no thank you” usually did the trick – these vendors were not in the slightest bit persistent, surprisingly.
Some sellers were very colourful themselves and those selling juice or cold drinks were doing a brisk trade. Sergio explained that some of them are also selling “phonecalls” because although many people here have a mobile phone, many can’t afford a contract. So, they go along to a street seller and buy some calls from them. Interesting!
Though coffee is one of the major exports of Colombia, Sergio said that surprisingly little is drunk here, since people prefer the fruit juices and cold drinks, actually. There were a few coffee sellers around and about, though this one had left his flasks on the kerbside for a few minutes.
Hats appeared to be a mainstay of the tourist trade, together with one or two other, more colourful souvenirs.
Once in the old city, the streets were lined with the most beautiful houses, with bougainvillea blossoms tumbling from decorative balconies.
Yesterday afternoon, the light was beginning to fade rather, so my photographs were a little dull. Look at the difference when we returned this morning!
Actually, the whole city is really lovely and a very comfortable place to walk and appreciate. The old part is virtually traffic free and the few vehicles which were moving around seemed to be tolerant of groups of tourists standing in the middle of the road taking yet more photographs.
We visited several of the same buildings twice, though thankfully only stepped inside the Palace of the Inquisition once, when suddenly, I found the sky and the beautifully inspiring walls rather interesting. Yes, for sure there were some who were happy to “just imagine” those instruments of torture, but I wasn’t one of them!
I was happy to simply be here and contrary to all warnings and advice offered, felt quite safe and comfortable.
The Colombian people I encountered were charming and I’ll take away some fond memories of beautiful Cartagena. Not only that, but I have a rather different impression of Colombia than before and have learned more history in the last couple of days than I’d have ever thought possible !
What a great city.