The diversity of Colombia was really driven home over our few days spent in Cartagena. The weather, vibe, streetscapes, and people were completely different from our other stops along the way and everything about the city brought my imagination to another time in history. The city was a major and critical Spanish port founded in 1553 and is located on the northern coast of Colombia in the Caribbean. The Afro-Caribbean influence is everywhere and in stark contrast to the rest of our South American adventure.
Cartagena’s strategic location between the Magdalena and Sinu rivers caused it to be the main port between Spain and the entirety of its overseas empire and was literally the heart that pumped goods and people throughout the continent and back to mainland Spain. Most of the Peruvian silver was exported here and was also the main location for the importation of African slaves. Of all the great cities in the Spanish empire in South America, Cartagena was the center of political, religious and economic activity in the colonization’s initial stages. Its role as a major exporter of silver made it a prominent target for pirates who were bankrolled and supported by other European rivals such as France, England, and Holland. In its early years, many of these raids were successful and a lot of wealth was lost. To counter this threat, the city was walled in from the sea and defensive towers and embattlements were installed. While not the original plan, construction on the city fortifications were completed over the course of over two hundred years.
In 1984, Cartagena’s colonial walled city and fortress was designated a UNESCO world heritage site. Within the walled city, the buildings are well preserved and almost every building has maintained the architectural style of the historic Spanish colonies. The city has a population of just under one million and is the fifth largest in Colombia. Tourism is a major driver of economic activity and it has grown in popularity for visitors from North America and Europe. This was the first place I had seen in South America with a palatable American presence and influence. There were many American tourists we encountered along the way of course, but Americans in the rest of South America were greatly outnumbered by Europeans and Australians. It is likely the closer proximity to the US and beach atmosphere that is a such a draw for American tourists to enjoy sun, sand, and a twist of old world history.
The gorgeous ocean views, Spanish Colonial feel, and charm of the walled in city are a feast for the eyes and a photographer’s dream. The rich varied colors and winding cobblestone streets encourage wandering, and the next block around the bend keeps you exploring further and further. The humidity is pretty daunting though, and every so often our exploration was punctuated with a stop in to a restaurant or hotel for a much-needed cooling off.
During our brief time in the city we walked the streets and tried more than our fair share of the food, but one outing was especially memorable. Along the ocean, the Spanish had constructed large battlements which now stand as expansive stone platforms providing sweeping views of both the walled inner city and the ocean. On this platform sit a few restaurants in the open air. We enjoyed a few drinks on the large patio at Cafe del Mar as music played all around us and the sun set over the water. Large Colombian flags flew in the breeze amidst the backdrop of upbeat music and an orange sky. Those few moments are forever emblazoned in my memory - occupying the space my mind holds for Colombia: a crisp breeze on a warm day and a cool drink in hand, my breath taken by the sky and my imagination swept up in an old world. // Jeff