Sunday, 3 January 2010

Cartagena – A Great city

Cartagena seems like a dream now. A wonderful walled city still in pristine condition. Those tranquil streets, the smell of the sea, the slight breeze that cooled my face in an otherwise very humid city. The colourful houses, adorned with flowers and trees. Oh how I wish I could still be there.

Why oh why it took me 10 years to go there is quite unbelievable. I believe that if I’d visited it before. Maybe the last 7 months would have been spent in Cartagena. Oh how my Spanish would have been a lot different. Maybe better, depending on whom you spoke to.

Cartagena as we know it today was founded in 1533, but the area has been inhabited for the last 9000 years. First by the Puerto Hormiga Culture, then later all along the coast by other people like the Tayrona communities.

These communities flourished until about 1500 A.D. when Los Conquistadores came and well we all know what that brutal group of people brought did.

Over the following few hundred years, Cartagena flourished and was one of the richest cities in New Spain.

But with rich cities far away from their lords and masters, they were prone to attacks from pirates or independent businessmen, as I like to call them. But that depends on whom you speak to. A friend of Lina’s in Argentina, does not call me by my name, only el pirata.

One of the first pirates to pillage Cartagena was by a French nobleman Jean-François Roberval, who was a privateer licensed by the king of France. Years later a Basque, Martin Cote would attack the city.

This brought about a programme of defence building. Namely building walls around the city. But Spain being Spain, didn’t rush into this. It took over 200 years to complete the defences of over 11 km’s of wall, with the culmination of the building of the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas.

This finally put an end to the successful attacks by some pirates like John Hawkins and Francis Drake, who ransomed the city to the equivalent of $200, 000,000 of today’s money. All good for the English crown.

Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811. Since then it has seen good times and bad times, but recently the times have been very good.

Today it is the major tourist destination spot in Colombia, and is on the route of the large cruise ships which call into Cartagena for a couple of days, and the passengers wander around getting ripped off by the local vendors.

The tourists as in other old colonial cities are keeping Cartagena in the pristine condition it is today. Thankfully it’s not only foreign tourists who come to Cartagena. Colombians come in droves during December and January and flock to its beaches. It’s kinda funny all the Colombians head to Boca Grande, a strip of beach several km’s in length jammed packed with high rise hotels. Where as all the foreigners head straight to the old city for its quiet, tranquil streets, it’s good restaurants and serenity.

The Colombians come here for the beach and beach only. Which is kinda odd, as it really is a bad beach. The sand is a dark, dirty colour. The sea is not that turquoise green colour we dream of in the Caribbean. It’s also very rough.

But it’s such a difference from the mountains of the interior, that noone really minds.

You can either just drop a towel or rent a small tent to shade you from the sun. In the busy season you will be called upon every few minutes to buy either fruit, drinks, cigarettes, cooked fish, sunglasses, shorts, t-shirts, towels, curios, even massages are offered on it’s beaches. To say it’s a piece of hell is an understatement.

For me Cartagena is only worth going to for the old city. Not it’s beaches.

The people are also very friendly in a genuine way. I have become all too aware of the non genuine way people are friendly in Medellin, but here it was genuine.

Los Cachacos, this literally means “the people who wear suits”. Which is how los Costeños, people from the coast call the non-Costeños. Los Cachacos all think they are superior and above Los Costeños, who regard Los Cachacos as uptight and too materialistic. Los Cachacos all think Los Costeños are lazy. But if you had to work in the heat of the coast, you’d slow down a lot also.

I found the people from La Costa as very warm, friendly and very chilled. Oh how I envy them. Their lives are spent in the street, as it’s so warm, so why not.

La siesta is a big thing there, which is probably why the mountain people think those rather relaxed folk by the sea do not work much either. But I’ve never seen street cleaners work up to midnight before.

The area we stayed in was Getsemani. No garden here. It’s the cheapest place to stay in Cartagena. A few years ago, rooms in certain hotels were rented by the hour. We saw a few down and out scrubbers peddling their wares outside a few bars. It’s amazing how people find ugliness so attractive..

But in these prosperous times, the area of Getsemani is being dolled up to be the hippiest place to stay outside of the old city. Lot’s of Boutique hotels are springing up along its streets. All of them have small pools for you to relax in and cool down from the afternoon heat.

I loved Cartagena and when or if I return to Colombia. It could possibly be the only place I will visit.

No comments: