Before you set foot on Cartagena, you have to abandon every stereotyped idea you may have about Colombia being a violent, drug-lord/military police/guerrilla man´s paradise. While it is true that Colombia is still striving to achieve peace within its borders, and that its beautiful tropical land is home to many an illegal coke plantation, the country also boasts some of the most vibrant, modern cities and resorts in all of Latin America.
This is a land full of tradition, where myths are alive in people´s daily routines. In that context, Cartagena stands out, what with having been one of the first cities built by the Spanish conquerors, as early as 1568. The mixture of the native people´s beliefs with the strong Catholic faith imposed by the Spaniards makes up for a rich texture of both religion and superstition, the worship of Jesus and the adoration of a myriad of saints.
To prove my point, on the first day I went ashore in Cartagena I inquired why all the shops were closed on a week day; I was informed that the night before had been “la noche de las velitas” (little candles’ night). This was a night when everyone would light candles, around the entrance of their houses. This religious ritual was one of the most important of the year, and it was said to give the whole city a fantastic appearance. I cursed my fate that I missed such a wonderful sight, and I begun to understand what Cartagena, and Colombia, were all about.
It was a friendly old doorman who told me about “velitas”. During my stay in Cartagena, I was to encounter only friendly people everywhere. These are people who know how to make the most insufferable tourist feel welcome. As I explained it to a friend, in Cartagena, vendors want your money, but they will stay friendly and charming, and even generous, when they realize that they can´t get it. For example, there was a black woman, in a multicolored dress who was trying to sell me a massage at the beach; when she realized I didn´t want it, she just gave me a free massage, just because I was friendly and patient with her.
There is just something about Colombians. They have a great sense of humor, they know how to party, and they are extremely hospitable people. What more can a tourist ask for?
My friend Ivan is at the top of my “hospitable Colombians” list. He was stationed in Cartagena; he is in the Navy, and he offered to show me around. We met in the Old City, the most popular place to go, located only a 5 minute ride away from the port. If you are meeting somebody at the entrance of this XVI century fortification, chances are the meeting point will be the Clock Tower (Torre del reloj). This is where we met. From there, we went to the Hard Rock café for lunch.
One look at the pastel colored colonial buildings of Cartagena and the last thing you will dream of encountering is a Hard Rock Café, but there is one, and it serves some pretty decent quesadillas.
After a fine lunch, we headed towards the San Felipe fortress. This hill-top fort is full of tunnels and dark old dungeons, and it offers impressive views of the whole town. From here, you can see the old town, but you can also catch a glimpse of the tall buildings of downtown Cartagena, which provide a very interesting contrast to the colonial quarter, which looks straight out of García Márquez novel.
After exploring the fortress, we went to the beach, where I got my free massage, and met some very nice people. The stretch of sand was packed due to the “velitas” holiday.
This was a typical city beach. The water was beautiful, but not crystalline. The thing that made all the difference was the occasional, fantastic Colombian music, and the atmosphere, for which the people were largely responsible.
On a different day, I decided to walk, by myself, out of the port. Some people would have called this daring, but, in reality, all I had to face were some very insistent taxi drivers. I walked along the water and crossed a bridge from which I could see the buildings of modern Cartagena towering above the trees.
I was actually strolling with the purpose of reaching the Old City, but also wishing to feel Colombia under the soles of my feet. I never actually found the Old City, but, as I progressed along the waterfront, the landscape started to change. There were black worn-out fishermen coming in in old wooden boats. There were other men loading fish into decrepit old trucks. An old black woman was dozing in front of a pile of fresh fish. Fresh colourful tropical fruits were arranged as artistically as a Diego Rivera painting. Mangoes, pineapples, cherries, avocadoes, everything looked delicious, and, above all, everything was fundamentally ALIVE; from the market´s vendors to the fishermen who looked as tired as old men and were only in their 30s, to the husband riding his bike alongside his wife and kid, or the workers sweating by the windows of the passing public bus.
Yes, it´s true; I am a woman who walked alone on Colombian streets, on the dodgy parts of town, and nobody bothered me, and I wasn´t afraid of anything. If the rest of Colombia is anything like Cartagena, then the country´s reputation of being prone to violence and crime is, to say the least, ill-deserved. Whatever the case may be, Cartagena will make you fall in love with Colombia, in spite of this beautiful country´s poor reputation.