Cartagena: Round 1

Colombia is beautiful. I’m tempted to say it’s my new favorite (over Nicaragua, which still holds as my overall favorite), but I’m going to wait until I’ve seen a bit more before I completely pass judgment!

At the beginning of my trip I thought I might lose a little weight before I return home in April. Now, I’m sure I’m going to come home fat. Since arriving in Colombia my daily caloric intake has definitely tripled – and I’m really not exaggerating. The food here is INCREDIBLE. I kept raving about the food in Panama, but it was all foreign (really, really good foreign food). Here, in Colombia, I am amazed by the traditional food! Apepas, arequipe, and pan! Arepas con queso are made of corn flour and cheese, and are basically the most delicious food I’ve ever eaten. I spent an hour today wandering the city in search of my arepa man, and when I finally found him he could tell I was coming to him since I have every day for the last 3 – he definitely knows me by now.

Arequipe is a bit like dulce de leche – a really sweet, caramel-esque substance. My favorite form to have it in is either on a stick (free, like a sample, instead of buying it by the cup – that seems like a bit much even for gordita – me), or in ice cream! Arequipe ice cream is definitely a winner, but so are all of the other flavors I saw in Cartagena! They have everything from chocolate to pistachio and everything in between. Weird flavors that I can’t even describe because I don’t really understand what they are! The pan, bread, has been good this entire trip – but it seems to be in abundance here in Colombia. Even normal rolls have so much sugar in the dough that it feels like a treat each time you eat. I love it. And it’s so cheap! Ahna bought 13 little rolls for $0.50 the other day – good deal.

Now that I’ve gone on and on about the food (aaah the food!), I suppose I’ll actually tell you about the city. Cartagena is on the Caribbean coast of Colombia (the North), and has an interesting history of jewels, pirates, and Spaniards. Cartagena was a bustling Spanish port until Cartagena kicked out the Spaniards in 1810 – then it became a rough city with lots of ugly memories for a few decades before it began to recover. The “old town” aka “pretty part” of Cartagena is the colonial area surrounded by las murallas – thick walls built up in the 16th century to protect the city.

We walked around on the wall almost as far as we could, stopping in las bovedas – what used to be used as dungeons and were later used as storage for ammunition. Today, las bovedas are a series of shops full of beautiful artwork, artisan crafts, and every other typical touristy buyable you can imagine. I’ve done a great job of not buying things thus far in the trip (mostly because I just don’t want to haul them around), but las bovedas gave me a run for my money – literally. I could have bought everything.

My favorite part of the city is simply walking down the thin streets admiring the colonial buildings. It is gorgeous, romantic, colorful, and very clean! I was amazed at the cleanliness of the city, as well as the relatively complete sidewalks. All through Central America the sidewalks are full of “gringo traps” – huge holes in the sidewalk that would definitely be a vacation ruin-er if stepped in. The sidewalks in Cartagena are flat, complete, and wide (well, normal for American standards).

Our first day in Cartagena was Sunday – we arrived on the boat at 2 in the morning, slept a bit, then left the boat for town around 7:30 in the morning. We all headed to Casa Vienna, a hostel in Getsemani – still technically part of the old town, but outside of the walls and therefore not quite as pretty, touristy, or amazing; however, only a five minute (or less) walk to the walled city. Most of us from the boat stayed in Casa Vienna or in a hostel in the same block, so we all had breakfast (most days in Cartagena!) at Gato Negro, a cute little restaurant next door which served muesli, yogurt, and fresh fruit – all things we were SO glad to eat after our interesting sailing experience.

After showering and recovering from the boat, I headed out to see the walled part of town with Ahna and Tiffany. We walked around the walls, down various streets, ate a typical set meal lunch, and headed back to join our boat group for a nice dinner. It was fun having everyone in the same location for a few days because I felt like we had become a sort of family! We spent almost 6 days in a very small space together, so we definitely are comfortable around each other.

On Monday we walked to the Castillo de San Felipe – a HUGE stone fort. We ended up walking the 15 minutes there, sweating out half of our body weight, deciding we didn’t want to pay $10 to go walk on it, and then walking the 20 minutes back and to the walled part of the city. By the time we got to the Palacio de la Inquisicion, I was not looking so pretty in my sweat-drenched tank top and shorts that are literally falling off of me (that’s a different story, but shorts are really hard to find here – I’ve been trying because I desperately need some!).

The inquisition museum was interesting, but not entirely satisfying. It was a bit creepy, and saddening, to see all of the torture instruments used back in the day. It is awful to think about what we are capable of doing to each other – and a museum like this makes it easy to see as a thing of the past (which is still disturbing), but also made me think about the injustices still happening today. Other than the torture instruments, the museum has a great display of colonial artwork, dioramas of the city (old and new), and plenty of information on the history of Cartagena.

After the inquisition museum, Tiffany and I went in search of the Emerald Museum. I had no idea that Colombia produced so many emeralds! They produce something like 70% of the world supply – but don’t quote me on that number. We realized, after being pointed in 20 different directions to el museo de esmeraldas, that each emerald store – selling emeralds in every form possible – was called a museum because they each had a little informational section. Disappointing – and I think maybe there really is one BIG museum, but we just couldn’t find it. We went into one shop, walked through a little “mine” and learned about emeralds in Colombia, before perusing the goods for a few minutes and calling it a day. I’m not huge on emeralds, so buying an emerald for a pretty good price wasn’t all that exciting to me.

After that we all split up and went wandering around the city. I had started the day alone on a run (my first run of the trip, which is sad, but also exciting!) around town, so I have pretty thoroughly explored the walled part of Cartagena by now, but it is still pleasant to just wander up and down streets looking and houses and the plants cascading off of the porches. I also got caught in a crazy rainstorm!

Monday was a bit irritating because there was a Royal Caribbean ship in town. SO many people, most of whom were really embarrassing (for me, as an American). I am so appreciative of conscientious travelers who are interested, respectful, and act in such a way that doesn’t impose on other people. The majority of the people I encountered from the cruise were not that type – but I’m sure there were exceptions. I was glad that I had seen the town on Sunday – which was sleepy, quiet, and practically void of people – before seeing it explode early Monday morning with vendors and tourists. There was even a huge difference between Monday and Tuesday, just because there weren’t hoards of tourists and the vendors weren’t as aggressive.

Tuesday was leisurely. I slept in a bit (because I am, for some reason, really quite exhausted!), took a shower, cooked a HUGE breakfast (with arepas that I bought from the grocery store!), then headed out to do some research on Peru. Things are a-changin’ and it looks like I’ll have company in Peru, so I needed to figure out a bit of a plan! Unfortunately, it looks like I’m going to have to skip 1/2 of Ecuador and 1/2 of Peru – I really just don’t have time! I need about six weeks in each of these countries to do it right, and having only two (or three in the case of Peru) is really not cutting it. Oh well – I’ll just have to come back! I wandered around town a bit before settling in at the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid with my Peru Lonely Planet and notebook.

I spent quite some time reading and jotting down ideas, before spotting a lady across the park giving a pedicure – something I desperately needed! I really just needed my toe nail polish removed (as it was in weird splotches and looked awful), but it looked fun and she was eager to paint – and it was $5. I sat there a while waiting for the woman before me to be done, chatting with both of them, and then it was my turn! Weirdest pedicure I’ve ever had, but definitely worth the experience! I asked for “something simple, but do what you want” – and I received bright pink toes with thin white french tips, and a huge white/gold/green flower on my big toe. Not exactly my style, but when in Rome … Better than huge black spots. If you need your nails done in Cartagena, go to the Plaza Fernandez de Madrid and look ask for Delia!

After my spa experience, I went to the Museo de Oro (Gold Museum) and then the modern art museum. Both were relatively small, but had enough info to make it worth it. Plus, they were both free! Maybe I don’t go to modern art museums enough in the US, but I think the art down here is quite different! The installations are often very simple, but have a different feeling than art in the US. I wish I could explain that feeling better – sorry.

I wrote this while sitting at the Cartagena airport waiting for my flight to Bogota to meet up with Stephanie and begin our tour of Colombia! The internet there is actually amazing, and the chocolate bar I bought definitely helped with my 3x caloric intake for the day (as if I wasn’t already there). I’m not exactly sure what the next two weeks hold, but I do feel like this is a big turning point in my trip! South America, here we are!

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