Dipping our first toes into South America, we skipped the planned excursion and struck out on our own in Cartegna, Columbia. From the very first, we loved it. Yes, the port has the typical cruise ship and container ship busy-ness but as you pass through the duty free zone you are greeted by monkeys in trees, pink flamingos, peacocks and parrots, but not in a caged, overly contrived petting farm kind of way (this in contrast to other ports which typically offer a much less appealing welcome).
Upon exiting the terminal, we ran the usual gauntlet of taxis and tour operators and met up with Jorge. We did our best to dodge him, but his persistence in trying to help explain how to walk into town won us over and, at risk of being taken, going for his forty dollar offer to tour us around. He had lived in New Jersey for eight years and his English was perfect (better than many americanos). He hailed us all a cab and we were deposited at the The Clock Tower Gate the entry to the old walled city.
He walked us briskly through the heat and humidity (the normal amount for the cooler season, per Jorge) around the old city for a couple of hours and hilariously would read the English translations of the descriptions of building and squares, but gave us a great orientation to the area. That said, he really did know his stuff and gave us a great tour and we would use him again if we had to do it all over.
Cartegna was settled on land occupied by Amerindians in 1533 and has prospered throughout its history. Initially, the settlers discovered the tombs of the Sinus tribe contained all of its occupant’s possessions, from which they happily relieved the occupant. That initial boon, compounded by the port’s proximity to the isthmus of Panama (part of Columbia up until the mid 1800s) for shipping wealth and for Cartegna being named one of two cities in the Americas allowed by Spain to trade slaves led to it being very prosperous. The city’s prosperity also made it a target for many pirate attacks and as such, the city was walled and the fortress of San Felipe de Barajas was built to stave off such attacks.
We cut Jorge loose at lunch time and found a great lunch at Alma in the Casa San Augustin hotel. We ate delicious frutti di mare pasta and sea bass with lobster empanadas and some great dark Columbian beer.
Once Jorge-less, we retraced our steps and went to the Palace of the Inquisition, now a history museum, most of which is dedicated to the Inquisition.
The former slave market has been transformed into a market called Plaza de las Bovedas (much like the one in Charleston SC) where local artisans sell their wares. We walked along the walls of the old city to this market and landed at Malanga for a pre-ship return copa de vino with much needed agua con gas.
Both of us hold Gabriel Garcia-Marquez’s “Love in the Time of Cholera” in our top 10 books of all time and we felt transformed back into the streets of Florentino Ariza and Fermina Daza. The bougainvillea spills out of many windows, the colorful buildings embrace you with open arms, the colonial and republican architecture of the old City contrasts with the skyline of skyscrapers of the Bocagrande, the City feels safe (dispelling, hopefully accurately, the myths of impending kidnap) and is super clean (no poop strewn European sidewalks in el barrio del Viejo, amigos).
Upon our return to ship, we were greeted by a can-can line of Viking Cruise staff (with champagne) capping off a splendid day. Muchas gracias Cartegna, we will return. Hasta luego.
For more on Cartegna and it’s history, check out these sites: