Cartagena, The Magic City

Our tour guide talks a lot, which is good. He talks about his own life, the Colombian lifestyle, exotic flowers, shiny peacocks by the road, houses and women.


He obviously and genuenly loves Colombian women. Matorel praises the beauty he gets to enjoy each day “think of seeing ‘hips don’t lie’ Shakira and ‘Modern Family’ Sophia Vergera kinda figures, hair, face each and every day.”


We’re driving through parts of the city that show there’s a development boom going on and Matorel proudly explains all the plans his city has for making it even more inviting. Someone asks about the destructive cartels this country unfortunately is known for, but according to our guide they are yesterday’s news. At least in Cartagena. (He mentions the Escobars of Medellin and explains that Pablo’s wife and child are now anti-drug activists in their new home country, Argentina). Later, as we head back to our ship, driving by the harbor area, he tells a story of a narco sub that was publicly raided here in Cartagena – those submarines are more difficult to trace and catch than planes or regular cargo ships. “In the walled city (the old part of the town) people can still keep their doors unlocked – Cartagena is a safe place to live”.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
Castillo San Felipe de Bajaras in Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, founded by Pedro de Heredia in 1533, was the most important harbor city of the colonial Spain around here. The city wall, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was built to protect the city from invaders. As we make a stop at the magnificent fortress Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, our guide Matorel tells Cartagena was a busy port for goods coming and going to and from Europe. From this city Peruvian silver was exported to the overseas empire, endless numbers of African slaves were transported to South America.

Those times the Caribbean was filled with war ships from different European kingdoms, not to forget the notorious pirates, attacks and battles were frequent. Pirates terrorised the city often, names like Francis Drake were feared for a reason. Among other empires, England was after new ports and tried to take over the city. However, due to Cartagena’s location near the Equator, the weather can get extreme (average temperatures over 30 degrees Celsius) and death toll in battle was high, yellow fever and other tropical diseases made matters worse. You can guess the rest. Did the English stay here? Nope.

We arrived Cartagena by Norwegian Jade, our ship was one of the three that arrived that day. Our guide told he is happy about the visitors and the developing tourism, however he is worried about the fact that the city does not seem to have the resources to actually deal with all the tourists at the same time. As tour buses row the old, narrow streets we get the point.

We hopped off the bus to wander around the old Cartagena, a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well, with our quide. He told us stories of the pretty streets lined by the most colorful, colonial houses, balconies filled with flowers. Hard to imagine what happened in the cruel Palace of Inquisition, the home to Holy office of Inquisition punishing people of such claimed crimes as witchcraft, bigamy and homosexual behaviour. Neighbours had to fear each other, nobody was safe.

But this is where the Cartagena magic surrounds you and if you are into diving into stories, dreams, utopias – this is the place. One of the most famous Colombians, Gabriel García Márquez, the Nobel Prize-winning giant of magical realism, set the novel Love in the time of Cholera here. Plaza Bolívar, where Márquez liked to spend time getting inspired, gathers people to the shade of the giant trees. People of all ages sit on benches and enjoy fresh fruit or ice cream bought from the palenqueras, fruit basket women cutting refreshing slices of water melon, pineapple and cantaloupe. Palenqueras look like exotic birds in their Carmen Miranda dresses and posing with them is popular among tourists.

There are vendors of all sorts around the square (“Would you like a beautiful set of earrings or a bracelet, maybe some precious stones, miss? Special price for you..”) and dance performances entertain at the square as they have probably done for decades before. The styles may have changed, though, as we walked through the square there was an energetic breakdance group performing.

Across Plaza Bolívar the arcade is another place to hide from the cruel rays of the sun. Columbians are obsessed with beauty pageants and here you can see pictures of the most recent, famous beauties by the headquarters of the national beauty pageant organization. Another famous export are Columbian emeralds and on one side of the square you can visit a small museum devoted to this beautiful, green stone.

The cafes and restaurants are more than inviting, so are the alleys and streets we didn’t have time to explore. But our tour guide gathers us together and we wander back to our bus to return the ship. Cartagena made it to our “will return” list. We need more time to flaneur and dream, Márquez chose a perfect place to get inspired.

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