Sunday, November 14, 2010

Cartagena (car-tah-hay-na)

After two or so weeks of fun in beautiful Cartagena, our time has finally come to an end. I´m now sitting in my hostel in Santa Marta, waiting for the bus to pick us up to go find the ´Lost City´or ´El Ciudad Perdida´ (more on that in our next post).
Cartagena is a georgeous colonial city of about 2 million inhabitants. Although by our standards, this is a very large city, Cartagena actually has a small town feel to it. The central section of Cartagena is sectioned off from the rest of the city with a giant fortified wall (and ocean). This area is composed of three parts: Getsemani, San Diego, and Central. The landscape in this area is absolutely stunning. Picture Spanish city from the 1800´s, with cobble stone streets, horse drawn carriages, white-wash buildings that are painted bright colours, which is frozen in time, and you have Cartagena. This area is reasonably small, meaning it´s quite possible to walk from A to B, and even though you can cab anywhere for about $2, we found walking was the best (to enjoy the people and the sights).
In Cartagena, the people are very friendly, very inviting, and for all you nay sayers, Colombia is absolutely safe now (at least Cartagena, from our experience)! Lydia and I spent our time in Cartagena mostly taking Spanish lessons, walking around the city, and enjoying the beaches (Bocagrande). We confirmed our notion when we first arrived in Colombia that strong Spanish skills are drastically needed here, so we thought a good way for us to ramp up our Spanish was to take two weeks of lessons at the BABEL school. We found the teachers there to be really friendly and quite good at what they do. Unfortunately, it takes a little more than two weeks to learn a language, so we´re still pretty useless when it comes to conversations, but we´re getting much better at reading and putting piecemeal sentences together!

Cartagena's most famous monument is a statue of the 'old shoes', which is a tribute to Cartagena paid by the local poet Luis Carlos (and sculpted by Tito Lambrano). Not having read the poem, I can't give you any idea why this comparison is made (and taken with such pride, given the fact that he compares the city to OLD SHOES), but all I can say is that they must have been some damn fine boots as it is on proud display in front of the city's main attraction - the castillo de San Felipe de Baras, a colosal 16th century fort designed to protect the city from pirates.

On one of our first days in the city, Lydia and I toured through the fort. After the tour, Lydia and I decided that we were not going to be able to sack Cartagena for all of its booty, so we were just going to be beach bum tourists instead.

The view from atop of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.... Nope, no pirates approaching!

During our time in Cartagena, Lydia and I stayed at Casa Viena, a local hostel. To put things into perspective (with respect to cost of living here), Lydia and I paid about $20 a day to stay in the room, and about $5 each for terrific meals (i.e. crepes for breakfast, roast chicken for lunch, and steaks for dinner). That being said, we shouldn't have too much trouble stretching our budget without starving here. The picture above is our buddy 'Laundry Cat' who used to sneak in through our balcony while we were away for spanish lessons and sleep on our clothes during the afternoon. He was very cute, but was a little annoyed each day when we would have to kick him out to get our clothes whenever we got back.
A splash of a Cartagenian street. Colourful, historic, beautiful!

One of the many beautiful churches or iglesias within Cartagena (from outside and within). This particular church (San Pedro Claver Cathedral) had to be rebuilt after Sir Francis Drake bombarded it with cannon fire until the locals handed over all their city's fortune. Sir Francis Drake then skipped town with all the wealth, neglecting to pay the neighbouring army that helped in his seige. This then led to a second attack of Cartagena by the army that wasn't paid for the first attack. Unfortunately, Sir Francis Drake had all of Cartagena's gold by that time, so there was little the locals could do. I'll have to remember such tactics if I ever want to become a nobleman (such as SIR Francis Drake): armed robery + cut and run = highest honour from the queen!
Apparently, the cannon fire blasted out the Cathedral's colums (pictured above), crippling the church. A couple hundred years and a few coats of paint later, the church is back in fine shape.

The statue above may look familiar to the style of the Berlin statues shown in our Germany blog. This work is done by the Colombian artist Fernando Botero, or as I like to call him, Sir Mix-A-Lot. His work is depicted in statue and painting form across the world, but in particular in his native Colombia. Personally, both Lydia and I are huge fans of his work, and will likely have to fit at least a few replicas in our pack on the way home.

Lydia and I attempting to become like Botero works of art via eating golden chocolate cake.
One of the most surprising things that we found out in Cartagena was that our good friend Verity used to be a Colombian emerald model while she was in high school! Verity, why didn't you ever tell us about this?!
Unfortunately, our time in Cartagena wasn't all sunshine. By about the fourth day in the city, the storm clouds started to roll in, and stayed for the rest of our time in the city. Daily violent thunder and lightning storms, coupled with terrential rain resulted in city-wide flooding. The storms didn't come as much of a surprise to us, as we knew it was the tail end of the hurricane season for the region, but the lack of city-wide irrigation, contributing to massive flooding was a hard one to grasp. How a city with obvious wealth can go without a basic irrigation system is beyond me.
The storm is a coming!

A video of the flooding in Cartagena (taken 2 minutes away from our hostel).
The flooding depicted above is just the tip of the iceberg. One of the teachers from our Spanish school described the region of Cartagena where he lived as being under about 3 feet of water. The man was devastated at the fact that the storm hit while he was at school, meaning he was not able to return home to help his sister and mother save their belongings from the flood (as all transportation routes were flooded as well). The next day, he said that the flooding in his house was chest-deep, and that all his family's belongings were destroyed in the flood. He was enraged by the fact that the same thing happens every year in Cartagena (as well as many other regions in Colombia), yet aside from a few charitable donations to those affected, his government does nothing to solve the problem (i.e. create a bloody irrigation system).

Our last days in Cartagena were spent celebrating the Miss Colombia pagent (held annually in Cartagena, tied in with Cartagena's Independence Day celebration on November 11th). Colombia goes absolutely nuts over the Miss Colombia pagent! The city errupts into a week long party for the girls (and for Cartagena). Lydia was disappointed, because we found out after the fact that Shakira gave a free concert for the event! Above you can see the Miss-Colombia-to-be clones (all of whom were about 5'9, 110lbs, long brown hair, etc.).

One thing I can tell you for sure about Colombians is that they know how to party! Like all good Colombian parties, we started out our Cartagenian Independence Day celebration with a bottle of rum.

.....well, maybe a few bottles of rum ;)

The Cartagenian Independence Day and or Miss Colombia pageant turns into a city-wide foam, paint and flour fight. Watch the video above for a better description, but long story short, everyone in the city is armed with giant shaving cream bottles of foam, bags full of flour, handfulls of paint, and absolutely everyone is fair game.... especially gringos!

Lydia and I must have gone through about 10 bottles of spray foam to protect ourselves from the foam carnage within Cartagena that day. I can't express how much fun it was at this event. Young and old, rich and poor, locals and foreigners, EVERYONE was spraying everyone all day. It didn't matter if you were off to work or heading for the parade, you were going to get sprayed.

Foam-rambo Lydia!

One of Lydia's many victims of the day.

This little kid thought that the 'spray the gringo in the face' game was especially fun, so he decided to follow me around for the whole day and continually launch sneak attacks on me. At the end of the day, when he ran out of foam (finally), I managed to hunt him down and get him back!
If you notice the military presence in the background, it is to be noted that it is a good idea not to take too many valuables with you to this celebration for two reasons. One, it is a giant foam, water, flour, paint, etc. fight, so your belongings are bound to get ruined (I protected my camera with a waterproof case). Two, there are a lot of pickpockets that pray on people during the festivities. First, someone sprays you in the eyes with foam, second, someone throws flour in your face, then, before you know it, you have five dudes going through your pockets (searching for your wallet). This happened to just about everyone I knew (including myself and Lydia), but we knew about it ahead of time, so we didn't have anything on us). There's worse ways to rob someone than this slap-stick snatch and grab, so I still wholey recommend this festival as a must do!

Cartagena is a beautiful and vibrant town full of colour, music, and fun! Lydia and I managed to both have a lot of fun, take in a lot of beach fun, and learn a lot about the Colombian people, history, and language while we were there.
Next stop, Santa Marta and La Ciudad Perdida!


  1. Hey Lydia and Tyrone! My mom told me I had to check out your web site and... Wow! What a fantastic adventure. Great job documenting it too!

  2. Looks like you guys are not having a lot of fun! To bad!! What an adventure! I will keep checking back for updates!