The white buildings of Bocagrande shine behind us in the bright morning sun, stacked like Jenga block towers rising into a pale blue sky.
We speed through the tightly packed suburbs of Cartagena’s modern district, often on the left-hand side of the road, sometimes on the right. I pump my imaginary foot brake in subdued desperation as our taxi driver swoops towards a red light, seemingly convinced it’s about to turn green. It doesn’t, but my face does as he slams brakes.
I stoically reach for my seat belt and click it into place in one fluid motion. He continues with a carefree conversation on his mobile, laughing and agreeing wholeheartedly with many things, and flashes me a grin when I catch his eye in the rear-view mirror.
With sleep and rum still lurking, my friend and I had set out to enjoy a rare day off during a frantic cruise schedule around the Caribbean and Virgin Islands. We had docked in sunny Cartagena, and even though our time was limited, it was one of the best places I had seen during my time abroad working as an art gallery director and sales associate on-board the Celebrity Equinox.
My travels took me from ports across the Mediterranean to the tropical shores of the Caribbean and US Virgin Islands, with a few stormy transatlantic crossings thrown in for good measure. This is one memory from that adventure …
Facing the Caribbean Sea to the west, Cartagena is a city that has seen numerous wars and white flags, pirate raids and revolutions. Gold, emeralds and silver flowed through here in abundance during an age of swashbuckling Spanish and British colonialism – riches seen in the opulent old mansions and colonial architecture that still stands today.
We were heading (at great speed) towards Old City, Cartagena’s famous historical epicentre. It’s a small, colourful world of ancient churches, palaces and hanging gardens hidden away by Las Murallas, the renowned military walls built after Sir Francis Drake’s naval assault of Cartagena in 1586.
The city’s popularity was a touch more violent back then, as pirate raids and violent storms would see construction of Las Murallas only finish two centuries later in 1796. Amazingly they’re still in good shape today; strong and imposing, yet weathered enough to hint at their history.
And it was outside these walls we soon stood – at Torre del Reloj, the clock tower and central archway leading into Old Town.
Restaurants, homes, shops, government buildings and historical landmarks all share the same space here; a kaleidoscope of orange, purple, blue, green, yellow and white, with lush gardens falling from wooden terraces and balconies. Congested streets humming with people open up to grand plazas and tropical squares. Street vendors peddle everything from artworks, fruit, beer, cigarettes, hats and clothes, all played out to the upbeat tunes of the city’s buskers.
The iconic Las Palenqueras call out to passing tourists, hoping to sell some of the fresh fruit balancing delicately on their heads, their brightly coloured dresses catching the sun.
Every turn takes you somewhere interesting, the city’s history pulsating in every building. The locals are helpful and friendly, even if a few are trying to make a quick buck off you.
We pass the impressive Plaza de la Proclamacion (Place of Proclamation), a municipal HQ originally built as a cathedral (once called Plaza de la Catedral) but renamed centuries later in 1811, when hundreds of people gathered outside its archways to support government officials signing the Act of Independence, freeing Cartagena from Spanish rule.
We run into Old Town’s self-proclaimed Picasso, entertaining a small crowd on the sidewalk by creating incredible artworks in under two minutes using only his hands and a tiny brush. Nearby, a troupe of dancers clap rhythmically, keeping time while they take turns to breakdance in the street.
A little further on, we come across a City Sightseeing Red Bus tour as we enter the courtyard outside Cartagena’s oldest church, the Convento de Santo Domingo.
An enthusiastic tour guide points to ancient pillars that jut from the sides of the main structure, explaining that they don’t actually contribute to its structural integrity, and no one really knows why they exist. Over the centuries, two stories have emerged that try to explain their presence.
One paints a picture of superstitious locals who were petrified that the devil himself would come marauding through town, hell-bent on destroying their first tribute to God by booting it into the stratosphere. And so extra reinforcement was added.
The second is more romantic. It was said that the architect met a girl living across the street from the church shortly after construction began. As they fell in love, he devised ways to keep himself on site for longer (like building random pillars), ensuring that they had more time together before he moved on to other epic and unknown historic projects.
You’ll find interesting anecdotes like this all over the city.
Behind us, tourists are groping the buxom brass bosoms of the Fat Lady, a large statue created by famed Medellin artist Fernando Botero, who specialised in creating artworks that exaggerated the human figure.
We were spoiled for choice when it came to choosing a restaurant – Old Town is packed with them. The only warning I had received prior to docking was “watch out for the tourist menus”. Apparently restaurants have a few menus they set aside with inflated prices when tourists come knocking, but luckily we didn’t see any tomfoolery. I don’t know whether it’s true or not, but it can’t hurt to keep in mind.
We grabbed a few beers and spent the rest of our jaunt relaxing in the church square.
Cartagena is a city that is truly alive; a place that lives and breathes its rich and varied history. But importantly, it’s a place that demands more time – a few days, at least. We didn’t even get to experience the night life, and I’ve only heard good things. I left promising myself that I’d return and give her the attention she so deserved, and I still intend to.