Historical and Picturesque Cartagena, Colombia Day 1


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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
June 9th 2019
Published: June 14th 2019
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Our 8am pickup arrived at the Hotel Central Panama to take us to the airport for our COPA airline flight to Cartagena. We were pleasantly surprised to see that jovial Roberto (“familia!”) was our bus driver. Most of our group of 21 OAT travelers were heading home, or had already left, but eight of us were heading to tour beautiful Cartagena, Colombia as an extended three day excursion. On our way to the airport we passed now familiar old buildings and were able to enjoy the contrasting modern skyline on our way to the Panama City Airport and our COPA airline flight.

After a short, comfortable flight on COPA, maybe my favorite airline now, we actually had breakfast (a delicious ham and cheese sandwich with fruit and coffee) for that two hour flight! After collecting our luggage at the Cartagena airport we were soon on a bus trip tour authored by Samuel, our Cartagena tour guide, on the way to the hotel Casa Factoria where we would spend the next three nights.

We were greeted with a welcome drink of delicious fresh Corozo juice drink in the tiny bar downstairs. I fell in love with the tart taste of this cranberry like fruit and became obsessed with finding more opportunities to taste this delicious drink. Sam then gave us the lay of the land and an overview of how we would spend the next 2 1/2 days. Our first important bit of information: Cartagena is the Capital of Bolivar state in Colombia. Samuel reminds us it is not Columbia.

Casa La Factoria by Faranda Boutique is a charming hotel in the heart of the old city, located not far from Santo Domingo Plaza. The entrance, flanked by potted broad leaved tropical plants, has an impressive black and white tiled floor that leads, on the left, to a tiny bar surrounded by wooden stools set on top of functioning bicycle pedals. The bar, as well as all the open area rooms, is filled with potted leafy plants. High ceiling fans continue to bring appreciated breezes to those who enter. The fans and the tropical greenery put us at ease right away. A stone wall interior contrasted with hanging straw fish and straw globe lights that dangled over ice cream tables and chairs in the tiny open air bar. Delightful staff was ready to serve. On the right of the entrance is a small restaurant where we would enjoy our breakfasts each day.

The front hall leads to and archway leading to an open air courtyard with more plants, a lap pool and several levels of balconies beyond. To the left was a stairway where we climbed the stone stairs to the second floor, a chandelier was hanging from the timbered ceiling. We arrived at a landing with a small table and chairs and in another corner a tall vase next to a decorative tall back seated chair. From there we followed the long Spanish balcony that was open to the pool below and the open air above. Opposite the hall’s mahogany rail balcony was a bright yellow wall adjacent to a softly painted stone wall with an inset of a painted monkey. We proceeded along the tiled floor to our our tiny room 208 at the end of the hall.

Everything in the hotel was so quaint and charming, except for our room. It was dark and cramped with closed blinds on the window facing the stairwell to the roof. The lighting in the room was sadly inadequate which made finding things a challenge. The glassed shower looked wonderful with a stone wall surround, a pretty blue and white tiled floor, and a rain shower head attached to a wood beam. I later found that the shower head would have been better placed away from the center and entrance to the shower, especially since there was little if any hot water. The sink was very attractive but clearly not designed by a woman since there was no room to put much of anything along side it. Similarly there was no place to hang wet towels or much else and there was no real closet. Worse than being on a ship!

We would later learn that the several stories of open metal stair cases, surrounded by echoing brick walls, lead to the roof top with a small pool, (massages available) and a great view of the old city. was apparently a favorite night time climb, especially in noisy high heels outside our balcony window. But…the hotel was charming…

Soon after we unpacked and were settled in our rooms, we returned to the bar where Sam gave us a lecture on the life and politics of Colombia followed by a brief history of Cartagena. I got a
Fat Lady (La Gorda Gertrudis)Fat Lady (La Gorda Gertrudis)Fat Lady (La Gorda Gertrudis)

The Fat Lady, created by sculptor Fernando Botero, sits in front of the Santo Domingo Church
little confused with the history of the competing (or waring) political parties and the drug lords (he tells us it is now safe) but this is what I gleaned about the history of Cartagena through Sam and my research. Cartagena, called the “Jewel of the Indies”, has a reputation of being the most photogenic city in the Americas (now you’re talking). And deservedly so with its colorful colonial architecture, beautiful churches and its many lovely treed squares and plazas, I felt I had landed in a cultural photography heaven.

Cartagena was founded on muddy islands in 1533 by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia (I am skipping the pre-Colombian history for now). Spanish sailors were the first to settle here to start a new life bringing with them their families.The population grew to about 200. They built a wooden church that in 1552 burned to the ground along with all the other wooden structures. After that the governor ordered all replacements be built of stone. The new residents of Cartagena discovered treasure buried in ancient indigenous tombs and this new wealth made the town rich (and put them on the pirate map).

By the end of the 16th century it became clear that they needed protection so a wall and fortress were built to protect their new-found wealth. By the 17th century the King of Spain ordered the city of Cartagena to become a hub for the slave trade, adding to the city’s coffers. Cartagena became the most important trading capital of South America later exporting oil, platinum, coffee, sugar, tobacco and textiles. In 1974 Cartagena erected the Monumento a la India Catalina at the entrance to the Old Town in tribute to the Carib Indians.

It was finally time to explore romantic Cartagena. Sam took us on a walking tour to get our bearings. We began our walk to see the nearby Plaza y Templo de Santo Domingo. Known as one of the most iconic squares in Cartagena, Santo Domingo Plaza is also the most touristy. With several restaurants facing the square and tables and chairs for sitting it was one busy place. The famous reclining Fat Lady “La Gorda Gertrudis” brass sculpture sits in the plaza directly outside the Santo Domingo church and is often the object of a photo op. She was created by sculptor Fernando Botero who is known for his creations of people with exaggerated body shapes. This square also has a grim history for it once served as a market for slave trading where several corrals or deposits of enslaved Africans were held for later distribution.

The Convento de Santo Domingo, founded in 1551, and built in 1539, is the oldest church in Cartagena. It was a monument to baroque architecture favored by the Catholic Church during the Spanish Colonial period. 1529 was the first arrival of the Dominican Friars to evangelize Spain’s conquest. The early church maintained a community of friars of the Dominican Order here until the 19th century. Sam brought us inside the to see this historic church. It was surprisingly bright inside the lofty and spacious interior. The warm glow of sunshine on the gold walls of the altar contrasted with the deep blue dome and drew you forward, into the holy space. The floor in front of the high baroque altar is paved with old tombstones dating back to the 19th century.

An unusual metal and wood spiral staircase located toward the back of the church was used to provide access to the mezzanine. I was most impressed by the striking image of Christ carved in 18th century wood. The statue of Christ is displayed to the right of the altar tucked away out of view of the back of the church which means you really need to approach the altar to see it as well as the tombstones on the floor. To my mind, the statue steals the show with the black carving of Christ against the pale blue back lighting. It was most impressive. The Virgin Mary of Transition on the right hand side of the church is in repose with her crown of gold and emeralds.

Legend has it that the church’s tower is a little tilted because the devil showed up a few days before construction was finished and tried unsuccessfully to topple it. It does remain a bit tipsy. Apparently the construction crew were not adept at calculations. the unusually large central nave and covered by a heavy roof posed problems. Later on the vault began to crack so massive buttresses had to be added to the walls to support the structure and prevent it from collapsing. There were also problems with the quadrangular bell tower, which is still definitely crooked.

We wandered down to the popular San Pedro Claver Square or San Pedro Plaza. Here we found locals as well as tourists walking about or relaxing on the many benches. This plaza, and San Pedro Church is named after San Pedro, a Colombian saint known as the Patron Saint of Slaves. A compassionate San Pedro, sculpted by the famous sculptor Medelin, stands proudly in the little square. It was made out of brass showing San Pedro ministering to a slave. Other sculptures populate this square like the one made from found metal objects, now a rusty metal, representing a Palenqueras, a woman carrying a basket of fruit on her head by Edgardo Carmona who is known for his “trash art.” I will talk more about him later.

Many women (they are everywhere!) known as Las Palenqueras, or Fruit Basket Ladies, wearing traditional brightly colored full-skirted dresses carrying baskets of fruit on their heads, were hawking their photo-op business, most especially around San Pedro Square. They would parade around displaying their full skirts which was fun to see. But sometimes they became so pushy and rude and persistently in your face, wanting their pictures taken for money. I succumbed to one, taking a few photos to make her go away but when she demanded more money than was agreed upon or understood, she got angry and this photographer got fed up and walked away. Warning, if you want to take their photos, you must have between $3-5 dollars in hand. More than that is not necessary.

From here we moved on to the Plaza de La Aduana or Custom’s Square located near the entrance to the city from the old wall. The main building is the old colonial customs house where Don Pedro de Heredia, founder of Cartagena, had once lived. This open plaza is one of the largest spaces in the Old City. It is bordered by imposing city walls made of coral and rock. In the center of this square sits a statue of Christopher Columbus and, quite inappropriately, next to Columbus is a statue of an indigenous woman. Columbus was not a friend to the people he conquered in the name of Spain.

I later learned that there is an historic Slave Route, part of a UNESCO project called “The Route of the Slave: Resistance, Freedom and Heritage” which highlights areas of entrance and slave trading in Cartagena such as the Plaza
Square of CarsSquare of CarsSquare of Cars

Many tourists enter Cartagena's old city through this wall.
de Los Coches (Cars Plaza), Plaza de la Aduana (Custom’s Square), and San Pedro Plaza putting a different light on these and other areas in Cartagena.

Over 1.1 million captive African Americans entered the docks at Cartagena. According to the Atlanta Black Star, “the Spanish Crown had the system of trafficking African souls down to a grizzly science, and made it their most profitable business according to the governor of Cartagena Province during the 16th century. In his words, he confirms, 'the business of Blacks' is the largest and the most profitable business we have,’ and it would continue to be so along with its auxiliary economic effects for the next two and a half centuries until this vile institution’s end in Colombia on Jan 1, 1852.” Cartagena had been the principle point of entry for the slave trade in the Americas.

Around the bend we walked into another open space known as the Square of Cars or Plaza de Los Coches, so named because the mayor allowed cars to park in front of the numerous sweet shops that line the edge of the square. This is also known as the Portal de Los Dulces and Sam pointed out that you can find the best sweets in Cartagena here.

Facing the sweet shops is the Clock Tower (Torre del Reloj) landmark built on the edges of the walled old city. Sam said this a good point of reference when you get lost wandering the many narrow and winding streets of Cartagena. Through the Clock Tower’s walkway and on the other side of the clock tower is a large thoroughfare and a park that has tents as far as you can see with vendors selling anything from tee shirts, to sweets and souvenirs.

The Clock Tower was built in 1601 to connect, via drawbridge, Getsemani, the beautiful art community, with old Cartagena. It was originally known as “La Boca del Puente” or Mouth of the Bridge, and considered the principal entrance to the city. At one time it contained a chapel and a weapons room, nice combination! The tower was rebuilt in the 1800s to contain a pendulum clock, later replaced in the 1900s with a Swiss clock that is still in operation today.

From there we ended up at the updated Crepes and Waffles with its Spanish interior and beamed and tiled ceiling for a 4PM-ish “lunch”. Sam had warned us that the service is slow in Cartagena but since we hadn’t eaten since our mini ham and cheese sandwich on the plane that morning, our patience was not in the best form compounded by the fact that Dave was very hungry after having fasted from his stomach problems in Panama the day before. Dave looked at the menu and immediately ordered a Mozzarella and Tomato Crepe, sort of a Cartagena pizza that consisted of a large folded crepe soaked in tomato sauce and covered with shredded cheese. I ordered a ham, cheese and mushroom crepe with a “limonada de coco” to drink. I expected a French crepe stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms. What I got was a large crepe smothered in a thick gravy that happened to have some ham, mushrooms, and maybe cheese. I would not order that again. From what I had read, the limonada de coco was the drink to get in Cartagena but learning that Colombians (as well as Panamanians) are known for their sweet tooth(s) I should have realized that this would be too sweet for me, but being thirsty I drank it greedily. Travel is a learning opportunity on so many levels.

While waiting for the food to arrive I decided to explore the restaurant by starting with the restroom. While there I discovered a stairway leading up. Curious as I am, up I went and ended on the rooftop of the restaurant. Tables and chairs were set about to enjoy the lovely views of the church domes of San Pedro, the Cathedral and the old city by the sea. The weather couldn’t have been better with a cooling breeze from the Caribbean in the late afternoon sun. I was surprised no one was up there especially since the restaurant was noisy and packed below, but I took the time to enjoy it by myself.

After lunch we all separated into groups to explore. Dave went back to the hotel and I went in pursuit of emeralds. I had a lot to learn. Across from Crepes and Waffles is an emerald store that had a sign saying it was recommended by various cruise lines. I went in. The staff were delighted to see me, offered me a beer or glass of wine, gave me a bag of coffee and after trying on several emerald rings, promised that they could make or adjust any ring for me and have it within 24 hours. Sheesh! Then they showed me the rough emeralds and what it would take to polish and end up with a salable item. I love rocks of any sort, even if they are not precious stones, and they told me to pick one and take it with me. I chose a nice pale green rough stone that I will keep with my special collections. They really wanted my business. Since this was my very first shop I said I would consider it and come back. Many more shops yet to see!

I wanted to catch the sunset so walked towards the water and at the sea wall where several wedding photos were in preparation before sunset. There was a young woman in a bright blue dress being photographed, was it bridal, graduation, confirmation related? I don’t know but she was very sweet young lady so I decided to take some photos of her too, but then I realized my sunset shot was soon to go down so I ran the length of the wall I was on only to find when I got to the end that I was unable to get off the wall and missed the actual sunset on the Marina Park, because the sun was going down amidst the trees and buildings (and I was stuck high up a wall, or is that a creek?)

Back to emerald shopping. I figured I would be practical and work my way back to the hotel in this search. I stepped out of one of the emerald stores and was immediately followed by an energetic man who promised to take me to “the best” shop for emeralds. I thanked him but politely said no. Three shops later and he was still following me. Around Bolivar Plaza I gave in, mostly because I needed help finding my way back to the hotel and it was getting dark. After three more shops on his insistence (I felt sorry for him) I got some directions to Casa Factoria but still got lost ending up spending a frustrating half hour going from shop to shop for more directions.

Back at the hotel at 7:30PM I found Dave waiting patiently. Since we had had such a large “lunch” at close to 5PM, Dave and I decided we wanted a “little something” before retiring. Sam and his girlfriend Kate recommended Mila for a chocolate or pastry snack. Mila is only about three blocks from the hotel and across the street from the wonderful Abaco Bookstore Cafe. Chocolate, Pastry? We were on it!

Mila is a charming little restaurant that had no noticeable sign out front. We went into the Abaco Bookstore to ask directions and they pointed across the street. Duh. The white walls are covered by heavy vines and Mila is faintly inscribed on the windows along a repetition of stenciled gold chickens. The “Mila sign” is inside the open archway leading to the inset door. How is one to know? But they are very popular and obviously other people found it. With so many options to choose from, do we do a late night salad or sandwich, or do we check out the dessert case? With so much to choose from, flan, chocolate cake or brownie, we chose the coconut pie and Dave had tea while I went for another try at the limonada de coco. This one was a hit. My only problem was I wanted to return to try every single thing in that dessert case!


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Another wedding celebration in CartagenaAnother wedding celebration in Cartagena
Another wedding celebration in Cartagena

This couple stopped in the street for a wedding shoot


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