Historical and picturesque Cartagena, Colombia Day 2

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South America » Colombia » Cartagena
June 10th 2019
Published: June 14th 2019
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We enjoyed a self serve breakfast at hotel (after we figured out it was self serve) in the open air eating area. Floor to ceiling windows opened up to the sidewalk and street. Local fresh fruit was cut and displayed such as passion fruit, all manner of melons, oranges. A variety of breads, ham, cheese and hard boiled eggs, cooked sausages, and scrambled eggs were also on the buffet. Surrounding the orange and pineapple juices was a delightfully painted mural of a tropical island with palm trees and other tropical greenery while flying alligators…wait, what?! Yes! And pink flying dolphin-flamingoes, and a flying rabbit-seagullfloated on the walls while a rabbit-frog hid in the foliage below. What wonderful art with a sense of humor….

Sam came to announce that we were to walk to the end of the street where Jorge would bus us to Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas via the long waterfront drive. Sam pointed out the venue where the US FBI was caught with hookers. We have such a wonderful reputation.

In 1568, English pirate John Hawkins attempted to occupy Cartagena. He was unsuccessful. However in 1586 the infamous English privateer and slave trader, Sir Francis Drake, who was later branded a pirate by the Spanish after he pillaged Cartagena and destroyed one quarter of the city as well as the newly built cathedral was the impetus of the construction of a pirate proof fort. Soon after the walls went up and the largest fortress built by Spain in the Americas was built. King Phillip II of Spain began this project that took until the end of the 18th century (120 years) to finish.

We walked up the steep ramp to see the cannons, walked in the secret tunnels, discovered the ammunition and gunpowder storerooms and saw the sentry boxes perched high above us. Sam told us about the various invasions and surprises the Spanish had in store for those attempting to climb or sneak into the fort, including the defeat of the famous English Admiral Edward Vernon who had just won the battle in Panama. A British canon was captured from the spoils of war and used by slaves to pull heavy loads up the fortress walls. After the Spanish Inquisition the fort was named for Phillip III to honor the new Spanish monarch. A little side note, Mount Vernon was named after Admiral Vernon because Lawrence Washington, then owner and George’s brother, had idolized Admiral Vernon, thus Mount Vernon became the name.

The Colombian flag proudly flew above the fort. It is the same as the flags of Ecuador, Venezuela, Panama and Columbia except for their unique country seals. The colors of the flag of Colombia which represent the country surrounded by two oceans, red is for blood and passion, blue for the sky and water, and yellow for gold. Colombia was the country originally with one flag. Of course there was a gift shop at the top of the fortress. Sam bought us all some ice cream, I bought a guacharaca, (a traditional Colombian musical instrument made out of sugar cane). Sam demonstrated the sounds of this instrument for me to know what I was buying. I later got to make a video of that performance.

Sam gave us some historical context about the early houses in Cartagena. Our hotel is located in the upper social area called La Merced or Mercy. The inquisition decided who built what. The houses were built as follows: a one floor or story house is considered small and less prestigious; a medium sized house might have been considered middle class; a tall house with a small balcony (the balconies often had a false bottom to appear higher) were considered to have been owned by the higher class. I began to pay closer attention to the size of the houses and their balconies.

Our next stop was at the Emerald Museum. Finally a destination where we could learn all about emeralds. Okay, here is what I learned: all emeralds are beryls. Oxide changes the color of “emeralds” to pink or yellow but those are not true emeralds. Emeralds are only green. The colored stones we saw are the same mineral but are semi precious stones, not precious. Emeralds are found in calcite veins underground. Emeralds must have occlusions to be real. Brilliance, clarity, deep color and size determine their value. Got it? Good.

We visited the beautiful emerald collection and then were guided into a room where people in white lab coats were working on polishing and cutting emeralds. I thought we had entered a prohibited area and went to turn around when instead I was given a lab coat. In fact we all were given lab coats and told to find a seat. Once we had chosen a seat we were given a black string with a rough emerald and told we were now the jewelers and must make a necklace. Most of us, especially me, fumbled a bit and were assisted by kind and patient professionals who helped us each to complete a necklace that we could keep for ourselves. To accompany our prize jewelry each of us was handed a signed certificate from the Caribe Jewelry Emerald Museum stating that we were now members of the Emerald Lovers Club, thanking us for attending the Colombian Emeralds Journey. From the workshop we were directed to, you guessed it, the sales room. Did we buy anything? Some of us did.

It was time for lunch so we headed back into the old city to eat at La Mulata on Calle Quero, a popular restaurant specializing in fish. With so much to choose from I began with my favorite Corozo drink, this time out of a bottle, while I took my time pondering the offerings. I finally chose a coconut fish soup, an order of shrimp with garlic sauce, cooked mashed plantain, and for desert coconut rice with coconut milk. Sam described the simple preparation for this dessert: cook rice in dissolved brown cane sugar then add coconut milk then salt. Delicious. Several people ordered fried snapper and were surprised to see a whole fish staring back at them. With great dexterity, Sam deboned the snapper. This may have been my favorite restaurant.

Back at the hotel we were given a lecture on the drug cartels and drug wars in Colombia. Sam went over the history of drug use and the laws that had changed. Cocaine had become so popular that almost everyone was using. In order to curb its use, a realistic law was passed that meant you could have 22grams of cocaine or marajuana for personal use. He went on to describe the gorilla fighters (FARC) who became Narc fighters. Ivan Duque and Alvaro Uribe tried taking down the peace process but Juan Manuel Santos, a game changer, who in 2014 signed a peace treaty with the FARC to become Narc fighters, continues in the ongoing struggle for peace. Santos made it impossible to take down the peace treaty because it would seriously cut education. That would not be popular. Santos was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to bring peace.

Colombia is still a major grower of cocaine. Sam said “The Mexican cartel have “associates” coming to Colombia every month but they can’t prove anything yet”. Colombia has been trying to chemically kill these plants but the chemicals so destroyed the land that the only thing that could be grown now is coca. They are still using manual labor but competing drug businesses are trying to use more chemicals to eliminate the plants. Colombia has become a land of wounded and damaged people from the gorilla wars. Now you cannot use or sell marijuana but can grow use at home. Sam recommended the book and documentary Killing Pablo Escobar by Mike Bowden.

All that talk about drugs and drug wars made my head hurt. I needed a drink and dinner. Traveling friends Maureen and Jim decided that was a good idea and joined us. As we walked to dinner we passed a wedding taking place at Santo Domingo Church. Women in flowing white dresses much like the pollera, and fancy white headpieces that held their big hair waited in the vestibule with men also in white holding large drums. We waited for some time thinking we would see the wedding procession leave the church but our growling stomachs soon turned us back to matters at hand.

We walked to the Bolivar Plaza where I remembered Sam pointing out a good restaurant upstairs with a balcony overlooking the street and plaza. The menu looked good and we went up to see if we could get a table on the balcony. Although there were no available tables right on the balcony rail, four of us were seated one row removed from the edge where we could still see and hear the sounds around us.

Montesucro Resto Bar turned out to be an upscale and trendy dining experience. This restaurant prides itself on its mostly traditional menu merging the cultures of the indigenous peoples with the Spanish culture. The romantic open air balcony overlooked the lamp lit park and had its own dimmed lamps on the stone wall at the end of the Carthaginian colonial balcony. We poured over the menu. I chose Risotto Nero, in a creamy coconut and squid ink sauce topped with fried calamari rings. Dave, whose tummy was still in challenge mode, ordered a ravioli.

While we waited for our
Friends Maureen and Jim joined us for dinner at Montesucro Bar across from Plaza BolivarFriends Maureen and Jim joined us for dinner at Montesucro Bar across from Plaza BolivarFriends Maureen and Jim joined us for dinner at Montesucro Bar across from Plaza Bolivar

The musical wedding parade marched and sang beneath our balcony
dinners we were serenaded by a guitarist who then was accompanied by a couple of lovely young toddlers who chose to dance to his music. It wasn’t long before our musician was drowned out by drumming and cheering. A wedding parade went right under our balcony passing the park heading toward the water. It was the wedding we had witnessed at Santo Domingo Church lead by the celebrants in white we had seen in the vestibule! I can confirm that this is true because the next day I was in Bolivar Plaza and ran into a couple who had flown to Cartagena from Australia to attend the wedding of friends in Santo Domingo Church that night and they had walked with the wedding party right under our balcony. Total cultural immersion.

After dinner we went for a walk heading back toward our hotel. While walking, someone remembered Sam talking about a gelato popsicle shop that was not to be missed. The walk didn’t really make me that hungry but when in Cartagena… We found La Paletteria 100 percent Artesanal conveniently located near Santo Domingo Plaza. There were light fruit offerings as well as the richer and heavier chocolate pops.
Wedding Fireworks Surround the Cathedral Wedding Fireworks Surround the Cathedral Wedding Fireworks Surround the Cathedral

We viewed the fireworks from the rooftop of our hotel.
Still in love with corozo and of course dark chocolate, I went with the corozo-chocolate pop that I somehow managed to finish! Upon leaving the Paletteria, Spiderman jumped out followed by Wonder Woman and a side kick. Lots of fun and surprises but there was more to come.

Back at our hotel I had told Jim and Maureen about the rooftop pool and viewing area accessible by the metal stairway next to our room. Curious, we all went up to the roof and were very pleasantly surprised to see a fireworks display perfectly set for our viewing, showing off the cathedral’s dome. What a delight. I am grateful to all who had a destination Cartagena wedding while we were there. It provided so much merriment and color to our visit.

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