29-31 July: Slap bang on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, with prime maritime access to Central, North and South America, Cartagena was, and still is, a very important city.
Founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistadors, Cartagena soon became an important trading post. This did not escape the attention of real life pirates of the Caribbean who attempted to plunder the city many times. Sir Francis Drake invaded and captured Cartagena in 1586, demanding a present day ransom of USD 200 million to return it to the Spanish.
After this the Spanish set about building a lot of forts to protect the city. Engineering works took over 200 years and Cartagena ended up with over seven miles of walls, and a number of impressive fortresses, to protect her from marauding invaders. When the defenses were finished in 1756, the city was considered impregnable. The walls and forts remain one of the most identifiable features of the city today.
Cartagena became a major trading port for precious metals: gold and silver from the mines all over Latin America – worked by indigenous forced labour. The preserved colonial charms of the old town hide other guilty secrets. Cartagena was also a slave port; Cartagena and Veracruz (Mexico) were the only cities authorized to trade African slaves. This helps to explain the big African cultural influence that is still present today.
What’s more, in the 1600s the Catholic Monarchs of Spain established the Inquisition Holy Office Court in Cartagena. It was one of three seats of the Inquisition in the Americas, and in the quest to maintain the orthodoxy of the Catholic faith dispatched many innocent people in various gruesome ways. The Inquisition disappeared when Spain surrendered in 1821 to the troops led by the great, Latino liberator Simon Bolivar.
We spent longer in Cartagena than intended, and it was a great decision to do so. With our fantastic couchsurfing host, Mario we explored parts of the city that tourists don’t get to see. With a population of one million people there are neighbourhoods that range from high rise, swanky tower blocks to industrial maritime zones; from the quaint old town to quiet residential neighbourhoods; from sterile strip malls to the full-on sensory experience of the street market.
Mario made sure that we sampled as many delicious local foods as possible while we were in Cartagena including ‘arepas con huevo’ (fried corn pockets stuffed with egg and meat); fresh, ‘parga’ fish with coconut rice; plus many, many different tropical fruits – lulu, tomates de arbol, guanabana… Eating our way around new places is one of our favourite pastimes, we were in seventh heaven.
Culinary activities aside, Mario also took us on a muddy cycle adventure out to Playa Blanca – involving a section slipping and sliding down a dirt track with mud variously the consistency of chocolate mousse and sticky toffee pudding! Our poor bikes – no sooner were they released from five days strapped to the mast of a yacht, soaked in saltwater, that they were plunged, pedal-deep into the mud! They survived however, and much fun was had by all.