Cartagena on Colombia’s Caribbean coast is the country’s top tourist destination and has an incredibly rich history. It’s a wonderful place to spend a few days soaking up the atmosphere of a bygone age. The buildings in the old colonial centre have been immaculately restored and the city boasts some impressive forts. There are also city beaches as well as some islands waiting to be explored. What more could you ask for? Well, fewer tourists and more authenticity for a start.
Sadly, the truth is that Cartagena is a victim of its own success and has changed almost beyond recognition in the 18 years since I first came here. The danger of similar places around the world is that they become little more than outdoor museums, lacking the vibrancy and vitality of a real place where real people live. In fact, they don’t. They live outside the Centro Histórico, since all the buildings there are now boutique hotels, top end restaurants and glitzy jewellery shops.
I was happy to stay outside the main tourist ghetto in the gritty neighbourhood of Torrices and enjoy a real Colombian experience, while making short journeys into the centre. Prices are high for the major sights as they are catering to the international visitor who’s probably just stepped off a cruise ship, but there are still a few cheap local places to eat.
While Lima in Peru was the Spanish administrative centre during colonial times for the Andean south of the continent, Cartagena de Indias, to give it its proper full title, ruled over the northern province of Nueva Granada, encompassing Central America and Venezuela as well. All the wealth from the region flowed through here on its way back to Spain and consequently the city was often under attack, including by the English captain, Sir Francis Drake. A huge fort was eventually built to defend the city, the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, which is well worth a visit.
In the centre a great museum is the Palacio de la Inquisición. No, I didn’t expect the Spanish Inquisition either, but they were a huge presence here from 1610 onwards spreading terror and hatred towards anyone who thought differently from the Catholic Church’s view of the world. A timely reminder that intolerance of different points of view and opinions has been around for centuries. At sunset the thing to do is walk along the old city walls and watch the sun dip behind the Caribbean.
My favourite trip was to the Fuerte de San Fernando, a fort at one of the sea entrances to the city in the bay near Bocachica. The journey there by local boat was the highlight as it made a few stops at fishing villages.
A couple of hours north along the coast lies the grimy port city of Barranquilla. The contrast with Cartagena couldn’t be more different. It’s a real working city with few vestiges remaining of its colonial history and consequently there’s little reason to come here. Except it puts on one of the biggest Carnivals not only in Colombia but the whole of the Americas and luckily I had planned my visit to coincide with this huge party.
Things kicked off on Saturday with the parade of the Batalla de las Flores on Via 40. I hadn’t bought a ticket in the stands so I wasn’t able to see much, which was disappointing. My recommendation would be to splash out on a seat or get there early. On Sunday there was another huge parade down Calle 46 which was more open to people just standing at the sides.
My favourite day, however, was Joselito Se Va con las Cenizas on Tuesday when Jose, a fictitious local character, dies and people gather to mourn over his ashes. It’s symbolic of the last day of Carnival, but it’s a whole lot of fun. The widows in black are sometimes not all they seem, as dragging up for the occasion seemed very popular.
Although I was a little disappointed by Cartagena, it’s still a must see destination, but it helps to be aware that it’s overhyped and overexploited. Barranquilla during Carnival, however, certainly lived up to its expectations. It’s also much cheaper and much safer than carnival in Rio de Janeiro.