Cartagena and Barranquilla – a Tale of Two Caribbean Cities

Cartagena

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. 

Cartagena

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.

Cartagena

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. 

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

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. 

Palacio de la Inquisicion

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. 

Cartagena city walls

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.

Carnival at Barranquilla

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.

Carnival at Barranquilla

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. 

Carnival at Barranquilla

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.

Carnival at Barranquilla

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. 

Carnival at Barranquilla
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Carnival in Brazil

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São Paulo Sambódromo

It’s Carnival time again and in Brazil it’s the biggest event in the calendar. Samba schools have been painstakingly building their floats and dancers and musicians have been practising for months. Carnival is the highlight of the year for many people and it starts this weekend and lasts until Ash Wednesday. I live in Bixiga, São Paulo, near the Vai Vai samba school and pretty much every Sunday during the year you can hear them rehearsing. I have got used to falling asleep to the distant sound of beating drums.

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Rio Sambódromo
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Rio Sambódromo

Both Rio and São Paulo have huge parade grounds, called sambódromos, where the schools compete and a winner is crowned. The scale of the floats is astonishing and the competition intense. Big names are contracted to design the floats and costumes according to sometimes surreal and grandiose themes. Tickets to the sambódromos are not cheap, but it’s worth going once just to savour the atmosphere.

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Rio Sambódromo

The sambódromo parades happen over just two days in each city, but the rest of the time you can join a bloco (or street parade) for free and dance or follow the crowd. These are often local community groups and have a great atmosphere.

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Local bloco in São Paulo
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Carnival in Pelourinho, Salvador

Salvador has probably the biggest and wildest Carnival of all. Here the parades make their way right through the city streets on two established circuits, one near Campo Grande and the other in the beachside neighbourhood of Barra. Giant trucks with amplified sound called trios elétricos move slowly through the streets pumping out the local music called axé which is very different from the samba of Rio.

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Trio elétrico in Salvador

You have several choices of how to participate in Carnival in Salvador. The most expensive but safest way is to buy a seat in a camarote (or private box) and watch from above the street. Another way is to buy an abadá (or a kit comprising of a t-shirt or vest) which allows you inside the roped-off section which follows each trio. Another way (free and therefore my favourite) is to follow the trios and dance pipoca style (which means popcorn). You’ll be jumping up and down with all the locals and things can get very crushed.

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Filhos de Gandhi, Salvador

Wherever you go during Carnival, leave all your valuables at home. Pickpocketing is quite blatant, particularly in Salvador, so do as the locals do and stuff a few notes in your shoe or down your bra – just enough to buy some beers and a caipirinha. It’s not cheap visiting Brazil during Carnival as most hotels will demand a five night package with rates that work out 3 or 4 times the usual amount. However, it is one of the best parties on the planet and not to be missed.

Sambodromo 45
Rio Sambódromo

 

Exploring Brazil – Part 2 – Iguassu Falls and Salvador

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

Brazil is a vast country and there is an astonishing range of landscapes, cities and cultures. There are no real mountains to speak of, but there is the mighty Amazon, arid savannas in the interior, beaches backed by red stone cliffs and – in the far south, bordering Argentina – the fabulous Iguassu Falls.

Iguassu Falls
Iguassu Falls

The town of Foz serves as a good gateway and you can easily cross the border to visit the Argentine side for a day. In fact the two sides offer different perspectives: the Brazilian side offers long views good for photography, while on the Argentine side there are many walkways which pass very close to the falls themselves, allowing you to get up close and personal with the cascading water. There is also a very good bird park, various boat trips to be made where you will probably get wet and a breathtaking helicopter ride over the falls.

Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador
Art shop in Pelourinho, Salvador

The Northeast is one of my favourite parts of Brazil. It’s much more laidback than the big cities of the south like São Paulo and Rio and it’s almost like a different country. It’s also a lot hotter and drier during the summer season, while in the south the summer often brings torrential rain at the end of the day. There are thousands of kilometers of coast here and you can find built-up resorts as well as deserted stretches where it’s possible to walk for hours.

Pelourinho, Salvador
Pelourinho, Salvador

The most interesting city here is Salvador which has its own unique flavour and vibe and a setting on the Bahia de Todos os Santos (All Saints Bay) which rivals that of Rio. Founded in 1549 in the state of Bahia, it’s one of the oldest cities in the Americas and was the first capital of Brazil until 1763. As a major centre of the slave trade, it’s ancestry heritage remains today predominantly African. Its music and cuisine are influenced very much by this, and the old centre (Pelourhino) has some superb examples of colonial architecture.

Carnival in Salvador
Carnival in Salvador

It’s also home to the biggest carnival in the world and totally different to that of Rio where samba and costumes predominate. In Salvador huge trucks with enormous speakers (trios elétricos) take to the streets on set circuits playing axé music to a wild crowd. It’s an incredible experience of five days of solid partying and best savoured with a few caipirinhas. Don’t take valuables with you! I once made the mistake of going out with my fairly expensive camera as things were quiet, but then it got very busy. However, a local woman came to my rescue, called over the polícia militar, and I was given an escort safely back to my hotel. I don’t think that’s a service you can rely on, though.

Carnival in Pelourinho
Carnival in Pelourinho

Apart from Salvador, the best things in the Northeast are the beaches. The ocean stretches for miles right from the city centre, but it’s not always good for swimming. Just north of Salvador, though, lies the small town of Praia do Forte which is quite chic, but has some good beaches. In the far south of Bahia state is another upmarket little place called Trancoso. The beaches here are stunning, particularly Praia do Espelho, one of the best in Brazil.

Praia do Forte
Praia do Forte

Brazil is often overlooked by visitors to South America in favour of the Andean countries, but I think this is a mistake. There is so much to do and so much variety. But make the effort to see more than Rio de Janeiro. Once you do, you’ll find far fewer tourists and you’ll get to know the real Brazil. You’ll probably need to learn a few words of Portuguese, since English is surprisingly not widely spoken.

Praia do Espelho
Praia do Espelho