It was 1984 when I saw Joan Wilder travel to Cartagena Colombia to rescue her sister from kidnappers. With the help of Jack Colton, Joan has an adventure in Colombia that is worthy of the protagonist in the novels she writes. Kathleen Turner, Michael Douglas and a cast of characters first introduced me to the port city of Cartagena in the movie, Romancing the Stone. No other movie has enticed me to visit a foreign country like this movie did. I did not think I would ever see Cartagena until my wife, Lynn, and I started planning a Panama Canal cruise.
I was pleasantly surprised to find Cartagena, at the top of South America, to be the first stop on our way from the Caribbean Sea to the Pacific Ocean. In typical cruise ship fashion, our stay there would only be a single day. What could I see in a single day that would provide the essence of this centuries old port city? Should we find our way to town and take a random tour operator, hope they could speak English well enough to give me a tour of historic sites? Should we get on a cruise ship recommended tour bus, ride around the city and listen to the canned narration of a bi-lingual tour guide, eventually to be dropped off at the local tourist marketplace for guided shopping? Should we get advice from someone as to where to find the heart of historic Cartagena, find a random taxi driver to take us there, and wander around taking photos, hoping that we would find our way back to the ship in time for our 4:00 PM departure?
I dislike bus tours because I like to be able to take photos as I go. While the narration is interesting, the view outside tinted bus windows is not conducive to good photography. Yet, with only a few hours available, we really didn’t have many options. We decided on a short bus tour, culminating in a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. We would get some historical background via the narrator on the bus, and then ride through the Ciudad Amurallada (Walled City) in an open air carriage. Though there would be no stops for photos, however, at least in the open air carriage, there would be no bus windows to detract from the color quality of the photos.
With so little time on shore, and on our first visit to the South American continent, a snapshot view of the city would be the best we could do. I submit for your approval, my photo essay of historic Cartagena, Colombia.
Cartagena is an old city, founded in 1533. The village grew quickly as it was in an opportune location for the Spanish to stopover in a protected bay, after plundering and pillaging the South American natives. The town grew rich and became a target for those ne’er-do-wells that flew the Jolly Mary skull and crossbones flag.
The wealthy residents, seeking protection from pirates, built a wall around the city. Apparently the residents didn’t take kindly to having their plunder plundered. From the inside, the wall doesn’t look very formidable, but it protected the city quite well. Openings in the wall allowed for cannon and other weapons to protect the city.
Today’s Cartagena is a mixture of old and new. Skyscrapers hug the beach in the area known as Bocagrande (Big Mouth), at the edge of the bay. Traffic in the city was bustling and the sights and sounds of a modern metropolis were all around us as we traveled by bus to the old city to rendezvous with our horse and carriage.
Riding through the city on the carriage allowed for a slow and relaxing tour. Though it was very warm and humid, thanks to provided water, generous application of sunscreen and hats, we were comfortable enough to enjoy the tour. It would not be as pleasant a trip in July. Cartagena is north of the equator, so it is Spring in April, not Fall.
Shortly after departing, a friendly clown hopped on board our carriage. He posed for photos and then, of course, expected a tip. His whistle-voice and friendly manner earned him a couple U.S. dollars. Other clowns that tried to hop on later were politely declined.
As we rode along, horseshoes clip-clopping on the pavement, we enjoyed the fragrant flowers that lined the balconies facing the narrow streets. The majority of homes that we passed were well cared for and their exteriors were painted in bright, vivid tones. Cars seemed to be out of place and horse-drawn carriages fit right in.
We passed several squares, and the entrance to the downtown area, Plaza de los Coches (Carriage Square) is overseen by a large clock tower, the Puerta del Reloj.
Further along our route, we passed Plaza de la Merced. The centerpiece of the plaza is Teatro Heredia, a beautifully designed theater.
The Walled City is a showpiece of architectural beauty that helps to attract the many conventions and festivals that are scheduled throughout the year.
The wall, once contiguous, is now broken up with many gates and openings to allow traffic into and out of the city. As we headed toward the exit, in only a few moments, we were sorry the bus would be waiting to whisk us away to the obligatory souvenir mall for 30 minutes of “shopping” before we headed back to the ship.