As I overlooked the city of Cartagena from the Convento de la Popa (Monastery on the Hill), I was impressed with the audacity the city held over the rest of the Caribbean. While the islands of the Bahamas, Barbados, St. Martin and the rest can lure you to their glamorous resort lifestyle, the port city of Cartagena, Columbia kept me grounded in its rich history and friendly people.
Only having one day in Cartagena, my family and I did not plan on hiking up to the monastery; however, a really friendly driver recommended we go there first and guaranteed us that if we hired him, we could take in the other highlights we had planned on seeing. For a $100 US, we had the driver for most of the day. A steal!
Looking out to the west from the monastery, I immediately found the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas in the foreground, still standing after a few hundred years. Old Town was hiding behind it’s own walls, almost buried in a skyscraper forest that extended to the southwest with its hotels, casinos, malls and condos filling in the Bocagrande peninsula. The local island getaway, Tierra Bomba sat close by beckoning anyone for a visit. I was perfectly happy looking out atop the highest hill in Cartagena with the rest of the Caribbean staring back at me.
Convento de la Popa and it's spectacular views are about $7.00 US. Well worth it. The hill is quite a hike so you need to find a friendly taxi or some such driver to take you up top. No public transportation goes up the zigzagging road and it takes at least 30 minutes to walk to the top. The road itself edges by one of Cartagena's dicier neighborhoods so the ride is definitely recommended.
If you are really interested, you can contact my guy, just drop me a line. He really likes to show off his city as a driver/doctor/lawyer. Did I mention he is a very talented man?
After coming down from the hill, feeling spiritually refreshed, we headed towards the Old City, but with a stop at the fortress of all fortresses, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. Built by the Spaniards in the 17th century, this great stone structure still dominates the area. Despite various pirates and invaders who tried to storm the beast, it was never taken. From its parapets to its underground tunnels, you could sense why the sturdy Spanish structure still stands to this day. Open to visitors, the tunnels allowed provisions to be transported underground or for evacuations and were designed so that any noise reverberated making it easy to hear any approaching enemies. Thinking the tunnels would eventually end, I summoned my inner Indiana Jones and followed one all the way to the other end of the fortress with a torch (cell phone light) to light my way.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas admission is about $9.00 US. No extra cost for getting lost in the tunnels.
It was barely 10 AM, but our driver felt we could use a refreshment at the corner market right outside the aforementioned fortress -- it was about 85 degrees after all. Over a couple of local Club Colombia beers for me and dad and a Coca Cola for mom, we learned more about our driver, Abel and his family, including his brother named Cain, really! We talked about simple things like gas prices, cost of a home, and other basics of Colombian life.
The cherry on top of our little tour was historic Old Town, perfectly preserved within centuries-old colonial stone walls, a maze of cobbled alleyways, colorfully flowered balconies, well crafted old sturdy wooden doors, painted walls of red, yellow and orange; the vibrant color just comes alive. The Old City is not for sightseeing checklists; its for wondering and discovering its various plazas and if it's too hot, stopping in any one of many cafes for a cold drink and soaking up the atmosphere.
We detoured to Las Bovedas for a little shopping. Built into those same city walls, these vaulted dungeons now house a slew of shops. Outside on any street, hawkers of hats, jewelry, questionable cigars and the like are a plenty. It’s best to politely thank them and wave them off as these dungeons, among other shops, are recommended as they offer professional guarantees and certificates of authenticity if you were looking for some emeralds, the popular gem of the Caribbean.
We ended our day with a meal at Restaurante La Tinaja, for some coconut rice and meat dishes and fried plantains.
Being that this was one of many stops of my tour of the Caribbean, I truly enjoyed Cartagena best. I felt I could return and fit right in and as my driver puts it, give him a ring and he we will show me the rest of the city and beyond. A man of many talents, not least of one was sharing his beautiful city with me and my family.
Now Get Lost!