With our arrival in Cartagena, we stepped foot on another continent(!), although really nothing much appeared to have changed. Cartagena seemed a lot like Panama City, an old colonial town separated from a new beach and high rise sector. Yet Cartagena had a very vibrant feel and more beautifully restored buildings. We spent most of the time walking within the walled old city which, in addition to the typical ornate churches and repetitive souvenir shops, had tons of upscale shopping, dining and hotels plus more bookstores (3) per square mile than we’ve seen anywhere else in Latin America. The parks were wonderfully landscaped and bustling with break dancers, colorful fruit vendors and mobile ice cream and beer (yes, beer) vendors.
|We love the colors and the cool vine of this streetscape|
|Something akin to the Chiquita banana lady|
|Interesting mixed market - flowers and typing services|
We spent lots of time wandering the cobbled streets among horse carts and sampling the cheap and delicious local food. The street food was a variety of fried doughy items stuffed with eggs, potatoes or meat. The most common is an arepa which is a grilled or fried corn tortilla meal stuffed with cheese, meat, eggs or margarine. They also have amazing set lunch dinner specials that include a bowl of soup, a plate of meat/rice/salad/beans and juice for about $3 – yummy and cheap!
|Chicken soup and fried fish lunch plate all for $3!|
Although Cartagena has a wall around it, built for protection from sea attacks, it also has a huge fort on the hill behind town to protect from land attacks, el Castillo de San Felipe. It was a short but extremely hot walk from out hotel to arrive at the entrance where thousands of cruise ship passengers had begun to swarm. Amidst pestering vendors, we climbed the fort and explored its batteries and dark underground storage tunnels. There were great views of the new and old towns and the water beyond – too bad it was so hot and humid. We also checked out an interesting city museum housed in the old Palace of the Inquisition. This was the spot where heretics and witches were accused, tried and tortured in the name of the Catholic Church. Today it is restored and has a great exhibit about how Cartagena came to thrive as a major Caribbean trading port with an ethnic mix of citizens, but then lost power as a result of its quest for independence from Spain. It lapsed into a city decimated by disease and lost investment and it’s only in the last 100 years that it has again begun to redevelop.
|Looking up at the fort|
|On top of the fort with the city behind|
On our last day, we took a tour to Volcan Totumo, a dry conical volcano-like column of medicinal mud that bubbles up from the earth. It’s a popular spot 45 minutes from the city to go soak for awhile and then wash off in the nearby lake, which is exactly what we did. They have a series of helpers that pull you into the mud pit, slather you with mud, give you a massage and then push you around. The mud has a strange consistency and even though the volcano is hundreds of meters deep, because of the density, people just float on the top at about chest level. It’s scary to think about just floating there on to, but you can’t really move much without help. We were packed in with about 40 other people and soaked for awhile. They slough the mud off you and you can let it dry like a mud mask to purify the skin. Then you hop in the lake nearby to rinse it off. It was quite an experience – one we would highly recommend to anyone visiting.
|Before our soak in the volcano|
|It's nearly impossible to move in the mud, not up, down, or sideways|
|Let the mud dry before you wash off to maximize the benefits|
Despite still feeling the rocking sensation from out boat trip three days later, we enjoyed exploring Cartagena, even the dingier local areas where we hunted out cheap food and great photos. We found the people to be very helpful and thoughtful. The housekeeper at our hotel was so sweet, when we left, she said she would miss having us at breakfast in the morning! Even though Cartagena was a stunning city (the old town at least), we were happy to move on to cooler weather in the Andes in Bogotá, which is exactly where a 26 hour bus trip landed us next.