Monthly Archives: December 2014

Cartagena de Indias: Before, During and After The Conquistadors

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Map of Cartagena, Colombia available at http://www.google.com/search?q=cartagena+map+colombia

Cartagena de Indias, Colombia is a jewel of a city sprawled on the Caribbean coast with a fascinating history that, like a trilogy, can be divided into life before the Spaniards, life with the Spaniards and life after the Spaniards.

Life before the invasion and land grab by the Spanish appears to have been rather idyllic in many respects for the original Meso-Americans drawn to this area as early as 4000 BCE by the mild climate and profusion of wildlife.  Here they built villages and engaged in a life as hunter-gatherers as well as some uniquely sophisticated irrigation and farming practices. Some agriculturalists had a belief system that viewed the world as a weaving of land, plants and water upon which the animals and people lived.  Potters made both everyday and ceremonial ceramics and goldsmiths (the Sinú people) devised several methods for making some pretty awesome jewelry for those in the upper echelons of their society. Of course, the elite of all the tribes engaged in some strutting to make sure that everyone knew they had riches.  Also practiced was intermittent warfare, with some tribes indulging in the art of barbecuing their adversaries. But by and large, life was good.pre-columbian gold artifact Cartagena pre-columbian gold from the god museum Cartagena

In 1501 CE, when the Spanish first landed in Cartagena Bay, the land was inhabited by several different tribes of people from the Karib (also spelled Carib) language group, who were found throughout the islands of the Caribbean Sea. The Spanish found the southern Caribbean coast around Cartagena unattractive to colonizers and departed elsewhere, leaving the Karibs in peace for another three decades.

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

portrait of Pedro de Heridia, 1533

When the Spanish returned in 1533, there were 200 settlers led by Pedro de Heredia and the Sinú people were forcibly displaced or enslaved while their ancestors’ tombs were looted for gold.   After their plundering was complete, many of the Spanish inhabitants scattered to the countryside to begin new lives as farmers. However, Cartagena was given a second opportunity to prosper a short time later when the city was successfully established as one of the great royal treasure repositories for the riches stripped from the peoples of Latin America.  As a renowned and flourishing outpost it became a major trading port for precious metals, pearls and emeralds. Gold, silver and emeralds from the mines in New Granada (later to be named Colombia) and Peru as well as pearls from the coastal waters were loaded onto the galleons bound for Spain via Havana.

With its fame and glory the now prosperous Cartagena was turned into an attractive plunder site for pirates and buccaneers – French and English privateers – licensed by their respective kings.  Now it became the turn of the Spanish to be threatened, then attacked; their cities and forts sacked and pillaged and their people killed. The pirates quickly closed on the victim with a strike in 1563 by the French nobleman Jean-François Roberval followed quickly by Martin Coat for the British crown.  Cartagena’s defenses were repaired and strengthened after each incident but the work proved to be ineffectual.  In 1586 Sir Francis Drake arrived with a massive fleet, quickly took the city and exacted a stiff ransom from the Governor after destroying a quarter to the city. (See also our posts featuring Sir Francis Drake having his wily way in Panama at Fuerte San Lorenzo and Casco Viejo, the original capital of Panama.)

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

sentry post overlooking the Caribbean Sea

After this disaster, Spain poured millions every year into the city for its protection.  Planning of the walls and forts began in earnest during the 17th century; the Spanish Crown paid for the services of prominent European military engineers to construct fortresses.  The last successful incursion on Cartagena was in 1697 by the French pirates Sir Bernard Desjean and Jean Baptiste Ducasse but by 1710 the walls were rebuilt, the forts reorganized and restored,  the public services restored and the buildings reopened.

Today the walls that surround Cartagena’s old town are its most significant, identifiable feature and a part of what makes the city a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  The engineering works took 208 years and ended with some 6.8 miles of walls surrounding the city, including the fort, Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, named in honor of Spain’s King Philip IV. The Castillo was constructed to repel land attacks and was an anchor of the city’s defenses. Numerous attempts to storm the reinforced fort were mounted, but it was never penetrated.P1050344 (800x545)

Cartagena WallsCastillo de San Felipe de BarajasSpain had one more infamous chapter to play in Cartagena’s history for, in addition to its prominence as a shipping port for the dispersion of the New World’s wealth to the Old World it, along with Veracruz, Mexico, became one of two licensed trade ports for African slaves in Central and South America. The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia, who you may recall was the founder of the city in 1533, and were used as cane cutters to open roads, as laborers to loot and destroy the tombs of the aboriginal population of Sinú and to construct buildings and fortresses.  Slavery was abolished in Colombia in 1851.Three races

Colombia made several attempts to declare its independence from Spain and was finally successful in the final war for independence in 1821 led by Simon Bolívar.  It is the admixture of three races, the indigenous Meso-American Karibs, the Caucasian Spanish and the descendants of the African slaves, which gives Cartagena an ethnic richness. Several people have told us that those from Cartagena think of themselves first as citizens of this city because of its distinctive kaleidoscope of civilizations, heritage and history  and then as citizens of Colombia.

By Richard and Anita

“Greetings and Good Riddance” (We Arrive in Cartagena, Colombia)

 

historical centerWe should have known that we had potential communication problems with our prospective host when our last message from him was “Greetings and good riddance.”  We’d found the apartment through AirBnB, read the few references listed and sent out an inquiry to him about renting the apartment for 5 weeks beginning in December. The response:

10-8-14  Greetings and thank you for reaching out to me! Have you ever been to Cartagena before? My apartment–the entire place, not just a room–is available and I am pre-approving you already. The apartment has a patio with ocean views, strong wifi, and a pool in the complex. The beach is across the street and the historic center is a ten minute walk.

I am in Spain for the rest of the year, but my sister Liliana, who works in tourism, will be the one to let you in to the place. She speaks English fluently and will be able to answer any and all your questions about the city and/or the rest of the country whenever you want.

Let me know if you have any further questions.

Ah, we thought.  A personable young man and the apartment sounds like what we’re looking for.  We reserved the apartment (our 16th booking with AirBnB) and wrote again towards the end of November to confirm our arrival details receiving this reply:

11-25-14   if you please send me the details of the flight .. and I shall pass to Liliana. She is a person of great trust and works with tourism. anything were to need it We can help solve

We did and proceeded with wrapping up our time in Ecuador and reading about Cartagena, Colombia, envisioning the narrow streets and picturesque colonial architecture featured in the old movie, “Romancing the Stone” with Kathleen Turner and Michael Douglas.

Another note arrived a few days later:

12-1-14  Hi. Not long for the trip! I wanted to wish you a safe journey and incidentally tell an affair with reference to cushion your room. I wanted to change to a more comfortable, but to this day December 11 did not reach the new mattress. I apologize for the inconvenience that may be caused that day, but will be worth it for better comfort when sleeping! a greeting.

Hmm –  A problem??? December 11 must be a typo since it’s written the first… And so we kept packing…

12-2-14   Hello .. if everything is organized for your arrival day 3! the address of the apartment. It is avenidad sanrander building offshore goatherd. 1012 apartment !. liliana will be waiting at the airport! greetings and good riddance!

Ah!  A good laugh when we read the last line.  Everything was on track…

December 3rd we spent the day in the air and in transit through the Manta and Quito, Ecuador and Bogotá, Colombia airports out of touch with everyone as no Wi-Fi was available; relaxed and blissfully unaware that this message had arrived:

12-3  Hi Anita and Richard. what about the apartment? had told him that he would change the mattress for the day December 11th is not possible before by q reference q want is not in the store .. could talk tomorrow with mattress store to see if they can serve tomorrow another .. regards

The plane was an hour late and Lilianna, a pretty woman in her late twenties was awaiting as promised.  She was polite but far from the warm, welcoming person our host had written of who, because of her tourism experience, would be interested in making our visit pleasant as well as answer any questions we had.  Also, she was not the loving sister described but a friend and she spoke NOT ONE WORD OF ENGLISH. She dispatched us as quickly as possible to the apartment without being overtly rude and sped off into the night. The apartment manager, a plump and smiling woman named Dianna was waiting in the airy lobby which was decorated for the holidays and, although she didn’t speak English either, we were able to communicate with our limited Spanish.  She produced the keys and we followed her up the elevator.  We arrived at the door and she unlocked the flimsy locks, shaking her head in dismay because she had talked to the owner about replacing them and…

We walked in.  It looked okay at first, second and third glances as we looked around.  Certainly not as modern or as big as we’d thought but things looked fairly clean and the view of the Caribbean could be seen as promised from the balcony. The kitchen was basically outfitted, there was a nice television, table and couch in the living area and the bedroom … Wait, there was something wrong here… the bed was strangely low… and it finally occurred to us, there was no mattress!  Just clean sheets drawn over a box spring with pillows piled up invitingly. a bed with no mattress

Obviously, the new mattress that the host had spoken of in a previous email had not been delivered.  We decided to contact the host on the “strong Wi-Fi” connection and, of course, nothing, nada, zip.  We debated about this conundrum for a few minutes with Dianna assuring us that we could figure out the bed and Wi-Fi in the morning, and having been up since 4 am, decided to tough it out on the box springs for the night with a nest of pillows.  We turned on the AC (it worked!) in the bedroom and a fan in the living room since the apartment was stifling and proceeded to unpack just what we needed for the night.  Washing up, I looked down to see a pool of water spreading from the sink base and tiredly, laid a towel over the rapidly expanding puddle.  And then, upon closing the folding doors to our lovely cool bedroom (mattress or no) a small sound, R-r-r-r, as part of the door sagged drunkenly to its side held by one hinge and a screw pulling from the adjoining panel.

broken bedroom door

Things did not look any better in the morning.  Dianna arrived and, using her cell phone, we wrote the owner a note saying that the apartment was unacceptable, detailed the problems and advised him that we would be contacting AirBnB which we did next, sending photos of the problems.  We also Skyped with a helpful AirBnB rep named Miranda who assured us that she would follow the matter through.  And then, we left for a hotel that Dianna helped us find – with a mattress and reliable Wi-Fi, intact doors and dry floors.

AirBnB came through for us with flying colors and we received a full refund within a couple of days as well as a $100 credit towards our next reservation.  In the future, we may not be quite as credulous when corresponding with prospective hosts and we’ll look for more reviews as well a slightly higher price range.  It’s always a gamble when booking through any online accommodation agency (be it VRBO, FlipKey, Wimdu, Homeaway, etc.) and this time we lost.beach across from our apt

But not quite.  Four days later, again with Dianna’s help, we returned to the same apartment building but a different and vastly improved apartment.  And for only twice as much… plus the hotel fees… Ah, well, it’s the h-o-l-i-d-a-y-s and we’re right in the middle of the Christmas high season with celebrants and vacationers visiting Cartagena in huge numbers.  Lights and decorations, fiestas and festivities abound.  Feliz Navidad!

Cartagena in the Christmas Season

By Anita and Richard

There’s Something Fishy About Manta

tun on a stick statueManta, Ecuador isn’t a pretty city.  At its heart it’s a small fishing village that has grown into a substantial metropolis with an estimated 300,000 citizens.   Although the city has existed since Pre-Columbian times, there are no cultural ruins and little aesthetic appeal in the gritty commercial downtown.  example of streets in downtown, Manta Narrow one-way streets climb up and down the steep hills attended by sidewalks in need of repair as crowds of vendors and shoppers move in opposing directions and swirls of activity. The vast majority of the downtown, one or two blocks set back from the waterfront, consists of relatively new and unimaginative structures: two, three and four-story cement and cinderblock square buildings, predominately gray or in need of a new coat of paint, their sides plastered with posters and signs. If the architectural term “Eastern Bloc” existed it downtownmight well apply to this portion of the downtown. In contrast, the Malecon, the main street abutting the Pacific, running along the beach from Playa Murcielago eastward to roughly Playa Tarqui, hosts recent, modern, commercial edifices of glass and steel of several stories.  Here are the larger banks, government buildings, hotels and the like. But, regardless of where you are in the city, tower cranes, arc welders and cutting torches attest to the fact that the city is in a genuine boom phase, both commercial and residential.

city beach near portshrimp and prawns happy fish mongerManta has the largest seaport in Ecuador as well as one of the most stable economies in the country; fishing, tuna processing and canning are the main industries.  We half expected the city to reek of fish but this wasn’t the case. The fish market, a huge open-air structure roofed in tin and located on the beach was worth several morning visits. Tables were piled highfresh caught fish with more varieties of fish than we had ever seen (tuna, dorado, corvina, red snapper, grouper, wahoo, prawns and lobster, etc.) with the fresh catch of the day glistening under stray shafts of sunlight. The flash of machetes and fillet knives slicing through the sea’s bounty and the salty smell of the sea and fish in the air gave us a new appreciation of an ocean harvest. Mid-day, after the crowds depart, the market is washed down; later on in the day it might turn rank, but there are the scavengers (frigates, egrets, herons and buzzards) waiting their turn to help with the final cleanup.A fishermans famliy

At three roundabouts on the Malecon sculptures are erected that reflect Manta’s roots as a village of fishermen and seafarers. building a boat Here, also, we watched the skilled boat builders of Manta craft their handmade ships and, near the Manta Yacht club, we admired the yachts and other ships and boats floating in the bay.  Tourism, both foreign and domestic, is becoming more and more important to Manta’s economy; assorted cruise ships make Manta a port of call. When the ships are in port, local vendors from the city and nearby Montecristi as well as those from the mountain cities of Quito and Cuenca set up their tables and display their handicrafts, textiles and artwork from many of the country’s finest artisans.welcome to Manta

The citizens of Manta were some of the most welcoming and friendly people who we’ve yet encountered.  Although the expat numbers are growing (estimated to be around 350) the ratio of gringos to locals makes this one of the most “authentic” places we’ve been.  Taxi drivers were friendly and we had many conversations in Spanish, and occasionally English, as we were speedily delivered to our destinations.  We made many friends in the active expat group which met several times during the week and our social life varied only with our desire to participate in the many gatherings or seek some quieter pursuits. And, while conversations of religious philosophies might be tolerated, political discussions could be volatile and engaging in such was best avoided.boats bobbing

fresh produceManta’s an easy city in which to live and it’s only going to improve.  It has beautiful beaches and the influx of affluent Ecuadorians looking for vacation homes, foreign speculators seeking a good investment and retiring baby boomers searching for a place where their money goes further are spurring the growth of this city.  The availability of fresh produce and seafood at economical prices is unsurpassed and the city abounds with excellent restaurants. Garbage pickup is daily and there’s good cellular service as well as cable TV and, depending where you reside, excellent Wi-Fi. The electricity costs appear to be much lower than Central America’s and there’s even an airport.

However, our ninety-day visa was close to its expiration date and it was time for us to move on.  And, lest we sound like an ad for International Living, Manta’s not for everyone and it’s probably not for us.  The dry climate that results from the offshore Humboldt Current gives Manta a mild and very pleasant temperature which draws many expats seeking to avoid the torpid humidity of Mexico and Central America.  However, the aridity combined with the constant wind and dust can also cause a lot of respiratory problems for people predisposed to breathing difficulties (what the locals call gripe) and the rainfall, which would clean the air, is erratic and scant. It was usually cloudy during the months that we were there (September through November) but when the sun shone the skies were dazzling. We genuinely felt like we were leaving an old friend when we boarded the plane bound for Cartagena, Colombia.seafarer

By Anita and Richard

 

Drivin’ Along in My Automobile … to Puerto Lopez

 

Puerto LopezWe’d wanted to visit the bustling fishing village and eco-tourism hub, Puerto Lopez, south of Manta since we’d arrived in Ecuador and when Barb, our Canadian mentor and friend here in Manta, invited us to drive there we jumped at the opportunity.  Puerto Lopez serves as headquarters for the Parque Nacional de Machlilla, a whale watching port and is a jumping off point for the Isla de la Plata, known as the Poor Man’s Galapagos, which hosts many of the same sea and shore birds as the Galapagos Islands with a day trip costing only $35. trees forming a tunnel

a change in climate - coolerIt was an overcast day as we climbed away from the arid landscape of the coast; the leaden sky gave up a light fog which in turn yielded to a fine mist. The grayness of the drizzle contrasted sharply with the lush greens of a micro-climate through which we passed for a time and then, once we crested the hill and began the descent, we returned to the cacti and scrub of the native coastal desert.coastal desert

roadside eateryDriving through the more typical barrenness of the land, we slid through the nondescript pueblos of the campo, the countryside, of Ecuador. There was no glitter in La Pina, no tourist destinations in Santa Rosa. The surroundings through which we passed were the earthen tones of the uncompromising land itself; the dull red of the bricks, the unpainted gray of the cinder blocks and the fading gold of bamboo turning a monotonous brown with the passing of time.  The colors seemed to be drained by wind, sand and salt air and within were sheltered extended families striving to eke a living from the land and sea.  And somewhere within the mass of dwellings would be one or more churches each proffering its claims of grace in the afterlife as precious little of it was available here. This was the rural side of Ecuador and its people not, as yet, invited to sit at the tables of the middle class.  In this nation of relative prosperity, the country folks stood in stark comparison to their city cousins

near La Pina

As if to mirror the image projected by the villages, the sea faded into the sky, foam pushed close to shore, the rocky shingle of the beach mocked the absence of the sandy stretches elsewhere to the north and south. The view was more stark and on this particular morning it appeared that the seascape was about the immensity of the ocean itself, offering little succor.bluffs of Machalilia beach

We were well past the mid-point of the trip to Puerto Lopez when we pulled into the sleepy little village of Machalilla outside the national park of the same name. It was a small town of indeterminate size with a concave malecon circled around an arched, sandy bay.  Three parallel streets crowded into the bowl area delineated by the highway which hugged the hill furthest back from the water. The town was in desperate need of a facelift: stucco patching, fresh paint for the buildings as well as asphalt in the frame-rattling pot holes. But the beach was a scenic attraction stretched around a half-moon bay.  Small fishing boats were lined up on the fine sand or in the water among larger ships rigged out with fishing nets. After reconnoitering the city and snapping a few photos we departed for our final destination.Machallil Bay

Puerto Lopez beach A few more miles and we arrived at Puerto Lopez. The humpback whales had departed the waters near Puerto Lopez for the season as had several species of birds from the Isla de la Plata.  We walked down the new pier for a long overdue view of the sea birds. Peruvian pelicans, closely related to the brown pelicans of the U.S., were in fine form plunging again and again into schools of fish close by the pilings.Peruvian Pelican

Peruvian PelicansSmall terns harassed the pelicans unsuccessfully as they emerged from their headlong dives with their beaks streaming with seawater and a morsel of fish. Overhead the Great Frigate Birds circled and looked for opportunities to quickly snatch a tidbit from an unwary, feathered competitor. Gulls, few in number, sat in desultory knots away from the action with little hope of getting into the game. The black vultures drifted on the winds or hopped about on the sand dejected by the paucity of options available to them at the moment but their time would come when the fishing boats returned.

We ambled by the numerous hotels, hostels and tourist agencies and browsed through the souvenir shops before we sat down to a fresh seafood meal, indifferently cooked, of shrimp and rice.  After a bill negotiation with a waitress who had trouble adding accurately we climbed back into the car and pointed the wheels north towards Manta. Our slow journey was retraced through the small villages and rural areas while we kept an eye out for the wild burros that we had seen alongside the road.wild burro by the ocean

By Richard and Anita