Monthly Archives: January 2015

Capturing Cartagena in Photos

Cartagena, Colombia is a city of many facets from the ancient stone wall built by the Spanish to defend the old city from pirates and brigandsthe wall protecting the old city

the wall surroundingto the quaint and picturesque colonial architecture of the historic old town.

old historic cityold cityold historic city

Scattered across the city are parks, museums, restaurants and churches.La Catedral

Museum of Rafael Nunez Iglesia Claustro de San PedroThe old monastery, the highest point in Cartagena at the top of El Cerro de La Popa overlooks the Castillo, an intimidating fortress which protected Spain’s ill-gotten riches and safeguarded the city. ?????????????????????????????????

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Tourists flock to the tony hotels, restaurants and high-rises that line the fine sand beaches of the harbor in Bocagrandemonastery on hill in background; Bocagrande in the foreground

Bocagrande

and spill over to the more local neighborhoods like GetsemaniBarrio Getsemani Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

or Avenida Santander (where we lived) alongside the Caribbean ocean.

view from our apartment

beach across Avenida Santander

One doesn’t need to look too far to find statues and sculptures in public spacesPegasus in the plural??????????????????????????????????? ????????????

or street art upon building walls.street art in Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani

Streets are filled with all manner of vehicles from taxis and buses to carts pulled by horses and donkeys or horse-drawn carriages.horse powered

an uninspired tour busAnd lacking all other resources, sometimes carts are propelled by people.human propelled

The residents of Cartagena are friendly, welcoming and quick to smile as well as to share a friendly word and point one in the right direction.  One gentleman, posed proudly for us after showing us around a museum. our guide - Irsis

However, there aren’t too-many freebies in this tourist driven economy and the more colorful characters ask for change in exchange for photos.street vendor

street mimeColombian vender

And at the end of the day lovers find a quiet moment in the niches of the old wall to watch the late afternoon fade into night and the sunset reflected in the sea.?????? Lovers in old wall

A  UNESCO World Heritage Site, Cartagena is an amazing city and we greatly enjoyed our time here as we celebrated our third Christmas as retired nomads and welcomed in 2015.  Some places take a piece of your heart and we’ll leave a little of us behind as we move on to the Netherlands Antilles.vendors

By Anita and Richard

Life’s a Beach: Chillin’ in Cartagena

Sheer funjetties & unique beachesOne of the first things we noticed about the swimming beaches that run along the Caribbean coast of Cartagena was their unique configuration. Where the natural shoreline and urban development allow, jetties have been built with spacing that permit the tides to wash in creating half-moon shaped beaches perfectly suited to water frolicking. The only thing that upsets the tranquility of the water is a strong onshore wind which raises the swell of the ocean but does not seriously deflect from the enjoyment of the folks on the beach.

beach sheltersAt our favorite crescent shaped beach – our favorite because we had only to take the elevator to the lobby and walk across Avenida Santander – it was usually easy to rent a “tarpa”, a plasticized rectangle of blue or red fabric stretched over a movable metal frame to give shade. As we preferred to be there mid to late morning during the quieter weekdays there were usually about twenty to thirty of the canopied structures nicely spaced around our little swimming hole.   It set us back a couple of bucks but the fee was good for the day and they were rented by all because the sun would scorch you in short order. So if you weren’t in the water you were probably hunkered down in the shelter of your tarpa watching the fun going on about you.   happy girl

kids in bright suits

The kids, naturally, loved the beach. Tiny toddlers, at first apprehensive, saw even tinier tots playing in the shallows, splashing and allowing the waves to chase them. It didn’t take long for them to warm up either to the water or the fun; the water was not bath water warm but just a few degrees south, delightfully cool during the heat of the day. So the kids, either with or without their folks at their sides, became the stars of the show. In their neon colored swim suits with their unbridled exuberance they flapped and flopped about in the gentle surf, masters of their domain.

Boy at the beach

intent on their diggingThe older folks joined in the fun, as did we, venturing out farther into the waves and, of course, we couldn’t compete with the gleeful enthusiasm of a kid.  But really, we all became kids inside whether we dove headfirst into six inches of water, buried a brother in the sand, built castles and dug holes or jumped through the waves. It was all done with shouts of triumph and laughter.burying a bro

vendorAnd then there were the unexpected players; those not decked out in beach togs. These were the worker bees, thevendor - proud drones, the vendors and the hucksters, those who offered beach toys or souvenirs and outrageously priced massages as well as food and cold treats and provided for us as we frolicked in the sun or drowsed in the shade. For them, this was not a day at beach, this was their version of a day at the office. And while we knew that they had to make a living and checked out their goods we did little to abet their financial success on any given day.

vendors

Enjoying the playaBy Richard and Anita

An Urban Garden in Getsemani: Cartagena, Colombia

Barrio GetsemaniWe turned onto a narrow street of brightly colored attached houses of cement and stucco.  Two boys played with their Barrio Getsemanirecent Christmas gifts of action heroes complete with sounds of warfare and annihilation. Potted plants were abundantly displayed along the raised edge of the paved road in front of many of the small homes in lieu of a yard and a woman tended her flowers while neighbors further on chatted, each sitting in front of their abodes.  The thriving bushes and flowers created an oasis on this street in the center of one of the lesser known areas of Cartagena. And overhead, strung between the homes across the lane of Callejon Angosto, from one end of the road to the other, plastic shopping bags in pastel colors of white, yellow, pink and blues fluttered gaily in the breeze, trapping the morning light, radiating a festive aura and creating both shade and, surprisingly, a tranquil refuge. We were completely delighted to see the lowly plastic bag, bane of modern existence, transformed into a fanciful and useful piece of beauty.

plastic bags in Barrio Getsemani

A portion of Getsemani is immediately adjacent to the old walled city of Cartagena that the tourists so love. It begins just across a major thoroughfare, Avenida Venezuela and online tourist websites as well as printed books give the area short Barrio Getsemanishrift. Yet it, unlike other neighborhoods such as San Diego, Boca Grande or the beach areas around Avenida Santander has not given way to the developers’ dollars and so it lacks the high rise condos, trendy stores and pricey restaurants found elsewhere. In this wedge-shaped neighborhood the common folk live, raise their families, attend schools and churches, save and spend their money, marry and bury their loved ones. For years, barrio Getsemani was stigmatized as poor and somehow unsafe for tourists. Yet we noticed on our visits that this was the mecca in Cartagena for the backpacker set; those young, mobile adventurists who flock to the barrio to take advantage of the clean, cheap hostels that thrive in Getsemani.Barrio Getsemani

Barrio Getsemani is also home to a large, multi-gated, fenced park established in 1811, Parque Centenario. It’s reputed to have a two-toed sloth, a large, aged iguana and a small troop of howler monkeys in amongst the trees but, although we looked hard, we neither saw nor heard any wild life. On our first walk through the park in the late afternoon we encountered the strong disagreeable odor of urine in some shaded stretches of the walkways and several rather disreputably dressed gentlemen, looking suspiciously like drunken vagrants, lying on the grass or benches and slumped about giving the vicinity an overall creepy feeling.

Parque CentenarioHowever, on our second visit to the park, a little after 9 AM, we actually talked about the song, What a Parque CentenarioDifference a Day Makes, as it reflected the changes we were seeing as we wandered through the park. People strolled about under trees pleasantly shading the pathways, grassy spaces and flowering bushes of green in the otherwise vastly cemented area of this part of the city.  Men sat upon benches talking quietly and a fountain sprayed water into a large pool.  Book sellers sat in front of little permanent kiosks that completely lined one side of the park and stacks of new and used books were displayed.  One gentleman’s attention was intently focused upon drying pages of a book by pressing a cloth to each page and fanning gently.  We examined the books, struck up conversations and smiled profusely.

Parque Centenario

Walking other streets within the neighborhood of Getsemani we nodded to friendly passersby, stopped to street sculpturewatch a craps game being played by several men on a corner sidewalk and admired a pretty little church, La Iglesia da la Trinidad.  One shaded and unnamed plaza had some whimsical metal statues of a dog chawing on a boys hip pocket, a drunk relieving himself in concert with a dog as his boon companion and a third of another borracho (drunk) proffering a drink to a not-too-close friend. Things that absolutely would not be encountered in the more prosperous, proper and staid old walled city. sometimes picturesque and charming precludes spontaneity and ribald humor!street sculpture

Here, in Barrio Getsemani, you’ll find wide-spread gentrification. It appears that the locals are resisting changes by working to preserve this remnant of an older, less attractive but still vibrant and thriving part of the city.  For now it’s a win-win for residents of the neighborhood as well as the tourists who have an opportunity to enjoy a grittier but character-filled corner of Caribe life amidst the hub-bub of cosmopolitan Cartagena de Indias. Viva el Barrio Getsemani!Barrio Getsemani

By Richard and Anita

 

The Unconquerable Castle on the Hill: Castillo San Felipe de Barajas in Cartagena

You know those geeky looking people you see on self-guided tours wearing the oversize, dorky black earflap headphones and squinting at their maps? That was us, complete with the big audio recorder that hung around our necks like a lead weight and bounced against our stomachs with each step.  At 9 AM in the morning we were already sweating buckets under the merciless sun and we hadn’t even started the climb up the hill.  We’d had a brief introduction to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas during our city tour a couple of weeks previous but the structure is so immense that we decided it deserved much more of our attention and time leisurely exploring it and besides, those tunnels looked like fun!Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

The fortress completely covers the Hill of San Lazaro, a brilliantly strategic site that overlooks both land and sea approaches and is nothing if not imposing in its very size. Begun in 1536 and completed in 1767 it’s the largest, most complex Spanish fort ever built in the New World.  Slaves, using pickaxes and shovels first flattened the highest knob on the hill, no mean feat in itself, and then commenced with building the garrison from the top down. The original portion of the work which included constructing the “Old Fort” should have taken five years, but the governor’s unmerciful schedule finished it in a year; the number of slave deaths went unrecorded.  Using rectangular blocks gouged from both the coral reefs offshore and from a quarry nearby (manned by slaves and unfortunates who had been sentenced to hard labor by the ongoing Inquisitional Tribunals) they eventually covered the hillsides with ramps and walls, sentry stations, watchtowers and bell-towers, weapons plazas, ramparts for cannon and artillery, etc.  Also built were the structures needed to maintain those 500 troops at any one time such as a central kitchen, laundry, hospital, foundry and huge cisterns to collect water during the rainy season in preparation for the times of drought.high walls and sentry postscannons at the ready

And then there were the miles of labyrinthine tunnels throughout the hill, many dug by Welsh miners brought over especially for the task.  There are only a few that are open to the public now but it’s not hard to experience a rat in a maze feeling and sense of disorientation when one takes a wrong turn.  The tunnels were used for moving and storing provisions (food, weapons, and gunpowder) as well as repositioning troops or even evacuation/retreat, if ever needed, through a fortified exit at the base of the Castillo.  They were structured so that the acoustics allow for discrete sounds, such as footfalls or verbal commands and alerts by ringing bells with pre-arranged codes, that carry through the intersecting tunnels. tunnel entrances

tunnelWe had to applaud the strategic placement of the castle where the land adjoining the Hill of San Lazaro could aid the Spanish most in their acquisition and safeguarding of the New World’s plunder from those (also!) avaricious pirates.  Residing at the base of the castle was a “hospital” for lepers where treatment consisted solely of prayer and whose location was avoided by all who feared the dreaded flesh-eating disease believed to be caused by demons. The area surrounding the castle on the three sides was a mixture of lowlands and hillocks which were frequently flooded by seasonally heavy rains.  An elevated roadway connected this inhospitable region to the castle and served as an avenue of supply; it was useless to attackers as the road was well protected by the fort’s cannons.Cannons at the readyplacement of the fort

Fetid swamps, lying to either side of the roadway, populated by swarms of mosquitos and carrying malaria and yellow fever that had been introduced to the New World by the African slaves, further hindered the enemy.  An army weakened by disease, exhaustion and thirst was an easier foe for the Spanish to vanquish. On the seaward approach three stone causeways, connecting the Castillo to the walled city it defended, were intended to be destroyed by gunpowder to thwart the enemy in the event of an attack. These heavily guarded entry points were the only means to access the bastion.old bridge - incompletearea surrounding the Castillo

The entire massive fortress stands as a testament to Spanish tenacity and genius. The geometry of the Castillo was fifty years in advance of that practiced in Europe; a full half century would elapse before fortifications on the continent would rival those in Cartagena. The Castillo itself was actually seven defensive structures built over time with overlapping fields of fire. Should an attacker actually breach one of the outer parameters they would find themselves confronted with enfiladed fire coming from two or more of the remaining six fortifications.  It was a death trap waiting to ensnare any adversary foolhardy enough to accept the challenge.fortress

Three hours later with the sun at its zenith, our faces sweat-streaked and flushed under our hats and our water bottles emptied, we walked down the hill.  Our awe at what the Spanish had accomplished in the building of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas had only grown. The fortress, along with the old City of Cartagena well deserves its 1984 recognition as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is well worth a lengthy and leisurely exploration.Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

By Anita and Richard

Off to Great Places in Cartagena de Indias

“You’re on your own. And you know what you know. And you are the one who’ll decide where to go.”  The Places You’ll Go, Dr. Seuss

We arrived promptly at el Museo del Naval de Carib at 1:15 where we met Irsis, our English-speaking guide from the previous day. It was he who had suggested that we take the city tour which included several of the scenic sights in this phenomenal port city. Plus he could offer it at 20% off the price quoted to us by a previous vendor. So, after having a complimentary coffee that was heavily sugared, we departed through one of the gates in the city’s walls to meet the bus which would be our chariot for the remainder of the day.

“Congratulations! Today is your day. You’re off to Great Places! You’re off and away.” Ibid.

Our chariotWe were greatly pleased when we saw our tour bus painted in gaudy colors with Bob Marley and the Wailers blaring out of the open sides; it was nothing so much as a rolling Sesame Street colored boom box. Firmly ensconced in our open aired seats we departed, taking a jaunt around the Parque Centenario en route to barrio Bocagrande, the richest barrio in this city of 1.2 million built along the powdery white sand beach of Cartagena’s harbor. As we tootled around collecting the rest of the paid passengers we gawked at the shops, many similar to tony venues in the States. With our full complement of lookie-loos we turned towards our first destination of the day, the waterfront at the city’s marina. Colombia’s navy and army maintain bases in the port area while, in the commercial area, the gantry cranes stand ready to on or off load containerized cargos from ocean-going transports. Small parks abutting the malecon appear in less congested areas.  Berthing privileges are also extended to the massive cruise liners that make ports-of-call in Cartagena.  To our chagrin, we observed their disgorged passengers as they followed their leader’s standard literally blocking the city’s narrow streets like a flock of demented goslings. the harbor area

 

 “You’re off to great places! Today is your day! Your mountain is waiting. So … Get on your way!” Ibid.

Our next stop, and the main reason we had joined the tour, was a visit to the Cerro de Popa which would allow us an elevated view of the city, the harbor, the scattered islands and the waterways that enveloped the old walled city of Cartagena.  The name literally means Convent of the Stern referring to the similarity between the 492-foot hillock and the back end of a ship.  Perched at the top and overlooking the city with its white walls reflecting the sun’s rays is a picturesque colonial church (circa 1611) and a convent.Cerro de Popa

We learned that during the early years of the colony, around 1535, a clandestine shrine existed upon the hill which was used by the indigenous inhabitants and African slaves to worship the deity Buziriaco, which, history records, resembled a goat. Legend has it that an Augustinian priest received, in a dream, an order from the Virgin Mary to erect a monastery on the site. Having traveled to the hill of La Popa the padre discovered the goat shrine and promptly pitched it down the mount. This must have come as an immense relief to the indigenous Indians and black slaves, as normal retribution for such sacrilege by the Spanish involved nasty torture or hideous death and, on a bad day, both. Pitching the goat shrine down the hill was bupkis.

Ultimately, the ride to the top of the mountain was more memorable for the grinding of gears and the acrid odor of charred motor oil issuing from the antiquated engine of our glitzy boom-box bus than the Convent itself but inside was housed a memorable, dazzling altar encrusted in 22-carat gold leaf – a rather impressive upgrade from the now defunct Buziriaco goat shrine.gold encrusted shrine

We made two more stops prior to the finale, the first presented an absolutely impressive venue, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas which we decided deserved another more lengthy visit and a later post all its own and the second stop to a sculpture of a pair of high-top sneakers that had little visual or historic note which we hereby omit.

“Things may happen and often do to people as brainy and footsy as you.”, Ibid.

the old Officers'  BarracksOur chariot came to its last stop in front of the old Officers’ Quarters, later converted into a prison and now in a revitalized iteration as a Latinized mini-strip mall. Approximately twenty small tiendas selling Colombian handicrafts, a combination of beautifully worked goods and shoddy souvenirs, were housed in the stuccoed and gaily painted barracks. During the half hour we were allotted, we wandered through six or seven shops before selecting a bolsa, a cloth bag, in black with a brightly colored embroidered and appliqued red parrot on the front to use as a packing organizer.street vendor in traditional Colombian dress

“Just never forget to be dexterous and deft. And never mix up your right foot with your left. And, will you succeed? Yes! You will indeed! (98 and ¾ percent guaranteed.)”, Ibid.

And so, five hours later and $36 lighter we were dropped off on a side street inside the walled city. We perambulated over to what has become one of our favorite eateries, Ilsabe, for a pleasant meal and emerged after dark to stroll the narrow streets decorated for the holidays, the lights in gay profusion from balconies, statues and enormous Christmas trees that decorated almost every park and plaza. It was a wonderful way to end a raucous and informative day in the city by the sea.clock tower lighted up

We are indebted to Dr. Seuss, ne: Theodore Gisselle, for his marvelous creation The Places You’ll Go, published January 22, 1990 by Random House Publishing Co. While it was the last book he was to write it was the first book that truly inspired us in our visions of travel.

By Richard and Anita