Cartagena, Colombia- Part 1

Beautiful Balconies, Plaza del Coches

Beautiful Balconies, Plaza del Coches

Cartegena, Colombia-Part 1

It was my birthday week and I decided to go somewhere warm to celebrate. I have always wanted to go to Cartagena. My dreams of travel were inspired by Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s magical book, “Love in the Time of Cholera” which was set in this old port city on Columbia’s northeast Caribbean coast. My daydreams were further inspired by the movie version of this novel starring my favorite actor, Javier Bardem. Yes, I decided that a visit to Cartagena, a World Heritage Site with warm Caribbean weather, friendly people, good wine and food, and great Latin music would be a great birthday gift for me. Since Javier was not available (ha!), my younger sister from England decided to join me, also to get away from the cold and damp weather in Manchester.

Cartagena, Colombia 339aCartagena became a UNESCO cultural heritage site in 1984. Known by locals as La Heroica, Cartagena served as an encampment for the Spanish while organizing conquests to the interior of the continent, and later became one of the busiest commercial ports between Spain and its dominions. And because of its location as a port, it became a target to other European powers that were fighting Spain over the Americas for the gold and silver. Thus the city was forced to strengthen itself by building strong walls around it. Referred to as Cartagena de Indias, it was inhabited by many indigenous groups such as the Carib, Arawak, Tayrona and Sinu, before the Spaniards “discovered” it in 1533, led by Pedro de Heredia.

Clock Tower

Clock Tower

Colorful bags along street

Colorful bags along street

The Spanish were attracted by legends of gold and silver in the Caribbean town called Calamari, settled by the Caribs before the Spanish came and conquered it. They renamed the town Cartagena, after a town in Spain and ruled it for more than 275 years. They built it into a major Spanish port on the Caribbean coast and a major northern gateway to South America. It was also besieged by pirates, and other foreign invasions led by Francis Drake from England and Edward Vernon from North America. Francis Drake booted the city, looting it and destroying it during his few weeks of capturing the city. To defend against further pirate attacks and to fortify the city, the Spanish built walls and forts up around the city during the 17th and 18th centuries, and thereby defended against the later attacks by Admiral Vernon. Today these stone walls called Las Murallas, still surround the old inner historic section remind us of how the city was once protected from its enemies.

Las Murallas

Las Murallas

Cartagena also served as the main slave market of the Spanish colonies and became a slave trading port.The first slaves were transported by Pedro de Heredia and were used as cane cutters to open roads, to construct buildings and fortresses and to destroy the tombs (which held gold)of the native population of the Sinú. Cartagena proclaimed independence from Spain in 1810 but it was only in October 1821, led by Simon Bolivar, that it was liberated from the Spanish. Bolívar, of Spanish descent and whose family settled in Venezuela, played a key role in Latin America’s successful struggle for independence from the Spanish Empire. Called La Heroica by Bolivar, Cartagena soon became an important trading and shipping center, attracting immigrants from all over the world, including Italians, Jews, Chinese, French, Turks, Lebanese and Syrians. During the mid 19th century, it was ravaged by famines and cholera outbreaks which decimated the city. In the 1990s,refugees from the Andean regions migrated here.

Catalina

Catalina

Cartagena, Colombia 580a

Driving from the airport, we entered Cartagena city through one of its gate entrance of its surrounding stone wall, Las Murallas, encircling the city for more than 400 years. Before the entrance to the city, we passed by a beautiful bronze statue of a Carib woman, Monumento a La India Catalina. Catalina symbolizes the native people. She was kidnapped when young and sold as a slave by the Spanish. Pedro Heredia released her and used her as an interpreter and she became a mediator for the Caribs and the Spanish. A small gold version of her is used as the ‘Oscar” for excellence in Colombian films.
The heart of the city is the old town which is built in two sections, an inner and outer town, both surrounded by walls and separated by a channel. The inner walled town has El Centro on the west where traditionally the upper classes lived and San Diego in the north east, occupied by the middle class.

Cartagena, Colombia 077a

These are the historical districts of Cartagena. Getsamini is the smaller outer walled town where the poorer classes and the slaves who were brought here, lived. South of the old town is Bocagrande (Big Mouth), Castillo Grande (Big Castle)and El Laguito(Little Lake).Bocagrande has the skyscrapers, towering condos and ritzy hotels, with a drab stretch of grayish sand beaches of volcanic ash origins. Here is where the hotels, shops, restaurants, apartments, art galleries and night spots thrive.

Cartagena’s architecture is colonial style with eye catching restored colonial mansions of dusty rose, pink, ochre, burnt orange, green, yellow and deep blue shades…and their contrasting balconies (Los Balcons) are the star attraction of this inner walled city.

At each street and corner, all I did was stop and take photos of these gorgeous ornately carved balconies that stood out on the colorful buildings and homes, and covered with magenta bougainvilleas and other flowering bright blue, pink or yellow flowers. And I loved walking on the cobblestone paths of El Centro and San Diego and around their pretty squares bordered with balconied cafes, hotels and craft shops.Cartagena, Colombia 684a

Cartagena, Colombia 537a

Mango vendor

Mango vendor

Enjoying refreshing coconut water

Enjoying refreshing coconut water

And when we were hungry we snacked on freshly cut fruits sold by the fruit and snack vendors who thrive all over the city. And we became addicted to the sliced sour and ripe mangoes sprinkled with salt and black pepper …snacking on them as we walked around. And the fresh refreshing coconut water cooled us down as we walked in the hot humid weather.

As we walked around the colonial homes I noticed not only the profusion of flowers hanging from their balconies but also the iron door knockers that came in various adornments and sizes.

Lion door knocker of Hotel Quadrifolio

Lion door knocker of Hotel Quadrifolio

 

Even our hotel had one as it was a restored mansion. The door knockers had heads of lions, dragons, iguanas, serpents, fish, mermaids and caimans, the choice historically chosen to denote the business the family was in, for example lions indicate teachers and fish indicate businessmen. Similar to the Far East concept of having symbolic lions, birds or dragons in front gardens or patios, the Cartagenans believe that these mythical characters protect their families and homes.

Inside our hotel Quadrafolio

Hotel Quadrafolio interior

Breakfast with cheese and sweet potato

Breakfast with cheese and sweet potato

Breads for breakfast

Breads for breakfast

Every morning before we ventured out to the medieval streets and sights of Cartagena, our hotel Quadrifolio laid out a sumptuous breakfast …a plate of delicious local fruits, juice, a variety of breads, and empanada, arepas or omelets.

empanada for breakfast

empanada for breakfast

We truly enjoyed the breakfast each morning and the wonderful service of our hotel. Cartagena is a city for walking to discover its history through its cobbled alleyways, churches, plazas and restored colonial mansions along brick layered roads, with banyan trees and palms for shade from the 90 degree heat and high humidity. As we walked about the streets, we were drawn to the colorful fruit and juice carts, and to the intoxicating beats of the salsa music spilling into streets from shops and bars. We also passed by musicians strumming on their guitars or beating on their drums on street corners and mariachi bands at plazas entertaining tourists.

Palenquera-Fruit Queen

Palenquera-Fruit Queen

Here and there at strategic corners or plazas, local women dressed in traditional colorful costumes appear with a bowl of fruits at their sides or on their heads, waiting to pose for a tourist for money. These are the palenqueras, or fruit queens.

Guava vendor

Guava vendor

As we walked, what really amazed me about Cartagena is the variety of available fruits. This place is a heaven for fruit lovers! Sold as freshly squeezed juice and pre-cut ready to eat fruits, they are found all over the streets of Cartagena from hand pulled carts to juice bars and cafes. The small fruits are juiced and are usually tart.In addition to the regular tropical fruits such as mango, watermelon, banana, pineapple, guava, papaya, passion fruit, guanábana (soursop) and carambola (starfruit).

There are many unique fruits in Cartagena that I have never had elsewhere. These exotic fruits include uchuva, a tart small yellowish orange fruit related to tomatillo; lulo, a citrusy tart fruit with lime-rhubarb flavor; nispero, a kiwi shaped fruit with blackberry and chocolate like flavor that is usually juiced; and corozo, a cranberry like fruit that has a pinkish tart flavor. While walking around Getsamini I had mamoncillo, a pale pink fruit with a sweet acidic flavor and referred to as the Caribbean lychee.

Fruit vendors

Fruit vendors

At another street corner, I enjoyed tamarind juice, also popular with Cartagenans who take it with a splash of salt to balance its tanginess. There are many types of passion fruits in Cartagena that are made into juices, including the commonly eaten maracuya, a tart yellow passionfruit, and the dark purple gulupa, a smaller version of maracuya, also tart and sweet.

Pitaya fruit

Pitaya fruit

Pitaya fruit cut opened

Pitaya fruit cut opened

Pitahaya, also known as dragon fruit, and popular in Mexico and Thailand comes as a yellow version here. One afternoon as we were shopping near Plaza de las Coches, out of curiosity, I bought a pitahaya.

The vendor cut open the fruit to reveal its inside, which was white and pulpy with little black seeds and tasted sweet. Another time as we walked in the San Diego neighborhood, we tasted tart, small purple berries called mora and dark purple caimito.

Seafood meal

Seafood meal with aroz de coco

Cartagenan cuisine is a blend derived from the cultures of its people -indigenous, African and Spanish. Seafood and fruits are the foundation of the cuisine. Dining in Cartagena is fun because there are many cafes, tapas wine bars, and restaurants to discover which offer an amazing variety of foods. There are local eateries that serve Caribbean and Latin cuisines (including Peruvian, Cuban, Argentinean). Many upscale hotel restaurants with aspiring chefs who fuse local dishes with Asian, Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, French and Latin flavors. These restaurant chefs lure customers by competing for the most outstanding flavors and visual presentations.

Since Cartagena is on the water, seafood dishes abound with soups, stews and ceviches. The first night we wanted to try a comida tipico (typical local food). The hotel recommended the nearby restaurant, Cande, which served typical dishes plus some fused with other Caribbean flavors. I was eager to try the arroz de coco as it was highly recommended by my Colombian friend and my avid blog fan, Maria. It tasted sweet, unlike coconut rice in Malaysia, yet delicious.

Dancer

Dancer

While having our dinner we were also entertained by a local band and colorful dancers who performed traditional dances.

Music band

Music band

Music and dancing is an expression of Cartagenan culture and often blasts out in the evenings from clubs, plazas, cafes and bars. Most of the music bars and clubs are located in Gestamini. For a couple of evenings we became “local” and joined in the fun at a bar in Plaza de la Coches, having beer while listening to music and dancing salsa, cumbia, merengue and reggaeton. Salsa as I found out is the most popular dance. Cumbia, my favorite, is traditional in Cartagena and is a music style that originated on the Caribbean coast. It is a mixture of Spanish, indigenous and African music. It began during the Spanish colonization as a courtship dance ritual practiced among the African slave population who wanted to preserve their musical traditions. It was later mixed with European instruments and music.

Another popular local dance music is champeta, which I had never heard before. It has been influenced by soukous (Cuban/Congolese rumba), kompas (Haitian meringue), zouk(French Caribbean),and reggae. Champeta originated among the inhabitants of African descent, linked with the culture of the Palenques of San Basilio district, and, has colonial influences. It refers to a culture whose history is marked by slavery and mistreatment. Champeta originally denoted a short, curved knife used in the kitchen. Vallenato (“born in the valley”) is a folk music that originated from cattle farmers holding on to Spanish and African traditions of the day. Mapalé is a traditional couple dance brought here more than 400 years ago by African slaves from Guinea.

La Mulata neigborhood

La Mulata neigborhood

Meal at La Mulata

Meal at La Mulata

One day for lunch we walked towards Calle Quero, to the noted La Mulata, a local lunch hangout in the San Diego neighborhood, which served comida tipico at affordable prices. As we entered the place, it was packed with the local lunch crowd and tourists. It has a simple décor that is funky and artsy with photographs of celebrities, politicians, artists, foods, birds and local scenery.

The menu is typical Cartagenan with plenty of seafood dishes. As we walked towards the back courtyard I was impressed by the wonderful presentations of the dishes being brought out to the diners. We sat at the back courtyard that had a pretty garden and where five or six women were busy preparing food in the open kitchen.

Enjoying juice at La Mulata

Enjoying corozo juice at La Mulata

a typical street

a typical street

Each day of the week has a different menu, with seafood dishes, grilled steak, BBQ ribs, fried chicken with beans, rice and, salads and platanos (fried green bananas). The local hallmark rice dish is arroz de coco (coconut rice) which generally is caramel colored and sweet. I had enjoyed it with my first meal here and since it was a bit too sweet for me (I prefer savory rice), I opted for the regular white arroz de coco. I enjoyed my meal, barbecued pork ribs with stewed red beans, white coconut rice and platanos while my sis had the grilled seafood. I had corozo juice that had a refreshing tart taste. My sister enjoyed the limonada de coco, a blend of coconut water, lime juice, and sugar, which she described as sweet and tangy.

After lunch we walked along narrow alleyways looking at various shops and boutiques, later cooling off with a salted mango drink called biche. I toured the galleries and places of artwork that sold souvenirs and curios. That evening we took a taxi to Bocagrande to walk around and try a meal there. This area did not particularly interest me as it had high-rise buildings with a more modern touch. It looked like Miami. We walked around street vendors and finally into an Argentinean restaurant. The meal was so-so. As we hailed a taxi, we were greeted by loud singing of happy passengers in a colorful chiva bus.

Chiva bus

Chiva bus

Horse  carriage at Las Murallas

Horse carriage at Las Murallas

We encountered these buses at times in the city attracting passers-by in the evenings with their loud singing. A chiva is an artisan rustic bus used in Colombia for public transport. They are painted bright and colorful with the yellow, blue, and red colors of the flag of Colombia. Chivas seem to be a symbol of Colombian culture, in particular, rural Colombia. But today they have become party and tourist buses in cities.
One evening before sunset like all tourists, we too took a horse carriage to see the historic city. It felt magical as the horses trotted through the historic area for about 30 minutes, passing by churches, homes, shops and narrow streets some of which I had not seen before. And the sunset was gorgeous! All I needed was a glass of wine in my hand!

La Cathedral at night

La Cathedral at night

For dinner that evening, I then went to La Vitriola, a hangout for wealthier, sophisticated Colombians, which had a 1940s Cuban style décor. A Cuban jazz band was playing that evening. The wine was good and the food was Nueva Colombian, with fusion of Colombian, Spanish, Italian and Asian. I had ceviche with avocado, salsa roja (red sauce) and chilies as an appetizer, and a local fish with tamarind sauce, fish sauce (nampla) and chilies for entree. As I was enjoying my meal, in walked older men with young ‘overdressed’ girls. They were immediately fussed-over by the waiters and given a large table. It was an interesting scene with the girls just adorning the table while the men were talking to each other. After the meal I tried the aguadiente, a popular anise flavored drink.

Snack vendor under hotel balcony

Snack vendor under hotel balcony

In Cartagena, the best eating experience is on the streets, where an excellent variety of street food, usually snacks and fruits, available on every block of the old town. I particularly enjoyed sampling the fritangas (fried snacks), which abound here on the streets. There was a lady vendor who came every morning, except the weekends, and set up her cart below our hotel balcony to prepare and sell her snacks. Her tasty treats attracted a crowd of workers from the office buildings around who stopped by her cart for lunch and between meal snacks.

Fritangas

Fritangas

One day, as I watched her working from the hotel balcony, she looked up and smiled at me. I was transfixed as I watched her prepare in her tiny “kitchen”, cheese filled arepas (arepas con queso), meat and cheese empanadas, dedos de queso (deep fried cheese sticks) and bunuelos(deep fried cheese balls coated with corn). Arepas are classic snacks of Colombia, made from cornmeal, and stuffed with egg, meat, or cheese.

Arepas

Arepas

Steamed tubers-yuca, sweet potato

Steamed tubers-yuca, sweet potato

Later that day my sis and I took a leisurely stroll towards the university area, where we stopped by vendors selling trinkets and used books. Here there were many snack vendors selling arepas con huevo (egg filled arepas), sopas, pizzas, steamed yucca and sweet potatoes, ceviches, kebabs and other fritangas, such as papas de carne(potato buns with meat), chorizos, kibbeh, fried yucca and pork chicharonnes (pork intestines). While walking around the city in its humid and hot weather, we always found the vendors selling gelatos and colorful paletas a welcoming site. A paleta is a Latin American cream or water based frozen ice on a flat stick. During our strolls, we sampled a cooling variety of them made with local fruit flavors, dulce de leche and even pistachio.

Hotel balcony

Hotel balcony

One morning, I woke up to the sound of heavy rain. I welcomed the occasional rain showers in Cartagena. They were not long lasting and they cooled down the heat, which at times felt scorching. So I celebrated the rain that morning by taking my tea out on our lovely little balcony, sat and watched the heavy downpour on the streets. It looked beautiful like a scene out of a novel. Some people were on the street, holding umbrellas and ducking the puddles while others held paper over their heads while running towards their workplaces. Looking above the streets to the tops of homes and buildings, I watched the rain pour and beat against the covered balconies. Gazing at the downpour was a time of meditation, a time of silence, with only the music of the falling rain. I just sat there and watched, and, listened to the rain. This moment transported me in time back to my childhood days in Malaysia, when I used to sit by the window, mesmerized by the pouring monsoons pounding down on the roads and trees. Unlike Malaysia, the rains in Cartagena did not linger or last that long but gave a break from the busy traffic, and ‘cleaned off’ the streets and buildings.

During lunchtime, I passed by workers sitting on sidewalks and enjoying their bowls of soups from nearby vendor carts and cafes. Soups are a comfort food for Cartagenans, prepared with rice, fish, corn, yam and or plantains. Sancochos and mote de queso are very popular. Mote de queso is a creamy soup made with costeno cheese (salty and crumbly) and yam and seasoned with garlic, onion, cumin and lime juice. It is a comforting soul-satisfying soup often taken for lunch. After eating at several places in the historic Centro we went to Getsamini to try a popular restaurant called La Casa de Socorro that serves comida tipica.

Enjoying fish sancocho

Enjoying fish sancocho

Miss Colombia participants walking under Hotel balcony

Miss Colombia participants walking under Hotel balcony

We were eager to try their seafood dishes especially their seafood cazuelas (seafood stews), fish gratinado (fish au gratin) and fish soups (sancocho). It was a warm looking colorful restaurant with beautiful pictures of Colombian scenery and people, and is frequented by local families. The fish soup was delicious with plantains, yuca and corn on the cob, and was served with side dishes of coconut rice and avocado. We also ordered empanadas and grilled pork ribs. We enjoyed everything and I highly recommend La Casa de Socorro for its fine local dishes.

As we were having tea at the balcony one day we heard some screams and laughter and looking down we saw this line of well dressed beautiful girls walking by and smiling to the crowd. We were told these were the Miss Colombia participants walking towards Las Murallas.

 

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Categories: Cartagena, Colombia, Featured, Journeys, Spotlight, Tastes, Traditions

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4 Comments on “Cartagena, Colombia- Part 1”

  1. maria mercedes bejarano
    January 21, 2014 at 7:10 pm #

    OH How I wanted to be there with you !GRACIAS por visitar mi amada patria !! You are an awesome guest and you know what is beautiful and good

  2. January 22, 2014 at 9:41 am #

    Gracias Maria! yes I wish I could have shared your country’s beauty with you!

  3. April 16, 2014 at 7:54 am #

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    sites? I have a blog based upon on the same information you discuss and would
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