We recently spent three days wandering the enchanting maze that is Cartagena’s old city.
Cartagena de Indias was a pivotal port for the Spanish colonialists of the 16th century. The impressive wall surrounding the old city and the imposing Castillo San Felipe de Barajas were built to protect Cartagena and the wealth amassed by the Spanish from pirates sailing and pillaging across the Caribbean. The entire walled city is now a UNESCO world heritage site, and is quite something to behold.
Cartagena is regarded as a playground for the rich and famous. As we traipsed through the sweltering streets, we glimpsed enticing swimming pools through the open doors of boutique hotels, glamorous people indulging at restaurants with white tablecloths, beautiful women examining couture in overly air-conditioned boutiques, and socialites drinking champagne atop horse-drawn carriages in true fairy-tale style.
This opulence exists within the bustle of a vibrant city, where vendors sell cheesy arepas for 2000 pesos, palenqueras in their traditional dresses of Colombian colours flaunt baskets of fruit, and prostitutes proposition customers in the plazas once the sun approaches the horizon. Cartagena may not be cheap, but it’s hardly as expensive as we were lead to believe. Most prices (for food and drinks) were similar to what we pay in Barranquilla, although the hostels are more expensive than most others we’ve looked at in Colombia (we stayed in the 10 bed dorm at Makako Chill Out Hostel and paid 25 000 pesos each per night).
Like Barranquilla, it was ridiculously hot. Around 35⁰C with a “real feel” of about 43⁰ due to the humidity. Whenever the breeze died down, it was all we could do to resist the temptation of the (slightly) air-conditioned dormitory. As we ambled through the city, we frequented gelaterias in an attempt to combat the heat. The Café de Colombia flavour at Gelateria Tramonti may have been the best ice-cream I’ve ever eaten.
Time feels suspended in Cartagena. We navigated narrow alleys bordered by colourful colonial buildings adorned with Bougainvilleas, and passed through countless plazas overshadowed by ancient churches. We sat on the stone wall and sipped our drinks as the sun set over the Caribbean, where pirates and conquistadors once sailed. But as the suffocating heat died down, the charm and romance of the historical city began to contend with a more debaucherous and decadent side.
We popped into bars with salsa music so loud, my heart would skip a beat to adapt to the rhythm. We ended up at a rooftop party attended by wealthy Colombians, and left after it became clear that we weren’t classy enough to be there (the bottle of rum smuggled in and shattered on the tiles may have had something to do with that). We reluctantly consented to a search by two policemen on our walk home, wary of the stories we’d heard of authorities planting drugs and eliciting bribes, but walked away unscathed. They were much friendlier when they found out we’re teachers living in Barranquilla.
On the second day, while our friends retired for an afternoon nap, Keagan and I explored the neighbourhood of Getsemani. The combination of colourful facades, exposed brickwork and bold graffiti makes for a vibe entirely distinct from that of the old city – the barrio is hip and full of life.
I loved Cartagena, and don’t agree with the seemingly popular sentiment among backpackers that it’s an “expensive tourist trap”. A few people have even told me that it isn’t “real Colombia”. Although in some cases statements like these may be true, I find that they tend to be made by travellers who think themselves far superior to those who visit “touristy” famous historical sites, embark on guided tours, or enjoy spending a week on the beach at a resort hotel. They are travellers, not tourists – a distinction that really irks me. I hate hearing travellers trying to one-up each other with their travel stories – who has visited more countries, who has been on the road longest, who has been to the most remote location, who can spend the least amount of money per day, who had the most “authentic local experience”.
Cartagena isn’t “real Colombia”? What does real Colombia look like? The idea that authenticity only exists in a low-income lifestyle has led to the growing trend of travellers seeking out “authentic” experiences in neighbourhoods beset by poverty, and the questionable ethics of this township tourism make me rather uncomfortable.
Of course, the walled city is not representative of daily life as experienced by the majority of Colombians. Cartagena is plagued by the same problems as many destinations all over the world. There is a huge wealth disparity; the historical city centre and affluent neighbourhoods like Bocagrande are bordered by slums comparable to those in South Africa. Veiled racism, which people in Colombia seem to pretend is non-existent, can be perceived in social interactions and in the paucity of information on the African heritage in this Afro-Colombian city. Like South Africa, Colombia is a very diverse country – geographically and economically – but every bit of it is real, and Cartagena is a city I look forward to visiting again.