After our three days in Panama City we caught a short flight over to Cartagena, the famous port city on the Colombian coast. The airport is a short distance from the old town, where we stayed in a great little boutique hotel of 8 rooms. While all of South America has felt less foreign than expected, Cartagena immediately gave off a vibe not unlike Talinn, Estonia. Not quite medieval, the city center dates to the 1500's when it was a primary Spanish port in the Caribbean and a key waystation for goods coming from Spain to South America and returning to Spain from the continent.
I'm a heavy user of the Trip Advisor app, and especially the function to download a given city so you can search restaurant reviews on the fly. Jie frequently makes fun of me because when walking around a new city I tend to spend almost as much time looking at the app as I do taking in my surroundings. One thing that immediately struck us about Cartagena was the fact that virtually every restaurant we saw had 4+ stars in Trip Advisor, and typically had entrees priced below $10. Big difference from Panama! Of course, given the strong dollar I think everything could easily be 50% more expensive at more normal exchange rates. Regardless, most of the places we ate lived up to the ratings and it was remarkable to have such a high average restaurant quality in a tourist destination.
We arrived in Cartagena in the afternoon and spent a couple of hours walking around the city. It was helpful to get the lay of the land, but the best part was seeing the host of the tv show, The Amazing Race, filming in the main square in old town Cartagena. Jie and I applied for Amazing Race about 12 years ago and made it to the interview round with the casting agency. They tried to talk Jie into interviewing for Survivor, but we didn't make the cut for the next round on Amazing Race. So it was pretty neat that while we're out on our own little version of Amazing Race we should run into the tv show again.
That first night we had dinner in a highly recommended restaurant, Don Juan, that lived up to the billing. Granddaddy went so far as to proclaim it the best meal he'd ever had. I'm not so sure about that, but it was extremely good. The next day we got up early and headed out to the marina to enjoy a full day sail over to Playa Blanca and back. We got lucky with a mostly sunny day and no rain, though we didn't get much wind either, so it was a pretty slow trip using the diesel engine instead of the sails. Playa Blanca was really pretty, very reminiscent of the beach we went to in Puerto Vallarta. Unfortunately, our meal was not nearly so good as the one in PV, and we had to haggle extensively over the price at the end of it to avoid being overcharged. Further, during either this meal or the one that night at our hotel we were exposed to something that gave everyone but Walter Travelers D. Good times. You can see the kitchen in the photos below and can probably guess why we think this might be where we were exposed to a bug.
Given we were all feeling a little below the weather, we largely took it easy the next day. We slept in a bit and then wandered around the old town. In the afternoon we arranged with the hotel for a tour guide to show us around more of the sights. We made it up to the Catholic church at the top of Cerro de La Popa as well as to the San Felipe de Barajas castle within the town. The church featured incredible 360 degree views around Cartagena as well as some interesting history about converting the locals to Christianity. Apparently the site was chosen in order to displace animal sacrifice ceremonies that took place at the top of the mountain.
The castle also has a fascinating history, and it and it's defenders are in some small part responsible for the fact that Spanish is still the dominant language in Colombia. An overwhelming English force attempted to take the town in 1741 during a war between the Spanish and British. The British approached with approximately 10x the number of ships and men as the Spaniards, but infighting among the British leadership, a very high toll from malaria and yellow fever, and a spirited defense by the Spanish general, Blas de Lezo, enabled the Spanish to carry the day. Two more interesting facts about the victory: 1) At the time of the battle, Blas had already lost 1 leg, 1 arm, and 1 eye in his battles on behalf of the Spanish Empire. How is it Hollywood has never made a movie about this one-armed, peg-legged, eye-patched hero? 2) The English admiral, Vernon, was so confident of his impending victory he had coinage made depicting a kneeling Blas handing over the key to the city to Vernon. Further, it seems Vernon never accepted his disastrous defeat: his tombstone credits him for achieving victory at Cartagena "as far as he was able to do so," hinting at the fact that the major defeat occurred to Vernon's peer leading the ground forces and not as much to Vernon's ships. Even so, an incredible historical example of hubris and refusal to accept the reality of defeat...
In the evening before our final dinner Jie and I walked along the city walls to a local craft market. The market itself was disappointing, but on the way back we were treated to Saturday night free concert right there on the city walls. We stopped for a few songs and joined the 100 or so other people listening to a young band rock out, with the waves of the Caribbean crashing about 50 yards beyond. And speaking of walking along the walls in the dark, it is worth mentioning we felt extremely safe in Cartagena at all times and in every neighborhood and area we ventured into. I'm sure there are areas that aren't that safe, but I think you'd have to work pretty hard to find yourself in one.
Finally, no discussion of Cartagena can conclude without mentioning the incredible buses that travel throughout the city. Many of the tourists in Cartagena are from neighboring South American countries, and apparently an extremely popular tourist activity is to spend about $20 to ride an open-air tourist bus around the city. During the day these are relatively family friendly affairs, but after dark the drinks start flowing and the neon comes on. It's a sight to see, though unfortunately (or fortunately) not something we personally experienced.
Check out the rest of our Cartagena photos here: https://markandjie.smugmug.com/Gap-Year/Cartagena