Cartagena, Colombia (November 8, 2021)

If yesterday was a bit of a bad surprise, then today was a huge good surprise! We loved Cartagena and were charmed by how her colonial walled city and fortress, World Heritage Sites since 1984, have been beautifully restored and maintained. Brought back to life, really, after a concerted effort by city planners about 15 years ago. From the get-go we were excited to explore this little corner of the land now known for emeralds and coffee.

Sidebar: Yep, I was here once before with a group of wild and crazy friends from Panama.
Let me just say, what happens in Cartagena stays in Cartagena. 😉
The city was tired and unkept at the time, nothing like what we saw today.

Known since the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, it became a key port for the export of Peruvian silver to Spain and for the import of enslaved Africans, 1.1 million of them! The fact that it was defensible against pirates was a huge plus for the city but did not protect the ships once they left the port headed home.

Our guide prepared us for the deluge of vendors before we stepped off the bus at the San Felipe de Barajas Fortress, the largest Spanish fort in the new world, situated on San Lazaro Hill. Sure enough, they knew we were coming and were anxious to show off their wares. A first for us were the ladies dressed in very colorful Congo-esque skirts and blouses with large trays of fruit balanced on their heads. The fruit was not for sale, but a picture of the ladies or with the ladies, your choice, was.

The nicely landscaped, impressive fortress, designed to prevent land-based enemy attacks, overlooks part of 6.8 miles of walls surrounding the old city across the lagoon. Its tunnels were constructed in such a way that footsteps (of an approaching enemy) could be heard. Silly us, we were amused by the pubic restrooms which were located in a space originally designed to be used for ammunition storage. We walked to the top of the fortress and enjoyed views on all sides.

Once we were fortressed out, we met at the statue of Don Blas de Lezo at the base of the hill. He cut a dashing figure having lost an arm, an eye, and a leg in service to the colonies. His popularity is based on his skillful defense of Cartagena against a vastly superior British force in 1741. His maimed appearance, believed to be accurately reflected on the statue, makes him look like a picture book pirate. Once everyone snapped a photo of Don, we wove our way through the venders aggressively promoting their wares: hats, jewelry, fruit, sun glasses, drinks, and table clothes.

Next stop, and our favorite: Old Town, which dates back to 1586. Its storybook architecture, impeccably clean streets and plazas, well preserved balconied colonial buildings, shaded outdoor cafes, churches, monasteries, plazas, palaces, and mansions had us at first glance! The mansions have massive doorknockers indicating the profession of the occupant: a lion indicated the military, an iguana meant you were related to royalty in some way. I also saw huge fish but can’t remember what they meant. Some of the balconies were almost consumed by plants and others were more subtle. Charming, colorful, lively, manicured kind of sum it up.

We had free time to roam and shop plus our group visited a couple places. We enjoyed the small museum at the Inquisition Palace with its torture equipment used on victims during the inquisition. Fun fact: These items were removed from display in 2015 prior to Pope Francis’ visit. Hum?

The stop that made the biggest impression was the Sanctuary of San Pedro Clave, the patron saint of slaves. He was born into a privileged family in Spain, decided on the priesthood, and volunteered to work in the colonies. During his six years of study in the colonies he became deeply disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the slaves. It soon became his practice to head for the wharf as soon as a slave ship arrived. Boarding the ship, he entered the filthy, diseased hold to treat and minister to those in the worst shape. Those in need of special care were taken to his hospital. He made it his habit to visit slaves where they lived during periods when slave ships were not expected in port. He lodged in the slave quarters further endearing himself to his flock. He stayed the course for 40 years! President Obama as well as Pope Francis have paid their respects at the altar of the Church of St. Peter Claver which is part of the beautiful sanctuary we visited today.

Back on the bus we headed to the ship. Our guide kept us busy looking at interesting things along the way: a former leprosy hospital; all-white, above-ground cemeteries; a former slave market; and two small submarines confiscated from drug smugglers.

To top off our perfect day, the walk from the bus to the ship took us through a large store filled with Colombian goodies. We took this last shopping opportunity very seriously and were among the last to get back on the ship. 😉

Dan had another clever seating arrangement and Hettie brought out more conversation cards over dinner. Cruisers seated next to us asked what the heck we were doing. Soon they were borrowing cards, asking where to get some, and chuckling at one another’s answers.

Tonight’s entertainment: Touch of Shine, a Ukrainian-born duo. Anna is a trained gymnast and Vlad, a professional circus performer. They were spectacular!

For what it’s worth…..

The currency is the Columbian Peso (COP)
$1.00 = 3,743 COP / 1 COP = $0.00027

Cartagena was under Spanish rule for more than 275 years!

The population of Cartagena is between 1 and 1.5 million.

Hold on to your hat: Pedro Clave owned slaves. I kid you not!

It is legal to walk around in public with an alcoholic beverage in hand.  


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