I was excited and curious about what my first impressions would be when arriving in Cartagena, Colombia. My flight was very smooth, and only two and half hours from Miami. After a short fifteen minute ride, my taxi arrived and entered a beautiful fortified walled city. Full of colors and life, this 500 year old city has been a UNESCO world heritage sight in 1984. Quite interestingly, the local population is a mélange of indigenous people of Mongolian origin (as I was told by my guide from the Museo del Oro), Spaniards, African slaves, and people of Arab ethnicity arriving in the early nineteenth century.
As we made our way through the city, the brightly painted stucco houses, rod iron balconies, fuchsia bougainvillea shrubs cascading down like waterfalls, and the narrow calles (streets) whose names are marked on ornate handmade tiles, were all a feast for my eyes. As I got out of my cab to enter The Hotel Tcherassi, I suddenly felt the intense Carribean humidity and heat in the air. A boutique hotel with only 7 rooms, the Hotel Tcherassi is owned and decorated by Silvia Tcherassi, a well-known Colombian fashion designer. The rooms are all unique and the décor in general is very avant-garde - not at all what one would imagine when looking at the exterior architecture of this 250 year old mansion. A soothing atmosphere is created through the décor, being predominantly white with hints of blue tile in the pool. My room, the “Ziberline”, was modern, with very high ceilings (30 feet!) and refreshingly cool, a respite from the heat outside.
I felt very safe and at ease walking around; no street urchins following me enticing me to buy their wares. Most of the tourists seemed to be from Latin America. Every once in a while I would hear French, German, some Italian, and English. The crowds in the streets seemed to be relaxed, smiling and happy as they walked around in their carefree laze.
I had my first meal at the very popular Italian restaurant “Vera” which happened to be at my hotel. I went down from my room around 9:30 and enjoyed a salmon carpaccio, asparai insalata, and a delicious, juicy bistecca funghi. What a wonderful local hangout with delightful cuisine! After this delicious, but somewhat heavy meal, I went for a walk in the direction of the Santa Clara Hotel, a former convent, for drinks and the live Cuban band. What a beautiful property! The inner courtyard had a good sized garden filled with tropical plants and an enormous nude female Botero sculpture.
My second day was all about history and culture. My guide drove me to the outer city to the Convento Santa Cruz de la Popa, to see the historical architecture. The Convento is famous for its panoramic views and is the highest point in Cartagena. I was surprised, in fact, to suddenly see so many high rises in the horizon, in the modern neighborhood of Bocagrande.
The Monumento a la Catalina is a sculpture of a Caribe Indian, honoring the original inhabitants before the Spaniards arrived. This beautiful Caribe Indian woman helped as a translator between the locals and Pedro de Heredia, a Spaniard conquistador and founder of present day Cartagena de Indias.
The Palacio de la Inquisicion is a good specimen of colonial architecture and sits beautifully in the Plaza de Bolivar in the inner part of the walled city, as does the Museo del Oro y Arquelogia. Here, one can view how the original settlers lived - their habits, agriculture and the importance of gold in every day life, and as jewelry. The Palacio is focused on the Spanish Inquisition - their fanaticism, methods of torture and death for the heretics and those accused of magic and witchcraft. On the second floor one can view historical paintings, maps, arms, furniture, and a huge church bell.
Later that night I headed for the Santa Teresa Hotel, the other big hotel within the walled city. I had heard that it would be a great place to dine outdoors. What a treat! It seemed like everyone in town had to parade past this Piazza, creating a lively and fun backdrop to the night. The fortress wall area here was wider and larger than the rest of the city. There were ramps to walk up to reach the restaurants, cafes, and lounges with live entertainment and magnificent sea views.
For the next few days, I decided to just wander around, relax and take some photographs. I quickly became fascinated with the wide variety of ornate double entry massive doors to houses. Each door had a unique design and color, and stucco frames with unusual designs around them. The piece de resistance, however, were the one-of-a kind door knockers. Each door knocker was selected to indicate to outsiders know who resides in that particular house, the family's historic profession, or simply to protect the residents from evil spirits. I saw panthers, lions, salamanders, fish, hands, octopus, seahorse and many more wonderful designs…
Strolling through the calles of Cartagena, one may see an endless variety of unusual door knockers and entrances to buildings.
It was at the Plaza de Bolivar that I noticed many jovial women dressed in bright colored clothing peeling and selling fruit. These women are called Palenquras, they come from the city of Palenque. One can select the fruits one likes or simply take whatever has already been peeled.
It took quite a bit of cajoling to get a reservation at La Vitrola, a popular local restaurant with a live band. I got my seating for 10:30pm. The menu and wine list were quite extensive. I ordered some octopus as my starter and a delicious local fish, enjoying myself whilst I listened to the music and looking at old photos of Cartagena.
Succulent and beautifully presented starter at La Vitrola
As it was my last night, I took a horse drawn carriage back to the Tcherassi, a typical means of getting around as a visitor, and slept to the soothing, repetitive click clack sound of horses on the cobble stone street below.
A la proxima vez!
- Madame Z