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by Irene Butler
For Travel Writers' Tales

A blast of warm air welcomes us as we deplane at Cartagena Airport!

With Christmas only days away the town's streets are busy with merry local shoppers. Next to our Stil Hotel is a small outdoor bar where men with cold cervasas sit on dozens of plastic chairs. A stone's throw away women rummage through the best display of running shoes ever seen spread on concrete-knock-offs of every major brand. Onward for blocks, sidewalks are laid with electronics, the latest Hollywood blockbuster DVD's, plastic toys, and all manner of gift items. Fresh fruit and savoury food carts feed the masses. My husband Rick and I veer towards the Arepas con Queso stand - not caring if these delectable fried cakes of ground maize stuffed with melted salty cheese are turning our middles Santa-rotund. We stock-pile them for our Christmas Eve feast, along with chicken and potatoes roasted together in a divine herb sauce, a fruit-laden cake, and mucho vino.

Our Arepas con Queso Lady

We make our way daily to the walled Old Town. The moment we step through the stately Puerta del Reloj (Clock Gate) it is like a gathering of the United Nations. Cruise ships come into port daily, and passengers are transported by bus or taxi to this enclave to spend the day. The bustle is electric! Hawkers sell hats, T-shirts, cigars, and jewellery. Entertainers perform by the outdoor restaurant tables for pesos. We cringe watching a juggler tossing machetes….only in Colombia, you might say.

Cartagena was founded in 1533, swiftly becoming the main Spanish port on the Caribbean coast. It was the place where gold and emeralds, plundered from the indigenous peoples, were stored until galleons could ship them back to Spain. These treasures made this port a target for British and French pirates, and hence after several sieges, these elaborate walls went up; most of them are intact today.

Street in Old Town

The Old Town's fine old colonial houses, now turned into restaurants and emerald shops, still emit an aura of their dark history. Plaza de los Coches was once a slave market. Further along is San Pedro Claver Square, with a church and convent dedicated to Jesuit monk Pedro Claver, who spent his life helping the slaves. We're mesmerised at seeing his remains in a glass coffin in the altar of the church. Facing us while sitting on a bench at Plaza de Bolívar, is the Palace of the Inquisition-once a prison with torture chambers and ghastly devices to squeeze confessions from those convicted of heresy against the Catholic faith. We next step into the Gold Museum filled with pre-Hispanic gold objects from the burial mounds of the Sinú culture, which somehow survived the conquistador pillage.

Fernando Botero's Bronze Female

On a lighter note, we stop and listen to Christmas carols spilling from the open doors of Santa Domingo church. Outside this church no one misses taking a gander at the sizable bronze female lying on her side, donated by Colombia's world-renowned artist/sculptor Fernando Botero. He is known for his voluminous exaggerated human forms that represent political criticism or humour, depending on the piece.

Old Spanish Fortress

Cartagena is a city in which to walk everywhere! One of our ventures is to Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the huge stone fortress first built by the Spanish in 1639, and re-built after each of several attacks. Its complex system of tunnels is eerily fascinating. As we manoeuvre the inclines, declines, corners and straightaways, we learn these passageways for bringing in supplies and troop changes also incorporated defensive strategies - the echo of the chambers are geared to hearing footsteps of the enemy and some passages end in a trap. This fortress along with the Old Town were designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1984.

Beach day

For a change of pace, a day on Bocagrande beach is heavenly. Swimming in the tepid Caribbean is no problem for us amateurs, since stone breakwaters every 180m slow down the thrashing waves.

Festive lights

Cartagena turns us into night-hawks, as we don't want to miss its glittering light-trimmed buildings and sparkling Christmas Trees. On our last night before leaving we watch a fireworks display from our lofty hotel window, an extravaganza which, as well as ringing in the New Year, we consider to be our farewell send-off!

Cartagena's natural beauty and turbulent history held us captive, each experience enriched by the hospitable spirited locals. We could not have picked a better place to spend the Yuletide Season!


Information: Tourism Colombia:

Getting There: Avianca, Lan and Copa Airlines all fly many times a day from Bogota to Cartagena - Flight duration -1hr 25min. Half a dozen buses travel daily between Bogota and Cartagena - 20 hours.

PHOTOS by Rick Butler

1. Our Arepas con Queso Lady
2. Street in Old Town
3. Fernando Botero's Bronze Female
4. Old Spanish Fortress
5. Beach day
6. Festive lights

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