Saturday, July 11, 2009

Getting warmer

Bogota, for all its glory, is a little cold. Not Bolivia cold, mind you, but it is some 2,600m above sea level, and right now is sort of the rainy season, so the weather's variable at best - you get a little sun, and a little rain during the day, and you want a sweater around at night. This, obviously, wasn't going to work, so off we headed to the beach - the Colombian city of Cartagena on the Caribbean coast to be exact.

As you step off the airplane at the Cartagena airport, you know, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this place isn't going to be cold. Or cool. Or temperate. It's going to be hot, it's going to be muggy, it's going to be humid. And these are all good things. And then you hop into a taxi, carefully steer the driver away from Bocagrande, the overgrown Cancun-style beach resort district of Cartagena, teeming with tall, impersonal, and downright boring high rise hotels (and a wholly uninspiring beach), and head for El Centro - Cartagena's old walled town. Old, because it was one of the first colonial cities in the New World, founded in by the Spanish in 1533. And walled because the Spanish used to store the gold here, prior to shipping it back to Spain, and pirates used to come in and plunder said gold. (Francis Drake got to be Sir Francis Drake for his exploits in the Caribbean). But none of that is really all that important - the important part is this city is renowned, quite deservedly so, for its colonial beauty.

So, Irina and I spent a week here, vast majority of the time spent gazing at the old town, while wondering through the maze of narrow streets that cross it. We also ventured to the nearby islands to find a nicer beach than what Bocagrande has to offer, but more of that in another post, for now, the sights of Cartagena:

That arched building in the back houses Cartagena's City Hall and the office of the mayor

The Church of Peter Claver is visible from all angles of the old city. Peter Claver was a Spanish missionary who worked with the African slaves brought to the New World from Africa. Later canonized. Considering that the Catholic church was never officially against slavery, as far as I know, this all seems a little hypocritical, but I digress - the church is beautiful

The Cartagena Cathedral - yes, every city in Latin America has one.

But you see churches and cathedrals everywhere down here - where Cartagena really shines is simply in its streets. With multi-colored, balconied houses usually lining both sides.

Convent of La Popa, sitting on a 600m hill above the city. Popa, incidentally, refers to the stern (back) of a ship in Spanish - this is literally what the convent was named after. In Russian, popa means 'rear end'... who knew the Spanish and Russian languages would overlap at the word for butt...

At the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas - the biggest fort that the Spanish would eventually build in the New World. Damn those pirates!

Looking out over the new construction of Bocagrande over the barrel of one of the cannons protecting the fort.

Cartagena is also interesting to wonder around - you never quite now what you're going to find. Well, most of what you're going to find is going to be people trying, rather agressively, to sell you a souvenir, convince you to eat at their restaurant/cafe, or just plain 'ol begging for money. Bogota was actually quite refresting because for being a big and interesting city, it's relatively un-touristed, so you don't get harassed and hassled a whole lot. And the Colombians, in general, are really nice people to speak with, always happy to help, and more than glad to ask just how much you like their country. In Cartagena, the people are still nice, alright, but it's certainly very, very touristy. The prices are up, and all the tourist destinations are haunted by people selling anything you can imagine. A tour? A drink? A cuban cigar? Money change? Meat on a stick? Cocaina? Anything you want, amigo!

But the people, in the end, are still Colombian, and thus quite nice, so once you learn to ignore the never-ending sales pitch, you get to enjoy some of the other sights of the city:

It was pretty exciting when we first stumbled on an impromptu street dance performance on our first evening in town. It got a bit less novel and exciting when you came to realize that this is just how these guys earn their living, dancing in the streets every night, but they are really, really good and sure do work hard enough to actually earn whatever tips we gave them

Fernando Botero is a famous Colombian artist. He didn't only do statues and paintings of fat people, but right or wrong, these are what he has become most famous for. Little models of this statue are eagerly for sale all over the city...

Did I mention the people are friendly? I suppose the soldiers assigned to basically ensure the peace in the tourist areas are also a little bored, but Irina did not have any trouble talking them into posing for a photo with her. Guns loaded, raised and everything!

The water surrounds Cartagena's old city, making for some spectacular views at night and at sunset. Unfortunately, it's sort of the rainy season up here too, and while the rain is actually quite pleasant in relieving some of the heat and humidity, it does mean that there's always clouds hanging around, so you don't get to see the sun set all the way into the water. Oh well, the night shots are still spectacular:

Sunset view from Cafe del Mar, a trendy restaurant atop Cartagena's wall

And a couple shots of the old town after sunset.

And that's the city of Cartagena... A bit more to come from some excursions outside the town, but save that for a separate post - this one is long enough as it is...

Fun Cartagena trivia section: the guidebooks often refer to Cartagena as the most romantic city in Latin America... The word on the street is that Cartagena is South America's leader in sex tourism. Make what you will of that little juxtoposition.

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