With one and a half days spent in Cartagena, I’ve decided that I’m qualified to make some sweeping generalizations about the city. Cartagena reminds me much more of Havana or Liberia than Bogota, which I suppose makes sense given the fact that its proximity to the ocean is similar to those two Central American cities. People sit outside on the stoops chatting with their neighbors, and watch TV with their doors open as dogs, maybe theirs or maybe strays, who knows, run in and out. Vendors and tourist industry-workers quickly switch to English when they discover that our Spanish is less than perfect, something that we very rarely experienced in the Colombian capital. Street hawkers are also much more persistent than they were in Bogota, and prices are higher. They know that the tourists are here and they take full advantage!
We are staying in a small hotel in a neighbourhood called Getsemani. It’s technically part of the old city, but it’s outside the walls of the main historical area. Until recently, Getsemani was considered to be quite a dangerous area filled with crime, but in the last ten years it has begun to see a major revitalization. The historical centre has gotten so expensive and full of high end store and hotels that expansion was bound to happen. While perhaps not as obviously attractive as the historical centre, Getsemani has lots of great restaurants, many of which come in at a less shocking price point than the ones in the heart of tourist-land, many beautiful old buildings, and lots of cool street art (are you sensing a theme yet?).
The famous downtown area of Cartagena, now designated as a UNESCO world heritage site, is surrounded by a thick wall that was built in the colonial period to stop enemy forces from penetrating the Spanish stronghold. The entrance to this sector is about at ten minute walk from our hotel, so we decided to mosey over there and feast our eyes on the beautiful buildings. It really is an incredibly gorgeous collection of architecture. There are structures of almost every colour, with a number of large squares and majestic churches thrown in for good measure. It’s a little jarring to see Bennaton, Desigual, and a myriad of other high end stores housed within the colonial buildings, but it only brings the charm factor down a couple of notches. We meandered along the streets, saying “no gracias” to what felt like a hundred vendors, until we saw someone selling freshly squeezed mandarine orange juice (delicious!). Staying hydrated is pretty important in the crazy Cartagena heat. Little did we know that the weather was about to turn in a big way.
We felt a few raindrops, which at first were a nice relief from the stifling heat, so we ran under a nearby doorway for cover. The rain seemed to stop, so we continued meandering, only to be quickly pelted with drops again. The second burst ended quickly as well, so we were able to keep walking and admire our reflections in the growing puddles. We even found a furry friend who was starting to get pretty drippy.
We headed up to the top of the wall to feel the cool ocean breeze, which was lovely in the heat. Once again, the rain started pelting us, and this time it wasn’t letting up. We found shelter under the awning of a restaurant, and waited helplessly as we watched a torrential downpour and lightning show for over two hours! I would have loved to make a run for it, but with two cameras and two phones in tow and no rain gear, there’s no way our valuables would have made it back to safety without getting completely waterlogged. Just when I was beginning to think that we might never be able to leave, the rain began to let up and we made a run for it. Cartagena’s streets fared much worse than we did – many were completely flooded with cars driving through over a foot of water. We were left with very wet feet after wading through calf deep rivers where roads should have been, but thankfully no phones or cameras were harmed in the process. I’m hoping that the water levels won’t be quite so high when we venture out shortly for dinner.
So far Cartagena appears to be a city of extremes on the weather side of things. We’ve had extreme heat, then extreme rain… who knows what’s next!