When I found myself with an extra week of vacation time, I thought there would be no better use to taking a trip to a continent I had never visited, South America. And there’s arguably no better place to get a taste for Latin American and Caribbean culture and history then in Colombia’s historic but booming port of Cartagena. Once a rare destination due to many years of internal conflict related to radical political ideology and the drug trade, Colombia’s recent peace deals, rapidly developing cities, and the general growth of adventure tourism have brought many more visitors in recent years to experience Colombia’s beautiful nature and rich colonial heritage (though I’ll admit that part of my inspiration was from the TV show Narcos, which presents the rise and fall of Colombia’s most notorious claim to fame, Pablo Escobar). And most of this tourism is centered on Cartagena, easily accessible by plane or ship from North America. However, as I traveled in the rainy season, most of the other tourists were European backpackers or American week-trippers, not the crowds of cruise ship passengers that overwhelm the city during the winter months (despite the season, the rain consisted only of short afternoon showers that did not interfere with my plans).
Cartagena was founded by the Spanish in 1533 as the hub of their colonial empire in the Americas, shipping out untold tons of gold and silver mined or stolen from native peoples across the Andean region and serving as the stopping place for thousands of slaves, soldiers, fortune seekers, and other Europeans moving to these vast territories. But such a wealthy but distant city proved an irresistible attraction to pirates and other European powers seeking a foothold in the Caribbean, and was attacked multiple times, including by such famous figures as Francis Drake and John Hawkins. As a result, the Spanish colonial government developed a massive system of fortifications around the Old City and the surrounding islands and mainland dominated by the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, the largest fortress complex in Spanish North America. Despite their imposing looks, this castle was relatively ineffective in actually defending the city, which still fell multiple times after its construction.
Inside the walls, the Old City of Cartagena’s closely packed mansions and churches are a stunning example of Spanish colonial architecture, while the nearby Getsemani neighborhood (once the lower class section of the city, now the “hip” neighborhood and site of most backpacker accommodation, including my own) includes a profusion of murals and colorful houses overflowing with flowers. Both parts of the city, despite their tourist appeal, are still living cities, and the sightseer regularly passes local residents going to and from their homes, work, and errands. With hundreds of years of mixing between African, Indian, and European residents, Cartagena’s people are remarkably diverse, if largely poor, with tourism giving many extra income but making limited large-scale impact on the lives of most residents.
Yet Cartagena today has grown to nearly one million residents, far outstripping the old town, and resulting in a dizzying array of neighborhood types; the high-rise resort and condo towers of Bocagrande, the busy ports, the well-preserved tourist center, and the sprawling slums to the East and South, with striking contrasts between the lives of rich and poor in one of the world’s most unequal countries. But the prices are fantastic for a foreigner, especially if one eats like the locals (Colombian cuisine is mostly simple but satisfying – meat with rice and potatoes or beans, with Cartagena’s food especially drawing off the sea, and a profusion of fresh fruit and juices).
Cartagena also draws its popularity from the ease of taking day or longer trips from the city to dozens of pristine beaches, hidden ruins, or wild rainforests. As part of my trip, I took two classic trips from Cartagena. The first, just a day trip, was to the Isla Pirata (Pirate Island), part of the Islas Rosarios National Park, which preserves remarkable coral reefs and all the expected features of a tropical resort, though it has also become a ritzy vacation destination for the upper class of Colombia and around the world. For my trip, though, I appreciated having a few other groups of Americans to spend the day with.
My main additional trip was for several nights in Tayrona National Park, east of Cartagena via the city of Santa Marta. Santa Marta is the oldest city in Colombia, though it has not retained as much of its colonial buildings as Cartagena and is primarily a stopover for backpackers heading to and from Tayrona and other local natural areas.
Tayrona is the quintessential vision of paradise, with deserted white sand beaches at the base of mountains dense with rainforest foliage. While Tayrona also has the drawbacks of the rainforest (heat, humidity, rain, and insects), the ocean is never far away, and with lodging limited to campsites, hammocks, and a few cabins, only one road and few trails, human impact on the park is minimal despite its growing popularity. The park protects an extraordinary diversity of wildlife, though my sightings were limited to a few capuchin monkeys; a skunk; and various birds, butterflies, and the ubiquitous lizards. Tayrona contains several sites sacred to the local native people, and encompasses a small Indian village (Pueblito) and ruins of the once larger town around it, though reaching there requires a challenging uphill scramble from the campgrounds.
Tayrona was the furthest I got from Cartagena, returning to Cartagena the day I left the park to fly out, but Colombia itself is a massive country, with the culture and climate of Bogota and Medellin far different, but with a poorly developed road system, seeing much more of the country would need to be left for another trip – as it was, I felt I got a phenomenal glimpse of a fascinating country.