10 – 12 April 2010
About 9 years ago, just after we had bought Balvenie and she was sitting down in Picton Marina while we were in Auckland working hard to make our dreams come true, we were introduced to an Irish cruising couple, Pat and Olivia Murphy who were on their yacht Aldebaran in Auckland, half way around their circumnavigation of the world. They inspired us with their stories of exotic places they had travelled to, sights they had seen, so many of which you can not do without your own boat. But the highlight of their journey so far, they recalled, was spending Christmas and New Year in Cartagena, Colombia. We were amazed that such a “normal” couple had even ventured into this land of drug barons and cocaine dealers, lived to tell the story and spoke so highly of it. We filed it away in our memory bank under “possibly but probably not”, but here we are – in Colombia.
With Balvenie and Bandit safely tied up at the new marina in Santa Marta about 3 hours north, we decided to catch a minibus down to the UNESCO World Heritage City of Cartagena de Indias.
The road goes down the coast, the terrain was flat and all quite uninspiring, no lush tropical jungle to the waters edge here, just flat plains and scrubland. We passed several "shantytown" villages of one room corrugated iron shacks, they lined the road with swamp lands behind them. I imagine in the rainy season they are constantly awash and plagued by mosquitoes, they looked very bleak but there is probably nowhere else for them to go.
Arriving into the old walled town of Cartagena was like taking a weekend mini-break back to Europe. The Spanish certainly performed some atrocities in the countries they “conquered” but they sure left behind some wonderful architecture, and Cartagena is overflowing with it. There were plazas with ancient trees providing much needed shade, handsome buildings housing government offices, banks, museums, palaces, churches and large mansions and then there were all the streets, a feast for the eyes in every direction. Flowering vines and bougainvillea clung to old plaster walls, some freshly painted – some showing signs of centuries of peeled paint, wooden balconies perched out above, every street was a scene out of a movie set.
We had unintentionally timed our visit at quite possibly the safest time you could ever have visited. Cartagena was in the final preparations for a summit to be held in the weekend, with over 30 Heads of State partaking, including President Obama, There were thousands of police in town, including armed police in our hotel, security was at an all time high. There were also hundreds of street cleaners (not normal I am sure), and many buildings were getting a very quick lick of paint to tidy them up. We may have seen a very sanitized version of Cartagena but our memories will be of a very safe, secure, clean, tidy and beautiful old walled town.
Outside the main walls life was going on as normal, the “new” old town of Gétsemaní hadn’t been “airbrushed” for the visit and as we walked through some of its streets we decided that a return to the safer area might be a sensible move!
We took a minibus the short distance out to Bocogrande, it wasn’t far but the heat was sapping our strength and the buses are really rather entertaining. Bocogrande is a long stretch of high rise buildings set along the waterfront on the peninsular, the Caribbean on one side and the harbour on the other. These are not the Caribbean beaches of brochures with crystal clear water, palm trees and white sands, come to Cartagena for the culture and history, not for a beach holiday!
We spent some time in the Museo del Oro y Arqueologia, it houses a collection of gold and pottery from the Zenú culture (the Spanish must have missed this lot), there was also an excellent video on how the Zenú farmed the swamp lands successfully hundreds of years ago, they dug over 750,000 hectares with canal systems to control the water flow in the rainy season. It appears modern day man has learnt nothing from their successful ways.