Cartagena de Indias is pearl sand Caribbean beaches, ritzy highrise resorts, and colonial charm masking a core of disarray and decay. Glossy condos tower over the shore and swanky hotels and restaurants reside in refurbished colonial buildings. Obscured by the glamorous sheen, garbage fills the beaches, gangs of young troublemakers loiter the streets, and deteriorating buildings intermingle with their wealthy neighbors.
Ancient Cartagena sits in the Walled City, the colonial quarter of the city that is enclosed by a massive wall. In the years after the city’s founding in 1533, its Spanish residents surrounded their rich new city with a wall and fortresses to protect its profusion of gold and silver from pirates and pillagers. Inside this citadel is where I began my stay in Cartagena.
I discovered the Cartagena underneath the luxurious polish by accident. Braving the torrid dripping air, I left the Walled City for a run along the coast, thinking I was jogging towards the upscale Bocagrande neighborhood. Unbeknownst to me, I had gone in the opposite direction. Concentrating more on not passing out from the heat and humidity and less on my surroundings, I didn’t notice the action going on around me until I was smack dab in the middle of it.
A pack of kids bolted past me. And I mean bolted. I am not a fast runner, but these kids really left me in their dust. I offhandedly thought it was strange, but didn’t think much of it. Then I saw their motivation for running so fast. A cop with his gun unholstered and pointed at them was chasing after them.
There’s nothing like a man with a cocked gun about twenty feet from you that will get your feet to move. I booked it down the next street and ended up on the beach, only to see that one block ahead of me, the hoodlums had turned onto the beach too.
Thinking only about how I had to get off the beach, I scrambled over a pile of rocks and back to the street. Everything had returned to normal. Lunchers were casually eating at a sidewalk cafe. Locals were strolling down the street with shopping bags, returning home from an afternoon of doing errands. Apparently, a gun-cocked foot chase with a cop and a group of young delinquents was a normal occurrence in the area and not a cause for alarm.
Still, I couldn’t help wondering what a group of pre-teen kids could have done to cause such a violent reaction by the cops. I guess I’ll never know.
Back in the refuge of the Walled City, I decided the best way to appreciate its colonial architecture was from on top of its ancient barricade. I climbed a set of narrow stairs built into the wall and proceeded to mosey along the perimeter of the city’s rampart.
From above, the narrow streets of colorful colonial buildings with their tiled roofs and landscaped balconies looked like a painting.
Upon arriving at the Torre del Reloj, the yellow clock tower that reigns over the main entrance to the Walled City, I alighted to lower ground to scout out the city from the level of a normal pedestrian.
Restored colonial buildings have modernized themselves into expensive hotels, trendy restaurants, emerald-filled jewelry stores, high-end furniture shops, art galleries, and high-fashion boutiques. The crisp freshness of these revamped old buildings distracts the sightseer from their intermixed neighbors, neglected buildings of broken windows, peeling paint, and crumbling wood.
I would have loved to browse the fabulous fashions in the posh boutiques, but I don’t think my sticky, red-faced appearance would have been received very well by the fashionable salesgirls. (Although it could have been fun to personally experience a real-life Pretty Woman moment.)
My cold shower that evening might have been one of the only times in my entire life I welcomed getting sprayed with frigid water.
Another day of exploring the enclosed old city brought me to some of its ancient landmark sites, the muddled white Teatro Colón and its next-door twin the Teatro Cartagena, the 16th century Catedral, the blanched stone Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, the city’s first church called Iglesia de Santo Domingo, and numerous small plazas. Arcades in the city wall that used to be dungeon cells and today are tourist shops rounded out my historical tour of Cartagena.
It was by pure luck that I ended up staying in the fancy Bocagrande neighborhood for the last days of my visit to Cartagena. My hostel was full, so I had reserved a room at a cheap hotel nearby. This hotel informed me that they had overbooked themselves, so they sent me to another hotel for the same price.
Initially frustrated, I changed my mind immediately upon entering my new hotel.
Bocagrande sits on a narrow peninsula, its width stretching only a few blocks, so that every corner in the neighborhood is no more than a three-minute walk to the beach. My hotel was in a highrise right across from the beach, its pool and the street the only things separating it from the sand. My room at the hotel was a sixth floor retreat with a wall of windows soaring over the Caribbean, the colonial tops of the Walled City’s buildings peeking up in the distance.
I took advantage of the amazingness of the hotel and its location in every way possible. I strolled along the shoreline of luxurious condo towers. I lounged at the pool until the sun disappeared behind a canvas of clouds. I ran on the waterfront esplanade. I ogled the sunset from my seaview room, making eyes at the pink sky above the evening lights of the Walled City.
Bocagrande’s glitter is almost strong enough to veil Cartagena’s underlying dilapidation.
My quick trip to Colombia is over. Tomorrow I am heading to Panama City, just a short flight over the Caribbean.