Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia is as far south as our ship will travel. We have a short day in Cartagena; we leave at 2 pm so our tour starts bright and early in the morning – 7:30 am. We have booked a tour with Dora Tours; she comes highly recommended on Cruise Critic. We are met by some of Dora’s employees on the pier; there is a short walk from the ship to where the bus will pick us up. The port has done a lovely job of developing the area. In order to reach the bus, you walk through an aviary. There are multiple peacocks and flamingos. The flamingos are behind a fence but the peacocks are everywhere. I even spotted one in a tree! There are also macaws in a caged area.

When we reached the bus, Dora is waiting for us. She introduces her driver, Diego. Not really Diego; his name is actually Manuel. Dora is obviously not above making use of Dora the Explorer to market herself! We are docked in the new portion of Cartagena – Manga Island (so named because of the numerous mango trees). Originally, Cartagena was founded by Spanish in search of treasure. Incas lived here and traded their gold, silver and pearls to the Spanish in exchange for olive oil, wine, mirrors, and other items. The Spanish galleons also brought slaves to trade. From Cartagena the galleons would head to Cuba to meet more galleons and then head to Spain. Because of the treasures that the galleons bore, they were targets for pirates.

Sir Francis Drake came to Cartagena. He had been given the authority to take whatever he wanted for England, but the Spanish weren’t too impressed by that. Apparently he blew out the top of the cathedral here and so in response, the city became fortified. There was an 11 km wall built around it. Drake is seen by some as a pirate (the locals) and by others as a hero (probably those in the British Empire).

Like most of the countries in this part of the world, Colombia is 80% Catholic. We asked Dora about other religions here; she responded that the other 20% was composed of types of Protestants. I wanted to know if there were Muslims, Buddhists, or any other religions represented. Her response? She stated, “We don’t want any of them here.”

By now we were driving up a long, winding road on La Popa Hill. Yearly, on February 2nd, the Feast of the Virgin of Candlemas is held here. No cars are allowed (only horses and carts) so people start the pilgrimage to the top of the hill at 2 am. From there, there is a procession with the Virgin down the hill to a church at the bottom of the hill, stopping at the 14 stations of the cross along the way.

There is a monastery at the top of the hill (built in 1608). Dora told us of a monk that had a vision – the Virgin (la Virgen de la Candelaria)told him to build a place in here honor here. There are still 8 monks that live here and hold services every Sunday afternoon. The city was defended from the monastery before it was moved to Manga Island.

The view from the top was quite nice. It is a bit hazy but Dora explained that the haze is not from pollution – it is weather related. There has been no rain and so the haze hangs over the city. She told us that Colombia is known for growing roses, gold, emeralds, coal and beautiful women. The Andes mountains are located here. She didn’t really want to talk about the drug or cartel issues but obviously, Colombia is known for those as well. She said that bullfighting takes place here the first week of January but is not as popular as it used to be. Soccer and baseball are popular sports in Colombia.

We saw the gold Baldaquin that used to be used to carry the virgin down the hill on her feast day but now they have smaller, lighter carriages. We also saw the room where the dresses for the virgin are stored (she gets a new one yearly). We made a brief stop in the chapel. Displayed on each wall are exvotos – charms representing miracles that have been performed by the virgin.

Why is this place called La Popa? In Spanish, it means “the poop deck”. The monastery apparently resembles the poop deck of a ship.

Our next attraction was a photo stop at San Felipe Fort, which is the largest fort in South America. On the way we passed by some slums. Dora told us that the people that live here do not want to move from their homes. The unemployment rate here is high at 12%. Many of the street vendors are unemployed people that are trying to support themselves by selling their items. They are quite assertive! We passed by some motorcycle taxis. These are illegal but the police turn a blind eye because it is another way people support themselves. All children wear school uniforms, whether they attend public or private school. Public schools run from February to November. Rainy season runs from November to April so that is why the schools run on a different schedule. However, if a child attends an American school, it will run on an August to June schedule. Presidential elections are held every 4 years and there is a strict one-term limit – you cannot be reelected. Despite that, the government is corrupt. Colombia has lots of poverty despite being a rich country.

The Fort was constructed between 1656-1751. It was built from the top and the Spaniards used no stairs in its construction; only ramps. Slaves were used to build it out of limestone and coralstone. The statue is of a one-armed and one-legged general that defeated an English invasion of 128 vessels that tried to take over the city. The English were defeated by disease carrying mosquitos as much as anything – 11,000 were killed. As we took our pictures, we were inundated with locals trying to sell us trinkets. There are also those that want to pose for pictures with you – women in bright dresses with fruit baskets on their heads; men with donkeys. They charge by the person – you and a donkey? $2! You and two ladies? 3$!

Our next stop was called the Dungeons. The Dungeons used to be used for storing ammunition and as a place for soldiers to sleep before being used to house political prisoners. Now, it is nothing but a bunch of shops; 23 to be exact. While some of our tour-mates shopped, we walked along the wall above the Dungeons. The wall around the old city used to be 11 km long, but now is only 8 km. There are 22 Bastions along the wall.A portion of it was destroyed in preparation for the Panama Canal to be built. Colombia used to own the land that is now Panama and expected to benefit from the building of the canal. More about that in my post about the canal.

We saw a line of horse-drawn carriages passing by the Dungeons. Dora explained that these were an excursion through the cruise ship. Normally, you can only catch horse-drawn carriages in the evening.


Dora then led us on a walk through the old city. The streets of the old city were closed to traffic because the cruise ship was in town. She showed us a restaurant where Anthony Bourdain had filmed an episode of his show. According to Dora, the restaurant (La Civicheria) tripled their normal prices for his visit!

The statue pictured below is known as “La Gorda Gertrudis” by a famous Colombian artist, Botero. His statues are of thick women. You can see what part gets rubbed for luck most frequently!


We visited Santa Domingo Church and Cloisters. I thought there was a church service being held (it was a Sunday) because you could hear plainsong coming from the church. It turns out that there was no service; the music was being piped through a loudspeaker. There were a handful of people praying, however. There are no real candles allowed in the churches here due to the fire hazard. Holy water is also not kept here due to the mosquitos. People bring their own water from home and the priest blesses it on the spot.

Walking through the city, you see that the old doors were very short – Spaniards were short people. Bells were hung in some homes to warn the city of attack. The spike on the roof of a building showed that the owners were Catholic; the spike was supposed to keep the evil spirits away.

We walked through Bolivar Square, where the city started. Simon Bolivar fought for independence from Spain. It was achieved on 11/11/1811. People were burned here in the square during the Inquisition. I noticed that there is a museum dedicated to the Inquisition, but we were not given time to visit there.

We passed by the old Customs House, which is now City Hall. Our final stop before being given a little free time was San Pedro Claver Santuario (Church). Inside the church was a small religious museum.

In the courtyard of the church, Dora told us about Claver. He came from Catalonia in 1610 and lived here in 1616. During this time slaves were brought here. They were branded on their left breast and were then sent to work in the mines or as household servants. Claver baptized slaves here and treated their burns with herbs that were grown in the courtyard. His remains are here, interred in a gold coffin. The Eucharist was being given while we visited the church. A guitar was accompanying a singer playing modern church music. I definitely preferred the plainsong at the last church!

Dora dropped us off for 1/2 hour of free time at a coffee shop. They advertised iced coffee but didn’t actually sell any, so we had to make due with a coke and a beer. Cartagena temperatures run in the upper 80’s with humidity in the 90% range so we definitely didn’t want anything warm to drink! We relaxed here for a bit rather than walking around in the heat and met up with our group to be taken back to the port.



We drove past some lovely mansions on the way back to port. Dora gave us some more information about the city as we drove. Cartagena floods but does not have earthquakes or hurricanes. Retirement age here is 58 for women and 62 for men. One year of military service is compulsory for men; 2 years if you don’t get a high school diploma. Oh, and the 3 km that was knocked down in preparation for the Panama Canal? It smelled terrible because men used to pee on it. Tomorrow, we transit the Panama Canal.