In preparation for Cartagena Hunter and I dutifully watched Romancing the Stone, completely ignoring Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner, determined to be familiar with the city before we arrived. Total waste of time, the movie was actually shot in Mexico. Colombia was considered too dangerous. What we should have done was read some Gabriel Garcia Marquez. He did actually live here and used the city as the setting for much of his writing, including Love in the Time of Cholera.
He came in 1948, escaping riots in Bogota with little more than the clothes on his back and fell in love with the city (or so the tourist board says). He stayed for a year working as a journalist. There is a lot to fall in love with.
The city is loaded with history… the Spanish established one of their most important ports in the bay and built huge fortresses to store the gold they were stealing from the indigenous people. They also wanted to keep out other Europeans who were pretty tempted by these riches. Francis Drake managed to sack the port in 1568 and demanded a huge ransom in return for not raising the town. Luckily for us the Spanish paid and the town was saved.
Less lucky for the one million Africans who were brought here, sold into slavery and further enriched the Spanish conquerors. We often cross the odd triangle shaped courtyard where the slave auction was held while out exploring.
Today, Cartagena is considered the jewel in the Colombian crown, routinely sited as the most beautiful city in South America. It is gorgeous. Particularly the old colonial section. This is where we stayed in a wonderful airbnb apartment that dated from the 17th century.
All this beauty and history comes with a price… tourists. I am fully aware of the hypocracy… I am the biggest tourist of all. But the throngs of people drove me crazy. Sites were packed, restaurants expensive for what you got and more English than Spanish heard when walking around.
We did manage to escape one morning and headed to the Basurto Market. Our guide was a former chef so knew everyone. He warned us to leave our money behind (I stuck a little in my pocket) and to say we lived locally if anyone asked. No one did, no one was fooled and we felt perfectly safe. There was nothing touristy or posh about this place. We got there very early in the morning as people were hauling in the vegetables, setting up tables piled with seafood and slaughtering cows. We missed the actual killing (thank God!) and just saw the carts full of heads.
Before their day begins workers have breakfast in a very primitive version of a food court. 8 am, Hunter bought a fried fish, served in a newspaper and I got a bowl of a rice and fish dish kind of like paella. We squeezed into a table and chowed down. It was our favorite meal in Cartagena and Hunter’s favorite experience of the trip. I think Kathleen Turner might have liked it too!