Cartagena de Indias

Strolling along the old walls of Cartagena at sunset, with a strong sea breeze threatening to promptly cause a Marilyn moment, it is easy to imagine that we are somewhere in the Mediterranean. The swish boutique hotels, gourmet ice cream shops, and hoards of gringos, add to this impression. Down each street, flowering plants burst out from painted balconies, and impressive old wooden doors have sturdy, nautical-themed door knockers.

The odd clue gives Colombia away, however. Black ladies dressed in gaudy traditional Caribbean dresses sell tropical fruits in carts by the roadside, and the occasional shop had a banner advertising that it sells 'minutos' for cell phones. In Parque Bolívar - one of several thousand town squares in South America named after 'the liberator' - the Crem Helado seller rings her bell and idly wheels her trolley around, searching for customers, and watched over by Simón himself. A man neatly and laboriously restacks his tray of cigarettes, chewing gum and peanuts to sell on a bench in la Plaza de los Coches, while an old-fashioned bar behind the arches of the arcade sends strains of Cuban music into the early evening.

Back at our hotel, sitting on the balcony, we watch tourists, stray dogs and street sweepers in luminous yellow jumpsuits pass by. Behind us, a wide tiled corridor leads to our room, with its mustard yellow walls, paint peeling in places. The hotel has an aura of lost grandeur.

Down the road, in plaza Trinidad, a cafe caters to those with taste buds craving Western food, whilst an extremely popular stand sells something resembling a cross between a kebab and a burger. There is also an arepas de choclo stand, and a ´jugos naturales´ seller; staples in all Colombian towns. This square seems to come alive at dusk, always full of locals and foreigners of all ages, sitting on the benches and the steps of the church.

To the west runs a street reminiscent of East Berlin; crumbling walls are covered in impressive graffiti. Here, and on numerous other painted walls - cloaked in parrots, Caribbean women, turtles, ships - is a reminder of Cartagena´s less glamorous past. Once a key stopover for Spanish galleons collecting Inca gold, the city was virtually abandoned in the 19th century, after Spanish attacks during the Wars of Independence proved its fortifications were not as invincible as believed. In the era of pirates and stolen gold belonged the city's heyday, the naval museum - complete with wax Jack Sparrows, cutlass in hand, hanging from the ceiling - informed us. It was only tourism in the twentieth century which truly brought it back to life, and which remains the life of the old area of the city today.


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