“Cartagena’s so dizzying,” was my first impression when I set foot in this Caribbean town in the northern part of Colombia. It wasn’t because of the 14-hour night bus trip that I took from Bucaramanga. Yes, that too. But what I meant was that the capital of Bolívar departamento felt so overwhelmingly vibrant, energetic and stylish.
I stood at an intersection of cobblestoned streets, between orange, yellow and blue buildings. The sound of a horse-drawn carriage from afar became closer and clearer. People were passing by from all directions, conversing in different languages from all over the world. The sun at 2pm was blazing hot, making the 500-year old Cartagena even more pulsating.
While most pueblos or colonial villages in Colombia are dominantly white, Cartagena is colourful in every corner and every detail. From the buildings with Spanish colonial architecture, traditional Colombian dress worn by palenqueras with their tropical fruit baskets, to Wayuu mochila or woven bags sold on the street. Not only neon colours, Colombian flag colours: red, blue, and yellow, seemed to be everywhere.
In crowded tourist spots, especially in Old Town or Ciudad amurallada, some palenqueras were welcoming tourists with friendly smiles and literally wide open arms, showing off their colourful traditional dress. Selling tropical fruits like papaya and watermelon, they were costeñas who came from San Basilio de Palenque, a town south of Cartagena that was built by slaves who managed to escape from the shackles of the employer.
This scenery so typical of travel magazine was not wasted by tourists. Photos were not free of course. “Propina, por favor,” or “Tip, please,” they said after 1-2 photographs.
Just like any other former European colonies, Cartagena has a few plazas or squares. Plaza de la Aduana was big and spacious. Plaza de Bolivar was smaller. But with several hundred-year-old trees, fountains, and classic lamp posts, this plaza was so serene.
I took shelter from the afternoon sun in one of the bars in the corner of Plaza Santo Domingo. Me and a friend took a spot on the balcony on the second floor with a good view of the plaza. We watched people made all sorts selfie in front of Botero’s voluptuous sculpture while sipping cold Club Colombia, feeling grateful of life.