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Posts Tagged ‘architecture’

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A colonial city situated right on the Caribbean Sea, much of Cartagena’s charm can be discovered in the old quarter of town.  Still surrounded by the original walls built in the 1500s to protect the city’s wealth from pirates (often unsuccessfully), the colonial architecture, ancient churches and narrow streets evoke a romantic, old-world atmosphere.  The infusion of energy brought by the African roots of the Carribean culture ensures that the vibe is anything but sleepy.  I found that the best way to enjoy the city was just to start walking and get myself thoroughly lost in the old district—not a difficult task with winding, unsigned alleys and streets. 

The mid-day gets steamy-hot, but there’s no shortage of refreshment in the form of juice and fruit vendors.  One of my favorite gastronomic adventures so far has been sampling the native fruits.  I can’t say they were all delicious (zapote and nispero, I’m looking at you), but I’ve also discovered amazing flavors, some that explode with sweetness (maracuya) and intensity (tomate de arbol), others with a subtle delicacy that leave you wanting more (the lovely curuba).  

Cartagena Fruit Vendor

Cartagena Fruit Vendor

Some of the offerings from a Cartagena Juice Vendor.  From left to right: various types of oranges, zapote, pineapple on top of more zapote, mango on top of curuba, nispero (the gooey brown mess in that plastic bag), gobs of bananas (duh), mango on top of tomate de arbol, melon on top of maracuya, and pineapple on top of more oranges.  Yum.

Some of the offerings from a Cartagena juice stand. From left to right: several types of oranges, zapote, pineapple on top of more zapote, mango on top of curuba, nispero (the gooey brown mess in the plastic bag), gobs of bananas (duh), mango on top of tomate de arbol, melon on maracuya, and pineapple on top of more oranges. Yum.

Adam sampling the local fruit juice smoothies.

Adam sampling the local fruit juice smoothies.

 

Best of all, if you head out to explore early in the morning, you can have the streets of the old town to yourself—the charm of colonial architecture combines with the colors and flowers of the tropics to create a paradise for anyone who enjoys taking photos.  Here are some of my favorite shots from wandering the city:

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Some complain that Cartagena is too touristy. It is certainly a tourist destination, there’s no denying that, but even the hawkers in Colombia are generally friendly.  They tend to be a bit more aggressive in Cartagena than in the other beach cities we visited and there are so many more of them– emeralds, paintings, jewelry, hats, mini Boteros, you name it they sell it.  However, we had some interesting conversations with people trying to make a sale, so sometimes it can be to your benefit to wait a minute before pulling out the “no gracias.”  In addition to the vendors, some people are irritated by the hordes of cruiseshippers that are disgorged from the boats a couple of times a week.  But really, if you grab a seat in one of the many plazas (and maybe a beer from one of the street vendors), you’re set up for some top-notch people watching. 

The beaches of Cartagena are home to a string of high-rise resorts—not exactly our style.  So, to get another beach fix (although we were pretty sure nothing could compete after Parque Tayrona), we hopped a boat to Playa Blanca, a beach reputed to be the nicest beach near Cartagena.  On the way to the islands, the boat took a tour through the Islas Rosario.  The little bungalows on teeny tiny islands had us daydreaming about secluded island getaways and kept us well occupied until we arrived at Playa Blanca.

island-hutsPlaya Blanca definitely lived up to the hype regarding its natural beauty—the sand was powdery white and lined with palm trees and the ocean was a surreal turquoise. 

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We figured that a spot so pretty was worth more than an afternoon, so we hooked up with a crew of Irish boys from our boat and wandered off to sort out a place to sleep for the night.  The beach is lined with restaurants that will not only cook up some of the local fish and plantains for you, but will also happily rent you a hammock. 

playa-blanca-hammocksThe accommodations were even more rustic than those in Tayrona, only a few meters from the surf and with only a piece of mesh fabric between the hammocks and the threat of rain, but we just couldn’t turn down the opportunity to spend the night ON the beach again.  The other bonus?  Our accommodation expense for the evening—about US$2 each. 

Possibly because of the lack of accommodations, the majority of people who come to Playa Blanca do so only for a few hours in the afternoon.  There is one direct bus a week from Cartagena (Sunday morning) and daily boats that drop visitors for the afternoon, collecting them and returning to Cartagena as the sun starts to descend in the sky.  This means that the beach is downright packed in the afternoon and virtually deserted in the evening.  The daily crowds provide a perfect market for the local hawkers.  They sell mostly bracelets and necklaces made from the local stones and shells.  The funniest little quirk was that they all seemed to have adopted nicknames.  The first guy who introduced himself to me was “Punto Com” (dot com).  Later that day, I also met Picasso and Nelson Mandela.  I’m not sure how these pseudonyms began, but they definitely fall in the category of weird little quirks that keep travel interesting.

Picasso was from Santa Ana, a nearby town that, despite only having about 2000 residents, has two English schools.  Picasso was studying at one of them, so we had a nice conversation, him practicing his English and me practicing my Spanish.  We talked about his family and his work and the conversation inevitably turned back to the topic of me buying his stuff.  At one point, trying to convince me that I needed several new bracelets, he assured me that he would give me a very special price, only for me.  He was absolutely delighted when I exclaimed “Only for me??  Que suerte!!”  (What luck!).  Turns out that humor is an effective negotiating technique because promptly he dropped his price by half and we had a deal.  That’s one of the joys of this adventure–getting the opportunity to meet people from around the world and learn a bit about their lives, whether they are other travelers or locals.  Every time I have an experience like that, I find myself somewhat taken aback.  I am reminded of why we are here and am so utterly grateful.

 

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