And so after a sad farewell to Argentina and Chile – countries I’ve become incredibly fond of having now spent so many months enveloped in their majestic landscapes – I set foot off the plane into the hot and humid Caribbean coastal region of Colombia. It’s 9.30pm and still about 27C. First things first – they don’t provide trolleys in the airport, so somehow I have to figure out how to manhandle my bike box and heavy luggage bag out to the taxis. Luckily one of the just two airport porters (with his own trolley which he seemingly owns) sees me floundering, deserts another couple, and helps me out for a small fee. He is friendly and chatty and completely bemused as to why I have a bicycle with me.
Next task – find a taxi big enough to fit the bike box in. That takes a little longer. Eventually, bike, bags and me are all stuffed into a car and on the way to my hotel in Cartagena. Result! I’m checked in within an hour of landing. I guzzle some water, jump in the shower, lather myself in mozzie repellant, whack up the aircon and collapse into bed.
With a number of inlets and ports, Cartagena is a very strategically located city. Many battles have been fought over this city, giving it a ripe and tumultuous history.
Before doing the touristy bit and visiting the sights of Cartagena’s old town, I needed to get myself sorted ready for cycling in Colombia. There were various items that I’d had to ditch in Ushuaia that I now needed to replace and I had to put the bike back together. On first inspection the bike look like it had survived its last three flights pretty well – just a small dent in the front wheel hub (insignificant) and a broken brake cable housing, which I’d need to get replaced (a small job to do which I could have managed myself if I’d had any cable housing material) as it made the brake cable catch and not release properly.
Anxiously taking the bike out of its box to check for potential damage in transit
Relieved to find just a small repair job that needed doing to fix a broken brake cable housing.
Whilst I was reassembling the bike, I noticed it was also about time the front brake pads got replaced. A small job which I did myself. I thought I may as well replace the pads at the back whilst I was at it but found I couldn’t get traction on the small screw heads that hold the pad in place. One more small job to get a bike shop to help me with.
So I hunted around Cartagena and found a bike shop dealing in Specialized and Shimano parts which looked like it would be a good place to try. I popped round with my bike the following morning and they fixed it all for me (and also helped me get a better power connection on my hub dynamo USB charging port which had become a bit dodgy after all the rain in Patagonia) there and then. After an hour and a half of us tinkering on my bike together it was all set for the road. I asked how much I owed them, and they told me it was 10,000 Pesos – that’s just £2.50 to you and me. Incredible! I’m sure the guys in the shop were also doing me a favour – mostly they were just bowled away by the idea that a woman would tour Colombia on a bike solo.
Job number two was a lot trickier – trying to find camping gas for my stove. I trawled all the sports and outdoor shops I could find, and also a number of DIY stores that advertised camping gas on their websites. All to no avail. Sometimes they had canisters but they were the click-in (not screw-in) type that don’t fit my stove. Argh! Next option for my MSR Universal stove (which I bought precisely because it can take a number of different types of fuels to adapt to different countries) was liquid paraffin. No-one seemed to know what I was talking about. Third option was ‘Bencina Blanca’ (White Gas) – which is actually liquid. That flummoxed everyone. I tried petrol stations, paint shops, pharmacies. No-one had a clue what I was talking about. The final option – which I usually try to avoid because it makes the stove so dirty and blocks it up quickly – was unleaded petrol. So apparently they don’t have unleaded petrol in Colombia! Even the regular fuel has a bit of lead added in (which is bad for the stove). So, after a day and a half of traipsing round all the possible shops I could think of in Cartagena I’d still drawn a complete blank.
Things like this can get a little out of proportion when I’m trying to sort out my gear ready for setting off on a new part of the ride where I don’t really know what lies ahead. This frustration combined with some definite culture shock shifting from the vast expanses of the Patagonian steppe to loud, hot, bustling Cartagena, was a little overwhelming. I decided to head back to my hotel for a couple of hours to recharge my batteries and switch off with some inane Netflix viewing.
The following day I tried again and searched online, mustering up my best Spanish to try to hunt down some fuel that could be shipped to Cartagena. Eventually I got some luck when I found an outdoor store based in Bogotá (called Tatoo for any cyclists reading this blog to plan their own trips) who could ship to Cartagena within 3 days. More shenanigans proceeded as I again tested my Spanish with their online chat customer service to find a way to pay for the order (couldn’t pay by credit card without providing a Colombian ID card number, bank transfer only worked for Colombian accounts…eventually we figured out I could use a cash-payment service by paying at a kiosk in the local supermarket). Then the order wouldn’t complete because you could only order online if the item had some kind of VAT (tax) allocated to it, which fuel here apparently doesn’t….so I added the cheapest item I could find (a pair of socks) to my order to be able to put a tick in that particular box. Then I ran across town to pay the bill just before their closing time so they could ship the fuel canisters straight out to me. Wow, that was a day of problem solving, but I got there in the end!
Miraculously the two fuel bottles (which it turned out I’d accidentally ordered large rather than small size, so I ironically now have more than I need – all good training to haul them up the Colombian hills!) arrived at my hotel within just 2 days.
Finally, I went and replenished some of my food supplies that I’d allowed to run down (salt, oil, spices, washing up liquid, porridge oats, powdered milk, etc), plus matches and lighter, ready for any camping/cooking I may need to do.
Now for the more interesting part
With all that out of the way, I finally relaxed a bit and took my last 2 days to properly explore Cartagena. This city has one of the most complex histories I’ve ever come across. It was ‘founded’ in 1533 by Pedro de Heredia for the Queen of Spain, on what was originally a deserted Carib settlement called Calamari. He then set about on a 3 month raid of the region to pillage gold and other valuable wares to send back to Spain. Given its strategic location on the coast and at the mouth of two rivers, Cartagena became the main port for shipping to and from Spain, and in particular for shipping out stolen Peruvian gold and silver.
Cartagena became rich very quickly. As the main port and gateway into the north of South America for the Spanish colonialists, Cartagena’s warehouses contained all manner of (plundered) valuable goods. It was also a hub for the import of African slaves. This made it a key target for attacks from pirates and privateers, often on the behest of France, Holland and England. Between the 1540s and 1580s, Cartagena continued to flourish as a treading post but was hit by numerous raids and also a couple of major fires that seriously damaged the city.
One of the biggest raids was in 1586 when Britain’s Sir Frances Drake attacked Cartagena, with 2 ships and 3000 men. Drake ordered widespread burning of houses and the cathedral. He stayed occupying Cartagena for a number of months, until he was paid a huge ransom of ten million pesos to return to England.
At this point, the Spanish empire had had enough and set about building 13km of defensive stone walls around what is now the old city. They also built a number of forts to counter any attacks. This helped protect the city and fend off a number of further raids right up to the end of the 18th century (including another failed attempt from the British in 1741).
In the 1600s, the church also gained a foothold in Cartagena and the Holy Office of the Inquisition was established there in 1610. This led to an ugly period of public trials, imprisonment and beheadings for the likes of heresy, blasphemy, bigamy and witchcraft (and of course as punishment to anyone practicing differing religious beliefs). The Spanish Inquisition then extended from here across the rest of the South American Spanish colonies.
‘Puerto del Reloj’ – the main gate into the old town
‘Las Murallas’ – the old city walls
‘Plaza de los Coches’ – this was originally the square where slaves were bought and sold and is surrounded by old colonial buildings with archways and balconies. The statue of Cartagena’s founder stands in the middle. Under the arches on the left hand side is an arcade known as ‘El Portal de los Dulces’ where street vendors sell all kinds of nuts and confectionary.
The cathedral – today the doors are always open and people walk in and out during the day to say their prayers. It’s a very ‘living’ building.
El Palacio de la Inquisición – a beautiful building that seems very incongruent with its history as the seat of the Punishment Tribunal of the Spanish Inquisition, where people were routinely tortured and sentenced to death. There is a fascinating (and quite disturbing) museum inside explaining this history and naming a number of those who were executed, along with their supposed crimes.
Inside the Palacio
Aside from the many political and religiously-significant buildings, the old streets of Cartagena are beautiful to meander through (although swarming with tourists like myself). Many of the old colonial homes have been well maintained, and beautiful flowers hang from the balconies and around shady plazas and courtyards.
The pretty streets of Cartagena’s old town
An attempt at independence
After more than 275 years of Spanish rule, Cartagena became one of the first cities to declare independence in 1810 and banished its Spanish governor. A number of other cities in the Spanish empire began to follow suit. But Cartagena would soon be severely punished.
Spain responded by sending a ‘Pacifying’ force in 1815, which placed the city under siege. The city was being defended from the main fort, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas – but given the Spanish had built and reinforced it, they had all the plans and knew exactly how and where the city’s weaknesses were. The Spanish underestimated the will of the people of Cartagena to fight and resist however, and they resorted to trying to starve them into submission. A month later, rather than surrender, 300 people were dying every day due to hunger or disease. When Spain retook control four months after the siege began, 6000 townspeople had perished. On their way into the fort the Spanish found it lined with dead and dying soldiers who’d refused to leave their posts.
The heavily fortified Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, strategically located on top of San Lazaro Hill. The fort was never breached and in earlier invasions, the Spanish used to just leave their attackers down below to die from tropical diseases such as malaria and yellow fever, which flourished in the surrounding humid marshlands.
Great views over the old town from the ramparts
Finally in 1821 Cartagena got its independence following invasion by a patriot army. The Spanish governor surrendered and the city rapidly recovered and prospered again. With established trading routes, Cartagena remained an important city in South America and attracted immigrants from all across Europe and the Middle East – many of their descendants still have businesses here today.
Other bits and pieces of interest
Another stunning place to visit is the Convento de la Popa, sited high up on a hill a little further away from the old town. It was first built in 1607 and then fortified in the 1800s. It looks very simple from the outside but has a beautiful courtyard inside, and superb views across the city.
El Convento de la Popa
The beautiful courtyard
The gilded chapel inside – I look at Colonial-style churches with slightly new eyes now since having met Michaela back in Ayaviri, Bolivia.
Amazing cityscape looking out to sea
View out across the rest of Cartagena – I was surprised just how big the city was and had to ride at least 12km to get to the edge of it. You can see the main road I rode out along cutting diagonally across the middle of the picture. I decided to leave early on a Sunday morning when it would be quieter (also because I’d been warned that this was one of the most likely sections of my ride for cyclists being robbed!).
One other place that deserves a mention is the Convento y Iglesia de San Pedro Claver. It was originally founded by the Jesuits in the early 17th century and was later given its current name in memory of a monk, Pedro Claver, who dedicated his life to ministering the slave community of Cartagena. He was known as ‘The Slave of Slaves’ and was the first person to be canonised in the Spanish colonies. He lived in the convent where you can see his small worshipping room, an infirmary where he treated the sick, and rooms leading off the wide arcaded corridors where he would have housed those in need. His open casket is visible beneath the altar of the church. This was a beautiful place with a serene garden but it must have been loud and full of people in its time.
Convento y Iglesia de San Pedro Claver
San Pedro Claver
The small prayer room inside the convent
Night time in Cartagena
Because of the intense heat and humidity during the day, Cartagena really comes to life at night. After dark (pretty early here, at about 6.30pm as we’re reasonably close to the equator) people line the streets selling everything from mobile phones to street food. Music was invariably blaring out from somewhere. Inside the old town, the squares come to life with live music anddancing. People drink beer in the squares enjoying the relief of fresh air. And like Chile, Colombia has latched onto the Peruvian food phenomenon – you can get some really amazing fish and ceviche dishes here.
Peruvian ceviche – simple and tasty
Dancers in the square — their performance really reminded me of some of the dancing I’d seen a few years ago in Cuba (unsurprisingly given it would all have originated from the original indigenous and slave communities that came to the Caribbean).
A nice view over Getsemaní, just outside the old town, from my hotel rooftop