New travel experiences are like one of those Before and After features. There is your Before - with preconceived notions of what a place will be like as researched on the internet, often filled with unrealistic expectations and naivety. And then there is your After - the one vastly improved, or at least standing in better lighting with a better pose.
My Cartagena Before self arrived at the Rafael Nunez Airport in torn jeans and red high heels feeling oh so #glamorous in what I thought of as one of the most romantic cities in the world. Then I stepped outside. Aaron read a tip that simply walking two blocks away from the airport will save you 50% on your cab fare (true), but nothing like a two block walk in 90% humidity to make you second guess all life decisions that led you to such a sweaty and miserable fate.
I had a vision of wandering about the Walled City, soaking in its inspiration, and writing in quaint street cafes (because travel blogs). In reality, all I really cared about the first day was Air Conditioning. I wanted to enjoy the (what I deemed as) beautiful colorful colonial architecture without taking a moment to consider how it got there and at whose expense. I'm willing to admit I wanted the tourist facade without the truth behind it. Of course, I'm not in the minority in this admission, hence the popularity of all-expense included resorts, but when I embarked on this journey to move to and explore South America, I envisioned my purpose to be different, maybe higher, as holier than thou as that feels to write.
And so I felt like a particularly repulsive Before when I got home and sat down to write about my experience in Cartagena. My After feels guilty for failing to see that this city struggles with deep wealth inequalities, one of the starkest in Latin America, and my After also feels guilty for not knowing the history of this place before showing up, but better late than never, my After eventually learned about the history in Cartagena.
The myth goes that in 1533, a Spanish conquistador named Pedro de Heredia traveled with an interpreter named Catalina who was kidnapped as a young girl and raised by the conquistadors. There are rumors that Heredia and Catalina were lovers, but she later married his nephew and testified against him in his trial for thievery and mistreatment of indigenous people, so either it's a rumor or that was one hell of a breakup. Regardless, it was Catalina who helped Heredia take the village Calamari by force, the site of the now Cartagena. Fun fact: If you search "Calamari Village Cartagena" on Google the first thing to come up is in fact not this story but a boutique hostel of the same name (the irony is not lost on me).
After the city was settled by the conquistadors, it became one of the wealthiest ports in the Americas. One truth left out of the typical tourist narrative is that this port's biggest business was slave trade. It's estimated that over one million Africans were forcibly taken to Cartagena de Indias and sold, creating the booming economy. The reputation of wealth became dangerous as it quickly became a target for pirates in search of booty, which of course led to Spain building the infamous walls of the "walled city." This later bit them in the backside when Cartagena declared its independence from Spain in 1811 and became one of the first cities in Colombia to do so, after - of course - withstanding several brutal sieges by the Spaniards, using their own walls against them. In 1851, Colombia abolished slavery, 14 years before the United States.
Cartagena is much more than a tourist destination to check off my list if I had let it be, and I hope I can apply these reflections to my travels to come. For now, here's what my After would recommend to my Before if she could.
Admire the bright colors, balconies covered in flowers, colonial architecture, and artistic murals. Take more photos. Put your hair in a ponytail, and it's way too hot to wear a bra. Eat from a street cart, but not fruit that could have been rinsed in the water. Duck into small boutiques for the A/C, and buy an exquisite piece of locally made emerald jewelry and a colorful morchila (handwoven bags).
Bring your own headphones, so you can use the App that will give you a tour (in English or Spanish) of the works.
These gentleman were having a good time watching the pretty ladies walk by, so when I asked to take THEIR photo, they were tickled. I nervously shouted across the street as I was leaving, "Me gusta tu sombrero," to which they laughed hysterically. Do more of this.
Named one of the best restaurants in Colombia, I ordered the to-die-for ceviche in mango sauce. Indoor seating with air conditioning or colorful patio seating. Note that doors don't open until 1 PM. The restaurant also offers a gastronomic tour with Chef Jorge Escandon. I regret not knowing about it Before.
This was my favorite restaurant in Cartagena. It's owned by Silvia Tcherassi, a Barranquilla born designer. Order a cocktail (or two) and the prosciutto and melon (an Aaron favorite). There was such an exquisite and relaxing poolside atmosphere, Aaron and I ended up talking and enjoying a 3 hour meal, finally ending with coffee and dessert by the pool to wake us up for post-dinner dancing.
World famous, live Cuban music, plenty of dancing, and shots of aguardiente (a popular Colombian liquor with a black licorice taste). Be brave enough to talk to strangers.
A Stroll in the Warm Rain