Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cartagena, Colombia

View of Cartagena from La Popa Monastery
After writing my post about my day in the Chilean Andes, I thought this would be a good time to finally blog about my first trip to South America (albeit now out of order, since Santiago was our last stop before flying home).  My parents, my wife, and I took a 15-night cruise on the Celebrity Infinity from Fort Lauderdale to Santiago via the Panama Canal.  There were three main reasons I wanted to do this cruise:  1) it was a lifelong dream of both me and my dad to go to South America; 2) this cruise included a full transit of the Panama Canal in the cruise ship itself, which promised to be an incredible experience, and 3) I had a bunch of United Airlines frequent flier miles that I wanted to burn, and a Christmastime flight from Chile back home seemed like a good use of them, especially since I had enough miles for 2 business class tickets.

This will be a multi-part trip report series.  Below is a full listing of the series, which I will complete over the next several weeks as time permits.  Unfortunately, I hadn't thought about starting a travel blog when I took this cruise, so this won't be a detailed review of the cruise ship itself (I didn't take enough notes or photos of the ship), and you plane geeks will be disappointed that I didn't take enough notes for a flight report. 

Cartagena, Colombia (today's post)
The Panama Canal Railway and Panama City
Transiting the Panama Canal
Manta, Ecuador
Lima, Peru
Arica, Chile
La Serena, Chile
Valparaiso and Santiago, Chile
A Day in the Chilean Andes

Date of Visit:  Monday, December 10, 2012

Our cruise actually began on Friday, December 7th, but we would spend 2 days at sea before reaching our first port of call, Cartagena.  We were supposed to set sail at 4:00 P.M., but due to an unexplained delay, we didn't actually leave until nearly 8.  Not that it really mattered, given that we'd have 2 whole days to make up the time.  A positive side effect, though, is that this allowed me to get a late evening shot of the Ft. Lauderdale cruise ship pier.

One of my favorite pastimes when cruising, especially on days at sea, is heading up to one of the upper decks to watch the sun set.  Saturday featured a fiery sunset over the mountains of Cuba in the distance.
Sunday featured a fantastic sunbeam as the setting sun briefly disappeared behind a cloud.  Interestingly enough, while waiting for sunset, I overheard a couple standing next to us mention that they were from Plano; we struck up a conversation, and discovered that they live a couple of miles from us.  Small world.
Early Monday morning, we made our approach to Cartagena.  Someone (presumably wealthy) was out on their speedboat, and a few minutes later, the Cartagena skyline came into view.

Colombia still has a reputation for being a bit lawless, so we'd get a few funny looks when we'd tell people that the cruise ship was stopping her.  However, even during the height of Colombia's drug violence, Cartagena was largely spared, and thrives as a tourist destination today, both for its oceanfront beauty and its rich history dating back to the 16th century.  Truth be told, it looks and feels a lot more like a Caribbean island than South America.  More recently, Cartagena gained notoriety for a prostitution scandal involving the American Secret Service.

We had arranged to join a tour group via a Cruise Critic message board (a good option if you want to do a shore excursion, but prefer a smaller group experience to the cruise line-sponsored tours), and our guide, "Dora de Explorer", met our group on the pier.  Our first stop was the Convento de la Popa (also known as La Popa Monastery, and Convento de Nuestra Senora de la Candelaria).  The entrance to the monastery is at the top of a hill, which provides a magnificent view of the city on a clear day.

Built in 1607, the monastery is a well-preserved example of classical Spanish colonial architecture.  Being in the tropics, the grounds are beautifully manicured, with the bougainvilleas in bloom during our visit.

This is the patron saint of the monastery, the Virgin of Candelaria.  A couple of other period artifacts were also on display.

Next on the tour was San Felipe de Barajas fort, built by the Spanish in 1536.  This was strictly a photo stop - 20 minutes to walk around, grab a soda or a souvenir, snap a few photos, and get back on the bus.  Which was too bad, because this fort looked like it was worth further exploration, at least a hike up to the top.

Next, we traveled to "Old Town" Cartagena, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which features restored Spanish colonial buildings.  We took an approximately 1-hour walking tour of the area.

A statue of Simon Bolivar, a revolutionary responsible for the independence of much of South America from Spain, stands in the center of the old city.
We made a brief stop at the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver, a church founded by the Jesuits in the early 16th century.  Father Claver, also known as the "Slave of the Slaves", spent his time in Cartagena minstering to the African slaves brought to Cartagena by the Spanish, and was the first person canonized in the New World in 1888.  Note the stained glass windows, difficult to photograph but typical of churches built in the 17th century.

Once done touring the church, we headed back to our designated meeting point to catch the bus back to the ship.  With it being just two weeks before Christmas, someone decided to put up a Christmas tree.  A rather odd looking one at that.  I can only hope the city planned to put some decorations up later.
The tour only took up half the day, and we were back to the ship by a little before 2.  (In case you were wondering - the city does have some very nice beaches, but we didn't visit any during our tour.)  That gave us a couple of hours to look around the pier area before it was time to sail at 5.  You have your typically overpriced gift shop there (nothing really worth buying), but there was a cool flock of flamingos next door.

We were late sailing away yet again, but that provided for yet another terrific sunset photo from the balcony, this time of the Cartagena skyline.

Miscellaneous Things to Know

- Currency:  Colombian peso; current exchange rate is 1,917 pesos to the dollar.  In areas frequented by cruise ship tourists, dollars are widely accepted, even by street vendors selling sodas and bottled water.  Credits cards are accepted in most major shops, and ATM machines are widely available.
- Climate:  Cartagena is located on the Caribbean Sea coast, and is located at a latitude of 10 degrees north.  It's hot here.  And humid.  If you don't like hot and humid weather, you'd be well advised to find somewhere else to go.  Rainy season is May-November.

The combination of heat and humidity can make walking long distances rather taxing, especially if you try to climb the road to La Popa Monastery (elevation 450 ft) on foot, or hike up the San Felipe de Barajas fort.  Carry plenty of water when you're out and about.
- Language:  Spanish.  It certainly helps to know or learn a little bit of Spanish before you go, but as with any city frequented by cruise ships, you can get along even if you don't.  If you do know "poquito" Spanish, don't be afraid to try it out!  Most of the locals will appreciate you trying, and will help you fill in the blanks.
- Transportation:  There is a hop on-hop off double decker bus that circles around the important tourist sites in Cartagena, at a cost of $24.50 per adult/$19 per child.  City buses also ply the streets frequently; however, unlike in the U.S., city buses are privately run by a multitude of companies.  The website provides an overview.  If you do want to try and get around by bus, I'd strongly recommend knowing a little Spanish, or take a phrasebook with you so you can at least ask for directions.

Traffic in Cartagena is, shall we say, something of a madhouse.  I wouldn't say it's quite as bad as India, but it's not far behind.  I would strongly discourage attempting to drive yourself in the city.  Taxis are plentiful, but as is the case in any developing country, while cab fares are negotiable, make sure you negotiate the fare before you get in the cab.  Typical fares to common tourist destinations can usually be researched online before you go (Lonely Planet in particular has some good advice on this subject).
- Food:  Coconut rice is the local specialty, often served with fish and lobster (the food does come with some Caribbean kick).  Take the standard precautions you would when eating in any developing country.  Tap water is not safe for Americans, so carry bottled water.  TIP:  the cruise ship, and street vendors in areas frequented by ship tourists, will sell bottled water and sodas at inflated American prices.  Instead, find a general store or supermarket, and you'll pay considerably less.
- Other:  Cartagena is well-known as a good place to buy emeralds and emerald jewelry.  If you want to buy emeralds, make sure to do some research before you go so you can tell the difference between real and fake gems.  Also, the city can get crowded when the ships are in town.  If that bothers you, check the cruise lines' schedules before you plan your trip to help avoid them.  And remember - this isn't the U.S., sticker prices are negotiable!

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