Cartagena: The Old City
24 June 2008 | View of the Old City Soon After Anchoring on the First Day
After Colombia gained independence from Spain in 1821, Cartagena slowly lost its importance to the world particularly once slavery was abolished in the late 1800s. Cartagena's historic buildings, some dating to its founding year of 1533 by the Spanish Conquistador Pedro de Heredia, fell into decay as the old city's well-to-do moved to other areas such as the nearby island of Manga, thereby abandoning the historic buildings. However, starting in 1959 when Colombia declared the walled city a National Heritage of Colombia, Cartagena began the restoration and rebuilding of the main buildings. This process accelerated significantly once UNESCO declared the city a World Heritage Site in 1984. Today the old city is impressive, with narrow streets and most buildings' facades restored to what they used to be. Inside, one often finds fantastically decorated houses or convents, some of which are 5 star hotels (e.g. Santa Teresa & Santa Clara). Prices in some hotels or Inns in the old city can be very high - in the thousands of dollars per night. At the same time, in the walled city one can go across from the Centro neighborhood, which is the most exclusive, into a less affluent neighborhood such as Getsemani (where working/poorer people still live) and find hostels for $20 US per night.
The old city is divided up into 4 neighborhoods - El Centro where the people of noble ancestry first lived, San Diego & La Matuna where artisans, soldiers and people of average means live, and Getsemani which is separated by a city wall, where the poorest (and those who worked for the wealthier in El Centro) lived. However, as El Centro has been well developed and owners have become wealthy home-owners, investors and business-minded people have been buying up houses across all neighborhoods and restoring them. It is expected that one day all of these neighborhoods will boast buildings that are all restored and expensive to buy.
The old city boasts many restaurants, shops and jewelry stores where the famous Colombian Emeralds can be found. After 4PM, and more so after 6PM when cars are not allowed in El Centro, one finds artisans and artists from all over the country, many from abroad selling their crafts. A wonderful activity is to walk the streets at night when it is cooler and enjoy seeing the crafts, restaurants, street sellers (probably too many), horse carriages carrying tourists or recently wed couples, and street musicians/dancers making public shows. Seating in one of the many old parks, reading and/or watching people go by, is also a terrific pastime.
Cartagena and areas near it also have become a Mecca for music and musicians and many of Colombian's most popular folk music (e.g., Cumbia) had its origins in this region. Cumbia, as well as most Colombian folk music, is a fusion of Spanish, Black and Indian music/instruments resulting in music that is melodic, romantic, happy and vibrant such that it is hard to stay still when hearing it. Music is a common language throughout Colombia, enjoyed by all. It is an integral part of each family's traditions. When Maria was a child growing up in Colombia in the 1960s, a popular Sunday family outing was having a picnic at a river up one of the Central Cordilleras (a branch from the Andean mountains). We would sing all types of songs (primarily Colombian folk songs) during the car drive which would often last 1-2 hours. Everyone, from Dads, Moms, children, maids would sing in unison and happiness would invade us. When we arrived to the picnic area, which was by the side of a river, Dads would collect wood to make a fire for cooking lunch, moms would cook and children would play and continue to sing songs. Unfortunately, the guerrilla war that has been waged in Colombia and intensified since the late 1970s put a stop to this wonderful tradition and only few families in Colombia still continue to do this.