12 Hours in Cartagena

When we arrived in Cartagena we had 12 hours to see it all. How to handle this impossible task? I made a list and my top 3 sites to see: #1 Fuerte de San Felipe de Barajas, #2 Escultura de la Virgen del Carmen, #3 Old City. How does one cram all of that into 12 hours (with lunch, dinner, drinks)? Figuring out how to get very close to the Escultura de la Virgen del Carmen proved to be the most logistically challenging portion of the trip. The sculpture is located in the middle of Cartagena Bay.

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The Palenqueras

Palenqueras are fruit seller women originating from Palenque de San Brasillio. They are a fixture of the old city and always found near the central Catedral de San Pedro Claver. They wear bright costumes and carry bowls of fruit on their heads. The Palenqueras expect to be paid for your photograph. On my recent trip the going rate was $5. In the past, they would walk every day from their village to sell fruit in hand-woven baskets on the streets of Cartagena. Their brightly colored dresses make them one of the most photographed icons of Cartagena.

The old city with all of its charms can be very crowded and annoying with panhandlers and street sellers of all kinds mobbing tourists. I decide to try and hire a boat (lancha) to take us out to the sculpture in the bay and then drop us at the old city muelle (pier) by the iconic clock tower (pictured above).

I watched as a Princess Cruise Ship pulled up to the pier in Cartagena. This Coral Princess had followed me across the southern Caribbean, always a day or two behind. From here at Pier 3 tourists are channeled through a small zoo called Park Cartagena. Once through the zoo one is in the heart of Cartagena.

The pier area is nicer than most and as I navigate the area on foot I investigate the various ships and small boats moored along the muelle de botes (dock area).

This you do not see at most ports. Loads of flowers. Above, bougainvillea along the muelle and below garlic vine in full bloom as I enter the Garden of Cartagena de Indias. In the garden are some displays of animals that are quite nice along with lots of sellers of handmade items and refreshments. Its basically a little mall with character actors walking around.

In Colombia it is important to remember that if you take photos of any of the locals you are expected, by local custom, to pay them. Even here in Park Cartagena there were altercations ongoing over photos being taken without proper payment made.

To get to the statue of the Virgin I rented a berth on Catalina de Indias IV. The captain of the little boat agreed to drop me in front of the old City at the Bay of Souls after touring the bay with other tourists on board. In the background you see that pesky Princess ship pulling into its berth and behind her yet another cruise ship preparing to dump her passengers onto the muelle.

This is old and new Cartagena in one shot. Fishing in a traditional kayak-like boat amongst the skyscrapers and cranes of the piers and city.

There are a lot of "veleros" of all sorts in Cartagena Bay. Many luxury yachts as well as older sailboats like this.

Cartagena Navy Club

Centro de Recreación de Oficiales Club Naval Santa Cruz de Castillogrande

First stop is the faro (lighthouse) at the Navy Officer's Club on a point in the Bay. This place is fully named Centro de Recreación de Oficiales Club Naval Santa Cruz de Castillogrande.

Depending on how you moor your boat and what lenses one is using you can make the lighthouse appear to be in the center of all the skyscrapers of New Cartagena. Here I used a 300mm lens from about a mile to create the illusion of lighthouse in the city.

Virgen Del Carmen

The statue is my ultimate goal of this trip and I was not disappointed. The Virgin watches over the city from her pedestal in the middle of Cartagena Bay. New Cartagena is seen in the background of this image created using the 3-camera iPhone 11 wide view. There is a lot of distortion in this sort of view but it makes for a fun image and you see everything in the area.

Above and below: Images made with 300 and 400 mm lenses on a Nikon D5600. I never carry very expensive cameras on these trips as I am often having mishaps on small boats or buses in out-of-the-way places and its not all that unusual to completely destroy a camera. Thankfully that did not happen today.

The Virgin del Carmen statue was destroyed by lightning in August 2015. Cartagenans considered her destruction a miracle because at the time there were several tour boats circling the statute and no one was harmed on the tour boats.

The Virgin was rebuilt in time for Pope Francis's September 2017 visit to Cartagena. Interestingly the Pope's visit highlighted inequality which is on full display in Cartagena with these gleaming skyscrapers in one direction and miles of barrios marginales in the other. The image above was made with no distortion or camera tricks, showing pretty much what one would see as they crossed the Bay of Cartagena.

Above: My best shot. A pelican sits on the head of Jesus and the sky appears kind of lavender in this long lens shot from about a 500m.

Above: The iconic Torre del Reloj is in the background of an Orange Geiger Tree.

As promised the driver of the motorboat (lancha) dropped me off right in front of the gates to the Old City on the Melle de la Bodeguita along Avenida Blass de Lezo. Here one is greeted by these lovely Orange Geiger Trees (Cordia sebestena) and depending on the time of day. . . massive traffic and unbearable panhandlers and street sellers peddling all sorts of touristy crap.

First stop is the 5-star Hotel Capellan de Getsemani in the heart of Old Town at Calle de La Sierpe #29-52. Here is a perfect spot to stop for a luxurious desayuno tardío (brunch). It is no easy feat getting here fighting one's way through all the desperate people trying to sell their wares. Because there are two cruise ships in port there are more panhandlers than normal.

Parroquia San Pedro Claver

Iglesia y Santuarios San Pedro Claver

The Parish of San Pedro Claver church and shrine are a central feature of the Old City of Cartagena. Here, I'm mobbed by people selling wares, mimes, beggars, and tourists.

On this trip into the old town I have carried with me about $100 in small bills to hand out to the desperate people. The hopelessness in Cartagena is much worse these days due to the massive influx Venezuelans into Colombia because of the American embargo and sanctions of Venezuela. You can argue all you want about political policy but seeing the despair in person I can tell you the American policies are causing unnecessary suffering for millions of Latin Americans.

The church and its convent are located in the Plaza de San Pedro Claver. I get out of the Plaza and explore the weather-worn 16th century walls of the cathedral (above). The colonial church was built between 1580 and 1654.

Above: The massive front doors of the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver.

Above: Inside the church, at its alter, lie the remains of Saint Peter Claver, who died in 1654 in Cartagena.

Walking around the old city you see glimpses of new in the background high rises. Above a touristy museum ship and below a modern mural on an apartment block.

I escape the crowds on side streets but often hit an impenetrable wall of jewelery sellers and hair band sellers and beggars and tourists.

To the left of this scene is the Museo Naval del Caribe on the Calle de San Juan de Dios. I escape into Mister Emerald's jewelry shop for AC and a bathroom. The museum is too crowded to attempt on this morning.

Plaza de Bolívar is perhaps the most central part of the Old City and also the most crowded. There's a lovely park here with, of course, a statue of Simon Bolívar in the center of the park. On side streets are more Palenqueras. The Palenqueras were very aggressive about getting their money for photographs on the most recent visit to Cartagena.

Nearby, in the Plaza de la Proclamación I pose with a statue of the Pope, at the rear of the 16th-17th century Catedral de Santa Catalina de Alejandría (Cartagena Cathedral), which is a national monument.

As I walk out of the Old City I see these Pegasus statues in the Bay of Souls

Pegasus Statutes and Torre del Reloj

in Gestemaní, Cartagena

Pegasus was a white stallion in Greek mythology. He flew Bellerophon on his back while battling a monster. This winged horse is an appropriate symbol at the Paseo o Camellón de los Mártires. In 1811, Cartagena de Indias declared its independence from Spain. In retaliation, Pablo Morillo and his army of 10,000 men starved the city before overthrowing it in 1815. Over 7,000 residents died. The Spaniards then publicly executed resisters now called the Nine Martyrs. In 1821, an army brigadier general from Venezuela named Mariano Montilla defeated the Spanish during the War of Independence. This Pegasus sculpture is one of three in the Getsemaní neighborhood across from the Torre del Reloj (Clock Tower).

There are a lot of photos of this spot from different angles on the internet. This one gives a fish-eye view that you wouldn't normally see. For a Pegasus and Clock Tower photo that's artsier check out: Pegasus Statute and Torre del Reloj in Getsemaní, Cartagena, Colombia.

In this distance I see my final destination for this 12-hour day in Cartagena, The Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas aka Fuerte de San Felipe.

With a long lens (below) I see a flock of pelicans preening in the trees in the the foreground of the fort.

First lunch, then the trek to the top of this fortress, built in the 1600s as protection against invasion by the English. The Castillo is only 3.6 km from the Old City but it will take me an hour or more to get there on foot, stopping for a lunch of Arepas de queso, in a park along the way.

Street Food

Arepas are kind of like cheese-filled cornbread. In Cartagena they use yellow sweet corn (maiz choclo) blended with fresh corn kernels from choclo corn. They make a batter of this mixed with milk, salt and sugar. . .kind of like thick pancakes. The "pancakes" are joined together or sliced in half, and grilled with a filling of mozzarella cheese and of course, more butter. This will give me energy to climb that hill in the suffocating tropical heat. By the way, the Arepas are washed down with a sweet, tart, icy citrus drink bought from another push cart vendor.

Next stop: Castillo de San Felipe!