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Carribean, History, South America

Colombia’s Rare Gem: Cartagena

December 20, 2015 • By

I arrived in Cartagena, Colombia after an hour plane ride from Bogotá. There are three climates in Cartagena: Hot, Hotter and Hottest with an occasional gust of wind. Immediately, I conjured notions of melting like the Wicked Witch in the Wizard of Oz. The thermostat reached 80 something but with 90 percent humidity sweat dripped from my face and other crevices of my body I won’t admit. The locals blame Global Warming. I fault Mother Nature in need of hormone regulation.

Kelly on a wall with tower in background, Cartagena, Colombia, Fantasy Aisle Travel

Old city Cartagena, look out gate

Cartagena de Indias was founded in 1533 and named after Cartagena, Spain. It’s a city of approximately 1.2 million people nestled conveniently on the Caribbean Sea. It’s known for its active port, tourism and oil. Cartagena served as a valuable port to the Spanish for nearly 300 years and was repeatedly attacked and destroyed by pirates wanting access to riches. Goods along with gold, emeralds and silver traveled by road throughout Peru and Ecuador and then by ship from Cartagena to Panama to Puerto Rico or via Havana and to Spain until the 1800s. It wasn’t until Colombia fully gained its independence that Cartagena’s economy declined greatly and people abandoned the city.

Staying in the old city is a must. While Cartagena is a gentle mix of old and new, the brightly colored restored colonial mansions, convents and narrow alleyways suggest a rich history filled with hardships and sacrifice yet wealth and opportunity. The wall, which separates Cartagena’s past from its present took more than 208 years to build and was approximately 11 kilometers (6.8 miles) around the city. Today, much of the original wall stands. I spent hours walking along the wall admiring sea views, church towers and radiant sunsets.

Old church towers, Cartagena, Colombia, Fantasy Aisle travel

old city in Cartagena with wall in foreground

Wandering through the old city can be done on foot or horse carriage. There are distinct plazas dividing the town each marked with a church and filled with statues and beautiful gardens. Locals peddle artwork, purses and shoes on the street and restaurants cater to tourists serving the typical specialty of coconut rice, ceviche (raw seafood salad) and sugarcane water. I sampled mojitos (take note Cuba, the Colombians do it right) and thoroughly loved the ceviche since it’s made fresh and prepared without onions. Find a restaurant with live music. It’s worth the effort. If you prefer shopping, plenty of stores will cater to your desires for emeralds or crafts.

Kelly under a guillotine, Cartagena, Colombia, Fantasy Aisle Travel

I admit I am a witch!

I recommend hiring a guide and walking the old city on day one. It provided me with a sense of Cartagena’s history and allowed me to make a mental note of the churches and museums I wanted to see more in depth. I’ve always had a soft spot for witches and the Palace of Inquisition delivered my aspiration to live a former life of sorts. Locals say Cartagena is a place of myth and legend and burning people at the stake or execution by guillotine adds to the allure. Cartagena served as the third in the Spanish empire to have a Holy Office of the Inquisition. It tried all non-Catholics and others who practiced “black magic” from roughly 16th century until independence from Spain in 1811.

Outside of the old city sits the neighborhood of Getsemaní, which is still strangely within the original fortification and about a 5-10 minute walk from the clock tower or focal point of the old city. Getsemaní served as the servant quarters in colonial times and is now enjoying a rebirth with new restaurants and music clubs popping up on every corner. While the old city provides a handful of 4-5 star hotels, Getsemaní advances the cause of backpackers who can be found hunched over on sidewalks in the morning and frequenting drinking establishments in the evening.

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New friends in Cartagena

Whether you are alone or with a group of friends of all ages, Cafe Havana on the main drag is not to be missed. The $5 cover charge includes a tasty and strong mojito and a mix of locals and tourists dance until the early morning. Getsemaní also is home to the Miss Colombia Pageant, a source of pride for the entire country. Pictures of former contestants grace billboards and decorate walls in many restaurants in Cartagena.

It’s important to mention luxury hotels have sprouted up along the coast in the neighborhoods of Bocagrande and Castillogrande. The guides refer to the area down the peninsula as the Miami Beach of South America because of the high-rise apartments and expensive boutiques but to me the area is a fine example of modernization. If you are visiting Cartagena for the weather and want to stay at a fancy hotel, walk to Juan Valdez for coffee and hear lots of traffic, then it’s possible Bocagrande/Castillogrande is the place for you.  I admit the area provides incredible views of the Caribbean but possesses little character.

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The beach at Majagua- Rosario Islands

Since I was celebrating my birthday in Cartagena, I chose to spend the day on the high seas. I booked a tour to the Rosario Islands about a 45-minute boat ride from Cartagena’s port. As the boat neared the dock at Majagua, white sandy beaches and a colorful spectrum of Caribbean Sea greeted me. Layers of turquoise and aqua colors blanketed the ocean’s surface and darkened as the shallow floor gave way to deeper waters. The salt water stung my freshly burned skin but with a soft silky touch, the water’s temperature warm and inviting. Birds circled and waves crashed. Locals hustled jewelry and fresh lobster (or not so fresh as I was warned). My gracious hosts prepared a local birthday dessert consisting of fruits and jelly. They must have noticed the disappointment on my face and quickly returned with a brownie with ice cream and a Spanish version of Happy Birthday. I eaves dropped on my fellow tourists, attempted to read my travel magazines and relaxed with an open-air massage. My only advice is to bring an extra towel. Towels are for “el cuerpo solo” (the body only) and I learned with rapid hand gestures legs and feet are not part of the equation.

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Another Birthday Cake at the Charleston

When I arrived back to the hotel, Charleston Santa Teresa, my lovely tour operator surprised me with another birthday dessert. A chocolate cake lined with real whipped cream and filled with a sweat fruit layer. It looked big enough for two people but I didn’t want to disappoint anyone so I ate it all. I really need to stop telling people it’s my birthday! Eating three desserts might be over the top.

I finished the celebration dining at Cuzco Cocina with my new friend Zoe from New York City via Australia, dancing, eating and drinking (damn mojitos) the night away. At 2:00 AM, I confidently swerved back to my hotel taking selfies in various parts of the old city. It may seem I am a better photographer under the influence.


What to see and do in Cartagena

Whether you spend a long weekend or two weeks in Cartagena, make the most of your trip to this vibrant and historic city.

*Walk in the rain. Watch the drops beat against the sea and the old wall. Nature’s sprinkler greeted me on a morning walk and I was thrilled.

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Sunset at Café del Mar

*Grab a seat at Café del Mar for sunset.

*Visit the Gold Museum (if you missed Bogotá)

*Book a day trip to Islas del Rosario (Rosario Islands) or stay a week

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The old city wall overlooking the Caribbean from the San Diego neighborhood

*Saunter through the old city or wander through its many churches

*Tour the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas about a 15-minute walk from the old town

*Eat to your hearts content for lunch or dinner at Santa Clara (Sofitel Hotel)

*Bargain for emeralds

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Enjoying Ceviche @ Cuzco Cocina

*Taste test the city’s best ceviche at Boliche Cebichería or La Cevichería

*Savor every lick of an ice cream bar or cup of gelato – it will melt quickly so try two your waistline won’t mind

*Travel by horse and carriage through the old town – take the 30 minute loop around old city or spend a leisurely hour taking in more sights

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The traditional bags of the Wayúu

*Haggle for Tejido Wayuú purses – (The Wayúu are indigenous people who weave hammocks, backpacks and purses.  They are beautifully designed, colorful and handmade treasures

*Explore the various neighborhoods of Cartagena

*Dance the night away sipping mojitos, drinking beer and learning the salsa.  Colombian music is fantastic.

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Carribean, Culture, Destinations, History, North America

Havana Life – La Vida

June 21, 2015 • By

As I explore the streets of Havana block after block, the beauty of the dilapidated buildings strikes me. Most are still structurally in tact exhibiting bold design and images of glory and grandeur but in the shadows Havana is frozen in time – 1950 to be exact. UNESCO restored portions of Old Havana closer to the port and the Royal Force Castile (El Moro) but more money is required to revitalize the entire city along with an infrastructure overall for transportation, water and electricity. The potential is there and the world awaits the call.

Old Havana former Capitol before Communism

Old Havana former Capitol before Communism

When I spoke to locals either my guides or friends of my host family, I learned that Cubanos hunger for progress. Some are anxious and can’t wait for the Americans to arrive, while others fear the change could come with a price. It will. I agree. One guide claimed if the United States lifted the embargo the Cuban government would have nothing to blame for Cuba’s problems.

“Everything wrong in Cuba is a result of the hurricanes or the U.S. embargo.”

After a few days traversing the streets of Havana, I believed that to be true. It’s ironic because I assumed Cubans would dislike American people but they welcomed me with open arms and at every chance meeting wanted to learn more about my life. A life I suspect they cannot envision outside of movies. It’s possible the older generation still remembers the better days before Castro’s rule but today the people look to the future with hope and trepidation.

Architecture along the Malecon

Architecture along the Malecon

It’s hard not to argue that these people are poor and have nothing comparatively but my experiences in Havana make me question whether or not I am wrong and they indeed have everything. Cuba could be a great example of the grass is always greener across the Atlantic. They possess universal health care. An abundance of skilled doctors serve patients yet hospitals struggle to acquire enough medicine for treatment for the general population. With free education, their literacy rate is nearly 100 percent, the 10th highest globally, but jobs are scarce and pay modest. A doctor makes about $65 a month and the average employee $25. I spent a day with a taxi driver in a 1957 Chevy who explains he earns about $15 a month barely enough to support his wife and two daughters. He is learning English counting numbers and we practice on our drive but we rely on Spanish to communicate. To me, his life is difficult but does he have what he needs? Yes….maybe.

Most of the tour guides I met previously worked as teachers at the schools and universities. Since tourism pays double if not triple especially since 2000, many abandoned their posts for better opportunities. My one guide suggests open American tourism will completely change the entire industry because “Americans demand service and quality. It will make Cubans work.” He might be on to something since the service is lacking (average wait for a meal is an hour+) and the quality of food and drinks below par. My mojito tasted like a spoiled water and rum concoction and if I attempted to eat anything other than the traditional Cuban meal of plantains, black beans and rice (moros y cristianos) and pork I left disappointed and hungry.

Havana locals dancing

Life in Havana seems easier from afar. They value health, education and family. Crime and racism are not an issue and guns not available. Unlike Mexico, the Dominican Republic and other Caribbean nations, Cuba is not a pass through for the drug trade. It feels like an open and safe society. People walk the streets at will, neighbor’s doors are unlocked and people come and go all day. However, Cubans are denied basic rights of free expression, association, assembly, privacy and due process of law. Again, Cuba is not always what it seems but the people keenly aware of the plight of neighboring countries (drugs, poor education) has no intention of suffering a similar fate.

Cuban buses and cars are Chinese and oil Venezuelan. They are an island functioning and surviving but living decades behind developed countries. They are dependent on what other communist countries provide although that has been changing and will continue to do so with modifications to U.S. policy. Cubans fix things….cars from the 50s, refrigerators, fans, air conditioners, televisions, radios, chairs and tables. They appreciate the clothing on their back and the shoes on their feet. Department stores and mega grocery places do not exist. They buy what they need and no more and no less. I commented to one of the neighbors innocently, “I like your Coach shoes.” She replied, “What Coach?” This woman was wearing shoes she had bought a few years ago and they would likely last her several more.   She didn’t care that they were not Nike or adidas or Gucci and there isn’t any importance placed on brands or advertising in Cuba. Locals cannot envision Starbucks and McDonald’s and Polo and Levi jeans. Today, they don’t have options of merchandise or competition between friends. That isn’t part of their daily lives and I worry this change will hurt them. Their clothing and gadget stores are sparse and resemble a U.S. Salvation Army more than a Woolworth or Target. I struggled to explain New York living with stores and restaurants on every corner.   Cubans rely heavily on stores for parts like nuts and bolts that they buy from Canada and even the United States. It reminds me of the saying, “It’s ok for now I’ll just put a Band-Aid on the situation.” Cubans need lots of Band-Aids and tape!

Cubans play baseball, soccer and box. They celebrate music and dance such as salsa, mambo and rumba but family and community guide their entertainment. The kids may play one sport but certainly not five. They are very close always hugging and in each other’s business. Privacy is certainly not an option in Cuban families.

While Marxism teaches that Communism and religion are incompatible, Cubans today practice Catholicism and Santeria (Way of the Saints), a type of African folk religion. Several ethnic groups comprise the Cuban population: Europeans such as the Spanish and French stemming from the days of colonialism, North and West African groups many descendants of slaves, Chinese brought over as farmers and Americans. It was not uncommon for me to see a darker skinned Cuban with bright blue green eyes. The people are truly beautiful inside and out and beaming with Cuban pride.

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Middle school children playing in the plaza

To hold the forbidden fruit in my hand is one thing; but to taste it’s flavors, speak it’s language and enjoy it’s place in time and space is quite another. Guidebooks and tourist blogs give the impression that the world has visited Cuba and only Americans are left in the dark but my brief stay in Havana and Vinales (the countryside) suggests a land nearly forgotten by time. The absence of technology is obvious but it’s the innocence of the country that I most admire and respect. The children playing in the streets, the locals fishing along the sea and the joy on the people’s faces are the reasons I came to see and learn about Cuba.  Propaganda is self-serving to a respective nation but it’s the people and often the simple things in life that tell the real story.

I can’t wait to see Cuba under siege from Apple and Samsung but I hope for the people that the change is gradual.  If it’s too fast, I fear they will not be able to brace for the impact.

Important Dates in Cuba’s History

1898 – Spain and the United States went to war. Spain ceded Puerto Rico, the Philippines and Guam to the US for $20 million.

1902 – Cuba gained independence from the U.S.

1958 – Fidel Castro comes to power

1960 – An embargo was first imposed by the United States on Cuba

1961 – U.S. launches an invasion known as the Bay of Pigs in an effort to overthrow Cuba

1991 – Communist Russia falls and Cuba enters hard times known as the Special Period

2008 – Fidel Castro rumored to be ill and near death declared his brother Raul Castro the President of Cuba

2013 – Raul Castro announced his resignation for 2018 that will end his current 5-year term. It is hoped that the permanent term limits including age limits will be implemented in the years to come.

*On December 17, 2014, U.S. President Barack Obama announced the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with Cuba, pushing for Congress to put an end to the embargo

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