8. Cartagena

To burn off excess calories from lunch, we decided to trudge through the humidity towards Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. In hindsight, precariously crossing busy streets and walking alongside a motorway was perhaps not the wisest idea; I would probably recommend taking a taxi instead. Castillo San Felipe is a fortress sitting atop the Hill of San Lázaro, overlooking the Cartagena peninsula. It had been first constructed in the 1500s but was continuously expanded in a triangular fashion. Strategically built to overlook various estuaries, the castle is thought to be the greatest Spanish fortress in the colonies and guards the harbour.

The city of Cartagena has long been an important and wealthy port city in the Spanish colonies; its prime location for trade made it a frequent target of pirates and corsairs. The enormous bastion served as the stronghold in sieges from the English and even the Spanish royalists during the wars of independence. The castle is well known for its complex system of subterranean tunnels, with chambers designed to explode to prevent onrushing attackers. The tunnels also served to distribute provisions and allow evacuations. Some of these tunnels are lit and open to tourists today. The open areas atop the fortress apparently served as the site of military parades, and today provides an unhindered view of the high-rises of Bocagrande and the diminutive colonial buildings of the Old Town.

Returning to the old town, we visited Las Bóvedas (The Vaults), a striking yellow building grafted onto the Cartagena walls. Las Bóvedas, with its recognisable colonnade, was originally built as dungeons during the civil wars in the 19th century. Prisoners held in Las Bóvedas would apparently be up to their knees in seawater during high tide. Since then, the prison cells have transformed into shops and boutiques. Palenqueras along the colonnade tout traditional Colombian merchandise and typical souvenirs. Palenqueras are black ladies in colourful traditional dresses often offering souvenirs and sweets; their signature image has them balancing a large bowl of fruit on their heads.This is probably the best place to get your own Wayuu mochila, the colourful and roughly textured backpacks traditionally made by the Wayuu people in northern Colombia.

We spent the remaining afternoon strolling around the quiet Sunday streets of the Old Town. As we walked aimlessly down the avenues and squares, our noses were drawn to the fantastic smell of melting cheese, originating from roadside food stalls. The source of this scent was the buttery and fluffy arepa, a flattened snack made of corn flour and stuffed with melting cheese – we devoured the arepa within seconds of getting our hands on one.

Wandering around the neighbourhood, certain restaurants and cafés were brimming with quirky personality; we came across a restaurant with an unusual trinket-filled outer wall, with a loud sign exclaiming that Wifi was not available as patrons should talk to one another. We also found the Abaco Libros y Café, a cosy coffee shop which also acted as a bookshop and library, with Colombian literature and books about Cartagena stacked among the brick arches. Sadly, this coffee shop was full, and we returned to the nearby Café San Alberto for a refreshing iced coffee.

As dusk drew near, we climbed the city walls to Café del Mar, a bar and restaurant looking out towards the Caribbean Sea. Café del Mar provides a stunning view and ambiance atop the wall, complete with antique cannons and live music emanating from the restaurant’s speakers. Sipping on cocktails as the cool sea breeze wafted across the square, we watched the sun lazily dip below the horizon.

If we had planned further ahead for dinner, we probably would have reserved tables at Carmen or Restaurante 1621, both well-reviewed fine dining restaurants in boutique hotels in the heart of Old Town. Other restaurants we wanted to visit, such as El Boliche Cebicheria or La Cevicheria, featured on Anthony Bourdain’s No Reservations, were either closed or full. Instead, we opted for Nautilus Plaza, a seafood restaurant on the ground floor of a hotel. Located at the bustling junction leading out of the old town, where joyous chanting and singing can be heard emanating from local buses, the restaurant served the standard dishes of fresh ceviche and seafood risottos. Nonetheless, the food was unspectacular compared to our previous meals.

Our time in Cartagena and South America ended with an indulgent breakfast the next day at Pasteleria Mila, a lovely French-imitating café remixing various Colombian staples into breakfast items. They also offer attractive cakes and pastries, all delicately displayed behind a glass casing. With a final satisfying gulp of Colombian coffee, we were on our way home.

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