The sun hung lazily, suspended in the Caribbean sky, the balconies cast intricate shadows along the narrow streets below, and they walked through water. The air was a thick hot wetness, churned into a jelly by proximity to the waistline of the world.
From the centre of the old city, streets of cobbled stone and brightly coloured houses blossomed out in neat grids, lined with sun and dust they raced out to meet the grand wall that encircled the city. A bastion against thieves from the sea, the wall now submitted the city to a stale, motionless air, and in turn the city capitulated to it’s colonial grandeur.
Side by side they walked through the sun and dust of the streets, their damp clothing hung tightly to their bodies and their footsteps echoed off the stone walkways, muffled only by the thickness of the air.
Past brightly painted houses and looming balconies they walked, across stone plazas that once reeked of the sale of human flesh, through the narrow stone veins of the Caribbean gem set in the crown of the Spanish empire. The stone buildings remembered the smell of gold and slavery, the open archways of their balconies gazed down upon the streets longingly, now only the scent of fruit, people and the sea pervaded the old city.
They sought refuge from the heat in a green plaza, under the protection of trees and the stony stare of El Liberador, they sat. Under the leafy shade, the beads of unceasing sweat covering their bodies cooled, and they relaxed. From deep within the old city something stirred, it strummed out across the heat of the day and caused the damp air to shudder. In the bowels of stone and heat the murmurs of music boomed off of the cobbled streets and mingled with the Caribbean sky. Slowly it grew, it multiplied and amplified itself, it sliced through the hot wetness of the air and became distinct. A deep bass drum reverberated off of the old stones and the rapid whooping of kettle drums barked across the balconies above their heads. The clamor of a guitar and a myriad of other instruments howled through the streets and the sounds of human voices sang up to the sun.
The music reached higher and higher, the tumult pounded the humid air and sent salvos of sound into the sky. Around a corner at the far end of the plaza they came into view.
In a haphazard fashion they marched. In some places three astride, in some a swirling mob of bodies, like a stream of water, the music and bodies poured into the thirsty plaza. The boy at the head of the procession brandished a stereo player upon his shoulder, from it the music pulsated, and behind him the group palpitated to it’s beat.
White teeth shone from the dark and sun-kissed faces as they smiled and howled. Limbs trembled as their bodies vibrated and the rhythm was pounded upon the stone by an endless procession of sandal clad feet. In unison the writhing column of dark bodies moved past the statue of Simon Bolivar and through the shade of the plaza.
The stream rushed forward across the plaza in the direction the of stone cathedral, it turned sharply to the right and left the plaza refreshed and vibrating.
The music could be heard reverberating through the hot dampness of the old city, the rhythm of pounding feet made the stone cobbled streets shudder, and jovial faces sang through the sky to the Caribbean sun.
Back in Cartagena
So feeling refreshed from the beach and sun, we left the paradise of La Playa Blanca and returned to the humid but beautiful streets of the old city of Cartagena.
Cartagena is pretty awesome and steeped in some unreal history. During the Spanish colonial era of Latin America, Cartagena was used as the main port for all the gold, silver, and various other valuables (stolen from the indigenous populations or forced out of the land by indigenous slave labour). The riches of South America would travel to Cartagena to be shipped back to Spain, and therefore made it a prime target for piracy, and attracted the attention of some big names in the piracy game like Sir Francis Drake. Pirate attacks became so frequent that a large stone wall was constructed around the city, and nowadays is the border of the old city.
We visited the wall that overlooked the sea and walked along the ramparts, lined with old cannons and populated with locals selling beer to enjoy while watching the sun go down over the Caribbean.
The remaining days in Cartagena were spent walking around the streets during the day, taking in the awesome architecture, the delicious fruit and freshly squeezed juice on every corner, and sampling some Caratagenan food.
Walking around Cartagena was a lot like other places in South America in that people were always trying to sell you things, whether it was encouraging you to come to their restaurant or to buy a local souvenir. However in Cartagena everyone would ask you where you were from, and then when they find out continue to tell you about their friend/family in Canada, I found it hard to believe everyone knew someone from Toronto and started calling locals out on it.
We were also approached by a local who asked straight out “Do you want to come to my cock fight later?” which was followed by offering to get us any drug we wanted, as tempting as a drug-ridden cock fight sounded, we politely declined.
A popular spot in Cartagena is the Plaza de Coches , which was used as square for selling slaves during colonial times, now it is lined with cocada vendors selling their delicious treats. Cocadas are the Colombian version of coconut macaroons, but significantly better. You can get them in a ton of different flavours like strawberry, chocolate, dulce de leche, etc. We of course bought a sampling of everything and sat in the shade of a plaza devouring them all, as well as feeding the pigeons which seemed to be an attraction in this particular plaza, complete with old men selling bags of popcorn kernels to attract the birds.
Another unreal street food I couldn’t get enough of was arepas, basically deep friend cornmeal patties, greasy and sizzling hot they weren’t the best snack for the midday Caribbean sun but oh boy were they tasty.
Cartagena was an incredible place, but after a couple days back in the old city it was time to head back south to the capital of Bogotá for two days before heading back to Santiago to get back to the Chilean life and my studies at U. de Chile.
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