The fifth largest city in Colombia, Cartagena’s history is heavily rooted in being a major trading port, especially for precious metals and slaves. Cartagena is the city most associated with pirates in the Caribbean, and saw more gold and silver come through its walls than anywhere else in the Spanish empire. Upon our arrival, we didn’t vibe with this city. It definitely has a Caribbean culture centered around celebration and alcohol, which typically go hand in hand. We will mention that Colombia ranks top of the list for countries celebrating the most public holidays in South America (19 compared to 10 in the United States).
We happened to arrive during fiesta–the celebration of Cartagena’s independence, as well as the Miss Colombia pageant. This holiday is celebrated by a week of parades, fireworks, concerts, and citywide partying and mayhem. We partook in the Miss Colombia parade by fighting our way through thousands of costaños (coastal people) packed onto Santander highway, which separates the walled city from the ocean. Uncountable amounts of Colombians also filled the grand stand and various other raised bleachers erected specifically for this celebration. While the scene was set for a Formula One World Championship Grand Prix, Miss Colombia contestants languished their way along the parade path perched atop exotic floral floats. The regional beauty pageant winners, dressed in Caribbean inspired two pieces, constantly danced and flaunted their assets, while waving at the droves of onlookers. The crowd, populated with children, adults and elders alike, broke into pandemonium with the passing of each contestant’s float, screaming and waving hysterically, before spraying large cans of white foam (Puma) on one another in exuberant joy.
We could only withstand the riotous rhumba for a few hours, mostly because we were sober, and secondly because we (especially Lisa) were glaring targets for Colombians of all ages to drench in foam and smear with navy blue body paint. We met their challenges with smiles and impressive evasive maneuvers, but were taken aback by the way the locals treated their city with reckless disregard by littering the streets with trash. The only justification we were given was that littering actually kept poor people employed as street cleaners (but this habit didn’t cease once fiesta was over).
After escaping the fiesta and heading north to Santa Marta, we returned to Cartagena almost one week later to discover a remarkably more comfortable vibe. Perhaps this was the normal energy of the city, and it was impossible to ignore the romance as we strolled along the fortress wall built with petrified coral, searching for the best spot to absorb the sunset. The surreal blue sky was perfectly complimented by the aged saffron stucco that composed the colonial era buildings. We watched from the shade of luscious palm trees as the sun washed the sky in regal purples and citrus oranges, before sneaking away to rest behind the horizon. We were completely enchanted.