Carthage of the West Indies

Cartagena de Indias: Halfway between Venezuela and Panama on the Caribbean coast, Cartagena is said to be the most beautiful city in Colombia, if not all of South America. It does not disappoint.

Half-moon street in Cartagena
Brightly painted wooden bars cover the shutterless windows

Romantically decaying colonial mansions, whose masonry has been threaded with the explorations of tree roots and vines, sit side-by-side with elegantly restored houses, whose brightly painted balconies are laced with bougainvillea and whose tile-decorated courtyards boast green tropical gardens and cool colonnades.

A barrow of fish
Restored colonial houses

Fruit sellers line the chaotic streets with their looming churches and little shops selling everything from sweets to banana presses.

Colour and balconies
Repairing a chair

All this, surrounded by a fortified wall of such enormity that it takes several minutes to cross the ramparts. It is this fortification that is the reason that most of South America speaks Spanish rather than English.

Rasta bike

The city was once an important trading post for the continent’s looted gold and minerals, and for the slave ships. Great riches were made here and sent home to the old country, to the important Spanish port from where the city’s founders had originally sailed: Cartagena, a city that was itself named by its conquerors after the Phoenician city of Carthage. Cartagena means ‘new Carthage’, which makes Cartagena de Indias the ‘new new Carthage’, I suppose.

San Felipe fort is an impregnable defence
A network of tunnels runs beneath the fort

The vast wealth here attracted pirates and plunderers like magpies. Among the invaders were several French (mostly unsuccessful) and English, including Francis Drake, who sacked the city and demanded a vast ransom, only a part of which he admitted to when delivering the goods to Queenie back in Blighty.

Roosting pelicans in the city's trees
Nick gets a haircut, but sadly not a beard shave

But the best story is that of the British Admiral Edward Vernon (aka ‘Old Grog’), who in 1739 set off on the War of Jenkin’s Ear, a naval battle in the Caribbean to avenge the cutting off of Englishman Robert Jenkin’s ear by the Spanish. Having successfully gained Portobello and Jamaica for Britain from the Spanish, Vernon’s “haughtiness knew no bounds and he imagined Cartagena would be a piece of cake,” our guide says with unconcealed glee.

Flooded homes on the outskirts of Cartagena
Painted musicians

Vernon amassed a vast armada of more that 100 ships and 23,600 men (including George Washington’s brother Lawrence), in the biggest naval operation until the Normandy Landings, and attacked Cartagena, whose defences amounted to 5000 men and five ships commanded by the one-eyed, one-legged, one-armed Blas de Lezo.

The city's fine houses were built on stolen Incan gold and slavery money
Nick with his 'mochila', traditional Colombian handbag

After several days of fighting, the British broke through the first set of fortifications, leading Vernon to become so confident of immediate success that he sent message to London that Cartagena had been defeated and that the pressing of celebratory medallions should begin.

One of the few places in the developing world where people read and sell books in large numbers. Gabriel Garcia Marquez set some of his novels here, where he lived for several years

Alas and alack, it was not to be. Ravaged by yellow-fever and led into a poorly planned assault on the fort, Vernon’s men were slaughtered in their hundreds. Cartagena never became British, and Vernon had to suffer the humiliations of returning home to a country euphoric over his announced success and with readily pressed medallions with which to celebrate…

The prematurely pressed medallions
Commemorating a British victory in the Americas

Now, much of the valuable trade passing through Cartagena is of the narcotic kind – cocaine, opiates and marijuana on its way to the world’s biggest drugs consumer, the USA. A meeting of Caribbean heads of state, including those from Central America and Colombia is taking place in Cartagena at the moment, and one of the main topics under discussion is the implication of the vote next week in California on legislation to allow the cultivation, transportation, sale and consumption of marijuana in the state.

Poor man's transport

Some are in favour of legalisation (or, as California is describing it, the ‘decriminalisation’) of weed, because it will reduce the demand from Latin America if Californians are growing it for themselves. Others, like Colombian President Santos, are opposed. Santos says that he can’t very well enforce his no-drugs policy if the drug is legal in the US. I’m in favour of decriminalising all drugs, which to me has always been the only logical move.

Nick finds a friend in a beautiful hotel courtyard

The answer to Latin America’s violent plague of drug-related destruction will not be found at a meeting of Caribbean heads in this lovely city, though. Far better to sip fruit juices and snack on arepas (fried cornmeal bread) and wait for the cool evening breezes to summon music out of the windows and people onto the street.


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