Thursday, 2/26/09 Cartagena, Columbia
We were up by 6:45 A.M. It was warm and humid out at 78 degrees. Today would be a scorcher. The ship was motoring along the Colombian Coast. We were 1485 miles from Ft. Lauderdale. We dressed for the day and walked topside, watching the dark mass of Columbia off to our port side.
Breakfast in the deck 14 Horizon Court was omelets, fruit and coffee. It was pleasant watching our approach to Cartagena over breakfast. We could see the the recent forest of high rise condos that were springing up over Boca Grande a rounded point extending out from the harbor. The
Limestone bulk of San Felipe Fortress stood sentinel over the outer harbor. You could imagine the enemy fleets coming under her banks of guns when attempting a hostile sea landing.
A very old touring ship, “The Fortunia,” sat grounded shore side. We later found out it serves as a homeless shelter. The Don Lucho, one of those colorful and powerful harbor tugs was guiding us into a massive container port area of the harbor. Maersk, from Germany, is the container company presiding over the rows of stacked metal containers. The CNNI Mejllones, registered in Panama, was berthed nearby loading her containers.
At 9:00 A.M. we assembled in the Princess Theater for the “Best of the Fortress” tour #100. We sat in rows and awaited our tour guide. Thirty of us followed a crew person ashore and boarded a small air conditioned bus. Our Guide, “ Germon” introduced himself to us and gave us labels with his name on them for wearing on the tour. We were as sheep being led in a flock.
Columbia is the fourth most populated country in South America with 44 million people. It is rich in emeralds and produces for export, coffee, bananas, gas, orchids and coal.
The school system in Columbia is graduated and tuition is charged according to certain professions. Medicine and Engineering cost the most at University level and the other professions less.
The City of Cartegena was founded by a Spaniard, Don Pedro De Heredia, in 1533. It was to become a treasure port where ship loads of gold and emeralds were shipped back to Spain over the next few hundred years. This attracted both pirates and several other nations to try and raid her repeatedly. In 1586, Sir Francis Drake captured the city for England. After that, King Felipe !! of Spain ordered a massive limestone wall and the San Felipe Fortress constructed to guard her from such raids. Countless pirate raids had been beaten back from the Fortress. Another massive assault, by the English General Vernon in 1711, with 100 ships and 20,000 soldiers failed miserably due to inclement weather and tropical diseases. The harbor had seen some action over the centuries.
It now is a city of over one million souls, many of whom we were to discover to our dismay, were aggressive street vendors bent on draining every tourist of any money that they held on their person, willingly or not.
The bus took us to a busy street in front of the San Felipe Fortress. There, we exited and ran our first gauntlet of the obnoxious street vendors. We walked up the very steep winding ramp to the fortress above us. The vendors dogged us every step of the way. If you made eye contact or responded to them in any way they were on you like flies on doo doo, Ignore them and walk eyes straight ahead no matter how much they pester you. They intimidated the older tourists badly.
The fortress itself is huge and solid, like El Moro in Havana or those is Puerto Rico and St. Augustine, Florida. Germon told us of the many times that she had been attacked, most unsuccessfully. Rows of lethal looking gun ports bedecked the walls. Narrow tunnels traversed the fortress walls where powder and shot monkeys carried the cannon fodder. A huge Columbian flag flew over the fortress waving in
the brisk breeze. It was hot, humid and in the 90’s out. We sweated profusely. We were in Columbia’s Summer Season(Nov.- April) The other wet season ran six months and drowned everything in hot steamy rain.
After again running the gauntlet of the street vendors, we reboarded the bus and drove off through the busy streets. Fleets of swift motorbikes serve as individual taxis in the busy streets. We watched the confusion from the air conditioned splendor of the bus. Germon pointed out the Monument of the “Two Shoes.” It is a bronze memorial to Colombian Poet Carlos Lopez, whose most famous work is of that name.
Then we began our ascent to the El Popa monastery high above Cartegena. Along side the road we could see the shacks back in the hillsides, some mere collections of sticks. Each year, on the February Feast of the “Candelaria Virgin,” a procession of towns people carried an enormous statue of the Virgin, in a candle light procession on a gilded pallet, up these steep roads to the monastery above. The procession stops at each of the twelve stations of the cross erected along the winding road. The Virgin is presented with a newly made and elaborate gown to clothe her each year. It is considered a great honor to be a part of this ceremony.
At the hilltop, outside the monastery, we again waded through the street vendors to get inside the ancient grounds. The vistas all around us were breath taking. It is the highest point in the city. Boca Grande, the Fortress and the harbor lay spread out before us . The monastery itself is of limestone and coral construction. Hordes of other tourists were already wandering through it musty rooms. We viewed religious relics, a statues of the Virgin and even and ancient depiction of devil worship. A collection of the older and elaborate dresses for the virgin were on disp[lay.
The Candelaria chapel features a 50 ft; wooden carved altar, gilded with gold leaf. The Augustinian order of monks who founded the Monastery in the 1500 are still here in residence on the third floor of the complex. Their founder, Alonzo Garcia, had been slain by native indians with a spear. A statue to him graces one of the rooms. The central courtyard of the complex is much like the Spanish Monasteries in Southern California. Huge Banyan tress and many flowering bougainvillea
trees give the place color. The clay tiled roofs and stone walls warded off the heat that gets well over 100 degrees here in Summer.
It was both hot and humid pout. We fended off the vendors as we walked back to the bus and then enjoyed the slalom ride down the winding roads to the city below. Germon continued his lectures on the
culture and commerce of Columbia. We were headed for the old walled city near the harbor fortress. Just outside the wall stands the bronze stature of an indian maiden, Catalina. She has a Pocahontas type of history in Columbia and the casting looked suspiciously like one of Pocahontas in the Virginia area. Maybe they were twin sisters? We would also see several thousand smaller replicas of her for sale in the small shops we were to visit.
Just inside the old cities walls, we stopped at what had been both a jail house and a soldiers barracks. Now it is a series of commercial shops where every conceivable souvenier and product of Columbia is for sale. Even outside these shops the street vendor were ubiquitous. We wandered through a few shops eyeing the statues of Catalina, native carvings, tee shirts and other things on sale. I lasted through two shops. Then, we walked along the shoreline to a stone plaza facing the ocean., The cool ocean breeze felt wonderful and there were no vendors here.
After 30 minutes of this fun, we fended off the slumdogs. They followed people onto buses and into taxi cabs trying to coerce them into buying things. Some of the older women looked frightened and it made me angry. I wish that I had a small low voltage cattle prod for local use.
The bus took us into the heart of the City at Simon Bolivar Square. Locals sat idling and enjoying the day. They diluted some of the vendors as we walked by the church of St.,. Pedro and by the old headquarters of the Inquisitions of the Calle Inquisition. It wasn’t one of the better practices that the Spanish brought to the Americas.
An imposing statue of Columbia's founding father, Simon Bolivar, sits astride a horse at the center of the shaded square. We took our pictures and followed Germon further into the crowded pedestrian streets. The buildings surrounding the square are both old and impressive. The gold museum, a cathedral and several government offices give the square its stature.
The ubiquitous street vendors buzzed around us like angry mosquitoes on our line of march to the Church of Pedro Claver. He had been a Jesuit and the patron saint of the one million slaves who had been imported through the port of Cartegena. He had tried as best he could to look out for their welfare. He died in 1654 at the venerable age of 74, a saint to his people. Slavery wasn’t abolished here until 1851.
The church itself is airy with 100 foot, vaulted ceilings. A Massive marble altar is the centerpiece. Built in 1735, it must have been a soaring epiphany of prayer to those early inhabitants. Now, it is a collection of
aging and flaking limestone rooms for tourists to wander through. The monks still live on the top floors of the church., Various nuns stood mutely seeking donations to the churches charities. God bless them for their efforts.
From the church we walked over to a restored limestone building called the Naval Museum, though why we could not discern . A few plaques of some naval vintage, some old sailing trophies and an anchor or two were her only signs of naval provenance. The hall was filled with tourists watching authentic native dancers in colorful costumes entertain them with a lively Samba. We sat and enjoyed a Colombian beer called Aguilla and appreciated them for their artistry as well. It was hot and humid out and we enjoyed the shade and cool of the stone buildings for a brief respite.
We waded through the obnoxious street vendors one more time to get back to the bus and its air conditioned comfort. It was hot here. We rode in comfort to the newer section of the city, Boca Grande and an upscale collection of shops. The street vendors were on us again as we walked through the shops. Colorfully dressed women in local garb, with bunches of bananas on their heads,demanded payment to have pictures taken with them. We retired from them into a small coffee shop. At $2 a cup, the coffee was weak and awful. We threw it into the shrubs and sat for a time unmolested in a small square. Jewlers of every type were hawking emeralds all around the square.
Finally, the ordeal was almost over. We waded through one last wave of street vendors to get to the bus for a very welcome ride back to the Island Princess. The city is interesting, alive with history and stories of struggle and intrigue from many nations fighting for wealth, nationhood and religious freedom. It is of interest, but until the local authorities reign in these slum dog scumbags, give it a wide berth. No one should have to put up with this kind of intimidating and obnoxious harassment just for visiting.
By 2:30 P.M., we were back aboard the air conditioned splendor of the Island Princess. Hordes of other tour groups had descended upon the Horizons court for a late lunch, so we settled for a slice of pizza topside. It was pretty good pizza too.
We were tiring and mildly dehydrated, so we retreated to our room to read for a time( Double Cross- James Patterson), cool off and relax. We watched the ship cast off her lines and leave port at Three P.M. We said an enthusiastic good bye to the hordes of street vendors and hoped never to return. The ship was swaying like a hog in a wallow on the run through the narrow harbor entrance and then we were free in deep water. Yeah!!!
We watched Tiger Woods return to playing golf in T.V for a bit and then ventured to the gym at 5:30 P.M. for an hour’s workout on the weights and exercycle. It was crowded with other passengers who were
eating too much like us. We then walked topside to stretch our legs and enjoy the early evening air as the ship motored westward towards Panama.
After a bit, we cleaned up in the cabin, dressed for dinner and walked down to the deck six Provence Dining room. We were seated with two very charming kids, Denise and Tristan. They are both London Bobbies. We had an interesting and enjoyable dinner with them talking about their professions and ours.
A glass of Cabernet, smoked salmon appetizers, tomato soup, caesar salad, sole Florentine and chocolate cake made for another wonderful meal. They feed you well on this ship. We made our goodbyes to the kids and then walked up to the deck seven Princess Theater. We watched a comedian, Billy Vader, who claimed to be from Buffalo,N.Y. ( small world) Then we retreated to our cabin to read and surrender to the sandman. It had been a full and eventful day.