A Stone's Throw

practice your aim. you never know when you'll spy 2 birds at once.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Cartegena - Opposing Feelings

I've been thinking for some time about how best to describe Cartagena. There have been very few cities that have brought out so many polarized feelings. Cartagena was beautiful. Cartagena was one of the dirtiest cities I've ever driven though. Cartagena was full of sculptures and gardens and monuments. Cartagena has roads slicked with oil and beer and glass. People are hip and friendly. People are also passed out in gutters.

For whatever historical reason, Cartagena's a city that's been, in part, renovated, painted, and cared for, but also forgotten, ignored, and left to decay. When I drove into the city I thought it was, perhaps, the worst cesspool I've ever driven in (and after all this travel, that says a lot). My impulse was to get off the bus at the terminal and grab a bus back to Medellin. But I stayed the course and once I booked a place in a dorm, I explored the city.

The redeeming feature of Cartagena is El Centro - a restored, beautiful section of narrow streets, lovely balconies, and grand architecture. Here the police patrol the streets, streetsweepers pick up the trash, and visitors are largely given a vision of what-could-be. But that vision dies as soon as you turn a few streets and wander out of El Centro. There, in the surrounding city, where the majority of everyone else lives is a sprawling mess. Chaotic streets, garbage tossed everywhere, drunks, addicts, and shambles of wood and metal that only the very generous would call habitations.

I usually try to keep from blogging about the bad cities and keep the disappointments of travel to a minimum (after all, who at home wants to read a downer blog?). I've seen my fair share of cities, events, and people that I'd just as soon forget. But sometimes, especially for a city that everyone raves about, I feel the need to put things into perspective. Yes - if you only saw El Centro, you'd go away thinking that Cartagena is one of the prettiest cities you've ever seen. But that's not reality. The city that most closely reminds me of Cartagena is New Orleans. I probably wouldn't have recalled this, except for all the media coverage of Gustav. But they are similar - they have music, charm, old-style buildings, a coastal feel, lots of art. Yet they have huge sections of poverty, crime, and filth that would turn even the hardiest of stomachs.

I can't say I'd ever recommend anyone visit Cartagena, but then again maybe, like New Orleans, its one of those places you should visit - to remember how much a city can get right, and how much it can get wrong.

Here are some of the better images I collected:

The bright colors and balconies make Cartegena one of the most distinguishable cities in all of Latin America.

Lots of courtyards, plazas, and parks

Pegasus guarding the entrance to the bay.

The charming streets of El Centro in the Old City.

One of several forts that surround Cartegena, used to repel pirate attacks.

The massive walls that surround Cartegena.


  • At 5:52 AM , Anonymous Jamie said...

    It looks so nice in contrast to the explanation; although I don't doubt what a blind eye can turn from. BE CAREFUL!


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