We cleared into Cartagena de Indias, the fifth largest city of Colombia.
Cartagena is a busy harbour, with many giant cargo ships entering and exiting the bay. Fortress San Jose and Port Control mark the entrance to the most frequently used entrance, Boca Chica.
There is a long shipping channel to get from Boca Chica to the anchorage in front of Club Nautico, but the ride or sail is far from boring. Prepare to duck and dive between the big container ships and the speeding watertaxis. And make sure you keep an eye on the slow coach local fishermen and on stupid powerboats that create a wake even bigger than a loaded containership.
Apart from that, you can enjoy the sights. Old fortresses, small islands, and each marker buoy that houses its own pelican.
Cartagena bay not only has a huge container terminal, the Colombian Navy also has its base there. Upon our first arrival we passed a submarine and one of our first weeks we witnessed a French aircraft carrier and its accompanying frigate ships enter the bay under extensive military welcome. Another time we observed a full on navy drill with divers being dropped from helicopters and picked up by dinghies.
As some of our pictures testify, Cartagena offers a fine city anchorage to enjoy the stunning sunrise and sunset over the Manga skyline, with the backdrop of the cathedral in the old city centre.
The downside of the anchorage is that it is bouncy. Apart from container ships, there are many taxi boats and pleasure craft taking day tourists to the beaches at Playa Blanca or the Rosario Islands, and at night a flotilla of harbor sunset cruisers trail past your boat playing popular or unpopular latino beats… All the boating traffic creates wake that rolls and ripples in and bounces back off the quay walls, creating a very uneven surface. Getting on and off the boat with shopping or visitors and their suitcases, can be somewhat challenging, but most of the time we managed. Only once we dropped our full water can overboard.
The biggest issue, however, is the contamination of the water inside the bay. The bay is fed by the outlet of two rivers, the Magdalena and Sinu, both carrying agricultural, industrial and human wastewater, turning the bay into a soup like texture and colour, something murky with bits and pieces bobbing around. Certain days, onion soup or pea soup is served, other days it resembles chicken broth that stood in the sun for too long. Most of the murk settles on your hull and anchor chain. Needless to say, you cannot run your watermaker there. It didn’t seem to bother the big shoals of fish nor the birds hunting them, and teaches us yet another lesson about how resilient nature is. But it served as a complete deterrent for a quick swim off the stern or a prolonged stay in the bay.
Cartagena de Indias
Having come from Portobelo, which is no slouch in fortresses and fortifications, but where the remnants of the proud history look derelict and neglected especially on a rainy day, Cartagena came as a pleasant surprise. The same type of fortresses are found here, but in a ‘complete make-over’ format, rejuvenated to their former glory. The forts are tastefully crete-stoned or painted in natural sandstone colour. Cannons are mounted on replica wooden carts. Roofs and inner structures have been rebuilt.
Just like taking a stroll in Barcelona and Madrid, the Spanish influence has worked its magic: Old and new have been combined in a very respectful and esthetically pleasing manner. Broad avenidas are decorated with green space, pleasant walkways, and beautiful buildings. Throw in a few interesting artworks for the finishing touch. Et voila…
Whereas Portobelo offers a lesson in how nature reclaims whatever men builds and leaves you intrigued about what else is hiding under the long green grass and jungle, Cartagena’s old town helps you visualize. After a stroll in the old town or on the city walls, you can almost imagine what it must have looked like at the time that names like Don Blas de Lezo, Juan Diaz de Torrezar Pimienta or Juan de Herrera y Sotomayor were roaming her streets.
A walk to the old town takes you past several fortified walls. The historic centre is surrounded by 11km of defensive walls, making it a military impregnable city. Those walls were drawn up in several stages. They were mainly designed to protect the city from continuous pirate attacks. It took 200 years to build them. The city fortifications were designed by the Italian engineer Juan Bautista Antonelli. He masterminded the unscalable Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.
The old town was founded in the 16th century (1533) by Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia. He chased away the local Indians, raided their pre Colombian tombs and temples and stole their gold. The big protected bay, with its proximity of two rivers, made it an ideal spot to establish a port for trade between Spain and the Spanish main. Very quickly it became the main port in the Americas for the export of Peruvian silver, and the import of African slaves.
Silver drew pirates and corsairs like moths to a lamp. Evidently, these attacks were secretly or openly encouraged by England, France and Holland.
The budding town was raided several times by pirates, according to the following scenario: 1000 wild buccaneers arrive, shoot and loot all they can. The citizens make a run for safe shelter and can only get the remains of the city back by paying ransom. These raids, of course, did not bide well with the king and queen in Spain and after each debacle they ordered more walls and reinforcements to be built. Consider the 11km of wall and it gives you a pretty good idea of how fed up the Spanish royals must have been!
A memorable attack was during the nine years war, where three French noblemen assembled a fleet of 30 ships, 4 000 troops, 1 200 buccaneers, against 30 Spanish in the Boca Chica fortifications. The result is easy to predict. Veni, vidi, vici. The French left after 1 month when there was nothing left to plunder.
Things got a bit better from 1640 onwards, when 3 portuguese ships ran aground in Boca Grande, speeding up the formation of a sandbar. On the sandbar, submerged walls were built, leaving a narrow entrance port that was a whole deal easier to defend.
A more memorable victory was the battle of Cartagena de Indias (1741), where English Admiral Edward Vernon showed up with a full armada of 50 warships, 130 transport ships and 25 600 men. The British were that sure of their victory (or in dire need of a success story) that before Vernon left they already printed coins to celebrate his win. Call it jumping the gun, call it a bad omen, call it whatever you want, but the cock sure win turned into an awful loss. The English did about everything wrong. Sure, they managed to ‘crush the gates’ by taking the Castillo de San Luis at Boca Chica and landing troopers on the island. But from there it went downhill. The British armada became a sitting duck for the seriously underpowered (read desperate) Spanish. The Spaniards shot everything they had on the British, and had the climate and fresh resources on their side. For starters, the British actually left too late on their crusade. They were delayed and weakened even more by the very mild winds that increased their travelling time substantially. This left them very little time before the sickly season (May) would start.
They were joined by some North Americans but failed to establish a sound working relationship with them as 1/3 of these land troups were forced to help man the ships as its crew was incapacitated and the other 2/3 realised no provisions had been made for them.
Once the Brits were inside the bay, the biggest strategy of the Spanish San Blas de Lezo was to stall the British. The well dug in Spanish basically had to wait for the undecisive, infighting Brits to whither away on account of malnourishment, infested battlewounds, and tropical diseases such as malaria, yellow fever, and dengue on top of all the other plagues that spread like wildfire in the confined spaces and were impossible to treat in the 1800s.
And whither they did, Vernon lost 9 500 to 11 500 men, and the Spanish a meagre 800… To tally things up: the British fled for Jamaica after 67 days of hell, with 18 000 of their men dead or incapacitated. Of the 3 600 American Colonists only 300 returned home.
After the Vernon attack, things settled for a while and Cartagena experienced its heydays.
And it is that Cartagena you can still get a whiff off when you stroll around the cobblestone streets of the inner city.
Enter the old town underneath the watch tower, and explore its neatly restored cathedral, churches, customs house, storage facilities and plentiful pleasant plazzas.
And don’t forget the naval museum or the Palace of the Inquisition. Yes, you read that right, Inquisition. To ensure Cartagena became a proper, thriving medieval Spanish city, the Inquisition was installed in 1610, and provided with the most splendid Palace in 1770. It managed to punish 767 people for bigamy, heresy, blasphemy, and witchcraft, before being abolished in 1811.
Admire the restored colonial houses painted in cheerful colours. They boast protruding wooden balconies with pretty flowers and different types of vines. On the groundfloor, antique heavy wooden doors feature intricately decorated knockers.
Take a rest in one of the parks, eat a giant avocado, feed the birds, watch the lizzards lazing in the shade.