Cartagena, Colombia was founded in 1533 by the Spanish conquistadors and boasts a walled city in which the old town is located. Additionally, there is a fort built upon San Lázaro hill which speaks to the turbulent history of the land. Known as Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the fort was built in 1536 for protection and overlooks the bay and portions of the city. Spanish was, and still is, the main dialect spoken, and this new world settlement was named after Cartagena in Spain. Interestingly enough, the original Spanish city of Cartagena, was named after Carthage which was the capital of ancient Carthage and a very important trading center. Cartagena, Colombia was equally important as a strategic port in the mid to late 16th century.
Colombia is the only South American country that borders the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea. For those of you who are trivia buffs, this is often a question in geography portions of trivia quizzes. Although Panama (formerly a part of Colombia), also borders both, it is considered to be part of Central America and as such, Colombia is unique in its position as the only South American country bordering both the Pacific and the Caribbean. The fishing industry is a stable employer for ports located on both bodies of water.
When asked what people think of when they hear “Colombia”, they will often talk about drug cartels and crime. I think of oppressive mugginess and emeralds. With 95% humidity, Cartagena is a very hot and humid port stop. Despite the heat, this country has a lot to offer both in history and in shopping. When you include some very friendly people into that mix of things on offer, you will find a port stop that is worth getting off the ship to explore. Having said that, I urge you to exercise the usual caution and ensure you are vigilant when it comes to personal safety. You should avoid walking alone in isolated locations. Don’t follow someone down a deserted alley or into a private residence. Avoid overt displays of wealth (jewelry, showing large amounts of cash when paying for an item etc.). If you are arriving by ship, you should be in port during the day so there is less of a threat and risk to your person, but you should still exercise caution. For example, I always recommend using ATMs inside of banks during regular business hours and I make sure I know the value of the local currency (and how to convert it to US and Canadian funds).
Now let’s talk about those emeralds I mentioned. Colombia is home to the largest emerald exporters in the world. The beauty of this country’s emeralds is well documented and purchasing legitimate emeralds in Cartagena will garner you a beautiful piece of jewelry accompanied by a certificate of authenticity with the carats and clarity annotated. The larger the emerald, the higher the cost. I saw many beautiful pieces, some which were stunning with their deep green colour and exceptional clarity. I also saw emeralds that were of a lesser quality and the prices sometimes reflected their inferior status but other times, the prices were high despite the obvious flaws. It is important to check any pieces carefully to ensure you are getting what you pay for and expect. Make sure you understand the quality and clarity associated with values so you are not paying top dollar for an inferior stone. As a general rule, emeralds that are darker in colour are considered more valuable. Make sure you obtain an official certificate of authenticity when you buy a stone/jewelry. The emeralds are set in 18 or 14 karat gold or set in silver.
A trip to a jeweler in the old town was quite enlightening as he explained that the spelling of the word carat with a “c” is always used for the unit of measure for the weight of a gemstone while the spelling of karat with a “k” is used as a unit of measure for the purity of gold. He further explained that an18-karat gold ring is 75% pure gold, while a 14-karat gold ring is about 58% pure gold. Gold is too soft a metal to be used in jewelry and is therefore mixed with other metals.
If you decide that you want to go ashore in Cartagena, I recommend that you look to visit the old walled city (known as La Ciudad Amurallada). You can start at the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas and walk down into the old town. Take care with your footing as the streets are cobbled and in rough shape in certain areas. Street vendors will accost you wanting to sell you beer, water, tablecloths, hats and assorted tourist type of local goods. You can usually wave them off or offer up a polite “no gracias”. There are a number of shops selling various items of interest such as quality leather goods and of course there are numerous jewelry shops. When buying in the shops you can bargain. I was looking for a pair of emerald earrings and the price quoted was $2500 US. The price dropped and eventually fell to $1700 US. I believe the price would have fallen more had we time to bargain. Two things to be warned of in the shops are:
Do your own conversion from Peso to Dollars if you want to pay in USD. Several times we found the store owner conversions to be off by quite a bit. For example, at the time of this visit, $150 Canadian was around $109USD. That translated to 527,308 Colombian Pesos (COP). But when in a store looking at an item selling for 525,000COP, I was told that it converted to $200USD. Another time, 350,000COP reportedly converted to $150USD. When I pointed out it should convert to around $73, they quickly revised the conversion to $75USD.
If someone (such as your tour guide), takes you to a store and goes in with you, they are usually getting a cut. Every time we went into a jewelry store, our tour guide was at our side and having a quiet word with the sales people. Attempts to have him meet up with us elsewhere and let us go into the jewelry shops on our own were met with resistance. In one store, the price quoted went up $100 USD when he suddenly appeared at our side and had a word with the owner. Consequently, I hold the opinion that the price you pay will probably include a cut for the person who brought you to the store.
Some other locations of interest are the Inquisition Palace which is a museum located between Calle 33 and 35 and Calle San Pedro. This building started life as the new world’s Spanish Inquisition facility and carried out the barbaric traditions of the inquisition. Adjacent to the museum, west, on Calle 35 and San Pedro, you will find the Plaza Santo Domingo where you will be able to tour the 16th Century Santo Domingo Church.
As in all tourist locations around the world, watch for pickpockets and scams. Don’t take gypsy cabs, don’t go down dark alleys and be careful when using any credit cards.
Although there is a little beach nearby, it is not one I would recommend. The port has a mini zoo and a duty free shop. If you don’t want to walk about Cartagena in the heat, you can still do some shopping in the air-conditioned comfort of the duty free shop located at the port. If you are going shopping, the Colombian Peso (COP) or US dollars are widely accepted. The three primary items for sale are:
The Colombian people were friendly and the street vendors were not as persistent or aggressive as those found in many other countries. I enjoyed my shore excursion in Colombia and I would certainly visit Cartagena again.