Saying ciao to Buenos Aires was difficult, but we were also excited to add Colombia to our list of new countries.  Our flight to Cartagena was via Panama City and we were thrilled to get an unexpected glimpse of the Panama Canal as we approached the airport.

To be honest, our prior knowledge about Cartagena and Colombia was largely limited to Pablo Escobar’s Medellin drug cartel and the classic 80s movie, Romancing the Stone.  Alas, I didn’t get an emerald, but we were able to acquire some *special* cigars for my dad at an even more special price.

We’d mistakenly thought that nearly three months in SE Asia would have acclimated us to high humidity and heat, but Cartagena’s 90 degrees felt like a steam bath.  (For the record, Jonathan thinks that this is a positive thing.)  Fortunately, we had our first pool since Thailand to take refuge in during the peak heat hours (when the streets emptied and stores closed up shop anyway).

We stayed in the walled Old Town, another UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of the most picturesque towns we’ve ever seen, with its pastel-painted buildings, flower-draped trellises, cobblestoned streets and colonial architecture.  As our Cartagena stay coincided with our 9th anniversary, we splurged on lodging and stayed at the Casa Pestagua, which was the palatial home of the 18th Century Count of Pestagua, one of the city’s wealthiest members at the time.  With only 11 rooms and at less than 50% capacity, it was easy to imagine the grand villa as our own (not a bad daydream).  Our day got off to a fabulous start each morning as we breakfasted in the lush courtyard on a traditional breakfast of areppa de huevo and carimanojas, fresh watermelon juice and rich Colombian coffee.

The first day we wondered through the maze of narrow, cobblestone streets getting our bearings.  The entire old town can easily be traversed in half an hour and you also can circumnavigate the old town by strolling atop the 20 foot high wall that was built to protect the old town.  We quickly learned that the moderating ocean breezes that could be enjoyed from atop the wall helped with the heat, although a Panamanian hat would have come in handy.

That evening we savored pina coladas at the Cafe del Mar, which is perched atop the wall and provides a perfect view of the sun dipping into the ocean. A smattering of storm clouds  offered up dramatic lightening strikes in the salmon-colored skies and the sight was especially breathtaking against the old city’s backdrop of church domes and colonial architecture.

So what else did we do besides sweat, swim and eat?

Palace of Inquisition.  What kid isn’t fascinated by a torture museum?!  I still remember the strong impression that the London Dungeons made on me as an 11-year old; it was much more memorable than the British Musuem at that age.  We learned that Cartegena became a seat of the Spanish Inquisition in 16010, and walking through the Palacio’s grand building and its lovely gardens, it was difficult to imagine the horrible suffering inflicted on those very grounds. Zara kept asking about the various iron implements, “what does this one do?” and I struggled to translate  the Spanish explanations into kid-friendly descriptions of how people were tortured (not sure that is possible).

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas.  The Castillo was a fortress first built in the 16th Century to protect the city and further expanded in the 17th Century.  Jonathan assured us it was a short walk to the Castillo from our hotel in the Old Town, but I think he failed to account for the H2 factor (heat x humidity).  Within 15 minutes, rivulets of sweat were cascading into Zara’s eyes and she looked on the throes of heat stroke.  Fortunately, the Castillo was constructed on a hilltop, which benefits from the cooling sea breezes.  We had an entertaining hour scrambling around the fort and exploring the tunnels where the soldiers manning the fort slept.

The second evening we took a 1/2 hour horse-drawn carriage ride through the old city as the sun was setting.  The ride took a bizarre turn when a clown mime lept onto our carriage and accosted me with his balloon sword, but otherwise the ride was a lovely, touristy thing to do.  Zara and I spent the rest of the evening trying to avoid the handful of clowns and mimes roaming the streets (as she was one of the few kids out and about and a prime target), which ruled out many of the outside restaurant venues.

As with Buenos Aires, the next time I’d come with US dollars.  The ATMs are unreliable and can have limited hours (although we did finally locate one with 24-hour access) and US dollars are widely-accepted.

Overall, our time in S. America was far too short, but at least it gave us a taste of this fabulous continent. I have no doubt we will be back, perhaps in a camper van next time!

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On the wall

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Plaza sculpture

Plaza sculpture

Helado!

Helado!

Ornate architecture

Colombian architecture

Cartagena's colorful hues

Cartagena’s colorful hues

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Spanish Inquisition

Spanish Inquisition

Guillotine

He’s been a bad boy

Street performers

Street performers

Cobblestone streets

Cobblestone streets

View of modern Cartagena

View of modern Cartagena

View from the rooftop of Casa Pestagua

View from the rooftop of Casa Pestagua

Colombian artwork

Colombian artwork

Casa Pestagua

Casa Pestagua

Casa Pestagua courtyard where we ate breakfast

Casa Pestagua courtyard where we ate breakfast

Casa Pestagua

Casa Pestagua