If you’ve done any traveling, you’ll probably agree with this premise: persistent street vendors do not enhance the experience. I’m all for free enterprise, but while taking in a splendid view, I find it distracting to have someone trying to sell me something or steal my wallet. The ruins of Ephesus or the Leaning Tower of Pisa would be even more awe-inspiring without the relentless chorus of “You want to buy — ?”
The colonial city of Cartagena, on the Caribbean coast of Colombia, was once a hub of slave trade and gold shipments. It has some sights worth seeing — but to do so requires patience and determination. Here are a few observations from my journal of April 5, 2000…
Our first visit to the South American continent did not begin well: we were greeted by a couple of dozen taxi drivers and tourist guides, loudly vying with each other to convey us around town. It was rather intimidating, but we finally agreed on a price with one of the drivers.
It was about a ten-minute drive from the ship dock to the Old Town section of Cartagena. Our driver dropped us off at a place other than our stated destination, so we had to try to get our bearings. This effort was made considerably more difficult by the swarms of street vendors and would-be tour guides. Everywhere we went in Cartagena, we were hounded by very aggressive street merchants — we must have said “no, gracias” several hundred times in the few hours we were in the city.
We found our way to the Plaza de Bolívar, which had been our original destination. On the Plaza is the Palace of the Inquisition, a crumbling relic of colonial times. It was interesting to see the torture chambers, which were used to elicit confessions from suspected heretics and witches.
We returned to the contemporary torture of the streets of Cartagena, again running the gauntlet of T-shirt salesmen and trinket vendors and pickpockets. We sought refuge in La Catedral, which gave us a place to sit quietly and study our map for a moment. Built in 1575, the cathedral is still a working church, and a number of worshippers were kneeling and praying around us.
Sally and I wandered the narrow streets — rather, we walked purposefully, so as to discourage the pests of Cartagena. Our destination was the Church of San Pedro Claver, named in honor of a Jesuit priest who served the many slaves who were brought through Cartagena in the 1800s. There was an emerald shop next to the church — we were offered some “bargains” for what were, even to the untrained eye, not high-quality stones. Once again, we said, “no, gracias”.
We took another loop through the streets, headed for the wall which once guarded the old city. In the old days it served to keep the pirates out; now it seems to keep the thieves in…