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In the area around the main square in Salento, the brightly-colored houses with wooden roofs and balconies are ornamented with stripes and squares. Jeep Willys (they replaced burros for carrying coffee sacks) and locals dressed in ponchos and sombreros are reminders of the coffee culture of the region. My guide provided ample time for shopping, browsing, and then eating dinner at La Fonda de Los Arrieros, an inn that celebrates mule drivers and their important role in the past in the coffee, sugar and gold trade.
Although mule drivers are a far cry from my urban life, I became interested in their lives, and my guide arranged for me to visit the new Parque Tematico y cultural Los Arrieros before it opened to the public. The theme park is geared for families, but, surprisingly, I enjoyed and learned a lot from the cane sugar demonstration, the lively theatrical performance about the domestic life and carousing of the mule drivers, the folk dances, mock marriage ceremony and interactive sites throughout the park.
Caribbean Fort City on the Continent: Cartagena
I flew back to Bogota, where I changed planes to fly to Cartagena, which is on the Caribbean side of the country. Although there were no available rooms at the Sofitel Cartagena Santa Clara, we enjoyed a buffet lunch there, and then had a private tour of the property, which used to be a l7th century convent. The surprise? Below the stylish contemporary bar is the crypt of the convent. I climbed down the steep stairs, and gawked at the empty sarcophagi. Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a journalist in Cartagena in the l980’s and he was inspired to write Of Love and Other Demons about a young girls’ body that was found in a tomb.
Cartagena was the most important city in Spanish America for the slave and gold trades, but it fell into disrepair and became somewhat of a backwater after independence was won from Spain. Now it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and a trendy and pricey Caribbean city. The historic center is wonderfully restored with outdoor dining, restaurants and shops in splendid Colonial and Republican buildings.
But my favorite surprise? My German-born guide Cesar took me to the little mouth of a big lagoon, where I boarded a canoe, and navigated through the salt water, unspoiled nature and mangrove swamps with a buoyant man named Elias as the captain. At the end of the 40-minute ride, locals arrived to hand me a huge coconut with a straw, so I could enjoy the refreshing coconut water.
Cartagena can be pretty hot during the day, but at night the balmy breezes cool things down, and it’s delightful to walk to the Plaza Santo Domingo, where tourists sit at candle-lit tables nursing beers while roaming minstrels, scantily-clad, shimmying dancers and exciting African-style drummers perform for tips.
Even though I have visited more forts than I can shake a cannon ball at, I was fascinated by the five-level Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, which was built from coral stone. It was the largest fort ever constructed by the Spanish, and, when all levels were finished, it was considered impregnable. Although most visitors are impressed by the size of the fort, what surprised me most were the little details my guide pointed out: the ducts where stale air could be evacuated; the darkness of the tunnels, which would temporarily blind enemy soldiers who came inside from full sunlight; the spacing of niches for soldiers in the tunnel walls—so that that if a Spanish solider shot to fell an enemy, he would not hit a fellow soldier in a niche on the opposite wall.
When I was planning my February trip, Adventure Associates asked if I could come a week later than I intended because it was the period of the 4-day carnival in Barranquilla, which is about two hours from Cartagena. I said yes, and I am thrilled that the company suggested it. It is one of the largest, most colorful carnivals in the world, and it celebrates the mixing of the indigenous, African and European cultures with floats, parades, costumes, masks, singers, bands and folk theatre. It was the biggest surprise of all, and the highlight of my trip to Colombia.
If you go:
Adventure Associates specializes in providing customized luxury tours to South America. Their focus is on the Andean countries: Ecuador, Peru, Chile, Bolivia, Argentina and Colombia. Their Colombian tours highlight the culture and most interesting regions in this fascinating country.
Story by Judith Fein, photos by Paul Ross
Related feature: Touring the Coffee Triangle of Colombia