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Opinion

Exploring the foreign port of Cartagena, Colombia

December 2, 2011

One of the frequently asked questions I get is, “Is it safe to go to all these foreign ports?” My response is the same: yes. No matter what cruise line you choose, one thing doesn’t change. Passenger safety is the No. 1 priority. If there are any events that could endanger passengers, the cruise ship will cancel the port and replace it. This scenario has happened to me while in the Panama Canal. Cartagena, Colombia was originally part of the itinerary. However, the country had been battling a violent drug war, forcing the State Department to restrict travel there (given how much I disliked the alternate port of Ocho Rios, Jamaica, I would have rather taken my chances in Colombia). Luckily for the country, a new administration came in with sweeping changes, enhancing port security and ending the violence. In Spring 2009, I made my first (but hopefully not last) visit to this glorious South American city. So now let’s go more in-depth and explore Cartagena.

Spanish commander Pedro de Heredia founded the city in 1533, naming it after Cartagena, Spain. Soon after, Spanish explorers discovered gold and emeralds throughout the land, attracting many pirates, like Sir Francis Drake in 1586, so King Felipe II ordered a protective wall to be built around the city as a way to improve defense. Cartagena soon became an important city upon the creation of the Viceroyalty of New Granada (incorporating modern-day Colombia, Venezuela, Panama and Ecuador). Economic growth increased, including construction of the San Fernando fort. The city gained independence from Spain in 1811, eight years before Colombia itself followed suit. Cartagena experienced a Middle East immigration wave at the turn of the 20th century that helped develop commerce and industry. Today, Cartagena’s economy is supported by tourism, platinum and timber. There is also an oil pipeline that brings the black gold from the center of the country to port.

Most of the city’s attractions can be found downtown where the colonial architecture makes you feel as if you are back during Spanish colonialism. A city code prohibits any modifications (including painting) to a building’s exterior, thus preserving the rich history. The Plaza de Bolivar, named after the famous liberator, is lined with cafes and shops. Emeralds are still pretty common in Colombia; just remember that color intensity will determine its value (dark green is the most valuable). You can also tour Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, one of the largest fortresses in the city where there have been attempts to storm the fortress, but all were unsuccessful.

A popular tourist site is La Popa, a 400-year old monastery set atop a hill overlooking Cartagena. Inside you can see the Virgin of Calendaria, a statue that accompanies a legend that it spared the city from disease and pirate attacks. Pope John Paul II visited the monastery in the mid 1980s, and he brought a crown, which was placed on the statue of the Virgin Mary. Both the statue and crown are in the chapel today, and both are glass-enclosed.

Cartagena has witnessed a positive turnaround from a few years ago. Extra security and police are present and visible throughout the city. As a result, more cruise ships are expected to stop here over the next few years. Speaking of the future, next week I will cover a port that I have yet to visit.

Michael Leonard is a Spanish major at UW-River Falls.

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