Exploring the Dark History of Cartagena, Colombia

Getsemani, Colombia is a super hip neighborhood and home to dazzling street art as well as some of the best restaurants in Cartagena.

I can hardly believe that only 4 days ago, on Monday, Jeremy and I tearfully said our final goodbyes to our apartment, our friends (including our cat-friend, Jasper, who stayed by our side as we moved out), and watched our belongings get packed into a moving truck, knowing we would not see any of them again for 7 months as we travel around the world. That night we took our final train ride through San Francisco to the airport to board an overnight flight to Cartagena, Colombia (via Florida, of course. It’s never as easy as it sounds). 12 hours later, we arrived.

Arriving in Cartagena, Colombia

Stepping off the plane around noon, the first thing that we noticed was that it was hot. REALLY hot. My sister has informed me that at 90 degrees and humid, it’s actually roughly the same weather as the rest of the United States in mid-July, but I’ve gotten used to the balmy Bay Area standard of 60-75 degrees with no humidity, and 90 felt like hell. We excitedly sweated our way through customs and navigated our way through the airport to obtain our very first South American taxi. Jeremy impressed me with his command of basic Spanish phrases like “donde esta el ATM?” I’m so proud.

Exploring an uncharacteristically empty street in the old Walled City of Cartagena, Colombia.
Exploring an uncharacteristically empty street in the old Walled City of Cartagena, Colombia.

From that point it became a little more difficult. Our taxi driver didn’t actually know where our hostel was located, but from what we gathered via his gesturing and our broken attempts to communicate, he was up for the challenge. He drove to the area where it was located – Getsemani, an old yet up-and-coming neighborhood just outside of the walled city center – and circled the entire area about 18 times. Occasionally he would pull over (which actually just meant stop in the street and get honked at, since all of the streets are only wide enough for 1 car at a time) and ask us again for the address, then inform us that giving him the street numbers instead of the street names was useless. But we only had the street numbers. Thanks a lot, internet.

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After a lot of effort on all parties to both understand one another, and simultaneously produce directions without any internet access, we finally found the hostel. Incredibly, our taxi driver laughed off the confusion and didn’t charge us any more than his original quote despite it taking a thousand times longer than it should have. Grateful and sticky, we checked into our hostel, Santo Domingo Vidal. The hostel was quiet and incredibly clean, and in a great location a few minutes walking from the entrance to the walled city.

Santo Domingo Vidal in Getsemani, Cartagena is one of the best hostels in Cartagena. You can see it on the left with the resident hostel dog poking his little head out.
Santo Domingo Vidal in Getsemani, Cartagena is one of the best hostels in Cartagena. You can see it on the left with the resident hostel dog poking his little head out.

After spending a moment soaking up air from a nearby fan, we went out to explore. We found a restaurant and tried some fancy arepas, but I wasn’t feeling very hungry. In fact, as we wandered around the vibrant city, I didn’t feel anything like the excitement and adventure I had felt when I was anticipating the trip. I just felt sad, and homesick. As Jeremy and I stood on the crumbling 400-year old wall overlooking the setting sun and the ocean, I confessed to him that I wasn’t having fun. I just felt sad and filled with regret. What if I’d made a terrible decision to come travel? What if I’d ruined both of our lives by throwing away the life we’d built? What if all I learned from this trip was the value of a good job, an apartment, a couch, and Netflix?

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The Long Term Travel Blues: Feeling homesick in Cartagena, Colombia

Turns out Jeremy was feeling homesick too. We decided that adventuring was a wash for the day, and sadly wandered back to our hostel though the crowded streets. We resigned ourselves to a night in, and spent that night watching Netflix in our air-conditioned dorm room and crying. We cried a lot. I know most travel blogs make it sound like travel is all fun and adventure and no bad days, but it was a bad day. We were so sad. All I wanted to do was see my friends, pet our not-cat Jasper, and lay on the couch we already sold on Craigslist. We tried to cheer each other up by promising that we could go home whenever we wanted to, but in reality, we can’t. There’s no home to go back to. We packed up and left our home, sold our stuff, and can’t afford to live in our neighborhood anymore. That life doesn’t exist anymore.

A taxi winding its way through the crowded, curving streets of the old Walled City in Cartagena, Colombia.
A taxi winding its way through the crowded, curving streets of the old Walled City in Cartagena, Colombia.

The next morning, after a filling breakfast of eggs and toast (included in our $16 hostel fee!) we both felt much better. A good cry and some Netflix had helped us immensely. It was just enough to keep us both from reverting to bawling messes when we got a message from our old landlord saying that our cat friend Jasper had spent the whole night sadly meowing and scratching at our door. We swallowed our tears and sent a message to his family to share with them how much that drooly old cat meant to us. Maybe we can’t tell him ourselves, but hopefully someone will give him an extra hug for us. Or maybe we can Facetime him! Can cats recognize people on Facetime?!

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The Dark History of Cartagena, Colombia

We spent the day properly exploring the walled city of Cartagena, which seemed much more colorful and exciting without the ache of homesickness dulling our vision. For such a beautiful city, Cartagena has quite an interesting history. And by interesting, I mostly mean horrifying and depressing. It was established over 400 years ago by invading Spaniards, who used treasures stolen from the graves of the natives whose land they had just snatched to fund the building of a sparkling and prosperous port town. Can you think of a more insulting way to found a city on stolen land than with the native’s plundered belongings? I can’t. Having established a bustling town that mostly traded in grave robbing, Cartagena was granted the privilege of becoming South America’s only market for the trade of African slaves. Yup. They literally dug up dead bodies, stole all of their belongings, sold them, and then used the profits to buy and sell enslaved humans. Damn, that’s cold.

A flower-covered facade in the old Walled City of Cartagena, Colombia.
A gorgeous, flower-laden palacial estate in Cartagena, Colombia that was probably paid for with grave robbed treasure and slave trade.

After that, things got even more twisted. Bloated and wealthy from the booming trades of grave robbing and human enslaving, the Spanish citizens of Cartagena became targets of other morally bankrupt individuals: pirates. Throughout 1500’s-1700’s, the city was constantly under attack by pirates looking to get secondhand stolen shit. They were kind of asking for it, in my opinion. Anyway, fed up with people stealing their stolen goods, the Spaniards decided to build a wall to keep the pirates at bay. Thus was born the famous wall surrounding the old city of Cartagena.

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By the way, did I mention that this entire time, the Spanish Inquisition had set up shop in the middle of town and declared it the center of torture for all of South America? Anyone that was considered a “heretic” (which was a word that could be applied to anyone, for any reason, but was mostly applied to women, all of whom were apparently witches) was tortured in order to prove their innocence. If they died, they were innocent. If they agreed under torture to sign a a confession admitting wrongdoing, they were put to death. It was a great and successful system where everyone died and it was always their own fault. In over 800 trials at the Palace of the Inquisition, not a single heretic was found innocent.

A typical street food cart selling fresh fruit in Cartagena, Colombia.
Anywhere you go in the old Walled City of Cartagena, you will find carts like this one selling delicious fresh fruit and mango biche. Heaven on a hot day!

Yet, despite this tortured past, pun intended, the city is as thriving as it ever has been. It is a center for tourism, exports, and business, and was a thrill to visit. Filled with booming businesses and covered with skillfully created street art, it felt as modern as ever despite its ancient roots. Walking around after dark revealed a bustling nightlife! We’re so excited to see what else Colombia has in store for us…

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Have you visited Cartagena, Colombia? Or ever felt home sick on a long trip? Let us know in the comments!

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Hey, I'm Lia! I'm a Kentucky native living in San Francisco. I'm extremely practical and also entirely addicted to travel, which I'm forever trying to reconcile. If I had a patronus, it would a spreadsheet. Or a llama. Possibly a llama creating a spreadsheet. I'm married to Jeremy and I'm obsessed with him and it's super gross, unless you're us, in which case it's the best.

3 Comment

  1. Emily says: Reply

    Beautiful style of writing in this post. I also really appreciate your honesty – it's not all sunshine and adventure! I once spent an entire day in Hostel common area, watching back-to-back Game of Thrones, because I was too nervous about upcoming exam results to explore the city. The rest of the world doesn't go away when you travel. And there's nothing wrong with that 🙂

  2. Hexe Lain says: Reply

    I’m looking forward to discover how I should beautiful city & yes it’s history is horrendous and tragic. However your judgmental and self righteous tone are so US ignorant. The USA committed an to this day genocide of its indigenous ppl. OH YEs the privelege of slavery, NOOOOO the US of A only he’d segregation until the 1960s – but hey YOU don’t carry any responsibility so keep judging. Seriously??!!! Pretty sad because your writing is very good but your tone is so insulting

    1. Lia says: Reply

      You’re totally right! I am sorry my tone made you think that I don’t entirely condemn the genocide of the European colonists in North America/the USA. Not only did we build our entire country on the backs of slaves and disenfranchised indigenous peoples, but we’re STILL trying to swallow our white privalege enough to actually give people of color a fair chance in this country. They’re STILL being blocked at every step, shot in the streets, denied access to jobs and education, and suffering at the hands of a country that was founded in and steeped in racism. Not to mention all of the agreements we made with First Americans that we are now trying to pretend don’t exist. The USA is a hot mess of racism today due to its not-so-long-ago history.

      I truly love that Cartagena has flourished despite its dark past at the hands of Colonists, who created a history intertwined with slavery and terrorism. My intention was NOT to judge Cartagena, but to bring awareness to its history, because history informs our present reality, and to deny racial injustices in the past leads to denying racial struggles in the present day (at least in the USA, where we’re all still trying to pretend that systemic racism isn’t a thing).

      I’m going to give this post a re-read with a critical eye. It’s one of my earliest posts and my writing style has changed quite a bit, so if I’m not getting my point across clearly, I need to revise what I’ve written. Thank you for your feedback & apologies for the offense I’ve caused.

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