I had no idea what to expect as I was traveling to Colombia.
The only thing I knew about the country was the information that has made the news over the last few decades or what was depicted in shows like “Narcos”; tales of violence, corruption, bloodshed, kidnappings, untrustworthy cops and government officials.
But what fellow travelers had told me when I met them during my four months in Central America was vastly different from the “notoriously dangerous” Colombia of TV and movies.
The image of Colombia I had in my head was... mixed, to say the least.
The more I talked to people who had actually been to the country, people who experienced real life in Colombia, the more I was convinced that maybe the rest of the world had it wrong. I heard descriptions like:
“Most beautiful country I’ve been to”
“Friendliest people who just want to help, no string attached”
“It has everything; beaches, jungles, incredible cities”
“Beautiful, fun and inexpensive”
“Highlight of my 8-month Latin America trip was Colombia”
“Lively people who are just fun to be around”
“Medellin is the best city in the world”
“So much to do, you can’t cover it all in 3 months, not even a little bit”
“Cuidad Perdida is better than Machu Picchu”
“People genuinely want to help you or show you around”
“I’m going back to Colombia, I miss it already…”
This music video by the poster boy of Colombia, Carlos Vives, and other Colombian favorite artists sing around beloved Colombia displaying the diversity and beauty of the country; from San Andres island to the Amazon.
If I hadn’t heard so many wonderful descriptions about Colombia, I may have been reluctant to go. In fact, I was supposed to be going to Asia instead; Thailand, Vietnam, Philippines, all of which are on my Top 10 Travel Bucket List. But after all of these anecdotes about Colombia, a praise being sung sweeter than any country I’ve heard before, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was meant to go.
After all, Colombia was a 1,000-piece puzzle that didn’t quite fit. There were pieces of corruption, narcotics, and bloodshed, and there were pieces of absolutely beautiful landscapes almost too stunning to imagine. And probably, most profoundly, were the puzzle pieces of the people; the friendly people with warm smiles, who put kindness above all, and whose thirst for life is immeasurable and awe-inspiring.
What was true? Was Colombia really a dangerous country that we should be scared of? Or is Colombia one of the most beautiful, fun, diverse and safe countries that everyone should experience one day?
I decided I had to see what the country was like for myself. After all, Sapphire & Elm plans custom trips using our personal experience so we can give more accurate and authentic recommendations for every individual client.
As you read this and my upcoming blogs on Colombia, you’ll see I absolutely fell in love with this amazing country! And I’m sure you will too!
When I stepped foot in Cartagena, Colombia, the first thing I noticed was the humidity. It immediately cloaked me in it’s warm, damp embrace. The wet air told tales of tropical Caribbean clichés; palm trees, reggae music, Spanish and African influences.
After going through border security and retrieving my luggage, I hopped in a cab for a very quick ride to the Old Town of Cartagena to where I would be spending the first few weeks of my time in Colombia.
I paid my cab driver, checked in, got a little settled and then immediately headed out to town for my first taste of the city. Clearly, finding a cup of Colombian coffee would be my first stop.
I ended up finding a posh little coffee place just a few blocks away from my hotel - I quickly realized how compact the Old Town (or Centro Historico) is. I selected a bold varietal and it was served in a contraption that resembled a science experiment.
Once I finished my coffee I was ready to continue exploring. I wandered aimlessly down streets and even walked on the old walls near the ocean.
I was immediately struck by the beauty of this city; it’s colors and charm, with plants and vines twisting up quaint balconies and particularly, the impossibly irresistible doors.
A Brief History of Cartagena
Cartagena was founded in 1533 by the Spanish, although archaeological evidence shows people have lived in the area since 4000 BC. In fact, Cartagena was the first Spanish colony on the South American continent.
Originally known in the colonial era as Cartagena de Indias, it served as an important trade route between the Americas and Europe. In the 16th century, trade was primarily Colombian gold and Peruvian silver. Then at the beginning of the 17th century, included the slave trade from Africa as well. Unfortunately, over the years, over one million captive African slaves were brought through Cartagena to work in gold mines, on sugar cane plantations, cattle ranches, and large haciendas or other domestic work.
It’s squares, cobblestone streets, canons and maritime decoration and colorful colonial buildings are representative of it’s colonial heritage. In 1984, Cartagena's colonial walled city and fortress were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
With it’s location on the northern coast of Colombia and a tropical climate, the city is also a popular beach destination. Reachable by boat are Isla de Barú, with white-sand beaches and palm trees, and the Islas del Rosario, known for their coral reefs.
Significance of the Doors & Knockers
There is a wide range of doors in Cartagena, all of them meaningful in some way and with so much character whether they were bright colors or muted neutrals. Some doors were small, some large, some with both a small door inset a larger one. And most of them has these intricate metal door knockers.
Due to Cartagena’s very warm, tropical climate homes and doors were constructed to provide natural air conditioning.
Since large, intricate doors were a status symbol it was important to have a large door. However, opening large doors all day would allow too much of the cool interior air to escape, small doors were included within the larger ones.
Additionally, the door knockers, known as aldabas, represent a very important cultural significance of colonial Cartagena. The door knockers size and type of metal were indicative of wealth and social status. While the actual motif usually depicted the type of profession. Marine motifs such as mermaids and seahorses adorned the homes of men who made a living in the seas, lions represented teachers and lizards represented royalty.
It seemed around every corner, the city just got more lovely. I have to admit it was quite fun, almost like a game to find the most beautiful, intricate doors and aldabas in Cartagena.
Over the next two weeks, I spent my time split between working at cafes (Sapphire & Elm Travel Co. doesn’t run itself), in a Spanish school, and wandering the streets of the city to see what life was like here.
While wandering the streets of the old walled city of Cartagena, the exquisite doors were just begging to be photographed!
So here for you without further ado is a photo journal of the spectacularly wonderful doors, windows, and buildings of Cartagena, Colombia. Disfruta! Enjoy!
Whether you’re a history buff, literary fan (Cartagena is home to Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Literary prize winner and author of One Hundred Years of Solitude), architecture nerd, or just love cute and colorful streets, Cartagena is a wonderful and unforgettable city to visit.
Cartagena truly is the the historic jewel of Colombia.
Ready to experience Colombia for yourself?
Sapphire & Elm Travel specialize in custom vacations, providing you with unique and memorable travel experiences. As seasoned travelers, we have the special ability to offer you relevant recommendations and personal insights.