The Other Antigua

When we think of Antigua, we usually think of the Caribbean island, but there are in fact three others. Two of them are small towns, one in Australia and one in the Canary Islands. The subject of today’s tour is the ancient city of Antigua in Guatemala.

Founded in 1543 as Santiago de los Caballeros, it was the third capital of Guatemala which then covered most of Central America and the southernmost state of Mexico. It served as the capital for 200 years before a devastating earthquake forced the capital to be moved to Nuevo Guatemala (present day Guatemala City) in 1773. The old city was renamed Antigua Guatemala or Old Guatemala, later shortened to Antigua.

A large Tiki hut greeted us at Puerto Quetzal.

Antigua is located between two volcanoes, both still considered active, the Volcán de Fuego and the Volcán de Agua. Fire and water! From the harbor at Puerto Quetzal you can see both of them. The Volcán de Fuego is the most active one, constantly erupting. In the photo below you can see a little plume of smoke above it. It erupts about every fifteen to twenty minutes, usually just a puff like in the picture.

A puff of ash and smoke erupt from the Volcan de Fuego on the left.

Major eruptions are rare but there were two in 2018. One on June 3rd of that year was the most explosive event since 1974, catching everyone off guard and burying several villages under ash and lava. 190 were killed and another 256 were reported missing. It was the deadliest eruption since 1929. The volcano erupted again on November 18th but the area was evacuated in time and there were no fatalities.

The tour bus taking us to Antigua passed between the two volcanos and through much of the countryside damaged by the November eruption.

A lot of ash from the November eruption was still in the process of being cleared.
One of the bridges along the route was still being repaired as we crossed a makeshift Bailey bridge.

After passing through the area and a couple of villages, we arrived at the embarkation point for Antigua where we boarded another bus. This one took us right into the old town, much of which has been reconstructed in the 17th century style complete with cobblestone streets. Our first stop was at a jade factory.

Cobblestone streets and quaint old buildings make up the ancient city of Antigua. The green building on the right is Jade Maya.

Jade Maya is a jade factory founded by archaeologists Mary Lou and Jay Ridinger. The couple discovered jade artifacts in 1974 and developed new jade discoveries as well. Mary Lou herself still runs the factory and museum and gave our tour group an overview of the history of jade in Guatemala.

Mary Lou Ridinger talks about jade in Guatemala. The country, with its high volcanic activity, is a rich source of this valuable material.

The museum itself houses many Mayan artifacts and one of the largest lumps of jade anywhere. Skilled artisans are constantly making new pieces of jade jewelry for sale to the public.

Artisans at work in the jade factory.


Janis with a large piece of raw jade.


Some of the many artifacts on display.

After the Jade Maya visit we took the bus to the city’s town square, known as the Parque Central. This area is rich in history and the square itself is a beautiful park with trees and an interesting fountain. Many locals were hawking souvenirs and there were a number of shops on one side of the square.

The long barracks like building on the left housed government offices and troops while Antigua served as the capital of Spanish Guatemala. It is now the City Hall. The town square is on the right.
The park-like town square was a beehive of activity with locals selling their wares to the many tourists.

The old fountain dates back to 1738. It was designed by Diego de Porres, the most outstanding architect of the time. Inspired by the Neptune Fountain in Bologna, Italy, Diego designed the fountain to show four water nymphs or mermaids spouting water from their breasts. Formally known as Las Sirenas, the Sirens, it is often called the Mermaid Fountain.

Las Sirenas Fountain in the Central Park of Antigua. It dates from 1738, was largely destroyed over the centuries and rebuilt in the 1940s.

The heads were destroyed over time but the torsos survived , buried in the rubble. They were rediscovered in 1944 and now reside in the museum at the old City Hall across the street. Upon their discovery, noted Guatemalen architect Roberto González Goyri used them as a basis to recreate the fountain which you see today.

The mermaids spout water from their breasts. One legend about the fountain says it was ordered by an earl to honor his daughters who did not want to breastfeed.

The square was filled with tourists when we were there, and there were plenty of locals in colorful costumes selling various souvenirs. Whatever they were selling, the women often balanced their wares on their heads. 

Street vendors in colorful costumes often balanced their wares on their heads.
A street vendor performs her balancing act.

The Parque Central is a perfect square and is surrounded on each side by the old barracks that served as the seat of government for 200 years, the Catedral San José, and by a museum and a variety of shops on the other two sides. 

The Cathedral of San Jose faces one side of the Central Park.

We explored the square and surrounding shops for some time before we boarded the bus again. We then toured some streets and passed the magnificent Iglesia de la Merced and passed under the famous El Arco de Santa Catalina. 

The Iglesia de la Merced.


The Santa Catalina Arch is a famous Antigua landmark. Our bus drove right under the arch.

We enjoyed our visit to this colorful and historical city. I leave you with two photo galleries, one of the Parque Central and one of the rest of our visit to Guatemala. 

Photo Gallery: Guatemala

Some additional photos of Guatemala.

From Puerto Quetzal you get a clear view (if you discount the haze) of the twin Volcanoes, the Volcan de Fuego and the Volcan de Agua, Fire and Water! There are 33 volcanoes in Guatemala.

Volcanic ash from the eruption of Volcan de Fuego in November 2018 fills a creek bed along our route.

Abandoned building in a village wiped out by the volcanic eruptions of 2018.

Riding through the cobbled streets of Antigua.

Mary Lou Ridinger tells us about jade Mayan artifacts found in the region.

One of many news clippings framed and hanging at Jade Maya tell of Mary Lou and her husband’s exploits.

A jade artisan at work.

A lovely pool in the courtyard at Jade Maya.

Some Mayan artifacts at the Jade Maya museum.

Some of the custom jade jewelry manufactured at Jade Maya.

Ruins of the Iglesia de la Concepcion, currently undergoing restoration. This is just down the street a bit from Jade Maya.

On our way out of town we passed this odd family sculpture.

And we end with a final look at the cobbled streets of Antigua.

Photo Gallery: Parque Central, Antigua, Guatemala

Here are some more photos from Central Park, Antigua.

The Palacio de los Capitanes Generales or Palace of the General Captains was the headquarters for the government of Guatemala from 1543 to 1773. It is across the street from the park.

The Central Park is a beautiful square with a central fountain, many trees and lawns and some sculptured trees as well.

The Cathedral of Saint Joseph (Catedral de San Jose) is on the adjacent corner from the Palacio.

Women street vendors almost always carried their wares on their heads.

Even the ones selling manufactured trinkets carried their merchandise balanced on their heads.

The Mermaid Fountain (Las Sirenas) is the centerpiece of the park.

The fountain was pretty much destroyed over the centuries with just the torsos remaining. It was recreated in the 1940s to match the style of the original. Mermaids are featured in two other places in Antigua, Guatemala.

Inside one of the shops surrounding the park.

While the street vendors did aggressively promote their wares, I found their colorful dress charming and they added to the cultural feel of the park. We did buy a couple of hand-carved flutes from one vendor.

We end our tour of Parque Central with a photo of a bird of paradise flower. They were prominent in several gardens around the park.

Birding in a Tainted Paradise

The next stop in our Panama Canal cruise, after leaving Panama, was Puntarenas, Costa Rica. We had booked something called Tárcoles River: An Eco Adventure, one of eleven different excursions available at this port of call. It is promoted as Jungle Crocodile Safari, which is a bit of a misnomer. But they also promote it as a Bird Watching and Tropical Mangrove Boat Tour and it is as a bird watching adventure that this excursion should be taken. Birds abound and when you board the boat, you are given a Bird Guide which shows 61 species of birds that you might encounter there.

The tour starts with an hour long bus ride to the Tárcoles River. There are a number of tour operators along the river and when we reached our destination, we took a short walk through a lush jungle garden to our tour boat.

A lush garden welcomes you at Jungle Crocodile Safari.

Our boat then took us out on the Tárcoles River for a 90 minute tour. We headed up river and soon spotted our first crocodile. Most of the crocs we encountered (less than a half dozen) were just lazing in the river looking much like a log.

A large crocodile near the shore.

If you’re really keen on a crocodile adventure, this is not the tour for you. But if you are an avid birder, you’ll find many birds to look for. Though the bird guide lists 61 different birds you might spot here, we probably spotted about ten different species. Many can be found sitting in the shrubbery along the shore.

This is the Bare Throated Tiger Heron, #18 in our bird guide.

Costa Rica is covered by lush jungle, however the Tárcoles River has become very  polluted. We saw old tires and other debris scattered along the shore and the river itself is an ugly brown color and certainly not a place one would want to swim, even if there were no crocodiles. A search on Google found reports that the Tárcoles is, in fact, the most contaminated river in Central America.

Most of the pollution comes from San Jose, Costa Rica’s capital city and home to fifty percent of its population.  A report in the Costa Rica Star from 2016 notes what is dumped into the river: “Bottles, shoes, plastic containers, tires, toys, clothes, straws, umbrellas, brooms, electronic appliances; the list goes on and on. In 2007 the Bridgestone Company organized a general cleaning of the area and gathered 1000 tires.”

Given its condition, it is astounding what a wonderful assortment of wildlife make their home nearby.

The Great Egret – #17 in the bird guide.

Besides birds, you’ll also see banana groves and lizards, including iguanas. We spotted some horses along the river, probably from a nearby farm, and a couple of groups of recreational fishermen, though I don’t know why anyone would want to eat anything caught in this river.

Bananas growing along the shore.

Some horses along the shore, probably from a nearby farm.

But it was the bird population that was the most vibrant on the Tárcoles.

The Green Kingfisher – #43 in the guide.

The Magnificent Frigatebird – #1 in the bird guide.

After cruising around for a while up river, we headed back down the river all the way to the coast. Along the way our eagle-eyed guide spotted a toucan in a tree at a fair distance from us. I could barely catch it with the zoom lens on my camera.

At the mouth of the river is the Gulf of Nicoya on the Pacific Ocean. Here birds covered entire trees along the shore, fish loving birds like the pelican.

A tree near the mouth of the Tarcoles River covered in pelicans.

A magnificent Brown Pelican – #4 in the bird guide.

After our tour completed, we went through the obligatory gift shop, which featured a couple of marimba players, and back on the bus for the trip back to the port.

A couple of marimba players entertained at the gift shop.

We did see quite a few birds and a few crocodiles and other creatures, but overall, this was a bit of a lack-lustre tour. One of my friends who has lived in Costa Rica told me that the Puntarenas region is the least desirable place to visit in the country, largely because of the pollution.

We had opted for this particular tour because it involved a shorter bus ride to and from the excursion, but if we were to do it again, we would pay a bit more and travel a bit further inland to catch one of the other excursions, maybe the Hummingbird Gardens, Butterfly and Frog Park or A Walk in the Clouds or Costa Rica From the Sky.

Photo Gallery: Tarcoles River, Costa Rica

Here are some additional pictures from our visit to Costa Rica.

One of the plants in the entrance garden.

Some more plants in the garden at the Crocodile Safari place.

The Snowy Egret – # 15 in our bird guide

Can you spot the croc?

There he is!

Another Bare Throated Heron

This is either a Willet – #24 in the bird guide – or it is a bird not shown in the guide. It has the right shape for a Willet but the wrong coloration.

A pair of Snowy Egrets

This is a Plumed Basilisk, also known as the Jesus Christ Lizard because of its ability to run over water.

The common iguana

The mouth of the Tarcoles River on the Gulf of Nicoya.

Jungle near the mouth of the river

A tree with a number of Anhingas and Cormorants

A pair of squawking Anhingas – #5 in the bird guide. The other bird is possibly a Neotropic Cormorant – #6 in the bird guide.

Some interesting gnarled trees at the edge of the jungle.

And we end out photo tour with this croc casting his beady eyes in your direction.

Monkey Watch

Monkey Watch was one of the excursion options on our recent Panama Canal cruise. The tour left from the pier at Panama City, after we had transited the canal itself. Panama has a large harbor but it is not set up to accommodate cruise ships so we took one of the tenders to get to shore. 

One of the ship’s tenders ferrying people to the pier.

From there we took a bus that went up past the Milaflores and Pedro Miguel locks to the junction of the Chagres River with the Panama Canal. The Chagres used to flow all the way to the Atlantic Ocean, but when the canal was built, the mouth of the river was dammed to form the Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. The section of the Panama Canal from the lake to Gamboa is still considered part of the Chagres River. The boat launch was just the other side of the bridge that crosses the Chagres. 

The boat launch area for the Monkey watch tour.

There were enough people to fill several of the canopied boats. Our route took us under the bridge and onto the part of the river that is part of the canal route.

The Chagres River junction. The Chagres forks off to the right. Ahead is the part of the river that is also part of the canal.


One of the Monkey watch tour boats speeding along the river. The river has been widened here for ship traffic, and shored up with boulders.

We went downstream for a way to where the river widens into a group of islands actually known as the Monkey Islands. 

We were told by our guide that we would possibly see three different varieties of monkey and that proved to be the case. We followed another one of the tour boats towards the shore of one of the islands, pulled in close and encountered some Geoffroy’s Tamarins, also known as the Panamanian Tamarin. It is a very distinctive species with its bulldog-like face, white chest and brownish-red nape.

The distinctive Panamanian Tamarin monkey.

These particular monkeys ventured close to take some treats, even venturing onto the tour boats. Below is a video of some Tamarin monkeys on the boat.

We encountered Tamarins again later in our excursion but after this group, we headed on and came upon a very lively group of Capuchin monkeys. The Capuchins are even friendlier than the Tamarins. There were also a lot more of them.

A Capuchin monkey comes down from the trees.
And approaches our boat.
Have you got a treat for me?

I also shot a video of these delightful creatures. It’s a bit shaky as I try to follow their movements but it captures their liveliness well. 

The whole area around the Monkey Islands is verdant jungle. This is tropical rain forest and the rains, in fact, are one of the things that made the Panama Canal work. To move the ships up and down the locks uses up a considerable amount of water. Without constant replenishment, of the water, the canal could not operate. 

The lushness of the jungle is evident all around.


These lovely water plants are some of the flora of the area.

The third group of monkeys we saw are the howlers. The Howler monkey is so named because of its loud guttural howls which can be heard three miles away. They are said to be the loudest land animal. The howls are thought to relate to territoriality and mate-guarding.  The Howlers are a more reclusive species than the Capuchins or Tamarins. They did not venture down to the boats. They were often hard to spot, but we did see some that were clearly visible.

Two Howler monkeys in a tree. Howlers are quadrupedal, using all four limbs and sometimes their tail to navigate the trees.


A Howler monkey navigates the edge of a palm frond.

We enjoyed our jungle excursion. Along the way we got to see some of the activity of vessels navigating the Panama Canal as well as the wildlife. Below are some links of interest including an additional photo gallery of our visit.

Photo Gallery: Monkey Watch

Here are some additional photos from our Monkey Watch tour.

One of the tour boats in our group.

The bridge over the Chagres River at its junction with the Panama Canal.

A Geoffroy’s Tamarin monkey

A Tamarin monkey clings to a tree.

Although herbivores  and insectivores, these monkeys have very sharp teeth.

We also saw some birds on our excursion, including this magnificent eagle.

A Capuchin gets ready to board one of the boats.

The Capuchins were very friendly.

A wonderful wilderness.

A juvenile Howler monkey peeks out between the leaves.

All in all, our Monkey Watch adventure was a very enjoyable experience.

Transiting the Panama Canal

The Panama Canal was listed as one of the Seven Wonders of the Industrial World in a BBC miniseries produced in 2003. A marvel of engineering, the story behind it is truly incredible. Almost everyone has heard of it, but few know much about it.

We had the privilege of taking a cruise from Fort Lauderdale to Los Angeles in November which crossed from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the canal. The actual crossing takes eight hours.

The Atlantic side begins at the bottom of the scoop of Limon Bay where an inlet leads to the Gatun Locks. Everyone was crowded onto the decks to watch as we entered the locks.

Entering the Gatun Locks of the Panama Canal

The map below shows the Panama Canal. To call it a canal is a bit of a misnomer as it is actually a series of waterways that includes a bay, a set of locks, a man-made lake, a river, an actual canal, and another two sets of locks towards the Pacific side. Click on the plus or minis signs to zoom in or out on the map below.

Looking back after entering the first of the Gatun Locks, we can see the Atlantic Bridge in the distance.

The first European to cross the Isthmus of Panama was Vasco Nunez de Balboa who, accompanied by 1000 natives and 190 Spaniards, made the 40 mile crossing and sighted the Pacific Ocean in September 1513. He claimed the Great South Sea and all shores washed by it for King Ferdinand of Spain.

Vasco Nunez de Balboa

An overland route was established and the Spanish conquistadors who conquered vast territories of South America would ship gold from Peru to the town of Panama on the Pacific where it would be transported to the Atlantic by mule train.

From the mid-1500s to the mid-1700s, this route transported Spanish gold as well as silver from Mexico to be on-shipped twice a year to Spain.

The British eventually ousted the Spaniards from much of the Caribbean to claim dominance in the area. With the discovery of gold in California in the mid-1800s, the Americans now had an interest in the Panama crossing.

Ferdinand de Lesseps, engineer and entrepreneur, made the first attempt to build the Panama Canal.

By 1875, the French engineer Ferdinand de Lesseps, who had built the Suez Canal a few years before, expressed an interest in building a canal across the Isthmus of Panama. The Suez Canal was 120 miles long. The Isthmuzs of Panama was only 40 miles across. What could go wrong?

In fact, de Lesseps success at Suez was part of his undoing. The Suez was a sea-level canal dug through sandy dessert. The Isthmus of Panama was a treacherous route that crossed vast jungles infested with yellow fever and malaria bearing mosquitoes.

De Lesseps was adamantly against building locks, believing a sea-level canal would do just dandy. French civil engineering was the best in the world at the time and the first crew of French engineers arrived in 1881.

French excavation efforts on the Culebra Cut in 1896.

Over twenty years of effort by the French ended in failure. Over 20,000 men died of yellow fever and malaria in the effort. 800,000 investors were wiped out. The de Lesseps were prosecuted in a huge bribery scandal. Even the late involvement of Gustave Eiffel could not save it. A new company took over in 1894, the same year Ferdinand de Lesseps died,  and kept what was built in saleable condition. Eventually the American government took over in 1904 and finished the canal in 1914.

The Americans took a different approach to the French. They maintained and expanded the work done on the Culebra Cut which runs for nine miles from the Chagres River (Gamboa on the map) to where today’s Pedro Miguel Locks (not far east of the Milaflores Locks) are located. But they dammed up the river in 1906 at the Atlantic Ocean, creating the largest dam and the largest man-made lake in the world at the time. Most of the distance traveled through the Panama Canal goes over the Gatun Lake and a section of the Chagres River.

Approaching the last lock of the Gatun Locks, you can see Gatun Lake, the largest man-made lake in the world when it was created.

The original locks have two channels, one going in each direction. A parallel set has recently been built to accommodate larger ships. They were opened in 2016. We took the old set of locks, the original Panama canal.

The operation of the locks is impressive. The Gatun Locks raises ships 85 feet above sea level in three stages to reach Gatun Lake. Below is a video of the gates closing behind us at the first lock.

After the gates are closed, water is allowed into the lock to raise the ship to the next level. The water flow is quite swift and you can actually see it going up. The video below captures the water flowing. Watch the water level against the lock gate to see how quickly it rises.

Ships do not go through the Panama Canal’s locks on their own power. They are towed through the locks by train locomotives known as mules. Two mules on each side, fore and aft, tow the vessel.

One of the mules towing our ship.

As vessel traffic is in both directions, we entered the middle lock at the same time that a ship going in that opposite direction entered. The video below shows our ship and the cargo vessel Chasselas passing each other as we enter the middle locks.

About a thousand ships passed through the canal the first year it opened. In 2008, 14,702 ships passed through. It brings in revenue of $2 billion a year on costs of just $600 million. The Americans retained control of the canal until it was handed over to Panama in 1999. The treaty stipulates that the U.S. retains “the permanent right to defend the canal from any threat that might interfere with its continued neutral service to ships of all nations.” Panama has complete control over operations and has, in fact, expanded and improved the canal’s operations since taking control.

We were on a lower deck while passing the Charrelas and notices the shadows of people on the upper deck against the top of the freighter. An interesting sight.

The shadows of passengers on our cruise ship graced the side of the freighter Charrelas as we passed.

Finally we were in the third of the Gatun Locks and ready to enter Gatun Lake for the sailing to the Pedro Miguel Lock some forty miles away.

The last lock gates open and we are ready to sail through Gatun Lake.

Now I don’t know if this ritual is carried on by all cruise ships passing the canal, but our ship had an elaborate ritual, the Transitting the Panama Canal Official Ceremony, at noon on that day. The local native Chief Seneco and his wife, accompanied by two “mermaids” took seats of honor at the Centrum as the ship’s executive staff paid homage to the Chief and asked permission to travel across their territory.

The Chief and his wife flanked by two lovely mermaids.

Our Cruise Director, Steve Davis, conducted the ceremony which included executive staff members doing penance for alleged transgressions, like knocking on stateroom doors in the middle of the night as a prank, using too much hair gel, spiking drinks in the day spa, or turning up the sensitivity of the metal detectors so everyone would beep on returning from a shore excursion.

Punishments for these transgressions got moire severe as the rank of the executives staff members got higher. First they had raw eggs mashed on their heads, then they were pied, then spaghetti poured on with tomato sauce, and when the Hotel Director and another fellow were brought forward, they had to kiss a fish.

Two executive staff members had to kiss a fish after being egged, pied, and spaghettied during the Transit Ceremony.

Cruise Director Davis revelled in this melee as he announced them and “punishments” were inflicted. But as the ceremony reached an end, Chief Seneco commented that there was one transgressor who had not been brought forward. Yes! Cruise Director Davis himself. Below is a video of Davis getting his come-uppance.

We continued on through the Gatun Lake until we got to the mouth of the Chagres River. The Chagres River used to flow all the way to the Atlantic but now most of it has become the Gatun Lake. What remains is navigable and dotted with little islands. Our excursion the next day took us by bus to where the Chagres meets the Culebra Cut and from there we took a motor boat along the Chagres to the islands near Gatun Lake. The islands are populated by monkeys.

One of the tour boats on the Money Watch tour. Note the Chagres River has been widened at points and shored up with riprap.

We saw a number of freighters along the way including a liquid natural gas carrier.

The Diamond Gas Orchid is an LNG carrier we saw on the Chagres River portion of the Panama Canal. You can see some of the lush jungle vegetation in the background.

Some of the islands dotting the confluence of the Chagres and Gatun Lake. We took an excursion here to see monkeys in the wild.

The Culebra Cut is an actual canal, started by the French and completed by the Americans. It runs nine miles from its junction with the Chagres River to the Pedro Miguel Locks.

The Culebra Cut, a man-made canal, forms nine miles of the Panama Canal.

All in all, the transit of the Panama Canal was an entertaining and informative event. I bought a book about the canal on board and the history behind it is a fascinating story of daring and courage, hardship and failure, political intrigue, and ultimate triumph. Truly one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World.

Additional Links of Interest

Photo Gallery: Panama Canal

Here are some additional photographs of the Panama Canal.

In the first of the Gatun Locks looking back.

A freighter starts to enter the lock ahead of us. Note that the mules that tow the ships go up and down fairly steep inclines as they go from lock to lock.

Here you can see the two forward mules on the freighter’s starboard side.

The command center.

Entering the last lock.

The gates open to let us on to Gatun Lake.

Cruise Director Steve Davis after getting his “punishment” for disrespecting the Chief.

The Chagres River forms a part of the Panama Canal. It forks to the right here under a bridge. This is where we caught a motor launch to watch monkeys the next day.

Passing through the Culebra Cut, a nine mile long canal from the Chagres River to the Pedro Miguel Locks.

And as a teaser for my next post, here is one of the monkeys we saw on our excursion.

That completes our Panama Canal transit. A truly amazing experience.

Cartagena, Colombia

When we booked our excursion online for Cartagena, we knew nothing about the city. Since we booked a tour of a 16th century Spanish fort, we thought it might be a sleepy little city like Cadiz or Malaga in Spain. Malaga is actually a good size with around 570,000 people but it doesn’t seem large. It has two castles within walking distance of the cruise port along with lush gardens and cobblestone streets.

We were quite surprised to learn that Cartagena actually has a population of a million. It is a modern, bustling city and a major seaport. One thing tourists might be happy to know is that there is free wifi provided by the city. I don’t know if this is citywide or just in the old parts of the city which are tourist destinations.

Cartagena is a modern bustling city and a major seaport.

Though a modern city, Cartagena is steeped in history. And our tour took us through a lot of Spanish American history.

Castillo San Felipe de Barajas

Our first stop was the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, an old Spanish fortress dating from 1536. The original fort was expanded in 1657. In 1984 it was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

The front facade is impressive. Massive stone walls surround this hilltop fortress. Access today is by a sloped roadway leading up to the castle proper. The picture heading up this blog post is a composite of three pictures as it was too large to get it into one picture from directly in front of it.

The Castillo San Felipe is a World Heritage Site. The castle dates from 1536.

Cartagena has a mix of wealth and poverty, and street hawkers are common. They had their souvenir stands all along the walkway. One fellow, and we don’t know if he was a busker or hired by the castle, was in costume playing trumpet. He’d ask what country you were from, and would play something relevant. He played a few bars of Oh Canada for us.

We strolled up the sloping roadway to the first level and from there we took a long tunnel up to the top level.

This is one of many tunnels all around the old part of Cartagena. This one led to the top level of the fortress.

From the top you command an excellent view of the city.

The castle is massive and its size can be readily seen from its summit.

This photo was blended from two others to create this panoramic view.

There were a number of guard towers along the top as well as cannon emplacements.

One corner at the upper level of the fortress, with guard tower and cannon at the ready.

The one downside to cruise ship shore excursions is that they give you a flavour of a place but are too short to really enjoy something in depth. Though we spent maybe 45 minutes to an hour at the fortress, you could easily spend several hours exploring.

The Shops and the City Wall

The Castillo San Felipe is just one of ancient Cartagena’s fortifications. It served primarily to protect against an inland attack. Facing the sea is a battlement that extends around the old city. It is, in fact, a walled city.

Jam-packed boulevard outside the city wall. Traffic is pretty crazy in Cartagena. Luckily we were going the other way.

We were soon herded back on the bus and made our way to the a tourist shopping mall of sorts. Our drive tool us along a boulevard outside the wall. The shops lie just below one flank of the wall.

This long building hosts over a dozen shops, all geared towards tourists.

Our guide told us while we were on the bus that there are a lot of buskers and street folks trying to make a buck in Cartagena. He told us not to take photos of women with baskets on their heads or people posing as living statues. They will want a dollar from you for taking their picture. And others will move in trying to get you to take their picture as well.

The Carmen Mirandas were prevalent at this mall, and I found them so enchanting, I gave one a buck to have her picture taken with Janis. 

Everywhere in Central America and in Cartagena we saw women with baskets on their heads. Here’s Janis with a colorful local woman.

We saw women carrying baskets on their heads throughout the rest of our visit to Central America, most notably in Guatemala. Amazingly, they don’t hold onto the baskets or bowls. They just walk around with them perfectly balanced. It must give them a start if ever they have to sneeze! 

Behind the shops was a battlement above the wall that encircles the old city. It has been incorporated into a vast park and boardwalk. 

Old Cartagena is a walled city. On the left at the top is a sloped tunnel going down below.
The broad boardwalk above the wall. There are guard towers at junctures along the wall.

From the market we took a short bus trip to a section of the old town, historic and well preserved buildings from the past. They were a colorful sight. Many had beautiful balconies, often festooned with flower baskets.

Beautiful old style Spanish colonial homes in the old section of Cartagena.


Colorful baskets line some of the balconies in old Cartagena.

Now our guide had warned us not to take pictures of people without permission. Take a close look at the next picture. You’ll see the people of the tour bus walking past some of the old houses. And you’ll note a statue of a fisherman in front of one of them. Not!

Some of the old buildings in Cartagena. Notice the black statue of a fisherman in front of the house on the right.

It was one of those human statues, a busker pretending to be a statue. He was very, very convincing. I actually thought it was a statue. After the crowd had thinned, I lined him up in my camera and was just about to take a picture when he moved forward and asked for a dollar. Well he moved too soon. I hadn’t taken the picture yet and told him so. I wasn’t paying for a photo I hadn’t taken. He chased me down the street for a block demanding money and finally gave up. Below is a blown up section of the above photo. I’ve lightened the shadows so you can see it is actually a person.

A pretty convincing human statue.

If I had already taken the photo, I would have felt obligated to pay him and would have.  But these folks could really take a lesson from the human statues we saw in Malaga, Spain in 2009. There the statues have a hat for donations in front of them and if you toss in a coin, they start to move. Everyone wants to see them move. They haul in a lot of money. 

From there we went to the Museum of the Inquisition. The Spanish Inquisition’s tentacles reached out even to the Americas. Cartagena was the third center for this evil and nefarious monstrosity this side of the Atlantic after Lima and Mexico City.

The Museum of the Inquisition is through these gates. which lead to an inner courtyard and then to the museum.

Our tour of the museum was very abbreviated, taking in a preview section consisting mostly of signs relating the history of the inquisition in the Americas. The museum consists of three houses built around 1770 to serve as headquarters for the Court of the Holy Offices. The inquisition had been operating in Cartagena since 1610. 

The museum is on the other side of a courtyard. A large sign gives the history of the buildings and the inquisition.

A sign at the entrance has the curious wording:  Inquisicion Derechos Humanos y Convivencia – Inquisition, Human Rights & Conviviality. There is nothing convivial about the inquisition, but a large sign relating the history of the buildings and the inquisition explains the incongruity: “This house, being a space dedicated in the past to the intolerance, today is turned into a scenario of healthy conviviality around the Memory of the City and its people.” 

Inside were displays, mostly signs, explaining the history and practices of the inquisition.  There were also a few replicas of torture devices used to extract confessions from the accused. One sign notes that no accused was ever acquitted by the court.

Replicas of some torture devices were on display. Elsewhere in the museum were a rack and other larger devices which we did not see.

What could have a person arrested by the court? In a word, heresy. The sign below explains.

If you were anything other than a good Catholic, you could be hauled before the ecclesiastical court. Those indicted included indigenous people and Jews.

The Inquisition in Cartagena operated for over two hundred years, from 1610 to 1821. During that time nearly 900 people were prosecuted. Five were burned at the stake. There were 56 autos de fe, a ceremonial procession at which the accused were to confess their crimes. These could be compared to the Stalinist show trials in the Soviet Union. 

Outside, another courtyard showing more instruments for the destruction of human beings – a gallows, and, curiously, a guillotine, though the guillotine was never used in Cartagena. It was used by the French at Devil’s Island off the coast of French Guiana.

A gallows on display in another courtyard.

After our short visit, we proceeded through Simon Bolivar Park with its large statue of the liberator of South America. Known as El Libertador, he liberated  Venezuela, Bolivia, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru, and Panama from the Spanish Empire.

A statue of Colombia’s national hero, Simon Bolivar, know as El Libertador.

And from Simon Bolivar Park we walked to the Iglesia de San Pedro Claver.  Pedro Claver was a Spanish Jesuit priest and missionary who, ironically, arrived in Cartagena the same year that the inquisition started – 1610. But he was not one of the zealots. According to Wikipedia, “he was deeply disturbed by the harsh treatment and living conditions of the black slaves who were brought from Africa.” He ministered to slaves all his life. 

Iglesias de San Pedro Claver – the Church of St. Peter Claver. He is known as the patron saint of slaves and seafarers.


The beautiful altar of the Church of San Pedro Claver.

The church was built during his lifetime and was completed the year he died. Originally named the church of San Juan de Dios, it was renamed in San Pedro Claver’s honor after he achieved sainthood. He is regarded as the patron saint of slaves and seafarers. 

The dome above replaced the original dome in 1921.

Our guide asked us if we had ever seen the bones of a saint. No one had, but after the tour, we all had. San Pedro’s bones are housed in a glass case under the altar.

The bones of San Pedro Claver are housed in a glass case under the altar.

From the church we went out to the square and the surrounding neighborhood. Buildings in Spanish colonial style have a certain charm with their bright colors and window boxes.

Town square across from the Iglesia de San Pedro Calaver.

It happened to be Janis’s birthday that day so we visited a gem shop endorsed by the cruise line. Colombia is known for its emeralds and I got her a beautiful ring with three emeralds. Down the street a bit we arrived back at the Simon Bolivar Park. 

Besides emeralds, Colombia is best known for its coffee. You may remember the coffee commercials promoting Colombian coffee.

Now I don’t know if Juan Valdez was a real person or if he was an ad company’s creation, but he became the iconic symbol of Colombian coffee. We did not see a Starbucks in Colombia but were delighted to discover there was a Juan Valdez Cafe across from Simon Bolivar Park. Naturally we had to have a coffee there.

We just had to have a genuine Juan Valdez coffee!

The area was a bustling one, lots of traffic and street vendors. I have an eye for the quirky when we travel. I am always intrigued by the offbeat and weird. Note the street hawker in the photo below. There is enlarged closeup after that.

The street hawker on the right had an unusual sign and an unusual product. Below is an isolated, video-enhanced part of the photo.


Yep! She was selling an aphrodisiac made from Big Ass Ants! No! I did not buy some!

She was not the only street vendor selling Big Ass Ants aphrodisiac. I saw at least three in the area. 

In any event, our tour was now at an end and we hopped back on the bus and back to the port. But there was one more place to visit. There is a small but excellent zoo at the port.

The Port Oasis is a small but excellent small zoo at the cruise ship port. The “T” seems to have fallen off the sign.

The zoo featured lots of tropical birds as well as some animals, all indigenous to Colombia.  I have put together a separate photo gallery of the zoo.

All in all, Cartagena was one of the more interesting ports we visited. It is well worth a visit. Maybe circumstances will allow a longer more extended visit in the future.

Links of Interest