It was like running through butter as thick, humid air melted the beads sweat pouring from my pores. The morning sun rose higher in the brilliant-blue sky, casting broiling rays on the mustard-painted buildings, their colonial facades stained with ages of grime and sea salt.
Famed for its 16th century fortified old city, Cartagena, Colombia spent ages as the gem of the Spanish empire and drew a hungry eye from the pirates of the Caribbean who successfully and unsuccessfully plundered its riches.
During its heyday, the city served as a transit hub for slaves and gold looted from the tombs of the now extinct native Sinu people. The Spanish crown spent countless millions fortifying the city in the process constructing 6.8 miles of fortified walls.
While no longer protecting the city from nefarious marauders, the walls offer visitors amazing ocean-view panoramas and a birds eye view of the Cartigenos life.
My run started at the Mar del Norte, an 18-story beachfront building about half a mile north of the old city, where I’m staying. From this perch on high, the ocean, old city and Cartagena’s many slums spread in a 180-degree vista.
I crossed the bustling 4-lane road – still quiet and missing the honking busses that ply up and down it’s idyllic route – and jogged toward the old city. Even at 6:30 am, families were already frolicking in the lapping waves.
Along the narrow, poorly maintained sidewalk patches of cement disappeared and I hopped over 2-foot wide gaps, careful not to relive a China experience (where I tripped on a golf-ball sized rock) and end up in a Colombian emergency room.
At the edge of the old city I turned left, away from the ocean and ran along the old city walls toward one of the gateways that permit cars and pedestrians passage into the historic warren of roads. Once through, I turned right and followed the walls to a long ramp that led to wall’s top.
A man in his 40s or 50s was sitting on a cannon using the end its 8-foot barrel as a holster for his feet as he did sit ups. Nearby, a homeless person with watermelon- sized frizz of hair and whose gender I could not discern was sleeping under a wooden canopy, avoiding the brightening sun.
I continued running, avoiding the dips and cracks and potholes in the wall’s top. At this point my shirt was off and the humidity and heat started to take their toll. But I ran, continuing past Colombian tourists exploring the ramparts. At one point the wall narrowed to 3-feet wide – on my right a 15-foot drop onto a grassy field, flooded from the past few days of monsoon deluges, on my left, an 8-foot drop onto another section of the wall.
I continued running, careful not to lose my balance and forced myself to stop wondering which way I’d fall if I tripped. Eventually the path narrowed to 2 feet and I hopped down a few steps, to a less perilous section with a 6-foot wide path.
And then the wall’s path ended. Why it did not continue or was blocked I am unsure, so I cut through the old city, past historic Catholic churches with crumbling facades, past blocks of buildings painted in pastel greens and oranges and reds that bled together and whose color contrast creates the breathtakingly beautiful color palate the city is so known for. I cut through a huge square surrounded by arched buildings and a 30-foot tall holiday star wrapped in LEDs waiting for its evening time to shine. Past the mustard colored clock tower – at one time part of the wall – now disconnected from its protective past.
I continued through the old city where spindly, vine-like trees crawl up the riotous walls as magenta and orange bougainvillea flowers blossom, until I reaching another ramp that led up to the wall’s top.
The sun beat down and I was drenched. But I continued, enjoying witnessing the city’s history. Exploring a place where families have lived for generations and the walls that made life here possible.
Today, the pirates are gone, replaced by hordes of tourists who descend on the city from planes, busses and city-sized cruise ships, eager to savor its history and plunder its colonial charm.
Maybe it’s a good thing the walls went up – they kept the city safe, commerce buzzing and bad guys out. And while their original purpose might be passé, the walls today continue to serve an important role: protecting and preserving the city’s inspiring colonial character, not to mention the perfect path for a sweaty run.
Stay tuned for photos and more runs from Colombia’s Caribbean coast.