As an introduction to Colombia, you can hardly do better than to start in the gorgeous city of Cartagena. Founded in 1533 as an important Spanish port for shipping gold pillaged from the native populations of South America, the town was besieged by pirates many times in its first 50 years. To protect the town and all of its plundered treasure, the Spanish erected a huge stone wall around Cartagena. Since this wall successfully repelled subsequent pirate attacks in the 17th century, the old section of Cartagena is one of the best preserved colonial towns in all of Latin America. We wandered its narrow shaded streets, admiring the colorful buildings and ornate balconies. We cooled off during the sweltering days by gulping down icy jugos (juices) and snacking on freshly cut fruit available from street vendors displaying their wares on small wooden carts. In addition to the succulent and juicy watermelon, mango, and pineapple, Colombia has an amazing variety of tropical fruits, many of which I had never even heard of. I sampled them all: tart lulo, delicious maracuya, mildly sweet zapote, and strange but delicious tomate de arbol.
While the colonial architecture and wonderful food is enough to make anyone fall in love with Cartagena, we also were struck by how friendly the Colombian people are. We had waiters, police officers, a television crew, and random people on the street strike up conversations with us. They are curious where we were from and also want to tell us about the history of Cartagena. They are proud of their country but also know that many people have preconceived notions about Colombia because of the many years of violence and fear caused by drug wars and guerrilla organizations. We quickly understood that this is in Colombia’s past, and that except for a few isolated areas in the jungle the country is very safe. Colombians keenly want the world to know the country for what it is now: welcoming people, beautiful beaches, stunning mountains, and wonderful cities. One refrain we heard often as we strolled the streets, ate at restaurants, or browsed in vendor’s stalls was a la orden, or at your service. This was meant honestly and we felt like it reflected the Colombian peoples true welcome for any foreign visitors.