2013, a year of extremes in pictures

I’m gazing out of the window, the rain is lashing down in ‘sheets’, driven by high winds that are bending trees at an alarming angle. Although only early in the afternoon, the light has already started to fail, making it seem more night than day. The traditional New Year’s Day walk has been postponed – in truth cancelled – due to a general reluctance to endure the terrible weather in person.

My mind keeps wandering over the year just past: this time last year we were celebrating the arrival of 2013 in Sucre, Bolivia, our home for a year. Although we would spend another few months in Bolivia, we were already planning a journey north that would take us through Peru, Colombia, Panama, Costa Rica and Nicaragua, before returning to Bolivia. In between, we’d visit Argentina and Chile, Bolivia’s wealthier neighbours, for a change of scene and cuisine.

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

The Fiesta de Virgen de Guadalupe, Sucre, Bolivia

So, with one eye on the coming year, here’s my homage to 2013, a year which took us from the heart of South America to the heart of Central America. A journey from the high Andean mountains of Bolivia to the turquoise waters of Nicaragua’s Caribbean coast, and back again, before returning to Britain.

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Adobe church and Vulcan Sajama, Sajama, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Siloli Desert, Bolivia

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Salinas Grandes, Argentina

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Cemetery in the Atacama Desert, Chile

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Fiesta in Cuzco, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Magical Machu Picchu, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

Oasis of Huacachina, Peru

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

A woman sits on a Botero sculpture, Medellin, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The Panama Canal, Panama

The Panama Canal, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The beautiful San Blas Islands, Panama

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The Pacific Ocean from La Cruz, Costa Rica

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The magnificent Granada, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

The idyllic Pearl Keys, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

Glorious Little Corn Island, Nicaragua

…finally, returning to reality in London…un feliz y próspero año nuevo por todo.

Tower Bridge, London, England

Tower Bridge, London, England

Palomino, idyllic Caribbean beaches fringed with tropical forest

I’d not be telling the whole truth if I didn’t admit I missed the ocean while living in Bolivia. So it was with no little expectation that we rattled along the road in a local bus for the six hour journey from Cartagena to Palomino.

Stepping off the bus by wooden shacks strung along the roadside our first sight of Palomino wasn’t exactly encouraging, but within seconds we were mounted on the back of motorbike taxis and plunging down a sandy track towards the beach. Our first sight of a real Caribbean beach…made all the sweeter by the knowledge that it was snowing in Britain.

The beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

The beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

The video was taken at a split in the beach where the ocean connected with a lagoon behind the beach. I wanted to walk across but there was a trench several feet deep. Standing in the middle of the split with waves rolling in made taking the video tricky.

When we arrived in the late afternoon the weather was turning, a strong wind was whipping up and sizeable waves were rolling into the beach. We’d arrived just in time for a mini storm. We hadn’t booked a place to stay and the first hostal we tried was full. The second place wasn’t very nice and didn’t have any mosquito nets. The third place we tried, and there are only four places on the whole beach, didn’t have any rooms but had hammocks.

So for our first night on the beach, with a storm looming, we climbed into hammocks. They were pretty comfortable, for hammocks, and had mosquito nets – not that I didn’t put my leg against the net and get a dozen mosquito bites. Being open to the air they were nice and cool in the fairly humid climate.

Home for the night, hammocks at Palomino beach, Caribbean, Colombia

Home for the night, hammocks at Palomino beach, Caribbean, Colombia

Home for the night, hammocks at Palomino beach, Caribbean, Colombia

Home for the night, hammocks at Palomino beach, Caribbean, Colombia

Not quite refreshed from a night of high winds, falling coconuts and a dog that kept butting its head against my hammock, I went for a stroll on the beach to see what was occurring. Pretty much nothing other than the waves and a few birds were stirring, the sky was overcast and the weather didn’t look very Caribbean at all.

As I returned for breakfast the skies were clearing and the sun was bursting out from behind the clouds. After a little more hammock time, I set off to explore the beach. A truly beautiful 6km strip of sand backed by palm trees, with mountains covered with tropical forest rising sharply behind and only the occasional fisherman for company.

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Palm-fringed beach at Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

A very happy three hours later I returned, with aching calf muscles and a couple of unsightly sunburnt bits where I’d failed to apply sunscreen properly, to discover that a cabana with an actual bed had become free. Not only that, it had a sea view and a rocking chair – bliss.

La Sirena Cabanas, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

La Sirena Cabanas, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

La Sirena Cabanas, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

La Sirena Cabanas, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

The cabana even had an open air shower where you could wash away the heat, sand and salt while looking out over coconut palms and the ocean.

Open air shower in our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Open air shower in our cabana, Palomino, Caribbean, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas

Sitting on the rooftop of our hotel in the Getsemani area of Cartagena you first see the old city wall to defend against pirate attack, then across an open stretch of water rises the hulking shape of the Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas. The largest and most powerful fort the Spanish ever constructed in the Americas.

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

So wealthy had Cartagena become, and so frequent the pirate attacks, that the Spanish decided to improve the city’s defences with a series of walls and forts. One of the natural entrances to the inner harbour of Cartagena (Boca Grande) was sealed off with a large chain and an underwater wall. Two large forts were constructed at the remaining harbour entrance (Boca Chica), and the enormous Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was built overlooking the city.

The fort proved to be impregnable, and despite repeated attempts was never taken by an opposing force.

View over Cartagena from Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Colombia

View over Cartagena from Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

The fort is immense, and an hour spent walking the ramparts with views over the city and ferreting around in the underground tunnels that connect various strategic points in the fort is a rewarding experience. The tunnels plunge deep into the interior of the fortress and are narrow, stiflingly hot and dark – not a place for anyone who has claustrophobia.

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Underground tunnels, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas, Cartagena, Colombia

Pre-Hispanic bling, Cartagena’s Museo del Oro y Arqueologia

Cartagena’s gold museum is an absolute must-see. Not only does it house some of the most beautiful gold, silver and copper pre-Hispanic artworks of the Sinu civilisation you’re ever likely to see, its also free to visit. The ferocious air conditioning and fascinating film at the end of the visit are just an added bonuses.

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Walking around the museum makes you realise just how advanced and organised was the civilisation that existed in this part of the continent before the Spanish arrival. There is rich detail of the political, economic and social structure of these societies, all supported by tremendous examples of their artistic excellence.

It also makes you realise the immense loss inflicted upon our understanding of these cultures when the Spanish melted down the gold and silver into ingots.

So voracious was the Spanish appetite for riches that I sometimes find myself just grateful that any of the original gold and silver artworks survived to the modern day. Yet what has survived is only a tiny fraction of the cultural heritage of the pre-Hispanic Americas destroyed – partly for religious reasons, partly for economic reasons – by the Spanish conquerers.

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

While much of the museum is dedicated to precious metal, there are also exquisite examples of pottery, necklaces and other items made with semi-precious stones, sea shells and bone. The museum is fantastic, if you ever find yourself in Cartagena go and see it first hand.

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Museo del Oro, Cartagena, Colombia

Torture in paradise, the Spanish Inquisition comes to Cartagena

The Inquisition, or as it was known within the Catholic Church, Inquiry on Heretical Perversity, had been around for several centuries by the time King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I of Spain launched the Spanish Inquisition in 1478.

Up to that point the suppression of ‘heresy’ by the Catholic Church in Europe had rarely used torture to force confessions and only the occasional heretic was put to death. The Spanish Inquisition was to change that dramatically, and with the founding of colonies in the sixteenth century, it wasn’t long before the insidious tentacles of the Inquisition reached Spain’s new overseas possessions.

Today, Cartagena has a small but fascinating museum dedicated to the Spanish Inquisition in the city. An added benefit of a visit to the Palace of the Inquisition is that it is housed in one of the finest colonial buildings in the city.

Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

La Garrucha, an instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

La Garrucha, an instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

I wouldn’t want to accuse those lovely Dominican monks who carried out the Inquisition in the Americas of getting inappropriate sexual kicks from torture, but the middle rope on the ‘Rack’ below was attached to the testicles which were stretched along with the rest of the unfortunate person.

The Rack, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Rack, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

In Spain the Inquisition was aimed at ‘cleansing’ the recently reconquered country of Islamic or Jewish influences, and was under the control of the Spanish monarchy who had numerous motives for adopting it as a measure of state control. Yet it came at a time of general moral uncertainty in Europe. There was a long-term change in the weather leading to a prolonged cold period which devastated agriculture and led to starvation and social upheaval.

The Catholic Church, along with everyone else, hadn’t got a clue about climate fluctuations and decided to blame it on witches, magicians and other heretical types. It may seem laughable today that a wave of torture and Church-sponsored killing was unleashed because climate change reinforced people’s fear that witches were at work. Yet, in the absence of science the easiest course of action was to fall back on superstition.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Neck brace, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Neck brace, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

It was against this backdrop that the somewhat inappropriately named Pope Innocent VIII launched a campaign against witchcraft in 1484. The suppression of witchcraft was to form a central pillar of the Spanish Inquisition and led to countless denunciations of the innocent. In Cartagena, there was a special window on one side of the Palace of the Inquisition for denouncing people.

There was an established routine for questioning ‘suspected’ witches, or as we know them today, women. This included a fascinating questionnaire of thirty three questions. I particularly like the examination of the entertainment at the witch’s demonic wedding: “What kind of music was played? What were the dances? Did not you dance?” Apparently, music and dancing were not good in the eyes of the Inquisition.

Interestingly, no one thought to ask the most obvious question, “Are you a witch?” No room for innocent until proven guilty in the Inquisition.

Denunciation window, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Denunciation window, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Questions asked to a 'suspected' witch, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Questions asked to a ‘suspected’ witch, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

And, of course, there was the traditional ducking stool. A device so devious that you only died if you were innocent; whereas if you lived you were guilty. Of course you were immediately put to death for being a witch so either way things didn’t turn out well.

Witch's ducking stool, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Witch’s ducking stool, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Inquisition in Spain was to have serious implications for hundreds of thousands of innocent people across the Spanish colonies during the reign of Philip II of Spain. Under Philip the Inquisition was to reach fanatical heights. He established the Tribunal of the Holy Office of the Inquisition in the Americas in 1569, to be run by the Dominican Order throughout the Spanish colonies.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Thumb screw, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Thumb screw, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

The Inquisition remained active in Spain until 1834, and was an active ‘department’ of the Holy See until the mid-nineteenth century, when it changed its name to something less associated with torture and death. Today it is known as Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith.

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

Instrument of torture, Palace of the Inquisition, Cartagena, Colombia

A walking tour of Cartagena de Indias

Cartagena, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, literally drips with history. It is redolent with every story of pirates, the Spanish Maine and buried treasure ever told. Wandering the ancient streets lined with beautiful buildings with overhanging flower-filled balconies, history seems to seep out of the walls.

There are some ‘must see’ places in Cartagena, but the best way to experience the life of the city is to discard the map and go wherever the sea breeze takes you. There isn’t a street inside the old walled city that doesn’t reveal some new delight, whether a shady plaza to sit and people watch or a tiny bar blaring out hypnotic music where a cold beer is obligatory in the heat of the day.

I’ve visited some old colonial towns that feel similar to Cartagena – Galle in Sri Lanka, or Ibo in Mozambique – but nothing compares to Cartagena for its mixture of vibrancy and history. It would be worth visiting for the food alone. Although photographs can’t evoke the people, smells, sounds or the humidity, here is a selection of my favourites.

Beer, Cartagena, Colombia

Beer, Cartagena, Colombia

Street food, Cartagena, Colombia

Street food, Cartagena, Colombia

Door knocker, Cartagena, Colombia

Door knocker, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of monk Pedro Claver who worked to help African slaves, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of monk Pedro Claver who worked to help African slaves, Cartagena, Colombia

Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Fruit seller, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street performer, Cartagena, Colombia

Street performer, Cartagena, Colombia

Balcony, Cartagena, Colombia

Balcony, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Street art, Cartagena, Colombia

Street food, Cartagena, Colombia

Street food, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Street, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Catalina, the Carib woman who acted as an interpreter for the first Spanish, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Catalina, the Carib woman who acted as an interpreter for the first Spanish, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena de Indias, “City of Encounters in the Caribbean”

We flew into Cartagena late at night after a short hop from Lima. The wall of heat and humidity that greeted us as we got off the plane at 11pm was the complete ‘I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’ moment. The air smelled different.

Our first real sight of this extraordinary colonial city on the southern fringe of the Caribbean would have to wait until the next day, but as we drove through the streets to our hotel the thumping sounds playing from cars, houses and bars were distinctly Caribbean. This is not just due to the city’s location, but its history as a cultural and ethnic melting pot. This is where Europe, indigenous Latin America and Africa meet and have mixed for 500 years.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

The sun was up early the following day, bringing with it serious heat, even at 8.30 in the morning. Walking out of our hotel in the Getsemani district we were immediately confronted by the fortress walls build by the Spanish to protect the city from pirate attack. Across a stretch of open water rose the giant fortress of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas. It was like walking into a living museum – a well fortified museum.

Cartagena, Colombia

Outside our hotel, Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena’s history is the stuff of legend. Founded in 1533 it quickly became the major port for shipping silver, gold and other valuable goods back to Europe. It grew to be the most important Spanish port in the Caribbean. Despite repeated sieges and attacks by English pirates (or privateers, as they were known), the city flourished and its legacy is as one of the best preserved colonial towns anywhere on the planet.

When the Spanish arrived the region was already heavily populated. Resistance was quickly crushed and the Spanish were able to get on with the serious business of collecting and shipping treasure back to Spain – and building a city to match the wealth that was passing through it.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

This success was both Cartagena’s making and its curse. The vast riches stored in the city attracted pirates, and the city was repeatedly attacked. In the sixteenth century there were regular sieges by pirate forces, the most famous of which was Sir Francis Drake in 1586 – the year after Spain had declared war on England.

Drake spared the city widespread destruction in exchange for a vast ransom, but this, amongst other acts, convinced Philip II of Spain to attempt his unsuccessful invasion of England – the Spanish Armada – in 1588. Regardless of these setbacks, Cartagena continued to grow in both size and importance. Much of that city remains today as beautiful buildings, leafy plazas, monumental churches and fascinating museums.

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia

One of the more destructive sieges of Cartagena came in 1741. Led by a British pirate, Edward Vernon, it is commemorated by a statue of Cartagena’s one-legged, one-armed defender, Blas de Lezo, outside of the Castillo de San Filipe de Barajas – a fortress built largely to stop such raids. Strangely, it has plaques boasting of British success on its sides, but perhaps they’re ironic given it was a resounding British defeat*.

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

Statue of Blas de Lezo, Cartagena, Colombia

* For anyone wondering how Drake was an English pirate and Vernon was a British pirate, the Act of Union between England and Scotland took place in 1707 changing everyone’s status in England, Scotland and Wales. Tedious, but important.