Things to Do in Cartagena, Colombia

The old city of Cartagena, Colombia, is a charming, colorful place filled with beautiful Spanish colonial architecture. A fun tourist heaven, it has enough to keep you busy for several days.

In the Walled City Itself

Walk Around, Get Lost

The old city is not big and is very walkable. Just walking around, absorbing the architecture, colors and vibrant life is a pleasure. Don’t be afraid to get lost–all streets lead to squares, and with a simple map you will be able to find your way back easily. Make sure to walk at different times of the day, as the city feels different as the day progresses (hint: due to the heat, it really comes to life at sunset!).

Make sure to walk on the wall, too! Sunrise or sunset are the most spectacular times.

Eat!

Cartagena has food everywhere. Try some street food.

Visit a restaurant. Sit outside at a table on a square in the evening, and pay one of the musicians to play you a song.

And yes, as all the guidebooks recommend, do go sit on the wall at Cafe del Mar at least once.

Museums

There is a surprising number of museums for such a small place. I suggest starting with the Naval History Museum (Museo Naval Del Caribe), as it has a good coverage of the city’s long history from pre-Colombian times on. The museum is mostly in Spanish. If you can’t read Spanish, I highly recommend hiring the English tour guide who usually sits at the ticket office booth. This will make your visit significantly more enjoyable and helpful. After your visit you will find that you understand much more of what you see in the city itself. 

You don’t need to bother with the nearby Museum of Modern Art, unless you really have a lot of time on your hands. Even as an avid art lover, I found this museum underwhelming.

The small Gold Museum is also a must. While I was there, the museum was under renovation, and the small exhibit was temporarily housed in a nearby bank. Even then, I really enjoyed seeing the display of beautiful pre-Colombian artifacts.

The Inquisition Museum is no longer dedicated to the Inquisition, and is rather a municipal museum instead. It has a room or two with Inquisition artifacts on the bottom floor. Go if you have spare time, but keep expectations low.

Whether or not you visit the museum, do walk around the corner of the building to find this little window:

This is where the residents of Cartagena left anonymous notes, telling on their enemies and neighbors to the Inquisition…

You will see signs to the Emerald Museum, and your book might recommend it, too. It’s actually a small, somewhat-amateurish display attached to a shop. It explains where emeralds come from and a bit of history, but is not a must-visit destination.

Shop

Cartagena offers a wide array of things to buy. Peddlers carry displays of items, like these hats or jewelry:

Artisans sell their wares at street markets scattered about the city:

There is a nice cluster of artisan shops at the former military storehouse at Las Bovedas:

There are also many high-end galleries and shops, selling beautiful handcrated items from throughout Colombia:

Outside the Walled City

Getsemani

This is a neighborhood right outside the wall on the city’s southeast. In colonial times, it used to be a lower-class neighborhood. Its architecture, therefore, isn’t as grand as that found in the walled city. Until fairly recently it was run down and full of crime and prostitution, but in recent years it has undergone gentrification. Now it’s mostly the backpacker tourist area. Go here to to see colorful street art or to hang out at bars.

During the summer, there’s a month-long artisan market right at the entrance to the neighborhood, opposite the city gate. It is well worth visiting!

Castilo de San Felipe

The Castilo was the largest Spanish fort in the New World, and should be high on your to-see list. It can get very hot when you stand on top, so make sure to bring lots of water.

You can always take cover from the heat in the many tunnels that burrow through the fortification–a great attraction for kids!

Convento de la Popa

You will need to take a cab to this monastery, located on hill overlooking the city. you can explore the monastery itself, and enjoy a panoramic view of the city:

To Keep in mind

Cartagena is a great place to visit, but the ghost of darker days hangs about it. The city began as a small village surrounded by spikes topped with enemy skulls. Under the Spaniards, its used to be the largest slave port in the Americas. It’s beautiful biggest square was a bustling slave market. In the days of the Inquisition, many of its residents were tortured and killed in grizzly ways.

Nowadays there is a slightly different undercurrent. Once you get used to the picturesque beauty, you will start noticing the many beggars, many of them destitute Venezuelan families trying to eek a living. And while we were not bothered as a family with kids, when my husband went alone to pick something from our hotel, at 10:00 am, he was propositioned by people offering to get him “anything he wanted.” There were even signs on walls warning against the prostitution of boys and girls (suggesting that anything else was OK).

So, by all means, enjoy what the city has to offer, but also make sure to use common sense and keep safe.

Calendar Quilt Series: My Autumn Mini Quilts

Earlier this week I finished the September mini quilt. This quilt sealed not only the sub-group of my autumn mini quilts, which I started last year, but also the entire twelve-months Calendar Quilt Series. Finishing this quilt was a bitter-sweet moment. I was happy to complete this year-long project, and was also proud of myself for sticking with it despite life’s hurdles. But, on the other hand, I was also sad to see it over–as you might know, this past year was personally challenging. At times, the Calendar Quilts were the only creative thing I was able to do, and they were a much-needed outlet. Now that they are complete, I feel a little lost…

My Autumn Mini Quilts: Influenced by the Colors and Flavors of Fall

“Change,” My September Quilt

There is a large maple tree right outside my sewing room window. It keeps me company while I work, alone and in silence. The changes it foregoes throughout the year remind me of what season it is, and helps shape my moods and my work. A few years ago it prompted me to make one of my earliest art quilts, “Falling Leaves.” It keeps inspiring on an ongoing basis.

The tree was bright and green throughout spring and summer. Now, with the nights turning cold, it is starting to change. Patches of red and yellow are creeping into the green, hinting at the change in the air, and of future changes to come.

I fashioned my September quilt after this tree, and called it “Change.” Life in general changes in September, together with the temperature: the summer ends, school begins, routines change course…

“Fall,” My October Quilt

Fall is probably my favorite season. I love the cooler days, the cozy cocooning, the warm colors all around. I love turning trees, pumpkin patches and squash soups. Autumn is also the only season when I can shut myself in my sewing room mostly uninterrupted.

No wonder I started this series with October, and called that quilt “Fall.”

“Spices,” My November Quilt

Many years ago I came to the US as a graduate student. Over my first Thanksgiving here, when most of my colleagues went home, I stayed in a mostly-empty dorm on campus. My graduate adviser, one of the kindest professors I have ever met, invited me and a few of the other foreign grad student to celebrate Thanksgiving at his house. I didn’t know much about Thanksgiving then, but it immediately became associated in my mind with a warm home, nice company and FOOD. Since then, Thanksgiving has become one of my favorite holidays. It’s a time to pause, be grateful for everything we usually take for granted, enjoy the company of family and friends, and yes, feast on on lots of comforting food!

My family loves Thanksgiving and the traditions we built around it. We love the special group of friends that comes year after year, the festive table set up, sitting together around the fireplace. The kids also love the food. And every year, come Thanksgiving, I’m thinking of my professor and remembering his long-ago kindness.

My November quilt is therefore composed of the colors and flavors of Thanksgiving foods. I called it “Spices.” I hope it also conveys the warmth of a cozy house on a cold day, of good friends spending time together, and of grateful people gathering around a fireplace.

Sadly, I completed this quilt a few short weeks before my graduate adviser passed away, a few short months before my own father did the same…

Twelve quilts, one short year, yet a completely different world, my life transformed. I think “Change” is an appropriate name for the last quilt in this series, for more reasons than one.

Calendar Quilt Series: My Summer Mini Quilts

Last October I embarked on a self-imposed challenge: to make one small art quilt for each month of the year. A while back I wrote about my spring quilts and what inspired them. Last week I completed the last of my summer mini quilts, and can now show you the inspiration behind those as well.

My Summer Mini Quilts: Influenced by Summer Activities and Nature

“Flavors,” My June Quilt

June proved to be a real inspirational challenge. As hard as I wracked my brain, I just couldn’t come up with any special characteristic for that time of the year. Then, one afternoon on the first week of the summer vacation, my kids asked to go downtown to get some ice cream.

Inside the ice cream store, which we frequent often, my eye kept going to the unusual dark purple/maroon patch of the blackberry/wine ice cream (top right below):

You don’t often think dark, deep colors when you think ice cream, and this just happens to be one of my favorite colors. I also loved how the vivid colors of the different ice creams clashed with the cold sheen of the metal frames surrounding them…

Each of my kids picked their favorite flavors, and I ended up choosing the wine ice cream, just because I liked its color.

Although my ice cream didn’t taste quite as good as it looked, it did give me my quilt inspiration! I called it “Flavors.”

“Breeze,” My July Mini Quilt

July was a hot month, and our schedule was respectively full of water activities. The inspiration for July was therefore pretty obvious:

This month’s quilt if full of the blues and turquoises of water and sky, as well as the yellows of sand and sun. I called it “Breeze.”

“Parched,” My August Mini Quilt

Whereas California springs begin with a whirl of fresh greens and the vivid colors of flowers, its summer end with a dry, golden landscape. Every year by August the weeds in my garden dry up and wither. The hills all around likewise turn into rolling waves of gold:

The landscape itself presented the design for my August quilt, which is all about the dried-up lushness of spring. I think “Parched” describes it exactly, don’t you think?

So, which of my summer mini quilts do you like best?

The Door Knockers of Cartagena, Colombia

Cartagena, Colombia has a long and complex history. It has seen many ups and downs throughout the centuries, but today the old part of the city is a pleasant tourist heaven filled with old colonial charm.

I had the pleasure of spending a few days in Cartagena this summer, and very much enjoyed exploring its colorful streets. Much of the Spanish colonial architecture has been beautifully restored and preserved, turning every stroll into a walk back in time.

You might remember my fascination with old doors and windows. Well, Cartagena has plenty of beautiful doors and windows that could probably tell amazing stories if only they could talk…

In Japan, I immediately noticed the unusually elaborate man-hole covers. In Cartagena, people seem to be expressing their creativity through the display of ornamental door knockers. Once we realized that, finding fun knockers became a family pursuit. My kids enjoyed running ahead to find interesting ones (kind of like what they did with street art in London).

Door Knocker Designs

I found that most door-knocker designs in the city fall into a handful of groups. There are door knockers shaped as objects, such as vases (?) or leaves:

Some doors display fish of various kinds:

Other showcase other kinds of sea creatures, like turtles or mermaids:

Lion heads are a commonly-seen design:

As are lizards (mostly iguanas):

The rarest shape of door knockers, but possibly my personal favorite, are those interpreting the human form. I especially like the one designed in pre-Colombian style on the right:

The History of Cartagena’s Door Knockers

Today, Cartagena’s door knockers are merely decorative, but this was not always the case. The knockers were a Spanish influence. The Spaniards built the city in 1533. At that time, “A tal casa tal aldaba,” or “To each house its door knocker,” was a popular saying in Spain, where people displayed their profession or social status through the design of their door knockers. This became true for Cartagene residents as well. 

Merchants decorated their doors with sea creatures or mermaids. People in the army or militia put up lion heads. Members of the clergy had door knockers in the shape of hands (I personally didn’t find any of those, and it seems there are only three such knockers in the entire city). Lastly, only royals decorated their doors with lizards.

The size of the knockers mattered, too. The bigger the knocker the higher the family’s status.

Fun Upcycled Tire Art in Costa Rica

When my family and I drove around Costa Rica, we noticed a lot of upcycled tire art in various parts of the country. Tire toucans hung at restaurants. Tire hens decorated hotels. Several gift shops offered colorful tire birds for sale. And then, on our very last day of traveling, we happened to come upon the mother-of-all-upcyced-tire-art stores.

We were driving on Highway 702 from the La Fortuna area towards the airport. About an hour in, we started seeing big signs along the side of the road promising “Recicled Art” in big letters. My heart rate went up.

As you might know if you’ve been following my blog, I am deeply passionate about local arts as well as about upcycling. The promise of both combined got me pretty excited… And so, once we reached the little store, I made my family stop. 

It proved to be a heaven for upcycled-art/reduce-waste-obsessed enthusiasts like myself. I felt like a kid in a candy store!

The store’s owner, artist Erian Herrera, uses his vivid imagination to create colorful animals out of used tires. He had several colorful birds, of the kind you find in that part of the tropics. Clock-wise are a quetzal, toucan, hen and parrot:

There was even a peacock!

Herrera makes local frogs, some of which we’ve seen in real life in the forest:

He creates reptiles such as turtles, crocodiles and iguanas:

And also water creatures, like crabs and fish:

He even makes some local mammals, such as this monkey:

Or this mammal, which I couldn’t quit identify (but which was quite cute!):

Some of his tire animals aren’t exactly local, but they are fun nonetheless:

Herrera doesn’t only upcycle tires, however. He also has a magic touch when it comes to reusing plastic bottles and many other discarded plastic items. In fact, he told us his neighbors bring many of their discarded single-use plastics for him to give a new life to:

See if you can recognize what these fun animals use to be!

Finally, Herrera also upcycles coconuts and wood, making art of the kind you can find in other souvenir stores in Costa Rica:

I was impressed by all these amazing creations, and, as a recycling artist myself, also identified with this sign:

And so, we happily adopted some of Herrera’s animals, and helped him with his dream.

If you plan to visit Costa Rica and would like to visit this artist and see some of his upcycled tire art in person, you can find him on Facebook.

 

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Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour

During our family trip to Japan I managed to carve out one day for a solo Kyoto Textile-Lover’s Tour. I combed through our guidebooks and the internet, and came up with an itinerary that seemed promising. Then I ditched my family and went exploring. As it turned out, some of my destinations ended up being great fun, while others … less so.

The Kyoto Shibori Museum

My first stop was the Shibori Museum, which happened to be within walking distance from my hotel. This small but pleasant museum has two floors. The bottom floor has a small shop selling books about shibori as well as hand-dyed fabrics and finished artwork. It also has space dedicated to classes.

The second floor features a detailed exhibition explaining different dyeing techniques, mostly from Japan but also from other countries. There is an English brochure, and the display has English signs making the dyeing process clear.

When I visited the museum, I was the only guest there. The staff was very helpful, and I got to have a private, English-speaking tour guide who took me through the exhibition and answered all my questions. Then I had my own, private shibori lesson, resulting in a beautiful silk scarf (that the director of the museum himself helped me unravel!):

Needless to say, I greatly enjoyed my visit and highly recommend this museum! To learn more check the museum’s website.

The Nishijin Textile Center

After I finished my scarf, I headed over to the Nishijin Textile Center. Nishijin was Kyoto’s traditional weaving district. When I learned it had a Textile Center, I couldn’t be more excited! My excitement died down when I got there, however. Although informative, the Center felt like a big tourist trap. Tourists arrived by the bus-loads, and were swarming throughout the displays and shop. Coming from the amazing-yet-deserted Shibori Museum, I was very surprised to see so many people at a textile center…

The ground floor of the Center had an old-fashioned display, with fading posters explaining the Nishijin weaving process. 

The second floor was mostly a huge shop. It had beautiful fabrics for sale, as well as traditional Japanese clothes.

There was a weaving demonstration:

A wall display explaining the different kinds of fabrics:

And some other small displays:

The Center also offered an array of classes in different textile arts (such as weaving, or making your own hat or purse). Had I not just taken a class at the shibori museum, I would have surly done so here. 

The Center also featured a fashion show, showcasing different styles of kimonos:

To plan your trip to the Center (and maybe take a class there), check out their website.

Aizenkobo Workshop

From the Textile Center I walked a few blocks to the Aizenkobo workshop.This family workshop (or atelier), is located in a traditional wooden house on a small alley. It specializes in indigo dyeing, and the making of Japanese and Western-style clothing. The front room of the house is a shop selling functional (but rather old fashioned) pieces. 

When I got there, the place was very quiet and I was the only visitor. Eventually an elderly man came out to greet me. He showed me to the work area at the back of the house. In very broken English he explained that his son, the artist, wasn’t there. I understood that the family wasn’t making the indigo dye themselves, but rather bought it from other parts of Japan. Their expertise was the dyeing itself. The language barrier made it difficult for me to understand much, and my host didn’t want me to take any pictures. Sadly, the visit ended up feeling rather awkward. 

If you wish to visit the workshop but can’t speak Japanese, I suggest coming with an interpreter (or possibly the artist himself speaks some English?). You can also check their website for more information.

Orinasu-kan

A rather long walk in scorching heat then lead me to Orinasu-kan. Established in 1989, this small museum is dedicated to preserving Kyoto’s traditional dyeing and weaving culture. It is housed in a beautiful (but dark) old building that was once an obi (kimono belt) shop.

When I entered the museum, I realized that, once again, I was the only patron. A grumpy receptionist who spoke no English reluctantly greeted me. He then got really upset with me when I didn’t understand where he wanted me to put my shoe-less feet…

The ground-floor display was interesting, but with sparse English explanations. It had some beautiful Noh costumes, as well as fabric-pattern books.

The small upstairs gallery had some coarser woven fabrics:

The receptionist asked me something about a tour, and I said yes. He then showed me into a darkish side room, gave me some tea, and left me there alone for half an hour. I must admit that I was a bit nervous at that point, not sure what was going on. I regretted not bringing my family along (though I knew my kids would not have enjoyed any of it).

Eventually, the receptionist told me to go back up to the second-floor gallery. Once there, a door I haven’t even noticed opened in the far wall. A man came out and motioned for me to follow. I did, although I wasn’t at all sure if that was the right (or safe) thing to do. The man told me not to take any pictures. Then he showed me into a room-full of weaving looms. The room was very hot, humid and crowded with looms. There were only two weavers present, however, each working on a different type of fabric. Seeing how they wove the intricate designs was interesting.

If you want to visit this museum, I suggest to take someone along, to make it less awkward. I couldn’t find a website for the museum, but you can read more about it here. And do expect to be yelled at as you attempt to take your shoes off…

Nomura Tailor House

By the time I was done with the Orinasu-kan Museum I was rather exhausted, but there was still one destination on my list: the Nomura Tailor House, a large fabric store. I took a bus and then walked some more. When I got there, melting and thirsty, I found this:

I almost burst into tears. Luckily, the second branch in this chain was only a couple of blocks away, and I made it there safely.

My family joined me as I was shopping, and we all went to a cafe. There, I cooled down with a well-earned iced matcha latte.

 

Doll-maker Aya Furuta and a Missed Craft Show in Matsumoto, Japan

On the second day of our family trip to Japan, we toured Matsumoto. We spent a fun day exploring the famous castle and the nearby Matsumoto City Museum

In the afternoon we strolled down the alleys of the old part of town, looking for a restaurant. We passed by a big building with open doors.

I kept walking, but my husband, to my great horror, went in to explore. Soon, he chased me down the road and told me I must go in. It felt a bit awkward, but I did. Inside I found people packing what turned out to be the exact kind of textile craft show I was hoping to see in Japan.

It turned out that the show was a once-a-year event showcasing local textile artists. It was open for two days, and just closed shortly before we arrived. The artists were in the midst of packing the artwork, but they were kind enough to let me walk around and drool over everything that remained visible.

I saw gorgeous dyed and printed fabrics for doors, windows or for the wall, as well as some interesting woven art involving twigs:

 There were beautiful room dividers and impressive textile fish:

I caught a glimpse of some table cloths and cushions:

And possibly some scarves, that the artists were putting away…

And then I saw some of the most beautiful dolls I’ve ever seen:

The artist who made them was there, too. 

In the 1970’s, Aya Furuta traveled extensively in South East Asia. At that time, Japan experienced an economic boom that quickened the pace of life. The life in the countries Aya visited, on the other hand, remained slower and more sane. Aya felt drawn to to that slower pace. During her travels, she collected a vast assortment of antique, traditional handmade textiles. She appreciated the great care that went into weaving and embroidering them. Later, she started making dolls using these textiles. She has been a doll maker for over thirty years.

Dressing her dolls with her collected South-Asian textiles fills Aya Furuta with pleasure. She feels that the textiles connect her to the prayers and joys of the people who created them. The dolls are her way to preserve the spirit of a different kind of life, to point to a slower way of living that modern people have forgotten.

Sadly, I wasn’t able to purchase one of Aya Furuta’s dolls, but I gladly bought her inspiring doll catalog.

I was hoping (expecting?) to find other, similar textile craft shows in other places in Japan, but to my great disappointment this never happened. Despite my lingering sense of missed opportunity, I feel very fortunate to have meet Aya Futura and her dolls!

 

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Matsumoto City Museum and Traditional Japanese Crafts

Many tourists visit Matsumoto for its beautifully-preserved sixteenth-century castle. Only a few stop by the small Matsumoto City Museum right across the courtyard. Although somewhat old fashioned, this museum bears a nostalgic charm. It displays a handmade model of the castle from 1911:

And also offers a peek into the rich world of traditional Japanese crafts from the Matsumoto region.

Traditional Matsumoto Crafts

Beautifying Everyday Life

In pre-industrial societies, people made everyday objects by hand. In Matsumoto, peasants crafted various kinds of baskets out of a specific type of bamboo called Suzutake. They worked on these baskets in winter, the agricultural off season. Matsumoto baskets became famous in Japan from the Edo period onward, and in the beginning of the twentieth century were even exported to Europe and the United States.

As in many parts of the world, however, the most beautiful manifestations of Japan’s traditional arts and crafts evolved around the lives of the elites.

Samurai armor and swards were an important part of the warrior culture of ancient Japan, and many artisans therefore put a lot of effort into making them beautiful. The museum offers a few examples of such artifacts preserved from local samurai families.

Matsumoto Thread Balls appeared in the late 17th century, after cotton threads became widespread. Originally, they were the toys of girls from elite samurai families of the Matsumoto clan. Later they became a popular kind of regional folk art, with many different patterns.

In the Tenpo era (1830-1843), as part of his efforts to promote the town’s industry, the Matsumoto feudal lord encouraged samurai families to produce Oshiebina dolls. People made these dolls to represent kabuki actors and historical figures. They created them by wrapping cotton over cardboard and putting a bamboo skewer at the back for better display.

 

Ritual-related Arts

Many of the traditional crafts in the museum revolve around rituals. These Omiki-no-kuchi, for example, are bamboo sake-bottle charms: 

People placed them in Shinto alters on New year’s Eve. The art of making them is dying out, however. Only a few families in Matsumoto are still skilled in the craft. 

Another example of a ritual-related craft is straw figures such as this, which were meant to represent the Poverty God. Peasants placed them on the boundaries of villages to prevent the invasion of the Plague God. It was their way to try to ensure good harvest and peace.

Tanabata Dolls in various forms are related to the Star Festival. In most places in Japan, people celebrate this festival on the seventh day of the seventh month. In Matsumoto, however, people celebrate it on August 7th. This festival, by the way, is based on a Chinese folktale about a love story between a Weaver and an Alter. The Matsumoto City Museum has some dolls dating from the 18th century. 

People still use Tanabata dolls today, giving them as gifts on important life-cycle-related events.

Various deity figurines and dolls made for festivals, shrines and alters were also widespread. Aren’t they spectacular?

 

Interested to read more about arts in Japan? Try these posts.