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.

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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What to Do if You Have One Day in Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Southeast Asia has been on my to-go wish list for decades. Last winter break I finally got there. My family booked a trip to Thailand. Before it started, we managed to squeeze in a day and a half in Cambodia. We went to see Angkor Wat, the famous UNESCO world heritage site.

Once there, I really wished we had more time to explore the area. Although Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, there are actually over a thousand other temples all around. Angkor, after all, was the capital of the Khmer Empire for nearly six hundred years (from the 9th to the 15th centuries), and was, at the time, a magnificent mega-city.  

What to do if, like me, you have only one day?

Arrive the day before. Since you really want to start your tour early (see below), you should plan to arrive in Siem Reap the day before. If you really have only 24 hours, plan to arrive in the late afternoon and leave the following day around the same time. If you can afford a few more hours, arrive earlier so that you have time to explore Siem Reap as well.

Visit Angkor National Museum. If possible, do this the day before you visit the temples. Angkor National Museum has nice displays portraying the history of the city, the Khmer Empire, as well as a 3-D model of Angkor Wat. You will understand the history, mythology and structure of what you see a lot better if you visit the museum first.

Book a Private Guide. You can try to plan your visit on your own, but booking a private tour guide in advance is so much simpler! There are many tour operators and English speaking guides. They will come pick you up from your hotel, help you buy tickets, take you around and explain what you see. If you hire your own guide, you won’t have to wait around for other people.

Get Up Early. Most tour guides try to be get to Angkor Wat when the site opens at 5:30 am. The official reason is to see the sunrise (though I wasn’t that impressed with it). HOWEVER, the early morning hours also tend to be the most pleasant temperature-wise. It gets very hot and humid later in the day… Getting to Angkor Wat as early as possible will give you more time to explore other temples later on.

Even if you get up at 4:30 am and feel that you traveled to the end of the world, though, don’t expect to be the only tourist there. Angkor Wat is quite crowded, even at dawn. Thousands of people from all over the world try to take pictures of the sunrise!

Once there, don’t get close to the monkeys! You might be as excited as we were to see monkeys in the wild, but they can get aggressive and even bite…

Enjoy the amazing architecture and beautiful reliefs. Although I learned art history in both high school and college, I don’t really know much about Khmer art. The architecture and reliefs in Angkor Wat are different than the art I’m used to, and are truly breath taking! You will enjoy them even more if you understand the Hindu mythology they depict (I didn’t).

Visit other temples. Angkor Wat is the most famous temple, but other temples and ruins in the area are just as beautiful. We visited two additional temples. The last place we went to was Ta Prohm, mostly known because of the film Lara Croft Tomb Rider. I really liked it, mostly because it isn’t as well-kept as Angkor Wat. The raw ruins and grown-in vegetation give it a wild, Indiana-Jones feel!

Wear a hat and stay hydrated! The days are very hot, and you will dehydrate quickly. I could barely walk in the second temple we visited.

Finally, be prepared for rain. Cambodia is in the tropics, and it can rain. Carry a rain poncho, just in case.

 

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Boro: The Japanese Art of Mending That is Hard to Find in Japan

On my recent trip to Japan, I found art where I didn’t expect it, yet didn’t find the art I expected to see everywhere.

Boro, the Japanese art of mending, and its twin art of Sashiko (decorative stitching), are very popular among textile artists in the West. Many non-Japanese artists throughout the world, myself included, now incorporate the art of patching and restorative hand-stitching into their work.

I made this journal cover, for example, using some simple Boro-style patching and stitching:

Nowadays, clothing using some elements of Boro and Sashiko are making a comeback into the world of high-end fashion. Boro-style items are selling for hundreds of dollars. Original antique Japanese pieces of patched cloth can go for thousands of dollars.

It was only natural, therefore, that, before going to Japan, I assumed I will see Boro everywhere. That did not turn out to be the case.

When we arrived in Japan, we had only one day in Tokyo before heading out to other destinations. I vaguely knew there was a museum dedicated to Boro in Tokyo, but assumed there would be many such museums in other parts of the country, too. We therefore used the few hours we had in the capital to visit other sites. I later realized, that one of them was painfully close to the museum…

Sadly, for the duration of our subsequent nearly month-long trip, I did not come across any other Boro museums, nor could I find any on the internet. Not only that, but I haven’t seen Boro anywhere. I didn’t see it in any of the numerous big and small museums we visited, including several crafts museums. Nor in gallerias, tourist shops or artisan villages. Certainly not on the streets, on any of the thousands of well-dressed Japanese we encountered.

Only in our very last stop, in the tourist-oriented part of the old capital of Nara, did I see a hint of Boro. It appeared on the outfits of two delightful Oni (=demons) that decorated (or maybe guarded?) a high-end clothing boutique:

(Despite what the sign says, I did ask–and received–explicit permission to take pictures of these dolls :-))

On the same street, by the way, I also found the only artist atelier that sold patterns and clothing using Sashiko:

So, why isn’t Boro more prominent in Japan, it’s birth place, despite being so popular in the West?

I believe the answer is that Boro was the child of poverty, and as such is still associated with destitution in Japan.

The imperial family and the upper classes never wore patched clothing. They cloaked themselves in expensive silks and exquisite textiles. The lower classes, on the other hand, not only could not afford silk, but, in the Edo Period (1600-1868) were actually banned from wearing it.

The poor could barely afford even the cheaper fabrics, which were still expensive. They had to make the rare garments they had last long. When clothes or blankets started wearing thin, they had no choice but to mend them with any bits and pieces they could put their hands on. Winters in Japan are cold. Poor families had to make do with what they had, passing valuable patched garments from one member of the family to another, sometimes from one generation to the next.

The people who created Boro didn’t use silks and high-end textiles. They used the cheaper hemp, linens and, later, cottons that were available to the working class and the poor. Most of the fabrics they had came in shades of indigo. This is why we now associate Boro with that color.

The word “Boro” itself means “tattered” or “ragged.” Wearing Boro-ed clothes wasn’t the result of aesthetics. It was a necessity. And as such it marked the wearer as a member of the lower, poor classes.

Japanese today don’t wear Boro (unless they can afford some of its high-end, modern-day manifestations). Museums don’t show it because it’s not a traditional art form that the culture is proud of. Modern artisans are more likely to practice Sashiko or Shibori (textile dyeing), which they see as more “artistic.” And so, although Boro is all the hype among textile artists and consumers in the West, it is mostly absent in its homeland.

Which doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t appreciate it. The authentic, old Boro clothing were made over a long period of time, and were often a collaborative effort. People added patches and stitches whenever they needed to fix something. Sometimes a garment passed through several hands and even several generations, with many people adding to it. And even the poor did their best to mend beautifully, resulting in artistic stitching. Many of these old garments are, indeed, works of art, even if their makers didn’t see them as such.

This jacket, which I found on pinterest, is but one example:

If you’re interested in Boro and are planning to visit Japan, do go to the only Boro museum in the country. If the rumors I heard are correct, you should hurry, as the museum might be shutting down soon… I now know that you can also find Boro in flee markets throughout the country. Regrettably, I didn’t get to visit any, but perhaps you will have better luck!

Graffiti Heaven in Florentin Neighborhood, Tel Aviv, Israel

I love seeing art when I travel. Fine art exhibited in museums, of course, but also grass-roots arts, such as the arts seen at craft markets or on city walls. Yep. Graffiti can be viewed by some as vulgar vandalism, but it is also the artistic expression of certain segments of society.

In Tel Aviv, Israel, there is an entire neighborhood that celebrates graffiti: Florentin, in the southern part of the city. There, colorful murals completely cover  several city blocks. On my latest visit to the Holy Land several months ago, I went to check it out. I enjoyed looking at all the different works created by different people. The paintings were a collection of many styles, ideas, and political orientations.

Here is a little taste of what this neighborhood has to offer:

After walking around a bit, I noticed works that seemed similar. The style seemed consistent, as if drawn by the same hand. I started actively looking for works by this artist, an activity that became a kind of a game for me and my kids. It reminded me of our trip to London a couple of years ago, and of how we enjoyed doing the same there.

I later found a signed work by the artist in a different neighborhood. That’s how I learned of Sara Erenthal and her work.

As I was about to leave the neighborhood, I saw a big sign on top of a building. Only then did I realize why the municipality allowed all that graffiti. The entire neighborhood, it turns out, is deemed for demolition. Soon brand-new sky-scrapers will replace the old, paint-covered buildings.

So, if you find yourself in Israel soon, go check Florentin out before it disappears. There are special graffiti tours you can take, and even graffiti workshops!