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Romancing the Tourist

Cartagena—Colombia's city of many faces



A dancer’s bright smile and sparkling costume light up a party in Cartagena.

Photos by Tim Porter

A few minutes before 7 o’clock on a sulfurous summer evening the bride and groom stood on a sidewalk in Cartagena.

She, a lovely Latina from Guadalajara, was resplendent, her olive skin and white gown unruffled by the Caribbean heat. He, a gringo from cool, gray San Francisco, was already wilting in his linen suit. Their 100 or so guests were gussied up tropical style, crisp guayaberas for the guys, flouncy dresses for the ladies.

We were all waiting at the church of Santo Toribio de Mongrovejo, whose 17th-century nave held a prospect even more exciting than the upcoming nuptials of my friends — air-conditioning.

Before the wedding could start and we could seek haven in a bit of freon-fueled heaven, two other weddings had to end —  at the same time.

Thanks to the generosity of a Colombian NASCAR race car driver who paid for the AC a few years back when he married a model in Santo Toribio, the tiny church stacks up summer weddings like 747s on an SFO runway.

Suddenly, the ancient wooden doors of the church opened, exhaling a cold whoosh of air. Then came one wedding party, followed by the other. Latins like big bodas — all the relatives, all the neighbors and the more bridesmaids the better. One large cluster of young women wore lime green prom dresses; another glowed in mango orange shifts. They looked like pulchritudinous platters of fruit. There was a bride to the left of me, a bride to the right of me, grooms to the front and back.

Two hours later, a span spent blessedly under a chilly fan powerful enough to restore Greenland’s icecap, we followed our newly sanctified friends out of the church and were met by an incoming surge of tuxedoed men en route to the next wedding. Could it be that a scene such as this inspired Gabriel Garcia Marquez to write Love in the Time of Cholera? Maybe, but there is no doubt that in the colonial city of Cartagena de las Indias romance is always in the air — especially when it’s air-conditioned.

Juan Valdez, Where Are You?

Very, very late the next morning (let’s just say it was only minutes short of buenas tardes), we shuffled downstairs from our room at the Hotel Sofitel Santa Clara and made two key discoveries.

First, the hotel, a former 15th-century convent, was lush in ways the holy sisters of Saint Claire never prayed for—a lovely (and large) pool where genial waiters bring you tart limonadas at the lift of a finger, a cool sanctuary of a spa in which to refresh from the rigors of sightseeing and roof-top terraces overlooking the Caribbean, where warm breezes blow and cold mojitos flow well into the night.

Second, we missed the hotel’s sumptuous breakfast buffet by minutes.

In need of chemical revival, we went off in search of one of Colombia’s best-known exports (no, not that one!) —coffee. Sadly, in the land of 100 percent pure Colombian coffee there is precious little of what a Peet’s addict would consider drinkable. There is plenty of tinto, to be sure, a heavily sugared, slightly watery brew sold on nearly every corner and served in Dixie cups, which later litter the streets like leaves. If it’s caffeine you crave and you’re not choosy about the source, tinto delivers, but to my yanqui taste buds it had all the appeal of super-sweet Southern ice tea.

Aptly, we found the pride of Juan Valdez in an eponymous cafe located near Plaza Santo Domingo, a popular tourist hangout dominated by Colombian artist Fernando Botero’s massive sculpture of a reclining, buxom and completamente desnuda woman, La Gordita.

Juan Valdez Cafe, one of an international chain launched by the Colombian coffee federation to promote the national bean, had what we needed — dulce de leche lattes with extra espresso. Once we were fortified, old Cartagena awaited our exploration.

Cartagena Invaded! (Again)

Tourism is on the rise in Colombia. While great swaths of the interior are controlled by competing drug cartels or leftist rebels, coastal centers like Barranquilla and Cartagena are drawing international visitors (as well as wealthy Colombianos from cooler cities like Bogotá who are snatching up new beachfront condos). A spate of recent articles on the attractions of Cartagena in publications like the New York Times and Travel & Leisure should only add to the influx of tourists.

For Cartagena, the free-spending extranjeros are a welcome break from the city’s historical past.

In the 250 years the Spanish crown controlled the city, after wresting it from the native Calamari people, Cartagena was the punching bag of the Caribbean. A major trading port — exporting South American gold and importing African slaves — it endured one invasion after another from rival nations and marauding pirates, including a lengthy siege by an Englishman much honored in Marin County: Sir Francis Drake. In 1586, seven years after Drake’s sojourn along the Northern California coast, he held Cartagena hostage for seven weeks, leaving only after burning much of the city and extorting a $200 million ransom.

After Drake’s plundering, the Spanish began two centuries of military construction, rimming what is now Old Cartagena with seven miles of 12-foot-high cannon-studded walls and eventually building the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, a massive stone fort atop a 400-foot hill. A trip to the bastion (just minutes from the city center) offers 360-degree views of Cartagena and the opportunity to navigate some of the fort’s many “secret” tunnels.

Inside the Walls

It is the walls—las murallas—that truly define Cartagena, separating the neighborhoods of the well-preserved colonial Old Town from the burgeoning expansion of wealth in Bocagrande on one side and the poorer, Third World–like barrios of the working classes on the other.

Cheap cabs abound, but Old Town’s narrow streets are better walked. Twenty minutes on foot gets you across town from Plaza San Diego, where the Sofitel Santa Clara is located, to Plaza Santa Teresa, site of the city’s other high-end hotel, Charleston Santa Teresa, another onetime convent. (Take the elevator to the roof-top pool, order a limeade mixed with coconut milk—an alluring concoction we wedding guests termed a Key Lime Pie—and drink in the view.)

On the patchwork of side streets in between are numerous numbers of the three things most tourists need most—shops, museums and restaurants.

Seafood dominates most menus in Cartagena, especially mero (grouper), robalo (sea bass) and pargo (red snapper), pulled from the sea by local fishermen. I tried variations of all three.

Our first post-wedding-reception recovery meal was at La Bodeguita del Medio, a six-table Cuban cafe decorated with dozens of Fidel and Che photos. The staff welcomed us by turning on the drippy air-conditioning unit over front door and with a plate of crispy tostones (fried bananas) slathered in garlicky red salsa. A piece of pargo, breaded, sautéed, and large enough to cover a dinner plate, arrived accompanied by a mound of rice  cooked in coconut milk and sugar. Think brown. Think not overly appetizing to the eyes. Take a bite—and then think again. Que viva la revolución!

Over the next few days we put away pounds of fish—robalo baked al ajillo and robalo grilled with herbs at the very traditional Cocina de Socorro, the pricier of two similarly named, feuding restaurants in the Getsemani neighborhood; pargo grilled with lime, herbs and olive oil at El Santisimo, a lively, popular place considered by some to be Cartagena’s best seafood restaurant; and, my favorite, mero blackened and grilled at Palma, whose minimalist design belied the warmth of its owners, who thankfully talked us into ending our meal with a gooey plate of profiteroles.

Do not despair, meat eaters, there is beef aplenty in Cartagena. We ate our best meal — sorry, Santisimo —at La Vitrola, a clubby, nuevo Colombiano restaurant whose indoor palms, live Cuban combo playing sons­ and stiff-necked, white-aproned waiters create a Tadich Grill meets Harry’s Bar atmosphere. Icy, limey margaritas offset perfectly the crunchy, cheesy breadsticks on the table. Crunchy empanadas Vietnamitas prepared us for a pair of Brangus steaks from Barranquilla, one a la parilla (grilled), the other encebollado (smothered in onions). A bottle of Argentine Malbec lasted until dessert, a warm, buttery pie de coco with vanilla ice cream.

A calorie-burning walk back to the hotel was in order, but the smiling driver of a horse and carriage enticed us. We boarded and beneath the night sky we lay back in the seat, serenaded by the steady clip-clop of hooves.

A City of Contradictions

Travel & Leisure called Cartagena “one of the prettiest cities anywhere: Imagine Havana with a fraction of the population, or San Juan or New Orleans without the sophomores on spring break. It’s both crumbling and majestic.”

All true. The majesty of Old Cartagena is readily visible—ornate colonial architecture, brightly painted buildings, wooden balconies brimming with bougainvillea, soaring 400-year-old churches and the great sweep of the city wall along Avenida Santander, where you can walk among the locals who gather for the sunset, take in the cool of the evening breeze and slurp mango-flavored popsicles sold by cart-pushing vendors.

The crumble is also in full view. Flourishes of prosperity are set amid wider pockets of poverty. Behind Cartagena’s facade of modernity, its beautiful hotels, air-conditioned restaurants and glut of jewelry stores hawking Colombian emeralds, there is another Cartagena, the one in which wizened men and their school-age sons still fish from dugout canoes, in which some people bathe in the sea because their homes lack plumbing and in which museums and other public buildings operate with toilets that don’t work and electrical wires hanging loose from the ceiling. Here the facade crumbles.

Cartagena seems, like many other Latin American cities, in transition. Its colonial past was one of military ambience, oppressive religiousness—both well displayed in the Museo Naval del Caribe and Palace of the Inquisition, where horrific devices of human torture serve as a snapshot props for tourists — and, of course, slavery, whose legacy lives on in the dark, beautiful faces of the Afro-Colombians who make up the majority of the tri-ethnic population.

Cartagena’s future is springing from the ground on either side of the old city. In Bocagrande, an L-shaped spit south of downtown, high-rise condos walled with blue-tinted windows soar upward, creating a gated community both figuratively and literally out of reach of the less-privileged Cartagenos who pass their weekends on the narrow beaches below, renting open-ended cabanas emblazoned with Pepsi logos for $4 a day.

In the other direction, blocks of seafront condos march toward Boquilla, a dusty fishing village often mentioned as a place to experience the laid-back costeño culture of old. On the beach, rows of ramshackle fish huts stand empty and groups of fit young men sit around idle during the off-season. The land is much more valuable now for pending development than for selling pargo by the pound. Expect Boquilla to be just a memory in a decade or so.

This rising tide of six-figure condominiums is not going to elevate everyone equally. With a per-capita income of about $7,200 in Cartagena, the rich-poor gap will widen, leaving those at the bottom to find new ways to earn pesos — and that might not be a good thing for tourism. Already, a hotel concierge says when asked directions to Boquilla, you don’t want to go there. “Muchos problemas.”

Outside the Walls

The past does live on within Old Cartagena, although the line between historic preservation and theme park contrivance is one the neighborhood sometimes crosses. Despite the genuine languor of the locals who lounge in the town’s many small plazas and the frantic mercantile activity of the open-air street markets (blenders, underwear, cheaters), at times life within las murallas lacks a certain authenticity.

That’s when you need to jump the wall and head for the beach. We passed on the popular boat ride to Islas del Rosario, an archipelago about 20 miles southwest of Cartagena that includes Playa Blanca, a white sand beach on Isla de Barú. Time was tight and it’s an all-day trip. If you do go to the islands, negotiate a boat and price through your hotel. The scene at Muelle Turistico, the boat pier, is madcap and even a bit scary, with groups of touts storming every tourist who approaches.

Instead, we opted for an afternoon on a city beach in Castillogrande, the outermost arm of Bocagrande. The long sprit of sand was narrow and certainly not pristine, but with the city skyline rising in the background, apartment houses right across the street and families of every configuration in the water, it felt real—a true escape from the tourist bubble.

We celebrated our freedom at a sidewalk arepa stand, scarfing down several orders of these fried maize fritters, some filled with eggs, others with cheese. When two well-fed Cartagena motorcycle cops pulled up to the stand, we knew we had the right place.

Walking back to Old Town, we stopped at Hotel Caribe, the oldest hotel in Bocagrande, dating to the 1930s. Its luxury is a bit worn, but its classic architecture, humming ceiling fans and spacious but retro pool evoke Caribbean atmosphere to the max.

On our last afternoon in Cartagena, we taxied a few miles north to Hotel Las Americas, a ’60s-style “all-inclusive” resort with several pools, an expansive open-air restaurant and a long stretch of wide semiprivate beach marked by rows of thatched palapas. This is the place to bring a family, with room rates nearly half of those downtown and the beach just a stroll from your room.

After a walkabout on the sand and dip in the Caribbean, we settled in poolside with a couple of cold Aguilas, Colombian beer. The glass towers of Bocagrande glimmered far down the beach in one direction, the empty sands of Boquilla rested tranquilly in the other. It was day’s end, the sun just enough above the horizon to silhouette a canoe of fishermen poling their way home through the shallow water.

Overhead, a toucan screeched in the palms. Cartagena was indeed romancing us.

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