Cartagena, Colombia is a city that reminds its visitors of its history with every step.
Experience the Caribbean meets European Colonial lifestyle that is one-of-a-kind in Cartagena.
“Colombia is magical realism.” This campaign slogan written to welcome international travelers to Colombia is a clear homage to the late Nobel-prize winning author and Colombian native, Gabriel García Márquez. The literary term “magical realism” is used to describe a writing style, often illustrated best through Latin American authors, that combines the ordinary with the fantastic. In Love in the Time of Cholera, which I just finished reading, García Márquez’s descriptions of Cartagena sweep me back to my enchanting few weeks on the coast of Colombia. “…the broken roofs and the decaying walls, the rubble of fortresses among the brambles, the trail of islands in the bay, the hovels of the poor around the swamps, the immense Caribbean.” (García Márquez. Penguin, 1988. p.132) The author describes the city as it was at the turn of the 20th century, yet from my eyes it still resembles this bleak yet majestic appearance. The heavy heat and fierce 3 o’clock sun make a siesta the only acceptable afternoon activity. The Afro-Colombians diligently tend to their fruit stands amid the smell of fried fish and coconut rice, and the sky spills itself almost entirely onto the sunken streets, flooding the ancient sewer systems. Both García Márquez’s words and the experience of being in Cartagena left me spellbound.
The city is uniquely alive. It isn’t a capital machine like Bogota or a tourist trap like Cusco. Cartagena demands a way of life from residents and visitors alike, a steady routine of siesta and fiesta. It is the kind of place that doesn’t expect anything from itself or from you. You eat where you happen to be when you’re hungry, you sleep where you are when you’re tired, and you drink where you are when you’re thirsty. Heavy stone curtain walls and rough black cannons, funded by the Spanish government to defend the robust port city from pirate attacks, surround the historic center, specifically the neighborhoods El Centro and San Diego facing the sea and Getsemaní facing inland. Construction of the walls began in 1586 under Italian engineer Bautista Antonelli, resumed and extended by Governor Fransico de Murga in 1631 and finally finished in 1796 under the supervision of engineer Antonio de Arévalo.
It was inside these walls that I became acquainted with the city. My hostel, El Viajero, was located in San Diego on Calle de los Siete Infantes. The loudest part of this street, besides the tourists, was the bright, colorful buildings hailing back to the Spanish colonial era.
However, just a short walk further inside the walled city and you’d be greeted by a buzz of activity. I took it that it was simply the culture to be outside, whether that meant selling your wares or simply sitting on a foldout chair watching people pass by. Even as they completed mundane tasks, I found that the residents were muy alegre, very cheerful, as my Colombian friends here in Boston described their people when they found I was searching for that very word to explain my perceptions.
While Cartagena offers many tourist activities, for example slipping into a mud bath at the volcano El Totumo, visiting the fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, or taking a day trip to the nearby Playa Blanca for some snorkeling and gorgeous beach photos, I found that the extreme heat and humidity made many movements unnecessary, if not actually a burden. I was content to simply wander around, dragging the heels of my $2 Old Navy flip flops along the cobbled streets and using the hem of my shirt to wipe away my sweat mustaches. From the steps of my hostel, where I’d spend some nights cooling off on the stoop and smoking 50 peso single cigarettes from one of the traveling street vendors called tinteros, I could saunter a few blocks to the right and be greeted by the Plaza de San Diego, currently lit up with Christmas lights, to enjoy a cup of coffee or an authentic meal at Restaurante Totopo. From those same steps I could walk to the left a few blocks towards the most impressive supermarket, Éxito, that I had seen in South America or to the most delicious arepa stand on the same corner.
My favorite route, however, led into Getsemaní. Just a left from the hostel doors and a quick right onto a Calle de Nuestra Señora del Pilar, which continues onto Calle de la Necesidad and you can begin to see the start of a shopping district forming, specifically in an alleyway filled with produce vendors called Calle del Cancel which leads to the main road Avenida Venezuela, a street whose broad sidewalks and tall windows offer no respite from the beating sun.
On occasion, I attempted to take shelter in one of the many cheap clothing stores with just enough air conditioning to make me ignore the employees who would not-so-slyly surround me, a potential shoplifter. Across the street are a few plazas filled with Afro-Colombians selling fruit or eating entire plates of rice and fish on benches, and beyond those, another busy street, Lemaitre. I’d cross this busy road, paying no mind to the traffic lights, and would continue onto Calle de Tripita y Media into Getsemaní, where banners and some greenery create a canopy down the narrow street and men walk about shirtless or at the very least with their shirts raised up and resting on their bellies. Hostels boasting free wifi and restaurants offering deals for three course lunches called to me as I stepped from sidewalk to street in a steady rhythm, evading perspiring and loitering men before they realized I was a tourist and sidestepping inconveniently placed light posts. Soon I’d reach Calle Media Luna, where the famous party hostel, Media Luna Hostel, is located. Media Luna is the place to be on any night of the week, but Wednesday nights bring together the perfect combination of locals and tourists, packed together on the hostel’s steamy dance floor, swaying to the live music and leaning over the edge of the balcony to watch the party continue on the rest of the street.
If you find yourself on these streets at night, I caution you to be wary of what you’re carrying, because the local police will not hesitate to search every pocket in your shorts and lining in your purse. If you do happen to get caught with an illegal substance, I’ve been told that to get out of it, you simply say to the policeman, “In my country, we pay a fine in these situations. Does your country do the same?” This is a clear bribe. And it should work, as long as you have the plata to back it up.
Each street inside the walls seems to offer up an array of food stands, from cups of sliced mangos and fresh-squeezed orange juice to arepas con queso and chicken kebabs, to shredded and sugared coconut candies and messy hot dogs. A few times, I went ventured a few blocks past Calle Media Luna to the Plaza de la Trinidad, where the focal point is a large yellow church and a courtyard where children play soccer and people line the perimeter, eating Patacón con Todo and drinking cervezas, or otherwise ducking into one of the many overpriced restaurants and bars near by.
I found it a treat to simply stroll down the streets and delight in all of the choices that are probably only 1 to 2 thousand pesos (50 cents to $1) away. The best time I found to sample the sidewalk delicacies is around 4 o’clock in the afternoon, when the setting sun is less likely to reduce you to a puddle of sweat and the world has awoken yet again from its afternoon nap, half of it with an apparent morning woody that I can only assume is the cause of the rampant vulgarity and sexual harassment among many of the men on the street.
While we’re on the subject of dangers, one rule I learned from an unfortunate Australian party boy in my dorm who tickled my feet while I slept is to NEVER try before you buy in Cartagena. I’m talking about cocaine here, people. What happened to his group has happened to other people I met along the way, so if you’re one to cool off by hitting the slopes, please take a lesson from this cautionary tale. If a native man can see that you are a clear tourist looking to buy drugs and offers you a sample, be wary. If he explains that you must follow him to a restaurant or café to try the drugs he has shown you, perhaps he even lets you hold the bag, turn away. If you haven’t ran for it yet, there is a good chance you and your mates will be greeted in a deserted restaurant by members of the cartel either wielding knives or backed up by their threatening friends. They will give you the drugs, sure, but they will demand that you pay them some exorbitant fee for the drugs. My bunkie and his friends were led to ATMs and instructed to take out as much as $700 each as payment for their cocaine, their robbers pointing out that their red wristbands given to them by the hostel indicate where they are staying, a clear threat. So I guess what I’m saying is that while Rule Number 1 is don’t try before you buy, Rule Number 2 must be don’t carry your debit or credit card with you when you’re on the hunt for drugs. And maybe Rule Number 3 should be to remove or cover up the hostel wristbands before embarking on potentially dangerous ventures. Not that I would condone such a thing….
When I wasn’t listening to horror stories, enjoying the air conditioning of the movie room in my hostel or traipsing about the streets looking for a snack, I was hoping that the wind would be good so that I could finally be reunited with my new favorite sport, kite surfing. For 10 to 12 thousand pesos, I’d take a taxi past the beautiful jetties and small slice of beach called Mar Bella to Hotel Las Americas, the first giant high-rise hotel in a strip of many along an unimpressive beach. I’d walk by the pricey seafood restaurants along flat sand, avoiding piles of horse droppings and dodging black women forcing massages on tourists and then demanding fares as high as 50 thousand pesos with the strength of their friends to back them up. The kites flying high against that impossibly blue sky were a sight for sore eyes, and I continued my lessons in the warm Caribbean, excelling despite the opposite wind conditions to those I first learned in. Gliding across the water, pulled by the kite, was the perfect cure for hazy heat of the city. Each meter I flew reminded me of how far I’d come from that first week in Ecuador when I was sitting on the beach watching everyone else kite surf but me.
by Rebecca Bellan