Cartagena is Magical Realism

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.

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Puerta de Santo Domingo, Cartagena, Colombia

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Castillo San Felipe, Cartagena, Colombia

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.

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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.

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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.

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Avenida Venezuela before a storm

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.

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the band inside Media Luna Hostel
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Calle Media Luna, Cartagena, Colombia
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getting ready for a night out in my dorm at El Viajero…notice the red wristband

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.

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Plaza de la Trinidad, Cartagena, Colombia

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.

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Monumento India Catalina, Cartagena, Colombia
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some colorful Afro-Colombian art
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the busy streets in Getsemaní still slick with rain water

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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

Bogota and Street Food

View from Montserrat in Bogota

The street food in Bogota and Colombia in general will have you drooling.

Munch on arepas and papa rellena as you admire Bogota’s fast paced life and impressive graffiti.

 

Bogota, Colombia’s capital, is by far the most commercial city that I have encountered in South America. I only stumbled through a few neighborhoods, but I could tell that I wouldn’t get to know even a sixteenth of the city in the three days I would be there. It reminded me of New York in that limitless way that can keep you constantly entertained if only you had the time, money or energy to stay put and explore. The second I left my hostel and took stock of where I was, I felt plugged in.

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The streets and the people on them are sort of bleak and direct, moving nonstop underneath a smoggy sky. The indifferent pedestrians make cars stop by simply walking into the street. Bogota is not a walking city by any means, and the public transit, the Transmilenio, was confusing, but well organized, similar to the New York Subway.

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The architecture doesn’t give away where in the world you are. Symmetrical modern high rises in some neighborhoods blend with Tudor style houses in others, while Spanish Colonial buildings down the street clash with whitewashed, Greek-style frameworks with tiled roofs. I felt like I could be in Europe somewhere, maybe Poland or Ireland.

apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window
apologies for the blurry image- taken from bus window

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What’s to do in Bogota? There are plenty of tourist options, much of which involving parks and museums and churches. Or you could do what I did and take the bus down to La Candelaria (either stopping at Las Aguas or Museo del Oro stops on the bus) and walk around taking pictures of cool people and world famous graffiti.

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You could have a cup of delicious Juan Valdez coffee, Colombia’s Starbucks equivalent. The Museo del Oro, Gold Museum, was pretty cool and informative as far as museums go.

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Riding the cable car up to Montserrat was beautiful and something to do. You can also walk, but the stairs were closed at the hour we tried to go, and I wasn’t having it anyway, what with the altitude and all.

Montserrat from the ground level
Montserrat from the ground level

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But I’ll reiterate—the city was just too daunting to decide what to do. It felt wrong, almost insulting to the locals, simply going from tourist destination to tourist destination when Bogota has so much more to offer as a legitimate place of living and working, not just one of those cities like Cusco or Florence that functions off of tourism. So, I bought stuff to pass the time.

"la mola" style jewelry
“la mola” style jewelry
spent a fair amount of pesos here
spent a fair amount of pesos here

There is always something to spend your money on, whether that be cheap watches and wallets from tables that line the streets, scarves or jewelry laid out on blankets on the pavement, the latest fashions from boutique stores, adorable puppies framed in windows and cages, or food. My god, the food. For every pizza place in Manhattan is a rotisserie/fried chicken joint in Bogota. While New York is obviously the capital of delicious nourishment, serving up literally anything you could ever want to eat, Bogota has one thing on the big apple- street food.

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Street food. I say it in a suggestive whisper. Hey. You wanna go find some street food? Like any good big city, Bogota is constantly moving and the locals have to keep up. Which is why, I’ve decided, they are on point with their street food options. All the carbs and flavors possible in one concise, probably deep-fried package. For those of you solid New Yorkers who think hot dogs, pretzels, halal plates and Nuts4Nuts are the best things to shovel in your mouth while you’re strutting down the sidewalk, you don’t know what the fuck you’re talking about. I’ll just regale you with some of the delicious creations that I ate standing up in Bogota/Colombia in general.

Meat: Street meat is delicious. That is a fact. The end.

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Arepa Con Queso: This is the classic, guys. The first arepa with cheese that I ever had was a bit sweeter and more corn-like than a classic arepa, which is basically a somewhat tasteless, ground corn dough pancake thing, for all you Gringos. The round yellow cake is savory with just a touch of sweet from the corn in the soft dough and was moist enough to eat without a drink in hand.

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Arepa Sandwich: Arepas have the durability and neutral flavor to be the perfect base for a sandwich. My first encounter with arepa sandwiches was at Metro Arepas in Bogota, a small, open storefront with a kindly older man taking orders and a quiet, methodic woman filling my arepa with chicharron (fried pork skin) and cheese, brushing melted butter over the tops before she flipped it on the grill, and sprinkling salt onto the hot, greasy dough. I drooled as I watched her prepare my snack, and ate with gusto, licking my salty fingers and taking sips of Coke out of a glass bottle. The next time I had an arepa sandwich was at a super cool fast food strip along the highway in Medellin. While the menu over the counter boasted many different deli-style arepa sandwiches, I was in the mood for a burger and only didn’t order a burger at the counter over because I felt guilty not eating something Colombian. My messy, mass-produced, reheated patty topped with lettuce, tomato and mayo was the perfect combo of American and Colombian disgusting cuisines. My only regret was that I didn’t order fries to go with it.

*drools*

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*drools*

 

Arepa Con Huevo: Ok, so I know I need to quit gushing over arepas. I know so many people who hate them, although I can’t imagine why. If you’ve read the last two descriptions, you should have a decent idea at how versatile this Colombian staple is, so I don’t need to keep talking about it. I will, however, explain to you my final favorite, the arepa with an egg. On the corner of this street near my hostel in Cartagena was an angel who never smiled and was always making fresh arepasempanadas and papas rellenas. While everything she fried in her makeshift street deep fryer was the most tasty, I kept coming back for those egg arepas. She stood every night behind a table, flattening and rounding out premade dough, filling it with ham and some other mystery ingredients, and frying it for a minute, then slicing it open a bit to drop in a raw egg and fry it again. The egg cooks fully in this time and once the masterpiece is handed to you, you join the crowd of Colombians standing around the table, alternating between spooning sauce onto their snack and taking bites.

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arepa con huevo in street skillet
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arepa con huevo

 

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the beautiful cartagena arepa stand and ALL the sauces

Papa Rellena: Stuffed potatoes. Papas rellenas differ in innards from shop to shop and city to city, and none has ever been as legit as the first one I had. From the lookout point on the sidewalk, these lumpy yellow balls are about the size of a softball. They sizzle in oil before an attentive Colombian pulls them out with a slotted spoon and offers one to you, hot and fresh because they go that fast. The first tentative bite offers the taste of fried egg batter and mashed potatoes underneath. The second bite uncovers meaty rice beyond the layer of mashed potatoes, and under the rice is a hardboiled egg. Genius. Not all of the ones I’ve had were as good as this one. If you want this exact papa rellena, you can find it at one of the stands outside that big white Gothic church in Bogota. K?

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papas rellenas being made
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oh my
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here’s the church where you can find these arepas and much more

 

Hot Dog: After a night of drinking and salsa dancing in Medellin, I was quite famished. I asked the cabbie who was taking Laura and me back to our hostel if there was anywhere we could stop and eat. He pulled over on the side of a city road where a couple of men at a stand were serving up burgers and hot dogs. I ordered two dogs for myself and watched patiently as they completed what I thought was someone else’s order. Dogs were fit into warmed buns, and then topped with, if memory serves, melted cheese, cooked ham, bacon bits, beans, mayo, ketchup, pineapple sauce, potato stix, and more sauces. When the man handed them to me I laughed in his face, thinking it must be a joke. But I ended up taking them like a champ (aka giving one to my cab driver). It was the most serious hot dog that I ever put down.

stayin classy
stayin classy

Patacón con Todo: Patacón, fried green plantain, with everything, and they mean it. I was wandering around the streets of Cartagena when I stumbled upon the Plaza de Trinidad, an open, brightly-lit square in front of a church with impressive Christmas light fixtures. Among the few steaming street food stands, one in particular caught my eye. The two men working it had a good thing going. They worked together like a machine, bantering in between creating nine plates of food, one of which would go to me. One man cut up the fried plantains while the other dumped two kinds of shredded meat (I assumed pork and beef) onto the griddle, onto which the first man immediately squeezed a bunch of some brown sauce while he added some cut up hot dogs to the mix. The woman who accepted the money (at these stands, there were usually one or two people preparing the food and one getting paid) laid out the plates as best she could given the limited space, and one of the men immediately plopped a heaping portion of plantain on it. The second man sprinkled a healthy handful of shredded lettuce over it with one hand while he stirred around some white cheese that he dropped onto the grill to melt with the other. On top of the lettuce went the meat mixture, then the cheese, then all the sauces, then potato stix and quite probably some chicharron, and voila, Patacón con literally Todo.

this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel
this is what was left in the time it took me to walk from the plaza to the hostel

Bogota was whatever, but here’s what I ate. Hope I made you hungry.

 

by Rebecca Bellan