Colombia: Cartagena’s Carousel of Carousing
Cartagena deserves its rich reputation
By David Rich
Three years after my first visit, Cartagena, Colombia hadn’t changed an iota, still sitting pretty in pastel as South America’s party carousel, honeymoon carousal, and emerald capital.
First place I’ve ever returned to that remained an exact clone of its former self, eternal Cartagena, city of dizzying beaches, bays, canals, islands, and copious pulchritude in architecture, gemstones, and femininity. Think San Francisco with decent beaches, whisked to the Caribbean.
There are half a dozen excellent excuses to go to Cartagena. The first is its indescribable beauty, unsuccessfully concealed by almost five miles of massive ten-foot-thick walls thirty feet high, inexorably boasting of treasures inside, perhaps emeralds.
Who’d build such a fortification with weathered-stone-turrets every hundred yards, vast pentagonal corners of astonishing grace, seemingly impregnable, unless it hid untold wealth? The Spanish did, to securely and successfully loot South America of its gold.
Thus Cartagena is encircled by massive and almost impregnable walls, above and behind which squats perhaps the most massive fortress on the planet, sprawling Fort San Felipe covering an entire hilltop above Venice-like Cartagena.
The Fort is pocked with reverberating secret passages to warn of approaching enemy footsteps, dank cisterns and slippery tunnels, a swashbuckling boy’s idea of the world’s greatest adventure.
From January 1533 Cartagena controlled the north of South America, ensuring Spanish domination of a world-class land mass and providing the storehouse for the export of metric tons of gold in exchange for the latest goods from mother Spain.
Its wealth and location tempted pirates and competing European nations memorialized a few years back in the movie Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World, the British version of the intense competition for control of South America.
Inside the perfectly mortared-stone ramparts the physical beauty of Cartagena hits you between the eyes. Cobalt balconies sprout from pristine cream walls draped with a rainbow of hammocks next to fountains jetting toward a skyline of ancient stone domes.
Towers jut above an ancient convent painted burnt sienna, now converted to a five-star hotel.
Ancient colonial buildings, cathedrals, churches, monasteries and grand mansions march lockstep down every narrow avenue in springtime colors from the palest yellow with Persian blue balconies, pretty in pink with teal and blue accents, tangerine with forest green sashes and windows, yak butter yellow with white embellishments, blue-red with barely taupe trimmings, to lazy lavender with charcoal flourishes, all in art deco pastels complemented by shades of coffee and cream.
Every balcony, sash, window, flourish and trimming is encrusted with clusters of richly colored tiles, painted in brilliant hues or carved from mahogany and teak, gingerbread garnished with bougainvillea.
The astonishing beauty is most readily apparent in the early-morning and late-afternoon light, lending a gasp-quality to the whole of the ancient city.
The second reason to immediately fly to Cartagena is for an unforgettable honeymoon. Join honeymooners from all over the world as they walk hand-in-hand down shady pedestrian streets, motorized-traffic barred. Hop aboard bright red and black horse-coaches festooned with white lanterns framed in crystal for a snuggly promenade behind spiffily groomed steeds, ten bucks an hour.
Stop at any of the dozens of classy bars and cafes sprawled over sidewalks jammed with frappachinos and frippery and dream away the idyllic first days of marriage. Hole up in any of the many beautiful luxury hotels catering to pole-axed newly-weds. Cartagena is a super-romantic city.
Third, shop to your heart’s content, stocking up on those things you simply can’t get at home, except on the black market or at greatly inflated prices.
Start with reasonably-priced emeralds, for which Cartagena and the country are famed. Fondle lengthy tableaus of emeralds cut into stones seemingly as massive as those in the gargantuan city walls.
The worlds’ crown jewels litter unending picture-windows jammed with gems to knock your eyes out. Marvel at the unique sparkle, the unbelievable color of their deeply unique fluorescence, catching the light to scatter it into the memory banks of generations to come which, as you dig for your wallet can be characterized as estate-planning.
Do an end-run around those Cuban-Americans in Miami whose votes were counted, unlike those of some fellow Floridians, to change the course of world history. Buy a box or two of Cuban cigars legally, at a price little more than they’d cost in Cuba. Then light up and enjoy with a tot of some of the world’s finest rums. After all, is there anything better in the whole world than a Cuban cigar and a shot of finely-aged rum? Newly-weds are disqualified from responding.
Fourth, sample history and culture through the hundreds of striking sculptures, paintings and even the kitschy-art crowding Cartagena’s winding thoroughfares, plazas and main entrance to the city. Plan no itinerary but instead wander aimlessly through the maze of history and wonders, through the most charming and safest city on this huge continent, starting at the main gate.
Historic cannons guard the parapets above the arches in the great wall while outside garishly decorated buses play kamikaze. Avoid the outside madness by beginning your meander with an escape through the triple-arched entrance to the relative peace and quiet inside. The grand entrance is topped by a creamy lemon-colored church spire; no church, only spire.
You’ll double-take at the dozens of life-sized sculptures littering the city: the lady lolling against a lamppost smoking a stogey, the bicyclist staring at your sun-baked head, the school-girls in pigtails playing hide-and-seek. Vendors hawk every color of tropical fruit, craft and parrot, silver and coral jewelry, necklaces, rings and bracelets.
Garishly-colored and comedic paintings of fat people doing unexpected things attract your eye to the local style of painting, kitschy but cool.
Scattered around the grand plaza opposite the Cathedral are more life-sized sculptures from a peg-legged pirate to the lady hunched over her sewing machine, the table of card players and a dozen others, delighting the child in all while children scamper hither and yon, clambering over each and every one.
A block away chess players plot moves against the clock in front of the Palace of the Inquisition’s inspiring museum packed with medieval instruments of torture.
By noon the city sparkles with too much equatorial sun, driving locals, newly-weds and tourists to its numerous shady plazas surrounded by trendy restaurants next to acres of emeralds and succulent stogies; or alternatively to its miles of beaches where it’s time to branch out, to explore the fifth reason to come all the way to marvelous Cartagena, to log some serious beach-time.
The old city is linked by soaring bridges to upscale suburbs, hulking massive forts and lovely Caribbean beaches to the northeast, east and south, the last stretching a mere three blocks wide for miles down Boca Grande.
Here locals sprawl under yellow tents advertising rum, slumped comfortably on chaises while their children frolic far out into the shallow sea.
Fruit vendors carve mangos and melons for parched-partiers comfortably slumped on colorful chaises sipping mai tais and beer. This long spit of beach encircles Cartagena Bay, the old shipping sanctuary three by nine miles long, rather like San Francisco Bay on its few days a year with warm weather.
Boca Grande and Cartagena offer easy daytrips to the many islands and secluded villas for snorkeling, sunbathing and dancing where great food is the rule instead of the exception.
The most excellent day trip offers silky mud-baths more palatable than those at the Dead Sea, to the fifty-foot (15-meter) high Volcano del Totumo thirty miles (50 kilometers) northeast of Cartagena.
The smooth gray mud inside the caldera becomes littered with bodies of locals and tourists relishing the feeling of zero-gravity embellished by creamy silk as they float on the surface of the small mud lake then traipse down the scaffolding for a wash off in the nearby lagoon. Don’t miss it.
Then there’s the clinching reason to go to Cartagena: nobody notices it’s in Colombia. One easy fly-in visit and you‘ve notched another country, an infamous country (formerly), and a knockout gorgeous walled city, on your traveling belt.
From five hundred feet high atop La Popa Hill you can peer down on the panorama of it all and watch the sun’s blazing disk drop sizzling into the peaceful Caribbean, rather like Michael Douglas and Kathryn Turner in Romancing the Stone, the jewels of the Caribbean, emeralds and the carousel of carousing Cartagena.
When you go:
Columbia’s kidnapping, FARC insurgency and drug trafficking have mostly ceased but historically took place in the mountains and cities far away from Cartagena, which is perfectly safe.
You can fly to Cartagena via Bogotá from Miami, Los Angeles or New York for $600 and up, roundtrip. See www.hotwire.com, www.avianca.com or Google ‘Cartagena airfare’ and marvel at the low prices that can wing you to this great resort destination.
The hotels are superb from the five-star Charleston (converted ancient convent, phone 664-9494, fax 664-9448, from $215) and Santa Clara (French Sofitel Group from $300, see www.hotelsantaclara.com or phone 664-6070, fax 664-7010, restored 16th Century convent) to my personal favorites Los Tres Banderas (in a converted grand casa with interior patio gardens, fountains and waterfalls, phone 660-0160, from $50), and Villa Colonial with spiffy rooms and A/C with wifi from $25.
The first three hotels are centrally situated in the old city, the last in neighboring Getsemani district of older old-town. For restaurants, cafes and bars don’t miss the array around Plaza Santo Domingo or on most any historic plaza.
For emeralds see Lucy at Calle Santo Domingo & Calle de la Iglesia #3-77, see lucysjewelry.cartagenainfo.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For custom jewelry see see Casa Blanca, Fabrica de Joyas at Calle de Colegio No. 34, email email@example.com, and happy green shopping.
Entrance to Fort Felipe is $6 adults, only $3 for swashbuckling children. Day tours via air conditioned coach to the mud baths of Volcano Totumo cost a measly $17 including sumptuous lunch.
You can visit a wonderful beach called Playa Blanca by speedboat or by taxi.