Situated by the Caribbean Sea, Cartagena is one of the most popular tourism destinations not only in Colombia but in Latin America in general. This yellow-tinted city is beautiful enough to be featured in novels and movies.
“All my books have loose threads of Cartagena in them,” says famous Colombian author Gabriel García Màrquez. “And, with time, when I have to call up memories, I always bring back an incident from Cartagena, a place in Cartagena, a character in Cartagena.” If you’re an ardent reader, you’ll find yourself in a yellow-tinted dream with a familiar character on every corner in Cartagena, a place that has inspired many incidents and venues in the novels of Màrquez, a recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature. Here, dream and reality coexist in screeching parrots, humid and hot air, horse-driven carriages on stone block pavements, pastel-colored houses with giant doorknockers, and wooden balconies overflown with bougainvillea. Suddenly, you start hearing “Hay Amores” by Shakira, another Colombian personality who is a big fan of Màrquez, from the soundtrack of Love in the Time of Cholera, based on one of his novels. That’s when you feel that Cartagena is one of the most romantic cities not only of Latin America but of the entire world. Then the song takes up a dizzying salsa and vallenato rhythm, telling you about unforgettable days you can spend in Cartagena.
The center of gold trade in South America, and hence, raided, for centuries, Cartagena de Indias comprises two parts: the Old Town surrounded by city walls built to offer protection from the pirates, and Bocagrande of skyscrapers and long beaches. The clocks on the four façades of the Clock Tower, which serves as a main entrance to the Old Town, are so old that each is rewound to be synched every day by hand! Portal de los Dulces, which is currently dominated by confectioneries, used to be a place where authors and journalists came to talk politics under the disguise of having their shoes polished, or those who were illiterate came to ask scriveners to write love letters for them. All of the colonial-era houses have been renovated as luxury boutique hotels, hostels, rental houses, restaurants and shops. Walk towards the Cartagena Cathedral from among Panama hat sellers, and you’ll arrive at the square named after Simón Bolívar, the greatest Latin American hero. Home to the Palace of the Inquisition and Governor’s Palace, the square also harbors the Gold Museum. The park where you can see Bolívar’s equestrian statue is filled with people who come to see musicians and dancers perform after 5 p.m.
Though the streets that resemble a wonderland invite you on miles-long strolls, you have to take a coffee break sometime because this is Colombia - the homeland of coffee! The first place to visit for Colombian coffee is Juan Valdez Café. Don’t think that the café is managed by a man named Juan Valdez! A personality and coffee shop concept designed by the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia, you can find all coffee types produced in Colombia in these chains. After this delicious break, make sure to take a souvenir picture with palenqureas, which is like a fingerprint Cartagena leaves in your travel journal. Palenqureas are Afro-Colombian women who have become the most characteristic symbol of the city with their colorful dresses and exotic fruit baskets on their heads. Bear in mind, you have to offer them a small tip to photograph their big smiles!
Filled with restaurants, Santo Domingo is a great place to see Botero’s sculpture, or to hunt for interesting souvenirs along El Market in Calle de Ayos lined with chic stores. However, the best place to buy an authentic Colombian present is Las Bóvedas, with its arched building and 23 adjacent shops. I think the most unique alternative is the mochila bags that come in different colors and patterns. Tourists cannot wait until they get home to use them, turning the city into a runway of women carrying rainbow-colored bags. If you’re looking for a bit more expensive souvenir, you can visit shops with emerald objects. A quick reminder – Colombia is one of the world’s top emerald exporters.
The vibrant San Pedro Claver Square seems as if it embraces Aduana Square on the right and Santa Teresa Square on the left. The entire city feels under the spell of Màrquez’s novels. Maybe that’s why I easily find myself slipping into the “magical realism” of Cartagena. I imagine the pigeons by the church on the square taking flight and perching on one of the paintings by Enrique Grau at the Museum of Modern Arts. Meanwhile, the porters outside white-washed halls wearing Panama hats welcome guests at the two luxury hotels: Sofitel Santa Clara and Charleston Santa Teresa. People eat tropical fruit such as guava, papaya, granadilla and pineapple under the shade of palm trees in courtyards while others prepare for a luxury wedding. The restaurants serve Caribbean fish, coconut rice, and fried plantain (a type of banana).
As maria mulata look for something to eat (legend has it that these birds used to have colorful wings but they turned black with fume when they saved people from a village fire), the young locals climb the city walls to watch the sunset over the sea. Pelicans fly over those who sip their coconut lemonades at Café del Mar, at one of the fortresses that connect the city walls. A couple is celebrating their wedding ceremony on the replica of a pirate ship at the wharf adorned with two Pegasus statues. That idiosyncratic yellow light of the city turns to morning paying homage to the gold pieces mined centuries ago.
Right outside the city walls lies the district of Gersemani, a perfect place to spend an evening. Formerly inhabited by slaves and the have-nots, the district is now filled with murals and shabby restaurants. It seems that the free salsa lessons on Trinidad Square every Sunday will soon become as popular as the Old Town. You’ll be surprised to see red-tailed squirrels, monkeys and iguanas on the same tree at Centenario Park. I look for original copies of Màrquez at the secondhand book stalls in the park. That’s when yellow butterflies start flapping their wings in the courtyard of former Merced Monastery (part of the University of Cartagena) where the author’s bust and ashes are kept. I hear vallenato tunes from the adjacent Adolfo Mejía Theater, blending dream and reality, the waves and islands in Màrquez’s Cartagena…
Now that you’re exploring Cartagena as if turning the pages of a book, make sure to listen to the call of the Caribbean Sea. You can visit Bocagrande’s beaches to swim. However, I will stay within the city walls and wait for a genie in a bottle to ask me “Where would you wish to visit again?” and my wish would be to return to Cartagena.