The colonial old town is one of the cultural and architectural highlights of Colombia. A. FORBES
Seated opposite, three young women share jokes together as we race towards our destination. The speed boat cuts through the water, its streamlined bow occasionally striking and bouncing off the surface, eliciting shrieks of laughter from my fellow passengers. Chatting, I learn the women are from Miami and decided to take a vacation under the Caribbean sun and head out to the nearby coral reefs to swim, snorkel and sip tropical daiquiris.
We’re not in St. Lucia or the Bahamas, but instead in Colombia, heading west from the historic colonial port city of Cartagena de Indias to nearby coral atolls for a day of fun and relaxation.
On the boat, one of the women tells me, “I didn’t tell my mother I was going to Colombia; I didn’t want her to worry!”
For some, Colombia continues to summon an out-of-date, possibly undeserved reputation that doesn’t sit well with leisure travel. News over the years has led us to believe that parts of Central and South America are unable to offer safety and security. Yet a visit to this extraordinary country is a privileged opportunity to enjoy rich experiences that go well beyond the classic Caribbean holiday of sun and sea.
Although the Islas del Rosario, the archipelago of coral islands that string out from Cartagena into the southern Caribbean offer vistas worthy of postcards, it is undoubtedly the city of Cartagena de Indias that is the big draw for visitors. The almost impeccably preserved colonial old town is one of the cultural and architectural highlights of Colombia, which is finally emerging as an international destination for mainstream travel.
The historic old town of Cartagena is a melting pot of myths, legends and cultures that manages to somehow maintain an exotic, romantic, almost surreal, atmosphere, while also being home to stylish boutique and luxury hotels, gourmet restaurants and upscale retail stores.
In colonial times, Cartagena was a strategic port for the Spanish for exporting gold, silver and emerald wealth to Cadiz and Seville in Andalucía. The port was constantly under threat from competitive European navies and sponsored pirates, explaining the robust protective city walls that remain today, and the fortress-like construction of the town, with tightly-packed merchants’ houses, with heavy studded doors.
Gabriel García Márquez, Colombia’s most celebrated author, called Cartagena home for a few years when he was a young journalist on a local paper. The city’s intoxicating streets left an indelible mark on his psyche, shaping and defining the flavour and atmosphere of his fictional locations in works including, ‘Of Love and Other Demons’ and ‘Love in the Time of Cholera’.
Step out into the cobbled streets in the early morning and one captures an essence of the romantic, sensual city that inspired García Márquez. Street vendors offer a warming cup of ‘café con leche’ from colourful flasks packed together on a small wheel barrow; vendors cut and prepare a sweet tropical fruit treats, or offer piping hot fritters. Dilapidated, vintage trucks compete for space on the narrow lanes with horse-drawn carriages, while youngsters flirt under shaded archways on their way to the university. The city compels you to photograph it, almost to excess. At every turn there is something fascinating, beautiful or surprising - moments worth capturing.
The defensive architecture of Cartagena de Indias’ old town is softened by flowering bougainvillea and geraniums that spill out from the terraces of pastel-painted buildings, their baroque towers and elaborate arches surrounding squares where residents sit and play cards. It’s a seductive place that has long been a popular destination for Latin America’s wealthy, for romantic and extravagant weddings that wouldn’t be out of place in a South American soap opera.
Yet to experience the city as portrayed by Gabriel García Márquez, search out one of the intimate boutique hotels found within the narrow streets.
Karl, originally from Europe, has lived in Cartagena for many years with his Colombian wife and together were among the very first to take one of the historic, once crumbling buildings within Cartagena’s old town and restore it into a friendly boutique property, Hotel Alfiz. With welcoming guest suites, furnished with antiques and art, arranged around a central garden patio, the hotel is a fine example of a colonial Cartagena property. As hosts, they aim to share with guests some of the city’s exotic flavours, while helping to decipher some of the secrets of this fascinating Colombian city.
Within the salon of Hotel Alfiz
is a small library, home to one of the city’s most extensive collections of Gabriel García Márquez novels in more than twenty languages, including first editions.
They offer an opportunity to immerse oneself in the author’s fictional places inspired by Cartagena de Indias’ unique style and atmosphere.
The hotel will arrange personalised walking tours to help convey some of the colourful contrasts of Cartagena that take you, not just through the ancient town, but beyond the city walls, into the bohemian, gritty neighbourhood of Getsemaní. Once the quarter that housed the slaves before transit from the Caribbean, it is now one of the city’s most authentic, vibrant neighbourhoods. Home to salsa bars that fill the streets with Caribbean and Cuban sounds, and the best mojito cocktails. A night out here will be one of the many lasting memories of this tropical Caribbean city.
I’m glad that I too ignored the perceived wisdom about Colombia and discovered the country’s northern coast; as it won’t be the Caribbean’s best kept secret for long. There are of course beaches, cocktails and plenty of sunshine but also this magical, sophisticated colonial city that is unlike any other in Latin America.