There’s no denying that Colombia has a reputation for everything wild, bad and downright dangerous. But look beyond this villainous facade and the reality will surprise you. Here is a country full of magical stories, pristine landscapes, and the friendliest of people, who will reward anyone who delves beyond its notoriety to discover a dynamic land of treasures, just waiting to be explored.
Any doubts about visiting Colombia vanish entirely as soon as you step behind the walled city of Cartagena de Indias. This Caribbean port city is fast becoming the latest hotspot on the savvy world traveller’s ‘must-see’ list, attracting people of all nationalities and budgets.
Encircled by a massive stone wall built in the 17th and 18th centuries to protect the city from pirates looking for treasure stored in the city by the Spaniards, Cartagena is an instantly impressive sight. Inside its thick salt-crusted walls, the city maintains a casual air of relaxation. Dogs pad slowly along narrow cobblestone streets. Bougainvillea tumbles from shaded balconies down candy-coloured walls. Narrow alleys are lined with heavy doors closed against the heat, which occasionally creak open to reveal beautiful internal courtyards that echo the delicate tinkling of fountains.
Immediately, I am captivated by the city’s magic and I understand inherently why Gabriel Garcia Marquez chose to set Love in A Time of Cholera, one of his most famous novels, here. Strolling through the shaded parks and resting under the drooping almond trees – which provided the setting for the captivating story’s fifty-year love triangle – the imagination is easily swept away in recollection of the beautiful tale. Indeed, it’s hard to believe that much has changed since Marquez’s time spent working here for the local newspaper. Sidewalk cafes are still full of friends deep in conversation and in the plazas old men hunch over ancient chess sets. In fact, Cartagena has recently featured as the backdrop for Hollywood’s recreation of Love in a Time of Cholera, and as I stop by one of the many bars in the Plaza de Santo Domingo, Miguel, an affable bartender, talks candidly about how he hopes the movie will change people’s perception of Colombia. “When people think of Colombia they think of the jungle and danger. But it’s so much more than that – I hope this will show how beautiful my country really is.”
When I reach my hotel, the owner soon hands me a small photocopied map of the city and, from its size, I am deceived into thinking it should be easy to find my way around the historic city. It takes me half an hour to walk from one end of the city to the other, but the intricate maze of small streets and cobbled plazas makes my exploration surprisingly challenging to navigate. After walking in circles under the full midday sun, I stumble upon a restaurant packed with locals perched on every available chair, bar and surface. Friends share tables with strangers and the restaurant buzzes with lively conversation. Grabbing the only available stool, I am immediately caught in conversation with a local notary, as I work my way through a typical lunch of soup, fried banana, fish, and rice. He tells me business is booming, mostly due to the number of foreigners who want to marry in his hometown. Finishing the dregs of my mango juice he asks my opinion – and I have to agree that it would be difficult to pass up Cartagena as the location for a romantic wedding.
While other old cities throughout the world have been somewhat stripped of their charm and turned into little more than pretty tourist traps, Cartagena continues to be alive with the sights, sounds and smells of coastal life. Supermarket shelves heave under the weight of pungent fruit and vegetables, children dawdle slowly home from school and behind every door televisions buzz with the nation’s favorite soap operas. Only now is it catching the tourist buzz, though it is still possible to escape the typical tourist traps and experience life alongside locals.
Rickety black horse-drawn carriages, with candles glowing in their yellowing glass holders, rumble along the cobbled streets day and night. Snug in the cracked leather seat of my driver Pedro’s cart, we trot along narrow city lanes and I once again marvel that I have this mostly to myself. Through gaping teeth and an ever-present smile, Pedro occasionally turns back to shout out some of the city’s history to his captive audience. As we slow to trot, he gleefully spins around and flashes me his signature smile – revealing that most of the city’s wall is made from a mixture of stone, coral and human blood.
For my last night, I decide to farewell Cartagena from the top of its most striking feature. Just before midnight I climb to the top of the city wall to join the throng of hip locals and foreigners at Cafe del Mar, the city’s trendiest bar. Here, with international electronic music mingling in the Caribbean breeze, I sip mojitos and watch the waves lull against the beach below. If this were Costa Rica, Brazil or Mexico, the bar would be full of tourists sipping their cocktails. But this is Colombia, and for now tourists are a minority – though it won’t stay like this for long. Whether it’s the much-hyped Hollywood movie, the vastly improving national security or purely word of mouth, it is only a matter of time before the secret is out and Cartagena is ‘discovered’. My advice is to get here as soon as you can.
Photography by Carlos Castillo