Thanks to a new film, the Colom­bian city of Carta­gena is poised for a tourism come­back, re­ports Colin Bar­r­a­clough

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

TOURISM au­thor­i­ties in Carta­gena, a on­ceil­lus­tri­ous port on Colom­bia’s Caribbean coast, are gear­ing up for an avalanche of vis­i­tors as the first main­stream film shot in the city for two decades goes on re­lease. Love in the Time of Cholera , based on No­bel Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez’s tale of un­re­quited love, opened in Aus­tralian cine­mas this week.

Just as hol­i­day-mak­ers flocked to Ar­gentina and Chile fol­low­ing Wal­ter Salles’s drama­ti­sa­tion of Che Gue­vara in The Mo­tor­cy­cle Di­aries , the cel­lu­loid ver­sion of Colom­bian-born Mar­quez’s novel looks set to fo­cus in­ter­na­tional in­ter­est on the city where he worked as a young re­porter in the 1950s.

Once akin to Old Ha­vana, deca­dent in crum­bling splen­dour, Carta­gena, a UNESCO World Her­itage Site, is al­ready en­joy­ing a much-needed makeover on the back of a tourism boom.

Its walled Old City, once Spain’s finest colo­nial out­post in the Amer­i­cas, has been re­stored to its past grandeur. Bou­tique ho­tels have been cre­ated from colo­nial-era town houses and long-ne­glected wood­en­framed build­ings are now washed in del­i­cate shades of peach, mus­tard and sun­flower yel­low, their mas­sive bal­conies be­decked with bougainvil­lea and camel­lias.

The city has come a long way since Colom­bia’s Con­vento de San Pe­dro Claver, named af­ter a 17th-cen­tury monk canon­ised for his min­istry to Colom­bia’s slave pop­u­la­tion, tourists can visit the cell where the Je­suit saint lived and died.

Ex­plor­ing the Castillo de San Felipe de Bara­jas, Spain’s largest Amer­i­can fort, I scurry through tun­nels laced be­neath its im­preg­nable bulk, which was never taken by force. The tun­nels, which con­nect the fort’s strate­gic points, were de­signed to ac­cen­tu­ate sounds, al­low­ing de­fend­ing sol­diers to hear an at­tack­ing en­emy’s faintest foot­step.

Yet I find it eas­i­est to dis­card a set itin­er­ary in favour of an aim­less ram­ble. The city’s ram­parts, so ex­ten­sive they were com­pleted just 25 years be­fore Colom­bia’s in­de­pen­dence, pre­vent the stroller from wan­der­ing into trou­ble. I walk out each balmy morn­ing with lit­tle pur­pose, con­tent sim­ply to wan­der the maze of cob­bled al­ley­ways, leafy plazas and shad­owed back­streets.

Along the way, I de­velop a taste for aji­aco, a sta­ple Colom­bian stew of chicken, potato, corn and ca­pers, el­bow­ing plate space for my­self at lunchtime canti­nas crowded with lo­cals. I strike up a rap­port with an AfroColom­bian sales­woman who sells tiny corn pan­cakes called arepa from a tray she car­ries on her head.

By night, I sam­ple oys­ters, snap­per and grouper lifted fresh each morn­ing from the nearby Caribbean wa­ters dark­est days, when guerilla war­fare and nar­cotics traf­fick­ing plunged the coun­try into a seem­ingly end­less cy­cle of vi­o­lence. For decades, the coun­try was rightly con­sid­ered too dan­ger­ous for all but the hardi­est trav­eller. Yet peace of a kind has bro­ken out, and canny vis­i­tors are re­turn­ing in record num­bers. Much of this re­cov­ery can be at­trib­uted to Colom­bian Pres­i­dent Al­varo Uribe, whose cam­paign against armed groups has posted dra­matic re­sults. Since win­ning of­fice in 2002, Uribe has beaten the gueril­las back to their jun­gle hide-outs, se­cur­ing a dra­matic fall in vi­o­lence: in the first two years of his man­date, mur­ders dropped by 40 per cent, bomb­ings by 66 per cent and kid­nap­pings by 79 per cent.

Carta­gena dis­plays the story of three cen­turies of im­pe­rial Span­ish rule. Founded in 1533, it was used as a store­house for trea­sure plun­dered by the Span­ish from South Amer­ica; gold, sil­ver and rare stones were col­lected within its mas­sive forts un­til galleons could be mus­tered to ship them to Europe. Laden with riches, Carta­gena thus pre­sented a tempt­ing tar­get for the pi­rate crews who pil­laged the Caribbean coast.

Vis­i­tors find 11km of elab­o­rate for­ti­fied walls — built in be­lated re­sponse to a pi­rate at­tack in 1586, when Francis Drake be­sieged the city for 100 days — en­cir­cling street af­ter pic­turesque street, each lined with 400-year-old palaces, churches and town houses, all bathed in blind­ing Caribbean sun­light.

So rich is the city’s his­toric legacy, in fact, that it’s treated al­most ca­su­ally. The peach-hued cathe­dral, for in­stance, still bears the scars of Drake’s can­nons, while the Pala­cio de la In­quisi­cion, once the seat of the Holy Of­fice’s Pun­ish­ment Tri­bunal, now func­tions as a grisly mu­seum of me­dieval re­li­gious tor­ture. At the bom­bas­tic and in­fused with ta­marind, chilli, co­rian­der and co­conut.

Yet the quin­tes­sen­tial Carta­gena noc­tur­nal ex­pe­ri­ence is a sim­ple af­fair: it’s dif­fi­cult to beat sip­ping an ice-cold Club Colom­bia beer on Plaza San Diego, where restau­rant ta­bles spill into the street, artists ped­dle home-made jew­ellery and strolling gui­tarists strum Colom­bian bal­lads as much for their own plea­sure as for a hand­ful of coins.

On sul­try nights — and ev­ery night in Carta­gena seems to be sul­try — lo­cals min­gle at al fresco bars sit­u­ated on the ram­parts, where 17th-cen­tury stone tur­rets now house disc jockey booths. And then, of course, there’s Mar­quez. Carta­gena has long been as­so­ci­ated with Colom­bia’s most pop­u­lar au­thor, who stud­ied at the univer­sity and worked the city’s thenseamy back­streets as a cub re­porter. The writer’s pres­ence is strongly felt and lo­cals fre­quently men­tion his name, af­fec­tion­ately call­ing him Gabo.

Many of the city’s no­table build­ings, too, be­came fa­mous through Mar­quez’s books: the 1617-built Con­vent of Santa Clara de As­sisi, for in­stance, now one of the city’s most el­e­gant ho­tels, pro­vided the set­ting for his 1994 novel OfLove­andOtherDe­mons. Oddly, per­haps, Mar­quez rarely vis­its Carta­gena. Dis­ap­prov­ing of Colom­bia’s stri­dent pol­i­tics, he has spent most of his adult life in Mex­ico. Yet he opted to cel­e­brate his 80th birth­day, in March 2007, at his modernist red-stucco villa, de­signed in the 1990s by Colom­bian ar­chi­tect Ro­ge­lio Sal­mona and sur­rounded by an ochre-coloured wall, over­look­ing Carta­gena’s ram­parts and the turquoise Caribbean be­yond.

Per­haps Gabo’s ethe­real pres­ence is more ap­pro­pri­ate than it seems. Af­ter all, Colom­bia it­self has ex­isted, yet not ex­isted, for years; ever present in news head­lines, it has been next-toim­pos­si­ble to see at first hand. Now, both on­screen and as a com­pelling des­ti­na­tion, Colom­bia, like Gabo, may be re­turn­ing to the realm of the real.


La Vitrola: Ex­pect so­phis­ti­cated Caribbean-in­flu­enced dishes such as grilled grouper with ta­marind and chilli, an ex­ten­sive wine list and (oc­ca­sion­ally) Cuban mu­si­cians. With an army of som­me­liers and maitre d’s and a snug for post-pran­dial cigars, it’s sur­pris­ingly for­mal for laid-back Carta­gena. Pricey but worth the bud­get blow-out; on Calle Baloco.

Res­tau­rante El San­tisimo: A war­ren of nooks, dec­o­rated with folk-art rendi- tions of Christ, the apos­tles and the saints, sur­rounds a mag­nif­i­cent court­yard shaded by a lone mango tree. Caribbean in­gre­di­ents such as co­rian­der, co­conut and plan­tains are matched with so­phis­ti­cated culi­nary tech­niques to pro­duce out­stand­ing lo­cal dishes. www.restau­ran­teel­san­


Ho­tel Santa Clara: Much of the ac­tion in Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez’s 1994 novel Of Love and Other Demons, in which a young girl from Carta­gena is raised by her par­ents’ slaves, takes place in the 1617-built Con­vent of Santa Clara de As­sisi. Now owned by the French Sof­i­tel chain, the for­mer con­vent is one of Carta­gena’s most el­e­gant bou­tique ho­tels.www.ho­tel­san­

Agua: A de­sign-minded B & B, Agua has been carved from a 17th-cen­tury man­sion of jaw-drop­ping di­men­sions: its im­pos­ing, un­marked door­way masks an in­te­rior of fortress-thick walls, lat­ticed bal­conies, and soar­ing ceil­ings of guay­a­can hard­wood, shaded by a brace of royal palms in a fern-car­peted court­yard. Fur­nished with Chi­nese porce­lain, sil­ver can­dle­sticks, and ze­bra-skin rugs, six in­dul­gently lav­ish rooms of­fer blessed sanc­tu­ary from the pun­ish­ing Caribbean sun. www.aguabe­dand­break­

La Pas­sion: A shabby-chic ho­tel in the heart of the Old City, La Pas­sion’s French owner scoured ar­chi­tec­tural de­mo­li­tion stores for Louis XIIIin­flu­enced furniture and re­vamped cu­rios, match­ing them with fe­cund sprays of ba­nana and bam­boo in a man­sion ded­i­cated to de­cay­ing grandeur. On sul­try nights, the roof ter­race beck­ons, where a pool of translu­cent ul­tra­ma­rine in­vites a dip fol­lowed by a well-mixed mo­jito.­pas­sion­ho­


Quiebra Canto: A charm­ing wooden shack of­fer­ing heavy salsa swing, sit­u­ated just be­yond the Puerta del Reloj on the far side of Par­que Cen­te­nario. www.quiebra­

Mis­ter Ba­billa: Stands out from the wel­ter of smaller clubs on Calle del Arse­nal in Get­se­mani, the outer zone of the walled city.

Cafe del Mar: On the Old City ram­parts, this su­per-cool al­fresco bar serves cock­tails to the party crowd un­til way past dawn. An ad­di­tional nice touch: the disc jockey’s booth is housed in a 17th-cen­tury stone tur­ret. www.cafedel­mar­colom­


Lit­er­ary land­marks: A car­riage near Carta­gena’s San Pe­dro cathe­dral; the city is a film set for Love in the Time of Cholera, based on Gabriel Gar­cia Mar­quez’s novel

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