Thanks to a new film, the Colombian city of Cartagena is poised for a tourism comeback, reports Colin Barraclough
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.restauranteelsantisimo.com.
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.hotelsantaclara.com.
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.aguabedandbreakfast.com.
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. www.lapassionhotel.com.
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.quiebracanto.com.
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.cafedelmarcolombia.com.
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