Lonely Planet Magazine (US) - - Easy Trips -

Martín Padilla dips a paint­brush in a jam jar and pauses to in­spect 10 days of work. Flanked in his work­shop by a statue of a saint and a pet tor­toise, Padilla squints at de­pic­tions of his home­town of Carta­gena on which the paint is not yet dry. There is the mus­tard-yel­low fa­cade of the clocktower, un­der whose arches ci­gar sales­men idle in the mid­day heat. There is the dome of St. Peter’s church, min­gling with the masts of moored ships and the tallest palms in the parks. Beyond the crum­bling bat­tle­ments, dol­phins leap from a blue sea.

“Carta­gena is a city of strange en­ergy,” he says. “And this en­ergy brings me hap­pi­ness. I feel proud when I paint my city. It’s like when a mu­si­cian plays his first note: as soon as I make my first brush­stroke, I am com­pletely ab­sorbed!”

Padilla isn’t paint­ing these scenes on pa­per, on can­vas or on a wall. He is paint­ing them on a bus.

And not just any bus, but a chiva, one of the vin­tage tech­ni­color ve­hi­cles that are the kings of Colom­bia’s Caribbean road net­work, part pub­lic trans­porta­tion, part minia­ture car­ni­val. They are given names, flash­ing lights and mini-mu­rals. They are var­i­ously put to use as mo­bile dis­cos, as trans­porta­tion for peo­ple, ship­ments of cof­fee or (in ru­ral ar­eas) protest­ing chick­ens, goats and pigs. Wher­ever they go, they are am­bas­sadors of the Colom­bian Caribbean: ex­tro­verted and fun-lov­ing.

“Ev­ery bus has a char­ac­ter,” ex­plains Padilla, rest­ing his arm on the hood. “This one is called La Todo Bien (It’s All Good). The whole idea is when you see it drive past, it makes you smile.”

oc­cu­pies a colo­nial man­sion in Carta­gena’s Old Town, with spa­cious rooms over­look­ing a palm-lined court­yard. Be sure to visit the roof ter­race, which has panoramic views over the church spires and bat­tle­ments of the city. Bi­cy­cles are avail­able to rent (from $280; ananda carta­gena.com).

Sev­eral com­pa­nies run nightly chiva tours of Carta­gena (from $17; vi­a­tor.com). A few guides of­fer pri­vate Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez tours of the city (from $120; tour­in­car­ta­gena.com).

The buses of­ten can be found lap­ping the bat­tle­ments of Old Carta­gena – for­ti­fi­ca­tions built to re­pel pi­rates since the town was founded in the

16th cen­tury. Rust­ing can­nons that once pro­tected ship­ments of gold bound for Spain are now pointed at pass­ing traf­fic. Ram­parts once be­sieged by Sir Fran­cis Drake are to­day be­sieged by chil­dren fly­ing kites. But the bulky chiva is of no use in nav­i­gat­ing the nar­row al­ley­ways of the city within.

Walk­ing into the city, you tem­po­rar­ily exit 21stcen­tury South Amer­ica and en­ter a place that seems adrift among both con­ti­nents and cen­turies. A few streets feel like 19th-cen­tury Europe: rows of town­houses where bougainvil­lea sprouts through the stonework, with lit­tle bal­conies warped by cen­turies of Caribbean heat. At other times Afro-Colom­bian cul­ture takes over: Ma­pale dances strike up nightly in the square of Plaza de la Ad­u­ana, the rhythms said to orig­i­nate from An­gola. And then there are indige­nous crafts for sale in the ar­cades – woolen satchels of a kind wo­ven here be­fore Euro­peans and Africans even knew of the ex­is­tence of another con­ti­nent over the At­lantic.

In ad­di­tion to painters like Martín, poets, mu­si­cians, sculp­tors and philoso­phers have sought in­spi­ra­tion from Carta­gena’s cul­tural cross­cur­rents. None are bet­ter loved than the No­bel-Prize-win­ning nov­el­ist Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez, who stud­ied and lived in Carta­gena and who ex­plained that all his books con­tain “loose threads” of the town. He bor­rowed Carta­gena’s streets for his clas­sic 1985 novel Love in the Time of Cholera, a story of two lovers kept apart through­out their lives in the same city.

With only a bit of de­tec­tive work you can rec­og­nize the al­mond-tree-lined Plaza Fernán­dez de Madrid as the fic­tional Park of the Evan­gels, where the lovesick young Florentino Ariza hopes to catch sight of Fer­mina Daza. You can iden­tify the wharves from which, in the fi­nal pages of the book, Florentino and Fer­mina cast off on their steam­boat jour­ney through the swamps and forests of the Colom­bian in­te­rior. And, walk­ing any­where in the town, you can rec­og­nize the sen­ti­ment of Dr. Ju­ve­nal Urbino, of whom we are told “all his re­serves of pas­sion were con­cen­trated on the destiny of his city which, he said with great fre­quency and no sec­ond thoughts, had no equal in the world.”

Head to Colom­bia’s colo­nial port city – pil­laged for gold by pi­rates, and plun­dered for in­spi­ra­tion by nov­el­ist Gabriel Gar­cía Márquez.

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