Troy Hightower

Cartagena de Indias

The yellow lamp-lit streets were frenetic with revelers, crazy with the joy of the Colombian national team beating its tough and bitter rival Argentina in the qualifications for the world cup; the salsa music{cumbia beat] was weaving around the rhythmically pulsing dancers, when the debonair ex-presidente sidled up, nodded to me, bowed to my wife with an outstretched hand and said “quisiera baillar?”—do you wish to dance? What does one do when the ex-presidente asks your wife onto the floor for one of he sexiest dances in the world?

I’d wanted to see Cartagena de Indias ever since Michael Douglas and Kathleen Turner cavorted along the city’s thick fortified walls in the 1984 film Romancing the Stone. Cartagena is a town that exudes feelings mystical, surreal and contradictory. In the simple words of the noted Colombian muralist Alejandro Obregon: "It's a magical city." It is a place of contrasts—in a way a time warp—a beautiful Spanish colonial town determined to protect and preserve its legacy, while an increasingly modern populace makes its way in the current world. Cartagena is also a melting pot, and that populace is a mélange of Latin, Indian and African peoples and cultures—some of the worlds friendliest and most welcoming and hospitable people.

Gabriel García Márquez, the city’s most famous son, said that in Cartagena things “were not preserved from the rust of time; on the contrary, time was preserved for things that continued to be their original age while the centuries grew old.” These contrasts, and preservation of history make Cartagena an intriguing and alluring destination.

“Bienvenidos a Casa Veranera” said the pretty, very petite girl who opened the heavy, unvarnished plank door in the saffron-gold wall in the middle of Calle Quero, “soy Jennifer”. This boutique hotel is an elegant and comfortable five-room inn created by the renovation of a classic Andalusian-style courtyard house—sala, covered dining area, small lobby and upper terrace all opening on to a courtyard with small garden and fountain. Several similar small hotels dot Cartagena, as well as two larger hostels that have been created from ancient cloistered convents. Jennifer, Gloria and Oscar make up the young, eager small staff of the casa. “The yellow room is all ready for you, and we are most happy that you are here.” And that phrase embodies the attitude and service we would receive over the next four days, both in the hotel, and all over town.

In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas, an abbocado, or lawyer from Seville, sailed into the Bay of Cartagena with a small band of conquistadors, and quickly noticed the golden jewelry and precious stones worn by the local leaders. Word filtered back to Spain, and in 1533, Pedro de Heredia, a nobleman from Madrid, commenced the construction of the city on the incomparable 7 km bay, as a Spanish port in the Caribbean. Las Murallas, Cartagena´s iconic forty feet high and fifty foot thick fortress walls were constructed in several stages, starting in 1586 under the leadership of Baptist Antonelli, an Italian engineer in the service of the Spain. The almost 11 km of walls were extended and re-constructed over the course of the next 100 years.

A century later, Cartagena was the ´bank´of South America--gold and silver from various parts of the continent made its way here, and was stored before being shipped to Spain. Accordingly, the marauding pirates of the Caribbean, including Francis Drake, made it their favorite target. Cartagena was also the main slave port in the Caribbean. Thus the city grew rich in palaces, gardens, convents and churches, combining both the Andalusian and Catalan styles of architecture. Grand edifices in the Republican style were constructed in the years after independence in 1811, and the combination of those and the older colonial gives the old city its current style. In 1985 Cartagena was classified as a Unesco world heritage site, which means that renovation and construction within the old city has been very closely controlled in the years since.

We had asked Jennifer to arrange for a guide to give us an orientation tour, and promptly at 10 the next morning, Rafael Lara, a local teacher of history led us a veritable tango on foot around the old city within the walls, bringing the place to life with stories and history of old Cartagena. We started in the old cloister of the convent of Santa Clara, currently the overgrown courtyard of the Sofitel, and wandered the teeming, boisterous streets. The sidewalks are lined with pushcart vendors selling watermelons, mandarinas, peeled coconut, aromatic mango, papaya, fresh juice and tiny shots of coffee called locally a "tinto"—sort of a mobile espresso. Small mobile griddle wagons fry up arepas—a cornmeal flatbread stuffed with meat or vegetables, empanadas, fresh grilled corn, and even pizza! There are sellers of lottery tickets, small benches laden with gum and cigarettes, occasional vendors of local handicrafts, and an interesting local phenomenon, the provider of cell phone calls, paid for by the minute. Rafael seems to know everyone in town--two or three times down any block he greets someone, or someone yells "ciao Rafi". Some he provides a bit of side commentary on, such as the tall good-looking man about whom he reports "he just stood for Senator from Cartagena, but sadly failed to win".

Cartagena feels like a combination of San Miguel in Mexico, Seville, Spain, and New Orleans. The plaster buildings and houses are mostly done in vivid colors, --intense acid green with orange trim, deep dappled terra cotta, golden saffron, washed cobalt blue. While some of the post-colonial civic buildings are larger most edifices in the old city are mostly one and two story buildings, giving it a very livable scale and feeling. Many have second-story balconies cantilevered over the street, with wood balustrades. There are unique turned-wood bay window grills, black iron street lights, wrought iron doors to entrances leading to interior courtyards with fountains and gardens, and climbing twisted vines of pink bougainvillea or scarlet trumpet vine.

We come to the Plaza Simon Bolivar, where independence was declared in 1811, making Cartagena the first city in the new world to break with Spain. On the plaza’s east side sits the dusty rose and ochre Cathedral, built in 1575, and currently under restoration by international volunteers, under the direction of Restorers Sin Frontiers, a French non-profit. On the other side of Bolivar Square, the Office of the Holy Inquisition operated from 1610 in a magnificent baroque palace. Rafi said “the Inquisition did it’s nastiest work here for nearly 200 years, the longest anywhere in the Americas.”

The nearby 17th century house of the Marquis de Valdehoyos, who was granted "the privilege of importing slaves" by the Spanish crown, is one of the architectural jewels of the colonial era, and was for a time around 1830, the residence of Simon Bolivar. At the Plaza de los Coches, Rafi points out the vestiges of what was the largest slave market in the Americas, after Cartagena was granted a monopoly of the Caribbean slave trade at the beginning of the seventeenth century. Here the African captives, virtually done in by the months-long sea crossing, went straight from the ships’ holds to auction. Nearby, in the Plaza San Pedro, the attractive and imposing church of San Pedro Claver with its attached Jesuit cloister stands. “Jesuit father Pedro Claver lived in rooms here for 40+ years,” he continues “during which he ministered to the arriving slaves, washing them on landing, nursing their illness, and teaching and, of course, trying to convert them” He earned the epithet ‘a slave to the slaves forever’, which motto is emblazoned on the church dome interior in Latin. Adjacent is the Portal de los Dulces, a green arcaded building completely taken up by carts vending dozens of types of cookies, cakes and candies. In a scene in the recent film of the Garcia Marques novel, Love in the time of Cholera, heroine Fermina Daza stops here to purchase a variety of local homemade sweets.

The Convent of Santa Teresa, nestling under the southernmost fortified walls, in Plaza Santa Teresa, was founded in 1609 by a group of Carmelite nuns from Pamplona. Now a luxury hotel, the building was over time a lock factory, a jail, several schools and a police station. A friend of Rafi’s, a taxi driver, met us there, and borrowed the taxi, in which we drove out of the centro, across an island called Manga, for its many mango trees, where we saw several very large and luxurious colonial homes, then chugged up the mountain called Pie de la Popa, to the 500 foot high cerro de popa topped by the 17th century Santa Cruz Monastery. Here a very few ancient Augustine monks still live and tend the image of the Virgin de La Candelaria, who is credited with delivering the city from the ravages of disease and pirates. On 2 February a candle-bearing procession of thousands winds its way to the monastery to honor the Virgin’s feast day.

At the foot of the La Popa, the fort of San Felipe stands guard on a small hill
over old Cartagena, and here we descended again in our cranky taxi. The Spanish commander, General Blas de Lezo, a 40 year veteran with an illustrious career defended the garrison with a force of 6,000 men and a small fleet when, in 1741, the British admiral Edward Vernon massed a fleet of 186 ships, 3,000 cannons and 24,000 sailors and soldiers for an assault on Cartagena that was designed to smash Spanish power in the Caribbean. “Admiral Vernon was so sure of victory” said Rafi, “that he coined in advance these commemorative medals (which adorn de Lezos’ statue at the base of San Felipe) showing General de Lezo kneeling before the Vernon as conqueror, handing him his sword.” The tough Spanish general, one legged, one eyed and one armed, bested the cocky British, and by the end of the first day they had lost 1,000 soldiers; after a month the besiegers weighed anchor, and retreated for good, back to Jamaica.

Enough touring and history, we headed back to the Casa Veranera for an afternoon rest, and some air conditioning. Cartagena is very hot and humid, around 90 degrees, and 95% humidity fairly consistently most of the year. Walking back at dusk under increasingly blackening sky, wind up, peals of thunder, drops just falling as we arrive at the casa, sky opening in tropical downpour, and streets running as rivers shortly after. The deluge leaves as fast as comes an hour later, and streets dry out amazingly rapidly.

As we head out again into the silky evening air, the streets are filled with shadows and pools of light in which you can feel the tickle of history and the echo of 17th century Spaniards in ruffled lace collars and cuffs, ladies in lace mantillas, rogue cutpurses, and mestizos scuttling about with loads on their heads. Gabriel Marquez also said “You’ll see, in Cartagena everything’s different.” The evening flood of people—vibrant and frenetic—underscores this thought. The surging foam of foot traffic—a frenetic Brownian motion of vendors, shoppers, students, buskers and businessmen weaving and braiding along the streets—forms a surreal contrast with the stately, majestic colonial houses and buildings. A gnarled nut-brown old woman hawks peeled coconut and ripe mango next to a youngster selling cell phone calls by the minute. An old fellow at a tin griddle-topped cart offers corn arepas next to a student sitting on the curb thumbing a text message into his telefon móvil.

Carriage rides around Central Park in New York seem silly, affected. But somehow a horse-drawn carriage seems to fit into the warp and weft of Cartagena. So we took one--clip-clopping on the stones round the inside of the fortress walls under a coming moon, through the yellow lamplit streets of old quarter to the Plaza Bolivar. Rafi had told us there would be dancing at 6:30, and on cue a group of afro-cuban dancers commenced gyrating wildly to a driving beat, their chocolate bodies glistening with sweat in the yellow lamplight, their feet a mere blur.

Back at the Plaza San Diego—dinner hour is commencing on the surrounding restaurants and outdoor tables on a balmy Tuesday night. Adjacent, in the former Convent of Santa Clara, the Coro bar of the Sofitel set in the convent’s former chapel, is a lovely clubby bar with book-lined shelves white stucco walls, dark wood accents, comfortable sofas—a fine place to sip a Bombay martini. As everywhere in town, soccer is on the big screen with Colombia playing the tough Argentine team in the World Cup qualifiers, and the local crowd roaring wildly as their team went ahead of the Argentines with just a few minutes remaining. Several minutes later pandemonium breaks loose in the streets, plazas and restaurants as Colombia wins.

The Plaza San Diego scene is very lively and colorful--strollers and revelers, horse-drawn carriages clopping by, and street entertainment promised--we sat outside at Restaurant Juan del Mar to partake of punta de anca, a nicely rare-cooked, but very salty piece of beef, some fresh brocolli and cauliflower and a bit of spaghetti, washed down with a Chilean merlot--Ano 120. One act after another of various street entertainment came along—the frenetic afro-cuban dancers again; a pulsing Cuban quartet reminiscent of the Buena Vista Social club; and an incredible "hat" comic, who rapid-fire performed dozens of poses with one foldable, maleable wire-rimmed hat—from Napoleon to matador to muslim to mickey mouse to chef each with a quick flip and twist. All enormously fun.

Walking (or maybe stumbling) back through streets filled with ecstatic soccer fans toward Casa Veranera we passed one corner that contains three dueling bars, blaring various music at each other--one small bar looked interesting—packed and boistrous with a tiny clutch of people oscillating to the cumbia beat--they saw us looking in, motioned heartily to enter, and made a place at the end of the bar for us to perch and order a cuba libre and a beer to celebrate with them. A lithe elderly fellow was gyrating with greased ballbearings in his hips, tight against a slinky twenty-something woman. On many visits to San Miguel, Mexico, at various dance venues, we frequently used to see a mature gentleman, always with a hot young thing, who we came to think of the ex presidente--and this fellow was very similar. After a quick quaff at the bar with his friends, he solemnly came around, nodded to me, made a small bow to Troy and said ¨quisiera bailar?--would you like to dance? The crowd, all locals, regulars and friends, erupted in applause and whistles as she took her slinky moves onto the floor with 'el ex presidente'. We were welcomed in that local hangout as friends, good sports, and honorary locals. One of those extraordinary events that just sometimes happens if you're in the right place, with the right mindset, and an indicator of the attitude of the Cartagenenos.

As we prepared to depart the next morning, Gloria waved us to computer, mumbling about her English, to show us something she typed into Google translation: ´We have been so pleased to have you at Casa Veranera, and Jennifer, Oscar and I are very happy if we have helped make your stay enjoyable—we wish you buen viaje´ -- that about sums up the manner and outlook and welcome of the people of Cartagena.