What can I say about Cartagena except that I loved it. Every Colombian told me I would. “Aah, Cartagena,” they would say softly, eyes glazing over. “You are going to love it.” And I did.
That being said, I’m always looking for the familiar in the unfamiliar and the vibe reminded me a bit of the Bahamas when I was a kid: tropical, exotic, exciting, mysterious, slightly shabby but still beautiful; Touristy but not too touristy. (And not the kind of tourists who go from Dunkin’ Donuts to the beach, eat at the same restaurants they have at home and actually think they have been somewhere different. Obnoxious and judgmental? Yes. But nothing irritates me more, especially after seeing Paradise Island, a place that I loved as a child for the reasons described above, stripped of its essence.) For the most part, Cartagena seems to be populated by the kind of tourist who actually wants to experience a sense of place and I think this is in part because the city gives you no choice.
From the minute you step outside you are immediately thrust into the heat. It smells like flowers and rotting fruit and pastries and salt. The Old Town is like a house of mirrors the way its tiny streets can turn you around. “Didn’t I just walk around this corner,” you ask yourself and realize you did. Twice. How could the same corner look so different? There is a reason Gabriel García Márquez lived here. Meanwhile, you are dodging small yellow taxis who drive at breakneck speed, honking, down said tiny streets behind horse drawn carriages and pedestrians who want to share the narrow sidewalks. Guys are trying to sell you hats and fruits and trinkets. But suddenly, you come upon an empty street and marvel at the colorful, colonial buildings covered with balconies and climbing vines. There is music coming from a nearby square and a Palenqueras woman dressed in the brightly hued ruffled dress of their Afro-Caribbean ancestors silently passes you. A man with a pushcart full of coconuts walks in the middle of the street. Suddenly you come upon the thick walls that line the perimeter of the Old Town, parallel to the sea. Originally built in the sixteenth century to fortify the city against attacks, it is now a popular place to walk or watch the sunset. Now instead of seeing incoming pirate ships you see the skyscrapers in the nearby Bocagrande neighborhood, a skyline that looks like the little sister to Miami. You climb to the top at the wall turn your back to the town and marvel at the Caribbean Sea, spread out before you.
So what did we do in Cartagena? After our first day of pool lounging, the kids and I set out to explore the Old Town. The heat was suffocating and it didn’t take long until we were drenched in sweat. It felt like a tremendous effort to walk. Sean texted from an air conditioned meeting room, asking how we were doing and when I told him he recommended we abort our mission and head back to the hotel. But did I do that? Of course not! We walked on the wall, checked out the small Palacio de la Inquisición and popped into a few shops. We saw the Puerta de Reloj, the old clock tower gate and all the churches and squares in town. And then, nearly in tears, the kids ganged up on me and accused me of taking them on a death march so we eventually found our way back to the hotel (thank you, Oscar) and enjoyed lunch in the cool gardens at the Santa Clara followed by an afternoon swim.
(Santa Clara courtyard.)
Where did we eat? An O.K. dinner at the popular and highly rated Don Juan. A fantastic dinner next door at Maria under the watchful eyes of the colorful tiger murals. Oscar, unfortunately for us, discovered that he now likes lobster, at least in the form of chunks of spiny lobster stuffed inside homemade ravioli. We had dinner one night at Salou, where the food was also very good. (The barbecued octopus was exceptional.) And our last night, we ate at the famous La Vitrola, the Cuban speakeasy-style restaurant. The restaurant normally doesn’t allow kids but Sean’s friend made a call and the kids were allowed in, along with us through the tiny green door that leads to the restaurant. The party was just starting when we left after our early (for Cartagena, 7 p.m.!) dinner.
What we didn’t get to do is make it into the trendy Getsemanì neighborhood, go dancing, ride on a party bus around town (yes, people do this and it looks really fun) or check out any jazz clubs. Next time I plan to go back without the kids. And with a four and a half hour direct flight from New York and no real time difference (an hour at most and not all year round) I can’t see why I wouldn’t. (I just need to find someone to watch the kids!) One of the things I discovered about Cartagena is that you never know what you will find around the corner. That for me that is one of the greatest pleasures of travel: the unexpected. And its reason enough to return.
Our last night we stayed at the Movich Cartagena de Indias hotel. (We had been in the islands which I’ll talk about in another post.) The view from the rooftop pool was one of the best I have ever seen.
Our room was huge with a small balcony overlooking the street. Standing on the balcony at night you could hear the drummers in the plaza and the beat of the music from a nearby bar. Although the Movich is much smaller and doesn’t have the huge pool and the same grandeur as the Santa Clara which is housed in an old convent, I liked that it was in the middle of all the action. And, being in the middle of the action is what it’s all about in Cartagena.
Next post: the Rosario islands.