Cartagena Jewel of the Caribbean
Feb 14, 2004
David Rich 1400 Words
Cartagena: Jewel of the Caribbean
Cartagena sits pretty in pastel, perched on the Caribbean's most strategic position atop a vast continent, encircled by massive and almost impregnable walls pocked with secret passages, cisterns and slippery tunnels. From January 1533 Cartagena controlled the north of South America ensuring Spanish domination of a world-class land mass and providing the storehouse for the export of metric gold tons in exchange for the latest goods from mother Spain. Its wealth and location tempted pirates and competing European nations; see the Hollywood spectacular, Master and Commander, The Far Side of the World for the British version of the intense competition for control of South America.
There are at least five fab reasons to go to Cartagena. The first is its ineffable beauty unsuccessfully concealed by almost five miles of massive ten-foot-thick walls thirty-feet high, inexorably boasting of treasures inside. Who'd build such a fortification with weathered-stone-turrets every hundred yards, vast pentagonal corners of astonishing grace, seemingly impregnable, unless it hid untold wealth?
Inside the perfectly mortared-stone ramparts, the pulchritudity of Cartagena hits you between the eyes. Cobalt balconies sprout from pristine cream walls draped with a rainbow of hammocks next to fountains jetting toward a skyline of ancient stone domes. Towers jut above an ancient convent painted burnt sienna, now converted to a five-star hotel. Ancient colonial buildings, cathedrals, churches, monasteries and grand casas march lockstep down every narrow avenue in springtime colors from the palest yellow with Persian blue balconies, pretty in pink with teal and blue accents, tangerine with forest green sashes and windows, yak butter yellow with white embellishments, blue-red with barely taupe trimmings, and lazy lavender with charcoal flourishes, all in art deco pastels complemented by shades of coffee and cream. Every balcony, sash, window, flourish and trimming is encrusted with clusters of richly colored tiles, painted in brilliant hues or carved from mahogany and teak, gingerbread garnished with bougainvillea. The astonishing beauty is most readily apparent in the early-morning and late-afternoon light, lending a gasp-quality to the whole of the ancient city.
The second reason to fly immediately to Cartagena is for a memorable honeymoon. Join honeymooners from all over the world as they walk hand-in-hand down shady pedestrian streets, motorized-traffic barred. Hop aboard bright red and black horse-coaches festooned with white lanterns framed in crystal for a snuggly promenade behind spiffily groomed steeds, five bucks an hour. Stop at any of the dozens of classy bars and cafes sprawled over sidewalks jammed with frappachinos and frippery and dream away the idyllic first days of marriage. Hole up in any of the many beautiful luxury hotels catering to pole-axed newly-weds. This is one super-romantic city.
Third, shop to your heart's content, stocking up on those things you simply can't get at home, except on the black market or at greatly inflated prices. Start with reasonably-priced emeralds for which Cartagena and the country are famed. Fondle lengthy tableaus of emeralds cut into stones seemingly as massive as those in the gargantuan city walls. The worlds' crown jewels litter unending picture-windows jammed with gems to knock your eyes out. Marvel at the unique sparkle, the unbelievable color of their deeply unique fluorescence, catching the light to scatter it into the memory banks of generations to come which, as you dig for your wallet, you may call estate-planning.
Do an end-run around those Cuban-Americans in Miami who voted and changed the course of world history. Buy a box or two of Cuban cigars legally, at a price little more than they'd cost in Cuba. Then light up and enjoy. And if you're feeling especially altruistic, email me and I'll happily supply my address so you can slip a single lone cigar into snail-mail. I'll absolutely promise to think of you, and fondly, when I light up. After all, is there anything better in the whole world than a Cuban cigar and perhaps a freshly-pulled pint of Guiness; newly-weds need not answer.
Fourth, sample history and culture through the hundreds of striking sculptures, paintings and even the kitschy-art crowding Cartagena's winding thoroughfares, plazas and main entrance to the city. Plan no itinerary but instead wander aimlessly through the maze of history and wonders, through the most charming and safest city on this huge continent, starting at the main gate. Historic canons guard the parapets above the arches in the great wall outside which garishly decorated buses play kamikaze but avoid the outside madness by beginning your meander with an escape through the triple-arched entrance to the relative peace and quiet inside. Giant sculptures front the grand entrance, which is topped by a tangerine-colored church spire; no church, only spire.
You'll double-take at the dozens of thrice-life-sized sculptures: the twelve-foot tall lady lolling against a lamppost smoking a stogy, the giant on the bicycle looking down at your sun-baked head, the towering school-girls in pigtails playing hide-and-seek. Just inside vendors hawk every color of tropical fruit, craft and parrot, silver and coral jewelry, necklaces, rings and bracelets. Garishly-colored and comedic paintings of fat people doing unexpected things attract your eye to the local-style of painting, kitschy but cool. Scattered around the grand plaza opposite the Cathedral are mere life-sized sculptures from a peg-legged pirate to the lady hunched over her sewing machine, the table of card players and a dozen others, delighting the child in all while children scamper hither and yon, climbing on each and every sculpture. A block away chess players plot moves against the clock in front of the Palace of the Inquisition's inspiring museum, a repository packed with medieval instruments of torture.
Before noon the city sparkles under the relentless equatorial sun, driving locals, newly-weds and tourists to its numerous shady plazas surrounded by trendy restaurants next to acres of emeralds and succulent stogies; or alternatively to its miles of beaches where it's time to branch out, to explore the fifth reason to come all the way to marvelous Cartagena, to log some serious beach-time. The old city is linked by soaring bridges to upscale suburbs, hulking massive forts and lovely Caribbean beaches to the northeast, east and south, the last stretching a mere three blocks wide for miles down Boca Grande. Here locals sprawl under yellow tents advertising rum, slumped comfortably on chaises while their children frolic far out into the shallow sea. Fruit-vendors carve mangos and melons for parched-partiers comfortably slumped on colorful chaises sipping mai-tais and beer. This long spit of beach encircles Cartagena Bay, the old shipping sanctuary three by nine miles long, rather like San Francisco Bay on its few days a year with warm weather. Boca Grande and Cartagena offer easy daytrips to the many islands and secluded villas for snorkeling, sunbathing and dancing where great food is the rule instead of the exception.
Then there's the sixth reason to go to Cartagena: nobody notices it's in Colombia. One easy fly-in visit and you've notched another country, an infamous country, and a knockout gorgeous walled city, on your traveling belt. From five hundred feet high atop La Popa Hill you can peer down on the panorama of it all and watch the sun's blazing disk drop sizzling into the peaceful Caribbean, rather like Michael Douglas and Kathryn Turner in Romancing the Stone, the jewels of the Caribbean, emeralds and Cartagena.
When you go: Colombia's kidnapping, FARC insurgency and drug trafficking take place in the mountains and cities far away from Cartagena. You can fly to Cartagena via Bogotá (the airport is secure) from Miami, Los Angeles or New York for $300 and up roundtrip. See www.hotwire.com, www.avianca.com or enter 'Cartagena airfare' in any mega-search-engine such as www.surfwax.com and marvel at the low prices allowing you to fly to this great resort destination. The hotels are superb from the five-star Charleston (converted ancient convent, phone 664-9494, fax 664-9448, from $150) and Santa Clara (French Sofitel Group in same price range, see www.hotelsantaclara.com or phone 664-6070, fax 664-7010, restored 16th Century convent) to my personal favorite Los Tres Banderas (in a converted grand casa with interior patio gardens, fountains and waterfalls), phone 660-0160, from $33. These three hotels are centrally situated in the old city. For restaurants, cafes and bars don't miss the array around Plaza Santo Domingo or on most any plaza in the old town.