Congratulations to Bill Fink, who won the Gold Award in “Magazine Articles” category in the BATW BEST Travel Writing & Photography Awards for his delightful San Francisco Chronicle Magazine story “Magical Realism Realized in Cartagena.”
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If you’re going to Hawaii, someone might ask you to bring back macadamia nuts. Go to Belgium, they’ll ask for chocolates. Tell them you’re visiting Colombia, and people will just snicker and wink and pretend to snort something through their nostrils.
As far as many Americans are concerned, Colombian cities are named after cocaine cartels, the streets are regularly crowded with shoot-outs, and the only regular visitor is the drug-addled Al Pacino from Scarface, commuting down to throw someone out of a helicopter.
I pondered the threats around me while I sipped a mojito at the Café Del Mar perched on the old city wall in Cartagena, Colombia. There might be too much mint in my drink. I might not have the best angle to see the sunset over the Caribbean. If I attended the classical music performance in the plaza, I might miss the party at the sugar baron’s mansion.
Waves rolled onto the shore beneath the setting sun. A pickup game of soccer unfurled in the park below me. A guitarist strummed local vallenato tunes while couples strolled the walls hand-in-hand, stopping to kiss in the old gun turrets. The smell of sizzling plantains wafted from the grill behind the bar. Truly, my life was fraught with danger. I ordered another mojito.
I began to think of the city as a version of the mythical Shangri-La, but this hidden paradise was separated from the world not by physical barriers, but psychological ones. Instead of vertical cliffs or raging rapids, the borders of Colombia are guarded by a jagged fence of fear, a scent of seediness and the dark cloud of recent history.
I explored the city of Cartagena and its surrounding areas to see if a casual traveler could bridge these barriers and discover a sense of safety, culture and the beauty of a South American Shangri-La.
The national tourist board, showing they have a sense of humor, has come up with the slogan “Colombia: The only risk is wanting to stay.” The reality is, walking the streets of the historical center of Cartagena felt Epcot-safe. Tourists and locals walked at all hours without concern. Refurbished Spanish colonial homes with balconies covered in latticework and hanging bougainvillea flowers gave a feeling of the streets of New Orleans, but without the sloppy drunks. Towering cathedral spires and bright pastel homes recalled the villages of southern Spain.
As a reassurance, armed guards stood at nearly every corner, but they were so bored with the lack of action, they spent the bulk of their time text messaging, flirting with girls or practicing their salsa steps. Far outside of the walls of the historic district, the scene was much different, with impoverished barrios coating the hills like a grimy bathtub ring. But faulting Cartagena for its bad areas would be like skipping a visit to San Francisco to avoid the Tenderloin.
Even during the height of the Colombian drug wars and civil unrest of the ’80s and ’90s, Cartagena was an oasis of calm. Some joked that it was because both the criminals and the police needed a peaceful place to vacation. But the end result is that now even a petite American violinist visiting for a music festival told me she thought the city was “fantastically safe.”
Cartagena’s thick city walls were built as protection against pirates and privateers during the height of the Spanish colonial era in the 1600s, when anyone with a cannon wanted a piece of the gold reserves stored in town. The looming stone fortress of Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas and undersea walls complete a historical sense of security.
Purely for research purposes, one night I had a few Aguila beers in the bars and stumbled alone across town to my hotel at 3:30 a.m. The streets were silent aside from the clop of my shoes on the cobblestone, and the faint sound of an accordion and singing coming from a hidden house party. The few people still out on the streets either nodded to me, or walked past murmuring softly to each other. I saw a hammock swinging slowly on the balcony of an old colonial home, a lazy foot dangling in the cool evening breeze. I returned to sleep to the soothing sound of the surf echoing through my hotel window.
Highbrow culture and lowbrow fun
Once comfortable with the safety of the place, I ventured out to explore Cartagena’s culture. I was worried the city might have transformed into an antiseptic tourist bubble, far removed from its regional or national soul.
My visit coincided with the third annual Cartagena International Music Festival, a collection of local and foreign performers including the London Chamber Orchestra, and the Colombian folk ensemble Sinsonte. Performances were sold out months ahead of time, with the elite of Colombia and international visitors gathering for gala events in refurbished theaters, repurposed chapels and city plazas. Outreach concerts took Mozart to the poor of the barrios, while master classes provided a forum for fellowship through music.
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Schubert and carriages
At an evening performance, the tones of Schubert resonated through five balconies filled with decked-out patrons sitting in the opulent box seats of the old Heredia Theater. I imagined I would walk outside to meet women in hoop dresses and parasols, waiting to board horse-drawn carriages. When I exited, the parasols were just a dream, but the carriages stood ready, as real as the marble theater steps.
Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Nobel Prize-winning novelist and part-time Cartagena resident, evokes this dreamy quality of the city in his magic realism style of writing. In Love in the Time of Cholera, he writes that Cartagena’s “silence was diaphanous in the four o’clock heat, and through the bedroom window one could see the outline of the old city with the afternoon sun at its back, its golden domes, its sea in flames all the way to Jamaica.”
Given the heat, it wasn’t until near midnight that the outdoor concerts began. A huge crowd gathered in front of the church in Plaza San Pedro to hear both classical cellists and the llanera music of the high plains. Despite the timing, performers noted the crowd’s attentiveness. Scott St. John of the Stanford University-based St. Lawrence String Quartet joked; “If we set up in Golden Gate Park, maybe a dozen people might walk by. Here they were lined up two hours before show time. Try doing an outdoor concert in San Francisco at 11 p.m. and at best you’d have a circus atmosphere. Here it was like people were going to church, they were so reverent.”
Only blocks away from the cellists, the crowded Santo Domingo square hosted a more raucous nightly scene. Tables of diners burst into choruses of Guantanamera, accompanied by strolling guitarists and the odd accordion player. Vendors sold sliced fruit, shots of coffee and chopped coconuts. Waiters rushed to and fro with rice and bean platters topped with roasted red snapper and grilled chicken. Romantic couples took in the scene from their tables on balconies above the square.
Dance groups performed for tips, their swirling costumes and lithe bodies contrasting with the ponderous Botero statue behind them. The variety of performers highlighted the three-part foundation of Cartegena culture: the Spanish influence with the flamenco dancers, the native traditions in bambuco music and the imported African rhythms in the frantic gyrations and drumming of Cumbia.
Passion on the dance floor
To complete my musical journey, I went to the Quiebra Canto dance club, where speakers cranked out the latest salsa tunes. The Colombians spun to the music like national celebrity Shakira. A patient local tapped out time on her hand as she tried to teach me some basic dance steps. Giving up, I leaned against the wall with the other gringos, and toasted to a night of fun as couples swirled around the dance floor in synchronized passion.
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The next morning I hopped aboard a high-speed boat for a teeth-rattling 45-minute trip to the Rosario Islands, so named because on sea maps the chain of 30 islets dangle like rosary beads. We bounced past fishing villages, upscale resorts on white sand beaches, and private islands topped with posh vacation villas.
Despite the serene beauty, I still envisioned the islands as the refuge of cocaine lords, buzzing with secret seaplane landings, and maybe Harrison Ford on his way to battle the Colombian narco-terrorists like he did in A Clear and Present Danger. But then, the Swedish ladies started singing.
Pasty white, wearing a goofy ensemble of parrot-colored swim wear, the festive group of older Swedes was sharing my boat for a snorkeling trip. One woman was celebrating her 60th birthday with her sister and a dozen friends. After visiting the islands, the group was going to her vacation home outside of the mountain city of Cali. “Safe as a holiday in the Swedish countryside,” she said, “but don’t tell anyone or it might get too crowded here.”
My dive into the reefs of Rosario was blissfully peaceful, with schools of bright fish darting between cathedrals of coral as I drifted through the warm waters. On shore, I reclined in a lounge chair on a white sand beach, sampling a fruit cup while I shaded my eyes against the bright blue waters.
Returning, we passed Cartagena’s upscale Bocagrande peninsula with its shining white high-rise apartments and yacht-filled marinas, resembling Miami Beach more than a remote South American outpost. And as in Miami Beach, many of the locals have undergone their own restorations, with very prominent personal enhancements suggesting Colombia may be a new world leader in cosmetic surgery.
Like the mythical Shangri-La, the paradise embodied by Cartagena is a little bit of a dream. Nationally, poverty is endemic. The distribution of wealth creates a grossly affluent ruling class with the masses fighting for daily survival in poor neighborhoods. Battles with cocaine traffickers and various rebels continue in the distant Amazon jungles.
But around the city of Cartagena, and really for much of the nation of Colombia, the dreamy tales of Gabriel Garcia Marquez are becoming daily life. The fashion capital of Medellin, the cultural center of Bogota, and the mountain gateway of Cali all exemplify the pride of new Colombia. None more so than Cartagena, continuing in its ideal of a peaceful paradise hidden from the outside world. As Stephen Prutsman, the artistic director of the Cartagena Music Festival told me, “What we’re doing here is making magical realism a reality.”
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If you go
Going: Cartegena is on the Caribbean coast of northern Colombia. Continental and Delta airlines offer regular service that flies via Houston/Miami, and then through Bogota. The journey took me about 12 hours from San Francisco. Latest prices are around $1,000 round-trip.
A variety of good quality three- and four-star hotels can be found a 10-minute drive away in the modern Bocagrande peninsula for about $150 a night. And backpackers can still find grungy hostels in Getsemani area for $20 a night in semi-sketchy areas.
Food: The historical district has a plethora of fine local and international dining options, with entrees often starting at $20, or you can grab rice and chicken and beer at a corner shop outside the walls for maybe five bucks.
I enjoyed Cuban food at La Bodeguita del Medio, Italian at Santa Lucia overlooking Santo Domingo square and fine Colombian cuisine at El Santisimo.
— Bill Fink