Reveling in the Many Splendors of Cartagena

Sandra Bertrand

 

Did I mention that we were two somewhere in middle-age women with a penchant for adventure travel?  After an hour’s delayed wait in Bogota for our flight to Cartagena, listening to the grinding of brakes and other mechanical whatnots on the runway—the rain beating like tiny fists on the cabin window all the while—we could be excused for a modicum of impatience. The Rafael Nunez airport was only 2 miles from the front entrance of the El Centro Hotel but it felt like a 100. 

Knocking loudly and resolutely on the bolted fortress-like door, it was no wonder we attracted the attention of a curious stranger.  Bounding quickly across the dark street with the grace of a New York Knicks player, he gave the door a hard shove and we were inside the tiled foyer.  At last. We had assumed our late-night arrival in this fabled port city of the New World would be nothing short of dramatic. It was the prime target for pirates and plunderers like Sir Francis Drake and if our kindly stranger had doffed a plumed hat for the occasion, it would have simply confirmed we had finally landed in the “jewel of the Caribbean.”

Initially, eyeing our spartan windowless quarters, our hearts sank.  The previous five-star amenities we’d enjoyed in Panama City and Bogota at moderate if not bargain rates were nowhere in sight.  The rooms were arranged in a rectangular grid, with austere Spanish colonial walls brandished with the occasional crucifix.  Thankfully, the impression that at any moment a Sister of Mercy would appear to slap our hands because of some imagined misdeed, was counterbalanced by a friendly bookworm of a concierge. 

It was obviously time for some overdue shut-eye.

 

 

The next morning, we were still partially running on Billy Joel’s “New York state of mind.” Anxious nods to our young daydreaming waitress for that first fix of caffeine didn’t seem to register until a plump no-nonsense female cook appeared in the kitchen doorway, and the pace of service improved.  A little while later, heading out into the hard morning sun, we were delirious with joy.  After the chill and drizzle of Bogota’s Andean climate, we were ready to soak up whatever rays fell onto the cobbled streets of our ciudad amurallada or walled city

Our first task was finding a laundromat in nearby Getsemani.  Once reputed to be a stronghold of crime, this colorful neighborhood of boutiques and murals sits just outside the city walls and is well worth the walk—albeit less encumbered.  Our tour book, allowing for the budget-minded traveler searching for a cheap pensione, had conveniently listed a drop-off site for our dirty clothes.  Unlike the whitewashed exteriors of Colonial architecture, here every building was awash with color, every wall welcoming a local Picasso or Dali.  Snapshot possibilities awaited us on every corner. 

Walking back through the main entrance to Cartagena, we passed through the historic Puerta del Reloi or Clock Gate, smack in the middle of a plaza of carriages.  Taking a chiva ride is one of the main attractions for tourists, but for us the sun was already too high to pull these horses from their little pockets of shade.  Throughout our stay, particularly during the evening hours, these carriages would be as plentiful here as the cars on their way to the hotspots and high-rises of nearby Boca Grande.  More than once we would find ourselves hopping onto the narrowest of street curbs without a moment to spare to let the rushing hooves pass.   

Before leaving the plaza, we were confronted by an imposing statue of Pedro de Heredia atop his steed.  It was the Spanish commander Heredia who founded Cartagena on June 1, 1533, naming it after the town in Spain where most of his sailors had resided.  A backward glimpse at the great fortress Castillo San Felipe de Barajas before leaving the plaza leaves little doubt of the resilience of these early Spaniards. Overlooking the bay and the city, the castle remained almost impregnable.  When the English led by Edward Vernon tried to capture the city in 1741 with almost 24,000 men, their ships’ guns could barely reach the outside walls.  To this day, the fortress is a masterpiece of Spanish military engineering in the Americas.

 

 

Stopping for a midday meal in Cartagena is no small affair.  If truth be told, once tempted, we became gluttons for punishment.  The cuisine—often a fusion between Caribbean, Asian, Peruvian and Spanish—is simply spectacular.  On this initial foray, we discovered San Valentine, a spacious no-frills luncheon spot popular with the business crowd.  We opted for a fish entree bathed in a choice of an aioli (garlic) or coconut and pepper sauce and little Peruvian potatoes, ample salad greens and two beers which totaled just over 15 dollars.  A true valentine for our first lunch outing.

Another surprise awaited us upon our return to the hotel.  A more spacious room to our liking with French windows had become available, shutters opening onto a side street below.  We could now enjoy the passing parade to our heart’s content.  That is, until we discovered a pair of tiny birds who had taken up residence in the flower box.  Not wanting to be intruders on these precious freeloaders, we decided ample ogling opportunities were to be had by simply leaving the hotel. 

Cartagena, not unlike a hundred other seaside destinations in Central and South America, is made for evening strolling.  A cool (or even a warm) breeze lifts the mood and lightens the step.  And so it was that we happened upon El Boliche Cebecheria, arguably serving the best ceviche to be had in this part of the world.  Chef Oscar Calmenares, an alumnus of the famed Astrud & Gaston restaurant chain in Bogota and Lima, rules over a tucked-away enterprise of just seven tables. 

My favorite choice was a plate of octopus, squid, shrimp, snapper and conch marinated in a tamarind and coconut milk sauce.  The main course was preceded by a complimentary fish soup appetizer and followed by a coconut cream dessert, no more than a mouthful, to cap off the whole affair.   We could almost convince ourselves that we had enjoyed a light repast following our heavier midday meal.  Almost.

 

 

Searching for the perfect ceviche was high on our list of priorities, and late evening dining at Cevecheria in the San Diego district a must.  Last touted by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in 2008, it has since become so high on most tourists’ lists that the wait for a table can be a bit frustrating.  As if to quell impatience, street entertainers are plentiful, and once inside, we quickly ordered a Peruvian fish concoction with corn and avocado.  Another shrimp and calamari mix was equally delicious.  However, returning to El Boliche’s cozy getaway a second time, we gave it five stars. 

A Museum of the Inquisition might not sound like the most carefree way to spend a morning but in our defense, the Museum of Modern Art was closed for the day and our second choice was only a hop, skip and jump away in San Pedro Claver plaza.  The Spanish Inquisition hardly needs explanation and the atrocities abroad inspired more than a fair share of religious zealots in the New World.  Jews, heretics, brujas (witches) and many indigenous peoples came under their wrath and the instruments of torture housed here certainly prove it.  Sentences were pronounced in the main city plaza, today's Plaza de Bolivar. Crimes included those of heresyblasphemy, and bigamy among others.  The horrors were abolished with Cartagena’s independence in 1811 and today squealing children roam the museum’s back yard, taking turns at the resident guillotine.  I opt instead for an upwards glance at Santo Domingo Cathedral’s cupola framed against a robin egg’s blue sky.

 Another more spiritually rewarding experience was spent inside the Claustro (cloister) of San Pedro Claver (1580-1654).  Now recognized as the patron saint of African-Americans, slaves and the Republic of Colombia, Claver administered to thousands in his lifetime. The cloister walls attest to his compassion in framed illustrations of his presence in their daily lives.  Wandering the hallways, we spotted an occasional local meditating or reading on a bench within the sun-shot courtyard.

In contrast, the throngs filling the plazas at every hour of the day can be hectic.  One of the biggest attractions in Plaza de Santo Domingo is a rotund nude bronze, Reclining Woman, by Botero.  Every other tourist can be seen aiming his or her camera for an anterior or posterior view. Hawkers soon approached us repeatedly during a single rest stop.  We soon learned to adopt a far-away look whenever confronted.   The only time my resolve caved in was our last evening, when combing our hotel block with my friend Meg.  Another travel enthusiast, she had arrived earlier in the week for some much-needed R&R from her publishing job.  My companion Joanne had persuaded her to accompany me on my pursuit of a Panama hat (haggling for a bargain is not my strong suit!)  We soon discovered these Cartagena versions were as ubiquitous as a slice of watermelon—I managed to buy three of various sizes for 10 dollars each, and I didn’t even haggle.   

 

 

A few days into our stay, we were lured by the heat into a boat trip to Bomba, advertised as a beach getaway only 10 minutes from the Boca Grande waterfront.  After a taxi drop-off, we spent a half hour combing the shoreline for a small outboard conveyance  that would get us to our fun in the sun.  I would have fastened my seat belt for a bumpy ride, as Bette Davis sagely advised in All About Eve, but none was available.  Aside from the transportation, hammocks and a fried fish and cold beer lunch fit the bill, followed by a welcome nap.  Within minutes, a beachfront vendor appeared, with the persistent offer of a massage.  At one point, she simply grabbed my toes and I reluctantly gave in. (Day or overnight trips for the so inclined can be found farther afield on the Rosario Islands, a 43-island archipelago of considerable beauty.)  Cartagena can boast of 2,500 hours of sunshine a year, so for us, staying close to home base worked just fine. 

A tour of the aforementioned Barajas fortress is another must-see.  Nevertheless, ascending its exterior with even comfortable shoes can be a prodigious climb.  I found it equally as imposing in its grandeur as the El Morro fortress in Old San Juan, P.R. There are several tunnels throughout that beckon the curious, but bring a flashlight.  If you are even the slightest bit claustrophobic, stick to the exterior, with a splendid view at the top.

Back at street-level, traversing Las Murallas or the city walls can unearth some surprises.  Sunday kite flyers can be found in a large meadow below, and farther on, a mural of Cartagena’s beloved Gabriel Garcia Marquez outside a boutique hotel near his longtime residence. A memorable quote of the author’s is prominently displayed: “No place in life is sadder than an empty bed.” Three days of mourning were declared following his death in 2014, and many of his novels were set in this landscape, ie., Love in the Time of Cholera.  I broke free from my peripatetic companions at the halfway point of our walk, settling into a funky corner of the Lenin and KGB bar, a refreshing coco-limonada in hand. I was the sole occupant at that hour, with only a blowup photo of Lenin to keep me company.  

If you’ll excuse my indulgence, a few more passing words on the local cuisine: Carmen, nestled in a lovely courtyard within the Ananda Hotel, is a stellar choice.  The restaurant’s namesake is a former graduate of the Cordon Bleu in California and every dish reflects her expertise.  A fusion of Caribbean, Mideastern and Asian cooking, the menu would please the most discerning.  The fish of the day was wrapped in a green plantain crust drizzled with a rum raison puree—a mix of sweet and spicy flavors done to perfection. 

 

 

For atmosphere, a close second was our evening at Cuzco, with an array of Peruvian specialties. A host of young waiters, decked out in their starched white uniforms and caps, march through the vine-covered courtyard with the purposefulness of a cadre of World War I nurses.  Cozy La Perla rated third on our list—this open-air, partially-covered hideaway with a crab or shark stew is the perfect antidote to a rainy hour or two. There were other notable discoveries, including an Argentinian steak house worth every peso.  A chart was tacked to the wall, conveniently dividing the essential parts of the steer for a hungry but confused meat-lover.    

If bar-hopping appeals, we tried several possibilities.  Two choices, one hundred and eight180 degrees apart in appeal, were Bourbon Street and the Hotel Sofitel bar in a former 17th century convent.  The former was noisy but fun, with a honky-tonk faux New Orleans feel where we enjoyed mojitos and a shrimp po’boy, dodging Mardi Gras beads hanging precariously from low-slung chandeliers.  As for Sofitel’s Legend Santa Clara bar, it was a low-lit, capacious setting to sip fine wine and feel, however briefly, that the best life has to offer is within easy reach.

The most laidback indulgence of the entire stay was a day around the rooftop pool atop the Moviche Hotel.  For 160,000 pesos or approximately $55 each, which included a sumptuous lunch in the bargain, we could swim, nap and read to our hearts’ content. An overview of the city and its turquoise waters beyond exceeded expectations.  Even the pigeons seemed to float effortlessly on the changing tides of air. “I forget what day it is,” Meg said at one point. 

That was maybe the best revelation we shared.  Caught up in an ever-present blur of time, Cartagena is a place where heat and sunlight turn almost liquescent, shapeless…like a long-ago street recalled in a fever dream.  

 

Author Bio:

 

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief arts critic.

 

For Highbrow Magazine

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M. Barth; B. Pocius; J. Ross (Creative Commons); Wikipedia Commons
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