posted on 02-21-2008 at 16:26
Cartagena: Colombia's magical city rebounds
By Jayne Clark, USA TODAY
CARTAGENA, Colombia â€” The fisherman serving the crab he just plucked from the sea for a couple of beachfront customers is relating a tale that in any other setting would be dismissed as just another big fish story.
His cousin, he says, was swallowed whole by a giant, toothless fish. To illustrate, he makes a slurping sound with such solemn intensity that for an instant, the story seems believable.
PHOTOS: Magical Cartagena
Moments like this abound in Cartagena (Carta-HAY-na), where the absurd and the profound play out against a heartbreakingly beautiful Spanish Colonial backdrop. International jetsetters sip caipirinhas in the elegant Sofitel Santa Clara bar, built around an open 17th-century stone crypt. A school group parades through the city's former slave market, hips twitching like rapid machine-gun fire, in a saucy display not witnessed in any U.S. curriculum. Graceful Carmen Mirandas ply the cobblestones proffering succulent fruits from bowls balanced on their heads. And music â€” salsa and the home-grown cumbia and vallenato â€” pulses ceaselessly through the narrow streets of the 16th-century walled city.
After years of neglect, Cartagena, once the Spanish empire's most important Caribbean port and now the region's loveliest city, is back with a vengeance. As Colombia's most popular tourist haunt, its change of fortune is at the forefront of an image makeover for a country that has been associated more with kidnappings, cartels and cocaine (with, perhaps, a passing nod to Juan Valdez and his donkey) than fun-filled getaways.
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Several American cruise lines returned this year after a years-long absence. (They're back despite a U.S. State Department travel warning that, though softened, remains.) Foreigners and nationals are snapping up historic houses in the once-dilapidated Old City. Literary festivals and international congresses are convening. And the movie adaptation of Gabriel GarcĂa MĂˇrquez's Love in the Time of Cholera, filmed on location and opening in November, is sure to generate more attention.
Colombia's Caribbean coast and its CosteĂ±o inhabitants have provided rich fodder for GarcĂa MĂˇrquez's "magical realism" literary style. The author was born near the coast, and he maintains a home in the Old City. Locals quip that he didn't need to dream up his fanciful tales; he merely took notes on daily life here.
Indeed, CosteĂ±os are a breed apart, regarded for their boisterous good humor and corrupt politics. Little dramas play out daily in Plaza BolĂvar, where chess players hunker intently over their games and shoeshine men swap the latest gossip, and dressed-to-kill fruit vendors, called palenqueras for the coastal town most come from, elicit promises of exclusivity from their customers. ("Honey, you belong to me. Don't be unfaithful.")
Hard-bodied dancers wearing next-to-nothing costumes take center stage at the flanks of liberator SimĂłn BolĂvar's bronze steed. Bible-thumping evangelists and fervent politicians occasionally join the fray. And tray-toting vendors circulate through the perpetual crowd, hawking tiny cups of strong black coffee, peanuts and cigarettes.
Nearby in the more touristy Plaza Santo Domingo, flirtatious, curvaceous waitresses beckon customers to outdoor tables. Artists display knockoff paintings of Fernando Botero's fat ladies. Mimes, strolling musicians and assorted buskers add to the carnival atmosphere.
A surge in upscale renovation
Though Cartagena, whose population numbers about 1 million, long ago exceeded the confines of the old walled city, its compact historic core, a UNESCO World Heritage site, remains its shining centerpiece. Its narrow, meandering streets are punctuated by pleasant squares ringed by well-tended Spanish Colonial buildings.
Real estate prices here have tripled in recent years, according to some estimates. Many of the centuries-old homes were run-down boarding houses by the 1950s and '60s, when anyone with the means had relocated to the Miami Beach-style high rises of Boca Grande south of the Old City. But in the 1990s, well-heeled Colombians began buying and renovating the colorful, court-yarded buildings, sparking a renaissance that is now coming to full flower. Even in the more humble outer-walled section of GetsemanĂ, a still rough-around-the-edges neighborhood of smaller homes and high-energy dance clubs, fixer-uppers are selling for $200,000 to $500,000, says Patrick Enste, a German transplant whose business booking luxury vacation rentals is booming.
The number of upscale boutique hotels is growing, too. Gustavo Pinto, a BogotĂˇ designer who three years ago opened Agua, the city's first such lodging, initially catered almost exclusively to Europeans and Colombians. Recently, however, more Americans are checking in, he says.
Cartagena's social scene hits a fevered pitch in November, ignited by the Miss Colombia pageant, a much-heralded event that is wholly lacking in irony. (Colombians take their beauty queens very seriously.) The party continues unabated through winter. But the action is focused more around the city's ample cultural assets than its beaches.
"Beach and golf aren't Cartagena," says Willie Martinez, president of the city's tourist office. "Cartagena is (about) dancing, dining and culture."
The city's main beach at Boca Grande isn't stellar. But Punta Arenas on Tierrabomba Island, five minutes away, sports a more tranquil setting. Island residents peddle fresh oysters, ceviche, coconut confections and muscle-melting massages. Farther out, the fine white beaches of BarĂş Island include Playa Blanca and CholĂłn, where diners can gorge on fresh crab and lobster ("From the Sea to the Pot to Your Mouth," reads a sign on a fisherman's boat) at tables set in the shallow surf.
A downside to paradise
But for all its earthly delights, Cartagena isn't without flaws. The murder rate increased last year, even as it dropped elsewhere in the country. (The toll includes two Italian tourists killed outside the walled city in February, prompting the addition of 500 police.) One resident says he hasn't been swimming in the bay since a biologist friend warned against it. Touts hustling customers into the mushrooming number of shops that sell emeralds are relentless.
And the gulf between rich and poor is vast. Ana Mercedes Hoyos, a leading Colombian artist known for her paintings of coastal Afro-Colombians, is troubled by the disenfranchisement of the black majority in what was once the New World's largest slave port.
Slavery "was one of the worst cruelties of humanity, and it started in Cartagena," she says. "But it figures so prominently in the history and spirit of the city. I would like to see more opportunities made for (black residents)."
And Cartagena society is so rigidly segmented, it's difficult even for the native-born to break through, says Leonor Espinosa, chef/owner of Leo Cocina y Cava, one of the capital of BogotĂˇ's top restaurants (and listed in CondĂ© Nast Traveler's 2006 Hot List). With its fusion of Spanish, African and native Indian cultures, Espinosa regards Cartagena as the birthplace of Colombian cuisine. But with opportunities in her hometown limited, she moved to the capital.
Still, she adds, a bit wistfully, "Cartagena is the most beautiful city in the world. It's magical."