Dreaming of Cartagena: A Guide to the New Hot Caribbean Destination

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The Wall Street Journal’s “Life and Culture” section (27 March 2015) focuses on Cartagena de Indias, on Colombia’s Caribbean coast as an “ultimate antidote to the been-there-done-that Caribbean vacation.” Deborah Dunn offers a fascinating report of the seaside city. Here are just a few excerpts; I highly recommend the complete article, a vibrant and enticing review:

ON A RECENT WARM AND WINDY NIGHT in Cartagena’s Old City, Colombia’s glitterati assembled inside the walled garden of the perversely pretty Palace of Inquisition where, in colonial days, officers of the Spanish monarchy tried, and then executed, the nonbelievers. It was the opening-night party of Cartagena’s annual international film festival and an Afro-Colombian funk band performed by the gallows while movie stars from Bogotá, filmmakers from a dozen countries and hundreds of other partiers all clinked their glasses under the immense canopy of a Ceiba tree. Surveying the scene, I spied American director Darren Aronofsky (of “Black Swan” fame). Like me, it would turn out, he was visiting Colombia for the first time. Unlike me, Mr. Aronofsky was being honored with a retrospective of his films, but he confessed to using the invitation partly as an excuse to see Cartagena. [. . .]

Nearly every Colombian will tell you—even if you don’t ask—that Cartagena de Indias, the official name of this seaport on Colombia’s Caribbean coast, is the country’s favorite city. “Every time I walk out of my house, everything I see—every corner, every moment—is so cinematic,” said Bogotá-born painter Valentino Cortázar, who moved to the heart of the Old City from Miami 14 years ago. “Cartagena has so much history, fantastic light and wonderful energy,” he said. “That’s why great painters like Alejandro Obregón and Darío Morales lived here. And Gabriel García Márquez, too. For an artist, this is paradise.”

You’ll see exactly what he means if you visit the historic centro district in the early morning or late afternoon, when the sun isn’t quite as determined and you can take your time walking through the elegant plazas and down the side streets, past block after block of candy-colored homes and grand colonial mansions with wooden balconies just wide enough for a hammock, many built around the time of Cervantes. [. . ]

By half past 8, I’d plunged into the “real Cartagena,” as Ms. Schlieper put it. She led me around the Mercado Bazurto, a sprawling web of butchers, fishmongers, fruit sellers and herbalists outside the Old City, in Cartagena’s throbbing, sweaty commercial center. There was not another tourist in sight and I was giddy at the spectacle, snapping photos of fruit like a lunatic and marveling at the mounds of fresh fish that sparkled like jewels. I saw half a dozen storks—as tall as toddlers—standing on the tin roof of the market, stared at piles of cow eyeballs that stared back at me (they make a tasty soup, I’m told) and bumped into a grocery cart stacked with cow heads. For breakfast, we headed to one of the tarp-covered, makeshift restaurants where the local vendors eat, and where I washed down a fried slab of sweet, fleshy mackerel and a thick wedge of yucca with chilled sugar cane juice.

By dusk, I had been seduced. Back in the Old City there was a delicious sea breeze and the city’s walls glowed like honeycombs in the waning light. The sound of the waves slapping against the shore echoed across the cobblestones along with the clip-clop of horses that pulled carriages with lighted lanterns mounted on their sides. The Palenque women, descendants of escaped slaves who sell fruit and wear ruffled, brightly colored dresses, were packing up their pineapples and mangoes and heading home.

Colonial Cartagena, it seems, can make a romantic of just about anyone. [. . .]

For full article, see http://www.wsj.com/articles/dreaming-of-cartagena-a-guide-to-the-new-hot-caribbean-destination-1427484595

[Photo above by Esteban Sosnitsky.]

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