THE NEXT BUENOS AIRES
From Cartagena, With Love
Colombia's vibrant seaside city is experiencing a rebirth. The country's long civil war has subsided, but the attraction for Liz Ozaist was deeper: She went to discover the place that first enchanted her father 20 years ago.
A week after I booked my tickets to Cartagena, the Colombian military launched an attack on a group of FARC rebels hiding in neighboring Ecuador, prompting Venezuela to move 6,000 soldiers to its border with Colombia. The raid was Colombian President Álvaro Uribe's latest attempt to quash the narco-terrorist group that had given his country a bad rap. I was annoyed.
For months, my friends and family had questioned my sanity when I told them I was going on a trip to Cartagena, a jewel-box city in northern Colombia. Even my husband, Todd, who once tried to convince me to bungee jump off a bridge in Zimbabwe, asked if he needed to bring a bodyguard. The fact that the country was suddenly in the news wasn't helping my cause. But I didn't budge—we were going.
Ever since my father had visited the 16th-century walled city when I was a kid, I'd been obsessed with seeing it for myself. After each of his trips, he told me what a magical place it was, a city that hadn't changed much since the Spanish founded it in 1533. And even in the 1980s—some of the most violent years of Colombia's civil war—my dad felt safe in Cartagena, far removed from the unrest in cities like Bogotá.
On the plane, however, Todd still isn't convinced. "Remind me why we're doing this?" he asks.
"Because Cartagena is not Bogotá, and even that city is OK to visit nowadays," I reply.
Todd's seatmate, a man wearing a crisp guayabera, looks amused by our conversation. "I'm always happy to see Americans going to my homeland," he tells us. Now living in New Jersey, Carlos Bossuet Marino is on his third trip to Colombia this year. "You visit once and you have to go back—it has that kind of effect on people," he says. "That's why I bring different friends with me each time, to show them what this beautiful country is really like."
We've divided our week between the Centro Histórico—where most of the city's European-style plazas and colonial sights are located—and the somewhat grittier but lively area of Getsemaní. Rather than stay in a hotel, I've booked us rooms at a couple of more intimate guesthouses, which have sprouted up in recent years. Since the mid-1990s, many Colombians have made Cartagena a second-home retreat, buying up old, neglected buildings at rock-bottom prices to convert them into restaurants, bars, and inns. Many of the guesthouses have just a handful of rooms and a couple staff members, so you really feel as if you own the place. There's just one catch: You may need a little luck finding them.
After settling into our Moroccan-style room at Casa El Carretero in Getsemaní, I notice that our cheerful housekeeper, Alicia, keeps asking if we can find our way back to the hotel. "Sí, claro," I respond, letting her know that, sure, we can manage. What I don't seem to notice as we set out to explore is that our casa doesn't have a sign, and that all the houses on all the streets look strikingly similar—rows and rows of colorful buildings with identical arched doors. When I realize that I've forgotten my hat, we end up wandering the dusty streets for half an hour before finally stumbling upon the church plaza next to our place. Alicia laughs when I tell her that we got lost, then points to the fancy door knocker next door. So this is the secret to distinguishing one home from the next: Each knocker has a distinct personality. There are lioness heads, giant iguanas, and—Todd's favorite—a delicate hand cupped over a buzzer.
Walking down streets just wide enough to fit one of the city's ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages, I'm reminded of San Telmo, the timeworn barrio in Buenos Aires where the tango was born. Life is lived here, and most of the time, it's in the streets. Old men push creaky carts laden with halved coconuts and corn pancakes, while teenagers carry carpenters' boxes packed not with tools but with thermoses. They're selling a quintessential Cartagenan drink known as tinto, a Dixie-cup-size shot of coffee.
As we head toward the hilltop fortress of Castillo San Felipe de Barajas, the noonday sun is blazing, and people have their shutters swung open. A mix of Cuban and Colombian vallenato music pulses from every window, making me think of my father. He passed away suddenly a month before our trip, and I never got the chance to tell him I was visiting his beloved Cartagena. Now that I'm here, I feel oddly close to him. "I can see why he liked this place," I say, maneuvering around a donkey cart stacked with ridiculously long planks of wood. "I bet this is where he fell in love with Cuban music."