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.
It's then that I realize our climb up to San Felipe, which looked like a short walk from the rooftop of our hotel, is in fact a decent hike. In the hot sun. With no water. When we finally reach the fortress, which resembles a Mayan ruin, we scale the stone path to the top and are rewarded with panoramic views of Cartagena. The Spanish built the fortress and its surrounding walls in the 17th century to keep pirates from raiding their stockpile of gold and emeralds. Today, as we look out at the city, a flag at least 20 feet wide flutters above us, animated by the trade winds that carried the Spaniards here in the first place.
Overheated, Todd and I hail a cab back to the casa and cool off in the rooftop pool before dinner. It's only 4 p.m., but the plaza below is hopping. Couples are dancing to music drifting from a café across from the church, and children are chasing each other in the street, dogs nipping at their ankles. In Getsemaní, most nights are like a big block party that lasts into the early morning, which could explain why some of the city's most popular bars and clubs are here, crammed on a stretch of Calle del Arsenal.
We find a more subdued spot for dinner, an open-air parrilla called Casa de la Cerveza Cartagena built on top of the old city wall. The small-plates menu includes Creole baby beef kebabs, toasted plantains with cheese, and, for the more intrepid eater, fried tripe with yucca. As for the beer, forget pitchers—the brews on tap come in laboratory-style beakers with spouts for pouring. On the couch next to us, several young American and Colombian friends are on their third round, and one of the men, Sky Olson, asks us to join them. They're in town for a wedding reception the following day in Santa Marta, a sleepy beach town about four hours north of Cartagena.
"I'm thinking about coming back to Cartagena afterward," Sky says, looking out at the San Felipe fortress, now dramatically illuminated by spotlights. "I've been on a Central and South American kick, and this city is my favorite, by far. You're going to be blown away by the Centro tomorrow."
The city has also grown on Todd in the short time we've been here. "Cartagena reminds me of Venice," he says. "It has that same intangible magic about it."
Awoken by the steady tap, tap, tapping of hammers chipping away at the crumbling façades of the buildings next to our casa—a sign there are more guesthouses in Getsemaní's future—we eat a quick breakfast and jump into a cab for the Centro. We go first to our hotel, Casa Boutique Veranera, where we're greeted by Gloria, the housekeeper, and a chipper Bosnian man, who we later learn is a table-tennis champion. He's also the boyfriend of Diana Chen, a former software developer from San Francisco who bought the house after becoming enamored with the city on a trip five years ago. Todd and I instantly love the place, which is decorated with quirky antiques and Asian lanterns, and has iPods loaded with local music in every room. As Gloria gathers our luggage, I hear something unmistakable in the background: one of my dad's favorite Cuban songs, "Chan Chan." It brings me to tears right there in the lobby.
After I regain my composure, we follow Gloria to our room on the second floor, across from a dipping pool enshrouded in billowing white curtains. Each guest room in the casa is named for a different color. Ours is Rosada, a nod to the subtle pink touches in the decor, right down to the traditional Cartagenan floor tiles. Around 2 p.m., we tell Diana we're getting lunch at a new Mediterranean restaurant, La Cocina de Carmela, near Plaza de San Diego. "Carmela is one of the best chefs in the area," she says. "And it should be nice and quiet around this time of day."
Plaza de San Diego, one of the most beautiful squares in Cartagena, is buzzing with guitar players, jewelry designers selling their wares, and students from the art school on the edge of the plaza. To add to the festive spirit, a trolley-style tour bus drives by, salsa music blaring from its speakers. La Cocina de Carmela, however, is indeed quiet when we walk in, because the early afternoon siesta that shutters most of the city has just ended. I'm tempted to order the prawn dish with chontaduro, a palm fruit native to the region, but I settle instead on the fusilli with blue cheese, nuts, and sliced white onions. The dish could easily feed two, but that's not why I find it hard to finish. Just a few minutes into our meal, I hear "Chan Chan" start to play. I look at Todd in disbelief, blinking back tears. He immediately asks for the check.