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.
To orient ourselves in the Centro after lunch, we start at its heart, Plaza de Bolívar, a verdant square surrounded by the Santa Catalina de Alejandria Cathedral and The Palace of the Inquisition. We arrive at the same time as the cruise-ship day-trippers and, as if on cue, men from nearby jewelry shops descend on the plaza, trying to coax people to follow them to their stores. "Esmeraldas bonitas," repeats one man as he trails us to the palace. The irony is not lost on me: Those "pretty emeralds" were why the Spaniards fought so hard in the 16th and 17th centuries to retain control over Cartagena. The Spanish also used the city as a base for trying heretics during the Spanish Inquisition. The palace where the trials were held is not for the faint of heart—it's stocked with torture and execution devices. In a sunny courtyard, I watch as tourists pose by a guillotine, the cathedral's steeple piercing the sky above them.
A few blocks south of the cathedral, at Plaza de los Coches, I notice a flurry of activity in a passageway bordering the square. Vendors wedged in between the corridor's massive stone pillars are selling all sorts of confections from enormous glass jars—shredded-coconut patties colored hot pink, tamarind balls rolled in sugar, and dolls molded from dulce de leche. We've stumbled onto Portal de los Dulces (Alley of Sweets), and Todd couldn't be happier. While he samples the sundry goodies, I stock up on souvenirs. An elderly woman passing by sees me buying the cheeky muñecas de dulce de leche in bulk and smiles. "I've been coming here since I was a little girl," she says. "And those dolls are as sweet as ever!"
I have a confession to make: If I said I felt safe the entire time I was in Cartagena, I'd be lying. Over lunch one day at La Cevicheria—a tiny restaurant serving inventive ceviche dishes using ingredients like mozzarella cheese and barbecue sauce—Todd suggests taking a day trip to the Rosario Islands, 25 miles from Cartagena. The islands are a nice alternative to the beaches at Bocagrande, a strip of land on the southern tip of the city that's filled with giant, cookie-cutter apartment buildings—and best avoided. When I'd mentioned this very day trip to Todd in New York, he had said, "Not only do you want to go to Colombia, but you want to take a boat ride off Colombia?" Now, he's feeling adventurous. "Let's do it," he says, "before I change my mind."
The next morning, we board a speedboat to go snorkeling in the turquoise waters off Isla Pavito, an island that's owned by the Dolphin Dive School, the outfitter taking us out to sea. About 45 minutes into the ride, I see a speck of an island with a modest thatch-roofed bungalow. Upon closer inspection, I realize it's actually the boathouse for a mansion on a private island. Some of the 27 islands in the chain are off-limits; they're rumored to be owned by people who made their fortunes in decidedly less-than-legal ways. The largest island open to visitors is Isla Grande, which has several pricey hotels. A more secluded option is Isla del Pirata, which has just one place to stay, Hotel Isla del Pirata, composed of a dozen bright-yellow bungalows near the beach.
Once we drop anchor, our guide fits us with fins and jumps into the water, gesturing for us to follow. "What about life jackets?" I ask as he swims away.
"Don't worry, you'll be fine without one," Todd says, abandoning both wife and ship.
I'm a strong swimmer, I tell myself, even though the waves around us are shaking the boat. So, taking a deep breath, I jump. The underwater scenery really is spectacular: deep coral canyons inhabited by schools of electric-blue fish and miniature ones speckled with blue dots. For an hour, I forget that a) I am miles away from the mainland, and b) the waves are getting higher.
It isn't my imagination. As the boat speeds back to Cartagena in the choppy water, I'm white-knuckling my seat. Is it me, or is the driver going really fast? Then, as the boat crashes down on a huge wave, the fiberglass cracks in a jagged line down the inside of the boat next to my seat. I look at Todd, and we start laughing. "The things you talk me into," I shout over the wind.
Luckily, we make it back to shore. When another passenger asks the driver about the crack, he simply says, "No problem, we'll just patch it up."
Our last night in Cartagena, I talk Diana and her boyfriend into joining us for drinks (and maybe some dancing) at Café Havana in Getsemaní. During the day, the club looks like an abandoned building, with its floor-to-ceiling windows shuttered tight. By night, it's a different story—you can hear the music from more than five blocks away. It feels fitting to end our trip at a place with live Cuban music and what I'm told are the best mojitos in town.