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."
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.
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.
We arrive around 10 p.m., just as a band is setting up on the stage, the fiddler tightening his strings. Photos of Cuban musicians are plastered on the walls, and couples are cuddling at the bar, squeezed in beside old men wearing guayaberas and neatly pressed slacks. "I feel like we could be in Cuba," I say to Diana, mentioning the many times we've heard "Chan Chan" in Cartagena. Earlier, Todd and I had eaten dinner at a scrappy little Cuban restaurant, La Bodeguita del Medio, where a projection screen showed concerts from the homeland, including one band that performed a moving rendition of the song.
"Yes, the song is popular in Cartagena," Diana says. That's when I learn that "Chan Chan" is a meaningful song not only to me, but for the many Cuban émigrés who've settled here. "The rhythm of the song really encapsulates Cartagena's soul," Diana adds.
The band starts playing, and Diana is quickly swept up in the crowd of dancers forming around the bar and snaking its way outside. Women of all ages sway their hips, and the waitresses do their best to keep from doing the same. Then I hear those familiar, melancholy chords. Except this time, I don't cry.
Casa El Carretero
Calle del Carretero 10B-18, Getsemaní, 415/508-3927, casaelcarretero.com, from $165
Casa Boutique Veranera
Calle Quero 9-65, San Diego, 011-57/5-664-1111, casaveranera.com, from $189
Hotel Isla del Pirata
Isla del Pirata, 011-57/5-665-2952, hotelislapirata.com, from $279
Casa de la Cerveza Cartagena
Calle del Arsenal and Baluarte San Lorenzo del Reducto, Getsemaní, 011-57/5-664-9261, casadelacerveza.com.co, plates from $8
La Cocina de Carmela
Calle del Santísimo 8-10, San Diego, 011-57/5-664-8298, entrées from $11
Calle Stuart 7-14, San Diego, 011-57/5-664-5255, ceviche from $9
La Bodeguita del Medio
Calle Santo Domingo 33-81, Centro Histórico, 011-57/5-660-1993, entrées from $11
Castillo San Felipe de Barajas
011-57/5-656-0590, smpcartagena.org, $7
Santa Catalina de Alejandria Cathedral
Plaza de Bolívar, Centro Histórico, 011-57/5-655-1916, tierramagna.com, $6
The Palace of the Inquisition
Plaza de Bolívar, Centro Histórico, 011-57/5-664-7381, $6
Dolphin Dive School
Parque Fernandez Madrid and Calle del Curato 38-08, San Diego, dolphindiveschool.com, day trip to Isla Pavito from $67 (with lunch and gear)
Portal de los Dulces
Plaza de los Coches, Centro Histórico, candy dolls 50¢
Calle Media Luna and Calle del Guerrero, Getsemaní, 011-57/315-690-2566, cafehavanacartagena.com, mojito $5