Cartagena, Colombia

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Ten years ago, I traveled to Cartagena for the first time, ready to be dazzled. My friends in Bogotá, where I had been living for the previous year, raved about the colonial charms and glamorous nightlife of this Caribbean port city, promising I would love it.

On that first trip, Jorge and I arrived at sundown in the midst of a torrential rainstorm and massive traffic jam. As our bus crawled slowly through the outer limits of the city, I gazed through my rain-stained window and beheld my first sighting of Colombia’s most beloved tourist destination: a jumble of tin roofs sinking into a slosh of mud and litter. Children jumped with glee among puddles of garbage, while their parents huddled beneath blue tarps watching morosely as the rain flooded their shops and homes. The sight of such overwhelming poverty in the city of which Colombians were so proud jolted me.

Our arrival at our hotel proved equally unsettling. Priced out of the lodgings in the walled city, the heart of Cartagena’s colonial attractions and internationally acclaimed hotels and restaurants, we had booked a room in the nearby grungy enclave of Getsamani. It was dark by the time we arrived and, as we scanned the street nervously for the entrance, prostitutes in tight glittery dresses called to us, while drunken revelers planted firecrackers that exploded in our path.

Startled, we quickly identified and bolted towards the entrance of our hotel, only to find ourselves in a neglected courtyard with a swimming pool of rancid green water. At the pool’s perimeter, a few strung-out French tourists, collapsed on lounge chairs, stared at us vacantly. The owner of the hotel stumbled towards us in an unbuttoned shirt and led us to our room. For US $70 a night, far more than I had ever paid for a hotel in Colombia, I had expected a minimum level of luxury. Instead, we encountered a sterile, windowless room, empty save for a plastic-covered bed that radiated under a terrifying fluorescent bulb.

By the time we reached the walled city– the destination I had so eagerly anticipated— I was rattled and hungry. The colonial buildings and plazas bled hazily into the night and I hardly noticed them. I could think only of finding a place to eat. Jorge and I quickly spotted a few trendy restaurants where we might be introduced to the thumping Cartagena nightlife we had heard so much about. However, the prices shocked us. We literally could not afford to eat at any of them. Embarrassed, we ducked into a local fish joint for a greasy meal of fried mojarra and plantains and then closed our night by sharing an outrageously expensive cocktail at a rooftop bar. There, we commiserated over our failure to enjoy the city of which we had heard so much.

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For years, when my American friends would tell me excitedly that they wanted to visit Cartagena, I would feign enthusiasm and encourage their plans. I did not want to dissuade them from traveling to the only city with enough name recognition to bring them to Colombia in the first place. However, the image imprinted in my mind during my brief stay endured. To me, Cartagena was over-rated and over-priced, a playground for rich Colombians oblivious to the grinding poverty outside of the walled city.

Last November, Jorge and I returned to Bogotá to live. Many of my friends and family in the U.S. promised to visit me in Colombia and all of them wanted tips for where to stay and what to do in Cartagena. I felt ashamed of how little I could offer them, given that my own trip ten years earlier had been such a disaster. Grudgingly, I resolved to return to the city that had so thoroughly disappointed me, purely for research purposes.

This time, I was determined not to repeat the mistakes of our first visit. I allotted a hefty budget for our two-day stay and reserved a room in the Alfiz, a boutique hotel in the walled city. Still, I was haunted by memories of my previous visit, and when the taxi pulled up in front of the two enormous unmarked wooden doors guarding our hotel, I fully expected to find another hellish drug den lurking on the other side.

To my surprise, we stepped through the doorway and discovered a paradise of shady palms, bright red flowers and trickling fountains. An arched passageway radiated from the patio and led to a series of tastefully decorated and shadowy rooms, all wonderfully cool. A receptionist greeted us with a bright smile and refreshing glasses of fresh passion fruit juice. She ushered us to our room, where a plush bed and rustic Jacuzzi awaited us. The hotel felt deliciously luxurious. I wanted nothing more than to lounge in a poolside hammock I had spotted on the second floor and savor the pleasures of this lavish oasis.

However, before long, we were hungry, and– as the Alfiz did not serve lunch– we had no choice but to venture into the walled city in search of food. To my amazement, the walled city was not at all as I remembered it. The streets were gloriously clean and inviting, with imposing churches and joyful plazas brimming with drummers and dancers. White and purple flowers burst from Spanish colonial buildings, each façade meticulously preserved and freshly painted in bright yellow, turquoise or orange. Tourists from around the world swarmed the streets, happily exploring art galleries, Garcia-Marquez themed bookstores and delectable pastry shops. Yes, it felt like Disneyland—in its artificial perfection– but it was beautiful. I was enchanted.

That night, on the way home from a heavenly meal at Cocina de Pepina, a Colombian restaurant that specializes in authentic and carefully crafted dishes from the nearby city of Monteria, Jorge received a call from a friend offering us two tickets to an outdoor concert taking place that night at a plaza near our hotel. We accepted and, a few hours later, took our seats in front of a stage set up before the illuminated façade of the majestic cathedral of San Pedro Claver. A trio of musicians from Romania appeared from the cathedral’s glowing red door and lifted their violins. The melody they played, a haunting tribute to the Romanian folk singer Maria Tanase, rose, slowly and exquisitely, from a whisper to a booming pitch, infusing the plaza and night sky with its melancholy beauty.

As the music swirled around me, I fell into a state of rapture, overwhelmed with love for Cartagena. I understood suddenly, how wrong I had been to dismiss this city. Yes, it is expensive and neatly packaged for tourists, and it no doubt masks the reality of most who live in this country. Yet, when taken for what it is, Cartagena is extraordinarily magical.

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How to get there: Fly direct from the U.S., or via Bogotá, to Cartagena’s Rafael Nuñez International Airport, which is a quick 15-minute cab ride from the walled city.

When to go: Avoid the rainy months (April, May, October, November) and peak times for Colombian tourism (Christmas, New Year’s Eve and Holy Week). Try to coincide with one of Cartagena’s many renowned arts festivals, including the Hay literary festival and International Music Festival, both of which take place in January.

Where to stay: There are many fabulous hotels in Cartagena. The Sofitel Santa Clara and the Charleston Santa Teresa are both supremely elegant, with a long tradition of catering to wealthy clientele. In more recent years, a collection of similarly lavish but more intimate boutique hotels—including the Alfiz, Casa Pestagua and Casa San Agustin— have sprung up in refurbished colonial houses in the walled city. For those seeking a boutique experience on a tighter budget, Hotel Monterrey in the walled city and Allure Chocolat in Getsemani are excellent alternatives.

Where to eat: My top recommendation is Cocina de Pepina, a casual eatery in Getsemani that specializes in authentic cuisine from the Colombian city of Monteria. For a more sophisticated but similarly delicious dining experience in the walled city, try the seafood restaurant Carmen in the ultra chic Ananda Hotel.  Finally, be sure to visit Pasteleria Mila for the most delicious pastries and desserts (as well as a range of lunch items) in the walled city.

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