Cartagena de Indias is a magical city, exuding such an exotic ambiance even in everyday life that it inspired a new literary genre. This port city on the Caribbean coast of Colombia was colonized by the Spanish in the 16th century, and its storied history includes the West Indies spice trade, pirates, and the Inquisition. Against a lush background of flamboyant tropical flowers and boldly-painted Colonial architecture, Cartagena simmers with mystery and romance. With a potpourri of diverse cultural influences that span Afro Caribbean and Arab, the people of Cartagena are simultaneously low-key and glamorous, friendly and proud.
Cartagena is a technicolor tapestry of exuberant charm, with vibrantly-costumed fruit sellers enticing passers-by with their wares and imaginative street art adorning building facades; these fixtures have backstories that belie their joyful appearances. Looming over this sensory kaleidoscope is a stern and impenetrable fortress, now teeming with tourists rather than invaders. Cartagena is a place where the mundane is magnificent and the astonishing is commonplace.
Small wonder that Cartagena is the setting for many of Nobel Prize-winning author Gabriel García Márquez’s epic novels. Called “the greatest Colombian who has ever lived” by a former president of the country, Márquez invites readers to reconsider their interpretation of reality. Cartagena does the same.
So it is no surprise that it was Cartagena that inspired "Gabo" to invent the literary genre known as magical realism. In 1948, escaping political riots that engulfed Bogota, García Márquez found sanctuary in the idiosyncrasies of Cartagena. He studied there, absorbed the culture, which then became his muse. In that light, come along as we explore Cartagena in much the same way that García Márquez did: with a bit of magic.
Magical Encounter With a Cartagena Native
My education on Cartagenea’s alchemy began with a rendezvous with a native who was willing to channel her knowledge to me.
At Ábaco Libros y Café, a favorite gathering spot for the local literati, I met Iliana Restrepo Hernandez, Director of the Internationalization Office at Universidad Tecnológica de Bolívar. A native of Cartagena, Iliana has an affinity for all things literary and a special fondness for the Nobel Prize winner whose name is so often linked with the city. While I considered the venue for our conversation a fitting one, I found it was a practical choice for Iliana—she meets with her book club here every Wednesday evening.
The bookstore cafe had an air of intimacy despite its high ceilings; the rows upon rows of books lining the walls muffled the conversations of patrons pouring over pages together. Iliana had assured me she would be able to find me; I supposed my gringa heritage would make me easy to spot. Soon enough, a smiling woman made a beeline for me, greeting me with a kiss on my cheek, the warmth of her personality palpable.
“Our book club is a diverse group of about 30 people–different professions, different ages, women and men,” she told me as we settled in at a cozy table. “The only thing that unites us is literature. We are passionate about reading and writing. Every week we decide what to read for the next session. One of us makes the presentation of the novel or poems and we discuss it. There are no obligations, if you didn’t have time to read you can still go and participate of the conversations. It`s a very interesting way of getting together to talk about what we most love: literature. We say it is very well-organized chaos.”
Iliana began to tell me about the Cartagena she and García Márquez know and love.
“Cartagena is a very contradictory city with amazing contrasts but it’s magical,” she exclaimed. “And that’s why I think García Márquez got involved with this city. You know, he only lived here one year and in that year the city became part of his soul; he says that every one of his novels has threads of Cartagena in it. And it’s true a character, a place, an anecdote, something. Two of his books occur here, “Love in the Times of Cholera,” and “Love and Other Demons.” In those novels Cartagena is everywhere.”
Magical City as Muse for García Márquez
I asked Iliana what defined the literary genre García Márquez was credited with creating.
“A definition of magical realism is ‘when unlikely things take on the character of daily events and daily events are coated with the awe of the unbelievable,’ “she told me.
“Magical realism is something that actually happens every day,” she continued. “It’s a way of living. It’s a way of accepting things. García Márquez used those kinds of events and made literature from them. He put them in words and he created a universe, a special world where all of those things came together and made stories.”
Iliana told me how García Márquez served as the catalyst for bringing together different strands of her life.
“I joined the University as the director of the summer school,” she recalled. “At that time our team began thinking of different ways to attract international students to Cartagena. All my life I’ve been a reader. We realized that García Márquez is somebody who has a very strong link with Cartagena; a very strong link with the Caribbean region. As a recipient of a Nobel Prize in literature, and since his books have been translated to many languages, he is of interest to many people around the world.”
“We started working with Oscar Collazzos, a very well-known Colombian writer who became the academic director of a course that we designed about García Márquez that was called a “Journey through García Márquez Geography,” she said. “After that course I started thinking about how I could establish a real and permanent link between Cartagena and his life and his work to share with many people. So we began research to establish the places in the city that were mentioned in his novels, the important places that made him so in love with Cartagena, and to create a tour of Cartagena as a way to get in touch with García Márquez’s work.”
“He has a brother that lives here,” she continued. “He’s a good friend, so he helped us a lot with anecdotes. Historians helped us as well. We researched for three years; it was very important work for me. Even though most people have read one of García Márquez’s books, if you come and get in touch with his stories in Cartagena, you want to read more. It’s a different way of seeing the city. Everything came together and it was marvelous.”
With the benefit of Iliana's tutorial on magical realism, the next day my husband Tom and I set off to further explore the magical city that had so captivated García Márquez. Leaving our apartment on Calle del Campos Santos, just inside the massive fortified walls that enclose Cartegena’s Ciudad Amurallada or Old City, we were immediately enveloped by the thick, sticky humidity of the Caribbean coast. Accustomed to walking fast in a colder climate, the heavy air slowed our Yankee stride. It was a welcome change of pace, allowing us to absorb the everyday details of a city where the ordinary proved to be extraordinary.
Our accommodations were in Cartagena de Indias’s San Diego neighborhood, named for a convent that is now the Beaux Arts School Building. Nearing it, we heard the student orchestra tuning up, and as we walked by, the opening strains of Tchaikovsky’s Waltz of the Flowers from “The Nutcracker Suite'' wafted through the immense open windows above us. Tom and I grinned at each other and I thought “Let the magic begin!”
Nestled on the perimeter of San Diego Plaza is the Sofitel Santa Clara, a former 17th convent. Tom and I had a late lunch looking out at a courtyard where middle-aged clientele lounged around a pool; a toucan made the rounds, alighting on each deck chair to personally greet each guest. While Santa Clara’s colonial architecture landed it on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage Sites, many Gabriel Garcia Marquez fans know the convent as the setting for one of his novels, “Of Love and Other Demons.”
In the book, a rabid dog bites the ankle of 12-year-old Sierva María, whose father sends her to a Santa Clara cell to be exorcized. The priest entrusted to save her soul falls in love with her, and a tale of intrigue, passion and religion ensues. Garcia Marquez credits the book’s inspiration to his stint as a cub reporter in Cartagena in 1949–in reporting on the excavation of the convent’s crypts, he witnessed the opening of a tomb in which the skeleton is wrapped in long copper tresses of living hair.
Continuing our exploration, we turned down Calle del Santisimo, a narrow crooked street lined with buildings painted in tropical colors, the peeling patina of their walls revealing smudges of past lives. Spilling street-ward from the structures’ second story balconies were luxuriant swaths of bougainvillea, dropping soft petals on the pavement and adding texture and an aromatic scent to the scene’s rich palette. The buildings’ facades featured massive wooden doors embellished with brass knockers in the shapes of slithering salamanders, open-mouthed fish and roaring lions.
In Plaza Santo Domingo, black women with wide smiles sold fruits I didn’t even know existed–bitter tree tomatoes, sweet green feijoas, tangy orange lulos, juicy white soursops, and the deep purple mangostino. Known as palenqueras after their native town of San Basilio de Palenque, these entrepreneurs wear costumes even more colorful than their wares, which they transport in big bowls balanced on their heads.
However, the history of palenqueras goes much deeper than a simple sweet treat on a hot summer day. Many of the women who sell palenqueras today are descendents of the enslaved African people that were brought there during Spanish Colonial times. San Basilio de Palenque was even founded by Benkos Biohó, a king from Guinea-Bissau, who created the town as a haven for freed slaves.
After some trickery from the Spanish, Biohó was tragically executed. It was his death that paved the way for San Basilio de Palenque to become one of the first towns independent from Spain. Still, the community was impoverished and so they had to become inventive. The area was abundant in fruit so the women dressed in the colors of the Colombian flag and brought their fruit into the magical city to sell. This practice is still upheld today, and these smiling women are the unofficial yet magical ambassadors of Cartagena to all the tourists who are happy to tip $2 for a photo.
Across the street, a big-bottomed Botero statue lounged on her side, her chubby cheeks mooning passers-by. Fernando Botero Angulo is a Colombian figurative artist whose style, called by some “Boterismo”, gives his pieces an unmistakable identity. Botero depicts his subjects with exaggerated and disproportionate voluptuousness that he himself simply referred to as ‘fat.’ The over-the-top, larger-than-life imagery created by this self-proclaimed ‘most Colombian of Colombian artists' seemed perfectly in place ogling a cathedral from her horizontal perch across the street.
If Gabriel García Márquez's lens is amplified reality, then Botero is his creative counterpoint. While in Europe amidst the narco war raging in Colombia, Botero heard a report of a rocket attack in his homeland that decimated a church, killing more than a hundred people, many of them children. In response, he created a painting entitled “Massacre in the Cathedral” depicting European-looking bodies strewn at the altar of Cartagena cathedral. In fact, the carnage had occurred at an Afro-Caribbean church in a jungle village. Botero shrugged off questions about his interpretation, saying he had made his point and that "There is no realism".
Botero's ex-wife Gloria Zea is credited as one of Colombia's biggest arts champions; she was the director of the Museum of Modern Art in Bogotá for forty-six years. In 1979, Zea bought a 16th-century casa in a decrepit neighborhood of Cartagena, and she restored it with her artful eye. Her daughter Lina lived in the house in her twenties. Now an interior designer, Lina opened the doors of the 10-bedroom mansion as Casa de Indias, a swanky rental home in this magical city that can be yours for a mere $3,500 a night.
Another iconic image of Cartagena are the fortified Colonial walls that still surround the magical city limits. A reminder of Spanish occupation during the Colonial era, the ramparts are one of the main reasons Cartagena de Indias is considered a UNESCO world heritage site. They were built in sections as bastions that were each named after Saints. The development of the city over time has resulted in them becoming a wall connected throughout the city. Climbing up and enjoying the views from atop the wall is one of the best things to do in Cartagena.
On our stroll atop the ramparts surrounding Cartagena it appeared the ancient defensive walls demarcated two worlds—on the left, the fortifications seemed to contain a riot of colors and shapes, as if restraining the teeming huddle of gaudy buildings crowded together. On the right, the horizon line was strung with evenly-spaced modern spires of tall, cool glass along the strip of beach known as Bocagrande, a stretch of high-rise developments originally constructed for foreign oil workers.
Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas
Atop the famous San Lázaro hill sits a fortress that is both intimidating and arcane. Even the name San Lázaro exudes an air of mystery, paying homage to St Lazarus, the leper that was saved by Jesus in the Bible’s New Testament. So it's no wonder that the fortress that calls San Lázaro home is just short of a miracle.
Completed in 1657, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas was constructed during Spanish colonization. The time itself was tumultuous, with Spain being one of the most powerful nations in the world. Many were envious of Spain’s status, and sought to topple them from their seat of power. Caribbean pirates as well as the French and British military were just a few of their enemies.
Cartagena de Indias was one of Spain’s most important ports, where much gold was sent through to Europe. So Spanish colonizers needed to protect their investment, and took on one of the most impressive feats of the colonial period.
Since San Lázaro hill is at the center of Cartagena and offers a birds eye view, it was the perfect location for a fortress. It’s first construction began in 1536, built mostly by Spanish soldiers and enslaved peoples of Africa. At the time, the materials available were mostly cement and rock, which proved to be the right choice, since this structure survived dozens of brutal siege attempts.
It has seen many iterations, first in 1657 then even more extensively in 1762. This was when the whole of San Lázaro hill was converted into a fortress.
Secret Tunnels and Tactical Acoustics
Of its many features, Castillo de San Felipe de Barajas boasts an intricate system of tunnels that allowed soldiers to covertly travel throughout the stronghold. It was because of these tunnels that supplies could be provided to the inhabitants and evacuation could be done efficiently.
Even more fascinating are the acoustics of these tunnels, which were built so that noise reverberations could be heard from far away. Any enemies that were able to find themselves in the tunnels would be found quickly, and communication between soldiers in the building was made simple.
These fortifications and genius architectural features made the fortress entirely impregnable, having never fallen to any of the many attacks on Cartagena. Even to this day, it’s considered one of the most colossal structures in North and South America.
Modern visitors that aren’t fearing invasion can enjoy views of the Caribbean sea as well as all of Cartagena from atop this magnificent structure. Tourists are even allowed to travel through some of the tunnels, able to go 100 feet down beneath it.
Central to Cartagena’s modern identity, San Felipe de Barajas Castle is considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site. It’s also been host to many international conferences over the decades.
Having witnessed the sleek skyscrapers of Cartagenea’s newest neighborhood of Bocagrande, we concluded our exploration of this magical city by savoring its oldest enclave. Just beyond the city walls and the Torre de Reloj (Clock Tower) Gate, past Teatro Cartagena and the Teatro Colon, sprawls the ancient streets of Getsemani.
This area was one of the first sanctuaries of freed African slaves in the Americas. Plaza Trinidad is where Cartagena's independence from Spain was declared on November 11, 1811. Today, homage is paid to heroes of the revolution with life-sized statues. We returned to this colorful enclave the next night for dinner at a restaurant with vivid murals that depict scenes from Garcia Marquez’ book “One Hundred Years of Solitude.”
Visitors looking to experience a blend of ancient and modern Cartagena should look no further than Barrio Getsemaní. It truly represents the diversity and energy of Cartagena and visitors would be remiss to pass on experiencing it.
Across the city there lies a magical neighborhood that offers the promise of a vibrant future in Cartagena; Barrio Getsemaní is known for its street art, food vendors, and nightlife. Much like the rest of Cartagena de Indias, Barrio Getsemaní is bathed in bright Caribbean colors but for a much more unique reason. Originally, this neighborhood was rampant with crime and violence. It had a reputation for drugs and prostitution that meant the people of this area suffered.
However, the community took a unique approach in reviving their barrio. Its resurrection can be credited to the community programs that encouraged local artists to paint beautiful murals across the neighborhood streets. These murals can be seen today, like an open air community gallery.
The construction of these murals is also done by youth, which helps provide them an outlet aside from crime. The art displays portraits of residents, the natural landscape of Colombia, and many other images that give a whimsical vibe to this barrio.
Visitors traveling to Barrio Getsemaní can bask in the music that emanates out of doorways, while they enjoy the Caribbean sun. Through the narrow streets you’ll find friendly locals that are happy to see you, and merchants selling fruit fresh enough to eat right there. And that’s just during the day! Come back after dark for lively nightlife and an energetic atmosphere.
A must see in this neighborhood is Plaza de la Trinidad, where you can see street performers and some serious people watching. Surrounded by greenery and trees, this is the perfect spot to socialize with the locals and feel like a true Getsemaní resident.
A Magical Realism Restaurant
Those looking for sustenance in this neighborhood will find solace and inspiration at the fantastical Restaurant Plaza de Macondo. Be prepared to feel like you’re stepping into an alternate universe, where the magical meets the real. Deeply immersive, Restaurant Plaza de Macondo is a place that upholds the roots of Colombian culture through food, drink, music, and dance.
Visitors can find this restaurant on one of the main streets of Barrio Getsemaní, Calle de La Media Luna. It boasts views of the church of San Roque, built in the 17th century and still standing today.
It’s said that the restaurant is inspired by Gabriel García Márquez’s 100 Years of Solitude. Their name comes from the fictional town, Macondo, which is featured in six of Márquez’s novels. Much like Iliana described, Restaurant Plaza de Macondo brings the extraordinary into what would be considered typical. It begs the question of whether Garcia Marquez was more influenced by Cartagena, or vice versa. Even more, it's places like these that make it easy to see your life as magical.
There comes no shock that Cartagena is the inspiration for so many of Garcia Márquez’s novels, when his work is so insistent on the idea of living life to the fullest. Those looking to do just that would have no trouble in this magical city that is both ancient and new, tame and wild, powerful and gentle. Cartagena is a place that embodies human connection: to our history, our culture, and most of all, each other. It is a place that demands to be remembered, and remembered fondly. In the words of Gabriel Garcia Marquez: “What matters in life is not what happens to you but what you remember and how you remember it.”
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