we’ve been fascinated with Cartagena ever since we saw Romancing the Stone, the 1984 romcom with Michael Douglas at his swashbuckling best, Kathleen Turner playing the ingénue and Danny DeVito providing comic relief as a hapless criminal all chasing treasure buried somewhere in Colombia. It was, therefore, a bit of a let-down when, while conducting research for our trip in May last year, we learnt that every scene set in Colombia was actually filmed in Mexico.
But, rest assured, that was our only disappointment with this delightful city on the Caribbean Sea. And if your travels are to take you there — we strongly urge that they do — here are some suggestions that may come in handy.
There is nothing subtle about Cartagena. Think extravagant colours and shapes. This partiality to excess is reflected in the work of Colombia’s favourite artist, Fernando Botero, well known for his “fat”—as he calls them himself—figures. Consider his sculpture Gertrude Gorda (Fat Gertrude), which has pride of place in Plaza Santo Domingo. A keen observer will notice that Gertrude’s breasts and buttocks shine brighter than the rest of her. This is to be expected as rubbing the former supposedly grants luck while the latter ensures a long romance. (Or you could rub both areas, just to be safe.)
Maps aren’t particularly helpful in navigating this Unesco World Heritage destination where street names change at every intersection. That said, we recommend starting at the very centre: Torre del Reloj, or the clock tower, which has thankfully moved on from its past as a slave market and is now a hub of bars, hotels and shops. Tools of torture have been replaced by beer on tap and street vendors selling a variety of hand-made sweet and savoury treats.
Pick any route headed back into the old town and you’ll encounter streets lined with bougainvillea-draped homes. The heart of the old town can’t be more than 50 blocks, but has plenty to hold your interest. Inviting courtyards beckon behind high walls, art galleries abound and shops selling things you didn’t know you craved wait to be discovered. This city rewards the aimless wanderer as few others do.
Circle the (old) city
For several decades after it was founded in 1533, Cartagena lacked man-made defences. A pirate attack in 1586 led to the decision to build a wall—Las Murallas—around the city which took around 208 years to complete. While Las Murallas doesn’t completely encircle the city, you can walk a large part of it, to gentle breezes from the Caribbean Sea on one side and sights of the old city on the other. The city is a haven for artists, art dealers, art investors and those that appreciate a thing of beauty. While there are several renowned museums here, you’re just as likely to stumble upon interesting galleries you didn’t set out to find. One such is the Casa Museo La Presentacion on Calle Estanco del Aguardiente: It is a lively gallery, theatre, antique store and hotel, all rolled into one. We particularly enjoyed a collection of photos that told the story of a whirlwind romance and subsequent betrayal, in true telenovela style.