“It’s the Miami of South America”, The taxi driver smirked. Cartagena is located on rough Carribean coast of Colombia. No one can deny this fact. Except, Its a better version of Miami. Before you question my sanity, A bunch of Miami enthusiasts made me believe so. I still remember my first glimpse of this beautiful vintage Hollywood town. Not only it’s one of the most important ports of the world but the prettiest city anywhere in the world. They call it Cartagena de Indias to distinguish it from the Spanish city. It’s so small that most of the destinations can be covered walking. So, When I got out of my hotel my first day here, It was all like New Orleans without sophomores in spring break. There was a Hollywood beach near to my hotel in El Laguito and it was hosting the national surfing championship that Saturday and it was surely a sight full of adrenaline rush. Cartagena also serves as a major destination for the royal weddings and many Hollywood celebrities drop by this hidden retreat at the castle of San Felipe. It’s walls are majestic and so, It’s also given the name “The walled city”. The walls of Cartagena are artistic and made it to the list of world’s protected heritage.
Bill Clinton is a fan. He stopped by once to celebrate the 40th anniversary of One Hundred Years Of Solitude with Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the city’s most famous part time resident and lost his heart to this city. Like García Márquez, affectionately called Gabo. He set Love in the Time of Cholera in a fictionalized Cartagena (the movie version, starring Javier Bardem, was filmed on location here), and his house, Casa del Escritor, is the work of Rogelio Salmona, Colombia’s greatest architect. It’s all cubes and arches, Louis Kahn with palm trees and a view to the sea. There’s a guard posted by the house, but like a character from one of Gabo’s books, he’s too skinny for his pants, and while tourists snap pictures in front of the rust-colored walls he rocks on his feet and daydreams.
I stepped in the old town of Cartagena around 7 pm on a Saturday night wearing my favourite yellow lace dress and those ubiquitous horse carriages passing by me – I’m reminded of Europe. What was happening? From my ‘morrocco-ish hotel’ in the ‘New Orleans’ like block and the ‘Miami’ beach, I was straight into the streets and plazas of Europe. This was my first night in this city and with all the walls and the lights, It looked like a Jewel box. From the happiest and the most friendly people to the fusion of different architecture, I was absolutely smitten. And why not, Colombia beats Mexico on the scale of happiness and satisfaction. I discovered that people have bought the old rusty buildings and converted them into bars and restaurants here and nearly every building is worthy of a postcard picture. As I was enjoying the arts performance in the plaza de San diego, I was complimented by a middle aged man sipping his ‘Aguila light’ which is a famous Colombian beer. As I got into a conversation with him, He introduced me to his friends who were a bunch of middle aged people from Mexico, New York and Florida. “Oh no, Don’t insult this magical town by calling it Miami, where you can’t eat at the beach and it takes hours to reach one destination to another. This town reminds me of Venice. It has the same intangible magic to it.” Frank said.
They suggested me to divide my trip into parts like ‘Centro Historico’ (European architecture) , Moderno (modern) and islas (islands). So, That’s what I did. Next morning, I begun my day heading to the centro historic interrupted by the street sellers of infamous Colombian coffee shot called ‘tinto’. Getsemani is closer to the centro historic. Walking in Getsmani is like letting yourself into a secret. It’s a quintessential of the rich history of this town. The whole day was passed buzzed with guitarists, jewellery makers, teenage couples kissing in the squares of castle and arts students experimenting with graffitis in the walled city. I grabbed a quick American lunch bite and was called by a seller of typical Colombian sweets in the street market while I stocked up on souvenirs too. The next morning, I took a speedboat to the Rosario islands which are about 25 kms from the beaches of Cartagena. I can’t forget that boat ride because we almost died. If I say, I was feeling safe there all the time, I’d be lying. The boat was crashing on the loose waves as the driver was driving really fast.
My physical unease was vanishing as I could see the islands and the tall buildings there. Around 27 islands of the chain of Rosario are rumoured to have private mansions which are not accessible to general public. The most famous public island was ‘Isla grande’. Without the life jacket, I took a deep breath and jumped for snorkeling. The underwater view was intricately spectacular. It wasn’t my imagination, the deep coral canyons inhabited by electric blue fishes and miniatures.
Now, I couldn’t wait to treat myself with a sophisticated carribean lunch and cocktails. While bronzing myself in the sun sipping my coco loco (cocktail) and people watching, my eyes caught a private party in a secluded area, far from the restaurants. Being who I am, I talked myself in and got to share some cocktails with some of the page 3 people from LA. “We come here for the old school, beach palm crowd.” Making friends is easier when you’re all by yourself. And I thought not many people know about Cartagena.
The experiences of walking in a Hollywood set for next few days made me wonder ‘How many hidden retreats must be there all over the world?’. When in Colombia, Don’t forget to take advantage of the broad variety of fruits which are only found in Colombia. Café del mar (café by the sea) is another place took me aback. To reach the café, You will have to climb a stairway to heaven. It was on the walls surrounding the city and ocean breeze swoops in with an unbeatable skyline view.
Looks like I woke up from the dream of living in a fairytale town. Except that its not a dream.